Scaling Heaven

 

 

 

 

My name's Thomas Aquinas Ferro.  Yeah, I know.  Blame my mother for the name.  Ultra-Pope-lovin' crazy-assed bitch.  I was almost David Goliath Ferro - her favorite story - but my dad talked her out of it.  Thank god.  Right before he ran off.  At least I grew up with a mother and a father on my birth certificate - more than a lot of the kids in my neighborhood had.  And he sent stuff - money and stuff - at least four times a year.  So that was something.

 

Blame him for the Marines.  He sent me the little brochure when I was seventeen and graduating.  School was less boring than that gods-awful apartment we squatted in, and the cops were pretty hard-core in those days about truancy.  I didn't really wanna spend a lot of time in Juvie, so...  At least I got breakfast and lunch at school, which was unlikely to happen at home.

 

Anyway, my dad sent the Marine brochure, and wasn't it fancy and glossy and just so damn tempting.  So, I graduated and signed up and I was gone.  Boot camp and then four years here, there and everywhere.  Africa, Iran, the Balkans, fucking China and all those little islands above Australia.  All kinds of dirty little wars that just never seemed to end and we sure as hell did put our noses into 'em, as often as we could.  Won me a couple of medals, too.  Usual shit.  I got 'em around here somewhere.

 

Anyway, when I joined - July 3rd, my actual birthday - was the year the Outsiders came.   2027.  Everything got crazy for a while.  Actual living, breathing, talking aliens; with space ships and drugs that could cure cancer and ways to make energy out of almost nothing...  That really fucked up the world view of a lot of people.  Made the fundamentalists go crazy.  Their particular rant couldn't grok non-human life and there were lots of calls for vengeance from the Lord and jihads and what-all.  Really rocked the 'one god, one species' boat, and hard.  Made worse by the revelation that the Outsiders don't believe in any god at all - no god, no goddess, no ancestors - nothing.  They're strictly in the now, and that made for some tense times, you better believe it.

 

But hell - they fixed our overpopulation problem by showing us how to colonize Mars and how to build stations and they built the Gate; got us a ticket straight into their space and their economy, which is now and always has been a war-powered machine that always needs just a little more.  So getting rich was easy, all of a sudden, and all they wanted were our hands and backs and minds, 'cause they were too busy killin' each other to bother with manual labor.  Oh, and Sol was the next point in a giant game of leap-frog and that particular jyiiy that had found us was looking to score big by having us on its side.  A jyiiy is the equivalent of 'family' or 'clan' to the Outsiders.  They don't actually have much in the way of either of those - it's more like a complex set of partners and CEO's and vice-presidents and shit.  Mother and son, father and daughter, wife and husband are all arbitrary terms - you exist for your jyiiy and it ceases to exist if you lose, and that's that.  Cutthroat doesn't begin to describe it. 

 

And the Outsiders - well, that's what they really were.  Home world was five thousand years of backstabbing and back-room deals and massacres and genocides and I guess it's only their super-fast birthrate that's kept them from wiping themselves out.  Older jyiiy were squeezing the younger ones out - keeping them from the territory and money and power they wanted but could never actually have by the way their rules worked.  So about twenty of the youngest jyiiy decided that space was the next best step.  Fuck a mountain or a city - they were gonna claim a planet.  A whole galaxy.  That got 'em ostracized and cast out of their whole society.  They really are Outsiders and they can't ever go back. 

 

But they made a new life and a new battleground out here in space and when my hitch was up I decided to throw my luck in with them.  They were hiring - ex-Marine, ex-Army, ex-anything - to fight and figure and organize all the stuff they didn't want to or traditionally couldn't take care of.   It sounded like a good gig to me - three times the pay and access to all that tech of theirs. 

 

What I didn't know and they didn't tell me was that a four-year hitch with them only counted the down-time - the real time - and skip time was all so much static.  So it turned out I was stuck for more like ten years than four and that really pissed me off.  Plus...  The Outsiders have got some damn nasty rituals they do when they win - or lose - and I got pretty sick of seeing kids killed and women and men raped and old people burned alive.  And all of it silent and...submissive.  Made me sick to my stomach. 

 

So I started drinkin' and then I started usin' - whatever came to hand.  So it was about...2035 or thereabouts - sometimes I forget - and I got into some trouble; got into some debt.  Well, the head of the jyiiy I was pledged to - bitch called I'kja - she fixed my debt.  Any debt an employee gets into and can't pay falls on the head of the jyiiy.  And she wasn't a big fan of me to begin with, what with me bein' drunk and generally disorderly most of the time - so she sold me off.  I got drunk, stumbled home, fell down, woke up two days later aboard the Tur-gah, which was a war-ship, something like a scout.  Little ship that spied and nosed around and generally acted like a rat in the corn-crib.  Not an Outsider ship but one of their hires, one of the other set of aliens.  Chaddock.   Outsiders and Chaddock both, they don't have a problem with slavery and so there I was, a slave.  And Chaddock are mean motherfuckers and that was...a bad time.

 

Then - the computer tells me 2040 but I was pretty lost at that point - somebody called a bounty on the Captain and we were free.  This vamp - Spike.   He came bustin' into the quarters, blood all down his side and this grin on his face like a fuckin' mad dog.  Asked me did I wanna live or go down fighting and I told him if that was the Captain's blood I wanted to live.  He tossed me a gun and told me come the fuck on and that was that.  Me and the pilot, we decided to throw our lot in with Spike, 'cause he'd collected the bounty along with the ship and it was his, now.  He got us fixed up, got the Chaddock toad-stink out of the ship and re-christened her the Drusilla.  And we never looked back.  

 

Spike - he's a mean fuck, and he's got a mouth that never shuts up and an ego like you wouldn't believe.  But he remembers - all kinds of shit, and he never once treated us like anything less than real live people.  I'd kill for him - fuck, I have killed for him.  I guess I'd die for him too, though.  Me and him, we got up to some crazy stuff, on and off.  But he's with somebody now - somebody from the old days, I guess.  Xander.  I guess I'd kill for him, too.  Bein' what I was - poor kid with no parents to speak of, and a Marine - family is the one thing you crave.  I've got that now - got my partner in slavery Nia, who pilots us safe and sound, got a Captain that might love us and a fix-it geek who says he does...and nothin' in the universe'd make me give it up.

 

 

 

 

 

Timeline

2005:  On assignment for the Council in Japan, Xander comforts a dying man after a devastating earthquake.  The man gives him a gift - a small figure of a three-legged toad - and then bops him on the head.  This is actually, as he finds out later, a good thing.

2026 - The Outsiders - a genuine alien race - make first contact with a clan of Yn'ng demons in Siberia and begin negotiating a trade: advanced tech, including faster than light tech, for magic.  The Yn'ng are ecstatic.  Demons all over earth begin to gather to get in on the deal.  Earth governments are not amused but eventually are forced to acknowledge demons, to make them citizens and to realize that demons will be the first to use the new tech.  The Outsiders introduce two other allied races - the Chaddock and something incomprehensible that humans dub 'Fairies'.

2028 - The Gate is built near Mars as a jumping-off point to Outsider space.   Demons begin to leave earth for space.  William the Bloody, also called Spike, leaves aboard the FTL ship Mercury.   He has hired on with the Outsiders as a bounty hunter.

2029 - The first all-human ship sets out from the Gate.  It is a ship of war and aboard are several thousand volunteer Marines.   A fourth race - shadowy, distant, and nearly a match for the Outsider's own ferocity - is the target and humanity learns that there are worse things out there than seven-foot talking dogs.   As a reward, the Outsiders help fund Fenris station, which is completed in 2037 and is the first human/demon owned and run station in space.

2040 - In lieu of his usual fee, Spike is offered a ship and becomes owner and Captain of the Tur-gah, an S-class Chaddock fighter/scout.  The enslaved crew is freed but chooses to remain aboard.  Spike re-christens the ship Drusilla and it is retro-fitted for himself and his human and Fairy crew. 

2054 - After a disastrous job, the Drusilla goes for repairs at the distant Whale Deep - a ship and scrap-yard on the very edge of Outsider space.  Spike and his crew meet up with an un-aged, still human Xander Harris.  Things...happen.  The Drusilla acquires her very own mechanic and computer geek.

2069 - A trade-war between two corporations becomes an actual war, complete with revolutionary slogans, blockades, and a competing 'People's Brigade'.  The Drusilla, of course, works all three sides but her crew also learns that once a white hat, always a white hat.  Fortunately, luck has them on the winning side.

 

Our story begins in 2099.

 

 

"Who, my friend, can scale the heaven?"
The Epic of Gilgamesh

 

 

 

 

 

Spike was dreaming.  He dreamed a lot but these were different dreams - skip dreams - and they always had an extra edge to them.   As the Drusilla moved faster-than-light - an electric-blue bubble in an ardent current - he dreamed of dragons, and angels.

 

"I kinda wanna slay the dragon," Angel says, leg braced back and sword raised, something like ecstasy and something like agony on his face.  And Spike lifts his own sword, wincing from the wounds that are bleeding him dry - watching the mob of monsters that is surging towards them like a wave of black oil.

 

"You're no saint, you ponce," he says, grinning, and Angel grins back and the dragon roars...

 

Two warriors facing what they thought would be their final battle.  Determined to win.  But, funny thing - it was Wes who'd saved the day on that one.  Wes who'd had some sort of plan in place, and deals struck, and who'd come back from the dead and opened a portal and the Wolfram and Hart immovable rock had been smashed to flinders by an irresistible force.   Wesley, who was dead these last fifty years - finally at peace.  *Do not go gently...* Spike thought, and dreamed on.

 

 

 

The bubble goes - traveling millions of light-years in the blink of an eye.  Ricocheting along the surface of real-time and real-space like a cosmic skipping-stone, heading unerringly for the well of gravity and energy that is a sun, a station - their destination.    Three weeks ago they'd left Dur'rhii Station - Outsider station - and were now bound for Fenris and the closest they'll ever get to Earth.  Earth...and Spike is dreaming again, of the first time he ever shook the dust of the mundane world off his boots and sailed the seas of faster-than.

 

Aboard the ship 'Mercury' and in his closet-like cabin Spike's got the screen on so he can see the Gate.  Earth is so far from anyplace anyone wants to go that there's a booster gate to kick ships out, 100-billion light years or more.  Straight to the heart of Outsider space and the center of all trade, all war - all life.  Suddenly all the old myths - vampires, werewolves! - are true and a lot of humanity is in a philosophical tail-spin.  Having actual aliens prove the myths true makes it that much worse.   Some of humanity has yet to recover, and space seems like the better option, just now.

 

The Gate is made of seven skip generators, tethered in a circle by Outsider know-how.   Spike watches as the ship joins the queue for the ride, moving slow.  In real-time it's the middle of October and Spike and the Mercury and everyone on board will arrive at Midway sometime in June.  But there's no 'June' at Midway since it's an Outsider station and it runs to Outsider cycles.  In skip-time, it'll feel like maybe he took an hour's nap.  Until he wakes up. 

 

The warning comes over the PA - they're about to skip out - and Spike's fingers are tight, tight, tight on the edges of his coat as he watches the screen that's above his head.  He's flat on his back in the bunk, the Gate looming closer.   St. Elmo's fire surrounds them as the gate fires - actinic lightning that meets and expands into a writhing ball of energy.  A sort of bone-deep hum vibrates through everything and time seems to slow to nothing at all...and suddenly they go.  A kick like a mule and a few seconds of free-fall and then they're in faster-than.  For a moment Spike can see every molecule that makes up his body - every atom of the ship - and it's all streaming around him like a river - a ribbon of fire and ice and light.  And he's flying and falling and laughing.  And then he's dreaming - dreaming of Dru and the first time they made love - and then he's jolting back down, down, down, into slow-space again and the ribbons of time and matter furl themselves away like a cosmic umbrella.  The PA is telling them not to move until they get the all-clear and his mouth is dry and he's thin, so thin from the longest skip in space.  It takes him four days to get back to full strength again, drinking the 'approved' synthetic blood that most vamps live on.   Taking down a drunken stationer or two as well, because you can't beat it straight from the source. 

 

And he only goes through the Gate two more times in the next fifteen years because Earth isn't part of the plan much anymore, and the Dru is all the home he really needs.

 

 

 

Fenris Station was an old station - the first demons and humans had ever built, completed seven years after first contact.  It was out in the Canis Major constellation - Earths closest galaxy.  A system choc-a-bloc with debris rich in minerals, ores, and heavy metals - hazardous to fly through, but profitable to mine.  The station's age showed in the old-fashioned metal decking that rang under Spike's boots as he strode along the Concourse, heading for the Segue bar and his client.  Fenris' age also showed in the pockets of weather that tended to generate themselves far up in the soot-blackened supports and cross-beams of the overhead.  With a huff of annoyance Spike sidestepped a puddle and the drizzle that was making it.  It was coming down from the tangle of unshielded conduits and pipes that carried water, atmosphere and heat to the stem, where the ships were docked.  Fenris was like a huge metallic flower, with the ships docking all up and down the 'stem', and the living and working and everything else going on in the various levels of the 'petals'.  The center of it all was Engineering and the Outsider power-source that kept it all going. 

 

Spike had only been in there once - something like thirty years ago when Fenris was in danger of being blown up and Xander had talked him into joining the guerillas and liberating the station.  You could still see the fire-damage from that time - scorch-marks along the metal and plastic infrastructure that aren't worth the effort of a clean up.  They're a reminder, those marks.  'War was here, and could be again.  Never forget.'   Even gifted with tech beyond imagining, humans had still found it necessary to kill each other over those oldest of all prizes - gold, water and flesh.  Outsiders had watched with a detached, amused eye.  They had fought more wars than humanity ever had and most of them with their own kind, and the little scuffle over trade routes and mining rights had interested them not at all.  They had their own interminable battles to fight - their own labyrinthine politics to thread.

 

It made for wild times and outrageous profit if you got involved in an Outsider fight - if you picked the winning jyiiy - the winning house.   If you didn't - you lost your head right along with the boss.  Spike had so far always picked the winning side, even if he sometimes picked after the fighting was over.   An Outsider jyiiy was very much like a corporation, if corporations condoned torture and rape.  'Family' didn't actually translate all that well into the Outsider language, much less 'friend', 'compassion' or 'mercy'.  It was pure chance that a sort of cosmic game of leap-frog had led Outsiders to human space, and all of humanity had come this close to being the next handy gene-pool for supplying Outsiders with slaves.  Demons - and demon magic - had proved too fascinating and luckily Outsiders had met a magical human or two, as well.  Something that had caused them to lump humans in with demons, much to the horror of some overly zealous humans.  The smart ones - once they'd learned a little history - had happily gone along with it.

 

Spike growled as some station trash - drunks, junkies or unemployable-due-to-criminal-history types - swarmed him at the lift station, selling trinkets and lottery tickets and drugs.  He vamped, snarling and most of them scattered.  The couple that were too fucked up - or too desperate - to back off got the back of his hand.

 

"Undead freak!" one muttered, limping away and Spike hissed in dissatisfaction.  He didn't like the stink of them.

 

"Fuck off, little snack-pak, I'm feelin' peckish."  The human glared at him but scurried faster.  Most vamps lived on the synthetic blood vat-grown to specification and dispensed at every restaurant, bar, and hotel on-station.  It was tasty and it kept you healthy but no vamp ever gave up the hunt entirely and everyone knew it.    The Outsiders just shrugged that off - they were predators themselves - and no Station had yet done anything too extreme to try and keep vamps from feeding.  Of course, the smart ones kept it under the radar.  The dumb ones - got dusted.  Spike had had a hand in that from time to time.  No sense in making things hard when they didn't have to be.  The Outsiders knew a thing or two about genocide.

 

The lift took him up three levels and he got out and stalked on, the vast hollow of the Concourse ringing and singing all around him.  A six-story jump from the top level and the whole thing a dizzying, neon-lit canyon that sold every vice and every virtue a skip-drunk spacer could want.  There were mostly humans and Earth demons at Fenris, but Spike stepped aside for a clutch of Outsiders.  Anywhere between seven and eight feet tall, they most closely resembled dogs who had learned to walk on their hind legs.  But an Outsider skull had a set of jaws that opened much too widely for comfort and were studded with a double row of razoring teeth.  Large, bat-like ears heard too many secrets and the brain behind the wide-set eyes processed endlessly for advantage - conquest.  Outsiders fought and Outsiders won, and it was only their intense need to win against each other that had kept Earth from becoming one more burnt-out cinder in their path.   So busy fighting that they didn't have the time or inclination for manufacture, agriculture - research.  The devoured, like upright piranha.  If you were smart - and didn't mind stepping aside - you could live like kings off the chum in their wake.  Humanity and demon-kind - stepped aside. 

 

The com-set in Spike's ear ticked with static and then the Drusilla's pilot came online, her voice a faint whisper in Spike's sensitive ear. 

 

"Fenris Traffic Control just posted the 'Billy Bud' inbound for dock," Nia informed him.  

 

 Spike sighed.  The Drusilla had a feud with the Billy Bud.  Chiefly, with their bigoted, brainless Captain but it all filtered down.  "One thing at a time, please.  Bounty first, opinionated gobshites next."  He didn't actually open his mouth to talk - the throat-mic array stuck more-or-less invisibly under his chin and on either side of his Adam's apple picked up sub-vocal speech.  Good for loud bars and back-stabbing.

 

"Just wanted to let you know."   Nia sounded sulky. 

 

Spike sighed again.  "And I'm glad you did.  Going into the bar now."

 

"Confirmed," she said, and then static as she shut down.  Nia disapproved of the way Spike was handling the feud.  She wanted bloody mayhem on the docks rather than the covert sort of guerilla approach Spike was taking.   Ferro - his ship's gun and weapon's master - approved of bloody mayhem too.   Xander didn't particularly approve of bloody mayhem, but fighting made Spike horny and horny made Xander happy, so...there might be approval in there somewhere, except mayhem wasn't going to happen.  Neither Nia nor Ferro nor Xander would have to pay the fines if they took out the entire complement of the Billy Bud while docked at Fenris.   Spike would.  He was the Captain, and that made him responsible.  *Responsible.  Christ.  Been running from that for over two hundred years!*   And destroying the Billy Bud might get them all banned from Fenris, which was - unacceptable.  Spike settled his Captain's jacket across his shoulders, pushed the door to the Segue open and stepped inside.

 

 

 

 

 

"Fuckin' Billy Bud.  Why'd those assholes haf'ta be here now?"  Ferro scowled at the vid-screen in front of him, watching the course that the station was plotting for Billy Bud.  "Don't tell me they're gonna dock 'em on our level.  Nia, tell me they're not that fuckin' stupid!"  Ferro glared over the top of his station at the back of the pilot's head.  She waved a slim, palely bluish hand over her shoulder, ignoring him.  Intent on the final moments of the water-swap from their tanks to the stations, and gleaning the stations data-feed for anything useful.   Ferro slumped back in his seat and contemplated arming the Drusilla but station - and more importantly, Spike - would skin him alive if he powered up right there at dock.  At Fenris, which was aggressively neutral at the best of times and suicidally tolerant at the worst. 

 

"Thank you, Fenris, there's our credit number," Nia murmured, and Ferro watched the camera view that showed the line of dock-monkeys leaving the Drusilla, empty loaders trundling in their wake.   Re-stocking essential items, a priority in the first few hours at dock.  Later would come the real shopping, when they searched out the Earth delicacies that Fenris always had.  And maybe found a Billy Bud crewman or two to...annoy.

 

Fenris-station didn't approve of feuds, grudges or private little wars.  That just made it harder to carry out each skirmish.  Ferro stretched, grabbed his coffee and went down to his 'office'.  Basically, it was the armory with a hanging chair and a stash of porn for the player; a place Nia avoided and Xander sometimes hung out.  Spike bought the porn and inspected the weapons, and long before Xander had come along they'd made use of the hanging chair quite a few times.  Now it generally just saw Ferro and a random selection of off-world beauties.  And a lot of gun oil, one way or another.

 

Ferro crawled up into the hanging chair and stared in dissatisfaction at the weapon-covered walls.  Fenris did not allow knives, free-projectile guns or energy weapons of any sort.   They'd learned their lesson well during the war years and were as aggressive about their weapon's policy as they were about their neutrality.  But that didn't mean Spike didn't have that old-fashioned straight razor on him, and probably a taser, too.  Didn't mean that when Ferro went on-station later he wouldn't be carrying a little shock-knife of his own, a Chaddock stinger that felt like acid over your nerves and left neatly cauterized slashes inches deep.   Fenris didn't acknowledge the need for those weapons any more than they did the inherent idiocy of having warring Outsider jyiiy docking on the same level, much less the same station, but Fenris seemed to have gotten away with it for years.  Didn't mean either Ferro or Spike would stop carrying hidden weapons any time soon.

 

There was a loud crashing noise from the corridor and then cursing and Ferro got up and sauntered to the doorway.  Xander was standing there in that raggedy-assed coverall he wore when he was working, wrestling with an access cover.   Getting ready to do some maintenance or some precise and finicky thing to the ship's engines that would make her .38 percent faster or some such.  Xander was their fix-it guy - computer guy - the guy that kept the Dru purring along like a big, happy cat.   Kept Spike purring along, better than Ferro ever had.

 

"What'cha doin'?" Ferro asked, calculated drawl and Xander shot him an evil look and then yelped as the cover slipped and the unfinished edge gashed his palm.

 

"Fuckin' help me or fuck off," Xander growled and Ferro grinned and went over - helped him wrestle the stubborn cover out of its grooves and onto the floor.  Xander clipped a safety line to the recessed ring in the wall - clipped the other end to the cover and kicked at it with his boot.

 

"Stupid damn thing." 

 

"The Billy Bud's out there.  Fuckers are dockin' 'em right on our level."

 

"Christ."  Xander raised his hand to his mouth - bad habit he'd never broken - and Ferro snatched at his wrist. 

 

"Go get this fixed right," he snapped, turning Xander's hand and examining the gash.  It was bleeding nicely, two-inch cut right across the meat at the base of his thumb. 

 

"Later.  I wanna get this filter in before we go -"

 

"We're gonna be here three days, Xander."  Ferro pulled an old square of pale red cloth - a bandana once upon a time - out of his pocket and made to wrap it around Xander's hand.  Xander recoiled.

 

"You are not putting that filthy rag around my hand!" 

 

"It's not filthy!"  Ferro examined the cloth.  Well, it was a little...stiffish.  "Cleaner then in there," he added, jerking his head in the direction of what Xander obscurely called the 'Jeffries tubes'.  One of the many crawl-spaces that riddled the Drusilla and provided access to her inner workings.  And the hidey-holes where they'd smuggled everything from drugs to escaping slaves to - on one never-to-be-forgotten run - fish.  Bags and bags of bright-finned guppies for the core-crawlers out on Charybidis.   The things Spike hit on...

