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Bridges

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Jack scowled at the ringing phone. He was on leave. SG1 had finally gotten some downtime and the phone was not supposed to be ringing. The only people who called him were his teammates and he had just seen them out of his house. That only left the base, which was unfair on so many levels.

The phone rang again, and he contemplated not answering. Unfortunately, a niggling little voice in his head wouldn’t let him turn his back on what could be the end of the world. Stupid conscience.

“O’Neill,” he said just sharply enough to let whoever was calling that he was not happy.

“Jonathon O’Neill?” a cautious female voice queried.

“Is this a solicitation?” Jack asked suspiciously at the use of his first name.

“No!” said the woman quickly. “Sorry. I’m Elena Acosta with the Sunnydale County Clerk’s Office.”

“Sunnydale?” Where had he heard that name before?

“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, tiredly. And then it clicked – the earthquake. Sinkholes underground had leveled a town in California last spring, about six months ago.

“What can I do for you?” asked Jack, softly now. The poor woman didn’t need anymore crap after her hometown had sunk into the Earth.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” said Elena. “Jessica Harris died not long after the earthquake. You’re in her Will.”

“Wait,” Jack interrupted, his mind running over the unfamiliar name in his head. Who was Jessica Harris? He didn’t know any Jessicas, did he?

“I’m sorry. I’m so bad at this,” Elena apologized, which made Jack wonder how many people before him she had called to tell that their loved ones were dead and that there was a will with their name in it. He felt both guilty and puzzled that he didn’t know this Jessica Harris, and he was about to tell Elena that when it clicked.

The beach house, LA. A two week leave before he headed out on maneuvers in South America. He’d met Sarah after he got back home, but lanky, dark Jessica was before all that. He’d known her barely two weeks. Why was he in her last Will?

“What?” asked Elena, and Jack realized he had mumbled that last aloud.

“Nothing, sorry, go on,” he said.

“In order to claim your inheritance, you need to come to our offices in Los Angeles with two government proofs of identity,” Elena explained. “Mrs. Harris managed to leave Sunnydale before the earthquake with her husband. I’m afraid I can’t disclose more than that until I have proof you are Jonathan O’Neill.”

“How did she die?” asked Jack.

“There was a riot in the neighborhood they were staying in. Neither she nor her husband made it.” Again, Elena sounded apologetic and tired.

Jack was silent for a moment, taking it all in. He wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, or how to cope with suddenly hearing about Jessica again, especially at her death. Guess he was going on vacation after all. “I’ll be there Friday.”

Elena gave him the address and a complete list of all the documentation he would need to satisfy the government that yes, he had been born. Just when he thought he had everything, Elena added a startled, “oh!” as if she had forgotten something. “Do you know where your son is, Mr. O’Neill?”

Jack suddenly sat up straight. “You mean Jessica’s son?” Sure she had made a mistake. She had had a son? Well, it only stood to reason since she had had a husband, he mentally berated himself.

“Yes,” he heard Elena smile. “Mrs. Harris’s and yours.”

“What?” That couldn’t be possible. How could he have a son and not know about him? She must have read it wrong. “We don’t have a son.”

“Oh,” Elena was clearly surprised. “You didn’t know?” she ventured, her tone telling him not to be mad at her about it.

Jack sighed. “No,” he said. He paused, thinking about this new possibility. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Elena. “I’m looking at the birth certificate now. Well, once you get here, I’ll give you his information so you can look him up if you want. I doubt we would find him any faster.”

“Yeah.” Jack felt stunned, shocked, whammied. How could he have a son and not know about him? Because Special Ops didn’t leave a forwarding address. And it had never crossed his youthful brain that a couple of nights on leave would leave him with a son he didn’t know. “Thanks,” he said absently. He barely registered Elena say good-bye and hang up.

He had a son. Maybe alive, somewhere. Out in the world. He looked at his hands counting the years. He would be twenty-two or twenty-three by now, a couple years older than Charlie. Grown up. He probably had a job somewhere, maybe a girlfriend. Jack wondered what he was like.

~*~

The next day Jack called Daniel and trusted that word would get to Teal’c and Sam when they returned from their respective worlds of Chulak and the lab. The day after that, he was in the temporary clerk’s office in LA waiting in line with hundreds of other people. The place was small for the masses and it smelled of smoke and too many bodies. Four hours later he had a shoebox of memorabilia from that long ago leave, a small check for a couple thousand dollars, and a name: Alexander Lavell Harris.

When he got back to Colorado he gave Carter what he knew and let her work her magic while life settled back into its normal routine of missions and near death experiences. In her spare time, what little of it there was, Carter searched every file she could get her hands on, but with hard records destroyed and internet ones secure and often out of date, it was very slow going.

Jack spent the time he wasn’t yelling at Daniel wondering what Alexander, or Alex as he’d nicknamed him in his head, was like.

Six months later, Carter found an address.

~*~

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Daniel asked for the thousandth time as he watched Jack pack for his trip to Cleveland.

And for the thousandth time, Jack shook his head. “I’m sure,” he said with finality, hoping Danny would get the point this time. But he didn’t.

“Jack, it’s no problem. And you might want to have a friend around for this.” Daniel’s eyes caught his and held them. “It’s not going to be easy.”

“I know, Daniel,” Jack sighed and scrubbed his face. “But the General needs you here for the . . .” he floundered his hand around searching for the name of their latest diplomatic crises.

“Yibbites. Jack, just be careful, okay?” said Daniel. “Don’t be all . . .” This time Daniel searched for words.

“Be what?”

Daniel sighed. “Just remember your going to be telling Alex that his mother and the man he thought was his father are dead. And that you are his biological father from a one night stand with his mom.”

Jack focused on packing. “It wasn’t one night,” he grumbled, not liking what his friend was telling him, but knowing Daniel was right. He couldn’t just waltz in and expect Alex to welcome him with open arms. And that’s what he was afraid of, being rejected and cast away. That’s why Daniel wanted to come and why Jack didn’t want him there. If that happened, he wanted time to mourn. He looked back at Daniel. “I’ll be careful,” he promised.

Daniel nodded and followed him out the door to the car.

~*~

Jack was nervous. He stared at the house in front of him wondering just what the hell he was doing there. It was an old house that was tucked away in a nice quiet older neighborhood of Cleveland. But it looked how a nice house should. Was Alex married? Did he have kids? Oh God, did he have kids? Jack didn’t think he could cope with grandkids on top of everything.

No. He didn’t know anything. That’s why he was here, to find out about his son. Six months and he still wasn’t completely used to the idea. Shaking off whatever paralysis had come over him, Jack got out of his rental and made his way up the drive. Noise came from the backyard but it sounded harmless enough that he ignored it for the moment and just went up the steps to the ring the bell, listening as it echoed inside. A dozen sets of footsteps followed with overlapping cries of “I’ll get it,” and suddenly the door was pulled open and Jack found himself faced with three teenage girls.

Surprised, he took a light step back. This was not what he had been expecting. All three had brown hair and were waiting for him to speak, clearly as surprised as he was to see him standing there. “Hi,” Jack kind of waved, off balance. He had double-checked the address twice.

“No pizza?” the girl in the middle asked with a slight lift of her eyebrows that quickly settled into a disappointed frown when Jack shook his head.

“Ah, no. Actually I’m here to see Mr. Harris,” he told them.

“What for?” demanded the one on the right. Jack looked from her to the others and saw that they all had narrowed their eyes at him. Over their shoulders Jack saw two more girls poke their heads around a doorjamb. What was going on here?

“Uh, I’m actually here with news about his parents,” he focused back on the rightside girl. She gave him a quick once over then stepped back, the other girls also moving aside for him to enter.

“XANDER!!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, making Jack startle back at the noise.

“What?” a voice floated down from the second floor. His son’s voice he realized. Alex – wait, the girl had called him Xander. His name was Xander. The girl yelled again before he could process that thought further.

“SOMEONE’S HERE TO SEE YOU!!!”

“Coming!” Xander called down. Jack watched the upper rail of the second floor that showed the upper hallway above him, barely noticing as the girls drifted back to whatever it was girls did here. He didn’t have to wait long. He recognized him from the picture Carter had found as the tall young man slowly descended the stairs. Except he had an eyepatch over his left eye. And his hair was longer. Why did he have an eyepatch over his left eye?

“Hey,” said Xander as he reached the last step. He was wearing blue jeans and a green t-shirt under a workman’s vest. His son was a construction worker, a foreman, he remembered. Jack clasped the offered hand with a smile, suddenly feeling like he’d been given too much air to breathe. “I’m Xander Harris. What can I do for you?”

It was only then that Jack noticed the wary look in his single eye, the way he stepped back slightly after their handshake ended. It was disappointing that he was a stranger to his own son, but Jack knew better than to have hoped otherwise.

“Jack O’Neill,” he introduced himself. “I’ve got news about your parents.”

“My parents, huh?” Xander blinked. “They’re dead, aren’t they?” He was not surprised. It was as if Jack had only confirmed what he’d known all along. Jack noticed a blond head this time listening at the doorjamb.

“Can we talk somewhere?” he asked, motioning toward their eavesdropper. Xander turned his whole head so he could see where Jack meant, then nodded and turned to an open sitting room on the right. He closed the doors and motioned for Jack to sit, settling on the beat up couch opposite him. Jack just watched him for a moment, taking him in, trying to readjust his image to fit this calm young man with one eye in working clothes. He didn’t know what he had expected, but this wasn’t it. “You knew about your parents?” he heard himself ask cautiously.

Xander looked away, to the right, to the floor. “I was in LA during the riots. They were in my uncle’s neighborhood. I didn’t know for sure . . .”

“You were there?” Jack asked surprised.

But Xander shook his head. “I was staying with some friends downtown. So do you work for the city or something? You could have just called.”

“No,” said Jack looking down at his hands. Oh, God, how was he going to do this? “The, uh, Clerk’s Office called me. I knew your mother a long time ago, and I was mentioned in the Will.”

“Huh?” His son’s calm face broke in surprise, but he waited for Jack to go on.

“I knew her before you were born,” Jack repeated. “The Clerk’s Office couldn’t find you so they gave me your name when I said I could track you down.”

“They did?” Xander still looked confused, but then his mouth clicked shut and his eyes single eye bore into Jack’s. “Why? They don’t usually release that kind if information to strangers. Who are you?” This last was said with suspicion. He had tensed up, ready to spring into action at the slightest provocation, and though Jack knew the kid wouldn’t be able to touch him, it still hurt.

He reached into his pocket and offered his son his birth certificate. Xander glanced at it, back at Jack, then really read it. His hands started to shake and Jack wondered what would happen next. Wondered if he was going to get thrown out.

When Xander looked up at him again there was only anger. “What is this?” he demanded, low and dangerous.

“I just found out about it, too,” said Jack, looking away from that one terrible eye.

“These can be forged, you know.”

“It was in her Will for you to know.” He reached into his pocket again for the pictures. There were only two, both of him and Jessica standing together in front of the beach house. Xander looked at them closely, his index finger brushing over the young faces as if her could reach out and bring them back. He sniffed and stood, and when he glanced at Jack on his way to the door, his eye was brighter than it should have been.

“DAWN!” he shouted and not two seconds later the brunette who had challenged Jack at the door stuck her head in the door.

“Yeah?” she chirped, eyes slipping past him to land on Jack.

“Go check if these are real,” Xander handed her the birth certificate and the pictures.

“What?” Dawn looked at them then his son in confusion before reading the birth certificate. “Xander!”

“Dawn, just do it. Please,” his son asked tiredly. The girl looked at Jack again before nodding and leaving them to an uncomfortable silence.

Jack wondered how she would know if they were real or not and was suddenly angered by the whole situation. Angry at Jessica for not telling him about Xander, angry at Xander for not trusting him or even his evidence. How the hell was a fifteen-year-old going to verify that they were real anyway?

“She’s seventeen,” said Xander sharply, turning to glare at him. Had he said that out loud?

“Sorry, seventeen,” said Jack sarcastically. As if it made a difference. “You’re just going to take the word of a seventeen-year-old that that birth certificate is real?”

“Or forged,” said Xander coldly.

“It’s not forged.”

“We’ll see.”

“How? Is she going to wave her little magic wand?”

“Something like that.”

They stared at each other, neither one willing to back down for several minutes. His son’s arms were crossed across his chest almost like Daniel’s protective stance but somehow more dangerous. Maybe it was the eyepatch, or the shaggy head of hair.

“You look a little like my uncle when he was young,” Jack surprised them both by saying. Xander blinked and the hard expression melted to something like curiosity. Maybe if he could accept it, they could be friends. “I’m sorry for . . .” Jack paused looking for what he was sorry for. Not being there, not loving him, not playing ball, or meeting his girl, and for all of a sudden dropping this on his shoulders after he found out his parents were dead. Daniel was right; this was far from easy. “For, you know, everything,” he finished lamely.

“Xander?” Dawn’s quiet voice interrupted the tense silence. They both turned and she looked from one to the other, eyes slightly wide. “They’re real.” She held out the pictures and birth certificate. After a stunned moment, Xander took them.

“Thanks, Dawnie,” he said staring at them, processing. Dawn looked at Jack again before ducking out and closing the door.

Jack waited for Xander to acknowledge him, and when he finally looked up there were tears in his eye. He smiled weakly. “Sorry. I guess it’s just hitting me that I’m never going to see Mom again.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack said again.

Xander smiled tightly. “Thanks.” They stared at each other again but this time his son was studying him. “So I guess we should do the bonding thing,” Xander finally broke the silence.

Jack smiled in relief. He wasn’t going to be kicked out of the house after all. He had a chance here to make it work with this child he didn’t know. Once they resettled into chairs and the sofa, Xander began.

“So you married?”

He didn’t waste any time with the easy stuff. “Divorced,” said Jack. “I got married about a year after I left your mom,” he went on. It felt weird to explain something that he normally kept close to his heart. But if anyone deserved to know it was the young man before him.

“Any kids?”

Jack closed his eyes and nodded. “Charlie.” He opened them and gazed at Xander’s work boots. “He accidentally shot himself with my gun when he was ten. Sarah and I couldn’t make it through his death.” He could still remember that day as if it were yesterday. He’d never forgive himself.

“I’m sorry,” Xander almost whispered. There was no anger, no judgement, only pain when Jack met his eye, though he had a feeling that Xander wasn’t seeing him.

“What about you?” asked Jack. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, no girlfriend,” Xander came back from wherever he had gone. “She . . .she’s gone.”

“And all these girls around here?” Jack felt the need to lighten the mood. How had they managed to pick the one subject that left them both depressed?

“Are unfortunately not my personal harem,” Xander grinned suddenly. “They’d all kick my ass from here to England.”

Jack smiled at the thought. “So what do you do here?”

“Me and a couple of friends are running a self-defense program for girls for the summer,” Xander waved his hand at the house in general. “After Sunnydale, we needed to get out of California. So we ended up here, with no money, and one hair-brained idea.” He shrugged. “My friends do the teaching. I’m more of the fix-whatever-gets-broken-guy.”

The doorbell rang and a stampede of footsteps rushed to the door followed soon after by the smell of pizza, which made Xander grin hesitantly, his hands rubbing against his legs with nervous energy. “Food’s here. You want?”

Jack followed his son to the kitchen where thirty girls were attacking as many pizza boxes on the counter. Most of them were dressed in workout clothes and all of them were talking. As Jack watched his son melt into the rush of youth he couldn’t help but notice that he was more than Mr. Fix-it.

“Xander! Allison took two pieces of cheese and I didn’t get any!”

“Allison, give one to Vi!”

“’S not fair!” the girl in question grumbled as Xander fixed his eye on her.

“Hey, who took my drink?”

“Xander, where are the napkins?”

“Ask Ellie and Veronica, they’re on kitchen duty for lunch.”

“No we’re not!” two girls protested with matching looks of innocence. Jack watched as Xander simply raised his eyebrow.

“Do I have to check the list?”

“Fine, we’ll find them,” one of the girls grumbled stomping off to the cabinets.

“Hey, Xander, is this your dad?” Jack suddenly found thirty pairs of eyes fixed on him. He felt like he was facing a squad of piranhas that would tear him to pieces at any second.

“I thought your dad died.”

“That was his mom’s husband who he grew up with. This is his biological dad.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Dawn said so.”

“Hey, all I said was the papers were for real.”

“Hey!” Xander's voice cut through all the speculation. He didn’t seem too surprised or bothered that word had gotten out in the span of ten minutes, though Jack had a feeling he himself looked shell-shocked. Who wouldn’t? He was used to handling only one teenage girl at a time, not thirty, for cryin’ out loud.

“Everyone, this is Jack O’Neill. Jack, this is almost everyone.” He leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t let them scare you,” in his ear and handed him a paper plate with two slices of pepperoni. Xander shouldered room for them at the counter and then the interrogation began.

“So where you from?” Dawn was the first to ask, squeezing in next to him at the counter.

“Colorado,” said Jack, feeling a little bit better once he took a bite of pizza.

“Colorado? Isn’t Terry from Colorado?” someone asked, but since Terry wasn’t there to confirm this, Dawn moved on.

“What do you do?”

“I’m in the Air Force.”

“Really?” several girls asked. “Do you fly planes?”

Jack turned to the waiting crowd. “Sometimes. Not as much anymore.”

“Air Force, huh?” Dawn poked his arm to get his attention. “Name, rank, and serial number.”

Jack grinned at the narrow look she was giving him and rattled off the information. There was an impressed collected gasp when he said ‘Colonel,’ but when he glanced at Xander, his son had that wary look back in his eye. Jack sighed internally, frustrated that whatever ground he had gained seemed to have been lost.

“You don’t happen to work on any top secret projects, do you?” asked Xander. And from the way he said it, Jack knew he was only half-joking. And that scared him.

“Deep space radar telemetry,” the practiced lie rolled off his lips. What did Xander know about top secret projects? He was just a kid! His kid. Oh God, his kid! Jack wanted to grab his shoulder and demand answers, but he couldn’t, not here in front of all these little girls. Not with a son he wanted a chance with.

Feeling dazed he turned back to the questions the girls kept asking. Do you have a gun? Have you been in a war? Have any of your friends died? Vaguely he recognized something strange in the questions, but preoccupied by what had prompted Xander’s question, he couldn’t tell what. It took him five minutes to notice that Dawn had disappeared.

Finally, Xander shooed the girls away and they went back to the sitting room and the dilapidated couch. His son regarded him strangely before speaking. “I didn’t mean to wig you out,” he said. “It’s just . . .this guy one of my friends dated was in the Army. It was a bad break up.”

He didn’t say anymore, but Jack got the feeling that bad was an understatement. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Xander shrugged again. “So deep space radar telemetry? That sounds . . .fun.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Yeah, if you’re asleep. And you’re a construction worker?” he asked to change the subject away from issues of national security.

“Used to be. Now I’m an out of work, one-eyed carpenter.” Jack could tell he wasn’t happy about it.

“What about this?” he asked, gesturing to the house.

“It’s more my friends’ stuff than mine,” Xander smiled sadly. “Being a carpenter was all mine, you know?”

“Yeah,” Jack found himself smiling too, understanding the need to have something that you alone were good at. “So . . . can I ask what happened? To your eye?” Jack almost held his breath, waiting to see if Xander would let him in.

“You know how they say ‘never run with scissors’?” Xander finally said. “It’s good advice.”

“Oh,” Jack looked away. Something was missing. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew a recent wound when he saw one. Xander just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. At least he hoped that was the case, and that one day his son would feel comfortable talking about it with him.

“How long are you staying?”

“Till Saturday.” It was Thursday today, so two more days. He wondered if he would be seeing more of Xander. “Id like to get to know you though. See you again,” he added, hoping he didn’t sound too desperate. “If I had known, I would have come.”

“Really?” Xander sounded like he didn’t believe him. “You barely knew my mother.”

“Wouldn’t matter.” Jack held his gaze, willing the words to sink in. Xander sat there, still skeptical. “Will you give me a chance?”

“I’ve got to go check on the girls.” Xander didn’t answer the question. “Do you have a place to stay?”

Jack nodded. “Hampton Inn.” They both stood up no longer sure what to say to each other. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?” asked Jack hopefully.

“Yeah,” Xander nodded. “I’ve got to pick up Buffy and Giles from the airport. They’ll want to meet you. If you can come around four? That way they’ll have time to interrogate you before dinner.”

“Four then,” said Jack. He didn’t like the sound of interrogation. There would probably be questions about his intentions toward Xander, death threats, that sort of thing. And Jack realized as Xander awkwardly shook his hand at the door that in an odd way he was looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

Xander stared at the closed door, listening as Jack’s car started up and drove off. It all felt so surreal, like he was watching someone else’s life. Because how could this be happening?

With a sigh, Xander turned and headed out back to check on the girls in the yard. They were talking and laughing as Vi led them through their stretches, the novelty of their calling not yet worn away. Xander let them be and went inside, back upstairs to his room. His unfinished email to Willow was still on the screen where he had left it. He’d have to rewrite it now, he thought. Add that his parents were dead.

Turning away from the computer, he sat instead on his bed, elbows on knees as he gazed at the pictures Jack had given him. He had lost all his pictures when they closed the Hellmouth, not that he’d had many of his parents.

Dead. His parents were dead. He felt his eye prick and a tear slide down his cheek. They were gone. It was one thing to look at the carnage from the riots and guess, another to hear the words that cemented it into reality. His mom had been so beautiful. Young, free. She couldn’t have been much older in the picture than Xander was now, but he had never felt as young as she looked. At least not in a long, long time. And she was gone now. Like Anya. And as much as he had sometimes hated his parents, he wanted nothing more than to see them one last time. But he couldn’t. Xander’s head fell into his hands and silent sobs accompanied the pictures falling to the floor.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, but after a while he felt someone sit on the bed next to him and an arm snake around his waist. Sighing he sat up and hugged Dawn back, glad of the simple comfort she offered. Neither of them said anything; they didn’t have to.

“I’m sorry about your parents,” Dawn said softly after a while.

Xander let out a soft, sad huff of air and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “Yeah. I never would have thought I’d be crying over them.”

“They were still your parents,” Dawn replied. Xander caught the note of longing in her voice. Their dad still hadn’t contacted them. Not like Jack.

“And now there’s this guy who says he’s my real dad.” Xander still didn’t know if he believed it or not.

“I googled him,” said Dawn. “He’s who he says he is. We’ll have to get Willow to do the deep dark secret search. And a paternity test if you want.”

“Yeah,” he absently agreed, thinking back over the man who had flown from Colorado just to see him.

For an old guy, Jack was in shape and actually looked pretty good over all. Also not horribly out of fashion, he noted remembering the casual khakis, shirt, and leather jacket he had worn. Xander couldn’t decide if that bothered him or not. Then he wondered why he was focusing on something so entirely irrelevant.

“He’s coming back tomorrow,” he told Dawn. “He says he wants to get to know me.”

“Is that good?” asked Dawn hesitantly. “I mean, do you really think he’s your dad?”

Xander shrugged not wanting to think about it but unable not to. He’d lost his original birth certificate with everything else in Sunnydale. Regardless, having someone else call him son wasn’t really going to change anything. Dad hadn’t really been his dad since high school anyway. “He thinks so. Said I looked like his uncle.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Nothing really. I asked about his family, he asked if I had a girlfriend.” But she was gone too. “He asked about my eye.” Dawn nodded and silence settled over them again.

Xander wondered where this was going to go. He wondered why he had told Jack he could come back. With his current luck he would probably turn out to be another demon trying to get to them through him. His eye found the pictures on the floor. Mom and Jack. Jack and Mom. “Are they really real?” he half-whispered.

“Willow’s all-purpose truth spell came up positive.”

So maybe not a demon. He hadn’t even gotten to the Colonel thing yet. Those were scabs best left alone for now.

“Can I come with you to pick up Buffy and Giles?” asked Dawn, breaking the quiet.

“Yeah,” he turned and smiled at her, for real this time. “Thanks. I could use the company.”

“Anytime.” And they both knew it was about more than a ride to the airport. Dawn gave him a final squeeze then left to get back to whatever translation she was working on for Giles. Xander stared after her for a minute before going back to the email to Willow who was somewhere on the East Coast. He deleted the last few lines then started a new paragraph.

~*~

The next day after overseeing the usual chaos that was cooking for and feeding over thirty slayers and making sure the veterans had the newbies under control, Xander and Dawn headed for the airport with Dawn in the driver’s seat. They hadn’t told Buffy yet that she’d gotten her license, deciding that what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. She’d become better about letting Dawn grow up but still had the tendency to be overprotective. So when she was gone, Xander let Dawn drive. And if she found out he had his lack of depth perception as an excuse.

The airport was noisy but not too crowded. They waited in the baggage claim area passing the time by filling in the words to other peoples conversations as they greeted each other. It was nice to just sit and people-watch with Dawn, see how the other side lived. Xander hadn’t done this since working construction.

They had been waiting for about twenty minutes when two familiar figures finally came down the escalator. Beside him, Dawn shrieked and bounded over to tackle her sister and Giles, Xander trailing in her wake. Having just come from London, they both looked tired and unkempt, but happy to be back. Giles smiled at him and gave him a hug when he reached them. Dawn was already chattering a mile a minute at Buffy with no sign of stopping, so Xander took his life into his own hands and commandeered the slayer for a hug, which she laughingly returned. Dawn’s commentary on life at the house never stopped.

By the time they got their bags and were on the way home Dawn had caught them up since their last phone call four days ago. While the news about Xander’s parents didn’t surprised them, the news about his possible father did. But Dawn, bless her, wouldn’t let them ask questions, saying they could get the details after they got home. She wanted to hear about London while she had them to herself. So they pushed aside talk of Jack in favor of making fun of the Land of Tweed. Even Giles had a thing or two to say about British drivers.

As far as work went, the rebuilding of the Council was progressing slowly, but progressing nonetheless. Though Xander got the impression that Buffy had spent most of their time dragging Giles to see the sights. She looked good. She looked like she’d finally had some badly needed rest.

Xander smiled as he watched the girls go on in the back seat about all the crazy things Buffy had tried in order to get the guards at Buckingham Palace to quit their statue routine. Beside him, Giles shook his head, silently denying any part in the escapade. Just like normal. It was good to have everyone home.

~*~

At precisely four o’clock, Jack rang the doorbell to the nice, old house where Xander lived with a bunch of girls. It was simply too odd to contemplate at the moment, so Jack wisely chose not to as he listened to the stampede heading for the door. This time two brunettes, a blond, and one faded blue met him cheerfully at the door.

“Hi,” Jack smiled more sure of himself today.

The girls giggled and said, “Hi, Jack,” as they let him in.

“XANDER!!!” two of them shouted together, this time toward the back of the house, and once again Jack winced at the noise. He figured it wasn’t often quiet around here.

Xander emerged from the back hallway followed by another, much older man. He had gray hair and glasses and wore a blue pullover, managing to look both casual and distinguished at the same time. Jack wondered who he was, maybe a parent dropping off his daughter?

“Hey!” another girl shouted from the kitchen. “Buffy says break’s over,” she called to the teenagers who had let him in. With a chorus of disappointed ‘awe’s, the four reluctantly retreated casting wishful looks over their shoulders.

“They never give up,” said Xander by way of greeting, watching the girls leave. “Of course I don’t blame ‘em for wanting to avoid Buffy.” He turned back to Jack and the parent who hadn’t left yet. “So Jack, this is Rupert Giles. He’s helping us out for the summer. Giles, Jack O’Neill.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” said Mr. Giles in a soft British accent.

To say Jack was surprised would have been a gross understatement. This was Giles? Xander’s friend that he was running this place with? He had expected Giles to be some dumb kid, another refugee from Sunnydale with no money and a stupid idea. One old man, one young one and thirty teenage girls did not paint a pretty picture. And he was British! Just what had this guy gotten his son wrapped up in?

Hiding his surprise and suspicion with a neutral smile, Jack shook the offered hand. Mr. Giles had a firm handshake that almost hurt, but his mild expression suggested he wasn’t aware of it. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”

“Uh, coffee would be great,” said Jack, the civil custom bringing him up short and reminding him of his manners. This was Xander’s ‘friend’ after all, good or not, and for once he didn’t want to pick a fight.

Xander disappeared into the kitchen to get the drinks while Mr. Giles led Jack into the sitting room. Mr. Giles didn’t say anything to him, instead seeming to prefer to let Jack make the first move. It was all very uncomfortable. Jack wasn’t quite sure what was going on but he wanted to find out. Now.

“So how do you know Xander?” he asked as innocuously as possible.

Mr. Giles didn’t flinch. “I’ve known him since he was in high school. Yourself?”

“I, uh.” Suddenly thrown on the defensive when he knew Mr. Giles was aware of who he was made Jack take a strong dislike to the man. He was being tested and he really didn’t like it. “I’m his father. His biological father anyway. But you knew that.”

“I know that’s what you claim,” Mr. Giles met his challenging gaze. “A birth certificate and a picture are hardly concluding evidence.”

“Xander seems to think so.”

“Does he?” Mr. Giles lifted a skeptical eyebrow. And suddenly Jack wasn’t sure. Yesterday, after Dawn had confirmed the birth certificate they had talked . . . it hadn’t been the most stellar conversation he’d ever had, but he thought they had made progress.

“It was in his mother’s will,” said Jack, needing something solid to hold onto. He remembered reading it. “I didn’t find out until they called me about it.”

“Again, all we have is your word on that,” Mr. Giles replied. “But I suppose that is neither here nor there at the moment since it can easily be cleared up at the hospital.”

“What?”

“You know, your DNA, my DNA. Seeing if it’s all happy little DNA,” said Xander joining them with the drinks. “It’s not that we don’t trust you, it’s just that, well . . . we don’t.” He handed Jack a Snoopy mug. “Milk or sugar?”

Jack shook his head, sighed and pushed the hurt away. To be honest he had anticipated doing a paternity test sometime. He just didn’t know if he could handle it if it came out negative. He watched as Xander handed Mr. Giles a Kiss the Librarian mug and settled beside him on the couch with his own that said ‘We heart Snow’.

His son, because he knew he was, looked better today, more relaxed than yesterday to be sure. And he looked comfortable sitting next to Mr. Giles, which rankled Jack a bit because it wasn’t him. Who was this guy anyway? And what was he doing here? How did he know Xander? Yesterday’s challenge of impressing the friends wasn’t so fun anymore when confronted with this man.

“So when do you want to do the test?” he asked. “I’ve got to get back tomorrow.”

“I already set up an appointment at the clinic in town in the morning,” said Xander. “And it wasn’t easy getting a spot on such short notice.”

“Oh.” Jack wasn’t sure what to say to that. “That’s good.” And awfully fast. Jack tried not to think about what would happen if it came back negative. He’d been dreaming of this meeting for six months. Of course the reality of it was far from anything he had expected, but at least there was still hope.

“So,” said Mr. Giles. “You work at NORAD, Colonel?”

Jack glanced up sharply at the man, wondering just why he asked that. He’d never said anything about where he worked yesterday. And he didn’t like that look of mild curiosity either. “And you teach teenaged girls . . . self defense?” he shot back, letting him know exactly what he thought of the situation.

To his surprise, Mr. Giles actually blushed. “Yes, actually,” he sputtered. “It’s not what you’re implying.”

“I wasn’t implying anything,” Jack denied, happy he’d finally scored a hit. “Just wondering what you’ve got my son doing here.”

“Hey! Why should you care?” Xander snapped. “You don’t live here. And even if you are my biological father, so what? You haven’t been a part of my life. You don’t know the first thing about us.”

“I wasn’t there because I didn’t know about you. I’m here now,” said Jack a little too desperately. This wasn’t happening, was it? “I want to get to know you. Why do you think I came here?”

“I don’t know!” Xander suddenly shouted back. “You just showed up, all ‘Luke I am your father’ and you’re not like him and I don’t even know you.”

“Xander,” Mr. Giles put a calming hand on the young man’s shoulder while Jack looked on in shock. Did that even make sense? “Xander, why don’t you go check on Andrew in the kitchen,” said Mr. Giles.

Xander ignored him. “What, you tell me my parents are dead and expect to take their place protecting me? I’m not a kid.”

“I’m not expecting anything!” Jack yelled back, feeling like he’d been kicked in the teeth. He’s was going to lose him! The thought seared through his mind like fire, burning so deep it was all he could think of.

“Xander,” Mr. Giles repeated sharply.

“Yeah. Fine, whatever.” Without sparing a glance for Jack, his son stormed out of the room leaving Jack with the older man. Mildness replaced by ruthless hostility.

Jack scrubbed a hand over his face. Shit. This wasn’t going right. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said not quite sure what had just happened. “Whatever I said – ”

“I daresay you called me a pervert,” Mr. Giles interrupted coldly.

Jack bristled. “I – ”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Mr. Giles cut him off again. “You want to make sure he’s all right, I can see that. You can say anything you want to about me; I honestly don’t care, but I highly doubt that insulting his friends will garner you his good will, however well intentioned.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack repeated with a sigh. “I’ll admit I’m probably jumping to conclusions, but frankly I don’t like you,” he bit out. “Whatever you’re doing here doesn’t look good from where I’m sitting. I know it’s a little late, but I just want what’s best for him.”

“As do I Colonel O’Neill,” said Mr. Giles. “Even if that means getting rid of you.”

Jack caught his breath. He must have heard wrong. “Did you just threaten me?” he asked, eyebrows lifted at the audacity. Mr. Giles continued to calmly stare him down.

“I’ll leave the threats to the girls. They have a much more colorful way of putting things,” said Mr. Giles, and Jack knew he wasn’t talking about the girls he’d met yesterday. “But let me make one thing perfectly clear: neither your rank nor your government will be able to protect you from me if you have one ill thought toward Xander.” Now Jack was used to being threatened, in fact he often felt that in his old age he was getting rather immune to it. But at the moment he got the feeling that he was treading on very thin ice. Mr. Giles’s tone was clear, crisp, and deadly, his accent only chilling Jack more as eyes full of mortal promise bored into him.

Whatever he had thought before about Mr. Giles being mild mannered when right out the window. “You have my word,” Jack murmured seriously.

“Good.” And like that, the spell was broken so quickly Jack wondered if it had really happened. “Then you can stay for supper.” Mr. Giles smiled at him with only a hint of his earlier menace and took a sip of his tea. “So, Colonel, how do you like Cleveland?”

Jack tried to smile back and hoped he would make it out of this conversation intact.

~*~

The constant sound of knife against cutting board pounded like the blood through Xander’s head. He could feel Andrew watching him from across the island counter and wished he could say something reassuring but he didn’t know what. Hell, he couldn’t even sort out why he was mad. Yesterday Jack had been okay and today he and Giles were at each other’s throats.

Xander cleared the chopped carrots into the waiting pot and grabbed another handful. Something about Jack scared him. He was so . . . certain about being his dad. And he cared. And Xander didn’t know how to handle that, not from some stranger he met yesterday who was fifty years old and in the damn army.

But there was a niggling voice in the back of mind whispering “what if . . .” What if Mom had told Jack? What if he stuck around like he said he would have? As a kid in middle school, when things had really started to go downhill in the Harris household, Xander had sometimes imagined having different parents. Parents who didn’t drink, didn’t yell at him, and didn’t make him want to sleep outside on Christmas Eve.

Xander dumped the carrots in with the others, grabbing the last handful, but his hands were shaking so badly now, he cut his finger, red blood spilling over and clashing with the orange to make a nice vampire rabbit snack. His blood, Jack’s blood. They’d find out tomorrow. They still didn’t know for sure. Would Jack still care even if he wasn’t his father?

Taking the carrots with him to the sink, Xander ran cold water over the wound and ignored Andrew’s fussing as the blood washed away. It didn’t matter. Blood didn’t make you family, it only gave you a place to start. And Xander had a family. He didn’t need someone who didn’t know the first thing about him or Giles or anyone to come in making assumptions. Tomorrow they’d know for sure, then Jack would go back to his army and life would get back to normal on the Cleveland Hellmouth. Maybe he’d get a Christmas card like Buffy used to get from her dad. Whatever. It didn’t matter.

~*~

Jack was impressed that he and Mr. Giles had managed to find safe ground in seventies music. Granted it had taken Cleveland’s weather, England’s weather, Colorado’s weather, and an aborted attempt at sports to get there, but they did manage to have a civilized conversation without mentioning Xander or what anyone actually did for a living. Nevertheless, Jack was relieved when the sitting room door opened and put an end to the conversation.

Unsurprisingly, it was a girl, a blonde this time and fairly short. She was wearing a tank top and sweat pants, obviously just having come in from a workout session.

“Hey, Giles,” she practically bubbled though her eyes never left Jack as both he and Mr. Giles stood. “This him?” she asked, giving him a professional once over.

“Uh, yes. Colonel, may I introduce Buffy Summers, one of our instructors here. Buffy, Jack O’Neill.”

“Ms. Summers,” Jack used his best smile for Xander’s other friend. By the way she was eyeing him this must be one of the girls Mr. Giles had mentioned. She took his offered hand with a firm grasp, leaving a sheen of sweat behind.

“So you’re the dad, huh?” She didn’t seem too impressed.

“That would be me,” Jack affirmed.

“So if this pans out, you planning on becoming a fixture or is this a nice-to-meet-ya-I’m-going-off-to-Spain-with-my-secretary kinda deal?”

“Uh . . .” Unsure just what she had asked, Jack suddenly wished Daniel were there to translate.

“Well?” Her sharp gaze just sharpened even more while he stood there like an idiot.

“What Buffy is asking is if you plan on being a part of Xander’s life if you are indeed his father,” Mr. Giles helped him out, though Jack swore that the two questions didn’t share a word.

“What he said,” reiterated Buffy impatiently.

Feeling like he was caught between a rock and a hard place with one in front of him and one behind, Jack nodded. “Yeah. If he’ll let me.”

“Good,” said Buffy taking a step closer and staring into his eyes. “Because if you back out I’ll rip off your arms, shove one down your throat and the other up your ass so you can twiddle you thumbs in your stomach. Do I make myself clear?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jack fighting the urge to laugh in her face. She couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. Only the crazy intensity in her eyes kept his lips from twitching. She meant what she said, and even if she couldn’t hurt him physically, he respected that she wanted to keep her friend from getting hurt.

“Good. I’ll see you at dinner then.” She looked past him at Mr. Giles then left as quickly as she had come.

Jack turned to Mr. Giles and grinned. “That was one of the girls?” he asked. “I see what you mean about colorful.”

“Yes, quite,” said Mr. Giles offering a short, polite smile in return. “I’m surprised she went easy on you.”

“Threatening to rip my arms off was easy?” Jack raised his eyebrows in surprise. Not that he felt very threatened. What more could she do?

“Well, with Dawn’s boyfriends, she brings a knife and threatens to make them eunuchs.” The evil glint was back in Mr. Giles’s eye, which made Jack shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, just to make sure everything was all there.

“So what’s for dinner?” asked Jack to change the subject to healthier matters.

“You if you’re not careful,” Mr. Giles replied, picking up the mugs. “I don’t think Buffy was done with you.”

“Great, just what I need. Another hostile woman drooling over me.” Jack stopped short at the look Mr. Giles leveled at him. He winced. “I did it again, didn’t I?” When would he learn to keep all those random thoughts in is head. Must be the stress.

~*~

Xander was waiting for him by the back door. Jack looked a little surprised to see him there offering him a beer, but he took it nonetheless with a gentle smile and followed him outside to the back steps.

“I figured you could use one after being cooped up with Giles,” said Xander, putting his plate on his knees. It was sunset and the evening was cool. It would be dark soon. He looked up and saw Jack watching him with an unreadable expression on his face. He didn’t know what he wanted to talk about, but he felt like the poor guy needed a break from the third degree.

“Thanks,” Jack said without looking away. “Listen, about earlier, I’m sorry for what I said. It was uncalled for.”

The unexpected apology made Xander grin. “Giles scared the living shit out you, didn’t he?”

Jack smiled and let out a chuckle. “Maybe a little. I don’t think he likes me too much.”

“Probably not,” Xander agreed. You could be the First for all we know, he added in his head. But they had shaken hands so Xander knew he wasn’t. He was putting his money on his being a demon though. It would make everything easier if he was.

“So,” Jack said into the silence that followed, as at a loss as Xander for conversation. “Are we just going to sit here and be awkward?” he finally asked.

The question made Xander smile again. “You could go sit with Buffy. I know she’s just dying to meet you.” A grimace etched its way onto Jack’s face.

“We’ve actually already met,” he said. “She seems like a pleasant person – threatened to rip my arms off and everything.” Jack smiled and shook his head. “It was kind of touching actually.”

“Dismemberment?” asked Xander surprised by the comment.

“She loves you enough to threaten me. Mr. Giles too.”

Xander didn’t know what to say to that stark observation. He knew it was true, but usually he was one of the ones dealing out the threats and not on the receiving side, or however it worked.

“Well, tomorrow we’ll find out if you need to make funeral arrangement,” he joked, but Jack only cracked a small smile. Okay, so it wasn’t a great joke but damn it, he was nervous about all this too.

“Xander,” hearing his name for the first time made him look up sharply at the older man, “I meant what I said. I want to get to know you.” Jack looked away searching for words in the darkening sky. “I know I can’t replace your parents,” he finally said. “But I’d like to be your friend.” He turned back and Xander saw the pleading in his eyes that he would never say. “Even if tomorrow doesn’t work out . . . Jessica would have wanted it that way.” And he meant it, Xander saw. He really meant it. Xander didn’t know what to say. “Xander?” Jack was waiting for an answer, hoping, dreading.

“Jack,” he started then stopped. “You’re leaving tomorrow,” Xander continued. “Whether you’re my father or not. You’ll live your life, I’ll live mine.”

“I can visit you,” said Jack looking hurt. He really wanted to do this father-son thing, Xander realized. “You can come visit me.” And he wasn’t going to give it up easily.

“Can we get a dog, too?” asked Xander.

“Yeah, we can get a dog,” said Jack enthusiastically. “Any kind you want.”

“So now it’s bribery,” Xander raised his eyebrows. Jack grinned.

“If that’s what it takes to get me a chance with you.”

“You know, I could use a new car,” suggested Xander, beginning to enjoy this a little.

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “Watch it, junior. I’m not that rich.” Nonetheless, he seemed pleased by the suggestion. They settled into a light conversation about cars until dark fell and Xander insisted that Jack get back to his hotel. He’d ask whoever was on patrol to make sure he got there safely.

As he watched Jack’s rental car pull away down the street he smiled quietly to himself. The dad thing still weirded him out, but maybe being friends would work.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning Xander was late to the clinic. Jack had of course arrived early and then spent twenty minutes not reading some article in People and glancing at his watch. He wasn’t worried. Really. After all his son was the one who had set up the appointment, but nonetheless he let out a sigh of relief when Xander banged through the door.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he flashed a quick yet harried smile. “Small crisis in Girlville.”

Jack stood, his earlier irritation quenched now that he was here. “What happened?” he asked as they went to the desk to check in. Xander greeted the nurse by name as she handed him the forms they needed to fill out with a coy smile. Looked like someone had a crush, mused Jack, though Xander merely thanked her politely and went to sit down, oblivious.

“Oh, you know, the usual ‘she looked at me funny’ thing,” said Xander, frowning at his pen that refused to write. “Does yours work?” he asked.

Jack tried it and nodded, wondering instead what Xander was talking about while his son asked the shy nurse for another pen. “So what thing is that?” he asked when the young man rejoined him.

“Huh?” Xander looked up, the confusion on his face quickly dissipating as he caught up. “Oh, there’s this whole . . . thing. You know, where one girl looks at another and makes her cry.” He must not have look convinced because Xander added, “Yeah, I don’t get it either,” before turning back to his form.

The paperwork didn’t take long to complete, and before Jack knew it, they were being led into an examination room where another nurse Xander knew named Cathy scraped the insides of their cheeks with a half dozen Q-tips.

“Is that it?” he asked in surprise as she took off her gloves.

“That’s it,” Cathy smiled. “Now we just send it off to the lab on Monday and we’ll mail you the results by Friday.” It seemed too simple for it to be legit. Janet was always shining lights and poking and prodding, and now the inside of his cheek would tell them what they need to know? He and the Doc were going to have a serious conversation when he got back.

“Xander, how’s Lydia doing?” asked Cathy over her shoulder as she led them back to the waiting room.

“She’s good now,” Xander told her. “Not much keeps them down. Like Energizers. The batteries, I mean,” he tripped over this last, making Jack smile.

“That’s good to hear,” Cathy held the door for them as they left. “And I hope everything works out for you guys.”

“Thanks.”

The door closed, leaving the two of them alone in the sunshine, another awkward pause filling the space between them. “So you come here often?” Jack’s curiosity finally got the better of him.

Xander shrugged, his face devoid of anything readable. “The girls sometimes get hurt. And being in the very scary position of responsibility, guess who gets to drive.” Jack didn’t have anything he cared to say aloud to that. “So when’s your plane leaving?”

“One-seventeen,” said Jack, looking at his watch. It was almost eleven now. He’d have to leave soon to make it through security. When he looked back up, Xander was watching him closely out of his single eye. Jack wondered suddenly what he looked like without the eyepatch.

“So I guess this is it, huh?” said Xander.

“Oh, I hope not,” said Jack with a grin trying to dispel the sudden seriousness of the conversation. He knew it was a defense mechanism, but hey, it worked. “Now that you got me, I don’t intend on leaving you alone. Besides, your little Buffy will rip my arms off if I don’t come back.”

That startled a laugh out of Xander. “You really shouldn’t underestimate Buffy,” he said, shaking his head and grinning wryly. “And you really, really shouldn’t call her little.”

“Touchy?”

“Very.”

“Sounds like other short people I know.”

“But this one can rip your arms off.”

“Well, we can’t have that now, can we? So I guess I better keep in touch?” Jack turned this last into a hopeful question, slightly rocking on his heels. Xander didn’t respond for a moment.

“You’re that sure?” he asked softly, doubt coloring his voice. “About me? I mean, I could be an axe murderer for all you know.” And underneath the sarcasm Jack heard a scared young man wondering why he cared.


Jack smiled and shook his head, a little taken aback by the emotion in the gaze that bored into his soul. “You’re not an axe murderer,” said Jack solemnly, for once not hiding behind humor. “You’re my son. And I know you don’t really trust me right now,” he let out a breath of cynical laughter, glancing at his shoes, “especially since I messed up this whole meeting you thing.” He looked up. “But all I’m asking for is a chance.”

“Yeah, well,” Xander didn’t seem to know what to say. “To save your arms, I guess you can call me. And if you’ll, you know, still buy me a dog.” A teasing smile snuck its way into the conversation and Jack’s heart.

“It’s a deal.” And when Jack offered his hand and Xander took it, he felt like he’d been given the world.

~*~

Xander closed the door with a heartfelt sigh when he got home. Around him the bubbly sounds of teenagers on their free day bounced off the walls around him. Over to the right of the entranceway, the sitting room door wide open with one of the newbie cliques giggling over the rustle of magazines and newspapers. They paused when they heard him come in, several arching their necks to see who it was.

“Xander!” called Melissa, a tall ganlgy brunette that reminded him of a stork with freckles. “How’d it go?”

He smiled for them as he ambled over to the doorframe. “Fine,” he shrugged, though he still didn’t know how he felt about it. “Cathy says hi.”

“Cool, she was there?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, we’re going to see a movie today,” spoke up Ashley. “You wanna come?”

“What movie?”

A half a dozen titles cluttered the air as soon as he asked. Xander recognized a few of them and knew he definitely wasn’t in the mood for the chick flicks. He needed something brainless and full of hitting people over the head with big guns. And a good chase scene. He’d probably end up watching *Wrath of Khan* again with Andrew and a few of the girls. Man, he really needed to get some guy friends to watch real guy movies with that didn’t involve men in jumpsuits, he thought as the girls continued to squabble. “Let me know when you decide,” he interrupted the movie debate, turning toward the kitchen. “And don’t forget to put it on the board so we can get you a ride.”

With a chorus of, “we won’t s” with regard to the activity board, also affectionately known as the Where-the-Hell-is-she? board, Xander left them for the kitchen where he found Andrew complaining loudly to pair of hungry slayers. “Xander!” Andrew whined as soon as he saw him. “Tell them they can’t just come in here when I’m trying to get lunch together and pick at the Cardassian egg salad!”

“It’s good salad!” Veronica tried appeasing Andrew looking for the world like a regretful eight-year-old, which wasn’t hard considering she was barely over five feet tall.

“Well, eat something else,” said Xander shaking his head and wondering as he always did how he had ended up as the peacemaker around here. It still surprised him more than Andrews Star Trek dishes. He wondered if the egg salad would get voted onto the make-it-again-and-die list that was stuck to the pantry door with a dagger. “Andrew,” he got back to his original purpose for being in the kitchen at all, “do you have your shopping list ready?”

“No, because *some* people keep coming in and just eating the lunch I’ve spent the last two hours slaving over without a . . . a can-I-please?” The house chef glared at the two girls who didn’t look the least bit ashamed, which of course only made Andrew pout harder. Damn. Xander was going to have to get him another Hallmark card. He so did not need a rebellious cook on his hands again.

“After lunch then?” he asked.

“Fine,” said Andrew sullenly.

“All right, come on,” Xander shooed the two girls out of the kitchen. “Let’s let his Cardassianness work.” They left with Andrew muttering something gargly about proper titles. While the two girls headed out back to do girl things, Xander passed into the dining room and plopped down at the table. Dawn, Giles, and their piles of books looked up and smiled. Well, the books would have if books smiled, but then they were books. And Xander didn’t like books. They were one of the sure signs of the apocalypse. “So what’s all this?” he waved a vague hand at the ill-omened tomes.

“One of the patrols last night ran into an unknown demon,” said Giles who had just returned his nose to the page. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and a pencil twitched between his fingers as he read whatever it was he was reading. “Redish brown, five horns, and a rather large . . . ‘squick’ factor.”

“Nope, not ringing any bells,” said Xander. “So what happened to the research-your-own-stupid-demons policy?” It was, hands down, his favorite policy.

“It’s Saturday,” said Dawn who hadn’t yet gone back to her work. “Most of this stuff is my bastardized Sumerian.” Her face crinkled at the evil books that were tying up *her* Saturday. Or at least her morning. Last night’s entertainment had been watching her and Giles go head to head over what constituted a day off. Unfortunately prophesies were time-critical, and they had ended in this compromise with the argument that she got to sleep in during the rest of the week anyway.

Absently Xander grabbed Argyle’s Compendium off the top of the much smaller stack of demon books before remembering he hated these books with a passion and for once didn’t have to do the research. So there, he tossed the book back with a light thud as it slid to a stop. He grinned at Dawn who brightly returned the smile while Giles appeared not to have noticed at all. “So who’s the lucky group?” he asked.

“We-Love-Orlando-Bloom,” Dawn told him. “I think they’re holed up with *Pirates* right now.”

“Ahh,” Xander nodded, not surprised in the least.

“So how did it go?” she asked.

“Fine,” Xander shrugged as he had before. “He went straight to the airport after. And Cathy’s gonna send a couple samples to Fred.”

“And how are you with all this?” Giles spoke up, his attention now focused on Xander who shrugged again.

“What’s there to feel? Everything’s back to normal.” He stared at the tabletop, the emotions that had subsided with his return home bubbling back to the surface. Confusion, hope, dread, and a little anger at Jack for doing this to him. His life was crazy enough without some stranger trying to be a part of it. One he couldn’t share. And yet, Xander found himself wondering what it would be like to have a parent that cared all to himself.

“Xander?” Giles prompted softly.

He looked up at the older man and suddenly wondered if Jack would ever measure up to him. “I don’t know,” said Xander, the indifferent façade slipping. “It’s all just so . . .”

“Hellmouthy?” Dawn finished as he struggled for words.

“Yeah, but also in a big kinda not way.”

“You mean it is so un-hellmouth-like that it must be hellmouthy?” asked Giles who then frowned to himself, both trying to understand his own sentence and appalled that he had said ‘hellmouthy.’

“Something like that,” Xander agreed. Honestly, he could do without all this emotional stuff right now. The last couple of days had been exhausting, and he was tired of feeling all mixed up. He’d just lost his real parents for good and now Jack was there being the parent he had always wanted. It was a like a parent market, one for two deal. “I told him he could call me.”

“Do you think he will?” asked Dawn.

“Yeah, actually,” Xander let out a huff of laughter. “I think he might.”

“I guess that’s cool.”

“Yeah.” Their eyes met and Xander slowly grinned. It would be cool. As long as he wasn’t a slimy creature of the dark or an asshole, that is, the cynical voice in his head chirped. But he just mentally shrugged it away. After all, there were good demons like Clem around.

For a few moments the three of them sat silently, sharing the quiet. In the background, Xander heard gaggles of girls talking and laughing. Giles was the first to turn back to his work with Dawn following soon after, her light smile remaining. Xander watched them, so different and so alike in their work.

“Honestly!” Giles suddenly broke the silence with an exasperated sigh, whipping off his glasses and polishing them on his shirt. “ ‘And he shall smite him down with pink sandals,’ Dawn?”

“It says ‘pink’!” Dawn protested with an angry jab at the original text before her.

As the two of them broke into an argument over their Sumerian bastard, Xander chuckled to himself before slipping quietly away.

~*~

Jack stifled a yawn as he made his way through the crowded terminal to the baggage claim. He hated flying commercial; there were too many people and not enough space for half of them. And it was noisy and so incredibly, mind numbingly boring, and right now he just wanted to get out of the airport. The doors were nearby but unfortunately so were about a million other people jostling for their bags. As he was pushing and shoving his way through the masses, he heard someone call his name.

The someone turned out to be Daniel who was there to pick him up. Jack grinned, happy to finally see a friendly face after his long trip. “How was your flight?” asked Daniel when Jack finally reached his side.

“Very long and dull,” said Jack, adjusting his grip up his single bag that he had thankfully carried-on with him. “Next time I’m gonna claim there’s a dangerous pot or something in Cleveland so I can fly myself.”

Daniel smiled and shook his head at him. “Car’s this way,” he said turning toward the sign that said East Parking Deck. “So your trip was good?” he asked.

Jack shrugged. “I met him. Can’t say it went like I planned.” Daniel gave him an inquisitive look asking for an explanation. “He goes by Xander. And yes, you were right,” Jack cut his eyes at his friend, hating to admit it and feeling petty for it at the same time. “He didn’t believe me at first. Had one of the girls at the house check if the birth certificate was real though I don’t know how.” It had been awfully quick too, now that he thought about it.

“Girl?” Daniel interrupted his thoughts. Jack shook himself back to the present. He’d get Carter to look into it later, along with that Giles character and the camp.

“Yeah. He and a couple of friends run a summer self defense camp for teenage girls.”

“And?”

“I don’t know,” said Jack, scrubbing a hand through his hair. He felt sticky and gross all over. “I mean, it didn’t look like anything was really going on; the kids all liked him. It’s just set up in a house in the suburbs.”

“Well, they did just lose their town a year ago,” Daniel reasoned as they reached the car. He unlocked it, and Jack threw his bag in the back before clambering into the front passenger seat. “It’s not a cult is it?” he asked suddenly.

“No,” Jack shook his head. Definitely not a cult from how talkative the girls were, but it just seemed so odd. But then the whole experience had been odd, even for him. “You know, I was expecting a carpenter. A man with a nine to five job, maybe a girlfriend. Definitely not kids. And definitely not a denmother for a bunch of girls.”

“A bit of a shock?” Daniel smiled.

“Like a hurricane. But maybe that was just seeing him.” His son. The idea still gave him chills. Things had gone so wrong with Charlie. He hadn’t been there enough, hadn’t been there when Charlie had found his gun. Now, Xander was giving him a chance to be there for him.

“Jack?”

“Yeah, sorry. What was that?” He realized Daniel had just asked him a question.

“I asked what he’s like?”

Jack thought back, trying to capture what he had seen on that first meeting. “He lost his left eye recently,” he said quietly after a moment. “I asked about it, probably shouldn’t have.” He could still remember his son’s good eye challenging him to push harder and see how far it got him. “The kids like him,” he went on. He didn’t know what else to say. How do you describe someone you had barely met? They hadn’t talked much, just that first stilted conversation, then the one over dinner. “He’s got a sense of humor,” he added with a smile. “And he rescued me from his friends that threatened to kill me.”

“What?” That brought Daniel up short, and Jack pointed to the road his friend was suddenly ignoring. “They threatened you?” Daniel returned his eyes to the front.

“This girl, Buffy, threatened to rip my arms off if I dropped out of Xander’s life, and his good buddy Mr. Giles outright told me he’d kill me if I hurt him.”

“That speaks highly of him,” said Daniel. “Xander, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Jack couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face. “And he said he’d give me a chance.”

“Just like that?”

“Well,” Jack didn’t meet his friend’s eyes. “There may have been some shouting and apologizing and a paternity test. He was wondering why I would even care about him. Makes me wonder . . .” he trailed off. Daniel didn’t say anything, but the glance they shared said it all. The thought of a not so happy home had only occurred to Jack on the flight back. “So what have you been up to while I was away feeling awkward?”

Daniel gave him another look, but decided not to protest the change in subject. “Negotiations,” he replied sourly. “The Yibbites are almost as stubborn as you.”

“Hey! I’m not the only stubborn one on the team.”

“Yeah, but Sam’s at least nice about it,” Daniel shot back with a quick grin. Jack mock glared at the neat derailment of his teasing.

“Our next mission’s on Monday?”

Daniel grinned even wider at his ungraceful attempt to change the subject, but again, he went with it, nodding. “Though I’m still behind on my paperwork from our last mission because of the Yibbite negotiations.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jack sighed. His unexpected trip had foiled his procrastination technique. Now he would be writing reports all day tomorrow. God, he hated paperwork.

“So when do you find out?” asked Daniel.

“Find out what?”

“The results of the paternity test.” Oh. That.

“Friday or thereabouts.” But he had already decided that it didn’t matter. Jessica said Xander was his, so Xander was his as far as he was concerned, and he wasn’t going to back out of it. “It was more for their peace of mind.”

