Domestication

AUTHOR: indie

EMAIL: indiefic@hotmail.com

MY SITE: "With Peaches on Top" http://www.sunflower.com/~indie

RATING: NC-17 for explicit sexual content and language

CHARACTERS: B/A, most of the rest are cannon pairings

FEEDBACK: please

SPOILERS: Nothing and everything. AU.

DISCLAIMER: Joss, the WB, Mutant Enemy, Greenwalt and Fox own everything, I own nothing

SUMMARY: Complete Alternate Universe. Buffy is the Slayer, Angel is a vampire, but not much else is the same.

 

******

Angel stopped just inside the threshold, instinctively scenting the air. It was like every other Council building he had ever been inside, cold and antiseptic. For some reason, the familiarity disappointed him deeply. Some part of him had longed for an event so tied to his destiny to be more auspicious, unknown and exciting. He couldn't stand the thought that it would smell the same as the rest of his life, full of pain and despair. 

After today, his existence would never be the same.

The blow clipped him brutally behind the right ear, tearing him from his silent pondering. He stifled the growl, tamping down the urge to rip the offending human limb from limb. Control was everything and he would not allow his to be compromised, no matter how great the insult. Before the pain had completely receded, he was pushed forward. He complied with the command and continued of his own volition. His entire existence depended on his ability to control himself, to follow rules. He only recently found a reason to live and he wasn't ready to give up yet ... not without knowing Her.

The others were already present, more than he thought there would be, but still startlingly few considering that the world's demonic population nearly equaled that of the human. He was one of eight vampires to which the Council reluctantly deigned to grant audience. At the Council Leader's direction, they were seated in a largely empty auditorium. It was a very potent reminder that nearly eighty vampires had started the DHST training a year ago, but only eight had completed it. The rest were dust.

The leader of the Watchers' Council grimaced as he appraised the vampires before him, his already harsh features taking on an even more sinister look. It was obvious he found this whole scenario distasteful, but he had little choice in the matter. Reformed vampires were a necessary evil to daily life within The City.

Straightening his expensive and impeccably tailored black suit, he walked to the podium to address his captive audience. He looked clearly uncomfortable in the formal attire, but as he moved to speak, the transformation from unwilling bureaucrat to seasoned general was palpable.

"You are here, on the first day of the first year of the new millennium," Daniel Holtz said, his powerful voice reverberating sharply in the cavernous space, "because you possess human souls." 

"Through your training over the last year, you have proven yourselves to be worthy of a single chance at life within Guardian City."

Angel took a deep, unnecessary breath. January 1, 2001. Certainly an auspicious day for his second rebirth and reentry into the world that had cast him out two and a half centuries earlier. 

"You have passed our tests," Holtz continued, "proven yourselves dedicated to the human cause, and will be given admittance into The City and status as a DHST. As you well know, you get one chance to prove yourselves. Any infraction of our laws or DHST codes of conduct will be dealt with swiftly and with finality." The last word hung in the air. It was a cheap theatrical trick, but somehow no less sinister for it. Daniel Holtz meant every word he said. One misstep would be dealt with on the spot, with a large wooden stake planted neatly through the heart.

Angel wondered if the Council Leader often meted out the punishment himself as a means of relaxing. While a man of Daniel Holtz's obvious power and social status could have sat back and lived the life of a well-fed pen pusher, Angel instinctively knew that wasn't the man's style. Holtz learned to lead by actually leading, and he would never expect anything of his people that he wasn't willing to do himself. His body and face were grizzled and hardened by years of reconnaissance missions and hand to hand combat with the minions of Varkesh. He was a man well acquainted with hardship and death, having experienced first hand a multitude of both.

"Today you start a new life," Holtz said, his voice sounding anything but auspicious, "see to it that you do not waste it." With a flourish that clearly illustrated his distaste for the proceedings, Holtz turned over the remainder of the ceremony to a Watcher by the name of Giles.

Angel's attentiveness did not waver one bit as Holtz's second in command took the reins. He knew that Rupert Giles would be every bit as important a figure in his existence as Holtz himself, possibly even more so. Dressed in tweed, rather than silk and Egyptian cotton, Giles wasn't as mentally imposing a presence as Holtz, but it was clear from his carriage that he too was well used to leading. His features were as etched and scarred as that of his superior, and Angel surmised that Giles must have gained a great deal of his field time side by side with Holtz.

"You have heard Council Leader Holtz's words," Giles said, his voice much less theatrical than Holtz's though no less authoritative. "You can be certain his sentiments are echoed by the entire Council and the inhabitants of Guardian City."

Giles' meaning was brutally clear. Though they were being allowed into what was locally called only The City, the vampires should *not* get any ideas about being treated like citizens. Angel gave a sideways glance to his temporary compatriots. A few of them were clearly startled by the bald implications. Young. They had to be young. Only someone not fully acquainted with the harshness of life could be startled by the Council's policies. The vampires spent the last year being poked, prodded, tested and indoctrinated to Council beliefs. Clearly, they expected to be viewed as part of The City.

Just as clear, was the fact that that would never happen.

For his part, Angel wasn't shocked in the least. The Council's policies, while not too terribly heartwarming, were understandable. They were simply doing what was required in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Whereas some of the human cities - there were close to a hundred scattered all over the world - were much more lenient with DHSTs, The City, Guardian City, was not. They could not afford such a risk.

The largest of the human cities, Guardian City was built directly over the Hellmouth and home to the world's only Slayer and the Watchers' Council Headquarters. In some of the smaller cities, the ones less tempting to the demonic hoards, ensouled and reformed vampires could be more or less assimilated into the general population. In The City, however, that was far too risky a venture. There were no blurring of the lines, no shades of gray. Within the thirty foot high, reinforced concrete walls that separated the teeming, human metropolis of multiple millions from the dangerous, demon controlled wastelands, a vampire with a soul was still a vampire and treated as such.

The remainder of the ceremony continued in like fashion and Angel could almost feel the collective enthusiasm of his fellow DHSTs wane to the point of nonexistence. His resolve, however, never wavered. The Council's policies did not shock him and did not deter him from his intended course of action.

He would meet Buffy Summers.

 *****

"Tagging" was the appropriate term for it. Angel felt like an animal, which, he noted, the Watchers' Council and society at large viewed him to be. Regardless of the fact that he had been pronounced in possession of a human soul, proven he could handle religious artifacts without pain, sacrificed everything he had to gain admittance to The City, he was still lower than your average human criminal. He was still a vampire and nothing would ever change that.

 Angel and the other vampires were given a set of standard issue clothing; shapeless, mass-produced, coarse cotton, button up shirts and pants. The uniforms were dyed a dull black to accentuate the paleness of the being that donned them. A set of heavy duty black boots completed Angel's new attire.

After the outfitting, the vampires themselves were inspected for distinguishing marks, tattoos, or scars. The vampires that bore such marks, as did Angel, were carefully photographed and then assigned a number. The ones who didn't had tagging numbers tattooed onto their gums. As Angel watched a young female vampire held down while the technicians none too gently branded her for all of existence, he was silently grateful for the moment of youthful impetuousness that had prompted him to have the large Celtic design tattooed on his right shoulder blade.

Lastly, but most importantly, and most degrading, were the "tags" themselves. Each vampire was given a set of heavy grade leather collar and wrist bindings about an inch wide that had their numbers branded onto them, along with the words "Domesticated Hostile Subterranean". The collars were intentionally cinched too tight. Had the vampires needed to breathe, they would have been in trouble. As it was, the collars kept them from even attempting the habit, making them stand out even further among humans. The collars also had the desirable side effect of making speaking and feeding especially difficult, which undoubtedly pleased the Council.

Angel did not flinch as a burly young tech tightened his collar to the point of pain. He could deal with the physical discomfort, but the unpleasantness wasn't limited only to the choking sensation. The collar stank, invading Angel's sensitive nasal passages although he wasn't drawing breath. The leather had been steeped in a pungent dye. No doubt that if a particularly stupid and daring DHST were to somehow remove the collar and wrist bindings - a nearly impossible feat given that they were magically reinforced and only the Council had the keys - he would surely find that, beneath the leather, the skin had been stained permanently. 

Finally outfitted in a manner befitting their kind, the DHSTs were lined up against the wall as the techs sorted through their assignments. The first six were standard, assigned to work in conditions unsuitable for humans, such as menial labor, high-risk construction sites, and human biohazard areas. Several years earlier, the bulk of them probably would have been assigned as subjects for behavioral studies in Doctor Walsh's labs, but the Council no longer supplied her with DHSTs.

The seventh, a slender redhead with piercing green eyes with whom Angel had become friends over the last year, was directed to the central library because of her ability to read, write and converse in several dead languages. Angel possessed a similar knowledge as well, but he already knew he wasn't going to spend his time translating next to Willow.

Subject number V73, the vampire who called himself Angel, was not given a standard assignment. 

He waited patiently, as always, while the techs checked and double-checked his placement order. He wasn't shocked. He knew where he would be placed long before appealing to the Council for admittance to The City. The knowledge, however, did nothing to dull his anticipation. There was still much for him to fear.

A skinny female tech of about twenty-two with long black hair and deep olive skin looked at him warily. Angel accepted the scrutiny without reaction, the smooth skin of his face undisturbed by any betraying expression. She held out the work order to him, quickly rattled off the directions and stepped back with alacrity, wary of him in spite of her vast experience with DHSTs. He nodded and left without comment.

*****

Despite all of his hardened years, he still felt a twinge of anticipation as the heavy steel door that separated the tagging room from the general population of The City was rolled aside. Cautiously he walked over the threshold, finally within the confines of his new world. He had lived long outside the rules of society and he was as afraid as he was anxious about his new surroundings. 

The sky overhead looked the same deep, midnight blue, speckled with the twinkling light of the stars. Within the walls of the City, that much at least was a constant. There, however, the similarities ended.

The street teemed with humans regardless of the late hour and Angel was struck by the different rhythm life took inside the Council's reinforced walls. Outside, those who chose to live without government rule, were relegated to the harshest of living conditions. No human with any dose of self-interest would have dared to venture out within an hour of sundown, yet within The City the streets were packed with shoppers, street merchants and mischievous children looking for trouble.

Angel stopped for a moment, soaking in the scenery. For some reason the sight of simple, unaffected life proceeding as normal pulled at the heart he thought long dead. He had seen nothing so simply normal for more than a hundred years. It made him long for the world of his childhood, before the demon plagues and vampire uprisings

"Move, beast," a uniformed guard shouted loudly, pushing Angel off the sidewalk and into the street.

He stumbled, narrowly managing to avoid being run down by a car, but quickly regained his footing. The guard gave him a challenging glare and Angel dutifully bit down on his tongue, dropping his eyes to the ground. Abandoning his reverie, he set about reaching his destination as soon as possible though he held no hope of it being any more hospitable than that to which he'd just been subjected.

He had the street address and a map in his pocket, but he needed neither. He spent a significant amount of time while in training as a DHST going over the route. It was forever imprinted on his mind despite the fact that this was the first time he actually traversed it. He headed for the bus stop that would take him across the city, away from Council Headquarters and into the gated communities reserved for Guardian City's wealthiest and most powerful citizens.

*****

The front door to the large, stately house was slowly opened following his perfunctory knock. The woman regarded him coolly, her icy blue eyes fixing him in place. Her air of authority was unmistakable. Angel pursed his lips together and lowered his eyes, but not before taking careful note of her appearance. She was probably in her mid-twenties, blonde, very attractive and very, very controlled. She had to be one of Holtz's daughters, Kate if he was not mistaken. She worked for the Council and he had seen her a few times ordering around soldiers as if she had been born to do it.

"Subject V73. I have a work order," he said quickly, wincing at the pain the collar caused as he spoke.

Forcefully, she said, "Give me the papers," careful not to step over the threshold.

Angel reached into the pocket of his shapeless, black, standard-issue pants. Finding the work order, he handed her the documents. Kate took the papers, careful to avoid touching him. She scrutinized the documents, finally peering at him over the top. Abruptly, she handed it back to him, satisfied that he had legitimate business. Turning on her heel, she headed back into the house. Clearly, she expected he would wait. 

And he did, for long minutes. He had no other choice.

As his attention drifted back to the task at hand, he was surprised to find he could hear nothing of the goings on inside the home. The house had obviously been proofed against his kind. After long moments, the door opened again and Kate was nowhere to be seen.  

Angel found himself face to face with Daniel Holtz.

The punch took him off guard, and Angel stumbled backwards, sitting stunned on the porch for several moments. The Watcher glared at him, all of the contempt he harbored for the undead clearly visible on his face.

"Never come to my front door," the Watcher bit out succinctly. "And do not even *think* about speaking with one of my children again."

*****

Angel looked down at the piece of paper wearily through his swollen eye. From the brutality that initiated his working relationship with Daniel Holtz, things had not gotten progressively better. Angel was informed that under no circumstances would he be staying in the Holtz household. He was given the address of a rooming house that took "his kind" and summarily dismissed.

Trudging down the street, Angel hoped it wouldn't be much farther. He had been walking for miles. It was no great shock that the boarding house that would cater to vampires was nowhere near the upscale neighborhood where his employer lived. Shaking his head, Angel took inventory of the myriad of differences between life inside The City and out.

For years, he lived in a small enclave, comprised of assorted beings, human, demon, and hybrid. As long as you minded your business and did your work, no one cared much what you were. There were others like him, victims of the demon plagues, outcast from human society, living side by side with human criminals who had been thrown out of one of the Council's many protected cities. Ensouled demons and anti-social humans commingled, equally despised by both humans and demons, free to live - no, not live, to exist - as they were able in the wastelands. 

But that was before the war swung into full gear, before Varkesh decreed that neutrality was not allowed, before the true demons had herded him into one of the holding camps for those who refused to fight the humans. His captors didn't care that he possessed a human soul, that he always had. He was a vampire and as such, he was expected to assist with the slaughter of the humans. When he refused to help, they took it out of his hide, literally.

Stopping at the threshold, Angel double-checked the address Holtz had given him. This was it. He stepped through the door into the large structure unimpeded, a sure sign that other vampires were in residence.

*****

The suite of rooms he rented was sparsely furnished, but it had all the conveniences a vampire would want, namely a refrigerator for meals, a bed, a shower and no windows. Willy, the manager of the Hyperion, had been civil enough, and well used to dealing with DHSTs. After some haggling, Angel managed to negotiate an arrangement for room and board that he could afford on his meager salary. He was somewhat relieved that Willy would take care of all of the arrangements necessary to procure the packaged blood on which he had subsisted the last year. He would at least be spared the indignity of begging at blood banks, or of finding willing victims. He couldn't do that, not again. Sighing deeply, he sat down on the lumpy, but clean bed.

"I hope I didn't just make a huge mistake," he whispered to the empty room, pondering the wisdom of his choice for the first time since he made the decision to be a DHST. Maybe he wasn't quite as hardened as he thought. His eye still throbbed where Holtz had belted him and his neck and wrists ached from the confining leather straps. His undamaged eye watered from the noxious dyes that wafted up from his tags.

Life in the camp had been hell or at least as close as he could get without actually leaving the dimension. Angel was starved, beaten, tortured every day for years, but somehow in those settings it had been easier to retain his sense of self. He knew who he was, he knew why he was being tortured.

Now, in The City, living in a "free" society where life was valued, he never felt like such a non-entity. He was dirt, lower than the low, not even worth the time it would take to spit on. He was well accustomed to the egotism humans were capable of, but he never imagined himself resigned to the role of chattel. He was punished simply for what he was. The concept was staggering. Angel had a soul, but it was not unblemished. He possessed sins too numerous to count, but the Council didn't care about them. They weren't punishing him for anything other than succumbing to a sickness he could not fight.

When Whistler approached Angel in the camps, offering him freedom if he would be willing to join the human cause, the ensouled vampire was hesitant. He was sick of fighting, his soul tired and longing for release. His memories of being banished from human society, nearly two centuries earlier, were still fresh in his mind despite the passage of time.

In retrospect, Angel should have known Whistler would play dirty. The half demon helped him escape from the camp without securing a promise of assistance. At the time, Angel thought it odd, but he had no idea how good Whistler was at playing hardball. They hiked through the wastelands for weeks, all the while Whistler refusing to tell Angel where they were headed.

Then one night, the annoying little beast had pulled Angel from a sound sleep. They hiked several hundred meters through the dense underbrush to an outcropping known as Morton's Rock. Angel found himself staring down at a small group of human soldiers out on a routine reconnaissance mission. That, in itself, was not strange. The Council routinely scoured the wastelands around their cities, keeping an eye out for any nearby demon movement. What was surprising, however, was that the human soldiers, clad in their standard issue camouflage uniforms, their upper arms emblazoned with the deep red insignia of the Watchers' Council, were not alone.

Angel had seen Her for the first time.

In the sea of green and brown camouflage, her red leather pants and tight black tanktop clearly singled her out. Even more offsetting was the long mane of thick, golden hair, pulled back in a large braid that hung down her back. He knew instantly what she was, if not whom.

To most people traveling with a group of Council soldiers, her appearance would have been a liability but not to her, not to the Slayer. Her outfit was designed to draw attention. She was more dangerous than the dozen soldiers she traveled with combined. She was the fiercest fighter for the human population, born to rid the world of his kind.

She turned abruptly, facing in his direction. Her vision hadn't spied him, hiding within the craggy outcropping of rocks, but he knew she sensed his presence. Her body was tense, prepared for a fight or chase that never materialized. He was spellbound, lost in the lush fullness of her pale pink lips, in her large, hazel eyes.

He shuddered, not at her beauty, but at the bleakness in her gaze. He never thought to see his own emotions reflected in another being with such painful precision. Had he not already been crouching, the sense of synchronicity, of understanding and affinity, would have brought him to his knees.

He fell in love with her in an instant, overpowered by the sheer force of her presence. She waited motionlessly for nearly half an hour, watching for him to betray his position Recklessly he stayed rooted to the spot, unable to turn away from the sight of her even if it meant his safety was compromised. He studied her in absolute silence and stillness, noting the fine sheen of perspiration on her golden skin from the tension in her body, the perceptible flaring of her nostrils as she fought to pinpoint his position.  

Her patience was to no avail. After two and a half centuries of avoiding the Council, Angel would not be found. He almost sighed aloud with regret as she finally turned away, tiring of her fruitless pursuit. Effortlessly, she ordered the troops, suggesting they find a new camp for the night.

He stayed long after she was gone, drunk on her energy, blissfully smitten with the vitality that clung to her like a second skin. She was a goddess, a sorceress, effortlessly bewitching him into selling the only thing of value he owned, his soul.

"She's the one you would be helping," Whistler whispered in his ear when the Slayer was out of earshot.

There was no decision for Angel to make. He knew that he would gladly die for that girl. In a moment, he understood that she was his salvation, his single chance at redemption and understanding. He had been given the opportunity to do something meaningful with his life.

Whistler merely smiled and said, "I knew you'd see things my way."

It was quite the understatement. But then, of course, came the year of DHST programming. The rigorous codes of conduct and segregation rules for DHSTs had clearly reinforced just how different he was from the girl he vowed to protect. But not all of his studies were boring. In between The City ordinances he was forced to learn, he managed to pick up a few key bits of information.

Her name was Buffy Anne Summers.

With a painful sigh, Angel pushed away the memories. Laying back on the bed, he kicked off his shoes and surveyed his new home. It was definitely going to take some acclimation, but he forced himself to keep in mind that starting over wasn't supposed to be easy. And tomorrow was a new day. He fell into an exhausted slumber, too wiped out to bother with getting undressed or under the covers.

*****

Angel's firm knock on the service entrance door the next evening was answered by the Watcher, Giles, who had overseen the bulk of the ceremony the previous day.

"Ah, yes, you must be number V73 then. Follow me," he said, with none of the pomp and circumstance Angel was accustomed to receiving as a vampire among Watchers. Even the DHST instructors who had been his constant monitors for just over twelve months had never treated him so casually. It was somewhat of a relief to be treated as if his presence were a normal occurrence. Angel followed, silently walking several paces behind the more slightly built man. He noticed with something very close to relief that Giles didn't once check over his shoulder. Trust was something Angel wasn't often given and the Watcher's small gesture, however unintentional, went a long way to easing his stress.

The hallway they walked through was lined with offices. This was obviously the section of the house devoted to Daniel Holtz's work. Angel was fairly certain he wouldn't be seeing the residential part of the sprawling structure ever again. In spite of the cool reception he had received, Angel was impressed by what he saw.

The rooms were large, done in dark woods and smelled of brandy, cigars, leather and old books. The smells were both comforting and bittersweet, conjuring memories of Angel's childhood. He spent countless hours as a boy in his father's sprawling library, soaking up every drop of attention the man had been willing to give him. Regardless of how badly he was treated in The City, Angel knew that he would be able to take some comfort in this space. He followed Giles through an impressive library and into Holtz's private offices.  

The leader of the Watchers' Council was seated behind a heavy wooden desk, his attention focused on the text in front of him as he dictated to a young woman, with curly chestnut locks that brushed the collar of her blue button-up shirt. She took dictation on a laptop, not bothering to look up as Giles and Angel entered the room.

 Angel instantly recognized the girl for what she was, a demon - or perhaps a half demon, sometimes it was hard to tell. Holtz and Giles as trained Watchers would have possessed the same powers of perception, so obviously the girl's heritage was no secret.

Why on earth would Holtz have a demonic secretary? Angel shook off the thought and elevated his assessment of his employer's character. Obviously, there was more to Holtz than met the eye. He had been Head of the Watchers' Council for more than two decades, and ruled with an iron fist. Yet, he employed both a nearly three centuries old vampire, and a demonic assistant. Apparently, he was well versed in dealing with shades of gray.

Angel took a moment to watch the man who held his destiny in his hands. Yesterday's silk suit was nowhere to be seen. Holtz looked much more at home in the worn white shirt. His battered leather jacket was thrown over the back of his chair. Mindlessly, he brushed a swath of unruly gray hair back from his forehead. Angel noticed that he wore a pair of gloves, obviously to protect the delicate pages of the book from the oil on his hands as he leafed through the tome. A pair of surprisingly thick spectacles were perched on the end of his nose. He was a curious man.

Angel's nerves were so frazzled that he almost missed the peculiar tingling in his stomach. But the sensation was so unique, so demanding that he was forced to take notice. Turning his head, he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye. On a nearby loveseat sat Buffy, her hands clenched tightly around some sort of computer printouts. Those large hazel eyes that had formerly bewitched him, now riveted him in place. Angel couldn't have taken a breath if his life had depended on it - luckily, it didn't. Her mere presence caused him to shiver unexpectedly. Given the force of her gaze, she had undoubtedly noticed his reaction, but made no acknowledgement. With obvious effort she tore her gaze from his, turning her attention back to her papers. Endeavoring not to appear self-conscious, she smoothed the papers flat, hiding the physical fact of her disconcertedness.

Giles noticed his reaction and smiled somewhat conciliatorily. "It will take some time to acclimate to working so closely with the Slayer," he said. Giles directed Angel to take a seat in one of the chairs in front of Holtz's desk. He did so nervously.

It was several minutes before the Watcher finally closed the ancient book and looked up, studying the vampire over the rim of his glasses. He was silent, looking Angel up and down. "You were on time," Holtz commented. "I suppose that is a good sign. Whistler vouched heavily for you, but still, I'm not one to take a half demon's word at face value."

Angel nodded, but couldn't help noticing Holtz's secretary frown in annoyance.

Removing his glasses, the Head of the Watchers' Council stood behind the desk. "Subject V73," he said, "you may address me as 'Holtz' as do all those in my employ. My rules are straightforward and simple. I expect your conduct to be absolutely professional at all times. I don't want to know about any personal issues you might have, and you had better keep them from interfering with your job. You will report for work one hour after sundown each day and leave one hour before sun up each morning. You may, on occasion, be expected to work during daylight hours, though, of course, not outside. Is this understood?" 

"Yes, sir," Angel replied coolly. 

"Good," Holtz replied, motioning for the vampire to stand. "This is Mr. Giles, you two have already met. The woman with the laptop is Anya Emmerson, my personal secretary." He pointed to Buffy, "Last but not least, this is Ms. Summers. She is the Slayer. You are employed to assist her in any way possible."

Angel swallowed convulsively, regardless of the pain from the collar. He knew that they would be working together, but he hadn't dared to hope so closely. He chanced another peek at her, but Buffy avoided looking at him.

"About your eye," Holtz said to Angel, motioning towards the bruise he had inflicted the previous evening. Angel was an elder vampire and as such, the wound should have already faded to non-existence. However, since he was woefully underfed, subsisting on the most meager amounts of blood, his healing abilities were severely impacted.

"Yes," Angel said, stiffening at the remembered slight.

Holtz smiled, looking almost friendly for a moment. "Even I am watched," he said cryptically. 

*****

"So what am I supposed to call you?" Angel asked, wincing in discomfort at the movement of his throat, as he followed several paces behind the tense Slayer.

She was dressed for mobility, rather than fashion, in a snug, black cotton shirt and a pair of faded, denim jeans. He soaked up her appearance greedily, noting everything from how a few unruly strands of her long blonde hair were escaping the loose ponytail at the nape of her neck, to the soothing, vanilla scent that seemed to cling to her body.

He felt slightly drunk. What he should have felt was fear. He knew that, but the knowledge did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. She continued to leaf through her papers as they walked, but Angel knew she wasn't paying them any mind. All of her attention was tuned to the vampire trailing behind her. He could see her taut muscles as she moved, walking with her head held high, her weight evenly distributed on her feet so she could move quickly if necessary - to attack him 

"My name is Buffy," she replied, her voice tight.  

He followed her into the library, a huge series of interconnected rooms whose ceilings were at least two stories tall. It took some doing, but Angel kept himself from staring at Buffy. As she took a seat at a long, oak table, he let his vision travel the room. He knew it would be best to give her time and space in which to acclimate to his presence. She was clearly edgy and he had no intention of getting their working relationship started off on the wrong foot.

Patiently, he stood in the center of the large room. He studied the library as a means of distracting himself, maintaining a safe distance of several yards from the jittery Slayer. The cavernous space was paneled in rich, old wood and from the look of it, was well loved. Angel knew from first hand experience that many Watchers reserved their affection for their libraries, often preferring the company of their books to that of their own families. Angel's own father had been much of the same mentality, especially after the death of his eldest son, Colin.

Shaking his head, Angel pulled his thoughts away from the unpleasant memory of the loss of his brother. He had been afraid of this, afraid that after so many years that the familiarity of his surroundings would open wounds he thought long healed.

Tamping down on his unruly emotions, Angel studied the rooms, scrutinizing them for long moments before he realized something was amiss. His vision picked the room apart wall by wall, until finally, it dawned on him what was wrong. His eyes once again shot to the vaulted, paneled ceilings. His gaze swept the room. Every available inch of wall was covered from floor to ceiling with bookshelves.

"No windows," Angel said in a near whisper, both because they were in a library and because it hurt to speak.

Buffy looked up, meeting his gaze. Slowly she nodded. "Sunlight would damage some of the texts," she said succinctly.  

There was something in her manner that gave Angel pause. Yes, sunlight could be damaging to some older texts, but it was odd, even for someone as devoted to their tomes as Holtz appeared to be.

Unless ...

Angel looked at Buffy expectantly. She shifted, almost imperceptibly, under the force of his gaze. "What?" she asked, fighting the urge to turn away from the unexpected power in his eyes.

Deliberately but slowly, he closed the space between them, taking the chair directly across from her. "Al-yahs," he said clearly. 

All of the color drained from Buffy's face as she stared at him, her eyes going wide. When Holtz had first informed her that Whistler had found them a DHST contact, Buffy had known he wouldn't be your average vampire. But she hadn't expected he would be so completely dissimilar from his brethren.

He was. 

She'd known, at first glance, that there was something odd about him, something hauntingly familiar. With complete disregard for any social niceties, she scrutinized him. "What do you call yourself?" she asked, her voice sounding deceptively even.

"Angel," he replied, once again meeting her gaze with self-composure foreign to most of his kind.

Angel. A demon named Angel.

 She smiled in spite of herself as she took in both the apparent contradiction and appropriateness of his moniker. Her gaze traveled over his body with the sort of predatory detachment she used when appraising a tactical schematic. Angel was pale, even taking into account his vampirism. It was an easy assumption that he was underfed, as were most DHSTs. But it still took decades for human skin to bleach to the unnatural pallor that his flesh exhibited. He looked as if he was hewn from marble by a particularly talented artisan. Only, no artist would have been able to marry the alabaster quality of his flesh with the rich chocolate brown of his eyes and hair. Even the minimal bruising around his left eye didn't mar his attractiveness.  

Buffy took a deep breath, forcing herself to be colder in her appraisal. The rest of his appearance was impeccable. His clothing was standard issue, black button up shirt and pants with black work boots, but he was neat, tidy and clean. His fingernails and hair were both clipped short without being severe. It was apparent that he took some pride in how he looked. Most DHSTs wouldn't have bothered. He bore none of the trademark signs of most vampires living in The City. He had no clan insignias, no skin irritations from fighting his tags. If it weren't for the bands of leather and his lack of pigmentation, she would have said he looked ... human. He didn't have the uncivilized, animalistic appearance of most of his kind

"Yes," she said slowly, "we have the Al-yahs texts. How are you familiar with them?" The Al-yahs texts were known only in the most exclusive Council circles. They were a set of prophecies written millennia before ... in vampiric blood. They could not be exposed to sunlight lest they disintegrate. They held many insights into the times in which they now lived.

"I've had occasion to view them," he replied evenly. "Though that was quite some time ago."

The shock registered in Buffy's eyes and Angel was glad that she was being forced to redefine her notion of him. Everything that happened this night would set the standard for the entire future of their working relationship. He would not be treated like an animal and apparently she was reevaluating his merits as a sentient being.

 "How old are you?" Buffy asked, her eyes slitting as she watched him. In spite of their immortality, the life span of the average vampire was much shorter than the life span of the average human. Their mortality rate was phenomenal due to human predation and strife with others of their kind. Most of them didn't survive as the walking dead for more than a few decades at most.

 "I will be 274 in May," Angel said matter-of-factly.

Buffy stared at him in stunned silence. That little tidbit of information had been conspicuously omitted from the files Holtz had given her on Angel. Vampires of his age were almost unheard of, and never, never taken on as DHSTs. It was surmised that it would be impossible to rehabilitate a vampire of that age and power, regardless of whether or not they possessed a soul. They were almost never seen near The City and if they were, they were usually dispatched as quickly as possible. "Why are you here?" she demanded.

"It was arranged," he answered, being intentionally evasive.

She glared, unaccustomed to vamps pulling any attitude with her. "Tell me," she said quietly.

 Angel looked at her passively, his exterior calm belying none of the turmoil raging inside of him. He knew he was intentionally baiting a Slayer. She was angry, he could sense Buffy receding and the Slayer emerging, but he willed himself to remain calm. He was going to have to work with her day in and day out. He wasn't about to let her think that she could push him around, regardless of his emotional attachment to her. "If Holtz wanted you to know," he said in a measured tone, "I'm sure he would have informed you."

 Buffy flinched, and Angel instantly regretted his provocative comment. Why would things be any different now than they had been two and half centuries before? Odds weren't good in the favor of the Council becoming more mindful of the emotions of the young girls in their charge. He knew the drill was the same now as it had been two hundred and fifty years ago. He knew how the Council handled their Slayers.  

He knew without being told that Buffy was forcibly removed from her biological parents as a very young child and raised within the confines of Council Headquarters, surrounded only by Watchers and other girls from similar backgrounds, allowed no outside contact. It was the way things had been done for millennia but that did not make it any less damaging to a small child.

 Angel learned during his DHST training that Buffy held the title of Slayer since she turned fourteen, which meant that six years ago she was transplanted into Holtz's family, expected to fit in as if she had always been there. He knew that was rarely the case with such transplants. Although tradition dictated that the Slayer should live as the daughter of the Head of the Watchers' Council, in reality it was almost never a smooth transition. 

Holtz had at least two daughters of which Angel was aware, but after the confrontation with Kate, the Watcher had told him to stay away from his 'children'. The statement indicated that Holtz could have more progeny. Angel knew Holtz hadn't included Buffy in his statement about his children, otherwise he would have been forbidden to see her. Pointing out how much Holtz left the Slayer out of the loop had been a foolish move. Angel hadn't meant to wound her.

"Fine," Buffy said, clearly flustered, but trying to hide any emotional response, "keep your secrets for now, but don't think for one second that I won't stake you if I get any indication that you're a security threat to the Council."

 Angel nodded dutifully, his guilt clearly etched on his face. He opened his mouth, searching for something to say to make it better.

Heavy footfalls sounded in the hallway outside the library. Both Buffy and Angel turned to see a Council soldier enter the room. The young man's gaze flicked over Angel, automatically dismissing him and moved to Buffy, lingering there. "You ready?" he asked the Slayer.

Though the soldier was dismissive of Angel, the vampire did not return the favor. His gaze raked over the young man. He was tall, muscular, fair haired. Angel snorted. The soldier was the human ideal, young and hearty, dedicated to the protection of The City. He suppressed the urge to growl.

Oblivious to Angel's turmoil, Buffy nodded to the soldier, rising from the table. "Stay here," she ordered Angel. "I'm going to patrol. When you're familiar with procedure you'll assist me, but not tonight. Check with Giles, I'm sure he'll have something to keep you busy."

Angel watched silently as she joined the soldier and left the room. So much for getting started on the right foot. He managed to insult her and then was forced to watch her leave with another man. With considerably less enthusiasm than before, he went in search of Giles.

*****

Angel finished picking up the books he used in the translations that Giles assigned to him and headed for the door. It was a quarter after five in the morning and he was going to have to rush to beat the sun home.

"Angel, just a moment," Giles called, trotting to the door. As he came to a stop beside the vampire, Giles handed him a stack of books. "I believe these are yours," the Watcher said.

Angel stared, dumbfounded, at the books in his hands. They were old, and well loved. He knew that for a fact since they were his. When he entered DHST training, he was forced to give up all of his earthly possessions, even his books, as a symbol of leaving his former life behind. The collection was small, but extremely rare and valuable - at least to those who knew what they were looking for. He had missed it dearly. "How did you get these?" he asked quietly.

"I made sure that they were set aside when you entered training," Giles said. "I kept them. I assumed that if you passed that you would want them back."

"I didn't think I'd ever see them again," he admitted, running one hand lovingly across one of the battered spines as he had a thousand times before. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," the Watcher said with a smile as he turned to leave.

*****

When Angel arrived promptly the next evening, he entered without knocking, using the passkey that Giles provided. The space was much as it had been the previous evening. He scented four distinct presences, Holtz, Anya, Giles and - Angel smiled - Buffy.

Moving at a leisurely pace, he found Giles and Buffy in one of the roomy practice spaces that branched off of the library. Angel took care to make noise as he walked, knowing how unnerved most humans were by vampiric silence. The Slayer looked up, assessing him with unreadable eyes and Angel nodded in greeting. She returned the gesture, although the expression on her face was guarded. He wounded her the night before, and she was hesitant to extend him any trust. He wanted to kick himself.

Angel watched as Giles, in full pads, attempted to spar with the much stronger and more agile Slayer. It wasn't a particularly successful session, as half the time Giles was too out of breath to do much more than try to stay in one piece. They took a break and Giles removed the headgear, causing his hair to stick up like a porcupine. He was breathing hard as he gulped at the large glass of water.

"This doesn't seem to be too terribly efficient," Angel said quietly.

Giles shot him a wry glance. "No, it's not," he said. "While Riley has been assisting her on patrol, he is unavailable for our practice sessions, leaving only me. Buffy needs to be sparring with someone about twenty years younger."

Angel smiled and said, "Or two and a half centuries older."

Giles gave him a puzzled look but as understanding hit him, his face curled in a happy smile. "That would be a marvelous idea," he said.

"What?" Buffy asked, having just returned from the bathroom.

"I think you should spar with Angel," Giles said. "He's much closer to being a match for you, and it would leave me free to critique your movement."

 Buffy looked slightly mortified, but voiced no opposition. Several minutes later, vampire and Slayer were squaring off with one another.

It was invigorating for both of them, facing off against their mortal enemies. Buffy was a raw fighter, powerful and agile, both in body and mind, but she wasn't very disciplined. Angel was stronger than Giles, but still no match for Buffy. He was woefully underfed and long out of practice, but he had two hundred years of training she lacked. That fact alone enabled him to match her fairly evenly - much more evenly than a Council soldier could have managed. 

They fought vigorously, but with restraint, neither of them landing any particularly damaging hits. Giles happily gave Buffy pointers throughout the exercise, reveling in the fact that he could critique her form without simultaneously having to evade her advances. Spontaneously, the Watcher upped the ante by directing Angel in a variety of specific attacks. It irritated Buffy to no end that the terse conversation between vampire and Watcher was conducted in a particularly obscure dialect of ancient Sumerian which she had no hope of understanding. Giles smiled gleefully as Angel merely nodded at his directions, understanding the dialect perfectly and executing the moves with a rare grace.

They sparred for nearly an hour when Anya, clearly displeased at having to actually carry out secretarial duties, came into the training space to inform Giles that Holtz needed to speak with him promptly. The Watcher left but Buffy and Angel continued practicing, glad to be pitted against a worthy opponent. They went round and round, becoming slightly more aggressive without Giles' watchful eye. Angel managed to land a rather good hit on Buffy's left knee that sent her sprawling. She bounded up, angry more at herself than him, but advanced in a fury.

Angel didn't stand a chance and he knew it. He was nearing the end of his energy and Buffy was newly invigorated by the force of her emotions. As she grabbed and flipped him, he didn't fight her, allowing her to pin him face down on the mat as she straddled his lower back.

Suddenly, the fight was over.

Despite the pain it caused Angel, they were both breathing harshly, well aware of the awkwardness of their positions. Buffy's deceptively small hands were clasped firmly around his right arm, twisting it up behind his back. She wasn't hurting him, but neither did she release him. And he didn't ask her to.

They were both aware of the fact that her hands were shaking. Buffy screwed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. What was she doing? They were sparring. She needed to move. But she couldn't.

She felt it again, that strange sense of familiarity she'd noticed when she'd first seen him. She could feel it. Hell, she could almost smell it. Then it hit her. Buffy leaned forward, almost burying her nose in the nape of his neck as she inhaled deeply. Angel didn't move so much as a muscle. "You," she hissed, the word sounding disproportionately loud to Angel, considering where her mouth was in relation to his ear

Deliberately and cautiously, so as not to alarm her, he pulled his arm free. Buffy released him, rising to her feet and retreating several steps. He rolled over and rose to his feet, facing her. She watched him through slitted eyes.

"Me?" he asked cautiously.

"Last year," she said succinctly, "at Morton's Rock in the Wastelands. You were there."

Angel watched her mutely. He remembered the night at Morton's Rock as clearly as if it were yesterday. Obviously, so did she, well enough to recognize him by scent alone. Cautiously he nodded. "I was," he confirmed.

 "I knew you were out there," she said. "I waited. You never showed yourself." Her voice was low, a harsh whisper that tingled along his spine. She was watching him the way a healthy cat watched a wounded mouse.

"Vampires don't live long in the Wastelands by making their presence known to Slayers," Angel noted dryly.

"No," she said with a small smirk, "they don't. In fact, you were the first one to ever get away from me."

Angel took a deep breath, trying to read anything in her expression, but the flicker of amusement had faded, leaving an implacable facade. She was too withdrawn, too guarded. Leisurely she turned from him, heading for the supply room, probably gathering weapons for the nightly patrol with Riley. 

"But I didn't get away," he said quietly, staring after her retreating form.

