AN: In case it wasn’t obvious before, I DO like Angel. But Xander doesn’t. This opinion will reflect itself in his POV a lot.
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
Over the two months that followed, Xander and his cellmate gradually became friendlier with each other, a process that was painful and slow compared to the quick and sudden friendship Xander had made with Syera. Xander often likened it to pulling teeth but knew not all of the resistance came from his sullen cellmate. A good portion of it came from him too.
Despite his heavy suspicion and insistence that Keepers had no names (“And only if it will stop you from calling me by that annoying moniker ‘Catman’”), the man finally revealed that his name was Ma’ryn. It meant something important in his native language, Ma’ryn had told him haughtily, but it wasn’t something a human could be expected to appreciate.
It was another hurdle, another obstacle Xander was expected to jump, but it was smaller and easier to pass that Xander thought, because once Xander had wheedled that little bit of information out of him, the words between them came more freely, like the name had been the key to the lock that kept Ma’ryn so distant. Ma’ryn still didn’t like humans but he seemed to budge a little on his judgment of Xander, for whatever reason.
“I suppose… a human could be far more troublesome.” Ma’ryn had admitted finally, which Xander took to mean, “You aren’t too bad, for a human.” He’d take his compliments where he could get him.
Xander found it harder and harder to take Ma’ryn seriously any more. After one battle where Xander had nearly been eviscerated (it was a lucky shot!), the catman proved he was just a big old pussy cat where Xander was concerned. Even though Xander’s wound had healed before he had even reached their floor (if he ever saw Drusilla again, he’d thank her before he staked her), Ma’ryn fussed over him gruffly like a mother cat over a bewildered kitten.
Considering the fact that Xander was nearly as bad in that respect, he finally gave up on trying to be distant and opened himself to friendship with the big man, sharing heavily edited tales from the Hellmouth in hopes that Ma’ryn would reciprocate. And boy did the catman reciprocate!
Ma’ryn especially enjoyed telling Xander of his world. Xander imagined most Keepers did. Xander, on the other hand, tried to think about his dimension as little as possible because on most days, it just depressed him. On all other days, it just pissed him off.
It seemed that Ma’ryn was a part of a tribe of scholars and traders (“You sure? Scholars? And not, you know, warriors?” Ma’ryn didn’t get Xander’s confusion) on a harsh planet unknown to Wraith. While the planet was connected to other worlds by a stargate (and what an interesting conversation that was- Ma’ryn could hardly believe that Xander didn’t know what a stargate was), the tribe itself was relatively unknown to the other populations of the galaxy, choosing to trade while wearing large heavy cloaks that hid their feline features.
“We trade a-” Ma’ryn made a face, searching for the right word. On the very first day of their acquaintance, he had made sure to point out Xander’s inferiority by revealing that he was multi-lingual. One of the many reasons why he hated being called a ‘beast’ was because of the assumption that came with it that implied he was dumb. Where he was from, being called dumb was one of the worst insults imaginable. “Not a vegetable… a fruit! It is sweet but sour and has juicy inner meat.”
“Oh? That sounds good.” Anything, at this point, sounded delicious. The food that the Keepers were given would have turned up the nose of even the most gluttonous of pigs, and Xander knew a thing or two about pigs. Uncle Rory never really recovered from having his entire porn collection eaten by his son’s pet of the week. “What is it called?”
Ma’ryn tilted his head in consideration and opened his mouth, letting out a strangely musical set of notes out. Xander’s eyebrows jumped up. Ma’ryn had that look on his face, the one that Xander had decided early on hinted at suppressed amusement. Xander thought about asking him to repeat that but decided against it. A light bulb flickered on in his head.
“Ah, the people you traded with!” he called out suddenly, leaning forward. “What did THEY call it?”
Ma’ryn looked pained. “Sweet and sour juicy fruit.” He admitted with a long suffering sigh. Xander let out a delighted laugh. “There’s a human for you.”
“One hundred and eighty-seven.” Counter said, passing by the cell with his escorts, who never left his side.
“Oh crap.” Xander said out loud. “I was hoping I was more in tune nowadays.” He then had to explain to Ma’ryn what he meant, annoyed when the man didn’t seem surprised. Apparently, he zoned out A LOT, mostly right before a match and for some time after.