“I know,” said Daniel quietly, a million reassurances in those soft words. The little doubts that had popped up their ugly heads every so often shuffled away. “So pizza?” Daniel asked as they arrived in Jack’s neighborhood.

“Pizza sounds great,” Jack agreed. They rode in a comfortable silence the rest of the way to Jack’s house. The conversation wasn’t over, just paused for later. Jack found himself wondering what Xander would think of his house and his friends. Maybe one day he’d get the chance to find out.

Chapter Text

The first thing Jack did when he got home after Friday’s mission was make a bee line for the kitchen and the first beer he could lay his hands on. It had been one hell of a week. Three days of boredom listening to Daniel sweet talk the semi-civilized locals of some tree-infested planet followed by two days of sheer adrenaline when the non-Goa’uld priesthood decided to roast them for a barbecue. He hadn’t slept since before the attack and was now under Janet’s strict orders to get some rest. But he needed to unwind first, do something meaningless and mundane like watch TV.

So grabbing the mail that had accumulated over the past week, Jack stretched out on the couch with the remote and surfed through the channels till *Trading Spaces* caught his eye. Calm and domestic, it resonated in counterpoint to the noise, violence, and uncertainty of the mission and allowed his thoughts drift away.

Only when the ads came on did he look at his mail, separating the bills from the outright junk and finding one letter from the Munroe Health Clinic, Cleveland that brought him up short. The test results. Jack stared at the envelope for a second. He hadn’t even thought about Xander for the past two days, life-threatening events taking precedent. Being reminded of it now made him smile. Quickly, he opened the letter and read the confirmation that he was Xander’s father. He hadn’t doubted it . . . well, maybe a little, but here it was. Father and son. It sent both chills and a wave of joy through him.

*Trading Spaces* came back on, but Jack muted it, instead glancing at the phone. He suddenly wanted to call everybody. But first . . . what the hell. He’d said he could call. Jack grabbed the phone and after rooting around for it, dialed Xander’s number. It rang twice before unsurprisingly a girl answered.

“Hello?”

“Uh, hi. It’s Jack O’Neill. Can I speak to Xander?”

“Jack? Yeah, just a minute.” She pulled away from the mouthpiece, but Jack still heard her shout for Xander. Noisy kids, he smiled, not bothered by it this time. At the moment, he didn’t think anything could bother him.

“Hello? Jack?” Xander came on the line.

“Hey. How you doin’?” said Jack.

“Fine. You?”

“Good, good.” There was a pause. The superficial nature of the conversation suddenly made Jack nervous. “I hope you don’t mind me calling,” he began. “But I got the letter from the clinic today.”

“Yeah, mine came yesterday.”

“So I just thought I’d call,” Jack repeated, feeling kind of silly now that he had nothing to say.

“Yeah, no it’s cool!” Xander pulled himself out of whatever funk he’d been in. “I guess you weren’t really surprised.”

“Were you?” Jack asked.

“Well, no. Yeah. I don’t know.” Xander paused. “I guess yeah. Because, hey, how could this be happening? Suddenly I’ve got a parent out of nowhere.”

“Yeah, well, I’m – ”

“Hey.” Xander cut him off. “It’s no big. I mean, you called, right?”

“Right,” Jack agreed though he wasn’t sure what Xander meant. Just that it was good he had called. Right? God, he hoped so.

“So how’s life out in Whoville?”

“Whoville?” Jack wasn’t sure, but wasn’t that Dr. Seuss? He grinned, the comment pleasing him for some reason, but maybe it was because Xander had asked.

“You know, Colorado,” Xander clarified.

Well as far as he knew, Colorado was fine, it was the rest of the galaxy that was giving him a hard time. “It’s good,” he sighed.

“That bad, huh?’” commented Xander, again both surprising and pleasing Jack that he had noticed.

“Yeah, well. The last couple of days have just reminded me why I hate organized religion,” he said. “It’s useless, manipulative, and annoying.” Not to mention dangerous.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Xander easily. “It’s got some pretty good uses.”

“Like what?” Jack challenged. He bet he could shoot down anything his son said, but what Xander did say surprised him.

“Crosses, holy water. I mean, come on, how can you not love a blessed refreshment?”

Jack chuckled. “Cool yes; useful no.”

“It all in how you look at it,” said Xander. “If you’re dying of thirst . . .”

“So I take it you’re not very religious?” asked Jack at this humorous sign of disrespect. He was even a little relieved in light of his own atheism.

“You mean, do I believe in the Christian God? Don’t know, haven’t met him.” Jack could practically hear him shrug. “I don’t believe there is anyone as powerful as they say he is.”

“It’s called faith, Xander,” he smiled.

“Well there’s faith and there’s faith, and the kind I got in my friends is the only faith I need.”

“That’s . . .” Jack didn’t know quite what to say to that, though he knew exactly what his son meant. Jack’s own faith in his team and the SGC was all he needed to keep fighting. No all-powerful beings to help out or give them easy answers, just humans against the Goa’uld.

“Pretty lame? “ Xander ventured, an unsure note in his voice.

“No,” said Jack immediately. “Not lame.” He paused searching for words. “As a soldier . . . well, what little faith I had when I started out, it became like you said. Your friends, your team, they’re everything.”

“Yeah.”

There was silence, neither one of them sure how to continue. Jack tried to think of another question to ask but couldn’t think of anything that didn’t feel like prying too deep, so instead he retreated back to more mundane things. “So how was your week?”

“Fine. Normal for around here,” said Xander. “Mostly I’ve just been looking out for people.”

“That’s good.”

Another an awkward pause.

“Listen,” Xander broke the silence. “I’ve got to go. Dinner’s soon. But thanks for calling.” And he did seem glad which just made Jack grin again. His cheeks were starting to get sore.

“I’ll call again, sometime?”

“Okay, talk to you then. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Jack hung up and turned back to the television. All in all, he thought, that went well. And he grinned wider.

~*~

One month later

“Willow!” Xander cheerfully snatched the phone from Dawn’s fingers, grinning at the young woman’s knowing smirk. “It’s been ages. How are you? Where are you?”

On the other end, his best friend laughed at the string of questions, and Xander grinned. It felt so good to hear that familiar sound. “We’re in Florida at the beach. Got in yesterday morning,” said Willow. “Except not the beach beach right now because I’m talking to you.”

“Ah. So are there really demons there or are you a Kennedy just snuggling under the covers?” he asked. He would bet even money that Florida’s biggest crisis was a rainy day.

But Willow protested, “There’s demons! Really. We saw some the last night!”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay, so they were just hanging out at a club,” Willow caved. “And there might be more snuggling than working going on. But don’t tell Giles.”

“I knew it!” Xander crowed. “And I think Giles already knows.” At the Scooby meeting after Willow had called to suggest that she and Kennedy check out Florida, they had all just looked at each other, knowing.

“Really? Is he mad?” Willow asked, all of a sudden anxious and nervous that she was in trouble.

“Nah,” Xander waved a hand she couldn’t see. “I think he’s enjoying the vicarious smoochies with the rest of us.”

“Ewe, Xander!”

“What?”

“It’s Giles!”

“I know, but he’s still significant other-less like the rest of us. And hey, who wouldn’t want the think about two girls making out at the beach?”

“Xander!” Willow screeched again like he knew she would, but he could also tell that she wasn’t really upset, but rather flattered. “Ooh, hey, guess what?” She bubbled happily.

“What?”

“I got to intimidate these guys who were hitting on Kennedy!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. We were at the beach lying on our towels near their volleyball game when their ball rolled over cause someone hit it out, so this guy came over to get it. Kennedy was next to the ball and I didn’t even notice he was there until he started talking. He said something like ‘Hey, how’s it going.’ And then he took his ball and they kept playing. Then after the game, he and a couple of his friends came over to say hi and invited us to a party tonight. So then one guy started asking Kennedy where she was from and stuff and then if she had a boyfriend all the while being Mr. Obvious-I-Want-To-Jump-You. So then I started to get a little annoyed and when Kennedy said no boyfriend I told him that if he didn’t stop hitting on my girlfriend I’d make him a boy soprano in my totally scary way – but not bad scary, just to him scary.”

“And what did he do?”

“I think we weirded him out, and his friends were laughing at him. But he was cool in the end, and we’re still going to the party.”

Xander chuckled. He could just imagine Willow’s resolve face squaring off against a six foot nothing beach boy. “So you’re enjoying yourselves?”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “You know, I just love doing the normal thing every once in a while.”

“Yeah,” Xander agreed. Normal was always a nice change from the bustle of their lives. On the other hand, too much normal would drive him crazy, he knew. Though it would help if he had another guy to hang out with.

“So how’s life at Scooby Central?” asked Willow. “Everything’s okay?”

“Just the usual. Vampire’s roam. Slayers slay. I feel like all I ever do anymore is fix schedules, go over grocery lists, and keep everyone from tearing each other’s hair out. Were girls always like this in high school?”

“Yep. Welcome to Hormoneland. Cat fights and snarking every hour on the hour,” Willow quipped.

“It’s like Cordelia concentrate here. Except all of them are stronger than He-Man. If this is what parents go through, I’m never having kids.”

Willow laughed. “That’s why they invented summer camp, Xander,” she said. “And speaking of parents, I finally finished the search.”

“On Jack?” Xander perked up curiously. He still couldn’t bring himself to call him ‘dad,’ even since the test results came back, both Cathy’s and Fred’s, the latter having come up one hundred percent human. Xander had in fact been greatly relieved and surprised by the feeling. But it was true. He liked Jack. The guy was just as new and unsure about how to do the whole father-son thing as he was, but he was trying, and that impressed Xander. His own dad had stopped trying by the time he was ten, and Giles, as much as Xander loved him, was more dad by default than effort to all of them.

“Yes.” In the background, Xander heard Willow shuffling some papers around. “It took me a while to get to the Air Force database, especially since work and demon stuff kept interrupting. The military really have some tight systems . . .” she trailed off and Xander waited patiently. The research had been an unspoken unanimous decision by all of them. The Initiative had made them all gun-shy where the military was involved, and father or not, there was too much at risk.

“Here it is,” Willow announced. “So he works at NORAD like we found out earlier on the Deep Space Telemetry project code name Project Blue Book, though where they got that name from I don’t know.”

“Riley was Lilac,” Xander offered.

“Anyway,” she went on, “he’s got a really good service record with some impressive medals from the Persian Gulf War, though almost everything he’s done has been erased. I think because it’s top secret we’re-gonna-destroy-terrorism-by-being-terrorists government stuff. Wherever the files for this stuff are, I don’t know. I doubt they’re on the same server, if they’re in a computer at all.”

“So he’s Special Forces?” That was like the best of the best, especially if all his missions were so secret.

“Yeah. If you want I can do some . . . more refined searches for the top secret stuff, but I’d kinda rather not,” Willow offered.

Magic. Xander knew she would do it for him in a second if he asked, but he also knew how much it would cost her. It had been a little over two years since Tara, one since she had activated all the slayers, and the magic still made her nervous. And rightly so – she was just too powerful to use it lightly. “No it’s okay,” Xander told her. “It’s probably all stuff we don’t want to know anyway.”

“Yeah.” Willow sounded relieved. “So has he called again?”

“Not yet.” And that was not disappointment in his voice. Really. “We’ll see what happens.”

“I hope it works out,” said Willow a little hesitantly. “I mean, if you want it to,” she added hastily. “Cause if you don’t, I’m all for the hating.”

“Thanks,” Xander grinned. There was no changing Willow. “I kinda hope it works out too.” He paused. “How are your parents doing?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“They’re still in DC?” They had moved there before the collapse of Sunnydale. He remembered when Willow had gone to tell them to get out of town, and they had wanted her to come with them, the overwhelming evil of the First registering on some level that had remained untouched by all the other demonic activity of the hellmouth. When she had refused, they finally seemed to understand that the shy girl they had raised, and even the one who had brought a girl home to meet them, was long gone, replaced by a woman who was staying because she knew what was coming.

“Yep. We stopped by on our way south and went out to dinner. It was nice in a polite way. Dad still wants me to finish college since I’ve only got a year and a half left. He thinks I’ve been doing the ‘backpacker’ thing too long. And he wonders why the heck we decided on Cleveland.”

“Who would have thought that you would be a college drop out?” Xander shook his head at the upheaval of the universe.

“Hey! Extenuating circumstances!” Willow said, indignant. “Besides,” she continued in a normal voice, “I already talked to Giles. I might finish at Oxford. Since we’re still trying to pull stuff together in England, I’d be like our liaison.”

“Oxford?” Xander was surprised. She wasn’t coming home? She couldn’t do that!

“I’m not going now or anything,” she reassured him. “And it would only be for two years when I did. And I’d visit every holiday.”

“And you’re gonna come home drinking tea, talking like Giles, and swearing soccer is a million times better than any pansy sport we’ve got here,” Xander groused, not liking the idea. England was so far away.

“Xander,” Willow giggled. “You said ‘pansy.’”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

Wait, he had, hadn’t he. Damn. He really needed to get some guy friends that were not British, wimps, or vampires. “Just rescue me from all the junior slayers first,” he begged.

“Promise,” said Willow. “Kennedy and I will be home in a month, so just hang on until then.”

“All right.” Just a month to go.

“Xander,” Buffy knocked on the doorframe. “Am I ever gonna get the phone?” the Slayer whined with her best pitiful look.

Grinning, he said, “Wills, I think Buffy’s gonna kill me if I don’t give you to her.”

“All right, put her on,” Willow laughed.

“All right, love you,” he said to his best friend

“Love you, too.”

Xander passed the phone on to Buffy who grinned in thanks before squealing, “Willow!” and disappearing into her room. He doubted she’d emerge anytime soon.

~*~

The ringing phone woke Jack from his doze on the couch. A little disoriented at first, he fumbled in the dim light for the cursed contraption. He was on stand-down, for crying out loud. “O’Neill,” he answered.

“Sir, it’s me,” his second in command’s voice greeted him.

Jack rubbed his forehead. Of course. “Carter, are you still on base?” he asked reprovingly.

There was a moment of incriminating silence before she answered, “Yes, sir,” with a sigh that said I-know-but-tell-me-later.

“Carter,” Jack ignored the unspoken words. “This is our first real break in almost a month.”

“I should be at home sleeping, yes, I know,” Carter finished for him. “I just had a few things to finish up here and one of the labs needed a consultation. I’ll be out of here in an hour.”

“I’ll be calling your house,” he told her. And he would. His eyes flickered to the clock noting the time. One hour. That reminded him to check up on Daniel and make sure he wasn’t doing anything stupid like not sleeping either.

Carter sighed again, but Jack thought it sounded like a smile too. “All right,” she said.

“So what’s up?” Jack asked now that that was taken care of.

“Well, I had some free time while I was waiting for some results so I did that background check you asked me for about a month ago on Rupert Giles.”

“Oh?” Jack only vaguely remembered asking. At the time he’d still been rattled by his visit to Cleveland. Thinking about it now, he felt a little like a . . . well, an overprotective parent. “So what did you find out?”

“Rupert Giles a British citizen who’s been living in the US for the last eight years, though according to immigration he went back to England for a year in 2002. He worked as a high school librarian in the ‘90s and then owned a shop, both in Sunnydale. His green card currently lists him as self-employed. His American record’s clean: no arrests, no complaints.”

“But?”

“I got into his British record,” Carter went on. “Two arrests when he was in his early twenties, once for assault and once for petty theft, but all the charges were dropped.”

“Sounds like a case of stupid youth,” Jack commented, feeling a little stupid himself at suspecting the man. The whole situation must have skewed his sense of danger about Mr. Giles, ‘cause, really, a librarian? “Anything else?”

“No,” Carter sighed. “That was all I had time to get into. Non-government records are harder to track down. I can still do it if you want,” she offered.

“No, it’s okay,” Jack said. “I think I was just being paranoid. He doesn’t sound like he’s in any secret cults or anything.”

“Well, I only have the federal database to work with but since he’s an alien everything gets reported to them,” said Carter. “And since he’s not in the California system, I doubt he’s done anything more serious than forget about a parking ticket.”

“So you don’t think it’s weird that he runs a self-defense camp for girls with people half his age?” Jack asked. It still was a little funny to him.

“A little,” said Carter. “But you did say that your son’s other friends running it were young women. Maybe it was their project.”

“And Mr. Giles?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you should ask him and stop guessing.”

“Carter.”

“I’m just saying, sir. You only met them once, and you said yourself that it didn’t look like anything illegal.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop,” Jack ran a hand through his short hair. She was right, he was being paranoid. “So you’re going home now, Carter?”

He swore he could hear her roll her eyes. “Yes, sir. I’ll be home in half an hour.”

Jack glanced at the clock. That still put her home under her promised hour. “Good. I’ll call you then.”

“Good night, sir,” she said forcefully, telling him she didn’t need a babysitter.

“Night.”

He hung up. Parking tickets, he shook his head. But now he knew where Xander had met Mr. Giles – the high school library. Xander who was a carpenter that had never gone to college was still friends with him. Once again Jack wondered just what had his son’s home life been like.

~*~

“So we saw vamps here and here under the bridge,” Rebecca pointed on the blown up map of a neighborhood in South Cleveland that was spread out over the dining room table. She and the other four members of Team Toesocks had run into a group of twenty eight-foot demons with a crew of vampires who were setting up shop in an abandoned building. The fight had been rough leaving them all with deep bruises and Amy, the youngest of the group, with a broken arm. Dawn had taken her to the ER to get it set, but the rest of the battered team sat around the table with Buffy, Xander, and Giles.

Xander’s eye roamed over them while Rebecca told them what had happened. They were shaken up. This was their first big defeat and he could tell that it had shaken their confidence in their newfound skills. He knew that it was hitting them for the first time what a slayer’s short life span really meant. Rachel and Leslie sat quietly with their hands in their laps, neither one quite looking at Rebecca. Beside Giles, Joanna fidgeted, her hands busy with a pencil and her eyes never leaving the table. She had a bright red scratch along her jaw. Xander hoped Buffy would talk to them later about it and let them know that getting beat was part of getting stronger.

For the moment though, they needed to figure out what was going on. This was the Toesocks’s first big case so to speak and given the numbers and sheer size of the demons, they would need help with it.

Once Rebecca had finished, Buffy and Giles laid out the three R’s of the Scooby standard operating procedure: Research, Reconnaissance, and more Research. There wasn’t much to it really. Giles showed them how to find the most relevant books in the library then got them started flipping through the pages. Xander was on the computer with Leslie, showing her the demon sites and the database Willow had been compiling for the last year. They wouldn’t do much tonight, just get a start. Tomorrow they’d check out the lair again with Buffy, do more research and then figure out where to go from there. And Rebecca and the Toesocks would ultimately be making the decisions because when they went home in the fall, they’d be on their own.

The phone rang somewhere in the background after they had been working for a while and a moment later someone was calling Xander’s name. “You good?” he asked Leslie, standing when she nodded and making his way to the kitchen.

“It’s Jack,” Vi told him, handing him the phone.

Surprised and pleased, Xander said, “Jack? Hi.”

“Hey,” Jack replied. “How you doing?”

“Good,” said Xander. “Tired. But good.”

“All those kids running you ragged?”

Running him ragged by getting ragged was more like it, Xander thought of Amy. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s been pretty crazy here. So what’s up?”

“Nothing,” said Jack lightly. “I just thought I’d call, see how you were doing.”

Xander felt warm suddenly and a little surprised. “I’m good,” he repeated, not sure what to add. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Jack. “Stuff’s been kinda hectic around here too. It’s why I haven’t called.”

“That and a complete lack of anything else to say?” Xander asked wryly. To hell with this awkwardness. It was really starting to get annoying.

Jack left out a huff of a laugh. “Yeah, that too. Unless you like hockey?”

“Sorry,” Xander grinned. “Not much of a sports person.”

“You’re kidding!” Jack sounded offended. “How can you not like sports? Didn’t you play anything when you were younger?”

Did running for your life count? Xander wondered but didn’t say. “Only videogames.”

“Oh, well, I guess that’s something,” said Jack. “How do you like Super Mario?”

“Super Mario’s cool,” Xander responded really surprised that Jack the Colonel was asking about videogames. Wasn’t he supposed to be like videogames-rot-your-mind? “You play?”

“Only on my GameBoy,” Jack sounded a little defensive. “I get bored easily.”

Xander laughed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just . . . I guess I’m having a hard time imagining you playing a GameBoy.”

“Because I’m a colonel in the Air Force? You should hear what my CO says about me,” said Jack, making Xander chuckle again.

“So how long have you been in the Air Force?” asked Xander.

“I did ROTC in college,” said Jack. “Ended up deciding I wanted to fly planes and go career.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah.” There was a pause as the conversation lost momentum. “So listen,” said Jack. “I was wondering if you wanted to come for a visit sometime?”

“With you in Colorado?” asked Xander, surprised.

“For like a weekend or something,” Jack added. “I understand if you don’t – ”

“No,” Xander interrupted before he could finish. “I’d like that.” It would be neat to see Jack in his own place. See what he was really like when he wasn’t coping with a son from out of nowhere. It’d be really . . . neat. “I’ve got to be here for the rest of the summer, but maybe in September when things calm down?” he offered.

“September,” Jack repeated, clearly pleased. “I’ll get some leave.”

“Okay.” Xander smiled, pleased himself, and a little excited.

“I’ll let you get back to your . . .stuff then,” said Jack.

“Yeah. I guess I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Bye.” The phone clicked off. When Xander rejoined the others in the dining room, he was still smiling.

Chapter Text

September

Xander glared at the fasten-seatbelt sign that refused to shut off. The plane had stopped, they were on the ground, so what was the hold up? It couldn’t be that hard to park a Boeing 387. Really. Xander fidgeted in his seat. Okay, so he was nervous about this whole visiting thing. Sure it sounds great on the phone, but then it’s like your wedding come back to haunt you. He took a deep breath to steady himself. Five days. He could do this.

Around him his fellow passengers were shuffling for their things and finally the seatbelt light went off. Like a living mass, everyone surged into the center, compressing and undulating like a stuttering snake as people jostled to get off the plane. Xander joined them, nearly tumbling his duffel on top of a woman’s head when he yanked it from the overhead compartment. He only had the one bag with a couple changes of clothes, a Coke bottle of holy water, and his trusty dusty stake. The green and pink water gun had gotten him stripped searched, and for a while he had been worried that he would miss his flight, but in the end, everything had gotten through. Let it not be said that he was unprepared. Though he did wish he could have brought along his axe.

Xander followed the crowd off the plane and up through the tunnel to the gate. From there he followed the signs to the baggage claim where Jack was meeting him. And there he was leaning against a bank of TV monitors with his hands in his pockets. He wore the same leather jacket he had had in Cleveland over a button-down shirt and a pair of worn jeans. He straightened up when he saw Xander, a big grin splitting his face. Xander felt the corners of his mouth tug reflexively in response. Oh god, was his last thought before he reached the older man.

“Hey!” said Jack cheerfully. His hands came out of his pockets and he rocked back on his feet.

“Hey,” said Xander. Neither one of them made a move to touch each other, and he didn’t know if he felt happy or sad about that. Maybe it was just the break in ritual throwing him off.

“Do you have any bags?” asked Jack.

“Nah, just this,” Xander replied, hefting the duffel a little.

“All right. Car’s this way,” Jack smiled again and led the way to the parking deck. “So how was your flight?” Oh, yeah, this was going to be a long trip.

“I felt like I was in a sardine can,” said Xander with a half smile and was rewarded when Jack chuckled. Sense of humor still intact, he thought with relief.

“Yeah, I hate flying commercial,” Jack said. “There’s no leg room, no elbow room, and I always get stuck next to the noisy kids.”

“Always?” Xander asked, feeling heartened by the start of an actual conversation.

“Always,” Jack gave him a serious look that was belied by the humorous glint in his eye. “But I guess you know what that’s like.”

“Actually that’s only my third flight ever.”

“I meant about the kids,” said Jack. “But it’s only your third flight?”

“Yeah, after Sunnydale we went to Europe for while. See the sights, you know?” said Xander. And find slayers and restart a secret international organization, but it had still been fun. Except for Rome. Rome would never, ever be mentioned again. Ever. “I’d never been out of the country before.”

“That’s not surprising. I’d never left the country before I joined the Air Force,” said Jack with a shrug. “And I wouldn’t recommend most of the places I’ve been,” he grinned.

“Bad service?” quipped Xander. Given that most of Jack’s file was blacked out he figured he really wanted to steer clear of the heavy military stuff.

“The worst. Can’t find clean towels anywhere.” The colonel said with a completely straight face that all of a sudden made Xander feel like a weight had been lifted from his chest. This wasn’t going to be a disaster. With Jack’s sense of humor definitely not going anywhere, Xander could deal with this. He’d been so worried after the last phone call that had promised nothing but uncomfortableness, but here they were, chatting about the worst hotel service money could buy as they walked to the car. And when silence fell as they pulled onto the highway, it wasn’t a dead weight. Jack fiddled with the radio until he found a good station.

Xander snuck looks at him every few minutes, really taking him in for the first time. Gray hair cut close, wrinkles around his eyes from too much laughing or squinting, a slight sunglasses tan, the hint of a grin. He seemed like the kind of guy who would laugh a lot at life.

“What?” Jack asked after twenty minutes of this.

“What what?” Xander played innocent.

“You keep looking at me. I don’t have something hanging out of my nose, do I?”

“What? No. Sorry.” Xander smiled at that, looking instead at his hands then back at the road. “Just you know . . . really seeing what you look like,” he practically mumbled.

“Oh,” Jack shifted uncomfortably, obviously self-conscious now.

“I’ll stop,” said Xander with another smile. “I didn’t mean to stare or anything.”

“So do I pass?”

Xander looked at him then out the window, confused. “Pass what?”

“Inspection,” Jack gave him an amused smile that made him feel silly for misunderstanding. Xander hated that feeling.

He also didn’t like where this conversation was going. When he’d agreed to come for the visit, he’d thought he was used to the fact that Jack was his father. But sitting here, right now in the car, going to his house was another whole can of worms. And why can worms anyway? See – nervous! Getting sidetracked in his head was never a good sign. He knew he liked Jack, he knew Jack wanted to be in his life but for some reason something was bothering him about that. Trying to explain it was like trying to explain why he didn’t like squash but did like zucchini.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I’m still all with the weirdness.” And how lame was that, he wondered. He really should just go ahead and have his mouth sewn up

But Jack smiled at him. “Yeah. Well, if it bothers you, don’t think about It like that.” Xander could here the capitals around what they were decidedly not mentioning. Maybe Jack was repressing too. “Just think of me like an old friend of your mom’s inviting you for the weekend.”

“A friend who just happened to have sex with her and whoops! Here I am,” said Xander a bit more harshly than he intended. Beside him, Jack winced, the smile slipping a bit, making Xander feel bad. He hadn’t meant to hurt him, but really . . .

“Are you saying you don’t want to be here?” Jack asked quietly, his earlier levity gone.

“No, sorry,” Xander shook his head. Okay, now he felt rotten, like he’d just stolen a kitten from a slayer. “I didn’t mean anything like that. It’s just still weird. And I think the not thinking about it thing would work much better if I wasn’t you know, thinking. Or not not talking and thinking. Not thinking would be good right now. You know?” When Jack didn’t reply, Xander turned more so he could see him around his blind spot. Jack had a curious look on his face, his brow slightly crinkled in thought as he glanced between Xander and the road. “What?”

“Could you repeat that in English?”

Xander couldn’t help but smile, the nervousness once again lifting from the debacle of the conversation. “I said, let’s just talk about something else.”

“Oh.” Jack still seemed a little puzzled.

“Sorry,” Xander apologized again for being incomprehensible. Jack still looked a little unsure, and Xander desperately racked his brains for something, anything to talk about now that the silence had gone sour. “So,” he looked back out the windshield, “tell me what’s so great about hockey.”

And Jack did. And listening and making snarky comments that Jack returned as good as he got kept Xander’s mind away from uncomfortable thoughts. As long as they kept talking, he’d get through this.

~*~

“So this is it,” said Jack as he unlocked the front door of his house. Xander looked about him taking it all in. It was a small, dark brown with a log-house kind of look too it, nestled in a quiet neighborhood in suburbia. Bushy plants lined the path to the door looking like they’d been there forever. Inside it was calm. The builder in Xander recognized a good design and nice work. Light walls contrasted with dark, but tasteful furniture.

“Your room’s down here,” Jack led the way to the guest room, opening it for Xander to enter first. Nice bed, pretty comforter, chest of drawers, mirror – all the amenities of home. “Bathroom’s to the left,” Jack pointed in the appropriate direction as Xander set his bag down on the bed.

“It’s nice,” said Xander. Way better than the room he shared with Andrew at home, in fact. It was much more . . . adult.

“Come on, I’ll give you the nickel tour,” Jack bobbed his head toward the rest of the house. “My room’s that way,” he began by pointing to the next room down the hall. “Another bathroom here. Kitchen. Dining room. Living room.” They went through in the opposite direction. The living room was nice with windows looking over the back yard across one wall and plump armchairs and a couch with plenty of pillows. There was a stone fireplace on an adjacent wall and above it . . . Holy bejesus! Xander felt his jaw drop open a bit. A whole buttload of medals were framed above the fireplace. Unconsciously, Xander stepped forward to take a closer look at the dozen or so decorations. Willow had said he was decorated but it hadn’t really sunk in until he saw the stars and ribbons of a few very top honors. Xander was impressed. And a little jealous. After all, what had they ever gotten, besides Buffy’s sparkly umbrella from their graduating class?

Behind him, Xander could hear Jack shifting from foot to foot as his eyes roamed over the medals and flags and caught on the photos on the ends of the mantle piece. There were two. One was of Jack in full military gear with a bunch of other soldiers grinning at the camera. They were all young, like in the picture of Jack and his mother. The other was of Jack and a little boy about seven or eight years old in a soccer uniform. Grass stains covered his knees as he grinned proudly at the camera. “Is this your son?” he asked, turning his head over his shoulder to Jack.

The older man nodded and came to stand beside him. “Yeah, that’s Charlie,” he said with a fond, sad smile. “He had just started playing soccer then.”

“My brother,” said Xander quietly, his own soft words surprising him. He’d had a brother. He remembered growing up wondering what it would be like. Jack glanced at him sharply at this tacit acknowledgement of his paternity after they had agreed not to talk about it in the car.

“He’d be eighteen now,” he said.

But he wasn’t because he had died. The thought was too much for Xander at the moment. He didn’t want to think about dead brothers. There was just too much death everywhere in his life, even in this new normal part with Jack, death still left its mark.

“How did you get all these?” Xander turned his attention back to the medals. “Did you save the world or something?”

Jack gave him a funny, unreadable look before smiling slightly and saying, “something like that.” He shifted again, then stepped back from the mantle a bit. “So we have two choices for dinner,” he changed the subject brightly, the seriousness of the last two minutes dispelling. “I can cook us up some grub, though I’ll warn you that I didn’t have a chance to finish the grocery shopping. Or, my choice, we can go out to eat.”

“You paying?” asked Xander.

“Of course,” said Jack, looking a little hurt that he’d asked. “Consider it part of the bribery.”

Xander grinned. “Then let’s eat out.”

~*~

Half an hour later, Jack and Xander were safely ensconced in a booth at Patrick’s Grill, a local steak house from which Jack wasn’t banned. It was a good place with pretty good service. One look at Xander’s face told him that it had been a good choice. The young man flipped through the menu with glee.

“Now that’s what I call food,” he murmured happily.

Jack couldn’t help but grin. “What do they feed you at that camp of yours? Worms?” he asked.

“You have no idea,” Xander sighed wearily. “Did you meet Andrew?”

“No.” Jack sensed a story coming, a glimpse into his son’s life.

“Well Andrew’s our cook and I’m not saying he’s a bad cook, or anything, because compared to other options, he’s a culinary god.”

“Your other options being?”

“Me or other people who don’t know how to cook. I mean we have like fifty people at each meal and given that the . . . girls eat like hyenas, that’s a lot of food. Andrew does a good job in spite of that. But we also have a limited budget, you know?”

Jack nodded for him to go on.

“Anyway, Andrew tends to get creative with things like Klingon Blood Pudding.”

“Klingon?” Jack had watched enough Star Trek with Teal’c to get the reference.

“Yeah,” Xander said knowing what he was really getting at. “Andrew’s a little . . . well I guess the nicest thing I can say about him is he’s a nerd.”

“And the worst?” Jack couldn’t help but ask. Xander looked up from the menu and answered without missing a beat.

“He’s the most annoying little creep ever. He’s whiny and never shuts up, always complains and everything he says is related to comics or bad scifi. And I do mean everything.”

Everything? Jack wondered with a grin. “He’s one of the friends you set up the camp with?”

“Friend is stretching it, but yeah, he came with us from Sunnydale. He didn’t have anywhere else to go either.” Now the distant look was back as thoughts of his hometown undoubtedly fluttered through Xander’s mind. It must have been hard for him, all of them, to suddenly have nothing because of one random earthquake. Everything gone in a few short minutes.

“So Andrew cooks food that keeps him in touch with his inner dork?” Jack tried to get the conversation back on track.

“Pretty much,” Xander agreed, shaking off his mood. “He actually kinda reminds me of me when I was in middle school. Except I don’t think I was ever that . . . obsessed.”

“How old is he?”

“Nineteen or twenty. Trust me, he doesn’t act it.”

Jack shrugged. “He’ll grow up. He just needs a healthy dose of reality.” He knew many a recruit who just needed a kick in the pants to straighten them out.

But the distant look was back in Xander’s eye as he shook his head. “He’s grown up a lot actually. He used to be ten times worse than he is now. He’s just the way he is, you know?”

And Jack did see. He saw that despite what he said, Andrew was important to Xander. “Sounds like a kid brother,” he commented.

Xander dropped his head slightly and blinked slowly. “You’re kidding right?” his voice was colored in disbelief. “Because there is no way Andrew is anything like a brother to me. No way in Hell. That’s like saying twinkies are a good replacement for broccoli. Which they are, just not in a vitamin kind of way.”

“Broccoli?” Jack asked. How the hell did broccoli come into this? And what the hell was he talking about now? Xander needed a road map to understand.

“You didn’t have an affair with Andrew’s mom too, did you? Because I could so not handle that right now.” Xander visibly shuddered at the thought.

“No!” said Jack, latching on to what he understood of the conversation. “There are no other lost kids, I promise.”

“There better not be,” Xander grumbled. “’Cause, Andrew? That’s just wrong.”

Jack couldn’t help but chuckle at the vehemence of the protest. “I’m just saying that it sounds like you like the guy,” he defended his observation only to earn another look from his son.

“I’m not gay if that’s what you’re asking,” he said.

Gay? What? Where had that come from? Definitely needed a roadmap for this kid. “That’s not what I meant,” said Jack.

“Oh,” said Xander. “Well, I’m still not.”

“I never thought you were.”

“Good.”

“Right.”

“What were we talking about?”

“Your friend Andrew.”

“Oh.” Xander looked back down at his menu, seemingly not interested in talking anymore about it. So Jack, still a little confused about the inner workings of his son’s mind, also went back to his internal debate over a classic steak or spare ribs. Neither one of them said anything until the waitress came and took their orders. Jack decided on the spare ribs while Xander asked for a steak well done. After she left, Xander started fiddling with his straw. Jack watched, unsure what to say to break the silence, but in the end, he didn’t have to.

“Andrew’s like,” Xander paused, searching for words in the crushed ice of his Sprite. “He’s not like a brother or a good friend, though I think I’m past hating him. He’s more like a pain in the ass all the time,” his eye flicked up to meet Jack’s. “He’s just our pain in the ass.”

“And because of that you’d protect him with your life,” Jack finished. Internally, he shook his head. Sounded a lot like brotherhood or at least comradery to him.

“More than you know,” Xander half smiled. “So what about you?” he asked, his tone shifting away from contemplation as his eye fixed on Jack. “Do you have annoying friend-like people too?”

Jack smiled at the turn of phrase. “Yeah,” he said. “I have friends. And yeah, they can be annoying,” he added thinking fondly of Daniel. “But I wouldn’t trade them for the world. They’re actually interested in meeting you.”

“Me?” Xander sounded surprised.

“Yes, you,” said Jack impatiently. “What, your friends get to threaten me and my friends don’t get to do the same to you?”

“Betchya my friends are scarier,” Xander suddenly grinned.

“So it’s okay if I invite them for dinner tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Xander said a little too brightly. But Jack knew it would go well. He was just nervous. So was Jack a little, but his team were all dying to meet the kid they’d been hearing about for months.

“Great,” he let out a breath of relief. “’Cause I already invited them.”

“Oh, thanks for the warning,” said Xander sarcastically.

“Sorry,” Jack apologized, worried now that he’d messed up again, but after a moment, Xander relaxed.

“No, it’s no big deal,” he said. “I guess this is revenge for me setting Giles and Buffy on you.”

“You set them on me?” Jack lifted his eyebrows, not sure he liked what he was hearing. Had he scared Xander that much at first?

“Well, ‘set on’ as in ‘couldn’t prevent,’” Xander corrected. “You should see Buffy with Dawn’s boyfriends.”

“Your friend Giles said something about a knife being present?”

Xander nodded with an evil grin. “It’s so much fun to watch. I get to glare convincingly.”

The image of a poor teenage boy surrounded by overprotective young adults made Jack chuckle. “Poor kids,” he said. Then another thought struck him, but he didn’t know if he could ask. “I take it Buffy’s parents aren’t in the picture either?” he went ahead and asked delicately.

Xander shook his head. “Their dad’s around somewhere,” he shrugged. “Willow’s are still alive but they’re not what you’d call ideal.”

Willow must be his other friend, Jack mused. “And Mr. Giles?” he asked. “Where did he come from?”

“England,” said Xander dryly. Jack fought the urge to role his eyes, but Xander went on after a moment. “He was our high school librarian. Willow being the big nerd she was was always in the library, and me and Buffy being the big slackers we were were always in the library while Willow got us through the classes we slept through. Giles was there too,” he shrugged this last.

“So you kept in touch with him after you graduated?”

Another shrug. “He was still there for us.” Xander took a long sip of his drink. “So you said you went to college, where did you go?”

“University of Illinois,” Jack sat back in his seat. There was a lot Xander wasn’t saying about Giles. And hanging out in the library all the time studying? For some reason, Jack didn’t think that was the whole truth either. It just didn’t sit well with him. But whatever it was Xander didn’t want to share, Jack wasn’t going to push him on it. Hopefully Xander would tell him eventually and trust him enough with the truth. The potential scenarios running through his head were not pleasant, revolving mostly around Xander avoiding going home. But without confirmation, Jack didn’t want to jump to wrong conclusions that could lose him this burgeoning rapport they had going. So for now, he let it go and talked about college and ROTC with the Air Force. Xander listened, throwing out the occasional sarcastic comment. His son certainly had a cynical streak a mile wide, there was no denying that.

Their meal came, and as they wolfed down their respective haunches of meat, they kept talking. Xander asked him some logistical questions about the army, which was hardly surprising since he had just spent the summer running a camp for thirty kids, before they moved on to lighter topics of crazy natives from his son’s trip to Europe. But it was odd that he never once asked where Jack had fought or what he’d done as a soldier. That was the one question that almost always got asked by civilians. Hell, it was what had ended up splintering his marriage, but it was like the question never crossed his son’s mind.

But whatever his reason for not asking, Jack wasn’t going to question it. Dinner was going well and he wasn’t going to spoil it by telling Xander to stop being weird. So instead he listened to stories about getting lost in Paris and scamming a scam artist in Prague and told a few of his own from when he was stationed in England. And they laughed and joked and ate desert. It was definitely a good start.

~*~

The next morning Xander slept in late, only getting up when enticing smells from the kitchen wafted in around eleven. The first thing he noticed after that was the quiet and he couldn’t help but grin at the utter lack of responsibility he had here. Jack had even bought him dinner last night. It had been practically a lifetime since anyone had done that for him.

Feeling like it was a brand new day Xander rolled himself out of the comfortable bed and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Forgoing shoes for the moment, he groggily made his way to the kitchen where Jack was cooking bacon and eggs. The older man looked up when he came in and smiled.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” he greeted him.

“Morning,” Xander replied. “Smells good. How long have you been up?”

“Since six. It’s when I always get up,” Jack shrugged. “How did you sleep?”

“Good. Great. It’s really quiet here,” Xander smiled. “You need any help?”

“No, I’m good. You want orange juice?” Jack moved to the fridge and pulled out a new carton when Xander nodded. He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and set both on the table. He went back to the stove and fished out the bacon, keeping an eye on the scrambled eggs. A few minutes later the toast popped up and Jack served up the food and joined Xander at the table.

“So what are we doing today?” Xander asked after a few minutes of mouth-watering goodness. Jack really could cook. Normal food too. Xander could do toast and sometimes bacon, but eggs had been a mystery. His were either too runny or too rubbery; no matter how closely he watched them they never came out like this.

“Well, I was thinking we could go out to see some of the sights. I didn’t know what you wanted to do so I don’t have any fixed plans or anything,” said Jack.

They spent the remainder of their late breakfast hashing out a plan for the day, finally deciding on going downtown to look around and maybe pick up a matinee at the movie theater. After helping Jack clean up the kitchen, Xander went back to his room to get shoes and socks on before they headed out.

It was a nice sunny day outside with not a cloud in the sky. It was so bright out that Xander ended up borrowing a pair of Jack’s sunglasses after duly mocking their clunkyness. Jack gave him a sharp glare for that, saying Xander wouldn’t know style if it bit him in the ass. “Style for fifty,” was Xander’s quick reply.

They stuck to the walkable portions of the business sector, browsing shops and generally commenting on the coolness or stupidity of various trinkets. Xander was surprised by how much they both agreed and how much they disagreed over stuff, mostly along generational lines. Really, when was a singing duck ashtray ever cool? He had tried explaining this to Jack, but he just got this funny look on his face like he couldn’t understand what Xander was saying. It happened a couple of more times before Xander connected the beffudled look to the Giles of old and realized that Jack really didn’t understand southern California speak. Jack muttered something about roadmaps and connecting dots between random references that just made Xander laugh.

In the end, they skipped the movie, saving it for tomorrow or the day after, and ended up just chatting about simple random stuff until they had to head back. Jack’s friends were coming around seven and he wanted to have dinner at least started by the time they got there.

“Can I trust you to make salad?” Jack asked as they walked into the house at twilight. Xander was tired from walking all day but it was the good tired of a time well spent in the sun. He figured he hadn’t gotten this much sunshine in years.

“Yeah, I think I can handle butchering a head of lettuce,” he answered. “I’m supposed to avoid cutting myself, right?”

Jack looked back at him before grinning. “Smart ass,” he said. In the kitchen, Jack began pulling out vegetables from the fridge, tossing the tomatoes in quick succession at Xander who caught all but one.

“Hey!” the young man protested. “Okay, I am not cleaning that up,” he pointed indignantly at the dead tomato that was now dripping juice all over the floor. But Jack only tossed him the role of paper towels.

“Sure you are.”

“Oh, no, this is so totally your fault. I am not cleaning up after you,” said Xander.

“You’re the one who dropped the tomato,” said Jack innocently.

“You’re the one who threw it in the first place,” Xander countered in the same sweet tone of voice.

“So now you’re the one who gets to clean it up,” Jack smiled, pleased with this final non-argument.

“Aren’t I supposed to be the kid here?”

“Which is why you have to do what I say,” Jack nodded sagely. And at Jack’s expression of knowing importance as if everything made perfect sense, Xander couldn’t help but laugh. Jack held out a moment longer before he too chuckled at the complete idiocy of the conversation. To Xander it felt wonderful, like the most terrible thing in the world for once was a stupid tomato on the kitchen floor.

When they finally calmed down a bit, Xander wiped up the mess with the paper towels and Jack went to work fixing up some pork chops for dinner. Xander found a knife and started on the salad – not cutting himself as he minced up tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. They worked in silence, but it was a comfortable one that didn’t need to be filled. Xander smiled to himself. It had been a really good day. And he really liked Jack. He was funny, easy to tease, and didn’t push on subjects Xander didn’t want to talk about. He just felt . . . comfortable to be around. He was pretty easygoing as far as old people went and he didn’t get annoyed with Xander’s lame jokes or endless sarcasm. In fact he made worse jokes than Xander did. It was pretty cool.

Xander had moved on to tipping and tailing green beans when there was a knock on the front door. “IT’S OPEN,” Jack shouted without looking up from the gravy. Xander heard the door open and a couple sets of footsteps echo in from the foyer. Suddenly, putting down his knife seemed like a good idea. He wasn’t exactly nervous about meeting Jack’s friends, it was just that he was meeting them at Jack’s house without any of his own friends to hide behind. It wasn’t like he was at work and could be all professional and just talk about the new wall they were putting in. But thinking about work actually made him feel a little better because, hey, contrary to popular opinion, Xander was an adult and as such he could handle this. All this went through his mind in the fifteen seconds it took for the two men and woman to get from the front door to the kitchen.

“Hey, guys,” Jack looked up and greeted them, still stirring the gravy. “This is Xander. Xander, guy in glasses is Daniel, lady’s Sam, and the big guy is Murray,” he introduced them. Xander grabbed a nearby dishtowel to wipe his hands so he could shake their hands. Daniel was about Xander’s height with brown hair who gave him a friendly smile as did Sam, a shorter woman with equally short blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Murray didn’t smile so much as smugly beam. He stood behind the other two ramrod straight, and wore a black beanie pulled low over his forehead. He was very stiff, and it struck Xander as odd at first but he decided to worry about getting through this meeting instead.

“Nice to meet you,” he said.

“The pleasure’s all ours,” said Daniel brightly. “We’ve be waiting to meet you since Jack first heard about you.”

“Oh,” Xander shot a quick look at Jack who looked back with concern in his eyes at his friend’s turn of phrase, but Xander simply smiled instead, a little shakily perhaps but it was still a smile. He suddenly felt like he had an image to live up too, and he never did well under pressure, especially now that he wanted Jack’s friends to like him. And he all of a sudden realized that he was very young compared to all of them. “Me too,” he said. “I mean, except with you. And only since yesterday.” And realizing how stupid that sounded, Xander shut his mouth before he dug himself any deeper. “Something to drink?”

Both Daniel and Sam nodded with amused smiles, cheerfully accepting the beers Jack got for them while Murray received a Sprite. “Relax Xander,” Jack told him. “It’s not like any of them are your long lost relatives.”

“Right. ‘Cause we know how awkward that is,” Xander returned, but relaxing nonetheless at the return to their earlier banter. “Don’t mind me. I’m normally an idiot.”

“I’m sure you’re not,” Daniel contradicted him easily. “Don’t let us rattle you. We don’t bite . . . except for maybe Sam.” He cast a sly look at her as she sputtered on her beer.

“Daniel!” Sam swatted his arm, playfully outraged, but the tension was broken.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Jack shoed everyone to the dining room while he shook Xander’s beans into a pot. “We’ll eat in ten minutes. Let’s go sit down.” It took a few minutes to get everyone from the kitchen to the living room and happily situated. Xander found himself in one of the big comfy armchairs while Murray had claimed the other one. Jack took a hardwood chair by the kitchen where he could keep an eye on dinner, and Daniel and Sam sat on either end of the couch.

“So what do you guys all do?” said Xander to get the conversation going. Across from him, Daniel and Sam exchanged a look before Daniel spoke up.

“We all work on the base together up at the Mountain. I’m a civilian consultant in the linguistics department.”

“The Air Force has a linguistics department?” asked Xander surprised. “For what?”

“Codes,” said Sam quickly. “Some encryptions use other languages as another layer.”

Xander nodded while everyone else was doing the group communication thing. Made sense. Uncle Sam wouldn’t want just anyone to be able to listen in on their top secret conversations. “So what kind of languages do you use?” he asked curiously.

“Oh . . . well, I usually work with the uh, ancient languages,” said Daniel.

“So you know stuff like Latin and Indo-European?”

Xander watched Daniel’s eyes light up in surprised delight as he leaned forward like Giles sometimes did when he was getting into a serious, yet incomprehensible discussion. He should have known better than to ask about the Indo-Europeans – he’d already had Giles disturb his dreams over them once. Just what had he gotten himself into here?

“Well, we still don’t know much about Indo-European, just that it was the language and culture that unified ancient humans before they branched off into separate tribes,” said Daniel. “Now what’s really fascinating – ”

“Daniel!” Jack overrode the really fascinating fact with a tired and put upon sigh. “Do we really have to have a lecture about dead people right now?”

“I’m sure the hockey scores can wait, Jack,” Daniel bit back, cutting his eyes at his friend. “Xander did ask . . .”

“No, it’s okay, we can talk about something else. I heard about the horse sex already,” Xander interrupted hastily. “Couldn’t sleep for a week.”

Dead silence met this remark as everyone stared at Xander for a heartbeat. Then, “I fail to see what equine copulation has to do with the Indo-European tribe,” said Murray.

“I’ll second that,” said Jack who was looking at Xander strangely, making him feel uncomfortable for opening his mouth. So he knew about an obscure ritual, what was wrong with that? Okay, so he could think of a lot of things wrong with it . . . but so not the point here.

“It’s, uh . . . a ritual of kingship,” said Daniel after a beat. “The ruler sets a mare loose and everywhere it runs is then a part of his domain. The king ritually has sex with the horse when it returns, thus marrying himself to the land. They usually sacrifice the horse. It’s a custom that has been historically found in Ireland and as far east as Mongolia, thus indicative of an older tradition we call Indo-European.”

“That’s gross,” said Jack with a grimace.

“That’s what I said,” Xander seconded.

“Where did you ever hear about that?”

“I accidentally walked in on a conversation Giles and Dawn were having,” said Xander, unconsciously shuddering. “Trust me, had I known, I would have stayed away.”

“Don’t go for the academic stuff?” asked Sam with a smile.

“That and it’s disgusting,” said Xander. “Would you want to have sex with a horse?”

“No,” she chuckled good-naturedly. “But then I don’t want to be king either.”

“So what do you do?”

“I’m an astrophysicist.”

“Oh.” Pretty hard core, Xander readjusted his impression of her. Not that he had thought her stupid before just that he hadn’t expected her to be Willow-smart. “So you actually do the telemiwhatsit?”

“Deep space radar telemetry, yes,” said Sam with a grin and a quick glance at Jack.

“Xander, don’t get her started either,” Jack butted in. “Just smile and back away slowly.”

“So this is the stuff that bores you to tears?” asked Xander with a teasing grin. Jack nodded as he sipped his beer. “Sounds pretty interesting to me.”

“You want to talk about horse sex again?”

“No, I’m good,” Xander hastily backpedaled. “So how ‘bout those toothless idiots?”

“Hockey players?” asked Daniel, returning the grin. In the corner, Jack sputtered as Xander had known he would.

“I don’t get why anyone would want to go out on freezing cold ice to beat on each other with sticks. That’s crazy!” He lifted innocent eyes to meet Jack’s outraged ones as the older man tried to form a coherent sentence.

“Yes, Jack. Do tell us what’s going through their heads?” Daniel deadpanned, taking on an air of one truly fascinated by the subject. Jack-baiting was apparently a hobby of his too. He and Xander traded a conspirital look when Jack went off on how he had no friends who understood him but he seemed pleased nonetheless.

Still grumbling, Jack shoed them all to the table to eat where conversation turned more toward Xander and the camp in Cleveland and then carpentry and construction working, finally ending up as a general discussion of first jobs and disasters. Xander learned that Sam was a major up at the base and that Murray had gone straight into the military though he never said exactly what he did now. He was an odd one, with a very precise and often formal way of speaking that, despite his accent, was nowhere near American. Xander couldn’t place him; it was like he had been born recently or something, but Xander didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask. Daniel talked about archeological digs he’d been on in college and mixups they’d run into with the locals.

Jack stuck to the stories about the odd jobs that he’d had in high school. Xander liked these the best because they most closely mirrored his own often degrading jobs. And through it all Jack kept making bad jokes at his own expense that kept everyone smiling and happy. The running banter between Jack and Daniel was funny to watch, as were the occasional but spot-on zingers from Sam and Murray. Xander could see how close they were and often felt a like the odd man out, but then Jack would pull him back into the group with a well-aimed remark or question. And even though it was different from home, it still felt right.

~*~

The next two days flew by. Jack and Xander had spent a lazy day at the house watching TV then renting a couple of “manly movies” as Xander so eloquently put it – namely Charlie’s Angels and the first Lethal Weapon – and generally vegged out. It had been really good. It was certainly different than the usual hanging out with Daniel or Teal’c that Jack did. With Daniel it was always a struggle to get through anything without a million comments on taste or veracity, and with Teal’c Jack wasn’t allowed to interrupt the dialogue with anything more than a brief cultural explanation. But Xander watched movies the way Jack did – with one eye on the girls and the other on anything comment worthy ranging from “That is so cool, I want one” to “You stupid idiot – look up!” After the movies they ended up staying up way too late watching the TNT Steven Segal ball buster before finally collapsing into bed.

For once, Jack slept in the next morning, though he was still up hours before Xander made an appearance. They had a light breakfast that turned into lunch before they decided to get out of the house and go exploring a little bit. So it was three hours later that they found themselves at the park, once again out under the sun. At first they just walked along the path stepping out of the way of joggers and their dogs. It was a rare moment of quiet for the two of them, unfilled with chatter. Xander looked relaxed as he walked beside Jack. Overall, things had gone pretty well, Jack thought, better than he had expected in fact. Xander was a good kid. He was so young and irreverent about everything, it was difficult to remember sometimes that this was the same man he had watched calmly handle a bunch of teenaged girls. The same man who had picked up and moved when he had nothing left

“Do you miss Sunnydale?” Jack asked, breaking the peaceful silence between them. Xander looked up from the ground at him, caught off guard by the question for a moment.

“Sometimes,” he said, looking back out at the trees. “Sentimental value and all that. I don’t think I’d have ever gotten out of there if it hadn’t disappeared.”

“If you had wanted to you would have found a way.”

“Maybe. What about you? Do you ever go back to your hometown?” Xander asked.

Jack shrugged. “Not really. My dad died about fifteen years ago but my mom’s still hanging in there. My brothers take care of that end of the family. We don’t really talk much anymore.”

“Why not?”

Jack glanced over at him at the innocent question, then back across over the open field. He honestly didn’t think about his family much. They were on an island whose bridges he had burned a long time ago. Now, it was simply easier to deal with them from afar with a phone call at Christmas. “We were never really all that close,” said Jack. “My brothers were still kids when I left for college. Then when I went into the military, I never got home much.” He shrugged. Jack didn’t know exactly where things had gone wrong, just that one thing had led to another and then when Charlie died it had been too much.

“Do they know about me?” asked Xander quietly.

Jack shook his head. “No, I haven’t told them yet. It’s not you,” he added when he realized how that sounded. “We just don’t talk often. If you want to meet them . . .” He left it hanging.

“I don’t know,” Xander seemed uncomfortable at the thought. Hell, he had just gotten used to Jack. “Maybe later.”

“No rush,” Jack smiled at him. “As I said, we’re not really close.”

They walked on, a quiet breeze ruffling through their hair. “It’s kinda funny,” said Xander. “You wanting a chance with me even though you never talk to your own brothers.”

“I guess,” Jack thought about it. But it was different. With his brothers, it was as if they had tried and failed, and now there was too much resentment between them to go back to the way things had been. Xander was a new chance and more than that, he was Jack’s child. He felt that he at least owed him enough to try.

“Me and my dad never talked,” said Xander. “Not like this. And he never would have taken me to the park just for a walk.” Jack didn’t say anything, just watched while Xander continued to stare straight ahead, remembering his son’s comment about Giles the other night – the British librarian had been there, even after high school.

“I wish I could have been there,” he said quietly.

Shrugging again, Xander said, “It’s not your fault. Life just sucks like that. I bet you took Charlie to the park.”

“But I didn’t protect him.” The familiar wash of guilt spiked through him, blunted slightly by the weathering of time. What he wouldn’t give to have him back.

“You did what you could,” said Xander who stopped walking and turned to meet Jack’s gaze. “I know you miss him, but he’s in a good place now.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in Heaven,” Jack looked toward the field briefly then back. They started walking again.

“I said I didn’t believe in religion. Never said anything about Heaven or Hell,” Xander smiled. Having been to Hell, Jack didn’t disagree. Still, it was a little odd to be on the receiving end of a life pep talk from a twenty-three year-old. Another reminder that the carefree young man had seen and done more in the real world than most in his short life.

They were walking again, heading around the last few bends before they ended up back near the parking lot. Jack’s mind flittered over the age-old question of what to do for dinner. He thought they might go out again since it was Xander’s last night in Colorado. The suggestion was met with enthusiasm and the return of the sillier, bantering Xander that didn’t worry about life’s larger questions. Like old friends, Jack easily swung into the same mood. It was funny how a few days had shaken away their former stuttering tenseness around each other. As they chatted over pasta about Xander looking for a job when he got back, Jack wondered briefly what it would have been like to have watched this son grow up. How would he be different? What would he be like then? But he decided not to dwell on those lost years, for he would never know, and all they had was now to make the most of it. Jack was going to miss him when he went home.

~*~

“So I guess this is it,” said Jack when they reached the security line at the airport. “Next time I should fly you home myself.”

“That would be cool,” Xander grinned. “Can we get one of those harrier planes that does the vertical lift thing?” He could just see the slayers’ jaws dropping when he landed in the backyard. Major impressive points. Giles would have a cow or even a heard of cattle.

“I’d have to ask the General, but he likes me,” Jack replied. “So I might be able to swing it.”

“Let me know when you do.”

“You betcha,” Jack’s grin matched his own. “So you wanna come out here for Thanksgiving?”

Thanksgiving . . . Xander shook his head. “Can’t. We got people coming home. You should come though.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up at the unexpected invitation before settling into a pleased smile. “That’d be great,” he said. “Count me in.”

“Good. I’ll be sure to keep everyone from killing you,” Xander joked.

“Just as long as the turkey you roast isn’t me,” said Jack. “Now go on. Don’t miss your flight.”