*****

Inside the supply room, Buffy backed up against the wall, her blood pounding in her ears. What had possessed her to do that? She'd been practically nuzzling him. She was losing her mind.

Sinking down to the floor, she cradled her head in her hands. This wasn't happening. Ever since she could remember, her life had been regimented, everything neat and orderly and perfectly by the book. Then last year, that damn vamp had slipped through her hands. Of course, no one else had been aware of his presence, but she had. She had felt the force of his gaze on her, almost as if he had touched her. She stood there for nearly half an hour, waiting for ... for what? She wasn't sure, and in the end, it didn't matter. She turned away and he didn't follow.

But the irritation, the fact that she hadn't hunted him down but simply stood there and allowed him to play voyeur, rooted by the weight of his perusal. It ate at her, both the aggravation with herself for allowing it, and for allowing him to escape.

When she saw him in Holtz's office, she knew there was something about him. He set her nerves on edge, causing her muscles to tense in anticipation. But it wasn't the same tension she experienced around other DHSTs. The rush was different, but familiar at the same time. His presence heightened her senses without seeming threatening. It was the same jumbled reaction she had that night at Morton's Rock. The same reaction that caused her to give him a free show rather than hunting him down like she was born to do.

And then tonight, as she pinned him, it all clicked into place. She would know his smell anywhere, the smell that had eluded her for more than a year. She had to leave, to get away from him before she did something, though honestly she didn't know what. She shook her head, trying to shake off the feeling of connection.

But she wasn't the only one who felt the pull. She heard him clearly as she left the room. "I didn't get away." That's what he said. What did that mean? With a growl of frustration, she pushed herself to her feet. She wasn't going to lose control of this situation. With a burst of energy born of out of annoyance, she began collecting weapons for patrol.

*****

Angel pretended to be distracted by his translations as Buffy left to patrol with that damn soldier. Of course, he wasn't distracted. Every bit of his finely tuned senses were trained on the pair.

A few questions asked of Giles had informed Angel that Riley was a fairly new addition to the Slayer's inner circle and only a temporary one at that. In response to vague rumors of problems within the DHST community, about a month earlier the Council decided that the Slayer needed more backup. Apparently that happened occasionally. Given that Angel was still in training at the time, Riley was the temporary fix. The plan was that as soon as Angel was able to patrol, Riley would be out of the picture.

From Angel's perspective, that couldn't happen soon enough. Though his contact to Buffy and Riley together had been limited, Angel had watched them very carefully. Riley was smitten with the Slayer. Of course, he was a professional, so he kept their relationship strictly business, but Angel could tell. He could almost taste how much the boy wanted to get his hands on Buffy.

That was not going to happen. By the end of the week, Angel would be patrolling and Riley would be back on Council duty. Good riddance.

Angel seriously doubted there could ever be anything between him and Buffy, but it didn't mean that he wanted to sit idly by and watch her with another male. Of course, if Buffy's reactions to Riley were any indication, Angel didn't have much to worry about. While Riley was definitely taken with the Slayer, she seemed completely oblivious to his attentions. Not uninterested, just unaware. Yes, as far as Angel was concerned, Riley couldn't leave fast enough.

*****

Buffy watched as the feral vampire exploded into dust, leaving Angel gripping the stake. His expression was neutral, more akin to an assassin than a predator. This was a job to him. He found no joy in it. She had a very good appreciation for professionalism in her line of work. Most people, however opposed to vampires, got a bit squeamish about it. Those that didn't tended to be a bit too overzealous for her comfort. She wasn't on a religious crusade, it was simply what she was designed to do.

"Nice work," she said, meeting his eyes in the dim lighting. The lone street light provided meager illumination for the parking lot outside the abandoned warehouse where the rogue vamp had been holed up.

"It's what I'm here to do," he said, his voice betraying none of the elation elicited by her praise. 

She shrugged. "Still," she said, "it's good to see someone who can hold their own. I've sparred with lots of Watchers and Council soldiers who come up to scratch on the mat, but in real combat situations freeze. Good to know you're not a liability."

"I take care of me and mine," he said, brushing the dust off of his dark pants and shirt.

Buffy watched him, wondering about the comment, but let it go. He had her back and she was pleased to know that he was up to the challenge. She went through several would-be backups during her tenure as Slayer. Most of them ended up hurt, mentally or physically, sometimes both. So far, Riley had proven the most dependable, but he simply didn't have Angel's strength or speed. Odd as it seemed, she much preferred having Angel with her, both for Riley's safety and her own. Buffy shook her head, not knowing what to think of her reaction. She had expected to tolerate Angel, not appreciate him. Turning, she headed for the sidewalk and their next assignment, Angel fell into step next to her.

Pulling the piece of paper out of her pocket, Buffy double-checked the work order. It wasn't necessary, but it gave her something to do.

"Where to now?" Angel asked, idly flipping the stake over in his hand. 

"Wareham district," Buffy said. "There have been some complaints. It might be a Rettoph infestation." 

Angel cocked an eyebrow at her. "I thought they were a cold climate species," he said. "I didn't know they could venture this far south."

"They can't," Buffy said wryly. "Some overachieving young Watcher probably took the complaint call and dug out his books. He decided it was a Rettoph infestation and had it put on my roster. Happens a lot. It's probably raccoons."

"You're serious?" Angel asked, slightly incredulous.

"Unfortunately, yes," she replied dryly.

"What a waste," he said. "They expect a Slayer to spend her time checking out pest problems."

Buffy laughed. "Welcome to the life of a civil servant," she said. "That," she motioned to the now vacant parking lot, littered with vampire dust," was a rarity. Mostly, I track down DHSTs that aren't so prompt about reporting to their case workers and remind them to be on time. Once I got to go to the zoo and help track a pack of Yrrahian Ankle Biters that broke out of their enclosure and managed to eat half the birds in the aviary."

Angel stopped walking and gaped at her. "Please tell me you're kidding," he said.

She shook her head. "I'm the Slayer," she said, "but for the most part, our DHST population is very well behaved. Even the ones that go rogue generally don't cause a problem. Why do you think the training is so long? After a year of behavior modification and with a drop rate of 90%, the ones that pass are usually in for the long haul."

Angel shrugged. "I guess you have a point there," he said.

Buffy started walking again. "Don't get me wrong," she said. "I have had my share of nasty run-ins with vamps. For the same reasons I just went through, when we get a bad vamp, they're usually rotten to the core and nasty as hell. We don't get a lot of half measures around here. Plus, I do two weeks in the Wastelands every quarter with Council soldiers. When it's rough, it's rough, but there's a lot of down time."

Angel sighed, somewhat desperate to keep the conversation going. "I suppose it has its perks as well as its benefits," he said.

Buffy laughed. "Yeah," she said, "the drawbacks are I might pass out from boredom and be devoured by a pack of surly Ankle Biters."

Angel looked at her and smiled and Buffy smiled back before she could stop herself. What was she doing? He was a DHST, her assistant, not her friend. She blanked her face and walked slightly faster, putting her ahead of Angel. She trusted him and that made her distrust herself. She was cautious by nature and it wasn't her style to be so accepting of an outsider. Her natural ease with him, combined with the fact that he was a vampire made her very skeptical of her instincts.

Angel watched her pace herself ahead of him and did nothing. He merely fell into step behind her. It wasn't like he could expect her to treat him like a person overnight. Things were going well, but he didn't want to push it, especially not on their first night patrolling. Time was the one thing he had in spades, and he meant to use it to his best advantage.

*****

"So," Giles asked, as he took a seat at the large table Buffy was sitting on top of, "what do you think of your new assistant?"

Buffy met his eyes and nodded solemnly. "Angel knows his stuff," she said. "And he isn't afraid to get the job done." 

Giles nodded slowly. "That's what you told Holtz," he said. 

Buffy frowned and then shrugged. She knew Giles was looking for something more personal than a performance review. Holtz only asked about the hard facts, but Giles was often more interested in her insights and instincts. "He's nice," she admitted, "a little out of the loop as far as technology and culture go, but he's not your typical vamp."

"I agree," he said with a nod. "His grasp of preternatural subjects and fields of study would rival those of any Council scholar. I dare say he's probably more educated than a good deal of them, and very well read."

Buffy smiled openly at the Watcher and whistled, long and low. "Wow. Big compliment coming from you," she said with a grin. She was very attached to Giles and she liked that he shared her assessment of Angel's character. It gave her more faith in her own instincts, which she had been questioning of late. 

"I suppose so," Giles replied. "But it is a bit of a shock. I know Holtz wanted a DHST who could help us keep an eye on Walsh, but I never expected to find one that could truly be of help to us in other areas."

Frowning, Buffy asked, "Where did Whistler find him?"

Giles shrugged. "I have no idea," he said. "Angel's past is largely a question mark. He answered the questions that were absolutely necessary to gain him entrance to DHST training, but aside from that, he is very tight lipped."

"That's not really a good thing," she said.

"No," Giles concurred, "it's not, but I haven't found any reason to distrust him. Have you?"

Buffy pursed her lips together as she thought about it. "You mean besides the fact that he's a vamp?'"

"Yes, besides that," Giles said seriously. Everyone living in The City knew that vampires could be trained, but never trusted. At least not without careful supervision. While Giles wasn't exactly of the same mind where Angel was concerned, he had to take societal norms into account.

She sighed and shook her head. "Nope," she said. "I'm usually really good at picking up on insincerity. He seems kosher."

Giles raised his eyebrows in question. "So we let him keep his secrets?" he asked.

"For now, I guess," Buffy replied.

*****

Angel kicked the door to his suite shut behind himself as he flicked on the lights. He was exhausted, fighting to keep his eyes open, but he knew sleep wouldn't come in this state. He had to feed. He grimaced at the thought, but in blatant rebellion, his stomach growled loudly.

He was going to have to talk to Willy. The near starvation level rations he was being kept on weren't doing much to sustain him. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't have been a problem. He was an elder vampire, and as such, needed substantially less blood than most of the fledglings that compromised the DHST population.

But these weren't normal circumstances. He had been working with Buffy for just over a week, and she was running him ragged, patrolling the streets of The City relentlessly. When she wasn't patrolling, they were sparring or inquiring into leads that Holtz assigned them. He simply couldn't maintain the level of physical activity without larger rations.

He pulled open the door to the antiquated refrigerator that hummed loudly in the small kitchenette. He was down to two small bags. With a sigh, he pulled them both out and not bothering to warm them, sank into game face and bit into the bags, draining them both in seconds.

It took the edge off, but it didn't sate his appetite. He threw the empty bags into a nearby biohazard container and headed for the shower. Maybe Willy would be able to get larger rations, but he might not. Angel felt something inside himself wither at the thought. He hadn't survived for two and a half centuries without learning the tricks of the trade. He was being supplied with rationed, bagged, Council-regulated, human blood. But he knew there were other ways. Livestock was always an option, vampires could subsist off of any warm blooded animal, but it was a last resort. Human blood was infinitely more potent and satisfying.

There were a lot of DHSTs living in The City and Angel knew without being told that there had to be a black market. In the Wastelands they were known as 'hosts', humans willing to let vampires feed from them for a price.

Angel shuddered as he pushed open the bathroom door. He didn't want to have to do that again, especially not within The City. In the Wastelands, warm feeding had been an unsavory, but accepted part of life. He himself had been driven to it at times, trading possessions, sex or even physical protection from other demons for a warm human neck. But here, being caught feeding off of a human, no matter how willing, would be a reason for instantaneous termination. He didn't know if he was willing to risk it. Also, he had the definite impression that Buffy would not approve. Angel had a past filled with things he was not proud of, but he was working hard to change, to make amends for his mistakes.

*****

Buffy shot a glance behind herself to be sure that Angel still followed. She almost jumped when she realized how close he was. He smiled sweetly at her and she scowled in return. An accomplished predator, he was almost completely silent as he moved carefully through the dense underbrush. 

Two weeks of working together and their relationship was ... odd to say the least. Buffy sighed as she took a seat on the ground outside the nine foot tall, barbed wire topped, chain link fence that surrounded one of Nabbit Industries' labs. More and more frequently, the leads they gathered brought them back to Nabbit Industries, specifically to those labs headed by Maggie Walsh. But they had been unable to come up with any substantial evidence that she was behind the DHST unrest.  

"We're not going to find anything," Angel said in a low whisper she could barely hear. 

Buffy grunted. For an assistant, he was very pushy. She wasn't sure if she resented that fact, or enjoyed it. Angel wasn't like any other DHST she had ever been around. He had ... personality. Most vamps she met were about as cerebral as 'blood good. sun bad.' Angel, however, had proven himself indispensable time and time again. By virtue of age, he possessed insight and experience that let him make logical leaps that even a highly trained Slayer would have been incapable of making. But it wasn't just his knowledge that made him different. He was educated and experienced without being condescending. Unlike most of his kind, he gave as much as he took. His comments were laced with small glimpses into the amazing life he had led and Buffy found herself making up excuses to pick his brain.  

But she wasn't about to admit that she enjoyed his company. And she couldn't afford to think about the jumble of emotions he caused inside her. Out of sheer stubbornness, she sat outside Walsh's labs for nearly two hours. Her butt was numb from the cold by the time she admitted that Angel was right. They weren't going to find anything. Slowly, she rose to her feet and silently trekked back to the winding city streets.

Angel looked at her smugly as he noticed her limping. He silently hoped that her pride, as well as her posterior, was slightly wounded. He loved being right, mostly because she was so damn cute when she was angry. 

"Shut up," Buffy said, although he hadn't uttered a single word.

 Angel's grin grew wider. "I didn't say a thing," he said in a harsh whisper.

Buffy scowled.

*****

She started walking and didn't stop until they reached The Bronze, a local after-hours hangout that catered to a rowdy, youthful crowd. She and Angel could be reasonably anonymous there, though it was decidedly odd for a DHST to be seen in a social setting. Of course, no one was going to say anything to them. She was the Slayer and had a lot more leeway than most.

As Angel procured a table for them, away from the loud garage band that was massacring old Rolling Stones songs, Buffy ordered them both a quadruple espresso. She may have been working nights for the last six years, but it was still in direct opposition to what her body thought was right. Caffeine helped to even things out, and she was usually in too much of a rush to brew any coffee at her apartment before she headed to work. As the bartender handed her the two paper cups, she made a move to get out her wallet, and he stopped her. "On the house," he said, with a knowing smile.

Buffy returned the gesture and headed for the table. While Slayers a couple hundred years ago would have been forced into a secret life, slaying demons under cover of night, that was no longer the case. Open warfare between humans and demons had negated the need for separate lives. Two and a half centuries earlier, The Watchers' Council superceded all existing human governments, dissolving the arbitrary boundaries that had divided countries before the plagues. They ruled and protected all human cities scattered throughout the world. Consequently, the Slayer and all Watchers were openly acknowledged, though still a separate class of citizen than your average human.

Slowly Buffy sank down into the chair across from Angel, careful not to spill her drink or his as she pushed it across the table to him. 

"Told you," he whispered smugly, still gloating over the fact that he was right about Walsh's lab.

"Why do you do that?" she demanded grouchily, the caffeine not yet elevating her mood. 

"What?" he whispered, frowning.

"Whisper," she snapped. "You're always whispering. It's driving me nuts. Did you used to work for a phone sex line or something? Because if you did, let me tell you, it's not sexy, it's creepy."

Angel sobered at her little outburst and cleared his throat loudly. "I whisper," he said clearly, followed by a pronounced wince, "because these damn collars are too tight and it is extremely painful to speak or breathe or drink."

Feeling appropriately chastised, Buffy looked at him meekly. "Oh," she said lamely, "I didn't realize. "

"Of course not," Angel said, reverting to his habit of whispering, "I'm just a vampire. Why would you care what I feel?"

Buffy sank down a little lower in her chair as she sipped at her coffee in silence. She was embarrassed that she accused him of trying to be overtly sexy, and at the same time, licking her wounds at his scolding.

Angel sat back, staring blindly at the band on stage. He hadn't meant to snap at her, but he wasn't thinking clearly. Willy wasn't able to up his ration quantity and he was reeling from the effects of prolonged starvation. The constant hunger gnawed at his insides. Combined with the continual physical pain caused by the tags, it was driving him closer to the edge. Angel forced himself to calm down. Closing his eyes, he wrapped his hands around the cup of coffee Buffy brought him, relaxing somewhat as the warmth radiated through the Styrofoam, warming his cool flesh.

"You're not drinking," Buffy said timidly, still stinging from his earlier snap. "Is that because it hurts to drink?" Buffy didn't really have any friends and Angel, DHST or not, was the closest thing to a companion she ever had. Even if he did make her crazy. The knowledge that she insulted him and had been oblivious to his pain was not easy to take. While she did think of him as an animal of sorts, she also thought of him as an ally and she was uneasy with the idea of him being discomfited unnecessarily.

Slowly, Angel opened his eyes and looked at her, still slouched in the chair, her tiny hands wrapped around her coffee cup. He sighed heavily and gave her a weak smile and shook his head. Pain in swallowing was not what was keeping him from drinking.

"Don't you like coffee?" she asked. 

"It's okay," he replied quietly.

"Just not in the mood?" she surmised.

"You could say that," he replied cryptically. Buffy cocked an eyebrow at him in question and Angel leaned forward. Pulling on the cuff of his shirt, he inched the fabric upward so that his arm was bare to the elbow. He flipped his hand outward so that the vulnerable flesh of his inner arm was exposed.

Buffy gasped. His flesh was pulled taut, the veins straining prominently beneath the perfectly white surface. As she watched, they twitched and shifted under the skin in tiny convulsions. "What's wrong?" she demanded.

 "I'm starving," he replied dryly, rolling his cuff back down and buttoning it securely. "The rest of my body looks the same way, but I think I'll spare you the horror."

She stared at him blankly. "Why didn't you say something?" she snapped. "I thought you were supposed to be on rations."

"I am on rations," he countered, "but what the Council thinks I need to survive and what my body thinks I need to survive are two different things. I've been underfed since I started DHST training, but now that I'm working with you, with the increased physical activity I am starving to death."

Buffy was quiet, obviously trying to assimilate the information. After nearly a minute of silence, she pushed her chair back and stood up forcefully. "Go back to the library," she said, the power in her voice leaving no room for argument. "I'll meet you there in an hour."

*****

True to her word, just over an hour later, Buffy bounded into Holtz's library, a large duffel bag thrown over her shoulder. Angel watched her silently from the worn leather sofa, curiosity gnawing at him. She walked to the sofa and dumped the bag at his feet. Immediately, she dropped into a squat, crouching over the bag as she pulled the zipper open and methodically emptied its contents.  

"Where did you go?" he asked, unable to remain silent a moment longer. 

"To collect on a few overdue debts," she replied without looking at him. When the bag was empty, Buffy pushed it away. Angel watched as she grabbed a large silver thermos and handed it to him. He looked at it, shocked beyond reason.

"Not yet," she said abruptly, rising up on her knees so she could root through the pocket of the faded denim jeans she wore. Triumphantly, she pulled out a set of keys. Angel stared in disbelief. In her hands, Buffy held a set of keys that he knew would unlock the tags he wore. 

"Lean forward," she directed. Too stunned to disobey, Angel did as she commanded. The heat of her hands shocked him as she fought with the lock on his collar, but the moment was over before he had a chance to react. He watched dumbly as Buffy turned the collar over in her hands, studying it carefully.  

She took his collar off. He was floored.

"Drink up," she said expectantly when she noticed he was watching her.

"Excuse me?"

"The thermos," she said, "is filled with blood. If you're starving, eat."

Angel continued to stare at her, a slightly scandalized expression replacing the blank one that had been there before. Gradually, comprehension dawned on Buffy. Angel refused to act like a DHST in every other situation, why should this be any different? "I've seen vamps eat before," she said seriously. "It's not going to gross me out. 

Realizing that she had no intention of leaving, Angel relented. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't dream of feeding in front of her, but his body was screaming for the liquid inside the thermos and he couldn't ignore it any longer. With deft efficiency, he unscrewed the lid and raised it to his lips.

 Buffy watched in blatant fascination as he fed. She hadn't been kidding about watching vamps eat. She witnessed the process many times in the past, but none of them had looked even remotely the way Angel did. First off, he didn't vamp out. If she hadn't known what the thermos contained, she would have believed it could be something as innocuous as water. There was none of the pointy teeth, yellow eyes, growling and gulping that she associated with a DHST being fed. He simply drank it with the grace with which he performed every other activity. No streaming crimson rivulets escaped from the corners of his mouth to stain his shirt, regardless of how quickly he drank. In less than thirty seconds, he set down the now empty thermos and regarded her silently.  

Feeling color rise in her cheeks, Buffy realized she was staring at him.

"That wasn't human," he said quietly, licking his lips in a manner that made her stomach feel funny.

She shook her head, pushing away her earlier embarrassment. "No, not exactly," she said, shocked that he had noticed. Most DHSTs, especially in the grip of starvation wouldn't have been sentient enough during feeding to realize the difference. "It was Watcher."

Angel nodded. He could still feel the burning in his throat from the power of the blood. It was far more potent than your average human fare. He never tasted anything quite so satisfying. He could feel it working in his system. The bone deep sense of hunger was gone, replaced by a warm feeling of satiation. He sighed in relief. "Thank you," he said gratefully. 

"You're welcome," Buffy replied. "I made a few calls. Willy shouldn't have any problems getting you larger rations in the future." 

Angel was humbled by her obvious concern. The thought that she had gone out of her way to get the keys to his tags and made arrangements for his sustenance was unbelievable. He could not, however, get past one thing. "Where did you get Watchers' blood?" he asked.

"It's public law," she explained, trying to make light of her actions. "Everyone living in The City has to donate blood twice a year. It's a public tax for the free labor the DHSTs provide. Only the Slayer is exempt. Even Council members have to make the allotted contributions."

Slayers were exempt. Angel had heard legends of what a Slayer's blood could do to a vampire, but for the first time he truly wondered if they were more than just fiction. He could feel the Watchers' blood coursing through his veins. What would Slayer's blood do to a vampire's system? Legend held that it was nothing short of a cure all, but he had never put any stock in that myth before now. If it was true, the Council had good reason to perpetuate the idea that it was just a myth. They also had good reason to hoard the Watchers' blood. "Council member donations aren't put into regular circulation, are they?" Angel asked, easily reading between the lines.

"No," Buffy replied, "they're not. The Council keeps them, to use for other things."

"Like payoffs?" he surmised.

Buffy nodded. As Angel had quickly realized, Watchers' blood was infinitely more powerful than standard human. The Council used their store of blood to buy information from vampires living in the wastelands. It was a very effective tool.

"Gimme," Buffy said, holding out her hand expectantly. Angel was puzzled, but then realized she meant to remove the rest of his tags. Dutifully, he held out his wrist as she removed the leather, the warmth from her hands once again seeping into his cold flesh. He held absolutely still, watching her tiny fingers wrestle with the obstinate locks, fighting the urge to curl his fingers around her wrist. Eventually, the lock gave way and the tag on his left wrist slipped free.

As he knew it would be, the skin underneath the leather was already a dark gray. Given time, it would undoubtedly be stained black. Buffy frowned as she looked at the marred flesh, but remained silent.

He watched as she gathered up the tags and then picked up a can of aerosol spray. Careful not to touch the leather too much, Buffy sprayed them, front and back with the liquid. Judging from the writing on the can, it was a fixant that would presumably keep the dye from bleeding any further into his skin.

*****

Sated and sleepy, Angel took off his collar and wrist bindings and laid them on the table next to his bed. With Buffy's help, he rigged up a system that would keep the tags on without actually having to lock them again. They were loose enough to allow him to breathe and speak freely, something for which he was intensely grateful. 

He didn't know why Buffy helped him, but she had. Angel smiled. She was a tough girl. A Slayer. Someone who was used to being on their own, to doing the things that no one else wanted to think about. She was hardened by the viciousness she was forced to witness day after day, by the viciousness she was forced to mete out.

But not too hard. 

She had a soft streak in her that Angel doubted many people ever got to see. Odds were that Holtz didn't encourage her to be overly sympathetic. She didn't have any comfort in her life. She was alone and lonely.

He understood that, all too well.

*****

"Buffy, would you please come here? I need your opinion," Giles called toward the Slayer who was lounging on the couch with a book over her head.

"No way."

"Buffy, really, we're talking about weapons," Angel chimed in, trying to curry favor.

"Would you two shut up before I die of boredom?" Buffy groaned.

Angel and Giles, deciding she would not be swayed, ignored her, continuing with their debate. On the surface, it appeared to be a serious dispute, but Buffy was able to recognize it for what it was, some disturbing male nerd bonding experience. In spite of the whole tall, dark and handsome thing, Angel was quite the geek. He and Giles had been arguing for the last hour over which dead guy's translation of some stupid ancient text was more accurate.

It was excruciatingly dull, even when they were yelling.

Buffy was fairly sure that she had never seen either of them quite so talkative. They were both so quiet most of the time, but when they got together, they would "debate" one boring subject or another for hours. She would have gotten really annoyed if they didn't seem to enjoy it so much.

Considering how much time she had to spend with both of them, she would rather they be happy and arguing, than quiet and withdrawn. Still, it could get seriously annoying. 

*****

The lobby of the Hyperion was crowded with DHSTs and down and out humans. It was payday and ration day in The City, which meant that everyone was figuring out how to best blow the money and sustenance they recently acquired.

Willy was arguing over back rent with a particularly nasty looking human who worked down at the docks. The heavily muscled man was bald and missing a few teeth, his clothes stained and tattered, but Willy didn't seem intimidated. He argued his point and threatened eviction until the dockworker relented, stripped a few bills off of his recently acquired wad of cash, and paid the manager.

Glancing up quickly from counting the bills, Willy said, "Be wit' ya in a sec, Angel." 

The vampire nodded and idly thumbed a rip in his shirt that he acquired the previous night while sneaking around a few of Nabbit Industries' labs. Unhappily, he resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to spend some of his meager, hard earned cash on a new shirt. He was hoping to spend the money on a few art supplies, but that apparently wasn't in the cards.

"You're the one that helps the Slayer, right?"

Angel turned abruptly towards the voice and found himself staring at a vampire of dubious age. He appeared to be young, turned before he was quite fully a man, but looks were deceptive with his kind. However, from his lax attitude and posture, Angel wouldn't have been shocked to learn he was a fledgling.

"Who wants to know?" Angel growled, his voice thick with warning.

Angel had to stop himself from smiling. His voice was indeed a fearsome tool once again, thanks to Buffy's loosening of his collar. He was fairly sure it would have undermined his authority if he cringed in the middle of being menacing. Of course, as far as Angel could tell, he was the only DHST with that problem. Almost all of the other tagged vampires, this newest fledgling included, seemed to have little trouble speaking. Undoubtedly, they did not find it comfortable to speak while collared. Idle chitchat was not something in which most DHSTs engaged, but they did not seem to have the same pronounced reaction he did. Of course, none of them were anywhere near Angel's age. After nearly three centuries, learning a different way to speak was not easy.

"Whoa there," the boy said, holding his hands up in surrender. "I didn't mean to step on any toes. My name's Xander. I just thought you might have a little information."

Angel nodded in greeting, but ignored the outstretched hand. "What kind of information do you want, Xander?" he asked pointedly.

The boy blushed, a decidedly rare feat for a vampire. Oh, he had to be young. Angel determined Xander wasn't a threat, merely an annoyance, and turned away. As he did so, Willy caught his gaze and pulled a cooler out from under the counter.

"I don't know what you did, but I gotta give ya credit, I didn't think it was possible to get this kinda payday," he said with a clearly envious note in his voice. Willy credited himself on being able to get anything, but he failed Angel. The vampire was forced to find another - and more successful - route.

Angel nodded, but remained silent. He wasn't about to tell Willy where his new suppliers had come from. Efficiently, he popped open the lid on the cooler and made sure the contents were as they were supposed to be.

"Wow."

Angel turned and found Xander staring over his shoulder, nearly salivating at the sight of his rations. Quickly, he snapped the lid shut. Angel wasn't an idiot. He knew his rations were at least four times the size that most DHSTs were allotted, and much more potent to boot. He didn't want to make any enemies. "Why don't you come with me," he said quietly to Xander, the threat clear in his voice.

The boy swallowed harshly and nodded.

*****

"Looks like working for the Slayer really paid off," Xander said nervously, pacing around Angel's suite.

"How do you know I work for the Slayer?" Angel asked.

His assignment was known within the Council and he was regularly out in public with Buffy, but Angel hadn't realized that his employment was common knowledge to his peers.

"I saw you," Xander said plainly.

"Where?"

"At Holtz's house," Xander replied and then quickly caught himself.

It was too late. Angel advanced, pinning the boy to the wall and vamping out. He growled loudly as Xander cowered. "Why are you watching the Slayer?" Angel ground out, enraged at the idea of anyone keeping tabs on Buffy.

"I'm not! I'm not!" Xander yelped. 

"Then what are you doing?"

"I follow Anya sometimes," Xander explained quickly.

Angel released his grip and stepped back. "Anya?" he asked, confused.

Xander nodded, straightening his shirt. "Anya Emmerson, Holtz's secretary," he explained. 

"Why are you keeping tabs on Holtz's secretary?"

"Because I ... like her," Xander admitted.

Angel's scowl slowly melted away into a grin and he laughed. Xander wasn't a spy, he was some lovesick kid who happened to be hot after Holtz's money-minded secretary. "Xander," he said, "I'm afraid you don't have enough cash to date her." 

The boy looked dejected. "I know," he said.

Angel opened the cooler and threw Xander a bag. "Maybe that'll take some of the pain away," he said with a smile. 

*****

Angel walked several steps behind Buffy. Being considerably taller, he could follow her at his normal pace while she was stomping as fast as she could, muttering to herself under her breath. In the month he had worked with the Slayer, he came to know several things about her, foremost being that she hated wasting time. She was convinced that their mission for the evening, given to them by Holtz, was a waste of time. Consequently, she was very unhappy. 

"This is total *bullshit*," she grumbled, as she stalked down the street. 

"What exactly are we doing?" he asked, half wondering if he should have just stayed silent. 

She stopped walking and turned to look at him. "Busy work," she groused. "We're doing busy work." Cocking an eyebrow, Angel waited for the real answer. Sighing heavily, Buffy said, "We're going over to Mercy hospital to back up Animal Control." 

Angel's confusion was clear. "Excuse me?"

"There's a Pet problem at Mercy. We need to go over and make sure that none of the Animal Control guys get hurt trying to get rid of it. 

Angel frowned. "Someone took a pet to the hospital?"

"It happens every now and then," Buffy said, resuming walking, albeit at a more leisurely pace. "Pets aren't that common. It takes a hell of a lot to get a license for one. Most people wouldn't bother."

Comprehension dawned, and this time it was Angel who stopped walking. Noticing he wasn't following, Buffy stopped and turned to look at him. "Do you mean a vampire?" he asked incredulously.

 "Well ... yeah. What else would I be talking about?" she asked, feeling oddly embarrassed by the chastising expression on Angel's face and not understanding exactly why.

He glared at her. "I thought you were talking about a *dog*," he bit out.

Buffy shrugged. She opened her mouth, and then stopped. She was about to say 'they're both animals', but she halted the words. Angel was a vampire, and as such, he probably wasn't of the same opinion. She closed her mouth. She had never personally known a member of the undead before and while she still viewed the species on the whole as animals, she would not categorize Angel as a beast. "Order are orders," she said blandly. "The Pet is causing a problem at Mercy. We have to get him out of there without hurting anyone."

Angel looked away from her, as if he couldn't stand the sight of her, and continued down the road towards the hospital. Buffy stared at his back unhappily. She tried to shake off the unwanted emotions. Why should she care what Angel thought? He was one of them. Of course, not even she believed her words. Sullenly, she hurried after him.

*****

"So why is this one a Pet?" Angel asked, breaking the silence for the first time, as he and Buffy entered the stairwell. When they arrived at Mercy, it was in security lockdown because of the unruly vamp. The elevators were out of commission as a precaution, and consequently, the pair had to climb ten flights of stairs.

"His owner wanted it that way," Buffy explained. "99% of the vamps in the city are classified as DHSTs. Like you, they have work assignments. They're monitored closely, registered living quarters, weekly check-ins with case workers and such."

"I don't have check-ins," Angel said.

"Your job assignment is to the head of the Watchers' Council and the Slayer. I think they figure you're monitored closely enough," she said wryly.

"So what's the difference with a Pet?" Angel asked, getting back on topic.

"Exactly what it sounds like," Buffy said. "They live with their owners as members of the household. They aren't checked up on other than a yearly physical exam. They don't have to wear tags unless they're taken out in public. But it's a lot of trouble to get a Pet license. They're *very* expensive and ... "

"And? " Angel prompted.

"It's frowned upon."

Angel laughed deprecatingly. "Society doesn't like the idea of a vampire being part of the family?" he asked.

"They're not part of the family," Buffy said, "at least no more than the family cat or dog. They're possessions."

"Whatever you say," Angel replied dryly.

*****

"What's the sitch?" Buffy asked the Animal Control officer, a man by the name of Bates. 

Bates nodded, glad to see the Slayer had finally arrived. "He's in there," he said, pointing to the lone closed door on the wing.

The officer automatically handed Buffy a write up on the Pet. Given the Council's love for documentation, the registration was several pages long. Buffy quickly scanned them, then folded them up and placed them in her back pocket. "Is he armed?" she asked, eyeing the door.

The officer nodded. "Tazer. He already zapped two of my guys."

"Guess that makes it easier for us," Buffy said.

"What makes it easier?" Angel asked.

Turning, the Animal Control officer noticed Angel for the first time and jumped slightly. Buffy shook her head in dismissal, knowing full well that if Angel had meant the man any harm that he would have already been dead.

"It's a kill situation," Buffy said. "The Pet attacked two officers. It's broken Domestication laws and must be destroyed."

Angel was stunned by the coldness in her voice.

*****

Stealthily Buffy toed open the door with Angel close on her heels. The overhead light in the room was off, but a small lamp on a table beside the bed was lit. In the bed, a very elderly woman, clearly dying, was cradling the head of a distraught vampire in her lap. Unaware that he was being watched, the vamp was sobbing openly as the woman gently stroked his hair, rubbing his face against her abdomen. 

Buffy must have made some noise, because suddenly the vamp's head shot up. His expression was one of abject misery, but when he focused on the intruders, his eyes immediately turned golden and he sank into game face, growling loudly at the Slayer. Buffy's body went rigid, preparing for a fight. She jumped slightly as Angel's hand closed around her wrist, dragging her back out of the room and closing the door as the vamp continued to growl. 

"What the hell are you doing?" Buffy demanding, twisting to confront the vampire as she wrenched her wrist free of his grasp.

 Angel looked over his shoulder at Bates and his cronies who were intently listening to their conversation. "Can I have a word alone?" he asked tersely.

With a grumble, Buffy walked into one of the other rooms which had been emptied when the conflict started. Sitting on the bed, she glared at the vampire expectantly.

"Leave him," Angel said succinctly.

"What?" Buffy asked, incredulous. 

"Leave him," Angel repeated.

"He's a wild animal. He's a danger to everyone in this building," she shot back.

"He's a grieving lover," Angel clarified evenly.

Buffy was shocked into silence. She gaped at him for several moments. "W-what did you say?" she asked.

Angel took a deep breath and looked at his reason for living. Her world was so rigid, so full of rules, that she was blind to the obvious. "You have his registration," Angel said. "How long has he been with her?"

Buffy reluctantly pulled the papers out of her pocket, quickly skimming through the data. "Sixty years."

"Was she ever married? Ever have kids?"

"No," Buffy replied, having some idea of where he was heading. "She was never married, never had children. She lived alone."

 "I assure you," he said, "she may not have had a human companion, but she did not live alone. And she did not sleep alone either."

Buffy swallowed harshly.

"Whether you and society approve or not," Angel said, "they were lovers, most likely for her entire adult life. Now she's dying."

Buffy remained silent.

"I don't think he wants to hurt anyone," Angel explained seriously. "But he won't let them take her away from him, and he won't leave her side."

Buffy stared at her hands, still clasping the print up on Miss Gillian Miles and her Pet, John. "We have orders," she said quietly, unable to meet his gaze.

"She's dying," he replied just as quietly. "She won't last the night and neither will he."

Meeting his eyes, Buffy gave him a quizzical glance.

"The room has an eastern exposure, Buffy."

She swallowed again and nodded. She hadn't missed the fact that the blinds had been pulled up. John would die with the sunrise. "I'll talk to them," Buffy said. "Sunrise is only a couple of hours away. We can secure the room until then."

*****

Buffy ran her fingers across the blanket that had until very recently covered Gillian Miles. She turned her hand over and looked at it, the tips of her fingers were coated with ash. Angel watched her silently.

"How did you know?" she asked without looking at him.

"I just did," he answered. "Relationships like this are not too out of the ordinary in the Wastelands."

She turned her head, meeting his gaze. "Did you ever have a human lover?" she asked, shocked by her own bluntness. 

The silence hung in the air for nearly a minute before he spoke. "John and Gillian were more than lovers," he said. "They were mates. Bound for life, dedicated to one another." 

Buffy continued to hold his gaze. "You didn't answer my question."

"I've never had a mate," he replied evasively, turning away from her to face the window, which was once again covered by blinds to block out the sun. 

"Did you have a lover?"

"I had lots of lovers," he said dryly, neither ashamed nor proud of his actions, merely stating them for what they were. He took no satisfaction from his past, but he knew better than to deny it existed. He had learned from his mistakes and that was something to cherish. 

Buffy flinched. She didn't know what she expected his answer to be, but his brutal honesty caused a twinge of jealousy. She didn't like the idea of Angel having lovers. "Were any of them human?" she asked.

Reluctantly, he met her gaze again. "Some," he replied evenly.

She recoiled and turned her attention back to her hand, rubbing the ash between her fingers. "But you didn't die for any of them," she mused.

"As I said," he replied, "they were lovers. I've never had a mate, human or otherwise." 

"What about now?" she asked, shocked by the catty quality of her voice. "Do you have any lovers at the moment?" 

He watched her for several drawn out moments and slowly a smile crept over his features. Buffy was upset by the idea of him having a lover. "You're the only woman I spend any time with, Buffy," he replied firmly.

 She glared at him, well aware that she betrayed herself with the last question. She couldn't deal with this, not right now. Abruptly, she headed for the door. "Call Giles," she called over her shoulder. "He can give you a ride home."

*****

Angel yelped as the beam of sunlight singed his hand, pulling it back under the safety of the stiflingly warm blanket. There was a reason vampires stayed in during the day, he noted grouchily to himself.

"Are you all right?" Giles asked over his shoulder.

"Fine," Angel grumbled. Buffy was clearly upset by their conversation and left the hospital, intent on walking home alone. Given that it was daylight out, Angel had no choice but to watch her go and then call Giles for a ride.

"We're here," the Watcher said as he pulled the car to a stop.

Angel threw off the blanket and sat up, thankful that his boarding house had an underground garage and entrance for just such an occasion. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to calm some of the unruly locks. It was a futile attempt. Though he couldn't see himself in the rearview mirror, he knew his hair was sticking up everywhere. He sighed heavily.

"I have coffee upstairs if you're interested," Angel said.

Giles twisted around in the seat, watching the vampire. "Sure," he said, killing the car's engine. 

*****

"Thank you," Giles said as Angel handed him a steaming cup of coffee.

The vampire's home was small, but neat, if conspicuously lacking in natural light. Luckily, Angel had a multitude of lamps throughout the space. Rising from his seat, the Watcher ventured around the room, paying special attention to a table stacked with books. "Interesting," he said, flipping through the titles.

