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.
[END CHAPTER 1]