“Here you go, Buffy. One governmental conspiracy theory to rival anything Xander could come up with after a weekend marathon of the X-Files.”

   “Are you sure this will do it?” Slayer asked.

   “It should,” Willow said, pressing execute on the virus she had just uploaded into the Initiative computers. “I uploaded the false files and corrupted the ones that weren’t too encrypted to make sense of.”

   “And this’ll make the grand uppity-ups think the whole thing staged?” Spike asked.

   Willow glanced over at Spike. “Um. Uh, yeah. It should. If you want their funding cut, this should do it.”

   Willow had been incredibly nervous to find that Slayer was working with Spike, but she was going with it. Slayer figured, the witch could just deal. Slayer was a vampire now. So she’d picked up with another vampire. A vampire who was beautiful, and powerful, and strong, and funny, and unflinchingly sexy, and had helped her in the past when she’d been only a slayer. A vampire who agreed, even though he didn’t care overmuch, that the Initiative was “bad mojo” as he put it and probably shouldn’t be allowed to continue. So they weren’t exactly on the same side. They were still... mostly the same.

   Spike and Slayer had racked their brains for several hours before they’d bumped up against what would become their final plan.

   Slayer had called Willow, who was good with computers. Spike had found a way to sneak her in through an air duct. (Really, for a top secret secure facility, there were several glaringly easy ways to sneak in and out. They both wondered if that had been by design, and if Walsh had had some other plan in the works which actually involved some kind of betrayal of the Initiative itself.) While Willow prepared her virus, Spike and Slayer had spent several hours preparing a number of false files. With Willow’s help, they had them scattered through the Initiative’s network, in prominent places which would remain largely uncorrupted by the virus which Willow had just executed.

   The false files suggested, and in several places outright confessed, to manipulation and corruption, falsified data, and downright forgery. There were no demons, or if there were, the men of the Initiative hadn’t been capturing them. The whole of the demonic underground was an elaborate ruse to milk money out of the government. The facility, the captures, the research, all of it was playacting, fabrication, and outright lies. Footage of demon captures were created by a special effects group in Hollywood — Willow had called Cordelia and managed to create a paper trail to a real television studio in LA, complete with invoices, make-up effects, props department memos, the works. Cordy had actually used her contacts to get out-of-date records from the actual company, which Willow promptly updated into the Initiative computers, to add a certain amount of verisimilitude.

   And then, she promptly wrecked it all with her virus. It was designed to specifically target encrypted and protected files more vigorously. When the government tried to piece together the Initiative’s records, they’d find a lot of unreadably corrupted encrypted files, and a lot of slightly corrupted but still traceable files suggesting that everything the Initiative was and did were elaborate pantomimes, special effects, and outright fraud. Any flaws in the forged files would be assumed to be a result of the virus.

   “Computers are done,” Willow said. “The virus should kick in over the whole network at about midnight. It’s up to you two, now.”

   “Good. I’ll walk you out.”

   As Slayer led Willow back to the secret exit, Willow grabbed her hand. “Buffy? Is something going on between you and Spike?”

   “We’re working together on this.”

   “Yeah, but... I mean... are you two... with the kissy-face?”

   Slayer closed her eyes. “It’s hard to explain, Willow.”

   “I’m just worried, because... well... um. The curse is....”

   “Yeah,” Slayer said quietly, and she knew she was confirming Willow’s greatest fear. “You should be worried.”

   “Buffy, how could you?”

   “I haven’t yet,” she said.

   “Well, I know, you’re not going for my throat, it’s just—”

   “Angel’s boys don’t kill,” Slayer said. “The co-op is set up enough. If it happens, I’ll try and stay with it.”

   “Try? What if you can’t?”

   “If that happens… well. I suggest you take me out.”

   “How could I…?”

   “Call Angel. He made the mess, I’m sure he could fix it.”

   Willow looked very troubled. “I guess I could always do the curse again, if I had to.”

   Slayer just looked at her.