"Pardon?" Angel asked, then realized what the Watcher was referring to. "Yeah," he said, "I've added a few titles to the collection recently. Willy's pretty good at finding just about anything."

The Watcher nodded appreciatively.  

"Was she all right?" Angel asked abruptly. 

"Buffy?"

"Yes."

Giles nodded, once again taking a seat near the vampire. "She was ... distracted," Giles said truthfully, "but apparently unharmed."

Angel nodded. "She isn't too happy with me."

"What happened?" Giles asked seriously.

To his own shock, Angel related the night's events to the Watcher with brutal honestly, omitting only the conversation he and Buffy shared over John's ashes.

He watched Giles' face for some clue as to what he was thinking, but he was his usual unreadable self. "Does it sicken you?" Angel asked.

"The idea of a human and a vampire together?" Giles asked.

Angel nodded.

Solemnly, Giles shook his head. "I think that happiness should be sought out wherever it can be found," he said with a wry smile.

Releasing a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, Angel sank back in his chair. "It upset her," he said, staring off into space.

"I doubt that," Giles responded.

Angel looked at him in question.

"Buffy had a very regimented upbringing," Giles explained. "She was taught to see the world in black and white. Knowing you is causing her to question a number of long held beliefs. I'm sure it is not comfortable for her, but Buffy has a gentle soul. If anything, I'm sure it was the vampire's grief that affected her. Not being close to anyone, Buffy has never before lost someone she cares for. She is well acquainted with misery, but grief is somewhat of an unknown."

Angel was watching Giles carefully, noting how the man's face seemed to soften when he spoke of the Slayer. He had never seen such an expression on Holtz's face. "Were you ever married, Rupert?" Angel asked.

Swallowing heavily, Giles answered, "Yes, I was, once."

"What happened?" Angel prodded.

Giles smiled sadly. "My wife di- ... " he stopped, taking a deep breath. "After we lost our little girl, I don't think Joyce saw much point in going on. She learned to dull her pain in a multitude of ways. I wasn't much help to her in the intervening years. I could have supported her, worked through it, but it was simply too painful for me to deal with. I buried myself in my work. I was gone for several weeks, doing field work with Holtz. I was completely without any means of communication. When I returned home, I was informed that she had gone missing. Several people saw her near the Wasteland gates. It was too unthinkable to me that she would ever hurt herself. And then one day she was simply gone. They never found her body."

It was Angel's turn to swallow harshly. "I'm sorry," he said.

Giles shrugged. "As I said before, I now believe that one should find happiness where one is able."

"Are you happy now?"

 The Watcher sat in contemplative silence for several moments before answering. "For a long time after my wife's disappearance, after our little girl was taken, I never thought I would be happy again. But then a year passed, and another year, and so on. I resumed my position with the Council. I never thought it possible, but yes, I am happy now."

Angel watched him intently. "What was your daughter's name?" he asked.

"Buffy," Giles replied, with a smile, "but I assume you already discerned as much."

Angel nodded. "Does she know?" he asked.

"No," Giles said firmly. "It would only make things more difficult if she knew. This is the way it has been done for centuries. At least I can spend time with her. Most parents are not even allowed that much when their daughters become Slayers."

 "I'll make sure she's safe," Angel pledged.

Giles smiled. "I'm counting on it," he said. 

*****

It was shortly after dusk, the time which the Buffy and Angel generally set aside for taking care of routine, menial tasks. They were seated at one of the large, wooden tables that were the centerpieces of Holtz's library, in companionable silence, each of them intent on their task.

"Angel?" Buffy asked, not looking up from the ancient sword she was cleaning, mindless of the fact that the task was leaving her with dirty hands and clothes. The battered, gray sweatshirt she wore was smudged with a plethora of grime and dirt as were her black cargo pants, though they camouflaged it better.

"Yeah," he replied, equally distracted as he reassembled a battle axe, on which he recently replaced the handle.

"When you were ... " she began, looking up from her task to watch him across the table, "when you became a vampire, was it during the plagues?"

Angel set down the ax he was working on and gave his full attention to the Slayer. "Yes," he replied evenly, "I was turned in the plague's first wave."

Buffy nodded and then meekly asked, "What was it like?"

Angel felt something inside him that had been tightly coiled begin to loosen with her timid question. Buffy had definitely been upset by their conversation about his past, and he had feared that she would go to significant lengths to distance herself from him. Her question was a sure sign that she wished to continue the somewhat personal turn their relationship had taken.

"How much do you know about the plagues?" he asked.

Buffy shrugged. "Not much," she said. "The instructors only touched on them in history class. I know that some particularly nasty vamp came up with the plagues as a way of increasing demon numbers. I know that those infected were driven out of human society." 

Angel nodded. "That much is true, but it leaves out a lot of the specifics," he said quietly. "A demon named Varkesh engineered the plagues. Through a series of spells, he and a cluster of warlocks were able to create a sickness that preyed on the human population. It worked like a cold, airborne and highly contagious."

Buffy frowned, "People caught it without reason?"

"Yes," Angel replied. "It attacked indiscriminately. Entire pockets of human population were wiped out. But the plague had problems. It was designed to take a normal healthy human and turn them into a vampire."

"I thought that's what it did?" Buffy asked, confused.

"Not always. Sometimes the sickness would kill the victim, other times the conversion to vampirism wasn't completely successful. A human soul would be left in a vampiric body."

Buffy looked at him closely. "That's what happened to you, isn't it?" she asked, knowing that all DHSTs admitted to The City had to have a soul.

"Yes," he replied. "I have always had a human soul. But it didn't matter to those in power at the time. Medical science had no way of combating the plagues and the Watchers' Council wasn't powerful enough, at the time, to fight it with magic. In the interest of self-preservation, humanity isolated itself. All those infected were driven out of society and into the Wastelands. It was a crude method, but effective. It eliminated the outbreaks. Those in charge of preserving society had no way of knowing that the plagues were only contagious for a matter of months."

An appalled expression crossed Buffy's face. "But you weren't dangerous," she said.

"No," he mused, "I wasn't. Or at the very least, I wasn't malicious. I suppose I would have been a danger to some extent. My vampiric status came with a lot of physical attributes I didn't possess as a human. It took some time to adjust to my new strength. But lack of malice didn't matter to those in charge. I was driven away from my home and my family. At the time, I only wanted to die." 

"You didn't," she noted.

"Obviously."

"I'm glad," she said and turned her attention back to the sword.

*****

Just over a week later, Holtz unceremoniously dropped a garment bag on the library table in front of Angel. Cautiously, the vampire looked up and met his gaze. "Sir?"

"There is a social engagement this evening. It's being held at Council Headquarters and will be rather large. I hadn't intended for you to attend, but I was just informed that Maggie Walsh will be there. It should be a very good opportunity for us to see if you're everything Whistler assured us you would be," Holtz said, smiling mirthlessly down at the DHST.

Angel nodded curtly. Holtz's suspicions were understandable. Whistler had "sold" the leader of the Watchers' Council on Angel's merits, claiming that he would make a valuable and virtually undetectable spy within the ranks of Walsh's DHSTs. So far, though, Angel had done little more than tag along behind Buffy and help Giles with research. The party would be the perfect chance for him to prove that he was worth the risk that Holtz was taking on him.

"Inside the bag is a suit. All black, of course," Holtz added. "You will attend with Buffy. Do you know how to drive?"

The question took Angel somewhat by surprise but he nodded.

"Good," Holtz said dryly, "Buffy has a car she never drives. You can be responsible for getting the two of you there in time."

"Yes, sir," Angel replied dutifully. 

Turning on his heel, Holtz left abruptly, leaving Angel staring at the garment bag. Several minutes later, Buffy walked in and gave him a strange look. "Going somewhere?" she joked.

"Yes," he replied truthfully, "apparently, I'm your escort for the evening."

Buffy went pale. "You're going tonight?" she asked incredulously. 

He nodded. 

"Wonderful," she said dryly, flopping down into a chair next to Angel as she grabbed several case files and began rooting through them in search of distraction. 

"Is there a problem with that?" he asked cautiously. 

"Not really," she said, without looking at him, "it's just that going to those stupid things is embarrassing enough. I don't really want any more of an audience than I already have."

Angel frowned. "Why do you think they're embarrassing?" 

Shooting him a withering look, she said, "They're formals." 

Angel shrugged, still confused. 

"I have to wear a dress," she explained.

"Oh," Angel finally said, still not understanding why that should be such a huge deal.

*****

Contrary to what Holtz intimated, Buffy picked Angel up for the evening. He was running late and was still in the bathroom getting dressed when he heard Buffy knock on the door. He yelled for her to enter and when he heard the door open and close, he knew she had.

Angel checked himself over as well as he could without the aid of a reflection. The suit was expensive, probably from the same tailor that made Holtz's formal attire. Every piece of material utilized was black, from the coat to the shirt and tie. Still, it had obviously been tailored to his body, probably with the aid of the measurements that had been taken while he was tagged several months earlier. It would have been ordered at the same time as the rest of his clothing, with the assumption that a DHST working for someone as powerful as Holtz would have occasion to need formal wear.

That noted, it was a little snug. Not uncomfortably so, but still, he could tell that he filled out quite a bit after Buffy upped his rations. The suit was tailored to fit an emaciated body that he no longer possessed. Thankfully, he had always been on the lean side, so it wasn't a problem. His normal DHST uniform was so loose fitting that he hadn't had any problems. Deciding that it was as good as it was going to get, he opened the door and stepped out into the apartment.

He was only able to take one step before he stopped cold, spellbound. Buffy was absolutely ravishing. Angel watched the petite Slayer day in and day out, wearing worn t-shirts and faded cargo pants, all the while thinking she was beautiful. Buffy in full formal dress, however, was a truly awe-inspiring sight.

She wore a pale pink sheath dress that reached almost to her ankles. He fixated on that for a moment. She had fantastic ankles. He had worked next to her for weeks on end, and this was the first time he had ever seen them. Forcing his gaze upward again, he noted how flawlessly the dress hugged her curves, which were deliciously evident. Her long blonde tresses which were customarily braided or in a ponytail, hung loose down her back, reaching almost to her waist. She was stunning.

"What?" she asked nervously, shifting her weight on the balls of her feet - which were tied into a very sexy pair of strappy high heels.

"You look very ... nice," Angel finally managed to say.

"Oh," she said, somewhat relieved that he wasn't going to laugh at her. "You too."

"Yeah," he said, "the suit is really nice, but it's a little too small."

 She looked him over and frowned. "Holtz said he it had been custom tailored."

"It was," Angel replied, "but it was custom tailored to the body I had when I finished DHST training. With my new improved rations, I've put back a lot of the muscle I lost from starvation."

"I noticed," Buffy said and then stopped herself, mortified that she let the comment slip. Yes, she definitely had noticed that Angel's body had filled out. When they sparred, he often did so without a shirt. He went from thin to very well defined right before her eyes.

"We should probably get going," Angel said, changing the subject to avoid further embarrassing her. 

"I thought ... maybe ... first we could," Buffy stuttered, pointing to his neck.

Angel had no idea what she was talking about, and then he realized she was looking at the stained skin that still circled his neck. He took his tags off before hitting the shower, leaving them lying on his night stand.

Nervously, Buffy fumbled for the small purse she carried. Angel watched as she extracted a small glass jar. "I thought maybe ..." she said unevenly.

Angel cocked an eyebrow. "What is it?" he asked warily.

"The taggers use it when they accidentally dye themselves," Buffy replied. "It should remove all the stains."

 "Oh," Angel said, shocked.

An awkward silence descended between them for several long seconds.

"Do you want me to put it on?" she asked, blushing slightly.

 "Um ... sure," Angel replied, unable to think straight. Buffy had actually gone to all the trouble of getting the dye remover. He had difficulty making his feet move as he walked over to the bed and sat down so she could reach his neck.

Buffy swallowed harshly and moved to kneel on the floor in front of his seated form. She was determined to finish what she started without making a fool of herself. She wasn't exactly sure why she was doing this and she was too scared to question it very closely. For some reason, it bothered her deeply to think of him marked as someone's property, even hers. And his skin was so beautiful, it was almost a sin to see it marred by the dye.

Keeping her concentration on her task, she opened the jar, revealing an icy blue cream with a faintly minty smell. Careful not to get any on her dress, she daubed a bit of the cream on her finger and slowly reached for his left wrist. She rubbed the cream into the skin carefully, making sure to coat all of the gray areas.

Angel tensed under her gentle contact, but made no effort to pull away, transfixed by the feel of her touch. The cream tingled slightly, but didn't burn. She rubbed his flesh slowly, her tiny fingers unable to span his large wrist, and Angel was extremely thankful that he hadn't fed recently. A blush would have been very not suave. However, a second thoughts hit his brain about two seconds after it hit another part of his anatomy.  

Frantically, he tried to think about anything other than Buffy's warm little fingers gliding over his skin.

Buffy continued, blissfully unaware and by the time she was working on the second wrist, the first was already showing signs of bleaching back to the normal alabaster white of his flesh. Taking a deep breath, she rose to her feet. He didn't move a muscle as she pulled her long skirt up above her knees and knelt on the bed beside him.

With as much care and attention to detail as she had shown his wrists, she started with the back of his neck, rubbing the blue cream into the discolored flesh. She could see the grooves from where the collar bit into the flesh of his neck and did her best to massage them out with her strong fingers.

She worked for a long time, and was almost finished when she realized that Angel had been absolutely silent the entire time. Buffy prayed she hadn't embarrassed him with her gesture. It wasn't that she thought he looked bad with the stains, far from it. Still she felt slightly mortified at the thought that she might have offended him. 

Buffy chanced a peek at his face, searching for any indication that he was unhappy with her actions. His jaw was clenched tightly, the rigid muscles standing out prominently. His eyes were screwed shut, but his nostrils flared as he breathed. Breathed? Buffy noticed that he was indeed breathing in ragged gusts. Was she hurting him?

The entire time she was studying him, her fingers had never stopped their work, industriously smoothing out the grooves and massaging the bleaching cream into his skin. He was evidently unaware of her perusal, too caught up in some internal monologue.

Buffy took the opportunity to look at the rest of him. Perhaps there was something else bothering him that she hadn't noticed. "Oh my gods," she whispered, dragging her gaze up his body with alacrity. 

Unfortunately, her little outburst betrayed her assessment of his body and when she brought her eyes up, they locked firmly with Angel's. Buffy blushed furiously. She knew that guys got ... well that they could get excited when a girl touched them, but as far as she knew, she never had that effect on one before.

And there most definitely had been an effect.

Angel swiftly grabbed her hands in his, stilling their motion. They were face to face, mouths mere centimeters apart due to the fact that he had twisted his torso towards her.

Buffy couldn't help herself. Unbidden, her vision once again flicked down to his groin. The front of his pants were still tented with the obvious force of his arousal. Slowly, she met his gaze. He didn't seem to be embarrassed, making no protests at her glances. On the contrary, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly around hers.

Slowly, she sat back and he released her hands. She held the jar of bleaching cream out to him. "Maybe you should finish the rest of it," she said quickly. 

"That's probably a good idea," he replied, his fingers brushing hers as he took the jar.

Angel finished applying the bleach with some difficulty, given that he had no reflection, so he could not use a mirror. Buffy wandered restlessly around his suite of rooms as he rubbed in the cream, trying to look busy or distracted. She idly flipped through the stacks of books lying here and there.

 

Angel felt like such a goon. Where had his self control gone? By the time he was finished, he had his body reasonably under control. Buffy was on the opposite side of the room, avoiding looking in his direction. Quickly, Angel grabbed his tags and secured them in place, hiding his newly flawless skin. "You ready?" he asked.

"Sure," Buffy chirped, heading for the door without glancing in his direction. 

*****

Buffy's car wasn't exactly a car, but a mix between an SUV and a mini-van. She none too lovingly called it the 'geek machine'. She didn't protest in the slightest when Angel asked for the keys, all too happy to turn the reins over to him. She hated driving. 

The trip to the Watchers' Council Headquarters passed quickly, neither of them saying much. Contrary to their usual state, the silence wasn't comfortable, but rather nervous and strained. Angel almost let out a sigh of relief as Council Headquarters came into view.  

The party, as Holtz had called it, wasn't a party, but rather a ball. It was large, with nearly a thousand people on the guest list. Angel was relieved to see that there were a large number of DHSTs in attendance, even if most of them were the wait staff. 

The event consumed several of the Council's large, formal ballrooms. The opulence was somewhat staggering. Compared to these rooms, even Holtz's expensively decorated home was left in ruin. Angel thought he understood why Buffy had been so reticent to attend. The event seemed designed to allow members of the Watchers' Council to outdo one another with their attire.  

Buffy's dress, while undeniably beautiful, was definitely one of the more conservative outfits being worn that evening. Angel, still clinging to some of his eighteenth century sensibilities, was somewhat scandalized by the amount of flesh women were flashing in public. In the Wastelands it was one thing, but here in Council Headquarters it seemed somewhat obscene. 

Angel couldn't help but notice that Buffy's attention fixated on a voluptuous brunette. Angel had the distinct impression that Buffy knew the young woman, but that she wasn't expecting to see her at the ball. The brunette was facing away from them, completely unaware of Buffy's visual assessment.

Angel stifled a snort. The brunette was wearing crimson red dress that might as well have been a second skin, flirting with an attractive young man but making sure that she was the center of attention. She was definitely aware of her body, holding herself so as to make the most of her ample breasts and long, tanned legs. She was laughable. Angel well knew that women like her were a dime a dozen, trading on looks that would soon fade, leaving them with nothing. He was not, however, pleased to notice that Buffy seemed to shrink as she watched the other woman. 

"You okay?" Angel asked, lightly touching Buffy on the arm. 

She quickly turned her attention to him, trying to look bored. "Fine," she replied evenly.

"You know her?" Angel asked, cocking his head towards the brunette.

Buffy laughed lightly, and somewhat hysterically. "That's my sister," she said, "Cordelia. I didn't know she was going to be here. She usually avoids the Council, but I guess she made an exception because it was a party."

Angel looked back to the young woman. Cordelia was definitely attractive; however, he simply couldn't stomach the idea of Buffy feeling like an ugly duckling. He shrugged and looked away in disinterest.

"What?" she asked incredulously. "Tall, dark and beautiful isn't your type?" 

Angel shrugged again and met her gaze. "I prefer Bu - ... blondes," he said, catching himself.

Buffy swallowed visibly and averted her vision, pretending to watch the brightly dressed throngs of people. Angel noted, with some satisfaction, that a slight blush crept into her cheeks and she fought a small smile that was tugging at her mouth. She obviously knew just how much he preferred her. 

"Do you want to say hi?" Angel asked.

"No," Buffy answered quickly. "I'm sure Cordy has better things to do than talk to me. I'd like to just sit down somewhere."

Angel nodded and led her to a small sofa situated in the corner of one of the ballrooms. She was seated so that he blocked her view of the room - and vice versa.

"I take it you're not close to your sisters," Angel said quietly. 

Buffy shook her head. "No," she said, "we're not close. We're not enemies or anything, we're just different." 

"How old were you when you went to live with Holtz?" he asked. 

"Fourteen," Buffy said, confirming his earlier suppositions. "They were all very nice, and they did their best to make me feel like part of the family but ... "

"It didn't work?" Angel surmised.

"Not really," Buffy admitted. "It wasn't their fault. Holtz's wife, Diana, died when Cordelia was really young. Kate, the oldest daughter, was twelve at the time and she just sort of took over, became a mom to Cordy. They're really close."

"And you feel like an outsider," Angel added quietly.

"I am an outsider," Buffy said dryly, her gaze holding his for several moments. "But then again, you probably know what that's like."

"Yes," he said, "I do."

 Buffy shrugged. "Holtz has been the Council Leader for the last twenty years. I'm the eighth Slayer that has lived with his family. I can't really blame him for not wanting to get attached. Justine, the first Slayer that lived with them, was killed, put to death by the Council for misconduct. Holtz blamed himself. They were really close to Justine, went out of their way to make her part of the family. I think they learned their lesson. It's better for them not to get too emotionally involved." 

Angel didn't respond. He did understand Holtz's actions to some extent, but it also enraged him. Buffy deserved so much more.

*****

Throughout the night, Buffy made it clear that she had no desire to socialize with other members of the Watchers' Council. Angel made concessions to her anti-social mood by occupying her with conversation and shooting hostile, yet not openly aggressive, looks at any people dumb enough to venture close to her. They talked shop while they kept an eye on Maggie Walsh. Despite all the hype focused on her by Holtz, the researcher was making the social rounds, but not really doing anything too interesting.  

Walsh was exactly as Angel had imagined her. She was an attractive woman in her early forties who radiated power. It was easy to see that she was used to getting what she wanted and that she wasn't afraid to use all of the social influence that came with her position.

While the Council was undeniably the governing force over all of the human cities, its days of free rein were over. During the plagues, the Council was catapulted from relative obscurity to the top of the social, political and financial food chains all over the globe. They were the only ones capable of doing battle with Varkesh and single-handedly dragged the human race back from the brink of extinction.  

But that had been more than a century ago. In the years following the creation of protected cities over the globe, people became acclimated to their ways of life. It was absolutely normal to live behind reinforced concrete walls, which no human with an ounce of self-preservation would dare venture beyond. As people became comfortable with their way of life, the Council's power began to wane. With that waning, there was a resurgence in the power of the private sector.  

The Council was still powerful, the ruling force in a worldwide government, but money was also powerful. The largest of the private sector corporations, with its headquarters in The City, was Nabbit Industries. It was a company built on the computer boom, but it steadily diversified its interests over the last decade. So far, Nabbit Industries devoted the most of its monetary attention to its genetic engineering labs, headed by none other than Maggie Walsh.

It was rumored that she had an annual budget somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars but so far, Nabbit Industries had been very secretive about the type of projects they were funding. There were rumors and a lot of wild speculation, although no one outside of Nabbit Industries had ever seen any of Walsh's deliverables. That alone was cause for concern.

Maggie Walsh would not take kindly to the Council's interest in her projects. So far, all of the Council's inquiries had been politely rebuffed by an army of lawyers. They had made it clear that short of a court order, they weren't saying a word about Walsh's projects. The Council wasn't about to declare war on Nabbit Industries; such a move could force Walsh's hand, making her even more dangerous than before. However for the last three years, they had ceased supplying her with DHSTs - whom they controlled fully - for her lab studies. Undoubtedly related was the fact that more and more "accidents" had been happening in her labs where Guardian City citizens were being turned into vampires through manipulated strains of the original plague.

And now, Maggie Walsh was attending a Council function, flaunting what she thought to be her own invincibility. An ego that size was dangerous indeed, especially when backed up by Nabbit Industries' financial might. They invested far too much in Walsh to let the Council step in and destroy her "research". Angel wondered if anyone inside Nabbit even had the slightest clue what Walsh was up to. She didn't strike him as the type to play well with others, even if they were the ones backing her projects.

Angel turned his vision away from Walsh, lest she suspect he was keeping tabs on her. He concentrated on much less unpleasant subjects, namely Buffy. She was obviously bored and wanting to be anywhere but where she was at the moment. She would still blush if he forced her to look him in the eye. He contented himself with merely watching her, satisfied that they would discuss things later. 

Quite abruptly, he became sharply aware of someone standing directly in front of him. Angel's head snapped up and he met Holtz's gaze.

"During these functions ... they ... congregate in the alley off of the kitchens. Perhaps you should make yourself useful," the Watcher said, his displeasure evident in his voice.

Angel nodded curtly and rose. 

*****

Lindsey. That's what Holtz said was the name of Walsh's DHST. His sources indicated that she rarely went anywhere without the vampire in tow. Whether it was because he was a loyal ally, or because she was reluctant to let him out of her sight remained to be determined. Apparently Lindsey was a native of The City, a lawyer employed by Nabbit Industries who was accidentally infected by plague contaminants while working with Maggie Walsh. Angel had his doubts about how much of an accident it was.

 Angel made his way through the kitchens teeming with people, largely ignored by everyone. He saw a few DHSTs he knew from the Hyperion, but they did not exchange pleasantries. Much to his surprise, he found that Xander was working the ball, washing dishes in the stiflingly hot kitchen in hopes that he could acquire enough money to attract Anya. He spoke to the boy for several minutes, giving him an update on what Anya had been doing at work, before searching out Lindsey. With a nod of his head, Xander pointed Angel towards the alley. 

The space was large, but cramped with several dozen DHSTs. Most of them took the event as a rare opportunity to let their proverbial hair down. Regardless of the collars, the DHSTs were smoking and speaking with others of their kind in a free manner which usually wasn't allowed within The City. Angel did his best to blend in, though he was markedly better dressed than most of the DHSTs in the alley. Still, he bore the standard issue set of tags and that spoke volumes for his credibility within the group.

Holtz gave Angel a physical description, but he doubted that he would have needed it. Lindsey's body language and anti-social behavior set him apart more effectively than a name tag. Lindsey sat alone on the sidewalk away from the rest of the DHSTs, smoking. Angel took a seat next to him.

Lindsey looked at him, meeting his gaze evenly, but remained silent. He turned his vision back to the dirty pavement. Angel looked at the former Lindsey McDonald, now known only as Subject K178. He was a DHST, just like the rest of them, his age unreadable. He would always look as he did now, a young man in his prime. Angel, however, had read his file and knew that Lindsey was only slightly older than he appeared. He had been a DHST for just over two years.

From the bleak look in his eyes, Angel would have guessed they were close to the same age. His respect and fear of Maggie Walsh shot up several notches. Torturing a vampire was one thing, but doing it to someone you used to know as a human was an entirely different matter.

"Can I get a smoke?" Angel asked evenly.

Lindsey grunted noncommittally but reached for his pack of cigarettes.

*****

Xander was laboring over a huge pan, scrubbing vigorously when Angel found him about thirty minutes later. So caught up in his work, the boy didn't notice Angel's approach and he yelped and jumped as the elder male laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Angel," Xander gasped, holding his hand over his unbeating heart, "man, you almost scared me to death."

"You're already dead," Angel replied dryly.

Xander frowned. "You know what I mean," he said. 

Angel nodded. "I need some help," he said quietly.

Face lighting up, Xander said, "Sure, anything, just so long as you drop a good word on me to Anya."

Smiling, Angel said, "Yeah, I could probably do that."

"Then shoot. Any information I have is yours."

In spite of his annoying qualities, Angel decided that he rather liked Xander. The boy was genuinely nice and luckily for Angel, rather perceptive. He saw Angel talking to Lindsey and while he didn't know Walsh's favorite DHST, he was able to introduce Angel to another vampire who was working in the kitchens that evening. Fred shared a lot of qualities with Xander. They were both young and sweet and entirely too naive for their own good. Angel liked Fred immediately. She was bookish and shy, but those qualities hid an extremely agile mind. 

Angel also noticed, somewhat uncomfortably, that Fred was attracted to him. He hadn't been a saint before his arrival in The City, and he was well aware that his looks appealed to women. In another time and another place he might have been attracted to Fred, but there was no room in his heart or his head for anyone other than Buffy.

But he wasn't above a little harmless flirting. Fred knew Lindsey, though apparently not well. He was a regular at a club called Caritas, a sanctuary for DHSTs. Fred frequented it, being close friends with the proprietor - whom she conspicuously omitted naming. She saw Lindsey there often, but he mostly kept to himself, drinking heavily in a darkened corner.

Angel felt like he hit the jackpot. For weeks, he had been looking for an 'in' like this into the DHST community. He didn't know if Caritas had any connections to Nabbit Industries or Walsh, but it seemed a very good place to start looking. Without much pressing, Fred gave him directions to the club. Angel promised that he would see her there.

With a wide grin on his face, he went off in search of the Slayer.

*****

"Buffy," he said softly, as she grabbed the car door handle intending to bolt for her apartment building, "we need to talk about this evening."

The expression on her face as she turned around was amusing. Obviously, she thought she would be able to make it to the safety of her apartment without having to rehash what had happened in his suite before the ball. With all the enthusiasm of someone heading for the gallows, Buffy sat back in her seat. She sat rigidly, not meeting his gaze as she waited for him to speak. 

"I apologize if I offended you earlier this evening in my rooms," he said bluntly. "I haven't been touched by another person for a very long time." 

Buffy nodded quickly. "No problem," she said nervously, "I totally forgot about the whole vamp neck thing." A vampire's neck was extremely sensitive and in any sort of a sexual context, it was most definitely an erogenous zone.  

Angel surmised, however, that Buffy knew about it because it was a very effective place to wound a vampire. "That was part of it," he admitted.

"Part?" Buffy asked, confused, turning to face him. She had liked her theory: it was nice and neat.

Angel shrugged, uncertain of how much to divulge. "Having someone massage my neck was nice," he said baldly, "but there was more to it than that."

Buffy was ashamed of herself, but she couldn't quell her curiosity. She never had anyone openly respond to her in a sexual manner, and she was dying to know why. "How much more?" she asked, mortified at her own aggressiveness.

Angel smiled with self-deprecation. "I'm almost three centuries old, Buffy," he said. "I have enough control that simply having someone touch my neck shouldn't give me an erection."

 The pit of Buffy's stomach tingled at his candid, sexually charged words. No one had ever spoken to her like that before. She was very afraid that she liked it. "Then what was it?" she asked, her voice sounding hoarse in her own ears.

Angel swallowed harshly. He had expected her to shy away, to hide behind her innocence. Clearly, she wasn't doing that. And the sound of her curiosity tinged voice was beginning to elicit the same response that her hands had gotten earlier.

He leaned in closer, watching her carefully. She licked her lips out of nervousness and his attention was immediately riveted to the wet trail her tongue left. He lifted his gaze back to her eyes and couldn't help but notice that her pupils were beginning to dilate. Gods, she was amazing. He was close enough that he could feel her warm moist breath against his face, coming in short little bursts. She was so close, he could just reach out and touch her ... 

"You're extremely beautiful," he said, his voice low and soft.

 Abruptly, the feeling of intimacy was shattered as Buffy sat up straight, her back pressed tightly against her door. A slightly hysterical sounding bark of laughter tore its way out of her throat. "That's a good one," she said, clearly upset. "If you're going to lie to me, you might try to make it somewhat believable. Those lines might work on my sisters, but they won't work on me."

Angel frowned, disconcerted. He wasn't feeding her a line. He wasn't a saint, and could admit to himself that on several occasions he had paid women meaningless compliments to get them into bed, but there was no need with Buffy. She was a goddess, beautiful beyond reason. There was no need to lie about her attractiveness. "I'm not lying," he said harshly.

Buffy glared at him, clearly wounded, her mouth pursed tightly. She had no intention of talking about her own private insecurities, but he was her only confidant. 

"Buffy, why would you say something like that?" he pressed.

"It's just ... " she said, gesturing wildly with her hands. "Cordy and Kate ... they're both ... beautiful."

Angel looked at her dumbly. "And you're not?" he asked, confused. 

She snorted. "Look at me," she said derisively.

"I am," he assured her.

Buffy sighed. "They're all tall and beautiful with all the things women are supposed to have, like hips and breasts. And they're *normal*." 

Angel nodded. "Is that what this is about? You don't think you're normal? Because, trust me, you do look like a woman. I thought I proved that quite effectively a few hours ago." 

The pit of Buffy's stomach dropped out once again at his direct words, but she couldn't meet his gaze. She twisted her hands nervously in her lap. "Holtz treats them like girls," she said quietly, sounding terribly young. "I'm just this ... thing. I'm the Slayer."

"And you're a woman too," Angel said

"I'm a Slayer," she said harshly. "I also happen to be female. Trust me, that's the order of things. Holtz has told me that often enough."

"I don't buy it," Angel said.

"Buy what?"

"That guys don't notice you. You're very attractive, they have to be swarming all over you."

Buffy laughed. "Not hardly. They sort of part like the Red Sea when I get near. They all whisper behind my back. Even Ford gets weird about it."

Angel went absolutely still. "Ford?" he asked slowly.

She gave him an irritated look, and then remembered that he hadn't ever been around when Ford had stopped by. She shrugged. "Ford's ... I don't really know what he is ... what we are. He hangs around a lot, we do things together."

"Why?" Angel asked sharply.

Buffy looked at him incredulously. "You sit here telling me that I'm attractive and then when I tell you that there's a guy who pays attention to me, you look like it's beyond comprehension." 

Angel shook the stupor off quickly. "I just ... " he stammered, "you've never mentioned him before. We've been working together for a very long time. That's the kind of thing that people mention."

With a shrug, Buffy said, "It's not worth mentioning most days. He works for the Council. I'm fairly sure he's only dating me because he wants to get in good with my father. Ford has a lot of aspirations for making it big in the Council. He's been out of The City for several months, patrolling the Wastelands with scouts. He'll do anything to get what he wants."

Angel scowled. "Then why do you bother?" he demanded. He couldn't stand the idea of Buffy being with someone who didn't appreciate her. It was clear to him, as well as Buffy, that Ford was merely using her for her connections. 

Giving him her 'duh' look, Buffy said, "Because I don't want to be a total freak. Dating a guy who really doesn't like me is better than being Buffy the Social Leper. You're the only male I've ever managed to excite, and you're not even human."

Angel remained silent, stinging from her last blow. He tried not to take it personally; he knew she was wounded and lashing out. He understood her logic even if he didn't agree with it. He spent enough time alone to know that some contact was often better than no contact, but still, he couldn't abide the idea of some stupid boy pawing at Buffy. He glowered. 

"Good night," she said, opening the door. "Just take the car to work tomorrow. I'll pick it up there."

*****

"Well?" Holtz demanded from behind his desk the next evening.

"He didn't say much," Angel replied.

 Angel could tell Holtz about Caritas, but with everything else that had happened the previous evening, he hadn't yet mentioned it to Buffy. He had no desire to have her find out about his information second hand. He wouldn't have her thinking that he didn't trust her.

"Bravo," Holtz said dryly, his humor obviously more acrid than usual, "you're a wonderful spy." 

Angel scowled at the slight and said, "He didn't need to say anything. He's running close to the edge." 

Holtz leaned forward in his chair, taking a much more active interest in the conversation. "How so?" he asked. 

"His look, the way he carried himself," Angel explained. "I've seen it before, in the camps. I don't know what Walsh is doing to him, but it's bad." 

"Torture?" Holtz asked baldl 

"Definitely emotional and mental," Angel answered, "probably a lot of physical as well, though the wounds weren't anywhere visible."

Holtz nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "We were always under the impression that she was using force to coerce compliance from her DHSTs." 

Angel scowled again, clearly displeased with the matter-of-fact nature with which Holtz was explaining the routine torture of vampires. 

"It's all perfectly legal," Holtz explained pointedly. "There are no laws concerning the treatment of vampires within The City walls."

"Perhaps there should be," Angel said through clenched teeth.

 Holtz regarded him quietly for several long moments. "Angel," he said, addressing the vampire for the first time by his given name, "according to Council tradition and law, a vampire is little more than a pack mule. Your kind are indentured labor, allowed to exist through the benevolent generosity of the Council."

 Angel growled deep in his chest and Holtz smiled. 

"Nice to see that there is some fire inside of you," the Watcher said. "You passed all of your training with such flying colors, I know you have a soul, but I was beginning to wonder if you had any heart." 

Angel swallowed harshly, not sure whether to be relieved or irritated that Holtz had been pushing his buttons. "Whatever Walsh is up to," he said, "it's not good."

The Watcher nodded. "I know," he said seriously. "I knew the woman was power hungry and an egomaniac, but I never took her for a sociopath. Unfortunately, what she is doing is not illegal and we cannot step in until we have hard evidence. If we want to stop her, we need to find a way to obtain information from her loyal followers."

Angel nodded, somewhat mollified that Holtz wasn't the unfeeling monster he had originally thought him. It appeared that there was some basic human decency buried in the man, even if it was hidden behind the political shrewdness necessary to lead the Watchers' Council. 

"Here," Holtz said, handing him a file, "we had reports of some rogue DHSTs nesting in the Brookside area. You and Buffy should check it out."

Nodding, Angel turned to leave.

"Angel," Holtz said.

The vampire turned, regarding the man evenly. 

"Whether I personally condone it or not," the Watcher said, "you are, under Council law, an animal." 

Angel looked at him blankly.

"Most of the inhabitants of The City view vampires as either the evil menace, continually threatening their existence, or as the animals who pick up their trash. You have no rights and no voice." 

"I already know all of this," Angel replied dryly.

Holtz nodded, his expression grave. "Just make sure you do not let Buffy forget it," he said pointedly. "She thinks you are a person. She is terribly naive in some respects. You are an animal. The people would expect you to be attracted to innocence. She, however, is the Slayer. She cannot afford to make a mistake. The Council does not forgive and forget."

Angel kept his face an inscrutable mask as he bowed to Holtz. "I am but her humble servant," he replied evasively.

*****

Angel limped into the library behind Buffy, looking much worse for the wear. The Slayer wasn't faring much better, clutching her wounded arm to her body as she walked. Angel hovered near her, despite his own wounded state. Mentally he knew that Buffy was perfectly capable of protecting herself, but his concern for her pressed him to stay close.

"I trust you found something interesting," Holtz noted, taking in their very disheveled appearances.

"Not much," Buffy said, wincing as she shrugged. "Found the nest of rogue DHSTs in Brookside. They were holed up inside an old warehouse under the Seventeenth Street Bridge. They were pretty tough, and good fighters, but as far as we could tell, it was just them." 

Holtz frowned deeply. "You didn't find any evidence of ties to Walsh?" 

"Nothing," Buffy said, shaking her head. "They seemed to be a self-sufficient group." 

"Damn," Holtz cursed, heading for his office. 

Buffy sighed wearily watching her father leave without so much as a question about her welfare. Angel wanted to shake the man until his teeth rattled. From their conversation several hours earlier, it was obvious he was concerned about Buffy's well being, but he never let her know that. 

Angel turned his head as Giles walked into the room, his nose buried in a book. He cleared his throat loudly to announce their presence to the Watcher. Giles looked up and blinked owlishly at them for a moment. "Oh dear," he gasped, heading quickly for the first aid kit. 

Buffy smiled brightly as the Watcher, supplied with band-aids and Bactine, patted the couch cushion next to himself. Walking gingerly over to where he sat, she sank down into the cushions and let him tend to her wounds, her bottom lip sticking out in a pout that made her look very childlike. Giles used expert care as he patched her up, talking to her all the while in a low, soothing voice.

Angel watched with a slight smile on his lips, as the gentle Watcher took care of his beloved charge. Buffy might have been oblivious, but Angel knew that Giles' care for her was born out of more than a Watcher's care for a Slayer. He loved the girl deeply, as was befitting a father's concern for his child.

Before long, Buffy yawned deeply and rubbed her eyes, looking like the little girl Giles was treating her as. The Watcher put the last band-aid - which looked like a crayon - in place, and she curled up on the couch, resting her head on one of the heavily padded arms. Angel couldn't help but smile at the sight. He knew that Buffy would not have allowed anyone else to plaster her with cartoonish bandages.

"Your turn," Giles said to Angel, pointing to the remaining space on the couch.

Not seeing any point in arguing, Angel let the Watcher tend to his wounds. Resetting the dislocated finger was the most painful by far. Angel tried to assure Giles that given his non-living status that he couldn't get an infection, but the Watcher insisted on disinfecting his multiple abrasions as well. Angel managed to escape without any Crayola band-aids 

Standing, Giles looked at the tattered remains of Angel's shirt. "I'll see if I can find you something to wear," he said, leaving Angel alone on the couch with the now sleeping Slayer.

