Chapter Thirteen

Part One

House Call

Spike stared silently out the window, his cigarette smoke leaving a swirling white trail in the otherwise motionless room. The sun outside was beginning to set and he was ready for what came next. Whatever happens, happens. End of story. Even if his plan tonight went well, his relationship with Astryd was about to change, for better or worse. Either way, he knew what he had to do, and what he had to say once it was all done and over with.

"It's time Spike." Jet spoke solemnly from the door. His mechanical hand gripped the metal frame tightly and his heart beat was a little faster than normal. A lot was at stake tonight and deep down he knew there was a chance that neither one of them would make it back.

Spike's eyes closed as his thin fingers flicked the snuffed out cigarette onto the floor. Jet didn't say a word. His lips pursed together as Spike pulled his shirt and jacket on over his bandaged torso. He would clean the butt from the floor if and when they returned.

Spike didn't speak when Ed entered, Ein following slowly. Even Ed was calmer than normal as Jet explained to her the situation and what to do step by step. And more importantly, what she had to do if they didn't return. The kid might be irritating sometimes but she was part of their dysfunctional family and the two men didn't want her to be chased down and killed by the syndicate if they failed their mission. Ed would have to purge the system and flee Bebop as quickly as possible.

The plan was simple enough on paper. Spike would put the Swordfish on auto and allow himself to be apprehended at the gates of the Black Jackal compound while Jet attacked the base in the Stingray that Astryd left in the lot for them. Hammerhead was just about useless in this kind of situation. They needed something dark, fast, and most of all, armed with more than a tow hook. In that kind of madness, the guards would surely take Spike straight to Kotori for his death sentence. That's what Spike would kill him. He may escape after that. Nothing here was guaranteed and he knew Jet wasn't happy with the plans being left so much to chance. But what choice did they have right now? It was do or die.

The walk to the hanger seemed longer than normal, quieter than normal. Like the entire world had stopped still and silent as it watched the dead men walking. It was eerie and Jet didn't like it in the least. His dark eyes glanced over at Spike who seemed to be lost in his own world. He wished his comrade would say something. Anything at all. But he knew better. This mission was likely to be a quiet one and the feeling made his stomach rumble with apprehension.

Spike climbed to the wing of the Swordfish, ready to start what might be his last flight. It didn't feel this way so many years ago when he went out to face Vicious for the last time. Somehow this was much different and he was feeling something deep in his gut that he didn't fully understand.

As he settled in and readied himself for takeoff, he pulled Astryd's pendant from his pocket. Without any expression he ran his thumb over the warm faceted stone. He had hardly parted with it since she went back to the syndicate. He couldn't look at it without thinking about everything that had transpired between them. He lied to her because he didn't want to face the truth, and yet she was still willing to lay her life on the line to get him away from her father safely. He was ashamed with himself on some subconscious level and was becoming more aware of it as time passed. The carefree goofball air he normally exuded was just a mask for the broken self-centered man underneath. He couldn't even be fucking honest with himself.

His fist clenched tight around the pendent, his brow drawing slightly in anger at himself. Things had to change. And that change started tonight. The pendant dropped heavily in his pocket as the Swordfish was about to take off. When he cleared the end of the runway, he gunned it, barely giving Jet enough time to catch up in the Stingray. It was strange to look back and see the sleek black starship and know that it wasn't Astryd. It wasn't one of their afternoon flight sessions where they played follow the leader.

The flight seemed to drag on for ages and it didn't do anything to settle the feeling of unease that was really eating at Jet. But the ex-cop knew at this point there was little he could do but cross his fingers and hope for the best. If luck was on their side, they might just get out alive.

When they finally touched down on Europa, night had fallen and the stars twinkled overhead, unchanging as they watched the plight of man below. Everything was quiet when Spike dropped from the Swordfish, loading a clip into his gun before stashing it under his jacket. Jet gave him a solemn nod and Spike was on his way.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets, absently rolling the pendant over and over between his fingers. The gates were so close now and he could even see the top of the circular building he gad last seen Astryd in. The whole damn thing would lay in ruins tonight if he had his way.

The Stingray passed overhead with a strong gust of wind as Spike threw a grenade at the large metal gate. He ducked behind a large power pole as pieces of stone and metal flew past him in the heat of the blast. Once the explosion cleared, he strode right in through the smoke, a dark grin on his face as the guards panicked. Only two were still in their right minds enough to rush him, weapons drawn and barking orders, most of which was drown out by the thundering barrage of bullets Jet was raining from above.

Spike raised his hands high and let the guards grab him and push him toward a long rectangular building, away from where Astryd was undoubtedly still being kept. The idiots didn't even restrain his arms in their fear of being shot. As buildings were beginning to crumble from the aerial attack from the Stingray, the guards pulled him along in a run.

They cleared the doorway just in time, a trail of bullets followed them to the door, sending them sprawling into the narrow hallway on the other side. This put Spike into an internal cursing fit. Dammit Jet, he thought, teeth gritted together tightly. Be more careful! If they made it out of this alive he would make sure he told Jet exactly how he felt about his close call.

"Dammit! I'm outta here. Screw this guy, just let him go! He'll get killed in all that shit out there." One of the guards was clearly panicked, ready to toss Spike out and hide. But his friend wasn't ready to go down that easy. He stood and yanked Spike to his feet, now taking the time to cuff him, but not thinking enough to restrain his hands behind his back. Instead he continued talking around Spike while he cuffed his hands in front.

