It was like watching chickens run around with their heads cut off, Jack decided. From his perch by the coffee maker and the toaster, he had a prime seat to watch the chaos that he’d come to associate with Cleveland. Since early this morning it’d been one thing after another, plans made and changed as people got up – the arduous task of getting people up – and now rushing to eat and get dressed before having to run out the door.
“Dawn! You’re gonna be late!” Buffy shouted up the stairs at the off beat thumping that thundered down the upstairs hallway and down the stairs.
“There’s goo on my shoes!” Dawn’s strong voice echoed through the house.
“So not my fault,” said Buffy. “Ask Vi. Did you eat breakfast?”
Dawn’s reply was lost to Jack in Andrew’s shouted, “XANDER? Can we afford twenty pounds of flour?” from the pantry.
“Make it ten!” Xander called, coming into the kitchen from the dining room with a handful of papers, a pencil tucked behind an ear. “Buffy!” he said as the two sisters joined them still arguing over the rules of borrowing shoes. “How long are you gonna be here? And I need to know when you’re coming back for the schedules.”
“Xander, Dawn’s gonna be late for rehearsal. No rehearsal, no graduation.” The Slayer grabbed a package of poptarts and shoved them at her sister. “Eat,” she commanded. Dawn wrinkled her nose but accepted them anyway. Buffy rounded on Xander. “And aren’t you taking her?”
The young man craned his head to look at the clock on the stove. “Shit, you’re gonna be late!” he said. Buffy rolled her eyes to Jack at the fact that she had just said that. Xander darted back into the dining room to deposit whatever Slayer Camp stuff he’d been working on, then rushed with Dawn and Buffy to the front hall. He was back a moment later. “Dad, have you seen my keys?”
“By the phone,” Jack told him with a nod in the right direction. A smile played about his lips.
“Wait!” cried Andrew as Xander disappeared again.
“Shopping list!” the resident Iron Chef said as he ran by Jack into the hall.
“DIANA!” Buffy shouted. “CAR’S LEAVING!”
“COMING!” the slayer’s voice replied accompanied by a banging door and running feet. “I couldn’t find my shoes!”
The door opened and slammed shut. Quiet. For all of a second.
“VI!” yelled Buffy as Andrew went back to the pantry. Another indistinguishable yell, more running and chasing down of shoes before the two slayers trooped through the kitchen and into the backyard for their training training. Vi was going to help out teaching this summer since Buffy would be absent setting up her own school in Rome.
As the door clattered shut, the coffee maker announced that it was done, and Jack gratefully poured himself a cup. Quiet again settled over the house that in three short days would be invaded by teenagers. He was very glad that he was going to miss that. The place was crazy enough under normal circumstances, worse now with Buffy home, Giles coming, Dawn graduating, and a whole army to prepare for, but for all that, Jack just couldn’t imagine adding sixty girls to the mix. He was here for a nice – well, he wouldn’t exactly call it quiet – vacation before heading back into the shakeup going on at the Mountain. And he had to say, Cleveland was just as good a vacation spot as the cabin in Minnesota.
True, there weren’t any fish, and it was noisy at odd hours of the day, but Xander and the girls he had come to know and the absolute absurdity of youth more than made up for it. Secretly though, Jack was looking forward to Giles’s arrival for another aged adult to commiserate with.
Turning to the window, he watched Buffy and Vi practicing martial arts forms in the back yard. It wasn’t one he recognized, looked like a mixture of a few different styles blended with a grace that Jack envied. He was tempted to join them, but the thought of embarrassing himself kept him where he was. He didn’t want to cramp their style or anything.
Stepping away from the window, he shook his head at himself. And he thought Daniel made him feel old sometimes. So Jack did the next best thing and went out to sit on the back porch, settling his coffee on the arm of his chair. Both Buffy and Vi’s eyes flickered to him, the latter flashing him a smile, never once interrupting the smooth flow of their bodies.