 

"Look, just go and spray some damn nu-skin or something on it, okay?  I don't wanna hear the bitchin' and moanin' that'll happen when Spike gets back on board and smells your blood everywhere."  Ferro snatched the plastic storage-box of filters that Xander was proposing to replace and sauntered off with them.  "You come show me you fixed it up and I'll give these back," he said smugly, knowing that invoking Spike's name would get it done like nothing else would.  Xander could be a stubborn son of a bitch.

 

"Ferro, you fuck!" Xander yelled, but he stomped off towards the infirmary and Ferro grinned - shoved the filters into his office and locked the door.  He had a funny feeling about this deal and he wanted to be back topside, monitoring what was going on at the meeting.   Spike's contact was a Chaddock and he didn't trust the slimy bastards.

 

 

 

 

 

The Segue was a bar and restaurant.  It was expensive, quiet and not quite dim enough, all of which made Spike nervous.   Not a place Spike wanted to make deals in, or settle bounties in - not a place he wanted to be in.   At least in his Captain's jacket and the trousers with the pale charcoal stripe down the leg he looked like a legitimate trader and not what he really was.  Fenris was tolerant, but individual businesses could still bar him if they thought he'd bring trouble - and lose them money.  He didn't fit here and he was pretty sure the Chaddock he was meeting had done it on purpose.  Hoping to throw him off or maybe to get him thrown out.  The demon stirred inside, anger building, but Spike did his best to ignore it.

 

He took a deep breath as he walked in, scenting the air.  Humans, Outsiders, Chaddock.  A vamp or two and maybe a Fairy.  Real wood and stone in the construction, real whiskey and gin in the glasses and Spike felt the demon pushing again.  Wanting to make a little noise.  He saw his contact right off - smiled tightly at the hostess who approached with small sneer and a lifted eyebrow, pale blonde hair done up in a twist and the latest in Outsider jewelry draping her throat.

 

"Can I help you?" she asked, giving Spike a raking once-over and he drew himself up straight and dug out a hand-rolled smoke - put it between his lips and felt for his lighter.  She glared

 

"I see my party, love - care to bring me a whiskey?"

 

"I'll have your server come over," the woman said frostily.  "Smoking is allowed only at the bar."  

 

Spike shrugged.  "I'll be done in a minute, ducks, no worries."   The hostess turned on her heel and stalked away.  Spike strode to the table where his contact waited in solitary splendor.  A Chaddock, second of the third alien species humanity had been introduced to.  Chaddock and Outsiders had had an understanding for about two hundred years before Outsiders had found Earth space, and where Outsiders fought, Chaddock did business.  Nobody beat Chaddock for thinking up inventive new weapons, poisons and fiddly little gizmos that could run entire households or map the brain-waves of a slug.  The myriad diseases, psychosis and abilities of humanity and demon-kind were a giant puzzle of fascinating problems that Chaddock scientists were unraveling with gusto.   

 

Spike sat down, legs sprawled and the smoke clenched between his teeth.  He flicked his lighter open and sparked his cigarette - blew out a plume of smoke over the Chaddock's head.  *Better to hang for a sheep than a lamb.  Damn Jack, anyway.*   Jack - Fat Jack - glared disapprovingly, bulging eyes and neck-less, squat torso radiating irritation

 

"Do you have no manners?"

 

"Not really.  Do you have any sense?" 

 

Fat Jack drew himself up, bristling - swelling like the toad his race resembled.  "I am meeting some colleagues of mine.  We are discussing a way-station between Farpoint and Uckt.   My egg-set will run it."  Fat Jack smoothed the front of his pea-soup-green suit - laced stubby, webbed fingers together and leaned back in his chair.  "It is a great opportunity."

 

"Yeah, so's this - do it right and I won't gut you."   Fat Jack smelled faintly but distinctly of stagnant water and dead vegetation - a thick scent that was suddenly spiked with ammonia as he registered Spike's threat and his heart started to beat faster.  Spike lifted his chin as the server hurried over, folded length of linen over his arm and an old-fashioned pad and pen in his hands.  "Whiskey, neat, double.  And whatever Fat Jack here is having."  The Chaddock's slitted nostrils flared a bit at the nick-name but he nodded shortly and held up a glass of something palely green.  The server darted off with a breathed Yes, sir.  Spike smoked, watching Jack calm himself by distraction - fiddling with the napkin and utensils and his glass.

 

"I should have known better than to think you would be civil.  I suppose we should get this over before my real meeting starts."

 

"Shouldn't have picked such a bloody inappropriate place, Jack, and you know it," Spike muttered, digging into his inner breast pocket.   Not enough shadows, not enough noise and this was looking worse and worse.  The table of Outsiders near the door suddenly broke into barking, staccato laughter and Jack jumped, marbled-yellow eyes darting to them and away.  *Oh bloody hell.  Jack, you miserable toad.  Knew you'd try something...*    Spike pulled a small, wrapped box out of his pocket and then fumbled it, dropping it to the thick carpet and bending down, out of Fat Jack's line of sight.  "Nia, find a schematic for this place - tell me there's another way out besides the front door.  Dog trouble."  Throat movement was minimal with a sub-vocal mic but he wasn't taking any chances.

 

"On it," Nia said, and Spike sat slowly back up - put the box on the table and slid it forward several inches. 

 

"There's your prize, Fat Jack."

 

"Ah, yes."  Jack reached into his own jacket - froze for a moment when Spike tensed and then continued his movement, going slow.  "What, you are nervous?  Do you think I would - would 'try something', as you say?"

 

"I think you'd sell the eggs of your ancestors if the price was right," Spike said, and the dull yellow-brown of Fat Jack's face flushed to an equally dull umber.

 

"You dare," he hissed, and Spike leaned forward over the table, his hand coming down on the box and his other reaching to pat Fat Jack's jowly cheek.  The Chaddock flinched from the smoldering cigarette between Spike's fingers, his breathing becoming a little labored.

 

"I more than dare.  Give me the fee, right now."  Spike watched as Jack fumbled in his pocket and then drew out a magnetic card.  Electronic bank check - drawn on the Fenris main branch and cashable anywhere on the station - on any station within a skip-length away.  *Bloody thing had better have my money on it.* 

 

"I have never been so insulted.  This is the last time my House does business with you or any vampire!" Jack wheezed, and Spike plucked the card from his fingers - shoved the box across the table.

 

"Probably a wise move on your part.   Us vamps, we're an untrustworthy lot."  Spike shoved the card into the little reader he carried - watched as the fee amount popped up on the display.  *At least he didn't try to short me.  Bloody toad.*

 

"I see how your mind operates.  You do not even trust the one who employs you!"  Jack looked outraged at the presence of the reader, but Spike hadn't gotten to where he was by blindly trusting the other criminals.   

 

"The ones who employee me are usually the worst of the lot," Spike mumbled.  He hit the sequence that transferred the money - shoved card and reader into his pocket and dropped the butt of his smoke into Jack's mostly-gone drink.  Behind the Chaddock's head he saw their server come out of the bar with a tray and then stop - turn around sharply and disappear.  *Wait for it...*

 

"Hello, Sss'ike."  A bony hand - like an articulated steel vise - closed on Spike's shoulder.  "Sso 'ood to ssee 'oo."   

 

Spike looked up, into whiteless eyes set aslant in the narrow, dog-like face.  At an expanse of gleaming ivory teeth and enough muscle to punch a hole straight through four inches of plex.   Or a vamp's heart.  "Y'yis.  Likewise, I'm sure.  But I've got appointments to keep -"   He pushed up and the Outsider's hand easily slammed him back down.

 

"No' any moore, Sss'ike."

 

 

 

 

 

Xander stomped down the corridor, opposite hand fisted around his cut one, cursing.  Mostly cursing Ferro.  His smugness, his greater height - his rightness, because Spike would bitch if the Dru smelled of Eau de Xander-blood.  *Stupid vampires and their stupid super-senses and their stupid ideas about humans,* Xander thought.  But he was kind of grinning too, because there was nothing in the fucking universe sexier than a possessive Spike who had decided a naked body-check was in order.  At least, nothing sexier to Xander.   *My possessive vampire.* 

 

Xander bumped the door-switch on the wall with his elbow and stepped into the infirmary.   It was about the size of a medium walk-in closet, big enough for two narrow bunks and a wall-locker of supplies, plus a ceiling-mounted diagnostic unit that they'd 'acquired' five jobs ago.   Xander stuck his hand under the bell cover of the 'sonic and watched as the inaudible waves of sound vibrated the blood off his hand.  A tiny pump suctioned it away, straight into a flash-incinerator.  The 'sonic kind of tickled.   

 

He poked around in the cabinet until he found the aerosol can of nu-skin and sprayed a layer over the cut, pressing the edges of the wound together for a few seconds while the chemical dried.  A little blood seeped out, making the patch a spotty kind of pink.  It was dry, sealed, and the nu-skin would kill any bugs he might have picked up.  Good enough.   Xander wanted to get the filters done.  Fenris had some very...novel places of entertainment and he intended to drag Spike to at least three.  Maybe four.  This job promised to be particularly lucrative and they all needed a break.

 

*A little break with my honey and no fucking jobs, no toads, no dogs.  No shooting and no fighting and no damn deals.   We are job free for a month at least, after this.  Skip over to Rennick Station and get the damn enviro computer fixed so we don't wake up to another tropical fucking rain storm.  Maybe go planet-side, do some swimming.*  Rennick orbited an Earth-like planet whose sun was almost permanently hidden behind dense clouds - a bit of a vampire resort and it had coastline, with a warm, saline sea.  Xander missed swimming.  The wave-pools at Midway just weren't the same.

 

And they smelled like wet dog.

 

Xander tidied up and left the infirmary - stopped in the galley for a soda, snugging the spill-proof lid on tight.  One incident with a high-vee turn and an uncapped drink had been plenty, thank you.  Ferro still ribbed him about it.  He'd been new, then.  Well, newer.  He wasn't quite so new now.

 

*Almost fifty years...*   Xander touched the tags that hung around his neck - reminder and promise.  He took a drink of his soda and strolled down the corridor and around, heading for Ferro's office.  It was locked.  *Fucker.  Is he...taking a break?*   Xander grinned to himself.  Interrupting Ferro in the middle of a 'break' would be perfect compensation for locking up his filters.  Xander started to tap in the master override code.   Ferro seemed to forget that Xander was the geek on this ship.

 

"Xander, get up here!"  Ferro, yelling over the com and right after there was -

 

"Fuck, fuck, fuckfuckfuck!"   Nia cursing when she almost never did and Xander ran - slammed his palm down on the lift switch and winced as the cut throbbed. 

 

"What the fuck's going on?"

 

"Fuckin' toad fuck -" Nia and Ferro both losing what coherency they usually had and Xander squeezed through the too-slow lift doors - punched for the bridge, bouncing on his toes - palm flat to the cool plastic and adrenalin making his heart thump almost painfully in his chest. 

 

*Damnit, damnit - knew this job was gonna be bad!  Fucking with things we shouldn't - steal a m'ryi - sure, why not?  It's only the closest thing to a fuckin' religious relic any dog's got!*   The doors slid open and Xander almost fell out of the lift - did a little hop to save himself and staggered past Spike's chair to Ferro.

 

"Tell me what the fuck is -"

 

"Somebody fired - somebody had a gun, gotta get the Cap'n out of that damn bar -!"

 

"Fucking Fat Jack double-crossed him -!" Nia and Ferro at the same time, Nia's hands flying over her boards, using whatever Fairy magic she had to get whatever she needed for Spike.

 

*Gun?  Jesus - Christ, who the hell is crazy enough -*     "Where the hell is Spike?  What -"

 

"I'm on it, Xander -" Nia snapped, then made a small noise of triumph when a schematic flashed up on her board.   Station blueprints that nobody was supposed to see. 

 

*Wonder if what she does is real magic or just...  Keep meaning to ask and then when I remember to ask I forget to ask, wonder if that's magic too...*   Xander felt sweat, cold and crawly, going down his spine and he ruthlessly cut off the inner babble that still tended to swamp him in times of stress.  At least he was mostly out of the habit of the babble actually coming out of his mouth.

 

"God damn dogs," Ferro growled, and Xander looked at the ready-lights coming up on his board and felt his stomach roll.   They gleamed, muted red and orange, off Ferro's dark skin - smears of crimson down Ferro's scarred cheeks that was too much like blood.  The rest of the bridge was in twilight, lit only by small overhead spots.  Xander jerked away from Ferro's chair and fell into his own - auxiliary pilot boards - with a thud.

 

"Getting it, getting it -" Nia muttered, scrolling faster than a human could see and Xander powered up his station - shoved the soda into a clamp he'd jerry-rigged on the side of the chair.  He fumbled the headset off its hook and onto his head, vague noises coming over the link from Spike and then Station buzzing in his other ear and he flinched.

 

"All ships, be advised we have lock-down proceeding, level three.  Repeat, all ships, lock-down on level three, do not attempt to access level three.  All personnel report to your ship or station."  The advisory cycled again - repeated in Outsider and Chaddock and the pidgin that a lot of the less social Fairy used.  Xander acknowledged, short and to the point, not wanting to draw any more attention than he had to.  He flicked through a series of views from the ship's cameras: the Drusilla's outer hatch, the foot of the ramp leading up to it and a panning view of the section of dock just beyond the ramp.  So far the only activity seemed to be a trio of dock-workers shoulder-deep in an electrical panel and an amorous couple leaning body-to-body against a pillar-like conduit.  The alert was station-wide but they were keeping it confined to the Concourse so far.  "Nothing's stirring." 

 

"Got it!" Nia crowed.   Xander switched the station-feed off for a minute so he could concentrate on Spike.  "Cap'n - Two o'clock of the main door is hall, kitchen, storage - access to Maintenance three meters left, access to ventilation two meters and up."

 

"Right.  Just gotta - fuckin' dogs and their fuckin' - Jesus!  Almost - there -"

 

"I'm goin' live in three minutes, Nia," Ferro warned, fingers hovering, and Nia rolled her eyes at him - wide and pale and flaring with an unsettling sort of reddish gleam in the blue-white glow of her boards. 

 

"No!"  Xander tore his gaze away from Nia and glared at the other man, shutting his com off altogether so he wouldn't distract Spike.   "Ferro - you gotta wait.  If you power up, Station'll be all over us - Spike'll never get through!"  

 

"If I don't, whatever ship those fuckin' dogs are off could get up behind us and take out our skip array!  We'll be fuckin' chaff."

 

"Just let Nia work her magic, man.  Just - wait."  Ferro snarled but his hand didn't move and Xander switched back to station-com, hearing questions and answers flying - hearing one Chaddock ship threatening undock and at least three Outsider crew getting damn close to opening fire.   Chaddock ran - Outsiders fought.  On the whole, Xander preferred the Chaddock way.  Fairies - tended to just fade into the woodwork.  "Fucking Christ - it's going all to hell out there - who fired?"

 

"Somebody did - not the Cap'n.  Dog, I think -"   Nia's gaze went unfocused and Xander switched back to her channel.    

 

"I'm in the pipe, Nia - ventilation.  Christ, it's filthy."

 

Nia pressed the audio bud deeper into one tall, pointed ear, eyes narrowing in concentration.  "Five meters, there should be a hatch - type in....zero zero niner fiver tree..."

 

"Right.  Where...?"  Spike's voice, slightly flat and slightly muffled, effect of the sub-vocal mic.

 

"It's a service trunk.  Go right - twenty meters...right again...ten...got another hatch?"

 

"Yeah - it's open - fuckin' hell!"

 

"What is it?" Xander hissed, and Nia waved her hand.

 

"It's cold storage for customs perishables - see the exit?"

 

"Pressure door - got a code?"

 

"No, a card - let me..."  Nia's fingers danced over the keys, codes and access keys a blur on her screen.

 

"That's got it - I'm out.  Fuckin' brilliant, you are.   Power up - we are leaving."

 

"Hundred and seven meters hard left, Cap'n, we'll keep the light on."  Nia grinned over at Xander and then Ferro with her sharp, white teeth.  "Get those babies live, Tommy-boy,"

 

"Don't call me Tommy-boy, you fuckin' Fairy," Ferro muttered, but he was grinning too and Xander flopped back in his chair, a hand to his heart as if he could stop the too-fast pounding that was making him a little dizzy. 

 

"You, Nia?  Are a fuckin' genius!"

 

"Belt in, dumbass, we're gonna leave scorch-marks."

 

"Fuck yes," Xander said - wrestled the tangle of webbing straps up and over his shoulders and around his hips, snapping the tongues into the central buckle with sharp little snicks while Ferro did the same.  Nia was never in her chair without the belts. 

 

Xander switched back to the station channel, clearing his throat and taking a quick slurp of soda so his voice wouldn't crack.  "Fenris Station, advise we're prepping for immediate undock.  Ship personnel emergency.  Ten minutes and counting, on my mark."   Xander winced at the bark of irritation in Station's reply - the central communications hub was being bombarded with multiple undock advisories on top of the ongoing emergency on level three and they weren't happy.   Apparently, Outsiders bringing out guns had caused a general panic and several groups of station personnel had started firing back - as had the crew of another Outsider ship.   The original Outsiders were now barricaded in the Segue while Fenris militia tried to enforce a cease-fire to get them out. 

 

Xander keyed up a screenfull of status reports showing system after system on the Drusilla going live, including Ferro's guns.  There was a sudden, bone-deep hum - subsonic and almost painful.  It was the skip-field generators coming online and Xander grinned.  That ghost hum was the heartbeat of the ship - the pulse that meant safe and mobile and home and Xander took a long, wavery breath.   *I'm gonna kick your ass when you get up here, Spike.  Fucker.* 

 

"And there's the Cap'n," Nia said - choked off her next words and hissed something in her own language.

 

"What?  Oh shit."  Xander watched with a sense of sick helplessness as the image of Spike - standing in the Drusilla's main hatchway - was joined by three tall Outsiders.

 

 

 

 

 

Spike yanked his jacket off - flung it across the small room that served as their in-dock 'office'.   Customs, vendors and clients never saw more of the Dru than this.  It was what used to be a holding cell directly off the main access hatch and they hadn't done much to it beyond getting out the stains and adding a narrow desk bolted to the floor and a chair in a locking track.  Chaddock, like Outsiders, were slavers.  The walls were still studded with recessed rings - handy for chaining up purchases.  The trio of Outsiders looked around them with something like disdain and Spike changed, too angry to maintain his more polite human mask.

 

"What the fuck are you doing, coming here?  We had a deal."

 

The central Outsider - distinguished by a thick ruff of brindled hair around her neck and shoulders - lifted her head, long tongue licking out for a moment.  Rather like a snake, scenting the air.  "Deal hass changed, Sss'ike," she snapped and Spike snarled.

 

"I've got your seal in blood says otherwise, Rrahn."

 

"Do you have the m'ryi?" 

 

Spike resisted the urge to launch himself at Rrahn.  Outsiders were too strong - too bloodthirsty - and they were on his ship.  Which meant his crew were in danger every minute they stayed.    "Don't even think of coming down here.  Any of you."  The sub-vocal mic was still patched in and he hoped to the bloody gods his crew would listen to him.  "Of course I have it.  That was the deal.  And the other part of the deal was we were to meet at coordinates specified -"

 

"That 'oint hass 'ecome...inhoss'itable.  Sso now we meet herrre."  The growl in Rrahn's voice was unmistakable and Spike growled back but he was already reaching for the com-panel on the wall.

 

"Get the box out of the safe, put it in the chute.  No one comes down."  He shut the link before anyone could answer and they waited, the Outsiders shifting uneasily in the small room.  It smelled of disinfectant and old blood and his crew - and now the rank, sharp musk of Outsiders - and Spike knew the light was too bright and the air too warm for them.  Outsiders came from somewhere cold - somewhere dim - and their bulky, coarse-furred bodies preferred a heavier gravity.  One of the reasons they were so strong, in the human zones.  Spike watched long-fingered, clawed hands flex and curl. 

 

*They're nervous.  Bloody fucking hell.  Move it, Xander - get it done.*

 

"It's in."  Nia's voice, a ghost of a whisper in his ear. "We're still in prep - three minutes to undock."  Spike acknowledged her with a subsonic growl.  A moment later the spreading membrane of the Outsider's bat-like ears twitched and swiveled as they all clearly heard the box hissing through the chute.  Little delivery tube system that the Chaddock - who were not always easily mobile - tended to have in their ships.   Spike made a small motion with his head - slight tilt of his body and the Outsiders filed out of the office.  Spike strode past them - slid the chute-cover up and removed the small steel box that rested on the bottom of the shaft.  He pressed his thumb to the underside - print-lock - and it opened silently, revealing another box made of a dark, non-reflective alloy peculiar to Outsiders.

 

"Like the deal said.  Your m'ryi."  Spike held the boxes out and Rrahn came forward - lifted the smaller one carefully out and pressed her claws in a complicated pattern on the seemingly blank surface of the lid.  The alloy shimmered to transparency and Rrahn gazed downward for a moment.  Another touch with a claw and the box was once again an opaque block and she turned and handed it to the right-hand, shorter guard that flanked her.

 

"I am 'mm'ressed, Sss'ike."

 

"And I'm bloody pissed, Rrahn.  Just pay me the fee and be on your way, yeah?  I'm in countdown to undock."

 

"Yess, sso am I.   Here iss a new 'oint.  'Ou will receive the fee there."  Rrahn was holding out a slip of paper and for a moment Spike just stared at her, fury growing.  He took on long step forward, his hand coming up and back - the antique straight-razor glinting in his fist.  When the roar bellowed up out of his throat he heard a squeak of pain from Nia, who'd just had her ear-drums blasted.  But he didn't care.  His fist came down, straight for Rrahn's sensitive snout.

 

The taller guard's hand stopped his cold, nearly snapping his wrist and he stood there, breathing in and out in sharp pants.   Rrahn stared back, lips lifted away from her mouthful of fangs in a deadly display.  "H'ru will accom'any 'ou to be shhure that 'ou arrive on time.   If 'ou do not arrrive...'ou're bounty iss sset at fifteen million."  Rrahn reached out and tucked the paper into Spike's shirt-pocket, her bony fingers hot through the thin fabric.  She growled something in the Outsider tongue and H'ru let go of Spike - stepped back.   Rrahn made a short sort of bow in Spike's direction and then she and her remaining guard stalked out.  

 

Behind him, Spike heard the lift doors shush open and he spun around as H'ru's hand went to his belt - to a weapon.  "Stand fucking down you fucking dog," Spike snapped.  H'ru growled but he subsided and Spike glared at the lift - at Xander - who was trying to look as if he'd only come down accidentally.

 

"Guess we'll need that extra safety web rigged then?" he asked, all eager helpfulness and Spike wanted to strangle him.  Instead he took a long, hard breath - folded the razor and tucked it away.

 

"Guess we will."

