Chapter 28: Solutions
Xander had no conscious knowledge of the hyena rising - of Oz and Derio shifting, or Spike. All he knew was *Rage* boiling up hot and fast and utterly overwhelming. He was going to kill Jack. Stop him. Something - anything - to undo what he'd just said. As he launched himself he saw, with a sort of detached alarm, that Scavenger was changing as well. Blackness and sparks swirling up - higher, denser - seeming to pull more of themselves from the air around them. Before his hands even touched Jack, a wall of lightless black sateen rose between them and a horse was standing there. Xander hit it hard, knocking himself back and knocking the breath out of himself. Spike grabbed him, yanking him close, *protect pack DAMNIT Xander, gonna get yourself hurt!* slamming into him from the vampire. Xander hadn't ever considered a horse even marginally frightening before but this one was. It was amazingly tall, a solid expanse of black hide and smoky-black hair; feathered hocks over hooves like dinner-plates and behind the thick spill of the forelock the eyes glowed with a fire as deep and bloody red as a ruby. The horse - Scavenger - shifted, head lowering, lips drawn back to show sharp, ivory teeth. He shook his head, making a squealing sort of sound and suddenly lashed out, bunched quarters flowing and lengthening as the lethal hooves swept through the air, millimeters from Oz's head. Oz danced aside, snarling, as the horse's head swung after him, hooves scraping on the stone of the hearth and one massive shoulder swinging into Angel, sending him stumbling and sprawling into the couch. Tara 'eeeped' and jumped out of his way, her eyes huge with fear. Derio was snarling - was poised to leap - and Xander caught sight of Jack, somewhere behind Scavenger.
A profound sadness showed on his face - a hopelessness and weariness and Xander stopped - just stopped still. Grabbed Spike's arm and pulled him closer.
*Derio! Stop. Just - stop. Wait, okay?*
*Not pack not pack not pack!* Derio's eloquence had escaped him and Oz shouldered between horse and wolf - pushed Derio back and back, whimpering low in his throat.
*Calm, please, mi amor, safe, we're safe...* Derio retreated finally, whuffing displeasure deep in his chest, both wolves at bay between Tara and the Sidhe. Buffy had hauled Angel to his feet and was dusting him off and he looked furious and a little shamefaced. Ethan had danced aside from Scavenger's shift and now stood with Giles, who had wound an arm around the slighter man and was holding him, whispering in his ear. It looked like Giles was trying to calm Ethan down, or at least talk him out of something.
"Jack, I... I won't accept what you're telling me. I will not." Xander held up a hand to forestall Jack, who had opened his mouth to speak. "But I'll listen to whatever explanation or story or...prophecy you think you know. We all will." Xander caught Tara's gaze with his - Giles and Buffy - and they all three nodded minutely.
*Christ, love, now's not the bloody time to be the white hat!*
*I have to know WHY he thinks this is the only way, Spike. If we know - what he knows, we can change it, or - or figure out something else. We have to KNOW.* The demon's fury was still so strong in the link Xander's heart was pounding like a drum, and Spike snarled, snapping his fangs at the pooka. But he stepped back, one reluctant step, and Xander saw Jack relax just a fraction.
"Let's all just - calm down. And can - can we go back to...something more human?" Xander gestured at the pooka, who had planted itself squarely in front of Jack. Jack leaned under the heavy, arched neck and slapped it roughly, his face grave.
"We can and we shall and we must, Xander. I don't need protecting, pooka," Jack added, his tone gone to coaxing again, and the horse lifted his head and let out a pealing, throat-extended roar of a sound, bell-like and reverberating and they all flinched from it. Then the reversal - the swirling black and sparks of the essence of the pooka flying apart and leaving a dark-skinned, dark-haired youth, naked and scowling. He glared at all of them, but gradually the flare of red faded from his eyes and he snorted and tossed his head, as horse-like in this aspect as the other. Jack touched his shoulder and said something, low, and he hissed. But after a moment his homeless-guy clothes faded back into existence and he went with studied slowness to the fireplace and crouched down, watching them all.
