Chapter Twelve

Part One

Truths from Lies

The sun was setting in a magnificent show of purple and gold, and a few stars twinkled dimly in the cloudless sky. Spike inhaled deeply, letting the night air fill his lungs and knowing that his next breaths may be his last. But that was hardly the point right now and as many times as he had died in the past, the thought held little fear for him. The only fear he had, he was ignoring. The fear that if he failed, Astryd would forever live behind the walls that stood before him, tall and daunting.

The gate itself was too thick for the explosives he carried and even if he could blow it up it would make too much nose. He would be noticed in seconds and that wasn't what he wanted. No Jung-ho this time. He had to get in and get out without being noticed.

Edward had hacked into the security system, allowing her to control the movement of all the cameras. Spike could see them, turning slowly, back and forth on the pillars at either side of the gate. He would have to wait until they both turned away, then pull himself over the top of the gate.

The cameras began to point away from each other and Spike readied himself. As soon as they were both pointed away from each other, Spike bolted for the gate. He reached it in a matter of moments and flung himself up as high as he could jump. His hands barely gripped the top of the gate and the cameras were beginning to turn back toward him. His feet scrambled along the smooth surface while he pulled himself up and over.

As he dropped to the path on the other side, he slipped on the night vision goggles. The sun as finally down completely and the yard was empty of life. With a quick sweep to make sure he was alone, Spike darted toward the nearest building, taking cover behind the corner. He peeked around, spotting the circular building about 400 yards away to the north east. Nice job Jet, Spike thought, why the hell couldn't you get me in the East Gate? I woulda been right there next to the damn thing. Irritation creased his brow, his bottom lip jutting in a pout. He quickly regained his composure, face smooth now, void of all emotion. Yet under the night vision goggles, his eyes burned with the want for vengeance.

Silently he crossed between one building to the next, dodging the night guard that had now dispersed among the grounds. He finally found his hand laying on the curved wall of the circular building when Astryd was being held. Or, where he hoped she was being held. With one last glance around the compound he wondered what he would do if she wasn't being kept here. Which building would he try? There were so many. It would be like hunting a needle in a haystack. Not to mention the other compounds that the jackals had. What if they had sent her home, to the main compound? He would be in the wrong place all together.

Spike slipped through the door that Ed unlocked for him. He let it close slowly before pulling up the goggles. He found himself in a long curved hallway that followed the outside wall of the building. Now he drew his weapon and made his way through the hall, his boots making little noise as he jogged through the hall. A door to his left was the first door he came too and ducking around it for a moment, he took a peek at the map Edward had found for him. The door beside him was to the room Astryd had been tortured in. Spike fought the urge to crumple the map up in his hand, forcing back his anger. It would get him in trouble if he wasn't careful but frankly he was having a hard time controlling it.

With a deep breath he opened the door, walking into the darkness beyond. The light from windows near the top of the room cast eerie shadows around the room but Spike could still see some. The whole room echoed when he stepped and when he passed the posts that Astryd had been tied to, and saw the dried blood on the floor he couldn't help the images that burst into his mind like lightning. Once after the other, screams and the crack of a whip. This time the rage boiled, but his face still stayed void of emotion. Just let it boil under the skin and leave it alone, he thought.

On the other side of the room there was a door, labeled Sub Level 1 and Spike walked through, this time letting the door close heavily behind him. For all the rage built up inside him, he was almost praying for someone to find him so he could splatter their blood along the walls. But no one came. No one heard him.

This stairwell and the hall after were short and well lit. Once or twice Spike had quickly passed a door where a couple of guards were chatting and playing cards, or watching surveillance equipment. Sub Level 2 and deeper into the belly of the beast Spike descended. Quickly he made his way through the halls, until he came to another open door on his left. He peeked around the door and saw three guards sitting around a table, one facing the door.

Damn, he thought, I can't move through without him noticing me. Spike pressed his back to the wall outside the door, trying to figure out what to do now. He began to listen to the guards, in case they let on something he might need to get out of here.

"Great competition week this year. The trainees are promising. The Black Jackals are getting better and stronger by the year." One man spoke, proud of his syndicate.

"And what a way to start it eh? Punishing that whelp for treason. I couldn't think of a better way to kick things off." The second stated in excitement, the other two joining him in his laughter. Spike gritted his teeth. He was starting to lose it.

"What was it like whipping her Dom?" The first man joked to the third man, Spike's eyes grew wide. The man who had tortured Astryd was sitting in this very room. Just a few feet away. His brow furrowed in anger, his teeth ground tight against each other as the third man spoke.

