Slayer hit her punching bag again and again and again, trying to beat the stuffing out of it; half wishing she could beat the stuffing out of Spike, or maybe out of some innocent human. Just keep hitting and hitting until she could hear the bones crack and the blood spurted out of their face and they groaned with the pain and –

   Stop. Those are evil thoughts. Don’t indulge those. Slayer gave the bag a final roundhouse kick, then reached over for her wineglass, which was half full of warmed donor blood. Slayer had spent the first four months after she’d been turned avoiding human blood completely, but after she nearly vamped out at a victim she was trying to save a few months ago, she’d realized she’d have to train herself up to it. The acclimation therapy was proving effective. The last time a victim she was saving had been blooded, she’d barely had to clench her fist to control herself. Despite her strength, she was still technically a fledge, and fledges had impulse control problems.

   And also hygiene issues connected to the feeling they didn’t belong in the world anymore, so why bother with social niceties like fashion and bathing? Which was probably why Xander looked at her askance as he came in through the jasmine garden. “What happened to your hair?” he asked.

   Slayer grabbed at it. She’d tied it up in a bun-like knot earlier in the night, and it seemed to have fallen to the side. The mansion still didn’t have any mirrors, and she wouldn’t have been able to see herself in them anyway, so she couldn’t see what it looked like. “I was working out,” she said. She grabbed at a brush, untangled the knot, and set about smoothing her hair.

   The mansion on Crawford St. didn’t look quite the way Angel had left it. Buffy had added more exercise equipment in the front room than Angel would have approved of, and some of Angel’s art was… she didn’t want to say pretentious, but she’d gotten rid of it anyway. She had a bunch of stuff left over from her mom’s gallery after it closed, and a handful of things from Revello Drive here now. The place was still big and echoing and strange, but it was more her place now than Angel’s.

   “How’s the construction coming?” she asked Xander once her hair was somewhat tamed.

   “Not bad. We’re setting up the freezers now. The rest of the factory should be renovated by spring.”

   “Can we get at least the slaughter floor up any faster?” Slayer asked. “We’re doing what we can piecemeal, but I’d really like the slaughterhouse to start making decent money sooner than that.”

   “You’ve already gotten a good blood flow available for you and the vampires,” Xander said. “That was the point, right?”

   “Yeah, but I’d like it sustainable, as soon as possible,” Slayer said. “And it’s not me and the vampires. It’s me and the rest of the vampires.

   “Yeah,” Xander said. “But you’re different from them, Buffy. You’re a person.”

   Slayer rolled her eyes. She didn’t like being called Buffy anymore. She wasn’t Buffy anymore. Technically she wasn’t a vampire slayer anymore, either, but the other vampires had still taken to calling her “Slayer,” and the name seemed right. She wasn’t Buffy, the Vampire Slayer anymore. She was just the vampire, Slayer. “Just because I have a soul doesn’t make me anything other than a vampire.”

   Xander looked uncomfortable. He didn’t like it when she talked like that. “Anyway, yeah, we set up instructions for the night crew, and yes, I got all the day crew out well before sunset.”

   Xander was the daytime front man for Slayer’s burgeoning slaughter business. The other vampires knew he was off limits (well, technically all of her “employees” knew that all people were off limits) but most of her boys were still fledges, and mistakes had happened. No lethal ones yet, (except that one time, the perpetrator of which Slayer had taken care of quickly, and with extreme prejudice) but she didn’t want Xander to fall prey to a fledgeling mistake. She’d never forgive herself for dragging him into the business with her in the first place if that happened.

   “You should check on the guys tonight, make sure they’re following the plans,” Xander added.

   “Right,” Slayer said.

   “But the FDA inspector I spoke to? Said that with the water flow and drainage around the factory, getting certification shouldn’t be hard with the plans we have. So, within a year we should be able to have legitimate, certified meat shipping out.”

