Disclaimer: Neither Stargates nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to me. I claim no ownership of them and recognize that they belong to the various people and companies who own them. I do this solely for my own enjoyment and, should our interests mesh, the enjoyment of others. I have made no money off of this and do not ever plan to. Anything that even looks vaguely familiar (such as brand names, culture references, etc) also does not belong to me.
Series: Return to the Blood Lands
Story: Welcome to the Keep
The Wraith took a knife to the skin of the man, carefully carving an x over the upside down y that comprised the brand. The blood flowed down the muscular arm. What little pride a Keeper can have kept the man quiet in spite of the pain. His face was blank, carefully constructed in the knowledge that everyone else in the hall was watching.
He walked away behind the Wraith, his shoulders stiff. His battle was a battle that was not to be watched by the rest of the Keepers, and yet, they all knew what the results would be. They all knew his fate, not just by the battle they never got to see but the mark so painfully made over the Keeper’s mark.
“It means he has been marked for death.” Xander’s cellmate said from behind him. Xander glanced over his shoulder at him before shrugging, his head dipping down as he turned back to watch the Keeper’s departure.
His cellmate was some kind of feline humanoid creature. There might have been fur on his arms once but the Wraith had burned it off, making sure none would grow back there and hide the marks that identified him as a Keeper. Other than the face, which looked very feline (complete with whiskers and all), and the claws on the end of every finger and toe, he looked just like a human. Just one that was very big and very grey.
His cellmate was a cranky one. He didn’t like it when people stared at him. He didn’t like humans. He didn’t like waking up in the morning nor did he like going to sleep at night. He didn’t like Xander. He didn’t like the Wraith.
He didn’t like talking either, which was a damn shame because talking was what Xander did best. He did, however, answer questions, provided he was in the right mood and the questions weren’t too stupid.
“Like Syera.” Xander sighed. The man moved behind him, dropping down to the ground in a smooth practiced motion. Xander didn’t flinch even though he really REALLY wanted to. He was almost used to his cell mate’s presence now.
“Fight a Wraith and live: you die.” His cellmate’s voice was smooth, deep, and sudden. Like a verbal sneak attack. Xander wondered if he timed his words like that on purpose or if that was the regular cadence of his speech. “Fight a Wraith and fail to die too quickly: you die. The best solution? Make him kill you quickly.” The big man snorted, his disgust blatantly obvious.“Impossible battle.”
“Why do they do that?” Xander turned all the way around, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. He had the tactical advantage of standing up but, with a man as big as his cellmate, it wasn’t much of one. “Don’t they need people to fight?”
“It is another way they cull their herd.” For such a scary looking guy, he had such a Giles-esque lecturing tone. Xander almost expected him to start spouting something off about the Chosen one and the practical functionality of tweed. “If a man has become too weak, too stupid, or too old and yet dares to continue to live through battles, they will arrange a fight between him and a Wraith.” The man sighed but then glared fiercely at Xander, his eyes glittering in the low light. Xander couldn’t help but look at his boots. He was SCARY. “Or, it can be requested. Anger a Wraith too much through continued cheek, and you may be out there next, human.”
“I was kind of planning on it.” He looked up quickly enough to see that strange furred face pull into a frown but before he could wonder at it, the man’s face became blank.
He had nightmares that night. “Richard” was hungry again, so he fed on Syera. But Syera was no longer Syera. He was Giles, Oz, Willow, and Buffy. It was a never ending loop of death and feeding. “Richard” never seemed satisfied.
When Buffy came around for the third time, she turned to him, twisting and turning under the pressure of the Wraith’s feeding hand. Only she was strong enough to move, but not strong enough to fight back. NEVER strong enough to fight back. Her eyes flashed with betrayal when she looked at him. “Why couldn’t you just CHOOSE and kill me, you coward?”
Finally, he chose. The snap of her neck was obscenely loud and too familiar. Buffy’s body was limp underneath his hands, the warmth rushing out of it all of the sudden, defying logic as it became ice cold to the touch. “Richard” finally backed away. Xander suddenly woke up, gasping heavily and crying, horrified and yet somehow relieved. She was saved. She was dead.
Death wasn’t a very good option for someone looking to save someone else, not for a Scooby. But death seemed to be the only option, in the Keep.
“You’ve been here four months and have already made it to the fifth floor. You have made quick progress.” It was just one of those random observations his cellmate liked to throw out there, like rice at a wedding.
“It’s not something I’m proud of.”
“Who says progress is always something to be happy about?” Xander was certain that some sort of broad abstract and probably philosophical thing had just been thrown at him so he had something to distract him (Xander harbored no illusions about his cellmate sleeping through his nightmare) but Xander couldn’t offer up anything more than an indifferent grunt. His cellmate thankfully backed off.
Xander learned quickly not to refer to his cellmate as a beast. One other man, a grumpy son of a bitch from two cells down called him the one day Xander managed to coax his cellmate out of the cell. One casual hit from one of those huge hands and the man’s jaw was broken. Xander learned then that his cellmate was impervious to the Wraith feeding process, which made the Wraith guards wary and the Keepers wrathful.
It made Xander feel good, knowing that he wasn’t the only Keeper unanimously disliked by all.
“You know, there are better ways you could have handled that.” Xander offered his opinion mock-cheerfully. He missed the amused expression that his cellmate sent his way. “I mean, it’s not like it really mattered-“
“Of course it matters!” The man grumbled. Xander gathered this ‘beast calling’ was a pet peeve of the man, if one can call something that inspired that much violence a ‘pet peeve’. “I know the connotations you humans have of the word ‘beast’. I am not some dumb animal. I am not some cruel barbarian. I am not a feral murdering pest.”