"'ice 'rick," Oz slurred, only half-way to human, as naked as Scavenger but not as comfortable. He accepted a ratty tartan throw from Tara and a moment later he and Derio were both sitting on the couch, laps covered. Tara moved closer to them, making room for Giles and Ethan, who perched on the edge. Ethan's magic still skirled around him, under control but evident, and there was a faint *not pack* from Derio, and then nothing. Angel and Buffy both stood in a kind of 'ready' stance, as if they would need to fight in the next few minutes. Everyone's energy - everyone's soul - was agitated - alert and spoiling for a fight. So much color, so much motion that Xander whispered the ending-word, his head starting to pound and the empty socket aching. He rubbed briefly at the patch and then settled cross-legged with a sigh, tugging Spike down with him.
*You all right, love? We can do this later, we can -*
*No - I'm fine. I want to know, Spike. I have to.*
*Yeah. Love you.*
"Where to begin?" Jack mused, tipping his head to one side, studying Xander and then Spike and then Angel, brows drawn down. "I told you once about the Seelie Court. And that I am not...of them. I am of the Un-Seelie court. And we have been charged, for all the long ages of the world, with a task..." Jack shifted a little, and behind him Scavenger reached into thin air and pulled out a small, leather pouch. He began, methodically, to roll a cigarette.
"You cannot carry this amulet, Angelus, because you are needed elsewhere, at another time, in a battle that will be equal to this one." Jack raised a hand as Angel started to speak, and the vampire subsided. "Your fate is set in this. The Powers That Be not only do not have the scope to see beyond their own petty whims, but they are ignorant of many, many factors."
"How do you know this? How can I - can we - trust you?" Angel snapped, and Jack shrugged, tiny smile slipping across his face.
"We are not of here, not in the way you and your kind are. We are the olders - the outsiders - and we see...oh, much further than any of you. This place - this time -is a meetpoint for many, many times and places. Losing it would cause more harm than can be imagined. In any other world, Glorificus opening a portal to her dimension would not have caused the destruction of all things." There was a small gasp from Buffy at that, and both she and Giles looked alarmed. "Only here - at this place - is there such danger- and such possibilities."
*How in HELL did he know? Has he been watching us? Fuck -* "How do you - do you watch us?" Xander could hear the incredulity and the anger in his voice, but what he felt was a cold, paralyzing fear.
"Of course we watch, Xander. You're marked, you know - gifted." Jack actually grinned, this time, and Xander felt Spike stiffen under his arm. "We don't let your kind out of our sight, ever."
"His kind? What the fuck does that mean?" Spike growled, and Jack brushed at the hair that fell across his eyes, brushing his finger down a blue-jay feather.
"His kind. Fey. Different, vampire, and you knew that long before you knew of his gift."
*Bloody bastard. HE didn't make you special -*
"I want to know why you think Spike should carry the amulet. We're not simply going to turn him over to you and watch him be - become dust." Giles spoke in a low, measured tone, but *darkman* was there as surely as Ethan's ice-crystal chaos, and Scavenger's eyes widened as he looked over at the older men. He took a hard pull of his smoke and tossed the butt into the fireplace, where it sent up a tiny shower of green-blue sparks.
"Not even if he wanted to? Not even if he agreed?" Jack asked, silky-low voice a purr and a threat and Ethan made a choking sort of laughing sound.
"William the Bloody voluntarily giving up his - life - and his family? You must be utterly barking," Ethan wheezed, and a flash of humor and grudging affection from Spike shot through the link. Oz grinned over at the man and nodded.
"Have to agree with him. Spike's..."
"He's not me. He doesn't have a - destiny. He's not the champion." Angel looked outraged, but also slightly desperate and shrugged off Buffy's placating hand with a frown.