"Calm down Shawn! Pull yourself together. This could mean a huge promotion for us, bringing in Spike Spiegel. Kotori wants this guy and he's bound to reward the guys that bring him in. Especially since this ass hole and his friend are tearing apart the entire complex."

"I dunno Jerry." Shawn was obviously not sold on the idea but followed his comrade and Spike anyway, his gun digging into his prisoners spine.

"Think about it, if Spike Spiegel dies, Lady Astryd will stay in the syndicate and everything will go back to normal. I could use a little normal dammit." Jerry growled, leading the way proudly as they descended some stairs, the sounds from outside becoming more muffled.

The building seemed pretty straight forward. One hallway upstairs with one way in or out. No windows, and a stairwell toward the back that led into another simple hallway. But this one had doors lining either side with names on them. Spike caught little glimpses as they passed. Names he didn't know. Until they neared the end. Two doors on either side of the hall labeled Astryd and Orion. This must be where the family stays when they are in hiding, or during training competitions.

Jerry rapped on the door at the end of the hall labeled only "Jackal". Spike assumed it was Kotori's quarters but he was surprised when a tall blond haired man opened the door, his black eyes cutting deep into the guard. Astryd had talked about her twin before and although they were different genders Spike could see a resemblance in the slightly feminine face of the blond man. This was the first time he saw Orion close up, in full light opposed to the darkness of the court room where he had last seen him.

"What are you doing here you idiot? You should be protecting the compound." Orion looked down at the lackey with great disdain and his dark eyes narrowed as he spoke. He didn't open the door wide enough to see Spike and his attentions were focused on Jerry who was stumbling over his own words. Orion didn't look very pleased.

"Master Orion. We uh, captured a prisoner sir." Jerry stepped a little to the side and Orion opened the door a little more, his eyes widening slightly with shock when he saw Spike standing in the hallway. Then he smirked in a way that Spike knew he wasn't going to like.

"I'll handle this from here. You are dismissed." Orion growled, black eyes stared unblinking into Spike's. This wasn't going how Spike had hoped, but it was foolish to think such a thing wasn't likely. Spike knew the mission was up in the air and now, he might have to improvise. Unless Orion was going to bring Spike to Kotori personally.

"Uh, Sir, what about Master Jackal? Shouldn't we show the prisoner to him? You know….incase he wants to know how we captured him." Jerry spoke shakily, letting his fear for Orion take a back seat to his desire to further himself in the syndicate. Spike had seen it time and time again in his syndicate days and it usually didn't end well for the guy who wanted to climb the ladder. Spike watched Orion as he glared at Jerry, clearly irritated.

"You fool. My father fled the compound as soon as that starship started raining down bullets. Now shut your mouth before I make you regret your insubordination." Orion snapped at Jerry and Spike could see his fist clench. Then he opened the door wide and stepped back in, motioning over his shoulder for them to follow him.

Spike could hear Shawn gulp behind him and feel the trembling rifle in his back. This guy was scared out of his mind. Orion seemed to be a cobra, ready to strike and Spike was poking it with a stick. The guard knew that whatever lay beyond that door wasn't going to be good. But he still followed anyway. He was either a coward, either too afraid to disobey his master, or too afraid to get shot in the attack above ground to turn back.

The room on the other side was dimly lit, a few candles spread about told him the power to this building was most likely out. A door at the back of the room caught Spike's attention. Not that it was strange for there to be another door, but the fact that it was mostly covered by a tapestry with the Black Jackal crest on it. The top of the tapestry was on a runner and Spike could tell it was meant to hide the door but in the short period of time between the beginning of their attack and the guards bringing Spike here, he assumed Orion didn't have the time to cover the door completely. That must have been how Kotori escaped. An underground tunnel and in the gloom, who would think anyone would spot the door.

It was dead silent in here. All sounds of the attack up stairs were drown out completely. Shawn and Jerry stood at attention on either side of Spike. Orion turned with a grin to face them, the candle light shimmering across his face. He looked so much like Astryd, for a moment he wondered if it would be hard to kill him with that face. The feeling quickly passed.

"So, you came back for my sister. She's worthless. You do know that don't you?" Orion poured himself a drink, treating it all very casually. He grinned. "If it were up to me, I would kill you now. But where's the fun in that? How does that make the father's army fear and respect him? You're the top of our most wanted list Spike Spiegel. Congratulations." He raised the glass in a mock toast and when he did Spike struck out.

In a split second his elbow crashed into Shawn's face, breaking his nose and sending him to the floor. Spike met him there as he dropped, swiping a long leg into the back of Jerry's ankles. The other inept guard crashed to the floor as Spike drew his weapon and slammed the gun into Jerry's temple. Out cold. And Shawn was too afraid to do much more than slide himself away from Spike, one hand cupping his broken nose.

The gun aimed up at Orion, who though he had taken an instinctive step back, didn't look very surprised. He too had drawn his weapon and had it aimed at Spike's chest. His eyes narrowed, his smile growing like a child playing a game. With a smooth motion he kicked the gun from Spike's hand.

"You should have killed me Spike. You should have taken me out first. But you didn't. You did minor damage to two mere lackeys." Orion scoffed. "I've heard so much about you Spiegel. Looks like your reputation doesn't reflect the man. What a shame. You're as pathetic as my sister. No guts." He shook his head before stepping forward and kneeling in front of Spike. He pressed the gun into Spike's throat, forcing his head up a little.