“I do not blame you for escaping, even if only into the confines of your mind. No, I envy you. I wish I could lose myself so deeply within my mind.” Ma’ryn sighed heavily. He looked at Xander with a sudden sharpness. “Are you aware that your eyes glow during those periods of time?” Xander grimaced, mumbling something about stupid hyenas but that was all he would say about that.
“Had this been a different circumstance, I might have been more upset about losing my memories.” Xander admitted, running his hands through his hair. He pulled them out with a grimace when they got stuck in tangles. His hair was getting to be too long. “I’m missing entire weeks of my LIFE. I only know they have come and gone because of Counter.”
“Time means nothing here.” Ma’ryn said, echoing Xander’s thoughts on the matter. “Time does not exist. Only you, and I, and the inevitable battles in front of us… they are all that exists.” He paused for a moment, considering. “I have little respect for most of the humans here.”
“I noticed.” Xander said lightly with a wry smile.
“It is not species related hatred. I like humans well enough.” Ma’ryn waved his hand. “They have their uses. Even with their limited intellect.”
“I’m all about the limited intellect, so you’re really not insulting me.”
“Your species is a kind that clings- foolishly!- to hope.” Ma’ryn did that growly thing. Now this was a topic that the catman was REALLY irritated about. “For Counter, and for every human that takes up his place, I have no sympathies. The man who keeps track of time is waiting for that one moment that it will all end. And that is a human who will soon die.” He glared at Xander, his face oddly open. The single candle did weird things to his eyes. “You must not lose the will to live, Xander! That which attracted the creature’s attention to us is what will keep you alive.”
“Live, when all is lost?”
“When all is lost, what else can you do but live?”
“Die.” Xander said flatly. He hated when Ma’ryn tried to engage him in such arguments. He knew their real purpose. “I know what this is really about. Quit trying to talk me out of it.” He stood suddenly, walking away from Ma’ryn to pause in front of the open door. “‘Richard’ is going to die. And after he dies…” He turned around, a sad but resigned smile on his face. “So will I.”
Xander spent a great amount of time just contemplating his arm. The marks finally wrapped around his wrist. There was only enough room for one more mark. They would soon start again on his other arm, like they did on Ma’ryn. He didn’t so much dread it as much as he hated the inevitability. What would happen when the space ran out on his other arm? Would they start tattooing his ass?
Xander snorted, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. He didn’t think too much of the future or lack thereof when Ma’ryn was around. He didn’t spend so much time thinking about what the marks on his arm MEANT when the catman was around to growl and whine and philosophize. It was just that the marks (and especially the brand) went against everything Xander had ever been taught or had believed in.
But the brander had been right. He no longer denied who he belonged to. Xander was the queen’s bitch, alright. It didn’t mean he had to LIKE it though.
“Ma’ryn!” he called out when he saw the big man shuffling to their cell. There were lines of tension on his furry face but he walked just as regally as ever, if not a bit slower. The catman had won another battle but there was something wrong, Xander could feel it. “What’s with the face?”
“Inspection is imminent.” Ma’ryn spat. He limped to his mat, stretching his right leg out as he sat down, which was odd because Xander had only ever seen the huge man sit on his knees.
“Inspection?” Xander echoed, dropping down to a crouch next to him.
“When the queen has some reason to suspect that her favored Keepers are not well enough to keep their lives.” Ma’ryn lifted up his pant leg, revealing a deep oozing cut. The dark red of his blood was offset by the whiteness of the bone underneath. Xander felt some awe even as he winced at the sight. How the hell did he manage to get all the way up here?
One of the many bad things about being an upper level Keeper was that some of battles they were forced in were often not fair. Sometimes, you had to fight an animal or beast that was stronger and/or faster than you. While Xander had yet to face another T-rex again, he had fought some of its smaller cousins in battles he was sure he would have died in normally, if not for Drusilla’s necklace. Sometimes you had to fight humans too, but they were armed. You had to be creative in those kinds of battles.
“My wound is severe. They will kill me.” Ma’ryn said with a heavy sense of finality. Xander looked at the wound critically. It wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the ones he had gotten from the dinosaur battles. Without thinking too much about it, Xander pulled the necklace over his head, looping it around the feline head of his cellmate.