   “But… you’re not going to try and... well... not let it happen? It just seems… irresponsible.”

   Slayer decided it was time to make something very clear. “Willow? You did this to me. And I understand why you did. But truthfully? I told you to let me die.”

   “That was when you didn’t have it!” Willow protested.

   Slayer stared at her. “I love you, Willow, you’re still my best friend. But you should have listened.” She shook her head. “Oz did. For a minute. He knew.”

   “Oz is gone,” Willow said. Tears were welling up in her eyes. “He... he met some other werewolf, Veruca, and he brought her into his cage with him, and they... they....” She choked. “We got into a fight. She disappeared, but he left anyway.” She shook her head. “I was trying to call you! I wanted... I wanted to talk, but... you’ve been so hard to reach sometimes... I didn’t know you were... not for a few days... Xander said you weren’t at the mansion.... Oh, god, Buffy, Oz is gone!

   Slayer wanted to be annoyed that Willow was more worried about her boyfriend troubles than she had been about her friend being missing, (or the whole curse conversation, which seemed to have completely fallen out of Willow’s head already) but the truth was... Slayer had been hard to pin down lately. She’d only been missing a few days. And from what Willow had seen of this place, it really didn’t look any worse than the average Big Bad of the Week. Just another day for the Scoobies. “It’s okay, Willow. Maybe he’ll come back.”

   “I don’t know,” Willow said. “He said... he said the wolf was always inside him, that Veruca... showed him and... I think he left with his new werewolf girlfriend, and was just being nice!”

   “Did she go to UC Sunnydale?” Slayer asked. “Singer in some band?”

   “Um... yeah?”

   “Oz didn’t leave with her,” she said. “She was captured, brought down here. She... didn’t make it through their experiments.” Willow’s face went white. She couldn’t seem to decide if she was happy or horrified. “If Oz left, that’s good. He’s safer away from here until this place is shut down completely.”

   “Really?”

   “Really.” She really didn’t have time for girl-talk. “Look, I have to....”

   “I know. Good luck!” Willow stopped in the doorway and looked back. “Is Spike really... what a vampire girl would want?”

   “I don’t know. But he’s what I needed.”

   Willow stared at her for a long moment, and then nodded before she left.

   Slayer made sure her friend had gotten back out into the sunlight before heading back to Spike.

   He was in one of the rooms of the 314 corridors, smashing sample jars so he could flush the contents down the toilet.“Sunset’s in three hours,” she said. “You ready?”

   “We can get the doors open with a bit of a smash and grab,” he said. “Between Walsh and Finn’s key cards, we got most of the doors set. It’ll be up to you to sweet talk the demons into all leaving rather than fighting, though.”

   “I can handle it. If any of them are really evil, I’ll just kill them.”

   “Any bodies—”

   “Have to be brought to the fire, I know. This was my plan, remember?”

   Spike chuckled.

   “I think most of them will be happy to get the heck out of Dodge. You ready with your part?”

   “Burning stuff is something I’m good at,” Spike said.

   Walsh, Riley, Angleman, the hideous mutilated monster corpse, and any demonic samples which didn’t look like they’d flush were to be dumped in the arena and burned with the other corpses Spike and Slayer had left. They already removed a window pane in the observation room to make that simple. Spike had disabled the fans, and the resultant fire alarm from the smoke should be enough to send the soldiers to wherever they were trained to go if there was a fire.

   “The fire and the alarms should draw most of the humans out harm’s way, or to the corridor where I’ll lock them in until morning. But what about these samples, Slayer? We can’t be sure we got every sample in the whole compound.” They could really only move freely in the deserted 314 section of the complex.

   “That was one of the files I wrote,” Buffy said. “Hints that actual samples were bought from occultists to confuse the trail if they were inspected. Paper trails lead to the Watcher’s Council.” She laughed. Might as well get some use out of her heritage.

   “And the soldiers?”

   “Paid to lie, that’s one of the files. And Angleman’s files were clear on the drugs he was administering them all. I don’t think anyone will believe them. At least not enough to change opinion.”