Xander shook the offered hand warmly. “Thanks, Jack. For having me and everything.”

Jack nodded. “Always. I’ll see you in November.”

As Xander joined the growing line, he looked back over his shoulder and waved one last time. It had been a good visit, and he was looking forward to the next one.

Chapter Text

Xander decided unequivocally that he hated the holidays. Name any holiday, any holiday at all, and he could tell you ten ways a demon had ruined it. Anything that was a cause for celebration for humans had its equivalent in demon societies. Take Thanksgiving for example. Every family in America sacrificed a turkey for health and good fortune, just like each family of big, fat, and slimy gathered in the old, abandoned YMCA building across the street sacrificed a person to their big, fat, and probably slimy god for the same reason. And he had thought that maybe this year would be different. But nooooo, here he was, two in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day with his battleaxe and a crossbow waiting with Willow and Giles for Buffy’s signal.

Buffy and Dawn had come across a pod of demons abducting a woman Tuesday night. They hadn’t been able to beat much out of the creature they had kept alive other than he there was some big annual sacrifice planned for the full moon, which of course was Thursday. And unfortunately they had no idea at the time what the demons were, what the sacrifice was supposed to do, or where it was going to happen since none of the Hellmouth’s alarm spells had gone off. Thus they had spent the last two days and nights around the dining room table doing research. And with everyone home for the holiday for the first time since Sunnydale, not to mention Jack, Buffy was in full holiday mood and determined to have a normal Thanksgiving dinner.

Xander had slept maybe eight hours since Tuesday, any available nap time having been commandeered by Buffy for chopping vegetables, mashing potatoes, or making cranberry sauce while the other cooks in the kitchen – namely Willow and Giles – brewed a potion that would null the effects of the consecration or something. Xander was a little fuzzy on the details. All he knew was that Andrew had saved all their asses when they had run out of eye-of-newt by first suggesting then braving the supermarket for fishheads and the eyes therein. Xander just hoped the substitution worked cause they really didn’t have time to kill the several hundred demons. Robin and Faith were flying in at three, Jack at four, and poor Andrew and Dawn, under protest, had the rest of dinner to get finished and the house to clean until it was social-worker perfect.

Xander almost wished Jack wasn’t coming so they didn’t have to worry about cleaning up. Though it had been he who had had to remind everyone in the first place that keeping his military father in the dark was probably a prudent idea at the moment. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Jack, he did, but he was still unsure of how he would react to all of a sudden being told that vampires were real and there was an army of superpowerful girls destined to fight them. After the whole fiasco with the Initiative, no one, not even Xander was willing to risk the girls, especially when they were on their own and far from the Scoobies’ protection. Everyone had gone home for the school year except for Vi and Diana who were both survivors of Sunnydale with no other homes to go to. It was funny how the greatly reduced household hadn’t settled down much.

“They’re ready,” Willow broke the silence in the car.

“Guys?” Buffy’s voice echoed inside his head as Willow included him and Giles in the telepathic connection. “Once the fighting starts give us a few minutes to get everyone occupied.”

“You got it,” Xander thought as the three of them gathered their weapons and the potion they had to get intact to the focal point of the ceremony. Right. No problem. Happy Thanksgiving.

~*~

The Cleveland airport was crowded and noisy on the most traveled holiday of the year, but not nearly so much as it must have been the day before. Still annoyed that he couldn’t write off visiting his son as a valid reason for needing an F-18 to get halfway across the country, Jack made his way as quickly as he could from the family of four who’s two-year-old had decided that the plane was the perfect spot for a tantrum. He hated flying commercial, but at least he was on the ground now and would soon be out of here and heading for food. He was a little nervous about spending his weekend in the company of Xander’s surrogate family – he’d have much rather spent it in Colorado in the company of his own surrogate family – but his son had already had plans. Hopefully it would go better than the last time he’d been in town. Just think before speaking, he reminded himself. And don’t piss off Mr. Giles. Right. No problem.

Since Jack had packed lightly again, he didn’t bother gathering around the baggage carrousel with his fellow passengers and instead searched the sea of faces for Xander. But he didn’t see him. Probably was stuck in traffic or something.

“Jack! Jack O’Neill!” a voice, decidedly not Xander’s called out over the uncaring masses. He stiffened, eyes immediately scanning for exits and whomever it was calling his name. “Over here!” A hand wave from a brown haired girl standing on a chair by the sliding doors. Of course he shouldn’t have been surprised. As Jack made his way over to her he recognized her as his inquisitor from his first visit though he couldn’t remember her name. She easily jumped off the chair and spoke to the couple who stood with her, a tall lanky black man and a shorter brunette woman with a couple of bags gathered around their feet. “Hay, Jack!” the girl waved at him brightly when he joined them, shifting slightly from foot to foot.

“Hey,” he replied with an easy smile, wondering if Xander were around somewhere.

“I’m Dawn Summers. We never really got introduced before,” she said. “Xander got sent to the store by Buffy and wasn’t back by the time I had to come pick them up,” she gestured to the couple who were looking him over curiously, the woman especially. “Oh, this is Robin and Faith,” she introduced them. “This is Jack.”

“I’m Robin,” the black man offered his hand resolving the first question in Jack’s mind with a smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“So you’re Xand’s old man, huh?” said Faith as she too shook his hand. Her voice was low and a little raspy but her handshake firm, a little too firm even, and Jack definitely didn’t like that appraising look in her eye that made him feel like an interloper.

“You’re not going to threaten me too, are you?” he asked warily. “’Cause I think you’ll have to get in line. Buffy’s already claimed my arms and Mr. Giles hinted they wouldn’t be able to find my body.”

Faith smiled broadly at this, her entire demeanor relaxing. “Guess I’m covered then,” she said. “But if I were you, I’d worry about Willow instead.” Jack raised his eyebrows at this mention of Xander’s other close friend he had yet to meet. This was new. “She’ll toast you like flambé if you hurt him.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” said Jack dryly, which only made Faith grin again.

“Yeah, I can see the family resemblance,” she said unexpectedly. Jack felt a jolt of warm surprise shoot through him at this pronouncement from a stranger. “So D, we getting out of here or what?” Faith abruptly turned to Dawn who jangled her keys and led them to the car.

“Dawn, how’s your senior year been?” Robin asked as they began walking.

“I can’t wait till I graduate!” the young woman told them emphatically. “But at least there’s boys.”

Jack listened quietly while the others chatted about how much Dawn’s school sucked. It sounded like a normal teenage rant of a smart kid ready to burst free of the system. Robin asked about her classes and how she was doing in them while Faith alternated with questions about the opposite sex. Miraculously, the two threads of conversation never broke as Dawn handled them both with aplomb. It was so different from Sam and Daniel’s one-track minds, reminding Jack instead of Cassie’s ability – and Xander’s for that matter – to shift topics with barely a thought between breaths. When Robin asked about college as they merged onto the highway, Dawn just shrugged.

“Depends on how the money works out,” she said. “I’ll probably end up working with Giles.”

“What does he do?” asked Jack curiously. Xander had never said exactly and ever since his last visit he’d wondered.

Dawn glanced at him where he sat next to her in the passenger seat of the car. “He, um, works with this group in England. Doing book stuff.”

“Book stuff?” that sounded a little vague, though Xander had told him Giles had been a librarian.

“Research,” she amended. “Helping people find what they need to find. Some translations. That sort of thing.”

“Ah,” Jack nodded. Made sense, but still, he felt there was a lot left unsaid. “So what’s he do in Cleveland?”

“Same thing you’re doing,” Faith answered, staring at him in the rearview mirror. “Visiting.”

“Hey, I was just asking,” Jack defended himself. Jeez, these kids were so protective of the guy. What was up with that? All he wanted to know was what the man did for a living. It was like it was some big secret.

“He usually brings his work with him when he’s around,” interjected Dawn before Faith could reply, giving her a look in the mirror. And before anyone could add to the conversation, a phone rang. Dawn immediately snatched up the red cell phone from the cup holder. “Buffy?” she answered it, her voice squeaking up. Watching her, Jack noticed that her whole body had tensed. Then she let out a breath and smiled. “Good,” she said. “I’ve got everyone. We’re on our way home.” A pause. “Okay. See you then.”

“That was Buffy?” Robin asked tentatively as Dawn hung up.

“Yep,” the teenager grinned. “The turkey crisis has been resolved.” She seemed awfully excited about it for some reason, but then teenagers were fickle about food Jack supposed.

“Well, that’s good,” said Faith also letting out a sigh of relief. “Though I’m sorry I missed it, but right now, I’m so hungry, I could eat a zebra.”

“You don’t like zebra,” said Robin.

“Yes, I do. I had it when we were staying with Nagyia.”

“That was a beef.”

The two of them continued arguing over when they had eaten the zebra, and it wasn’t until Dawn leaned over and told him they had just come from Africa that the conversation made any sense at all. “What were they doing there?” he asked.

“Teaching English and stuff,” Dawn replied with a vague hand wave. Africa, Jack mused. The first thing that came to mind was Giza and the pyramids. In a way it had been they that had ultimately changed his life by bringing Daniel into it.

Out of conversation, the two of them fell silent, content to listen to the happy bickering of the couple in the backseat. The trip to the house took longer than Jack remembered, but nonetheless, they arrived intact around five. As soon as Dawn had parked the car, two people appeared at the front door. Jack grinned when he saw that one of them was Xander.

~*~

Xander heard a car pull up in the driveway and frantically looked around at the sitting room and open den for any remaining axes or stakes. Or weirdly named books. Or anything else mystical that couldn’t be passed off as decorative. He hadn’t realized just how much they had lying around until they had tried putting it away. It was a miracle Jack hadn’t noticed everything when he’d been here the first time. It had been almost impossible to find space for it all – the largest repository being the finished basement a.k.a. the Slayer Barracks. But for the moment, everything looked okay. Weapons were in Buffy and the slayers’ bedrooms upstairs, magical stuff in Willow and Kennedy’s room, books downstairs, and weird invoices in the office that served as Giles’s room. Pretty much everywhere but the ground floor was a mess. It was a good thing they only had to keep this up for the three days Jack would be here.

“They’re here!” Diana exclaimed, rushing out of the kitchen like a cat with its tail on fire. The young slayer hadn’t been able to sit still after the fight, and Buffy’s Nazi-chef routine was enough to drive anyone that could escape out of the kitchen. Xander marveled that she still had energy to burn. He felt like he was going to go narcoleptic at any second now, exhausted from too little sleep and sore from the demon fighting. Regardless, he joined Diana at the open door in welcoming their guests because, well, he was actually excited about seeing Jack again.

“Faith!” Diana shouted, running out to meet the older slayer as she and Robin emerged form the back seat.

“Hey!” Faith smiled. “Diana, right?” she asked as she gave the younger woman a hug.

Xander followed more slowly while they chatted, getting their things out of the trunk. “Hey Jack,” he called cheerfully to the older man, who already had his one bag in his hand.

“Xander, it’s good to see you,” Jack grinned back, holding out a hand which Xander shook heartily. He wore his habitual leather jacket and jeans, and looked glad to be there. “Though you look like you haven’t slept in a week.” Xander shrugged ruefully. If only Jack knew.

“Yeah, well it’s the holidays,” he said instead.

“Hey, Xander!” as Faith as she and the others caught up to them on the walk.

“Hey, Faith,” Xander smiled at her. “Robin, glad you made it this year,” he shook the other man’s hand. “Long time, no see.”

“No kidding. I think I’m having reverse culture shock,” said Robin. “But do you remember Peter Rhinbald? He’s been a great help. He’s holding things together while we . . . have this little vacation.”

Xander nodded, glancing quickly at Jack who listened with a mild expression of interest at the unfamiliar name. Xander did indeed remember Peter Rhinbald; he was one of about fifteen of the old surviving watchers that Giles had dug up in the last year that was willing to help out with finding and training slayers. Rhinbald’s presence in Africa was the reason Faith and Robin could get home this year for the convening of the Council which would be held next week in the dining room to discuss the state of the mystical portion of the world. But that was still one turkey dinner and three days of freedom away.

For now everyone simply herded inside to the noisy cacophony that had not dissipated despite the mini-slayers returning home. At the moment, they could hear Buffy and Andrew having a . . . rather strident conversation about how to mix the gravy.

“Xander, how ‘bout you show us our where we’re staying first,” suggested Robin upon hearing the shouting match. “I don’t think Buffy’s ready for us yet.”

“Good idea,” Xander was only too happy to agree. He certainly didn’t want to go into the kitchen at a time like this. So he and the girls led their guests upstairs. The house was large with six bedrooms. The master suite was another slayer bedroom where for the holiday Buffy and Dawn would be joining Vi and Diana. Andrew and Xander were next door on the left with the office across the hall where Giles was staying. In the middle was an empty slayer room where Jack would be staying, and around the corner were the last two rooms for the two sets of couples. During the summer all but the guys’ room and the office were the home for as many girls as needed to fit since the other residents of Scooby Central were in and out for most of the year.

Xander let Diana and Dawn show Robin and Faith to Dawn’s normal room at the other end of the house while he stayed with Jack. “Just ignore the other beds,” he told Jack, gesturing toward the two sets of bunk beds that lined the far walls. “Or next time bring your friends.”

Jack grinned as he dropped his bag by the bottom bunk with the pile of linen at its foot. “Watch out, I just might do that,” he said as he gave the place the once over. The walls were bare, bereft of the posters and life of the summer. Xander grabbed the sheets and started making the bed.

“Sorry we didn’t get to this. It’s been pretty hectic around here,” he said. Jack grabbed the other end of the sheet and helped fit it into place.

“No problem,” he said easily. “It sounds like you have a pretty wild bunch here still.”

“And would you believe there’s only nine of us?” Xander shook his head. Had they been this loud back in Sunnydale?

“Only nine?” Jack looked up with a teasing grin.

“Hey, you didn’t live here with forty-two teenage girls over the summer, Mr. I-Live-Alone,” Xander retorted. “Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in estrogen.”

“And you have my congratulations for surviving,” said Jack in such a way that Xander wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not. “So you still working at Home Depot?”

“Yep,” said Xander, tossing him an end of the blanket. “Still in the lumber yard. I think I’m getting a raise in January. One of the other guys there also does some freelance work and he asked if I wanted to go in with him on a job next week.”

“That sounds cool,” said Jack. “Interior carpentry?”

“Yeah,” Xander nodded, pleased he’d remembered his specialty. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“That’s great,” Jack grinned at him. “I always love going back to work after being forced out of things for a while.”

“How do you get forced out of work that consists of looking through a telescope?” wondered Xander at the rather odd statement.

But Jack just shrugged. “Not necessarily on this assignment, but you know, in general,” he said, taking a seat on the now made bed. Xander joined him, thinking again about Jack’s blacked out file, both curious and still not wanting to know. He wondered what kinds of Special Forces missions Jack had been on, wondered how much they had helped the country in the unseen war for power that Xander largely ignored. Had it been bad stuff? Worthy stuff? Was it like in the movies where soldiers did questionable things in order to preserve peace on Earth? And if he had liked what he did why had he quit? He was a decorated colonel, he should have had some say about his final posting.

“So do you like being out of the action now?” Xander asked. In their own war against the minions of darkness, to use Andrew’s phrase, Xander didn’t think he could ever just walk away, not knowing what he knew, knowing what he could do.

Jack was silent for a moment, his eyes turned inward. “We do good work at the Mountain,” he finally said. “I don’t regret being a part of it.”

“I thought you said it was boring?” He’d said it several times in fact, and his friends had made fun of him for it.

“Well, there’s boring, and then there’s really boring,” Jack neatly sidestepped the issue, a fact that was not lost on Xander though he did it very well. “And the people are some of the best I’ve ever worked with.” More points for the subtle shift in conversation. He was actually up there with Veronica on the don’t-notice-I’m-not-talking-about-it scale.

But Xander didn’t know how to ask without seeming pushy, so he let it go and chalked it up under the other questions he would ask later someday when he felt like he knew him better. “Daniel, Sam, and Murray?”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded with a soft smile.

“How did you guys meet? ‘Cause based on your job descriptions . . .”

Jack smiled again at the open-ended question. “Daniel was already working on the project when I got there. We didn’t like each other much. I thought he was some academic I had to baby-sit, and he thought I was a military hardass, which I guess I was. It was just after Charlie died and I was pretty torn up inside.” He looked at his hands and was silent for a second. “Anyway,” he went on, “we had to work together in the field for a while and we ended up friends.”

“What were you doing?”

“Oh, you know . . . maneuvers. Testing out his . . . theories and codes,” Jack waved a vague hand. “It’s still classified,” he shrugged apologetically. But Xander wondered why the designer of the code would be allowed in the field at all. He was a civilian and a liability – even on maneuvers that were meant to simulate real conditions. It just didn’t sound quite right. But then if it was classified, maybe they had been doing something else, though for the life of him Xander couldn’t fathom what they could do like that under a mountain.

“Carter joined us about a year later taking no crap from anyone about being the best in her field and a woman. She’s got to be one of the most brilliant people I know, including Daniel,” he grinned again with that contemplative look once more in his eye.

“Carter is Sam?” Xander asked for clarification, not recalling ever having learned last names.

“Sam, yeah,” he said softly, turning the apparently unfamiliar syllable over in his mouth. “I can’t say we liked each other from the get-go, but we respected each other. And Murray and me just hit it off when we met. There wasn’t a lot of conversation to it.” Jack smiled again at the memory.

“He certainly never said much while I was there,” Xander agreed. Though he still wasn’t sure what bothered him about the man, but there was something just off . . .

“DIIIINNERRRR!” A loud call to the table put an end to the conversation as both men looked toward the door.

“You ready?” asked Xander, with a sympathetic lifting of his eyebrows. He’d worry about the mystery surrounding Jack later. Right now they had to get through dinner without him caging onto any Scooby secrets.

“Yeah. Sure,” said Jack, standing up and stretching slightly. “How bad can it be?”

“Just don’t be afraid to fight for your food,” Xander advised him. “They all like you better now since I like you. And if anyone gives you trouble just remind them that I control the house funds.” But Xander didn’t expect trouble. Everyone was just happy that he was happy – Dawn was even a little jealous. Besides, Jack could charm the skin off a rattlesnake. A house full of people giving him the benefit of the doubt shouldn’t be a problem.

~*~

It took a full fifteen minutes to get everyone settled around the dining room table. And what an impressive table it was with every available space filled with turkey and potatoes and beans and garden salad and bean salad and boiled onions and soup and bread and even more food at the other end. It had been a long time since Jack had been at a real family Thanksgiving with twelve people. Xander gave him a whirlwind of introductions in all the hustle and bustle, and he barely remembered the names to go along with the blur of faces. Though he did notice that the only blood relatives here were Buffy and Dawn and himself and Xander. But watching them as Faith and Robin got passed around for hugs or handshakes they had missed earlier, as Buffy and Andrew still squabbled over whether or not the gravy was ready, as Xander poked fun at Giles, and the girls giggled and stole carrots from the salad bowl, he could see how close they were. They were their own family, like he and his team were family.

Finally they were all seated. “Oh my god! Wine!” Buffy exclaimed as soon as she sat down, immediately jumping to her feet again, her eyes as round as saucers at this new crisis. “We have wine, right?”

“It’s in the cleaning cabinet,” said Giles calmly from his seat at the head of the table with Buffy on his left. The young woman sprang from the table and into the kitchen.

“So that’s where it is!” said Xander across from Jack. “I thought someone,” he glanced pointedly at Dawn and Vi next to each other on his left, “had sneaked it.” The two girls looked up with innocently outraged expressions that he would even suggest such a thing.

“No, no, it was me,” Giles said a little embarrassed at having been caught out and the kids immediately started asking if his nerves were becoming too delicate in his old age and other, equally insulting things. Buffy returned in the midst of this with the missing wine, a happy look of relief that everything was finally ready to go.

“Buffy,” said Dawn with a meaningful look at her sister while the wine bottle was passed around.

“Oh, right,” said the other girl. “Hey everyone,” she called over the micro conversations which quickly dried up. “Okay, so Dawn and I wanted to try something new this year before we get started.” She looked across the table at Diana on Jack’s left. “It was a tradition in Diana’s family to go around and say what you’re thankful for and we wanted to do that this year. I hope that’s okay.”

Clearly stunned by the suggestion, Diana simply nodded. Jack wondered why she wasn’t with her family now. Her and Kennedy and Vi. Xander had told him about Buffy, Willow, and Andrew – and Robin and Faith had clearly been on their own for a while – but the other girls were still teenagers, hardly at an age when they stayed at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving.

“Okay, so I’ll start,” said Buffy. “And if someone says yours you have to come up with a new one too. I’m thankful that everyone made it today and that I’ve gotten to have a nice long visit with everyone, Xander and Willow and especially Dawn.”

“I think that was two,” said Xander who was next, eliciting smiles and a few chuckles.

“Hey, it’s a new tradition,” said Buffy. “We’re allowed to make mistakes.”

“Okay, so I think I’ll add my voice to the I’m thankful everyone’s here chorus I can tell is coming. And I’m thankful that I survived this summer – and today,” more grins from everyone, “and I guess mostly I’m thankful that I met Jack this year.” His son looked directly at him and smiled softly. Jack felt an intensity build between them and it was just the two of them in the world for that one second. And when the torch passed on to Dawn at Xander’s left, they smiled and both turned their attention to the young woman who was thankful that she only had 112 days of high school left before she graduated.

Vi was thankful for her aunt who had let her take this exchange year in the States (which explained to Jack why she was here for Thanksgiving but made very little sense as to why her guardians were young twenty-somethings with unstable jobs.) Robin came next with a thankful for Africa, the continent that had enchanted him, and for Faith, this last said with the besotted smile of one in love to which Jack internally rolled his eyes. Andrew at the foot of the table was much more dramatic.

“As head culinator for the Xena-like warrior women, I would like to take this opportunity to be thankful for the trials and tests of strength that have proved my quality and shown that I would never have taken the ring or anything else of corrupt evilness no matter how much good I thought it could do.” Jack looked across at Xander to see his response to this . . . interesting and nonsensical speech. The one eyed man merely shrugged and grinned with the others who rolled eyes in the way of those exasperated but fond of their friend’s idiosyncrasies.

“Andrew – ” Faith began, but the young man kept going.

“*And,*” he said pointedly, glaring at her, “and I’m thankful for you guys being . . . you know . . .” He trailed off uncomfortably, then added, “and for the Thanksgiving parade because it was cool and I’d never been to a parade before.” This sparked a few comments about the parade in general before they continued on with Faith who was thankful for surprises and second-chances and Kennedy who was thankful for being back and getting a chance to hang out more with Vi and Diana.

“And I’m just glad we’re off the road,” said Willow, the red head next to Jack whom Faith had warned him about. Since they’d sat down she’d been tossing quick glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, much as Xander had done when he had come to visit back in September. It was a little annoying but at the moment he couldn’t do anything about it. “Not the road was bad or anything,” she quickly looked at Kennedy and grinned. “Just good to be back home with everyone.”

Then it was Jack’s turn and he suddenly found all eyes on him from behind pleasant but guarded expressions that still weren’t sure what to make of him, this stranger in their midst. Hell, he didn’t know quite how he felt about being this far outside of his comfort zone. “Well, I guess you all know what I’m thankful for,” he said lightly. “Finding Xander and being given a chance to get to know him. It means a lot to me.” And it did. Jack felt so . . . lucky, especially sitting here with all these kids whose parents weren’t here.

“I guess it’s me,” said Diana next. “It’s been forever since I’ve done this. And even though it’s all different, it’s just the same. So I guess I’m thankful for thankfuls because they’re a little bit of home I haven’t had since . . . and I don’t know why I’m crying,” she smiled through tears that slid silently down her cheeks.

“Hey now,” said Xander softly. “If you keep that up you’re going to dilute the taste of the food.” Diana laughed in a short burst, wiping her eyes with her napkin. The gentle teasing led to a few more smiles as finally Giles took the floor.

The Englishman raised his glass of wine and looked around the table at everyone before speaking. “I’m thankful – grateful even – that you are all here, safe, alive and well. And I’d like to propose a toast to Diana’s parents for such a wonderful tradition, and to all others loved and lost who cannot be here today.”

Solemnly, they all rose their glasses in a silent tribute. Giles’s words touched a place deep inside Jack where memories lived, giving them air for a moment and tasting bittersweet with the wine as it slid down his throat. Across from him Xander had closed his eye briefly, his mouth twisting into a sad smile when it opened and met Jack’s gaze. When he looked at Buffy to Xander’s right and Dawn to his left and the others around the table, Jack felt the undercurrent of shared grief like a gentle wave – and he wondered again about the lives of these kids that had left this kind of mark.

“I think the food’s getting cold,” Dawn broke the spell. “Let’s eat. I declare it turkey time.” So they ate, the graveness giving way to the clank of serving spoons on porcelain and the sputter of conversations, mostly about the food and if more could be passed along.

Xander hadn’t been kidding when he’d told Jack to fight for his food. With the way the girls seemed to eat, they would easily demolish the immense quantities of food on the table. Not all of it had gotten around yet, too much of the food on the closest platters already on everyone’s plate. For the first few minutes everyone just ate. Somehow at the far end of the table, the zebra conversation started back up with Andrew delightedly asking a hundred questions about it and the lions in Africa in general. Eavesdropping, Jack concluded that Xander was right: Andrew was an odd person.

“So Jack,” Willow turned to him after a few minutes. “How did you track Xander down?” Jack looked over at the bright, interested expression on the young woman’s face that was marred only by some nasty parallel scratches along her jaw.

“Willow,” said Xander like he didn’t want her to ask at all.

“What? It’s a perfectly reasonable non-threatening conversation starter,” the young woman turned to her friend. “It’s not like I’m telling him that I’ll turn him into a turnip if he hurts you.” She gave Jack a sideways look, and he couldn’t help but smile as Xander again sighed her name in exasperation. Here they went again.

“If I ever hurt him you can turn me into a turnip and feed me to a rabbit,” Jack told her. Willow smiled at him then turned back to Xander smugly as if she had won an argument, which Jack supposed she sort of had.

“Willow, I like Jack. He of the good, non-asskicky type.”

“Asskicky?” Jack lifted his eyebrows. Was that even a word?

“Yep,” Dawn confirmed to Willow. “And if he had a sticker it would say ‘Inspected by number ten.’” Jack was glad he wasn’t the only one who looked up at this odd statement. “You know, like a sweater,” Dawn clarified.

“Yes, I’m sure Colonel O’Neill enjoys being compared to a sweater,” said Giles dryly.

“Jack,” he offered the other man the courtesy of his first name feeling a little out of his depth. A sweater?

“And I don’t want to scare him away,” said Xander with a grin for Jack that he was only too happy to return.

“Scary?” said Willow, her voice squeaking higher. “I’m not being scary am I? Am I Kennedy?” she turned to the girl on her other side.

“No, baby,” Kennedy laughed, taking Willow’s hand reassuringly. “You’re not being scary.” Jack blinked in surprise at this new development, caught off guard by the display of obvious affection.

“Well, I’m glad you came,” said Buffy, pulling his attention back from the couple at his side. “You get extra points for showing up.”

“Points?” Jack smiled nervously at the idea. “You keep score?”

“Don’t worry, you’re doing fine,” Dawn reassured him, though he was hardly reassured. Now he felt like too many people were watching his every move and waiting to see if he messed up; it was a little eerie when he thought about it. On the other hand, Buffy’s show of support was a nice change from the outright suspicion of his previous visit.

“So how long have you known Xander?” Jack asked Willow, hoping to deflect the conversation away from himself.

“Since kindergarten,” Willow replied with a fond look at his son who in turn looked horrified.

“Oh no. No. We are not doing this,” Xander shook his head wildly. “Willow, I’m warning you . . .”

But Willow was ginning excitedly and Jack just knew he was about to get a whole lot of childhood dirt. And he was right, starting with how the two kids had met on the first day over spilt milk – Xander’s all over Willow. Things quickly deteriorated from there, and Jack had the luxury of listening while he ate to ‘the time when.’ He heard about another boy named Jesse who joined them in first grade, and a girl named Cordelia who was rich and the leader of the mean little girls who constantly terrorized the trio. He found out that Xander was a goofy little kid but with a loving heart who had once snuck out of his house and run all the way to Willow’s because she had gotten sick and had left school early. As the others were reminded of stories from their own childhoods, they chimed in allowing time for Willow and Xander to eat, and so they worked their way through dinner.

Eventually, the other dishes got passed around the table. Willow passed him the soup bowl as she recounted the time in middle school when Xander and Jesse had tried to build a water balloon slingshot. Smiling at the image of the two boys getting completely soaked when the slingshot failed, Jack dished out some soup – and jumped in surprise with an “aaahg!!” A fishhead with no eyes floated in his bowl. It was very, very disturbing. Who the hell cooked fishhead soup for Thanksgiving?

“Andrew,” Diana giggled, answering the question he had accidentally asked out loud. The young man in question waved timidly from the other end of the table while the others laughed at Jack’s expense at having been the first besides Andrew to actually put it in his bowl.

“Do I even want to know why it doesn’t have any eyes?” he asked.

“Uh, that wold be a big ‘no’,” said Xander who looked uncomfortably at Willow, and Jack noticed that the lighter mood of a minute before had tensed up suddenly for no apparent reason.

“Well, I guess it’s good that it can’t see its about to get eaten,” he commented, poking the head with his fork. “Though I don’t think I’m going to eat it either.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to try just one little bite?” asked Andrew. “It won’t bite back. See?” The kid actually brought spoon to mouth and swallowed a healthy dose of fishhead. Now, Jack had eaten a lot of things in the name of not pissing off the locals – but the very thought of having to sacrifice his stomach while on Earth made his insides shudder at the thought.

“I think I’ll pass.” He smiled tightly. No way, no how.

Andrew’s face fell and he resorted to mumbling about how no one appreciated fine cuisine anymore. Jack just stared at him. Something was seriously wrong with that kid. Conversation picked up again, this time centered around Andrew and the stranger things he cooked, both a mixture of what had turned out and what hadn’t. Soon Andrew himself was joining in with self-criticisms and references to the Iron Chefs, and Jack added his own edited versions of strange food he’d eaten on missions with MRE’s at the top of his list.

Before Jack knew it, he was feeling happy and stuffed and Buffy was serving pumpkin pie and ice cream. Xander was the first to yawn, followed by Dawn, the effects of the heavy meal making themselves known, even at such an early hour. Jack for his part was content, pleased to have met Willow and heard some stories, pleased that Xander’s friends had welcomed him this time – even if he had been threatened again. And though his friends hadn’t been there, it had been a good Thanksgiving.

~*~

The house was finally quiet. Good food, good company, and utter exhaustion had Xander laid out and half-asleep on the couch in the den where he and Jack had ended up. Buffy and a few others were still cleaning up in the kitchen. Giles was making tea. Willow and Kennedy, Dawn, Diana, and Vi had gone to bed, the week and the day finally catching up to them. Xander was surprised that all of them had lasted as long as they had. For his part, he felt like for the last few hours he’d been running on nothing but sugar and excitement. Warm on the couch, he pushed up his sleeves and closed his eye in contentment and let sleep dance seductively across his eyelids.

“Xander, can I ask you something?” Jack asked a few minutes later, his voice edging in on his trance.

“Yeah, sure,” Xander rolled his head against the back of the couch so he could see Jack. The older man was in one of the armchairs, a pensive look on his face.

“I was just wondering how Willow got those scratches on her jaw,” he said, and immediately Xander woke up. “They look like fingernail marks.”

Sitting up slightly, Xander wasn’t sure what to tell him since it certainly wasn’t going to be ‘because we were fighting demons earlier.’ Jack watched him as he pushed himself further upright, buying time to think. “She and Kennedy sometimes . . .” he trailed off, his face flushing at the implication he left hanging.

But Jack didn’t seem to buy it. “And the cut on your arm?” He looked Xander straight in the eye. Xander pointedly did not look at the incriminating scratch and resisted the urge to pull down the sleeves of his sweatshirt that he’d stupidly pushed up, berating himself for being all kinds of an idiot.

Hadn’t they nearly killed themselves cleaning the house to prevent just this? Moron! It was a deep cut near his elbow, too long to be passed off as a cooking accident. Numbed by a handful of painkillers Xander had forgotten about it under soft fabric till now. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. “Xander . . .”

Caught, Xander didn’t have an answer. “Work accident,” he heard himself say, the lie sounding hollow in his own ears. He didn’t quite look at Jack but he could feel his eyes on him, hurt and curious for secrets Xander couldn’t tell him. Buffy’s family had locked her up when she’d tried to explain everything, and even though Xander knew that wouldn’t happen to him, the thought of losing Jack was suddenly uncomfortable. He was too close to having something . . . he didn’t know what, but it was there, growing under the surface and explaining now would only shatter it into a thousand pieces. And that wasn’t counting the thousand other lives that might be destroyed because after he tried to explain and prove the existence of the supernatural, what if, that little part of his brain wondered, what if Jack accidentally let something slip to his superiors or he told them about slayers. That possibility perhaps scared Xander the most. “It’s just a scratch,” he added.

“Some scratch,” said Jack without his usual humor. When Xander looked up he could tell Jack didn’t buy this explanation either. Suddenly the room felt too small for the two of them.

“I’m going to go see if Giles needs help,” said Xander and he fled the scene. He needed time to think.

~*~

Jack scrubbed an angry hand through his hair, cursing himself for a fool for opening his mouth. Work accident, his ass . . . that cut looked like a knife slice. And Xander knew it. And now Jack was worried about how he got it, more so now that his son had run from the question. Question, Jack looked down at his hands. All he had were questions upon questions about his son’s life, about his friends’ lives that had led them here to this house. Questions about fights and why every kid here had lost a parent or two. He just wished Xander would let him in that last step and talk to him. He could say how glad he was to have Jack here all he wanted, but Jack wanted to be more than just a person at the table.

Giles came in then with Xander trailing behind, his son avoiding his gaze as he retook his seat on the couch. If the Brit was aware of the tension between them now, he gave no sign of it as he passed Jack a mug of coffee. “Thanks,” he murmured.

Giles nodded and sat back in his own armchair. “Goodness, it’s been a long day,” he said.

“I guess you’ve been pretty busy with everyone coming home,” said Jack in an effort to have a conversation. Xander seemed to have gotten over pretending Jack wasn’t there but his face was closed off and unreadable. The sleeve of his sweatshirt was pulled down again.

“Mmm, yes,” Giles agreed mildly.

“So you’re a linguist?” Jack asked in a Herculean effort to dispel the silence, even knowing he was going to regret this conversation. For the moment, he put thoughts of Xander and knife fights to the side.

“I have studied a few languages, yes,” said Giles modestly. “Xander said one of your colleagues was working on codes based on ancient languages?”

“Daniel, yeah,” Jack replied. Except for the small fact that he didn’t. How was he going to talk his way out of this one?

“And yourself? Any interest in the subject?”

Jack shrugged. “Latin’s the only ancient language I know. More or less. From school,” he added. No way was he explaining why he had actually learned a dead language. “Daniel wanted me to ask where you studied.”

“Oxford,” Giles replied. “What was your friend’s last name?”

“Jackson, Daniel Jackson. Have you heard of him?” Jack asked, half-afraid of the answer.

Giles thought about it for a moment and shook his head. “Can’t say that I have off the top of my head, but I’ve been out of the loop for a while as it were. What’s his specialty?”

“Egypt.”

“No, sorry,” Giles smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I never really kept up with the Egyptian journals.”

Somewhat relieved and oddly disappointed, Jack gave him an sympathetic smile. He could understand not keeping up with boring journals, but of course that probably meant that Giles had been reading other equally boring things. “So what’s your specialty?” he asked.

“Folklore,” said Giles. “Quite interesting to actually look at what people believed and the stories that cross cultures.” Ah, another enthusiast, Jack inwardly groaned, wondering why he had even bothered to ask. “But if you’re anything like Xander, I won’t bore you,” Giles surprised him by saying instead of the long-winded lecture he’d been expecting.

“Thanks, G-man,” said Xander sarcastically from the couch.

“Will you ever stop calling me that?” Giles asked with a long-put-upon sigh to which Xander only grinned and shook his head. “Yes, well, I think I’m going to turn in,” said Giles. “Try and catch up on all the sleep I’ve missed this week.” He rose, nodded politely, and took his empty teacup to the kitchen before disappearing up the stairs. It was just the two of them again.

The sounds from the kitchen had died down until only the gentle murmur of Buffy and Faith talking in the dining room whispered through to them, too low to understand.

“So does this mean he likes me now?” Jack asked to break the hovering silence.

“I asked him to be nice,” said Xander. “But yeah, he’s not all out against you anymore.”

Jack watched Xander stare at his mug, feeling the distance that had suddenly resurfaced and not knowing how to bridge it. “Do you know why he decided to become a librarian?”

“He’s always been a librarian.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Well, it’s a loaded question,” Xander finally looked up, one eye boring into Jack. “Giles is a good guy.”

“I’m not saying he isn’t,” Jack replied, frustrated.

“Then what? You keep asking about him one way or another.” Xander’s tone was accusatory, attacking before he was attacked.

Because I find it weird that you live with your high school librarian, Jack thought but didn’t say. Instead he heard himself ask “What were your parents like?” before he even thought about it. Xander stared at him for a moment, another unreadable expression on his face.

“I wasn’t abused if that’s what you’re asking,” he said after a moment. Jack just watched him, relieved yes, but waiting for more, hoping the walls would come down. “They weren’t the greatest parents in world. Mostly they just drank too much and yelled at each other and left me alone.” Xander shrugged. “Poor me,” he deadpanned without a shred of self-pity.

“I’m sorry,” Jack told him softly, wishing he’d been there. It didn’t sound like much of a home, but it was better than he had expected. And then Jack felt angry for thinking that such a compromise was a good thing just because it wasn’t the worst that could have happened. It was practically neglect, for crying out loud, and he was suddenly angry at Jessica and her husband, at himself for not being there when he should have been. Dammit, why hadn’t she told him? Looked for him? Anything?

“Nothing you can do about it now,” Xander shrugged again, looking back into his coffee cup. “They’re gone and I’m grown. I had Willow and Jesse, Buffy and Giles and . . .” he didn’t finish.

“Do you still keep in touch with Jesse?” Jack asked having not heard the name mentioned until today.

“He died,” Xander answered flatly. He sipped his coffee, not inviting any questions while Jack simply stared in surprise before murmuring another empty condolence, which Xander also shrugged off, “It was a long time ago.” Jesus. From the stories, Jack figured a long time ago must have been sometime in high school. He swallowed hard, wondering what that must have been like for Xander. No one deserved to lose a best friend during the toughest four years of life.

“How did he die?”

Xander hesitated before answering, “car accident.” Another lie.

“And your arm?” Jack asked carefully.

“Is fine,” Xander gave him a wary look, clearly not wanting to talk about it. Jack ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. This was a side of his son he thought they’d gotten past.

“It makes me worry,” he said honestly. “I’m not going to hold it against you.” He just wanted to know what had happened, and Xander just didn’t want him to know for whatever reason that Jack didn’t understand. “Look, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. But I’m here.”

“Is it weird?” asked Xander, the wariness still there in his face, shadowed by his eyepatch that also had no explanation. “All of a sudden having a son?”

“It was a little at first,” Jack conceded. “But it feels right.” It felt right like taking care of Daniel when he was sick felt right, or making sure Sam slowed down, or making sure that Teal’c was feeling loved. It was as if Jack had merely added Xander to that long list of people who meant something to him and who Jack looked out for, even if he did live in Cleveland.

Xander wasn’t going to tell him about his arm. Or the scratches on Willow’s face, or how Jesse had really died. Jack could see that. It made him feel like an outsider in this house and as if all he had built with Xander over the last few months lay just on the surface. Yeah, he and his son joked and shared a sarcastic sense of humor and got along well enough, but beneath was a responsible man who thought about more than videogames whom Jack had only glimpsed in brief snatches. Tonight, Willow had shared a little about the boy he had been, but nothing about who he was now. And that was the man sitting here with him, as much a stranger as when they had first met.

Xander didn’t reply. Instead he sort of nodded and turned on the TV, resolutely ending any further conversation. Jack watched as he shifted down the couch so his head was resting on the back, his blindside firmly toward the older man. Jack took the opportunity to watch as Xander quietly fell asleep, all the while contemplating the mystery that was his son.

~*~

Xander and Jack were careful around each other after that night. By some silent agreement, they avoided deeper conversations and stuck to the little things like they had in Colorado. But the easiness of that trip was lost in the band of tension between them. Xander wondered if he should tell him, and get it over with since it seemed inevitable now that Jack would discover the truth. But it was still too risky, and a part of Xander wanted to keep Jack as far away from the truth as possible for his sake. Oddly, he didn’t want Jack to worry about him, which seemed to be defeating the purpose in light of what Jack had said. Basically, Xander didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing but carry on.

It wasn’t as if Jack was being completely straight with him about what he did either, although Xander didn’t really care as long as it had nothing to do with the supernatural – and from the sound of Sam the astrophysicist and Willow’s discrete peek into their files, it didn’t. So there.

But the secrets still gnawed at Xander while they were at the mall on Friday and watching movies all day Saturday, his own and Jack’s. Would there ever be more to their relationship than the light banter that spread like palm leaves over a hidden trap that held the truth below? And if they talked about it, would they survive the fall? Xander didn’t know. But he could think of a million ways that it could go wrong.

Jack left on Sunday morning without them ever having said anything more about it. Xander had been invited again for Christmas, though it would depend on when he got off work – for both his jobs. As he watched Jack head off for security, Xander sighed and decided that he didn’t have time to stress about this whole . . . thing now. What would come would come. He had other stuff to worry about.

Chapter Text

“There they are,” Jack whispered. He passed the binoculars to Teal’c who lay beside him behind the bushes on the top of a little hillock overlooking a valley where twenty jaffa were putting together a machine of some sort. He needed to get Carter to take a look at this. Since there was so little cover she had stayed with Daniel out of sight further down the slope.

“They are indeed Anubis’s Jaffa,” said Teal’c a note above a whisper. “And to the east there are another several more in the trees.” He handed the binoculars back for Jack to take a look. The colonel counted eight standing around. From their positions he guessed they were guarding something. The intel they had received from the Tok’ra had been incomplete, as usual, and had only warned them about a possible weapon being built. But what Jack couldn’t figure out was why here in this valley? They were miles away from the ‘gate and the valley wasn’t that great a spot for an ambush. Taking one last sweep of the activity below, Jack crawled back from the edge and signaled for Carter to take his place while he joined Daniel below.

“How’s it look?” the archeologist asked quietly.

“Ten working on that weapon, another ten standing guard, and eight off in the trees to the east,” Jack told him. “We’ll see what Carter makes of what they’re building, then get back to the ‘gate.” He looked at his watch; it was almost four o’clock on Earth.

“Do you think the Tok’ra were right about this being a staging ground?” Daniel asked.

“Maybe,” said Jack with a shrug. He always took what the Tok’ra told them with about a barrel of salt. “They’re up to something all right, but I’m not sure what. For the moment it looks pretty low key.” He cast his eye about their six but there was no movement. Above them, Carter and Teal’c were still checking out the scene.

“Sir,” Carter hissed suddenly, “we’ve got two Jaffa heading our way.” She and Teal’c quickly slithered away from the edge and back down the slope until they were crouching beside Jack.

“How far away are they?” asked Jack immediately turning in his crouch to face the hill.

“Approximately one hundred yards,” said Teal’c. “I do not believe they saw us.”

“Did you see enough?” Jack turned to Carter.

“Yes, sir,” his Major replied. “And I think we have time to set up the camera.”

“Do it,” Jack ordered. “Daniel, Teal’c start back for the ‘gate. We’ll be right behind you.” The two men nodded, Daniel shouldered his pack, and they started off. Carter quickly went to work, wriggling back to the cover at the top of the hill with the video equipment while Jack kept watch beside her. The two Jaffa drew closer, probably heading for the ‘gate themselves. They would be hard pressed to get there ahead of them. But soon Carter finished, and with a quick confirmatory nod, they too got out of there as fast as they could.

The way back to the ‘gate was grassy with stunted trees and bushes like the ones scattered about their observatory. Jack hoped to make it back to the trees about half a mile away before the Jaffa caught sight of them but he doubted they would make it. And the sudden shout and blast of staff fire just proved him right. Jack hated it when he was right like this. He swore silently as he and Carter broke into a run. Ahead of them, Teal’c and Daniel returned fire until they joined them in the woods in an all out sprint to the stargate. The Jaffa were slowed down, though not by much, by their clunky armor.

“So much for a nice easy recon mission before Christmas,” Jack panted to Carter as trees brushed past and fallen logs tried to grab their feet. Teal’c led them off the beaten path in an effort to throw off their pursuers, trying to find a spot they could hide in so they could double back, but the trees were too small for cover so they just ran. By the time they rejoined the path, Jack felt like his lungs were going to burst. He checked behind them for the Jaffa who had been slowed a little but were nonetheless still there. A few minutes later, they burst into the ‘gate clearing. Daniel in front ran and dialed home while the rest of them made for the wormhole that blossomed in the stone ring. Staff fire peppered the ground beneath their feet but Jack ignored it in favor of speed. He was the last the dive through the ‘gate, whoosh through the wormhole, and land in a barrel roll on the ramp on the other side, shouting, “Close the iris!”

Jack took a moment to catch his breath from the run before pulling himself to his feet amid the hustle of armed marines and the blaring claxons. Daniel, Carter, Teal’c, all were winded but alive and accounted for. Didn’t look like anyone was hurt. In the control room, General Hammond watched gravely so Jack threw him a cheery if a bit sardonic smile.

“Welcome back, SG-1,” said Hammond. “We’ll debrief in one hour.” Jack glanced at his watch. Four twenty-nine blinked back at him. One hour for the post-mission, one for the briefing, one and a half for the paperwork, two to get to the airport and pick up Xander an hour late. Great. Jack reminded himself for the millionth time to never say ‘yes’ to a quick mission ever again. And he really needed to stop throwing himself through the stargate, he thought as his shoulder protested movement and his knees throbbed from where they had hit the ramp.

The next hour passed in the blur of the well familiar. No Doc, no snakes in our heads, yes General, something is going on there. Jack listened as Carter explained that she thought the Jaffa had been building a platform for something much bigger, though again she didn’t know what it was exactly. Hopefully the video would tell them more – if it wasn’t discovered and destroyed. There really wasn’t much more to add. Jack could practically feel the freedom of the holiday like a little kid in school as the briefing drew ever closer to being dismissed. And then, right after Hammond wished them all a good break and reminded them about the Christmas party, he said those fateful words, “Colonel, could you stay a moment?”

“Of course, sir,” Jack stopped and sat back down in his chair with a forced smile. With all due respect, he could have killed his CO.

~*~

Xander glanced at the time on his cell phone again only to see that two minutes had passed since the last time he had checked. The rest of the passengers from his plane had already deserted the baggage claim, leaving him alone with his duffel on a bracket of chairs. He wasn’t sure what felt worse, sitting alone feeling forgotten or the impatience and nervous energy that came from waiting. Jack’s cell was turned off and only his machine was answering at home leaving Xander wondering where the hell he was. Oddly, beneath the slight hurt, his greatest fear was that something had eaten Jack in the parking lot.

Where was he? He was forty minutes late and counting. Not showing was something that Xander would have expected of his own parents but not Jack. Jack was better than that, and this small shattering of expectation only served to remind Xander of how little they really knew each other. Six months, most of that spent apart with only two real visits and a scattering of phone calls and now a few more days to try and get to know each other. Though after Thanksgiving, he wondered if they ever really would.

The woosh of the sliding doors opening grabbed his attention, but it wasn’t Jack who walked through. Had he forgotten? Xander didn’t think so, but the worry lingered. He just wished he would hurry up and get there. And then he heard his name being called from the left. Turning so he could see, he smiled in relief as he saw Jack walking toward him.

“Hey, kid,” Jack smiled, looking more tired and stiff than Xander had ever seen him. “Sorry, I’m late. I got held up at the base.”

“It’s alright,” Xander replied, just happy that he was there and not being digested or anything. “Been a busy week?”

“Yeah,” Jack sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. “Nothing like being understaffed to load up the paperwork.”


“At your desk all day?” Xander asked, thinking of his stiffness.

“I wish,” Jack half laughed. “I’ve been dealing with stupid requests and meetings for the most part.”

“And they didn’t spring for pizza?” Xander joked, receiving a sideways glance from Jack that wasn’t very amused. “Not even donuts?”

“No. But that sounds like a good idea. You mind stopping on the way home? I don’t feel like cooking.”

“As long as you’re asking about pizza and not donuts,” Xander agreed. His days of sugar subsistence were long over.

“So how are you doing? How’s work?” Jack asked.

“Oh you know, it’s Christmas,” said Xander. “Everyone comes in looking for the perfect present. Some people have some really weird ideas. There was this guy who came in the other day wanting to build an automatic clothesline for his wife so she wouldn’t have to go outside to hang the wash. I tried to get him to check out a dryer but he insisted. Stupid man didn’t know when to quit.” It wasn’t really all that interesting, but Jack smiled anyway and they ended up talking about other customers with strange ideas for the ride home. It was comfortable and Xander found himself relaxing into the easiness of the conversation that held no hidden traps or pitfalls.

They picked up pizza at a place near Jack’s neighborhood and arrived at the house ten minutes later. Xander was staying in the same room so he deposited his stuff there before rejoining Jack at the kitchen table.

“Are you all getting together for Christmas again?” asked Jack as Xander took his first slice, judiciously chosen to have the most toppings. Xander was only staying for four days until the twenty-third. He and Jack had both decided that a short visit was better than a long one at this point.

“Just a few of us,” Xander replied. “Buffy’s home now with Dawn and Andrew, and Willow and Kennedy never left. Giles will be getting back the same day as me. Diana and Vi went to England to Vi’s aunt’s place.

“Robin and Faith are in Africa?”

“Yep.”

“Sounds like another fun filled Christmas.”

“Holiday season,” Xander corrected him. Off Jack’s inquiring look he added, “Willow’s sort of Jewish and sort of pagan.”

“That’s an interesting combination,” said Jack evenly, doing his best not to judge. Xander appreciated it, but it really wasn’t necessary. He thought they were mutually exclusive too.

“You should see our decorations,” he said dryly. “It’s like Santa came in circumcised and decided to follow his wood sprite girlfriend’s suggestions.” Jack grinned. “I’m serious,” Xander went on. “We have Hanukah candles lighting up an Earth shrine with the statue wearing an elf hat.”

“But does it look good? That’s the true test of a decorating disaster,” Jack noted, taking another piece of pizza.

Xander shrugged. “I think I’m used to it now. Though what about you? There isn’t even a wreath on the door.”

It was Jack’s turn to look about his undecorated house and shrug. “We’re celebrating at Carter’s house this year,” he said by way of explanation. “Even when we have it here, I don’t put much out. I’m usually working down to the wire.”

“But you’re a colonel. Don’t you get extra time off?”

“I could,” Jack agreed. “But there’s not much to come home to.” No family except his friends, Xander remembered. And now him. Funny how similar they were in that regard.

“Have you ever thought about remarrying?” asked Xander.

“I’ve thought about it,” said Jack, a little surprised by the question. “Doesn’t mean anyone was available.”

“Who was she?”

“She?” Jack lifted his eyebrows innocently, but Xander knew better.

“You don’t think about getting married without someone in mind,” he said. “So spill. Who’s my potential stepmom?”

“Have *you* ever thought about getting married?” Jack asked instead.

“Hey, no changing the subject!” Xander raised a pointy finger. “You’re not answering the question.”

“Neither are you.”

“It’s a personal question.”

“And I should answer it because . . . ?”

“We’re bonding here. Guy talk.”

“I though guy talk was supposed to be about sports and stuff.”

“The ‘and stuff’ is girls,” Xander said as if he were explaining it to Andrew. Though he suspected Andrew’s mind was on other things.

“Fine,” Jack sat back in his chair, a slight smile playing across his lips. “I’ll tell you if you tell me who you thought about marrying.”

“You first,” Xander agreed, his curiosity piqued.

Jack was silent for a moment before he spoke. “There’ve been a couple actually. One was a woman I met while I was abroad for a couple of months. We were just friends at first, working together and after awhile it became more, but then work pulled me away again.” He paused, then continued. “And the other . . . I still work with her.”

“Fraternization regulations?” Xander asked.

“How did you know?”

“I watch TV. Everyone knows about those,” Xander thought it was pretty common knowledge. “What kind of women are they?”

“Smart. Independent,” Jack shrugged searching for words. “They’re both people I respect a great deal.”

“Will I get to meet the one you work with?” asked Xander as he tried to picture her. It was kind of odd that thinking about Jack with someone wasn’t too bad.

Jack shrugged noncommittally as if to say maybe, maybe not. “So what about you?” he asked.

It was Xander’s turn to sit back and think about how to describe Anya. How did you describe a hurricane to someone who hadn’t been there? It still saddened him to think about her, but time had indeed softened the loss into good memories.

“Her name was Anya,” Xander began. “She was pretty amazing.” He pulled out his wallet and got out his only picture of her, worn around the edges by a year and a half of grief. It was of her standing by the cash register in the Magic Box holding a fan of twenty-dollar bills and smiling like the sun. Jack took the photo and smiled.

“She’s beautiful,” he said.

“Beautiful and greedy and embarrassingly blunt,” Xander smiled back getting a pair of raised eyebrows from Jack.

“That why you broke up?” he asked.

“No,” Xander accepted the picture back. “We were going to get married. But I wasn’t ready; left her at the altar, families there and everything.” He glanced up to see what Jack thought of that but the older man’s face was inscrutable. “I was afraid we’d end up like my parents. A year later we were almost back together. And then she died.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jack quietly. Xander nodded looking back at the picture. God, he missed her! “She loved money,” he heard himself say. “Loved the way it smelled and the way it could buy her pretty things. Sounds all valley girl when I say it like that, but it wasn’t. She wasn’t.” He looked up. “She thought fifty years was too little time to have together.”

“How did she die?”

“She never made it out of Sunnydale,” Xander answered, and even this half-truth felt like betraying what she had died for. No matter how much she had protested, she had always come through for them against whatever big bad had reared its ugly head. Once again he wondered what would have been had she lived. Would they be married now? He liked to think so.

He and Jack finished eating in silence that was only broken by Jack’s offer of coffee, which Xander happily accepted. His thoughts still centered on Anya, but now he wondered what she would have thought of Jack. She would have wanted to see his gun. And he could just see Jack fluttering about nervously when she would say something about orgasms, perhaps with a witty comeback like Giles, only not as British. Or maybe not fluttering, Xander amended smiling at Jack’s gray and rather dignified head across from him.

“What?” Jack noticed his gaze.

“Nothing,” said Xander. “Just thinking.” Mentally shaking himself, he corralled his thoughts back to the here and now. “So, we going clubbing tomorrow?” he asked.

“Clubbing? Ah, no,” Jack shook his head. “But my CO did invite us over for a Christmas party.”

“Will there be eggnog?” he asked hopefully. Xander loved eggnog. He hadn’t had any good ‘nog since that last Christmas with Joyce. He grinned when Jack nodded. “Then consider me party going.”

~*~

The next evening, Jack waited impatiently by the door for Xander to get ready to go. When he finally emerged from his room in a clean long sleeve shirt, jeans, jacket, and shoes, Jack looked pointedly at his watch. They were going to be late. Jack hated being late.

“Didn’t you hear me tell you we were leaving in ten minutes?” he asked as they got into the car.

“I live with girls. You say ten minutes, I hear half an hour,” Xander replied easily. “Your CO’s not going to kill us for being late to a party unless he’s a social stickler of the deranged kind.” He paused before adding, “he’s not, is he?”

“No,” Jack answered. “Where do you come up with this stuff?” Xander didn’t deign to answer.

As it was they were still the first to arrive. “Jack!” He was greeted enthusiastically by George’s granddaughter, Kayla who threw herself at him for a hug which Jack happily returned.

“Ooff! You’re getting big!” Jack exclaimed, amazed at how much she’d grown since the last time he’d seen her.

“Not that big, Jack,” Kayla protested as she stepped back with a huge grin. “Who’s this?” she asked noticing Xander behind him.

“This is Xander,” Jack introduced the two. “My son,” he added after a brief hesitation. He and Xander still didn’t bring up their relationship that much, if ever, but if it bothered Xander, he didn’t show it as he shook the little girl’s hand.

“I didn’t know you had a son!” Kayla was indignant that he hadn’t told.

“I lived with my mom,” Xander explained with an easy smile.

“Oh. Well it’s really nice to meet you,” she said. Just then, George and his daughter joined them from the kitchen.

Jack introduced Xander, amused at how the young man unconsciously straightened up in George’s commanding presence.

“It’s nice to meet you, sir,” said Xander shaking his hand.

“The pleasure’s all mine, son. Jack here can’t stop talking about you.”

Xander glanced at him, surprised by this news. Jack only shrugged. He really didn’t talk about him that much; George was exaggerating, but Jack didn’t bother to correct him when he was having so much fun. “Now you’ve made me nervous,” said Xander.

“Would I say anything bad about you?” asked Jack mock hurt.

“I don’t know, would you?” Xander asked back, only half joking. He really wasn’t sure, Jack saw, still uncertain about his place in Jack’s life.

“Nothing but glowing praise,” Jack reassured him, making Xander shift uncomfortably. “None of Willow’s stories got out.”

The look of horror on Xander’s face was priceless. “They better not have.”

“Well, I’m sure if you chat up Dr. Jackson and Major Carter, you can get some dirt of your own,” George smugly smiled. “And I know a few stories myself.” Jack definitely didn’t like the grin that blossomed on his son’s face.

“You are an evil, evil, man, sir,” Jack told his CO.

“Yes and there’s not a thing you can do about it.”

And with that, Jack knew that by the end of the night Xander would know every story the General had to offer. He could only thank God most of his exploits were classified.