"Heh, it was empowering." He said with a wicked smirk. "Having that kind of power and control over the leader's daughter. Feels that way every time I whip her. It's more fulfilling than punishing anyone else. Besides, her skin splits under the whip like butter to a knife." He chuckled, the other joining him.

The man's blood splattered along the wall before Spike even knew he pulled the trigger. Within moments the other two men lay dead around the table as well and the building screamed with sirens. Red lights blazed off and on and Spike realized he had just jeopardized the entire mission. Without thought, he raced for the end of the hallway, labeled Sub Section 3. He slammed hard into the door but it didn't budge. "Dammit!" He growled at the security locked door and in mere seconds the sound of many boots echoed through the hall. The guards were swarming from everywhere and coming straight for him. He dropped low and pulled a grenade from his sack, then he pulled the pin and threw it as hard as he could down the hall, watching it bounce off the wall and heard it clatter around the curve beyond his sight. The explosion rippled heat down the hall toward Spike and the screams beyond told him that the grenade had taken out some of the men and wounded many more. But still the men came, stepping over their dead and dying comrades, tracking the blood down the hall.

As they rounded the bend, Spike opened fire, killing a few before his gun was out of bullets. He had another clip, but there were too many of them, descending on him like a torrent. Before he could stand and load the next clip one of the guards knocked him back down with the butt of his rifle. Spike slumped over to the wall, feeling the blood trickled down into his eye. He did a leg sweep and one guard was forced to the ground. Two guards jumped on Spike, one punching with all of his strength, the other grappling to subdue Spike. He fought hard, taking out a few more guards before he was finally subdued and cuffed.

After it was all over, the guards huffed, sweat dripping from their faces. One kicked Spike in the ribs as he struggled to catch his breath. In a string of curses they lifted Spike up and unlocked the door to Sub Level 3. They were taking him exactly where he wanted to go.

Down the stairs and through two more doors, Spike was tossed into a small white room with a single table. Two of the guards patted Spike down, taking away his Com link, his guns, and multiple other weapons before leading him through a door into a room dark as a cave. Once the door was shut he was dragged by two men with night vision goggles into absolute darkness. He couldn't even fight back in this darkness, his eyes wide, trying in vain to make his eyes adjust. There wasn't a shred of light in this place.

He was pushed to his knees and then forced through a door which was locked behind him. A guard reached in and harshly grabbed Spike's wrists, yanking them through the bars to remove his cuffs. A cage? Spike waited until he could hear the guards walk away, following the sound of their footsteps back the way they came. When the door opened and the room glowed with faint light, he noticed he was in a little cage, and in the cage next to him was a small mass in the form of a human covered in a blanket. The door closed and he was in darkness once more.

Spike looked in the direction that he saw the human form. It couldn't be Astryd could it? Only one way to find out. He scoot closer to the bars of the cage, feeling the cold metal against his cheek. His slender arm reached through the bars, but the cage was too far away. Maybe it he could get her to reach to him, they could close the distance.

"Astryd?" He spoke quietly, his voice questioning. "Astryd, is that you?"

There was silence for some time, then he could hear the blanket shift. He spoke her name again, his heart pounding as he waited for an answer.

"Spike?" A weak voice whispered from the darkness beside him. "Is that….no…." He could hear the movement stop. "No Astryd….you're just dreaming again….just dreaming."

"This isn't a dream Astryd, reach out. Reach out and I'll show you it's not a dream." His voice remained calm. He stretched his arm out again, but nothing happened. He rapped his knuckles on the bard to show her where he was. "Astryd, over here."

"This is…the last time I'm, listening to the darkness. If Spike isn't really out there…I'll never reach out again." She promised herself.

Spike's lips parted slightly. She had been hallucinating that he was there? Just outside the bars that confined her? How many times had this happened? And more importantly, why was she hallucinating? He almost smiled when he heard her move closer and stick her arm through the bars of her cage. The smile quickly faded when he took her hand. Instead of being met by the warm soft flesh that he was so used to, he felt icy cold skin over bone. She was being starved. He understood that now why she was hallucinating and the deaths of those men upstairs seemed justified. If only there had been more.

"Spike? It is you. You came for me? But…why?" Her voice was hardly a whisper. She could hardly grip his hand. Spike wished he could rip through these bars and get to her. Release her and get her out of here. But instead he failed. He let his emotions get the best of him and got himself caught. He could have had them both safely out of here by now if only he had kept his trigger finger under control.