Angel smiled as he watched her, unguarded in sleep. He stretched out, leaning back in the soft cushions and propping his feet up on the coffee table. The shift in weight on the couch caused Buffy to stir, trying to get more comfortable. She rolled over, groping with her hand for something soft. She found Angel. With a sigh, she curled up next to him, pillowing her head on his chest and draping an arm around his waist. 

Angel was too nervous to move. He waited for Buffy to wake and push him away, but she merely let out a little snore and drooled on his chest. Angel smiled but felt the familiar aching pain in his chest. Unable to stop himself, he nuzzled against the top of her head, breathing in lungfuls of her particularly sweet scent. She made a tiny, kittenish sound and burrowed deeper into his sturdy frame. Gently, he kissed the top of her head and allowed oblivion to claim him. 

*****

"No!" she screamed so hard it made her cough. "He's not dead, papa!" She was crying, her vision blurred by tears as she clutched the large warm body against hers, protecting him from the sure death he faced at their father's hand. 

"Katie, girl, don't do this," a man's gruff voice said. He was pleading. He had tried to order her to release her charge, but it had failed. Now he had resorted to begging.

She clutched him tighter, guarding over him. Regardless of the fact that they thought she was wrong, none of them would dare try and take her precious cargo from her. She was secure in her power. Times were bleak and the Slayer was ever so important, precious. Even if they could have overpowered her, they would not have tried. They needed the Slayer and she needed the unconscious body she cradled against her own. 

Buffy flexed her hands. She felt the warm human flesh through the layers of rough clothing. The pungent scent of death and misery clung to everything in this place and time. It wasn't real. Or at least it wasn't really happening. It was a memory, a sense memory from another time, another Slayer. She had them before, when she was first called, the night she killed her first vampire, but it had never been this intense. She didn't fight the dream because it was no use. It was like watching a movie, or maybe being part of a movie. Nothing she did would change the outcome. It was best to just let it wash over her, to go along for the ride.

"He is cursed," the man spat. "We must destroy him."  

Tears burned her eyes and she shook with the force of the sobs. Papa didn't understand, didn't care. He had never understood their bond. Carefully, she brushed her brother's dirty and matted hair back from his face. "Liam, my angel," she said softly.

Buffy would have gasped if she had been able, but she wasn't, so she went through the motions, tenderly touching the face she herself had memorized long ago. Liam, that was his name, but she knew him, she knew him as Angel. Her Angel. He was filthy and sick, but alive, warm with human heat, not stolen blood. He was so hot it almost burned her hands to touch him. He reeked of death.

Angel's human death.  

When the Other Slayer sobbed this time, Buffy sobbed with her. "He may live, papa, please," the girl pled.

"Kathy, your brother brought this upon himself. He's a disgrace, worthless. Let us be done with him."

Buffy shook her head in tandem with the Other Slayer, clutching Angel tighter. His father, the father of the Other Slayer, clamored for his death. Logically, Buffy knew it was hopeless. She knew Angel as the nearly three hundred year old ensouled vampire. She knew there was nothing from this time, this memory that could forestall those events, but she was driven to try. Just as the Other Slayer was driven to try.  

The darkness swirled around them and when it reformed, she was in a tiny closed room, ragged pieces of cloth covered the windows to keep out the sunlight. Weeks had passed since the first scene, but Angel still clung to life. Buffy knew it was hopeless because the Other Slayer knew it was hopeless. He was weakening more every day, growing more sensitive to the sunlight, his body growing colder by degrees.

The Other Slayer never left this room. She couldn't. She couldn't bear to look at her father. He forbade her to try and save her brother, but she did it anyway, she brought him home - and with him, Death. Liam's sickness spread quickly throughout their town, despite her efforts to the contrary. Their mother was dead now, a victim of the plagues. She hadn't risen as a vampire, but it didn't make her any less dead. The sickness was sweeping through the town, bodies littered the streets. As the Slayer, she was immune to the sickness. The same was true for her father, Head of the Watchers' Council. They were supernatural beings, but it seemed the sickness would take everyone else, Liam and his mother included.

And it was all her fault. She hung her head and wept. Her own weakness, her inability to be parted from him had cost them all so dearly. And she knew in the end that she would lose him. She had always known that. 

She turned and the little room was gone. It was night, winter. She could feel her body weak from starvation, numb from the cold. Angel stood across the clearing, looking distant and wild as a wolf. He was now immune to the human frailties that bothered her so severely. He watched her, his eyes so dark they seemed almost black.

"I am so sorry," she whispered.

In spite of the distance, he heard her and tilted his head, his posture mournful. He hadn't wanted this. He would have preferred a human death to being forced to be one of the walking dead, forced to feed on blood for sustenance. But she had been too weak, too weak to let him go. When he rose, their father cursed him, called him a demon, tried to cast him out with prayer and crosses. Liam was immune to them, but he had no such immunity to the hatred and loathing in the man's voice. He had been despised by his father as weak while still human, but as a walking corpse, he was nothing more than a demon. She knew that he was leaving her forever, going to the Wastelands where others of his kind existed. But it would not be living. It would merely be surviving. 

"It is I who failed you, Kathleen," he said softly, hanging his head.

She closed her eyes tightly shut, causing tears to stream down her face. She knew he wished he would have died, spared them all the horror of his sickness. But he hadn't. And he now lived when so many others lay dead and buried. His beloved mother, his protector had gone to her grave because of him.

"No," she whispered. "It wasn't your fault ..." But she opened her eyes and he was gone. Forever.

 *****

Buffy came awake slowly, tears streaming down her cheeks as she choked back a sob. She was wrapped so tightly around Angel, hugging him to her. He was asleep, looking for all the world like he had not a care. She blinked in the dim lighting of her father's library for several moments, reacquainting herself with her surroundings, brushing off the remnants of her shared dream-memory. She sat up gingerly, careful not to wake him. She dried her cheeks with the backs of her hands and took a deep, steadying breath.

She could still feel Kathleen's pain in her chest, but as she looked at Angel now, some of it eased, as if Kathleen was somehow watching over both of them and approved of the change. Though Angel had not aged a day since those memories were made, he was no longer the same man. Time had both hardened and softened him. His head was lolled towards her, a tiny grin pulling at the edges of his mouth. He looked ... content, peaceful.

He sighed in his sleep and shifted, pulling her close. Buffy allowed it and he snuggled down against her, nuzzling his nose into the hollow behind her ear. He was warm from being cuddled against her for so long and Buffy relaxed into his embrace, relishing the sensation of closeness. Had he been awake, she would not have allowed it, but he wasn't, so she enjoyed her forbidden fruit.

Angel had always spoken so little and so clinically of his past, she had no idea the pain he had experienced. She could almost taste his father's disdain from the dream. He survived a lifetime of insensitivity at the man's hands. For the first time, Buffy felt like she found someone who understood what her life was like. She did not fight sleep as it caused her eyes to flutter shut, still held in his strong embrace.

*****

His rap on her apartment door was answered quickly by a rather flustered looking Buffy. Angel smiled somewhat nervously. They fell asleep together on the sofa the night before. She was gone when he woke, so he had no idea what she thought about what happened. Giles relayed her message that she wanted him to meet her at her apartment before they went on patrol. 

"Please come in," she said formally inviting him into her home for the first time.

She stepped aside, quietly allowing him to enter. With a nod, Angel stepped over the threshold, proceeded a few steps into the room and stopped. 

"What?" Buffy asked defensively. 

"Um, nothing," he said, trying lamely to recover.

She eyed him warily, but finally turned away, heading through her large apartment. Angel followed dutifully, trying to keep his jaw off the floor. Her apartment was unbelievable, and not in a good way. In a million years, he would never have figured that she would live in a place like this. It made no sense. Angel wasn't the most perceptive being on the planet, but he had somewhat of an artist's eye.

Buffy and her apartment did not match. Buffy's style was clean, minimal. She liked elegant cuts and above all, it had to be functional. This apartment was not functional. It was inordinately large, especially for just one person, but nothing out of the ordinary considering she was the Slayer.

It was, however, cluttered and startlingly ... *pink*. He worked next to Buffy for more than two months and the only time he ever saw her wear pink was the night of the ball. There, it had been appropriate and stylish, but here, it was overwhelming. The furniture was oversized and cushy, upholstered in soft fabrics. There were pictures and knickknacks everywhere. Thick, plush carpet was underfoot and the walls were covered with busily patterned wallpaper. 

In her own home, Buffy looked completely out of place ... and nervous. Working next to a Slayer day in and day out had forced him to get to know her body language. At the moment, Buffy was very tightly wound.

Angel stared at her back as she led him through the sprawling apartment. She was wearing a gray tanktop and a pair of loose, black cotton drawstring pants. Her long hair was pulled up in the usual, functional bun at the nape of her neck. Her feet were bare. It was obvious she was working out before he arrived and she kept fidgeting with her attire, clearly uncomfortable in it. But why? Angel had seen her in similar outfits every day for the last six weeks. It didn't make any sense.

As they entered her office and training space, Angel relaxed. In this setting, Buffy looked at home. The rooms were large and airy with bare hardwood floors and white walls. Everything was structured and tidy. Weapons hung on the wall, each in their designated place. Her desk was in perfect order.

"Buffy," he said quietly, "about last night ... "

 She twisted around quickly, fixing him with a mortified glare. She shook her head, almost imperceptibly in a silent plea for him to remain quiet.

"Hello," a young male voice drawled.

Angel turned quickly, coming face to face with a young man significantly shorter than himself. The boy laughed. "So this is your new Pet," he said to Buffy, with obvious amusement. 

"He's not a Pet," Buffy said lightly, her face drawn into a tense smile.

Angel glared at the boy, unimpressed with his barbs. "Who are you?" he bit out acridly.

"A-Angel, this is Ford," Buffy stuttered.

Angel's glance shot to the Slayer. What the hell was going on? Buffy was nervous, and she *never* got nervous. Obviously, it had to be the boy's presence that was setting her on edge.

Ford smiled broadly. "He's awful lippy isn't he?" he mused.

Angel growled deep in his chest, repressing the urge to bare his fangs to the idiot human. Quickly, Buffy stepped between them, pulling Angel behind her as her grip on his wrist tightened to the point of pain. The growling stopped.

"Ford," she said with a nervous giggle, "we really need to patrol. It shouldn't take long. How about I meet up with you at the club later?"

The boy frowned, but seemed to think it over. "All right," he said, "but hurry. I don't want to hang around there all night."

 "I'll hurry," she said.

*****

"What was that?" Angel demanded after they were safely away from the apartment.

 Buffy flinched and glared at her companion. "What?" she bit back.

"Why were you acting like that?" he asked in confusion. "I've seen you be a lot of things, Buffy, but meek was never one of them."

 She walked towards their normal patrol route, ignoring him.

"Buffy," he seethed after her retreating form.

Stopping, she twisted abruptly to face him. "What did you want me to do?" she asked. "Should I have discussed the fact that we fell asleep on the couch together in front of the guy I'm dating?"  

"I don't know," Angel blustered. 

"Let me clue you in," she said, her temper barely under control, "Ford has a hard enough time being with me most of the time. He doesn't need to know just how friendly you and I are."

"Why not?"

 "Because he already thinks I'm a big enough freak," she yelled, tears standing in her eyes.

Angel watched her mutely for nearly a minute before saying, "You're living a lie."

Buffy flinched, but shot back, "What about you? You're a vampire living in a human city. You hunt your own kind at night. You're the one living the lie."

Angel shook his head. "I've never once denied what I am," he said gruffly. "I am a vampire, yes, but I have a soul. I've never taken a human life for food or pleasure. You, on the other hand, are completely denying your nature."

"I'm not denying anything," she retorted. 

"The hell you aren't. Have you ever looked at your apartment? Probably not. I know that you live in your training rooms, Buffy. They're the only rooms in the whole damn apartment that smell like you. You probably avoid the rest of it like the plague."

Buffy swallowed harshly, but didn't answer.

"Do you think that all the pink and feminine overkill is going to fool them?" he demanded. "Do you think that being meek and shy and caving to their every whim is going to make Ford and Holtz treat you like a girl? You're not a girl, Buffy, you're a *woman*. You should never be ashamed of that. If they can't deal with the fact that you're strong and smart and demanding and sexy as hell, then tell them to piss off. Don't you dare pretend to be a shadow of your true self simply in the vain hope that they'll like you if they can control you."

Angel's eyes glittered with cold fire as he looked at her. Much to his surprise, tears shimmered in Buffy's eyes. Immediately, his demeanor softened and he instinctively held a hand out to her. She backed up quickly, avoiding his touch as she nearly hissed at him.

"I have to go," she said acridly, "my boyfriend is waiting. Don't bother waiting up. It'll be a late night." She turned on her heel, flipping her hair over her shoulder in a universal sign of feminine dismissal. Angel watched her walk away, fuming with impotent rage.

*****

"'Bout time," Ford said as Buffy joined him in his booth at the Bronze.

"Sorry," she lied, "we had to run down a few leads."

Ford shrugged and turned his attention back to the band. He made it very clear on several occasions that he didn't like to be reminded that she was the Slayer. He never asked about her work and he discouraged her from speaking about it. Whenever he introduced her to his friends, which wasn't often, he never mentioned her last name or what she did for a living. 

Buffy settled back against the cushions of the booth. At least she didn't have to worry about him touching her. She was still visibly bruised from the run-in that she and Angel had with the nest of DHSTs. Ford never touched her when she had any visible imperfections. He didn't like them.

Or, at least, that's what he said. Maybe he just didn't like her and that was a convenient excuse to avoid touching her at all.

Buffy pushed away the thought. What good would it do to think such things? It wasn't like she could do any better. At least Ford would be seen with her in public. Most guys wouldn't dare date a Slayer, regardless of how much they might be able to gain from the association. She knew that Ford got ribbed by his friends about being physical with someone so much stronger than himself. Most male egos couldn't take the constant criticism.

Buffy thought about it for a moment. She couldn't remember the last time any guy had been able to hold his own in a fight with her. She had always been freakishly strong, even as a small child. She had no memory of ever being bested in a fight by a guy.

Except ... for Angel. But he wasn't a guy, he was a ... Well, he was something else. Sure, he could hold his own in a fight with her, they both generally won as much as they lost against each other. And he never seemed to mind that she was so strong. Much the contrary, he often gave her fighting tips. And he'd told her never to be ashamed of her strength ...

And he said she was sexy as hell.

 Buffy felt a blush rise in her cheeks at the thought of Angel's words. She was the Slayer, and he was a vampire, but she couldn't deny that there was a definite attraction there. Buffy sighed wearily. Thinking about this made her head hurt.

*****

"You look chipper this evening," Giles commented sarcastically as Angel snarled at the text he was attempting to translate. When the vampire didn't respond, Giles asked, "Where's Buffy?"

"With Ford," Angel bit out.

"Oh," came the Watcher's quiet reply.

 "What?" Angel snapped.

"I take it you don't like Ford," Giles said calmly.

 "No, I don't," Angel said, and then added, "and I don't like how Buffy acts around him."

Giles nodded, pouring a cup of tea for both himself and the vampire. "At times it appears she is trying to live in two different worlds," he said quietly.

"That's putting it mildly," Angel grumped.

Giles gave him a chiding look. "If I were you," he said, "I wouldn't be so quick to judge. She's young and she is trying to maintain two completely divergent lives. I'm sure at times it's all she can do to keep her head above water." 

Angel frowned, but took a sip of tea as he looked at the Watcher. Giles definitely had a point. While Buffy was a Slayer and very comfortable in that role, she was also a young woman. A young woman that had never been afforded the opportunity to act as one.

"Somehow I doubt the fact that you're enamored of her helps your objectivity any," Giles added quietly. 

Angel opened his mouth to protest, but then snapped it shut. Obviously Giles was as aware of his affections for Buffy as Holtz had been. Somehow, he didn't think Buffy was quite as clear on the concept. Or maybe she was, and she just didn't care.

Angel intended to share his good news about Caritas with Buffy that evening, but obviously plans hadn't gone as he hoped. For a moment, he debated going to Caritas without her, but then decided against it. He knew how important the discovery would be to her, and irritated or not, he wouldn't be that much of a jerk.

*****

"This place?" Buffy asked the next evening as she warily eyed the supposedly abandoned warehouse. 

"That's what she said," Angel replied blandly.

 "She?" Buffy asked, cocking an eyebrow speculatively.

"Her name is Fred," Angel replied. "She seemed like a pretty sweet kid. I met her at the Council ball. She is a friend of Anya's would-be boyfriend."

"She's a vamp," Buffy declared, knowing that Anya's admirer, Xander, was a vampire and that if Fred had been working at the ball, she was a DHST as well. 

"So?" Angel countered, quietly daring her to give him a lecture on vampire behavior.

"Never mind," she said in exasperation, irritated that Angel had neglected to mention meeting another female.

 Buffy started on a slow circuit of the building, looking for a doorway or window that showed signs of heavy traffic. About five minutes later, on the back end of the building where it abutted a small grove of trees, they found a loading dock. They watched it for nearly half an hour from the cover of trees.

"That's it," Angel said after they watched an untagged DHST enter through a hidden doorway, his neck and wrists dyed black from the leather bands he somehow managed to remove.

Rogue DHSTs were rare, but not exceedingly so. Vampires had been admitted to the city for nearly a century and a half. The human population was verging on ten million, but the DHSTs still numbered only in a couple tens of thousands. Every now and then, one of them would go rogue, remove its tags, and live in The City's underground. For the most part they were harmless, avoiding humans at all costs. It generally wasn't time efficient to hunt them down and remove them. So long as they didn't start massing in large numbers, the Watchers' Council turned a blind eye. Buffy had caught sight of them every now and then on patrol, but she never knew any of them to be aggressive.

"You're sure?" she asked, wary of following the rogue.

He looked at her for several seconds and nodded curtly. "I can smell them," he said with a mocking smile.

Buffy turned away lest she say something to him and they get into a huge fight in the middle of their recon mission. He had been copping an attitude all evening. She knew it was because of the whole mess with Ford the previous evening. But why should she have to defend herself to Angel? It was none of his business.

"You coming?" Angel asked and Buffy suddenly realized he was heading towards the loading dock.

"What are you doing?" she hissed, her head whipping around wildly to see if anyone was watching them.

"Going inside," he said evenly, like he had been invited over for afternoon tea. Much to Buffy's horror, Angel shrugged and walked over to the loading docks. It took him several moments, but he eventually located the door the vamps used to gain access to the building. Pulling it open, he looked at her in blatant challenge.  

With a muttered curse, she picked up the gauntlet he threw down and left the cover of the trees. Angel stepped through the door and waited for Buffy. When she cleared the threshold, he pulled the door shut again, making sure it looked just as it had before they passed through it. The lighting was dim, but sufficient for the Slayer to make out their surroundings. They stood, close together, in a long, narrow hallway. 

Angel shrugged off his jacket and handed it to Buffy.

"I'm not cold," she said.

"I don't care if you're cold or not, put it on," he replied acridly.

"Why?"

He glared at her in the darkness. "How is it," he asked, "that you're so good at hunting vampires without understanding them at all?"

Buffy flushed, thankful for the bad lighting, but remained silent.

"Smell is very important to us DHSTs," he said. "You smell like a Slayer, so take this coat and wrap it around yourself. It won't completely disguise it, but it should muddle it." 

Silently, Buffy took the black leather jacket that Giles had given Angel some weeks earlier, and pulled it on. It was far too large for her and she had the bunch the sleeves up so her hands cleared the material. When she had the jacket situated, Angel grabbed her wrist and pulled it up to his face. Buffy was irritated with the vampire, but she still trusted him, so she didn't pull away as he pressed the inside of her wrist to his mouth. The action was slow and deliberate as he licked her wrist. When he was done with one wrist, he dropped it and grabbed the other, repeating the action. He pulled away and looked at her with a frown.

"Don't get upset," he said quietly.

"What are you talking about?" she asked, trying to shake off how strange the gesture had made her feel.

"I need to ... " he started. "I need to mark your neck."

"Mark?" she asked.

He sighed in exasperation. "I told you that smell is really important to vampires. We mark our possessions."

Buffy turned her wrist over and looked at it. "You ... marked ... me?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied cautiously. "Don't worry, it'll wear off in a day or two and only vampires can sense it. But I need to get a few more of your pulse points." 

"This will make me smell like a vamp?" she asked.

He was silent.

"Angel?" 

"No," he finally replied. "It will make you smell like a kept human. But more importantly, it will mask the fact that you're a Slayer."

"Oh," Buffy said quietly.

She looked at the tags on his neck and around his wrists. The tags that proclaimed to the entire City that he was her property. She couldn't help but think back to his suite on the night of the Council ball and she swallowed convulsively. The situation had been reversed, with her removing the marks from his neck and wrists, while he was here intentionally doing the opposite to her. Yet, she felt hot and anxious, much as she had the night in his room. "Okay," she said quietly.

Slowly and carefully, Angel reached for her. They were well used to each other's presence, but she was still the Slayer and allowing any vampire near her neck was bound to set off some primal warning bells. He pulled her closer and closer, until their bodies were in full contact from chest to knee. He watched as her fingers curled into the material of his shirt, clutching it tightly out of nervousness.

Much to his shock, she flipped her head, baring her neck to him. She didn't look at him, her vision firmly fixed on the center of his chest, but he almost trembled at the force of the gesture.

With an unsteady hand, he reached up and cupped the back of her head, twining his fingers through her loose locks and urging her to bare even more of her vulnerable throat. She did, without hesitation. He maneuvered her closer, until her forehead was resting against the solid wall of his chest. She was nervous, he could tell that much, but she wasn't giving him any resistance. He lowered his head so that his lips were resting at her temple. They were both breathing hard and her fists closed even tighter around the material of his shirt.

"You okay?" he asked quietly as one hand gently gripped her hip and the other massaged her scalp.

She nodded against his chest, taking a deep breath and releasing it. She pressed herself more fully into him, silently encouraging him to get on with it.

He pressed a hard kiss to her temple before his lips ventured lower. He maintained constant contact, skin to skin, so as to not to startle her by suddenly touching his not-quite-human temperature lips to her neck. He nuzzled against her, pressing his lips to the hollow beneath her ear.

She sucked in a startled breath, pulling tightly on the fabric of his shirt. Angel stilled, but didn't remove his lips from her flesh. She didn't pull away.  

He gave a fleeting thought to the wisdom of pulling her so tightly against himself. He wasn't toying with her or inventing excuses to touch her. They were ready to walk into what they both assumed would be a large nest of renegade DHSTs. They weren't there to do battle, they were there to get information. It was imperative that the vamps not realize that she was the Slayer. The easiest way of insuring her anonymity was by marking her.

It was business.

At least that's what he told himself. His body didn't seem to care if it was business or not, and was reacting instinctively, exactly as it had on the previous occasion they were touching so intimately. Pressed as tightly as she was against him, there was no way that Buffy could miss the insistent press of his arousal. Nor was he apt to miss her excitement. He could feel the sharp points of her erect nipples pressed into his chest through the multiple layers of clothing.

Without conscious thought he started purring, a low, deep rumble buried in his chest. His lips parted and he suckled the flesh of her neck with infinite care. He gently nipped and licked, leaving his scent on her warm flesh as a calling card. He was claiming her, publicly stating that she was his.

Angel didn't still as Buffy's hands released his shirt. He was certain that she was going to push him away, but instead, her hands twined around his neck, holding his head to her, pressing him more forcefully into her flesh. 

He took the hint, gripping her more tightly, nipping a little more forcefully. He bit down on her flesh with blunt teeth. It wasn't hard enough to break the skin, but it might bruise. He felt himself grow harder at the thought of her bearing his mark. He growled lightly, pressing his lower body against her. She let out an almost inaudible moan of pleasure in response, digging her fingers into the corded muscles of his neck. Angel's entire being throbbed. He could smell the way her body was reacting and it made him want to do more than just mark her with his kisses. Slowly, thoroughly, he worked his way from one side of her neck to the other, pressing kisses from her jaw to her collarbone. Eventually, his lips rested in the hollow under her opposite ear, his job completed.

Angel suddenly became aware of the fact that they had moved. Buffy's back was flush against the cold concrete wall of the hallway and he was pressing into her forcefully, sparing her none of the bulk of his weight. Their legs were entwined and her hands now gently sifting through the hair at the nape of his neck. He was all too aware of the harsh sound of her ragged breathing as it echoed in the hallway. Neither of them moved to end the embrace. 

Slowly, Buffy shifted, but rather than moving away, she pressed her cheek into Angel's. The vampire pressed back, sliding his flesh along hers as his mouth rooted for its mate. The first contact was tentative, lip to lip. Angel started to pull back so he could look at her, but she wouldn't let him. Somewhat clumsily, she pulled his head back to hers.

It was all the incentive he needed. With the practiced ease of almost three centuries of experience, he kissed her. It was gentle, rather than an assault. He slowly circled the plump fullness of her lips with the tip of his tongue, silently begging admittance, but allowing her every chance to refuse. She didn't refuse him. Her lips parted, meeting his with hungry abandon. He nibbled on her bottom lip and she repaid him in kind. Tentatively, his tongue made shallow forays into her mouth, coaxing her to do the same. She did, hesitantly exploring the texture of his mouth, astounded by its cool, sweet taste.  

She moaned into his mouth, a heady, needy sound. Angel swallowed her plaintive wail with his kisses, but instinctively moved his lower body against hers, grinding his aching hardness against the juncture of her thighs. She gasped, but before he could pull away, she kissed him harder, more hungrily. She widened her stance and threw one leg over his thigh.

Warning bells went off in Angel's head and he almost growled in frustration. As much as it pained him to stop, he knew they must. Slowly, he pulled back from Buffy. She let out an unhappy whine and attempted to pull him close again. With more than a little effort on his part, mental, as well as physical, he moved his hands to his neck and wrapping his fingers around her wrists, freed himself from her grasp. He pulled back and looked into her wide, startled eyes.

"Buffy," his lips caressed her name.

She blinked rapidly and her vision flitted around the space nervously, as if she couldn't believe what had just happened. He methodically untwined their legs and stepped back so that he was leaning against the far wall. Given how cramped the hallway was, he didn't go far.  

His eyes caught hers once again, but rather than the relief he had expected to see there from having released her, all he saw was hurt and embarrassment. She blinked back tears, instinctively wrapping her arms around herself. Without thinking, he grabbed her forearm and pulled her hard against his body, gathering her in his embrace. Regardless of her earlier distress, she burrowed her head against his chest. He rocked her slowly, trying to soothe her as well as himself. Both of them were completely overwhelmed, unprepared for the fact that their business had quite suddenly become starkly intimate and mutual. 

Angel didn't know how long they stood in the narrow hallway, but it was a safe bet that it had been too long. They needed to get moving, and fast. "Buffy," he said, "we need to get inside."

She pulled back far enough to look up at him and nodded slowly, trying to push away any lingering awkwardness. 

"We'll talk about this later," he said, leaving her no doubt what exactly 'this' meant. "But right now, we have to finish the mission." 

She swallowed harshly and nodded again, not trusting herself to speak. Her emotions were in perfect turmoil at the moment.

"You're probably not going to like this," he said, "but you're going to have to follow my lead. I need you to keep quiet and stay in the background. Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself." 

She sighed heavily, knowing it was going to be easier said than done. She wasn't used to taking orders or remaining in the background, but at the moment, she didn't even trust herself to speak.

"Come on," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her behind him. 

*****

"You made it!" Fred squeaked with obvious enthusiasm as she came to a skittering halt in front of Angel.

He smiled warmly at her and nodded. Fred was positively glowing as she looked at him. Buffy's gaze raked over the tall, thin girl ruthlessly. Fred was pretty and feminine, even outfitted in the standard issue DHST attire and tags. She looked like an adorable little farm girl, innocent and sweet. Buffy suddenly wondered just how well the two were acquainted. She stepped back from Angel.

Or tried to, anyway. As the Slayer stepped back, Angel countered perfectly, shifting his weight and exerting just enough force to pull her flush against his side. He quickly wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders, pinning her to his body with enough force for it to be a warning.

Fred's gaze shifted to the petite blonde in Angel's embrace. Though her gaze wasn't as nakedly reproachful as Buffy's had been, she studied the other female from head to toe. She took a deep breath that caused her nostrils to flare and quickly frowned. Her enthusiasm waned by degrees.

"Fred," Angel said, "this is Buffy."

Fred tried to hide her disappointment behind a cheery smile. "Hi," she said, waving enthusiastically. "I didn't know Angel had a mate."

Angel squeezed Buffy so tightly that she couldn't have spoken if she wanted to. She merely nodded in greeting. Slowly, Angel relaxed his grip. 

"Come on," Fred said, "have a seat."

Angel followed, pulling Buffy with him as they pushed through the crowded space. He paused every now and then to acknowledge other DHSTs he knew. "Willow," he said with a nod to his former friend who was now employed in the library. She nodded in return, but quickly turned her gaze back to her companion. 

*****

They sat and spoke with Fred for close to two hours while they waited for the elusive Lindsey to show. Buffy spent the entire time glued to Angel. Much to her own surprise, she wasn't too unhappy with the situation. She had no idea what had happened in the hallway upstairs. One second she had been trying to repress her natural instinct to stake a vamp and the next she was climbing all over him and whining for more.  

Angel didn't seem to be too bothered, or at least he was hiding it well, chatting easily with Fred as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Buffy blushed. She knew he had been excited earlier. She could still remember the feel of his rigid sex pressing against her abdomen as he purred in her ear. The memory made her body tingle low in her belly and she felt hungry for more. She hadn't even realized vampires could purr.

She shook her head to clear it and reached for her drink, taking a large gulp of the quickly cooling coffee. She couldn't be having these thoughts. She just couldn't.  

Angel caught her gaze, idly rubbing the flesh on the back of her hand with his fingertips. The gesture was shockingly intimate ... and pleasurable. There was a determined look in his eyes that gave Buffy pause. She had a sinking feeling that she wouldn't be able to tell him no. Swallowing harshly, she looked away, but she couldn't bring herself to brush off his caress. Buffy had never thought herself overly fond of being touched, by anyone, but maybe that was changing. Ford rarely touched her in public. What a joke. Ford rarely touched her in private. And when he did, it sure as hell wasn't in the same zip code as what had happened when Angel had touched her. 

While the two vampires talked, Buffy's body may have been focusing its attention on Angel, but her eyes roamed the room. Caritas, as it was called, was located in the basement of the abandoned building. There were a shockingly high number of DHSTs. There were legitimate vampires, as well as the rogues who were easily identified by the black rings of stained skin around their neck and wrists. They didn't wear tags, but they were still clearly marked. 

What was even more shocking to Buffy than the number of vamps, was the number of humans. There were at least several dozen people in attendance, clearly because they were mates of the DHSTs hiding out in Caritas. Men, women, young and old were there, people from all walks of life. Several of the people, Buffy recognized. An attractive brunette woman in her early forties, clearly the mate of a blonde vampire who appeared to be about twenty-five, was a clerk at the library. She smiled openly when she saw Buffy with Angel, approval clearly evident on her features. Buffy blushed, hiding her face against Angel's shoulder. Looking in the direction Buffy had been watching, Angel figured out why Buffy had reacted, he nodded to the woman in reply, a smug grin on his beautiful features.

"You're liking this way too much," Buffy muttered under her breath while Fred was away, procuring more drinks for the three of them. 

Angel smiled wickedly. "You're liking it too," he said quietly. 

Buffy blushed again as she realized he could feel the aching tips of her nipples pushing into his arm. She didn't move away from him, though she knew it would have been for the best. 

The night progressed and she and Angel made several promising contacts through Fred. It was fairly late when Lindsey finally showed, ordering a double vodka tonic and settling down into a dark corner alone. They decided to give him a while to relax before they approached him. 

They never got the chance.

*****

"I'm sorry to interrupt."

"Oh, you're not interrupting," Fred said cheerily to a lanky, dark haired human in his early thirties. He was dressed conservatively in a light blue dress shirt and a pair of tan slacks. He looked oddly out of place in the sea of black.

"I hate to break up your conversation," Wesley continued, his mood very sober, "but I'm afraid I need to speak with these two alone."

Fred smiled. Wesley's words seemed innocuous enough on the surface, but both Buffy and Angel were aware of the dozen large vampires flanking the man from a distance. The vampires wore no tags and were dressed in street clothes rather than the DHST attire. It was safe to assume they were rogue. Everything was being kept polite, but Buffy and Angel knew that if they resisted, that force would be used. Fred seemed oblivious to the undercurrent of tension.

"It would be our pleasure," Angel replied blandly, rising from the couch and pulling Buffy behind him. His movement forced Wesley to take several steps back. The human retreated, but his eyes never wavered. Buffy was impressed. Humanity at large may have deemed vampires to be unwarranting of their attention, but few of them would have held their ground in light of Angel's obviously aggressive move. Wesley was no lightweight.

*****

"Nice place you've got here," Angel remarked casually as the door slid shut. They were standing in a room obviously used as an office area. They were still accompanied by the vampire guards and Angel kept Buffy glued to his side.

Wesley watched them carefully. "Yes," he said, "it is. And I would like to keep it that way. Now if the lady would please accompany me into my office ..." He gestured to a closed door.

Angel tightened his grip on Buffy. "Fred invited me here," Angel said truthfully. "I brought a ... friend along. I didn't get the impression we were doing anything out of the ordinary. Why is it such a concern?" His calm words belied the tension Buffy could feel in his body.

Wesley smiled mirthlessly. "It is a concern because none of the other DHSTs seeking refuge under my care have ever dared to bring a Slayer with them."

Angel's body went absolutely rigid. "I don't know what you're talking about," he blustered.

"Oh, but I think you do," Wesley said, narrowing his gaze menacingly. "You will wait out here while I speak with Miss Summers privately." 

Angel opened his mouth to speak, but Buffy silenced him. "He's a Watcher," Buffy said quietly, never taking her eyes off of their adversary. "His name is Wesley Wyndham-Price."

Wesley smiled and nodded. "I spend most of my time in Archives, but I have had several occasions to meet the current Slayer," he explained evenly. "I'm shocked you remember me." 

Buffy shrugged. "I'm good with faces," she said plainly.

"Obviously," he countered. "Now if you would, please." 

"She's not going anywhere alone," Angel said, his voice full of menace.

"She has no choice," Wesley replied dryly, adding a smile.

"This is supposed to be a sanctuary," Angel ground out. "We are here, vampire and human, obviously together and you question our motives?"

"They're not your motives he questions," Buffy said insightfully. "They're mine."

Wesley nodded slowly, turning his attention to Angel. "You are a vampire," he said. "By default you are given the benefit of my doubt. She, however, is not."

Angel opened his mouth, but Buffy cut him off. "I'll be fine, Angel," she said, forcing Angel to turn and face her. He didn't look happy. "We need to talk to him," she said quietly, lacing the fingers of both of her hands through his and squeezing lightly. "I'll be okay, I promise." Buffy was well aware that their exchange was not that of supervisor to employee, but of two people with a strong personal relationship. 

Angel sighed, but took a step back, releasing her. He didn't look thrilled, but he was resigned. Buffy nodded at Wesley and followed him as he led her into the small office. He took a seat behind the shabby desk and offered her a seat in the only chair. She slid into it gracefully.

"You're either a hell of an actress, or you're walking a very dangerous line," Wesley said.

Buffy smiled mirthlessly. "We're here to discuss you, not me," she said. "I'll worry about where I walk."

"As you wish," Wesley replied blandly. "Why are you in my club?"

"I'm looking for evidence of an organized DHST uprising," she said candidly. "Though, I'll admit that I was expecting to find Maggie Walsh pulling the strings, not a Watcher."

Wesley sighed deeply and sank back in his chair, a frown creased his forehead as he studied the young woman sitting across from him. He steepled his hands in front of himself in a thoughtful gesture. "So the Council is aware of Walsh's treachery?" he asked.

"Aware that something is up, yes," she replied. "The specifics are hard to come by."

"I had not heard anything to indicate that the Council had any idea," the Watcher said honestly. 

"Are you involved?" Buffy pressed.

Wesley shook his head vehemently. "Most certainly not," he said with a disdain only a Watcher could affect. "Maggie Walsh is an affront to all of my sensibilities. The woman should be removed from The City and banished."

"If you've known about her for so long," Buffy asked, "then why didn't you alert the Council? You obviously have their ear."

Wesley swallowed harshly, his expression both guilty and angry. He had apparently been grappling with that very subject for quite a while. "I could not expose Maggie Walsh," he explained. "My situation is very ... precarious ... to say the least. Pointing the finger at Walsh would have drawn attention to me, my activities, my private life. I couldn't do that. It is not self-interest that motivates me. I have others that depend on me."

"Then what are you doing?" Buffy asked.

"Exactly what it looks like," Wesley replied, indignantly. "I provide a sanctuary for DHSTs living in The City. A lot, but not all, of them are rogue. I give them an alternative to sacrificing themselves for Walsh's cause or out of simple despair."

"Sacrifice?" Buffy asked.

 "The Council's treatment of DHSTs is deplorable," Wesley said vehemently. "They are beings with human souls, yet they are treated as if they are merely lobotomized demons. They are given virtually no rights, no protections by the society that they have sworn to serve. They are treated like refuse. A large number of them are empathetic, caring, intelligent beings and they deserve better." 

Buffy nodded. She knew first hand that everything Wesley was saying was true.

"Walsh is a cold, mercenary bitch," Wesley bit out. "She preys upon the misery and disillusionment which are so prevalent in the DHST community. She is heavily recruiting from their numbers for something which she knows to be a suicide mission." 

"What is she planning?" Buffy asked.

"A revolt," Wes replied bluntly. "She plans an armed uprising against The Council and she will use them as her pawns."

Buffy had suspected as much, but hearing it laid out so coldly still shocked her. How could Walsh even attempt such an atrocity? It was beyond the pale. "She wouldn't dare," Buffy hissed.

Wesley laughed mirthlessly. "Oh yes she would," he said. "Maggie Walsh resents having to bend to the Council's regulations on her labs and experiments. She thinks she knows what is best for humanity. She desires total autonomy and she thinks she's made a deal which will ensure it."

Buffy went cold. It was unthinkable. "Walsh isn't working alone?" she asked.

"Maggie Walsh is a scientist," Wesley explained. "She doesn't have the financial resources necessary to instigate something of this magnitude. She's not stupid. She knows that Nabbit Industries won't back her once they find out what she's really up to. She's sold her proverbial soul to the devil so she can be free of the Council's sanctions." 

"Varkesh?" Buffy asked, horrified at the very idea.

 "Yes," Wesley replied.

*****

"I can't believe it," Buffy mumbled as she walked down the street blindly. She was still reeling hard from Wesley's revelations and had quickly explained to Angel what had happened in the private meeting. She hadn't even noticed that Angel's hand was still clamped firmly around her own.

"Human avarice knows no bounds," Angel said dryly.

Buffy turned her head and looked at him. She couldn't deny the veracity of his statement. Walsh was about to sell her own species to the demons in return for the freedom to play God.

"Not to make light of the situation," Angel said, "but some other things happened tonight."

Buffy flushed, remembering the feel of his arousal pressed against her. It was ridiculous but she felt some measure of pride in having him respond to her like that. He was by his own admittance well acquainted with sexual intimacy. He said he had many lovers and from the way he kissed, she had no trouble believing him. But still, he could be excited by the freaksome Buffy Summers and she reveled in that knowledge. 

"Yes," she said bluntly, "something definitely happened."

He used his grip on her hand to slow her down as they neared one of the myriad of cemeteries they patrolled regularly. She didn't object as he dragged her through the sea of tombstones and quickly made a beeline for one of the larger monuments. He pushed open the door to the large marble crypt and pulled her inside.