   It wasn’t fast enough for Slayer, but at least she’d gotten the boys off human blood for the most part, and that was a start. Her plan was for the Night Butchers to be set up as a legitimate co-op, ship meat out for human consumption for money, and all the blood which most slaughterhouses only disposed of fed free and clear to her workers. Right now all that was happening was illegitimate, under the table stuff, but she had the coolers and the slaughter floor set, the blood was contained and distributed fairly to the boys, and if the meat had to go to dog food until the factory was fully renovated, well, at least it was something. But she wanted to be able to give them proper salaries, as well as a varied diet of high-quality animal blood.

   It was a decent start-up already. They had a business plan, cash flow charts, a loan from a local bank. Harmony played receptionist, ready night and day with her cellular phone, and Angel’s boys handled the pig slaughter and most of the construction. They needed oversight. They were all universally evil, and they weren’t above cutting corners, in the same way the sea is not above the clouds. But her goal wasn’t to make them good. Her goal was to keep them from actively doing evil. So far, it was working.

   “And remember, I’d like to branch out from pig soon,” Slayer said. “How soon can we start processing beef or something?”

   “I don’t know, it would need some different machinery, I think,” Xander said. He was only just nineteen; starting a business was a new experience for both of them. “Maybe you should stop by the college, see if Willow can help you look it up.”

   “Yeah,” Slayer said. Willow usually stayed up studying until well after eleven. It was only nine now. “I can do that. After I check the factory, make sure the boys are following your plans right.”

   Xander sighed. “I still don’t know why you insist on being all pally with them.”

   “I’m not pally with them. I’m taking care of them.”

   “Yeah, but why?”

   “Because they’re my brothers!” Slayer snapped. She felt bad at the hurt look on Xander’s face, but he already knew this. He’d insisted she could just stake them all and be done, but he really didn’t understand. She hadn’t mentioned that the core group of them were actually Angel’s boys.

   When Slayer, (still calling herself Buffy) had first opened her eyes, she’d had less than an hour of soulless, purely evil (and tightly chained) existence before Willow and Angel and Oz had finished the ritual and cursed her fled soul back into her newly demonic body. She had been furious at all of them: at Willow for dragging her soul back into her body so she’d be able to feel just what a monster she’d been made into. At Oz for going along with it. Even her beloved Angel…. Xander and Giles hadn’t been involved in the decision to do the spell, and indeed had been rather horrified, but Willow had insisted it was the only way.

   “We had to bring your soul back, Buffy!” she’d said. “Things are in major over-our-heads dangerland, here, how the hell were we supposed to fight without you?”

   “But how am I supposed to fight anything like this!” the newly vamped Buffy had despaired. “I can’t go into the sunlight, I can’t go near fire….”

   “Well,” Willow had said, perfectly reasonably. “You shouldn’t have let it happen. We need you.”

   Slayer was in agreement with her these days. She shouldn’t have been so reckless and stupid. She wished the whole terrible thing had never happened at all. And it hadn’t even made a difference. Angel, despite her being a vampire now, and despite his protestations of eternal love, had still taken off for LA.

   But that was a whole tangle of twisted emotion she didn’t want to try and cut through tonight. She’d had a full plate already. Pick up donor blood from Willy’s, check. Call Mom and Giles in London, check. Nightly meeting with Xander, check. Now, she just had to check out the factory, consult Willow, and do a quick patrol for any vampires who weren’t part of the co-operative, and recruit or dust them.

   Oh, and maybe check on Spike.

   Slayer thanked Xander, and then drove him to his house in her Mom’s old car.

   Joyce had sold the house on Revello Drive when Buffy had insisted. She was dead. She was a vampire. Everything was already over, and it just wasn’t safe anymore. Giles’s job was to be a watcher to a slayer, not oversee a newborn vampire. Buffy had begged him to go with Joyce, take her somewhere and help her start a new life. Joyce had finally agreed, with the stipulation that her newly vampire daughter would still keep in touch. The two adults had helped her and Xander set up the business plan for the slaughterhouse, and then Giles had taken Joyce to London, where they were opening up a new gallery, with art and antiques.