"Because…." I care about you. His mouth closed. He simply couldn't say it. "Because you were in trouble. You're a comrade in trouble, I couldn't just leave you here." He tried to force a smile, though he knew she couldn't see it.

"Oh." She sounded disappointed and his heart ripped open all over again. His forehead came to rest on the bars and he sighed. Why couldn't he just be honest with her? Because, he thought, it's survival. Her star will fall. The words rang clear in his head and he knew that her death would have a great effect on him. The need to keep his heart intact and the promise to live every day without regret were fighting in his mind. What if this were the last time he could tell her that he loved her? No. This was the worst place to tell someone something like that. He would figure out a way to save them both and then he would tell her. When they were out of this place. She deserved to know, damn his heart. Regret played far more heavily on a drunken mind and if she were to die before he could tell her, he wouldn't be able to drown his sorrows in whiskey and the blues. It would only make his regret that much worse. There will be another chance to tell her right?

"I'm going to get us out of here Astryd." His promise fell on deaf ears, her hand had become limp in his and he could hear her breathing become shallow. Even though she slept, he held her hand, running his fingers over her skin and wishing he could offer her some warmth. "I think I love you." His deep voice came out a quietly. Even if she way awake she wouldn't be able to hear him. Good practice, he thought to himself before he settled in for a long night of thinking.

Part Two

Mouth of the Unknown

Spike hadn't even realized he had fallen asleep until he was being pulled from his cage. Arms punching out at whatever he could, he struggled against his captors. His hand had been pulled from Astryd's and his eyes scanned the darkness frantically, trying to find her again.

"Spike!" she called and he could feel her grip his shirt as he was finally yanked through the door. A guard cursed at her and pulled her away as another shackled Spikes hands behind his back. "Where are you taking us?" Astryd demanded, her voice still weak but carrying plenty of angry authority. These men were still below her, even if she was being punished for treason.

"To the council room." A gruff voice answered and a thick hand pushed Spike forward. If they were going where he though they were going, he was in deep shit. The circular room upstairs that he passed on the way in was the last place on this compound he wanted to be.

In moments they were led out into the small white room that joined the dungeon-like Sub Level 3. The light was blinding to both of them and with seven days in the darkness, Astryd couldn't even open her eyes. Spike got a good look at her face, pale and a little more slender than when he last saw her. Dark circles had formed under her eyes, her rosy lips pale and slightly cracked from lack of water. With her eyes still closed the guards led them but up through the halls, one whipped clean of the blood that covered it just the night before but the scorch marks and rips in the metal showed the deadly force of Spike's grenade.

Astryd's eyes were barely opened but the sight of the hallway was enough to tell her why they were going to the council chamber. The syndicate hadn't caught Spike outside of the compound, he was on the inside and by the looks of it, he had probably killed quite a few people. Her heart was pounding hard in her chest now, making her very dizzy. Spike may be sentenced to death. Her plan had backfired in a big way. Maybe it would have been better if she hadn't come back. Here they were, being led up to their fates. Spike was in danger, the one thing she tried to keep from happening. Orion and her father had done a good job in luring him here. Astryd was sure they would be quite pleased with themselves.

She wanted to turn around and look him, but she knew the guards wouldn't allow that. Instead she gripped the blanket tightly around herself as they walked. Soon they were walking through the door to the council chamber. The guard who was accompanying Astryd stopped with her by the door. The two that held Spike led him to the posts in the center of the room.

Unlike in her trial, all of the seats were empty except those belonging to her father, brother, and one other elder. Astryd was surprised that they didn't have an audience but if Spike had injured too many people they would all be needed elsewhere. He must have done quite a bit of damage to only be having three people attend his trial. That was why they were here right?

"Father, don't do this, please. Let him go!" Astryd pleaded with her father as the guards forced him to the ground. The removed his jacket as they shackled his wrists to the posts. The rage burned in his eyes, like a wild animal.

"Quiet yourself Astryd." Her father snapped from his perch above them.

The early morning sun flooded through the unlit chamber in yellow colored streaks, shining light right over Spike. One of the guards pulled out that old familiar whip and Astryd let the blanket drop as she took a tentative step forward.

"Father, why are you doing this? He has nothing to do with this. I promise, I'll never leave the compound again, just let him go!"

"Dammit Astryd, don't make me punish you again." Kotori snarled at her as the guard unfurled the whip, letting the end fall to the ground. Spike was ready, he set his gaze on Kotori, ready to focus all of the pain on the anger in his heart. He would use it. Turn it into hatred for the leader of this evil syndicate.

