"The Responsibility of Possession"
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.
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 heat 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.
"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 hers. 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.
[End Chapter 4]
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