Buffy didn't even have time to think before she found herself in Angel's arms once again as he pulled her into his lap and sat down on a cold stone bench. Their position was somewhat precarious, with Angel seated on the bench and Buffy straddling his hips. Neither of them moved. Buffy could feel him, hard again, barely brushing against her. His eyes held hers, filled with stark hunger. Buffy swallowed harshly, but didn't look away. 

His hands were suddenly on her body, lightly clasping her upper arms. He waited, motionless to see if she would resist the contact; if she would throw off his grasp and retreat. 

She didn't.

Angel took a deep, shaky breath and his hands slowly made their way down her body, gently massaging her arms, until his hands finally rested on her hips. His fingers bit into her flesh, but it only excited her more, causing her breath to come in ragged bursts. Slowly, he pulled her against him until she was no longer crouching over him, but firmly sitting in his lap.

They both gasped at the contact, and Buffy couldn't stop herself from riding more tightly against him, grinding down on his hardness while she pressed her chest against his.

"Buffy," he gasped, twining his fingers through her hair as he pulled her lips to his.

 There was nothing shy or tentative about her this time. Her mouth automatically opened under his, eagerly suckling his tongue. He moaned, wrapping his arms around her so tightly that she could barely breathe, but still she didn't stop. She pulled back long enough to take a breath and he turned the tides. She was helpless as he gently nipped and sucked her lips, alternately using his tongue to tease and soothe.

While she definitely enjoyed what was happening, Buffy had never been the passive sort. She already knew that he liked certain touches, so she put two and two together and decided that he would probably like other things as well ...

Angel yelped, grabbing her hips roughly and thrusting up against her as Buffy's teeth sank into the vulnerable flesh of his neck, just above his collar. She bit him fairly hard, but not hard enough to break the skin. She released him with her teeth and used her tongue to lave the wound.

"Did I hurt you?" she asked wickedly, removing her lips from his neck only long enough to utter the question.

"Gods ... yes ... do it again," Angel stuttered, too lost in sensation to think clearly.

 

Buffy smiled against his skin and bit down again, though not as hard as the first time. A shudder went through his powerful frame and she could feel him swell even harder beneath her. A stunning realization hit her.  

She wanted him.` 

Not just to touch or tease or even talk to. She wanted him physically. She wanted to feel the hardness that tented the front of his trousers, demanding her attention. She wanted to touch him and make him beg. Never before had she ever been aware of any sexual power she might wield. She always shied away from it for fear of scaring off whatever human male she was with, but Angel clearly wasn't afraid. And he obviously liked it when she took the lead.

But she wasn't exactly sure where to lead. Suddenly, her hands were clumsy and she was all too aware that he was the experienced partner while she was the novice. What if she was making a fool of herself? What if he was trying not to laugh at her?

"Buffy?" Angel asked tentatively when she suddenly went still. 

She was silent, keeping her head buried under his chin. Slowly, he pulled her back so he could see her face. She wouldn't meet his gaze.

"Did I do something wrong?" he asked quickly. "I didn't mean to rush. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that."

Buffy shook her head. "No," she said, "you didn't do anything wrong, it's just ... "

"Just what?" Angel asked nervously. He was going to stake himself if he just messed up things with Buffy because he couldn't control himself.

"I don't know what to do," she said in a tiny voice.

Angel looked at her incredulously. "You were doing just fine," he said so seriously that it made Buffy smile. 

"Was I?" she asked meekly.

"Yes," he replied with a wicked grin that made Buffy's body tingle. 

She leaned forward to kiss him, but then stopped abruptly, her body going rigid. Angel looked at her plaintively, but then he heard it too. Every sense went on alert. Someone outside was calling his name quietly. Angel and Buffy crept out of the crypt and peeked around the corner. Lindsey was searching the cemetery, quietly calling out to Angel.

"He has wonderful timing," Angel said dryly, his displeasure evident.

 Buffy couldn't help but smile. He frowned at her in return and pulled her close for a hard, quick kiss.

"Go on," he said. "Odds are he won't talk to me with you around. I'll meet you back at the library later."

 Buffy nodded and left quickly. They needed Lindsey and whatever information he might be able to provide, but it didn't make her any more happy about leaving Angel.

*****

"What do you want?" Angel snapped, rounding a tombstone as he stepped into view.

Lindsey smirked as he drew nearer. The scent of female arousal clung to Angel like a particularly expensive perfume. "Interrupt something, did I?" he asked with a wry grin.

"Yes, you did," Angel said, his voice deathly serious, "so you better have a damn good reason."

 Lindsey sobered and automatically swung his gaze around the cemetery, ensuring they were alone. "I have some information your boss might want," he said, all earlier teasing gone.

Eyes slitting, Angel said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Sure you don't," Lindsey scoffed. "And that girl you were about to fuck when I interrupted you wasn't the Slayer."

 Every muscle in Angel's body tensed. He'd been careless, taking Buffy to Caritas after marking her, walking hand in hand with her on the street. This wasn't the time in which he'd grown up. The Slayer's identity was no longer a secret. Any of the DHSTs or their human mates in the club could have recognized Buffy merely on sight. He wouldn't let her come to harm because of his recklessness.

"Easy," Lindsey said, backing up a step. "Your secret's reasonably safe. The people that saw you together tonight will keep her secret. They can't 'out' her without revealing their own involvement. Besides, even the most devout vampire haters have trouble stomaching what the Council does to Slayers that become intimate with their mortal enemies."

"What do you want?" Angel bit out, having no intention of discussing Buffy with the former lawyer.

"I told you," he said, "I have information that could be very important to the Council."

"What's your price?" Angel demanded.

"Protection," Lindsey said bluntly. "I used to be a human citizen, and a lawyer. I know that as a DHST, I have no rights. Walsh owns me. She's started to suspect that I'm up to something, and I know that by the end of this week, if I go back, I'll be nothing more than a pile of ash. This might not be much of a life, but it's all I have."

Angel sighed heavily, looking at the young man. He understood his need. "I don't have the power to offer you anything," Angel replied.

"But your boss does," Lindsey countered.

Angel nodded. "Follow me," he said.

*****

Holtz nodded slowly as Buffy finished relaying the fact that Angel had made contact with Lindsey and the information they received on Walsh. She left out the part about Caritas, not wanting to betray Fred and Wesley's trust. Holtz's face was as inscrutable as always, divulging nothing of his thoughts. "You did very well this evening," he said to the Slayer.

"Thank you," she said quietly. 

"I will have to discuss your findings with the Council's Executive Committee," he said. "I will let you know when they make their decision. I'm not sure what they will do, given that we do not yet possess any hard evidence. But now that Varkesh is being mentioned in connection with Walsh, they'll have to do something." 

"Do you think it will take long?" she asked, knowing full well how slowly bureaucracy moved.

Holtz shrugged. "Longer than usual," he admitted. "The Divide Compound was attacked by a sizeable demon force earlier today. The majority of the Council soldiers were sent to help. It will be a while before they return and we can mount any sort of offensive."

Buffy swallowed harshly. The Divide Compound was a large human outpost, situated high in the Rocky Mountains. It was a pivotal community in terms of shipping and information flow. She wasn't too worried about it falling to Varkesh's forces. Given its crucial role, it was heavily fortified and could withstand a demon siege indefinitely. However, sending Council soldiers to help, left The City vulnerable.

"I need you to do recon," Holtz said firmly. "It shouldn't take more than a few days. I need to know where Varkesh is located. I've arranged for armed accompaniment, a small group of Council soldiers that remained behind. You must leave immediately. With the majority of our forces assisting elsewhere, we can't afford to be taken by surprise."

"What about Angel?" Buffy asked. 

"He will be staying here," Holtz replied.

Buffy stared blankly at her adoptive father. 

"I think at the moment that a little distance would be best for both of you," Holtz said pointedly.

Buffy's eyes lowered to the ground of their own accord. "I'm going to go home," she said. "It's been a long night.

"Very well," Holtz replied, but as she turned to go, he stopped her. "Buffy?"

She turned to face him, her exhaustion clearly etched on her features.

 "You and Angel did exceedingly well tonight," he said softly. "The information you turned up and the contacts you made could prove invaluable in the future."

 Buffy nodded, unsure of what to do with the unexpected praise. "Thank you," she said lamely.

"I do have one other thing to ask you," he continue

"What?"

 "Be careful," he said, his voice oddly pleading

"It was risky," she said, "but sometimes that is necessary."

 He smiled conciliatorily. "That's not what I mean," he said gently. "Be careful ... with Angel."

 Buffy blushed bright crimson. "I don't..." she stuttered. "We didn't..."

"Discretion," Holtz said forcefully. "You have always been a good girl, Buffy. The Council has always been thrilled with your performance, but the Council is fickle. Do not give them a reason to persecute you. They will burn you at the stake, Buffy, literally. They have done it before."

Buffy swallowed harshly, chilled by his words. She knew just how painfully true they were. Holtz watched his ward, Justine, burned for misconduct. Buffy was in the Council's care at the time and as such, had participated in the public execution. Though she was only four, she remembered it vividly. She shivered involuntarily.

"I understand," he continued, "that Angel is in a unique position to appreciate you for who and what you are. I know that he probably understands you better than anyone. And he has proven on many occasions just how dedicated he is to you. I have no illusions. I know he did not volunteer to be a DHST because he is a fan of the Council."

Buffy silently absorbed the words, neither confirming nor denying his assertions. 

"But discretion is imperative, Buffy. I know you are lonely and isolated. But do not lose your head. Do not get careless."

"I'm not careless - " she began.

"You have bruises, Buffy," Holtz said sharply. "Bruises in the shape of bite marks on your neck. Your hair is tousled, your lips are swollen. That is not discrete. Behavior like that can get you killed, either by the Council or your own distraction. Either way, dead is dead and I have no desire to bury another child."

*****

"Where is he?" Holtz asked quietly as he sipped the scotch, staring blindly at the wall.

 "He hasn't returned yet," Giles answered quietly. "According to Buffy, he is meeting with Walsh's pet vampire, Lindsey."

Holtz caught the hint of displeasure in his fellow Watcher's voice. "I'm not oblivious to her pain, Rupert," he said. "I know she is lonely. I know that William Fordham is little more than a scavenger and I detest how he treats her. But I will not sit by while she throws away her life for that beast. I know I haven't been an outstanding father to her, but I will not allow her sacrifice herself needlessly."

"I do believe she deserves some happiness," Giles replied, pouring himself several fingers of scotch. 

"Indeed," Holtz mused. "I did not forbid her to pursue a relationship with him, I merely pointed out the dangers of such a relationship being brought to light and the need for discretion." 

"The Council would murder her," Giles replied, his voice sounding oddly desolate.

 "Yes," Holtz replied, "they would. Not even I could protect her."

"She's little more than a child. She deserves to know love at least once in her life." 

"People are already talking," Holtz said baldly. "His attention to her at the Council ball was decidedly regrettable. I'm afraid we cannot risk them being seen together in public again." 

Giles nodded in acquiescence. Buffy's safety was his number one priority.

*****

Holtz looked the vampire up and down, his expression guarded. "Were you followed?" he demanded from Lindsey. 

"I don't think so," Lindsey replied bluntly. "Walsh doesn't trust me, and with good reason. I know she has me followed most nights, but I'm fairly certain I managed to lose them this evening." 

"Then she knows that you're going to betray her?" 

"She knows that I hate her with everything I have," he replied vehemently. "She knows I will do anything to destroy her, to make her pay for what she did to me, and when I go missing, she will assume I've come to you." 

Holtz sat back, taking a deep breath. Lindsey's reckless action had just forced everyone's hand, but with any luck, Walsh didn't know it yet. "We have to act quickly," he said to Giles.

*****

Buffy was a warrior, and as such, did not grouse. But she wanted to. She wasn't accustomed to a life that ran on a predictable schedule. Being sent out on a mission with less than a moment's notice was nothing new. However, she now found it infinitely more annoying than she had in the past. It wasn't hard to figure out why.

Angel.

A huge part of her wanted nothing more than to be stuck in some dark corner of the library at this very moment, picking up where they left off in the crypt. Instead, she and the group of soldiers were a couple of miles outside of the wall, heading for Hope Crossing, a bridge that separated The City from the Wastelands.

In short, she was on the job and not likely to get any cuddle time for the foreseeable future. Which was a shame, because it was all she could think about. Every spare moment when something else wasn't actively demanding her attention, Buffy's thoughts were of Angel. Everything about him overwhelmed her consciousness. Even now, she could clearly remember the feel of his fingertips biting into her hips, of his tongue gliding past her lips, the way he purred when she ran her fingers through his hair ...

Buffy stifled a growl of frustration with herself as she squinted into the rising sun. Pining over Angel wasn't going to make anything better. In fact, the distraction could get her killed. She forced herself to push thoughts of him away. She had a job to do, and the sooner she got it done, the sooner she could go home.

As they approached Hope Crossing, the sun finally cleared the horizon and everything was eerily silent. The bridge spanned the huge ravine that almost entirely circled The City and was the only way in or out, unless you wanted to spend days hiking down one side of the ravine and then up the other. The ravine, more than the huge concrete walls, was actually what kept Guardian City separate from the Wastelands that surrounded it.

Abruptly, Buffy stopped, her vision scanning the surroundings. Nothing seemed visibly out of place ... but it didn't feel right. Slayer instincts were not something to be taken lightly. Logically she wanted to simply get across the bridge and out into the wastelands. The sooner they pinpointed Varkesh, the sooner they could go home. But she couldn't deny her gut feelings. Something was definitely amiss. 

"What is it?" Riley asked quietly, coming to stand beside her. He had quickly volunteered for Wasteland duty with the Slayer.

Buffy shook her head, unable to place the sensation. "Something is wrong," she said, mindful to keep her voice low. 

"She's imagining things," Forrest muttered under his breath. "No demons would be stupid enough to get this close to The City."

Buffy whipped her head around and glared at the overly confident soldier. He was well trained, one of the elite, but he had too much faith in humanity. He regarded the demons only as mindless beasts, with no higher thought processes. Buffy knew better, and treated her enemies with the respect they deserved, especially when the bulk of the Council defenses were occupied elsewhere.

"Pull back," she snapped. "There's a rise a couple hundred meters from here. It overlooks the bridge. I want to scout the area. I'm not about to walk into any traps." 

Forrest started to open his mouth and Riley threw him a murderous glare. "You heard her," he bit out.

Forrest clamped his mouth shut and reluctantly did as he was told. He had never felt comfortable taking orders from a woman. Forrest was a close friend of Riley's and as such was privy to personal information about his friend. Riley made no secret of the fact that he liked the Slayer. Forrest couldn't understand it. Buffy Summers was a freak of nature. It turned his stomach to think of his friend involved with the bitch.

*****

Angel looked expectantly at Holtz. The Watcher merely shook his head and cursed. Around them, teams of Watchers and Council soldiers were tearing Walsh's labs apart, but coming up largely empty-handed. 

When they arrived, with a Council issued search and seizure order, the labs were deserted. Filing cabinets had been overturned, documents shredded and burned; the holding pens used to contain Walsh's DHSTs had been littered with ashes. A cursory inspection told Angel that contrary to what Walsh wanted them to believe, the ashes were not vampire remains. For whatever reason, she wanted to make them think that she destroyed her DHST subjects in her hurry to leave, but they knew otherwise.

"Where could she have gone?" Holtz demanded rhetorically. 

As the Watcher stalked off to vent some frustrations on his underlings, Angel looked around the rooms. Walsh had cleared out in a big hurry. Odds were that she'd forgotten something. He narrowed his gaze. He had always been a damn good tracker and he wasn't about to just sit idly back and wait on Buffy to return.

Angel watched as forensic detectives scoured the labyrinth of rooms that branched off of Walsh's large main office and holding area. There were close to thirty interconnected rooms that wound around the basement of one of Nabbit Industries' bigger laboratories and they were all in the process of being searched.

Walsh's labs had been designed for hiding things. Or at least that's how they appeared ...

Angel looped his way back to the main lab space. In comparison to the rest of the rooms, it was extremely boring, nothing more than a big white box. The room was square, roughly forty feet by forty feet, with every available space covered in white tiles. The ceiling was about fifteen feet high, with glaring fluorescent lights that illuminated every crook and crevice in harsh relief.

It seemed the least likely room in the entire complex to try and hide something. Which is why Angel suspected it was the most probable. Dropping into a crouch, he started the arduous task of examining the tiles. With infinite attention to detail, he ran his fingertips over the cold, white ceramic. 

*****

"Damn," Riley cursed as he looked through the binoculars.

"We've got to get back," Buffy said tersely. "We've got to warn the Council and recall the soldiers."

Riley nodded and handed the binoculars back to her. Under her orders, he and the rest of the Council soldiers retreated to the ridge and scouted the area. It didn't taken them long to spot the demons massing in the deeply shadowed ravine. There were a lot of them, more than enough to mount a sizeable attack on The City, vampires and other demons alike.

"This has to be Walsh's doing," Buffy said under her breath.

Riley nodded. Once again, Buffy was right. Not that he was shocked, Buffy was an amazing warrior. He felt invigorated simply being near her again. The time he spent as her backup had been very important to him and he had been longing for her company.

He knew she was involved with William Fordham, but Riley had asked around. Apparently their relationship was tenuous at best. Ford had no idea how to treat a woman, especially one as amazing as Buffy. Riley knew it was bad form, but he was going to do his best to try and sway Buffy's affections. He had waited long enough. He wanted the Slayer.

*****

It was close to sundown when Buffy was called before a Council panel to report what she saw. Despite all of Holtz's searching, there had been nothing of value left to find in Walsh's labs and the scientist was at large. It didn't take a genius to figure out that her disappearance, the demon massing, and the attack on the Divide Compound were not coincidences. The City was vulnerable, especially with the realization that they had a traitor in their midst. The Council soldiers were recalled immediately, but it would be hours before they arrived.

After the briefing, Holtz called Buffy back to his private offices in Council Headquarters. The Slayer wearily slumped into one of the chairs. She had been up for more than a day and was almost out of steam.

 "So what do we have?" Buffy asked. 

"Nothing," Holtz said bluntly, his frustration clearly etched on his face.

Buffy sighed, wearily rubbing her eyes before looking around the room. Anya, Giles and Lindsey were all busy rooting through different files and maps of The City, searching for any clues as to Walsh's plans. Riley leaned against one of the bookshelves, watching she and Holtz with a guarded expression.

"Where's Angel?" Buffy asked offhandedly, realizing he wasn't in the room.

Holtz looked at her and then around this office, a puzzled expression on his face. "I don't know," he said.

Buffy sat up in her chair. "What do you mean you 'don't know'?" she asked. Angel might have been heads and tails above your standard DHST, but he still lived by their hard and fast rules. He rarely went anywhere on business without accompaniment, usually Buffy's. And he always checked in. In the entire time that they worked together, Angel had never taken off without warning. The idea that he would start now, after everything that had happened, was rather unthinkable.

"Exactly what I said, " Holtz replied, clearly confused by the DHST's absence. "He was with us when we were examining Walsh's labs, but I don't believe I have seen him since."

Buffy turned around and looked expectantly at Giles who was listening to their conversation. "I'm sorry, Buffy, I haven't seen him either," the Watcher said gently, mindful of Buffy's emotions.

She almost shivered at the icy coldness that had crept into her chest. She simply knew that Walsh was behind Angel's disappearance and that if she didn't find him quickly, she would never find him. That was not acceptable. Buffy jumped up and headed for door.

"Where on earth are you going?" Holtz demanded. The bulk of the Council's military force was still en-route from the Divide Compound. There were only a handful of soldiers and the Slayer left to guard all of The City. He needed Buffy close at hand. 

"To find Walsh," she said with barely controlled fury. 

"Don't be rash, Buffy. Wait until we have sufficient backup. You don't even know that Walsh has Angel."

"Yes I do," Buffy said with absolute conviction.

 Holtz took a deep breath, closely regarding his adopted daughter. He had never seen her so determined. With a slight frown, he nodded sharply, giving her his consent to leave.

 "You've got company," Lindsey said, grabbing his jacket as he joined her in the doorway.

Buffy took a step back warily. "I don't need your help," she said tautly, not trusting the DHST for a second. Not only was Lindsey allied with Walsh, he was a former lawyer.

"I'm not going along to help you," Lindsey replied evenly. "I'm going to kill Walsh."

Buffy met his eyes and saw the pain and hatred there. She didn't trust his loyalty to her, but she did trust his animosity towards Walsh. She nodded mutely.

"I'm in too." Buffy turned around and found Riley standing in full gear. He and Lindsey weren't an army, but they were all she had. Lindsey was strong simply by virtue of being a DHST, and Riley was a highly trained soldier. They would be useful in her search.

"Fine, let's go," she said, heading for the stairs.

*****

Nearly an hour later, they stood in the ruins of Walsh's labs. "Not much to go on," Riley said, brushing some scraps of paper off of a desk.  

The lab was mostly empty, having been completely cleared out by Council investigators after the raid. It was, however, far from pristine, littered with bits of paper and overturned pieces of furniture.

"Who is Angel anyway?" Riley asked as he assisted Buffy in looking for clues. He hadn't been particularly interested in finding the missing person, he had only known that the Slayer was in need of assistance. Angel wasn't a name he was familiar with, but Holtz had a large staff.

"A DHST," Buffy replied, mindlessly, her attention focused elsewhere.

Lindsey snorted loudly at Buffy's casual definition of Angel. The Slayer was upset, and consequently omitting a lot of the details. Riley looked at Lindsey in time to see the DHST roll his eyes at Buffy's statement. The soldier frowned. Angel was a DHST? A wave of coldness passed over Riley as he realized that Angel must be Subject V73, Buffy's assistant.

Riley tried to shake off the feeling. Subject V73 was her assistant. Buffy wasn't an unfeeling monster, of course she was worried about it. But even as he told himself those things, Riley knew they were lies. Buffy's concern was not casual. Her worry held a tinge of hysteria that signaled a very strong relationship.

 Buffy suddenly stilled, cocking her head to the side, her eyes pressed tightly shut. Her nostrils flared as she breathed deeply. She stood motionless for minutes on end, concentrating while Riley and Lindsey watched.

"What is she doing?" Riley asked quietly, not looking at Lindsey, his attention riveted on the motionless Slayer.

"Tracking," Lindsey replied dryly, "by scent."

Riley's head whipped toward the vampire with an appalled look on his face. "She can ... smell ... vampires?" he stuttered. 

Riley heard rumors about Slayers and how different they were from the rest of humanity. For the most part, he didn't lend it much credit. He assumed that while Slayers might be somewhat stronger than the average human, they were, on the whole, nothing more than very highly trained soldiers. Like him. But he certainly couldn't track something by scent.

Lindsey shrugged. "I doubt she can track vampires," he said dismissively. "She can probably smell Angel."

Riley's lips pressed into a hard, thin line. Angel. Buffy could track Angel by scent. Something inside of the soldier seemed to wither. For so long, Buffy had been his ideal, his perfect woman. He had worshiped her, both from afar and up close. He had reveled in his time as her backup. The fact that she obviously cared for one of those beasts turned his stomach.

Buffy's eyes flicked open abruptly, revealing an expression of absolute concentration. Rising to her feet, she pulled back and punched the tiled wall. Instead of seeing the exposed studs and cinder blocks that would be expected, Lindsey and Riley found themselves looking at a piece of dented steel. The Slayer kept punching until enough tiles were shattered that the outline of a reinforced door was clearly visible, streaked with blood from her abraded knuckles.

"Help me tear this down," Buffy said tersely, breathing hard from the exertion. 

*****

Angel came to consciousness with a roar, snapping his fangs at the offending party. Apparently DHST training hadn't managed to overcome all of his natural instincts. Panting raggedly from the pain, he fought to clear his head from the agony singing along his nerves. He was lying on his side on the ground, his hands bound above him. Cautiously, he turned his head and studied his surroundings, aware that he was doing so in full game face - an action that was forbidden within The City. It took a while for the implications of what he was seeing to sink in, but he allowed none of his dawning surprise to be reflected on his demonic features.

Maggie Walsh regarded him placidly, like she hadn't just jabbed him in the side with a cattle prod. He followed her eyes as she looked at the collar in her hand. "Your tags weren't affixed," she said dryly.

Angel bared his fangs, but remained silent. Walsh might have been an egomaniac, but she was also brilliant. He was a DHST whose tags weren't strapped down tightly and whose skin wasn't dyed. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he had been given preferential treatment by someone very high up the Council.

"I have your files from the Council," she explained evenly. Her mouth quirked into a wry grin. "But before I saw your tags, I had no idea you would be such an effective bargaining tool."

Angel smiled insolently. "I'm just a vampire," he said dryly. "You know as well as I do that the Council won't do a damn thing to save me."

One of her eyebrows quirked in amusement. "I wonder if the Slayer feels the same," she said.

 Angel snarled and Walsh's perfectly composed facade disappeared. With practiced ease, she hit him in the solar plexus with the tip of the cattle prod. His muscles instantly contracted as the current hit his body, leaving him writhing on the floor, his jaw clenched too tightly shut to yell.

"It takes quite a bit to mortally wound a vampire," she mused idly, throwing the collar at his spasming body. "Keep that in mind."

 

*****

"Where did you go?" Buffy growled as Lindsey returned.

The Slayer was doing her best to pound through the wall, but so far only succeeded in making a hole about a foot in diameter. Both of her hands were bloody with ragged shreds of skin hanging off of her knuckles, but she was oblivious, mindless of the pain.

"Stop," Lindsey said firmly, looking at the abraded flesh of her hands.  

No DHST ever dared tell a Slayer what to do, but Lindsey showed no fear. Riley turned and looked at him incredulously. "What did you just say?" the soldier demanded. Such behavior was never condoned from DHSTs, but now, especially, Riley was more sensitive than ever. Those dirty beasts were not allowed to speak to humans so casually. Instinctively, Riley pulled his hand back to strike Lindsey. 

Buffy turned quickly and looked at Riley, her expression hard. The soldier halted, eventually lowering his hand. Clearly, she was unimpressed with the golden boy soldier's manner for dealing with DHSTs. She pushed away thoughts of why she objected to his behavior. Such thoughts led to Angel and she couldn't afford to think about him now or she would break down. "Where did you go?" Buffy repeated more calmly.

"I called in some help," Lindsey replied, still watching Riley warily. "You can't do this alone. Even if we manage to track Walsh, she's not going to be by herself. She has Angel for collateral, but she's sure as hell got backup as well." 

"Who did you call?" Buffy demanded.

"Fred," he said, "Wesley, and some kid named Xander. It's the best I can do on such short notice."

Buffy took a deep breath and nodded. Including Wesley had been a smart call. If they found Walsh, odds were that her backup would be the DHSTs she'd managed to coerce or torture into assisting her. Wesley could do a lot towards swaying their loyalties.

"Fine," she said wearily, nearly collapsing to the floor with exhaustion as she waited for the meager reinforcements.

*****

When Angel regained consciousness Walsh was gone, but he didn't move. The manacles biting into his wrists were chained to a ring bolted deep into the brick wall above his head and a perfunctory tug informed him that he wouldn't be able to break free. Not that he was really in the mood to try. He ached from head to foot and could feel the electrical burns throbbing on his chest and side. Thankfully, he was very well fed, the damage wouldn't incapacitate him for as long as Walsh had intended. Still, it was not a pleasant experience. Quick healing did not mean lack of pain. The burns were nearly incapacitating.

Angel ground his teeth together and forced himself into a sitting position with his back against the wall. He had to distract himself from the pain. He looked around, watching drone vampires perform rote tasks. None of them spared him a glance. It obviously was not odd for Maggie Walsh to torture a vampire in full view of others.

Absentmindedly fingering the collar lying in his lap, Angel studied the space more closely. It was an abandoned sewer tunnel, deep under The City, at least a hundred feet in diameter, packed with workers. They were all DHSTs, though some wore tags and some didn't. They were organized. At least twenty burly vamps worked at chipping away at the wall with large pick axes, while scores of others cleared the rubble.

The tunnel was old and Angel estimated it hadn't been used in at least half a century. It was brick, rather than concrete, and although it was a sewer tunnel, every surface was bone dry. He would be willing to bet that it was one of the old tunnels that had ringed The City when it was first created.

The tunnels had been out of use for years, off limits due to their proximity to the Wasteland border. They were filled in decades earlier to prevent demons from sneaking in undetected. A prudent measure, even if they were no longer secured. Angel knew exactly how the tunnels were excavated - through DHST labor. The vampires in the tunnel were a well trained group. They moved efficiently, with the precision of a well-oiled machine. He marveled at the sheer size of the project. It had to have taken months.

And they still weren't finished. But now, rather than excavating the tunnel itself, they were going through the wall. He felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. This wasn't good. He knew what they were doing. They were tunneling through to the outside. The tunnel couldn't be more than fifty meters from the edge of the ravine that surrounded The City. They were going to open up a huge doorway that would allow Varkesh's forces to enter before anyone knew there was any danger of that happening.

******

"Now!" Buffy said through clenched teeth, pulling as hard as she could. 

Xander, Fred and Wesley had arrived, and with their help, they almost managed to get the heavy metal door pried open. They all grunted and swore, pulling as hard as they could until the metal twisted under the force, leaving a small, but useable hole into the hidden passage.

Buffy panted, bending over to brace her hands on her knees as she sucked in air. Lifting her head, she looked at the dark passage. It was a stairway that led down, a long way. 

"Grab the flashlights," Riley barked at the DHSTs, who complied wordlessly.

Standing, Buffy took one of the proffered flashlights and led the others into the dark stairway. Positioned at the edge of the stairs, she looked down. The walls were concrete for the first several feet, but it soon gave way to roughly hewn dirt. The stairway wasn't large, big enough for someone Riley's size to walk without having to contort himself, but there was no way two people could walk side by side.

Buffy took a deep breath. Angel must have found some way into the passage. There were no signs of a struggle. How far had he made it? Was he still sneaking around Walsh's maze, or had he been captured?

There was only one way to find out. Slowly, she descended the first step. 

*****

"When will the soldiers return?" Holtz barked impatiently at Giles, who recently hung up the phone.

"Hard to say," Giles replied. "As long as four hours or as soon as one."

Holtz scowled darkly, sinking into his chair. The Council soldiers were close, but not close enough. Recent reconnaissance missions brought the disheartening news that the demons massing in the ravine were boring into the rock face. That in itself wouldn't have been too distressing. The old sewer tunnels that would have been accessible from such an attack had been filled in years before as a precaution against just such an event.

But Holtz didn't believe in coincidences. The fact that Varkesh's forces were attempting to reach those tunnels, combined with Walsh's disappearance were too suspicious to be unrelated. He hadn't gotten to be head of the Watchers' Council by not being able to make logical jumps. He was willing to bet anything that Walsh and her conscripted army of DHSTs were in those supposedly filled sewer tunnels, digging their way out to meet Varkesh's forces.

And Buffy was in the middle of it.

*****

"Holy shit." 

Buffy turned her head to look at Riley in amazement. She had never before heard him utter anything even close to a profanity. But she could not fault his eloquence.

 Buffy wasn't sure what she expected to find Walsh up to, but this was not it. From their hiding place, just inside an access passage that met the much larger tunnel at a ninety degree angle, they had a clear view of the sheer scale of the project the scientist had undertaken. It was staggering. There were at least eighty vampires working in the tunnel; a mix of the DHSTs the Council had provided Walsh, and rogues that she exploited. They were well trained, working together seamlessly, but without enthusiasm.

Quickly, her eyes found Angel, wounded but conscious, chained to the far wall. Only years of practiced emotional restraint allowed Buffy to detach herself from the situation. She tamped down the overwhelming urge to hunt down Walsh and tear her apart. Doing that wouldn't stop Walsh's plans, and it wouldn't save Angel. She forced herself into the role of soldier, searching for a way to put a stop to both Walsh and Varkesh. 

Beside her, Riley quietly asked, "How long before they break through?"

Buffy shrugged, distracted. "They're only half of our problem," she said baldly. "The demons we saw in the ravine are burrowing through to meet Walsh's army." 

Riley's vision flicked between the Slayer and the DHSTs. "How can you be certain?" he asked. 

"I can hear them."

To his credit, Riley didn't flinch at the statement, though it bothered him on various levels. Regardless of how she acquired the knowledge, Buffy was aware that Varkesh's forces were digging through to meet Walsh's. They could not allow that to happen. They would be seriously pushing their limits to even attempt to subdue Walsh's DHSTs. They would be completely unable to deal with the added threat of Varkesh's minions. If they didn't prevent the two forces from meeting, the results would be disastrous. Riley doubted that even a sizable demon attack would be able to capture The City, but there would be massive human casualties.

They had to find a way to stop it. Riley watched Buffy as her eyes scanned every inch of the tunnel, searching for a weakness. 

"There," she said quietly, her mouth curving into a hard grin.

Following her line of sight, Riley found their answer. The tunnel had been filled in at one point, and obviously excavated by Walsh's DHSTs. From the look of things, it had caved in several times since then, no doubt killing a number of Walsh's vampiric slaves in the process. The cave-ins had been shored up and the ceiling of the tunnel was braced by a haphazard scaffolding that looked ready to collapse at any moment. Clumps of earth shook loose due to the vibrations from the digging.

"Looks like a plan," Lindsey said smugly from his position behind Buffy and Riley.

"You can't do this," Wesley said, his voice a harsh, accusing whisper.

Buffy turned, meeting his disapproving gaze without hesitation. "I'm not going to hurt them if I don't have to," she said. "I'll give them fair warning, but if they choose to side with Walsh, I can't vouch for their safety." 

Wesley obviously wanted to argue with her, but there was no time. He swallowed harshly and gave her a curt nod.

Turning to the others, Buffy started barking orders. "Angel is chained to the far wall. I want Lindsey to get him and get out of here as soon as I make my move -" 

"No."

Buffy looked at Lindsey sharply.

"I'm going after Walsh," he said with cold conviction.

Knowing the things that Walsh had probably done to him, Buffy could not deny him a chance at retribution. She nodded in assent. "Riley, you get Angel and get him out," she amended. "I'm going to make my way over to that scaffolding. Wesley, I want you and Fred to be waiting for the DHSTs in the holding tank. Do your best to keep them calm." 

There were half a dozen access passages branching off of the main tunnel, but they all looped around and converged in a large circular room several hundred yards above them. At some point it had been a holding tank for the water that had filled the tunnels, but like them, it was currently dry. It would be far enough away that it wouldn't be affected by the cave in, but it would allow them to get all of the DHSTs in one spot and attempt to reason with them.

*****

Breathing wasn't something Angel did often, but in times of stress, it helped calm him down. Although he had re-attached his collar, he retained the ability to breathe easily due to Buffy's alterations. Sitting with his back against the brick wall, watching the vampires dig into the earth, he took several deep breaths.

And abruptly stopped.

Nothing of his outward appearance betrayed the thoughts racing through his head. He forced himself to remain still, not wanting to attract any undue attention. Cautiously, he looked around the large space, searching. Buffy was near. He knew it, and it terrified him. She was drastically outnumbered. Any attempt to save him could put her life in jeopardy. Terror seized him.

As inconspicuously as possible, his vision scoured the tunnel, looking for any sign of the Slayer. Luckily, it appeared that none of the other DHSTs had yet noticed her, but that would not last for long.

If his heart had been beating, it would have stopped the moment he saw her slinking along the cold brick wall, sticking to the shadows. He saw Lindsey and Riley with her, but that was all. What the hell was she thinking? She couldn't possibly take on all of Walsh's conscripted minions.

*****

Upon entering the tunnel, the group immediately split. Buffy wasted no time heading for the scaffolding as Lindsey moved inconspicuously through the throng of DHSTs towards Walsh. A quick glance over her shoulder assured Buffy that Riley would get Angel to safety.

She reached the scaffolding and for a moment was frantic. How was she going to get their attention? As silence descended upon the cavernous space, she realized she didn't have to do anything.

One by one the DHSTs stopped what they were doing and looked to the Slayer. She stood next to the scaffolding with a deceptively slight hand resting on one of the major structural supports. In mere moments, silence was absolute. 

Buffy looked around the crowd, taking note of the hideous physical condition of most of Walsh's slaves. They were dirty, bruised and battered, obviously as near starvation as Angel had been when she first met him. They were a miserable group, their eyes reflecting nothing but pain and hopelessness. 

"What are you doing?" Maggie Walsh yelled at the DHSTs. "Get back to work!" 

Walsh was looking around the tunnel frantically, trying to find the source of the DHSTs mutinous actions. Her vision lighted on Buffy and she nearly snarled in anger.

"This isn't going to happen," Buffy said with quiet authority. She blinked slowly, turning her gaze from Walsh to the DHSTs. "Walsh is finished," she said. "What she has done, what she is attempting to do, is treason against the Council. She has nothing to offer you." 

The DHSTs remained rooted to the spot, all of their attention fixated on the Slayer who was speaking to them as if they were something more than animals.

"Leave now," Buffy continued. "There are others waiting for you in the access tunnels. They will help."

A strangled scream pierced the air and everyone's attention turned to the source. Maggie Walsh's broken body lay in a heap in the dirt as Lindsey shook with rage. Her neck was twisted at a grotesque angle, testament to the viciousness of his actions. The DHSTs looked from him and back to the Slayer, waiting for the retaliation they knew would come. 

But it didn't come. Buffy nodded sadly at Lindsey, hoping that Walsh's death would appease some of his rage, but knowing that it wouldn't. Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw Riley help Angel through the access passages. With very deliberate movements, she turned, bracing both arms against the scaffolding.

"Go," she said firmly.

The DHSTs were pulled from their near catatonic state, hurrying for the exits. Buffy waited as long as she could, but she could hear Varkesh's forces getting closer and closer. The tunnel was nearly empty when she heaved as hard as she could against the scaffolding, setting off a chain reaction that brought the entire structure, as well as the roof of the tunnel, crashing down.

 *****

"Get your hands off me!" Angel snarled, throwing Riley back against the steel wall of the holding tank.

 It did not matter to the enraged vampire that the soldier was trying to help. All Angel knew was that Buffy was in the tunnel when it collapsed. He whipped around, frantically searching the crowd for her. He couldn't find her anywhere and was all the more terrified because he couldn't sense her, even in game face, with all of his demonic senses to the fore, there was no trace.

Riley shook his head to clear it, stunned for a moment, and then reacted as a decade of intensive training dictated. The beast had actually physically attacked him. It was unheard of. Even vampires in the Wastelands thought twice about taking on a Council soldier. But this wasn't the Wastelands, and Angel wasn't ignorant of Council law. No DHST who used physical violence against their master was permitted to live. Especially one that was involved with Buffy.

 Angel was turned, his attention fixated on his search. Riley reached for his gun, but realized he must have dropped it when he slammed into the wall. He didn't have time to search for it. Quickly, he removed the collapsible baton clipped on his belt. A well practiced flick of his wrist, and the weapon was ready. Riley swung at the back of Angel's head in a well practiced move designed to stop anything, human or demon. The blow connected solidly.

But contrary to past experience, the DHST did not crumple to the floor. As Angel whipped around to face the soldier, Riley swallowed harshly. 

*****

Wesley addressed the DHSTs in a loud, clear voice. He was worried that they would be too terrified to reason with, but it turned out that was not the case. They were agitated, but not uncontrollably so. He spoke to them in even tones, informing them that there were those in the Council who were concerned about their well being.

Wesley informed the DHSTs that none of them would be destroyed. They would be given a choice between returning to the Wastelands and staying in The City. If they chose to stay in The City, he would personally offer them sanctuary. It was a tall order. Wesley wasn't speaking with the Council's backing, but he was confident that he would be able to sway his peers.  