"Such certainty! Perhaps you'll change your minds." Jack looked down at his fingers where they were twining in the frayed edge of a hole in his jeans. When he looked up, his face was grave again - almost frightened - and Xander wanted to scream - wanted to make him stop - make this stop, right now.
"There is a prophecy... It tells of a champion of the people. And how he will sacrifice his life for them, and how, as his reward..." Jack sighed, and shook his head minutely. "His reward will be to return to this plane of existence as a human. A pure, souled human; and all his deeds from the past will be forgiven forever."
"Bugger that," Spike growled into the moment of shocked silence that followed. "If wearin' that means I turn human I'll take it and smash it to bits right now. I like being a demon, mate, and I won't fuckin' do anything to change that."
"Angel?" They all turned at Tara's soft question, and Angel was standing there looking - looking as if he might cry, actually. Or rip someone's lungs out.
"That's - that's Shanshu, that's... Wes read about it, he told me -"
"Told you it was for you, mate, and that's obvious. Only you'd want to give up...everything and be human again." Giles made a strangled sound of protest but Angel ignored him.
"Only I would want to be free of centuries of torture and murder and blood and pain..."
"You're a demon, mate. Cope and move on, as the Niblet says." Spike looked at Scavenger, eyes narrowed, and made a little gesture and Scavenger grinned and tossed the little pouch toward him. Spike opened it and took a sniff and started rolling a cigarette with nimble fingers. "Looks like Angel's still your man, Sidhe," he said, and Jack slowly shook his head.
"I'm - afraid not, Spike. This amulet...truly won't work for him." Spike had stilled, and now rage was building in him again -one that Xander matched.
"What does that mean? What'd you do to it?" Xander felt his voice rising and tried to throttle it back, but not very successfully. "Did you just come here to - to torture us with this? I will not let Spike die, Jack! Find another way!"
"Oh, but we have, Xander! We have."
"Then tell us, for fuck's sake! Stop torturing my boy, Sidhe, or you're gonna be damn sorry."
"You're talking in riddles! Just say it!" Derio echoed, agitation and fear, anger and pain in the link from all of them - from Tara, because she was close enough, and even Buffy's Slayer-vibe seemed to be going out of control.
"Tell them, Jack, you tuili," Scavenger muttered. Spike finished making his smoke - tossed the pouch back to Scavenger and lit up.
"We talked about the tithe to hell, vampire. Some hell, some time... You remember?"
"Course," Spike said, pluming thick smoke towards him.
"If you agree - if you carry the amulet... We can see that you don't die. We can - we will - take you...elsewhere. Keep you safe. In return, you will stay with us for...a time." The pain in Xander's head was like molten iron being poured over his brain, and he leaned forward, head in his hands, eye clenched shut.
"Tell us in plain fucking English, Jack, swear to fucking god -" Spike's cool hand on the back of his neck made him gasp and he fought tears of rage and frustration, waiting for Jack to explain. Looking up through his hair at the Sidhe who flinched a little from his desperate gaze.
"The Seelie Court made the bindings and the bargains that make the tithe...necessary. It has always been the duty of the Un-Seelie Court to find the tithe. Easier, in times past. Not so easy now." Jack muttered something to the pooka who bared his teeth at him but stood up, sullen, and threaded out through them, retrieving Jack's ratty backpack.
"They are getting jaded. They are getting bored. And they want something new. Something different." Scavenger let the pack down into Jack's hands and retreated back to the fire. Jack opened it, rummaging for a moment and coming up with a bottle - not the drink he'd shared with Xander and Spike and Oz so long ago, but a tall, dusty-looking bottle with what looked like Gaelic writing on the label.
"Demon-kind rarely has any truck with us, and vampires almost never." Jack pulled the cork and took a long drink and sighed. "They heard about you, Spike. A souled vampire isn't as rare as you might think, but one that voluntarily takes a human - stays with a human... One that has such different and...varied experiences... That was intriguing to them. And you are a position to be...persuaded."