Before Spike could even think, the whip cracked, splitting the flesh of his back. He could feel the blood trickle down his back under his shirt but he didn't scream out. He gritted his teeth and waited. Astryd's cries seemed far off as the second lash tore at him. By the sixth the pain was too much and he cried out when it hit him, crossing over some of the other marks. A gunshot echoed off of the walls then the whipping stopped.

Dual toned eyes gazed up to find Astryd's back to him, a gun to her head. How she managed to get away from the guard and kill his assailant he wasn't sure. But now she stood before him, thin and frail, holding the gun to her temple. The look of shock on her father's face would have been more pleasing to Spike if he wasn't concerned with the present situation.

"Let him go father. Or I'll do it. I swear I will." Her hands were shaking, but if this is what it took to save Spike, she would do it. Kotori was not emotionally attached to his children but he did care about his image. One of his children killing themselves would spark something the syndicate that Kotori simply didn't want to deal with. It would give strength and hope to all those who wanted out but were too afraid to go against him. When he was taking too long to think about it, Astryd cocked the pistol, making Spike lunge forward a little. Too many people had died in front of him, comrades in the syndicate, bounty heads, enemies, Julia. But none of them had died to save him. None of them had even tried. He wouldn't let Astryd die here like this. Not today, and not for him.

"Wait." Kotori held up a hand to stop everything. Orion's eyes blazed into Astryd's flesh when he realized that their father might spare Spike. He wasn't happy, but he wouldn't dare speak out against his father. "Why should I release him? He came for you once. Why wouldn't he come for you again? He killed 15 men Astryd and wounded a dozen more. Those were my men. If he killed that many to save you, why should I release him if he's just going to come back and do it all over again?"

"He only came for me because I was a comrade in trouble. He…he won't come for me again." He turned her head to look down on Spike with pleading eyes. "I'm not in danger here. He won't come for me again." Spike didn't speak, but his lips parted and his brow creased in worry. She ignored his look and faced her father once more. "I won't ever run away again father. Please, just let him go."

Kotori sat back in his chair, rubbing his chin in thought. Astryd could almost hear her blood pumping. Her strength was waning but she tried to keep herself standing. To keep the gun poised at her temple. It seemed an eternity until he spoke again.

"Fine. I promise to return him to his reached ship….for your promise to never run away again. You will stay here and join my war council. With you leading the counsel. We will take down the other syndicated one by one. Finally my daughter will be worth something." He smiled a little to himself and for a moment Astryd swore she could see pride in his eyes. But she didn't want his pride or approval. She had what she wanted now, the promise of Spike's safe return to Jet. "Get him out of here and return my daughter Sub Level 3. I think she needs a little more time to cool her heels. Oh, and get that body cleaned up." Kotori waved a hand dismissively as he rose and exited the room, the elder and Orion closely following.

After he left, Astryd' strength gave out. The gun clattered to the floor just a moment before she dropped to her hands and knees. Spike struggled against his captors, his boots sliding on the bloodied floor as he pulled against the guards that carried him farther and farther away from Astryd. He wanted to yell out for her, to tell her that he would come back for her, that he loved and wouldn't let her rot here. But he kept his words inside. Anything out of the way could spell disaster for her and he had already failed to save her once. The last image he got of her as he rounded the corner, was her body falling limp onto the floor and a guard coming to take her back to those damn cages.

Spike swore to himself then that this would not be the end of it. When he was through with them, the Black Jackals would be a legend buried in a pile of rubble.

Part Three

Patience is a Virtue Great

Jet met the Swordfish in the loading bay with great anticipation. Spike had been gone too long and whether or not the mission was pass or fail was yet to be determined. Spike's com link had gone down and Jet almost went in after him. But he had faith in Spike. He always seemed to get himself in and out of trouble in mysterious ways. He wanted to make himself believe that Spike had come back with Astryd, but something deep down was eating at him as the hanger door closed.

The hatch to the Swordfish opened, but nothing happened. Jet's teeth clenched hard, his feet carrying him right up to the wing of the mono racer. Has Astryd been injured again? "Spike. What's up?" He called out, resting his hands on the wing. Dark eyes widened and jaw went slack when a bloodied hand gripped the side of the cockpit and a moment later a badly wounded Spike pulled himself painfully to the wing.

His hand slipped in his own blood and sent him crashing to the ground. Jet knelt beside his fallen

comrade, viewing his various wounds. His yellow shirt was torn to shreds and blood soaked the material,

his back looked terrible. A mass of bruises and smaller cuts told him that Spike had at least tried to fight

off his attackers. Maybe the fact that he was here meant that he had escaped on his own. It never

crossed Jet's mind that Astryd might have made a deal with her father for Spike's freedom.