Spike's expression hardly changed, but his eyes blazed with anger. "I'm going to kill you now Spike Spiegel. Then do you know what I'm going to do?" He leaned in close to Spike's ear and with the heat of his breath and the content of his words, Spike could feel his blood coming to a boil. "I'm going to give your head to my worthless sister, then sell her to the highest bidder. I wonder what someone would pay for the whore daughter of a syndicate lord."

Orion had no time to speak anything else. As soon as he cocked his pistol, a bullet ripped through his chest. His body collapsed into Spike as a trail of blood dribbled from his lips. Spike didn't move as the body collapsed to the floor, the light fading from Orion's eyes. Shawn made a strange noise as Orion hit the floor, seeing the smaller gun that Spike had pulled from his waistband when Orion was busy talking. What fools they were for not checking him first! Kotori would be furious, but he had no desire to face off against Spike Spiegel now.

Instead he remained silent as Spike rummaged through Jerry's pockets for the handcuff key. When Spike finally stood, rubbing his wrists and recovering his Jericho, he looked at Shawn. "You need to leave here kid. You're not cut out for this life. Take this as a way to restart your life and get out of here before your friend wakes up." Spike gave a little kick to Jerry before sprinting out the door, leaving Shawn alone to gather his thoughts.

Once outside Spike sprinted for the wall, which was now pretty much destroyed. He was sure the police would already be here if it wasn't for the fact that if they did come to the syndicate's aid, they would have to deal with the citizens whispering about an alliance between the two. That may have been their only saving grace.

The Stingray swooped overhead, bringing a wave of hot air toward Spike. Then his comlink came on with a very angry Jet. "Dammit Spike you took too long! Get the Swordfish and hurry up!"

Right on queue, the Swordfish landed right outside of the rubble pile that was the outer wall. Spike slung himself up onto the wing and plopped down in the pilot's seat. Time to take down the buildings, then go after Astryd.

As planned, Jet had been avoiding the circular building, making sure that it was mostly intact. A few smaller buildings closer were still unharmed as well and fewer and fewer people were seen running around below.

Spike swung around in a wide arc before firing at one of the smaller buildings that were undamaged. But as he fired, he noticed something. A small orange sign on the side of the building. He pulled up just in time. "Shit!" He gritted his teeth as the building exploded, sending a wall of flames into the sky. He couldn't even hear Jet cursing him over the comm.

When the Swordfish leveled back out Spike's eyes widened in horror. The explosion had taken its toll on the circular building. The wall on that side was demolished and Spike could see the floor collapsing in on the lower levels. Had he just trapped Astryd down there in the dungeons? His heart skipped a beat and he brought the starship back around to take a second look.

The building had indeed collapsed and now there was nowhere inside the compound to land the ships to save Astryd. Spike's fist slammed down onto the console, his mind racing with what to do next. But when he made his second fly by, everything changed.

Part Two

What You Mean to Me

The ground felt like it was trembling when Astryd opened her eyes to the darkness. Her brow furrowed in confusion. She lay silent and still in her cage, unsure if what she was feeling was really the earth quaking, or if it was just her half-starved body playing tricks on her.

Gently she repositioned her head, pressing her face and palms into the cool stone below her. She waited only a moment before she felt the trembling again. Slowly she sat up, feeling bits of the ceiling crumbling down from high above. What the hell was going on?

Frail hands pulled the blanket close over her head to avoid getting hit full on by larger chunks that were falling through the bars of the top of her cage. A siren blared outside and only a second later a series of clicks resounded off the walls of the circular dungeon. The automatic locks on the cages had all been sprung.

More of the ceiling broke away, shattering down on the top of her cage and giving her the surge of adrenalin she needed to scramble out of there. The blanket pulled tight she ran for the door, yanking it open and flooding her senses with a flickering white light. Astryd had to stop and blink, guarding her eyes from the light until they started adjusting. But she felt she didn't have much time. Her mind flew from one thing to the next, trying to figure out what was going on. The walls were cracking, the single light swung to and fro as it blinked off and on.

Quickly she made her way up the stairs, so close now to the door separating the second and third sub levels. Gripping the handle tightly she yanked at the door until finally it swung open, sending a wave of heat and wind and smoke into her face all at once.

Coughing and rubbing her now burning eyes, she ran through, surprised to find herself staring at a starry night sky on the other side of the smoke. The compound was on fire, pillars of flame shot toward the sky, twisting together with plumes of thick black smoke. Part of the second subfloor's staircase was still intact and so she climbed, scrambling on all fours to get out of the hole that used to be subfloor two. Subfloor one was the same, a pile of rubble she had to climb out of. She didn't know how much more she could endure. Her body was so weak, so tired, and currently running on adrenalin alone.

Once she reached the top, the scene was shocking. People were running everywhere is chaos and Astryd's heart was racing a mile a minute. It was all too much to take in. Buildings were either completely demolished, or on fire. Bodies cluttered the ground, mixing with the debris. How had this happened?

Still trying to catch her breath, she spun around, looking for an escape, when a red mono racer swooped over her head. It was tiled slightly and she knew the pilot was trying to get a better view of the ground.