 

 

 

 

 

In the lift Spike pushed Xander back into the wall - slammed his hands down on either side of Xander's head, trapping him there.  Spike's face inches from Xander's - gold shimmer in his eyes and a rumbling growl down in his chest.   His hair was tangled and tufted and soap-bubble-sheen over white, with some sort of ventilation-shaft lint or something stuck in it.  Xander clenched his fists to keep himself from reaching up and plucking the lint out.  *They need to clean the damn vents.  Fuck.  Ferro took my god-damn filters.*   There was a smudge of black on Spike's jaw and more fuzz on his trousers and boots and Xander knew it had pissed Spike off to deal with Outsiders in that state. 

 

"I told you to stay topside."

 

"Too fuckin' bad," Xander snapped - pushed Spike back hard.  Spike barely rocked on his feet.

 

"It was a fuckin' order!"  Spike's fist hit the lift wall right next to Xander's ear and Xander jerked - glared.  "I don't want any of you down there!"

 

"I don't want you down there!  Or that fucking dog!"  The doors slid open and Xander pushed past Spike - stomped to his chair and flung himself down, his hands shaking a little as he pulled the belts up over his shoulders.  Spike didn't come out of the lift for a minute and Xander busied himself scrolling through his screens - getting the headset on and listening to station chatter with half an ear.  Trying not to give in and turn around - trying not to look at Spike.  *Owe me an explanation, Spike.  Owe all of us.  A fucking deal with Rrahn?  What fucking deal?*   He heard Spike's boots on the deck - heard the chair sigh as Spike sat down.  Opposite him, Ferro lifted his head and looked back at Spike - glanced over at Xander and made a sort of 'What the fuck?' face.  Xander made a 'No fucking idea!' face back.  Ferro snorted softly and turned back to his boards.

 

Xander put his com on ship-wide so the Outsider down in the office could brace himself.  As much as he hated the thought of a dog as a passenger, he didn't want him splattering his brains on their decking.  "Undock in five, four, three, two, one - and - we're free.  Thank you, Fenris Station - we've got them on our screens." 

 

The Drusilla went momentarily weightless as they undocked.  One hard kick from the trim-jets to get them free of the clamp and then slow reorientation under the jets alone.  The giddy flyingfalling of it swamped Xander for a few seconds, like it always did.  He swallowed spit and soda-dregs and watched a Chaddock ship - the Tchis, according to station - undock right behind them, yellow oblong on their short-range radar.

 

"Got another ship," he murmured and Nia hissed an affirmative, intent on ship's controls.

 

"What's our heading, Cap'n?  Rennick?" Nia asked, and Xander finally looked over at Spike, who was looking at his boards with a murderous expression.

 

"No.  Something new," Spike said.  Xander watched him pull a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket and tap a string of numbers into the computer.  They echoed to all the other boards and Xander stared down at them, biting his lip.

 

"I don't know this, Cap'n," Nia said finally and Xander looked over at Spike again - watched him run his hand back through his hair, habit he'd fallen into.  The ventilation lint drifted to the floor.

 

"It's an Outsider point."  Spike's voice was tense - his face expressionless.   "Just - get it in nav-comp, Nia, and tell station - get us our outbound track.  Ferro, get us set up for the skip.  I'll tell you what's going on during power-up." 

 

"Aye," Nia said, and sent the request after a split-second hesitation.

 

"Spike, what in the hell -"

 

"Just do it, Ferro!"   They waited tensely while station processed their new heading and assigned them a lane.  Spike stood abruptly - held grimly to the edge of his console for a moment as Nia swung the Dru on course, hard nudges with the trim-jets.  Aligning them to the lane that would keep them from colliding with other outgoing and incoming ships.  "I gotta get cleaned up," Spike muttered and stalked off the bridge into the lift.   The doors worked and then he was gone and Xander sat frozen for one long minute, until Nia sat back in her chair with a small sound of satisfaction.

 

"That it, Nia?"

 

"That's it.  You go on, then."  Nia looked over her shoulder at him, narrow pixie-face and corona of wispy honey-gold hair under-lit by her boards.  Wide, tilted eyes full of concern.

 

"Yeah, go.  I'll unlock the bath for the dog - see if he needs anything," Ferro said.   "From my station," he added, as Xander opened his mouth to say something.

 

"Fuck.  Okay."  Xander undid the safety belts and stood up - put his boards on stand-by.  "Where are we going anyway?"

 

"I'm not sure.  It's - two degrees off Midway and toward the zenith...  Outsider space for sure but -"  Nia shook her head.  "I just don't know."  Xander exchanged a glance with Ferro, feeling a twist of unease in his gut.   Nia always knew.  Fairies always did, it was part of their magic or...whatever.  Ferro jerked his head back in the direction of the lift and Xander nodded and went after Spike.

 

 

 

 

 

"That is going to be some fuckin' fireworks," Ferro said, watching Xander go into the lift and stab for the next level down, mouth set and grim.

 

"Cap'n is acting like an ass," Nia grumbled.  She stood up and stretched, five-foot nothing in a form-fitting coverall.  Body of a ten-year-old boy and bare feet and hands a little too long to be normal.  No wings, but her kind didn't need 'em.  They had their peculiar and very secret magic.  Or super-duper-tech brains, or something.  Ferro didn't know, and didn't care.  It all came down to the Dru flying as if she had the brain - never missing a mark, never losing a degree of course or a c of power.  

 

"Hey, Nia..."  Ferro put his boards on stand-by - joined Nia by the forward port, the only actual view the Dru had of space that wasn't from a camera.   Spike had put it in, saying something about listening to the stars.  Sometimes Spike was a little freaky.  "What'd you...?  I mean, do you really not know where we're goin'?"

 

Nia turned her gaze from the port - turned it up to Ferro and made a face, irritation and worry.   "I think I do.  I...feel like I should know.  Perhaps when we get there.  It is..."  Nia considered, looking out the port again - flicker of pale light over her face as the running lights of some tug or tender found her narrow cheekbones and thin, blue-lipped mouth.  "I think this is only a - way point.  I'll see better when we skip."

 

"Yeah."  Ferro ran his hands back over the half-inch mat of dense curls he'd cropped his hair to, rolling his shoulders and listening to the left one crackle.  Left-over from his Marine days when he'd popped it out of place twice in one month.   "Gonna get the dog settled, gonna get something goin' in the galley.  You wanna get the packs up here?"

 

"Sure.  I can do that," Nia murmured, distracted-sounding and walked aft, heading for the storage locker that was at the far back corner of the bridge.  It was filled with cases of vitamin-rich drinks laced with electrolytes and bars dense with fat and protein and carbs.  Solid hit of nutrients to combat the leeching effect of skip-space.   Pretty much all he and Nia had ever had to eat, when they'd been slaves on the ship.  Except the Chaddock pilot had bought the cheapest, that tasted like chalk and chemicals. 

 

Spike always sprang for the best - real chocolate and butter and nuts, real fruit.   Fuck, Spike bought 'em actual tree-grown, hand picked shit sometimes, if they were anywhere near a planet that had hydro-gardens.  Grapes like drops of purple-blue glass and apples pink-green-white that tasted like sex.  And actual slabs of blood-red animal meat, although Nia wouldn't touch that.  Ferro grinned to himself and moved back to his board - reached out and hit a couple of buttons and then opened a link to the office and the Outsider.  Camera-link, so he could be sure the dog wasn't up to tricks.   His loyalty to Spike didn't come from tree-grown oranges - it came from something much deeper, but the deal - the dogs - still had Ferro feeling a bit - twitchy.  *Better have a good deal for us, Spike, 'cause we were never gonna do business with Rrahn again.*

 

The Outsider seemed to be asleep, or just trancing.  Curled into the air-mattress they'd inflated, the safety webbing like a cobweb over him, secured to the various rings in the walls.  Every time he saw that room, it made Ferro smile 'cause Spike had staked the Chaddock Captain out in it and run his intestines through the rings like half-assed knitting until the fat toad bastard had given him what he wanted.   

 

*Dog needs a fucking collar and chain,* Ferro thought, and hit the audio.  "Hey - dog!  That access at the back is unlocked - bath in there if you get sick or need water.  Don't have any dog food on board so you'll have to go hungry for now.  Too bad your buddy didn't leave you anything."  The Outsider stirred - lifted his head, ears flaring wide and lips curling up a little, showing fangs.

 

"I have...sssufficient," it said, stumbling a little over the words.  A hand reached out and patted a medium-sized belt-pack that was tucked into the corner.

 

"Better not be anything illegal in there.  We'll put it out the air-lock and you with it.  We're on approach to skip out - 'bout half an hour and we'll do the count.  'Til then, stay quiet."  The Outsider nodded and lay back down and Ferro stabbed the 'off' button, frowning.  He'd kind of hoped for it to have started something so he could go down and shoot it.  *Be a total accident, too.*

 

"I'm done here - you done?" Nia asked, and Ferro glanced around at the skip-packs clipped into the webbing on the sides of the consoles - the four ruby-dark bags of blood for Spike. 

 

"Yeah - done.  Let's go see what's in the freezer.  Can't believe we didn't get to go shopping this trip!  Wanted some more of that cake, man."

 

"You and cake," Nia giggled.  Ferro headed for the lift and Nia jumped up on his back, thin arms curling around his shoulders.  "Piggy-ride!"

 

"I'm not a fuckin' pig, you gnome!"

 

"I'm not a gnome!"

 

"Smell like a gnome -"

 

 

 

 

 

The one advantage to the Dru being Chaddock-built was that Chaddock were big.  So individual quarters were much roomier than on a human-built ship, and the showers were twice the size, with multiple heads.  Chaddock liked water.  The hydro system on the ship was top-notch, too - hot water in an instant, and for as long as you cared to have it.  

 

At the moment though, Spike was oblivious to it all.  He stood in the pounding spray of six heads, eyes closed and fists on the wall - head down.  Furious and a little nervous, because Rrahn might be double-crossing him...and because he had to explain himself now to Xander and the rest.  He'd wanted to wait until their very healthy fee was banked and theirs before confessing his little...deal.  Now -

 

*Now I've gotta justify it to three people who're pissed off and scared.  Fucking dog - what in bloody hell is she playing at, changing the deal?  Have her guts for garters, if she tries anything more.*   There was a small noise behind him - slight waft of cooler air and Spike turned around, arms crossed over his chest.  Frowning at Xander, who was scowling back, shutting the shower cabinet door.

 

"Care to tell me what the fuck that was all about?"

 

"Xander -" Spike sighed, and Xander took a step and shoved - knocked Spike back and pinned him, blinking water from his eyes. 

 

"Don't, Spike.  Don't fucking go there!  I can't believe you made some kind of - of - secret deal with Rrahn!  Jesus!"

 

"Xander -"

 

"And, what - she's not keeping her end up?  She did some kind of fucked up double-cross or -"

 

"Xander!"   Spike changed when he yelled - half growled the name and Xander stopped short and stared at him.  "She's not double-crossing us, she's - it's bloody complicated!"

 

"Then use small words," Xander snapped.  But he was pressing the bar on the soap dispenser - moving gel-slick hands over Spike's shoulders and chest and Spike slumped back against the wall.

 

"Fuck, love - I'm sorry."

 

"Yeah, yeah, sorry," Xander muttered - pushed at Spike until he turned around.  Spike put his arm up on the wall of the cabinet and leaned his forehead on his wrist - sighed again when Xander's strong, warm fingers dug into his neck, easing tense muscles.  "You could've been shot, Spike."

 

"That wasn't Rrahn, that was Y'yis.  He's always got a digit in some pie or other, and Fat Jack's always selling."

 

"Rrahn took the m'ryi - was it her jyiiy's?"  Xander leaned into Spike hard, thumbs sinking in deep under his shoulder blades and Spike groaned aloud - pushed back and felt Xander's thigh brush his.

 

"No... long story, Xan, why don't we just - forget about all that for a minute."  Spike turned - pulled Xander close by one soapy arm, wrapping it around his own waist and pressing their bodies tight, ribs to knees.   "Hard evening, love."  Spike trailed a hand down Xander's back - let the other trace a random pattern over Xander's chest - over the three parallel scars there.

 

"Yeah.  And you made it a lot harder, showing up here with Outsiders on your tail."  Xander glared at him but his hips were doing a slow, subtle roll, pressing hardness to slippery hardness.  "You're trying to distract me with sex, Spike."

 

"Mmm.  Course I am, Xan.  You're so bloody hot - can't keep my hands off you."  Spike ducked his head a little, smiling up at Xander through water-heavy lashes - ventured in close for an open-mouthed kiss, his hand creeping from the small of Xander's back to his arse - squeezing the dense muscle there. 

 

Xander snorted softly - snaked his head to the side and nipped strongly at Spike's neck.  Spike jumped - and so did his hips.  "Yeah, right."  Xander let his tongue glide over the place he'd just bit - heaved a sigh of long-suffering that made Spike grin.   "I'm such a fuckin' slut."

 

"Thank Christ," Spike breathed as Xander slid down.

 

 

 

 

 

When they got down to the galley, Ferro was getting something - maybe lasagna - out of the cooker and Nia was making one of her nasty Fairy things in the blender.  Juice and weird powders and what Xander always said were beetle eyes.  Nia just grinned at him and made little cricket noises and Xander pretended to gag into his supper.

 

Tonight though, there was no teasing and no smiles.  Ferro looked up and scowled when they came in - Nia punched blender buttons a bit harder than necessary, and Spike mentally groaned.  *Ah, Jesus, nothing worse than a crew with the sulks.*

 

"Smells good," Xander said, getting plates out of the cabinet and Spike slumped down in his chair, watching Ferro dish up - yes, lasagna - for himself and Xander and Nia.  Watching him hesitate and then slop some onto a plate for Spike.  Xander got a panful of cheese-and-garlic toast out of the top part of the cooker and they all shuffled to their seats and ate in total silence for about one minute.

 

*C'mon and ask, for fuck's sake!  Just ask, I'll tell you...didn't mean to keep it a secret for this long...  Ask, ask...Ferro, c'mon -*

 

"Why're you dealing with Rrahn, Spike?"   Ferro, like Spike figured.   Spike ate a forkful of his lasagna and wiped his mouth - pushed his plate away and leaned his elbows up on the table.

 

"The fee'll keep us for a year, Ferro."

 

"She left that -   There's a dog on the ship, Spike."

 

"Yeah, I know." 

 

Ferro prodded at his food - picked up his toast and looked at it and put it back down.   "You know you can't trust her, Spike! I mean - Jesus Christ!  She's the reason we were all almost sold to the toads!"

 

Nia slurped her drink, looking narrow-eyed at him.  "I know.   I know, Ferro!   It's - she told me this m'ryi was gonna be - available.  Told me Y'yis was gonna be trying to collect it when he wasn't supposed to touch it."

 

"So it was a set-up to take Y'yis down," Xander said, and Spike sighed and leaned back in his chair.

 

"Yeah.  Y'yis and Fat Jack.  Rrahn took that m'ryi a year ago - took that jyiiy out.  Y'yis and his house were supposed to be allying with them but when they got the chance - they took it off Rrahn.  We stole it from them - Y'yis had Fat Jack put out a bounty - Rrahn got 'em all.  The toads are supposed to know better than to fence a m'ryi.

 

"Okay - okay, I - kinda get that.  I mean - Y'yis needs to be made into fuckin' giblets -"

 

"When did we steal it?" Xander asked, interrupting Ferro and scowling at Spike and Spike got up and got a beer from the cabinet - opened it and drank half in one gulp.

 

"When we boosted that shipment out of Farpoint.  Those - artifacts?  All that - was what was left of Han-y'ri jyiiy.  Y'yis had it re-routed - that's how Rrahn knew."

 

Ferro made a noise very much like a growl and Spike's demon hissed in approval.  "That bitch - we couldn’t fence half that stuff!  Jyiiy artifacts - no wonder nobody'd touch 'em!"

 

"Yeah - made her add a couple million to the fee for that."

 

"Right, okay - so - couple million?"  Spike nodded.  Ferro looked over at Nia, who shrugged.  "Fuck.  What the fuck do we do next?"  Ferro forked up the last of his lasagna - looked at Spike's mostly untouched plate and grabbed it.  Nia took a nibble of her own portion and looked thoughtful.

 

"I think we're gonna see a hole or two in the Outsider's ranks real soon," Spike said.   "I think Rrahn's trying to collect as many m'ryi as she can - I think she's making herself a fucking army."

 

"Army."  Ferro stabbed at his food - dropped his fork with a clatter and picked up his toast - shredded it as he sat there, his leg bouncing, bouncing, bouncing in the grip of nerves.  "So, what, she's plannin' on recruiting us?  Makin' us part of her little war?" 

 

"Not in this fucking lifetime," Xander muttered, and Spike privately agreed.  If one jyiiy - one House - took out another, all the ranking members were killed as well as any blood-kin, servants - hell, they killed the sodding pets.  What was left was folded into the victor's household, seamless and without debt.  The loser's name was struck from all records and all memory and the m'ryi - the history of a House - became the possession of the winner.   All the victories - all the triumphs - became the new House's history.   It was as if the defeated jyiiy had never existed.    Of course, eventually a jyiiy got too big and a branch would split off - a new house form.  Like cells dividing.  But the loyalty one might expect didn't last past the inception.  What Rrahn was doing was dangerous.  

 

"I dunno what she's doing for sure.  She's - planning something big.  And she's nervous.  And anything that makes an Outsider nervous...  I want a cushion.  I want - backup in case everything goes to shite and we're stuck out here with the kind of war that pushed these jyiiy into our space in the first place."

 

"Yeah, I get that," Ferro said quietly.  "Well fuck."  He picked up his glass - milk, it looked like - and drained it.  "I hope you've got some kind of plan, Spike.  For when Rrahn turns on us like a rabid fucking dog.  Or when her flunky down there does."

 

"She's too caught up all her fuckin' - drama," Spike said, waving his hand vaguely.  He felt in his pocket for his smokes - pulled one out and lit it and watched his crew.  Ferro was finishing off the last of his food with rapid jabs, acting as if the noodles, cheese and sauce had personally insulted him.  Nia was taking tiny bites, looking as if she wasn't enjoying it - too much salt for her, probably.  Washing it down with whatever she'd concocted in the blender and even from across the table it smelled foul to Spike.  Xander was eating in that head-down, elbows out way he'd acquired out at Whale Deep when his money was scarce and protection scarcer and Spike nudged him under the table - watched him look around and straighten up and slow down a little.

 

"I can probably get us out of this.  Rrahn wants us to do another job for her - maybe more, but - I can get us out.  If that's what we decide."  He looked at his crew, who were looking at each other, silent communication.  *Good crew.  Best fucking crew there is and Rrahn be damned if she thinks I'm going to risk them for some half-cocked scheme...  Don't care how good the money is.  But oh...fuck - money is so good -*   Something - some current - seemed to go through them all and Nia shrugged again - got up to rinse the dregs of her Fairy-drink out of her cup.  Ferro grabbed her plate, too, and Xander got up to scoop another big spoonful out of the pan. 

 

"So - you think she's gonna want us to get another m'ryi?  Are we gonna be part of taking out a House?"  Xander didn't look at Spike - concentrated on getting another piece of toast.  Surreptitiously rubbed the back of his hand over his chest.   Spike pushed away from the table and crossed to him - wrapped his arms around Xander's biceps and chest from behind, hugging him close.

 

"I dunno, love.  Won't let you get hurt, no matter what.  Promise."

 

"Yeah."  Xander turned his head a little, looking at Spike, and Spike had to kiss the curve where jaw met skull.  Mouthed the warm skin gently for just a moment.  "I'm in, then."

 

"I'm almost in.  What's the fee, and what's my cut?"  Ferro brought over the scraped-clean plates from the table and dumped them in the washer - turned on the faucet and got some soap on his hands.

 

"Fee's - six hundred million.  Your cut's one quarter, just like always."  Spike felt Xander go stiff with shock in his arms - watched Nia turn slowly to look at Ferro and watched Ferro soap his hands over and over, staring at him.

 

"W-well - okay, then.  I'm in.  We're in."

 

"Good gods yes," Nia muttered, and Spike felt that little coil of tension - that had rode tight and aching in his belly for the last hour - finally unwind.

 

"This ship and this crew take priority - first sign of it all going south, we're out, right?"

 

"Right," Xander said, and Spike let him loose - watched him go back over to the table and sit down, plate and fork in hand.  "We can get a whole new OS for Dru.  Computer like that one we saw on Dur'rhii -"

 

"Get rid of that damn pulse-gun before it blows us all to bits - get something with more kick to it - less plasma-bleed."  Ferro practically bounced to the table, flopping down next to Xander to talk upgrades.  Nia put her cup in the washer and then leaned on the sink, looking at Spike.

 

"You really good with this?" Spike asked, and Nia held out her hand.  Spike sighed and held out his own, letting Nia take his and hold it for a moment between her palms.  Heat - stillness - the scent of beebalm and new-cut grass and Nia was blinking - looking at him with a strange expression. 

 

"Oh, I'm fine.  It'll - work.  Somebody to see you, though."

 

"See me?"

 

"Somebody...old."  Nia shrugged - grinned up at him and let his hand slip away.  Spike shivered.  "I'm going to check our position - thirteen minutes until we skip out."

 

"Yeah, okay," Spike said, and watched her walk away.  The heat - lingered.

 

 

 

 

 

The Drusilla skipped out, leaving a vague shimmer and a sudden emptiness on any nearby radar.  Inside, her crew lay in tilted chairs, securely belted in.  Dreaming.  Skip-dreams, that took you backward and forward and downward and upward and sideward, maybe.  Xander - dreamed.

 

"Holy mother of moley, this ship is..."

 

"Piece of junk," the vamp says, and Xander shakes his head.

 

"Nah - not junk, just - Christ.  Took some hard hits."  Xander ducks under the skip-field array, his fingers gliding lightly on scorched and dented metal.  Fingering actual holes, although only one had punched through the triple layer of steel and plex and fire-tempered porcelain.   Whale Deep is the only shipyard in the 'verse that can dry-dock, up to a point.  The S-class Chaddock ship - shaped like a spindle with the bubble of the bridge forward and the inverted parasol of the array aft - fits with about ten meters to spare, cradled in a suspension harness because this kind of ship - scout, infiltrator, assassin - was never meant to land anywhere.  Xander marks points of repair on his slate - stands for a long, long minute under the port hatch, where the ship's name and code is painted.  The Drusilla...and he shivers.

 

A hand grabs the back of his neck - the chain and tag he wears, twisting it so he has to cough. 

 

"Not getting' paid to stand and stare, Harris.  Get your ass in gear."

 

"Yeah, I'm doin' it," Xander mutters and the vamp stalks away.  Xander rubs his neck, fighting the urge to slip the piece of whittled press-wood out of his pocket and stake the bastard.  But - he can't.  Indentured - in debt - fucked.  And he has work to do.

 

"You the guy gonna fix her up?"  New voice - different voice - and Xander looks over and then up, seeing a tall black man standing by the door.  Left leg in an inflated cast - body held stiff, bandages showing at his collar.  Finger-long dreads hanging down and scars on his cheeks - raised tribal markings that look old and well-worn.  Handsome man with a gun and a knife and a Chaddock stinger at hip and waist and thigh - man with a scowl on his face and Xander's fingers clutch the slate a little tighter.