"Not bloody likely," Spike snapped, and Jack held up his hand.
"If the amulet is not carried by the champion - 'stronger than any human, souled where soul should not be, willing and consenting'... Then the amulet won't work. And the First will win, and there will be an age or so...several hundred, in fact - where the First and its ilk rule. And for them to rule this place - this crossroads... Would be very, very bad. We might not ever be able to dislodge the First from this place, once it gets a taste of the power that is here." Jack took another drink, and Xander slowly sat up, Spike's hand slipping down his back. He felt as if his lungs were being compressed by the weight of Jack's stare, and he had to work lips and tongue for a moment before he could speak.
"You can't prove any of this. You can c-come in here and say wh-whatever you want and you can't prove it -"
"I can though, Xander. You know I can." Jack's eyes were black, lightless holes in his head, and Xander felt dizzy - felt as if he were falling. He watched in a kind of numb revulsion as Jack pressed his too-long thumb-nail into his wrist and gashed it open, the blood welling out thick and deeply red. Buffy and Tara both made some noise of protest and Angel was suddenly crouching right in front of Jack, game-faced and snarling, his hands shaking.
"If I don't carry the amulet... If I give it up, and fight and win this other battle... You're saying Cordelia will still be - cured, and I'll - I'll -"
"And Shanshu will be yours. Yes. Taste, Angelus. Taste and know the truth." Jack's aspect was shifting to his other self - not the homeless man but the fey creature dressed in leaves and tag-ends of velvet, and Angel stared at him for one long moment and then yanked Jack's forearm up to his mouth and drank.
*He can't be telling the truth, he can't, he can't...* Xander was shivering and Spike wrapped his arms around him, cheek pressed to cheek, the rusty purr breaking into a growl and then softening again as the vampire tried to comfort him.
*I'll know, I'll taste it, love - I'll know, he can't lie with his blood, love, no one can -*
"Oh god!" Angel had pulled sharply away from Jack and now he shot to his feet, pacing off a couple of steps and then spinning back around, his eyes wild and his fangs stained with blood. "It's true? How can you know - ?" Angel stared at Jack and then shook his head, throwing off the demon's face like water. "It doesn't matter. You can't - can't force Spike to do this. Fuck your tithe - fuck hell. Let the Seelie Court send the tithe!" Shocked silence, and Jack's eyes wide and a little scared, and Spike was incredulous - fiercely joyous at this sudden and unexpected support.
*The old sod's got a pair of bollocks after all! Never thought I'd see the day -*
*Can they do that? Why NOT send one of their own? Ask him, Xander -* Oz's voice in the link was hopeful, and Xander took a deep breath.
"Can you send one of you own, Jack?"
"It's what She wants," Scavenger muttered, and Jack's head whipped around; his mouth hissed something and for a moment his features were even more alien - even darker. Scavenger hissed back, flinching a little. Jack's patchwork-self came back a moment later and he ran his fingers back through his hair - fingered the cork of the bottle but didn't take another sip.
"Who is 'she'?" Tara asked, and Buffy murmured a quiet 'yeah'.
"The Queen of Air and Darkness, isn't She?" Ethan murmured, and Scavenger smiled. A grin of pure malice and unholy glee.
"That is She, and She is That. And She says - send one of the lordlings, send one of the maids. Send Her Most Royal self, and have done with this nonsense of tithes."
"That they cannot."
"Why not?" Giles snapped, and Jack made a frustrated gesture.
"If a member of the Seelie Court were to become the tithe - they could never be released. They would belong to that hell for all time. The Queen will not. She cannot. To let one of the Court into their hands would give them too much power. You know this, pooka!"
"And you give the Seelie Court too much credit. Still wanting back into the fold, after all this time? Even Lucifiel made Hell his home, eventually."