"Spike!" She cried, chasing the craft as fast as her tired body could handle. She almost couldn't stop herself from smiling, tears of joy spilled down her cheeks as she ran. No one was even trying to fight back at this point. They were all too busy trying to save their own hides, to hell with the consequences. But not Astryd. She had a purpose now. A hope.

Spike must have seen her, because the starship turned around and set down just outside the gates. With newfound energy she sprinted toward the gate, the great metal doors hung crooked from their hinges, one was even laying bullet ridden in the dirt. Half of the wall lay in rubble and Astryd knew she was home free.

The cockpit opened and Spike stepped out onto the wing, motioning Astryd to hurry. He couldn't chance leaving the craft. He had to be ready to leave in a moment's notice and as soon as he would get his hand around hers, they would be off toward the stars and back to the Bebop.

But something in Spike's face told Astryd she wasn't in the clear yet. He was looking over her, yelling something she couldn't understand over the roaring fire and sirens. However as she neared, another sound became clear. Footsteps. Her heart raced in her chest as her pursuers gained on her. Someone must have noticed her escaping and decided to make themselves a hero by capturing her. Many others joined in the pursuit.

Her fingers barely touched the wing of the Swordfish when things went from bad to worse. Thin fingers reached up, seemingly in slow motion, toward Spike's outstretched hand. Their eyes met and she could see the reflection in their depths. An explosion behind her flared up in the reflection. She could see it flair up as their fingers touched. Everything got very bright, and then it all went black once more.

Part Three

Don't Waste Time

Astryd's eyes slowly opened to darkness and silence. What happened? Yeah that's right. Spike saved her and took down the entire compound while he was at it. She smiled a little. Not for the destruction, but for the knowledge that she was with Spike again. Home on the Bebop.

She reached out of her blanket to feel her bed. But instead she felt cold hard stone. Her brow furrowed in confusion. She pulled the blanket off of her head but she couldn't see anything. Not a single thing in the world around her. "Spike?" She whispered, terrified that she would get no answer. And she didn't. The silence was still there, unbroken even by her own voice. Something wasn't right.

Quickly Astryd stood, slamming her head and shoulders with great force into the top of her cage. The jolt sent her crumpling to the floor, holding her head in pain. What? She was back in her cell? How was that possible? Had her rescue been a dream? No! No Spike had been there! Hadn't he?

Astryd scurried around in the darkness, feeling out all of the bars of her cage. She was still locked tight in the small space. Her eyes were gradually adjusting to the darkness again. The bars were taking shape once more and panic was beginning to set it.

"No." She whispered, hands feeling the bars all around. "No. NO NO NO NO!" She screamed into the silence, madness taking over as she slammed into the bars from one side of the cage to the other. Kicking and screaming she cried out for Spike. She felt the bruises forming with every hit and yet she kept going. Heart beating frantically, mind racing with fear, she lashed out at everything.

Then something grabbed her and she withdrew quickly. A hand, simple and white came through the bars and clutched at her ankle. The arm was long and the body it belonged to was lost to the shadows. But the arm was there. Grabbing at her. Then another. And another, until the entire cage had arms poking through from between each set of bar. All around and through the top. Hands all over, strength, feeling as though the hands would crush the life out of her.

"Astryd!" A voice broke through of her hysteria and her eyes snapped open. She was indeed feeling crushing pressure on her body. Spike was laying on top of her, his hands pinning her wrists down. His knees were on either side of her body, her own legs tangled in a blanket. Jet was overhead as well, looking rather worried.

She let her body relax, her head fell back to the floor with a muffled thump. Her bi colored eyes closed and she tried to calm her breathing. Jet rubbed his face and walked away, saying something about getting breakfast ready. Spike released her wrists and was about to stand when he felt something catching his jacket.

He looked down to find Astryd's hand clutching the fabric tightly, the blood from her twin had long dried there and her hand looked so pale against it. His lips parted slightly when his eyes dragged back to her face. They looked so much alike. The memory of Orion's pale face spattered with blood flickered into Spike's mind when he looked down at her. How would he tell her that he had killed her twin? His lips closed again when she peered up at him.

"Thank you Spike." Her whisper twisted his guts into a knot. The dark spot in his jacket caught her eye and she moved her hand. "Are you bleeding Spike?" The worry in her voice was apparent and Spike avoided her gaze. "No." He answered flatly. "It's not mine."

It took a minute to process, but Astryd assumed it meant Spike killed someone up close when he was rescuing her. He didn't look like he wanted to talk about it and deep down she wondered if he killed her father. "Could you help me up?"

He simply nodded and helped her to her feet, holding most of her weight for her. She was so frail. So shaky on her own limbs. Spike gripped her wrist tightly over his shoulder and Jet peeked back in, a skillet in his hand. "Spike, breakfast." Jet grumbled, obviously very tired and stressed out from their siege of the syndicate compound.

Spike helped Astryd get to the table and even set a plate out for her. She just looked at the food, not knowing how much of it her stomach could handle. Tentatively she took a bite of eggs and as she chewed, tears streamed down her cheeks. Jet poured her a little coffee, just how she liked it and rested his hand on her shoulder. He was a good man. So much like the father she always wanted. Her hand found his and she leaned into his arm, happy to be home again. And yet worried, and wondering if her father was dead.

With a gentle squeeze Jet released her shoulder and took his seat beside her. "I've got the ship headed for Venus. Ed scrambled all of the data logs before she went to bed so it'll be a little harder for the Jackals to catch up."