“No, you’re just whatever the Wraith want you to be, which is all of those things and more.” He ushered his cellmate back into the confines of their cell, surprised, as always, that the huge man even allowed him to. “You may not be those things personally, but does it really matter? We all are under the same pressure as you. If that pressure makes you a beast well then, aren’t the rest of us beasts too?”
“So you would not be angry, to know that there are those who would call you a beast.” He sounded very disbelieving, as if he didn’t think anyone with the smallest bit of pride and dignity would allow themselves to be looked down upon in such a way. Xander didn’t have much in the way of ‘dignity’.
“I AM a beast.” Xander admitted frankly. “I’m a barbarian, I’m cruel, I’m feral, I’m an animal. I’m everything the Queen of the Freaks wants me to be.” He cupped his hand over his marks, a resigned sigh expelling out of him with a whoosh. “Just… chill out, Catman.”
There was silence for a very long time but it was in no way uncomfortable.
“I am unfamiliar with the term ‘cat’.” Xander suppressed a smile, having had predicted the inevitable interest. The man had the curiosity of one. “Does it have the same connotations as beast?”
“No-o.” Xander drawled out, thinking about it. “Cat is actually a pretty neutral term. It’s what we call uh felines?” There was no comprehension on that very feline face. Xander opened his mouth, thinking about saying something along the lines of ‘you people’ but recognized the danger of such a train of thought. He backed away from that hastily.
His cellmate could fold him into a pretzel. It was probably best not to insult him more than he could get away with.
“I call you Catman because you remind me of a cat and you remind me of a man- thus Catman. It’s not a subtle insult. It’s not even an insult at all. If I wanted to insult you, you wouldn’t have to ask if it was an insult or not. It would be obvious.” Xander might have grumbled ‘And you won’t give me your real name anyway’ but if he did, it was ignored.
“As obvious as your taunting of the Wraith you call ‘Richard’?”
“Yeah.” Xander smiled but there was no warmth in it. It was as if he had been dropped mentally in a pit of his own darkness. It was getting harder and harder to find his own way out of that pit. “One of these days, he’s gonna crack. Like a nut. And I’m gonna be there.”
His cellmate stared at him, frowning again. “I’m not going to apologize.” He said suddenly, sulky. It was enough to snap Xander out of his own mental hell.
“Don’t.” Xander said easily, suddenly amicable. “This is the Keep. There’s no room for silly things like manners and good behavior. Or even good hygiene.”
Fangs flashed in a smile. “You are not wrong, human.”
For some reason or another, Xander pissed off his cellmate a few days later. The man did remind him so much of a cat, not just physically but in personality too. His current attitude towards Xander was like that of a cat whose tail Xander had accidentally stepped on. While his cellmate had no tail, Xander had definitely stepped on it.
He was radiating offense all over the place but, since his cellmate had yet to hit him, Xander figured it was likely a shallow sort of annoyance than any sort of true anger. Xander had grown unused to placating egos. Syera had been an easy cellmate who tended to get over his own grievances without holding grudges. And then, of course, there was that huge stretch of time where Xander had had no cellmate at all. All other socializing done with Keepers was on the arena floor, quick and to the point. Nothing about egos involved in killing each other.
Xander fought another three times that week. His cellmate only fought twice. They came back to their cells after each fight, annoyed and tired, and Xander was pretty sure it was the third time Xander came back, the final time when he had to fight and his cellmate didn’t, that he pissed him off. Probably insinuated something rude- Xander didn’t remember what but he did know he was pretty good at being rude.
Food came in and it was the same Rock-and-Slop that it was on any floor. God forbid they get treated to any GOOD food. Water was always available and it was of a decent quality- this, Xander was thankful for. Their unchanging menu, however, had made quite a change in Xander, who had complained at the tightness of his pants in his first week and now had to tie them up with a rope just so they wouldn’t fall off. And if the menu had affected him a little bit, it affected his cellmate a lot.
The man was utterly gaunt under his clothes. He was literally muscle, skin, bone, and little else, looking like a starved street cat rather than the healthy toms fed and bred at home. The Wraith barely gave the humans enough to survive on, which meant that his cellmate had even less. A man his size needed more than a man Xander’s size.
Xander considered the bread for a moment, knowing he could easily finish it off despite its tough texture. As a teenager, he was used to gorging himself on food, even to the point where it caused physical pain. It was a good kind of pain, he had insisted to Willow, who watched in awe and disgust as he downed three pizzas and a two liter of Pepsi. It meant a man was full.
Four months in the Keep had trained him out of those ways. He could survive on less food than he thought was even possible, just as long as he had water. He could survive on less than even the other humans, ones who had been in the Keep longer than he had, and he couldn’t help but wonder if that was an effect of the Hellmouth or even the various spells, demon blood, and magical nonsense he had been exposed to and had to put up with over the years.
“You want this?” Xander asked quietly, stretching out his arm. The big man looked up from his meal, looking at the bread for a moment before he looked up at Xander.
“A peace offering, is it?” He snorted. “How magnanimous of you.”
“Here.” Xander tossed it at him, suddenly irritated. It landed rather neatly into his cellmate’s empty bowl. “Leave it or eat it. I’m full.”
Those big clawed hands plucked the bread out of the bowl with rather unnecessary care. There was a reason why it was the ‘Rock’ part of the Rock-and-Slop meal plan. Nonetheless, the man handled the food like some people handle babies- softly but with a grip born both out of fear for its safety and also out of fear someone would take it away.
“Thank you.” It was rough, it was sullen, it was grateful. Xander’s quiet ‘You’re welcome’ seemed to cheapen it.