   “All right. I think that’s about it, slayer.”

   “Yeah. I guess it is.”

   There was an awkward and surprisingly heavy silence. Spike stood with his hand on a sample jar, looking into her eyes. “And when this is over...?”

   “We have to survive first,” Slayer said quickly. She grabbed several jars and cracked them open. “Uh, Spike? Um. Thank you. For finding another way.”

   “You thought of it. I was just a sound board.”

   “Yeah, but... you listened. You....” This was too awkward. “Thanks.”

   “You’re welcome, Slayer.”

   There was another heavy silence.

   “You know if you join the co-op, the blood’s free, right?” Slayer said abruptly. “Once it’s running better, there’ll be a salary, too.... Right now we can only pay off the lights and afford free cable for the guys in the basement, but....”

   “Slayer?”

   “Yeah?”

   “Let’s get out of here, first.”

   “Right. Just. Offer still stands.”

   Spike nodded. “Mine does, too. If that’s what you want.”

   His eyes locked with hers, and Slayer broke her jar, unable to open it with her hands shaking. “Right,” she said, pouring the demon eyeballs into the tub. She didn’t know what to say.

   Suddenly Spike grinned. “Want to play Twenty Questions?” he asked.

   Slayer looked up, relieved. “I’m thinking of an object.”

   “Stake.”

   “Got me. Your turn.”

   

***

   

   “Why’s it even locked?”

   “You trust all the nasties in this town? The no-invite clause doesn’t apply anymore!”

   “I know, but — ow! Would you get it open already?”

   “I’m trying!”

   “Just break it —”

   “Then I’d have to fix it! Doors cost,” Slayer finally got her front door open and they fell into her mansion, “money!

   She and Spike collapsed on the floor, smoking and laughing with relief. Spike kicked the door closed behind them as Slayer rolled off the smoldering leather coat, giggling giddily at the ceiling.

   Getting out of the Initiative had taken a little longer than they’d thought. Many of the soldiers hadn’t been quite as dumb as their previous behavior had indicated, and they’d been difficult to work around, and some of the demons captured had indeed been tough nuggets to crack. None of them were the real hard-core dangerous, since these Initiative blokes hadn’t really known what was what, and hadn’t had supernatural strength to aid in catching them, but a few hadn’t wanted to give Slayer her due as dominant. Spike had had to join her on a couple of those, and where strength and chutzpah hadn’t convinced them, age and experience and another pair of fists had. (They had had to kill two. Slayer had been more annoyed by the delay than upset at that.) Eventually they had gotten every living demon out of the cells and on their way back to wherever they’d been plucked from, but it had taken time.

   What with demon taming, and soldier wrangling, and double checking to make sure it was a big enough debacle to call in the uppity-ups in the first place for an inspection (an e-mail from “Walsh” begging for more money, and offering a tour to justify the expense was sure to be a clincher) it had been nearly dawn when the two had finally gotten out of that hell pit. They could have found somewhere to hole up — Spike was pretty sure there were some caves nearby — but Slayer had been adamant. “I’ve been in the same clothes, fighting slime demons, snaky monsters, rock beasts. I’ve got blood, dirt, dust, grime, not to mention other kinds of ooze all over me. I want my own bathroom, and my own clothes, and my own damn lair!”

   So they’d run. As the sun had crept over the horizon they’d darted from shadow to shadow, hidden under trees, and debated whether it would be easier to get to the sewers or to just high-tail it. The last three blocks they’d both had to hunker under Spike’s coat, as he held it over them like a tarp.

   Slayer was chuckling, Spike was pretty relieved himself, and he looked up at the concrete ceiling with a sense of joy he hadn’t felt in a long time. The last time he’d seen this mansion, he’d been looking for Slayer, obsessed with finding how she’d died. The time before that, he’d been drunk and disgruntled and lonely, full of rage for Angel. And before that...