So they didn't kill her father. If they had, it would have taken a few months for the ceremonies to be completed, naming Orion the new Head Jackal. They would be free for a while. But that couldn't be the case. They were still on the run. "I don't know." Astryd shook her head, taking another mouthful. Her stomach was beginning to protest but she wanted more. "The compound was destroyed. That could buy us a few days but the solar system is only so big. Orion would find us again easily." That also made her stomach sick. Her twin had command over all of her father's resources. That included his top hackers. It was only a matter of time before Orion found them.

"Well," Jet mumbled, not really willing to say what he had to say next. "Orion was…..killed in the raid Astryd." Spike didn't move when Jet spoke. He just stared at his plate, his heart in his throat.

It only took a moment for Astryd to put two and two together and realize that Spike had killed her brother. Her fist clenched her chop sticks shakily before she dropped them all together. Silently she stood, no longer feeling much like eating. She was sure that whatever her brother had done, he deserved being killed, but that didn't stop her heart from hurting. It didn't stop her mind from remembering her twin's touch from before he had turned so evil.

With sadness in her eyes she turned to leave, stumbling into the door frame. Spike was up in an instant, his hands ready to steady her. But she reached her hand up, signaling him to stop where he was.

His hand dropped to his side as she stood straight once more and walked away.

Jet could almost feel Spike's urge to follow her. And yet he didn't He just stood there in the doorway, frozen solid. He shook his head and continuing to eat while his comrade fought internally with himself. Jet's feeling was right. Spike wanted to follow her. To help her walk. But he couldn't make his feet move. They were glued and he felt that the mere act of bending his knee to step forward and release him from this spell was as difficult as jumping from a cliff with no parachute.

"Spike." Jet spoke, his voice full of words he didn't speak. Spike knew exactly what Jet wanted him to do. The question was, could he do it?

Astryd didn't speak to anyone in the days leading up to their landing on Venus. She seemed to be more skittish than normal, spending most of her time hiding away in her room with the door locked. She only came out to eat once everyone else was in bed or away from the common room but seeing as it was Spike's favorite napping spot, he saw her regularly. But he didn't let her know. He just lay there with his eyes closed and peeked at her when he thought she wasn't looking.

She looked much better now. Her face was filling out again and she seemed to have more energy, at least she seemed so when he was spying on her like this. Tonight was different though. Normally she ignored his presence on the couch. But tonight she wandered over to where he lay and he closed his eyes completely.

It seemed like it had been ages that she sat there beside him, wordless. He almost jumped when her warm fingers caressed his cheek. When she withdrew her hand it was like the first time she touched him and the tingling warmth remained on his skin. The feeling did nothing for his battered conscience, which was already bloodied from all of the things he had said and done to her. It really didn't matter how many times he saved her if his words and actions away from the danger were hurtful.

His eyes opened again when he heard her start to walk away. But it wasn't toward her room. He watched her walk toward the same hallway where Faye had tried to stop him from leaving so many years ago. Where was she going?

Once she rounded the corner, he sat up and silently rose to his feet. As quietly as possible he followed her, until she was at the door to the hanger. Was she leaving again? No. She walked right by the Stingray, letting her fingers across its smooth surface, now slightly marred with its previous battle. Once she opened the exterior door, Spike came out of the shadow and followed, giving it a moment before he gently opened the door.

It took a moment for him to spot her in the moonlight but when he did he almost called out to her. She was climbing over the edge of the Bebop, almost exactly where she fell off in that storm on Earth. But this time the water was calm and she was using the ladder. When she was out of sight he exited the door and strode calmly to the edge. She was on the pier now, headed toward the beach.

When Astryd's bare feet touched the sand she stopped. She closed her eyes and let the smell of the ocean mix with the cool of the breeze. Most of Venus was a barren wasteland, and this man made beach was an oasis that Jet rarely passed up visiting if they were in the area. With so much desert land, they were lucky that no one was here tonight. Astryd had the whole beach to herself. But that was the last thing on her mind.

With little second thought, she began to jog. Then to sprint. Soon she was in a full out run, feeling the wind whipping her hair behind her and giving her a full sense of freedom. She ran and left it all behind. Her rejected feelings from Spike, the pain of him killing her twin, the restriction of her jail cell, her life long search for freedom, every stress and care she ran from. But running way was quickly tiring her. No matter how fast she ran or how far away, the cords that bound her to the Bebop were too strong and frankly, she didn't want to run away forever.

It didn't take long for her exhaustion to set it and she began to stumble. Then she tripped and fell all together. The surf washed upon her and she just let it. Let the water carry away her tears. After a moment in the wake of the ocean, a hand lay on her shoulder and made her jump. Her eyes turned skyward to find a calm familiar face.

"Spike?" she asked, wondering how long he had been following her. He sat down beside her, just outside the surf and propped his arms on his knees before pulling out a cigarette. Without a word she positioned herself beside him, letting her gaze be caught by the sea. She didn't know how she felt about talking to him right now.

"I'm sorry." The apology came through the smoke of a cigarette. "About Orion."

"I'm sure he deserved it." She shrugged. "It's just so hard…because the man I love killed my brother…and I can't even stay mad at him." She closed her eyes and shook her head in shame.

