The little mouse lived in a hole, you see. It was a tiny thing, timid and shaking. But no matter how very quietly it cowered in the deep, dusty dark, the cat always found it and dragged it out to play. The cat always did.
Angel grunted twice and collapsed on top of Spike’s bent body, forcing the air from Spike’s lungs in a noisy whoosh. Spike didn’t bother trying to refill them; he just lay still until Angel removed himself with a wet squelching noise and stood.
“Get out,” Angel said expressionlessly as he fastened his trousers.
Spike suppressed a moan as he straightened himself—a broken rib or two this time, he reckoned, something poking sharply at his insides. He started toward the little pile of clothing in the corner, but glimpsed one of Angel's broad fingers hovering over his watch. “Get out.”
Spike flinched. “My kit—”
“Out!” This time Angel’s response was a roar, and his finger moved a bit closer to the button on the side of the timepiece.
Spike scurried out of the office.
He tried to hold his head high as he walked down the hallway, he really did. He hadn’t been ashamed of his own nudity since William’s days; in fact, he’d been known to flaunt it from time to time. But now his curls were snarled, his face swollen, his chest bruised and painful. His inner thighs were glazed with blood and semen, and he couldn’t help but limp due to the tearing pain in his arse. His cock drooped between his legs, encased in a clear plastic chastity cage that made his bollocks ache and kept him from getting hard.
He kept his eyes focused on his dirty bare feet, but he could feel the eyes of the people in suits, their gazes crawling over his naked skin like worms on a corpse. He wasn’t permitted to use the lifts, and it was a long walk from the CEO’s office to the back stairway. His footsteps whispered against the cool cement as he descended, and his nose tickled from the reek of the janitors’ cleaning fluids. As he reached the landings he could catch a glimpse of sunlight through the little pebbled-glass windows in each door. Just a glimpse, though. He hadn’t really seen the out of doors in… a very long time.
He reached the basement—or a basement, at least; he had the idea that there were more beneath him—where the fluorescent lights flickered sickly above plain white walls and a plain white floor. Always made him a bit dizzy. Dizzier.
The door to his room—his cell—was open. He went inside, shutting the door, hearing the lock click into place. Letting out a small sigh of relief. Even though now he was truly trapped and wouldn’t be allowed out of his hidey-hole until Angel sent for him again, the little room gave him at least the illusion of safety.
The room was spartan. Gray concrete floor, walls, and ceiling, with a single bare lightbulb hanging dead center. A metal cot with a thin mattress, a thinner blanket, and a lumpy pillow. There was a drain set into the floor in one corner of the room, and above it was a narrow shower head. A cake of soap, a cheap comb, and a plastic bottle of the poncy shampoo Angel fancied were on a nearby shelf. A threadbare towel hung from a hook. He always heard a low humming sound when he was in his room, and he wasn’t sure if the sound came from some sort of machinery—air compressors, perhaps—or from his own skull.
He wasn’t permitted a telly or even a radio. Maybe that was just as well, seeing as he had plenty of voices nattering in his head already.
Angel had granted him only one concession, and that fairly recently: a small stack of paperback books was piled carefully under the bed. Peaches had chosen them, most likely to teach Spike some sort of obscure lesson, and they weren’t to Spike’s taste. Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard. Saint Augustine. James bloody Joyce. But they were words on paper and when the hours crawled by and the cacophony in Spike’s brain faded enough for him to grow bored, the books felt like his last anchor to sanity. He’d memorized them and the pages were falling from the bindings, but still he reread them.
Now, however, he padded to the corner of the cell and he turned the squeaky metal knob as far as it would go. A trickle of frigid water fell reluctantly onto the floor. He’d long ago learned that there was nothing he could do to increase either the temperature or the water pressure, so now he stood underneath it, shivering, trying to sluice away the filth. He stood so long that his legs gave out. He huddled and rocked himself and, as the roar began in his head, he hoped vaguely that the water would fill him, fill everything. Drown the lot.
Xander shifted in the back seat of the SUV and sighed heavily. “Jesus, this is stupid.”
Faith grinned at him that way she did—that way that always made him feel really uncomfortable—and patted his knee. “Chill, Xanny Boy. We’re cool.”
“We are not cool. This is Angel we’re paying a visit to, and that is miles and miles from cool.”
She shrugged, unconcerned. “He talked me down from a ledge. I trust him.”
“He also tortured Giles and murdered Ms. Calendar and screwed with Buffy. And oh yeah, tried to end the world. I don’t trust him.”
Willow twisted her head around to look back at him—and how come she got to sit in the front seat, while he was stuck in the back with Faith? “He didn’t have his soul then,” Willow said. As if soul-having was the answer to everything.
Xander, having learned at least a few survival tactics over the years, refrained from pointing out that Willow had a soul too, the time she tried to end the world. “If he’s so soulish, what’s he doing running an evil law firm?”
It was Faith who answered. “Conquer from within. It’s an old maneuver.”