Everything seemed to be going well until he realized that a fight had broken out towards the back. He was deeply annoyed until he realized that the two involved were Riley and Angel. Muttering a curse under his breath, he pushed his way towards the back of the room, hoping to halt the fight before any permanent damage was done by either party.

*****

For the first time, Riley truly felt terror facing off against an unarmed vampire. Angel's eyes were yellow, his forehead heavily ridged and a constant low growl emanated from his chest. The soldier couldn't imagine how the creature had ever seemed even remotely human. The thing before him was an animal. And Buffy cared for it. The thought caused Riley to snarl in return.

Angel lunged at the soldier with clawed hands, reaching for Riley. The boy moved fast, but not fast enough. Angel managed to tear several deep gashes in his left shoulder before Riley twisted out of range. Dizzy, Angel stumbled. Riley's earlier blow hadn't incapacitated him, but it jarred him and his quick rush made the world tilt. As he was trying to recover, Riley landed a solid kick to the small of his back, sending him crashing face first into the wall of the holding tank. 

Angel coughed, spraying blood from the rent flesh of his split lower lip. He was on his knees, with one arm braced against the wall to keep him from collapsing completely. He looked over his shoulder, well aware that his injuries made his appearance all the more hideous. Fear was etched on Riley's face, but the soldier was fighting it admirably. Angel laughed, pushing himself to his feet.

Though they were packed tightly into the holding tank, the DHSTs gave the two a wide berth. The vampires may have been covertly and literally undermining the Council, but none of them would have dreamed of openly attacking a Council soldier in full view of other humans. 

Angel smiled at Riley, a grotesque gesture that showed his blood smeared fangs. The boy flinched, but quickly caught himself and steeled his features. He pulled his standard issue stake out of his hip holster. Armed with the stake and the baton, he felt confident. It was the first of many mistakes. Riley was a good fighter, no doubt about it. He was in excellent physical condition. He was well trained at hand to hand combat with DHSTs, and very adept at thinking on his feet. He was also physically larger than Angel, several inches taller and at least thirty pounds heavier.

No experience in Riley's life could allow him to appreciate how woefully outmatched he was at that moment. Angel was not a DHST that had been raised in captivity for a life of manual labor. He was at least ten times older than the oldest vampire Riley had ever faced off against. Unlike every other vampire living in The City, he was not kept on starvation rations. But most importantly, for nearly three centuries, he had answered to no one but himself. It never occurred to Angel to allow Riley to win.

Riley never saw Angel move. One second, Riley was on alert, waiting for anything that would give him insight in to what Angel was going to do, and the next, he was pinned against the wall, with an enraged vampire in his face. Riley screamed, he couldn't help it. He had no idea what had happened. Angel moved too fast for him to even begin to try and counter. The vampire grinned smugly at him, flashing lots of fang.

"Angel, no!"

Looking over his shoulder, Angel snapped at Fred, causing her to dance back out of his reach. But she wasn't one to be deterred. When he turned his attention back to Riley, she advanced again, grabbing his belt and doing her best to try and pull him off the soldier before he could inflict any serious injuries.

 Angel turned to growl at her again and Riley hit him as hard as he could in the chin. Angel stumbled backwards and the soldier quickly scrambled out of reach.

 "Angel," Fred begged from the sidelines as the two began circling each other again.

Angel paid her no mind, but did notice when Wesley pulled her out of the fight. Angel had no desire to hurt Fred, but they were both vampires and according to pack hierarchy, she was acting out of turn. He was her elder and as such, he would hurt her if she tried to get between him and his prey. Riley was sweating profusely now, always moving, trying anything to stay out of the vampire's reach. Angel crouched down, ready to spring at the boy.

"Enough!"

Angel stopped immediately, all of his attention fixated on the tiny - but dusty - Slayer. Buffy was all right. She wasn't gone. He started towards her.

"Don't move," Riley seethed, once again holding his gun.

In his relief to find Buffy, Angel hadn't seen Riley retrieve the firearm from the ground. Bullets, as a rule, did not kill vampires. But guns were part of the standard Council issue for soldiers. They were loaded with hollow point bullets. The damage they could do was unbelievable. A stake through the heart was somewhat unnecessary if a single shot could destroy a vampire's entire chest cavity. Angel stopped.

"Put it down, Riley," Buffy said, her voice tight with strain.

The soldier didn't acknowledge her in any way, his attention riveted to the motionless vampire. Riley's hand was shaking and his aim probably wasn't as good as usual, but at this range, it wouldn't really matter.

"Riley," Buffy said again, still getting no response. Buffy didn't know how things had gotten out of hand, but they definitely had, and she wasn't going to let it continue. Calmly, she stepped in between the two males. Riley blinked and then shook his head once sharply to clear it. He looked at her like she had three heads. 

"What are you doing?" Riley barked incredulously. 

"Put it down, Riley. Now," Buffy commanded. 

"No," he countered, almost yelling. "Get the hell out of the way."

Buffy met his gaze and held it for several long moments. She shook her head very calmly and took a step closer to Angel lest he try and move so she was no longer in the line of fire.

"Are you insane?" Riley demanded. "I know that you have a lot invested in him, but he attacked a human. He needs to be put down. Move."

Behind her, Angel still hadn't moved, but Buffy could feel the tension rolling off his body in waves. Initially, Riley was threatening him, now Riley was threatening her. If she didn't stop this soon, Angel was going to tear the soldier's head off. Cautiously, Buffy took two more steps backwards, pressing herself back against Angel. Slowly, he snaked an arm around her waist.

"Riley, put the gun down," Buffy said again. "I'm not going to let you touch him. He won't hurt anyone, I promise." She knew that Angel's grip around her waist was protective, but she also knew that it put him in an excellent position to be able to push her out of the way and rush Riley.

The soldier shook his head. "He's still exhibiting hostile behavior," he blustered.

Game face. DHSTs weren't allowed to use them in The City unless they were feeding. "You're holding a gun on me, Riley," Buffy explained. "You're threatening me. He's being protective, not hostile." Buffy knew it wasn't entirely true. Angel had been in game face before she showed up, but she was hoping Riley's logic was a little fuzzy at the moment. 

Riley took a deep breath. Buffy could almost taste his resolve waver. Reluctantly, he holstered the gun. Buffy sighed, leaning back into Angel, clamping her hands around his arm, so he couldn't resume the fight. 

As Riley watched, the DHST slid out of game face. He glowered at Riley for several long moments before the tension seemed to fade. He took a long shuddering breath, burying his bloody face at the nape of Buffy's neck. The Slayer didn't seem to mind.

Wesley cleared his throat loudly. "Now that everyone is accounted for, I suggest we get out of here." 

Riley watched Buffy and Angel as they stood together, wrapped around one another. It was all he could do to keep from vomiting. Buffy actually let that thing touch her. Riley was disgusted with Buffy for her deplorable behavior, but also at himself for being so blind. He had worshiped her, thought about her every waking second. He had never felt so betrayed.

*****

Buffy sighed wearily into the receiver of the Clinic's public telephone. "But they're okay, right?" she asked tautly.

 

"Yes," Wesley assured her, the tone of his voice conveying his gratitude. "How about Angel?"

"We don't know yet," Buffy said, her voice devoid of emotion. She had to do that or she was going to break down.

"I'm sure he will be all right," Wesley said gently.

"I hope you're right," she said, her voice quavering softly.

"I am," he said firmly. "And we're all going to get through this."

Buffy smiled in spite of her foul mood. "Fine," she said, "I'll see you at the meeting."

"Any news?" Riley asked as the Slayer hung up the phone. His voice was as tight as his expression, but Buffy didn't seem to notice. All of her attention was reserved for Angel which only made Riley more angry.

"The Council took all of the DHSTs into custody. Wesley is at Headquarters now, trying to get them reinstated," Buffy replied.

 Riley nodded, but didn't relax. He wanted to get back to Council Headquarters, away from Buffy. He couldn't stand the sight of her pining over that animal. The Slayer was visibly tense, her vision couldn't stay fixed on one spot for more than a second and her fingernails were chewed down to the quick. She gave up pacing half an hour earlier, much to the relief of Riley and Lindsey.

 It was another half an hour before one of the medics opened the door to the small room in which Buffy, Riley and Lindsey were waiting. The Slayer immediately jumped to her feet, all of her attention riveted on the young woman with long dishwater blonde hair.

"A-are you M-m-ms. Summers?" she stuttered, blushing as she did so.

"Yes," Buffy replied impatiently.

The girl smiled, still blushing with embarrassment at her uncontrollable stutter. "S-subject V73 is fine. We're r-r-releasing him now."

Buffy nodded, smiling gratefully as she noted the name on the badge that was clipped to the girl's shirt, Tara. Looking over her shoulder, she motioned for Riley and Lindsey to follow as she headed out the door to the front desk. Angel was already there when they arrived, looking as amenable as a wet cat. He glared as Riley follow on Buffy's heels.

 

"Ready?" Buffy asked, clenching her hands into fists to prevent herself from reaching for him.

Angel nodded curtly, his expression softening as he looked at her.

Silently, the four walked to the underground parking garage, toward the large, white, windowless van in which they had arrived. Producing the keys, Riley opened the back doors and stood aside. Lindsey hopped into the back, and quickly took a seat on the bare floor. Angel looked at Buffy, his eyes locking with hers for a long moment before he crawled much more gingerly into the van.  

Riley shut the door with a resounding thud that earned him a glare from Buffy.

*****

"Just wait out here for a sec'," Buffy said to Riley, avoiding his gaze.

They were standing in front of the door to Angel's suite at the Hyperion. Angel was already inside and Buffy was standing on the threshold, her expression guarded. Riley's face wasn't so passive. It was plainly evident that he didn't like the idea of her alone in a DHST's private quarters. He settled for saying, "We need to get to headquarters ASAP."

Buffy nodded and walked through the door, closing it behind herself. The room was quiet, dimly lit. On the far side of the suite visible through the open French doors, Angel lay on his bed, one arm thrown over his eyes. His bed wasn't large, a double, and his feet hung off the end. Slowly, he raised the arm and his eyes locked with hers. 

"Riley's waiting," he said, his voice betraying much more of his irritation with that fact than he would have cared to disclose. 

"I know," she replied quietly, reaching behind herself to lock the door.

 Neither of them moved. Buffy was hyper-aware of her too fast breathing and her sweating palms. Was this what other women went through? The confusion, the uncertainty. The fervent kisses they shared seemed like lifetimes ago rather than hours.

"Buffy?" he said quietly, turning her name into a question.

 "I just wanted to make sure you're okay," she replied, unable to give voice to all of her concerns. She had to do something to distract herself, and seeing to his physical wounds seemed to be a good place to start.

He smiled warmly, lowering his arm to his side. "I'm fine," he said.

Well acquainted with male posturing, Buffy decided not to take his word for it. All her life she was surrounded by males intent on proving they were tougher than she. Experience taught her not to take their claims at face value. "Humor me," she said, as she made her way across the room with a confidence and detachment she didn't really feel. 

Dutifully, Angel pulled his singed and rumpled shirt over his head and lay back again, his arms stretched out at his sides.

Buffy gasped.

"Told you," he said as she looked at the flawless expanse of pale chest. All of his earlier wounds were completely gone.

Buffy didn't stop to think, she crawled onto the bed, running her hands along his skin, verifying tactilely that his wounds were indeed no more. Her fingertips told the same story as her eyes. His flesh was whole.

"How?" she asked. Buffy knew that vampires healed faster than humans, especially well-fed ones, which Angel definitely was. But even taking that into account, his recovery was nothing short of miraculous.

"That girl," he replied, "the one at the clinic."

Buffy's brow creased as her fingertips trailed along his cool skin, tickling over his ribs. "Tara?" she asked.

"Mm-hmm," Angel almost purred, his lips curving into a smile as she continued to touch him. "She's a Wicca. She cast a healing spell."

"Oh," Buffy said quietly. Magic workers weren't common outside of Council employ, but she knew that a small community of them lived in The City. She did wonder, however, why the girl had chosen to spend her powers on a vampire. 

Angel opened his eyes and looked at Buffy as if reading her mind. "She did it as a favor," he said, leaving no room for misunderstanding. "I know her girlfriend." 

Buffy blinked at him owlishly and Angel smiled. "We were in DHST training together," he said.

Slowly Buffy nodded in comprehension, trying to take everything he said in stride. So, Tara was not only a Wicca and a lesbian, but her lover was a vampire. If he could be so blasé about it, then so could she. Buffy might have been significantly younger, but she was determined to show Angel that she could be every bit as cosmopolitan as he. The fact that she was blushing did belie some of her cool.

As her slight shock wore off, it was replaced once again by fatigue. She yawned sleepily. Angel stared at her, noticing the strain on her features.

"You're tired," he said, reaching up to run his fingertips along her cheek.

 She nodded and then glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. Turning back to face him, she said, "I have to go. They're holding up the meeting for me."

Angel nodded solemnly, but rather than letting her go, he gently grasped her jaw and pulled her lips down to his. His kiss was gentle undemanding and as his lips languidly nipped at hers, Buffy sighed in relief. Angel pulled her closer, using one hand to cradle her face, while the other found her hip and eased her body down next to his on the bed.

He broke off the kiss to look at her and ran his fingertips reverently along her brow, then her jaw, and finally her lips. As their eyes met, Buffy's heart ached. What had she been worried about? Angel wasn't like the other guys she knew. He wasn't going to pretend to like her and then brag to his friends that he got to second base with the Slayer. He wasn't going to make her feel cheap or replaceable. He truly valued her, mind and body.

 She reached up and stroked her deceptively delicate-looking hand against his stubble roughened cheek. Angel closed his eyes blissfully and nuzzled into her palm. A deep rumbling purr began in his chest and Buffy felt her insides go liquid at the sound. She pulled him close for a hungry kiss. 

Angel let her take the lead, surrendering control easily. He would be her willing captive any time. She ran her tongue along his bottom lip, and Angel opened his mouth, allowing her questing tongue entrance. She was gentle and timid, but determined. Her tongue made quick, furtive forays into his mouth, barely daring to brush against his before retreating. Angel's fingers twined through her hair, pulling her closer when he could no longer lay still.

Buffy jumped, breaking the kiss as someone in the hallway banged on the door hard enough to rattle it in the frame.

"Buffy!" Riley bellowed. "We need to go." 

Buffy sighed heavily and looked at Angel. He was irritated, but obviously not in a position to do much about it. What could he do? It wasn't like he could admit that he was seeing Buffy, much less demand that Riley back off. Their relationship was against the rules, written and unwritten.

 "I have to go," Buffy said quietly. She pressed a quick, final kiss to Angel's lips before rising from the bed. The vampire remained silent and some part of Buffy knew that he did so because he didn't trust himself to speak. Angel wasn't a coward. He wasn't accustomed to having to hide anything, certainly not his involvement with a woman, but that was exactly what he was being forced to do. Regardless of their unfairness, Angel was playing by the rules, for her sake.

It made Buffy feel like a coward. And like a coward, she left the room without looking back.

*****

Riley was silent in the van next to her, but his fury was a palpable force. "How can you treat it like it's a person?" he seethed, no longer able to hold his tongue. 

Buffy stared straight ahead. "My relationship with Angel is none of your business," she said succinctly.

"Relationship?" he hissed incredulously. "Humans do not have relationships with monsters."

Buffy turned to face him. "Really?" she asked flippantly. "And how would you know this?"

"I know you're making a mistake," Riley said. "I know you're too good to be involved with a creature."

Buffy snorted loudly, discretion be damned. "Angel does something that no one in my life has ever done. He treats me like I'm normal," she replied.

Riley turned his head towards her, his vision flicking between her and the road. "You've got to be kidding me," he said. 

"I wish I were," she countered dryly. "I've had dates with human guys and most of them were one time shots, sort of like they did it on a dare. I have a human boyfriend. And he is embarrassed to be seen with me. He keeps trying to mold me into something I'm not. He makes me ashamed of what I am. Angel doesn't do that. He accepts me for who I am, not what I am, and I do the same for him."

 Riley stared at her blankly for several minutes as her confession sunk in. Very quietly, he said, "We're not all like that, Buffy. Ford's an asshole, I'll grant you that, but it doesn't mean that you have to turn to a monster for acceptance. You're an amazing woman, Buffy."

Buffy turned and looked out the window. It occurred to her that Riley's objections to her involvement with Angel weren't simply based on his aversion to DHSTs. Riley was jealous. He was interested in her. A real, live, attractive, intelligent human guy was interested in her. Riley was everything she had ever thought she wanted. He was good looking, charming, dedicated and seemed genuinely nice.

But he wasn't Angel.

The revelation hit Buffy like a ton of bricks. It did not matter if Angel was a vampire. She didn't care if she was compromising herself by being with him. She wanted to be with Angel. Even when she was being offered everything she ever thought she wanted with Riley, he still paled in comparison to Angel. 

"I love him," Buffy said quietly.

Riley swallowed harshly at her revelation, keeping his vision glued to the road. The woman he loved was in love with a vampire. He wanted to curse and scream and beat the crap out of something, but he didn't. He maintained his silence.

Riley did a lot of thinking, both while crawling around the abandoned sewer tunnels, and while waiting on Angel to be released. Buffy was young. She was the victim here. He knew that vampires were rumored to have powers over humans. It wasn't Buffy's fault. She couldn't help herself.

Riley felt more sure of himself and his choices. Buffy simply needed help. She needed to be away from Angel. If he could break the vampire's spell, then he and Buffy would have a real chance together. Riley knew that no one would ever really value Buffy the way he did.

With a deep sigh, Riley knew he made the right decision. Calling Quentin Travers with the information he had was the right thing to do. In the long run, it would save Buffy. He would save Buffy.

*****

She looked up and recognition passed over the gruff looking biker's face, quickly morphing into something close to fear. "Sorry," he muttered as he quickly stepped aside and allowed her to step around him and into the alley. Out of habit, she turned up the collar on her jacket, not to ward off the cold, but to help hide her face. She kept her eyes on the pavement as she walked, letting her shoulder length red locks further aid her anonymity.

Slayer.

The word was always uttered with something between reverence and fear. Maybe it wasn't between. Maybe it was the same thing. Humanity both loved and feared its gods. Perhaps in the big scheme of things, the Slayer was a minor deity. The thought brought a wry smile to her face. But the smile quickly faded. She wasn't a person. She was an instrument, a tool, a means to an end. She was forever Slayer and never simply Justine.

Buffy took a deep breath as that particular memory faded to blackness. Justine's self-hatred, her loneliness, all of it had been so palpable, so resonant. She remembered glimpses of the Slayer who was killed when Buffy herself was but a child. She always thought Justine so strong, so impervious to everything. She never would have imagined the pain Justine had carried within herself.

The darkness swirled around, once again taking the form of a memory. Buffy looked down at her naked body. Not hers, Justine's, but it was unnerving nonetheless. But in the dream/memory, Justine was not unnerved. She was at peace in a way she had never known. Slowly, she turned onto her side and placed a lazy, open mouthed kiss on her lover's chest. She giggled and looked up, meeting his intensely blue eyes.

The absolute reverence in his gaze hit her hard. Love. He loved her. But it was not the impersonal affection that everyone else had ever given her, Holtz, the Council, the inhabitants of The City. He truly loved her - Justine. She reached up and ran her fingertips over his brow. "Doyle," she whispered. Her hand traveled down his body until it rested over his heart. She pressed it there.

Buffy knew the sensation. Doyle's body was still, with neither heartbeat nor breath. It was what Angel felt like when she touched him. Her eyes pricked with tears the same as Justine's. She looked at Doyle, at his coal dark hair, at his laughing blue eyes and she smiled sadly. He returned the gesture, but his was as pain filled as hers. He understood her aching, her distress, her absolute loneliness because he lived with it as well. Together they had found some measure of comfort, some middle ground where they were not Slayer and vampire, but one lost soul to another.

Carefully, Doyle pulled her into his arms and cuddled her close. "Forever," he whispered, his brogue thick. "I will love ya forever, Justine."

 ****

"Wake up," the voice said impatiently. "You can go inside now." 

Buffy slowly woke and groaned aloud as she blinked rapidly to clear her vision. She fell asleep in a rather uncomfortable chair while waiting for her turn before the Council's Executive Committee. Standing over her was Anya, looking none too pleased at having to be in attendance. Buffy really couldn't blame the half-demon. She knew that it had to be uncomfortable for Anya to be in Council Headquarters.

Blinking, Buffy looked at her watch. It was shortly after three in the afternoon. She took a deep breath and held it for several long seconds. Her second dream or message or whatever from another Slayer since she had known Angel still clung to her. Justine found peace and love and acceptance. And she also found death. But the memories weren't of Justine's execution, they were of her loneliness and then of her happiness. Was that Justine's way of saying it had been worth it? Buffy pushed away the other Slayer's memories.  

"Now?" she mumbled, rubbing her eyes. Beside her, Riley did much the same thing.

"You better hurry," Anya replied. "They're waiting on you specifically."

Buffy made a rather unfriendly face. She and Riley had hurried to get to the damn meeting and then had been stuck in the waiting room for hours while the Council debated the fate of Walsh's former DHSTs. At least she managed to catch up on some sleep, but she just wished it was over. She wanted to go home. She wanted to see Angel. She wanted to curl up in bed with him as Justine had done with Francis Doyle, DHST Subject number H19.

 As she and Riley walked down the hallway towards the boardroom, Buffy could hear shouts. The Watchers' Council was notorious for heated debates and she had seen enough of them to know that this wasn't going to be pleasant. Two armed Council soldiers automatically opened the doors as they approached the Executive Chambers. As Buffy stepped into the room, all conversation died.

A cursory glance informed her that there were about a hundred people in attendance though only twenty of them, the Council's Executive Committee and a few other notables, had the right to speak. The Executive Committee members were seated around a large U shaped table. Wesley stood behind a podium in the middle of the U as was traditional of those standing before the Committee. He did not look pleased.

"Miss Summers, Agent Finn," Quentin Travers drawled, "so nice of you to join us."

Buffy nodded curtly towards Travers and the rest of the Executive Committee. Holtz and Giles were both seated around the table despite the fact that they were not Committee members. They looked as discontented as Wesley. Travers on the other hand, looked very happy. That alone made Buffy nervous. The Executive Committee consisted of fifteen Watchers. Alone, the Watchers were not particularly influential, but the Executive Committee en mass was a force to rival Holtz's position, a sort of built-in system of checks and balances. Travers resented Holtz's power as Head of the Watchers' Council and consequently he turned the Executive Committee into his own private soapbox. He ruled over it with flourish.

"You wanted to see me," Buffy said, careful to keep her face and voice neutral.

Travers smiled cordially, too cordially. It made Buffy shiver. "Yes," he said. "We were hoping that you could clear up a few ... misunderstandings for us." 

"If I can," Buffy said cautiously. The Executive Committee was not known for its interest in a Slayer's opinions.

"Enough of this absurdity," Holtz growled. "The Slayer has no bearing on the issue before the Committee. Her presence and opinions are irrelevant. I, for one, will not be a party to Travers' grandstanding."

Travers flushed hotly and glared at Holtz. Several of the Committee members shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Some of the other Watchers who were viewing the proceedings from rows of chairs behind the Committee snickered. Travers twisted around in his chair and glared at the gallery. All of the snickering stopped. 

Turning back to face Holtz, Travers grinned. It did not look friendly. "I am very interested to find out Miss Summers' opinion on this matter," he said.

Holtz remained silent, but his gaze slipped to his adopted daughter. As their eyes met, his glare softened. "You do not have to do this, Buffy," he said softly. "The Committee has no authority to compel you to speak on this matter."

Buffy looked at her adoptive father and then at Giles. The latter's face was pale, tight with tension. They were both afraid. Afraid for her. Buffy didn't know what was going on, but it was big. She felt like she was flying blind. She opened her mouth to speak and Travers held up his hand.

"Council Leader Holtz is correct," Travers said. "Neither I nor this Committee have the power to compel you to speak. However," he said, gesturing to guards at the door, "I wanted to know if you had any opinions to voice before we put this beast to death."

Buffy watched as two Council soldiers dragged a badly bruised and beaten Angel through the doors. They dropped him onto the floor and he didn't attempt to rise, simply lying on the floor bleeding. Only hours before, Buffy had marveled at the wholeness of his body and now his flesh was broken and battered once again. It didn't escape her notice that the Council's torture of Angel had obviously been much harsher than Walsh's. Buffy's initial reaction was to run to his side, but Riley grabbed her upper arm, holding her still. She turned to push him away, but Holtz caught her eye and shook his head.

"This creature," Travers said, "was witnessed attacking Agent Finn. As the Slayer, I am certain you know the penalty for this crime is death."

Buffy turned and looked at Riley. She searched his face for answers that the soldier obviously held. Reluctantly, Riley met her gaze. "It's for the best, Buffy," he said quietly.

Buffy ripped her arm out of Riley's grasp, taking several steps away. Her expression was one of betrayal and anger. Swallowing her rage at Riley, she turned to Travers, her expression stony. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded, fighting to remain calm and professional when all she wanted to do was launch herself over the table and rip Travers' expression off of his smug face.

"You are the Slayer," he said with a smile. "It is your job to destroy vampires. I would assume the rest is obvious."

"I protect The City," she said through clenched teeth.

"Indeed," Travers mused. "One of the greatest threats to The City is the threat from within, the threat that our DHSTs will lash out against us. Subject V73 did just that. He attacked a Council soldier, we have a hundred witnesses who will testify to that." 

"Under penalty of death," Wesley raged, no longer able to remain silent. "You tortured those defenseless beings until they told you what you wanted to hear. And even now, you will give merit to their words so that they may condemn one of their brethren, but as soon as he is dead, they will cease to mean anything to you!"

 Travers turned haughtily towards Wesley and said, "Such is our right."

 Buffy was shaking with rage as she looked at Holtz and Giles. Their faces were masks, but she could still sense their fear for her. She smiled at the Committee, but it was simply a way to bare her teeth. How wrong she had been to think that Walsh and Varkesh were the threat. The real threat had been with her the entire time. Prejudice. Hatred. Jealousy. And Travers had used them all to perfection. A lifetime of hatred and he finally found a chink in Holtz's armor, the Slayer.

"Recess," Holtz bellowed, rising to his feet.

"I don't believe that is necessary," Travers said, his amusement was fading.

"I *will* speak with my daughter," Holtz said, his voice so low it was almost a growl.

For a moment it appeared that Travers would oppose him, but suddenly he smiled and nodded his head. "As you wish," he said.

*****

Holtz was in a rage by the time he slammed the door on to his private office within Council Headquarters. It was several doors down from the small auditorium in which they had spoken before Travers and his supporters. "You will not speak before the Committee!" Holtz roared, turning to face Buffy.

She stood in the middle of the room, pale, almost wan, exhibiting the classic signs of shock. Her face was utterly blank.

"Buffy," Giles said gently, laying a hand on her arm. She took no notice.

She blinked slowly and her eyes met Holtz's. "I love him," she said with a wry smile. "I'm a Slayer and he's a vampire and I love him."

"You're just a child," Holtz sneered. "You know nothing."

 "I know I won't let him die," she said quietly, but firmly. "Especially not like this. Not tortured to death by one of Travers' thugs. I won't stand here and watch in silence while he protects me."

"Protects you?" Holtz asked incredulously. "This is all his fault. If that goddamned animal would have kept his mind on business, none of this would have happened. He's the one that put you in danger."

"No," Buffy clarified, "he didn't. Angel would never hurt me. This isn't even about him. None of this is about him. It's about you and Travers and me and the Council and our policies towards these beings. Angel is just a ploy to bring things to a head. His life means nothing to anyone save me."

Holtz looked at Buffy, his jaw tight, but he didn't say anything.

"They will kill him regardless, Buffy," Giles said sadly. "A sacrifice on your part would serve no purpose except to give Travers more power." 

"I know," she said, her bottom lip quivering with emotion, "but I can't just stand idly by. I love him and I won't let him die thinking that I'm ashamed of him, that I'm ashamed of what we have." 

"Please," Holtz said, his voice gentle and pleading, "do not do this." 

"I have to," she said. "This is wrong. The Council is wrong. What Wesley is trying to do is right. The DHSTs working in The City have souls. They deserve more. They deserve respect and protection." 

"At the cost of your life?" Holtz demanded, his voice loud in the quiet space.

Buffy nodded sadly. "If necessary," she replied without pretense. "Do you honestly think that I could watch them murder the man I love and then go about business as usual?"

Giles and Holtz were both silent as they contemplated her words.

"I'm finished," Buffy said plainly. "I am through with the Council as it stands now. I am finished serving a government that exploits those in need. I cannot perform my duties in good conscience and I'm not naive enough to think that the Council will let me walk away. They need a Slayer. If I refuse to work for them, the only way they get a replacement is if I die. Either way, the result is the same."

"No, Buffy, it is not the same," Holtz said harshly. "Have no illusions, they will burn you to death. There is nothing noble or proud in choking on the stench of your own burning body."

Buffy swallowed harshly, but held Holtz's gaze firmly. "I know what they will do to me," she said quietly. "But I love him and I would rather die knowing that I never betrayed him than live to serve a corrupt system that I neither agree with nor respect." 

*****

Angel was conscious, broken and bleeding on the floor when Buffy resumed her earlier position before the Executive Committee. Riley, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen. Angel moved his mouth, trying to speak, but his jaw was broken in his earlier beating. Buffy blinked quickly and turned away, unable to watch him in so much pain. No doubt, he would heal in a matter of hours, but it didn't make the pain any less real. Looking at Holtz and Giles wasn't much better, so Buffy settled for fixing her gaze on Travers. 

Travers smiled like a cat in cream and said, "I see no reason to prolong this. If someone would be so kind as to provide Miss Summers with a stake, we can be done with this." 

Buffy blinked slowly, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out little by little. She opened her eyes. A Council soldier stood close, offering her a stake. She ignored him, all of her attention focused on Travers.

"I will not do it," she said clearly, her voice echoing in the stillness of the room.

 Travers nodded. He'd known all along how she would react. "You have no choice," he said. "As Slayer, it is your duty."

"I will not do it," Buffy repeated. She took a deep breath and said, "I will not murder my lover for your enjoyment."

There were several gasps from around the room. Buffy blushed in spite of herself, but did not let her gaze wander from Travers. She loved Angel. She was in love with Angel. Whether or not they had consummated their relationship was moot. They were lovers in intent if not in actuality and the Council would see no difference between the two.

No surprise was exhibited on Travers' face. "You admit to having relations with this animal?" Travers asked.

"I do," Buffy said.

Travers smiled in self satisfaction as his carefully plotted plan unfolded perfectly. "You realize the punishment for your admission is death?" he asked.

"Yes," Buffy replied, her voice oddly vacant of emotion.

"And you also realize that your death will in no way grant this beast reprieve?"

 Buffy nodded. "But he will not die alone," she said with quiet resolve.

*****

Buffy sat in the holding cell in Council Headquarters, staring at the blank white wall. She thought it would have been much more poetic if they would have thrown her in a dungeon, complete with rough stone walls and rusty manacles, but that would come soon enough. Council Headquarters was posh and modern, even their holding cells. The room was small, about ten feet square, all white walls, tiled floor. The heavy metal door had no handle on the inside and no window. Her chair and another like it were bolted to the floor.

Raising her hand, Buffy wiped the glob of spittle off her cheek and rubbed it on her worn and dirty cargo pants. A fervent young Watcher in training had decided to show Buffy just what she thought of the "vampire's whore". Buffy couldn't blame her. A year ago, she might have had the same reaction, though she liked to think she wouldn't have actually spat at someone.

There was a loud buzzing noise followed by a metallic thunk and the door to the cell swung outward to reveal Giles. Buffy remained seated while Council soldiers ushered the Watcher into the room and then closed the door behind him. He took the empty seat next to Buffy.

Buffy turned and looked at him, unsure of whether she wanted to laugh or cry. The latter won out and as a tear slipped from her eye, Giles gathered her in his arms. She collapsed against him and buried her face in his chest, breathing in the familiar, comforting scent that seemed to cling to all Watchers. He held her and rocked her, gently shushing her with nonsense words. 

Eventually she pulled back, self-consciously wiping her tears away with the backs of her hands. "Sorry about that," she hiccupped, as he handed her a handkerchief.

Giles smiled sadly at her, tears glistening in his own eyes. "I assure you that it was not a problem," he said.

Buffy took a deep breath and collected her resolve. "So," she said, "what happens now? 

Clasping his hands nervously, Giles cleared his throat. "I'm afraid from here it is standard procedure," he said. "You will be taken to Nihil Prison. The ... execution ... will be carried out during the Witching Hour." 

Buffy nodded in silence. The Witching Hour. A little over twenty-four hours away. Midnight on the night of the full moon. Supposedly it was when Slayers were at the height of their power. Buffy always questioned the wisdom of executing someone when they were at their strongest, but she wasn't in the mood to question it now. Slayers were supernatural beings and as such, tied to the lunar cycles. She never personally noticed any appreciable difference in her abilities during the Witching Hour, but it was tradition. The theory was if you executed a Slayer during the Witching Hour that the next Slayer called would be even stronger. It was the Council's way of ensuring that even a traitor's death served a purpose.

But Buffy didn't want to die. She was old enough to remember Justine's execution. She remembered the smell of burning flesh. Her stomach roiled at the memory and she gagged, coughing harshly. 

"Buffy," Giles said, laying a supportive hand on her arm. She turned and looked at him. "We'll find a way," he said brashly. "We'll get you out of this." 

Buffy shook her head. "Please don't," she said. "Please just stay out of this. It would destroy me if I knew that you and Holtz compromised yourselves because of me. Promise me you won't let him try to use his influence to sav

"Buffy ... " 

"Promise me," she pled.  

Giles looked at the young woman before him, so sad and so fragile yet so strong. He nodded. "I will do my best to keep Holtz out of it," he said.

"And you too," she said. "I don't want you to get into trouble because of me." 

Giles smiled sadly and raised his hand, cupping her cheek with his roughened hand. "That I cannot promise you," he said.

Tears glistened in Buffy's eyes once again and her bottom lip quivered. "You have to," she said, her voice barely a whisper.

He shook his head and a tear slipped out of the corner of his eye. "When they took you from me the first time, Buffy, I thought I would die. It destroyed your mother. I lost her. I can't lose you, not again, not if there is anything I can possibly do to prevent it."

Buffy's brow furrowed as she looked at him, uncomprehending what he had said. Slowly, Giles released her cheek and reached into the breast pocket of his dependable tweed jacket. He pulled out a worn photograph and handed it to Buffy. The picture was of a much younger Giles. He was standing with a pretty young blonde woman and she was holding a tiny little baby wrapped in a soft pink blanket.

Giles cleared his throat. "That is the day we brought you home from the hospital," he said with a smile.

Buffy looked at the picture and started crying again. She reached out and Giles hugged her tightly, burying his face in her hair as he cried too. Long minutes later, they broke away and Buffy looked at the picture again.  

"What was her name?" she asked, lightly tracing her mother's picture with her fingertip.

"Joyce," Giles said.

 "Joyce," Buffy repeated quietly.

"You are so much like her," Giles said, reaching out to tuck a lock of Buffy's hair behind her ear. "She loved you so much."

The door buzzed again loudly and a Council soldier pulled it open. "Time's up," he said gruffly.

*****

Riley was cleaning his sidearm when Forrest entered the small room, his face somber. "Hey, Ri, man I know you're probably upset, but if it's any consolation, I think you did the right thing." 

Slowly, Riley looked up and met his friend's gaze. "About what?" he asked. 

Forrest looked at his friend in bewilderment for a moment. "I thought you knew," he said. "I thought you were the one that narced on the bitch."

Riley frowned at his friend's reference to Buffy. He knew that Forrest had never condoned Riley's fascination with the Slayer. "I told Travers about her and the DHST," Riley said harshly.

Forrest nodded. "They're executing her," he said.

"What?" Riley exclaimed, bolting out of his chair.

Forrest took a step back. He had no intention of allowing Riley to shoot the messenger. Holding his hands up in front of himself, he said, "I thought you knew. She refused to put the beast down. The Council found her guilty of treason. They're burning her, man."

Riley's world spun. He hated Angel and felt no remorse about his role in whatever the DHST's punishment would be. But Buffy ... Gods, no, not Buffy. He never even entertained the possibility that she would refuse her responsibilities. She admitted to loving that monsters. He couldn't believe it.

Sitting down heavily in his chair, he cradled his head in his hands. This couldn't happen. Regardless of how disgusted he was by Buffy's behavior, he still cared for her deeply. "We have to do something," he said quietly.

Forrest's jaw tightened. As much as he knew Buffy's death would pain Riley, he had been glad for it. Riley would never get over the girl as long as she was still around, but now Forrest was afraid his friend was going to try something stupid. He wouldn't let Riley throw his life and his career away on some vampire's whore. He wouldn't. 

*****

Nihil prison was located in the oldest section of The City, close to the Hellmouth. While the rest of The City prided itself on being lush and green, teeming with life, this district, known as The Void, lived up to its name. The ground was stark and barren. The founders salted the earth around the Hellmouth so thoroughly that nothing could grow near it for miles. The Void's bleak appearance fit Buffy's mood well. 

Nihil prison was the first thing the founders built and it hadn't been improved upon much in the intervening centuries. It was a large stone structure, ominous and foreboding. It was in dire need of repairs that were never made. Why bother? The prisoners housed at Nihil had no rights, no voice. People came to Nihil to die and for no other reason.

Buffy didn't fight as the half dozen Council soldiers escorted her out of the van and into the horrific structure. There would have been no point. Even if she wasn't shackled, the poisons the techs shot her up with before she was removed from Council Headquarters were doing their job. She couldn't have bested one of the soldiers in a fair fight at the moment, much less all of them. 

She stumbled as they crossed the threshold and one of the soldiers caught and steadied her. Buffy looked up. The letters over his left breast pocket declared him to be Agent Graham Miller. Agent Miller looked like he was having a dilemma. Slowly, he released her arm and stepped back, his expression stony. He was trying to be a big bad soldier. Buffy smiled at him and it was a genuine, gentle expression. She knew it couldn't be easy for Agent Miller. He probably didn't approve of the fact that her boyfriend was a vampire, but how many guys really wanted to watch a girl their own age burn to death? How many of them were willing to chain her to the stake and light the fire themselves? She almost felt bad for the fact that her death was going to permanently scar something inside of Agent Miller. 

There was no paperwork at Nihil, no bureaucratic hoops to jump through. She was simply marched down a set of foul smelling stairs and into an empty cell. Bare stone walls, iron bars, drafty and dank; it fit more with her idea of a prison. Somehow she wasn't comforted. One of the soldiers injected her with another dose of the Cruciamentum "drugs" before the entire group departed, leaving her utterly alone.

Buffy rubbed the inside of her arm. Cruciamentum drugs, holdovers from when the Council used to "test" their Slayers, more than a millennium before. They weren't drugs. Drugs implied some useful purpose or at the very least an enjoyable high. The Cruciamentum drugs were poisons. In the short run, they diminished her preternatural strength to human standards. Prolonged expose would lead inevitably to death. Of course, given that she would be executed the next night, she would not be dying from the poison. 

There was a small bunk attached to the stone wall that looked surprisingly clean. Maybe this cell was reserved for Slayers. Buffy sat down and idly fingered the neatly folded blanket and pillow. She could hear agonized screams, but they sounded very far away. Buffy surmised that she was being kept a good distance from Nihil's general population. 