"Spike, what the hell happened?" Jet carefully put Spike's arm over his shoulder and stood, leading his friend into the ship. "Ed! Get the medical kit!" Jet barked at the girl as she stopped and stared at Spike's wounds. She quickly snapped to attention, slapping her hand to her forehead in a salute before running off with her arms outstretched like an airplane. Jet would have said more to her about goofing off but at least she was fulfilling his request in a timely manner.

Spike slowly took off his shirt with a little help from Jet. He could almost feel the old cop's unspoken words. He could feel them in the air, many unspoken things. Jet was trying to be patient, but that would soon wear thin if Spike didn't speak first.

"She…."Spike shook his head a little, trying to figure out where to start. Ed returned with the medical supplies and even some wet towels. Jet was impressed that she had thought ahead a little bit but didn't say anything. He just took a towel and helped Spike clean up. The younger man's back would need serious medical attention but the blood was first to wash away. Jet gave Spike plenty of time to think, but his own mind raced with everything bad that could have happened. Surely she didn't die did she? Spike wouldn't have come back for a while longer if she had. But then again, he was wounded and needed help in a bad way. Jet's brow furrowed in thought, the corners of his mouth turned down as he began to dress Spike's wounds, applying generous amounts of CryoSkin and a healing balm, careful to lineup the shredded skin before bandaging.

"I found the man that wiped her." Spike spoke calmly after some time. He wasn't willing to go out and say that he had failed the mission. That would be too hard on his pride. Jet would figure it out on his own.

"So you got yourself caught. Did you find her?" Jet tried not to yell at Spike, but the irritation in his voice was easily heard. He never was very good at controlling that aspect of his personality. His voice gave him away the Spike's eyes gave Spike away. Fatal flaws.

"They had her in a cage. Starving her." Spike's voice was monotone, his eyes closed now, a broken cigarette hanging from his lips. A bruise on his cheek was beginning to darken to a deeper shade of purple as Jet watched. "I have to go back in and get her."

"Dammit Spike, you hot head! You should have stuck to the plan. Then you wouldn't be all beat up and she wouldn't still be on that compound!" Jet couldn't hold his anger any longer. He lashed out at his friend, but Spike didn't even wince. He was far too used to it and even if he wasn't, Spike wasn't the kind of person to take a scolding and be hurt by it. He couldn't deny however, that Jet was right. He let his anger get the best of him and he killed three men before thinking.

"How did you escape?" Jet huffed, plopping down on the chair, his hand rubbing his head like he had a headache. Spike slowly leaned back, but upon feeling the pain, decided to lay down on his side.

"She made a deal with Kotori. Promised she would never leave the compound again if he let me go." Spike lit his cigarette, taking a deep draw and holding it in his lungs. On the outside he treated it very casually, like it didn't mean anything. But he would never tell Jet what he thought at that moment. How he felt.

"And they just let you go? Just like that?" Jet leaned forward, elbow on his knee and eyebrow raised in suspicion. He had done plenty of research on these guys and they weren't the type to just let a "valuable" prisoner go.

"She….had a gun to her head. Threatened to kill herself if they didn't." Spike closed his eyes and too another draw from his cig. He needed something stronger. Much stronger. He heard Jet lean back in the chair again, obviously too stunned to say anything else. But when the shock went away, Spike didn't like what he had to say.

"You can't care about a girl like that? Heh." Jet shook his head, remembering how Spike had told her he didn't care about her. And yet he had given so much to a woman that wasn't even around, and to another woman that he fought with all the time. "Can't even care about a girl that's willing to give up her own life to keep you safe. You sure are a piece of work Spike." Jet growled, standing to leave. He couldn't handle being in the same room with Spike right now. He made him too angry.

After Jet left, Spike put out the cigarette and dropped it onto the floor. Jet was right, in a way. Julia wasn't around for years. Not once did she try to make contact with him. And Faye. As much as he still cared about her, she was only there when he needed her if it benefitted her. There were a few times when she broke that trend, but they were rare. She never would have done anything like what Astryd had done for him. Would she?

Spike exhaled deeply, feeling exhausted, but he knew he couldn't sleep. Not right now. Now he had to think. He had to plan a way to save her. All he could see when he closed his eyes was her standing before him, hands shaking, then falling to the floor as he was being dragged away. Again and again it played in his mind until sleep took over. Darkness took him by the hand and led him into a dark world of dreams.