“Yeah? So’s going over to the dark side,” Xander muttered. But he knew he wasn’t going to win this argument. He hadn’t won it the last eight or nine hundred times either. Faith was all Yay Angel! and Willow kept going on about some girl named Fred and was willing to believe whatever this Fred person said—and it was pretty damn clear that Willow had a massive crush on her which, well, good for her, but Xander didn’t want to end up dead over it.
They’d been hearing rumors about the whole law firm thing for a while, and everyone had been sort of dithering over what to do about it. The answer was pretty damn clear to Xander—take out Angel—and Giles was on his side, but of course Buffy couldn’t pull the trigger. And with Faith backing Buffy up, the other Slayers followed neatly in line. So they’d settled on keeping a close eye on him, which Xander thought was a sucky plan, especially since it was hard to keep a close anything on a vamp in LA when Slayers Inc. had set up shop in Florida. Thus the need for the current field trip. And because Xander was the loudest about having no confidence in Angel, he got recruited to tag along.
As if she were reading his thoughts—and maybe she was—Willow smiled comfortingly at him. “It’s okay, Xan. Fred says he’s still wearing a white hat.”
“That’d mess up his hair,” Xander said, effectively ending the discussion by studiously looking through the window at Los Angeles. It looked more depressing than ever: rich people showing off their bad taste in a desperate attempt to be noticed, poor people scraping by. It was all Botox and plastic and sparkly lights covered in filth, and Christ, wasn’t he in a lovely mood today? The predawn flight hadn't helped.
“Almost there,” said Kennedy from the driver’s seat. She wanted to be here even less than Xander, but she’d clearly caught the Fred-crush vibes too and wasn’t about to let Willow out of her sight. The only joy Xander was getting out of the deal was watching the bitchy, scrunched-up face Kennedy made every time Willow mentioned Fred.
The law firm was housed in a looming building with very little architectural appeal. There was a parking garage in the back, stuffed full of BMWs and Mercedes and the kind of shiny black SUVs favored by dictators. Kennedy found an empty spot and the four of them piled out. The girls adjusted their clothing, and out of habit Xander reached to adjust the eye patch that was no longer there. He’d only been wearing the acrylic eye for a couple of months and he wasn’t sure he was crazy about it. Every time he caught his reflection in a mirror, his face looked weird. Well, maybe he just had a weird face.
The lobby didn’t look evil. It was clearly intended to impress, with expensive furniture and expensive art, and an expensive-looking blonde behind the counter. “May I help you?” she asked.
All three of Xander’s companions gave the receptionist’s impressive boobs an assessing look. Xander did not. He’d been living with females long enough to have learned to look them in the eyes instead of the chest. “We have an appointment with Fred Burkle,” Willow said.
The blonde tapped for a moment at a computer hidden behind the desk. “Your name, please?”
More tapping, and then a nod. “Yes, all right. An intern will show you to the conference room.” She waved her hand and a short young man appeared. He was a couple years younger than Xander and looked uncomfortable in a suit and tie. He also looked like he thought he ought to be doing something a lot more important than playing guide dog. Then Xander noticed the odd shape of his ears, and the way Kennedy and Faith were both frowning at him. Ah. Not human. But also apparently not lethal, because he was docile enough as he led them to an elevator and up to the fourth floor.
As promised, he took them to a conference room. It wasn’t a very big one and there were no windows, but the table looked like mahogany and the chairs were really comfortable. “Ms. Burkle will be right with you,” he squeaked. “Do you want some coffee or something?”
They all shook their heads and he hurried away.
“See?” Willow said to Xander. She was smiling like a mother trying to convince her child that a trip to the dentist would be fun. “Nothing’s tried to kill us yet.”
He scowled and knocked twice on the table.
As it turned out, Fred was adorable. She was tiny and wearing a lab coat, and she had a cute accent and she gave Willow such a bubbly greeting and enthusiastic hug that Xander was certain Kennedy was going to stake her. But Kennedy didn’t; she even calmed down a little when Fred seated herself between Xander and Faith.
“Y'all must be tired after such a long trip,” Fred said.
“We want a tour of the place,” Xander replied sternly. Willow glared at him and kicked his shin, making him yelp.
Fred didn’t seem perturbed. “Sure. Not much to see, mostly. Just lawyer stuff. My lab’s pretty nifty, though. But maybe y'all want to ask me some questions first.”
Faith leaned back in her chair and nodded. “Yeah, okay. What’s the deal with the big guy? Good guy or bad?”
“Oh! Definitely good. But Wolfram and Hart has been bitin' his butt for years, so when the chance came up to actually join the firm, we figured we could do more good from inside. Y’know, so we could watch them up close, maybe steer ’em away from the bad stuff.”
Willow looked like she was going to say something, but Xander beat her to the punch. “Yeah, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I saw The Godfather too. But then there’s that saying about power corrupting, and I know Angel. He’s pretty corruptible, I’d say.”
“We’re doing a whole lotta good here,” Fred replied firmly.
“And Deadboy’s not being tempted by the powers of evil?”
“This isn’t a comic book!” Willow snapped at him. He was going to reply with something nasty, but then Willow jumped a little and he realized Kennedy had kicked her this time. Hah. Score one for Kennedy, for a change.