~*~

A little over an hour later Xander managed to slip away for a moment with a plate full of food. More guests had arrived that he’d met while chatting with George. He really liked the portly General who had regaled him with the many headaches of Jack O’Neill. His father was apparently a practical joker, though it didn’t surprise Xander that much. His favorite story was of when Jack had enlisted Private Shepherd, an actual German Shepherd who had a series of complaints filed against him for insubordination and slobbering on his colleagues. It had taken three weeks for the administration to realize they’d been played.

Now, sitting on the sidelines, Xander watched as Jack talked to Sam and Janet whom he’d met only briefly with her daughter earlier. When Kayla interrupted them, Jack gave her his full attention as if what she had to say was the most important thing in the world. He was good with kids, Xander thought, really good.

But the arrival of Daniel and Murray in his little corner of the living room pulled his attention away from Jack. Xander smiled at them in greeting, watching Murray in particular as he sat with his back straight and calmly began shoveling food into his mouth.

“I see you finally got away from Hammond,” said Daniel in greeting. “I heard he was dishing out Jack stories?”

“Yep. Vengeance for my best friend spilling at Thanksgiving,” Xander replied around a mouthful of scalloped potatoes.

“Well, if he ever gives you a hard time, we’ve got a couple that the General doesn’t know about,” Daniel gestured between himself and Murray.

“Vengeance, as you say,” said Murray solemnly but with a smug little smile that was eerily reminiscent of George’s. Good to know.

“So you’re only staying till the twenty-third?” asked Daniel.

“Yeah, I’ve got to work on Christmas Day,” said Xander. Though not the main reason for leaving a little early, it at least didn’t make him sound like he didn’t want to be there. The truth was all about semantics.

“How has your vacation been?” asked Murray in his precise tone that didn’t sound quite right.

“Good,” said Xander. It was an all-purpose answer but he didn’t really have a better one. “I just got in yesterday.”

“Would you care to join us at the mall tomorrow? We are going on a shopping excursion.”

“I’m not sure Jack’s going to give you much of a choice,” Daniel smiled. “He hates having to suffer alone and he says the rest of us don’t count.”

“I guess, I’m in then,” said Xander, not sure how he felt about going shopping with Jack and his friends. He suddenly felt like Giles in reverse, the young man out of the group, though he was at least grateful he wasn’t going out with a bunch of older women. “You guys Christmas shopping, or what?”

“Christmas shopping,” Daniel sighed. “We’ve been working pretty hard lately. Haven’t had much time to get stuff done.”

“And I shall be purchasing a new hat,” added Murray, very pleased with the idea. Xander eyed the monstrosity of red and white fake fur that sat low on the tall man’s head. He had been wearing a hat the last time he’d met him, too.

“So does the hat hide a perpetual bad hair day?” he asked curiously. “Cause they have stuff for that now.”

“I like hats,” was the simple reply that was and wasn’t an answer. Murray was just weird, Xander concluded. And possibly not human. The words, the posture, the hats – no self-respecting adult wore a Santa hat to an informal party and actually kept it on. But then again, George was wearing a reindeer sweater. Nevertheless, it was rather worrisome because what if he really wasn’t human? The military had to know; those sorts of things didn’t slip by them.

“Anyone want anything else to drink?” Daniel interrupted his musing by standing with his empty cup. Both Xander and Murray shook their heads and the linguist left in search of a thirst quencher. They ate in silence for a moment before Xander decided to go ahead and ask.

“So Murray, where’re you from?”

The big man looked up at him, swallowed the food in his mouth, and said, “I am from Chulak, Colorado.”

“Where’s that?”

“Three hours west of here.”

“Are you human?” The flat stare he received was anything but amused. “Just kidding,” Xander hastily backpedaled. “Though it’d be okay if you weren’t. Mostly. It’d actually depend but since I’ve no doubt that you are it’s not really an issue so forget I even asked.” Murray’s expression didn’t change. In fact, the blank stare was starting to creep Xander out, but finally Murray spoke.

“I am. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Xander waved it off, wishing once more that he’d just kept his mouth shut. It was probably a really stupid idea to antagonize the six-foot giant sitting next to him. He was better off wondering in silence ‘cause the silence wouldn’t kill him. An uncomfortable minute passed during which Xander concentrated on eating and trying to ignore Murray’s watchful eyes. It didn’t work too well; he still felt like a bug under a microscope. He just wanted the other guy to look away.

“Xander Harris,” said Murray suddenly, “how are things between you and O’Neill?”

Xander looked up at the odd use of his name, slipping it into the see-he’s-not-human column before his mind caught up with the question. “Fine,” he said. Other than the fact that they never really talked about anything.

“He worries about you,” said Murray. “He wishes you would not hide things from him.” Xander stared as Murray took another bite of his chicken. Where had that come from? But he knew – Thanksgiving. Secrets peeking out of shadows.

Murray returned his gaze with that same calm expression that never seemed to change. “I too have a son that I seldom see,” he said softly. “I know it is difficult, but O’Neill cares for you a great deal. I have known him for many years. He is an honorable man and he will never turn away from you.”

“Even if I’m really Batman?” asked Xander, a little stunned by Murray’s unwavering faith in Jack.

“Even if you are Batman,” Murray nodded once. “Though he lives in Gothem City and not Cleveland.”

“He could have moved.”

“And leave the citizens to the evilness of the Joker? I think not. He would not abandon his responsibility to them.”

“Whose responsibility to whom?” asked Sam Carter joining them with Daniel. The blond woman took the seat next to Murray.

“Batman’s to the people of Gothem City and why he would never leave,” replied Murray. Sam looked at him in surprise, a wide grin breaking out on her face.

“I don’t know much about that,” she said, “but I sure do love Robin’s bike.”

“That was the only reason you saw that movie in the first place,” said Daniel.

“You didn’t like it either,” Sam retorted.

“Well, no,” Daniel agreed.

“You have no taste,” Murray intoned. “It was an excellent movie. Though the first film was my favorite.”

Xander watched as the three friends began arguing over the merits of the Batman movies. Murray loved them while Daniel and Sam kept poking holes in plots and special effects but the banter was friendly and they were having a good time.

They were obviously close, closer than Xander had realized the last time he was here. Daniel and Sam seemed to finish each other’s thoughts while Murray had a counter argument for every point they brought up. Xander’s opinion was asked for a couple of times and he had to agree that they were fun in their campy goodness. Soon he was arguing about who had been the best Batman. And every now and then he’d meet Murray’s eyes that were smiling now instead of glaring, but that were still watchful. And they seemed to say, ‘even if you were Batman.’

~*~

Across the room, Jack watched Xander laughing with his team. It was cool to see the people who meant the most to him together and getting along. Not that he thought they wouldn’t or anything, but it was still good to see.

“Jack, you’ve got a fine son there,” announced George as he joined him at the coffee table he’d commandeered. “A very nice young man.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t have much to do with that,” said Jack.

“Maybe not,” the General conceded, “but he does remind me of a certain young sarcastic officer I used to know.”

“Well, I certainly don’t know who you’re talking about, sir,” said Jack playfully to the tease. “So what stories did you tell him?”

“Only the best,” George evaded.

“Stories?” Cassie Frasier said joining them. “You were telling Jack stories and I wasn’t there?” She batted hurt eyelashes at George very disappointed she had missed it. Jack on the other hand was very grateful. Xander knowing was bad enough but at least he had the inside scoop on him. Cassie on the other hand he couldn’t touch, the reason in the form of one short doctor settling in beside her daughter next to him.

“I think you already know enough about me,” said Jack. “You already had an unfair advantage over Xander.”

“It’s still not fair,” Cassie grumbled, though she wasn’t really that upset about it.

“Maybe if you talk to Xander, you can ask him,” suggested Janet with a sly look at Jack.

“Doc, are you trying to set our kids up?” he asked suspiciously.

“I wouldn’t go for him anyway,” said Cassie while her mother protested innocently. Immediately, Jack switched to being offended on his son’s behalf.

“And why not? There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“He’s not my type,” Cassie shrugged. “He’s too . . . happy.”

“Happy?”

“You know . . . going on though life unaware. He just seems like the kind of guy it’d be hard to have a deep conversation with . . . I mean . . .” she stopped, suddenly realizing what she had just said and blushed. “I don’t mean that he’s shallow or anything . . . cause I’m sure he’d not. And he has the whole one-eye thing going for him that’s pretty cool . . .” She trailed off, deciding that stopping was better than digging the hole deeper.

Jack smiled to show he wasn’t offended. He could see how she would get that impression. Here Xander was always smiling and joking, hell most of the time he acted as if the next great disaster was a bad day at work. But then there were the little things he didn’t talk about like growing up in Sunnydale, his parents, his eye. Jack recalled the sad smile he’d worn when he finally mentioned his lost girlfriend. Xander lived in the here and now, not dwelling on the past, not worrying about the future.

“How did he lose it?” asked Janet referring to Xander’s eye.

Jack could only shrug. “He hasn’t told me. I asked the first time we met, and he wouldn’t say anything. I thought at first that it was because we had just met but . . .” He had lied about the deep cut on his arm too. “I guess he’s just not ready to tell me some things,” he smiled for the others, not wanting to bring up things that were better left between him and his son. Though how he would find out without driving Xander away, he didn’t know.

From where he sat, it looked like serious fighting, gang fighting, though Xander seemed far from the type to get involved in that sort of thing. And his friends seemed to be involved which was even weirder if it was gangs because the bubbly girls he had met were also not the type. There were just too many mysteries and none of them added up.

Jack sighed and let it go for now as it was neither the time nor the place. Maybe later he’d work up the nerve to ask. Maybe he should just wait until he knew Xander better. Maybe he shouldn’t say anything at all.

~*~

When they got home that night, Xander sat down heavily on the couch, tired from the long evening. Behind him Jack was talking to Daniel as the two looked for the book the linguist had stopped by to get. Apparently he’d been looking for it for a week before he remembered he’d left it at Jack’s after coming over to dinner once. Though from the sound of things, Jack had lost the book too. Xander let their playful back and forth wash over him as he relaxed. He was almost dozing when the phone rang in the kitchen.

It rang once more before Jack picked it up. “O’Neill . . . all right . . . all right . . . call Major Carter. Dr. Jackson’s with me.” Xander heard him hang up, and wondered what was going on. Jack soon appeared from the kitchen, all trace of humor gone from his face. “Xander, Daniel and I have to go to the base. Will you be okay here?”

“At eleven thirty at night?” Xander asked. That seemed a little late to him.

“It’s probably nothing,” Jack forced a smile and Xander could see that he clearly didn’t believe it was nothing. If it were nothing, there’d be some serious shouting going on over the phone right now. No, Jack was worried about something. And Daniel the linguist and Sam the astrophysicist were wanted too. “We’ll be back soon.” Vaguely Xander nodded as he watched them grab their coats and go. They had a silent conversation in eyebrows and headshakes and then they were gone, leaving Daniel’s car in the driveway.

Whatever they were doing, it made Xander nervous all of a sudden. Initiative nervous. Because why did a deep space telescope need a linguist and a Special Forces colonel in the middle of the night?

Wide awake now, he turned on the TV to try and banish his worries from his head but it didn’t work too well. It was only when he heard the electronic strands of the Peanuts theme coming from his room that thoughts of secret military organizations finally went away. Because he suddenly had bigger fish to worry about. After a stunned second, Xander leapt up and ran for his phone that he’d put on top of the dresser.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Xander?” Willow’s voice came down the virtual line.

“Yeah, it’s me. What’s up?”

“We just got an SOS from a slayer in Broomfield, Colorado,” said Willow. Xander’s blood ran cold. “Her name’s Courtney, she’s thirteen – ”

“Her parents didn’t want her coming to training this year,” Xander remembered their only Colorado slayer. The conversation he’d had with her parents had been so frustrating.

“She was hysterical on the phone and hung up before I could get all the details. All I know is that there was a major attack and that she’s in trouble. Have you got a car?”

“If you have directions.” Xander went to his bag and dug out his stake, cross, water gun and liter of holy water. Quickly, he went into the living room and found Daniel’s keys, only feeling a little guilty about borrowing his car. Willow stayed on the phone and gave him directions from her computer in Cleveland. The drive took two hours going almost ninety on the highway. Xander only hoped a cop didn’t stop him but he was more scared about what he would find once he got to Broomfield.

Potentials became slayers when they hit puberty at which time Willow felt them join the network. She had a special locator spell that found the new slayer, wherever she was so that the Watcher’s Council could find her, offer her training, and help her into her new life. In North America, Xander was point man in that department. Now, driving in the dark, he couldn’t help but feel like he had failed Courtney somehow by not talking her parents around. He’d thought he’d done well by getting them to agree to next summer, but now it looked like next summer would be too late.

Once he was off the freeway, Xander followed Willow’s direction to a nice neighborhood in suburbia. And then he saw the fire. A great billow of smoke rose above the houses with tendrils of orange licking at its base. As he drew closer, he heard sirens and shouting and water hoses as firefighters tried to control the blaze. It was like graduation all over again. How was he going to find Courtney in this mess?

He got as close as he could before parking the car and going on foot. Willow had said she had called from the house that was now torching to a crisp. Xander hoped she had made it out alive. A quick look through the emergency vehicles came up with nothing so he moved past them to the edge of the spectators who watched in disbelief. He’d met Courtney once, over a year ago. She’d been in awe of her new power, excited and scared all at once. Where would she be now? Xander just kept walking away from the crowds, the heat of the burning house at his back.

And then he saw her hidden in between two closely growing trees in someone’s front yard, staring at the flames and unnoticed by anyone else but him. As soon as he started walking in her direction though, she looked at him, watching like a scared cat as he approached. Her shirt was torn and dirty, bleeding cuts streaked down her arms and the corner of her mouth was a brilliant red. In her hand she clenched a broken chair leg, her whole body ready and tense for a fight.

“Courtney?” said Xander softly. He held up his cross and stake from her to see, see that he wasn’t burning. “I’m Xander Harris with the Watcher’s Council. Do you remember me?” She didn’t answer but her eyes flickered from his face to his hands and back. “I’m going to get out my driver’s license and my ID card, okay?” He waited until she nodded slightly before fishing out his wallet. The ID card was for the Council, charmed so that it couldn’t be tampered with. He tossed them to the ground in front of her where she cautiously picked them up and inspected them. Courtney looked up a moment later, the tension fading from her.

“Sorry,” she whispered. “I – ”

“Don’t be sorry,” said Xander. He walked slowly towards her making sure she wouldn’t suddenly attack him. “What happened?”

“They came.” She turned back to the house. “A whole gang. My little brother let them in . . . there were so many of them.”

“Your family?”

The tears that streamed down her face were the only answer he needed as the girl before him started to shake. Xander reached out a hand to her shoulder offering her the only comfort he could. The gesture broke the wall that had held the reality at bay through the horror of the last few hours and she latched onto him with a wrenching sob of pain. Xander just held on while her world crumbled around her like the house down the street, lost to the violence of the night.

“He said it was retribution,” Courtney cried. “I don’t even know what that means! And then he killed them, right in front of me. They were screaming and I couldn’t do anything!” Her voice broke in her throat in counterpoint to her labored breathing. “I should have died too!” she sobbed. “I should have died!”

“I know,” Xander murmured, rubbing her back. “But you survived.” Survived to live in a world without her family, and though she wanted to die now from the pain, Xander knew that she would make it because she was a fighter. He didn’t need two eyes to see that she hadn’t given up, not in the house, not out here.

After a few minutes, she calmed some, her cries dissolving into hiccups. Beyond them the firefighters had gotten the fire under control, diminishing the flames to embers. “Do you think they’ll be mad?” Courtney asked. “About the fire? It was the only way.” The only way to kill the vampires, Xander knew.

“We don’t have to tell them,” said Xander. They would figure out what they needed to on their own.

“So what now?” she asked. “I mean, my family’s dead. I’ve got nowhere to go. My house is gone. I burned my house!

“Hey, hey, hey,” Xander soothed before she lost it again. Courtney looked at him wide-eyed and terrified. “Let’s not panic.”

What now indeed. The authorities would only take her to a children’s shelter, then foster care if no relatives stepped up to claim her. All were people who wouldn’t know that her family had just been murdered, wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t care. They’d find out she set the fire and then she’d be blamed. What she needed was support right now, friends, family.

“Do you have any relatives nearby?” he asked.

Courtney shook her head. “My aunt and uncle live in Missouri.”

“Is there anyone you want to stay with?” But she shook her head. “Then you’re coming with me,” he decided. He wasn’t about to strand her here, not traumatized and an easy target for the rest of the local vamps. No, the safest thing for her was to come with him now. He handed her his cell phone. “Call your best friend, let her know you’re okay. Tell her your cousin came to get you,” he instructed when she just stared at it then him blankly but after a moment she did as he asked.

A few minutes later, they were skirting the dwindling group of spectators behind the fire trucks, heading toward the car. Not long after that they were back on the road heading for Colorado Springs. It wasn’t until Courtney fell asleep exhausted that Xander even thought about what he would tell Jack.

~*~

To say Jack was worried was an understatement. To say Jack was worried and mad and confused as all hell would be closer to the truth. In fact Jack was pretty pissed off. Things had been bad enough when the Tok’ra arrived with their sudden discovery of Anubis amassing his forces and Jack’s Christmas holiday was cut short. Then he came home around one a.m. trying to figure out what he’d tell Xander only to find that Xander had taken off in Daniel’s car without so much as leaving a note and some pretty hasty unpacking of his bag. The only good thing Jack could see in this whole situation was that most of his stuff was still here, and even that really hadn’t helped his bad mood much

But now it was four in the morning. Daniel had gotten a cab home, and Jack hadn’t slept for worrying about Xander and what the hell he had been doing for the last three hours. He was going to kill him when he got back. Just what was he playing at?

Headlights in the driveway immediately grabbed his attention. He rose as the car doors opened and shut, and was at the front door when it opened. Xander stopped short when he saw the glare Jack was leveling at him.

“Where the hell have you been?!” he demanded. He could see the sarcastic reply forming on Xander’s lips until he thought better of it and answered simply.

“Broomfield.” He licked his lips. “It was an emergency.”

Then Jack saw the girl standing slightly behind his son. She was young, barely a teenager with auburn hair that was a tangled mess. Dried blood and dirt streaked her clothes underneath Xander’s jacket that she wore while faded bruises and tearstains peppered her chin.

“I see,” said Jack softly, taken aback. The girl looked like she was about to fall over. “I’m Jack,” he offered her his hand, which she dully shook.

“Come on,” Xander ushered her to his room, leaving her in the bathroom to get cleaned up. “Where’s your first aid kit?” he asked when he returned. Jack got it for him then waited in the kitchen for Xander to get back after getting the girl settled. Jack was so surprised by this sudden turn of events that he didn’t know what to think. Mostly he was confused and even more worried than he had been. His anger giving way to fear which only jumpstarted more anger. He ended up making coffee while he waited.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked when he heard Xander in the doorway. His son didn’t move for a moment but he finally joined Jack at the table. He looked exhausted. Small wonder after a long day and four hours of driving to Broomfield and back.

“Courtney called Willow. Willow called me,” was all Xander said as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“She was in a fight,” Jack commented, trying to keep his voice low. “And you both smell like smoke.”

“Her house burned down.”

“So why is she with you?”

Xander looked up then away quickly and didn’t answer. And Jack knew that when he did it would be another lie.

“Jesus, Xander, what are you involved in?” he asked.

“Who said I was involved with anything?” Xander snapped back, getting angry. “She’s a girl from camp this summer. She was in trouble, she called us.”

“She calls people she barely knows in Cleveland instead of her local 9-11?” Jack couldn’t believe it. “She was in. a. fight. I’m not an idiot Xander. I can tell grab marks and punches from a random crash to the ground. And it’s not just her. You and Willow were pretty beat up over Thanksgiving.” That got Xander’s attention. The young man’s head snapped up but he remained silent. “So, yes, I think you’re involved in something,” said Jack. “Feel free to prove me wrong.”

“It’s none of your business.”

You are my business. And if that’s not enough then I think stealing my friend’s car and kidnapping a kid and hiding her at my house make it my business.”

“Fine,” Xander got to his feet. “We’ll go to a hotel. We’ll be out of here in ten minutes.”

“Xander!” Jack wanted to strangle him. Running was not going to solve this and he’d be damned if he let his son run out on him now. “I’m not throwing you out. I just want to know what’s going on!”

“Well, I can’t tell you because I’ve got people to protect!” Xander said harshly. They were standing, facing each other now. “Consider it classified, Jack. You should know all about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jack felt like he’d been slapped.

“Linguists don’t go on maneuvers, Jack,” said Xander. “And no one on a little shit project gets called into base in the middle of the night five days before Christmas. I’m not an idiot either and I spy with my little eye a secret government program.”

At his words, Jack saw all the fear and distrust his son had for him at that moment and it hurt like nothing else had since his team had thought he’d betrayed them. “Yes, my work is classified,” he said. “But what does it have to do with you bringing home a girl whose house just burned down?”

“Nothing,” said Xander looked away then back, meeting him stare for stare. “I’m just saying, I’m not the only one keeping secrets around here.”

“So you don’t trust me,” said Jack. “Is that it?”

“I don’t trust who you work for,” Xander replied evenly.

“This is me, Xander,” Jack pleaded, suddenly tired. “I’m your dad first. This has nothing to do with what I do or can’t talk about. If you’re in trouble, if you need me I’m yours.”

The young man looked away at the table, uncertainty in every line of his body. When he finally looked back he said, “I’m not in any trouble.”

Jack’s protest at the obvious denial was cut short by a scream from the guestroom. Immediately, Xander bolted down the hall, Jack on his heels. Courtney was thrashing in her sleep while Xander tried to shake her awake without getting hit by flailing limbs.

“Courtney, wake up!” said Xander loudly.

“They’re here!” the girl shouted as she woke with a start. “They were screaming! Oh God – ”

“Hey,” Xander pulled her into his arms while she dissolved into tears. Jack simply watched him soothe the distraught girl, realizing a moment later that this was another side of Xander he hadn’t seen, hadn’t even known about. His son as the adult in control, rocking the poor girl. Xander was the helper here, but why him, Jack wondered. He tried to make it sound simple, but how could it be? If anything Xander should be at a police station in Broomfield right now instead of at Jack’s house. People to protect, he’d said. Courtney? The other girls? They had people to protect them already, families and police, in theory anyway.

“You want a book?” Xander asked a few minutes later when Courtney settled down some.

When she nodded, Jack volunteered to go find one. He didn’t have much in the way of fiction around but he managed to find a Star Wars novel that Teal’c had left behind. Courtney accepted it with a watery smile.

“Here,” Xander reached to his discarded jacket and pulled a rather large wooden cross out of the pocket. Courtney took it from him, her fingers running over the wood in fascination. “I know it’s not much consolation, but they’re in Heaven now.”

“How do you know?”

“Friend of mine’s been there.”

“It should have been me,” she whispered.

“It shouldn’t have been anyone,” Xander countered. “It just is.” He squeezed her hand. “I’ll be right outside.”

He and Jack retreated to the kitchen. Xander once more refused to look at him. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” he finally said breaking the tense silence. “Willow’s getting us tickets.”

Jack nodded, unhappy about it, but what could he do? “What was with the cross?” he asked instead.

“Security blanket,” Xander looked up, appearing very tired all of a sudden. And older than his twenty-three years. The man before him was far removed from the kid of yesterday.

“Security blanket, huh?” Jack didn’t quite buy it. It was becoming a familiar feeling, and one that he really didn’t like. “Don’t you think we know each other well enough to cut all this crap?” he asked wearily, but Xander just gave him an inscrutable look.

“Do you believe in vampires?” he asked.

“Vampires?” Jack repeated, not sure he had heard correctly. He was way too tired to try and follow this. “As in Dracula?” Xander twitched slightly but nodded. “No, why?”

“Could you?” Xander went on.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Just answer the question.”

Jack paused before saying a flat out ‘no’. He wasn’t sure what metaphor Xander was going for but maybe it was one of Daniel’s paradigm shift things. Besides, he’d certainly seen enough other stuff walk out of legends. Only on other planets. So he shrugged and said, “yeah, maybe,” hoping it was the right answer. “Why?”

“’Cause until you do, you don’t know me,” said Xander. With that parting remark, he went and crashed on the couch. Jack sat down at the table wondering what the hell he meant by that before finally deciding that it was way to late – early in the morning to try and figure it out. But as he went to bed himself, he wondered if he would ever have the chance to find out.

~*~

The next morning Jack woke to find the house empty with a note and brightly wrapped package on the table.

“Jack,” he read. “We called a cab for the airport. I’m sorry that everything got out of hand last night. I left your present on the table. Hope you like it. Merry Christmas, Xander.”

Jack set the note aside and fingered his oddly shaped present. White snowmen grinned up at him from a red background. Gently he tore it open. Inside was a rough wood carving of a flying eagle with a little boy on his back. The detail wasn’t great but the paint helped to fill it out and catch the essence of flight. A loop of string came through the boy’s head for hanging on a tree. It was really magnificent. The maker’s mark on the tail read ‘XH.’

Jack smiled briefly, impressed and touched. And scared he wouldn’t see Xander again.

Chapter Text

Jack was distracted all morning. At the briefing of SG team leaders at 0900, he barely heard as Hammond went over the intel they had received from the Tok’ra last night about Anubis on P-something. Basically the General was warning them that the military teams might be called to duty even though it was Christmas. SGs 1 and 6 were the only ones on standby at the moment for the recon missions.

But since Jack knew all this, his greatest fear at the moment was that Hammond was going to call on him for input. Because he really wasn’t in any sort of mental state to know what he was supposed to add since he hadn’t been paying attention to what the General had already said. His mind instead kept going over his fight last night with Xander, trying to figure it out, figure out a way to speak to him again after his son’s flat refusal to talk.

It was just . . . confusing. And frustrating. And he wanted to check out that fire in Broomfield because he was sure it was Courtney Xander was protecting. But from the military? She was a kid. The military wouldn’t care about her unless she was a miniature terrorist in disguise. Wait – that couldn’t be it, could it? Xander as a part of some terrorist cell? The very thought chilled him as he immediately rejected the idea. Not Xander, he wasn’t the type. He didn’t have a mission and he was too lighthearted to care. But then, it wasn’t the lighthearted Xander he had gotten to know that had faced him last night, deadly serious and not giving an inch.

And that was another thought that scared Jack because how could he have missed the capable young man underneath all the friendly banter. He knew he hadn’t, not completely. Glimpses were there, buried in stunned memory of their first meeting and snatches of conversation since. But it wasn’t something he had really thought about before because he had never tried to profile Xander before. He just was. And now the question was what was he doing that he didn’t want the military or government to find out about. That left knife wounds on his arms and handprints on his friends. That had him practically kidnapping a beat-up girl whose house had burned down. That had a metaphor in vampires.

That was maybe the weirdest part of all this. And the most cutting, being flat out told that whatever he and Xander had did not even scratch the surface. But mixed up with the stinging hurt, Jack still couldn’t figure out the vampire thing. All he knew about them was that they drank blood, slept in coffins, and could count really well. Though he didn’t think Sesame Street was what Xander had been talking about. But then sometimes he really couldn’t follow what Xander was talking about, and now he couldn’t ask because his son had taken off, kidnapped girl and all. Though she certainly hadn’t been resisting. But having nightmares of people coming and people screaming – people in Heaven – and taking a cross as a security blanket.

Why had Xander had a cross in the first place? Jack knew he wasn’t religious. But that he did believe in Heaven and Hell. And the friend he’d mentioned, was that Jesse? Anya? But still, why was a cross a security blanket? That made no sense. None of it made sense to Jack’s sleep deprived brain. And Xander had hopped the first plane back to Cleveland.

“Colonel O’Neill?” General Hammond’s voice snapped him back to the briefing at hand. Around him the other team leaders were shuffling to their feet, the briefing obviously over. On his pad, Jack had drawn stick figures with fangs and bat wings, underlined by a row of question marks. One of them wore an eyepatch. Maybe that was it, he though sarcastically as he pushed the pad away face down and turned to Hammond. Maybe Xander was really a vampire.

“Are you all right, Colonel?” asked Hammond a concerned frown on his face.

“Yes, sir,” Jack mustered a smile for him, despite the cold inside. Hammond paused a moment longer before deciding to take him at his word.

“SG-1’s briefing will be at 1100,” he went on. “We don’t have too much information about the planet Anubis is using so we’ll be working with the Tok’ra on this one, Colonel. I expect you to at least make an effort.”

“Oh, I always make an effort, sir,” said Jack. “Besides it’s Christmas. Good will and all that.” Hammond gave him a hard stare but said nothing at the dig. Jack knew he would rather be at home with his granddaughters too and suddenly felt bad for opening his mouth. “Sorry, sir.”

“I’ve had another call from Major Davis,” Hammond continued as if he hadn’t said anything. “Kinsey has moved on from Christmas phone calls to members of the Congressional Appropriations Committee to a few people at the Pentagon. Now, I don’t know any names yet . . .”

“But he’s looking for support come inauguration day,” Jack finished. “Are we sure the election wasn’t rigged?”

“Colonel.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jack sighed. Politics and power. Kinsey and Anubis, both converging pains in the ass.

“I’ll see you at 1100 then,” Hammond dismissed him. Jack nodded and left, his thoughts temporarily redirected angrily at Kinsey for fighting them from the inside. It was no wonder Xander didn’t trust the military, because if Kinsey was in charge?

Which reminded Jack of Xander’s own deduction that he worked on a top secret project. He sighed again. They really needed to come up with a better cover story, especially for why Daniel worked for them. He still didn’t know how he was going to explain this one to the General. Arrrrgh! Why did all this have to hit the fan right now? God, he needed a cup of coffee. Daniel better have something good and strong, he thought as he neared the archeologist’s office. Cause if he didn’t Jack would be very disappointed.

A quick glance at the coffeepot perched precariously on a filing cabinet showed good news, however, the first Jack had had all day.

“Jack,” Daniel said by way of greeting when he came in without knocking.

“Hey, Daniel,” Jack gave him a half-hearted smile. He made his way carefully to the coffee, grabbing the spare mug from an equally precarious position on a stack of books nearby.

“Bad news?” Daniel finally asked, his voice filtering softly over the stream of dark liquid.

Jack shrugged, turning and taking a sip. He leaned back against the cabinet. “Same as last night. Briefing’s at 1100.”

Daniel waited a beat, then asked, “Then what’s with the . . . long face?” he settled on.

Jack rubbed a tired hand over his face sincerely hoping he didn’t look as bad as he felt, but at the same time knowing he did. But he was glad Daniel had asked. Saved having to bring it up himself at least. “Xander left this morning,” he answered.

“Left?” Daniel was surprised as well he should be. “He didn’t come back?”

“He came back,” Jack corrected. “Around four this morning. Brought a ten-year old girl with him. Said her house had burned down. He wouldn’t tell me what was going on beyond that. They left for Cleveland this morning before I got up.”

Daniel stared in surprise, a crease forming between is eyes. “He just left?”

“We kinda had a fight,” Jack admitted. He smiled sourly. “Turns out he’s stubborn too.”

Daniel didn’t crack a smile. “I’m amazed he got a flight out.”

“What?”

“Four days before Christmas he got a flight home within what? six hours of needing it?”

It was expensive too, now that Jack thought about. He knew Xander had a job but he didn’t think he made that kind of money. Drugs? Again, Jack rejected the idea. There were no signs of that, though the vampire metaphor might fit, sucking his life away little by little. But what did a girl’s house burning down mean? Who was Xander protecting?

“Jack,” Daniel repeated his name he realized.

“Sorry, what?”

“Did you sleep at all last night?” He shrugged in answer. Daniel glanced back at the computer screen he’d been working on, hit a few keys, then turned back to Jack. “Explain what happened again.”

“What happened?” asked Carter as she walked in with Teal’c. Jack noticed she had brought her own mug.

“Xander left this morning,” Jack said moving out of her way. Both Carter and Teal’c stopped short at the news while Jack went on to tell about the girl, her nightmare, and Xander’s complete lack of trust in him or the government. “And he figured out that I work for a top secret project,” he finished, hearing again in memory the harsh accusation that Jack had lied to him too.

“Xander Harris is most perceptive,” said Teal’c. “Last night he asked me if I was human.”

“He what?!” Jack started so violently his coffee sloshed over his hand.

“He asked if I was human and then hastily retracted the question,” Teal’c repeated. “I believe. It was difficult to follow but he did not press the subject.”

Perceptive indeed, thought Jack worried more than ever. Now what did that mean? His mental list of mysteries was getting way to long. “Daniel, what do you know about vampires?” he asked.

“Vampires?” both he and Carter chorused at this new wrench in the works.

“He said I wouldn’t know him until I believed in vampires,” Jack explained with another grimace. “And if I knew what that meant you’d be the first to know,” he added off his team’s questioning looks.

“Well, they drink blood,” Daniel offered recovering quickly, his expression furrowed as he thought about it. “Don’t like sunlight, garlic, or religious objects . . . I think you have to kill them with something wooden. Are you sure he said vampires?”

“Dead sure,” Jack grimaced at the pun that slipped out.

“Well,” said Daniel. “I don’t have time to really find anything now, but I will once we get back from the mission.”

Right, the mission. The job they paid him the big bucks for, and yes that was sarcasm. Jack should be focusing on that right now. Daniel and Carter had background research to do and he had to get his requisitions in before the briefing as well. And then there’d be no time while they were offworld figuring out what Anubis was up to – and then he’d be tied up trying to figure out what they were going to do about whatever they found out. No time till later to call and try and patch things up, no time for Carter to make sure Xander wasn’t a terrorist or drug lord, no time to do anything but worry about keeping the planet safe. This really sucked.

But when Jack got back to his office after reminding his team about the briefing, he decided that it was too important to put off. So he grabbed his phone and called Xander’s number from memory only to hang up disappointed when the dull tone of the busy signal washed back across the country.

~*~

Xander hung up the phone with a sigh. Courtney’s aunt and uncle in Missouri were frantic and not taking too well to the fact that he’d made off with her after the fire. Suspicious and confused, they had kept threatening to call the police and we’re greatly surprised when Xander had told them to go ahead and even found the local number for them. Speaking to Courtney had helped and finally after two days of phone calls, they had agreed to drive to Cleveland to see her.

From what Courtney had told him, they weren’t very close, but they did see each other every couple of summers when schedules lined up so they weren’t strangers by any means. And family was what Courtney needed right now, people who had known and loved her parents and brother whom she could grieve with. And since they were probably going to become her legal guardians they needed to know the truth about how they had died and accept it sooner rather than later.

Standing, Xander stretched the kinks out of his back that came from sitting too long and glanced out the kitchen window over the back yard. Fresh snow covered the ground and hung lightly on the tree branches like in a picture book. Indented lines of old footsteps crossed back and forth with a new path broken over them that led toward the bench under the trees. Courtney sat there alone. She was still in shock, Xander knew, that phase of knowing but not *knowing* in her heart that they were gone. Buffy or Dawn would go out and get her soon, the Slayer offering training and the teenager a chance to bake cookies or something. It was funny how much better they’d gotten at this, knowing when someone needed time alone and when they needed a distraction. But Xander didn’t smile because it really wasn’t funny at all.

“She still out there?” asked Willow, coming up behind him. He felt her move to just behind his right shoulder, not needing to look at her as he nodded. Willow was silent for a moment, then said, “the police in Colorado are still looking for her but don’t know you took her. They think she ran away.”

“Have they talked to her aunt and uncle?” asked Xander, slightly surprised.

“I don’t know,” said Willow softly. “They’re calling it a Christmas tree fire right now but the investigation’s still open.”

Xander nodded again. It was only a matter of time till the authorities figured out that she was in Cleveland, especially since they weren’t really making a secret out of it. Xander thought back over his impulse to have Courtney call her best friend. A stupid idea but at the time important. Important for her friend to have hope, and yeah, worry a lot, but at least know that she was alive. He wondered if Courtney had ever told her that she was a slayer. He knew she had gone out and hunted a few times, scared and alone but curious and excited about her new power coursing through her blood. She had staked a few fledglings and a minion or two, which had only served to get her noticed by the local posse. Who had then decided to let her know who was in charge.

“Why don’t we quit, Will?” Xander asked quietly. “Why don’t we just wake up one morning and walk away? Leave all the death and danger behind us and never look back?”

No answer, just white snow, pure and innocent, then, “Do you think you could?” Willow’s voice was soft. Xander didn’t answer. He didn’t need to because they both knew the answer was simply ‘no’. It was as much their destiny now as it had been Buffy’s, only theirs by choice.

“We should call the other girls,” he said instead. “Make sure they’re doing okay.” He turned away from the window and the bleakness outside. “Courtney’s relatives are coming. They should be here in a couple of days.”

“I’m going to leave soon to get Giles. You wanna come?” asked Willow. But Xander shook his head, the drive to the airport not appealing to his exhaustion. Willow smiled slightly and then left him to go get her shoes and coat. Xander went to the sitting room and collapsed on the couch. It was the twenty-third and felt nothing like Christmas. He was supposed to be getting back from Jack’s today, home from the vacation that wasn’t.

His last night there was a blur of smoke and worry, shadowed by distrust. Xander didn’t know what scared him more: the fact the Jack hadn’t denied working on a secret government project or his unwavering concern that seemed genuine. No one besides the Scoobies had ever cared so much about what was going on in Xander’s life or had even been worried that he might be doing something dangerous. How was he supposed to react to that? Telling him the truth didn’t seem like an option in light of the secret project, but then for all Xander knew it could be something as normal as an anti-terrorist bomb or something. A linguist would sure be useful there.

And in the back of his mind, Xander couldn’t help but think about what Murray had said, that Jack would stick by him no matter what. And the pleading on Jack’s face when he’d said the same thing. One more time. Jack had been saying it since they met that, that he was going to be a part of Xander’s life come hell or high water. So should he tell him? Was it caution or the cynicism born of being raised by drunks that was holding him back? Xander didn’t know the answer to either question. He just . . . didn’t know.

~*~

The first clue Xander had that something was wrong was the sound of birds screaming through his ear, shocking him into wakefulness. His second clue was the green glow that pervaded his and Andrew’s room, lighting it up slightly in some warped version of night vision goggles. He could barely make out the normally red numbers on his alarm clock – it was three o’ seven.

“Wha – what’s that noise?” groaned Andrew from the other bed. Xander could see him curled up against the softening sound.

“The wards have been breached,” Xander told him groggily, rolling out of bed. “Come on, get up.” Barely awake he simply reacted to this new threat and leaned over the foot of his bed to grab his favorite battleaxe and stake from where they lay on top of his toolbox. Behind him he heard Andrew hiss from the cold and scramble for his own stake. Two seconds later the two of them were out in the hallway – Andrew wrapped up in his bathrobe and Xander in his blue flannel pjs. They joined Giles at the end of the wall at the top of the stairs where they couldn’t be seen from the open foyer below. At the other end of the hall, also standing back from sight, were the girls who looked madder than hell that their beauty rest had just gotten interrupted. Willow was the only one missing.

But suddenly her voice was echoing inside Xander’s head. “There are eight of them just past the first ward,” she said. The first ward was at the edge of the lawn. Their cue that the second ward that was etched into the walls of the house had been crossed would be the return to darkness. “I think they’re human but they have guns and look military. Four are approaching the front door, four the back.” She was silent. “They’re not stopping at the light.” The soft green glow that illuminated the house was meant to scare away those who dared attack them.

“Kennedy, Giles, Willow, and Andrew, take position here,” ordered Buffy through Willow’s telepathic link. “Giles and Andrew hide downstairs. Wait till they all get inside then hit them. Kennedy, you and Willow will have to distract them enough so Giles and Andrew can get them from behind.” The younger slayer nodded confidently in understanding. “The rest of us will cover the back.” Without waiting, Buffy led them down the stairs to the kitchen and the back door, ducking and grabbing extra weapons along the way. Dawn she put in the hall bathroom to get at the first person through there, Xander got the spot just behind the dining room door in case they came through there, while Buffy and Courtney covered the kitchen, hiding behind the island counter.

“Courtney, are you ready for this?” he heard her ask the young slayer. “Remember, you’re stronger and faster. Don’t look at the gun; it’s doesn’t matter. You’ll knock it out of their hands before they can use it. Here, this is for you.” Whatever Courtney’s response was, it was too low for him to hear. For his part, Xander felt the rush of adrenaline even as the rest of him stood calm and relaxed, not thinking about anything but waiting for what came through his door.

And then the green lights went out. And it was so quiet you could hear a vampire breathe. He heard the back door creak open, slightly stuck in the cold, then felt the draft as it was opened. Footsteps, barely there and cautious. No voices or whispers, just the suggestion of sound. A minute passed, or it felt like a minute, but then the dining room door eased open, and Xander held his breath behind it, the swinging door sticking open. He heard the stranger enter but he didn’t move far, no more than a couple feet from where he hid. He was waiting for his fellows before moving on. The slight hiss of a radio and the soft whisper of “dining room clear. Leads to a living room.”

And then Kennedy said, “We’re ready,” and Buffy yelled, “Now!” all in his head. The soldier in front of him never knew what hit him. First it was the door, slamming into him as Xander emerged with a burst of energy, then it was the flat of his axe, taking advantage of his moment off balance.

In the kitchen he heard the sounds of guns clattering to the floor, and Dawn’s battle cry as she distracted the third who had never made it to the hall. In the foyer, crashing and thumping and an “Ow!” from Willow and a girly scream from Andrew and more sounds of slayer kicking butt and taking names. Xander rushed into the kitchen to give Dawn a hand. She was sword fighting her guy’s gun, mangled at the tip, only holding her own because her blade wouldn’t let him close. Xander came up from behind and banged him over the head, knocking him unconscious. Dawn just grinned and together they turned to watch the rest of the fight.

Buffy’s guy was down, a black lump laying wide eyed and shocked against the wall by the fridge. Buffy stared him down. He started to get back to his feet, slowly, painfully, but the Slayer was simply there before he was fully upright and punching him out.

And Courtney . . . Courtney was on fire. Smaller than Buffy, she fought with the Scythe like the slayer she was. Her guy had regained his gun but it was wrecked beyond usefulness until its only purpose now was to fend of the red weapon of the girl half his size. She couldn’t quite get past his guard, not using her full strength, months of holding back working against her as did her size, yet she was just that much quicker, that much ahead of each counter move he made. And suddenly she was there. She faked high and went with a low kick that knocked the soldier back into the wall. Xander winced when he heard the boards crack from the impact. He was down and out for the count. Courtney stared at him in wonder, her breath slowing quickly now that it was over. And silence reigned throughout the house.

Xander looked at the three unconscious soldiers on the floor, then up at the pajama squad, Buffy already searching out the duct tape, and felt a twinge of sympathy for the men when they woke up, but it quickly faded.

“Is that what it’s like?” Courtney broke the silence. She looked at Buffy with wide, amazed eyes, still holding the Scythe ready for battle.

The older slayer turned and nodded, a slight smile on her face. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s what it’s like.”

Courtney burst into tears. The Scythe slipped a bit in her grip but she never dropped it. Alarmed, Buffy turned to Xander, but before he could do anything Dawn was there, gently taking the weapon and handing it to her sister before gathering the girl into her arms murmuring nonsense.

“I’m gonna make some hot chocolate,” said Xander at large. Chocolate solved most problems and he figured that right now it was what everyone needed before even trying to process what had gone down here in the space of, he looked at the oven clock, twenty minutes.

He turned the lights on, and Buffy taped up hands and feet before gong off to check on the others. As he busied himself with the water and mugs and extra doses of chocolatey goodness – tea for Giles – Xander heard the others’ low voices as they decided to put their new prisoners in a corner of the basement in a containment field. Kennedy and Buffy dragged out the four from the kitchen. He heard Velcro rip and metal clank as the soldiers were stripped down to harmlessness then shuffled down the stairs. The scent of burned herbs mixing for the containment spell floated back up, such a natural part of the scene that Xander barely noticed. Everything was ready by the time they came back up.

Courtney and Dawn trailed in from the living room and they all clustered about the island counter. No one said anything, no one really looked at each other. Except for the odd stake or axe on the white surface it looked like they were at a slumber party. A really quiet and depressed slumber party. Xander decided he was too tired to think about it. In fact he was pretty sure that he was too tired to think at all. They drank their hot chocolate.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Dawn said softly, her voice catching in her throat at the unexpected use. Xander glanced over at her where she stood with her arm around Courtney still, a pensive expression on her face as she drained her mug. “We don’t have to do anything with them till after Christmas, right?” she asked hopefully. But the way she didn’t look up said she knew, like they all did, that dealing couldn’t wait.

“Are we still going to the mall tomorrow?” asked Andrew hesitantly. “Because I still need to get stuff . . . for people . . . since we didn’t go Tuesday . . .” he trailed off but Buffy smiled at him.

“And miss the holiday masses?” she asked a little too brightly.

“We need to go to the magic shop too,” added Willow. “So I can redo, you know, the protection spells.” She brightened up a little. “Oooh, and we can get more balsam branches for the hearth. And we forgot to find mistletoe the other day, too,” she gently whapped Kennedy on the arm for not reminding her before.

“Can’t forget about that mistletoe,” agreed Kennedy with her own gentle shove back. Xander smiled, watching as Willow grinned.

Silence fell once more but this time it was a little lighter. Until Buffy said, “Willow can you go get your very-truthful stuff?”

“Veritaserum,” Dawn corrected her quietly as Willow nodded and went to the dining room where it was kept.

“Veritaserum?” Courtney repeated. “Like in *Harry Potter*?” Dawn just beamed and looked smugly at the rest of them, extremely satisfied that another slayer had gotten the reference to the name she had given the truth drops.

“Yep,” said Dawn.

“Cool.” And for the first time a genuine smile eeked out of the corners of Courtney’s lips. The knowledge that the magic of books actually existed and was real finally sunk in in a way that her own power hadn’t yet.

Willow returned a second later with the very-stuff and handed it wordlessly to Buffy. The Slayer looked at the small vial expressionlessly for a moment before leading them to the living room where her guy sat tied to a chair, his head lolling on his chest. Xander wordlessly splashed half of the glass of water he’d grabbed into his face. The shock of cold water had the soldier sputtering back to consciousness. He looked around wildly, taking them all in as he yanked on the rope and tape that held him fast. His eyes that glared defiantly would have been so much more convincing if he hadn’t been so disoriented by the sight of a bunch of kids in pajamas.

Buffy took the glass from Xander and added a couple drops of the truth-maker-teller to the remaining water. “Drink this,” she shoved the glass in the soldier’s face while he yanked his head away. “Look, we can do this the easy way or the way with me holding your nose and forcing it down,” she told him impatiently. When he still made no move to accept she said, “Xander,” and he took the glass while she took the soldier’s head. A minute of snapping teeth and gagging later and they let him go.

“What the hell was that!?” he demanded, anger finally provoking him to speak. “And who the hell are you!?”

“Hey! Watch your language!” snapped Xander with a quick look at Courtney. “We’re the ones asking questions here.”

“You won’t get anything out of me,” the man practically growled.

“What’s your name?” Buffy calmly took over.

“Ethan Sloan. Captain. 0983745-8332.” Over by the couch Dawn was taking notes. “Where’s the rest of my team?”

Buffy ignored his question. “Why did you break into our house?”

“Orders.” Sloan looked unhappy that he had said anything at all. He was going to fight it. The potion only made someone tell the truth as they knew it, and it did allow a little wiggle room around inexact questions. Good thing Buffy was pretty direct.

“And what were your exact orders?” she asked with a little more steel in her voice. Oh, yeah, she was starting to get impatient. Sloan better start talking if he didn’t want the old fashioned Summers treatment.

“To extract Alexander Harris and hold him in a safe location until we received orders to release him.”

Everyone looked at Xander while he just stared at Captain Sloan. Him? They were after him? What the hell? He was of no value, no superpowers, no reason the government would be interested in him. “Why me?” he asked.

“I didn’t question my orders,” said Sloan with a disdainful glare. Right, soldier, don’t ask questions, just do as you’re told.

“Who do you work for?” asked Buffy.

“The NID.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a committee.”

“Commanding officer?”

“Colonel Howard.”

“Where are you stationed?” asked Willow.

“Brighton, Ohio.”

The questions went on but they didn’t learn much more than that besides the hotel they were working out of. Sloan only had his orders; he didn’t know any of the reasons behind them. Black ops trained, yes, but that only meant he and his teammates were highly specialized grunts.

It was about four am when Kennedy and Willow took him back downstairs with the others. Xander was too tired, the late hour and the stress finally making their presence known in the absence of adrenaline. He didn’t want to think right now about being a government target. It actually bothered him less than it should have, but that was probably because he was tired. More awake and he’d be freaking out about the implications. Nevertheless, it still took him a long time to fall asleep.

~*~

The next morning everyone slept in late. It was almost ten-thirty before Xander and Andrew dragged themselves out of bed and downstairs to the kitchen. Willow and Kennedy were already there making pancakes for everyone, and Giles sat off to the side reading the paper, cup of tea already in hand, looking more awake than necessary. But then, he was still jet lagged so it was no wonder he looked so chipper.

Xander contributed to breakfast by putting on the coffee while Andrew was a bit more productive with a skillet and ten eggs. It didn’t take too long for the aromas to rouse the other girls from their warm beds and not long after that they were all comfortably seated in the dining room chowing down on scrambles eggs and Mickey Mouse pancakes.

“So research all day?” asked Willow once the initial feeding frenzy calmed a little.

“Quite,” said Giles. “The sooner we find out why the government wants Xander the better. And we need to know how much they know about slayers.”

“We should probably contact Riley, too,” said Buffy. “See if the Initiative is behind this.” But she didn’t sound very convinced of that, and with good reason. The Initiative if anything, stayed out of their way, especially now that Riley seemed to be one of the top dogs of the program. In fact, his housewarming gift had been a check with a good six zeroes on it that had gotten them through the first year of traveling and training slayers. But it looked like the rest of the government hadn’t gotten the memo.

So why him? he wondered again. If the government wanted slayers, the only thing he was good for as a hostage was pissing them off. Besides, it would actually do no good because Willow would just magic him away, no problem, since military bases probably didn’t have a magical signature much less protection. And you didn’t hear about slayers without hearing about The Witch. So what was up with the Xander kidnapping? It only made sense if they didn’t know and if they didn’t know why were the attacking? Why would anyone care about just him?

And then it hit him like a punch to the gut, so hard that he forgot to chew and ended up choking on his eggs.

“Xander?” asked Dawn giving him a pat on the back while the others looked at him curiously.

“It could be Jack,” he said once he regained his breath. Though it still felt like his breath was coming in gasps because Jack wouldn’t, would he? “He works for a classified project. And he’s been . . . but I don’t think he’d try to kidnap me.” Jack was more the let’s-scream-at-each-other-until-we-settle-it type. He wouldn’t do something like this. He cared too much about wanting the father-son thing to work, surely he wouldn’t throw it all away to curiosity. But doubts flitted around in his head because, well, there were eight black ops soldiers in the basement.

“We’ll find out,” said Willow dangerously. And Xander was suddenly grateful, once again, that she was on their side. And God help Jack if he was behind this. But he wouldn’t be, would he? Xander desperately wanted him not to be. He wanted it to be some rogue group of the Initiative or something, anything other than Jack.

“So Willow and Dawn, you two okay for computer duty?” asked Buffy and the two nodded. “Me and Kennedy will go by their hotel room, see what we find there. Xander, you can get in touch with Riley? See what he knows?” Xander nodded. “Giles – ”

“I’ll help out here,” he said. “We need to reset the wards as well.”

“Okay. When Kennedy and I get back, we’ll go to the mall,” Buffy forced a smile that no one really returned.

“So should I make more pancakes?” asked Andrew, drawing Xander’s attention to the plate that held a remaining three. No one made any move to claim them, but before he could point out the obvious, Andrew went on, “for the prisoners, I mean . . . or we could starve them,” he suggested when he only received blank stares.

“I think I vote for the starving plan,” said Kennedy.

“Seconded,” said Dawn.

“So no pancakes?” asked Andrew. “And I don’t have to make Christmas dinner for them, do I? Because that, like, doubles what I was planning and I’d have to put on my kelvar and face the soccer mom’s at Kroger’s. That’d be like sending Neo against all the Agent Smiths and their kids. You’re not going to make me do that are you?” And Andrew looked so pathetic and terrified that Xander couldn’t help but grin at the thought of him fighting off a hundred housewives with a stick of bread.

“I think they’ll survive on pancakes,” Xander reassured him. No need to go out of their way for the bad guys. If they were anything but human . . . he sighed. Stupid morals.

Once everyone had finished eating, they broke up to go get dressed and get on with their assigned tasks. Willow and Dawn quickly took over the dining room table with their laptops and scramblers and other hacking equipment.

Xander grinned to himself when Courtney gummed up to Dawn, listening raptly as the young watcher explained how they were going to break into some of the most secure computers in the country. The girl had a bad a case of hero worship going on. Giles was in the kitchen with a book and supplies for the wards while Andrew did the dishes. Xander grabbed the phone and the official address book and started trying to track down Riley.

The day passed rather anticlimactically as research days often did. Xander ended up taking Andrew and Courtney to Home Depot with him while they were still waiting for Buffy and Kennedy to get back. He needed to fix the battered kitchen wall and part of the banister of the stairs that had gotten broken in the attack. Willow and Dawn were deep into their search for information – Willow having taken a quick break to do the protection spells with Giles – and barely noticed anyone else around them. Giles was actually helping them by organizing the scattered information they dug up and reading some dusty book when he wasn’t needed.

Xander had just started prying off the broken boards in the kitchen when the slayers returned with lots of nifty military toys but little useful information. Half an hour later they left for the mall and last minute shopping, mostly for Courtney. Xander made sure they stopped by the local magic shop on the way home.

The best magic shop in Cleveland was no Magic Box. The owner was a New Age “believer” with three kids and a love affair with incense who thought she sold nothing more than health crystals and herbs. Giles had a supplier up in Chicago who gave him discount prices on bulk orders on their more obvious magical supplies, but for basics and mistletoe, it was good enough.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wrapping presents and watching Christmas specials on TV. Xander worked on the kitchen wall, keeping both his hands and mind occupied. Willow and Dawn were still working, but from the mixed sounds that kept echoing form the dining room, they were making progress. Andrew fixed grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and distributed them with Christmas cookies to everyone scattered about.

“Xander?” he came up a few minutes after his initial pass. He held a plate of pancakes with red and green m&m smiley faces. “We should feed the evil army of darkness,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. But Xander just nodded, understanding. He set down his screwdriver and followed Andrew to the basement.

It was a large, finished basement that stretched under the whole house. The stairs opened into a den with couches and another TV. False cubicle-like walls partitioned off ‘rooms’ next to the real outer wall, each one containing two sets of bunk beds that housed slayers during the summer. There were two bathrooms at either end. The soldiers had been sealed in two of the rooms, one on each side of the green bathroom with a little strip outside the doors so they could walk between the two rooms and get to the facilities.

“Are you sure it’s just kids?” he heard one of them say from the room on the left.

“Yes,” another sighed, Sloan, and from the way he said it Xander could tell they’d been going over it all day long. “Kids in floral pajamas and bathrobes.”

“The girl who got me looked about ten,” said another glum voice.

“I still don’t believe it,” the first guy replied. And Xander felt a perverse set of pleasure that these government issued lethal weapons just got their asses kicked by a bunch of girls and dorks.

“Better believe it, buddy,” Xander called out crossing his arms across his chest, coming to a stop just beyond the invisible line. Silence from within, then all eight emerged crammed in the little space Willow had allowed them. None of them tried to push forward; they knew exactly where the bars of their cage lay. “Captain Sloan,” Xander nodded to the one he recognized.

“Mr. Harris,” Sloan acknowledged him tightly. “What do you want?”

Xander shrugged toward Andrew. “Though you might be hungry,” he said. Andrew shifted forward and pushed the plate of pancakes through the barrier, waiting nervously while Sloan just looked at it. “No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” Xander didn’t care one way or another and he turned to go.

He waited for Andrew to set the plate on the floor. “It’s not drugged or poisoned or anything,” said Andrew. “Just happy faces, see? And if you want milk or kool-aid, I think we have grape left . . . and, uh, well . . . Merry Christmas.”

The soldiers looked at each other then back at Andrew, unsure what to make of him or the pancakes, but when Xander glanced at them from the foot of the stairs, he saw Sloan pick up the plate and take it back inside with them.

Xander wondered if they had families waiting for them back home. And he remembered the look on Jack’s face, worried and scared. For him, not wanting him to be in danger, needing to understand. When he reached the kitchen, Xander grabbed the phone instead of his tools. But Jack wasn’t home.

~*~

“So the NID has two parts, good and bad. The bad part is what we’re dealing with and it has a lot of really secret projects,” said Willow later that night. It was around eleven and everyone was seated around the dining room table with a glass of wine except for Courtney who had purple kool-aid. “They recruit most of their agents from the military and what they all have in common is a somewhat flexible morality.”

“In other words, people who have no problems kidnapping an American citizen on Christmas Eve?” said Buffy.

“Pretty much,” Dawn nodded. “Anyway, we found Colonel Howard in Brighton and after a little computer magic – mine not Willow’s – we found the guy who gave him his orders from Washington. That guy, Kielly, oversees a project called Area 51 in Nevada.” Dawn paused and waited for a reaction. Which she got.

“Area 51?” repeated Andrew. “There’s really an Area 51? That is so cool!”

“You’re going to tell us aliens are real aren’t you?” asked Kennedy who was watching Willow who shrugged.

“It looks like a research center. Weapons and planes and stuff. There wasn’t any real stuff in the files we found. It was mostly administrative paperwork. No top secret anything was on the computers other than tell us it was top secret. We checked, even cheating,” she ducked her head about using magic.

“And these NID people are in charge of it?” asked Giles. “These weapons projects?”

“No,” Dawn jumped back in. “They just have their people there. Like spies. Kielly isn’t in charge of Area 51, he’s in charge of the rogue NID keeping an eye on it.”

“Like a KGB CIA office,” said Andrew.

“Sort of . But we don’t think Kielly was the top guy giving orders. But there’s no electronic trial to follow so we don’t know who the top guy is,” she gave her sister an apologetic glance.