"You know what it would do to all of us, to have the Court so weakened," Jack hissed, and Scavenger turned that mad, feral grin on him, his eyes glowing as red as fire.
"Yes - weak enough for She to reign, and take what is Her due."
"Enough of this fuckin' shite! Give me your arm, Sidhe," Spike growled, pouncing forward and snatching Jack's forearm to his mouth. He sank fangs into the dark flesh and Jack flinched and then bowed his head, shuddering. Spike drank, and the otherness of it flooded out through the link. It was as if Spike was drinking fire and ice and honey-pepper-chocolate - was drinking sunlight and moonbeams and life, and a keen of pure pleasure rose up from the vampire's throat.
*God, that's - that's incredible, that's -* The wolves were shivering under the assault, *want* and *run* and *hunt* and *mine* all muddled in the link. Xander wanted to yank Spike away and just go. Just run, back to the mountain and back to that - never live in the human world again. He got up on one knee, reaching for Spike, barely seeing Buffy doing the same, or Angel's concerned face. It was Scavenger who broke them apart - who made a growling noise in his throat and wrenched Jack's arm free, pulling him away, arm around his shoulders. Spike shuddered visibly and lifted his head - roared aloud. And Xander wrapped his arms around him and held him, hard, and let the tears come because:
*Truth, it's the truth, it's all the truth, love, oh god, all the bloody truth, every word, every word...*
"Go through it again," Angel said, and there was a slight groan from Buffy and Ethan. Oz and Derio were curled together under the throw, both dressed again but feeling the need for contact and warmth. Tara leaned against them, heavy-eyed with fatigue. Giles was pacing, avoiding Angel who was doing the same, and Xander was sitting pressed up against Tara's legs, watching Spike. Spike stood with his forearm on the mantle of the fireplace, his head resting against it, smoking slowly. Xander kept getting up and going to him - holding him - and then going back to the wolves and Tara, needing them all, hating the fear and the exhaustion and the growing dread - growing acceptance he was feeling from Spike.
*Not giving you up, love, I'm not, I won't.*
*Won't let you die, Xander. Got to be something...* Jack took another drink from the bottle he had - it didn't seem to ever run dry, and he didn't seem to get drunk. He was standing near the front windows, watching the sun come up; watching the pearl-grey of the early morning fog slowly flush lemon and tangerine, saffron and rose.
"They have told us, if we can persuade Spike to be the tithe, that we need not give a tithe again for seven times seventy years. This is...unprecedented. And may never happen again. It would give us time to - try and free ourselves of this bargain."
"But Spike would be gone. He would be...gone."
"Yes," Jack said, turning back to the room and walking over to Xander - crouching down and gazing at him. One long and long-fingered hand reached up to gently, delicately touch the empty socket. Xander had taken off the patch over an hour ago, irritated beyond words by the chafing strap. He didn't flinch from Jack's touch, but Spike turned his head, demon-faced, and snarled at Jack's presumption. Jack slowly pulled his hand back.
"Yes, he would be gone. But only for one year, Xander. A year and a day of your life, and then he would be back with you, the same as when he left. That's not such a hard thing to do, is it? One year."
"But it's seven years for Spike! Seven years as a - a slave to them!"
"Not a slave -" Jack started to say, but Angel interrupted him with a growl.
"As close to as makes no difference. Damnit, there has to be something -"
"No, there isn't." Spike had stood away from the fireplace and now he turned and surveyed the room - looked slowly from Angel to Buffy to Giles - to Ethan, who was drinking the dregs of a third pot of tea. To the wolves, who were tense under his gaze, and Tara, who had shed her sleepiness in a blink and was now sitting up on the couch, hands twisting in her lap. Jack stood up and moved aside, leaning against the wall by Scavenger as Spike walked to Xander and held out his hand. Xander stared at it - at him - for a long moment. At the trembling that shook the long, white fingers and the wide, frightened eyes. Spike had shut the link down hard and Xander put his hand in Spike's and let himself be pulled to his feet.