He’d never imagined that he’d be gaining more than a just a son when he’d flown out her almost a year before. Like with Cassie, he was now almost an uncle to the other four permanent residents of the house, especially since Xander had come to the mountain. The girls had chatted a little more on the phone over the last two months, and Andrew had positively grilled him on Thor. Xander and his big mouth. And framed shirt. It hung in their room on the wall opposite the door by the window so it was the first thing you saw when you walked in, the autographed sleeve artfully folded over the chest like a left handed ghost pledging allegiance. It was anything but subtle. But then, he thought as he watched the two young women who exuded lethal power like a second skin, little around here was.
Buffy and Vi’s warm up wound to a close and after a few quiet words that Jack couldn’t hear they launched into another pattern faster than the first that added in kicks and spins. They were twin blurs of motion, two fighters in a synchronized dance. It was like a scene from a movie against the backdrop of the summer green of the backyard with the morning sunlight streaming through the clouds. The same sunlight that felt warm and drowsy on Jack’s skin, despite the half drunk coffee. Content, he drifted into sleep.
Xander and Diana returned home a few hours later laden with supplies. As the younger and stronger of the two, Diana was stuck with most of the bags hanging off her arms like she’d sprouted wings while Xander cheerfully ignored her grumbling.
“I mean, why can’t they help when they get here?” she was saying as they walked up to the house. “It’s not like we didn’t just finish school either. And we’ve been active all year, too.”
“Using the barracks as a giant storage closet,” Xander replied over his shoulder. He opened the door and kicked it wide open.
“But we’ve already cleared most of it out!”
“Andrew and I’ve already cleared most of it out. Besides you get today off to train,” he led the way into the kitchen, dropping his bags by the pantry door. “Honey, we’re home!” he announced as Andrew emerged. “I’ve marked the things we couldn’t find,” he said handing him the crumpled shopping list.
“Joy. With Buffy,” Diana muttered as she set her bags down, turning to the window as she did. But Xander didn’t miss the slight bounce on her heels that belied anything that came out of her mouth.
“Diana, go get beat up,” he told her, a fond smile emerging as she started to protest. “Training day, remember? Just send Jack in to help me with the rest of this.”
“Fine,” Diana said with a put upon sigh, a grin nonetheless quirking as she reached the door. Xander just shook his head at her and started to put the more immediate things away while he waited for his dad.
“Whoa, successful trip.” Jack came in and set his mug on the counter. “You have enough here to feed an army – oh, wait, you are.” He grabbed one of the nearby bags and started unloading it. “Jesus, how much chocolate did you get?”
“Um, army of girls?” Xander said, looking up. “C’mon. This is just the small stuff. We gotta get the bulkness out of the car.”
“I guess this is about as manly a job as we’ll get around here,” said Jack making Xander smile as they went back out front.
“We’re only stronger when they don’t want to do it,” said Xander philosophically.
Jack snorted. “Next time I need some Marines straightened out, I’m sending them here,” he said.
“Only if they pay tuition,” Xander replied, flashing back to the Initiative and the damage one slayer had done to their ranks.
“We’ll write it off as additional Special Forces training,” said Jack. “Uncle Sam will foot the bill.”
“Good, cause we already can’t afford to let the girls come for free,” said Xander. He still had no idea how they were going to make it through the summer. Giles’s rumblings had been a little hopeful lately but as of the last time they’d discussed it, it was all still smoke and mirrors. Xander was still working at Home Depot, but he didn’t know how long he could keep that up once the junior slayers rolled in on Monday.
Monday. It was still too soon for him. Xander felt like he’d been planning for the last month and still there were a million things left to do. Thoughts of schedules and patrol groups flitted through his mind as he opened the trunk and started loading a couple cases of snack food onto Jack.
“Hey, you want to do a guest lecture for me?”
“Lecture? On what?” asked Jack.