“So what does this weapons stuff have to do with me?” asked Xander.

“Okay, so here’s where we really had to do some digging,” said Willow as if what they had already discovered was barely anything. “While we were poking around Area 51 we found invoices from an Area 52 but all we knew was that it’s another base somewhere. Then we started looking into Jack again and whatever he’s into. And we found out that he works at Area 52, which is run by the Air Force.”

“Wait,” Xander searched for words, sure he was making the wrong connections but . . . “You’re saying that Jack works at the place that’s sending weapons stuff to Area 51?”

“Yeah,” Willow answered. “We couldn’t find out much of what they do there. We think their sensitive computers are an isolated network like the ones at Area 51, but the ones that were hooked up to the internet had some interesting archeological stuff on them, which was kind of weird. Some of the cultures they were looking at are ancient.”

“And from all over the world,” added Giles. “South America, the Middle East, Europe, China, everywhere.”

“And they took us *forever* to get into,” said Dawn. “Even with Willow cheating.”

“It took me a while to figure out how I needed to get around some stuff,” the redhead blushed. “Whoever designed the system was *good,* really good, some of the best protection I’ve seen. Which just made it harder because you gotta be careful with the magic and technology mixing. That and we didn’t want them to know we were there.”

“So, this and Xander?” asked Kennedy to get them back to the point.

“Well, we’re not sure,” Dawn traced the edge of her wineglass with a finger. “When we went back to the NID computers the only stuff we had that connected was a file on Jack and some other people at Area 52. They don’t have anything else on the place really. It’s always referred to as Area 52 or Project Bluebook or the SGC but nothing on what it actually is. It’s like they don’t keep that info where hackers can get to it.”

“It’s probably all nice and neat in some hard copy somewhere,” Willow sighed.

“All right, so this it what we have,” said Buffy. “The people who want Xander spy on a place that gets weapons stuff from the place where Jack works. Do they spy on the 52 place too?”

“There aren’t any agents there,” Willow shook her head.

“So maybe that’s what they want,” said Andrew. “Agents there.”

“So why don’t they just put them there?” asked Courtney as if it were obvious, but Xander thought he saw what Andrew meant.

“Because maybe they can’t,” he said. “The Air Force has control of Area 52. If it’s so secretive that magic can only get us into the least dangerous computers, then maybe they don’t want people with stretchable morals in charge. Maybe it’s like when Riley joined us to stop Maggie Walsh only before Adam got made.”

“So the NID wants you so they can force Jack, your dad, to let them in,” finished Dawn. “That sounds like my life.”

“Jack wouldn’t kidnap me,” said Xander confidently now. And he realized that he was relieved by this alternate hypothesis. Greatly relieved. And at the same time pissed off that he’d gotten dragged into some government power struggle, especially now since the eight commandos knew that something was up with them.

How much time did they have before the government sent more people to find out what had happened to their people they had already sent? How did he tell Jack about the attack without him asking how they had defeated the team? He was already asking enough questions, and now he worked for a secret weapons project? But if Jack were preventing the NID people from taking over, then could he prevent them or others like them from getting their hands on the slayers?

“So what now?” asked Kennedy. “’Cause we can’t just keep eight commandos as pets.”

“Xander?” Buffy turned to him, open and waiting to follow his lead on this one.

“I’m gonna call Jack,” he said slowly. “He at least deserves to know about the NID. But he’s gonna have questions.”

“Perhaps we should treat him like any other parent,” suggested Giles watching Xander closely for any reaction. “Bring him here and explain things to him.”

“He works for a weapons project for the military,” Xander couldn’t help but say, though part of him wanted to do just that. “And you want to tell him about superpowerful girls fighting the forces of darkness?”

“You know him best,” Giles conceded. “But we’ll have to tell him something. And I’d much prefer it to be here where we can control the situation than in some other unsavory place.”

Xander knew he was right, especially with the rate at which Jack was noticing things. Jack kept saying he came first, right? Looked like now he would see just how far he was willing to go. Xander only hoped his gut feeling panned out, but at the same time he couldn’t help but wonder how well he really knew the man who was his father.

~*~

Jack stopped short when he entered the briefing room late in the afternoon on Christmas Day. He and SG-1 had just gotten back from their recon mission two hours ago and he had thought that the holiday couldn’t get any worse, but here was worse standing in front of him in the form of Kinsey’s aide all dressed up in a suit and tie. General Hammond did not look happy. No sir, not happy at all.

“Ah, Colonel O’Neill, Merry Christmas. It’s nice to see you again,” the aide whose name Jack had not remembered the first time they had met smiled cheerily.

“The pleasure’s all yours, I’m sure,” Jack answered with a not so sunny smile of his own. His feet regained the ability to walk and he went and sat in his customary chair by the General. His team followed flickering looks back and forth amongst themselves, asking each other what new crap was about to hit the fan.

“Charming as usual,” said the aide.

“Mr. Freyland has a proposal for us from Vice-President-elect Kinsey,” said General Hammond. Who was still as far away from happy as a suicider.

“Oh?”

“Mr. Kinsey feels that you have served your country well over the last several years and deserve a nice rest,” Freyland smiled condescendingly. “I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to retirement, Colonel.”

“I have, have I?” Jack couldn’t believe this. Kinsey couldn’t force him into retirement. Who did he think he was?

“How is your son doing, Colonel?” asked Freyland. “I understand he lives in Cleveland?”

Jack’s blood ran cold. “You son of a bitch!” Jack was on his feet and only Daniel’s quick reflexes kept him from jumping the table and throttling the smug bastard on the other side of the table.

“Mr. Freyland,” Hammond began but the slime cut him off smoothly.

“General I believe your family is missing you today as well. Colonel, I’m sure you would like to talk to your son. Here’s the number.” He slid a piece of paper across the table to him. “I’ll be here tomorrow to pick up those papers.” And with another smug smile, he left.

“General – ” said Jack, shaking off Daniel’s hands.

“Use my office,” Hammond told him.

Jack practically ran and grabbed the phone, his fingers fumbling over the numbers while his mind skipped over any number of horrible things that could be happening to Xander at this moment. Dial tone, then an automated message informing him that the number he had called did not have a voice mailbox that was set up. Which brought Jack up short because that wasn’t how these things worked. Something was seriously wrong here. Had Freyland given him the wrong number? But that didn’t seem likely because that’s not how these people worked. They wanted you to know that they had your son in their possession and that they could and would do anything to him to get your cooperation. They didn’t send cocky young aides to bluff.

Maybe someone on the inside was helping him out? Jack dialed his home voicemail. Please let there be someone helping him out. He couldn’t think about what else a silent phone might mean. “There are . . . five . . .new messages,” said the recording. “To listen to your messages press one.” Jack did so. “First message. Eight thirty-six pm, yesterday: Hey Jack, it’s me,” his son’s voice took over. He sounded normal, like nothing was wrong. “I just . . . um . . . Merry Christmas, Jack. Just wanted to . . . you know, tell you. I guess that’s it. Bye.”

Not kidnapped then, thought Jack as he punched through to the next message. “Second message. Eleven twenty-two pm, yesterday: Jack, it’s me,” his son’s voice again but less unsure. Jack felt a little tension creep away. “Look . . . we need to talk. So call me.”

Talk. He sounded serious but not frightened or anxious. That was last night. He was okay last night. “Third message. Six oh-three am, today: Jack, where the hell are you?” And Xander was not happy. But still not scared. “It’s Christmas morning. Aren’t you supposed to be up by now? I really need to talk to you. Like yesterday. Call me.”

That was this morning. Safe and angry at him for not answering. “Fourth message. Eight forty-one, today: Jack,” Xander’s voice was agitated. “If I said I’ve got eight NID agents in my basement would you give me a call?”

Jack’s heart stopped. He didn’t just say . . . He replayed the message and established that he wasn’t hearing things. How the hell did Xander get eight NID agents in his basement? He played the final message. “Fifth message. Two fourteen, today: So I get it, you’re not home. Probably off eating chicken or something. Did you get my last message? Cause they’re still there, and we’re running out of pancake mix. We really need to talk.”

Stunned, Jack returned to the briefing room. His teammates and General Hammond all stopped talking and looked at him. “So Xander’s safe,” he said with a calm that he did not feel. “And apparently he has eight NID agents in his basement.”

“Eight – ”

“NID agents in his basement,” Jack finished Daniel’s sentence. “Sir, I know we’ve got a lot going on here but request permission – ”

“Granted,” said General Hammond. “And take SG-1 with you. I understand he’s your son, but please remember that there are issues of national security at stake. The higher ups . . .”

“Understood, sir,” Jack nodded. He turned to his team who were still surprised by the news, even Teal’c’s eyebrows seemed higher on his forehead then usual.

“And Colonel, I want to know how your son was able to subdue eight specially trained operatives,” said the General. He nodded again before determinedly leaving with his team. Jack wanted to know too. And he was sure as hell going to find out.

Chapter Text

Jack shut the engine off and looked at the house in trepidation. It was covered in snow with Christmas lights in the trees and a wreath on the front door like every other house on the block in the quiet neighborhood. The early morning light reflected brightly off of everything as if nothing were wrong, making the whole situation feel surreal. It was just after eight, December twenty-sixth, and Jack couldn’t help but feel very tired.

Honestly, he didn’t know what to expect. His phone call to Xander last night had been terse and to the point. His son hadn’t wanted to discuss anything over the phone, just requested that he come and offered to pick him up from the airport, but that hadn’t been necessary. Jack and his teammates had flown cargo out of Peterson late last night and been issued an SUV at the base about forty miles outside of Cleveland. And here they were. Jack felt a strong revulsion to going inside because that would mean that this was really happening and Xander really had gotten pulled into his dangerous world.

“Jack,” Daniel prodded from the backseat. Jack nodded and sighed. Knowing there was no other choice, he got out of the car. The path to the front door was clear and sprinkled with salt that crunched beneath their feet. Daniel found the doorbell easily enough beside him when they reached the top step, and it was only a minute before Dawn answered the door.

“Jack!” she said, clearly surprised to see him there so early. “And friends,” equally startled by the three additional people.

“Hey, Dawn,” Jack greeted the young woman. She was still in her floral print pajamas with heavy socks covering her feet.

“We thought you were coming later,” she said, stepping back to let them in.

Everything looked just the same as Jack remembered except for the decorations and the stack of wood that sat by the staircase waiting to repair the damage to the banister. The sight of it was an unpleasant reminder that all was not well. Off to the left, Jack heard the TV from the den.

“Everyone else is still asleep except for Courtney and Giles. They should be up soon though. Jackets and snow boots off,” Dawn pointed to the coat rack next to the door and the rows of shoes underneath. Once they wouldn’t spoil the carpet, she led them around to the den. A modest sized Christmas tree sat in the corner and wrapping paper still seemed to cling to everything. Decorations of every kind were on every available surface, from cute plastic elves to a Menorah to odd wooden carvings and candles. The little girl Xander had brought to his house barely a week earlier sat curled up under an afghan on the couch watching cartoons, and nearby Rupert Giles sat in an armchair with a book. Both looked up when they entered the latter getting slowly to his feet to greet them.

“Colonel O’Neill,” the Englishman offered his hand after a moment, which Jack shook briskly. He looked curiously at the others behind him.

“Ah, Rupert Giles, I’d like you to meet some colleagues of mine. Major Carter, Dr. Jackson, and Murray.” Giles shook each of their hands with a polite smile as if visitors at eight in the morning the day after Christmas were completely normal.

“A pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I’m afraid the others aren’t awake yet.”

“That’s what Dawn said,” Jack nodded toward the teenager who was coolly looking over his team. Carter and Daniel both shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny while Teal’c simply lifted an eyebrow in her direction. Dawn, Jack was surprised to see, met him stare for stare.

“I can go wake them up,” Dawn told them after a distracted second. “Though you will so owe me for this,” she said turning from Teal’c to Giles. The older man merely nodded, a pensive look on his face while she disappeared.

“Would you like some tea or coffee?” he offered.

“Coffee would be great,” Daniel spoke up, and Giles nodded and went to the kitchen leaving the four of them alone with Courtney and the cartoons. Jack turned to his teammates to see what they thought of things so far. After a quick exchange of silent guess-we-wait-and-see looks, Daniel, predictably, wandered over to the bookshelf by the tree and Teal’c over to the collection of movies. A statue of a naked woman with tree branches extending from her outstretched arms and hair, her feet melding into roots – and plastic miniature ornaments on every branch that clearly had not come with the statue – had caught Carter’s eye and now Jack’s. He remembered Xander saying something about how Willow was sort of pagan.

“It’s an Earth symbol,” Courtney surprised them both by saying. She was watching them look at the statue with clear eyes and an empty expression. “Willow says it’s to remind us that we’re part of the Earth and the Earth is part of us.”

“And the ornaments?” Jack couldn’t help but ask, flicking a small plastic snowman with his finger.

“They represent our culture,” said Courtney. “Since our culture’s part of who we are, it’s part of the Earth too. I think it looks pretty.” Jack personally thought it looked tacky, but who was he to argue? He was about to make some bland comment about it for conversation’s sake but Courtney beat him too it. “Thanks for letting me stay over that time,” she said. “I know you were kind of mad about it.”

“I wasn’t mad,” Jack interrupted. She watched him with that beguiling stare of the young and suddenly Jack didn’t know how to explain. “Just . . . surprised.” Surprised, confused – and Jack still didn’t know what had been going on, what was still going on. “I’m sorry about your house,” he said, remembering it had burned. The sudden welling of tears in Courtney’s eyes only confirmed why she was here and not with her own family. Another thing Jack was going to grill Xander about when he got down here.

“Did you get anything good for Christmas?” asked Carter in an effort to distract Courtney, who smiled weakly and nodded in return. Jack listened halfheartedly while she and Carter chatted Harry Potter books and clothing. The unsettled feeling was back and with it impatience. Jack just wanted to get to the answers right now. Enough of this waiting and wondering. He stood to pace off some of his sudden energy but luckily Giles returned with a coffeepot and four mugs before he drove everyone nuts.

Giles set about pouring but Jack didn’t really notice because just then Xander walked in with Dawn and her sister Buffy. His son had taken time to pull on jeans and a sweatshirt though his hair was still tousled from sleep. Dawn too had changed; she and Buffy were both in the same kind of casual warm clothes meant for hanging around the house, but Jack only noticed them peripherally.

“Jack.”

“Xander.”

“Busy holiday?”

“Yeah,” Jack didn’t know what to say to the penetrating stare that wanted to know why he’d been absent on Christmas Day. “So you had some visitors?” he asked lightly to open up the subject.

“Yeah,” Xander nodded, breaking eye contact and looking over Jack’s shoulder at the others. “And I see you brought friends.”

“Yes,” Giles interrupted the tense atmosphere. “Xander, why don’t you and Jack go talk in the sitting room. And Dawn you might want to clean up the dining room a little bit so we can eat in there later?” He lifted his eyebrows and Dawn’s eyes opened wide and darted to Jack before she hurried off. Great, more secrets, thought Jack, wondering just what it was they were hiding in the dining room. And he was tired of it all. Just tired of double talk and silence, and he was sick of doing this by their rules.

“Why don’t we just talk here,” he suggested instead, anger held in check. “You all know what’s going on. We’re all going to find out. Let’s just get it in the open right here.” He looked from Giles to Xander, challenging either one to disagree. He wasn’t disappointed.

“This is between you and me right now,” said Xander. And the uncertainty Jack saw in Xander’s face for one unguarded moment decided him. Remembered words from that awful night – people to protect, don’t trust who you work for . . . The conflicting mysteries hadn’t added up to anything he or his team could figure out on the flight over. But whatever it was, it was important to Xander, something that he didn’t trust the government with – which actually scared Jack. And it looked like Xander was about to tell him anyway.

“All right,” Jack agreed. He exchanged a look with his team, but none of them protested, only nodded in understanding. So Jack followed Xander to the sitting room where they had first talked on that summer day half a year ago. He felt like he was meeting his son for the first time again, which he supposed he was in a way.

“So,” he said, once they were seated opposite each other, the door firmly closed behind them. “You really have eight NID agents in your basement?”

Xander nodded, unsmiling. “Yeah. I’ll take you down later.” He looked down at his hands then back up. “So, this isn’t how I normally do this,” he said. “But with the NID wanting something from you, and me being a convenient target, and me being Mr. North America to people that the government would probably like to experiment on, all adds up to bad.”

“Xander,” Jack closed his eyes briefly, wondering just how he did it, “one more time. In English. With coherent sentences.”

“I need to know that what I’m about to tell you won’t get passed on to your CO or anyone else where you work,” said Xander sitting up and leaning forward so his elbows rested on his knees. “I’m telling you because you’re my father and if we keep seeing each other you’re going to find out anyway.”

“I’m going to have to tell my team,” said Jack after a moment. “Daniel, Carter, and Murray. I’ve told them enough already, but you can trust them.” Xander didn’t look too surprised by that; he probably had suspected it the moment he saw SG-1 in the den with Jack. “And I have to tell my CO.”

“Jack – ”

“You remember General Hammond?” Jack spoke over him, raising a hand to ward off protest. “Yesterday we got an ultimatum from some people who want control over our project,” he said carefully. Xander deserved to know after all, since they had tried to use him as a pawn. A part of Jack was perversely proud that his pawn had teeth.

“The NID.”

“No, they just used the NID,” said Jack. “They gave me a number to call, where you were supposedly. The phone was off and then I got your messages. Hammond was there for that and wants answers as much as I do.”

“Then I don’t know if I can tell you,” said Xander.

“You can trust Hammond,” said Jack. “He’s a good man and one of the best commanders I’ve had. Ever. I can promise it won’t go beyond the five of us.”

“That’s reassuring,” Xander’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “And how do I know once you find out that you won’t go ‘hey, I bet we could use these people to make better soldiers.’”

“Xander!” said Jack exasperated. “I don’t know what you’re talking about – obviously, since you refuse to tell me anything – but General Hammond told you every embarrassing story about me that he could remember. Do you really think that he’s the type of man that would hurt innocent people just so we could get better soldiers?”

Xander looked surprised by this outburst but remained silent and wary. Frustrated, Jack went on, trying to get him to see that the government and the military were not always the evil people he took them for.

“I know there are people like that, but we’ve been fighting those kinds of people who want to force me into retirement for years. And we don’t let them win, no matter what. And on top of that, I wouldn’t let Hammond do anything that would endanger you or whoever you’re protecting because you’re my son and that’s my job as your dad!”

Xander didn’t move or say anything, just stared with that same unreadable expression and Jack couldn’t tell whether that was good or not. “Look,” he said self-consciously, “all I need to tell him is how you managed to beat off eight NID. Beyond that . . .”

“They wanted you to retire?” asked Xander, finally speaking.

“Yeah,” said Jack. “They forced Hammond out once and we had to blackmail them to get him reinstated. Thought they’d use you to get me out of the way this time. Might have worked, too.”

“Oh. Kind of anticlimactic,” Xander relaxed back into the couch, and Jack heaved an internal sigh of relief. “Okay,” he looked directly at Jack who met his one-eyed stare evenly. “I don’t know how much you can avoid telling your CO. I’ll leave that up to you, and so help you if you double cross me.” He paused, dead serious, and waited for Jack’s equally solemn, “You have my word.”

“All right,” Xander began. “So this is the part where I tell you that demons and vampires and all sorts of ugly evil things are real. And then you say ‘no, that’s crazy,’ and want to have me locked up but can’t figure out a way to do it since I’m over twenty-one and my psyche test is clean. Then I say ‘yes, they are,’ and you yell and scream, then I prove it, and you go into shock over the whole deal until finding refuge in ‘okay, it’s real’ but not really believing it until you almost get eaten.”

Jack though about it for a minute then voiced the only response he could come up with. “What?” Because Xander didn’t just say what he thought he had, had he? Demons? Vampires? All sorts of ugly evil things?

“Jack,” Xander sat forward again with no grin or glint in his eye that suggested that he might be joking. “The world is far creepier than you ever thought possible. Every myth and urban legend you’ve ever heard is probably true including and especially the monsters part. They’re real. Vampires, werewolves, things you’ve never even dreamed of that are looking for a nice human snack in the middle of the night when you’re out walking your dog.”

“I don’t have a dog,” said Jack absently, still trying to absorb what Xander was trying to say.

“Fine. Cat. Whatever,” Xander brushed it aside. “The point is, it’s real and it’s out there, and we’re the front, middle, and last line of defense.”

Demons? Vampires? All sorts of ugly evil things? Jack was still stuck on that part. “So when you asked me if I believed in vampires – ”

“I meant actual vampires,” said Xander.

“Not a metaphor for something normal like drugs or terrorism?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Actual vampires. “Okay.” And demons. “I can accept that.” And all sorts of ugly evil things. Because, hey, went to other planets and fought aliens on a daily basis. Sure, no problem. “Except for the fact that it’s completely insane!” Jack snapped out of his initial shock getting to his feet suddenly. Because, hey, fought aliens on a daily basis. He would have known about alien-like things on his own planet, he thought angrily. The SGC got wind of everything weird that went on, thank you very much.

“The reason Dawn picked you up from the airport on Thanksgiving was because the rest of us were at a deserted YMCA stopping a ritual massacre,” Xander went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “I got cut that cut on my arm and Willow got those scratches during the fight. You didn’t see all the bruises down my side from getting thrown into a wall. And the fish in the soup didn’t have eyes because we needed them for the potion that would disrupt the ritual.”

“Potion?” Vampires, demons, ugly evil things, and now potions? It was just . . . “Xander, are you even listening to yourself?” Jack asked. He couldn’t believe this, though he remembered the soup well enough. “You’re talking about fairy tale stuff!”

“No, I’m talking about my life.”

That simple statement brought Jack up short mid rant because Xander was not smiling. And instead of looking frustrated or bothered about not being believed, he just looked . . . like this was a normal reaction that would eventually pass. For some reason that just made Jack angry, like he was the one coming up with wild stories and talking out of his ass when it was the other way around. Because what did vampires or demons or whatever have to do with having eight NID agents in Xander’s basement?

“I’m getting to that,” said Xander, annoyance creeping into his voice, and Jack realized he had practically yelled the question.

“Let me guess, they’re vampires,” Jack bit out caustically. Part of some delusion that because they were bad men they must be quote-unquote evil.

“If they were vampires, they’d be dead, you wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Xander informed him evenly. “The NID guys are here because of whatever *you* do, not me, so don’t go blaming them on us.”

“Fine,” said Jack tersely. “So explain it to me. What do ‘vampires’ have to do with the NID?”

“So, we’ve established that there are creatures of pure evil in the world – ”

“So you claim.” Jack couldn’t believe he was listening to this. Couldn’t believe Xander, his calm, rational, sometimes funny son who worked at Home Depot was talking to him about vampires. The surrealism of this whole conversation was unreal.

“ – who like nothing better than to eat humans and end the world,” Xander ignored Jack and his seething comment.

“Still here, though aren’t we.”

Xander nodded reasonably. “Because in opposition to the bad guys are the slayers.”

“Slayers?” Jack asked at this new word. That hardly sounded reassuring to know there were a bunch of people called ‘slayers’ who went around ‘slaying’ monsters. “That’s where you come in? You’re one of these ‘slayers’?”

Xander actually smiled at that, a hovering self-deprecating smile accompanied by a shake of the head. “No,” he said. “Slayers are girls. Properly known as vampire slayers since they’re what they kill the most of.”

“Teenage girls.” Jack didn’t like where this was leading.

“Chosen by whatever mystical force chooses slayers,” Xander nodded. “Sometime during puberty.” Puberty. Courtney’s age. Memories of thirty girls crowded into the house over the summer. Self defense camp he’d called it then. Before Jack could respond, Xander went on. “When they’re called, slayers get superhuman strength, speed, reflexes. Basically you put them in a normal fight and they’ll win. Against vampires and demons, you even the playing field.”

“Teenage girls,” Jack said again, this time for clarity. “Superheroes against the monsters? You do know how ridiculous this sounds, right?”

“Jack, would you just hear me out?” Xander was now exasperated with him. “I know you don’t believe me right now, all right? I get that. But you wanted to know what the big secret was and I’m telling you.”

“Secret?” Jack asked incredulously. “This is the secret? This is why you left in the middle of the night without a goodbye? Because of ‘vampires’?”

“Yes,” Xander glared at him defiantly. “You wanted the truth – ”

“What truth?” snapped Jack angrily, his words loud in his own ears. Of all the . . . He spun and loomed angrily over Xander who glowered up at him from his seat on the couch. “You’re talking about god damned vampires, for crying out loud! You still don’t trust me enough to tell me what’s really going on!”

“The only reason I’m telling you is *because* I trust you, Jack!” Xander stood now, too, forcing Jack to take a step back. His single brown eye practically burned in its socket.

“You call this trust?!” Jack yelled back. “You tell me you have eight NID agents in your basement – who I have yet to see proof of – then start talking about vampires and little girls who kill them. This is not a game, Xander, and I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I want answers and I want them now! How the hell did you capture eight highly trained NID agents?”

“They came, they tripped the wards, the got their asses knocked unconscious by three slayers and the rest of us. I hit mine over the head with an axe,” said Xander.

His words froze Jack’s next retort on his lips, a dozen emotions rushing through him. Anger, hurt, but most of all disappointment in Xander for thinking he would take this cooked up explanation as the truth. And trust? They didn’t have that. They didn’t have anything, he saw now. Just more lies on top of happy small talk about nothing. It was all a joke, just another laugh for the universe at his expense.

“I want to see the NID agents,” said Jack softly in his command voice, the one that even Daniel listened to on occasion. The one that went with the closed off, cold glare he was now giving his son like he was some young airman who didn’t know who he was messing with.

But Xander glared back just as stubbornly, not giving an inch. “No,” he said. “Not until you hear me out and see my proof.”

“Proof that vampires exist?” asked Jack sarcastically, admiring Xander’s tenacity if nothing else.

“Proof that slayers exist,” Xander corrected him. “We don’t keep vampires around,” he added in a ‘duh’ tone.

“Of course not.”

“You want proof or not?” Xander ignored the sarcasm.

“Fine,” Jack sighed, his curiosity piqued in spite of himself. “This I gotta see.” How was Xander going to prove the existence of slayers, get one the girls to kill a hamburger?

Xander went to the door and called for Buffy who came in a moment later with a four-by-four piece of wood. She smiled cheerily at Jack who simply watched her suspiciously.

“I take it you’ve filled him in on the basics?” Buffy asked Xander.

“Happy in denial-land,” was his response. Buffy nodded, glancing back at Jack and assessing the false smile he sent her way.

“Forgive me if I expected an actual explanation for everything,” he said sickly sweet.

Buffy just handed him the beam and said, “try to break it in half,” at which Jack lifted his eyebrows. She had to be kidding. The beam was solid wood about four feet long and splintered at one end as if someone had broken it. He ran his hands over the wood but neither felt nor saw any cracks along its length. He gave it an experimental twist with his hands but nothing gave. Hell, Teal’c would have a hard time putting a dent in it.

“Don’t tell me. You’re going to break it,” he said, handing it back to her. Buffy was a small woman who couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred twenty pounds, and he felt that was pushing it. She accepted the four-by-four confidently however, gripped it at either end – and snapped it in half with a simple jerk as if it were no more than a banana.

Jack blinked and accepted the two new pieces of wood that Buffy handed back to him. Okay, that was impressive, he conceded. Impressive and . . . wow. She had just broken practically a log in half with her bare hands. And okay, he didn’t see the trick because it looked like there was no trick. And just how the hell had she done that?!

He looked up at his son and Buffy who both were waiting for a reaction but Jack didn’t know what to say. Or think for that matter. If this had happened in the briefing room, he probably would have believed it with only a minimum of bad jokes and reassurance from Frasier that she wasn’t snaked. But Buffy wasn’t snaked; neither Carter nor Teal’c had sensed anything. And Buffy had just broken a four-by-four in half with her bare hands. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? And where did a girl her size get that kind of strength from anyway?

“Show off,” he finally said, earning him a relieved grin from Xander and a wry, so-sue-me smile from Buffy.

“Yep, three ring circus, that’s me,” she said. “Except without the rings and hoops of fire though I can do those too. Jump through them, I mean. And, only one me instead of three . . . but you probably figured that one out.”

Jack looked up at her from the splintered wood and she abruptly stopped talking. Did they have lessons in how to confuse people with words? Granted, Jack didn’t understand a lot of what Daniel or Carter spouted off, but he at least was comforted by the fact that somewhere someone did.

“Jack, meet the Slayer,” said Xander, and something in the way he said it put capital letters around the word.

“Of vampires,” Jack asked looking again from the split wood to the blonde and back. “And demons and other ugly evil things?” This was not happening, he told himself. He was not about to accept this. But damn it, he was, against his will like catching a cold he swore he was never going to get.


“Whose slime never gets out of your clothes,” Buffy added, which only made Jack think of the biohazard hampers in the locker room on base.

“So those NID agents – ”

“Never stood a chance,” she finished.

“And those wards you mentioned?” he looked at Xander questioningly

“Magical alarm system. Set off on the lawn.”

Three really powerful girls and a magical alarm system. And vampires and stuff Jack really could have done with knowing less about. He should have been yelling again or something, anything but this sudden calm. Oh, hell. Hammond was never going to believe this. He could see his report now: Went to Cleveland to investigate botched kidnapping of son. Agents ambushed by barely legal residents. Agents beaten into submission by girls. Egos badly bruised.

“So you want to see them?” asked Xander not needing to specify who. Still stunned, Jack followed him to the basement stairs, where Buffy left them for the kitchen and the smells of breakfast, and followed Xander down.

It was a nice set up and obviously where the . . . slayers, he tried out the new word, stayed for their summer training. The TV had been moved in front of the back two rooms where sure enough four men in black gear sat on the floor before it, backs to the false wall. All four stood when they approached, one poked his head around a door and summoned the others from inside. And Jack saw that while there was nothing holding them back none of them moved any closer.

“Harris,” one of them said coolly, and Xander nodded to them. But all eyes were on Jack, the stranger, though none of them seemed to recognize him.

“How are you keeping them restrained?” he asked lowly.

“Upstairs,” was his son’s short reply. He didn’t want them to know. A good precaution given what he’d told Jack. The rogue NID cells were among those who wouldn’t hesitate about experimenting on Buffy or any of the other slayers given half a chance.

He followed Xander back upstairs and back into the sitting room and listened as his son explained that by mixing a little bit of this and a little bit of that and saying a few words you could effectively make a one way force field to keep things from getting out while still being able to send things like food and remote controls in. It didn’t sound like there was much to it. In fact, it sounded pretty damn useful, but he kept that comment to himself.

“So that’s it,” said Xander when he finished. Once more he was leaning forward, elbows on knees with his hands loosely clasped between them. A thousand questions stuttered through Jack’s mind but he didn’t know where to start – didn’t know if he wanted to know the answers, like how Xander had gotten involved and what exactly it was that he did now. But most of all what held him back was still a bad case of skepticism, because even though he’d seen it, he wasn’t ready to just believe it yet. He smiled privately: this from a man that had a TV character based on him.

“Is that a good smile or a bad smile” Xander broke in on his thought, a little of the wary puppy creeping into his expression.

“An I-don’t-know-what-to-think smile,” Jack replied. He held up a hand to stop whatever Xander was going to say. “I think I need to talk to my team,” he said.

Xander let go his breath and nodded then got to his feet. Jack followed him out to the den where Teal’c was watching cartoons with Courtney right in front of the TV and Daniel and Carter were chatting with Dawn, though it looked like Daniel was doing most of the talking.

Giles and Buffy had disappeared, presumably to the noisy and aromatic kitchen. It took a moment for them to register their presence in the room, and Jack took the time to really look at the two girls lounging around like normal girls on vacation. He wondered if they were the other two slayers of the house, if they went out and fought vampires and knew how to kill them. If they could cast spells. Watching Courtney watch the animated adventures of pink and green sketches with a distracted expression as unchanging as Teal’c’s, he wondered why her house had burned down.

“Dawn,” Xander’s voice disturbed the scene, pulling the teenager’s attention from Daniel’s story to him. “Can you drive me to work?” he asked, making Jack turn to him in surprise. He’d forgotten all about that. Dawn nodded and got to her feet, brushing past Jack as she and Xander left the room. “I’ll be home around five,” said Xander in parting. SG-1 turned to Jack.

“We need to talk.”

~*~

“So explain to me again that thing you were talking about,” was the first thing Xander asked once he and Dawn were safely out the door. The chill wind felt good against Xander’s face as they headed for the car.

“What thing?” Dawn frowned in thought.

“The file thing you were spouting before I was awake when you woke me up.”

“Oh, that,” Dawn nodded now. She slid into the driver’s seat while Xander went around to the other side of the car. He waited patiently while Dawn focused on the ignition, heat, and backing out of the driveway, but once they were on the street and moving forward she continued. “Daniel Jackson and Sam Carter’s files were in the NID computers too, along with another person called Teal’c. There weren’t any photos but I remembered the names because they were in the same folder as Jack’s file.”

“Did you read them?” he asked.

“No, not yet,” Dawn replied. They turned onto the main road out of their sleepy neighborhood. “Though I don’t know how much it will tell us. Jack’s was pretty vague. All this stuff about projects he’s thwarted. If they played darts I bet his picture would be on the dart board.”

Xander was comforted by that news that Jack was not a part of the lets-attack-on-Christmas party. “Did they say what projects?”

“They were only listed by designation. Stupid smart spies,” she grumbled this last. Xander gave her a quick glance at her frustration, marveling at how she’d grown up following in both Giles’s and Willow’s footsteps. Their better footsteps, he amended.

“How did telling him go?” she asked.

“By the book,” said Xander his mind jumping tracks from Dawn to Jack. As there were four stages of grief, there were four stages of learning about the dark and nasty underbelly of the world. Jack was still in stage three of conditional acceptance but not complete belief. “He was a little calmer about Buffy than I thought he’d be, but he’ll deal okay when it sinks in, I think.”

“What he’d say about the NID?”

“We didn’t get that far. He wanted to tell the others first, so I figure we’ll have a big happy talk tonight.”

“Should I get ice cream?”

“Dawn, do the words ‘strapped for cash’ mean anything to you?”

“You have a job,” she retorted.

“Which covers normal groceries for eight people and now eight honored guests,” Xander shot back.

“We’re only feeding them pancakes.”

He ignored her. “Which leaves little things like water, electricity, heat, and all the extra stuff for Christmas including Courtney’s new stuff and the emergency plane tickets –”

“Okay, okay, sheesh,” Dawn interrupted Xander’s long litany of just exactly where all the money went. “We’re not that bad off are we?”

“No,” Xander admitted. “But unless Giles gets things straightened out soon in England it’s gonna get pretty tight.” Winning access to Council accounts was turning out to be a long, slow process that yielded money in fits and bursts. So far they’d only gotten the small potatoes, but come summer training they would need gigantic faire sized potatoes. “It won’t be so bad once everyone goes off in January,” he added referring to the end of the four-month visit from Buffy, Willow, Kennedy, and, though he’d been in and out, Giles. They were needed in other parts of the world and at the Council meeting after Thanksgiving they’d each chosen a continent to start in.

Xander wasn’t happy to see them go. It was like they were finally splitting apart after practically a lifetime together, and for him and Willow it was. Sure they’d have Christmas and other holidays, but Xander knew it wouldn’t be the same. They’d have their stories of their own slayers and slayer schools while Xander had his with Dawn and Andrew and Vi and Diana. And then Dawn would leave next year and then the older slayers would go off and new ones would come guard the hellmouth until they destroyed this one too. Or it destroyed them. Slayers would die and be chosen and he would be there helping, training, guiding, and it would never end, this fight against all that tried to hurt humanity. Cheery thoughts. Barely twenty-three and Xander already felt like an old man.

“So what were you guys talking about in there?” he asked to distract himself.

“History stuff,” Dawn answered. “Daniel asked about school and we started talking about college. I told him I was interested in a good language program and he just started talking. He said I should look for places with good exchange programs too because living in another country is the best way to learn. So that means I should go visit Buffy a lot. And Willow and Faith and whoever gets China.”

Xander smiled at this obvious maneuvering, having no doubt that Dawn would travel widely over the next couple of years.

“Anyway,” she went on, grinning too, “then we started talking about places he’s been. You know he was born in Egypt? He’s an archeologist now and did the teaching thing before he went to work for the military. His specialty’s Egypt, obviously, but I get the feeling that he’s pretty up on every other ancient culture too, but that’s just a hunch.”

Xander was impressed that she had gotten that much information out of one relatively short conversation. “Any other deep dark secrets come to light?” he asked teasingly.

Dawn shrugged. “He’s cute.”

“Oh, I so did not hear you just say that.”

“What? He is. Even you should be able to see that.”

“Please don’t tell me you have a crush on him.”

“Me? Come on, Xander. He may be cute but he’s still old.”

“And since when has that stopped anyone in our house?”

Dawn just gave him a withering look that Xander couldn’t help but grin at. “When did Angel, Spike, or Anya act their age?” she asked back and Xander had to concede the point.

“Just as long as you remember that.”

“So it’s okay if I date immature vampires?” Dawn asked slyly.

“No!” Xander glared at her. It wasn’t funny. No, not funny at all. “Dawn . . .”

“I’m kidding,” she said. “Jeez, relax. Not dating here.”

“Keep it that way.”

“Xander!”

“I’m just saying . . .”

“I know what you’re ‘just saying.’ Dating evil, sex bad. Trust me. I’m never going to get involved with someone I can’t have sex with.”

“Dawn!” He really didn’t want to hear this. Dawn and . . . god, he couldn’t even think the word in the same sentence.

“Xander, I’m eighteen,” she retorted disdainfully. “And you’re one to talk, Mr. Sex-Olympics.”

Xander let out a strangled noise. No, definitely not going to think about Dawn and . . . at all. Ever. And thank god for work, he thought desperately as Dawn finally turned into the strip mall where Home Depot sat in all its orange glory. He practically leapt from the car away from the conversation.

“Five o’clock?” asked Dawn and Xander nodded, summoning a shaky smile for her. Dawn grinned toothily back.

~*~

His team’s reactions were about what Jack had expected. Carter began with an outright, “Impossible!” while Daniel looked pensive and confused still mulling it over. Teal’c frowned.

“Sir,” said Carter in her serious and reasonable tone of voice. “That’s simply not possible.” And then she started off on something about synapses and energy that he didn’t really follow but that sounded pretty impressive nonetheless. Daniel looked impressed and that was enough for him. Only . . .

“You’re forgetting about the magic part, Carter,” he said. And why was he defending this totally insane idea? It wasn’t like he completely believed it either. If not for Buffy’s display of strength and the captured commandos, he would be dismissing it entirely.

“We’ve certainly seen enough that we haven’t been able to explain before either,” said Daniel quietly. “I’ll have to research the myths. I’m not saying I’m convinced, but we should at least look into it.”

“I am curious why we have never seen any indication of vampires before,” said Teal’c. “We receive information on any suspected Goa’uld activity. Would not mass murder of civilians be a similar warning sign?”

“I don’t know,” said Jack scrubbing his face and running tired hands through his hair. “All I know is that Xander’s explanation for the NID was magic and slayers. And you didn’t see Buffy break that four-by-four,” he pointed to the two pieces which were still by the sitting room couch. The others followed his finger and stared at it for a second.

“Well, let’s accept for the moment that it’s true,” said Daniel, rising from his seat to pace. “The existence of magic and strong . . . girls gave them warning and a chance to take out the NID. How did they get past the guns?”

“Disarmed them before they could use them,” Buffy’s voice from the door had every head spinning her way. “Sorry to interrupt, but do you guys want breakfast?” Seeing their chance at answers, Jack nodded and they moved the party to the kitchen where Andrew was dancing around the stove. Bacon and pancakes were already done and now eggs were getting scrambled. Courtney was already there munching on toast while Giles sipped tea in the corner, eyeing them as they came in. But what Jack noticed was the new unpainted boards filling in a section of wall.

“That’s where mine landed,” said Courtney suddenly. She was watching Jack study the wall. “Kicked him in the stomach.”

“You kicked a full grown man into a wall?” repeated Carter incredulously. A brief glance at the others found them to be studying SG-1. Like Xander earlier, none of them were smiling. “I’m sorry, that’s just –”

“I know it’s quite incredible,” interjected Giles. “But I assure you it’s quite true. The supernatural is real, however much you may want to deny it.”

“Your specialty is folklore, isn’t it Mr. Giles?” asked Daniel, blinking owlishly.

“The occult and demonology actually,” said Giles. “Though folklore does play into that.”

“Then you know that there are usually alternate explanations for most superstitions, many of which are due to coincidence and fear.”

“Great,” said Buffy with a smile that definitely had teeth behind it. “My life is an alternate explanation. Like gangs on PCP or boiler room explosions or earthquakes and sinkholes or gas leaks or laryngitis.” At each word her voice rose and she stalked closer to Daniel with eyes so hard and cold that it was as if another person glared out at them. One who had seen much and lost much and was about to pounce on anyone who got in her way. Buffy radiated power, controlled but with a terrible promise. Giles made no move to stop her. “I’ve heard them all. So don’t you come in here to our house and our world and presume to tell me that I fight figments of my imagination.”

Daniel managed to keep his retreat to one step back. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I meant no disrespect.” He flashed her his sweet-innocent-mistake eyes that had mollified many women in his time and that once more seemed to do the trick.

Buffy nodded once and grudgingly stepped back, crisis averted. But Jack’s eyes followed her even as Giles smoothly stepped in and started talking about the origins of vampires and the world. He watched how Andrew carefully watched her, the release of tension from the young man’s shoulders when he tentatively offered her some bacon and she accepted with a tired smile. She didn’t appear to be paying attention to what was going on behind her, but when she rejoined the group she was standing between Teal’c and Courtney, her eyes sliding over him and Carter and Daniel until they met Jack’s, hard and challenging.

In that stare, Jack saw a leader asking him silently if there was going to be a problem here. He said no, by nodding and looking away first. No problem here. Because he had also seen in those few seconds of understanding, that SG-1 would lose and lose hard.

The next few hours passed in bliss for Daniel and Carter who ended up in the dining room arguing with Giles about what was and wasn’t possible. Jack and Teal’c had stayed with them for the first bit about basic supernatural stuff like how to kill vampires but once the other three got going on the laws governing magical use, Jack couldn’t say yes faster when Andrew asked if anyone wanted to play Jedi Knights on his new X-Box. The others would give him the Reader’s Digest version later anyway.

“Andrew,” said Teal’c while the kid was setting up. “Have you encountered many vampires?”

“Vampires?” Andrew adopted what would have passed for a knowing look on anyone else but him. Casually he tossed them controllers. Jack’s fell short. “I’ve encountered many, my friend. Too many to count. I’ve braved the darkness and the creatures that lurk in the shadows and come out on top every time.” He nodded gravely then hurried and sat down when the two men looked him over in disbelief. It wasn’t just the faux tone of voice, but also the scrawny stature and complete air of incompetence the poor kid had. Andrew, Jack concluded, was one of the strangest people he’d met. And that was saying a lot.

“Really?” Jack finally said.

“Of course,” Andrew tried again for the look of wisdom but then realized that it wasn’t working. “Mostly because I was with slayers who get in trouble if I get hurt. But I have killed vampires! Over ten!” he said in a normal, if a little proud voice.

“So they do exist,” said Teal’c.

“Yeah. You wanna see my bite mark?” He craned his head suddenly and pointed to a scar on his neck: two puncture holes linked by over and under arching lines. Just as if someone had bitten him. Real. Evidence of vampires marked into Andrew’s skin for life.

“Why are you not now a vampire?” asked Teal’c while Jack was still absorbing this new revelation.

“’Cause I didn’t suck his blood,” Andrew explained, his voice dropping so they had to lean in to hear his words. “It’s a very dark and ancient blood ritual where the vampire offers his victim eternity, and as the last drops of his blood seep away from him, on the verge of death, his sire opens a vein and lets him drink. Then at sunset the following night, when light disappears from the world, the new vampire rises from his own grave, powerful and hungry.”

“Until he gets his ass staked by a slayer,” Dawn’s matter of fact voice made Andrew jump with a muffled ‘eep’ at which the girl rolled her eyes as she joined them on the couch. “Whacha playing?”

“Jedi Knights,” said Andrew getting up and plugging in the fourth controller, which he then gave to her.

“Are you one of these slayers?” Teal’c asked the question that Jack had been wondering all day.

“Me, no,” said Dawn. “I’m just the tag-a-long little sister.” Andrew snorted and she kicked him.

“So who’s the third one here?” asked Jack. “Willow?”

“Kennedy,” said Andrew, eyes glued to the screen as he picked his character. When he and Dawn started fighting over who got what, Jack realized that they weren’t going to get anything more interesting out of the two, so he too threw himself into the game.

Around one, a very tousled Willow and Kennedy finally came downstairs in bathrobes and gave Jack and Teal’s a surprised hello, before darting into the kitchen and back upstairs. Dawn yelled after them to be back down for dinner at six or starve, muttering something about nymphos under her breath afterwards that Jack really wished he hadn’t heard. The afternoon passed.

The match broke up at quarter to five when Dawn had to leave to get Xander and Andrew needed to get dinner started. Teal’c and Jack followed still discussing tactics and levels and gave him a hand. By the time Xander and Dawn returned, bringing with them a carton of ice cream, Andrew had taken pancakes downstairs to the NID and ordered the three intellectuals to set the table. They looked a little confused at first but eventually managed just fine. By six, everything was ready and on the table, and by six ten, Willow and Kennedy showed up giggling like crazy. Jack tried not to think about it.

“So,” said Buffy once the initial feeding frenzy had calmed down and conversation loomed on the horizon. “What are you going to do about the guys in the basement?” she asked, and Jack realized that business had finally begun.

~*~

Xander looked up from his spaghetti to Jack with everyone else.

“We can take them off your hands. No questions asked.”

“No investigation or anything?” asked Xander.

“As far as everyone else is concerned, we are the investigation. And we have enough pull that no one else will look into the matter,” said Jack.

“What about the people who ordered it?” asked Buffy. “They’re gonna want to know, right? And they’ll have people go inside or whatever and ask them what happened?”

Jack paused for a second before nodding. “Yeah,” he said. “The NID we’re talking about is a rogue section. And we don’t know where all their cells are.”

“Sleeper cells?” asked Xander, pulling the word out of the back of his head. Jack looked at him surprised that he knew the term and nodded.

“Like that sleeper agent thing?” asked Dawn. “Don’t know they’re there until you pull the trigger?”

“Except in this case, the trigger is orders form the top,” said Xander. “Do you know who that is?” The looks their four guests shot each other said that they did know but were reluctant to say. “Jack, what will he do if he finds out about slayers?”

“The rogue NID would be very interested,” said Daniel quietly when Jack didn’t answer right away. “If they find out, they’ll keep coming after you.” He glanced at Courtney who stared at him wide-eyed.

“So there’s no guarantee that they won’t talk,” said Buffy. And Xander knew what was coming next. So did Willow. He watched as his two best friends shared a long look that held a whole conversation and suddenly Xander was glad he had let Dawn talk him into ice cream. “So when can you get them?” asked Buffy quietly.

“You’re still going to let us take them?” asked Jack. “Despite the risk?”

“There’s not going to be any risk,” Willow spoke up from her end of the table looking ashy to Xander. “I’m gonna . . .” she waved a hand vaguely.

But Jack seemed to get it. And he didn’t look too happy about it either. Nor did any of his friends. “You’re talking about wiping their memories?!” Daniel asked appalled.

“I see little other choice,” Buffy snapped his attention from Willow to herself. “It’s either that or kill them, and we don’t kill humans as a general rule.”

“And messing with their memories is excusable?”

“If it means keeping teenagers out of NID labs, then yes.”

Daniel closed his mouth at that though his eyes were still not appeased. Xander could understand his protest, they all could having been there before, but at the same time, it was more important to keep their secret identities as secret as possible from the government.

“All right,” said Jack also coming to the same conclusion. “We can have them out of here the day after tomorrow.

“So are you going to reimburse us for groceries then?” asked Andrew. “Cause they kinda ate a lot.”

And Xander, seeing his opportunity for more money piped in, “And compensation for loss of sleep and hardship would be nice too.”

“And incentive to not go to the police or press,” Dawn added. Sam cracked a smile at that but Jack didn’t seem too amused. “What?” asked Dawn him. “I’ve got college tuition to pay next year.”

“I’ll ask the General about the groceries,” said Jack. “But I’m not making any promises.”

“So about this general guy,” said Buffy and Xander could actually feel Jack and the others wince at her irreverent tone. “He’s not going to gives us any problems, right? Xander says you stood up for him and that he’s an okay guy . . .”

“General Hammond is a most honorable man,” said Murray in that weird formal way of his. “He will not betray your trust in him.”

“Hey,” said Willow suddenly, a worried frown on her face that put Xander immediately on guard. “Hey, hey,” she said, this time staring but not staring at Murray, like she was trying to see the air around him. And when she blinked back from wherever, she looked a little confused and not the good kind of confused where it’s something normal and . . . and now she was really staring at Murray. “Are you human?” she asked. “Because you’re sort of are but you’re also sort of not and you’re not connected and I think you’re what’s been itching me all day even though I wasn’t really paying attention, but you’re not are you?”

Murray sat as still as ever. And more importantly, at Willow’s first question Jack, Sam, and Daniel had all suddenly sat up and stared at her, then each other in what were definitely not she’s-crazy looks but shit-she’s-onto-us looks. Jack wasn’t even registering the babble that usually had him scratching his head, figuratively speaking. But Willow was right. For a second, Xander felt like shouting, ‘I knew it!’ but he refrained and settled for an internal trumpet fanfare because Jack did not look happy. Daniel and Sam didn’t look happy either but they were both looking at Jack whose unhappiness doubled theirs combined. And Murray simply raised an eyebrow as if to say, ‘moi?’

“Are you an alien?!” Andrew broke the tense silence first in an awed voice. “Because that is *so* cool! Ooh, you’re doing the Spock eyebrow thing!” He lifted his hand in the Vulcan greeting. “Live long and prosper.”

No, Jack was not happy at all. “He’s not an alien,” he told Andrew impatiently.

“But he is,” said Willow, certain now. “He’s not from Earth because he’s not connected to her. Except for the little strands like a baby’s but those don’t really count since you’re not a baby.”

“Willow, Murray is not an alien,” Jack repeated. “If he were, do you think the government would let him out of its sight?”

“But –”

“He’s not an alien.” But no one was buying it. If Willow said he wasn’t from Earth, he wasn’t from Earth. And the import of that statement just hit Xander all of a sudden. Not from Earth. From another planet. Xander had to go with Andrew on this one – that was so cool! In a really, really freaky kind of way.

“So the deep space telemetry is really talking to little green men – or not green as the case is?” he asked a little giddy himself at the idea as he glanced at Murray’s decidedly not green pallor.

“Oh, and you’re like the cultural person, right?” Dawn asked Daniel excitedly who looked decidedly uncomfortable at her sudden attention. “That’s why all the archeological stuff was there!”

Sam’s head immediately snapped to the teenager who realized her mistake as soon as the words slipped out of her mouth. “What archeological stuff where?” the Major asked.

“Uh, nowhere?” tried Dawn as the tension at the table skyrocketed. Everyone stopped eating, looking from Sam to Dawn to Jack to Buffy, the four of whom had their own circle of wary glances going.

“Dawn,” said Jack in a gentle yet dangerous tone of voice that Xander remembered from earlier. “Where did you see that archeological information?” he asked. Dawn stared at him, mesmerized and a little scared, her confidence shaken by his sudden commanding intensity.

“Jack!” Buffy snapped before Dawn could answer. “Where we got our information is irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned, Murray could be a cow and I wouldn’t care as long as he kept his teeth off of humans. Stop threatening my sister!”

Jack swiveled his glare on Buffy who met it head on. “This is classified information. If we have a breach in security, I consider that very relevant,” he said. “Now where did you get it?”

Willow tentatively raised her hand and waved. “Breach in security,” she said. “That’s me. I don’t think anyone else could have done it.”

“You hacked the SGC computers?” asked Sam, a note of disbelief in her voice.

Willow and Dawn exchanged a brief look that said ‘guilty’ to anyone with eyes. “If that’s what you call Area 52 then yeah,” she said. “But it was totally not the system’s fault,” she hurriedly added. “You have really good security and we couldn’t have done it without cheating. And the not keeping top secret stuff on the internet linked computers was brilliant.” She smiled. Jack rubbed his hands through his hair and Daniel looked like he wanted to grin.

Sam asked, “Cheating?”

“Magic.”

Jack looked up. “You used magic to hack into the most secure computers in the country?”

“Second most, and yeah. The old fashioned way wasn’t doing too good.”

“What second-most?” Sam sounded slightly offended by Willow’s correction.

The redhead ducked her head modestly. “Ours are better. Because of the magic. Your code is pretty droolworthy though. You don’t mind if I borrow some of it, do you?”

“I designed the system,” said Sam. Willow immediately sat up, awe on every line of her face.

“You did? That’s like . . .”

“Carter, could you two drool over code later?” Jack interrupted while Willow was still searching for words.

“Yes, sir.”

“So you got into our computers,” he continued, directing the question to Buffy.

“We thought you might have been behind the NID, so yeah. But we thought you did weapons stuff,” she answered.

“Why’s that?”

“Cause all the stuff at that other place was weapons stuff.”

“Area 51,” Xander clarified before Jack had an ulcer. Though he looked like he was going to have one anyway as he exchanged worried frowns with his friends.

“So intelligent life on other planets exists?” asked Giles getting back to the basic revelation of the evening. Xander could tell he was rather surprised by the idea. When Jack sighed and nodded, the cat already running circles around them, Giles’s only comment was “Dear lord.” He took his glasses off and cleaned them with his napkin. Xander watched the familiar ritual not sure whether he was surprised or not by the confirmation. He was leaning toward not. But then . . . he looked at Murray and a shiver ran up his spine.

“Is your real name Teal’c?” asked Dawn then. “With an apostrophe?” At the sudden combined eyepower of the four she added, “Not your computers, the NID’s.”

“Is there anyone you didn’t hack?” asked Jack.

“Chill out,” Kennedy retorted, speaking for the first time. “So your secret’s out. Deal with it. I mean it not as if you don’t know about our secret lives. Quid pro quo. Anyway, we have enough problems without aliens. Why do we care what you do in Area 51 or 2 or whatever you call it?”

Jack was about to reply when Andrew interrupted. “Can I have your autograph?” he asked Murray.

“Andrew!” at least three people exclaimed.

“What? You know you want one too,” he replied. “It will commemorate the day the saucers landed, the day when Murrays arrived where no Murray had gone before!”

“Murray’s his name, dumbass,” Kennedy told him.

“Well, I think it’s great too,” said Willow cheerfully. “How do you like Christmas so far?” she asked.

“I have lived on this planet for seven years,” said Murray. “And have had as many Christmases.”

“Oh,” Willow deflated at this news but then brightened again. “But never Hanukah, right? Or Solstice? Though both are past now, I guess, but we still have our decorations up and –”

“You’ve been here seven years?” Xander interrupted. Seven years and no news flash?

“It has been classified,” said Murray or rather, Teal’c.

“Very classified,” added Jack. All went silent at this reminder that knowledge was not always a good thing. In fact, if Xander remembered correctly, it was a prosecutable thing.

“So now what?” asked Xander. “Now that we know stuff we shouldn’t and you know stuff that you shouldn’t.” He met Jack’s gaze across the table, his face inscrutable.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

A brisk breeze greeted Xander when he stepped outside onto the back porch, escaping the after-dinner cleanup in the kitchen. Jack stood on the steps in borrowed shoes, having slipped away as soon as he could. He was looking up at the stars that were muted by the neighborhood lights and a waxing moon when Xander joined him, the older man barely acknowledging his presence with a slight flicker of his eyes.

Xander didn’t know what to say so he said nothing and simply looked over the back yard that seemed to glow from the reflected light on the snow. It was his first winter in Cleveland and Xander had already had enough snow to last him a lifetime. The delight of those first flakes had quickly given way to weary annoyance as more just fell from the sky. Though making snow angels had been fun back in November. Dawn, Vi, and Diana had gone all out with a snow vampire too and then practiced demolishing it.

Jack hadn’t moved from stargazing when Xander snuck a look at him. Following his eyes to the constellations, he wondered what the older man saw when he looked up there. Teal’c’s planet? Were there other aliens that had made contact with Earth? Were they a threat, he couldn’t help but wonder given that it was a top military secret. Xander had never given much thought to it. E.T. was about as far as he had gotten in thinking about life from other planets. Though there had been that Queller demon the year of Glory. Probably all sorts of things living on the moon. Did that mean then, that aliens were really demons? Murray or Teal’c, or whatever his name was, was certainly human enough looking. His beanie probably hid an ingrown horn or something.

He wanted to ask about a million things, but Jack didn’t look like he was up for questions he probably couldn’t answer anyway. It was as if he had completely forgotten Xander was there even though he had been standing there for at least a minute in the freezing cold that didn’t seem to be bothering Jack. They were back to the not talking awkwardness of those first meetings last summer. Not that they had really pushed the big things before, or at all, but now that they had both fessed up to being Batman, it was as if Jack didn’t even know where to start, and neither did Xander for that matter. Here they were, standing on a dark winter’s night, supposing to be friends. “So aliens,” Xander said breaking the stillness. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about that, somewhere up there on the cool-but-weirded-out scale.

“Yep,” said Jack without moving, his eyes remaining on the stars.

Xander decided to take the verbal response as a good sign. “How’d that happen?”

Jack sighed and finally looked away from the sky at him. “It’s classified,” he said softly, his words underscored by regret both in his voice and eyes and how they quickly darted away.

“I guess I’m gonna get that a lot, aren’t I?” said Xander just as softly, also looking away over the yard. Jack didn’t answer. “So much for sharing.” So much for getting past the gaping plot holes in their lives.

“Xander,” Jack sounded tired. “You already know too much.”