"Spike, no! There's some other way, there's something we can find, or - or do -"
"Shhhhhh...." Spike pulled Xander in close, arms wrapping around, his forehead leaning gently on Xander's. "Hush, love. There's nothing else. Nothing at all. I have to do this, Xander. I have to do this."
"No you don't!" Xander wanted to scream it, but his voice wouldn't work - his throat was too tight, too dry, too sore from hours of talking and yelling and fighting back hysterical sobs.
"Yes I do. I do. I'm the only one that can. Should never have stayed here, love - should never have let you come back - let you get hurt -"
"Shhh, shhh, shhh.... I failed you, Xan... Failed you so many times... God - failed you so badly -" The link cracked open, sending images one after the other: Xander getting hurt by Glory's minions - by Warren and by the First - by Caleb... His pain when Spike and Willow couldn't get along, and the wedge it drove between them. The men he'd killed in Oxnard, the soldiers of the Initiative and the soldier in Barstow. So much grief, with those images - so much regret.
*Never wanted to hurt you, love, never wanted to make you sorry -*
*I'm NOT! I'm not sorry, never sorry, Spike! You can't do this because of...those things are done and OVER and they don't matter anymore -*
Spike leaned back with a jerk, his face set and furious but *fear fear fear* in the link. "Don't matter? This will always matter, Xan -" a feathering of a trembling hand over Xander's empty socket. "I failed you. You're mine, the one I chose and claimed and... I was supposed to protect you no matter what! Was supposed to put you first, love, and I didn't, I put revenge first, I -" Spike's voice choked off and Xander clutched at him frantically, pulling his head in close so he could kiss him, kiss him, all the fear and desperation and horror he felt twisting in him like barbed snakes.
*No, no, NO. You didn't fail, you didn't let me down, you did everything RIGHT, you saved my fucking LIFE and you gave me - you gave me -* Images again, emotions, from Xander this time. Flooding through the link, catching Oz and Derio up in them as well as Tara, because she could see the colors of their emotion sparking through the ether and it made her own tenuous place in the link that much stronger. Images of the two of them: laughing, patrolling, defending each other. Finding Oz, and gathering in Derio, and becoming a family. *Together, together, family, GOD Spike, look what you gave me, love, look what you did for me, to me, with me -* Tangled in bed, lying comfortably in front of the TV, up on the roof of the Magic Box and every touch, every kiss - the claim, the link, the postcards that were stuck in the mirror upstairs.
"You gave me everything, Spike! Gave me yourself, gave me your memories and your life and your secrets and your promises. You promised you'd never leave me, Spike! You promised, you promised me, Spike, you promised, please, please, please -" *Don't leave me, don't leave me, Spike -* Xander couldn't control it anymore, and he sagged slowly to his knees, bringing Spike with him, crying as he had as a child - hard, hurting sobs that made the socket of his lost eye throb and flare - that made him choke and cough and retch, shaking like a leaf in Spike's arms. Oz and Derio slipped down and crowded close, holding them both, drowning out Xander's pleas and Spike's guilt with whatever love, whatever comfort they could, the link a raw wound that bled sorrow all through them.
"I have to, I have to," Spike whispered - thought - crying himself now, snarling and choking with a grief he didn't know how to contain. "You'll die, love - the family will die! I can't do that, I can't let that happen, not if - not if there's some way to stop it! Xander, I have to stop it, because he's telling the truth, love, he's telling the truth..." Spike couldn't talk anymore - Xander couldn't - and the wolves simply held on - did what they could. Tara took Oz's outstretched hand and joined them. Knotted together in sorrow and pain, in horror and denial and budding resignation. Pain like the ending of the world, and Xander held onto Spike tight enough to bruise.
*Oh love, hold fast, hold fast, hold fast. Don't let go, Spike, don't let go, never let go...*