 

"Yeah, I - uh - I'm your guy.  Don't worry, I'll - she'll be good as new."

 

"Better be, or I'll...  Bloody hell.   Harris?"  And that's when Xander discovers that the Drusilla is Spike's ship.  William the Bloody, Captain, and it's been 51 years since Spike died on the Hellmouth and Xander watched Buffy grieve him.  And get over him.

 

"Yeah.  Me.  You - you're dead, Spike."

 

"I get that a lot," Spike says, and then he's walking forward and pounding Xander on the back, grinning, and the scary man with the scars is laughing and Xander feels...at home. 

 

On the bridge Xander's eyes move, back and forth, back and forth as the Dru skips, light-years unraveling ahead and behind - the fabric of time and the ship and the crew skeining through space.  And the dream shifts - flows - becomes something else.

 

 

 

"Xander!  Xander, answer me!  Bloody dogs said he was this way -"   Spike's voice - Nia's  - calling him and Xander twists in the rubble and stiffening bodies of the dead.  He's bleeding - he can feel it, cold in the air from a ventilation fan - but he's numb and he doesn't know where he's bleeding from and he's - scared.  

 

They'd been asked to ferry in an Outside matriarch to Llact, a joint Chaddock-Outsider station.   Some sort of negotiations - some new trade route or a change of CEO's - it was hard to say, with the dogs.   What they'd actually skipped into was two jyiiy destroying a third, down to the last new-born pup and little, jeweled lizards in gold-wire cages.   An entire level of the station gutted - the patriarch and all the blood-kin dying slow deaths.  Their passenger had wanted a tour - Xander had lasted five minutes and then couldn't go on.   Lagging behind the rest, he'd taken a cat-sized Outsider pup into his arms.  It was blood-covered, keening - torn and pitiful.  Trying to save it was taboo.   One of the Outsider's who'd been on the attacking side had simply turned and slashed him across the chest, claws digging deep. Leaving him there among the corpses.

 

"Sss..."  He can't even talk - can't move - and the little Outsider pup cries and cries and cries until he wants to scream...but Spike is there, Nia is, and he's crying, he can feel it.  Crying and trying to hold onto Spike and the pup is crying and then there's a crunch and it's not, and Spike's face is grim. 

 

"Get a damn EM unit down here," Spike snarls, and Xander's hand clutches weakly at Spike's.  They're both slippery with blood and Xander's fingers slide off.

 

"This terminal's fucked.  Just a moment -" Nia says.  Her long fingers weave wires together and suddenly power surges along blackened strands and she's talking to the station - talking to Ferro and Spike is holding him tight, tight.

 

"Fairy magic," Xander says, voice tight with pain.  "I don't like this dream."  His chest is burning - his lungs feel full of water and his heart is beating so, so slow.

 

"Dream something else," Nia says, and Xander turns - fish in a fluorescent sea - and dives into some other where.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dru shimmered into real-space like a faulty hologram - shiver-flicker-flash and then she was there, the skip array throwing off the last of the energy like a swarm of pale bees.  In his chair Ferro stirred - pushed himself upright and groaned softly.  Opposite him he could see Xander doing the same and behind them both was Spike, swearing softly.  Nia already had her chair upright - had a pouch of drink open and in her hand.  Her other hand was skimming over her boards and Ferro groped for the chair control - winced as he was powered upward and his innards all settled decidedly down.  

 

Leaving skip-space was like the morning after a really good wake.  Ferro felt along the edge of his console and found a drink-pouch - pulled the straw out - hard little pop that broke the seal - and drank.  Not too fast, or it would come right back up.  He felt - desiccated.   Xander looked like shit - hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, skin tinged with a sort of greyish green.  *Long fuckin' skip, Christ, that was...too fuckin' long...need to eat...* 

 

Ferro took a last suck of the drink and shoved the empty pouch back into the webbing - fumbled for a bar and tore at the wrapping.  He could hear Spike moving and he twisted slowly around.  "Jesus fucking hell, Spike, you look -"

 

"Look like Nosferatu," Xander mumbled, and Spike scowled, death's-head with dandelion hair.

 

"Ah, man, don't do that!  That's even worse!"  Ferro took a bite of food - chewed with a jaw that felt like it had rusted shut.

 

"Nia, how long -?" Spike grated, sinking his fangs into a bag of blood.  Ferro shivered and looked away.  The vamp-face was even worse, thin as Spike was.

 

"It's....  Ship says - almost four months."  Nia slurped the last of her drink and shoved the trash away - swung her chair around, unbuckling.  She'd been awake - aware - probably a good fifteen minutes or more than they had.  Fairies recovered faster from a skip - didn't lose so much to the down-time.  "There's a marker out there, and what might be Rrahn's ship - I can't tell, we're too far out."  She stood up - grabbed at her seat-back for a moment and then walked mostly-steadily off the bridge and toward the head.   "Right back," she muttered and Ferro suddenly had to get up, too.  Xander was unbuckling and Ferro yanked at the belts, the last one catching.

 

"Dibs, man, dibs -" he said, and the buckle and tongue parted with a grinding noise.

 

"Damnit, Ferro -"   Xander wobbled to his feet and then put his hand to his mouth, looking more green than grey.

 

"Oh, fuck - yeah, okay, you next," Ferro said, grabbing another drink and opening it.  Pissing could wait - he was not gonna suffer through Xander losing his lunch on the bridge.

 

"Gonna get air-sick bags, swear to fucking god," Spike muttered, licking a smear of blood off his lip - reverting to his human face and looking a little better already.

 

"It's the damn - drink," Xander muttered, groping for another one.  "Can't stand that fucking orange."

 

"Sorry," Nia said, staggering past him and falling into her seat.  Her wispy shock of hair was dark gold, slicked back with a handful of water and a few trickles ran down her cheeks.  "Thought I gave you the cherry."

 

"Gave me both," Xander said, and lurched off the bridge.  Ferro concentrated on his boards, making sure all systems were up and running.  There was a warning on one ventilator shaft and he winced.   *Fuck - wonder if this is where we're gonna be or - are we skipping again?  Probably have time to fix that...*   Spike slurped his blood and Nia made a disgusted noise and Spike laughed, tired-sounding.  But it was laughter and Ferro felt his stomach unknot just a bit.  Back to a little bit of normal.

 

"Guess I should'a let you do those filters after all," he said, when Xander came back to his chair.  "Got a warning on number five."

 

"See?  See?  'Get a bandage, Xander!  Spike'll be mad, Xander!'"  Xander dropped into his chair and groaned and Spike stirred, making a questioning sort of noise.

 

"Why'd you need a bandage?"

 

"Just cut my hand.  He didn't even noticeFerro stole my filters and now we're all gonna get particulate pneumonia and die 'cause a little blood makes him squeamish."

 

"It does not!"

 

"Children, hush," Nia said, and they all looked at her.  She was staring at her boards with a sort of sick look and Ferro felt the drink in his belly curdle.  

 

"Report, Nia," Spike snapped, and Nia did something on her keyboard that made a screen on Ferro's boards go live.  Echoed to all the boards and Ferro heard Xander take a hard breath - heard Spike start to swear, low and angry and not English.

 

*We are so, so fucked.*   Ferro stared at the screen - at the haze of blue-green oblongs and dots that surrounded a central, dark mass.  The skip-point and all around were ships - maybe hundreds.  And all Outsiders.

 

"Ferro - get going if you're gonna go.  Things are gonna get rough," Spike said, and Ferro had to agree.

 

 

 

 

 

The closer they got to the mass of ships, the more - daunting it was.  *Right.  Daunting.  Not flat-out fucking terrifying.  Which it is.  Daunting.*   Spike sat in his chair, watching his crew do the little things you had to do, coming out of skip-space.  Eat, use the head - take lightning-fast showers and get into clean clothes, because all that dead skin that built up started to itch.  Spike didn't have that problem but he wasn't going to do any potential meetings - or potential fights - in the washed-soft fatigues and raveling sweater he'd put on for the ride.

 

*Need to look like a bloody pirate captain.*   "Arrrgh," he muttered to himself and Xander - coming back from getting a 'real' drink - stopped and looked at him.

 

"Gonna go get your eye patch and parrot?" Xander said, and Spike grinned at him.

 

"And my fucking cutlass and pistols.  Bastards aren't gonna board, that much I can guarantee you."

 

"Aye, aye, Cap'n."  Xander grinned back, making a sloppy salute with his left hand, since he had a soda in his right.    He looked down at his own jump-gear, which was basically sweats and a t-shirt topped by a very old, carefully preserved flannel shirt.  Some things never changed.  "Guess I'd better go put on some battle gear, too."

 

"Might be a good idea.  Nobody's gonna be intimidated by that juice stain."

 

"That's grease.  And I thought I got that out."  Xander wandered off, muttering, plucking at the weird-colored stain on his shirt.

 

Spike watched him go - raised an eyebrow at Ferro who was coming back to his boards, showered and in his own version of 'battle gear'.    Surplus Marine fatigues - the grey-black-white of 'urban' camouflage - and black-market battle armor that was supposed to be for Outsiders only.   It was oddly insectoid for a mammalian species and Spike had always found it a bit - weird.  But it was rated for the kind of weapons an Outsider ship might hold for its crew and that was all that mattered.  Ferro had his Marine jump-boots on, too - glassine and some sort of epoxy in layers, with steel toes and soles.  Tougher than Spike's old tanker boots but not, in his opinion, as aesthetic. 

 

"So, anything?" Ferro asked, settling into his chair and snapping on the belts - cycling through his screens with a flurry of key-strokes.

 

"Just an approach-vector, like we're at some bloody station.  Saw a few other ships out there.  Couple Chaddock and at least one Earth ship.  Nobody's talking, though."

 

"Huh."  Ferro checked his boards again - looked at the warning that always came up when the ship's gun was charged.  A leak, somewhere - nothing bad yet.  But the little warning was always there. 

 

Spike watched Nia doing something at her boards - logging every move of every particle out there, probably.  Watching that mass of ships with more than just the Dru's sensors.     She sensed his gaze - she pretty much always did - and glanced back over her shoulder, shaking her head.  Nothing new.  Spike sighed and shifted a little - reached for his own boards and brought up the camera and com in the office.  Time to check on the passenger.

 

"H'ru.  This is the captain.  You alive?"   The camera showed the air mattress with the safety webbing unhooked and draped aside.   A little pile of trash - some sort of post-skip food wrappers - was in the middle of the mattress.  The Outsider was just emerging from the little cabinet of a bathroom, water darkening his dun-colored fur and glittering on his shoulders. 

 

"I am - a-live."  H'ru didn't seem to have much in the way of English - or anything much to say either, and Spike's finger hovered over the cut-off.

 

"We're coming up on a bunch of ships - Outsider ships.  Have you back to the doghouse in no time, I'm sure."

 

"What do 'oo mean, 'dog'ouse'?"

 

"Never mind.  Just - straighten up down there, I don't want a mess."

 

"Yess," H'ru said, and Spike cut off the com - leaned back in his seat.  It annoyed him to have that dog aboard.  Rrahn's dog.   He wanted it off his ship, and the sooner the better.

 

"Guess the dog made it," Ferro muttered, and Spike sighed.

 

"Yeah.  Course he bloody did.  Damn dogs."  Spike stood up and stretched, popping every vertebra in his back.  "I'm gonna go suit up.  You okay?"

 

"Yeah, I got it," Ferro said and Spike nodded and walked aft, tapping the lift button.    Riding it down, walking out and walking down the hall, hearing music that gradually became clearer as he got closer to their quarters.  Xander was there in the shower, singing along to something - bouncy. 

 

*Jesus.  Thought I'd gotten rid of that particular disc...*   It was old stuff - Earth stuff - and it made Spike smile even though the music itself was far, far too peppy for his tastes.  It was the soundtrack of freedom, after all - Xander's freedom.

 

 

 

'No dangerous animals can play in my yard...No giant monsters can climb this tree...I should have known that a person like you...Could never be the person I need...No dangerous animals can play in my yard...'

 

 

Xander is lying on his back on the Whale Deep equivalent of a creeper, only instead of wheels to slide him under a vehicle it has a little suspension module that is currently floating him up under part of the skip-array.   Xander has dark goggles on and a welding torch is spitting sparks over him as he seals a patch onto the Dru's flank.  His dark hair is held back in a worn bandanna and the dull-brown coveralls he has on are unzipped and pulled down, the arms tied around his waist.  Spike pauses for a moment to admire the view - grimaces at the loud, tinny music that's piping from a player duct-taped to the floater.

 

 

'No poisonous snakes can swim in my tub...Only friendly dinosaurs can read my books...I should have guessed that a woman like you...Would be impressed with a guy like that...No dangerous animals can play in my yard...'

 

 

"What in bloody hell is that noise?" Spike shouts and Xander yelps and almost drops the welder - flails behind his head and smacks the 'off' button on the player.  He hauls the goggles up off his face, his wide, dark eyes glaring at Spike.

 

"Jesus, Spike!  Scare the fuck out of a guy - I could've set myself on fire!"

 

"Shouldn't be in here deaf like that, anyway - s'dangerous," Spike says - walks over to the floater and pulls it down to eye-level.  Xander is slick with sweat and smells of grease and metal - of burning and rock-sugar candy and Spike wonders if he just kissed him, if he'd get a welder in the face.  He has no idea where the sudden heat - the sudden want - comes from, but in his nearly quarter-century in space - and almost two hundred years of living - Spike's learned to just go with his instincts.

 

"It's not dangerous," Xander says, but his voice is a little breathless and instead of recoiling he leans up on his elbow, putting himself marginally closer to Spike.  There's a smudge of grease on his cheek and nose - another on his chest near his nipple and Spike's eyes track to it.  That's when he sees the chain and tag around Xander's neck.  Like a dog-tag but...different.  Indentured servant tag, which puts him about a notch lower than the dog and Spike suddenly has a very bad feeling.

 

"So - she 'bout ready to fly?"

 

"Um - huh?  Oh, yeah.  She is.  Damn, Spike -"   Xander grins up at the arching, dull-pewter mass of the Dru above him - at the span of the skip-array that looks like crystal and bone and cobwebs, even powered down and cold.  "She's a fucking beautiful ship."

 

"That she is," Spike says - reaches out and caresses the cold curve of his lady-love.  So many similarities between his new Dru and the old.  He likes to think of her between the stars, bathed in their light with no atmosphere or static to come between them.  His hand drifts down and lands on Xander's ankle, feeling heat through the cheap shank of the boots he's wearing and Xander grins.  Spike's pretty sure that fifty years have taught Xander to follow his instincts, too.

 

"You know, my bunk's right over there," Xander says.   It's like a bucket of icy water.

 

"He makes you sleep here?" Spike growls, and Xander loses his grin - loses the easy posture and hunches - jerks his foot away and sits up, not looking at Spike.

 

"It's cheaper than any of the places around.  He only charges -"

 

"Charges?!"

 

"It's in the rules, Spike!  He can - can charge for whatever he wants to charge for."

 

"Bloody hell - how in fuck did you get into this mess, Xander?"  Spike reaches out and plucks the tag up, holding it.  Oblong of steel with Xander's name and ident number - his debt and his...owner.  All there for anybody to look at, any time they want.  "How'd this happen?"

 

"It's none of your business," Xander mumbles.  He twitches away - slaps at the floater's controls and sends it up, high on the side of the Dru.  He sparks the welder to life and settles his goggles - flicks on the player, good and loud. 

 

 

'I know I'm going to the place I like best...The place I know most...Where there are people who know me, people I know...And people who care about the one I care...'

 

 

Spike watches him, unaware that he's growling - that his demon is to the fore, glaring with golden eyes.

"This is not fucking acceptable," Spike shouts, and watches Xander start to weld a new patch, mouth set grimly - ignoring him.

 

Three days later the Dru is spaceworthy again and Spike comes in to pay his bill.  He brings along Ferro and a clerk from station control.  There's an accusation about the bill being padded - there are words, shouts and a fight, and then Desmond - Xander's debt-holder - is dust on the dry-dock floor and Spike's signing papers.  Putting his bloody thumb-print on a sheaf of legal documents that says he owns this dry-dock now.  Owns everything in it and Xander too.  Before midnight they've found a renter and they're gone, skipping out to Fenris and Xander's settling himself into his quarters.  It takes them five months - real-time months - to get back to that moment in the dock, when Spike was drowning in Xander's heat and Xander wanted Spike in his bunk.  Spike's happy to wait.

 

 

 

 

 

Spike slipped into their quarters and stripped out of his skip clothes, shoving them into the laundry.  Steam and music and Xander's voice - a little hoarse and a little off-key - wafted out of the bath.

 

'Bakelite, satellite, say goodnight...Cosmonaut, astronaut, honey well all right...All the stars that we could see...In the kissing galaxy...Just might be on your color TV...  Rocket fuel, after school...Zoom, Zoom...Telescope, wish and hope...Now give us room...  K-I-S-S-I-N-G in the back of a big black Mercury -'

 

"Swear I'm gonna space that damn disc," Spike said, slipping into the cabinet and Xander yelped, jerking around and getting foam in his eyes from the shampoo horns that were sticking up all over his head.

 

"Spike!"

 

"S'dangerous to be deaf like that," Spike said, wiping shampoo off Xander's mouth and kissing him.

 

"Not supposed to be in danger here - ow - fuck -"   Xander stuck his head under the spray, rinsing off soap and Spike pushed the water-black, shoulder-length hair out of Xander's face - kissed him again and got a spluttery kiss in return.  "Anything new?"

 

"Nah.  Nia's all eyes and ears but they're just...sitting out there."  Spike made himself comfortable, leaning into Xander and Xander slung an arm around Spike's waist, blinking.   "Couple other ships coming in - looks like we're about the last."

 

"Huh."  Xander rubbed his eyes - watched Spike get a palmful of soap and start to soap himself up.  "The dog make it all right?"

 

"Right as rain."

 

"What doest that mean?  I mean - does that mean rain is the 'right' way for weather to be and not-rain is wrong?  Or does it mean -"

 

"Means he lived, you git."    Xander put his hands on the wall on either side of Spike and leaned in close - dropped a fast kiss on Spike's mouth and pushed away.

 

"Think there's time for me to replace that filter?"

 

"I - dunno.  Just leave it.  I don't you want you in there with a bunch of tools if we have to move."

 

"Okay then.  But just remember one thing."   Xander ducked out of the cabinet and got under the dryer, rubbing lotion into his skin as the warm, forced air blew his hair around his face.

 

"What's that?"

 

"If we get pneumonia and die it's all Ferro's fault." 

 

Spike rolled his eyes - shook water out of his hair like a dog and palmed the switch, shutting the water off.  "If you all get pneumonia and die, I'll be sure to do something nasty to Ferro's corpse, okay?"

 

"Sounds good."  Xander finger-combed his hair, grinning cheerfully, and looked at himself in the mirror.  "Okay then.  Battle gear. Do you think the 'U2 - Last Legs' tour shirt or 'Demons do it in the dark'?"

 

"How 'bout that retro-Hawaiian thing Ferro got you for your birthday last year?    They'll be dazed and confused and we can steal all their spoons."

 

"I don't think Outsides have spoons, Spike." 

 

Spike stared at Xander's 'I'm so serious it hurts' expression.  "And I don't think U2's gonna make 'em run for cover.  Unless you're gonna stay on board I think you might wanna go for the very expensive body armor I got you."

 

"Nothin' says 'Happy Birthday, I love you,' like body armor," Xander muttered, walking out into the main room and leaving the dryer on for Spike.

 

"Better than a sucking chest wound!" Spike yelled after him.

 

"That's supposed to be 'better than a sharp stick in the eye!" Xander yelled back, and Spike kicked the heat on the dryer up, grinning.

 

 

 

 

 

"Cap'n, the Rumplestiltskin is hailing us."

 

"The - what?"  Spike stopped moving, the whiskey bottle halfway to his lips.  Beside him, Xander choked slightly on his mouthful of tomato soup and Spike patted his back absently.

 

"Rumplestiltskin.  It's a tug.  Sort of.  It's going to help us dock."

 

"Dock at what?  Nia -"

 

"There's a sort of - living space out here, Cap'n.  Five or six transports from the war years, looks like they've got 'em all - welded together.  Enough mass to make a skip point."

 

Xander tossed his spoon in the washer and tipped his bowl up, drinking fast, and Spike did the same, gulping three big mouthfuls of good Irish whiskey.  He capped the bottle and put it away - strode toward the galley door and the lift while Xander shoved the bowl after the spoon and did a fast check of the counters, making sure nothing was lying loose.

 

"Why the fuck," Spike said, holding the lift door for Xander, "are we docking at anything?"

 

"Let me put them through, Cap'n?  Their captain's getting a little...impatient."

 

"Yeah, put 'em through.  Xander - move it!"

 

"Coming, coming -"   Xander darted through the doors with a capped mug and an apple.  "They say eating an apple is just like brushing your teeth."

 

"If your toothbrush leaves bits of red skin behind."  The com popped softly and Xander subsided. 

 

"Drusilla?  This is the Rumplestiltskin - Captain Havisham."

 

"This is Spike - what's the situation, Captain?  We're docking?"

 

"You are.  But the docking facilities are - primitive.  We're going to have to guide you in.  It's a flex-tube and universal lock."

 

"For fuck's sake."  The lift stopped and Spike and Xander got out, heading for the bridge, Xander cursing softly under his breath.  Universal docking locks were for emergencies - something a rescue ship could, in theory, use on any ship to get endangered crew or passengers off.  In practice they were finicky and difficult to use and more often than not breached halfway through the procedure.  It was going to be suits and extreme caution on this one.  Ferro glanced up as they sat down, scowling, and Spike raised his hands in a 'what can I do?' gesture.  Ferro snorted and shook his head.

 

"Your pilot's got the course that'll bring you through to us - once we're in range we'll guide you in.  We advise pressure-suits, Drusilla."

 

"Bloody hell, so do we!  All right, Captain - ETA is -"   Nia held up four fingers.  "- four minutes.  Don't scratch the chrome."

 

"The - chrome?  Uh - sure.  Four minutes, Drusilla.  Out."   The Rumplestiltskin went offline and Spike slumped back in his chair.

 

"Bet you the whole fuckin' crew's younger than I was when I died," Spike muttered.  "Ferro, better get below and prep three suits."

 

"Aye, Cap'n," Ferro said, unclipping and getting up, heading below fast.  Four minutes wasn't much time. 

 

"Has Rrahn hailed us, Nia?"

 

"The Gur'y'a says Rrahn is in conference and will meet us on the - thing.  And that we're to bring H'ru with us."

 

"Wonder if he has a suit in that little pack of his?" Xander said.  "Spike - this does not sound like a fee-collection.  Sounds like a fuckin' - set up."

 

"With half the fuckin' jyiiy in the 'verse watching?  We're not that notorious, love.  Or that important.  Nia, who're those Earth ships?"