“Dunno,” said Xander, hefting two cases of Ramen for himself. “Whatever you want. Leadership or modern weapons or men or something.”
“Xander,” Jack paused to look at him over the top of the Ritz crackers. “I’m not giving the sex talk.”
Xander laughed at the thought of the grizzled old Colonel giving a bunch of girls The Talk. “Don’t worry. Those that haven’t heard it learn all about it after a couple of weeks at the giant slumber party.”
“I really didn’t need to know that,” said Jack, resuming their walk to the house.
“Trust me, it’s scary. They all start looking at you funny, and I mean ‘love spell’ funny. So not a good time.”
“I’m to even going to ask.”
“So you’ll do a lecture?” Xander changed the subject.
“Sure.” They reached the kitchen and dropped the cases to the floor. “As long as I’m not, you know, saving the world or anything,” said Jack.
Xander grinned at him as they headed back out. “I’m sure you can get Thor to cover for you,” he said.
“You know, the whole lecture thing is really more Carter of Daniel’s thing than mine.”
“Right, and when I want a lecture about something useless I’ll let them know,” said Xander. He already had Giles and Dawn for those things as applicable to killing things anyway. “Besides,” he went on coming to a stop by the car and facing Jack, “I’m not going to be able to get out to Colorado for a while.”
“Ahh!” Jack lifted a warning finger. “No guilt carding. That’s not fair.”
“Well, if you’re going to come visit anyway . . .”
“Didn’t I already say I would do it?” He slid the next case toward them and picked it up.
“And then you did a one-eighty retracty dealio with all the not-me-thing talk about your friends,” said Xander as he grabbed a case of his own. When he stood up, Jack was looking at him exasperatedly.
“Did not,” he said.
“Did not. I said I’d do it.”
“And then you tried to weasel out of it.”
“I did not!”
“Did too!” Xander pushed the ajar door open again. He couldn’t believe Jack. “You were trying to foist it off on Daniel.”
“’Foist?’” Jack gave him a look. “There was nothing foisty about it. All I said was that I’m not a lecture person. I never said I wouldn’t do it. In fact, I think I already said yes. Twice.”
“Oh no. That was total foistiness. Doesn’t matter what you said.”
“Xander, would you knock it off already? I said I’d do it, I’ll do it.”
Xander set his case down next to the others in the kitchen and watched as Jack did the same. “What?” asked his dad as he straightened. His dad. Xander couldn’t help but grin.
“You got something on your nose.” He half gestured at the guilty fleck of cardboard. Jack went cross-eyed as he took several swipes to get it off, wriggling his nose like a chipmunk.
“No problem. Wouldn’t want you walking in public looking like a loser who can’t see the end of his nose.”
“Ah, but I can see past it,” Jack pointed out.
“Just make sure you keep it clean.”
Xander looked over his shoulder as they went back out. “Yeah, I think your nose just grew three feet.”
Jack sputtered in protest and the banter back and forth continued on for the next two loads out of the car and on the trip to pick up Dawn from rehearsal where it had progressed to a criticism of driving styles. But hey, Xander couldn’t help it if he had one eye, and besides, his dad drove worse with two. By the time they headed out to the airport to pick up Giles, Dawn had threatened to rustle up some herbs for a silencing spell. Xander and Jack had of course then teamed up against her.
In the busy bustle of the baggage claim, Dawn was the first to spot the returning Watcher. “Giles!” she practically squealed like a little kid as she ran and wrapped him in a bear hug. “They’re picking on me!”
“What? Hello.” Giles blinked from Xander to Jack wondering what was going on which only made Xander laugh before he claimed his own hug.
“Giles.” Jack and Giles shook hands.
“Colonel O’Neill. Wonderful to see you alive and well.” And the G-man smiled warmly in a way that Xander still found both surprising and heartening. It was like the two parts of his life were coming together at last. “Now what was this about picking?” Giles turned to Xander who held up his hands in their defense.