She leaned forward and cradled her head in her hands. Unbidden, tears streamed from her eyes but she did nothing to staunch the flow. Where was Angel? Were they hurting him? She laughed mirthlessly to herself. The Council was going to kill him, why not torture him first? Giles and Holtz had been right. Her death would grant him no leniency, no mercy. If anything the guards would be even more ruthless in their treatment of him because of her confession. They would punish Angel for daring to rise above his station. They would make him a walking lesson on what happened to vampires who dared to touch humanity.  

But the point of her confession had not been to save him. It had been to let the world know that she loved him and that she had every right to love him. Angel was a person. He had a soul, a beautiful, strong, gallant soul that spoke to something deep inside of her. She could not deny what he meant to her for any cost.

"Buffy." 

Lifting her head, Buffy looked up and found Holtz standing behind the barred wall of her cell. The hall was very dim, illuminated only by several torches burning in the hallway. Idly, she wondered how long she had been sobbing. Night had obviously fallen. She tried to smile at him and failed miserably.  

"Oh, child," he said, his voice hoarse, as he blinked back tears.

She rose and walked over to the bars. Holtz embraced her through the cold metal and tear tracks lined his cheeks. Absently, she reached up and wiped one away from his grizzled cheek. "Don't cry," she said, her bottom lip sticking out in a pout as she fought to do the same.

Holtz sighed raggedly, his frayed nerves showing through. "I'm so sorry, Buffy," he said, his voice low and harsh. "You deserved so much more from me, from the entire family." 

Buffy shrugged and stepped back a few inches, wrapping her arms around her middle. "I know why you did it," she said, "and I don't blame you."

He shook his head sadly. "You should," he said. "You should." 

"I can't," she said. "I've never known any different."

Holtz groaned harshly and cursed himself, the Council and the entirety of human society for their short sightedness. Buffy was a Slayer, but it was not who she was. She was a human. She deserved love and affection, tenderness, a family. She never had any of those things. And now she never would. Another tear coursed down his cheek at the realization that he was as much to blame for that fact as anyone.

"What did the Council decide about the DHSTs?" she asked, changing the subject.

 Holtz took a deep breath and let it out harshly. "Termination," he said. "Despite Wyndam-Price's obvious passion, Travers managed to convince them that it was too great a security risk. He argued that once the DHSTs were compromised that they would always present a security hazard."

Buffy stared blankly. "They're going to kill them all?" she asked, her voice tiny. 

Holtz smiled and it had a hard edge. "If they can find them," he said.

A frown creased Buffy's brow.

"They seem to have disappeared," Holtz said, his amusement obvious. "And when the Council sent soldiers to retrieve Mr. Wyndam-Price, he was gone as well."

Buffy smiled in spite of her foul mood. She should have known that Wesley wouldn't count on the Council's benevolence. He was a smart man. 

Gruffly, Holtz cleared his throat. "I didn't come alone," he said.

Buffy stared at him, but didn't say anything. She wasn't sure she wanted to see her adopted sisters. They had never been close and it would just be awkward. "Do you think that's a good idea?" she asked. 

Holtz smiled wryly. "Probably not," he said, "but I am not in a position to do anything to change your fate. This one small comfort I can give you."  

Holtz turned and nodded to someone down the hall. Buffy's brow furrowed as she looked on. What was Holtz up to? She watched as two Council soldiers stepped into view. Between them they supported Angel's limp, shirtless form. Buffy's breath caught in a sob. He looked terrible, even more mangled and bloody than she had seen him the last time. His head lolled forward so that his chin rested against his bare chest. She covered her mouth with a shaking hand. 

"I know it is painful," Holtz said, "but I thought ... I thought it might be better than nothing."

Buffy nodded frantically and pressed herself against the bars, reaching out to touch Angel. He stirred as her fingers skimmed along the swollen and bruised flesh of his face. 

"Open it," Holtz barked. A Nihil prison guard appeared with a set of keys. The door swung open and Buffy stepped back as the soldiers moved Angel into the cell and deposited him on the small bunk. 

"You know this is against policy," the guard said to Holtz.

"You are being well compensated for your blindness," Holtz replied dryly. He had no illusion about what his actions could cost him. He bribed the grunts in charge of carrying out executions for Angel's life. Although Angel was at the center of an enormous controversy, he was essentially nothing more than another vampire. Buying his life had not proved exceptionally difficult. Of course, when the Council soldiers arrived to retrieve Buffy for the execution, they would find Angel. But by that time, it would no longer matter.

The Council soldiers hurried from the cell, but Buffy was oblivious as she crouched next to Angel, sobbing quietly. She turned as the cell door swung shut loudly. Her eyes met Holtz's and held them for long moments. "Thank you," she said quietly.

He smiled, but his expression was tight, pained. "Please know, Buffy, if there was anything else I could do ... " 

"I know," she said. "But this is enough." 

Holtz's boots clicked loudly on the stone floor as he left, but Buffy was too preoccupied to notice. Her face was pressed tightly against Angel's chest, her arms wrapped around him as she sobbed. 

"Buffy," he murmured, wrapping his arms around her. He tugged on her, urging her onto the bunk with him. 

"You're hurt," she said, protesting as he tried to drag her on top of his abused body. 

"Don't care," he managed to say though his split lips.

With a sharp sob, she crawled onto the bunk, her knees on either side of his hips, trying to spare him even her meager weight. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and cried, clinging to him. He wrapped his arms around her, rubbing her back lightly. 

She pulled back, pushing herself up on her arms and looked down at him miserably. "I'm sorry," she said. "You shouldn't be the one comforting me. You're the one who's hurt."

He tried to smile closed-lipped at her, but his face was so puffy and bruised it didn't really work. One of his eyes was almost swollen shut, blood dried across it from his split eyebrow had left a trail down his cheek that looked black in the shadow shrouded cell. Her bottom lip trembled as she reached out and lightly stroked his cheek. He turned into the contact searching for more, though she knew even her gentle touch had to cause him pain.  

She had to make him better. She had to. She couldn't bear to see him like this, broken and pained. How did you make a vampire better? Blood. She needed blood. Watcher's blood. But she didn't have any. "Dammit!" she cursed, another tear trailing down her cheek.

"What?" he asked, touching her arm lightly. 

"We need blood," she said, "but I don't have a Watcher."

Angel smiled sadly and furtively looked away. Buffy knew the expression. It was the one he gave her when he was trying to hide something. "What?" she demanded.

"Nothing," he mumbled, his mouth too damaged to articulate clearly. "It doesn't matter." 

She gripped his shoulders and he winced. She immediately let go, but pled, "Please, Angel, tell me. If there is anything that can help, please tell me."

"Legend has it that Slayer's blood is the best for healing," he said. Her face lit up, but he stopped her, "But it doesn't matter."

"Yes it does!" she said. "I can make you better."

He shook his head. His expression defeated but firm.

"Angel, please," she begged, "just take some. I don't mean for you to drink me dry, but anything has to be better than this."

He shook his head. "I can't." 

"Dammit, Angel!" she raged, tears streaming down her face. "Just do it!"

Closing his eyes, Angel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He opened his eyes and looked at her calmly. Slowly, he opened his mouth, drawing back his swollen lips as much as he was able. The movement was awkward and painful, his broken jaw still in the process of healing. At first Buffy couldn't figure out what he was trying to do. The lighting was dim, but as the torchlight flickered, she went stone still.

"No," she said, her voice a near whisper. Angel was literal when he said he couldn't take blood from her. The flesh of his gums where his teeth should morph into fangs when he slipped into game face looked like so much ground beef. Someone ripped the fangs out and parts of the gum as well, ensuring that he could not feed from her or anyone else.  

Everything was suddenly hot. She leaned over the edge of the bunk, retching violently. She hadn't eaten in days and there was nothing for her stomach to expel. She dry heaved several times and then broke down sobbing again. Angel gathered her against his body, his hands tracing circles on the small of her back.

Buffy allowed Angel hold her for several moments, but then broke out of his embrace, springing to her feet as she paced frantically around the cell. She possessed no weapons, nothing to use to draw blood except her own teeth and she couldn't bring herself to do that. She ran her fingers over the walls, the cell bars, everything looking for something to use. There was nothing.

"Buffy," Angel said quietly, propping himself up on one elbow as he looked at her. 

She turned and met his gaze, her expression driven. Angel saw the idea wash over her as she looked at him. In an instant, she was on all fours on the cold stone floor next to him. Her hands explored underneath the mattress, probing the wire mesh that supported the bunk. She smiled in triumph. Her nimble fingers unwrapped one of the rigid wires. A second before Angel fully realized what she intended, Buffy gripped the wire in one hand and drove it into the wrist of the opposite hand.

Angel stared at her, eyes wide. For a moment, the hole was simply that, a hole in her otherwise perfect skin, but slowly, deep red blood welled in it, glistening in the meager light. It wasn't flowing freely, but it was there, her sharp essence clinging to it, making it a living thing.

Cradling her wounded wrist in the opposite hand, Buffy carefully held it out to Angel, offering him the nourishment that only her flesh could provide. His breath came sharply as his entire being fixated on her life's blood, watching as a crimson rivulet crept down the tender, milky-white interior of her forearm. He could not quell his reaction, his hunger; ravenous not simply for the blood, but for Her blood. Leaning forward, he carefully grasped her arm, gripping her with the bare tips of his fingers. He inhaled deeply, reveling in her scent, in the decadent relish her willingness imparted to her offering. Ever so slowly, his cool tongue touched her heated flesh, savoring her gift. Buffy gasped, her head falling back with their contact. Languorously, he lapped at the trail running down her arm, following it back to the source. Her wound was not deep and did not bleed appreciably. Angel laved the area with his tongue, but did not suckle. In mere moments, the wound was closing. Angel groaned, a sound of pain as he lay back on the bunk, still clutching Buffy's now healed wrist.  

"No," she protested, knowing the wound was already closed. He hadn't taken enough to cause any discernable healing. His face was still swollen and bruised. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice thready and quiet. Defeat caused her shoulders to slump.

 He rolled his head to the side, watching her carefully. A smile crept across his bruised features. Buffy was spellbound as his teeth came into view. His perfect teeth. He hadn't taken enough to heal his entire body, but the interior of his mouth was flawlessly mended.

"How?" she asked breathily.

"I told you," he said, his voice more fluid, "Slayer's blood is the best. I have read historical accounts of vampires being healed by it, but I have to admit, I never dreamed ..."

Buffy looked at him quizzically. "Why did you act like it hurt?" she asked.

"Because it does hurt," he said seriously. "Healing at this rate is painful. It's like my flesh is burning, but - " 

"But?" Buffy prompted.

He looked at her sheepishly. "It's also ... exhilarating," he said, unable to meet her eyes.

When he was with Buffy, part of him loved to pretend he was human, that they were both human. He liked to imagine that they could have a normal life. Getting a rush from drinking your girlfriend's blood was decidedly not human, not normal. But if they were normal, they never would have met. He would have been dead centuries before she was born. Maybe being normal was overrated.

Angel lifted his eyes and met her intense gaze. His unnecessary breath caught in his throat. Predatorily, she crawled on top of him on the bunk, straddling his supine form. Her eyes held his as she lowered her head and flipped her hair, baring the right side of her neck. Angel swallowed harshly, unconsciously running his tongue over his newly reformed teeth.

"Drink," she said, and it wasn't a request.

Angel's hesitation melted away at her command. He held her gaze with his own and slowly slid the velvet caress of his hand around to the back of her neck, fingertips barely brushing against her skin. She shuddered at the contact, her eyes fluttering shut. His fingers tunneled through her hair until he could grip her luxurious locks. Buffy hissed as he sharply flexed his hand into a fist, pulling her hair taut in his grip while his other hand found her hip. Cautiously, he used his hold on her hair to draw her head down, elongating her neck, stripping her of any means of defense. Done quickly, his move was a predatory strike - one meant for killing, not for feeding. It afforded him the perfect angle from which to rip out her throat. But Angel's movements were not hurried. They were achingly slow, allowing Buffy every opportunity to read his intent, to retract her offer. She did not hesitate, collapsing forward so that her elbows rested on the bunk next to his ribcage, supporting her weight.

Buffy's fingers kneaded the muscled flesh of his upper arms like a kitten sharpening her claws, but Angel no longer seemed to notice any discomfort. In one languid, fluid movement, he drew her head down until her forehead rested against his shoulder. She was breathing rapidly, her pulse pounding as she crouched over him. The interior of her knees rubbed against his lean hips in a delicious friction that made her thighs quiver and her insides go liquid. His hand on her hip gently massaged her flesh.

The cool puff of his breath brushed against the flesh where her neck curved into her shoulder, dragging a needy whimper from her throat. Goosebumps raised on her flesh as her entire body tightened in unbearable anticipation. She panted openly, waiting for him to move, hungering for him to move. When his tongue finally snaked out to lave the vulnerable column of her neck, she moaned, rocking forward, pushing into both his mouth and the hand on her hip, pleading with him to deliver what he promised.

Angel pulled his mouth back mere centimeters. His lips parted as he took a harsh breath, drawing the air over his teeth and tongue so he could savor the taste of her skin. He could hear the blood pounding beneath her skin, see her pulse beating frantically. The clawing pressure of her fingers on his arms, her rigid posture above him as she waited for him to strike, all of it testified to her readiness. He could almost taste the flavor of her need as she panted against his shoulder.

She moved restlessly, trying to push her neck against his mouth in wanton invitation. Her own blunt little teeth found his shoulder, biting down on his flesh in an effort to quell the desperate whimpers issuing from her throat.

Her tentative, gentle bite was his undoing. With a rumbling snarl, he shifted into game face. Curling back his lips, Angel pressed the razor points of his newly reformed fangs to her flesh, easily pricking through the creamy perfection of her skin. Buffy moaned through her bite on his shoulder. Open mouthed, Angel panted harshly, his cool breath rushing past the points where his fangs shallowly penetrated her flesh. Only the tips had entered, causing tiny amounts of blood to bead around his fangs. Slowly, he sealed his lips around the bite and ever so tentatively sucked. Buffy shuddered, collapsing on top of his body. His body may have been abused, but not to the point of unresponsiveness. He was aroused, his body hard beneath her as their pelvises sealed together. Buffy moaned again and bit down harder, bruising the flesh of his shoulder as his fingers on her hip dug insistently into her flesh, holding her near.  

Angel couldn't take it anymore. The taste of her blood in his mouth, the scent of her need in the air, the scalding heat of her body against him as she mindlessly rubbed against his hardness ... He tightened his grip in her hair, wrenching her neck to the side, baring her even further to his assault as he bit violently into her flesh, glutting himself on the scalding heat of her blood. Buffy's fingers clawed into his arms as she let go of her bite, screaming even as she pushed herself further into his mouth, ground down harder against his erection. 

She could feel the absolute power of her blood as it ripped through his body. He released his bite, throwing his head back with an agonized howl of pleasure and pain. His body corded, his back bowing so violently, it thrust them both up off of the bunk so that only his heels and shoulders retained contact. Both of his hands found her hips, pulling her roughly against him as he bucked underneath her. Her body was already aroused to a fever pitch and his movements were enough to tip her over the edge, moaning in release. 

Ever so slowly, the world once again took shape. Buffy's eyes were open and she watched the torchlight play on the far stone wall. She lay heavy against him, boneless and limp, feeling the fire of her blood sweeping through him like a living flame eating at his bruised and broken flesh. In its wake, his body was perfect and whole, pristine. He did not breathe, but was still and serene as death.

She panted raggedly, stunned by her actions, feeling vulnerable and vaguely embarrassed. He hadn't even kissed her and look how she had responded. Her face burned with a crimson blush. After what seemed like an eternity, Buffy braced her arm and shifted her weight, intending to crawl off the bunk, hoping she could sink into the floor.

Angel grabbed her wrist and in the same fluid motion, twisted their bodies so that they were both lying more or less on their sides, her back pressed against the cold stone wall, her leg thrown over his hip. He took a deep breath, his first in several minutes and released it slowly in a rumbling purr as his game face slid away. He snuggled close to her, his arm wrapping around her back to hold her near. His lips rested against her temple and he pressed a long, tender kiss there. 

"I love you," he said on a purring sigh.

Tears pricked Buffy's eyes and she burrowed into the strong bulwark of his body, feeling the delicious vibrations of his purr. "I love you too," she said, pressing a kiss over his heart.

Angel moved his hand, tracing the edge of her jaw. Ever so lightly, he coaxed her chin up so he could look her in the eye. Even in the dim lighting, her could tell her face was stained with a blush, her eyes wide, her mouth tender and pouting. He pressed a gentle, closed-mouth kiss to her lips. Buffy sighed, her eyes fluttering shut as she kissed him back. His lips tasted faintly metallic, coppery, but not like blood - or at least not the way she had imagined it would taste after kissing a vampire that had just fed.

Angel nipped lightly at her lips, coaxing, playing. She was young and unpracticed and he knew she was doubting herself, wondering if her wild abandon made him think less of her. He didn't verbally disabuse her of the notion, knowing it would only embarrass her further. Instead, he chose to physically show her how much he reveled in her reactions. He let his body respond to hers readily, not holding back. Buffy nibbled at his lips and he allowed her to coax them apart. Her tongue swept in, exploring and he made a quiet, helpless sound. Rolling onto his back once again, he pulled her on top of him, never breaking the kiss. She was straddling him once mores, their pelvises pressed together. Buffy pulled away, pushing herself into a sitting position and looked down at him, her lips parted as she panted lightly. Her expression was tentative, nervous.  

He smiled at her, doing nothing to keep it from verging on a leer. He ran one of his hands through her tousled hair and then skimmed it down her neck. He continued down her body, just brushing the edge of her breast as his hand traveled downward until it rested on her hip. He rocked her pelvis against his as he thrust upward lightly, letting her feel the force of his arousal. "I like you like this," he said, his voice low and throaty.

She bit down on her bottom lip and closed her eyes. A slow smile spread across her features and her eyes fluttered open again. The heat in her gaze made his body tighter. "I can tell," she said, as she rocked against him. 

Angel arched slightly underneath her, moving into the contact. Very deliberately, he moved his other hand up to cup her cheek. Lightly he rubbed her cheekbone with his thumb. Buffy's expression sobered as she met his gaze.

"You are my world," he said sincerely.

She smiled and then leaned forward, kissing him deeply. "Love me," she whispered against his lips.

"I do," he said breathily.

She pulled back just far enough to look him in the eye. Her expression was sheepish and a blush crept into her cheeks. "No," she said, "I mean ..."

A feral expression stole over his features and he clasped her upper body to him with one arm as he rolled them over so he was doing a sort of half pushup over her as she lay on her back on the bunk. His elbows rested on either side of her head and he arched his pelvis against her. She mewled, her neck bowing as her eyes screwed shut with the delicious friction. Her hands came up to clasp his upper arms and her short fingernails dug into the corded muscle of his biceps. She was panting heavily as she relaxed underneath him, finally opening her eyes to meet his gaze. A look of pure masculine satisfaction was etched on his face.

"I know what you meant," he purred.

Buffy swallowed harshly, but did not look away. Angel dropped his head and kissed her again, stopping only when she was gasping for breath. He placed one last nipping kiss against her tender pink lips and then abandoned them for new territory. Buffy's fingers twisted in the hair at the nape of his neck as he kissed his way down her throat, nuzzling his beard roughened skin against the satiny texture of her own creamy flesh.

He stopped at the site of his feeding - his mark - gently laving the area with his tongue as he purred loudly. Despite how gentle his intentions had been, the bite was deep, the flesh rent. Already, it was bruising a rich, dark array of colors, black, purple and yellow. Angel knew the Council had injected Buffy with drugs. Though the drugs did not affect him, he could taste them in her blood, a sweet, cloying aftertaste to her pure essence. The Cruciamentum drugs created millennia ago, were designed to impair a Slayer's healing and strength as well as reflexes. He knew that because of the drugs, if she lived long enough to heal, she would always bear his mark. In its weakened state, her body would be unable to thoroughly repair the damage he had inflicted. The knowledge should have bothered him, made him ashamed of his actions, but it didn't. The idea of her flesh marred with his brand excited him. Other vampires would see her neck and know that she belonged to him. With a wicked smile, he thrust lightly against her as he licked the slowly healing flesh.

Uncontrollably, she tightened her grip on his hair as she arched her neck and upper back, offering him more of herself. Angel growled in appreciation but moved away from his mark, kissing across her collarbone. The shirt she wore was a tanktop, but it still covered quite a bit. He pressed kisses to the bare flesh of her upper chest, but then stopped and proceeded to nuzzle lightly against her fabric-obscured breasts. He went still with his face pressed against the soft material of her shirt. Raising his eyes, he met her gaze. 

In spite of their mutual attraction and adoration, they had only been intimate a couple of times. Angel's feeding from her had been very arousing, but sexually they never ventured this far. Buffy's hands were still curled around his neck, but they trembled as she read the raw hunger in his eyes. She was afraid, more of the unknown than of Angel. She knew he would never hurt her, never do anything that she wasn't comfortable with. Shakily, she let go of him. He pushed himself up on his arms, prepared to move off of her when she twisted her fingers in the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head.

Angel swallowed audibly, watching as her hair fluttered slowly back to rest on her now bare shoulders. Slowly, he lowered himself over her once again. Buffy was an adult. She knew what she was agreeing to, in theory if not actuality. He trusted her to stop him if he went too fast or too far.

She was breathing hard and each breath caused her chest to heave deliciously. Angel dropped his gaze and a blush coated Buffy from head to toe. She hadn't exactly dressed for the occasion. Not that she really owned any sort of underwear that could have been deemed "sexy", but a plain white cotton bra was definitely on the tame side. It didn't even have any lace or a bow.  

Just as Buffy opened her mouth to voice an excuse, Angel lowered his lips and kissed the valley between her breasts. She gasped, instinctively grabbing his shoulders. His gentle assault continued as he kissed the inner slope of her breast, using his teeth and tongue to worry the skin. A breathy whimper issued from her throat and he purred in response. Ever so cautiously, he worked his tongue under the fabric of her bra, laving the bare flesh beneath. Buffy hissed in pleasure, arching into his touch and he used the opportunity to move his large hands under her back. Very adeptly, he unhooked the clasp of her bra and slowly slid his hands around to her side, pulling the straps off of her shoulders as he went.  

He looked into her eyes, holding her gaze as he shifted his weight onto one arm and used the opposite hand to pull the garment away, leaving her bare. Goosebumps raised on her skin and she shivered slightly as the cool night air swirled around them both. She was horribly aware of how vulnerable, how naked, metaphorically and literally she felt. He watched the muscles in her throat work as she swallowed convulsively. Slowly, he dropped his gaze to her chest.

Buffy looked away, turning her head to the side so she could stare at the torchlight flickering on the stone wall. She waited for his appraisal, his reproach, the hurt she was accustomed to experiencing at male hands ... but instead she felt the cool, reverent slide of his lips across her bare breast. He whispered her name as if he were uttering something sacred. Her eyes screwed shut at the sensation and she made a high cooing noise as her fingernails bit into the corded muscle of his shoulders. Angel kissed her, suckling at her flesh and when he pulled her pebbled nipple between his teeth, worrying it roughly, it tore a gasp from Buffy's throat. She arched into him and he nursed at her flesh, using his teeth, his tongue, his lips to imbibe her essence.

He nursed at one breast for long moments and then dragged his lips and tongue across her chest to gently assault its twin while he cupped his recently abandoned territory in his large palm. One of Buffy's hands left his shoulder, skimming across his skin to curl into the hair at the nape of his neck once again. She held him to her as she shifted underneath him, cradling him more fully between her thighs and wrapping one of her slender legs around his. He was hard, insistent, his rigid flesh pressed between their bodies. Buffy's head lolled on the bunk as sensations assaulted her, Angel's mouth on her breast, Angel's hips rubbing against hers.

With an impatient sound, he pushed himself up until he was kneeling between her thighs on the narrow bunk. He reached for her ankle, cradling her foot in his hand as he quickly worked the laces of her boot free. Buffy smiled at the absolute concentration on his face and fought the urge not to cross her arms over her chest. When the boot was finally free, he tossed it carelessly over his shoulder, quickly doing the same with her sock. He repeated the action with her other foot and was crouched over her, kissing her before she knew what was happening.

He held himself above her, his weight supported on his knees and elbows, but his chest brushed against her tender nipples and Buffy broke the kiss, gasping. Angel took the opportunity to make his decadently sensuous way down her body, but this time he didn't stop to languish at her breasts. He took mouthfuls of the creamy flesh of her torso into his mouth, sucking and licking as he made his way ever lower. He stopped just above the waistband of her ragged cargo pants and pressed hard kisses to the taut flesh of her belly. He nipped and licked the skin. His hands came down to gently massage her hips and waist. Slowly, he looked up and met her gaze.

Buffy looked at him, her lips parted slightly as she panted, her long locks streaming across her bare chest, glimmered in the torchlight. Slowly, her tongue came out to wet her lips. She could read the question in his eyes and ever so slowly nodded her reply. Angel grinned against her skin and his talented fingers had the buttons undone and were skimming both her pants and panties down her thighs in short order. 

Buffy raised her hips to facilitate his actions and screwed her eyes shut as she heard the material pool on the cold stones. Angel knelt on the floor next to her discarded clothing, his upper body crouched over her legs, his hands resting on her now bare hips. She opened her eyes and looked at him. Holding her eye contact, he lowered his head, nuzzling in the curve of her hipbone as he kissed the warm, fragrant flesh. Moaning, Buffy arched against him, her eyes falling shut again. He chuckled lightly and changed his grip on her hips, pulling back far enough that his torso was between her spread legs, his hands under her thighs, grasping her, lifting her to his mouth as her legs draped across his muscled back. 

Blushing furiously, Buffy moved restlessly on the bunk. She couldn't believe he was doing this. She was scandalized, but also undeniably excited. With very deliberate actions, he kissed his way from her hipbone to her weeping core. Buffy shivered as his unnecessary breath tickled against the downy hair that covered her sex. With aching slowness, he pressed a kiss against her netherlips. A wailing cry broke from Buffy's lips and her hips rolled against him uncontrollably.

Angel chuckled in absolute glee at the situation, reveling in her response. Her hips strained against him in an expression of physical need and he set about assuaging her desire. His tongue parted her lips slowly, lapping at her core in long, languid licks. Buffy gasped, her eyes pressed shut tightly as her fingers instinctively twined through his hair. He growled as her fingers twisted in his hair and her entire body shivered at the sensation. His fingers bit into her hips harder, just bordering on pain as he clutched her to him, lapping at her more insistently. Her head lolled restlessly on the pillow as he found her nub with his lips, drawing it into his mouth, teasing it mercilessly with his tongue. His right hand moved against her and his thumb and index finger parted her lips while he used his middle finger to test her, probing shallowly inside her body.  

Buffy wailed, pressing her pelvis against him wantonly as she clamped down on his invading finger. He groaned at the sensation. She was tight, so tight and very, very responsive. He pressed further inside her, teasing her sensitive sheath. Her body was ever so liquid and her wetness glistened on Angel's face as he suckled at her,s mindless of everything save her pleasure. He reveled in her response, in her acute need of him. Part of him would have liked to draw the experience out, to prolong her sensual torture, but that was something for lovers with infinite time. Time was the one thing he and Buffy did not have. He suckled harder, pressing his finger inside her as her body went taut with climax, her hand pulling on his hair as her back arched, her mouth open in a soundless wail.

When the world righted itself again, Buffy was breathing heavily, her chest covered with a fine sheen of perspiration as Angel continued to kiss and nuzzle at her hips and thighs, mindful of more sensitive parts. Her boneless fingers were still twined in his hair. She took a deep breath and Angel's vision shot to hers. Her wetness still glistened on his face and Buffy blushed from head to toe.

He smiled at her and it was a carnal, knowing expression that warmed her more than the blush. Slowly, he released her, standing at the foot of the bunk. She watched as his hands found the clasp to his rumpled, black trousers. She watched his long, white fingers work the buttons and couldn't help remembering where those fingers had been only moments before. She blushed again, closing her eyes involuntarily.

"Open your eyes, Buffy," he said quietly, gently. 

She did as he wanted, meeting his gaze meekly.

He smiled at her, but it was tinged with an undeniable sadness. "There's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I only wish I had the time to prove that to you." 

She shook her head. "It's not ... I'm not ashamed," she assured him. "It's just ... I've never ... " She cleared her throat and said firmly, "I'm not ashamed."

Angel smiled at her again and this time it was happy. She smiled in return and it took on a rather brazen quality. She waggled her eyebrows at him. Throwing his head back, Angel laughed loud and deep. He looked at her again, grinning like a maniac. "Why Miss Summers," he said, "are you flirting with me?" 

Saucily, she looked down at her naked body. "I'd say I'm doing significantly more than flirting," she said. She looked at him wickedly for a moment. "Or I would be, if you could be bothered to take your clothes off."

He looked at her hungrily. "Anything you want," he said with faux resignation.

As his fingers returned to the fly of his pants, the jovial air dissipated, replaced by something much more weighty. Biting down on her bottom lip, Buffy watched as the last of the buttons was undone. Slowly, he worked the coarse material down his hips, well aware that he was performing for an audience. The material slid down his legs, pooling around his bare feet and Buffy took a deep breath as he was finally bare to her view.

She watched, her heart beating in her throat as he slowly moved back to the bunk, looking every inch the predator that she knew he was. And there were a lot of inches. She forced her attention to his face, but the sight of his rigid sex was more than a little ... intimidating. She swallowed harshly. She let out a tiny, breathy gasp as he began crawling up the bunk, sliding his naked flesh along hers. Buffy shivered at the sensation of his bare skin against hers, pressed length to length.

He tunneled his fingers through her hair, cradling her head, forcing her to look at him as he lay half on top, half beside her, his knee insinuated between her legs. Buffy stared into the deep chocolate depths of his irises. He was panting hard, as overwhelmed by the sensation as she. Slowly, she raised her hand, using her fingertips to gently trace along the side of his face.

"I love you," she whispered.

He shook his head gently, as if words escaped him. "You can never understand how absolutely precious you are to me," he said.

He bent his head and kissed her, deeply and thoroughly. His tongue explored her mouth, her teeth, rubbing against her tongue in a prelude of things to come. Carefully he shifted, slipping fully between her thighs, his weight supported on his elbows which were braced just outside of her shoulders. Buffy moaned sharply at the sensation of his body pressed against hers so intimately. He made no move to enter her, merely rubbing against her. He felt even harder now, and big, so big.

Angel used one hand to turn her head towards his. Gently, he kissed her lips. His thumb idly caressed her cheek. "I want you," he said baldly.

She smiled at him and let out a shaky breath. "I want you too," she said. "I'm just ... "

"I won't hurt you," he promised, kissing her again.

Part of Buffy's brain knew that statement was an impossibility, but she didn't argue. Instead, she responded eagerly to the kiss, running her fingers over the bare skin of his shoulders and back. She had never felt anything so miraculous in her life as being pressed against him, touching him, exploring him with no hindrances. This was going to be her only chance to be with him and she had every intention of making the most of it. She ran one hand down his side, tickling along his ribcage and biting her short fingernails into his hip. 

Angel broke the kiss and pulled his head back far enough to look into her eyes. He read the unspoken question in her eyes and smiled. Carefully, he shifted, moving his weight onto the hip opposite from the one she was touching. He took her diminutive hand in his and brought it to his lips, kissing each of her knuckles in turn. Gently, he turned her hand over and kissed her fingertips and then lavished her palm with wet, open-mouthed kisses. His tongue snaked out to lave her salty flesh. Once again, their eyes met and Angel moved her hand with deliberate, aching slowness down his body. He trailed her fingertips over his chest, shivering as they touched his nipples, down the washboard firmness of his abs and slowly, wrapped her hand around his sex.  

They both shuddered with the contact and Angel threw his head back, panting harshly. He released her hand, gripping the sides of the bunk tightly in both of his fists as he fought the urge to thrust into the contact. Buffy felt the rigid length of him, grasping him lightly. He was big and firm and the skin was surprisingly soft. Tentatively, she moved her hand on his shaft, touching him ever so lightly. Angel gasped and ground his teeth together, every muscle in his body corded with tension. 

Buffy abruptly stilled her hand. "Am I hurting you?" she asked, mortified. 

Angel bit down on his bottom lip and shook his head violently, his eyes pressed tightly shut. "No," he gasped. "It doesn't hurt." 

For a moment Buffy's brow furrowed until she realized that it obviously felt good. Really good. A feeling of intense power rolled through her. Slowly, she gripped him again, watching emotion play across his face as she slowly worked her palm up his shaft. She trailed her fingers over the bulbous head of his sex, running the tip of one finger over the slit, feeling the moisture seeping from it. Angel shuddered. Buffy gripped him again, wrapping her fingers around his sex, but using her thumb to rub over the head, to slowly swirl the weeping fluid around him. 

"Buffy," he gasped, opening his eyes to look at her. He was panting harshly. His hand wrapped around her wrist, stilling her motions.

She smiled innocently at him. With a groan, he kissed her, releasing her wrist to grab her head in both of his hands, holding her still while he molested her mouth. She released him, using her hands to grip his shoulders, biting into the corded muscle insistently. Angel broke the kiss, still panting harshly. He looked at Buffy, his eyes burning with need.

Her lips mouthed his name silently and he kissed her again, shifting his weight, settling between her legs. Buffy moaned into his mouth as his hips rocked, pressing his firmness where she needed him the most. Instinct took over and she rolled her hips, pulling her knees back to open herself to him. 

"I love you," he whispered against her lips before kissing her again. His hips pressed forward and she felt the head of his sex enter her. He was large and she was untried, so pain was unavoidable. But the physical discomfort was greatly overshadowed by the joy of having him, by the joy of finally, after everything they had been through, being one.

He tried to go slow, and she desperately appreciated the absolute gentleness with which he regarded her, but at that moment, it was not what she wanted. She was the Slayer and she wouldn't break. And she needed him. Now. She dug her fingernails into the small of his back, urging him against her as she let out his name on a breathy whine. Buffy may have been a virgin, but she was willing and eager. With one forceful push of his hips, he was imbedded deep inside her.

They both gasped, clutching each other tightly. Buffy's eyes screwed shut, her head thrown back as she languished in the sensation of having him inside her, part of her. Angel pressed hard kisses to her face, her throat, across her chest. He murmured her name and she opened her eyes, drowning in the absolute love and concern reflected on his face. His thumb brushed gently over her cheekbone, staring into her eyes. She looked back at him, not allowing her gaze to waver as she appreciated the moment, both of them acknowledging what was happening, the fact that he was buried deep inside of her, the fact that they were sharing the most intimate of moments.

Still holding her gaze, he slowly withdrew and slid back inside her liquid heat. She moaned, her fingernails biting into his shoulders. His hands cradled her head, forcing her to look at him as he stroked in and out of her body, his rigid flesh rasping along her ultra sensitive tissues. He tortured her for endless minutes, slowly stroking and receding, teasing himself as much as her. Perspiration beaded on her upper lip and her head lolled on the pillow as her eyes fluttered shut, unable to maintain eye contact in the midst of something so intense. She mewled, scratching at his back, her need apparent. 

He responded, stroking harder, faster, pumping into her forcefully. She keened, her legs tightening around his waist, her back arching to thrust up against him as her vaginal muscles clamped down on him, her orgasm washing over her. In the midst of her climax, she grabbed the back of his head, baring her neck and bringing his mouth to her wound. Mindlessly, he took her offering, biting deeply into the already abused flesh. The fluttering of her vaginal muscles were just beginning to taper off as her blood spilled over his lips, initiating his own release. He pumped into her, burying himself as deeply as possible when he came. 

As Angel recovered, he realized that he was collapsed on top of Buffy, her blood on his lips, his sex still buried deep inside of her. Given how much larger he was than she, Buffy should have been complaining, but there was a contented grin on her face as she languidly traced patterns on his back with her short fingernails. He nuzzled against her neck, kissing his way up to her lips where he molested her mouth for long minutes. 

He pulled back far enough to look in her face and she smiled at him with blinding warmth. He grinned wickedly and rolled his hips. She gasped, her neck arching as her eyes closed. She bit down on her lip and opened her eyes to leer at him.  

"Again?" she asked with a seductive chuckle.

"Again," he confirmed.

 *****

Without bothering to look over his shoulder, Riley asked, "Everybody know the plan?"

"Yeah," Graham replied with a nod. He double-checked the knife sheath tied to his thigh, making sure it wouldn't come loose when he had to move. 

Straightening up from his crouching position over the duffel bag, Riley stood, turning to face his friends and fellow soldiers. He met Forrest's expressionless gaze.

Forrest nodded slowly. "I know the plan," he said.

Riley gave him a sharp nod and turned back to his task. Forrest watched him mutely. This wasn't going to happen. Riley was not going to throw his life away trying to save that vampire's whore. He knew Riley would probably never forgive him, but he had to do it. And he had found the perfect ally to help him make sure everything went as planned.

*****

Buffy heard the footfalls in the hallway, but she didn't move. She had no desire to make this easy on them. She had no desire to be untrue to herself, or to Angel. They were nestled together on the bunk, snuggled under the thin blanket. Angel lay on his back and she on her stomach, pressed half beside, half on top of him. 

The door swung open with a loud clang and Angel turned his head, looking not at the Council soldiers, but at Buffy. For the last twenty-four hours they had shared each other's company, talking, cuddling, making love, even dozing. It had been bliss like neither of them had previously experienced. But now it was over and the harsh world was intruding.

Angel's fingers dug possessively into the small of her back and she could feel the tension in his body. "Please don't do anything," she whispered. "I don't want my last memory to be of you in pain." 

She knew he wanted to argue, but she held his gaze, her eyes pleading. He knew she spoke the truth and regardless of how badly he wished to defend her, he would not let her last memory of him be so horror filled. Slowly, his grip eased and his body relaxed. 

"Christ," one of the soldiers muttered under his breath, his disgust evident. He walked over to the bunk. "Get up," he hissed, kicking the frame soundly.

Sans modesty, Buffy threw back the sheet and stood up nude, facing the soldier. She knew him. His name was Forrest and he was a friend of Riley's. He looked like he wanted to hit her, but Buffy watched him passively, accepting his disgust without reaction. She knew how she must look, even in the dim torchlight, having spent the last day in bed with Angel. Her hair was in a wild disarray and her flesh was covered with the evidence of their passion. His bite was still raw and red on her neck, his seed dried on her thighs.  

And she felt absolutely no shame.

 

Forrest threw the drab gray dress at her and Buffy mutely caught it, dutifully pulling it over her head. This was her uniform. This was what a Slayer wore to be burned. It was too big for her, pooling on the floor around her feet. The neck was too large and it gaped, nearly baring her breasts. She did not complain. 

Forrest backed her against the wall and watched over her as another soldier she didn't know injected her with yet more drugs. They would not allow her to escape her fate. The two men blocked Buffy's view of the bunk, but she heard another one of the Council soldiers order Angel to his feet. He complied wordlessly and donned his crumpled black pants.

Buffy met Forrest's eyes. "Whore," he sneered. 

Holding her head high, Buffy met his gaze passively. She wanted to say something, but she dared not. The soldier wished her violence. He was looking for any excuse to send her slamming against the wall. For Buffy it would have been worth it just to state her opinion, but it wasn't only about her. If Forrest hit her, she could not trust Angel to remain neutral. Her lover was already pressed nearly to his limits. If Angel attacked another soldier, he would die a very painful, prolonged death.

Forrest motioned towards the door and Buffy dutifully turned, walking barefoot across the cold stone floor. Shoes were not part of the uniform. She would die clothed only in the dress, unadorned save the vicious looking bite at her throat. She wouldn't have had it any other way.

*****

Angel watched Buffy as long as he could, but once they were outside, several soldiers marched her towards the Hellmouth while he was dragged to a waiting van. They weren't going to allow him to be with her until the end. That was not acceptable.  