 

Nia tapped a key and the schematic of the surrounding space popped up onto Spike's screen.  The Outsider ships were shown in blue-green.  Now that they were in the middle of the cluster, they could see, scattered among all the Outsiders four Chaddock in yellow and two white oblongs.  Earth ships, built in the yards that orbited Mars.  There were also two red oblongs - the color the Drusilla showed as.   Not-earth, and probably demon-captained.  The Earth ships would be wholly human.

 

"I've only got i.d. - The Earth ship to port is the Hammer and the one zenith of that is the Centaur.  The other ships...  The Kurf out of Fenris and -"   Nia stopped and shook her head and Spike felt a little surge of irritation and unease.

 

"And?"

 

"And the Billy Bud."

 

"Oh for fuck's sake -" from Ferro somewhere down below, listening as he worked.   There was the thump of his fist hitting something.  Spike closed his eyes, his fingers coming up to massage his temples.

 

"Oooh, yeah, gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight," Xander muttered.

 

"Maybe their dock'll blow.   Here's the Rumplestiltskin, Cap'n - better get below."

 

"Right.  Below.  Tell H'ru get his shite together, right?  C'mon, Xander.  Time to be bad-ass pirates."

 

"Arrrgh," Xander said, and unclipped the safety belts.

 

"Yeah, arrrrgh," Spike agreed.  *Arrrgh, I'm gonna kill Rrahn.  Just you wait and see.*

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the tube it was bitter cold and Xander's gloved hand slipped off the third hand-hold and he cursed, kicking a little harder so that he made it to the fourth without going off-track.  Ahead of him Ferro muttered something, making his own seemingly effortless progress.  The Outsider was ahead of them all, suitless and naturally warm enough to make it from one end of the twenty meter tube to the other mostly pain-free.  The tube itself was pitch-black, lit by a looping coil of flexi-lights that were strung haphazardly along the opposite wall.  About half were out and Xander toggled on his helmet light.  He kept his eyes trained on the next handheld, seeing Ferro's death's-head decorated helmet and Spike's solid black one as dark blurs in his peripheral vision.   The dog was halfway along the tube, just a shadowy shape that Xander barely registered.

 

"You're a top kid, you're a blue suit, I need more words like I love you - you're a top kid, you're a blue suit -"

 

"Xander, fuck's sake, don't sing on com."

 

"Singing to keep down my supper," Xander muttered, detesting the free-fall sensation of no gravity that just - never ended.

 

"Should've taken -"

 

"They make me fuzzy.  Can't be fuzzy for this, Spike."

 

"Yeah, I know.  Heads up, the dog's at the hatch."  There was a distant clank that Xander felt more than heard, then a ripple all down the tube as the pressure changed.

 

"Xander, get it in gear!"

 

"Comin' Ferro, I'm comin'."  Xander swallowed and pulled and pushed and grabbed, again and again until gloved hands caught his shoulders and he looked up into Spike's mirrored face-plate.

 

"Steady now, pet.  Grab hold.

 

Xander wrapped his own gloved hand around the safety strap Spike guided it to, looking around for the orientation arrows that would tell him were to put his feet.  They pointed left and he angled himself that way, watching Spike and Ferro do the same.  H'ru was already in place, panting, his fur tipped with frost.

 

"We're in - seal it up," Spike said.  The hatch boomed shut, cutting off the blue-white glow from the tube.  Red safety light went on and then there was a hissing as atmosphere was pumped in.   Another minute or so and Xander's weight was resting on his feet - hanging off his arm.  His innards settled downward as well and he swallowed hard, wishing he could wipe his face.

 

*In a minute, in a minute, almost done...almost out...*   There was nothing Xander hated more than zero gravity.  The inner hatch blinked a green light at them and then whipped open, revealing a clutch of Outsiders.  Armed, armored, and every muzzle - organic or otherwise - pointed straight at them.

 

"Bloody fucking hell!  Rrahn!"   Every dog - and every gun - suddenly swung around and Rrahn was there, looking extremely Samurai, Xander thought, in layers of ceremonial brass-toned armor.

 

*I have a very, very bad feeling about this.  Was it the Force that made Luke and Leia say that, or just their twinness?  And didn't Han say it too?  Gonna have to force Spike to have another movie night.*

 

Spike was popping the seals on his helmet - wrenching it off with a snarl over com that Xander lost as he broke the seal on his own - pulled free of it and took a deep breath.  And coughed.  Whoever was living here believed in marijuana, garlic, and chickens.  And not in baths.  Ferro coughed too, hooking his helmet to his belt and drawing a gun in a series of smooth moves that had a couple Outsiders belatedly turning back on him, guns swinging uncertainly into true.

 

"Huch!" Rrahn snapped, and the guards finally stood down, long guns falling to a rest position - stepping back with a click of jointed, armored feet.  "My a'ologies.  Things arre...'ense."

 

"What things.  Damnit, Rrahn -"

 

"William Rowe, called Spike?  Captain of the Drusilla?"  New voice - human voice - and the dogs stepped back further, clearing a path.  Older human guy in what was probably the latest in Earth formal dress.  That was topped with an armored vest, which didn't seem to be fitting too well.  The man was - paunchy.

 

Spike glared at the man, who visibly flinched.  "Yeah.  Who the fuck are you?"

 

"I'm Albert Peacher.  I'm the assistant to the ambassador of Human-Demonic relations on Earth."

 

"Assistant?  I don't talk to assistants, mate." 

 

Peacher shifted uncomfortably and Xander realized that wasn't a shadow on his face - it was a bruise.  "I'm - sorry, Mm - Captain.  But the Ambassador is -"

 

"He wass taken." Rrahn interrupted, and Xander finally realized something.  That high, sharp smell wasn't more of the unwashed masses, it was the dogs, and they were afraid.    "We need him back.  And 'oo are going to get him, Sss'ike.  'Oo and 'oo're crew."

 

*Jee-sus....Christ.*   Xander put his hand on Spike's arm, not able to feel anything but knowing, from the look on Spike's face, that he was practically vibrating with tension and rage.   

 

"This is not worth six-hundred million," Ferro muttered.

 

"Not even six-hundred billion," Xander muttered back, and Spike twitched under his hand.

 

"Well - billion -"

 

Xander gave Spike the evil eye.  "Not.  Worth it."

 

"We have a lot to talk about, gentlemen," Peacher said, fiddling with the straps on the body-armor. 

 

Spike sighed and straightened his shoulders - pushed his hand back through already-rumpled hair.   "Don't think talking's gonna fix this mess, mate.  But you can try."  Peacher nodded and turned away - started walking toward what looked like an exit in the dim, cavernous space.  The Outsider troops fell into line around him.  Rrahn gave a short bow before turning to go as well and Spike stepped up to her fast, taking hold of a piece of the elaborate armor and jerking her to a stop.

 

"You are gonna have to do a lot more than try, Rrahn.  You fucking owe me."

 

"All in good 'ime, Sss'ike."

 

"Got nothin' but, Rrahn."

 

 

 

 

 

Ferro stood in a sort of modified 'parade rest' stance, his rifle resting casually in his hands.  The gun tucked into the waist of his fatigues was digging into his back a little and he shifted slightly, eyes on the crowd of dogs.  Next to him, Xander shifted and fidgeted and shifted again, muttering something very softly under his breath and glaring daggers at any dog that looked his way. 

 

Fortunately, the dogs didn't seem to care.  They stood in silent rows in what had been the barracks/rec hall of a troop transport, watching the negotiations.  What seemed like a thousand dog muzzles lifted and wrinkled and swung down again - twice that many dog paws tightened and then relaxed on various rifle stocks and handguns as the voices coming from the center of the room rose and then dwindled again. 

 

*Two fucking hours.  Not gonna get any better.  Jesus, this sucks.*   Two hours of talking, yelling, threats and curses - two hours of the heads of fifteen jyiiy - including Rrahn's - barely restraining themselves from mass murder as Peacher stuttered and sweated and Spike paced and smoked.  It was all a fucking mess.  Xander shifted again and Ferro leaned into him the merest fraction, scowling.  "Would you knock it off?" he hissed and Xander trained his glare on Ferro, instead.

 

"My fuckin' back hurts, I need to piss and the air in here is seriously compromised!  I need to get back to the Dru."

 

"Yeah, well, you can crouch down and rest your back if you want and the fuckin' air in here isn't gonna kill you.  As for needin' to piss - it's your own fault for not hooking up the fuckin' catheter when you put the suit on."

 

"It fucking chafes!" Xander snapped - dropped his voice back to a whisper as a nearby dog lifted an upper lip in a silent snarl.  "And this is ridiculous!  We can't go rushing into some kind of - civil war.  It'll be like Llact.  It'll be - worse -"  

 

"Man, you know Spike's not that stupid.  No matter what the fee is."  For all his temper, Ferro could see the fear that underlay what Xander was saying.    They'd always known dogs were ruthless with their own, but Xander had never actually seen it until Llact.  Seeing it again hadn't been any picnic for Ferro, either, and no right-thinking spacer wanted to get in the middle of something like that if they could avoid it.  But it looked like avoiding it was getting pretty impossible.  It seemed that the home world dogs had finally decided to follow their exiled children into space and now they were running up against the edges of Outsider territory - and wanting it.  Rrahn and her allied jyiiy were determined to hold ground - to maintain control of what they had and to force the home world crowd to negotiate - to recognize them.  Home world jyiiy were senior, and therefore they expected to be deferred to. 

 

Rrahn and her allies didn't want to defer, which was one reason for her recent power-plays - a canny and utterly ruthless plan to make a mostly-loyal army, and it had pretty much worked.   But losing the Earth Ambassador had been a blow to Rrahn's credibility and if she didn't get him back soon - she'd lose everything she'd gained and probably her life in the bargain.  Ferro couldn't even begin to care, but it was starting to look like the stability of every Outsider station - and every Outsider deal - hinged on the exiles keeping their status, and the home worlders keeping out of it.

 

Ferro looked up and around, eyeing the silent gallery of watchers in the bunk tier above them.  This skip-point - they called it the Alamo - was a heaven for some sort of cult-y off-shoot of the Church of the Evanescent Spirit that had sprung up at the South Sea Bubble - the furthest human/demon station on the other side of Outsider territory.  Ferro had no inkling as to what the tenets of this faction were, but apparently it included drugs.  They'd passed row after row of hydroponic units on their way here, crowded thickly with luxuriant marijuana plants and orderly rows of bright poppies.  This C of ES, Revised - had more money than god.

 

*Maybe they're the ones bankrolling Rrahn?  Stuck out here at the edge like they are...letting this many dogs know their coordinates...  Gotta be something in it for them.  Outsider home world's supposed to be out this way - maybe they're paying for protection from these new dogs?*

 

Ferro shifted again, sighing a little.  He was with Xander on one thing - his back ached, too, from carrying the weight of guns, ammo and armor, and he'd laced his left boot a little too tight.   The voices were rising again from the huddle in the center - Spike snarling something at one of the dogs and Peacher doing his best to soothe them both without getting his head - literally - bitten off.

 

"It's a fucked up plan and a fucked up idea, Rrahn, and all the bloody prattle in the universe won't change that!"  Spike looked like he was at the end of his rope, vamped and furious and practically spitting his words.  Ferro leaned his head back and let it thump softly into the wall behind him.  A Spike at the end of his rope was a Spike who did reckless things.  Reckless things that would piss the dogs off.  There was no way Ferro could shoot his way through the massed Outsiders and get himself and Xander back to the Dru.  And no way could Spike win against the firepower that surrounded them.

 

*It sucks rocks, Cap'n, but for fuck's sake tell 'em we'll do it - tell 'em anything!  Get us the fuck out of here and let Nia use her magic and find us a bolt hole for a while - find us a skip-point not on any map.  By the time we come back, this'll all be...over.  One way or another.*   It wouldn't be the first time they'd played a client that had gotten a little too possessive of their hired hunters.  *Fuckin' dogs are crazy - we don't wanna have any part of this...* 

 

Spike tossed the down the cigarette he'd been smoking - and Ferro couldn't believe he'd brought the damn things over but then, he'd probably have already killed somebody if he hadn't had them to fool with - and snapped something at Rrahn.  Unhooked his helmet from his belt and turned around - strode through the crowd to where Ferro and Xander had straightened up, tense and eager.

 

"We've gotta talk.  Let's go." 

 

"Fuck yes," Xander muttered, getting his helmet free and twisting it on.  Ferro pushed away from the wall and followed them, watching the dogs part like grass.   The tube seemed even colder after the humid fug of the Alamo and by the time they got home safe to the Dru, Ferro could hear Xander's teeth chattering.  His own fingers were numb with cold, and his lungs burned from the nearly-pure oxygen in the suit tanks.

 

"'Bout there - here we go - Nia, we're at the hatch."

 

"I see you, Ferro.  Opening."  Setting foot on the Dru's familiar, scarred decking was a relief and they wrestled their helmets off and started getting out of the suits.  "Cap'n, there's someone else in the tube."

 

"We're locked up tight - who the bloody hell is it?" Spike asked, rubbing his hand on the frosted port in the hatchway door and frowning.

 

"It's...  Rrahn says you'll do the job - say's H'ru has to come with us.  Says he has the codes.  Cap'n?"

 

"Oh, fuck's sake -" Ferro said, and Xander hit the inner-hatch switch hard enough, it had to hurt.

 

"I'm gonna go get warm - make some coffee."

 

"Xander..."  Spike took a deep breath - shook his head.   "Fuck, yeah, make some coffee."  Spike hurled his helmet hard enough into a locker to crack it and Ferro watched Xander's shoulders twitch up and then go down.  Then he nodded and walked out, down the corridor to the lift.

 

"I'll make sure dog's clean - you guys go up," Ferro said, and Spike slammed his locker shut - stood there for a moment in his own 'battle gear'.    Eighty-year-old black jeans and a t-shirt from Earth that spent most of their time in a sealed box, and his steel-toed boots that were steeped in so much history - and DNA - they were practically sentient.   The long, black leather coat that lived in a climate-controlled stasis-box - and made an appearance once every few years - had been too bulky to fit under the suit.

 

"Yeah.  I know this is fucked, Ferro.  But it's - important.  It's -"

 

"Tell me up on the deck," Ferro said, reaching out and finding Spike's shoulder and giving it a hard squeeze.  Spike's face finally relaxed back to his human features. 

 

"Yeah, okay.  Watch yourself.  Nia, keep an eye down here, yeah?"

 

"Aye, Cap'n."  Spike's hand came up and gripped Ferro's shoulder for a moment before sliding away.

 

"Be careful, and lock him up when you get him back to the office."

 

"Yeah, will do.  Don't let Xander eat all the damn cookies.  You know he'll be diving right in."

 

"Bloody junk food.   Thought he'd have grown out of that by now."  Spike grinned suddenly, the devil-may-care, tooth-baring expression of a predator that's just decided what prey to take down.  "This is gonna work for us, Ferro, or we'll be taking a little trip to Neverland, I promise you that."

"Always wanted to be a Lost Boy," Ferro said, grinning back, and then the hatch was cycling to let H'ru in and Spike strode away down the corridor.  Xander was holding the lift for him.  Ferro picked up his rifle and turned around to face the incoming dog.  Fairies were from Neverland - Nia's home world that neither she nor any other Fairy had ever talked about or even given a clue as to where it might be.  Ferro shook his head, watching the dog through the port.  If anyone could get them to Neverland, it would be Spike.

 

"Hurry up, you damn dog," Ferro muttered.  "Xander's gonna have those damn cookies gone."

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering in the mess hall.  It was what they did.  Someone always made coffee - although as a rule Spike was banned from touching the machine - and someone always broke out food of some sort.  Bread and cheese or fruit or chocolate if they'd had a good run, skip bars and chips if they hadn't.  This time...  Well, this time Xander was hauling out the real heavy-duty stuff.  His very own hoarded stash of baklava that he'd traded for at Whale Deep three jobs back, and the very best cookies Fenris had to offer, rich with butter and nuts and caramel.  Also - and Spike was gonna kill him but, fuck it - the last of the hydroponic coffee that the miners out on Charybidis grew.  It was like gold on the black market.   Normally they only use it by common consent but Xander was on edge and ready to smack somebody - he needed it.

 

Spike came back into the mess at a brisk pace, having been conferring up on the bridge with Nia.  His nostrils flared and he narrowed his eyes, glaring first at the coffee maker and then at Xander.

 

"Xan -"

 

"Don't even, Spike.  I'll do septic duty for six months, I don't care.  I need it."

 

"Fuck, we all do," Ferro said, slipping in behind Spike and grabbing him hard around the ribs with both arms - pinning Spike's arms down and frog-marching him toward the table.  "Got the dog settled.  Don't get all spastic, man."

 

"I'm not spastic -" Spike snarled, and Nia came around the corner, looking tired.

 

"You are, Cap'n.  Besides, I vote aye."

 

"Me too," Ferro said.  Spike flexed and broke Ferro's hold - turned around and glared at him and Ferro grinned back.

 

"Me three.  Majority rules."

 

"This isn't a bloody democracy -"

 

"Yes it is," they chorused, and Spike growled. 

 

"Am I going to get to finish a sentence any time soon?"

 

Ferro looked over Spike's head at Xander and Xander lifted his eyebrows.  "You just did.  Now sit down, Captain, and tell us what's going on."  Xander watched Spike start to ruffle up and then watched him sag a little - watched Ferro hook out a chair with his boot and push Spike gently toward it and Spike slump down.  *Not good, not good.  What the hell is going on?  Should have brought the damn snoopers or something so me and Ferro could have listened in.*   Xander turned around and got four cups down from the cabinet and checked on the coffee.  Done.

 

"Hey Nia, wanna -?"

 

"Of course."  Nia came over to pour out the coffee.  She was the only one they trusted to make the portions even.  She only took half a cup, herself - even with the good stuff, she ended up with more sugar and cream than coffee.

 

"Hey!"  Ferro exclaimed, seeing the baklava at last and Xander smothered a laugh.  He'd been wondering how long it would take anybody to notice.  "You said it was all gone!"  Xander picked up two cups and walked carefully to the table, watching Ferro pry at the lid off the tin.

 

"Yeah, 'cause you can eat a fucking pound in one sitting.  That stuff cost me, man!"

 

"You're supposed to share with your crewmates!  All for one and - whatever it is Spike says."

 

"One for all, you Philistine," Spike muttered, but he was sipping his coffee like it was ambrosia from the gods and Xander could see that the tension had gone out of him a little bit.  His own jangled nerves were starting to feel a little smoother and he sat down and scooted his chair over close to Spike's - pressed his knee up against Spike's thigh and his shoulder to Spike's shoulder.

 

"Sorry I tweaked on you," he murmured and Spike pushed into him, letting their heads touch gently and just leaning there for a moment. 

 

"Yeah.  Sorry I got us into this soddin' mess.  And it's about to get messier, boys and girls."  Ferro popped the tin open finally and then put it down, eyeing the baklava but showing admirable restraint in not snatching a piece.  Xander had no such compunctions - he nudged Spike one last time and then sat up and grabbed a piece.  Ferro rolled his eyes and did the same - took a huge bite and then turned to Spike, talking with his mouth full.

 

"Messier how?  I get that the Ambassador was kidnapped and for some fucked up reason Rrahn wants us to go and get him - but I don't get why us."  He spat crumbs on the sibilant and Spike leaned away from him, scowling.    "Why not just - gather the troops and go in shooting?"

 

"Yes, I'm wondering why not that, too," Nia said.  She put her spoon in the washer and joined them, sipping at her pale-tan coffee with a blissful expression.  She reached into the plasticware that held the cookies and took one, nibbling a corner with her little, pointy teeth.

 

"Rrahn's got this...idea," Spike said, and Xander sighed.

 

"I'll bet," Xander grumped.  "Like the idea to get the Dru's crew sold to the Chaddock.  Like the idea that escorting that fucked up mystic would be a good idea and then not telling us he was wanted in half of Outsider space.  Or the idea that -"

 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, Xander, I know," Spike sighed - reached for his own square of baklava.   "Rrahn's a bitch but she pays.  In addition, she's not picky and she never fucking asks questions.  We've come off worse with those that're straighter, and you all know it."

 

"Yes, we have," Nia murmured, fingering the scar on the back of her hand that was from a 'legit' deal gone sour.  Sometimes 'hired help' meant 'expendable'.

 

"Yeah, okay - but?"  Xander took another bite of his baklava, rolling the honey and nuts and sweet, flakey pastry over in his mouth.   Sheer perfection. 

 

"But.  It's not another bunch of allied jyiiy that took the Ambassador - it's a renegade dog that's trying for revenge and Rrahn wants to take them out personally.  Our job would be to get the Ambassador before Rrahn blows 'em out of the sky."

 

"Ookay - so - who?"  Xander had a feeling they weren't going to like this.

 

Spike sighed - took a long drink of his coffee and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  "It's what's left of Y'yis' crew.  His second in command was his cousin or some such and he's called yr'rach on Rrahn and all her jyiiy since Rrahn killed Y'yis back at Fenris."  Yr'rach was - something like a war, something like a feud.   Something Outsiders did often and it usually meant clear the decks and batten down the hatches.  Xander shivered, huddling over his hot cup a little.  Pushing images from Llact out of mind as firmly as he could. 

 

*Spike promised, and he keeps his promises.  Always.*

 

"Y'yis that was screwing Rrahn over six ways from Sunday?" Ferro asked, and Spike nodded.

 

"Yeah - that whole mess with the m'ryi and Fat Jack - that was just the last straw.  The Azk'k clan's trying to save face and I guess Y'yis' cousin thinks this is the way to do it.  Bring the Ambassador to these home world dogs and get Earth involved in their little pissing contest in a big way - get back everything they lost when they screwed Rrahn over and get to be the head honchos of the new world order or some such bollocks.  If the new dogs get the Ambassador, it'll mean Earth's too weak to hold their own."

 

"And that would be...bad," Nia said softly, and they all looked at her.  "We have seen the home world.  We've seen - what they can do.  The dogs - will not hesitate to ruin every station between home world and Earth, and Earth in the bargain.  They have no concept of compromise.  And..."  Nia paused and chewed her lip and Spike leaned toward her, a sudden look on his face that was a mix of anger and excitement.

 

"And?  Spit it out."

 

"And - the rumors are true.  The Outsiders have found another string of viable planets on the other side of Earth space.  If Earth cannot help the Outsiders against the home world dogs...  They won't hesitate to let humanity be the buffer between them and the home world.  They always make sure they have a backup."

 

"Jesus fucking Christ," Xander muttered, feeling sick.  Ferro slammed his cup down, fists hard on the table and his shoulders hunched, as if against a blow.

 

"You know for sure, Nia?" Spike asked, and Nia nodded sadly.

 

"I know.  We've been - listening.  There are even sentient species there.  Humanity - and demons - have to prove their worth in this.   They've just become expendable."  There was a long moment of silence after that while they all contemplated a whole new set of jyiiy - and not the jyiiy that had invited humanity into space, but the ones that had kicked the Outsiders outJyiiy that didn't see any of them as allies.  Didn't even consider them useful.  It would be - an apocalypse.