“Hey, me and Dad weren’t picking and did you know that Dawn went and grew up and learned some naughty words?”
“Xander! You’re just mad ‘cause you didn’t know what some of them meant.” Dawn crossed her arms and arched a triumphant eyebrow. Xander scowled – of course he didn’t know what they meant; they were in some ancient language but he bet at least one meant ‘farthead’.
“Ah, yes,” Giles’s face cleared at their bickering. “That would have been when we were fighting the forces of evil. I take it everything is under control for tonight?” The luggage carrousel turned on with a groan so they moseyed over and edged their way to its side.
“Yeah, Buffy, Vi, and Di went on a rampage last night,” said Dawn. “And I made Buffy promise not to destroy the school, but we haven’t had any inklings since Jack went fudgesicle.”
“Hey, who you calling a ‘fudgesicle’?” Jack turned from watching the carrousel.
Dawn went wide-eyed and blushed. “Maybe I should have kept that thought in my head.”
“Oh God, not you too!” Xander groaned. Because, from his long association with Willow and Buffy, he knew exactly where that thought had come from. “Therapy. Need therapy.”
“Uh, yes, quite,” stuttered Giles, his glasses off and his eyes closed. Jack meanwhile was very carefully not looking at Dawn who was still bright red but beginning to be defiant about it.
“I’ll, uh, take that as a compliment,” Jack managed to say.
“Oh, look my bag!” Giles said a little too loudly. He shuffled forward and snagged a suitcase that was big and brown but apparently one of a kind. Once he had it, they began the journey back to the car.
Conversation again turned to the little visit the slayers had paid a few of the seedier demon haunts to ensure that nothing would be going down tonight. Buffy’s visit as the Slayer-that-had-destroyed-the Sunnydale-hellmouth was enough to keep the underworld gossiping for months.
As they entered the parking garage, Giles and Dawn branched off into researchy things while Xander and Jack started arguing over who got to drive. Xander told his dad that he drove like a werewolf on crack. Jack told Xander that he had a fender bender with every car in front of them.
Annoyed when they came to a halt by the car, still arguing, Giles said, “Xander, do shut up and give Dawn the keys. You’re making a nuisance of yourself.”
“Me?” Xander immediately took offence.
“Yes, well, I imagine threatening to take away Jack’s next paycheck would do me little good. Yours, on the other hand –”
But Xander needed to back up a sec. “Paycheck?” he asked, just to be sure. And that was a smile on the G-man’s face. Xander almost couldn’t believe it. Money, money, money! There would be food and he could quit his sucky job and buy equipment and first aid and – his mind rambled on over the possibilities.
“You got the money?” said Dawn equally surprised.
“I did,” said Giles smugly.
“Woo and hoo!” And Xander, suddenly flooded with joy and relief, threw the keys to Dawn.
Dinner that evening was chaotic at best. Dawn had to be at the high school gym earlier than everyone else and the younger slayers were running a quick sweep of the area before the guests arrived. At the house Andrew was so excited about the new funds that he immediately started on a new supply list while Buffy, Xander, and Giles got caught up and talked shop. Somehow, Jack had gotten dragged into the conversation. One minute he’d been sneaking off to go watch TV, the next he was answering questions about Basic Training and how to integrate new troops into existing units.
Buffy was adamant that there would be no ‘maggot yelling’ as she called it while Xander wanted to make sure that girls who were together last summer got split up this year, and Giles wanted solo patrols at least once a week for the older girls. It was rather interesting to see how their definition of training clashed with that of the Air Force.
Around six-thirty, Vi and Diana returned, breaking up the discussion so everyone had time to get ready. The ceremony was at eight, but Jack refrained from commenting when Xander and Giles took it in stride. In fact, Xander rushed off himself to snag a shower before all the hot water ran out.
“If you don’t go now, you’ll have to wait till the last minute to get cleaned up,” Giles warned him when it was just the two of them in the dining room.