“I don’t know anything,” Xander countered. “I only know you have an alien in a mountain in Colorado. Except here, now because some guys want you to retire or something.”

“It’s a power play and definitely more than you should know,” said Jack with annoyance. “I don’t know what Willow did with the computer stuff or the . . . the . . . thing she did with Teal’c, but whatever it was I wish she hadn’t. I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to the General,” he sighed again, running a hand through his hair. “The computer breach alone is going to send him through the roof.”

“Willow’s not in any trouble, is she?” Xander asked apprehensively. Jack gave him a what-do-you-think look that obviously said ‘yes’ in big bold letters. “It was completely justified, you know,” he replied, immediately defending his friend.

“I know. If I was in your place I’d have ordered the same thing,” Jack nodded, then asked after a pause, “The magic stuff’s real, isn’t it? Not some sort of technology? Even seeing the thing in the basement . . .” he trailed off, but Xander understood. There was nothing like watching someone do their mojo to make you a believer.

“Yeah, it’s real.”

“Is she really going to erase their memories?”

“She’s done it before,” Xander replied.

“Could you do it?”

“Me? No,” said Xander, his thoughts flickering back to both times Tara had broken up with Willow because of memory magic. He remembered Anya wondering later if this would have fallen in her jurisdiction had she still been a ‘justice’ demon. “I don’t hone my inner warlock.” Off Jack’s questioning look he added, “Even with a spell to follow it takes skill and power to do something drastic like that. I can only do the little stuff any idiot who can read can do.”

Jack smiled a little at that but it didn’t reach his eyes. Instead he regarded Xander as if he were searching for something but couldn’t find it, and it was beginning to make him uncomfortable. “What?” Xander finally asked, hoping against hope that he didn’t have alfredo sauce anywhere embarrassing.

“Nothing,” said Jack glancing away, the awkwardness like a shroud between them. But there was definitely a something there.

“What?” Xander repeated as his curiosity won out over caution.

“It’s nothing. Really,” said Jack looking up and away again, crossing then uncrossing his arms and jamming his hands in his pockets. “I was just thinking about . . . about how much I don’t know about you at all.”

“Yeah, well same here,” Xander agreed. A lifetime’s worth of stuff he thought, even as the word ‘classified’ echoed in his mind. “But I guess you won’t tell me much about what you do.”

“There’s all this paperwork and a pesky court martial if you spill the beans,” Jack said regretfully, and Xander knew he was too good of an officer to do that. “So vampires,” Jack echoed his earlier comment about aliens. “Andrew showed us his bite mark.” Xander smiled at that. “How did you find out about them?”

“I met Buffy,” said Xander pretty much summing up the day everything changed with a slightly nostalgic smile. “Tenth grade. I overheard her and Giles talking about them in the library first day of school, then Buffy saved Willow from a vamp a few days later and, voila, the beginning of a beautiful friendship full of untold danger with a dash of terror thrown in for kicks.” The rest was history, Xander added to himself even as Jack regarded him with a carefully neutral expression. High school felt so long ago now, like a dream that bordered on a nightmare but one you still recognized as just a dream that you could wake yourself up from if it got too bad.

“How much danger?” Jack asked.

Xander looked at him for a moment wondering how much to tell him. He’d never told his own parents, his mom and the man he’d thought was his father, never told them anything. Even at his wedding all of Anya’s friends had been introduced as circus people still in costume. Tony had been too drunk to notice.

But Jack wasn’t Tony. Jack had noticed and he had worried and he hadn’t been put off by excuses. His words from a week ago – ‘you are my business’ – suddenly came back to him, and Xander decided that he wanted this to work. He wanted what Buffy had found with her mom and not what Willow held onto with her own parents from afar.

“It’s dangerous. We fight against creatures that go out every night to find someone to eat. People die,” he said. “Do you remember about Jesse?” he paused, continuing when Jack nodded at the familiar name. “He was the first vampire I staked.” Jack started at this but Xander went on. “Me, Giles, Willow, we’ve all lost a girlfriend along the way, in Buffy’s case two boyfriends. Two years ago I lost my eye.”

“A fight?”

He nodded abruptly. “I got in the way of a really powerful guy who was more interested in playing. Thought it’d be funny,” he added with a bitter twist to his lips. The memory of how it felt, the sickening squish of his left eye into his head still gave him nightmares, and even now made him shudder.

“I’m sorry,” said Jack but Xander carefully shrugged it away. It wasn’t going to bring his eye back, or Anya or any of the other slayers or Tara or Jenny or kids he’d grown up with or . . . he stopped because he could think of too many more people that were dead or forever hurt by the supernatural. “I guess . . .” said Jack, “at this point it’s pointless to ask you to stop.” He crossed his arms across his chest again as if he were trying to distance himself from the Xander’s life.

“Pretty much,” Xander agreed though he appreciated him saying it. There was too much work to be done, too many reasons to stay. The fight had become so much of his life that he didn’t think he would ever be able to just walk away.

“Why do you train them?” asked Jack suddenly. “The girls. If it’s so dangerous they shouldn’t be anywhere near this.”

‘They’ being the slayers, Xander couldn’t fault him for demanding an answer, but at the same time there was no choice in the matter. “That’s what Courtney’s parents said,” he said quietly. “They wouldn’t let Courtney come to training last summer. Didn’t take us seriously. If they had, maybe they’d be alive now.” He returned Jack’s heavy gaze with one of his own. “It’s not fair and it’s not easy but slayers just can’t ignore the Slayer inside. It gets them killed.”

Jack sighed and ran his hand over his face as he absorbed this, clearly not happy with the situation.

“Xander,” the back door banged open and Andrew leaned around it while keeping his feet safely inside. “Buffy wants you. Courtney’s aunt and uncle are here,” he said before quickly closing the door on the cold.

“I gotta go,” Xander turned back to Jack who simply nodded without looking at him. After a tense moment when neither one of them said anything, Xander left him on the porch and went inside. When he glanced out the window as he kicked off his shoes, Jack was again staring at the stars.

~*~

Jack’s eyes flittered from Orion to Cassiopeia seeing planets filled with trees and people he didn’t understand, and he felt suddenly that he was on another such planet now as anger gave way to helplessness. It reminded him of the children on that one world upon whom the fate of their people rested to the point where they hadn’t a chance to just be kids. Here it felt worse: the slayers were losing their innocence to violence. They were essentially soldiers born to fight a never-ending war. And despite what Xander had told him about Courtney, Jack almost had a mind to go up to Giles or Buffy and demand that they just stop training them and let professionals take care of the vampires.

And Xander . . . tenth grade, Jack thought. He’d been what? Fifteen? Sixteen years-old? Christ. It made him wonder again if this was all real because sixteen was just way too young to be killing what was left of your best friend. It was a wonder Xander was as normal as he was. Hell, he was still a kid to Jack, younger than most of the recruits they saw at the SGC. But at the same time so much older.

There had to be another way. This just couldn’t be the only way to hold off all the . . . ugly evil things. Maybe he could talk to Davis about it since this would fall into the category of national security. At least he hoped so. If the government didn’t know and hadn’t done anything about it at this point, convincing the people who mattered might be a little difficult but if he could get Xander’s help with the briefing, or even Buffy’s, he was sure they could at least get people thinking about it. And put a bullseye on the girls . . . so maybe not Buffy’s help. If they spun it right though, the Pentagon would never have to know about the girls or Xander or anybody, just the monsters.

With a parting look at the stars, Jack went back into the house quickly passing through the now clean kitchen and the dining room into the den. On the floor in front of the TV, Teal’c and Andrew were playing Jedi Knights while Daniel, Carter, and Dawn chatted on the couch. Or rather on closer inspection, Daniel and Carter were discussing mythology that could be reinterpreted while Dawn read a book and cast glances at the foyer.

“Hey, Jack,” Daniel greeted him looking up from the conversation when he walked in. His eyebrows lifted slightly in a small frown as if to ask Jack if he was all right. Nodding in response to both the greeting and the question, Jack glanced once more over the sparely populated room.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“Xander, Giles, Buffy, and Courtney are with her relatives in the front room,” Carter supplied. “Don’t know where Willow and Kennedy are.”

“On patrol,” Dawn spoke up.

“Patrol?”

“In the city,” she said. “I think tonight’s the west side. Today’s Sunday, right?”

“So they’re out looking for . . . ” Daniel didn’t know quite how to finish but Dawn understood anyway.

“The usual fledges and signs of impending doom. Not much happens around Christmas though.” She cast another look at the foyer before shrugging. “They’ll probably make a date out of it.”

Jack stared at her and wondered if she even heard what she was saying. What Xander had just told him was a very dangerous life where people *died* Dawn was shrugging off as nothing to worry about. “When are they checking in?” he asked perhaps a little more harshly than he intended.

“You mean call?” asked Dawn. “They’ll only do that if they need help. Otherwise they’ll be back by morning at the latest.”

Morning was an awful long time for them to be out there on their own, especially in a city at night where other dangers lurked besides the ones they were looking for. They could be mugged or trapped in a bad neighborhood or lost, and Dawn wasn’t even sure where they were? To Jack’s military mind, that was too many risks to take without enough back up.

“What do you mean by ‘signs of impending doom’?” asked Daniel, getting back to her earlier comment.

“Weird stuff that doesn’t fall into the normal category of weird,” Dawn frowned, having trouble defining it herself. “Like, really strong demons – or talkative, threatening ones. Or missing artifacts from graves. Stuff like that . . .” she shrugged. “It’s the kind of stuff that when you see it, you know it’s gonna be bad, I guess. Though sometimes we miss it till it’s almost too late.”

Her last comment didn’t sound very reassuring and neither was the thoughtful look on her face that was obviously thinking of specific examples. “What sort of impending doom are we talking about here?” asked Jack sharply.

Dawn glanced at Andrew on the floor who snuck a look over his shoulder full of apprehension and a hundred meanings. “Massacres,” said Dawn carefully. “Rituals for any number of things. Sometimes the end of the world.”

“End of the world?” Jack asked in chorus with Daniel and Carter. Even Teal’c paused in his game with Andrew and looked up at this news.

“It hasn’t really happened in while,” Dawn rushed on to reassure them, but Jack if anything felt even less reassured. “There’s only been, like, one major try here, everything else’s been local scale stuff.”

“You’re saying there have been attempts to end the world?” asked Daniel who was the first to recover. “What are we talking about here? A magical destruction of Earth’s existence or some apocalyptic scenario of wide spread natural destruction? There are many myths that –”

“Hell on Earth,” Dawn interrupted, her bluntness prompting him and everyone to silence. “Mostly they just want that.”

Jack’s mind flashed to Netu, the Goa’uld hell world that had been beyond anything he had ever imagined that Hell could be. If Dawn’s definition was anything like what they’d been through . . . but it couldn’t be, right? But if it was . . . Jack’s outrage only increased at what these kids were dealing with. Damn it, they knew. SG-1 had been there, done that and bought out the save-the-world t-shirts. It was difficult enough when you had years of training to fall back on. “And Willow and Kennedy are out there on their own?” he asked. Looking for things that wanted Hell?

“They’re not going to die from walking in the street,” said Dawn as if it were obvious but nonetheless on the defensive. “You should pity who they meet.”

“Besides nothing smart is stupid enough to attack them if Willow’s there,” added Andrew in that brand of logic that was prevalent around this house which Jack for the life of him couldn’t follow. He took a small measure of relief from the fact that both Carter and Daniel looked at each other in mild confusion before turning to the young man and asking,

“Why would they be afraid of Willow?” It was a very good question, and one that Jack wanted an answer to as well. Andrew blushed under the sudden scrutiny, shifting uncomfortably from side to side as everyone stared at him for the split second before Dawn drew SG-1’s attention back to her.

“Willow’s a witch,” she said which was no answer at all since Jack and his teammates had already surmised as much from dinner. And from what Xander had said, she had enough skill and power to do more than low level spells, whatever that meant exactly.

“Just how powerful is she?” asked Jack suspiciously. Because if even the bad guys were afraid of her – and from Dawn’s uncomfortable glance away, that was more telling than anything she could have said, Willow added up to more than just average. Andrew was suddenly very absorbed in his video game, doing moves even though Teal’c was no longer actively playing. “Dawn?” Jack turned back to the young woman on the couch.

“What?” she said defensively. “She’s good, big deal.”

Jack didn’t answer. Big deal, indeed. It didn’t really change anything except for the fact that Willow’s power was considered something not to be discussed, but maybe they were simply wary of talking to virtual strangers about it, especially with the problems they had with the military in general. Don’t let the enemy know just how powerful your weapons really are.

Carter and Daniel for once taking their cue from him didn’t press the matter, instead simply exchanging looks with Jack, Teal’c, and each other. At every turn, things were more than they seemed, convincing Jack further that these kids needed help. And that matter of national security? Hell on Earth definitely qualified.

Sudden shouting from the direction of the foyer broke off any further thought of how exactly Jack was going to get them help. “You expect . . . believe . . . crap?!” an unfamiliar man yelled, his words obscured by the doors and distance. Every head in the den snapped up but the reply was too soft to hear. Then, “No!! We . . . Courtney away . . . lunatics . . . police . . . near my niece again!!”

“They . . . dead . . . didn’t listen . . .!!” he heard Buffy shout back this time. “ . . . want that?!”

“Stay away . . .!!”

“Hey!!” That was Xander.

“Stop it!! Stop it!! Stop it!! Stop it!!” Courtney’s high voice broke over the argument ringing clearly through the house. “They’re dead!” she screamed, her voice breaking at the sudden abuse. “Vampires . . . right in front of me! They . . . screaming and they died! They died!!” Then the sound of a door crashing open and running feet and the front door slamming open and closed. Dawn jumped up and ran after her while Jack and the rest of them got up, bewildered and wondering if they should follow or not. Andrew was the first to move, going to the window and pulling the curtain back just enough to see out into the front yard. Jack and his teammates soon joined him. In the background they could hear the murmuring voices of those in the sitting room.

Outside under the dull illumination of a street light, Courtney had run to one of the three trees in the front yard and started hitting it, the impact knocking snow from the branches above. Dawn stood several feet behind her, not trying to stop her but waiting until she had tired herself out and collapsed to the ground. Then Dawn was there, cautiously at first then suddenly pulling the younger girl into a close hug as her anguished sobs echoed softly through the night.

“Oh, god,” Daniel whispered as they pulled away from the window, the haunted look in his eye no doubt remembering the loss of his own parents as a child.

“I thought . . .” Carter never finished her sentence but from the stunned look on her face she felt as Jack did – that his stomach had just clenched into a knot. What had been haltingly accepted till now, even with the disturbing facts he’d since learned, was now devastatingly summed up in one little girl crying in the snow.

“We’ve got to help them,” Jack murmured. “This isn’t right.”

“What are you suggesting, O’Neill?” asked Teal’c. “At the moment we are unequipped to deal with the vampires and other demons.”

“I’m not saying right this instant,” said Jack. “When we get back to base we make a few phone calls, see if we can get some ball rolling so these kids don’t have to deal with all this . . . crap.”

“You’re gonna tell?!” Andrew’s sudden entrance into the conversation reigned Jack’s thoughts in, reminding him of Xander’s demand that he not tell anyone beyond his team and Hammond. “You can’t do that!”

“Andrew, we’re not going to tell anyone about the slayers,” Jack turned to him impatiently. “That’s the whole point: to keep them out of this. Her parents are *dead* because she got dragged into all this vampire stuff!” He didn’t know who he was angrier at right now, the vampires, Xander and Giles and Buffy for dragging Courtney into their world, or Andrew for not seeing that it had to stop.

“But . . . but . . . that’s impossible!” Andrew protested. “That’s like asking Superman to stay in the phonebooth or Aragorn to stop being noble and kingly or –”

“That is not the same,” Teal’c interrupted before anyone else came out of his mouth.

“Did you not see Spiderman?” Andrew shouted, his voice squeaking slightly even as his eyes took on a slightly impatient manic glint that was perhaps the most surprising thing off all about the young man’s outburst, aside from the fact that he was standing up to them at all. “Courtney was Chosen,” said Andrew, the capitals practically audible. “It’s destiny!”

“Destiny?!” Jack shouted back. “Getting her life destroyed was destiny?!”

“Andrew,” Daniel interjected in his reasonable voice that had calmed many an excited native. “Don’t you think destiny is exaggerating things a little? What about free will?”

Gotcha, the thought flickered through Jack’s mind as Andrew floundered for words, his face melting through an array of frustration. “There’s free will . . . but there’s also destiny . . . like an umbrella . . . destiny, I mean. Only instead of keeping the rain out it just wants you to stay dry underneath. It doesn’t care what you do under there as long as you stay dry . . . dry is free will . . . You can’t escape,” he said. “‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”

“So you’re saying that because they can fight, they should?” said Daniel looking over the tops of his glasses. He glanced quickly at Jack, and then said, “Is that right?”

“No, you don’t understand!” Andrew said in a more normal voice though he was clearly still frustrated with them. Daniel’s soothing tone had worked its magic and had even made Jack’s own temper simmer down. “It’s not about the fighting, it’s about the power!”

“Power?” asked Jack, unsure what he meant.

“You know, power. Everyone has it, but slayers more,” said Andrew, again trying to explain but not having the words. “She could kill a regular person if she wanted, or by accident. She could join the Dark Side of the Force just ‘cause. If she hides the supernatural will find her. She’s always going to be involved because she is power. Destiny. The rest is keeping dry.” He huffed. “It makes more sense when Buffy explains it,” he half whined.

But Jack thought he sort of understood where they were coming from, Spiderman not withstanding. Kids with superpowers were like kids with guns, and Jack knew only too well what innocent tragedies came from that combination. If Xander and Giles and everyone else here didn’t find them, train them, and give them an acceptable target then the death toll might be just that much higher. In their war, these were the soldiers they needed and they weren’t going to turn them away. But it still didn’t make it right, and given Andrew’s resistance, of all people, he knew they would have their work cut out for them convincing the others.

He let out an explosive sigh, barely listening as Daniel continued arguing with Andrew. Here he’d come to Cleveland, fearing the worst from having inadvertently dragged Xander into his world, when in fact it was he who had been irrecoverably drawn into Xander’s.

~*~

“I hate parents!” Buffy groaned as she flopped back on the shoddy sitting room couch. Xander merely rolled his head to look at her from where he sat already splayed out. The relatives had just left, and it was only nine-thirty. It felt like half the night had already passed away.

“Aunt and uncle,” he corrected her, but Buffy only muttered a half hearted “Guardians, whatever” in response, which made Xander grin. Poor Buffy had no patience for normal people. He pitied the families she would have to talk to in Europe – in a foreign language. Thankfully they’d done a lot of the initial legwork last year so it wouldn’t be quite the same disaster, but there were still all those newbies out there that had been called since then and all the ones to come. Xander was just glad he got to stay in America.

“Well, at least they finally listened,” said Giles from where he sat a little straighter in the armchair. “That’s something. I suspect they’ll be all right in the end.”

“I hope so for Courtney’s sake,” said Xander though he agreed with the assessment. Kim and Paul Laysan had reacted by the book and had only lashed out in fear and denial. However, they loved their niece enough to take Courtney’s blowup to heart. This family would make it. Others hadn’t; some probably shouldn’t have been told. A couple of the slayers had reported that they had ended up denying it again to their parents who couldn’t cope. Getting them back for the summer was going to be a challenge that Xander was not looking forward to.

As for the Laysans, Giles as the resident ‘parent’ was going to meet with them tomorrow somewhere more neutral to talk about the details. Courtney would probably stay in Cleveland until all the legalities and school stuff were taken care of so they could maximize her training time. The real work wouldn’t begin until the summer of course, but she needed more than just instinct for the interim.

Xander sighed. He hated this part of the watcher gig, dealing with the support systems and families that were changed forever. Sure the system was better now for the slayers but it was still pretty high up on the sucking scale.

Thinking of families and the Laysans in particular made Xander think of his previous revelation of the day. All things considered, Jack had taken it fairly well, but that was where Xander’s experience with parents ran out. His own he had avoided as much as possible after eighth grade, like squeaky boards when you were trying to sneak in after curfew. Not that they had really cared enough to give him a curfew. Had Jack been his dad growing up, he was sure there would have been not only a curfew but an angry and worried-out-of-his-mind parent waiting up for him. Xander could handle Jack mad now only because of nerves steeled from years of standing up to Buffy and Giles, but his high school self would have stood no chance.

“Hey Buffy,” he said, again rolling his head to look at her. “How did your mom take finding out, after you came back, I mean?” he added referring to the summer Buffy had run away to LA.

She thought for a moment before answering. “Things were different,” she said slowly. “At first I think we were both just getting used to each other again. She didn’t push too much but she did ask what was going on.” Buffy smiled faintly, “A couple times she stayed up late and made cookies that were warm and gooey when I got home.”

“It was hard on her,” said Giles softly. “She held up remarkably well.”

“She was amazing,” Buffy agreed sadly. “And it took me so long to see it. It was almost too late.” She let out a sigh that held the edges of tears though her eyes were still dry.

“But such are teenagers,” Giles replied gently. “No one ever knows as much as they do about anything.”

“Were we really as awful as I remember?” she asked.

“Do you really want to know?” There was a teasing twinkle in Giles’s eye as he said this, lightening the mood.

“Buffy, think of Dawn and multiply by three,” Xander suggested. He, Buffy, and Willow had probably broken every school rule there was for their regular teachers and poor Giles had had to deal with them the rest of the time along with their significant others. “And add a factor of ten for Cordelia,” he added at the thought of his ex-girlfriend.

“Uhhgg. I am never having kids,” Buffy declared.

“Yes, because that plan works out oh so well,” said Giles dryly surprising a bark of laughter out of Xander and a wide eyed look from Buffy.

“Great,” she said resettling. “I can just see myself in ten years, old and fat, clucking over my glasses at my slayers about doing their homework.” The image of her little and old made Xander laugh again that prompted an arch look from the ‘little old lady.’

“I wouldn’t worry Buffy,” he said consolingly. “You’ll never be fat or wear glasses.”

“I’ll still be old,” she grumbled.

“And this is a bad thing?” asked Giles.

Buffy turned to him a smiled, serious now. “No,” she said quietly. “I guess . . . I’m still getting used to the idea that I’ve got at life beyond twenty-five.” Giles smiled back, as did Xander, the three of them sharing mutual love and hope for a better life for all of them.

Leaving Sunnydale had been like breaking free of a curse, and traveling America and Europe looking for slayers had been the best medicine for all the hurt and pain they’d suffered. The trip had shown them that despite all the bad stuff – vampires, corrupt cops, human crime, global climate change – there was still so much to live for in the world, so much to fight for. There were puppies and basketball games and carnivals and cafes and Yosemite Park and people. Millions and billions of people who loved life too.

Xander knew it wasn’t all black and white, he’d need only look at their own lives to see that, and he was cynical enough to ask twice what the catch was. Good people messed up, bad people changed for the better, and everyone was just struggling through life as best they could. It was having that chance to struggle that was important. Hope. Somehow it was easier to see outside of Sunnydale.

“So Xander, how’s the dad thing going?” Buffy broke the silence that had fallen over them like a warm blanket. “He didn’t look too happy at dinner.”

Xander thought back over their stilted conversation on the porch that hadn’t done anything it seemed except reinforce the gap between them. “He’s not happy about any of it. His work’s classified and no one is supposed to know about it.” Jack hadn’t appeared too angry though, just tired and worried. “I think he was more upset about us fighting vampires for a living.”

“This from a guy who’s friends with an alien?” asked Buffy.

“I suspect his problem arises more from the existence of the supernatural,” said Giles. “Dr. Jackson and Major Carter earlier were trying to rationalize everything with science. Honestly, I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but they were more concerned with the reasons behind the belief than the actual beliefs.”

Thinking back on it, Xander wasn’t so sure. “Not Jack,” he disagreed. “He had a problem with us fighting. ‘Kids’. Basically told me he wanted me to stop because it was too dangerous.”

A ghost of a smile flittered over Buffy’s face at that news. “I like him,” she said. “Not that you should stop,” she quickly added, suddenly worried Xander might take it the wrong way, “but it’s cool that he asked.”

“So I can keep him?” Xander joked, but internally giddy that Jack had won Buffy’s approval.

“Xander, I think you would be foolish to let him go,” said Giles, making Xander this time look at the other man in surprise. Giles was actually for Jack now? After all the hemming and hawing about the American military and casual questions about his visits and general disapproving vibes? Xander was so startled, he just stared at the one adult that had been constant in his life and who now smiled knowingly back at him, clearly amused by his frank disbelief that he approved.

“Xand, you’re gonna catch flies if you leave your jaw there,” said Buffy with a giggle. Abruptly, he shut his mouth and looked from one to the other.

“He’s been good for you,” said Giles still smiling like he knew everything. “And I must say that I’m impressed he has not disappeared on you.”

“I don’t think I could get him to if I wanted it,” Xander replied, finally over most of his shock and decidedly happy about Giles’s sudden support.

“Just as long as the military thing doesn’t backfire on us,” said Buffy. “If it does I reserve the right to blow up their mountain.”

“I know I’m going to regret asking, but why blow it up?” asked Giles wincing in anticipation.

Buffy shrugged impishly. “I’m better at blowing up stuff. Three for two record, you know.”

“Besides,” Xander couldn’t help but add. “Finding the mountain would be a hell of a lot easier than going after the people involved.”

“Plus, we could give them time to evacuate,” said Buffy magnanimously, as if utter destruction were not her goal. Giles merely regarded them calmly, unfazed by their plan.

“Just as long as I am not in the country when you do so,” was all he said. He stood up and grimaced from moving stiff muscles. “Either of you like tea?” he asked as his back popped.

“Coffee.”

“Hot chocolate,” they requested. Giles shook his head at them but smiled anyway and left for the kitchen. Xander and Buffy just stayed on the comfy couch, too lazy to move.

“You really like Jack?” Xander asked a minute later.

“Yeah,” Buffy sighed, turning her head towards him and smiling. “I do. He’s around, you know? You guys visit. He calls. Sometimes I wish my dad would bother himself about it, but then I remember how much I don’t like him. But I like Jack. He’s a lot like you.”

“Witty and ridiculously good looking?” Xander joked.

“He could pass for cute,” said Buffy with the devil in her eye. Xander threw his head back against the couch.

“First Dawn, now you!” he groaned.

“Dawn said he was cute?”

“Not Jack, Daniel. Which is marginally better I guess. At least he’s not supposed to be my father.” He looked critically at Buffy and tried thinking about her and Jack. It was a bad idea. “I need therapy,” he said. “I think I just scarred myself for life.”

“Why?” asked Buffy giving him a quizzical look at his odd statement.

Xander’s mouth opened to share before he could stop it. “You as my stepmom. I will never forgive you if that happens.”

Buffy looked at him a little stricken by that, and then burst out laughing. After a second, Xander joined in. The idea was ridiculous and so completely beyond messed up, but stranger things had happened. It felt good to laugh, like all the uncertainty and stress just drained away from his chest, down his arms, and out his fingertips, leaving only a relaxed tiredness behind. By the time Giles came in a few minutes later, their laughter had melted into spurts of giggles. The Head Watcher simply handed them two steaming mugs and quirked an eyebrow.

“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Buffy told him as she accepted her hot chocolate.

“Do either of you have objections to putting up Colonel O’Neill and his friends for the night?” Giles took her advice to heart.

Xander shrugged. “No, why?”

“Oh, he just told me they were going to have to leave soon to get back to the base they’re staying at. I thought, why not stay here.”

“Sure, but I want Willow or someone to put an alarm on their door.”

“Buffy.”

“Xander, we’re not chaining them up, but they could still be dangerous,” the Slayer overrode his protest. “It’s just in case. They won’t even know it’s there.”

Unable to argue with that logic, and knowing he wouldn’t win anyway if he did, Xander agreed to it. “Okay,” he sighed. “I’ll go ask them.” With that, he pulled himself to his feet and went in search of Jack.

~*~

“Hey Jack,” Xander’s voice interrupted the discussion around the dining room table. Jack and his team were solidifying what they knew and trying to come up with a report for Hammond and possibly Davis about the situation here. Top on his list of recommendations was a program that eliminated the need for underage slayers.

“Xander, what’s up?” he asked as his son joined them at the table with a cup of coffee. Jack wondered if there was any left in the kitchen.

“Giles said you have to leave soon. Do you wanna just stay here for the night?” he asked. “We’ve got plenty of space.”

“That’d be great,” Jack smiled, not very surprised by the offer but glad for it nonetheless. They needed to be back here in the morning anyway to see about the rogue NID agents and it would save them a long drive each way.

“Cool. So whatcha doing here?” Xander turned his attention to the loose-leaf paper Jack was writing on. “ ‘Intelligence, armament . . .’ You planning a war or something?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jack carefully. Considering the way Andrew had blown up over this, he wasn’t too sure he was ready for Xander’s reaction to his little brainchild. He cast looks to Daniel, Carter, and Teal’c, silently asking them if he should broach the subject.

“We were actually thinking of what we could do to help,” said Daniel, ever the diplomat. “From what you’ve told us, it sounds like a pretty big job protecting the world from vampires from out of Cleveland.”

“So when you say help, you mean have the military come in with intelligence and weapons and just do the job for us?” Xander looked from Daniel to Jack questioningly. So far, no explosions, that was good.

“That would be the long term goal,” said Carter. “With such a big project we would need a transition period but the ultimate goal is that the need for slayers would be gone.”

“Gone.” Xander let out a half laugh of disbelief, pulling Jack’s piece of paper over and looking at it one more time. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?”

A little taken aback by this response, Jack lifted his eyebrows and suggested, “Vampires? Ugly evil things? Look, I know we’re new to this stuff, but there’s got to be a better way to fight them than with little girls.”

Xander leveled his eye on him. “And what about the next hell god or when the First makes his next move? Will your soldiers be able to handle that?”

“True gods do not exist,” said Teal’c, but Xander wasn’t smiling when he turned to the Jaffa.

“Yeah? Tell that to someone who wasn’t there.”

Jack glanced down the table at Daniel and Carter who looked just as bewildered as he felt. But Xander went on.

“It’s not just vampires,” he said sitting back in his chair so he could see them all more easily. “And it’s not just demons you can kill by shooting. There are a lot of things out there that trying to shoot full of bullets will just piss off. Intelligence isn’t just finding out where they are either.”

“We realize it’s not that simple,” said Jack a little annoyed at being talked down to. “This is just a start.”

“You’re talking about setting up a system we already have in place,” Xander replied.

“Oh?” said Jack. This was news. Where was this marvelous system then? “You have people gathering info on all hostile movements? Backup standing by for Willow and Kennedy? Measures in place in case someone tries to end the world?”

“Yeah, us.”

Great. Jack sighed impatiently. That was hardly an answer and all this was getting nowhere. “Xander, training slayers hardly counts. We’re talking about an organized defense against all the supernatural crap. No more kids fighting and dying.”

“Taking them out of the action won’t protect them,” Xander shook his head. “You need the supernatural to fight the supernatural, and that’s the slayers. They’re drawn to it. The supernatural is drawn to them. Half your soldiers will be dead in their first skirmish. I’m not kidding, Jack,” he added when the older man opened his mouth to protest. He was dead serious. “I know you don’t like it,” he said a little more softly. “Most of the time I don’t like it either, but more people will die if we don’t do it our way.”

“What’s the system you have?” Carter asked into the ensuing silence. Xander broke off his staring contest with Jack and smiled sourly.

“Welcome to the North American Headquarters of the International Watcher’s Council,” he said.

“International Watcher’s Council?” Jack repeated, not sure he was hearing this. He looked around at the china cabinet and the framed Ansel Adams posters on the walls. “Here?”

“This is just the central operations room,” said Xander dryly, “also known three times a day as the dining room.”

“You’re saying that you run an international organization against vampires out of the dining room?” he asked.

Xander shrugged. “It’s the table. Giles actually runs the international part as Head of the Watchers. I just take care of the slayers in North America, though Mexico and all those little countries down there are getting transferred to the South American office once Willow gets set up.”

“Mr. North America,” Jack recalled Xander’s confusing statement from that morning. Xander was responsible for maintaining the safety of an entire continent? That was insane!

“Why have you been chosen for these positions?” asked Teal’c. “Would it not be more fitting for an elder generation to carry out these duties?”

“Because the ‘elder generation’ also known as the Stuffy Assholes in England Who Thought They Knew What Was Going On But Really Didn’t went kablewie two years ago,” Xander said, a little irritated. “Giles and about fifteen people he’s found since then are all that’s left of the old Council. That left us with a whole lot of new slayers all over the place so we decided to reform the Council so that it would actually help the Slayer instead of try to enslave her.”

“Wait a minute,” said Jack, holding up a hand to slow him down. There had been a bit too much information for him to process in that last explanation. “There was another organization before you that did the same thing?”

“No.” Xander corrected him. “There was an older Council that claimed to do the same thing. The Slayer was just their tool in the fight. They didn’t really do anything except cause trouble for us. It was about power,” he practically spat the same word Andrew had used earlier. “We still do what we’ve always done just on a bigger scale now that there are more slayers.”

“More slayers?” asked Daniel.

“There used to be one, Buffy. And I am so not explaining right now. Point is, we’re set up to handle it. You’d just be getting in our way.”

More complications, Jack figured. He could feel a headache coming on already. It sounded like some serious history, for what was clicking together in Jack’s head was the timeframe. Two years ago Xander had lost his eye, Sunnydale had sunk into the ground, and his girlfriend had died. That sounded like too much of a coincidence for comfort.

He almost asked what had happened but decided to wait until he and Xander were alone. Instead, he simply watched his son as Daniel tried to convince him that quitting would give him a chance at a better life, but Xander wasn’t having any of it. Jack saw the same determination in his eye that had been there out on the porch, when he’d asked about it. Xander was in too deep. ‘I’m talking about my life,’ he’d said just that morning. Jack had thought earlier that maybe he would see reason and let the soldiers take over, but once again, Xander’s deep seated mistrust of the military wouldn’t give ground, no matter what Daniel said.

“Look, the last time you guys tried to take over we had to bail you out,” Xander brought Jack crashing back to the present. “So just forget it already. The government tries to take over again we’ll stop you. And trust me when I say you don’t want to get Buffy or Willow mad.” But it was his first statement that got Jack’s attention.

“What do you mean ‘the last time we took over’?”

Xander sighed obviously wishing he hadn’t said anything. “It was called the Initiative. Top secret, obviously. Ended with a lot of dead soldiers. The ones that made it only did because we stepped in. They didn’t know what they were dealing with; you don’t know what you’re dealing with. And I don’t care about your good intentions, there’s always going to be some mad scientist who wants to play god and damn the consequences. So I’m telling you now, we will not let that happen again. If it does I’d stay away from that mountain of yours.”

Jack sat up at the words that sounded ominously like a threat. “Why?” he asked.

Xander glanced at him then at the others. “Buffy said something about blowing it up,” he said casually. And something in the way he said it made Jack certain he wasn’t joking around. “Come on,” Xander abruptly stood up, effectively putting an end to the conversation. “I’ll show you where you’re staying.” He left the room by way of the kitchen, and as Jack and his team got up to follow him, he knew that they’d be spending the night talking instead of sleeping.

Chapter Text

Force of habit woke Jack around six thirty the following morning. It took him a moment to register why the sun was shining from the wrong direction before the sight of the bunk above him reminded him where he was.

Xander had put them up in Diana and Vi’s room that had two sets of bunkbeds and its own bathroom. Unlike the guest room that he had stayed in over Thanksgiving, this room was well decorated with the lives of two teenage girls. Movie and band posters were on the walls, photos of friends were stuck into the mirror, and pastel colored curtains hung from the top bunks giving the room a homey feel. To look at it, he would never have guessed that the two girls fought vampires on a nightly basis.

He and SG-1 had stayed up the better part of the night talking about everything they had learned thus far, especially Xander’s denial of help the night before and all the other little bombshells he had dropped along the way, namely the Watcher’s Council and the Initiative project. Daniel had quickly jumped to their defense, saying they couldn’t really blame Xander for resisting what he essentially saw as a hostile takeover, even if it would benefit them in the end.

Jack hadn’t really argued; they’d run into too many situations offworld where this had happened for him not to see the broader cultural implications. But it still didn’t change the fact that having kids on the front line was wrong, and since they were dealing with the kids themselves, it was going to be very difficult to get them to see this. Jack wasn’t about to give up though.

Other than convincing Xander that they needed help, Jack needed to call the General today to report and Carter wanted to call her contact at the NID – the legit branch – to see if he knew anything. Yesterday’s revelations had completely sidetracked Jack from the actual matter at hand, namely Kinsey, the rogue NID, and how they were going to handle this mess, especially now that it had just gotten messier. He was positively dreading his call to Hammond.

Unable to sleep anymore, Jack got up and went to the bathroom. He really hoped today was better than yesterday. Maybe with everyone rested and not pulling secrets out of their hats, they could get something accomplished. Daniel and Teal’c were stirring when he returned, woken no doubt by his movements, while Carter was still curled up under the covers. Jack told them to go back to sleep in a whisper since he doubted anyone else would be up at such an early hour. Quickly, he dressed as quietly as he could and left the room, padding softly down the stairs. The house was peaceful for once though as he drew closer to the kitchen, Jack heard soft voices.

The kitchen was empty but a quick peak into the dining room showed Dawn and Courtney in their pajamas pouring over a laptop on the table. Neither one of them noticed him so absorbed were they in their work. Dawn seemed to be showing Courtney how to do something so Jack drew back from sight wondering why they were up this early but not wanting to intrude. Instead he kept an ear open as he searched the cabinets for coffee fixings.

“Willow showed me this one,” Dawn was saying. “It’s easier if you go to advanced search then try to do it there. That’s down here.” A few mouse clicks. “Then you type in the keywords,” now the sound of typing, “author,” more typing, “and sorted by date, latest first.” Another few clicks then, “Voila! All the papers and abstracts written by Dr. Jackson.”

Jack’s head shot up at this last. His attention riveted on the other room, he stared at the door as if he could see through it. Looking into Daniel now were they? Oh, this couldn’t be good. It took all of his self control not to go in there and find out what they had found. And how the hell did they find every paper he’d ever written on the internet?

“That’s a lot of papers,” Courtney commented quietly.

“They’re probably not all the same person,” said Dawn. “We can eliminate all these down here ‘cause they’re too old for him. Now we’ll go through the rest and see what looks right.”

“Won’t they all be right?”

“Nope. The computer just grabs everything that matches, even if it doesn’t fit exactly what we’re looking for. See? Jackson, C. We don’t care about what he wrote. Here, you want to go through and get all the Ds?” He heard some shuffling as the two girls must have traded places, then footsteps and he quickly turned away from the door and tried to look like he hadn’t been listening.

“Jack,” Dawn stopped short at the open door that separated the two rooms. “You’re up early,” she said recovering. She headed over to the fridge with her head held stubbornly up, deliberately not looking at him.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he replied as she pulled out the orange juice and turned to the cabinet for glasses.

“Us either,” said Dawn. She poured two glasses of OJ then looked up and said helpfully, “filters are in the one to the right.”

“Thanks.” He turned to the cabinet she indicated. He heard her go back into the dining room while he fixed himself coffee.

“I think I got them all,” he heard Courtney report then Dawn showed her how to do the next step of downloading the files they wanted. Next thing he knew, a printer was going in the background. Deciding he better interrupt before they read the papers from who-knows-whose-computers, Jack quickly scooped ground coffee into the filter, filled the top with water and set it to drip. A moment later he was in the dining room with two faces looking up at his abrupt entrance.

“Hey kids! Whatcha doing?” Jack asked cheerfully as if he didn’t know what they were up to. Courtney looked anxiously at Dawn but the older girl just shrugged, not seeming to care that he knew, her head again lifting slightly.

“Research,” she said vaguely looking back at the computer screen.

“Wouldn’t happen to be on, oh say, Daniel would it?” asked Jack in the same sarcastically cheerful tone.

“It’s a matter of public record,” said Dawn primly cutting her eyes at him, daring him to challenge her actions. “Perfectly legal.”

“Uh huh.” Jack didn’t believe her. “So where did you get the papers? They were just lying on the internet?”

“Actually yes,” she said smugly. “Database of academic journals and everything they’ve ever published.” She looked at him triumphantly, her eyes saying ‘beat that.’

“What makes you think you’ll find anything in there?” he asked.

“What makes you think we won’t?” she countered. “We have to start somewhere, unless you want to fill us in . . .” she trailed off hopefully.

“Does the word ‘classified’ mean anything to you?” he asked.

“Interesting?” Dawn suggested impishly. Jack had to stop an eye roll at that, wishing she would just drop it. Poking around Daniel’s past papers wouldn’t yield much direct information but it would lead to other questions that Jack would much rather not have raised. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much he could do about Dawn’s curiosity at the moment short of breaking her computer, and all that would accomplish would be postponing the inevitable and making her hate him.

“Some things are better left alone,” he said quietly, hoping to impress upon her the gravity of the situation.

“And some things shouldn’t be ignored,” said Dawn. Her large eyes caught Jack’s in a gaze that was both enchanting and too old for the face that held it. It wouldn’t matter what Jack said; she was going to look into it anyway. Nothing could stop that now.

With a resigned and frustrated sigh, Jack went back into the kitchen and stared at the coffee maker trying to straighten everything out in his head, but his thoughts were a tangled mess. It wouldn’t hurt anyone if they knew and kept it to themselves, but if they told others or let something slip or if the wrong people wanted to keep them quiet . . . There was more than one way to ruin a life, most a lot more unpleasant than a frontal attack – blacklisting, anonymous tips to local cops, a random hit-and-run accident crossing the street. Jack sighed. He’d seen them all, and damn it he didn’t want that to happen to anyone here, but what could he do? What a mess indeed.

He was still thinking about it and his options if the worst occurred when the coffee finally finished and even twenty minutes later when it was finally late enough for him to call the General. As much as he didn’t want to make the call he was glad to be distracted. He fished out his cell phone that was secured for just these purposes and stepped outside to dial the Mountain.

“Hammond,” the General answered the phone briskly.

“Good Morning, General,” said Jack with a cheerfulness he didn’t feel. Oh, this was not going to be fun.

“Colonel O’Neill, how’s the situation in Cleveland?”

“Oh, still here,” said Jack. “Xander really does have the NID locked up in his basement. I’m gonna call the base and get someone to pick them up.”

“Did he explain how he managed to get them there?” the General asked calmly.

“You’re not going to like it,” said Jack.

“Colonel.” He could hear Hammond frowning at him over the line.

“Yeah, so,” here went nothing, “do you believe in magic?” he asked.

“Colonel.” The General’s frown increased.

“I know it sounds ludicrous. Believe me, I know,” he ran his free hand through his hair. Once more he couldn’t believe he was defending the idea. “But just hear me out. Xander and his friends claim to use magic, and unless they’re hiding some Asgard technology somewhere . . .”

“Colonel, you’re saying that these people aided by magic captured a team of Black Ops trained soldiers?” Disbelief colored every syllable.

“Yes, sir. I don’t have all the details yet of what exactly happened,” Jack said, “but I did see the commandos sitting in the basement being held prisoner by a force field that is not being produced by any technology that I could see anywhere in the house.”

“What about some other technology that we are not aware of,” said Hammond, latching onto a rationalization for Jack’s insane babble. “Are they another alien race we haven’t encountered yet?”

“Could be, but I doubt it,” said Jack. The thought had crossed his mind last night but the kids didn’t act anything but human and had been all too surprised at the revelation that Teal’c was an alien. Xander was human; there was no doubt of that. And Jack couldn’t forget the sight of Andrew’s bite mark that looked like it came out of a Dracula movie. No, if they were aliens, they had at least been born on Earth and had a vested interest in protecting the planet. Ironically, it was this explanation that Jack should have believed but didn’t. “You want the really bad news?”

“Bad news?” Hammond practically growled. Yeah, he wasn’t happy.

“Two of Xander’s friends hacked the SGC, NID, and Groom Lake computers.” Silence on the other end. Jack figured he might as well tell him the rest before the storm broke. “And one of them figured out by looking at Teal’c that he wasn’t from Earth.”

“Colonel,” the General’s voice was heavy. “If they aren’t another alien race, I hope you have a very good explanation for this.”

“Magic?”

“Colonel O’Neill.” Clearly the General still didn’t believe him if the increase in volume was any indication.

“Sir, that was Xander’s explanation, and as crazy as it is, I believe him,” Jack immediately jumped in. “There’s more.”

“More?!” Hammond was about to blow a gasket and Jack was suddenly very grateful he was halfway across the country at the moment.

“Yes, sir,” said Jack. “Now I know this is going to sound just as insane but try to keep an open mind. I didn’t want to believe it either but too much of it fits together.” Jack took a deep breath to steel himself. “There’s another war going on against vampires and demons,” he said.

Hammond was silent. Jack gritted his teeth and squinted his eyes in preparation for the explosion, but in the end what came was far scarier. “Colonel, I sincerely hope you are pulling my leg,” the General said in a deadly quiet voice.

“Sir, I wish to God I was,” he said. “But I watched a girl break a four-by-four with her bare hands and I don’t think she’s an alien.” He then proceeded to tell Hammond everything they knew about slayers and the creatures they fought including why he didn’t think they were extraterrestrial, his desire to get the kids off the front line and Xander’s resistance to the idea. Jack kept the conversation short and to the point. “I’m hoping that Daniel will talk them round once he’s set loose on them,” he finished. “Xander’s right about one thing though. We can’t let anyone know about the superhero kids.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get to it,” said Hammond. He had listened gravely, asking a few questions here and there, but ultimately accepting Jack’s analysis of the situation on trust alone. “Right now we have to worry about the NID that you have there. Mr. Freyland asked about your retirement papers yesterday. He doesn’t know that the kidnapping failed.”

“So there’s a chance we can stick this to Kinsey before he can get his hands clean,” said Jack, visions of publicly humiliating the Vice-President-elect eliciting a grim smile.

“We will have to be careful, Colonel,” cautioned Hammond. “Chances are we’ll only be able to keep him away from your son. I expect a report once you’ve taken the agents into custody.”

“Understood, sir,” Jack replied.

“Colonel.” The General hung up, and Jack flipped his cell closed, looking out over the snowy back yard. He had a lot to think about.

~*~

Boxes of cereal littered the countertop when Xander finally dragged himself downstairs around nine. A little disappointed that it was Special K, Cheerios, or Life for breakfast instead of sausage and waffles, he grabbed the latter and a bowl.

Through the kitchen window, he saw Jack talking intently with his friends on the porch. He was tempted to go out and see what they were talking about, but it looked like the kind of conversation that would stop abruptly as soon as the door opened. Instead Xander took his cereal into the dining room, which, no surprise, held Giles, Dawn, and Courtney, the laptop, and a hell of a lot of paper. All three looked up and smiled with a brief ‘good morning’ when he came in but quickly returned to their work.

Since this was normal research behavior, Xander simply sat and ate his cereal, snagging one of the papers to see what was up. ‘Third Dynasty Upper Kingdom Extends South to Khmunu,’ he read the title of the article from, his eyes flickered to the top of the page, the Journal of Egyptology. Then the author caught his eye: Daniel Jackson. Feeling a little guilty on the man’s behalf he asked, “Does he know we’re looking up his stuff?”

“Jack does,” said Dawn glancing up, her pen retreating from the paper in front of her. “Since they’re not telling us anything . . .” she shrugged letting the rest go unsaid. But somehow, as curious as he was, Xander felt like they were violating a trust, especially since the man they were snooping was standing on the back porch.

“You know, I don’t think the Third Dynasty has much to do with aliens,” he said nodding at all the papers scattered about.

“It tells us that a really good archeologist suddenly quit his job and started working for the Air Force sometime in the last eight years,” said Dawn.

“How do you know that?”

“His last abstract was published in 1997 then nothing after that,” said Courtney with a quick glance at Dawn for approval.

“Abstract?” asked Xander, unfamiliar with the term.

“For scientific papers it’s the summary of the paper,” Courtney reached over and pointed at the paragraph set just under the title on the paper he held. “For talks at conferences, there’s just an abstract,” she pulled a single sheet of paper from a stack by Dawn who winked at Xander while the younger girl bustled around like a professional.

Xander smiled to himself at Courtney’s newfound expertise on abstracts, schooling his features when she turned back and handed it to him. It was entitled ‘Dating of Hanuptra Temple Pushes Back Age of the Great Pyramids.’ He tried reading the paragraph but immediately ran into words that he didn’t think Giles knew.

“So what’s it mean?” he asked waving the paper.

“It means that the Pyramids are older than everyone thought, according to Dr. Jackson,” said Giles succinctly, finally putting down the paper he’d been reading. Obviously he had known what a few of those words meant. “I’m afraid that doesn’t tell us much. Even in Watcher circles there isn’t much known about Egypt or the Middle East before the Crusades. What we have, or I should say had, was sketchy at best in terms of history, especially following the purging by the Muslims. Most of what survived over the years were the rituals and spell lore. Modern archeology has unearthed more than we ever had on our own given the written language barrier until the Rosetta Stone was found. I’m afraid I don’t know much more about it as the Council primarily ignored Egypt since demons tend to regard the area as taboo.”

“Any reason why?” asked Dawn at this new bit of information.

“No, no explanation has ever been found,” said Giles. “Some have speculated that it’s because of the desert. There’s also a theory that the gods protect the land, however I don’t believe that. The Egyptian pantheon are rather strong as gods go but they can only work peripherally in our dimension through the rituals that have been established.”

“That still doesn’t have much to do with aliens,” said Xander turning back to his cereal. It was a little soggier after being ignored.

“We have to start somewhere,” Dawn shrugged. “Hopefully it’ll give me ideas for when I start running the internet searches.” Xander didn’t have an answer to that. That’s how research worked; you started with what you could and went from there. Finishing his cereal, Xander left them to it and went back into the kitchen. This time he chose Cheerios, mourning slightly that they were regular and not Honey Nut, but oh well, couldn’t have everything. He was rummaging around in the cupboard for honey when the door opened behind him and Daniel and Teal’c came inside.

“Morning Xander,” Daniel smiled at him coming over and helping himself to a refill of coffee. Teal’c nodded but didn’t say anything.

“Morning. Sleep well?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Very well, thanks,” said Daniel. “I was wondering if we could talk later,” he said hesitantly. “After you get back from work or – ”

“About what?” Xander finally found the honey hiding behind two jars of crunchy peanut butter. Taking the cap off of the little golden bear he squirted a generous amount over his cereal. When he looked up both Daniel and Teal’c were watching him and his cereal curiously. “They’re plain,” he explained.

“Right,” Daniel started, frowning a bit at having been caught staring. “Well, I had some questions about what you do here with the . . . vampire fighting,” he got back to his earlier train of thought. “Jack was probably a little premature yesterday, but I still think we can help.” He blinked and set down his cup of coffee.

“Xander,” he said carefully. “I know the military isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, believe me I know.” He gave him a humorless smile. “And I realize it doesn’t help that you’ve had some bad experiences. But the military has a lot of good people, Jack’s one of them, Sam’s another. And we can help if you let us.”

“So what, you asking for a chance to convince us to quit?” Xander asked for clarity, not quite sure what Daniel was asking for.

“No, not at all,” Daniel hastened to explain. “For the moment we just want to learn a little more about what you do here. I promise we won’t try anything without your permission.” The archeologist looked at him earnestly, sincerity in every word.

Xander picked up his bowl of Cheerios and shoveled a spoonful into his mouth. They better not try anything without their permission. Things would get ugly for them both if they did. As for telling them what the Council did, hadn’t they already done that? Fight vampires, save the world, make everywhere a safer place. What more was there to know? Besides, full disclosure felt a little too much like baring their collective neck to the wolves.

On the other hand . . . Xander looked back at Daniel who still regarded him hopefully, and at Teal’c who had been worried about his and Jack’s relationship. Outside, Jack and Sam were still speaking. He’d given his word it wouldn’t go further than five people; he was worried about kids fighting and getting hurt. Above all, Xander trusted him still, and his friends. The question remained, was he being foolish by doing so?

“I’ll have to ask the Council Board members,” he finally answered.

“Of course,” agreed Daniel nodding though he didn’t look too pleased by the answer.

“How long will it take for a response from them?” asked Teal’c.

Xander shrugged and looked at the clock. “Six of us are here. Once Willow wakes up we’ll have to call England and Africa to get the other three on the line.” The others being Faith, Robin, and Vi who rounded out the Scooby Board which was composed of Giles and the chief slayer and watcher from each headquarters, as figurative as a few of them were.

“Africa?” asked Daniel.

“International remember?” said Xander. “Think the American military will help with that?” he asked sarcastically. Of course, Riley’s ‘anti-terrorist’ team worked out of South America but that was one squad in the middle of the jungle. How would they cover the world?

“You probably guessed we’re already intergalactic,” said Daniel with a wry grin and a nod at Teal’c. The reply startled a grin out of Xander even as he felt the weird dislocated feeling he got from thinking about aliens. Unable to think of anything to add, he headed for the dining room with his cereal. When Daniel and Teal’c followed he turned to them.

“I should warn you that they’re reading all the papers you ever wrote,” he told Daniel who only smiled.

“Jack said as much,” he said. “To be honest it’s a little flattering.”

“I’m just warning you,” said Xander, pushing open the door. All three gluttons for punishment looked up from their reading and glanced at each other then Daniel a little nervously.

“I hear you’re reading up on me,” Daniel said by way of breaking the ice as he and Teal’c sat down with Xander.

“Would be easier if you could write,” said Dawn playfully with a hint of a challenge.

“Excuse me?”

“She said you should learn how to write,” said Courtney heavily, rolling her eyes as only a thirteen year-old could. The open dictionary was by her elbow.

“Yeah, well,” Daniel smiled self deprecatingly, “I don’t think my writing cleaned up till I started writing reports on a regular basis.”

“Oh, what a wonderful idea –”

“Giles, no,” Xander cut him off before he could finish the thought. “We have so many other better things to do with our time.”

“Xander, we do need to document. Think of all the lovely reference books we *don’t* have,” he held up a hand to forestall the next protest. “And before you say it, I would never presume to ask you or anyone here to write anything. Posterity would never understand it.”

“Hey!” Xander lifted a threatening spoon.

“What’s ‘posterity’?” asked Courtney.

“I rest my case. Do you want the job?” Giles turned to Daniel, a playful glint in his eye. Xander could tell the senior watcher was just loving the presence of other old people.

“I know what it means,” Dawn gave Giles an unamused and slightly offended look.

“Yes, and when will you have time to write reports between university and translations?” Giles asked. “Not to mention everything else that will invariably come up.”

“You’re right. You should hire a secretary,” Dawn agreed readily.

“You do translations?” asked Daniel curiously.

“Someone has to,” said Dawn modestly. She grinned slightly and tried not to look like she was seeing if he was impressed. No crush his ass, thought Xander, but luckily for Daniel he didn’t seem to be aware of it.

“What do you translate?” he asked curiously.

“Other languages?” said Dawn eliciting a snort of laughter from Courtney.

“I believe Daniel Jackson is asking about what languages you translate,” said Teal’c perfectly serious, which only caused Courtney to giggle harder. The alien raised an eyebrow in her direction in apparent confusion, which made Xander sputter on his Cheerios.

“Are you all right, Xander Harris?” Teal’c turned to him and Xander managed to nod and swallow, a semi decent face presented to the alien before he took another bite. At that moment Teal’c added, “If you are not careful milk will come out of your nose. It is most uncomfortable.”

Xander lost it. Worst of all, milk did come out of his nose as he tried to keep from spewing cheerios all over the table. And did it hurt like hell! Giles and Dawn were immediately on their feet to rescue all documents in his vague vicinity while Courtney giggled uncontrollably in her chair.

“Teal’c, leave him alone,” said Daniel chuckling as well while Xander tried to learn how to breathe again. The alien quirked an eyebrow at his friend, and Xander was sure he saw the corners of his mouth twitch. Suitably recovered, he darted into the kitchen for a paper towel to clean up the mess he’d made.

“So what languages do you translate?” Dawn was asking Daniel when he returned.

“I can’t really talk about it,” said Daniel.

“Ah, yes, the infamous military secrets,” said Giles. “Do they include the age of the Pyramids?”

The lack of an immediate answer made Xander look up from his mess. “No,” said Daniel a moment too late. But the damage was done. And he knew it.

Giles sat back contemplatively. “I see,” he said softly.

“What?” asked Courtney, looking from one adult to the next. Daniel looked decidedly uncomfortable while Teal’c face had returned to its stoic mask, his gaze fixed on the China cabinet above Dawn’s head.

“Aliens built the Pyramids,” said Giles. “Am I right?”

“The Great Pyramids?” Dawn squeaked. “The ones at Giza?”

“Am I right, Dr. Jackson?” Giles repeated. Daniel and Teal’c looked at each other but remained silent. “Since you’re not saying anything, I can only assume that I am correct.” He removed his glasses, the hand that held them covering his mouth in thought. “This is . . .”

“Look,” said Daniel but Giles waved him to silence.

“Yes, yes, you didn’t tell us anything,” he said absently, his eyes finding Teal’c. “And though I’m sure the threats are very interesting, we can skip them if you don’t mind. Now what can you tell me about the Pyramids?”

“I’m afraid there is nothing we can say without the permission of General Hammond,” said Teal’c.

“We could give them the . . . you know,” Courtney stuttered to a halt as both Daniel and Teal’c turned stony gazes on her. “Or not.”

“Give us what?” asked Daniel, now looking from Xander to Giles for an answer.

“No one’s giving anyone anything,” Xander jumped in before more was spilled. They did not need the military knowing more than they needed to, especially if they did need to use the Very stuff later. Courtney was about to protest but Xander’s glare and Dawn’s gentle hand on her arm stilled the young slayer. It was into this tense silence that Jack and Sam walked into a minute later.

“Hey! . . .” Jack’s cheerful greeting fell flat yet still managed to break the spell that had fallen over them. “What’s up?”