 

*And isn't that what I came to space to escape?  Fucking apocalypses and hells and...and crazy shit like that?  Damnit -*

 

"One more piece of bad news, and then we're gonna need to rig for a run," Spike said finally, and everyone braced themselves.  Xander clutched his cup hard enough to make his knuckles turn white.

 

"Get on with it then," he muttered, and Spike looked over at him, an odd expression on his face.

 

"I know the Ambassador.  It's another reason Rrahn wants me there.  Thinks it'll - make me try harder."

 

"You do?  You know the Ambassador.  He's been the Ambassador for - seventy years or something," Ferro said, and Xander felt the baklava in his stomach suddenly turn to lead.  He lifted his head and stared at Spike, and Spike stared back.  There were probably two people in the entire universe that Spike knew that were that old.  And one was impossible.  The other - unthinkable.

 

"Don't say it, Spike, don't -"

 

"It's Angel," Spike said. 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to where the home-world dogs and Angel and the Azk'k clan were going to rendezvous was a triple-skip that would take nearly a year in real-time.  The only consolation was that the Outsider ships - seven altogether - and the home-worlders were in transit as well, so nothing would actually happen until they all surfaced out of skip-space around a dead planet too close to Earth for comfort.  Somewhere on the side of space that Neverland was purported to be, but Nia just pursed her lips and didn't reply, so Spike didn't push.

 

He had his suspicions, though.

 

Then Rrahn and the Billy Bud got on the com with the last little bit of the plan and Spike shouted at them for all the time it took for three groups of Outsider ships to hit skip-speed and go.  Rrahn wanted the Dru and the Bud and the other not-Outsider ships to synch - to go through the skip together.  It was a thing the Outsiders did a lot, and something Spike had never done.  It was bloody dangerous, especially when the ships were so mismatched.  The Bud easily outstripped all of the ships for tonnage and engine power and Spike had visions of the Dru being pulled to pieces in skip-space, all of them lost to the particulate flow - dissolved into otherwhere like so much ash

 

In the end Rrahn got her way, but not until Nia had pulled Spike aside and said it would be okay - she and Xander had made some modifications.  After that Spike got back into the argument with a will and eventually screwed another hundred-million out of Rrahn for wear, tear, and general pain and suffering.  It didn't make him happy, though, and he pulled Xander off filter duty and into a hidey-hole and got intensely, furiously physical with him for about thirty minutes.  That made him happy, and it made Xander happy and it eased the feeling of total helplessness that seemed to be overwhelming Spike whenever he stopped and really thought about what the fuck was going down.

 

And for the first time since Xander had joined the crew, Spike wished he could grab Ferro out of the galley and do the same, because the big ex-Marine was looking damn jittery.  Xander, however, slipped in before Spike could even formulate a plan - broke out the baklava again and got Ferro to sit down and just - touch.  Shoulder, thigh, hands, forehead, and Xander saying something in a low voice that Spike decided not to overhear.

 

Instead, he went away up to the bridge to triple-check everything and irritate Nia into cursing him for three solid minutes in the lisping, lilting tongue of her home planet.  For some reason, that always made him feel better.

 

H'ru was hunkered down in the office again, already behind the safety webbing and looking like a mound of buff-colored fuzz.  Codes, Rrahn said he had.  Codes to disarm the mines that would be defending the rendezvous - codes to get into the mothballed core of the station that floated there, construction put on hold when the home-worlders had suddenly appeared almost five years earlier.  The negotiations and skirmishes had all come to nothing - had come to this - and Spike looked at the curled dog with loathing and a sick sort of rage. 

 

*Been alive almost two hundred and fifty years.  Seen so many fucking things.  Amazing things - incredible things.  Horrible things.  Not gonna lie down and die for these dogs.  Not gonna be ground under like I don't - like we don't - fucking matter.  No bloody way.*   All around them the Outsider ships were moving - going - streaming into skip-space like luminescent fish in a tar-black river.  Flashes like contained supernovas as the generators finally geared high enough and time and matter shimmered aside.  The idea was that the sudden influx of ships popping into real-time would mask the comparatively tiny group of Earth and Fenris ships.  Would give them precious time unnoticed as they made their rescue attempt. 

 

That was the idea, anyway.  But Rrahn didn't actually know if the codes were for every mine - or if the ones for the station had been reset, or extra security added.  Her contacts there were questionable - Chaddock, mostly - and her information dated.  It was all one big fucking gamble and the only reason Spike had even given it serious thought was the sure knowledge that the home-worlders didn't give a fuck for any one of them - Outsiders included. 

 

From her chair, Nia turned and looked at him, her pale, triangular face tense and frowning.  "The Gur'y'a is   going - she's the last group out.  Rrahn says go."

 

"Fuck, yeah.  Okay."  Spike reached out and tapped a button - opened the com from his station over the whole ship.  "Time to fly, pigeons.    Batten down the hatches and get up here."

 

"Coming!" from Xander, somewhere in a Jeffries tube and:

 

"Aye, Cap'n!" from Ferro, crash of a locker and footsteps going hastily away.   Spike sat down and belted in - watched the progress of Rrahn's group of ships - watched that tight blue-green cluster disappear like a match blown out.  The other ships - two in white, two in red - were getting steadily nearer and their own position showed them almost overlapping.

 

"Billy Bud says to take the zenith position - they're going to set off flares and dump about five tons of scrap when we hit real space again."

 

"Should cover us," Spike muttered, checking readouts and levels - listening for the lift.  A moment later it arrived and two sets of footsteps pounded down the short hall.  Xander and then Ferro hit their chairs and belted in - powered up their boards and a tiny bit of tension went out of Spike's gut.  "H'ru!  When we're clear of skip-space we're gonna need those codes bloody fast - make sure you have 'em ready."

 

"I 'ould come up -"

 

"No.  Don't need you on the bridge.  Just the codes.  We're in countdown.  Five minutes."

 

"Yesss," H'ru said. 

 

It might have been his imagination, but Spike thought the dog sounded sulky.  There was a soft warning hoot as they settled into position for the skip - proximity alert that Nia quickly killed.   The Rumplestiltskin was going to dock with them - hold them like a baby in a sling because when they surfaced from that last skip, they weren't going to brake.  They were going to shoot at near-C velocity straight to the abandoned station, only braking at the last minute and the Dru's engines weren't strong enough to stop them in time.  There was a reason ships came out of skip-space light-years away from their targets.  The Rumplestiltskin, being a tug, could stop them almost on a dime but it was one more stress on the Dru that Spike didn't like to think about. 

 

"Billy Bud is synching," Nia murmured, and another alert sounded, softer chime, and there was a shuddering thump all through the ship.  "The Rumplestiltskin is docked."

  

"They've got you, Drusilla.  See you on the other side," from the Bud, crackle of static and the com shut down.

 

"Not if we see you first," Xander whispered and Spike snorted softly, glancing swiftly over into Xander's laughing face.  The skip-generator was humming - thrumming - sending its subsonic roar all through them and Spike flexed his fingers and vamped for a moment, taking in a lungful of air.  Sweat and gun oil and peanut butter, the lemon-flower scent of Nia, fainter smells of cleaning fluid and soap and coffee.  No fear, not yet.  Not ever, if Spike could help it.  He let the demon go - looked at the numbers flicking past on his screen.

 

*One minute.  Christ.*   "Why, now, blow wind, swell billow and swim bark!  The storm is up, and all is on the hazard!" 

 

"Time," Nia said.  The Dru - all the ships - skipped out.

 

 

 

 

 

Skip-space has no time.  Or, rather, it has all time, and existing in it is like picking over a buffet of a thousand dishes.  Choose a memory - a moment - and live it for the next millennium or twenty seconds.  In skip-space, it's all the same.

 

Ferro's fingers twitch faintly, faintly - his heart beats so slowly he may as well be dead.  But his mind works.  His mind - remembers.  Dry-pepper air with a pall of greasy smoke and the sharp, thick smell of aviation fuel.  Ferro sits on the deck of the helicopter, his feet dangling out the open door, his hands resting comfortably on his rifle.  Beside him is Mitchell, the 'copter's gunner.  He's leaning casually on the stock of his .50 cal, shouting something over the ratcheting roar of the propeller blades.  The head-sets Ferro and his platoon wear don't quite mesh with the 'copter's so there's all kinds of noise and Ferro is mostly tuning Mitchell out - swinging his feet and bobbing his head to the music somebody's got playing on all-cast.  It's CCR and Mitchell's telling Ferro about how his granddaddy fought in some war - Japan or Vietnam or fuckin' Malaysia, Mitchell doesn't seem too clear - and how Credence was the best music to shoot the enemy to.  Or fuck hookers to, maybe - Mitchell's gone off on some rant that Ferro totally zones on and the 'copter banks hard, coming around westerly and for a moment Ferro sees all the other 'copters with their graffiti and their tinted black plastic bubbles over the cockpits -  hybrid dragonflies swarming through the salmon-pink dawn.

 

As he watches the ground rush closer - as he shouts to his men to get off their asses and get ready to hit the drop zone hard - there's a streak of phosphorus light from the wind-cut gullies below and the 'copter at ten o'clock explodes into curling, red-orange fire - expanding cloud of shrapnel and burning fuel and vaporized Marines.

 

Ferro's  'copter is streaking toward the DZ like a bat after a bug and Mitchell is sweeping the .50 cal back and forth in arcs, sending a cascade of glittering casings fountaining out into the air, bright as beetles.  Metallic taste of blood in the back of Ferro's throat and the sting of a burning-hot casing hitting the back of his hand.   Dust in his mouth, the chattering din of automatic weapons' fire and John Fogerty crooning in his ear.

 

'Well, I'm here to tell you now each and ev'ry mother's son...You better learn it fast; you better learn it young...'cause someday never comes...'

 

 

 

The Dru skimmed real-time, the bubble flickering and fading.   Nia hit a series of keys, inputting code for the next skip, coordinates and countdown.  Spike watched her through half-shut eyes - stretched his fingers and licked dry lips and tried to sit up, but inertia held him nearly motionless.   Stringing the skips together like this was pushing their physical limits hard.  No time to eat between skips - barely enough time to set up the new coordinates.   Nia lurched up from her chair - staggered against the hard tilt of the deck and leaned against Spike's side, her hand cupping his jaw.  She was warmer than a human - fever-hot even in skip-space.  And being a fairy, somehow able to withstand multiple skips easier than they could.  

 

"Get - belted.  Nia, don't -"

 

Nia's fingers slipped down Spike's shoulder to his forearm - to the blood-pack and tubing taped to the side of his chair - the needle sunk into his arm.  "Just checking on the I.V, Cap'n'," she murmured, her voice dopplering and fading and breaking into rasping white-noise like a dying radio transmission and Spike let his eyes close - let the noise stutter into his head, filling it up.  A chime rang for hours-minutes-seconds and the Dru shook loose of time and space and skipped again, chain lightning flicker silent in the void.

 

 

Radio fading in and out - hiss and pop of static and distance.  Frost on the windscreen and every blade of grass - every leaf - standing up sharp and silver in the salt-white light of the moon.  The rumble of the engine goes right up Spike's spine and into his chest - false heartbeat under Dru's ear, the mink of her hat tickling his chin.

 

"It's like a fairy world, Spike.  It's like the moon."

 

"Is it, pet?  D'you think the moon's cold as this?"

 

Dru snuggles closer, her hand slipping into his pocket.  "I think the moon's all lovely and warm, like an eiderdown.  You can just lie back and sink down and down..."

 

"Be there soon, Dru.  I can see the lights from here." 

 

Dru sniffs a little - reaches out and touches the feathers of ice that are growing on the windscreen.  The heater died twenty miles back.  "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick...  Will there be dancing, Spike?"

 

"Sure to be.  Dancing and parties and scores of people for you to talk to."   They've been in America too long, and it's all gone to hell.  Four years since the Crash and nothing's getting better.  Everything's drab - nearly everybody's poor and it's bloody boring.  They'll be in Latrobe in fifteen minutes - on the train out of Pennsylvania in under an hour.  Then New York - the Chelsea Pier - and their state room on the Britannica.  And across the sea to London - back to some sort of civilized living.

 

Dru settles closer still and Spike hugs his arm around her, leaning to kiss her temple.  The radio clicks and crackles and then suddenly comes clear for a moment and Spike smiles.

 

"Hear that, Dru-love?  That's all about you."

 

'Did you ever see a dream dancing?  Well, I did!  Did you ever see a dream romancing?  Well, I did!  Did you ever find heaven right in your arms, saying I love you, I do?  Well, the dream that was walkin' and the dream that was talkin' and the heaven in my arms was you...'

 

 

 

The Dru shuddered, her frame straining as the synched ships did a hard, banking course-change and geared up for the last skip.  The groaning shriek made Xander shiver - made him lift his head and look across the bridge to Spike's chair - to Ferro's.  Nia's was empty and for a moment he felt panic, slow and distant in his altered state.  But then she lurched into view by his shoulder and did something - switched the tube on the IV to a new bag and patted his wrist.  Xander flexed his arm against the sting of the needle and tried to smile at her but she was already gone, belting in - tapping something into her computer and then - everything dissolved into light and chattering sound and Xander closed his eyes and dissolved, too.

 

 

The first time Xander realizes that he's not going to die is when he's pushed out of a moving car somewhere in Utah.  He's said the wrong thing to the wrong guy at the wrong time, and there goes his genuine Urkuth crystals of something or other.  Something the Council wanted and he'd trotted off to fetch it like a good dog and now here he is, lying in the gravel and weeds of a Utah highway verge, bleeding and sore and fucking pissed off, but not dead.  And really, a bullet to the sternum should generally do it but as Xander watches it seems to screw itself out of his chest.  It hurts about as much coming out as it did going in.

 

It plinks to the asphalt and rolls a few inches and Xander picks it up - stares at it, and then at the not-hole in his chest.   It's beyond belief that what just happened, happened and Xander lies there in the heat and dust and smell of hot tar and asphalt for a long time.  Long enough to feel the tight itch of sunburn across his forehead and nose - to really feel all the cuts and scrapes and bruises he got when he hit the ground rolling.  He can hear a toad somewhere, creaking and croaking to itself - an incongruous sound out here in the desert.  After a while, when all the little hurts  don't go away too, he figures the healing thing must only be for life-threatening stuff and he staggers up and shoves the bullet into his pocket with the little carved-jade toad he always carries for luck.  He wanders down the road, his lips cracked and one shoe missing and his head pounding like a big, hollow drum.   His shirt is soaked in blood and he's pretty sure nobody'll stop for a serial killer so he takes it off and tucks it into the waist of his jeans.

 

Eventually, a rattletrap pick-up stops aways along the road and waits for him and Xander climbs into a cab that smells of hay and sweat and horses and Skoal.  The cowboy behind the wheel- Preston - thinks he needs a hospital.  Xander thinks he needs a drink.  As it turns out, Preston's brother sides with Xander and Xander discovers that skinny Utah cowboys can just about drink their own weight in whiskey.  

 

He shows the brothers the bullet that he thought had shattered his heart.  He shows them the pinkish scar that itches just a little, and the shirt that's stiff and shiny with dried blood.  

 

"It's a fuck-in'...m'rr-acle," Preston says, his eyes glassy and his voice thick with whiskey and awe.

 

"It's got-damn creepy," Preston's brother mutters, leaning in close to study the scar - to press his fingers lightly to Xander's chest and feel for himself the solid bone and un-torn muscle.

 

"It's that weird g-guy I mmet in...over...thataway," Xander says, gesturing toward what he thinks is west.

 

"Wonder f' you got any other ss...special powers," Preston's brother says, hazel eyes hot and direct and locked on Xander's mouth.  Apparently, Xander does.  The power to make cowboys sing in the middle of a blow-job.

 

Or maybe that's just Preston's brother's particular kink, who knows?  

 

The bubble goes, and Xander hums in his skip-sleep.  Spike's never figured out why this song makes Xander horny.

 

'We're goin' to the city - to the city fair...If you go to the city then you will find me there...And we'll go honky tonkin', honky tonkin'...Honky tonkin', honey baby...we'll go honky tonkin' 'round this town...'

 

 

 

 

 

Coming out of skip-space was like opening a door in a silent hallway and finding chaos behind it.  Finding Hell.  Proximity and collision alerts were beeping madly - ratcheting up to a deafening klaxon as they went unnoticed in the scramble.  Other alerts kept coming - one that warned them they're not braking, one that warned them there's no traffic control here and another that's something internal.  A line or a leak or a fucking filter, Spike couldn't tell anymore and he shoved himself upright - scrabbled at the needle in his arm and yanked it free.

 

"Nia!  Report."

 

"Billy Bud just dumped enough scrap to power a small planet, Cap'n!  They -"   Nia pressed the earpiece closer and then nodded, hitting keys.  "We're out of the sync with the Billy Bud, us and Rumplestiltskin.  Inbound for the station now."

 

"Got a visual," Ferro said, rough croak of a voice and Spike focused blearily on his screen - saw the hazy mass of Outsider ships off to one side - the bee-swarm of chaff the Bud had dispersed.  And the solid core of white that was the station, coming up way, way, way too fucking fast.

 

"Christ," Xander whispered - coughed hard, and Spike looked over at him.  He looked like shit and it must have showed, because Xander just closed his eyes for a second.  "Feel like shit, too," Xander said, wincing as he pulled the needle out of his arm.

 

"Feel like shit that's been trampled on," Ferro grated. 

 

Spike pulled a hypo out of the skip-packs that Nia had taped to their boards.  Adrenaline, plasma for Spike, some drug of Nia's - a cocktail, basically, to get them up and moving.  Spike took the cap off the short needle and pushed it, hard, into the side of his neck.  A moment later it hit, and almost took the top of his head with it.  "Bloody fucking hell, Nia!"

 

"It's what you needed," Nia said, looking too innocent.

 

Spike shook himself like a dog - pushed himself up and out of his chair and looked back at Xander who was just shoving his own hypo back into the pack and sealing it up. 

 

Xander's eyes went wide.  "Oh - my - god -" 

 

"Like a fucking -"

 

"Freight train.  Damn!  Needed some of these in my soldiering days!"  Ferro was up, too - lunatic grin and a bounce on his toes and Xander laughed.

 

"Need some of this just for the fun of it.  Whoo!"

 

"Settle down, for fuck's sake!"  Spike opened the com - hit a key and watched the screen shift from the rapidly approaching station to the office.  H'ru was standing right there, looking like he'd had his own pick-me-up.  Ears and ruff of fur standing up, his eyes wide and diamond-bright.  "Got those codes, H'ru?  Now's the time.  I'm opening your board up."

 

"Got - I got -"

 

"Mines, Cap'n!  Send those codes now!" Nia shouted and another, seldom-heard klaxon went off, sharp buzz that made Spike's ears hurt.  On the screen H'ru was typing madly, claws clicking on the keys, a little holo of numbers and letters - dog-alphabet - hovering by his head.  There was a rattling scrape as some of the scrap the Bud had dumped swept over the Dru's hull, and Spike winced.

 

"Ssent, ssent - more?

 

"Jesus, somebody triggered some," Ferro said, putting up a shot of white fire blossoming along the edges of the Outsider wedge.

 

"Got no time - Xander, Ferro, let's go - Nia -"

 

"Got it, Cap'n, I got it, we'll do the codes, we'll get us through, go!"

 

"Watch your back!" Spike shouted, and they ran for the lift, all three of them bouncing, jittering - grinning in a way that was reminiscent of strychnine.   "Kick these bloody dogs back home and get the fuck out of here.  We're gonna have so much fucking money - won't have to work for years."

 

"Buy us a little beach," Xander said - grabbed Spike's head and kissed him so hard Spike tasted blood.

 

"Buy some'a those suits got the sighting aaall integrated - right in the helmet," Ferro said, looking as dreamy as a weasel on speed.

 

"Fuck, yeah."  Xander gave Spike a look and Spike raised an eyebrow - leaned forward, dragging Xander by an arm around his neck and pinning Ferro to the wall with his free hand.

 

"For luck," Spike said, and kissed Ferro. 

 

"Always knew you were the girl," Xander snickered and then the lift-door opened and they tumbled out - grabbed their suits and got them on, slapping down the seals and snugging the bindings tight, each one checking the other, fast and silent.

 

"We're braking - in count.  Hold on down there!"  There was a bench and emergency webbing right beside the lock and they flung themselves down - strapped in and held on and when gravity slammed them down Spike laughed breathlessly.  The ship wallowed, gravity fluttering, and then the entire structure shuddered violently as the Rumplestiltskin let go and pushed them into place to dock with the station.  There was a shriek of scraping metal and then a thump that threw them against the webbing and Xander was cursing, tangled up and half off the bench.

 

"Fuckers had better not put one scratch on her!"

 

"We're docked, Rumplestiltskin has the tube in place, go!"

 

"Where's Rrahn?  What're they doing?" Spike asked, jerking hard on the webbing and getting it off Xander who bounced to his feet, gathering his duffle of tools out of a locker and taking the rifle Ferro handed over.

 

"They're - six light years off station nadir.  Engaging...  The home-worlders are putting up a fight - there's two ships docked at the station itself, we're on the opposite side of them.  Cap'n -"

 

"Nia - lock her up tight.  Ferro - shoot anything that moves."  Ferro grinned - slung a rifle over his shoulder and shoved a pistol into a holster.  Jammed a handful of grenades - that looked like cherry-sized ball bearings - into a pocket.   

 

"Be safe, esutla," Nia said, and there was a moment's silence.  Spike was shoving his own chosen ordinance into any pocket that would hold it when the lift door opened and H'ru walked out, clad in what looked like salvaged armor from a junkyard.  Its ready-lights twinkled fitfully - half the systems were compromised and his helmet didn't have a visor.

 

Xander snorted laughter, shaking his head.  "Fuck, he's like - the Little Orphan Annie of the Outsiders."

 

"Cap'n - tubes in place.  The dog's got to come.  He can't do the codes from here."

 

"Bloody hell!"  Spike stared at the dog for one moment and H'ru stared back, gaze hard and steady.  Spike grabbed his own rifle from Ferro's hand and gestured with the barrel.  "Right, then - you go first, mate.   Get us in."

 

"Yess," H'ru said.  He touched the panel that opened the lock and looked over at his shoulder at them - grinned in doggish delight and then turned and plunged into the shuddering emergency tube, yipping.

 

"He seems happy," Ferro said, clicking his visor shut, his voice coming through crackled with static on the mic.

 

"He's fuckin' nuts," Xander muttered, getting his own visor into place, his face pale and ghostly in the helmet lights.

 

"Shoot anything that moves," Ferro said.  "Right Cap'n?  'Cept Angel."

 

"Nah."  Spike slapped his own visor down - chinned the com on inside the helmet.  "You can shoot him too, if you want.  Can't kill him, anyway."

