by indie
Chapter 7

"Under A Darkened Sky"

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."

[End Chapter 7]

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