Spike on the other hand, looked right at her, his jaw slightly slack and his cig hanging loosely in his lips. Had she just told him she loved him? He almost couldn't believe how easy her confession had come. When was the last time he heard a woman say she loved him? Since Julia. Yet here it was and he didn't even know what to do with it. He knew she cared, but to hear it meant something completely different. It meant that he was a coward. She stated her feelings for him, and he couldn't even do that. What was so difficult about saying those three little words?

"I know you don't care about me. At least not like that and that's fine, really. I mean, you can't choose who you care about right?" She forced a little smile but she couldn't force herself to keep looking at him. Instead she just gazed out to sea. What she had to say to him would be the hardest thing she ever had to do. "But I need to let you know…as soon as I'm sure you and Jet and Ed and Ein are safe from the Jackals, I'm leaving. No offense, you guys are more a family to me than my own blood, but you have to understand why I can't stay. I can't allow myself to make myself miserable being around you. I need to start over and maybe someday I'll love someone who loves me." Her eyes closed again and she felt a lump in her throat. Truth was, she wouldn't actively look for anyone. It wouldn't be fair for whomever she was with. No one could ever live up to Spike in her heart. She didn't want to cry in front of him. So she leaned her head back and hoped her closed eyes could hold the tears back.

Spike's jacket dropped heavily onto her wet shoulders and she opened her tear brimmed eyes. Spike stood behind her, his hands in his pockets and his head tilted back toward the sky. He was watching the stars. Cigarette smoke drifted toward the sky before being blown away by the breeze.

"I said I couldn't care about you. I never said that I didn't." Spike's voice was a lot calmer than he felt inside. He was grateful for that. He looked down at her, seeing a real smile now, he knew he had done the right thing. Maybe it wasn't flat out telling her he loved her, but dammit it was close enough.

"Let's go back." He said, offering her a hand. When she couldn't stand, he lifted her onto his back and began to walk back to the ship. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and he could feel her wet body pressed into his back, soaking his shirt. He could feel the warmth of her and the curves of her body and he felt a stirring in himself. Dammit Spike, keep your head together.

By the time they got back onto the ship she was shivering and Spike felt way too hot. He took her to her room, ready to set her down and get out of there before his problem became obvious. Luckily he wasn't showing any obvious signs to his longing other than his increased body temperature.

"Spike?" Her voice stopped him in his tracks. "Would you stay with me tonight? I hate to ask but, I can't seem to shake the nightmares about being in that cage." She seemed almost embarrassed to ask him. How could he refuse? With the way he was feeling, he should have declined. But he didn't. "Go get some dry clothes okay?" She smiled, happy that he didn't turn her down.

When the door slid closed, she breathed a deep sigh. Her heart had been pounding hard in her chest. The dreams had been plaguing her, which was true. But it wasn't the whole reason she asked him to stay. On the way back, she couldn't help feeling the muscles of his back, the heat and the strength and the smell of him. They were weapons against her sanity and she had to admit she wanted him.

Quickly she changed her clothes, stripping of the cold, wet sundress in favor of some shorts and the long sleeve button up shirt that he had oogled her in long ago. Maybe this would get the message across without being too obvious. Either way, she wasn't going to act like the whore everyone thought she was. If he didn't make a move, she sure as hell wouldn't make herself look like a fool.

Across the ship Spike was wondering if he should catch a cold shower before heading over to her room. Instead he just changed into his sweat pants and white t-shirt and made his way slowly back to her room. With a deep breath he knocked, then opened the door. She had her back to him, brushing out her long black hair. The large white men's shirt hung loose on her shoulders, exposing the back of her neck and her entire right shoulder. Some of her scars peeked out from under the shirt, marring the skin white with the old and pink with the new. Spike stepped forward and touched the scars with the tips of his fingers. She jumped a little and pulled the shirt back up over her shoulder, then spoke without turning to face him.

"You have them now too." Her voice was full of guilt. But Spike wasn't angry with her over his scars. They just reminded him of what she did for him. And of the life he was helping her leave behind. To show he felt no shame in them, he removed his shirt and threw it on the bed.

Astryd looked at him over her shoulder, standing so tall beside her, his skin pulled taunt over lean muscle. Her lips went dry and she wanted to kiss him but she didn't. She remained still. Emerald and sapphire orbs watched Spike carefully as he lay down on the bed, taking in the fresh red scars on his back. Though they marred his flesh she didn't care. Her love didn't come from want of his body, it came from want of his heart.

Spike watched Astryd go to turn out the light, letting his eyes trace the dark tattoo that wound up her leg and disappeared under her shorts. He silently wondered what it was. Jet said it was a jackal, but it just looked like a thick band of black. Except on the back of her knee where it started. There it looked a little like tribal style fur. So where was the jackal's head? Spike cocked an eyebrow in wonder but got himself caught.

When someone is staring, you're bound to notice. Astryd did. Her hand faltered on the light switch. "You keep staring at my tattoo."

"Yeah. A jackal right?" He stated, grinning crookedly and propping his head up on his arm.

"Do you want to see it?" She tested the waters. It was just a tattoo right? No harm in showing that right? Spike didn't answer. His eyes did the talking when then traced the tattoo once more before meeting hers. Of course he wanted to see it. "See, when a born jackal reaches…um….adulthood, they are tattooed with some form of jackal. It shows loyalty. Getting caught by police with the jackal tattoo is an instant jail sentence. Only those born of jackal blood, or those that prove intense loyalty to the syndicate get a tattoo. Orion's tattoo was almost identical to mine, just on the opposite leg." Astryd stood by the bed, pulling her shorts leg up dangerously high. Letting Spike see the full curve of the tattoo that passed so closely by her most private areas. Then she turned her back to him, pulling the back of her shirt up and holding it in with her elbows as she pulled the back of her shorts down a little. The head of the jackal was revealed on her lower back. Simple and dark, its hollow eyes stared back at Spike. The only other hollow spot was the Yin on the jackal's throat.