 

"Fuck.  Another non-living motherfucker?"  Ferro nudged his helmet lights on and strode into the tube, grabbing the first handhold and shooting forward.

 

"Yup.  Another one.  It really pisses him off if you fuck with his hair."  Xander followed Ferro - grabbed and pushed and flew up into blackness, toward the little lights on Ferro's suit - H'ru's armor.  Spike closed the lock and followed, his body singing with the drugs - with the fierce glee of a fight.  Demon-faced, grinning - ready to go, ready to fight.  Ready to win.  And rescuing Angel in the bargain was just the cherry on top.

 

"C'mon, my loves - let's go make a little noise."

 

 

 

 

 

"Fucking hell - no - to your right - Ferro -"

 

"Jesus, Xander."   Ferro said, his voice thin through the suit-com.  He shifted around in the cramped corridor and got his suit-light back where Xander needed it and Xander carefully clipped the last two leads to the portable keyboard he'd brought.  The little power light came on and the screen set flush into the wall lit up, dull-grey on black, dog-alphabet in rows.  H'ru pushed impatiently past both of them, bits of his armor scraping against Xander's suit - rank musk dog-smell and strength enough to knock Xander into the corridor wall.

 

"Watch it for fuck's sake," Xander snapped, but then he sneezed and sniffled morosely.  "God damn dust."

 

"You'll live," Ferro muttered, watching H'ru activate the little holo cube that held the codes - stick it to the wall above the keyboard and start to type.

 

"This will - o'en all the dor-rrs.   'Urn on -"   H'ru seemed to be groping for the word, his tongue licking at his mouth for a moment.  "'Uters.  All - com'uters."

 

"Is there even a system in place?  This is like - bare bones," Xander said, glancing around.  Skeleton of girders and conduits - unpolished metal decking and almost no gravity since the station's rotation was minimal.  Life-support was up but the heat wasn't and Xander shut his visor so the heat from his suit wouldn't leak out.  He'd have to open it again to talk to the dog - H'ru's cobbled armor didn't have a com set-up or if it did, he'd decided not to use it.  It was annoying.

 

"Ssyss'em.  Yess.  For the - making," H'ru said, off-hand words rumbling through Xander's outside pick-up mic.  Xander could hear H'ru's claws rattling on the plastic keys.

 

"Is he fucking done there or what?  Bloody hell!"   Static-ridden whisper from Spike who was about twenty feet up the corridor, keeping watch.  They'd dodged three dog patrols already and resorted to the ventilation maintenance tunnels to move around. 

 

"Yeah - almost there.  H'ru says there's a comp-sys in place.  We might be able to lock the ships out or close the section doors."

 

"Yeah?  That'd be a break.  'Nother patrol - quiet."  Spike's mic clicked off and Xander glanced over at Ferro, who was standing with his rifle raised, eyes alert behind his visor.  H'ru's ears were up - swiveling and then pointing toward the patrol, presumably, even as his clawed fingers tippity-tapped faster than Xander would have thought possible.

 

Another moment and there was a sudden change in the screen.  The whole thing blanked for a second and then something else came up - had to be the opening screen of the operating system.  H'ru's mouth gaped open in a doggish grin and he looked over his shoulder at Xander.

 

"On.  All on.  We do - wha'?"  H'ru's voice was tinny through the mic and Xander frowned and flipped his visor back up - moved in close, staring at the screen.   

 

"We need to see where they're holding Angel - are there cameras?  Can we look around?  And we'll need a schematic - I don't wanna be like a rat in a maze."  H'ru grunted - nodded - starting tapping keys, bringing up ovals and circles and lines of text and Xander shifted impatiently.  It was beyond stupid that the dogs had docked and then off-loaded but they needed room for their - rituals.  For their rites.  They wouldn't sully their ships with the blood of their enemies.  Xander swallowed bile - shoved old images away and concentrated on what H'ru was showing him.  Empty corridors - darkness - work lights strung from the beams and snakes of light-tubing wound here and there.  Finally he found the dock camera feeds.

 

"Bingo!  Fucking bingo, Spike.  Docks.  Whole group of 'em," Xander said and Ferro pushed in close, flipping up his visor and squinting at the low-resolution picture.  It was grainy and jumpy, oddly bracketed and a little fish-eyed and Xander reached to adjust - anything.  H'ru slapped at his hand.

 

"Fuck, there's a lot of 'em - more than fifty.  Plus the fucking patrols..."  Ferro was scowling, his eyes darting over the screen as the image changed - one, two, three, one, two, three.  Milling dogs and standing dogs and a lot of armor - a hell of a lot of rifles.    Xander felt the first beads of sweat coming up cold along his spine and he took a deep breath, willing himself calm.  "There's not a hundred but - fucking close.  We need a plan."

 

"Good thing we brought some fire power along then."  Spike materialized out of the gloom, making Xander jump just a little.  The barrel of an out-dated weapon poked up over his shoulder, the strap dull olive across his chest.   "C'mon H'ru - we're need to get this plan in motion and clear this station." 

 

H'ru looked from Xander to Ferro to Spike - shook his head a little, his ears going flat and then pricking back up, lopsided.  "You - 'ake them all?  All?"

 

"Fuck yes," Ferro said.  "If we can." 

 

H'ru made a strange little whining sound - distress or excitement, it was hard to say.  "Sss-ma'ic.  Yess.  Here."  He turned back to the keyboard and started to type again and they all leaned in close. 

 

*This is gonna be fucking insane.  Hope you're grateful, Angel.  Hope you're not dust.*

 

 

 

 

 

Ventilation systems were not meant for people as big as Ferro.  Xander gave him a shove and Ferro came unstuck with a curse - ducked around the corner and cursed again.  His hand appeared, fingers spread open.  "Need the screwdriver again.  Fucking hex-bolts, this time."

 

"Why can't they pick a fucking bolt and stick with it?" Xander muttered, groping in his belt for the electric screwdriver and fumbling the hex-bit onto the end.  Ferro grunted as Xander slapped it into his palm and then there was a low whirring.  A moment later a long, black hex-bolt drifted around the corner in a slow, downward arc.  Xander batted it aside.

 

"Fuck - fuck -"   Ferro shoved the screwdriver back toward Xander and then there was the groan and pop of metal as he unstuck the cover and shoved it out.  

 

Hiss of static over the com and then Spike's voice, tight with tension.  "I can hear you, for fuck's sake!  Keep it quiet!"  Spike and H'ru were in a plumbing conduit somewhere spin-ward, climbing up so they could get at the home world dogs from above.

 

"Doing our best," Xander muttered and slithered out of the tunnel feet-first - almost tripped over Ferro, who had crouched down and was going through the bag of ordinance he and Spike had split.  *This is like some sort of fucking vaudeville routine,*  Xander thought, steadying himself on the wall and being thankful he couldn't see the no-doubt venomous glare Ferro turned on him.  "Sorry."

 

"Yeah.  No problem.  Okay - through that door is the observation deck.  There's no plex or anything so we can do the grenades from there.  But after Spike and H'ru get 'em out and shooting.  Got it?"   Xander nodded unenthusiastically.  "You okay?  'Cause if you're not okay -"

 

"I'm okay!  I'm not gonna say it again." 

 

Ferro stood back up and slung his arm around Xander's shoulder.  "Okay, yeah, you're fine.  You're our geek - we don't want anything happening to you."

 

"Yeah, yeah."  Xander took a long breath, wishing the air was warmer and that there weren't strange, black cobwebby things hanging off his suit.  The Outsiders didn't use asbestos but some of the stuff they did use was toxic to humans and the guts of the station were all exposed - hell, they were crawling through the guts.  *Don't think about guts.  Jesus.*    "We're gonna need full de-con when we get outta here.  Fucking dust."

 

"We're almost there.  Get into position, Ferro - Xander.  Be bloody careful!"

 

"Yeah, got it."

 

"Aye, aye, Cap'n."  Ferro gave him a punch on the shoulder and then they were jogging as silently as possible down the corridor, every step a floating sort of bound.   Corridor, left turn, shorter corridor, door.  Xander held up his arm and read off the override code he'd scribbled on his suit with marker.  H'ru said it would open any door and Xander tapped it carefully in and then sighed with relief when the door hissed apart, letting them in.  H'ru had managed to keep the dock out of the loop as far as the computers went - was set to lock the dock down right before the attack.  The system would think there was a decompression - all the dock accesses would seal, including the ship-access so the home world dogs would be stranded and, if they were lucky, a couple of the patrols would be cut off from them.  That was the plan in theory.   In reality it was possible for them to override the override and they'd probably left crew on board who would be trying to do just that.  But all they needed was about ten minutes and some damn good luck.

 

Xander pressed his fingers to his thigh so he could feel the lump the little toad made in his pocket.  *Luck, please give us some luck.  We don't need a lot, just enough.*

 

The observation deck was about twenty feet up from the dock itself and was built in a half-circle so that the dock accesses were plainly visible.  Suit lights off, Ferro and Xander went to their bellies and crawled the last fifty feet or so, trying not to lose their hold in the too-light gravity.  Spike and H'ru should be somewhere opposite them about one hundred feet higher where the plumbing conduit joined with the outflow lines from the docking bays.  There was a service hatch there and that's where they'd be shooting from.  

 

Xander and Ferro got up to the wall, the empty window space above them.  Ferro pushed a handful of silver balls - about two inches across - into Xander's hands and Xander pressed the little switch on each of them in turn.  Arming the grenades, which would go off on impact when they hit - anything.  Ferro had his own handful to arm, plus a coil of military-spec cable in his hands, ready to sink the grapple in and get them down - and back up with Angel.  *If it works.  If the dogs take the bait.  If - if - fuck!  Do it, Spike, let's go, let's get started, let's -*   There was a pop of static over the com and then three clicks.  *Shit, that's it - here we go, go, go!*

 

There was a sudden crump audible through the helmets and then a shuddering thump that shook the whole deck.  One, two - three times, with flashes of light so bright they hurt even with the tinted visor down.  Xander flicked his com to all-channels so he could hear the dogs, too, and got an earful of howling.  Then there was a sort of buzz as stage two kicked in and the crack crack crack of hundreds of small explosions going off.  Spike's favorite bombs - he called them Bouncing Betties.  Stage one was the bomb flying to pieces, flash and heat.  Stage two was a swarm of smaller bombs that 'bounced' up about four feet and exploded, sending out razor-edged shrapnel like a particulate scythe.  Since dogs were taller than humans the shrapnel would catch most of them at about waist height.  Which just happened to be the weakest point of Outsider armor, since they needed it to be extra-flexible.    There would be lots of blood.  Outsiders had banned Bouncing Betties.  Chaddock, of course, happily supplied them.

 

"Now, Xander, let's move!"  Ferro was up on his knees, hurling the grenades down as hard as he could and Xander copied him, aiming for the densest shadows in the mess of smoke and flame and debris down on the dock.  A clutch of dogs were directly under what Xander knew was Spike and H'ru's position, trying to open a sealed access. 

 

*Looks like H'ru got all the doors locked.  Hope all the patrols are on the other side.*   Ferro grabbed the cable and slammed the grapnel into the wall - hit the lock and tossed the coil of cable over the edge.  Xander swallowed heavily and jumped to his feet, then had to take a wild grab at the edge of the window as he kept going, barely tethered by gravity at all.

 

"Shit!"

 

"Xander, move it!"  Ferro was already over the edge - five feet down and moving fast and Xander swung his leg up and over - grabbed the cable and started pulling himself down.  The rifle across his back caught for one heart-stopping moment on the edge and then he yanked free, sweat slicking his hands inside his suit gloves and stinging in his eyes.  He tried not to see the ground - tried not to see the haze of blood and bits of dog that were scattered like obscene confetti. 

 

*Maybe not enough confetti,*  Xander thought as a chunk of wall exploded about a foot from his head, bits  tumbling past him in slo-mo and sparks fountaining out of the hole left behind.  He ducked wildly - nearly lost his hold on the cable.  Apparently, there were live cables in the bulkhead.   *Live cables that are now severed and dangling out of the hole.  Jesus Christ, this sucks.*

 

Retaliatory fire was picking up - and being answered by the heavy boom boom boom of the anti-armor weapon Spike had gleefully unearthed from storage on the Dru.   Something from one of the last Earth wars and apparently it could fire multiple, armor-piercing rounds.  Ferro had practically drooled on it.  The floor was suddenly under Xander's feet, jolting him hard and he let go of the cable and darted into the shadows under the deck, scanning the milling dogs for one pale, dark-haired vampire.  He fumbled his rifle around and flicked the safety off, panting.

 

"Where is he, where is he, where the fuck is he!  I don't see him!  Ferro, you see him?"

 

"Not yet!"  Ferro shoved Xander behind a support beam and fired five or six times in rapid succession, his panting breath loud through the com.  "Spike, you know where Angel is?"

 

"Not a fuckin' clue, mate.  There's about fifteen dogs on the other side of the docking access, down behind some cables and - bloody hell!"  Xander jerked in surprise at a sudden wild harooing that crashed over the pic-ups.  A deep, belling note that went on and on and he watched in stunned disbelief as H'ru shot out of the access door and plummeted - not too quickly - toward the deck.  He was spraying the enemy dogs wildly with the energy weapon Outsiders favored.  Xander called them phasers - dogs didn't talk about them.  Everywhere the pulse of light and energy touched was an explosion of sparks and smoke.  The scattered dogs regrouped and streamed toward H'ru, firing their own phasers.    The air was rapidly becoming too dense to see through.

 

*Great.  We'll be stumbling around in this fuckin' pea-soup mess trying to find a guy who's as white as the smoke.  Maybe H'ru can get the ventilation fans going -*

 

"Spike, get down here!  C'mon Xander, hustle!"  Ferro pelted across the dock toward the clutch of dogs Spike had pointed out, hand fishing for and finding one of the flash-grenades he'd shoved in a pocket.  Light and noise enough to knock even dogs down and in this kind of gravity, hauling Angel's dead weight would be no real chore.

 

"Geronimo!" Spike yelled, and Xander rolled his eyes.

 

"I cannot believe you said that!"  Xander dashed after Ferro, rifle awkward in his arms, watching as Spike dove like a striking hawk down from the access.  He plowed into a clutch of still-standing dogs and decked two of them with the barrel of his weapon.  Then he was bounding across the dock in huge, springing leaps, shooting anything that moved and dodging corpses, the concussion of the gun making Xander's ears hurt even through the pick-up.  Xander skidded through a smear of blood and smacked hard into the ramp that came down from the dock access, jolting his face into the plate of his visor hard enough to hurt.  He squeezed off a volley of shots into the haze and moving shadows away over there and then sniffed in disbelief.  "Damnit, I've got a bloody nose!"  He shoved his visor up and pinched his nose, trying to staunch it.

 

"Put your bloody visor down, they could gas the place!"  Spike hurled a grenade behind himself and then grabbed Xander's arm and they both ducked and covered a moment later when an explosion hurled debris and fire over their heads.  But it was coming from the wrong direction.

 

"What in fuck was that?" Ferro yelled.  Xander craned around the edge of the ramp, looking up toward the access - toward the ships that H'ru's code had sealed off from the dock.  Angel stood there in the wreckage of the docking access, blood-streaked and dirty, a wild look on his vamped face and a phaser pointed straight at them.   Xander couldn't help it - he started to laugh.

 

"AngelBloody hell!"  Spike jerked his helmet off and the phaser wavered aside - pointed out over their heads as Angel leaped the few feet from access to deck.

 

"Should'a known it was you, Spike - you just can't do subtle."

 

"Sod that for a lark - who wants subtle when they can have bloody chaos?"  Spike was grinning and Angel was and Xander tipped his head back and sniffed hard.

 

"So how'd you blow the door?"

 

"I wired it to another weapon and put it on overload - Xander Harris?"

 

"Long story, mate, and we don't -" Spike started and then the entire dock bucked like a temperamental horse, throwing them all to the deck.  From somewhere there was the distinct and terrifying sound of atmosphere going away - fast.  Xander slammed his visor back down.

 

"We need to get the fuck out of here!  Station's breached!"

 

"Spike..."   A sudden crackle of static and then someone - not Nia - was talking over the emergency channel.  "...dogs at...station...Bud...access...two minutes..."   

 

Spike locked his helmet back on and grabbed Angel by the arm just as Ferro appeared around the ramp-edge.  "Billy Bud, was that you?  Say again - all after station!"  Squeal of static and feedback and Xander grabbed Angel's other arm and jerked him into motion, back toward the Rumplestiltskin and the Dru.  The static got louder and then abruptly cleared.

 

"...Bud.  Rumplestiltskin had to undock, the dogs were too close.  Get to the secondary access at level five, right above the docked ships, we'll pick you up.  And run, you motherfucker!  Dogs are turnin' that station into Swiss cheese."

 

"Shit!

 

"Let's go, let's go - there's stairs twenty feet spin ward, move it!"  Ferro gave Xander a shove in the right direction and Xander ran, Angel pounding along beside him, Ferro darting ahead, rifle raised and ready.  Spike sent a last volley of fire back toward the dog ships and whatever personnel had survived and then he was running too, cursing.

 

"God damnit, where's Rrahn?  What the fuck's going on, Bud!"

 

"Rrahn and the rest got most of 'em!  One of the docked ships is on fire - the other's trying to undock but we're gonna cook their fuckin' tail.  Rumplestiltskin's gonna move zenith and meet us, she's got the Dru safe and sound."

 

The deck shuddered again and again and debris started to whirl - to fly backward as the atmosphere streamed into space.  Xander could hear the distant whump of heavy artillery and he slammed through the stair door a step or two behind Ferro - bounded up and up, panting and sniffing and scowling at the blood that was making his neck sticky and fouling the inside of his visor.  It tasted like salt and iron and it was making him faintly sick.  The shot he'd had back on the Dru was wearing off fast and his legs were starting to feel like lead - his chest was aching as his lungs struggled for breath.  Angel slipped on a turn and grabbed the rail - got his feet under him and then Spike was shoving him into motion again - turning to send another shot down the stairwell as a phaser beam lanced up past them, exploding a section of rail.

 

"Move - move - almost there - fuckin' Billy Bud better be at the fuckin' access -"  Ferro leaned over the rail and hurled a handful of grenades down hard - snatched Xander up and over the last few stairs and through a door.  Angel came flying through a moment later and then the whole stairwell rocked with the explosion, sending up a plume of black, oily smoke. 

 

"Here - here's the access -"   Xander stabbed in the override, hand shaking, hoping to god the Bud was on the other side.  The station door slid aside and he all but fell in - snatched Angel through and watched Ferro haul Spike through the stair door and shove him onward.  Spike's suit was shredded all down his left thigh and he was limping, blood spinning out in little drops from the wound.  "Shit.  Spike?  You okay?"

 

"I'm good - Billy Bud - we're at the dock access -"

 

"Link-up in...five...four...three...two...one.  Locked!"  There was a thump and then the ready-light went on and Xander hit the override code and the outer door opened onto the Bud's battered hull and pressure door.  It chirped a warning and slide aside.   Xander pushed Angel onto the Bud  and spun around, weapon coming up as something crashed into the station wall.  Spike and Ferro had weapons up and ready, too but it was H'ru that came around the corner, muzzle and shoulder and belly bleeding, every light on his armor out.

 

"H'ru!  They following you?"

 

"All dead, Sspike!"   H'ru's lips wrinkled back and he snarled and Spike slapped him on the un-wounded shoulder, reeling a little.

 

"Bloody good timing - let's get the fuck off this wreck!"

 

"Get on board and seal us up!  That fucking dog ship just tore lose - the whole dock's breached!  Move, move!"

 

H'ru moved, and Spike did, crowding into the Bud's lock.  Xander hit the switch and the door thumped down.   Green light over the Bud's inner door and then it shot open just as the coupling came loose and the Billy Bud tilted over into a hard, fast burn.  Xander reached wildly for the safety strap and Angel at the same time, his rifle hitting the floor with a clatter of plastic.  Spike had Ferro and H'ru had Spike and a death-grip on another strap and Spike's bad leg buckled for a moment under the stress.   The crewman who'd opened the door reeled and clutched at the edge, vamping.

 

"Everywhere you fucking go, Spike - shit happens," he snapped.

 

"Story of my life," Angel muttered.

 

"We could stick you in a life support pod and shoot you at the dogs," Xander offered, cautiously reaching for his nose again and Spike snapped his visor up and glared at him.

 

"Fuck's sake, Xander, how in fuck did you do that?"

 

"Fuck if I know."  The Bud leveled and the pressure and drag eased off and they all cautiously relaxed their holds.   Xander's knees felt too bendy and Ferro let out a harsh, coughing sigh and slumped against the wall, pushing his own visor up and showing a drawn, sweat-beaded face.

 

"Four minutes to the Rumplestiltskin - you guys need any first aid?"  Captain's voice, with a little smirk in it and Spike transferred his glare to the overhead.

 

"No, we just need a damn report!  What in fuck's going on?"

 

"Rrahn and her faction had the dogs pretty much done for and then a whole new set of 'em popped up outta skip-space about ten light-years off and started hammering the station.  Rrahn's doing her best but there's too fucking many of 'em.  We're gonna run for it, Spike."

 

"Run where?" Xander croaked, feeling shock go through him like a wave of cold water.  The only place to run was back the way they'd come - debilitatingly long skips that lead to the Alamo and no help - or Earth, which was -   *Not a fucking option.  Not leading the goddamn dogs to Earth.  Fuck, fucking hell -*

 

"You're out of your bloody minds, we can't run -"

 

"Holy shit, what's that?"  New voice on the com and then a babble of voices and the vamp by the door turned on the little screen that was right there, displaying whatever the Bud was seeing.  Which was a blossom of incoming ships, five - ten - twenty.   Sickly yellow-orange that meant unidentified - unknown - probably hostile.     They could see the station now, too - see the swarm of home world ships and the ragged remnants of Rrahn's army and Spike shoved between H'ru and Angel and hit a button.

 

"Nia, you copy?  What the fuck is that - who the fuck is that?"

 

Pop and whine - hiss and crackle and then Nia's voice, smugly triumphant.

 

"Lost Boys, Cap'n.  It's the Lost Boys from Neverland."

 

 

 

 

 

"I knew it, I knew it, I fuckin' knew it," Ferro said, grinning.  Grinning like a fucking lunatic but he didn't care.   Stripping clumsily out of his suit, post-fight chemicals making his hands shake and his knees go wobbly.  That Angel guy was staring at him and he sent a sloppy salute his way, shoving his smoke-fouled suit into a locker and kicking it shut.  Deal with that later.  His t-shirt was sticking to his chest and back and he peeled it off - mopped at his underarms and neck and shoved the shirt into the nearest recycling chute.  He could afford a new one. 

 

"Knew you'd be involved in them showing themselves, Spike," Ferro said, and Spike looked up at him and matched his grin for a moment.  Then he growled and turned golden eyes on Xander.

 

"Hey!  Watch it!"