There were two soldiers, one on either side of Angel. His hands were cuffed behind his back and they held his arms. He sidestepped quickly, trying to twist his weight enough to break free of their holds. They were ready for the move. Simultaneously, they released him. One of the soldiers had a tazer gun and used it with deft efficiency. Before he could even begin to recover from the blow, they tripped him, throwing him violently to the ground, face first. Angel growled loudly, but they had him pinned.

Angel watched as two combat booted feet came into view directly in front of him. He rolled his eyes up, straining his neck to see the soldier that loomed over him. Angel's face split into a wicked grin. "Riley Finn," he sneered. "Why am I not shocked to see you here?" 

At a command from Riley, the two soldiers pulled Angel to his feet, holding him between themselves. Riley didn't waste any time and before Angel could prepare, the soldier punched him as hard as he could in the stomach. Riley was a trained soldier and in very good shape. Angel couldn't defend himself. They all heard several of Angel's ribs crack under the blow. Angel grunted, slumping forward slightly. 

"You're trash," Riley said. "You have no business here."

Angel shook his head pityingly. "You just don't get it," he said.

"Excuse me?" Riley growled, grabbing a handful of Angel's hair and forcing him to meet his gaze.

"She is mine to worry about, not yours," Angel replied harshly. "She will never be yours."

Riley's face contorted in rage and he hit the vampire a dozen more times. When he finished, Riley was breathing hard, shaking. He stepped back, looking down at his raw knuckles. Horror passed through him and he swallowed harshly. Riley accepted that violence was necessary to his job, but he had never enjoyed it. Never like this. He could taste bile at the back of his throat. What was happening to him?

"You have a choice," Riley said, his voice hoarse. "You can leave and I mean leave The City, disappear, or you can die, here, now."

 Angel looked at Riley, his expression guarded. Slowly, it dawned on him that the soldier boy was not working under Council orders. "What's your game?" he asked.

Riley stared at him for several long moments before saying, "She's not going to die.

Angel nodded slowly. "You're going to save her?" he asked, his tone slightly mocking. "You're going to ride in on your white horse and save the damsel in distress."

Riley flushed hotly, his lips pursed in a thin line. "You're the one to blame here. She is an innocent. She's sick. If we can just get her out of here, the Council will see their error. They will be more reasonable."

"You're a fool," Angel said evenly.

Riley's face darkened and he pulled back to swing again. Angel shifted his weight, throwing one of the soldiers off balance. The tazer had momentarily dazed him, but he was quickly recovering and with the help of Buffy's powerful blood, this close to the Witching Hour, he was stronger than he had ever been. He strained, pulling his arms forward and the handcuffs snapped. Riley was too shocked to react and Angel's face sent him sprawling backwards across the ground. Twisting, Angel broke completely out of the grip of the other two soldiers and disappeared into the night.

 *****

The blindfold was unceremoniously ripped from her head, causing Buffy to blink rapidly as she tried to orient herself. It was a silent, cloudless night, oddly cool for the time of year. The full moon illuminated the site nicely.

The Hellmouth.  

The only other time Buffy had been here was for Justine's execution. It was strictly off limits, though Buffy wasn't exactly sure why. The Hellmouth was sealed centuries earlier. But symbolically at least, it was still a place of great evil. Just as the Council now viewed her to be. Evil. Salacious maybe, scandalous, wanton even, but Buffy didn't feel particularly evil. Maybe evil, like beauty, was in the eye of the beholder. 

The large pole and the mound of kindling rested directly on top of the Hellmouth. Row upon row of absolutely silent people ringed it, creating a great sea of humanity. Buffy didn't know how many were present, but it seemed like thousands. She was certain the entirety of the Council was present, but it appeared that a good deal of civilians were in attendance as well. They stood back about twenty yards from the pole.  

A dozen young girls were at the front of the crowd, holding torches. Potential Slayers, ranging in age from their late teens to preschoolers. The children the Council had wrested from their parents' arms now held the torches, ready to light Buffy's pyre, much as she had helped to light Justine's. Did they feel the same sickness she had felt? Did they wonder which one of them would be the next called? Buffy stared at their young faces, hearing only the crackling of the torches in the still night.

Forrest jabbed Buffy in the back, forcing her forward. She stumbled, but caught herself and kept walking. The hike from Nihil hadn't been exceptionally long, but in bare feet, on the oddly cold evening, it was taxing. The salted earth burned the numerous abrasions that blossomed on the soles of her feet.

Buffy walked to the pyre unassisted. There was no use in fighting. She saw Giles' face in the crowd, along with Holtz. Struggling now would only pain them, possibly driving them to do something stupid and futile for her benefit. She held her head high as she climbed the small mountain of kindling. Turning, she pressed her back to the pole and wrapped her arms behind it. 

Graham shadowed her as she walked to the pyre, his face neutral. Buffy looked at him and wondered what had happened. Only yesterday he seemed squeamish when dealing with her and now, he faced her death without reaction. She did not know, of course, that Council soldier Graham Miller had no intention of watching her die this night. As he finished tying her hands with the magically reinforced bonds, he stepped back and made his way back to the rest of the humans. Buffy took a deep breath and felt the first pricklings of power roll over her. The Witching Hour on the Hellmouth. What a ride.

Holtz stepped forward from the crowd, a roll of parchment clasped tightly in his hands. He did not look at her and Buffy knew it was because he was not able. They all had roles to perform this eve and his was as Head of the Watchers' Council. He was her executioner.

He cleared his throat loudly and slowly looked around the circle of humanity that ringed the Hellmouth. His gaze was lingering, aggressive, reproachful. He shook his head in disgust and dropped his gaze, staring blindly at the ground. He clasped his hands together so tightly that Buffy could hear the parchment paper crumple in his grasp. He took a deep breath and blew it out quickly, raising his head with a sharp jerk.

Abruptly, he pulled the scroll of parchment paper open and held it up for all to see. "This is a Declaration of Execution," he roared, his rich, powerful voice reverberating in the still night. "Buffy Anne Giles," he read, using her real name for the first time in her life, "you are hereby sentenced to death for daring to test the bounds of Council hypocrisy."

Buffy blinked rapidly, staring at Holtz as there were quiet murmurings through the crowd. Her heart lurched painfully. He was going to do something stupid.

"The Council in its infinite wisdom," he sneered, his censure and sarcasm thick on his tongue, "has seen fit to punish you for showing enough spine to question the status quo, for daring to point out a wrong that has existed as long as the Council itself. A wrong that is the very cornerstone of the Council's power." 

Quentin Travers and a small group of Council soldiers pushed their way through the crowd. "You overstep your bounds," Travers bellowed at Holtz.

Holtz turned on Travers, throwing the Declaration to the ground and crushing it under his boot heel. "No!" he countered with a roar. "The Council oversteps its bounds."

Travers was red faced, breathing hard as he stared down his nemesis. "You shall pay for this," he said, his quiet threat carrying clearly in the silence. "Even the Head of the Council is not above Council Law itself. You have overreached your authority. You will step down."

"Council Law is arcane and prejudicial," Holtz said dryly. "It was crafted at a time when humanity was on the brink of extinction, before science or magic could even understand what was happening. It was a doctrine created out of fear and ignorance and it is no longer relevant."

"It is our way!" Travers bellowed. "This is treason."

Holtz took a deep breath and released it slowly. He turned and addressed the ring of young girls. "If you would please," he said quietly. 

Buffy and the rest of those present watched as girl after girl, walked to a series of tall wooden platforms that Buffy had failed to notice earlier. Carefully, they each climbed their respective platform. Buffy's vision flitted to Holtz and she knew that this was his doing. 

In unison, the girls lowered their torches to large cauldrons. Buffy didn't know what the cauldrons contained, but they ignited with an audible whoosh. The air pressure surged and magic burst along Buffy's nerves, tingling over her exposed flesh before it dissipated in a rush. A wave of heat burst forth momentarily, pressing against her chilled skin - and then it was gone, leaving her feeling oddly bare. Buffy hadn't even been aware of the magic woven around this place, but as it left she felt exposed and raw, vulnerable.

The intensity of the light produced was momentarily blinding and everyone fought to cover their eyes. Buffy blinked and squinted, trying to accustom herself to the light as quickly as possible - even as she felt something else rising. The magic had been hiding something and when the oil in the cauldrons burst into flame, it pulled back the spell like a veil. When she was finally able to open her eyes against the glare, she gaped at the sight before her.  

She watched as the rest of the humans present acclimated enough to take stock in their surroundings. There were several surprised yelps, but before long, the eerie silence permeated everything.

Buffy had initially been shocked at the number of humans present, but she was rendered speechless by the sight before her. In the bright light, she could clearly see row after row of black clad beings, reaching back until they finally faded over the horizon. Thousands upon thousands of vampires, outnumbering the humans present at least twenty to one. Her stomach contracted violently.

In the sea of DHSTs, on a high ridge stood Wesley and Lindsey. Buffy momentarily noted that Holtz and Travers weren't the only Watchers in the Council with a flare for the dramatic. Wesley waited until the implication of his show had seeped into each and every one of the humans present. 

Power.

It rolled off the vampires in a palpable wave. Buffy reeled from the sensation, swallowing convulsively to prevent herself from vomiting. She felt woozy, sick. If she were prone to excess partying, she would have thought it nothing more than a bad hangover. She was a Slayer and though she had been around many vampires in the past, it had never been like this. They were angry. She could taste their barely controlled rage like a metallic tang at the back of her throat. Their anger made them strong. They made no attempt to hide or to camouflage themselves or their nature behind false weakness.

Buffy was to be executed and the Council needed to make sure her death served a purpose. The idea was to bring her to her fullest potential of power and then kill her, releasing her power into the next Slayer. The combination of the Witching Hour and the Hellmouth were intensifying her power to almost painful levels. Faced with hostile vampires, her body demanded that she respond.

Her heart pounded in her chest and her lungs heaved as she waited for something to snap. Breathing hard, her mouth was open in a pant as she stared predatorily at the sea of undead. She eyed the vampires hungrily, the Slayer within her clamoring for blood, for the rending of flesh, thirsty for the violence of the kill. She watched them, their perfectly white skin glowing unearthly in the harsh illumination. They were still with a quietness intrinsic to the dead, their eyes oddly flat, almost reptilian in their coldness. Scanning the crowd, she watched them, predator to prey ... 

Awareness slammed into Buffy as her eyes met Angel's, causing her breath to catch painfully in her throat. He was here. He escaped. He stood on the foremost edge of the vampires, as close to her as he could get. Buffy shook her head violently, fighting the need for blood screaming in her veins. What was she doing? This was insanity. Shaking uncontrollably, she looked at Giles in the crowd.

"The Hellmouth," he mouthed. 

Buffy took a deep breath, pressing her eyes shut. She understood now why this place was forbidden. Even sealed and dormant its influence had almost caused her to start a war. It was the Witching Hour and her power rode her hard, infusing every fiber of her being with a heady, intoxicating strength. She had allowed herself to be blinded by its seductive lure. She would have charged headlong into the crowd of waiting, hair trigger vampires. She would have thrown their tenuous peace into upheaval.

She opened her eyes and met Angel's gaze again. She could still feel the vampires' power biting along her skin like so many pin pricks, but when she looked at him, some of it seemed to fade. It didn't make sense. Angel was a vampire, an old and powerful one, but when she looked at him, the Slayer within her quieted. Almost imperceptibly, she saw the corners of his mouth curve into a gentle smile. 

The silence was broken by Wesley. "Vampires live among us," he said loudly in a voice that carried on the air. All of the humans turned to face him, intent on his every word. 

"DHSTs are as much a part of Guardian City as the Council itself," he continued. "We depend on them. We need them to survive, but we treat them like animals. We abuse them. We exploit them. We extend to them none of the rights that we view as imperative to humanity." 

"They are animals," Travers spat, but his voice was shaky, his fear evident.

"They were once human," Wesley said. "They possess souls as precious and finite as our own. They feel. They bleed. They love. And yet we do not acknowledge them or their suffering. We tell them they are lucky for the chance to be treated as slaves. We starve them and torture them with tags and collars and identification numbers. We strip from them their very names, their identities. We keep them as Pets."

Silence rang out as Wesley stopped speaking and even Travers did not dare open his mouth.

"They are strong," Wesley confirmed, giving voice to the fears rippling through the human crowd. "Stronger than us. And there are many more of them than the Council has ever dared admit." 

People in the crowd glanced at each other nervously. 

"They have hidden," Wesley said, "tired of the constant abuse and scorn directed at them by our beloved Council. They have lived underground, beneath our very noses for hundreds of years, biding their time. The Council teaches us to be wary of the vampires living in the Wastelands, but they think nothing of insulting those that live among us. They act as if the vampires within The City walls are harmless drones. They are not mindless animals. They are not domesticated. They are not impotent."

Buffy felt the fear ripple through the humans and it raised the hairs on the back of her neck. This was a potentially volatile situation. Hundreds of thousands of starving, pissed off vampires surrounded the island of humanity. Wesley was going to have to tread very carefully to keep this from turning into a bloodbath.

"We know we are in the wrong," Wesley said, addressing the entirety of the Council, his voice tinged with frustration and exasperation. "We have known for a very long time. We have sacrificed our precious Slayers rather than admit what we know. We have sacrificed them because they have dared to act out on what we know to be true, that DHSTs are an integral part of humanity, that they are deserving of equality, of affection, of shelter, both emotional and physical. These young women who are trained to do nothing but kill vampires are astute enough to grasp the situation, to die for their convictions rather than live the lies with which we bloat ourselves. Even now, at the height of her power, standing above the Hellmouth, this Slayer has enough sense to quell her instincts, to listen to reason." 

Members of the crowd glanced nervously at Buffy and she swallowed audibly. She was shaking. The power continued to build in her small frame, overwhelming her.

Careful not to attract attention, Riley and his fellow soldiers inched forward. Behind them, Angel did the same thing.

"The choice is yours," Wesley said to the Council members. "But I suggest you make it quickly." 

Holtz looked around the circle of his peers questioningly. Slowly, the Council members tore their attention from Wesley and fixed it on Holtz. "Quentin Travers has made his position clear," Holtz said. "He wishes to continue as we have these many years, regardless of the fact that it will lead us to ruin. He has suggested that I be removed as Head of the Watchers' Council. I want it known that I support everything Mr. Wyndham-Price has stated this evening. If I continue as leader of the Council, I will do it with the understanding that laws will be re-written and drastic changes will be implemented." 

The humans murmured to themselves, looking warily between the sea of vampires and the two men dueling for control of the Council, Holtz and Travers. While everyone was distracted, Riley, Forrest and Graham made their way to the pyre. Pulling out a wicked looking ritual dagger, Riley cut Buffy's magically reinforced bonds. The Slayer was disoriented, her senses overwhelmed. Grabbing her by the wrist, Riley pulled her down from the mountain of kindling.  

As she stumbled off of the pyre, Buffy slumped, going completely limp in Riley's arms. The power that had been building to a crescendo seemed to vanish without physical contact with the Hellmouth. Buffy's senses reeled from the sudden absence of power. 

Oblivious to what was happening with the Slayer, the crowd's murmuring took on form. Holtz, Wesley and Travers knew that a consensus had been reached. The tentative glances, the sheepish expressions on the human faces told a story that didn't need words.

 Wesley's crusade was successful.  

And Travers failed. Definitively.

Angel broke from the crowd of humans and knew only that Riley held Buffy's limp form, a knife clasped firmly in his grasp. Riley was expecting Angel and was ready for the attack. He shoved Buffy into Forrest's waiting arms, managing to prepare before Angel leapt.

Riley braced himself, but the two still went sprawling under the force of Angel's attack, rolling over and over as they both fought for the dominant position. Angel was in game face, growling and snapping at his opponent who was cursing and snarling right back. Several people in the crowd yelped in fear and skittered out of the way of the enraged males. 

Travers' laugh carried on the air, prickling along the skins of those present. Something in the sound was wrong, broken, chilling. Even Angel and Riley in the midst of their personal war, stopped, turning their attention to the Watcher.

Travers looked around the circle of humanity, his vision finally coming to rest on Holtz. "You always won, Daniel, but not today," he said quietly. Turning his head, he looked at Forrest who held Buffy and nodded. 

The soldier pulled a knife from the sheath on his thigh and dragged it across Buffy's throat. 

"No!" Angel and Riley bellowed in unison, both of them reaching out a hand toward the Slayer. 

Buffy felt like she was underwater, still fighting to regain her footing. Everything was muted and slow. Nothing seemed real. After she stepped off the Hellmouth, the surging power vanished, leaving her bereft and staggered. She was dimly aware of Angel, but nothing else until the intolerable pain. 

The knife bit into her flesh deeply. The searing agony tore across her nerves, bringing her to consciousness the way nothing else would have. Blindly, she pushed at Forrest's arm, sending the knife clattering away as she tried to twist out of his grasp. Forrest was angry, intent on seeing her dead and he fought with every ounce of his considerable strength, wrestling with the wounded Slayer. Buffy lurched, trying to break free of his hold. She stepped backwards. 

Onto the Hellmouth. 

Buffy's body felt like it burst into flames. The rising crescendo of power that vanished earlier was back with a vengeance. Power tore through her body, reaching a blinding apex that blotted out every other sensation. She screamed wordlessly until consciousness abruptly snuffed into blackness.

*****

Riley stared down at what was left of Council soldier Forrest Gates. His friend had been grappling with Buffy when she stepped on the Hellmouth, and the brilliant burst of bright white light blinded all of them momentarily. Now, all that was left of Forrest was a smoldering, desiccated, blackened corpse.

Angel roughly pushed past Riley, dropping to his knees beside Buffy. She lay on the mountain of kindling, unmoving. Giles hurried over and dropped down next to Angel. The Slayer was still as death. Angel held his hands out, palms hovering millimeters over her body, feeling. She was alive, despite the fact that he couldn't see her chest moving with breath. Gently, Angel wrapped his arms around her, pulling Buffy into his embrace. The others looked at him, holding their breath. They waited anxiously to see if he would turn into a crispy critter like Forrest. Nothing happened.

Looking over his shoulder, Giles watched Council soldier Graham Miller handcuff former Council member Travers. The soldier's actions were none too gentle, but Travers didn't seem to notice. The man was nearly catatonic. Travers had just seen his existence crumble before his eyes. Giles hoped that the Council would turn Travers over to Wesley and his vampires for repayment. He doubted they would, but it was a nice thought.

Wordlessly, Angel rose to his feet, holding Buffy cradled against his chest. Riley's expression was one of abject misery, but he was not foolish enough to try and reach out to the Slayer. Slowly, Angel trudged away from the Hellmouth, heading for home. Giles followed as the crowd parted, making way for the fallen Slayer and her vampire protector.

*****

"The oldest girl, Faith, was called," Holtz said, his voice low out of respect for the grieving father. Giles didn't bother turning around to face his longtime friend. His attention was riveted on the delicate creature asleep on the makeshift bed that had been assembled in the library.

Buffy. 

Angel's large form was curled around her small body, protecting her as he had been for the last three days. The three days she had spent unconscious and unresponsive. Buffy's wounds were bad, but not life threatening. The gash on her neck was stitched closed and healing quickly. Unlike the bite mark on her throat, it showed no signs of scarring. None of the doctors or mystic healers were able to find anything else wrong with her. But she wouldn't wake up.

The entire time, Angel never left her side. He held her while they stitched her wounds, he held her while she slept. He hadn't rested or fed in days. He showed no signs that this behavior would change. He was still in game face with his nose buried at the nape of Buffy's neck, his arms wrapped around her. When anybody other than Giles dared to venture close he would growl and snap, sending them scurrying for the nearest corner. 

Giles blinked back tears. He didn't relish the idea of having to pry his daughter's dead body from her lover's arms. But what other course could there be? Faith was the next Slayer. There was only one way to get a new Slayer. The old one had to die. He looked at Buffy and broke down sobbing. 

"She's not going to die," Angel growled harshly, looking at neither Watcher as he cuddled Buffy closer. 

No one believed him. 

*****

On the sixth day, Angel finally succumbed to exhaustion, drifting off to sleep as he held the ever still body of his lover.

It was dawn when Buffy woke, her head fuzzy, but not disoriented. Taking a deep breath, she rolled onto her back and looked at Angel's sleeping face. She instantly knew that he hadn't been feeding. There were dark circles under his eyes and the bones in his face were too prominent. She raised her hand and gently traced along his cheekbone with the tips of her fingers. 

Angel's eyes fluttered opened and he focused on her face. She smiled warmly at him. His expression was blank, but tears welled in his eyes. He pushed himself up on one elbow as he looked at her in wonder. He grabbed her hand, holding it to his cheek as his eyes screwed shut. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"You're awake," he said softly.

Leaning forward, Buffy pressed a warm kiss to his lips. She pulled back, looking in his eyes. "You're not gonna get rid of me that easy," she said with a smile.

*****

"This is inconceivable," Holtz said as he paced back and forth in front of the library table.

"You keep using that word," Buffy said with a smile. "I do not think it means what you think it means." Buffy laughed at her joke, which no one else got and finally fell silent with a frown. 

Buffy was seated on Angel's lap, much to the chagrin of Giles and Holtz who shot the vampire murderous glares which were completely ignored. Angel was not letting Buffy out of his sight or smell or touch for even a second.

Also at the table were Wesley and the newest Slayer, Faith, a spirited brunette several years younger than her sister Slayer. After regaining consciousness, it was determined that Buffy retained her powers although another was called. Two Slayers. This was a source of endless confusion. There was no precedent for such a situation.  

This seemed to bother everyone save the two Slayers. "I don't see the problem," Buffy said. "You need two Slayers now more than ever."

Holtz smiled wryly but didn't question the veracity of her statement. They did indeed need all the help they could get. The City was in the midst of a social upheaval at the moment. DHST laws were being abolished as the Watcher's Council and the newly formed Order, the Council's vampiric counterpart, struggled to redefine themselves.

 

"You're right, Holtz said wearily. "We do need help."

Buffy smiled, leaning back against Angel. "Don't worry," she said. "We will all get through this. Together."

Angel hugged her tighter, letting her know he was with her. Across the table Faith smiled, as did Wesley. It was scary, and yes, it was a brave new world ... but it was theirs. 

THE END

 

*****

EPILOGUE

 ***** 

"Amazing how big of a difference a slight variation on a theme can make," Buffy said with a grin, crossing her arms over her chest as she admired the view. 

Angel narrowed his gaze at her. "What are you talking about?" he asked coyly.

She grinned even wider, slowly pacing around him in a wide circle, her demeanor more than a little predatory. Angel had walked into the library only moments earlier looking particularly sumptuous. As usual, he wore black from head to toe. Black boots, black leather pants and a black silk button up shirt that molded to his chest in an absolutely delicious manner. The fact that she had seen him in - and out - of a very similar outfit since the moment she first met him hadn't dulled her appreciation in the slightest. "Even without the regulations, you wear a lot of black," she said mischievously.

He smiled wickedly. "I like black," he said evenly.

Buffy winked. "And it likes you," she replied saucily.

Angel gave her a mock glare and using his preternatural reflexes, reached out before she could react and grabbed her forearm, pulling her hard against his chest. She could do little more than yelp before his mouth melded to hers, kissing her deeply. She gave up her feeble faux protest and kissed him back. 

Loudly, Giles cleared his throat. Rather reluctantly, Buffy and Angel broke the kiss and turned their attention to him. His admonishing expression did little to dull their happiness. They were well used to his mild censure after six weeks of openly dating. Grabbing Angel's hand, Buffy led him over to one of the large tables where she directed him into the chair next to hers. 

Giles walked to the table and set down a large box of files. Both Buffy and Angel frowned. Giles gave them a withering glare that practically dared them to say something. Neither of them were that brave.

The box contained applications for asylum in The City from non-humans living in the Wastelands. There was no shortage of them going around. They arrived by the score daily and it fell upon their shoulders to review the cases. Lacking enthusiasm, they each pulled a file from the box and opened it. 

Before long, the rest of the Integration Committee arrived. The Committee was populated by representatives from both the Watchers' Council and The Order. The Committee's job was to try and create some sort of peace out of the turmoil that raged through The City. In the meetings that followed the failed execution of the Slayer, DHST regulations were dissolved and all vampires living in The City were given citizenship.

In theory, at least, that is what had happened. In truth, things were far from smoothed over. There was a lot of upheaval in the wake of the changes. Violence, riots and hate crimes perpetrated by both sides of the argument were still prevalent. Everything from the legality of turning someone into a vampire to whether or not a vampire could sue to regain property lost upon death were up for debate. 

Buffy sighed heavily, sinking back in her chair. She loathed these meetings, but as a Slayer, she was required to attend, as was Faith. Giles, Holtz and Riley Finn rounded out the Council's representatives.  

The interests of The Order were looked after by Lindsey, Fred, Wesley, Willow and Lord Aurelius. The Order was the vampiric equivalent of The Watchers' Council, but its inner structure was much different. It was organized according to ancient vampiric law. It was a pack structure with a rigid hierarchy. The Order was actually short for The Order of Aurelius, named such because that was the vampiric clan from which its Lord and Master was descended. The Order's Lord was the oldest, most powerful vampire living within The City.

To vampires, he was Master. To the Watchers' Council he was Lord Aurelius. To Buffy he was simply Angel. 

Turning her head, Buffy looked at her lover. He hadn't wanted the leadership of The Order, but Wesley prodded him mercilessly, convincing him that there was no one else fit to lead. Angel's wisdom and leadership abilities were not the only reason he was the first choice. Relations between vampires and humans were only as good as the relations between The Watchers' Council and The Order. Given that Lord Aurelius and the elder Slayer shared a bed, relations were pretty phenomenal.

Clearing his throat loudly, Holtz brought the meeting to order. "The moratorium on Turning will remain in place indefinitely," he said firmly, wasting no time on pleasantries.

"Michaelson is filing motions with Council offices tonight," Lindsey said with a frown. With his reinstated citizenship, Lindsey returned to his profession as a lawyer, specializing mostly in groundbreaking vampiric law. His big case at the moment was David Michaelson, a human fighting for the right to be Turned.

Holtz stifled a growl. "This is not the time for this," he said angrily. "We're busy trying to prevent this society from collapsing into utter chaos." 

Lindsey tapped his pencil on the table top. "He doesn't have much time," Lindsey said seriously. David Michaelson was dying of cancer. He and his former Pet - now girlfriend - Jessica were fighting for the right to have him Turned as a vampire before he expired of natural causes.

"So now every blasted human who is afraid of death is going to be reborn as a vampire?" Holtz spat.

Lindsey sighed, slumping back in his chair. "Not every one. Most humans still view vampires as some sort of vermin, but there will be some, yes."

Holtz shook his head. "It is a matter of balance," he said seriously. "How many humans does it take to support one vampire? I know how many it took before, but now that we're no longer starving them, I need realistic figures."

Lindsey looked expectantly at Fred. Quickly, she leafed through some of her papers. "It depends," she said.

"On?" Holtz prompted.

"Supernatural ability for the most part," Fred replied. "The more supernatural affinity a person has, the more sustenance a vampire can glean from them."

"Numbers," Holtz said impatiently, "I need numbers." 

Fred shrugged. "For a human with no supernatural ability ... four of them to support a healthy vampire. With Watchers the ratio is about one to one. Most people fall somewhere between the two. The majority of humans have some supernatural ability."

Holtz took a deep breath and looked around the table. "So, worst case scenario," he said, "The City can support a vampiric population that is a quarter of the human numbers?"

"In theory," Willow concurred. "But like Fred said, there are exceptions. Vampires can feed from livestock or mixing the Watcher donations in with general donations can make it go further."

Holtz shook his head. "No more Turning and no more immigrants from the Wastelands until we get an accurate headcount on the vampire, human and demon populations in The City. That is final." 

*****

Lindsey took a drag off of his cigarette, staring up into the night sky. "David Michaelson is going to die before this gets resolved," he said morosely. He, Wesley, Fred, Riley, Buffy, Angel and Faith were sitting in Holtz's enormous backyard, enjoying the early summer evening, trying to unwind after the trying meeting.

"You can't save everyone, Lindsey," Fred said sadly. She crossed her arms over her chest, leaning back against the tree she was sharing with Wesley. They were all spread out in a loose circle, Fred and Wesley against the tree, Lindsey lying on the grass, Riley sat on an old stump, and Faith stood staring out into the night sky. Angel sat on the ground with Buffy between his legs, leaning back against his chest.

Lindsey shook his head. "I know," he said, "but it's just so damn frustrating. When David dies, Jessica will go with him. She's a strong voice within The Order. It is really going to hurt us to lose her." 

"So what can we do to speed things up?" Riley asked. He was slowly warming to the concept of vampires, mostly out of guilt. Despite his personal reservations, when Holtz asked him to serve on the Committee a month earlier, he accepted the challenge gladly. He was committed to finding a speedy, amenable resolution. And, of course, it gave him an excuse to stay close to Buffy.

"Not much unless you can find a way to feed vampires something other than blood," Lindsey said in jest. 

Riley frowned. "What about Slayers?" he asked.

Everyone went oddly silent. 

"What do you mean 'what about Slayers'?" Fred asked nervously. Her eyes darted to her Master, who was clearly unhappy. Angel's arms tightened on Buffy. 

"According to you, the greater supernatural punch the donor packs, the more vamps can be fed, right? Well surely Buffy and Faith could support a few vamps without much effort," Riley explained. 

A low, malevolent growl threaded through the warm night air, raising the hairs on the humans' necks. Lindsey, Fred and Willow instinctively dropped their eyes to the ground, cowering. Riley's vision shot to Angel's and even in the dim lighting he could see the yellow tinged irises. 

"That's not an option," Fred whispered quickly. 

"I cannot speak for Faith, but Buffy doesn't donate," Angel said, his words slightly lisped around the mouthful of fangs.

Riley swallowed harshly, but refused to be intimidated into silence. He and Angel managed to work together, but there was no love lost between the two. "You're off rations," Riley said boldly, "that means Buffy has to be donating to you. Why are you the only one who should get that honor?"

Angel made a move to get up, but Buffy pressed back against him, keeping him in place. She had no desire to see the two of them get into another fight. Angel wanted to go after the soldier, but he was going to have to push Buffy out of the way to do it. There was no way he was doing that. Eventually, he relented, relaxing again.

"I don't donate, Riley, not the way you do," Buffy explained once she was certain Angel would behave.

 A frown creased Riley's brow. "What do you mean?"

Buffy took a deep breath and released it. No doubt everyone else knew what she was talking about, but Riley was being intentionally obtuse. "When you donate, you go to the clinic and a tech sticks a needle in your arm. I don't do that," she said.

Riley swallowed harshly. "What do you do?" he asked. Riley was already fairly certain of her answer, but he wanted to hear her say it. He didn't want Buffy to have any illusions. Her lover was nothing more than an overgrown leech. 

With a flick of her wrist, Buffy untied the scarf that had become an integral part of her wardrobe, baring her throat. Given that her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, everyone had an unrestricted view of her neck. Angel's original bite had scarred, but it was almost impossible to tell at the moment given that he had re-opened the wound only the night before. Riley looked at the bite and then turned away in disgust.

Faith took a deep breath, looking at her sister Slayer. "He ... bites you?" she gasped. 

"Yes," Buffy answered bluntly, "he does."

"Angel feeds from Buffy because she is his mate," Fred explained to the shocked Slayer. "Vampires do not share their mates, under any circumstances. It is not done. Feeding is a very ... personal event." Fred's emphasis on "personal" left little question as to what exactly was usually going on when the Slayer got bit.

Turning his head, Riley looked at Buffy again. She regarded him placidly, her silence speaking volumes to her agreement with what Fred had stated. And she didn't seem the least bit embarrassed or uncomfortable with the state of affairs. Riley shook his head in frustration. He just didn't get it. Apparently, neither did Faith. 

*****

Pressing a gentle kiss to Angel's jaw, Buffy silently bade him wait. He did so, somewhat reluctantly. Wesley turned his head to appreciate the view of The City from Holtz's back yard as she approached.  

"Does she know?" Buffy asked quietly.

Arching a speculative eyebrow, Wesley said, "Beg pardon?"

Buffy smiled gently. "Fred," she said. "Does she know that you did all of this for her?"

Even in the dim lighting, Buffy could see him blush. He opened his mouth to deny it and then apparently thought better. He closed his mouth and stared at the ground for several long moments. "No," he said seriously. "She does not know."

"Do you think maybe you should tell her?" Buffy asked. It had taken her a while to figure out Wesley's motives, but seeing him around Fred, it had become apparent. He was enthralled with the lovely young vampire. 

Wesley shook his head sharply. "Absolutely not," he said.

Buffy frowned. "How will you ever find out if you don't risk anything?" she asked.

"Fred is a very gracious, kind hearted soul," Wesley explained. "If she had any inclination as to my true motives, she would feel obligated to return them whether or not she truly shared the sentiment. I may hold great affection for her, but I do have my pride. I do not wish to be pitied."

"Wes," Buffy said gently, "she doesn't pity you, she just doesn't know. How can you expect her to reciprocate if she has no idea?"

Wesley shrugged. "I do not expect anything," he said seriously. "My actions were my own and done for my own reasons. They were not a means to an end."

Buffy sighed deeply and said, "Okay." She couldn't force Wesley to admit his feelings to Fred and she wouldn't betray his trust, no matter how much she felt it would be in his best interest.

*****

Buffy hadn't bothered retying the scarf around her neck after the meeting and it was driving Angel crazy. Languidly, she wandered into the kitchen in the newly redecorated apartment she now shared with her mate. He followed, leaning back against the cabinets as he watched her predatorily. She puttered around, pouring herself a glass of juice, very aware of the attention he was paying her and doing her best to ignore him. She took a drink, knowing that his vision was fixated on her throat as she swallowed. Deliberately, she set the glass down on top of the fridge and looked at him. "Enjoying the view?" she asked.

His only answer was a wicked smile. Buffy watched something pass through his eyes and all of the hair on the back of her neck stood up. His eyes flickered golden for just a moment. She shivered, biting down on her bottom lip as she watched him, her eyes bright with anticipation. One of the perks of being involved with a mortal enemy was that you couldn't stop your body from responding. Not that she wanted to stop.

He stalked towards her, watching her as hunter to prey. Buffy's body screamed for her to respond, her adrenaline spiked and yet she held herself still. It was a hell of a rush. He walked around her until he stood behind her, placing her between his body and the refrigerator. Silently, he dropped into a crouch. She trembled as his hands hovered just above her ankles, almost touching but not quite. It was like she could feel tiny sparks of electricity flowing between his body and hers. She was hot and cold at the same time, her body primed for fight or flight. She giggled. They were quickly adding another "f" word to the short list of options when tensions ran high.

With wicked precision, he moved his hands upwards, almost skimming along her skin, but not quite. It was exquisite torture. She shook with the need to do something, anything, but she fought it. It was all part of the game. How much could she take before it was too much? His hands traveled over the bare expanse of her legs, left vulnerable by her scandalously short miniskirt. As he encountered clothing, he switched to her arms, the feather light press of his hands causing the tiny hairs on her skin to stand at attention. He stood behind her now, looming but not touching. She could feel him with her Slayer sharp senses, but it was maddening. To almost touch him, but not quite, to not be able to see or hear him. To not feel any heat from his body.

A fine sweat broke out on her skin and her mouth fell open in a pant. Her trembling was more pronounced, almost a shaking as she waited for him to do something, anything. 

She screamed as his bit down on the nape of her exposed neck, his hands pulling her violently back against him. He wasn't in game face and his blunt teeth didn't break the skin, but it was exhilarating none the less. She was pinned to his hard body, his erection pressing insistently into the small of her back. She fought against him, trying to get free, to turn around so she could touch him, but he held her still. Months ago, he wouldn't have been able to do it, but with regular infusions of her powerful blood, he was an even match for her physically. 

"Angel," she whined plaintively, still panting.

She could feel him chuckle, the soft puffs of cool air against her nape. He released his bite, pressing a long, hard kiss to the skin before spinning her around in his embrace. Her arm instantly wound around his neck, pulling his head down for a kiss as he pressed her backwards into the refrigerator. She used the appliance to lever herself upwards, wrapping her legs around his waist. He groaned, thrusting against her as his tongue swept in her mouth, tangling with her own. She tightened her grip around his waist and he was lost. Twisting, he pulled her against him and took a sidestep to the small breakfast table. One sweep 

Neither of them gave a damn.

*****

Hours later, they were curled together in bed. She smiled goofily at him. "I love you," she said. He tightened his grip on her waist, pulling her close. His response was a kiss so long and deep it staggered her senses. She pulled back, gasping for breath and quickly burst out in laughter. 

"What?" he asked warily. 

"I'm just happy," she said giddily. "I don't think I'm ever going to get used to this." 

"Used to what?" 

"You. Me. Us. I had no idea life could be this good."

"Well, get used to it," he said. "Because you're stuck with me." He nuzzled against her neck, his cool tongue laving the brand on her neck. "That's what this means," he said, pressing a kiss to the scar. "Forever."

*****

The moon was still full in the sky when Angel ventured into the kitchen. Running on autopilot, he retrieved the glass Buffy had used earlier and filled it from the bottled water dispenser humming quietly in the corner. He leaned back against the countertop, taking a deep drink.

He couldn't remember ever feeling such a sense of contentment, of bone deep happiness in all of his long life. For the first time ever, human or otherwise, he was at peace. He had found a home, a mate. Love. He smiled at the thought, unable to stop himself. Yes, life was good. 

He set the now empty glass on the countertop and moved to return to Buffy and their warm bed when something caught his eye. He stood stock still in the middle of the kitchen as a fine trembling came over him. Very slowly, he turned his head back. 

The files he and Buffy had knocked to the floor with their earlier amorous actions remained as they had fallen. One of the files lay open. Angel looked at the picture stapled inside the file. 

Colin?

Very slowly, he advanced. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. His brother died almost three centuries ago. Before the demonic plagues. There was no way. Colin hadn't risen as a vampire after the attack. He hadn't. Angel would have known.

With shaking hands, he lifted the file, studying the picture. He knew the face. Every curve, every dip and hollow was etched indelibly in his psyche. Colin. His older brother, killed while still in his teens. Their father's pride and joy.

Frantically, Angel leafed through to the beginning of the file. As he read the words, a sense of stark unreality settled over him. It was an application for asylum filed by a vampire named Darla. Angel swallowed harshly. Darla had been his lover for a very long time, but they had broken it off almost two decades ago.

Darla had filed the application on behalf of herself ... and her seventeen year old human son, Connor.

The file fell from his boneless fingers to land in a heap on the floor. He didn't know how or why, but he did know who. His son. His human son.

"Oh gods," Angel whispered.

*****

"Bloody hell," Giles said as he pulled open the door, trying to put on his glasses while still holding his robe shut. Didn't these people have any decency? It was nearly three o'clock in the morning.

"Rupert." 

Giles stared open-mouthed at his wife. She was older, fine lines etched the corners of her eyes, but she was still radiant. "J-j-joyce," he managed to stutter, a look of absolutely bewilderment on his face. "I thought ... I thought you were ... dead."

She nodded slowly, guilt etched on her features. "I know, Rupert, and I'm truly sorry, but I couldn't stay. I couldn't let it happen. Not again."

"Couldn't let what happen again, Joyce? What are you talking about?"

Joyce turned and beckoned to someone standing around the corner. Slowly, a teenage girl with long, brown hair came into view. She smiled hesitantly at him. Giles jaw fell open. 

"They took Buffy, Rupert. I couldn't let them have Dawn as well."

THE END - AGAIN

 



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