"Orion had Yang." She raised her shorts and dropped her shirt again. "We were meant to rule the syndicate together. Hand in hand as one force. My father chose these tattoos for us. Matching, and yet two halves. One single person that should never have been split into two. He said that's why we were so different. Orion was the shadow, and I was the light. That's why….I was so useless. The light shouldn't rule darkness. Too weak I guess."

Spike didn't speak. He wanted to tell her she wasn't useless. Or worthless. His fingers reached out and brushed the tattoo on the back of her thigh, surprised when she jumped away awkwardly and continued to flip the light off. In the darkness he smiled, finding it funny that she was so easily startled by his touch.

Julia had never been that way. That woman was dangerous and therefor loved the touch. She never refused him. But she never fully accepted him either. All the time, Vicious was ravaging her body and it ate at Spike. Astryd wouldn't be like that, he was sure. He was learning what love was and becoming increasingly surprised that it wasn't what he thought it was.

Astryd slipped into bed beside him, as she had many times before, and it just felt right. Spike put his forehead against hers. It was easier to react in the dark. He didn't have to worry about her looking at him like a mad man. He could just, do. And maybe even….ask. "I said once, that I might not come back. That I might die on a hunt. I asked….someone…..if they would save me if it were true." Spike let it sink in for a moment before asking. "Would you have really done it?"

For a moment Astryd wasn't sure what he was referring to, but then it clicked. He meant, would she have killed herself to save him. She was so afraid then, but she knew she wasn't in any real danger of killing herself. Her father was bound to accept and if he didn't, she couldn't just kill herself and leave Spike alone to their mercy. But that wasn't his question. "Yes." Was the short answer. "I just, wanted you safe. When I saw that man whipping you…"She shook her head and tried to make the memory go away. "I don't know what came over me. I don't even remember killing him. But I know I did. I had the gun, I had to have killed him." Her hand covered her face.

Spike's fingers wrapped around her hand and pulled it away from her face, kissing her gently as he did. Astryd's heart almost skipped a beat. It wasn't the first time Spike had kissed her, but it seemed that right now she was standing on the edge of the unknown. For so long she had wanted this. Wanted Spike to reciprocate her feelings. And yet, she couldn't help but wonder why he had said those things to her. That he couldn't care for her? It didn't make much sense.

It was all Spike could do to kiss her gently. Inside a fire was burning and he was trying in vain to control it. When she ran her fingers into the hair on the back of his head, a chill ran down his spine. Without thinking, he rested his free hand on her hip, gripping almost too tight in his passion. When she seemed to pull closer to him, he slowly moved his hand to the curve of her side under her shirt. He felt the slight hitch in her breath and decided he needed to take it slower. But it was almost killing him to go this slow right now. So he moved his head away, resting his forehead on the pillow by her.

Astryd looked up, her heart already racing as Spike pulled his hand from under her shirt to gently grasp her collar. And then she saw he opportunity. His neck was so close and she wanted to taste him. So she did. With one move she pulled him a little closer with her hand, her lips meeting his flesh right below his earlobe, unaware of his struggle.

With the touch of her mouth to his neck the fire surged and his body reacted quickly. His fist clenched around her collar and pulled, popping a few of the buttons off as he moved his head to get her away from his neck. "Don't." He whispered, as if warning her against a danger she might not see.

But this reaction, though frightening, made Astryd want it even more. She could feel him bulging into her leg, and felt a sense of control. The kind of control one feels at the edge of a lion's den. You tempt the lion, but at the same time you know it can tear you to pieces with a single swipe. Trembling, she traced her fingers over the curve of his spine, feeling the heat of his breath on her collar bone. She was tempting the beast.

Spike gritted his teeth, then he snatched her hand from his back and pinned it harshly to the bed. His face was looming over hers now as he almost growled at her. "You don't know what you're doing." It was a warning. He didn't want to hurt her but her temptations were drawing him far too close to the breaking point. Surely she understood what he could do to her if provoked. Her eyes looked up, almost daring him to show her. But this was her first time. He couldn't be rough with her, no matter how much he wanted to.

Slowing himself down, he released her wrist and flicked the rest of her buttons out of their holes, watching as the fabric fell away from her soft flesh. She was still nervous, her now free hand covered her breasts shyly. He could feel the heat of her face and knew she was crimson from blushing. It made him grin a little as he went in for another deep kiss.

Spike's mouth made its way to her neck, keeping the kissed a passionate as the ones he had placed on her lips. When she moaned a little he felt a pulse in his groin. Would she be a screamer? A mischievous grin crossed his lips as he kissed his way down to her breast. Entwining his fingers with hers, he gently moved her hand away and let the shirt slide away from her skin. He flicked his tongue lightly across her nipple, feeling it rise at his touch before taking it between his teeth. As he sucked, her back arched a little, her hand gripping his own and pulling his hair.