   Before that he’d been carting off an unconscious Drusilla as Buffy had faced Angelus, all alone in the garden.

   Spike felt self-conscious suddenly. He’d been debating offering his services again as servicer, but he felt awkward about it.

   And then Slayer rolled over, grabbed him by the shoulders, and kissed him.

   His arms went around her, as relieved by her kiss as he had been by the shade. When she pulled away he gazed up at her, tired and dirty, with a slight burn on the side of her face from the sun. “Thought you might have changed your mind.”

   “About you?”

   “About all of it.”

   “I thought about it,” Slayer said. “Buffy used to second guess herself all the time. You know what? I hate that about Buffy.”

   Spike grinned.

   “But I need a shower or something.” She lifted herself off him. “I’m for the bathroom.”

   “I seem to remember,” Spike said, “that the master bathroom of this place has a bath tub big enough for two.”

   Slayer stopped. “It does.”

   Spike let his eyes travel down her form. “Be right in. If that’s okay.”

   Slayer didn’t say anything, but the look on her face was nervous, not opposed.

   “There any blood in the fridge?” he asked, to kill the tension.

   “It’s pig,” Slayer said. “Half a pint of donated left... oh, shit, that’s probably gone bad. The pig will have too... oh, there’s a half gallon in the freezer for emergencies, unless you wanted to call Xander to bring some—”

   “This is an emergency,” Spike said. “I’ll defrost it. Got any burba weed?”

   “What?”

   “Nevermind. I’ll see what I can do with coriander.”

   “Huh?”

   Spike rolled his eyes. There had been times he’d had to make do with animal blood in the past, and it was usually better to spice it up a bit. Coriander, caraway, burba weed, all could make animal blood a little more palatable. She’d been living on animal blood this whole time, and didn’t know this? “Do you have any black pepper, at least?”

   “Maybe,” she said. “I never use the kitchen for much but blood. There were some spices Angel left in the cupboard.”

   “Those were mine,” Spike said. “But they’ll be two years old. Well, better’n naught.” He threw himself off the floor. “Meet you in the bathroom with some blood…?”

   Slayer smiled at him slowly. “Yeah. That sounds nice.”

   Spike warmed up the blood to a little over 99 degrees, knowing it would cool a bit, and raided the spice cabinet to doctor it up. He got it palatable — or at least better than that dog-hybrid he’d eaten last — and brought it up to the bathroom with a couple of wine glasses.

   The door was closed, and he could hear the water running. He knocked. “Slayer?”

   “Yeah.”

   He took that as an invite, though her voice was very small.

   There she was, in her bathrobe, waiting for the water to fill the big tub, and she looked nervous as all hell.

   Ordinarily Spike would have said this called for a little spiritous lubrication, but there was no alcohol in the house. He’d checked.

   Spike poured her a glass of blood instead. “Now, this is my special recipe,” he said as he poured. “Two hefty pinches of burba weed, and a dash of ground coriander. And—” he pressed a glass into her hand. “A little something extra, to kill the pig taste.”

   Slayer sipped it. “Woah,” she said suddenly. “You spiked it.”

   “That I did.”

   She glared at him. “You’re trying to heal a hole in your head, you—”

   “I’m fine,” Spike said.

   Slayer grabbed his hand anyway and glared at the gash he’d put in his wrist. “Don’t do this to yourself. Not for me.” She kissed the wound.

   The tenderness surprised him. He’d been expecting her to go cold and stiff and terrified. If his read on her was correct, she was all but a virgin. One night with Angel (which, knowing Angel, likely wasn’t all that) and one stress-tense almost fully-clothed tryst with him a few nights ago. It wasn’t surprising she was nervous. “I like to. Why shouldn’t I?”

   “Because I’m not worth it.”

   Spike touched her face. “Hear this, pet. You’re worth it to me.”

   “In a few minutes, you won’t even know me. Whatever you think it’s worth..., it probably isn’t.”