   Joyce still called regularly, as if Buffy were just at college or something rather than actively dead, and Giles was still available for on-the-phone research when there was a nasty demon Slayer didn’t know how to handle. But for the most part, Slayer let most of the demons live and let live.

   Yes, she was stronger than most other vampires, due to her originally being the slayer. Yes, she still had a conscience, thanks to Willow and her ensoulment curse. But the truth was, she wasn’t a slayer anymore. She was just a strong vampire with a conscience. The sense of duty was still there, but the joy and the need, the calling to protect? That just wasn’t.

   And unlike Angel, she had no century of human slaughter to weigh her down with guilt, so while she tried to keep the local vamps from killing, and wouldn’t let any people be actively hunted down around her, taking out the local demons? Not her job anymore.

   Of course, she didn’t know whose job it was. Faith, the person whose job it was supposed to be was still in a coma.... Ugh, no, too many ugly emotions.

   She stopped the car when they got to Xander’s house, and waved him off. He collected his bag of under-the-table pork loin (free meat was a great perk of being front-man) and climbed out. “Oh, and Xander?” she said before he closed the door. “Spike’s in town.”

   “Spike?”

   “Yeah. Keep an eye out. He’s not part of the co-op, and he’s probably at least as strong as me these days.”

   “I thought you were stronger than the vamps because you were the slayer before you were turned?”

   “Most of them,” Slayer said. “But he’s an elder himself, and we’re… well, kinda the same.” She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, probably not gonna be a problem. He didn’t kill you before, right?”

   Xander rubbed the back of his head. “I still have a dent in my skull from the last time he...!” He stopped. “Yeah. Won’t invite him in. Catch you at the Bronze later?”

   Slayer raised her eyebrow.

   “Thought not. You really ought to loosen up sometime, Buffy. See ya.”

   “Later.”

   Slayer drove to the factory, plunging through red lights. She’d never done that sort of thing before she was turned. The rule of law had mattered more. Now, with the evil streak of the demon running through her system, her conscience had diminished to anything that actually hurt anyone. Traffic laws, petty theft, even littering didn’t matter to her much these days. That was why she hadn’t driven much when she was just Buffy. The desire to just push through the laws behind a wheel, the same way she did when she pursued vampires, had been too much for her and she hadn’t liked it. She hadn’t even managed to get a license, the hyper-awareness being too much for her. She still didn’t have a driver’s license, but she didn’t care anymore.

   Also, she’d been trying to perfect that thrall thing, like Drusilla had had. It had worked the one time she’d been pulled over by a Sunnydale cop. She didn’t go all pointy sharp fingers and be in me. Her trick seemed to be consistent persuasion and repetition. After seven attempts to give her a ticket, and Slayer’s repeat insistence that he didn’t want to, he seemed to forget that he’d been about to, and left her off with a warning. Her burgeoning thrall skills had helped recruit some of the more reluctant fledges to the co-op, as well.

   The factory looked different these days, with building permits and construction materials all over. The windows had been completely bricked over, and vampires ranged in and out, playing with that night’s shipment of swine. Some of the vampires really liked killing the beasts themselves, and Slayer allowed it. Actually, she allowed most things. She did not micromanage. She had a few overseers, all of them Angel’s boys, checked in on them once a night to make sure they weren’t cutting important corners in construction, and otherwise left them to it.

   Two of them waved at her as she pulled the car up. “Slayer! We got the freezer hooked up,” one of them shouted at her.

   “Great. Is it freezing?”

   “Not yet,” Tony said. He was her chief overseer.

   “Well, Spike’s in town,” Slayer shouted back. “If he shows up, we’ll test it on him!”

   The boys laughed. None of them liked Spike.

   Every one of Angel’s boys had been turned during that year while Angel had lost his soul and become Angelus. All they knew of Spike was that he was the wheelchair-bound clown-poodle owned by Drusilla, and tolerated by Angelus. They were poorly made, mere minion material, turned on nothing but a drop of blood. Angelus had made them as decoys, distractions, and foot soldiers, and most of them had been made only to be there for Buffy to slay. A set of disposable workers, a buffer between him and Buffy.