 

"Stop being such a baby!  Let me do this!" Xander snapped, and Ferro stifled a laugh.  The minute they'd stepped aboard the Dru Xander had shoved Spike down onto the bench by the access and started cutting the ragged leg of his suit away - pulling off his boot and exposing a bloody mess of shrapnel-chewed flesh and denim.  H'ru was in better shape but still bleeding and Ferro wondered for a moment if he'd need dog-specific things - drugs or anything. 

 

*Hope not.  Nothing here for him.  He did good, though.*

 

"You're got a bedside manner like a fuckin' rhino - bloody hell, Xander!"

 

"And you're like some kind of - of pathetic girly-man!  Girly-vamp!"

 

"It's just shrapnel!"

 

"Jesus.  They haven't changed a bit."  Angel was slumped against a wall, smoke-stained and a little bloody - rumpled and gaunt-looking and Ferro suddenly wondered if the dogs had given him....anything.

 

"You mean they were always an old married couple?"

 

"Pretty much."  Angel straightened with a sigh - held out his hand.  "I'm Angel." 

 

Ferro wiped his palm on his fatigue pants and took Angel's hand in his, feeling cool, smooth skin and strong bones - blunt nails and power.   Dark brown eyes on a level with his own and a faint smile.   *Nice.*   "Yeah, the Ambassador.  I'm Thomas Ferro, ship's gun."

 

"Thomas Aquinas Ferro.  Don't be shy," Xander said, and Ferro turned a glare his way.  Xander smirked and bent over Spike's leg again, doing something with a little pair of what looked like needle-nosed pliers.

 

"Thomas Aquinas?"

 

Ferro looked back at Angel - realized he was still holding onto Angel.  He let his hand pull away slowly, liking the way Angel's eyes went wide when one of Ferro's nails scraped lightly over his palm.  "My mom was pretty - uh - religious."

 

"Saint Thomas' commentaries on Aristotle are fascinating," Angel said.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Ferro, I really need you topside," Spike said, and Ferro stopped staring at the growing smile on Angel's face and nodded - ignored the snorting noises Xander was making and gestured to Angel to follow him.

 

"Got it, Cap'n.   H'ru, you need - anything?"

 

H'ru looked up from picking at his armor - dangling wires and shattered plex.   His expression was as mournful as it could be for a dog.

 

"No.  Going to - 'et clean.  Eat."  He pushed up from the crouch he'd sunk into and shuffled away toward the office.  Spike gave Ferro a little nod and Ferro let him go.

 

"Right - follow me."  Ferro stomped off down the corridor and Angel followed silently behind him - waited silently while Ferro ducked into his quarters and grabbed a fresh shirt - rode silently up with him in the lift and silently followed him onto the bridge where Ferro turned around so abruptly that Angel actually plowed into him.  He smelled like burnt insulation and dogs and incense and Ferro grabbed Angel's arms to keep them both from falling.  "I don't have a fucking clue who Aristotle is."

 

Angel blinked.  He had a splinter of metal in the lobe of his ear and a bead of bright blood was hanging from it like some sort of strange jewelry.  "He was an ancient Greek philosopher who -"

 

"I don't actually give a fuck," Ferro said, and kissed Angel hard.  He tasted like smoke and burnt lemons and felt good - solid and muscled and just right, pressed thigh to belly to chest with Ferro.  After a moment Ferro pulled back and Angel blinked at him again. 

 

"What?"

 

"Exactly."

 

"Ferro," Nia said, laughter in her voice and Ferro let go of Angel and edged backwards toward his chair.  That lunatic grin was back.

 

Ferro waved toward the port side of the bridge.  "Observer bench right there.  Belt in."

 

"Um.  Yeah.  Sure."  Angel crabbed sideways toward the bench and Ferro turned with him and they both sat at almost the same moment.  Angel belted in while Ferro powered up his station - took stock of the situation on the other side of the Dru's hull.

 

"Anything going on up there I should know about?"  Spike's voice came over the com, accompanied by some cursing and banging of things. 

 

"Just a little healthy lust," Ferro said without thinking - looked at Nia's open mouth and blushed.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Angel's head come up and his nostrils widen for a moment and he knew Angel could smell the blood rushing up to heat his face.  You didn't spend fifty-odd years on board ship with a vampire and not learn a thing or two.  Nia lifted an eyebrow and mouthed at him - 'healthy lust?'  Ferro just waved his hand at her, ignoring the way Angel was licking his lips.

 

"Ferro, when he's bored you stiff with weeks of nattering on about good and evil and bloody Barry Manilow, don't come crying to me."

 

"Who in hell is Barry Manilow?" Ferro asked and Angel opened his mouth, leaning forward and looking like he was going to launch into an explanation.

 

"It's come to a bit of a stand-off, Cap'n," Nia interrupted, turning back to her boards - flicking through the screens and listening with half an ear toward the ships that were arrayed around the remains of the station core.  "Rrahn's calling for the home world dogs' surrender.  The home world dogs are calling for hers."

 

"I should try and say something -" Angel said, fumbling at the belts, and Ferro shot a scowl his way.

 

"Stay put, Mr. Ambassador - we could move any time.  You falling from here to the lift door might not kill you but it'll fuckin' hurt."  Angel subsided with a look of frustration - absently wiped at his ear and grimaced - pulled the splinter out.

 

"Jesus.  Fucking circus.  What else?  Xander, fuck's sake!  That was skin!"

 

"Yeah, yeah, sorry."

 

Nia rolled her eyes and pressed the com plug a little closer into her ear.  "The Centaur and Mr. Peacher want the Ambassador to come aboard but the Rumplestiltskin refuses to do a tube-dock while there's still untracked ordinance flying around.   The Billy Bud wants the 'Skin to get back into tow with them but they won't do that, either.  I think they're angling for salvage."

 

"I know they are.  Wonder what the fuck the Bud dumped?  Maybe we could -"

 

"Don't need it, don't want it.  We just need Rrahn alive so we can collect our bounty.  Here, tie it - ow - yeah.  Okay.  On our way, Nia."

 

"Aye, Cap'n.  Oh - and the Hammer says this station is within Earth territory and claims it for the United Sovereignties of Earth and The Kurf is claiming it for the Union of Spacefaring Non-Humans."

 

"Fuckin' demon Teamsters," Ferro muttered, and Angel chuckled.

 

"Nia, do you know any of the Fairy ships out there?"  Spike's voice all tinny from the lift-com, which didn't work all the time and Ferro glanced over at Nia, who was looking at the screen that showed the Fairy ships.  They seemed to have fanned out in a loose arc and were slowly herding the dog ships into a cluster.  Ferro could hear chatter from the different ships but nothing in the language Nia sometimes spoke in - sometimes dreamed in. 

 

"I do.  Several.  These are very notorious ships."

 

"Notorious how?" Ferro asked.  The guns were live - the ship was as primed as she was ever going to be and Ferro felt - twitchy.  Only about half of that was wanting to push Angel down onto the deck and maul him.

 

"Oh - they've made raids on pirates and Indians -"

 

"And which are we?"  Spike limped onto the bridge, still wearing the jeans he'd had on under his suit, the damaged denim cut neatly away at the thigh and a thick wadding of bandages wound tightly around his thigh and knee.  Ferro stared at the bandage as Spike clumsily lowered himself into his chair - looked up at Xander, who was looking defensive.

 

"I didn't want little blood-drops floating all over the damn bridge!  Spike needs blood - I'm doing a mess run - Ferro?  Nia?"

 

"I've got beetle eyes," Nia said, showing a capped mug, and Xander made a face and looked at Ferro.

 

"Yeah - fuck - just, soup, okay?  Soup and some milk and some bread."

 

"Sounds good.  Me too."  Xander turned on his heel and started to walk out - turned back and grinned at Angel.  "Want anything to go with your blood, Mr. Ambassador?"

 

"Just some answers," Angel said, and Xander snorted softly - nodded and turned around again and walked out.

 

"Cap'n - the captain of the Black Pearl requests permission to come aboard."

 

"Black Pearl?  You're kidding me, right?"  Xander's voice from - somewhere - and Nia laughed softly.

 

"Oh, no. And there's The Golden Hind, The Queen Anne's Revenge, the Indefatigable and the Arabella -"

 

"And who's this that wants to come see us?" Spike asked, his voice sounding tired and amused at the same time.

 

Nia looked at the overhead - looked at her screens and then looked at Spike, her expression unreadable.  "Captain Hook."

 

"Oh, I give up," Ferro muttered.

 

 

 

 

 

Fairies didn't need the Rumplestiltskin to get on board.  One minute Spike was agreeing to the meeting - despite his own misgivings - and the next there was a strange little shimmer in the air and three figures materialized on his bridge.  Three.    

 

"Hey!  I just agreed to the one!"

 

"We rarely travel alone," Nia said, sending a blinding smile to the tallest Fairy, who was dressed like some bizarre approximation of a pirate.  Of Captain Hook - red frock coat and tall boots and a feathered hat.  It was - startling.

 

The other two were -

 

"They're naked," Xander whispered, box of food and drinks in his hand and Spike huffed a short breath.  "Aren't they cold?"

 

"Apparently not," Spike retorted.  "And they're not totally naked."

 

Xander slid the box onto Spike's boards, digging in.  "Weird jewelry and a - a cape...thing...doesn't count as clothes."

 

"Probably does to them, and since when did you become Modesty Boy?"  Xander opened his mouth to say something and Spike raised an eyebrow.  The 'drunk and naked and horny' incident at Fenris was quite obviously in both their minds and Xander shut his mouth and sighed.  *Right, then.*  " I'm the Captain - who're you?"  Spike pushed himself to his feet, hissing a little as his leg throbbed.  The blood was doing its job but - not fast enough.

 

"Oh, that's diplomatic," Angel mumbled into his mug, and Spike shot him a glare. 

 

"This is Captain Hook of the Black Pearl and he's come to make an...arrangement."  The Fairy said something, rapid and slurring - almost-musical sounds that rose and fell in the relative silence of the bridge.   "We're going to send the home world dogs home.  They've overstepped their boundaries."

 

"You're - sending them home?  Just like that, sending them home."  Xander settled with a hip against Spike's boards, a sandwich in one hand and mug of soup in the other.  His hands were shaking a little and Spike felt those same shakes going through him.  Aftermath of their skips - the drug and the fight and everything else.  Spike felt fucking tired but too wired to rest, even if he could.

 

"Yes, of course," Nia said, and translated to the other captain, who laughed.  He said something, his eyes glittering like a cats in the light - his whole face and demeanor cat-that-got-the cream.  "We gave them what they know - we can take it away." 

 

"You...what?"  Spike took a step toward her and the other fairies and the two naked ones - smaller than the captain - flinched back a little.  "Nia, what does that mean?"

 

Nia and the captain exchanged looks - exchanged a long, low string of words while Spike gritted his teeth and Angel finished off his blood - asked Ferro where to stow the mug and Ferro made a show of leading him to the recycling chute and then standing there, giving Angel the once-over.  Several times.

 

"Oh for fuck's sake," Spike muttered, and Xander giggled.

 

"Deadboy and Ferro, sittin' in a tree -"   Ferro seemed to actually be growling which made Xander giggle harder.

 

"Boys -"   Nia nodded once to the captain and then took a deep breath.   "What I'm telling you is...not for others.  Not for anyone but family."

 

"All right."  Spike felt Ferro come up close on his side - felt Angel fading back a little and then Nia gestured to him.

 

"You are also family, Angel.  Blood to blood."   Nia's look was one of expectation and after a long moment Angel came to stand on the other side of Ferro, carefully not looking at Spike.

 

"Git."

 

"Shut up."

 

Captain Hook was grinning and Spike knew he could understand them - just chose not to speak to them, which made him feel vaguely insulted.

 

"We gave the dogs the means to get off planet.   We gave them...everything.   And we can take it away."  Nia turned to her boards - tapped a few keys and one of the screens in the overhead lit up.  A string of code was displayed there.

 

"Hey!  I know that code.  It's - it's weird.  It replicates itself but it doesn't do anything.  It's - in everything," Xander said, and Spike felt an odd little hitch in his belly at that. 

 

*In everything...?*

 

Nia was smiling, a strange little smile echoed by the captain.  "Yes, it is.  It's our code.  It's a kind of...dead man's switch."  Nia tapped on the computer again, a flurry of keys and - blackness.  Spike snarled, vamping, but there was nothing.  The emergency lights hadn't come on and he could hear, for the first time ever - utter silence on the Drusilla.  Xander's hand was on his arm, squeezing painfully tight.

 

"The engines are stopped.  Spike - the engines and life support both are stopped."

 

"Nia.  What did you do?"

 

"Turned it off, Cap'n.  Just...turned it off.  And there's not a thing you can do that would turn it back on.  Ship - or station.  Wherever that code is - we are.  One broad-beam message to the dog fleet out there and it would be a floating graveyard."  There was a growl from somewhere left and Spike knew it was Angel - could feel him, like a thunderhead. 

 

"That's code's in human stuff, too," Xander said, low, and Angel's growl deepened.

 

"Yes, it is."  There was a small scrape of something - a sudden, soft-green glow and then the Dru whump'ed back to life, lights and engines and life support all coming back on as if they'd never been down. 

 

"...repeat, Drusilla, is there an emergency?  We've lost - she's back!  Drusilla - Spike?  What the fuck?"

 

Nia calmly reached over and keyed something - positioned her mic.  "Billy Bud, this is the Drusilla.  Just a momentary glitch - there's no emergency.  We repeat - no emergency."

 

"You were gone, Dru!  There was - nothing.  Engines - everything."

 

"It was a bit of a shock, Bud.  Stand by for news - the dogs will be making an announcement soon."

 

"Copy, Dru.  Bud out."

 

Nia looked calmly at them, her wide and slanted eyes suddenly looking very alien - the ridiculous costume of the other captain seeming a joke - a mockery.

 

*Code in everything.  Every bit of tech the dogs ever gave us and...it's all from them.*

 

"Nia, what about the Chaddock?"

 

"Dogs found them, Spike.  Dogs gave them our tech and Chaddock changed it to suit them but - the code goes.  Can't take it out, can't turn it off."

 

"Then what's keeping you from controlling - everything?  Why do you hide out in the deeps - why do you do - this?"  Angel gestured at the captain and the captain laughed softly, sharp teeth and luminous eyes and his hand resting lightly on what was probably a real sword.  He spoke, his gaze on Angel, but Spike could see that what he said - was the truth.  When he finished he nodded to Nia, who took a long breath.

 

"He says - seven million years ago, on a warm planet of blue and green and white...a long-furred creature, with thumbs and forward-looking eyes stood upright in the forest, and everything - changed.  We watch - we learn - we remember.  And we protect"   Beside Spike, Xander shivered and Ferro made some small sound, moving a step closer - closing the gaps.   Spike felt the chill, the same as they did.  Seven million years ago, they'd been there.  Maybe seventy million.  Immortality on a whole new level.

 

"That's a - a lot of responsibility."  Angel sounded as uneasy as Spike felt.   "It's a lot of -"

 

"A lot of power, Nia.   A whole fucking lot."  Xander put his food down and took  Spike's hand - squeezed once, hard.  Then he stepped forward - reached out and gently folded Nia's hand into his.    "What do you - what do you do with it?  All that power." 

 

Nia blinked - smiled, suddenly, the teeth-baring grin that she'd worn the day she's jumped a Billy Bud crewman and broken three of his bones.  "We give it away, Xander."  She squeezed his fingers - looked past him at Spike and Ferro - at Angel.  Tipped her head a little to one side and caught the light behind her and she was just suddenly Nia, the best fucking pilot in all of skip-space.  "We give it away with both hands.  Now -"   She let Xander go - reached and touched a button on her board.  "H'ru - please report to the bridge."

 

"Yess."

 

"The Indefatigable has been telling Rrahn and the home-word dogs of our - intentions -"

 

Ferro stiffened.  "You're telling the dogs -"

 

"Every head of a jyiiy knows where their tech comes from.  Knows about the code.  It's passed in the m'ryi - only the head knows.  That is one reason the m'ryi are so precious."  Spike heard the lift door work - heard H'ru pad up the corridor, his scent overlaid with a little fear - a little blood.  Nia acknowledged him with a glance.  "And now they know that we will not tolerate a war that would endanger Earth or the planets beyond.  The new ones.  The home dogs and the Outsiders must have a go-between.  A r'uu'arch.

 

"R'uu'arch?  None for - many 'enerations."   Everyone turned to look at H'ru and H'ru seemed to almost falter, then he straightened - dipped his head.  "Rre'orting, Ca'tain."

 

"It's Nia wants you, H'ru." 

 

"We've chosen the r'uu'arch for this sector.  He'll be the head of his own jyiiy - he'll be station-master of this station.  He'll negotiate and keep the peace between the home world dogs and the Outsiders."  

 

"Yess.  Rrahn?  No, 'ou said he-"

 

"Yes.  He.  You, actually, H'ru.  Captain Hook chose you."

 

"Oh man, oh my god."   Xander was muffling his words behind his hand but Spike could still hear him and he blinked in astonishment at Captain Hook - at Nia and at H'ru, who looked completely shocked.  "Like I said - Little Orphan Annie dog.  H'ru is Little Orphan Annie."

 

"And what - Hook is Daddy Warbucks?"  Spike snorted and Xander dissolved into hiccupping laughter.  H'ru brushed past them, head high - arm and belly bandaged and his kit clutched in his fingers.  He bowed to Nia - to the other Fairies and then stood stiffly beside them, his ruff standing up thick and full - his ears wide and pointed forward, unfurled to catch all sounds.  An odd and unexpected sort of dignity had suffused the Outsider.   Spike poked Xander sharply and he struggled to get himself under control, snorting and wiping his eyes.

 

"Ambasssadorr...An'el.  We will remember 'our bra'ery in timess of...con'lict."

 

Ferro elbowed Angel, who started.  "You will?  Oh - uh, yes.  Of course.  And we will remember how loyally you fought for human and demon-kind.  I hope to make a more - formal call - once you're settled in your office?"

 

H'ru inclined his head.  "With 'leassure."  Captain Hook saluted then - brought his heels together with a sharp click and a little bow - grinned at Nia and touched something at his belt and they - were gone.

 

"Holy fucking hell.  Nia, your people are fucking weird."  Ferro slumped down into his chair and Xander collapsed into Spike's - reached and grabbed his hand and pulled him close.

 

"Is it bloody well over, then?  Everybody going home, nobody going to blow up half the universe?  Bloody hell - did we get our fee?  Nia, tell me -"

 

"It's done, Cap'n.  And we got our fee.  Rrahn coded it to us while you were getting bandaged."  Nia's mouth crooked in a little smile as she glanced at the lumpy bandage.  "We're going to have the Billy Bud take H'ru and his office to each head of the home world and Outsider jyiiy.  They must sign a pact - start making a peace."

 

"And you trust the Bud to do that?  They can't even spell the name of their bloody ship right!"

 

"And they're all vampires.  Who wants vamps representing the new world order?" Ferro smirked and Spike shot a glare at him.

 

"They're a bunch of ignorant sodding bastards - no style and no sense -"

 

"They'll do fine, Cap'n  Look -"   Nia gestured toward a screen and it was clear that the dogs were being chivvied into an orderly formation - home world and Outsiders on opposite sides, the Fairies like a swarm of bees circling around and around.

 

"Nia - what do your ships look like?  Can we get a visual?"  Xander stood up and moved closer to her station and Nia grinned at him - turned back to her board.   Brought up an image and Xander made a noise of pure pleasure.  One that made Spike growl softly because that noise belonged strictly to him and their bunk.  "Look!  Oh my god.  It's the Enterprise!  And - and - Jesus, that's the Millennium Falcon and - the Sulaco - fuck!"  Xander was staring as wide-eyed as a kid at Christmas and Spike knew he wouldn't be dragging him away from that screen any time soon.

 

"So - Spike,"   Angel stood with his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet.  He still had soot and blood on him - stank of burning and....Ferro.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Well, I was thinking that I might - oh - take a little break.  Get to know some of the more...distant stations a little better.  Take a - tour, so to speak."

 

"That right?  Not thinking of locking yourself and Ferro in his cabin for the next three months?"

 

Angel's mouth came open and then snapped shut as Ferro moved up behind him, slipping an arm around his shoulders, fingers splayed over Angel's chest.  "I was thinking four."

 

"Jesus, take him down and scrub him up and jump him, already," Xander mumbled, leaning in closer to the screen and squinting a little.  "Nia, is that the Columbia?  Can we get better resolution?"

 

"H'ru is going to take your Mr. Peacher, Angel," Nia said, tapping buttons until Xander made a satisfied noise.  "He'll need a good administrative assistant."

 

"Oh?"  Angel's slight embarrassed frown slowly turned into a huge grin.  "I think Mr. Peacher could benefit from a - a change of scenery."

 

"Absolute tit, eh?" Spike said, and Angel rolled his eyes.

 

"You have no idea."

 

"Think I've got some," Spike chuckled, and tipped his chin toward the lift.  "Stand down, Mr. Ferro.  We're not going to be needing your services for a bit."

 

"Aye aye, Cap'n," Ferro said - snapped off a left-handed salute and tugged Angel around and toward the lift.

 

Angel resisted for a moment, turning back, his grin still in place.  "Xander, I wanna know how in hell you're here and not a vampire!  Buy you a drink at the first station?"

 

"Buy me two!"

 

"It's not that long a story," Ferro said, pulling Angel into motion again.  "He met some weird Japanese guy who hung around with a magic toad, the guy whapped him on the head and poof - immortal.  Or something."

 

"The Japanese have a legend of Kosensei, an old man who -"

 

"Really don't care," Ferro said, and the lift closed on their voices, leaving the bridge in near-silence.

 

"I hope that I haven't...caused you distress, Cap'n," Nia said quietly, and Spike sighed - maneuvered around and slumped down into his chair, picking at the bandage.

 

"Oh, no, not at all.  Just cost me a few bloody years of my unlife, is all.    Fairies!  Untrustworthy bastards, the lot of you."

 

"'Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen, we dare not go a'hunting, for fear of little men...'  We've always been happier in the shadows, Cap'n."

 

Spike looked up at her - looked at Xander, who was bouncing in place like a jack-in-the-box.  Heaved a huge sigh and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from their hiding place under the edge of his console.  "Do you give the power away, Nia?  How can you?  If you know - everything you know..."

 

"Power's no good in a box, Cap'n," Nia said softly.  "Power's no good unless you can make a gift of it."

 

"If what you say is true - your gifts have always come with a price."  Spike lit a cigarette and took a long drag off it, watching Nia through the smoke.

 

Nia took the cigarette out of his fingers and lifted it - took a delicate puff and stared contemplatively at the black paper and the gilt swirls that decorated it.  "Yes, that's so.  You can't ever leave us, Spike.  Once you've tasted our sweet cakes and drunk our honey-mead...  You can't leave us.  We do not let go."

 

"Suppose we can live with that," Xander said, and the look he sent Spike was warm and full of wonder - full of love.

 

"Suppose we can, at that," Spike said.