“Nah, I’m good,” Jack waved a hand. All he needed to do was change his shirt and throw on his leather jacket, a tactic that he noticed Giles seemed to be using as well. Feeling eyes on him, Giles looked up from the notes he was gathering together, and Jack smiled.
“I’m glad you came,” Giles broke the silence before it became awkward. “It means a lot to Xander.”
Now Jack did feel awkward and he grabbed a loose pen. “It seemed like a good time to visit, before teenage hell broke loose anyway,” he said.
“Colonel. Jack,” said Giles, the use of his first name grabbing the other man’s attention. “Don’t pass it off for what it isn’t. Xander deserves better and so do you.” Giles’s eyes gentled and he added, “He talks about you a lot, did you know?”
“No,” said Jack, startled by this from the man that had threatened to kill him once already. He hadn’t realized that Giles didn’t mind him anymore. Or liked him, for that matter, beyond what politeness required.
“He does. Indirectly for the most part, but you’re always there,” said Giles. “I don’t know how much he’s told you about his childhood – I don’t know much about it myself except for the little things that came out over the years – but it was difficult, vampires and demons not withstanding.”
“He seemed to come out of it pretty well,” said Jack softly.
Giles smiled again. “Yes, he has. I’ve often thought his discovering the supernatural was one of the best things that happened to him as bad as it can be. But honestly, I think your discovery of him was the best.” The other man’s eyes held Jack’s a moment longer then let them go. Gathering his notes, Giles rose and went into the kitchen leaving Jack still surprised at the dining room table.
Who’d have thought that Xander talked about him to Giles of all people? And that Giles was happy about it? And that Giles would tell him? And that he was happy Jack was in his son’s life?
When Jack moved to the den to watch TV until it was time to go, he was still grinning.
The pounding on the door woke Xander late the next morning. He groaned and rolled over, pulling his pillow over his head. Way too early. Way, way too early. The impromptu graduation party last night that they’d thrown after Dawn and the younger girls had gotten back from the official party had lasted well into the early morning. Mostly it had involved wine and video games with a smattering of intelligent conversation. It had been a good time and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember much of it. And would the banging on the door stop?!
“Xander, get your lazy ass out of bed!” His dad yelled through the door.
“Go ‘way. ‘M still ‘sleep!” he replied. Jack just opened the door, came in, and yanked off his blankets.
“Up, up, up! Come on,” he said when Xander half scrambled to get them back. Sighing in defeat, Xander sat up.
“All right, all right, I’m up. What do you want that couldn’t wait till, say, sanity rise?”
“Cute,” Jack told him. “But come on, we’re going out.”
“Yes, so get some clothes on – unless you want to go out like that,” his dad waved a hand at the boxer and t-shirt ensemble. “We’re leaving in five minutes. Coffee’s in the kitchen.”
Xander made it down the stairs ten minutes later. Jack pointedly looked at his watch and sighed but otherwise didn’t say anything about it. “I get to drive,” he said instead.
“Where are we going?” asked Xander. He grabbed the Snoopy mug and poured himself a dose of wake-up juice.
“You know, I don’t do so well with surprises,” Xander felt obliged to point out. Living on hellmouths tended to do that to a person.
“Tough,” Jack threw him a smile. “Let’s go, kiddo.” Grumbling, Xander followed him to the car, but Jack only ignored him and started whistling cheerfully. Xander tried to bore holes in the back of his head, but it wasn’t working, and by the time they got to the car, Jack’s song actually had him resenting the whole situation less. He contented himself with asking ‘are we there yet’ at every intersection until Jack told him to shut up or expect to walk home. His dad maintained his serious expression for all of two seconds before they both started laughing. Getting up was definitely worth it.
Finally, they pulled into a parking lot at the strip mall at the opposite end from Home Depot, and Xander cast a glance at the sign before them. “Uh, Dad, you know this is a pet store right?” Xander glanced at the older man as he shut off the engine.