“We figured out that aliens built the Great Pyramids,” said Dawn with equal false cheer. Xander winced at the obvious dare in her voice and waited for Jack to confirm with Daniel and Teal’c before he sighed in frustration, all traces of a good mood gone. He probably already needed an aspirin or six.

“Daniel,” Jack said tiredly.

“They didn’t tell us anything, though their silences were most telling,” Giles stepped in. “And there is nothing you can do about it now in any case.”

Jack met his challenging stare a moment before sighing, his eyes closing briefly. “Will you stop? Please?” asked Jack. “Just stop fishing for information.”

“Like you?” asked Xander innocently. Because if they were going to keep snooping around he wanted to have a little more blackmail material than ‘Look, aliens!’

“Xander.”

“No. You have been hounding us about what we do ever since you found out with no guarantee beyond your word that you won’t start stalking us,” Xander looked Jack straight in the eye. “You say it’s need-to-know and classified. Fine. So’s our info. And you already know all you need to.”

“Why don’t we both agree not to push any further right now and concentrate on the situation at hand,” Daniel cut in trying to calm everyone down. “Truce, all right?” He looked from Jack to Xander who continued to stare at each other.

Xander couldn’t tell what Jack was thinking. His face was closed off from all emotion, and watching him Xander couldn’t help but wonder when everything had gotten so screwed up between them. The fragile trust that had been growing was gone, replaced by sheer uncertainty about motives and methods. Now, he realized, instead of the slow steps into each other’s lives they were standing on opposite sides of the chasm after the wood had crumbled away beneath their feet.

“Truce,” said Xander hating the word that echoed from a battlefield. He looked away at the table, the papers, Giles who gravely held Daniel’s eyes.

“I called the base. They’re sending a team to pick up the NID,” Jack changed the subject back to their mutual problem. “They should be here in a couple of hours.”

“Dawn,” said Giles softly. “Would you go get Buffy, Willow, and Kennedy, please? We’ll need to do the memory spell soon.”

Without a word, the young woman rose and went upstairs. Jack and Sam joined the rest of them at the table, the Major snagging a paper as she sat. Not a word was spoken, the silence gaining pressure as the seconds went by. After what seemed like an eternity of avoiding each other, Dawn finally returned, standing nervously at the doorway, but the others weren’t with her.

“Xander, could you come?” she requested, her voice slightly strained, but she didn’t need to say anymore. Willow. In a heartbeat, he was on his feet and up the stairs. Buffy and Kennedy were with her in her room, her girlfriend standing in front of her, holding her hands, while Willow looked about to bolt.

“You are not going to fall,” said Kennedy with conviction. “You hear me? I’ll be right there with you. Buffy’ll be right there. If you even slip we’ll be there to catch you. You can do this.”

“I can do this,” Willow repeated. Despite her words, her voice was soft and high from hidden fear. “Sure, I haven’t done anything like this since Tara and it’s not nice magic and I haven’t used power like this for a long time and they’re people and – ”

“Willow,” Buffy interrupted gently with a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You’re not going to mess up. You’re strong. White Witch, remember? It’s all about how you use the power. It’s for the slayers’ protection.”

“But –”

“Wills,” Xander joined in, coming in and pulling his best friend into a hug. “You will be fine. We’re right behind you.”

“Promise?” Tension vibrated in every fiber of her being.

“Promise.” He gave her one last squeeze before letting her go. Willow smiled a little shakily at them, hands reaching out for both Kennedy and Buffy. She took a deep, steadying breath.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay.” Another breath. “I’m just gonna stay her a minute and get ready.”

“Take as long as you need,” said Buffy with a parting squeeze. Both she and Xander looked at Kennedy who nodded back. She would stay with Willow while she meditated and got her supplies ready.

“She’ll be fine,” said Buffy once the door had closed behind them, but her tone indicated that she was reassuring herself as much as Xander. He understood how she felt, a mix of fear and nervousness for their friend.

Willow’s uncertainty was disturbing. She hadn’t been this bothered by serious magic since last August when she’d had to do a rather nasty banishing that had relied heavily on some of the darker forces. This spell should have been a piece of cake compared to that, but Xander knew that the difficult casting was complicated by the raw emotions that Willow associated with this particular type of spell. Add to that the fact that she would be performing the spell on eight humans, and they had a very nervous witch on their hands. Xander just hoped they got through it in one piece.

~*~

Jack watched Willow disappear into the basement in silence from the dining room where he and SG-1 had been banished to wait. It was a stunned silence in the wake of the argument between Daniel and Carter and Buffy and Xander over whether or not they could watch the magic spell that was about to take place.

Xander had been the one to suggest a pencil in exasperation when Carter kept pressing the point about needing proof that magic really existed. So when Willow and Kennedy had finally appeared, he’d asked his friend to do it. She had. And it was sinking in once more for Jack that magic was real.

And so casual. Xander had simply called out when Willow and Kennedy had finally come downstairs an hour after he and Buffy had reappeared. Giles had already left for his meeting with Courtney’s relatives while Dawn and the young slayer had disappeared with Andrew into the back yard for a snowball fight.

It was just SG-1 in the dining room with Buffy. Xander had asked about floating something; Willow had raised her hand at the forgotten bowl that sat on the table. Even Carter had been speechless after that. They hadn’t seen anything like it since Cassie’s manipulated genetics had suddenly given her control over magnetic fields thanks to Nurtti’s experiments.

Not alien, he had to repeat to himself. Magic. Force of willpower that Carter couldn’t explain with quantum mechanics or magnets other equally obscure physics. Not alien because there was too much evidence against that.

When the door closed, Jack turned back to the table. His teammates were over their initial shock much as he was now. “So she’s going to wipe their memories,” Carter asked Buffy and Xander who had remained with them. Obviously not as comfortable with the idea as she seemed.

“Yeah,” said Buffy shortly, still irritated from the argument. She and Xander had been antsy ever since they had come back downstairs though neither had said why. Now that Willow and Kennedy were in the basement, their nerves had only escalated. Jack watched Xander keep glancing at the door.

“Is something wrong?” he asked a little irritated himself by his son’s obvious worry.

“No.” Xander shot him a startled look then exchanged a quick one with Buffy.

“She has done this before, right?” asked Jack, recalling their conversation on the porch. He really hoped she wasn’t doing anything experimental down there because in his experience that rarely ended well.

This time the young man quickly glanced away, not meeting Jack’s eyes. “Yeah,” he said quietly. Another look at Buffy then a return to the door.

“What happened?” asked Daniel softly picking up on the undercurrents that were shifting around them.

“God! Can’t you people just lay off?” Buffy snapped, abruptly getting to her feet and going into the kitchen. A moment later they heard the back door open and slam shut. A waft of cold air hit them in the dining room. All eyes turned to Xander who shifted uncomfortably at the sudden scrutiny of perplexed and worried adults.

“What happened, Xander?” asked Jack seriously. “Did someone hurt her mind with this spell?” His eyes briefly met Carter’s. Hell, they had all been mentally raped at one point or another. If that was the case then Jack understood her reluctance to have an audience as she confronted the thing that had hurt her.

But Xander seemed reluctant to answer. Finally, he said, “No, she wasn’t the one hurt. But you don’t mess around with magic, especially this kind of magic.”

“What kind is that?” Carter pressed.

“The dark kind,” said Xander, a slightly haunted look in his eye as he stared at the tabletop, obviously seeing something other than paper.

“So you think Willow’s might get hurt by doing this spell?” asked Daniel which only made Xander look up and snort humorlessly.

“The spell won’t hurt her,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if she can’t sleep tonight.” He gave a twisted smile that held anything but humor. “Bad memories.” He lapsed back into silence and refused to look at them, the conversation effectively over.

Jack and his teammates knew better than to push. In his mind, ‘dark magic’ echoed ominously. When Xander had first mentioned magic, the word had summoned images of disappearing tigers and fairies with a healthy dose of skepticism and searching for alien technology.

In fact once he’d calmed down, he had even wondered if it could be used to their advantage in the fight against the Goa’uld. But given Xander’s obvious discomfort with the memory spell, Jack wasn’t so sure now. Worst, he couldn’t even ask since Xander wasn’t in a sharing mood. Aside from the whole revelation, Xander hadn’t been in a sharing mood since they’d arrived. Given the circumstances, it was understandable Jack knew, but it also underscored the lost progress they had made.

Ah, who was he kidding? He and his son had barely scratched the surface of each other’s lives before, and even that had crumbled everything back to the stiff silences like the one that held them right now. And deep down, Jack felt . . . betrayed was hardly justified, but disappointed didn’t seem to cover it. Unsettled, Jack tried to put it from his mind, but watching his son fidget nervously and unable to do anything to ease his concerns, it was impossible. It was almost a relief when the doorbell rang.

~*~

Xander jumped in surprise at the unexpected noise then frowned, wondering who could be at their door at noon two days after Christmas. Nevertheless he went to answer it.

Two men in suits and overcoats stood on the front steps. While not identical in dress or looks, they wore matching expressions that could have been etched from granite. “Mr. Harris?” the man on the right spoke first.

“Yes,” said Xander cautiously. He didn’t like them knowing his name – that was not a good sign. Quickly he scanned the street and saw their inconspicuous car parked on the street in front of the house.

“I’m Detective Gladi and this is Detective Olus,” the man went on. Two badges flashed quickly before Xander’s eyes as his heart suddenly went into overtime at their words. Just what were detectives doing here? Now? Today? When they had eight people being held prisoner in their basement? If Xander had been a suspicious person he would have thought the two things were connected. And Xander was a suspicious person.

“What do you want?” he asked rudely, keeping his body squarely in the door so they didn’t get the idea that they could just walk into his house.

“Nothing to worry about,” Olus, the one on the left smiled. The action relaxed his face and made him much less threatening, which only served to heighten Xander’s suspicion. “There was a robbery at the Home Depot you work at yesterday and we just want to ask you a few questions.”

“We understand that you were working yesterday. We need you to come with us to the station to look at a lineup,” Gladi trailed off expectantly, his body turned to allow Xander to pass.

“Excuse me?” asked Xander, startled by this sudden request.

“We need you to come to the station to look at the lineup,” said Olus easily. “We have a suspect and since you were working yesterday, we need to confirm that he was indeed there. You boss said he saw you him in your section. Please, it’ll just take half an hour.”

“Look, now’s really not a good time,” said Xander with a frown. It had been pretty quiet at work yesterday, doubly so in the lumberyard. There had been maybe two customers that had come into his drafty section so he had spent most of the day doing inventory. And hey! Where were all the questions about yesterday? Cop shows always had the detectives explain the situation to people first. “What was stolen?” he asked.

“Sir, if you’d just come with us,” said Gladi, a look of irritation sweeping across his face.

“No, you tell me –” Xander never got a chance to finish as all of a sudden Olus sprang. The detective went for his hands first while Gladi went for his head with a cloth that was no doubt soaked in something nice and sleepy.

Xander jerked back and tried to get free with a shout of “Buffy! Help!” even as he noticed two more men materialize from the car, both with guns drawn. At his call, footsteps thundered from the dining room as Jack and his friends ran into the foyer only to stutter to a halt at the guns trained on them from the backup.

Xander yanked his head away from Gladi and tried to tear himself away from Olus but the latter held him fast as they dragged him down the steps. Instinct from years of fighting vampires and demons kicked in. As soon as his feet hit the next step down, Xander pushed out with all his might sending himself backwards with his full weight toppling over Olus and Gladi.

Overcast sky was all Xander saw as his body jarred loose from his captor, his head cracking painfully on another head. Shots rang out, cries, shouts, then the unmistakable sounds of fighting from the yard and all of a sudden Jack and Teal’c were on him subduing Gladi and Olus while Daniel and Sam got Xander safely out of the way onto the snow covered grass. All Xander felt was the stinging sharp pain in his head as the world around him blended together before snapping back into place.

“Ow!” Xander gently checked the integrity of his skull then stopped in surprise as he surveyed the scene. At his feet Jack and Teal’c were both kneeling on their respective captives who each had an arm twisted cruelly up their back. Olus wasn’t moving, his eyes glazed probably from a concussion, having taken the brunt of Xander’s fall. Gladi on the other hand squirmed, though Teal’c’s bulk effectively put a stop to any shifty moves that might free him.

Further out on the lawn the two goons who’d had the guns lay unconscious in the snow, dark colored guns and rocks on the ground around them. Buffy stood over one, toeing him with her green snowboot none the worse for wear. To the side, Andrew, Dawn, and Courtney stood similarly decked out in snowgear looking a little bewildered. Andrew hefted a snowball in one hand.

“Are you all right?” Jack twisted to look at him. Recognizing that he was still in mild shock, Xander nodded and expelled a deep breath.

“Peachy,” he said. “What I always wanted for Christmas. See the world from the inside of a black van. Now you’ve gone and ruined it.” Jack snorted at him but nonetheless a relived smile made it across his lips.

“More rogue NID?” asked Dawn as she, Andrew, and Courtney came over to them.

“I wouldn’t bet against it,” said Jack sourly as both Sam and Daniel nodded. Xander noticed another rock gripped tightly in Courtney’s hand. She had the look of a stunned rabbit but was quickly calming down. Buffy came up a few steps behind looking ready to kill someone.

“Jeez, what is it with these people?” huffed Buffy, this time nudging Olus’s arm when she stopped beside his prone body. “They’re like roaches or something. You kill one and there’s like a million to take its place.”

“Uh, Buffy? There’s only four of them,” Dawn pointed out.

“They get points for broad daylight,” the Slayer grumbled.

“Right.” Jack stood dragging Olus with him. “Let’s get these guys inside. Daniel, Carter, grab those two. I assume you want them in the basement?” he asked Buffy who sighed and nodded. She wasn’t happy about this, not at all.

While Jack and Teal’c took care of Gladi and Olus, Buffy offered Xander a hand up. “You all right?” she repeated Jack’s earlier question.

He shrugged. The pain in the back of his head was settling into a dull throb, nothing exciting. “If I were getting paid for this, I’d demand a raise,” he told her. “Think we can blackmail them for some cash?”

Buffy grinned. “I wish. Come on.” She tugged gently on his arm and led him into the house. “Let’s go see what we can beat out of this batch.”

Chapter Text

They ended up not throwing their four new prisoners down in the basement. Jack saw Buffy take one look at the closed door and think better of it. Instead she ordered the unconscious, groggy, or struggling agents into the sitting room, sending Dawn and by extension Courtney, for rope.

“Garbage ties would be better,” Jack told her before the two girls left the room. “They won’t be able to get out of those.” Buffy stared at him a moment before blinking.

“Right. Human,” she said and then nodded to her sister approving the change as she followed them out. Jack shook his head and let the comment pass. There was no time right now for processing the last two minutes. These men had to be taken care of first. And kindly questioned as to what the hell they thought they were doing trying to kidnap his son. Jack glanced back at Xander who was flapping Carter away while she tried to check him out.

“It’s fine. No stars, no birdies, and only minimal residual anvil,” his son was telling her. Carter had that exasperated but determined set to her jaw that said she was having none of it, a look Jack knew and hated well.

“Xander, let me check you out, or I’m calling a doctor.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need a doctor,” said Xander stubbornly.

“Fine, then we’ll take you to the hospital,” said Carter briskly. “Daniel, could you help me get him to the car?” Xander jumped back, wobbled a bit then refound his balance.

“Xander, just let her look at you!” Jack snapped, finally fed up with them. “If you’re really fine there’s no harm done.”

“I’m not going to the hospital,” Xander grumbled defiantly but allowing Carter to check his visual tracking nonetheless.

Jack rolled his eyes at Teal’c who raised an amused eyebrow. A moment later, Dawn and Courtney came back in with several lengths of rough rope.

“We don’t have any garbage ties,” she said apologetically as she held them out to him. “They’re all drawstring.”

“There were twist ties, if you still want them,” Courtney offered. “But they’re kinda short.”

Jack resisted a cutting a remark at the thought of hooking together bits of paper covered wire to restrain trained agents. The kid was only trying to help after all. “Rope’s fine,” he said, accepting a piece and efficiently binding his prisoner’s hands and feet. He went to help Teal’c with his live one while Daniel took care of the unconscious men.

Buffy was back by the time they finished, carrying with her a glass of water. Her face was unnaturally chipper as she smiled at Teal’c prisoner who was the only one in any condition to talk. “Are you okay?” she asked while Jack and Teal’c pulled him into a chair. “Don’t be so mean!” she looked indignantly at them, her eyes wider than normal. Jack had to restrain another snort at her obvious attempt at playing ‘good cop’. From the way he was looking at her, the agent wasn’t buying it either. “You want some water?” she asked him.

“No, thanks,” the agent said with sweet sarcasm.

“I really think you should reconsider,” said Buffy in the same innocent-little-girl tone.

“Oh, yeah?” challenged the agent. Jack had enough of this.

“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” he said. He stepped over in front of Buffy so he was squarely facing the agent. “Colonel Jack O’Neill, United States Air Force. The young man you just tried to abduct is my son. You,” he pointed directly at the man’s face, “are going to one of the finest prisons in the country whether you cooperate with us or not. You tell us who you work for and who you get your orders from and we’ll see about cutting a deal. So start talking.”

He had the agent’s complete, if insolent attention, and Jack briefly wondered if that’s what he looked like to the Goa’uld. It was damn annoying, so he figured it must be close. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Buffy staring at him, her innocent act gone and replaced by irritation that he had just taken over like that. But really, she wasn’t helping.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded of Jack, one hand dangerously settled on her hip.

“Interrogating the prisoner,” Jack shot back. “Being nice to him is not gonna help.”

“Fine. Hold this.” She handed him the glass of water then abruptly grabbed the agent by the front of his shirt until his face was inches away from hers. Jack made no move to stop her for the moment, wondering just what she was up to. “I know two things,” she said darkly. “One, you attacked my best friend. Two, you are going to drink that water.” As she said this, one hand let go of his shirt and twisted his jaw open. Panic flooded the agent’s eyes at this startling display of strength. Surprised himself, Jack had no time to protest as her other hand took the glass from his and poured it down his throat. Some dribbled down his chin but Buffy gave him no choice but to swallow the rest with her hand clamped across his mouth and nose. When it was over she stepped back.

“Now,” she said in a normal tone of voice, quite pleased with herself. “Tell me who you work for, who gave you your orders, who they work for, and what you were supposed to do here?”

And to Jack’s surprise, and the agent’s for that matter, he started talking. His orders were simple and came from a man named Kielly who from the looks Buffy and Dawn exchanged was familiar to them. Their primary objective was to apprehend Xander and take him to a secure facility in the countryside. The agent kindly provided them with the location. Their secondary objective was to investigate the disappearance of the first team. He didn’t know much more than that. They were just the field agents after all, following their orders like any good bad guy.

Once his guts were spilled, Buffy smiled, patted him on the cheek and punched him across the jaw, knocking him unconscious.

“Hey,” said Daniel. “Was that really necessary?”

“I don’t like people who kidnap my friends,” Buffy glared at him. She turned to Jack. “So did that mean anything to you?” she asked all business.

“Uh, not really. You?” he asked back, wondering if she’d share what she knew. Surprisingly, she did.

“Kielly was the one who sent the first group,” Buffy said glancing at her sister.

“We couldn’t find out who he got his orders from,” Dawn finished. “The rest is like what the others said.”

Jack looked over at Daniel who stared back then after a moment shrugged and nodded as if to say, ‘yes I’d tell them, but it’s up to you’. Given the vast amount of information Xander’s friends had uncovered already, it probably wouldn’t hurt. Besides, Jack didn’t think there was anything they could do about it without drawing more unwanted attention to themselves.

He turned back at Buffy. “The man who’s behind Kielly is Dick Kinsey,” he said.

A second or two passed while it sunk in, only surprisingly it was Dawn who exclaimed, “as in the next-Vice-President Kinsey?!” while Buffy remained confused.

“We have another Vice President?” she said. “That means we have another President too, right? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things? And how do you know?” she turned annoyed to her sister who sighed heavily in exasperation.

“Hello? Eighteen now. Got to vote for the first time.”

“Did you know about this?” Buffy turned this time to Xander who had rejoined them with Carter around the unconscious men.

“You were here for her birthday,” he said with a confused look at Jack who couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could Buffy not know it was an election year? It was impossible to ignore with all the news and ads and bumper stickers everywhere, even for him and he wasn’t even on the planet most of the time.

“No, the election. That’s the second one I’ve missed,” she whined. “That’s so not fair! I’ve got rights to exercise here, but noooo, too late! They’re gonna get out of shape and flabby and then where will I be? Stupid country,” she grumbled.

“You were saying?” Xander pointedly turned away from Buffy’s sour mutterings to Jack. “Our next Vice-President’s wants to kidnap me to get to you?”

“You’ve met him?” asked Courtney, awestruck by the idea of meeting such a famous person.

“He’s really not a nice guy,” Jack told her. “Quite a . . .butthole actually,” he quickly caught himself.

“It’s okay, you can say ‘asshole’,” said Courtney with a patient nod. “I’m not a kid, I’ve heard it before.”

“Good to know,” he nodded seriously, though that’s exactly what she was to him. And she really shouldn’t be swearing at her age. Across from him, he saw Daniel politely cover a grin with his hand. “Anyway,” he got back to the point. “To cut a long story short, he doesn’t like me, or us, or the fact that he can’t control our project, so – ”

“He wants to use Xander to get to you,” Buffy finished. She still looked a little put out from before. “You didn’t vote for him, did you?” she asked Dawn suddenly.

“It’s none of your business, but no,” the young woman replied. “Didn’t help though since Ohio did.”

“You tried and that’s what matters,” said Xander consolingly.

“Look, forget the election,” said Jack. “We’re stuck with him and there’s really not much you can do about that.”

“Hey – ”

“But,” Jack cut off Buffy before she went off. “He doesn’t know the attacks have failed yet.”

“What?” This was news to the kids.

“We know it’s Kinsey because he sent an aide to demand my retirement papers. Yesterday the aide was still asking about them. Kinsey doesn’t know,” Jack explained.

“We’re working with a contact in the NID about establishing a connection between Kinsey and these attacks,” said Carter. “If we can do that, then we have blackmail material.”

“Since our last blackmail is no longer any good,” Jack muttered. And damn Kinsey for getting away with it.

“Will it work?” asked Buffy. “I mean with sleeper cells he can just keep on attacking us until he accidentally finds out something he shouldn’t. I don’t want to deal with the military again.”

Carter looked at Jack and he read the uncertainty there. Buffy was right, as long as the rogue NID existed and Kinsey was in a position to gain from SG-1’s removal, he would keep trying, and eventually he would get through. Before he could put a reassuring spin on it though, the sound of police sirens intruded into their conversation.

“Shit!” Buffy spun to face the window. “Basement now!” she snapped gesturing frantically at the bodies on the floor. Jack made for the one in the chair only to be grabbed by the arm by Xander and pulled to the front door.

“Ready to play dad?” he asked humorlessly.

“I’ll be there in sec,” said Buffy, but Xander shook his head.

“I got it,” he said. “Just get them out of here.” They ended up having more time than expected. Jack watched with Xander as the two police officers went to the neighbor two doors down first who must have made the call. By the time they came walking up the front steps, the NID agents and Teal’c were hiding in the basement while Daniel, Carter, Buffy, Andrew, and the kids hung back in the TV room.

This time the officers were legit, and Jack got the chance to play the supporting role of the family patriarch to Xander’s superb storytelling. No, don’t know where the shots came from. Sounded almost like New Years firecrackers going off early. They were just as startled as the neighbors had been. They quickly got the kids inside just in case. The scuffle marks in the snow? Snowball fight, sir. The car is my dad’s here. The other cars belong to my aunt and uncle, do you want me to get them?

It didn’t hurt that Courtney poked her head around the corner, the image of a curious little kid wondering why the police were at her house. Satisfied, the officers left after a few minutes. Xander slumped against the door in relief, apparently he’d been more nervous than he’d let on.

“You’re good,” Jack commented mildly, both impressed and disturbed by how easy it had been to get rid of them. Xander was a good liar and he didn’t know how to feel about that. “Where’d you learn that?”

“From the Sunnydale police,” Xander grinned at the irony. He straightened and started for the den. “You wouldn’t believe what they called all the supernatural stuff that went on in town.” Jack had an idea, a certain two motherships coming to mind. Unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to ask as they joined the others.

“So Kinsey,” Buffy began only to be interrupted by a cry from the kitchen hallway.

“What?” Willow’s voice snapped.

“Uh oh,” said Xander. “I think she just found out about the new guys.”

Sure enough, two seconds later, Willow stormed into the living room looking madder than Jack had ever seen her. Her jaw was set and her eyes narrowed as they scanned the room. “They sent more?” she asked, her voice a shade lower than normal.

“Calm down, Willow, we already interrogated them,” said Buffy.

“Calm down? They came back. Again. I’ll calm down when I’m good and ready! Nobody gets away with attacking Xander twice!” her voice rose only slightly but its intensity doubled until she was practically hissing the words. From Xander’s and his friend’s reactions, this wasn’t a good sign.

“Willow, I’m all right. We took care of them,” said Xander with his hands outstretched in a calming gesture. Behind her, Kennedy made an aborted move forward, deciding to let Xander handle her girlfriend instead.

“Who sent them?” she demanded.

“We were just talking about that,” Carter started only to get a glare from the red head.

Who sent them.”

“Willow,” Xander snapped, getting in her face. “Get a hold of yourself! You’re losing it here and we can not afford that right now.”

“Come on, Will,” Kennedy stepped up this time. “Deep breath. I got you, all right?”

Willow visibly shook as she slowly inhaled and exhaled, her eyes closing. She allowed Kennedy to take her back into the kitchen.

“What just happened?” asked Jack looking from the kitchen hall to Xander who sighed and put his hands on his hips.

“That is why we really need to stop Kinsey,” he said.

“Or someone’s gonna get killed,” added Andrew quietly which earned him a scowl from both Xander and Buffy.

“Andrew,” Dawn elbowed him.

“What? You know it’s true,” the young man defended himself.

Buffy rolled her eyes at him. “It’s the magic,” she told Jack and the others. “Dark magic . . . messes with her. She’s normally not like this, but the spell . . .”

The spell that both she and Xander hadn’t wanted to talk about earlier. If this was what she was like now, Jack wondered how bad it had gotten before. He looked thoughtfully at Andrew who had scooted away from Dawn, pouting.

“So Kinsey,” Buffy said pointedly.

“Right, Kinsey,” Jack nodded. “Don’t care for him.”

“You already said that.”

“Oh, right,” Jack frowned. They had also covered just about everything else too. “We’re working on it.”

“That’s not good enough,” said Buffy, which made Jack glare at her. What did she expect, miracles? Magic? ‘Cause she was the one with the hyped up witch.

“Sorry, I left my wand in my other pants,” he said sarcastically. “There’s not much more I can do here besides wish he were gone.”

“So what are you doing exactly?” asked Buffy. She crossed her arms in front of her impatiently.

“We’re – ” began Carter again when Dawn cleared her throat and interrupted.

“Uh, Buffy, he said the w-word,” she said. Every eye from SG-1 turned to her in surprise.

“The ‘w-word’?” asked Daniel for them. What the hell was the w-word, wondered Jack. Wand?

“W-i-s-h,” she spelled absently still staring at her sister. Buffy looked at Xander like she had suddenly gotten an idea.

“Do you think there’s a patron demon for disgruntled voters?” she asked.

Jack stared at her, then looked at his teammates to make sure he wasn’t the only one confused – or rather blind-sided – by this sudden question. Just *what* was a patron demon?

“We could always ask,” said Xander quietly. And that’s when Jack noticed that Xander didn’t look too happy about whatever it was they were talking about.

“I’ll get Willow,” Dawn volunteered quickly, disappearing from the room.

“Uh, what’s going on?” asked Jack waving his hand to get their attention. “And patron demon?”

“And why is ‘wish’ a four letter word?” added Daniel.

“Because it has four letters. You know, more than three, less than five?” said Xander, oh-so-helpfully.

“So good to know you can count,” said Jack starting to really get annoyed with them and all their cryptic bullshit. “Now that we’ve cleared up that mystery not at all, care to fill us in?”

“Vengeance demon,” said Buffy right as Dawn, Willow, and Kennedy returned. “We’re gonna see about commissioning a wish to take care of Kinsey.”

“Oh, of course.” Jack turned to Daniel, Carter, and Teal’c. “We’re commissioning a wish,” he told them as if he knew what that meant. “Will it cost much?”

But they were ignoring him now. Instead Xander and his friends were standing in a loose circle around Willow who had arranged herself cross-legged on the floor. Exchanging nervous glances with Daniel and Carter, Jack didn’t comment, figuring, given her earlier outburst that that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.

And then she began to chant in some language that Jack did not speak in slow measured tones. He cast an inquiring glance to Daniel who was concentrating on the words that he apparently understood. The linguist sidled up to them so their whispers wouldn’t disturb the proceedings.

“She’s praising blood and vengeance and asking someone – can’t quite distinguish the name – to speak to them,” he said, he listened a little more and grimaced. “That’s gross.” But he didn’t elaborate. Assuming it was more of the same, Jack watched with the others. There was nothing spectacular about it; it was more like a ritual than anything magical. If this was a spell, Jack was beginning to doubt that it worked or that any spell actually would.

And then, before he could even finish the though a burst of flame erupted in front of Willow a figure in its midst that was not human colored. Jack blinked. This was new. Maybe not surprising after all the things they’d seen on other planets, but definitely new and there was a freaking holographic fire in the living room! That talked.

~*~

“Who dares summon me?” a deep booming voice echoed through the room. Xander rolled his eye at all the dramatics. “Bow before the great and powerful – oh, it’s you,” D’Hoffryn said in a lighter normal tone of voice, standing face to face with Buffy.

Abruptly, the fires went out and the demon dressed in long robes put his hands on his hips with an annoyed expression on his face. “You know, I really don’t like you very much.”

“Good to see you too,” said Buffy dryly.

“So glad we had this chat. I’ll just be going now.” But before he could do more than wave, Willow’s voice snapped out.

“Hold it right there, mister. We’re not finished with you!”

“Willow!” D’Hoffryn turned with a look of genuine delight crossing his face. “I thought it was you! A little tang of the bitter in the casting. Say, you’re not going on a rampage are you? ‘Cause we can do this later. I’ve got five to one on you cracking within the month and a little revenge served cold would turn this whole unpleasant summoning into my lucky day. I’ll even give you a cut of the pot.” His voice dropped to a pseudo whisper. “Succulent Mihratti spawn. Very hard to come by.”

Willow glared at him, her nose wrinkling in disgust. “Eww, no,” she said. “Unless I start on you.”

“Ooh, aggressive,” D’Hoffryn grinned. “You’re not by any chance accepting the job?” When Willow glared harder, he merely grimaced. “I though not.”

“But we do want to make a wish,” Buffy jumped in.

That stopped the demon cold. Slowly he turned to face the Slayer. “You?” Disbelief was etched into every line in his body.

“Yes, us.”

D’Hoffryn glanced at Willow, obviously wondering why she wasn’t taking care of it personally. “Must not be such a pressing need if no one’s been called to you,” he said as he swept his eyes over them all. “But I’ll bite. In as much gory detail as possible please.”

“There’s a politician that wants to kidnap Xander. We want to stop him by wishing him out of power, or something,” Buffy smiled.

Xander suddenly found himself under the D’Hoffryn’s smoldering gaze for a moment before the Demon Lord slightly bowed his head to him. “We were very sorry to hear of your loss. Anyanka is dearly missed by all.”

Startled by the sudden sympathy, Xander nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He felt a lump rise in his throat and hastily swallowed it down before it could choke him. Out of the corner of his right eye he noticed Jack watching him but he pretended not to notice. Instead he focused on the conversation unfolding between Buffy and D’Hoffryn.

“Now, about this wish,” the Demon Lord was saying. “Normally I would say, ‘yes’ with copious amounts of glee, but I know you too well for old fashioned trust.” He gave them an insincere smile. “It’s going to cost you.”

“What do you want?” asked Buffy, her chin rising stubbornly.

D’Hoffryn’s teeth gleamed white. “I want a bound contract that forbids you meddling in the vengeance business forever.”

“Forever, huh?” Buffy snorted at the stipulation.

“Since you have a bothersome habit of not staying dead . . .”

“What’s this ‘bound contract’ thing?”

Willow cleared her throat and answered this one. “Umm, it means that you forfeit your soul if you, you know, break the contract.”

“Like The Little Mermaid?” Andrew squeaked. All heads swiveled to where he stood by Dawn, suddenly shifting uncertainly. “You’ve all seen it, too,” he mumbled defensively.

“Yes, delightful film,” said D’Hoffryn. “Only you won’t just be losing your voice and no amount of kissing will save you.”

Xander tried to banish the image of D’Hoffryn singing Disney songs because that was just disturbing. “Who would have to sign this contract?” he asked.

“All of you. No meddlers allowed.”

“Just me,” Buffy bartered. “No one else will be able to stop a wish on their own.”

“What do you take me for, a fool?”

“What do you mean ‘meddle’? Because that’s pretty vague,” said Willow. “We’ll need a precise definition before we cast any contract.”

“Can I be the Party in the first part?” asked Xander which only earned him his own set of confused looks. “Never mind.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to work for me?” D’Hoffryn asked Willow. “Christmas and Easter off.” All he got was another glare. “Darn it,” he sighed.

Buffy claimed his attention then as she started haggling with him over what constituted interference in the job of a vengeance demon. Basically he didn’t want a repeat of what happened with Anya. Buffy didn’t want to be limited in her response to threats on humans. It didn’t take long for them to realize that this was going to take more time than they had thought so Buffy invited D’Hoffryn into the dining room with her and Willow.

Xander watched them go, not feeling like listening to them squabble, remembering the last time he’d seen D’Hoffryn when he’d killed Halfrek to take back Anya’s wish and remove her powers.

Kennedy, Dawn, Andrew, and Courtney drifted away as well, the teenager asking a million questions about why Buffy had summoned and not killed the demon. The complicated story of the grayness that was their life, thought Xander when he overheard. The bad guys are not always who they seem to be, and even the bad guys have their own rules and ambiguous morality that can be useful from time to time.

“So, you know each other?” Xander started at Jack’s voice by his side, the older man having joined him now that details were being hammered out.

“Yeah,” he replied. A quick glance showed Jack looking surprisingly calm about the whole demon summoning.

“And he’s not an alien?”

“Demon. Well, demon lord, I suppose,” amended Xander. “His deal’s vengeance.”

“Who’s Anyanka?”

Xander swallowed. “Anya.” He could feel Jack’s surprise but refused to look at him and offer an explanation.

“Anya as in . . .”

“My ex-fiancée.” The other three looked at him sharply at this, Daniel and Sam clearly surprised and Teal’c doing the eyebrow thing that seemed to be the only way he expressed emotion. All three glanced at Jack, taking their cue from him.

“Oh.” Jack was quiet then putting the pieces together, “She didn’t look like – ”

“She was human while we were together.” Xander just decided to ignore the rest of them; he didn’t care what they thought anyway. Nonetheless, his eye darted to Jack to see how he was taking it.

“Oh.” Jack was calm as before. No judgement, no anything, and Xander wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He expected something more reactive than acceptance, but the shock might still come later he knew. For the moment, Jack was an unreadable mask. “So that was a . . . demon?” asked Jack again. This time Xander just looked at him. Hadn’t they already been over this? “I thought you, you know, killed them.”

Not just Courtney had questions then. “D’Hoffryn doesn’t really exist in our dimension. He’s from somewhere I can’t pronounce,” Xander shrugged. “He’s actually not so bad for a demon if you ignore the people he kills.”

“Always good to have murderous friends,” said Daniel sarcastically, a little anger mixed in with the shock on his face. Xander let out a humorless snort at how true that was.

“He may be a bastard but he’ll take care of Kinsey,” he said. With both Buffy and Willow working on him, Xander had no doubt of that. “And that’s what’s more important right now.”

“When you say take ‘care of’ . . .” Sam let the question hang.

“That’ll be up to us. Whatever vengeance we wish upon him. That’s how it works,” Xander explained. “We won’t kill him or anything. Willow will probably come up with something good.” Though, now that he thought about it, in her current mood, she really shouldn’t be deciding anything. She might choose something rash and permanent. He looked at the dining room door anxiously. Buffy wouldn’t let her do anything stupid.

“Wish, huh?” Jack gave him a measured look. “Guess we better be careful what we wish for.”

Xander nodded. “You have no idea,” he said.

~*~

Jack waited for Xander to elaborate sensing a story there, but his son didn’t seem to want to share. Instead he patiently answered Carter’s other questions about how this ‘wish’ thing worked. It didn’t sound too bad overall as it was restricted to the creativity of the human wisher. But then again, humans could be very creative in thinking up punishments, Jack knew, especially if they didn’t think they would be carried out. A messed up system after all.

Why were they talking with this guy, thing, again? And how did they know him in the first place? Though Jack could probably guess given the rather interesting conversation that they had started out with. And the mention of Xander’s ex-girlfriend who had died two years ago when a lot of other nasty crap seemed to have gone down.

Jack sighed to himself and looked behind him for an armchair to fall into. Too much information in bits and pieces had filtered in over the last few days. God, had they really arrived just yesterday morning? So much had happened.

“Your planet is full of surprises, O’Neill,” Teal’c interrupted his thoughts sitting near him on the couch. “I never expected to see a creature appear in fire in someone’s living room.”

“You and me both,” Jack commented his gaze flickering back to Xander who was still speaking with Carter while Daniel listened with a reluctantly interested expression on his face.

“There are no limits,” Xander was saying. “If the girl you cheated on says she wants your, you know,” he stuttered embarrassed, “to fall off, it’ll fall off in the most painful way possible. Probably with boils.”

Jack shuddered at the mental image, noting that both Carter and Daniel looked away uncomfortably at the example.

“Is he suggesting what I think he is suggesting?” said Teal’c with a non-expression that bordered on distaste.

“I think so, yeah,” Jack nodded, shifting in his seat slightly. It was just painful to even think about. He almost missed the Jaffa warrior subtly doing the same. But he did, and it made Jack feel immensely better for as much as Teal’c was his unflappable friend it was still nice to know that he was flappable.

The ringing of a phone prevented any further discussion. It was the normal ring from the kitchen that Xander hurried out to answer leaving SG-1 on their own. They were all silent as they glanced at one another to see how everyone was taking the last ten minutes.

“Well, that was oddly familiar,” commented Carter. “I think I’m less surprised than I should be.”

“Wait till the lack of technology settles in,” suggested Daniel with a wry smile. “Then it’ll start to bug you.” Carter nodded and smiled at that as did Jack, all of them knowing how true it was. The archeologist’s smile however quickly faded away.

“Daniel?” Jack asked what was wrong. His friend sighed, a hand coming up to rub the back of his head.

“Nothing. I think it’s just bothering me already,” his lips twisted up as he glanced at Carter. “It’s just . . . anyone else feeling out of our league? I mean we see cultures that are simultaneously similar and different from ours, or what we know of, all the time. We face hostile . . . ss,” he caught himself in time, “too but they’re never so . . .”

“Flamboyant?” Jack couldn’t resist.

“That,” Daniel acknowledged not rising to the bait but smiling a bit anyway. “Or just . . . personable. When was the last time an enemy of ours offered us Christmas and Easter off just to switch sides?”

“When was the last time Hammond gave us Christmas and Easter off?” Carter asked back dryly.

“Good point. Think we should switch sides?” asked Jack.

“Leave the service of the SGC for a demon lord?” Teal’c looked amused.

“Hey, we can be patron demons of . . . intergalactic victims,” Jack threw out there. It didn’t sound half-bad actually.

“I believe many of the System Lords already see us as such,” commented Teal’c. “An official title in addition would make us that much . . . more intimidating.”

“Teal’c, it’s okay. No one’s here to overhear you say ‘cool’,” Jack patted him on the knee reassuringly. Both Daniel and Carter grinned at this as they came over to join them in the sitting area.

“Do you think this wish will really work, sir?” asked Carter after a moment.

Jack shrugged. Honestly, he didn’t have the first clue. He was tired of thinking of all this crap. “Xander does,” he said, and as he did he realized that despite the ludicrousness of everything, it was enough for now.

~*~

When Xander answered the phone he half expected it to be Giles and so was surprised when another familiar voice answered his crisp ‘hello.’

“Xander?” Riley Finn queried from who-knew-where.

“Riley!” said Xander delighted at hearing his friend’s voice. “You called!”

“Yeah,” Riley chuckled at the obvious.

“I mean, of course you called since you’re on the phone,” Xander stopped, realizing that smoothing it over only made him sound more like an idiot. Then the present finally caught up with him and he remembered that he was the one who had called Riley first, or rather the long chain of flower shops that kept them in touch. “I’m glad you called.”

“Yeah, I heard you were having some troubles.”

“Standard kidnapping that leads all the way back to the Vice President and something top secret in Colorado,” Xander explained. “You probably figured out we don’t want certain other things known to the nosy government beyond you.”

“That wasn’t in your message,” said Riley clearly surprised. “Did you find out why they wanted you?”

“You’re not going to believe this,” Xander began with a grin. He still almost didn’t believe it himself. Briefly, he told Riley about Jack and what they had found out so far – which wasn’t much beyond the next VP wanted control of the top secret project that Jack worked on. Riley listened patiently and when he was done ten minutes later, was silent for a good minute taking it all in.

“I got a call from the Pentagon about an hour ago,” he finally said. “Someone from the Air Force was asking about the Initiative. We don’t use that designation anymore.”

Xander winced and said, “I may have slipped when I was trying to convince them not to interfere.”

“It’s all right. Actually makes it easier for us, since we know the source for sure.” Riley didn’t sound bothered in the least. “Since I’m the Council liaison, the Pentagon is going to reroute all inquiries to me. We won’t be able to take care of the rogue NID – I didn’t even know there were rogue cells. There was supposedly a purge a couple of years ago . . . Anyway, we’ll handle the Air Force and anyone else we can get our hands on. The brass doesn’t realize how important you guys are so they pretty much leave everything to me and Sam. They’ve got other countries to worry about.”

“So you’ve heard about these NID?” asked Xander surprised.

“In black ops, you pretty much hear fairy tales about every other black ops out there. The Air Force in Colorado is one of the best kept secrets in the world. Ours might be better only because we’re so small and no one cares.” Xander smiled at the touch of both pride and jealously in Riley’s voice. “The aliens don’t surprise me, though I’d bet they’re not all happy and nice like the one you’ve met.”

Xander nodded to himself, details flitting about in his head. The strange story of how Jack and Daniel had met, the midnight summons the night he’d gotten Courtney, the absolute synchronicity of the four member team. You didn’t get that close by simply working together. “I wouldn’t bet against you on that.”

“Yeah.” There was another pause. “So,” Riley said. “New dad, huh?”

“Yeah,” Xander sighed himself now.

“How’s that working out?” Riley sounded hesitant.

“Until the whole I-fight-vampires-slash-my best-friend’s-an-alien mess, surprisingly good. I haven’t managed to scare him away yet.”

Riley chuckled again. “No offence Xander, but you come across as a fuzzy puppy most of the time. I doubt you’ll scare him away.”

“Hey! I resemble that remark!” Xander mock huffed. Riley laughed this time.

“Seriously, though,” he said calming down, “you good with it?”

“Yeah,” Xander breathed. “But you should probably call me again tomorrow.”

“Just let him know that a team of commandos will come after him if he tries anything. And we don’t scare so easily.”

This time Xander laughed. “He’ll be the armless turnip whose body you might not be able to find.”

“Noted,” he heard Riley laugh again, a light relaxing sound that Xander suddenly missed in person. He’d only been around for about a year, but he had been a Scooby, one that Xander had probably understood better than anyone. And they had been friends – still were if the death threat on his behalf was any indication.

“Hey, Riley,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad you called.”

“No problem.”

They chatted on for a few minutes about the Council and how everyone was doing. Xander reassured Riley that they had the Kinsey problem in hand with D’Hoffryn. Riley promised to get back with them soon about the Air Force and to give Sam a hug and a kiss from everyone.

By the time Xander hung up and rejoined Jack and his friends in the den, Buffy, Willow, and D’Hoffryn emerged from the dining room, all three looking pleased with themselves. Xander wondered if he should tell Buffy about Riley’s call, but decided to wait, since her ex would be calling back in a few days anyway.

“So we ready for a little wishfest?” he asked everyone rubbing his hands together in anticipation. His conversation with Riley had left him in a good mood and ready to kick some ass, albeit from a thousand miles away.

“Quite!” said D’Hoffryn. “Once Willow and I cast the paperwork, I’ll send Norman right over.”

“Norman?” Jack lifted his eyebrows in surprise at the name.

“Patron of oppressed constituencies,” D’Hoffryn smiled as he explained. “We changed his name after he accepted the position.”

“What was it before?” asked Jack. Xander knew he had to be as curious as he was about how bad his name must have been before if he had changed it to Norman.

“Charles Guiteau. He’s really quite good.”

Norman still wasn’t a better name, Xander shook his head at the notion. It took a moment for him to realize that Jack was looking at D’Hoffryn funny. His teammates having already picked up on it simply looked nervously between the two, Daniel’s brow furrowed in thought that a second later cleared up and he too stared at the demon.

“The guy who assassinated Garfield?” Daniel asked.

What? thought Xander. “Garfield? Garfield isn’t dead,” he said. In fact Garfield couldn’t be dead because Sunday funnies would never be the same. A sudden rush of panic hit him as he suddenly wished he’d looked more closely at the paper last weekend.

“Isn’t Garfield a cat?” asked Buffy who didn’t read the comics and hadn’t realized the full implication of what his assassination meant yet.

But now for some reason, Willow and the four adults minus Teal’c were staring at them like they were talking crazy. D’Hoffryn merely looked amused.

“Please don’t tell me they cancelled him,” said Xander softly.

“Um, Xander, I think he meant President Garfield,” said Willow slowly.

“We had a fat cat as president?” said Buffy. “Where was I when all this happened?”

“Sleeping through history after saving the world?” suggested Willow. “President Garfield was a man who was elected in the late 19th century and then assassinated while in office.”

“Oh,” Buffy looked at Xander who felt his face flush with embarrassment. He gave an apologetic shrug and shook off the feeling that he wanted a hole to swallow him right now, because so not a good thing to think on a hellmouth.

“Ah, that was so beautiful,” said D’Hoffryn nostalgically. “He has done wonders since. And he just keeps getting better. You remember the election of 2000? Marvelous!”

“There was an election in 2000?” mumbled Buffy. “Why does no one tell me these things?”

“You’re mom got sick,” said Willow quietly.

“Oh. Right.” A shudder of old grief brushed over Buffy in the blink of an eye before she shook it off and got down to business. “So Norman will be here Friday,” she said. “And all of us in the house except them have to do the bond thing.” She gestured toward Jack and his friends, excluding them from the circle.

Willow must have called out for the others mentally because a minute later the four younger Scoobies arrived. The actual bound contract spell didn’t take that long to do. Both Willow and D’Hoffryn cast simultaneously and checked each other’s spells. The final product was a conjured piece of paper that had to be signed by everyone along with a donation of hair. That was it. D’Hoffryn left then with a cheery goodbye in much better spirits than in which he had arrived. As if on cue, Jack’s phone rang.

“O’Neill,” he answered. He listened for a moment then said, “thank you, Sergeant,” and hung up. “The pickup crew from the base will be here in twenty minutes,” he told the rest of them, which sparked another flurry of activity.

Willow and Kennedy ran off to get the ingredients for the memory spell for the remaining four monkeys in the sitting room. Giles returned with Courtney’s aunt and uncle at about that time and suddenly Buffy was dragging him off in one direction to talk about D’Hoffryn while Xander and Dawn tried to explain away the bodies and the magic making without coming off as completely out of control trouble magnets. Lucky for them, Giles had done a good job talking the Laysans around.

By the time the couple was safely in the dining room with coffee, the Air Force guys had arrived for the prisoners, all now happily unaware of anything strange in the house like invisible one-way walls. After they left it seemed like a tornado had come and gone. Xander stood in the doorway watching the van drive away and hoping that none of the neighbors had noticed too much. When silence once more held sway, he finally noticed that he wasn’t alone on the stoop.

~*~

“Hey,” said Jack. He took another step out the door, closing it behind him.

“Hey.” Xander glanced over his shoulder to look at him. “You know, there’s this thing called heat inside.” He turned to go in, but Jack raised a hand to stop him.

“In a minute.” His words halted Xander in his tracks and the young man gave him a wary look.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I just got a call from Hammond,” said Jack. “We gotta get back.” If anything, Xander became even stiller.

“When?” he asked, the wariness replaced by something else.

“We’ll leave tonight.”

“That’s sudden.”

“Something came up.”

“Classified, huh?” Xander smiled, looking away, looking anywhere in fact except at Jack. The older man didn’t know if he was hurt by that or not, but some things were not meant to be shared. From the looks of things here, Xander had enough to keep himself busy without the added worry of alien attack. If only Jack could say the same now that he knew the truth.

Instead of replying to that, he mentioned the other thing the General had passed along. “Hammond got an interesting phone call today,” he began. “Not too long ago from the Army liaison with the International Watcher’s Council.” Xander blinked, a smile blossoming across his face at the news. “Didn’t know you kept in touch with the Army,” Jack went on. His son’s reaction confirmed another secret that had been held between them. But Xander shrugged and crossed his arms across his chest.

“Just Riley,” he said. “That was the guy that called, right?”

Surprised, Jack nodded. “Agent Riley Finn. No rank was given.”

“He’s Buffy’s ex-boyfriend. He called earlier.” Jack looked up sharply, again surprised. Xander grinned suddenly. “You can add him to the list of people to avoid if you ever hurt me.”

“A friend then?” For some reason that was a relief, probably because it meant that Finn could be trusted if he had managed to win Xander’s trust. Jack was beginning to learn how hard that was if the last two days were anything to go by. But he must have done something right because here they were each with their biggest secrets at least partially exposed and nowhere to hide. And hey, still talking to each other.

“So leaving tonight then,” said Xander. “You don’t have any other big surprises for me, do you?” he asked half-jokingly.

“Do you?” Jack asked back as he shook his head ‘no.’ Xander responded in kind. Another heavy silence fell between them, as seemed to happen too often. Neither one of them knew what to add. “I didn’t totally screw this up with you, did I?” Jack finally asked, pleased when Xander smiled albeit a little self-consciously.

“We’re friends, right?” he said though the statement held more hesitation than it should have. And though it felt like a rejection in some ways, Jack smiled anyway and didn’t let it show.

“Friends,” he repeated firmly. But he had nothing to add to that because he wondered if they really were friends, each of them leading a double life that only dire circumstances had forced them to admit to. All assumptions were gone now, all points of reference because how had anything either of them had said not been tainted by half-truth or outright deceit?

“So,” said Xander.

“So,” said Jack staring at an old eye in a young and wounded face. He remembered his surprise when he had first seen Xander in person, wondering if he’d be given a chance to get to know his son. Now he wondered if he knew too much.

He stuck out his hand. “Mr. Harris,” he said formally. “I’m Colonel Jack O’Neill, United States Air Force. I work on a top secret project in Colorado and I’m your biological father. My favorite color is blue and I don’t like chicken.”

Xander stared at him as if he’d gone mad, and Jack thought for a second that he wouldn’t accept his hand. But he did.

“Xander Harris,” a strong, warm hand clasped Jack’s. “I’m a carpenter by trade but I work at Home Depot by day and as Chief Watcher of North America for the International Watcher’s Council by night. My favorite color is sunshine yellow and I don’t like pot roast or broccoli.”

Jack smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Chapter Text

Friday, January 7th Xander reveled in the absolute quiet around him. For the first time in months he had the house entirely to himself. This included everything in said house, notably the TV and the remote control, access to the kitchen and all the goodies he had unearthed in the pantry that was usually under Andrew’s strict watch. Almost gleefully, he settled in the best spot on the couch with his cheddar popcorn, NuttyButty’s, and Cherry Coke ready for a night of channel surfing and brain rotting.

The last week had been long. After New Years, everyone had gone into a state of panic as they suddenly realized they were leaving for other continents. Willow and Kennedy were now somewhere in Brazil while Giles and Buffy were on their way to Europe. Courtney had gone to her new home in Missouri with her aunt and uncle, phone numbers and email addresses in hand along with a promise to pick her up for summer training. Vi and Diana had finally gotten back from their vacation to England and were presently out with Dawn and Andrew seeing a movie and no doubt getting the lowdown on the Great Christmas Caper of the US Government. Xander didn’t care, just as long as they were gone and stayed that way for several hours. He needed time to himself to chill out, relax, and generally miss his best friends who were now a world away. But he wasn’t going to think about that now. No, he was going to vegge out and watch whatever he wanted and eat all the junk food he could.

So it was when he had finally gotten into an episode of That 70’s Show that the phone chose to ring. Given that it was either an international call or another attempt on the hellmouth, Xander sighed to the empty house and went to answer it.

“Hello?”

It was neither. “Xander?” Jack’s voice queried over the phone. Xander suppressed another sigh. He really didn’t want to deal with this now. This was the first and probably last time he’d have the house all to himself, dammit. And they’d found out last week that despite an unspoken promise to start afresh, they really had very little to say to each other.

“Hi, Jack,” he replied anyway. He couldn’t just hang up like he was a telemarketer. And as long as it wasn’t Xander footing the bill he could afford not to make things worse between them. He did after all like the guy.

“Hi, how are you doing?”

“Good, you?”

“Good.”

In the uncomfortable pause that followed, Xander wondered if he should mention that everyone had left for unintelligible places. But Jack thankfully found something to say first.

“How’s demon fighting going?”

“Quiet so far,” said Xander. “Normal newbies on patrol but nothing major.”

“Any word from your flamey friend?” he asked.

It took a moment for Xander to figure out whom he meant. “D’Hoffryn? Not him, but we did meet Norman. He came the day before yesterday. Had a few good ideas on how to keep the wish low profile.” Xander had mostly stayed out of the conversation while Willow and Buffy had worked out the details. “He’s been cursed so that the President will see him as a self-serving idiot who he’d be better off without. The President that is.”

“No humiliating public growth of horns or something?” asked Jack and Xander could have sworn he sounded disappointed.

“People don’t like to notice stuff like that, and we certainly don’t want people in certain five sided buildings tracing anything back to us.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed. Xander heard him take a breath to say something, but in the end he didn’t and more silence followed. “I hope I’m there to see Kinsey’s face when the President fires him.”

Xander shrugged to himself since he couldn’t care less as long as the dude wasn’t poking his nose where it didn’t belong. Noses got broken that way after all. “Yeah, well, I don’t know when it’s going to happen.”

“I’m sure I’ll be the first to know when it does.”

Xander turned toward the den during the next silence, but though he couldn’t see the screen he could hear the ads going on. “So how’s work?” he asked.

“Busy,” was Jack’s short reply. He didn’t elaborate, not that Xander had really been expecting him to. He was still marginally curious about what exactly Jack did, but it was mostly because Jack had found out so much about him. On the other hand, part of him really didn’t want to know. He had enough nightmares to deal with already.

Nevertheless, Xander just couldn’t resist. “Meet any new aliens?”

“Xander,” said Jack warningly.

“Just asking.”

“Well, I can’t tell you that we did.”

Xander grinned at the exasperation and obvious smile in Jack’s voice. “If they were little green women I’m gonna be jealous,” he said.

“Nothing to worry about. They weren’t green,” Jack easily shot back making Xander laugh. “Next time I see them I’ll be sure to give them your regards.”

“And my phone number?”

“At a charge of ten bucks a number.”

“If they try to kill me I’ll expect a full refund,” said Xander.

This time Jack laughed, an easy sound that reminded Xander of his September visit to Colorado when their secrets had been nothing more than forgotten whispers of something not quite right. This time though, the shadows were out in broad daylight. The silence that followed was not quite as strained as the preceding one, and Xander didn’t mind so much his interrupted evening.

So exactly a week later when Jack called again in the middle of their playing Jedi Knights, Xander easily passed off his losing Apprentice to Diana who had much better chance against Andrew’s Sith Lord.

“Hi, Jack,” he said accepting the phone form Dawn who had answered.

“Hi,” said Jack letting the word out in sigh. “How’s Cleveland?”

“Cleveland’s good,” said Xander. “The rest of us are doing fine too. How was your week?”

There was a noticeable pause on the other end before Jack sighed again and said, “Crap, to be honest.”

“What happened?” Xander leaned against the counter in the kitchen.

Another pause as Jack tried to figure out what he could say. “A good friend died a few days ago,” he finally said.

Xander’s heart stopped. “It wasn’t – ”

“No, my team’s fine,” Jack hastily told him. “They’re off working right now. Do you remember Janet Frasier?”

Xander did. The short doctor at the General’s Christmas party ages ago. They hadn’t really chatted, but Xander had liked her. She’d had a daughter his age too. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He knew the words were inadequate but they were all he had to give.

“Yeah,” Jack murmured.

Xander wanted to ask if he was okay but he knew that he wouldn’t be. You were never okay when a friend had just died. But he wanted to know how it had happened. Wanted to know whether it was a disease or a demon attack – or alien or whatever – as impossible as that sounded. How did one die under a mountain in Colorado?

“How is her daughter doing?” he asked instead.

“Okay,” Jack said, then huffed and added. “God, I don’t know.”

“Make sure she eats,” Xander offered, recalling how Buffy’s and Dawn’s appetites had disappeared, even his to a degree, when Joyce had died. Eating felt so pointless for some reason when the person who should have been there wasn’t. “She’ll probably not be hungry for a year.”

“I know.” The gentle words reminding Xander that this was not the first person that Jack had lost in his life.

“Was it because of work?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes,” Jack answered but he said no more than that. Couldn’t say more than that. The knowledge was enough to make Xander glad he was leaning against the counter for support because Janet had been the doctor. Jack on the other hand was Special Ops. Images of the Initiative the night they had defeated Adam came to his mind, all the soldiers they couldn’t save in their fight to get out themselves.

He’d never thought of Jack’s job as really dangerous before even though he knew that it had to be. The difference between knowing and *knowing* was like the difference between patrol and an apocalypse. Both were dangerous, both could get you killed, but the odds between them were drastically different.