   “First off, if this is over in a few minutes, stake me. I’ll deserve it. Second.” He slid his hand down her throat and held her head. “What do you think I’m looking for, love?”

   Slayer rolled her eyes. “Nevermind. No doubt you can’t wait.”

   Spike looked down. It was hard to explain how he felt about it. But a gurgle from the tub told him the water had reached the overflow drain. He went to turn off the water.

   When he turned back, she had shed the robe, and he was gifted with the sight of her naked in her own environment. The only thing that could have made it better would be candlelight, and maybe rose petals or something. Well. They had time.

   Or did they? How much would change with that soul out of the picture? What would she be as a pure demon? He really couldn’t picture it.

   Which frightened him. Because right now, he loved her more than he had ever loved anything. He knew it was early days. He knew the rush of the new was intoxicating. He also knew the naughty factor, as he was about to bed a former slayer, was definitely an added attraction. But really... she was right. He knew her as she was, soul and struggle and all. The idea of standing beside her as they went to go slaughter their way through the night, pure and unchecked evil... well. That wasn’t her. Without the soul, it might be....

   But at the same time, he knew she had serious issues with his lifestyle as it stood. And that would cause problems too.

   “There any more of that blood?” she asked.

   “Uh... yeah,” he said. He’d been busy staring. “Brought the whole jug.” He poured her another glass, and she settled herself into the water. She’d added lavender scented bubbles and some kind of bath oil. As Spike shed his clothes — god, these things were filthy. He hoped his room in the basement had just been locked up rather than tossed, ‘cause he was going to need something new to wear when they were done — he enjoyed the view of Slayer frankly enjoying the view of him.

   He settled into the warm water with his own glass of blood. Ugh, pig. He shuddered, but he knew it was an acquired taste. The fifth swallow always tasted better than the first, as the demon had to get past the initial impulse of, not that.

   “This is probably going to be awkward,” Slayer said suddenly. “I know this is.”

   “Trust me, once we get started, it won’t be.”

   “I’m not very... good. At this.”

   Spike raised his eyebrow. “Pardon?”

   “Well, Angel wasn’t... very impressed.”

   “Angel,” Spike said, “was an ass. And was trying to hurt your feelings. And I know, ‘cause he bragged about it.”

   “Weren’t you impressed? By his… evil?”

   Spike shook his head. “Not of that.”

   “Why not?” she asked. She seemed deeply in earnest. “What is it? What is it that makes you so different from him? When he doesn’t have a soul, why is he so much more evil than you?”

   “Hey, I’m evil!” Spike said. “And don’t kid yourself, when he does have a soul, he’s not much better.”

   “But he is.”

   “He killed you,” Spike snapped. “And he didn’t have to.”

   Slayer looked down. “Yeah. I know.” She swallowed. “That thing you said. About... there being a way to save him without... killing me.”

   Spike tilted his head, but he didn’t say anything.

   “I... probably didn’t have to try and kill Faith, either. If I’d done what you said.”

   Spike shrugged.

   “I should have thought of it,” she went on. “One of us should have thought of it. But I was angry, and... too scared to think straight.” She shook her head. “I could never think straight around Angel.”

   “Yeah, he’s had that effect on a few people.”

   “I still love him,” she said abruptly.

   Spike let that hang there for a long moment. “I know.”

   “I still want to do this.”

   “Me too.”

   “But... if I suddenly change my mind....”

   Spike rolled his eyes. “Well, depending on where we are, I might ask you to suck me off again, but otherwise, fine,” he said, exasperated. “Slayer.” He moved forward in the bath and put his arm around her. “This is for you, right? This... is all... for you.”

   He curled her against him in the warm water and kissed her forehead, her cheek, her lips, tenderly, methodically, passionately. She made tiny, contented sounds and eventually her hand went around him.

   “Watch the head,” he said suddenly.

   “Sorry!”

   “‘S okay.” He kissed her again, until she nearly melted under the water.

   “Still think you’ll change your mind?” he whispered after a while.

   “Fuck no.”

   





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