“Here!” he muttered, tucking the crystal underneath his vest. As always, Ma’ryn let him have his liberties, but was obviously confused.
“What is it?” he asked, cupping the crystal from over the shirt. “It is curiously warm.”
Xander shook his head. “Don’t ask questions, just-” He was interrupted by an unwanted voice.
“Inspection.” Xander leapt to his feet, recognizing the face of his most loathed enemy. Behind him, Ma’ryn stood as well, sighing softly. Xander moved to intercept the Wraith, crowding the demon up against the wall as much as he could. For once, he didn’t think of pissing off “Richard”. He only looked to stall.
“Dick, how nice of you to visit me! And here I am, all dirty and in my work clothes.” Xander greeted cheerfully.
The Wraith’s face was twisted with disgusted hostility. “Out of the way, Keeper.” He warned softly, his eyes glittering.
“Don’t you want to chat, talk about the kids?” Xander slung an arm around the demon’s shoulder, physically resisting the urge to lock his arm all the way around and just SQUEEZE while he steered the demon off to the side. “Oh, I have this GREAT recipe I’d like to share with you-“
“You have a strange way of hiding your fear.” “Richard” said harshly, one hand jerking Xander’s arm off and away from his body. The violence in the simple gesture revealed how much the Wraith was holding back. That makes two of us then.
“Fear? Of YOU?” Xander pushed, his voice soft. “Don’t make me laugh.” He kept his attack verbal but it didn’t mean it was any less effective, judging by the increasingly hostile look in the Wraith’s eyes. “You’re dead. You just don’t know it yet.”
Xander was half-expecting the swing that came his way but was just as startled as “Richard” when he managed to intercept it. His arm ached from the strength of the blow but it hurt worse not to return it, just as it had hurt to not break the demon’s neck while it was in reach. Something roared inside of him with a need to rip and tear and destroy but as soon as he thought of Ma’ryn behind him, counting on him to stall, the murderous rage backed off, sulking but comprehending Xander’s restraint.
The Wraith was pissed. “Get out of the way, Keeper, or you will regret it.” He hissed softly. Xander sensed some line had been crossed and backed off warily, hoping he had delayed long enough for Drusilla’s gift to kick in. The Wraith watched him edge to the side of the room, just as wary as Xander, and only moved toward Ma’ryn when Xander was completely up against the wall.
“Show me your leg, Keeper.” Ma’ryn obeyed, lifting his left pant leg and baring his leg. The Wraith sneered. “Your other one.” With much hesitation, the man leaned over, slowly lifting up the gory pant leg. His fur was matted with blood but the cut that was revealed was small and already scabbed over. “How odd. I observed a sword slicing through your leg.” What little was left of the wound was much too small to have been made by a sword.
“You observed wrong, Wraith.” Ma’ryn growled. He was so confident that, if Xander hadn’t known better, he would have thought Ma’ryn knew the powers of the necklace all along. “Or are you so distracted by your obsession with the boy that you are seeing things that are not there?” He pulled his pant leg down and straightened to his full height, towering over the Wraith. “I’d be careful, Wraith. The queen has no softness for any weak individuals. That ESPECIALLY includes her Wraith.”
The Wraith’s face twisted with disdain, but he backed off. “Richard” got the message, alright. Xander met his gaze with no expression whatsoever. He didn’t want to give the demon any grounds to investigate further. There was no point in pissing the Wraith off now when the one who would get hurt was Ma’ryn himself.
Finally, the Wraith left. Only when he was completely out of earshot did Xander let out an explosive sigh. He turned around, slightly amused to see Ma’ryn sitting back on the ground and poking at his wound. The catman looked up with a vaguely irritated look, making Xander scowl back reflexively. Damn ungrateful cat. He KNEW there was a reason why he liked dogs better.
“You are a fool and you will die because of it.” Ma’ryn pulled the necklace out from behind his vest. The claw on his index finger was a tad bigger than the crystal itself. The man pulled the necklace over his head and offered it to Xander. “But I thank you, despite my common sense telling me you need not be encouraged in your ways.” Xander reached for it but just as his fingers curled around the warm crystal, one of Ma’ryn’s huge hands closed around Xander’s own, the grip tight. His furred face was very grave. “Keep it close and show it to no one. I do not know how you managed for so long without anyone seeing it but if the Wraith ever knew such a wondrous technology slipped by…” He shook his head. “Hide it.”