“Look, y’all.” Fred held up her hands to make peace. “I know Angel’s a demon. Believe me, I’ve seen what he’s got inside that hunky package. But he’s a good guy, he really is. He’s tryin' real hard.”
To Xander’s surprise, Faith leaned forward, her brows raised in a Really? Don’t bullshit me expression. “He’s still gotta be feeling the pull of temptation, Freddy. How’s he holding up?”
Fred sort of folded her lips inward and her eyes went a little shifty. “He has… an outlet.”
“An outlet?” Faith asked.
“Yeah. A way to… to work out his… urges.”
“A hobby,” Faith said. “Like knitting or fantasy football?”
“Nooo…. It’s… something not very nice. But he’s not hurting anyone—not anyone good—and it’s working for him so we all kinda let it slide. It’s kinda his own family business anyway.”
Xander exchanged looks with the others. “Family business?” he finally said.
Fred looked very uncomfortable, but nodded. “I guess you’re gonna want to see, huh?”
Xander tried not to stare as they made their way through the building. Quite a few demons seemed to work at the firm, but they weren’t the ones he wondered about. As far as he was concerned, demons at an evil law firm made perfect sense, just like demons at a dentist office or in Congress. What interested him were the humans. They looked pretty ordinary, just men and women in suits, carrying papers and talking into cell phones. He wondered what lured them to work in this place. Had they known what they were getting into? Did they care? ’Cause yeah, he’d figured out long ago that human DNA didn’t automatically make someone a paragon of virtue—hell, he’d learned that from his very own parents—but he still didn’t quite understand what led people to give themselves over to evil. Especially the minions, the ones who had to know they were never going to be top dog, never going to rule the world. What was in it for them?
He didn’t get any answers to these questions as they walked down the hallway and squeezed into an elevator. The elevator was playing Britney Spears. They rode down to a floor marked B2, but Xander couldn’t help but notice that there were also floors B3 through B9, and he wondered why so many underground levels were necessary. He couldn’t think of an explanation that wasn’t unsettling.
B2 was a long white hallway lined with unmarked doors. Their footsteps echoed strangely and he noticed that even perky Fred looked pretty subdued. She stopped in front of one of the gray doors and held her thumb to a sensor near the knob. A locked clicked loudly; she swung the door open.
Somewhat hesitantly, Xander and the other visitors clustered close to see what was inside.
Willow and Xander gasped in unison, and Xander yelled, “Spike!”
His brain itched, deep inside where the chip sent out electronic tentacles and danced its silicon dances. He scratched his head until his hair was caked with blood and his fingernails were broken, but the infuriating tickle wouldn’t stop. The burning in his chest wouldn’t stop either—his skin there was marred by deep gouges, but they were never deep enough. And the voices nattered on, screaming, laughing, blaming; and his arse was torn from Angel’s recent attentions; and his belly was hollow.
He crouched in the damp corner of his cell, rocking himself and holding himself tight, attempting in vain to find some faint comfort in his own arms.
He didn’t notice when the door opened. Loads of things like that got past him nowadays, his attention turned too far inward or his despair too deep for clear sight. But he heard the gasps and the startled exclamation of his name, and he looked up, wondering what torture was to come next.
But before he could focus his eyes, the scent hit him and he hissed and pressed back against the cold concrete wall. Slayers. Not the Slayer, not the girl, but Slayers nonetheless. Was this how Angel had decided to end him, some sort of balance for past crimes? “Doesn’t matter,” he said. His voice was cracked from screaming or disuse; he wasn’t sure which. “Won’t bring the others back, the one worried about her mother and the other about her son. Oh, and the taste of them….” He shuddered in remembered ecstasy and newfound repugnance, and then laughed a broken little laugh. “All dust now. Dust to dust.”
Dust. It was a soft word, deep and whispery like the grave itself. Soothing, really, and peaceful. Enticing enough to make him ignore the pain that would come after—fire, the priests would have it, but he knew that true hell was cold and hard, like a tomb, like a concrete cell, like a vampire’s shriveled heart.
He crawled on all fours and stopped just short of the doorway, his head hanging. He was naked and wet and ripped to pieces. “Just do it,” he whispered. “Bloody do it. Please.”
But nobody staked him, and after the shocked silence dragged out like a fisherman’s line, he was captured, hooked by his own curiosity. He lifted his head again. That’s when he realized he recognized the other two visitors, the ones who weren’t Slayers. One was the girl with the ginger hair, the one he’d tried to bite after he was first chipped. The one who tried to end the world with her magic. And beside her was the boy, because the boy was always there, wasn’t he? His dark fringe was flopping in his face, not quite hiding the oddness of his left eye.
“Spike?” the boy said again. “What the fuck?”
Spike sat back on his heels and laughed until tears flowed. “The fuck. That’s the rub, innit? The rub and the fuck and the pain and if you won’t make it bloody stop then bugger off. I’d prefer to be barmy by myself.”
He turned around—still no energy to stand so he crawled again—and dragged himself to the cot. He remained on the floor with his back to the door, and he curled himself into the smallest, tiniest ball he could, until he was nothing, not a man, not a mouse, not even a speck of dust.