Releasing Astryd's hand, Spike massaged her hip as he continued to suck and bite at her tender pink nipple. After a moment, he moved his hand to her inner thigh, testing the waters with every inch until his fingers were rubbing her mound from outside her shorts. He was pleasantly surprised at how wet she was. But she was feeling tempting again and without warning, the hand on the back of his neck slid down his chest and across his stomach and over his sweatpants to wrap its slender digits around his swollen member. He raised his head to meet her lips again. "Astryd…"His deep voice rumbled darkly, his lips brushing hers as he spoke. "Don't tempt me." He warned, but she was feeling brave again. Much to Spike's dismay, she took his bottom lip between her teeth, the shock was like throwing gasoline on a fire. He grasped her shorts between her legs and ripped them down her legs as he plunged his lips to hers again.

She was making so hard on him. Biting and kissing and massaging him. He was losing himself slowly. How much longer could he be expected to go easy on her? Not much longer. Spike grasped her breast as their kissing became more desperate. He could feel her kicking her shorts off, her hand now inside his pants, stroking him. She was a little clumsy but that was to be expected her first time. Without breaking their kiss, he pulled his pants down enough to be able to kick them off too.

Nervousness didn't really set in until he rolled between her legs. His hand on the side of her face helped to steady her and though she was ready, she was a little scared. All of the teasing before was so real now. "Spike?" She whispered between their kisses. "Will it hurt?" It seemed so silly to ask now. But sex was strictly forbidden for the females in her family before they were married. They knew the basics of sex ed, but little about the act itself.

"Yes." He answered. No use in lying now. "But only for a minute." He stroked her hair reassuringly, his eyes searching her face for signs of fear. She did look afraid, but she also didn't seem to be changing her mind either.

Astryd nodded and wrapped her arms around Spike's shoulders. He drew himself closer and she could feel him in the wetness of her core. He pushed into her gently and she could feel the head pop inside of her. When he pushed a little deeper, she felt a surge of pain and her fingernails dug into his back as she whimpered.

Spike felt her tear and he wished he could take that pain from her. Not daring to push any further when she was in pain, Spike stopped moving. Instead he stroked her hair and held her close until her breathing slowed and she wasn't gripping him so tightly.

Once he was finally all the way inside of her, the fire was burning inside of him again, full force. The feel of her tightness on him was almost too much to bear. Slowly he slid himself in and out, her pain now fading, she was arching her back into him. Her hands grasped him, her legs wrapped around his back to pull him deeper. He watched her writhe below him, her face flushed in the moon light.

A smooth and steady rhythm was quickly achieved but it wasn't enough. He wanted to hold her down and take her with the full force of the fire that raged inside him. With every kiss, every touch, every move he grew hotter.

With the pain gone, Astryd wanted more. Damn the consequences, she curled her fingers in his hair and pulled his neck close once more. Now that she knew his weakness she would use it. Her teeth found the place between his neck and shoulder. She relished his gasping growl as he plunged into her hard, one of his hands gripping her lower ribcage in lust. His free hand grabbed a handful of sheets as he snapped in her ear. "Stop." But she couldn't.

The danger drove her to new heights and she bit him again, harder, sucking at the tender weak point. Before she knew it, he was pounding into her harder, but she could tell he wasn't using his full strength. It was enough for her. He had pinned her wrists to the bed, probably holding on too tight but he was trying his best to not plough into her like a wild animal.

Spike felt like some wild beast, seeking to devour its prey. She was at his mercy now, and he could tell she was loving every minute of it. Her hands grasped at his flesh as if she was holding on for dear life. The digging feeling in his muscles from her fingertips helped him keep his grip on reality.

Astryd on the other hand was trying to take it all in. From his musky, earthy scent, to the way he moved his body. Surges through her core pulsed with every thrust, radiating through her like a flame. She was feeling the same fire that raged within them. Their hearts beat in sync as they engulfed each other.

Spike could feel himself giving over to her. Letting go of every reason he had to push her away and in that moment he pulled her closer, kissing her deeply as her fingers twined in his hair. She pulled him closer and he knew she was feeling he same way he was. Breathing in her breath, the heat of her skin, the inviting warmth of her body. Her heart belonged to him fully and he silently promised to take care of it. Promised himself not to tear it apart, just as he was trying his best to not tear her apart.

Those beautifully unique eyes met his and for the first time in a long time, he could stare into their depths without regret. Only the fire of his passion was reflected in her eyes and he clasped the sheets firmly again, swallowing back the flames, his control waning. Closing his eyes and concentrating on the closeness of her frail body reminded him to cage the beast within.

If Laughing Bull was right and her star was going to fall, this memory would live on as a sweet dream, the whole of their emotions defined in this moment when they became one. The moment he let go of everything else and allowed himself to be hers. When he started to feel her tighten around him, he knew what would happen next and he was ready for it.

"Spike?" She asked breathily, eyes closed and brow creased. What was this?

"Let it go." He huffed, keeping the rhythm.

Astryd did. Her back arched as every muscle in her body tightened. Without though she cried out his name. All she could think about was this feeling. It was enough to send Spike over the edge. He drove himself into her harder, extending her orgasm. Her muscles tightened around him, pulling him deep into her and grasping with such force. In an instant his hot seed shot into her. Her muscles pulling for every last drop as he collapsed on top of her, kissing her as they tried to catch their breath. That night the stars witnessed the testament of their affection, and a new beginning was written in their hearts.