Xander was kind of amused that Ma’ryn thought the necklace (what would you call it anyway? A charm? An amulet?) was a piece of technology but he didn’t bother to correct him. It was better if he didn’t know. And Ma’ryn was right, it was better if no one else knew either. Xander made a show of putting the necklace back on and tucking it behind his vest. He patted it down lightly and smiled innocently, which made Ma’ryn groan and mutter darkly about ‘silly human children’.
It was a day like any other. Xander woke up, ate, bantered with his cellmate, and wandered around the hall. He passed the Death Keeper’s cell without thinking about it. The man was under a three day quarantine for killing another Keeper on the fifth floor while the other man was sleeping. While the Wraith didn’t care much if Keepers killed other Keepers outside of battle, the queen DID get a little miffed when one of her favored died suddenly without her knowledge.
“Over here, little Keeper.” The Death Keeper rasped, crooking his fingers. Xander wandered over, making sure to stay out of reach. The gaps in the webbing were big enough for even a man the Keeper’s size to stick his arm completely through.
“Ah, if it isn’t my favorite kindergarten bully.” Xander greeted, stopping several feet away. “How’s confinement working out for you?” Chances were, if the bastard even got a PINKY on him, he’d be dead before he could say, ‘Angel’s a whiny bitch.’
The Death Keeper looked disappointed that Xander didn’t come any closer. “The beast will only be able to protect you for so long.” He snapped, withdrawing his arm.
“He’s not with me on the arena floor, is he?” Xander pointed out cheerfully, meaningfully. Ma’ryn didn’t ‘win’ his marks of victory for him.
The other Keeper laughed. “You’ll die one of these days.” He grabbed the webbing and shook it with sudden violence. He came to a stop that was just as sudden. “And I’ll be there to watch.”
“Keeper!” A Wraith called out from down the hall. Both Keepers looked over and they were not the only Keepers to do so. The demon’s habit of calling everyone Keeper meant everyone was confused as to who he was talking to until it became readily apparent.
It became very obvious that the Wraith was talking to Xander. He had a knife in his hand. At the sight of it, Xander felt both giddy and alarmed. The contrasting emotions planted his feet in place and made him freeze only to blink stupidly at the demon.
“Present your arm, Keeper.” The Wraith said slowly, as if to a child. Xander snapped out of it and presented his arm. The knife through his skin hurt like any other wound he had on that arm but it would scar. It would heal quickly, but it WOULD scar, because Xander needed it to. The ‘x’ was dripping blood down his arm but the edges were already coming together.
Xander slowly made eye contact with the Death Keeper, who was watching with an intense look on his face. Xander smiled, a tad bitter. “Looks like you won’t be there to watch, huh?”
“Xander!” For once, his cellmate had come out of his cell without Xander’s prompting, most likely because he had heard the Keepers’ whispers. He had an angry look on his face and the way he was stalking up to them was not unlike the charge of an enraged bull. Xander was just glad that rage wasn’t aimed at him.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Ma’ryn.” Xander said quietly. The catman slowed to a stop, an angry look twisting his face. “I get my battle.” At a gesture from the Wraith, he started to walk away, leaving Ma’ryn behind.
“You know what you must do, Xander.” Ma’ryn growled, his big hands curling into fists. Xander did not respond, keeping his eyes front and center. “You know! Xander!” The bellow of his voice sounded like a dull roar that reverberated throughout the holding cells but Xander couldn’t hear it over the static noise in his ears.
Turned off. Not completely present. Not completely sane.
Xander remembered Ma’ryn’s words, given to him only a few months before. The only smart reaction to a Wraith match was to make that Wraith kill you quickly. If you were heavily injured but didn’t die, your opponent would feed on you. If you managed to kill the Wraith and survive somewhat intact… Xander shivered, remembering Syera’s crazed eyes.
“Choose. Choose his death.” The Wraith had told him. Xander made the wrong choice.
Xander had come to terms with a lot of things over his stint in the Keep, but one of the things he felt he’d regret the most would be the necessity of putting Ma’ryn in the position to choose his death. He hoped Ma’ryn would make the right choice.