   Buffy hadn’t known they existed until the day of graduation, when Angel had informed the Scoobies, rather out of the blue, that he could recruit a small squadron of vampires to help them fight the Mayor during the eclipse. Buffy hadn’t questioned it at first, until she found herself among the group of heavy looking fellows, and realized.... “Angel? You have a soul. The vampires of Sunnydale hate you.”

   He’d looked embarrassed, then frustrated, and then finally admitted that he was sire to every single one of them. And as their sire, they’d be loyal to him so long as he was strong enough to dominate them, even if they had contempt for his soul.

   “You had an entire nest of self-made minions, just lurking around Sunnydale, for the last year?”

   “I didn’t have a soul when I made them, Buffy. It wasn’t really me.”

   Buffy had only looked at him. She was still herself. Getting her soul shoved back inside her hadn’t made her any less the demon she had been the hour before. It wasn’t until after they’d defeated the Mayor and Angel had been about to just send the boys on their way that she’d realized... these were her brothers. Fellow vampires, just like her. Not only had Angel just abandoned them, but he’d abandoned them to go on killing.

   That was when Buffy had insisted he bring them all back to the mansion, and she’d arranged the idea for the co-op. Human blood tasted better, yes, but more than that, animal blood cost money, and it was money these vampires didn’t have. Angel hadn’t wanted to bother.

   “We can’t just let them keep killing, Angel.”

   “We don’t have to do that,” Angel had said. “It’s not like they have souls. I’d forgotten about them until this whole thing, they’re nothing that special. We can just take care of it now.”

   It had taken Buffy some time to understand what he was saying. He had abandoned them, and then forgotten about them until he’d needed something. To be fair, he’d been in a hell dimension for the first half of that year, but he also hadn’t let on that he knew they were still in town even after he’d come back contrite and full of soul. He had called on them when he needed them, and they had come, loyally, to his side. And now he was advocating just staking them?

   “What if I didn’t have a soul?” Buffy had asked. “Would you just stake me?”

   Angel looked away. “No. I couldn’t.”

   Buffy believed him. He could have affection for other vampires, in his way. He hadn’t staked Drusilla, or Spike, even when they were torturing him, even when he’d still had a soul and should have hated them. But his casual dismissal of the rest of his offspring (even if they were only minion material) still bothered her.

   She’d adopted them. And lots of the other vamps in Sunnydale, like Harmony and anyone else who would agree to stop killing humans. Angel was right; they were nothing that special. They were evil, dumb, with a positively contemptible following instinct. But Buffy was a vampire herself. Technically, they were family. Soul or not, they were all the same.

   Which, meant, Slayer realized, that Spike was too, wasn’t he?

   So it was understandable that her vampire sensibilities had found Spike incredibly hot.

   Except, of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all. And there were all kinds of reasons for that. And thinking about Spike and his sharp cheekbones and his supple lips and the heroic way he’d come to fight beside her last year…. Yeah, no. She quickly stepped into the freezer, to make sure it was all working well. It seemed to be. Cold air was starting to blow out of the side wall. The insulation seemed properly installed, and the electrical wiring wasn’t shooting out blue sparks or anything (not that Slayer really knew much about it, but even being looked at tended to keep the boys in order, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was seeing.) But the cold air wasn’t helping the hot images which were sliding into her mind....

   Which was damned aggravating. She couldn’t afford to think this way.

   I gotta go talk to Willow, Slayer thought. Despite her resentment over the curse and all, they’d maintained their friendship, and Willow had gone to UC Sunnydale to stay close, just like she’d promised she would. Even though Slayer had decided against going to college, even night courses. Being around people was just too dangerous while she was still a fledge.

   Also... that soul wasn’t so securely attached, after all.

   Which was why thinking of Spike at all was a bad, bad, bad idea.  

 





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