“Yep,” Jack grinned. “Come on, you wanted a dog.”
“I did?” News to Xander.
“Yeah, remember when we first met?”
Stepping out of the car and onto the sidewalk, Xander tried to cast his mind back. “I wanted a car,” he recalled with a quick look at his dad.
“Well, you’re getting a dog,” said Jack. He looked very pleased with himself about the idea, and Xander almost felt bad when he kept arguing.
“But they pee on the floor and chew up shoes and eat lamp shades.”
“Sure they do, they’re puppies,” Jack opened the door and a little electronic ding-dong sounded through the shop. The smell of seed and straw permeated the room along with the chatter of birds and kittens and puppies. A quick glance at the fish reassured him that they at least weren’t talking in anything more than bubbles. From behind the counter, the shopkeeper smiled, and Jack waved back before leading the way to the dogs.
“So why would I want one if they’re so high maintenance? I mean, I’ve got sixty girls coming on Monday. I don’t need another thing to take care of.”
“Xander, dogs are easy compared to girls. Besides, every kid needs a dog.” Jack pronounced the words like a proverb – one that Xander wasn’t sure he got.
“Uh, not much of a kid anymore,” he pointed out.
Jack turned and looked at him. “You’re still my kid,” he said. “Now take a look.”
Grinning, Xander turned his attention to the wriggling puppies in the big playpen box, wondering how he’d gotten here to this point. It still felt strange when his dad said things like that, but it also sent a thrill through him that felt good and right. Belonging.
And he had to admit, the puppies were cute. There were about ten of them – they kept moving when he counted – and all sorts of colors. Two black, one black and brown, one kinda dishwater, a couple gray, but the one that caught Xander’s eye was the mottled black and gray with one black patch of fur over its right eye.
“Hey look, me and this guy make a full set,” he pointed the puppy out to Jack.
“He’s cute. That the one you want?”
Xander looked up. “You’re still serious about this?”
“You betcha. Is that a ‘yes’?”
Still not quite believing that his dad was getting him a dog, Xander nodded.
Half an hour, several forms, and a check to see if it was a boy or girl, and Xander was the new owner of the little, male, black and gray dog. They’d have to come back the next day to pick him up after the vet had neutered him, but Xander still felt kind of giddy about the idea. He’d never had a pet before. Willow and Jesse hadn’t either beyond Will’s fish, so this was new and exciting territory. Even if he couldn’t remember ever asking for one. It had been a year after all.
And that thought brought him up short as the two of them got back in the car. “It’s been a year,” he said, half to himself.
“What’s that?” asked Jack.
“A year. Since you showed up.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed. He pulled out and onto the road, thinking. “Been a long year. For a while there I didn’t think we’d make it,” he added softly.
“The universe did try to munchmeat us,” said Xander, thinking back over the demons and chaos and mini apocalypses and even Jack’s alien attack that nearly ended the world. Their family problems and trust issues had seemed so much bigger in some ways and so much smaller and ridiculous in others.
“She always does. But she also works in mysterious ways,” said his dad with a pointed look and a smile.
“’She’?” asked Xander. “Sounds like you’re dangerously close to believing in something.”
“I don’t believe in gods, you don’t believe in religion,” Jack shrugged. “We both believe in magic.”
“But not fairy tale endings.”
“Just happier ones.”
“So does this count?” asked Xander.
“Well, it would,” his dad looked over, a grin playing around his lips, “except it’s not an ending.”
“Good,” Xander smiled too, feeling warm and right and happy. “’Cause when I have puppy problems, you’re the first person I’m calling.”
“Fine, but you only get one middle-of-the-night call,” said Jack.
“One? And what do you mean ‘middle-of-the-night’? You never said anything about middle-of-the-night.”
“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be up anyway. And it’s only at the beginning.”
“Just how long is this ‘beginning’?”
And they spoke of puppies and middle-of-the-night phone calls and beginnings all the way home.