“Things still calm out there?” Jack finally broke the silence that had fallen between them. But Xander heard the question underneath, a little taken aback still by the concern the older man held for him.

“Yeah. I don’t go out since it’s been quiet. Vi and Diana both have enough experience to handle whatever’s out there,” he said.

“Just –” Jack cut himself off, the rest of his sentence lost. Xander waited for him to go on, unsure if he would or not. Finally, Jack did. “Be careful.”

And for some reason, Xander felt the need to make a joke lest Jack know what those two words meant at that moment. Instead he said, “I will.”

Jack left it at that and they turned to other lighter topics. But beneath it was an all too familiar tension, a worry that was not easily dispelled.

~*~

Over the next three weeks, Jack and Xander managed to find things to talk about during their Friday phone calls. Most of the time it was inconsequential stuff like movies or the price of strawberries in the dead of winter, establishing new boundaries that they no longer had to tiptoe around. Even after hearing about the Doc, Xander didn’t push about the classified stuff for which Jack was grateful. In some ways he hated having to keep Xander in the dark – and he never did tell him about his own injury at the time – but at least it didn’t put him in a compromising position.

For his part, Jack tried to keep his inquiries about his son’s life to a minimum. So far it seemed nothing remarkable had happened in Cleveland and instead their conversations turned to Kinsey and the impending wish. After inauguration on the 20th, Jack began to doubt that anything would happen at all, but he didn’t tell Xander that. He also didn’t tell Xander about the phone calls Hammond had made that had Kinsey backed in a corner for the moment. There hadn’t been any more attacks.

The moments Jack like the best though were the ones where the sarcastic, funny Xander he was coming to know better slipped to the side and let the deeply caring, passionate Xander through. It had happened only a couple of times, the first time after Jack had asked if anymore freelance carpentry jobs had come his way. One had, and Jack had listened without understanding a word for half an hour as Xander told him all about it. He’d made sure to ask the next time he called as well. The third time had taken Jack a bit by surprise when Xander had told him about Diana having trouble in school.

She’d had an essay due that she’d completely forgotten about and had gone into a panic for which Xander had been totally unprepared. He was worried about how well she was coping with having more slayer responsibility now that it was down to her and Vi. Jack had listened and let Xander talk himself out, suggesting afterwards that Xander maybe start by helping her organize her time. If everything she had to do was laid out then it might help her wrap her head around it.

Xander had sounded relieved by the suggestion, and nothing could have made Jack prouder or happier in that moment than to be giving advice to his son. And that he’d accepted it. After Christmas, Jack hadn’t known if that was ever going to happen.

Jack found himself looking forward to the calls that were his chance to connect with his grown child. And he was pretty sure that Xander liked them too. Just the week before he’d been the one to call, not Jack. So on Friday, February 11th, Jack was disappointed that no one was home to answer the phone. He left a brief message to let Xander know he’d called, then tried to watch TV but failed miserably when all he could think about was where Xander was and why he had missed the phone call. It was their thing now, and in Jack’s opinion not something to be shrugged off lightly. He told himself that maybe Xander was home late from whatever, but as the clock ticked past ten, eleven, midnight, Jack knew that Xander wasn’t going to be calling that night. With a disappointed sigh, he went to bed.

He slept too. Until three in the morning when the phone that had been so stubborn in its earlier silence decided to ring noisily. His face still buried in his pillow and denial, Jack started awake, groaning when he realized he was safe in bed. If it was Hammond, he was going to kill him. Daniel, torture.

“O’Neill,” he snapped into the receiver that he had groped from his bedside table.

“What?” a startled voice came over the line. Jack cursed. If this was a prank call he was going to kill the person on the other end.

“Who is this?” he demanded still more asleep than awake, though that was rapidly changing.

“Uh, Jack?” the voice said hesitantly. It took him another moment to recognize Xander’s voice.

“Xander?” What the hell was Xander doing calling him at three in the morning?

“You’re not Giles,” said Xander.

“No, I'm not Giles,” Jack replied irritated. Correction, why was Xander calling Giles at three in the morning?

“Right. I'll call you later then.”

“No, wait Xander,” Jack said hastily. “Is everything all right?” Jack's brain was catching up with him now and it was curious, and a little worried. It was four am in Cleveland.

“Not really,” Xander sighed. “Look, I really need to call Giles right now.”

“Anything I can help with?”

“Unless you know the nesting habits of random ten footed demons with really big teeth.”

“Well, no,” Jack couldn't say he did. “I take it you had a run in with these guys?”

“Diana and Dawn did.” Xander sighed heavily. “Dawn's in the hospital with a concussion, broken ribs, and some internal bleeding they had to take care of.”

Jack froze at the news. “Diana?”

“Missing,” he said quietly, the one word summing up a long terrifying night. “Jack, sorry for waking you up. I really do need to talk to Giles though. I'll talk to you when this is all over.”

“Xander.”

“Bye.” And he hung up. Jack hung up his own phone harder than necessary. Dawn hospitalized and Diana missing, he thought, dropping his head back on his pillow. Xander must be going nuts with worry. And they still had those demons to fight. What if Xander got hurt, or was the next one to go missing? All Jack could think about was his lost eye. He looked at the clock again. Barely two minutes had passed during their conversation.

Kids. They were just kids. There were only the five of them at the house right now and they were already down to one young slayer, one incompetent Andrew, and his son. He just knew that he was going to be sitting by the phone all day, waiting for Xander to call. If he called. He’d only called the house by accident this time, maybe he wasn’t going to call again until the whole mess was sorted out. And by that point, for all Jack knew, Xander could be dead.

“That’s it,” he abruptly sat up and grabbed the phone. It was Saturday for crying out loud. He had the damn weekend off. Quickly he called information for an airline and booked the next flight out. No way was that the last time he was talking to his son.

~*~

By ten in the morning, Xander started to feel the exhaustion creep into his veins as he listened to Giles and scribbled notes on a legal pad. He’d been running on pure adrenaline since eleven last night when the shit had hit the fan. Now he had to force himself to concentrate. The info wasn’t very helpful. The Depedius Ravana, the demon that had Dawn and Diana had run into, liked cold dark place like every other demon of the face of the planet. They were relatively rare and hibernated for about two years every decade. However when active, they were known to hire themselves out to other demons, which meant that now Xander and Vi, and Andrew, had to figure out who it was working for. Terrific. Xander had no clue where to start other than the art stuff that was turning out to be a dead end as far as his foggy head was concerned.

“So how do we kill this thing?” he asked as Giles wound down.

“Any way you can,” the Watcher sighed from England. “It has no magical defense, just its size and arms.”

“Right,” Xander sighed as well, a hand snagging the rough sketch Dawn had given them at the hospital. It was essentially a stick figure, oval head, two eyes, large triangular teeth, oval body, two legs, and eight arms. There was a stick person drawn beside it to give a sense of its size that was about three times too big. Looked like a giant rabid porcupine.

He was about to ask if Giles had any ideas on how to trap it or something when the doorbell interrupted. The noise startled Xander but after a second he told Giles to hold on, set the phone down, and went to answer it. He grabbed his axe off the side table in the foyer then went to check the peephole. “Shit.” He opened the door, his axe arm falling to his side and demanded, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jack only smiled brightly. “Hi, Xander. I had the weekend off, thought I’d come and visit. Can I come in?” His eyes flickered over Xander, lifting slightly when he saw the axe but not commenting.

Xander did not need this right now. He was tempted to shut the door in Jack’s face but politeness won out over lack of sleep and he stepped back to let him through. “What are you doing here?” he repeated turning and leading the way back to the dining hall where Giles waited.

“You sounded like you could use some support,” was Jack’s only answer from behind. “Whoa.”

Xander glanced at him over his shoulder when they came into the dining room, grabbing the phone before reclaiming his seat. The table was a mess of books and papers stacked on top of each other. The laptop was plugged in at the other end. “I’m back,” he said into the phone.

“What happened?”

“Jack showed up on the doorstep. Wants to help,” he glared pointedly at his old man for a good second. Jack only grinned again and started poking through the books and papers. “So,” Xander looked around for the legal pad he’d been taking notes on. He’d deal with Jack in a minute. “Any ideas on how to trap this thing?”

“I don’t know,” said Giles. “Due to its rarity, its weaknesses aren’t well documented. That and our bloody library was blown up.” He started talking about the last time he’d heard of an encounter with a Ravana but Xander started to zone out as he watched Jack.

His unexpected guest had one of the demon indices in his hand now, the one that had the more common murder and mayhem variety. Usually a good place to start but this time it had come up empty. The smile was gone from Jack’s face as he flipped through it. He frowned near the middle and Xander knew that he was looking at the picture of the Sarcathogen, a demon covered in oozing sores that looked like it’d been hit by Ebola. They were related to Chaos demons and apparently liked to eat boiled wombats in a diseased-brain stew, the younger the better. If they couldn’t get the wombats they settled for the brains.

“I’ll ask Buffy for any ideas,” Giles finished, snapping Xander’s attention back to the phone in his hand.

“Okay,” he said. “Just don’t tell her how bad Dawn is.”

“Xander, she should know.”

“Yeah, and she’ll freak. She’s got to get used to us managing on our own.”

“I’ll tell her Dawn was hurt but will be fine.”

“Good. Give her a broken arm or something.”

“I’ll call when I know more,” said Giles, and Xander could tell he didn’t agree but would accede anyway. “Get some sleep if you can.”

Xander snorted at the likelihood of that idea and said his goodbyes. Jack lowered the book when he heard Xander put down the phone.

“So what’s going on?” asked Jack.

Xander stared at him, him brain a couple of seconds behind the spoken words. Why was Jack here again? He had a vague recollection of talking to him last night but he had no idea what they’d talked about much less what he could have said that made Jack decide to get on a plane and fly to Cleveland. “Why are you here again?” he asked.

“You said Dawn was in the hospital and Diana was missing,” said Jack. “I thought you could use some help.”

“You should go home, Jack,” Xander sighed. He didn’t have time for this. Art, he thought absently. He had to figure out what was stolen.

“Xander, I’m not going home,” said Jack quietly yet forcefully, drawing Xander’s attention back to him. “Now, tell me what’s going on so I can help.”

Xander thought about arguing but he was just too tired. “This week there’s been a bunch of break ins at artsy places with some interesting coroner’s reports that we thought were worth looking into. Tuesday it was the museum. A whole wing got smashed up. They’re still sorting through what could be missing. Yesterday it was an art show on the East Side. Dawn and Diana were checking it out last night when they were attacked.”

“Why was Dawn out there?”

“Because she wanted to go.” Jack gave him a look that asked if he was crazy for allowing such a thing. Given that Xander already hated himself for it, the look only served to piss him off. It wasn’t like Dawn couldn’t handle herself in a fight, and it wasn’t like they had been expecting more than a normal B&E. “Don’t say it.”

Jack sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. “How’s she doing?” he asked.

“Asleep last time I checked. Andrew’s with her.” He glanced at the clock through the kitchen door. He should probably go in and see her soon. Unfortunately, he had way too much to do here.

“Where’s Vi?”

“Sleeping. She got home around sunrise so I made her go to bed.” Vi had been out looking for any sign of Diana. She had tracked the Ravana through the East Side but had lost it once it crossed the tracks.

“Did you get any sleep?” Xander just looked at him. “Right,” Jack nodded with a humorless smile. “So what can I do?”

Xander looked at all the paper and books around him. He really didn’t feel like trying to explain all this right now, not on an empty stomach. “Donuts,” he said looking up.

“What?”

“You can go get donuts. Scooby tradition at the research party.” Xander frowned. “Of course it’s hard to have a party of one, or two I guess.”

“How about I make an actual breakfast instead,” suggested Jack. “That way you can give me the details while I’m at it.”

The donuts flashed before Xander’s eyes. “But . . . but . . . donuts!”

“Well, grab some on the way to the hospital,” said Jack as he passed behind Xander’s chair into the kitchen. “Come on.”

Xander watched him go and start banging around looking for a frying pan and food, wondering just when he had lost control. But it was still kind of nice.

~*~

Over the next hour, Jack got a crash course in how to be a Scooby starting with who Scooby was and why Jack’s life was dull and unfulfilled for the lack of a big brown cartoon dog. But they had quickly moved past that to the situation at hand. Listening to Xander as he cooked was a challenge for Jack in two ways. First, he was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen which meant he had to interrupt to ask where the spatulas and other things were. Secondly, Xander was beyond tired and worried and his normally disjointed way of saying things had more mixed metaphors than Jack had thought possible. But in the end he gleaned the important facts.

The eight-armed Ravana thing was working for something else that was after a few pieces of art. The wing that had been raided in the museum had been of African art, as had the art exhibit where Dawn had been injured. So far they didn’t know what was taken, though from the looks of it, whoever was after this stuff was assembling something . . . to do something nefarious and evil no doubt. Vi had traced the Ravana to the railroad tracks on the East Side of town but then lost the trail. Xander thought it might mean the creature had gone underground at that point but they couldn’t be sure until they went back there.

That meant that four of the five Ws were left unanswered – who, what, where, and when. ‘Why’ they apparently didn’t care about.

“So, you want to look for what they’re after or figure out how to kill the decipede?” asked Xander carrying his plate of eggs and toast back into the dining room.

“Kill the thingy-pede,” Jack answered immediately. Art was not something he was about to touch with a ten-foot pole or without a good handy archeologist to throw at it first. He had no idea where he would even begin to look for information.

“All right. Here’s what we know about it,” Xander tossed him a legal pad full of barely legible handwriting and a drawing.

“A giant porcupine?” he asked, looking up from the . . . ‘sketch’ was pushing it.

“Those are arms,” Xander rubbed his face tiredly.

“Xander?”

“Yeah?”

“Never mind,” Jack said. He had been going to suggest that Xander get a little shut eye. He looked like hell. His hair was an unbrushed mess, his skin was pale, and his clothes were rumpled. But Jack knew what was running through his head. One wounded and one missing. How often had he been in the same position? There was no way he would convince his son to sleep now.

Instead he turned his attention to the stick figure and the legal pad, wondering how they were going to get past eight arms and thick skin with nothing more than medieval weaponry. How the hell had they survived this long using weapons that were ten centuries out of date? The main problem was the multitude of arms; they needed a way to neutralize the arms, and he didn’t think just chopping them off one at a time would work.

After about ten minutes of worrying at the problem, Jack started to get restless. A glance at Xander showed his son on the computer, a little dazed but nonetheless staring intently at the screen. He only looked up when Vi walked in a little while later, fully dressed in clothes that had been slept in but nonetheless looking ready to go. The young woman summoned a shaky smile for Xander, and Jack watched as he tracked her to the kitchen with a worried frown that didn’t waver as she grabbed food and returned.

“How’s it going?” she asked in a low, subdued tone.

“I talked to Giles so we know what we’re up against,” said Xander. “Jack’s working on a plan to kill it.” Vi glanced over at Xander’s nod in Jack’s direction, doing a double take.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, clearly surprised by his presence.

“Just thought I’d visit,” Jack replied easily.

“I’m sifting through the art stuff now,” Xander continued. “Something will come up once I can think.”

“Are you okay?” Vi asked timidly.

“Nothing a little sleep won’t fix,” Xander smiled. “We need to relieve Andrew at the hospital. I don’t think much will be happening before dark.”

Vi nodded. “So meeting tonight?” she asked him.

Xander shrugged and yawned. “I don’t know, is there a meeting tonight?” he asked her back.

Vi looked at Jack nervously then back at Xander who’s gaze had never left her face. Jack watched the interchange interestedly. “We’ll meet at dinner time?”

“When do you want that? Sunset’s around six.”

“Before dinner,” Vi said a little more decisively. “At five.”

“Five it is,” Xander agreed. “You want to change before we go see Dawn?”

“Yeah.” Vi gave herself a once over then swallowed the rest of her toast in two bites before leaving and going back upstairs.

“What was that?” Jack asked when they were alone again.

“What?” asked Xander through another yawn.

“Making her set the meeting like that?” said Jack, a little puzzled by it since he’d thought that Xander was the one in charge.

“She’s the Slayer,” was Xander’s reply that really didn’t answer the question. He must have seen Jack’s confusion though because he went on. “She’s not always going to have someone to hold her hand. She’s Chief Slayer of the Hellmouth, she’s in charge. She has to know how to deal.” He closed his eye, exhaustion getting the better of him. “This is the first big thing she’s had where Buffy or Faith haven’t been around,” he said. “With Dawn and Diana . . .” he stopped, and Jack plainly heard the fear in his voice. Didn’t matter that Vi was the battle commander, Xander was the one who took care of them the rest of the time, and his kids were in trouble.

“They’ll be okay,” Jack said quietly, words the only comfort he could give. “Dawn’s going to be fine. She’s a little banged up, but she’ll be just fine.”

Xander opened his eye and huffed. “Buffy’s gonna kill me.”

Jack smiled. “You’ll get over it,” he said. “And we’ll find Diana. She’s a slayer, right? Any four-by-four that gets in her way will be pulverized.” And that did it, a brief smile from his son that faded into another yawn. “You need to get some sleep.”

“I know,” Xander acknowledged quietly. “I’ll sleep when we get to the hospital.”

He ended up sleeping on the way to the hospital while Jack followed Vi who was driving the other car so they wouldn’t have to make two trips later. Xander’s head lolled back and his face went slack when he finally succumbed to the gentle motion of the car. Jack nudged his shoulder when they arrived. Xander started awake looking all around him before recognizing the hospital’s parking garage.

Xander led the way inside to the elevators, hitting the button to the fourth floor where they got off and followed the signs to the ward. “We’re looking for Dawn Summers?” Xander asked the nurse at the desk who smiled and pulled out a list to check.

“Third down on the right,” she pointed to the left hallway.

The door was cracked open and the only light came from a side lamp above the guest chairs where Andrew was reading a comic book. He looked up when they came in, his eyes flickering to Dawn who was asleep.

“She’s been out for awhile,” he said by way of greeting. He frowned when he saw Jack. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Visiting,” Jack told him. Xander and Vi went to stand beside Dawn to check for themselves that she was okay. There was some light bruising on her chin, but otherwise there was no visible sign of her injuries, the blanket no doubt hiding the bandages around her ribs.

“What did the doctors say?” asked Xander, turning back to Andrew.

“The internal bleeding was from one of her ribs but it’s stopped now. They want to keep her till tomorrow to be sure. Her concussion’s not that bad though.”

“Good.” Xander let out a long breath of relief, locking eyes with Vi who mustered a weak smile. “Right, ready to learn all you wanted to know about African art?” he asked Andrew.

“Does what I know from the *X-Men* count?”

“I wish.” Xander stepped over and began filling his friend in on what they had found out so far and what the computer had cross-referenced from the two sites.

Jack took the opportunity to join Vi by Dawn’s side. The young woman had taken the unconscious girl’s hand lightly as she watched her sleep. “Looks like she’s going to be just fine,” he said quietly, making Vi look up in surprise. She eyed him warily for a second before dropping her head.

“She shouldn’t have gotten hurt,” she said. “I should have gone instead of her.”

“Hey,” said Jack gently, feeling for the guilt that laced her voice.

“I’m the slayer, I should have been out there with Diana. Then Dawn wouldn’t be here and Diana wouldn’t be . . . somewhere.”

“Vi,” Jack waited until he lifted his eyes to his. “You can’t change what happened,” he said quietly. “But you do control what happens now and you can plan for what happens ten minutes from now. If you’re going to be in command you have to be in the here and now, not feeling guilty about what happened last night.”

“So I’m just supposed to forget that I nearly got my best friend killed?” she demanded harshly, but still quietly so as not to disturb Dawn.

“No,” said Jack. “But you need to accept that Dawn is fighting this fight too, and that sometimes your people will get wounded. It sucks, you’ll have nightmares about it, but unless you lock her in a room for the rest of her life, it’s going to be a risk.”

Vi looked away and smiled bitterly, sniffing a little though no tears fell. “That’s what Xander said,” she told him. “It doesn’t help.”

“I know.” And Jack did know. Every time one of his teammates got hurt, he felt it. Every time. “She’ll be okay,” he said again. “And look on the bright side, you get to beat up the thing that did this to her. That always makes me feel better.”

Vi grinned at that, a steel gleam of retribution in her eyes when she looked up that Jack knew well. Behind them, Andrew was gathering his things. Xander asked him to leave the comic books, which then surprisingly made Andrew stop and stare at him gravely.

“Leave my comics? Where just anyone could take them?” he asked as if Xander were asking him to leave his wallet or something equally important. “I don’t think so.”

“Andrew, nothing’s going to happen to them,” said Xander in exasperation.

“You could sit on them! Or bend the pages. I’ve seen what you do to books.”

“Yeah, but since when have I ever hurt a comic book?”

“I haven’t seen you not hurt one.”

“I haven’t touched any!”

“So how do I know you won’t hurt them?”

“I control your paycheck.”

“We don’t get paid.”

“But when we do, I’ll control it.”

Andrew thought about this, a man who knew he would have no choice. Grudgingly he put down the comics and ruffled through them, considering as he looked them over. Finally, he pulled one out and started to hand it to Xander, holding back when Xander’s hand touched it. “If anything happens to it . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, you know where I sleep,” said Xander with a grin. “I promise I’ll treat it with the utmost respect it deserves.”

“If – ”

“Andrew,” Vi drew out the word and rolled her eyes. “Let’s go.” With a last surly look in Xander’s direction, he followed her out the door.

Jack looked at Xander. Xander looked at Jack and grinned, very pleased with himself. But Jack had a question. “You don’t get paid?”

~*~

“Not yet,” Xander told him. He checked out the comic; it was an X-Men that was a part of the Age of Apocalypse universe. Pretty good win if he said so himself.

“I should have guessed,” said Jack in such a way that finally made Xander pay attention.

“What?”

“Is it worth it?” asked Jack with an impatient glance at Dawn’s prone form.

Xander sighed. He’d thought they had gotten past all this at Christmas, but it looked like it was still bothering Jack. “I think having the world around in the morning is pretty good compensation. Is what you do worth watching your friends die for?” He knew he’d struck a nerve when Jack flinched and looked away.

“Sorry,” said Jack.

Xander found one of the armchairs and sat down. He looked at the bright cover of the comic in his hands. Fitting in a way that he held an encounter in the Age of Apocalypse universe where Magneto was a good guy, Cyclops and Beast were bad guys and everything was on the verge of going to hell at the whim of absolute Evil. “Sometimes I want out,” he said quietly. “We all do.” He paused, thinking of the horror he’s seen. “Buffy even tried it once” – twice if he counted the time she died and the awful year of her return – “but she couldn’t stay away. Because it was denying a part of herself.” He looked across the room at Jack. “Willow could have gone to college anywhere, but she stayed. And me, I guess I never tried that hard to get out. I didn’t have anything else going for me for a long time, so I stayed.”

“Without superpowers,” said Jack with a trace of sarcastic humor. Xander thought back to that first time when he’d simply been at the right place at the right time, and second where he knew no one else would have succeeded.

“It doesn’t take superpowers to save the world,” he said.

“But a whole lot of luck,” Jack added, his sense of humor definitely sneaking in there, and Xander knew, he just knew, that Jack had done it too.

“Donuts don’t hurt either.”

Jack laughed. “Is that why you wanted donuts?”

“Never underestimate copious amounts of sugar.”

“I’ll be sure to tell the General that next time I’m ordering supplies.”

“ ‘Sir, we really need donuts, the world won’t go round without them!’ ” Xander said in his best Jack voice. He could just see the portly Hammond giving Jack the evil eye. And Jack of course would just grin his ass off right back. The mental image just made him laugh, his head a little lightheaded. God, he was tired and now he was getting loopy. He closed his eye, just to rest for a moment. He didn’t notice when he fell asleep.

He didn’t know what woke him an hour or two later. Outside the window blinds, the light had shifted but inside the only light was still the one that Jack was now reading by. Xander shifted and stretched muscles that were sore from sleeping in a chair. His neck especially felt like a knife had been yanked down its side, but he felt much better for having slept.

On the bed, Dawn was still resting. He got up to check on her. She was still pale, and asleep she looked like the little girl he had babysat for all those years. When had she gone and grown up, he wondered, though he knew it was around the same time he had. She looked young, but she wasn’t. But she was. And she was hurt. He felt like he had let her down in some way though realistically he knew they had had no way of knowing.

“Did you ever believe in happy endings?” he asked suddenly of Jack.

“Yes. I still do.” Xander turned to look at him questioningly. Jack let loose a small smile at his confusion. “Pessimism is habit forming.” He paused then added. “Optimism is too, I think.”

Xander cracked a grin at that. “The new drug, optimism. Twenty bucks a pop.”

“More like life,” said Jack, a serious note back in his tone. “Did you know Charlie used to read the *X-Men*?” Wondering where that had come from, Xander waited for him to finish. “I almost didn’t get a chance to remember that.”

“A mission?” he asked, remembering the lost friend in January, imagining the others he must have lost in his long military career that was so black it could have been a gravity well for information.

“Habit forming pessimism.” Jack looked back at the comic in his hand. “Daniel gave me a happy ending. Maybe not what I would have wanted but . . . maybe there’s only happier endings.”

“Is that why you came?” asked Xander. “Here. To make sure.”

Jack shrugged. “I was half asleep and scared that that was the last time we’d talk. I may not like you throwing yourself into danger all the time but –”

“ – that’d be sticking a ‘pot’ post-it on your forehead,” Xander finished.

“Something like that.”

Xander nodded. As they looked at each other across Dawn’s hospital room, he felt more than words pass between them. Xander didn’t need to ask if he’d ever get used to the fear of losing a loved one or a girl in his care. He didn’t need to ask if it was always lonely at the top or whether fighting was worth giving up normal. He didn’t need to hear that time healed wounds but until he let them go the guilt would burn as fresh as the day it happened. He knew his answers and had long since made peace with himself and the ghosts of his life. He didn’t need Jack to tell him these things but they were said anyway in that one look between them. And for once it was about *him,* and the feeling felt like a bucket of warm water being poured over his head as he hadn’t felt since Anya had last smiled at him, for him.

Jack had come for him.

~*~

Jack was beginning to regret having come. But that probably had more to do with the huge frickin’ demon in front of him that looked absolutely nothing like a giant porcupine. For one, it was an awful putrid yellow-green with no hair and really big teeth. Not to mention eight arms that were absolutely everywhere.

They had received a frantic call from Andrew and Vi that they had figured out that the ceremony thing to call forth some head honcho war demon was going to start at sunset of the night of the new moon, which of course was tonight, and been told in no uncertain terms to get their asses to the warehouses by the tracks. Well, Xander had, but since he didn’t drive if he could avoid it, and since Jack had rather forcefully told him he was coming too, Jack had come along. And in the car, he had gotten the twenty-minute crash course in medieval weaponry.

“I’m giving you a crossbow and the extra axe. Careful of it getting stuck in any bones, especially skulls,” Xander had told him when they’d pulled up next to Andrew who was waiting for them. Vi had already gone ahead to scout out the building. “And I want you to stay back as long as you can. You’re the diversion if we get into trouble.” Andrew had nodded as he’d loaded his own crossbow so Jack assumed he’d be staying back as well.

And now here the two of them were behind a stack of empty crates shooting bolts at the giant centipede in an effort to distract it from Vi’s sword and Xander’s double headed axe that darted in from behind whenever he had a clear shot. Jack tried to ignore his son before he could think about him getting stepped on and instead focused on hitting hands and shoulders. But he couldn’t ignore Vi front and center as she ducked and dodged, stabbed and sliced, flipped and kicked, bounced off walls and got back up. She was pure determination, fury, and strength, and she kept the demon screaming and howling until it was so full of bolts and gashes that it could no longer stand up.

As soon as it had crashed to its knees, Vi was on it, brushing away its last attempts at resistance before ripping her sword up its middle. Oozing yellowish blood flowed out with its life. “I am not cleaning that up,” muttered Andrew from beside him as they rushed after Vi and Xander who were already running through the door that was no longer guarded.

The sounds of battle already echoed from the other room, centered around one corner where something small was cornered amongst ten or so human sized demons that had gray pebbly skin, clawed fingers, and wore the same Wal-Mart brand as everyone else. A knot of demons in the center of the room that were obviously waiting for the corner situation to be resolved, jumped at their sudden entrance. Jack had no more time to think before one of them was rushing at him with his claws out, only noticing that he too had unhealthily big teeth before striking out with his borrowed axe. Xander was right about it sticking.

Around him were shouts from the others, but Jack only saw the snarling faces before him, up close and personal, and all of them wanting him dead. He knew that Andrew was beside him, that Vi had gone off after the person in the corner and that Xander was making for the big shots at the center and very firmly keeping Jack on his left side. The old soldier made sure he stayed there, all the way to the smashing of the funny carvings set up in a triangular formation in the middle of a complex drawing. And then it was over. The demons scattered. The dead left lying.

“Diana!” shouted Xander. And there she was, limping slightly beside Vi as the two slayers joined them. Her hair was tangled and her clothes torn and there was a huge chain and a piece of wall attached to her wrists, but to Jack she seemed to glow with the energy of a little kid that had had too much candy. It was like watching Vi fight the Ravana though the older girl had a quieter intensity to her. Watching them as they surveyed the scene with pride, Jack was reminded of the power he’d seen in Buffy’s eyes at Christmas, a mere shimmer of what combat brought out. And he thought that he finally understood what Xander had meant about slayers. Forces of nature disguised as girls.

Arms burning now that the adrenaline was wearing off, and his knee telling him that he was getting way to old for this shit, Jack just wanted to go to sleep.

~*~

Sunday hosted a late breakfast at the house, filled with jokes and tales. Diana had indeed been captured by the Ravana and taken to its bosses, the still unresearched and unknown but fondly renamed Rock Heads, who had been going to use her as the human blood ingredient. The giant porcupine hadn’t realized that to people smaller than itself, this one girl that offered resistance probably hadn’t been the best choice for the job. Considering that it was dead now, Jack couldn’t help but point out the understatement of the year.

Diana had been knocked out during the fight and had regained consciousness once before being knocked out again. When she had woken for the second time just before the ceremony, she had taken part of the wall with her.

Dawn had screamed in surprise when she had showed up in her room looking none the worse for wear. The two girls hadn’t stopped talking as they first checked Dawn out from the hospital then drove home. No one really minded.

Dinner was another riotous affair of people who had faced death and were happy to have come out the other side. Jack joked with them but couldn’t help feeling sad and a little old. He wondered if Giles ever felt this out of place at a table of kids. He felt Xander’s gaze on him more than once.

After dinner, he went upstairs to pack the bag he hadn’t really unpacked. He was back in the bare room he’d stayed in over Thanksgiving, which seemed so long ago now, a lifetime. When Xander and the girls had done exactly the same thing.

“I think Andrew got most of the blood out, but it’s gray so you can say it’s an ink stain or something if anyone asks.” Xander stood in the doorway with Jack’s clothes that he’d worn the night before. They had been hastily folded, and Jack accepted them with a thanks. Xander watched as he put them in his bag. “I’m glad you came,” he said abruptly, making Jack stop and look up. His son looked vaguely embarrassed at admitting it but then he grinned. “You need a little work on the rapid reload of your crossbow, but you’re a mean shot.”

“Thanks. It was only my first battle of the twelfth century,” Jack smiled.

“We could have gone caveman against vampires,” Xander shrugged.

“Caveman?”

“Stakes. Little bits of wood through the heart. About as low-tech as you get.”

Jack thought he could stand a little more low-tech in his life and a little less of the advanced alien doohickeys. They did come in handy, he had to admit, but what Jack wouldn’t give to be able to smash an axe through Anubis’s nonexistent head.

Joking aside, he was just glad that Friday night’s phone call had had a happy ending to it. A happier ending. And that’s what was bothering him. One girl and a little help had taken out a creature that Jack wouldn’t have contemplated going up against without at least a grenade and a couple of bars of C4. And she had done it with a sword.

Perhaps most disturbing was that this was not a one-time deal. It was everyday, and Xander was right in the thick of it, probably summing up injuries and a missing person as having a bad week. But Xander hadn’t tried to hide it from him this time. He almost wished he had.

“What?” asked Xander.

“Just wondering how I’m ever going to sleep again from worrying about you,” said Jack.

“You’re going to worry?” Xander seemed slightly surprised. Jack could only lift his eyebrows.

“Of course, I’m going to worry about you!” he snapped. “You’re out there fighting giant . . . green things! And I’m not always going to be there. And stop looking surprised,” he added suddenly irritated. What? Did Xander think he’d come all the way out here on a weekend off just because the mood struck him?

“Sorry,” said Xander not sounding sorry at all. “You’re being all parenty.” He smiled and flicked a hand to explain. “Not used to it coming from anyone other than Giles.”

That stopped Jack for a second – no one other than Giles, he thought angrily. “Well, you better get used to it,” he said, leveling a gaze at his son that spoke of ‘elses’ better not voiced aloud.

And Xander said, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

Jack didn’t know what was worse, knowing the kind of things Xander fought or letting his imagination fill in the blanks. It had been two months since he’d fought his first demon and it seemed like his calls to Xander kept getting more and more irregular. Granted, part of that was his mission schedule but Xander’s was just as erratic.

They’d come to a sort of agreement about what they talked about. If Jack wanted to know what was going on, he asked point blank and Xander would usually answer with watered down answers. “Just a snake thing that took longer to track down than we thought,” or “Some kids at the high school getting in over their heads with the magic.” Jack tried not to be too pushy about it, but when Xander sounded exhausted or down he always asked.

For his part, Xander asked even fewer questions but that seemed more because he was tired of the endless lack of details that Jack could provide. But somehow he always knew when Jack got hurt or when he was worried about a wounded teammate. Jack had asked after the third time how he knew, wondering if it was more magic, but Xander instead told him simply that he called later. Jack remembered feeling slightly uncomfortable when he’d heard that and thinking that his son was too perceptive for his own good. Or rather Jack’s.

That was why he was staring at the phone right now instead of picking it up and dialing. Xander would *know* that this wasn’t a normal call. Jack’s mind flickered over the last few days. The mission to extract the Ancient’s library device, Anubis’s attack, and now, way too much knowledge in his head that could kill him in a matter of days.

Last night when his team had been over, Daniel had asked him what he was going to tell Xander. Jack had replied, “That I was saving the world.” The truth was he didn’t know what he was going to say. The problem was he also couldn’t not call. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the phone. Maybe he’d get lucky and Xander would be at work.

The phone rang once, twice, three times. When it got to five, Jack was ready to let out a sigh of relief – that was quickly dashed when a breathless “Hello?” answered.

“Hey, Vi, it’s Jack,” he said pleasantly, recognizing the teenager’s voice. With an ease that comes from years of practice, he staunchly ignored the feeling of dread that clung in his stomach.

“Hey, Jack!” she cheerfully replied. “How you doing? Xander’s upstairs, just a sec. XANDER!”

Jack smiled at the quick transfer figuring he had interrupted something or other. Usually he would at least have a chance to answer questions and ask how things were going before Xander was shouted for.

“Hey, Jack,” his son’s light tone greeted him all too quickly. “You’re calling early for once.”

Jack nodded and said, “Yeah, thought I’d change things up.” It was two in the afternoon on a Sunday. So much for the at-work plan.

“Uh-huh,” said Xander. Crap, thought Jack. “So what’s up?” Double crap, Jack amended. He should have asked that first.

“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” said Jack evasively. “How are you?”

“In need of a new job.”

“What’s wrong?” Jack asked suddenly concerned.

“The one I have is boring me to tears,” said Xander. “I’ve had some crappy jobs before but I usually managed to get fired before I got too bored with them. Here, my boss actually likes me and says I do good work and doesn’t mind my switching shifts at the last minute.”

“And that’s bad?”

“For my other job, no. But I feel like I’m going to go insane if I have to keep this up. I hate retail.”

“Ah, the joys of knowing that the customer is always right,” said Jack sagely.

“‘Right’ is a relative term,” said Xander with a sigh.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed. In more than just the retail sense, he thought. If he . . . he would miss this, the idle chatter about life, knowing how he was doing, what was good, what was bad. Jack closed his eyes. “Have I told you how proud I am of you?” he half whispered. He heard Xander’s breath catch on the other end of the line.

“Jack?” Xander’s voice was breathy and uncertain. “What’s wrong?”

Jack felt like an idiot now for even saying it. He was a man of action, not words, and his only relief was that Xander wasn’t there to see him shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “Nothing really – ”

“Jack,” Xander cut him off harshly. “You don’t start a ‘goodbye’ speech when nothing’s wrong.”

“Xander – ”

“No, you started a ‘goodbye’ speech! ‘I’m proud of you, I love you.’ If every thing is just puppies and rainbows you *don’t* say that!” Xander snapped. “Now what’s wrong?!” A little taken aback by the vehemence in his son’s voice, Jack was shocked into silence for minute. “Jack!” Xander prompted.

“I, uh,” Jack struggled for a way to explain that wouldn’t be breaking a zillion laws. “I kinda did something stupid,” he finally said. “But given the situation, there wasn’t really a choice.” He paused and Xander remained silent, waiting. “I can’t go into detail, and it’s not hopeless, just . . .”

“Dire?” Xander finished for him. Jack winced.

“Well, I might die,” he quipped quietly. Dead silence. Jack wondered for a moment if Xander was still there.

“That bad?” Xander finally said, his voice tight even as he tried to keep it light. “Is this a scheduled death or are you just ad libbing?”

“If it happens, and I stress the ‘if,’” Jack hesitated, remembering the last time he’d spouted alien words and felt himself lose his mind, “sometime next week.”

“Got it all planned out, huh? Decided life was too boring under your mountain, and hey, let’s give death a try. Next Thursday good for you?”

Jack winced at the raw sarcasm. “It’s not like that,” he said a little exasperatedly. “If you must know it’s probably going to save the world.” Maybe Xander would understand in terms he seemed to be familiar with.

“Great,” said Xander bitingly. “I’ll have to let the others know that Apocalypse Season has opened early this year. Good to know I rate at least a phone call.”

“Xander,” said Jack.

“What?”

But Jack didn’t have anything to say. He felt empty, like a tin can that someone was still trying to hammer the last of the beans out of. “I’m sorry,” he said. Sorry for . . . everything. God, he hadn’t felt this bad about anything in years.

“Don’t be sorry,” said Xander, his voice softer than it was before but no less hurt. “Just make sure you don’t die. Or I swear to whatever gods there are that I will have Willow resurrect you so I can kill you myself.”

Jack couldn’t help but smile at the threat. “Guess I better not die then.”

“No.” Xander sighed. “Look, call me when you’re not going to die any more.”

He was going to hang up. “Xander,” said Jack quickly, not wanting his last chance to slip away.

“No,” his son interrupted. “Call me when you’re not going to die.” And he was gone. Jack held the phone a moment longer, staring at it blankly before replacing it in the cradle. Unsaid. Too much had been left unsaid. His head fell into weary palms. Xander sure wasn’t letting him off easy. There had been no ‘ifs’ in his demand. Jack was just going to have to make sure he was alive to tell him.

~*~

Xander stared at the phone he had slammed down. Bastard. That stupid, damn . . . bastard. Unconsciously he clenched his jaw, so angry that he couldn’t do more than glare holes in the phone and hope they burned Jack. He was going to kill him. And he wasn’t going to die, oh no, Jack was going to stay nice and healthy until Xander could get his hands on him, then he would show him what dying was all about. If – but Xander squelched the thought before it had even formed. Jack was going to call him in a week, and Xander was going to scream at him for being an idiot. Three rules of slaying: if it’s bad, run; always make plans for the day after; and don’t die! And then of course there was always the addendum rule that was true beyond slaying that girls were always right. At least one of them. But not the point here.


No, the point here was simple. Jack was an idiot. And a bastard. And Xander would never forgive him if he died.

Suddenly feeling the urge to hit something, he slammed down to the basement, made a beeline for the punching bag, and started beating the hell out of it. His thoughts gave way to mindlessness and the burning anger that he refused to let go of. He didn’t know how long he was down there but he was sweaty and pleasantly tired when he finally stopped, leaning forward to rest his head against the bag.

Dawn was sitting on the bottom stairs when he finally turned around. Large eyes watching out of a considering face, but she didn’t say anything, just followed his progress as he came and sat beside her. They sat in silence for a minute before Dawn broke it.

“Jack?” she asked. Xander nodded. “What happened?”

He didn’t look at her. “Said he did something that could kill him to save the world.”

“Oh.”

Neither one of them said anymore. They didn’t move until Andrew came and asked what they wanted for dinner. And that evening, they all went on patrol.

~*~

The next three days were tense. After Jack’s phone call, Xander was paranoid about everything going to hell – literally. He was also snappish and bad tempered with everyone, which didn’t help, matters much, even if they knew why. Sort of. As Xander kept ranting, Jack hadn’t given them any useful information about what was potentially going down so they didn’t know what they were looking for in the first place.

Xander had alerted Giles and the others, and the scattered research department had gone to work combing for any kind of a clue, but nothing came up. Jack still hadn’t called.

It was on Tuesday when they finally figured it out. Xander was at work checking stock in the back with the radio on for company when the commercial break suddenly turned into a news report. “We have a special weather report from the National Weather Station. An unexpected meteor shower is in progress across much of the Western Hemisphere. People are advised to stay indoors as there have already been reports of meteors striking the surface in Texas and Bolivia. Scientists say that it should pass within the hour.”

The report brought Xander up short and he stared at the radio for a second before bolting for the door. Unexpected meteor shower, his ass. Those things were tracked, predicted. He should know since Dawn and Andrew dragged them all outside to watch the shooting stars when they came. And if they were already hitting the Earth? No way was it natural.

Xander made it to the staff room at the other end of the building in less than two minutes. It took him another thirty seconds to find his cell phone and call Andrew.

“Hello?”

“Andrew, turn on the news. I think we have our world ending event,” he said quickly. “Call Giles and let him know.”

“Meteors?” said Andrew and Xander could hear the TV on in the background. “Xander, I don’t think there’s much we can do against meteors.”

“We can stop whatever’s causing them,” Xander said, though he had no idea how they would do that. “Look, call Giles, see what he says and call me back.” He glanced quickly at his watch. It was a little after two. His shift didn’t end till four and the girls wouldn’t get home from school until around three thirty. Xander wondered if they had that long. “How are the wards on the hellmouth?” he asked waiting a minute as Andrew went and checked the crystal.

“No change,” he reported. “I’ll call if it does.”

“All right, thanks. See you later.” He hit ‘end’ and sighed. There really wasn’t much he could do now until he heard back from Giles and Andrew. He might as well get paid for the next two hours.

But even as he went back to the stock room and started counting nuts and bolts again, Xander couldn’t help but worry about what was going on and feel a frustrating sense of helplessness about it. And wonder what Jack was doing at that very moment. It sucked. He couldn’t concentrate and ended up recounting the packs of nails four times. He’d been at it an hour or so, his mind wandering from nails to nasty creatures crawling out of meteors when the question of what was going on suddenly became a lot less academic.

Xander felt it. Suddenly, in every fiber of his being he felt a tug that grew ever more insistent, building and building through his bones and muscles like liquid fire until suddenly a part of him was ripped away like duct tape being ripped off of skin. It was so hard and fast that the force of it knocked him to his knees, his whole body burning for an instant before slowly melting away in a throbbing pulse. Xander gasped for breath, wondering what the hell had just happened and at the same time, afraid of the answer. Nothing in his life had ever felt like that, nothing, and Xander had undergone some wacky spells in his time.

It took him a few minutes to stand, a wash of dizziness forcing him to pause with his head between his knees to prevent his lunch from ending up on the floor. When he finally did manage to get to his feet and stay on them, his head had cleared considerably and the burning sensation was all but gone, leaving him with a killer headache and something else that niggled in the back of his head.

It wasn’t until he stepped out of the stock room and saw the rest of the store acting as if nothing had happened that Xander, now more confused than ever, realized that everything felt just a bit off. ‘Everything’ as in the artificial light, the sounds of people talking, the way his feet felt against the ground – and at the same time everything was just as it always had been. Exactly alike except for that feeling.

He quickly fished his cell out of his pocket and hit the speed dial for home. It took three rings for Andrew to answer and when he did, Xander knew that he had felt whatever it was too.

~*~

In fact, one frantic phone call from the high school, one from Giles, one from Buffy, and a panicked call from Kennedy confirmed that anyone that had anything to do with the supernatural had felt it. And in varying degrees. In Brazil, Willow was still unconscious. Of the Cleveland crowd, Dawn had been hit the hardest, but even she had woken up after a few hours. Vi and Diana and the other slayers had taken it hard as well but with a much faster recovery time, though it had been longer than Xander’s and Andrew’s. And everyone felt the same shift in perception that couldn’t be described as more than a feeling of something off, almost like when ears wouldn’t pop when they needed to, only not quite as concrete a feeling.

And that wasn’t even the bad news. No, what currently had the five continent conference call’s attention was the fact that the slayers’ powers were greatly diminished. Buffy had noticed it first since she had been on the prowl in Europe at the time. One minute she’d been fighting a vamp, the next she’d been fighting for her life.

“I haven’t been able to contact the Bath coven,” Giles was saying. “I believe, given Willow’s reaction, that they were hit hard as well.” Xander glanced around the dining room table. Andrew was clearly scared and nervous and trying to hide it. Dawn, pale and still in pain sat huddled in a blanket beside him. Diana refused to look up from the tabletop while Vi met Xander’s gaze with a frightened yet determined one of her own. “The force seems to be proportional to the amount of magic used by the individual. What ever it was, it ripped away innate power.”

“So how do we stop it?” demanded Kennedy anxiously.

“It’s already over,” said Giles. “Until we know what caused it, I don’t think there’s much we can do except wait and see.”

“Any ideas?” asked Buffy.

“The meteor shower,” said Xander.

“Yes, quite,” Giles sighed. “Hardly coincidental that it stopped after the event.”

“We need to contact all our slayers and let them know what’s going on,” said Faith.

“Giles?” said Dawn suddenly, “if something ripped all the magical energy from everyone around the world, where did it all go?”

There was a brief silence. “I don’t suppose there’s energy heaven,” suggested Buffy quietly.

“No,” said Giles.

“So we need to find out what that meteor shower was, why it stopped, and where all our magical energy went,” Buffy gathered their agenda together.

“And who’s behind it,” added Vi who quickly paused after realizing that she had actually spoken the thought aloud. “I was just thinking,” she went on a little more hesitantly, “you know how everything feels off? What if it’s not just the witches and magic users, but all magic? Someone trying to disable the wards and natural protections around the hellmouth.”

“Everything’s connected,” murmured Kennedy, reciting Willow’s catchphrase into the ensuing silence.

Xander shared a look with Vi. If she was right, they had a serious problem on their hands. Natural magic was everywhere. According to Willow, it connected everything, made some places more sacred than others, prevented vampires from entering occupied homes, allowed essence to pass from a person to a treasured object, provided natural resistance to opening the hellmouth . . . the list went on.

“Giles test that theory,” said Buffy urgently, as aware as Xander of the formula for disaster. “Xander, Vi, you guys take care of the meteor research. Kennedy, get in touch with Riley, let him know what’s going on. Faith, Robin, get in touch with the rest of the watchers. And everyone start calling your slayers.”

The call ended as they all hastened away to follow orders, the democracy of the Board falling away in crisis. Xander refused to let himself think of what could go down – or come up – if the wrong demons figured out that the Earth’s magical forces had suddenly been drained. Crap. He got to his feet abruptly and went to the kitchen to make sure they had enough coffee.

~*~

Over the next day and a half, no one got any sleep. The girls stayed home from school to ‘recover’ from their fainting spells and everyone camped out in the dining room. Andrew took the books looking for any and all references to apocalyptic meteor showers while Dawn took the Internet, printing and processing whatever she could get her hands on. Diana and Xander called the slayers. Vi hit the streets to check out the usual demon bars and hangout for anything useful, though so far she’d only come up with confused and scared demons. Their contacts had no idea what was going on either and quite a few were packing up to leave town in self-preservation.

Vi and Diana’s slayer strength was returning although slowly and only due to their proximity to the hellmouth. Elsewhere around the country, and globe for that matter, slayer powers were returning at about half that rate, which left none of them in any condition to fight. Going by Vi’s estimation it would be another few days for her and Diana, and at least a week before the rest of them were up to full power.

Wednesday night, Giles confirmed that all magic, not just that of casters, had been ripped away by the force. The Bath coven had been knocked unconscious as Willow had though when they had awakened twenty-eight hours later, Willow had still been unconscious. Simple spells were impossible and normal magical objects were no longer expressing their otherworldly qualities. Dawn even tested the truth potion which failed to force Xander to say he had one eye.

But it was Dawn’s report that was perhaps the most telling. “All the places that were hit by meteors yesterday were communications arrays. And there’s been reports of satellites down for a couple of companies.” The phone was on speaker setting in the middle of the dining room table. The Board was all there with the exception of Willow.

“So you’re saying that the meteors weren’t meteors?” asked Buffy through the speakerphone.

“We think it’s aliens,” said Andrew with a quick look at Xander. They had talked about it earlier when Dawn had found the first news reports. Coupled with Jack’s ‘end of the world’ timing, it made sense. Of course, they still had no proof.

“Aliens,” said Robin with a little skepticism.

Xander ignored him. “Kennedy, did you reach Riley?”

“No, he still hasn’t gotten back to me.”

“That still doesn’t explain the drain of magical energy,” said Giles getting back to Dawn’s point. “Only the meteor shower.”

“Which stopped after the drain,” said Buffy.

“But we haven’t been invaded yet,” Andrew pointed out. “That means the aliens were stopped by the magic. We think.” He grinned as he told them what he had figured out from watching way too many sci-fi movies.

There was a pause as the others took this in.

“Are you saying the Earth is frickin allergic to alien attacks?” asked Faith.

“Whatever happened, if this is what Jack was talking about, the military knows,” said Xander.

“Or at least has a place to start,” said Buffy quietly. “Xander, it looks like it’s up to you guys to go chat them up.”

“Not till we hear from Riley,” Xander said. He did not want to get locked up before he could even talk to someone.

“Make it soon. We gotta figure out how to get the magic back in balance or we are so screwed.” Talk turned then to status reports. In the US, the lack of mojo was still not common knowledge as far as they could tell. In Africa and South America communications were so bad there was no way to really know. In Italy, however, word of the slayer’s weakness had already spread leaving Buffy at a loss of what to do. She couldn’t wait a week for her powers to come back – she needed them now. If word from Europe got across the ocean . . . well, Cleveland would probably become the next great demon vacation spot.

~*~

Riley finally called around five am Thursday morning, waking Xander from a fitful sleep. To make matters worse, he stubbed his toe on the doorframe as he stumbled across the hall to the office. “’Lo?” he said, sitting heavily at the desk, rubbing his poor foot.

“Xander? Riley. I hope you have a suit.”

“What? Riley? Hi,” Xander mumbled still mostly asleep. “What did you say?”

“I got Kennedy’s messages yesterday about the magic. Happened to us too. One of our mages is still in a coma,” Riley explained sounding far more awake than necessary. “If you’re right about the barriers we are in deep shit.”

“Tell me about it,” said Xander dryly as the sleep started to clear from his brain. He was sitting on the damn hellmouth.

“We called our people in Washington,” Riley went on. “They talked to the Joint Chiefs who didn’t give them the time of day till they mentioned your aliens.”

“What’d they say?”

“I think they were a little upset about us knowing.”

“Ouch,” Xander sighed. Perfect, now the government was going to be after them on top of all this.

“General Taylor backed us up though,” said Riley.

“General Who?” asked Xander, more than a little surprised.

“Army Chief of Staff. I’ve met him a few times. He’s a good man. He’s the one who keeps tabs on our operation and unofficially on yours.”

“What?!” This was news to Xander. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” he asked, feeling slightly betrayed.

“Relax. It’s strictly surveillance. He was in on the Initiative and knows better than to interfere. But he’s got a vested interest in protecting his country too, you know.”

“Right, sorry,” Xander sighed. He really shouldn’t have been surprised, and it was a credit to this General that he was staying out of their way.

“Anyway,” Riley went on. “He’s taking us seriously. When I got Kennedy’s second message about the natural magic and the hellmouth and the Italian demons I called him and since I’m in the jungle, he got you clearance to learn about what happened and fix the problem.

“Me?” said Xander completely awake now from the jolt of adrenaline at the news. “Why me?”

“He’s sending you to a military base. Who else is there? Dawn?” Right, no high school students allowed. “Now the people at the base haven’t been cleared about the Council so don’t tell them anything. Someone’s picking you up at six. Codephrase: ‘Lovely day to walk your dog to Mars’. Then you say ‘Only if it’s raining in Hell’. Got that?”

“‘Only if it’s raining in Hell,’” Xander repeated, the cloak and dagger stuff making him smile. Andrew was going to be so jealous. Then again, unless he wanted to be spouting codephrases for the rest of his life, he probably shouldn’t tell him. But he would be so jealous. “Thanks, Riley.”

“Just doing my job,” said his friend. “Let me know what happens. I gotta get back.”

“Good luck,” said Xander before they hung up. He closed his eye, feeling a light draft waft through his uncovered eye socket. It was way too early to be up let alone thinking. With a final shake of his head, Xander went back to sleep for the remaining twenty minutes before he had to get up for real to meet whoever Taylor had sent to talk to him about Mars. After setting his alarm, Xander’s last thought as he drifted back to sleep was that he didn’t have a suit.

~*~

Xander didn’t start to get nervous until they were driving up the mountain. He’d only been half-awake when Major Davis had showed up on the front step, then the car ride and subsequent flight to a still undisclosed location had put him soundly back to sleep. He’d tried to stay conscious, really, but his body had refused to cooperate.

Now that they were off the military transport and on their way to the mysterious base he couldn’t ignore the worms crawling around in his stomach. Though that was partly hunger, which was a good thing because it gave him another thing to think about. Namely donuts.

His escort, Major Davis, hadn’t been very chatty the whole trip aside from their initial meeting. Xander knew that he hadn’t been expecting a kid with one eye hopelessly underdressed in khakis, dark blue button-down shirt, red snowman tie, and a winter jacket that had old gore stains on it. The covert looks the Major sent his way were still trying to puzzle him out. What a way to make an impression.

When they got to the base that went into the Cheyenne Mountain, Xander suddenly knew where they were. Jack’s base. Major Davis led him through two checkpoints where Xander’s driver’s license and Council ID were checked and rechecked before they were allowed onto the elevator that went down ten floors before stopping. When they got off, they were at another checkpoint. Xander idly wondered if they had any confidence in the people upstairs at all as he once again showed them his ID. Paranoid didn’t even begin to cover it. And then they got onto another elevator. And this one went down for a lot longer than ten stories.

“Welcome to the SGC, Mr. Harris,” Major Davis said when the elevator door finally opened. Xander shot him a startled look at the familiar designation that he wasn’t supposed to know. SCG, Bluebook, Area 52 – really, really top secret military base that had at least one alien on staff. He took a deep breath and followed the Major down the cold gray halls. He sure hoped he didn’t have to get out of here in a hurry because there was no way he was going to be able to remember all these twists and turns.

While they walked, Xander took in the uniformed men and women around him. Most were in plain green or blue fatigues striding purposefully from one place to another. They all looked at Xander curiously, their expressions guarded and evaluating. He tried to ignore the sensation of too many eyes crawling all over him, but it was rather difficult, too much like a vampire’s gaze as it sized up dinner for comfort. It was almost a relief when they reached the conference room.

The conference room was very spacious and very empty when they arrived. The walls held tasteful hotel pictures except for one wall whose windows were covered by a blast shield. It took Xander a moment to process what was wrong at first and then it hit him – there were windows underground.

The center of the room was dominated by a large table surrounded by comfy looking chairs. Two flags stood against the far wall where another door stood ajar. Major Davis walked confidently up to it while Xander followed with a little more trepidation. He really shouldn’t have been nervous since this was Jack’s base and Jack had told General George about them. It should make everything easier in the long run, but nevertheless Xander felt like a kid dragged off to the principal’s office. Or maybe that was the human in the vamp nest talking.

“Dr. Weir,” said Major Davis knocking on the doorframe. Xander stopped short. Uh, Weir? he had a second to wonder as a tall, brunette woman stood from behind what was obviously her desk and came to greet them.

“Ah, Major Davis,” Dr. Weir smiled warmly, her eyes briefly meeting the Major’s before settling on Xander. “And you must be Director Harris from the International Watcher’s Council.”

“Yes, it’s good to meet you,” Xander managed without stammering as he shook her hand. Meanwhile his mind was doing some hasty rearranging. Not General George but Dr. Weir. Not someone who knew but someone who most definitely was not in the know, and wasn’t supposed to. On the plus side she wasn’t military. Which begged the question of what she was doing in charge of a military base. And . . . doctor of what?

“Please,” she gestured for the two men to join her at the conference table. Xander couldn’t help but appreciate all the room it offered as he sat opposite Davis while Dr. Weir took the seat at the head.

“Dr. Weir, Mr. Harris has been authorized to be briefed on the Stargate Project, in particular, the events of the past few days to evaluate their impact,” said Davis. Weir nodded, the introduction obviously a confirmation.

“I just got off the phone with the Joint Chiefs,” she said with a small smile. “They aren’t much for giving notice. I’m afraid they didn’t explain what your organization does exactly.” Her voice turned upward in an invitation to explain.

Yeah right. Xander was very tempted to say ‘classified’ and leave it at that but he decided to be nice. “Um, I can’t really say other than that we are concerned with the fate of the world,” he said as clearly as possible. Weir nodded and didn’t look put out in the slightest. In fact, Xander had no idea what she was thinking. She was calm and collected and all the things Xander didn’t feel at the moment.

“Of course,” she said. “Well, as I was just briefed four days ago, I’ve asked Dr. Jackson to come join us as I’m sure he’ll do a much better job of explaining.”

“You’re new here?” Xander asked. He did some quick math in his head. Four days ago was after Jack had called but before the drain. Crap, power struggles.

“Yes,” said Weir calmly. “And yourself, how long have you worked for the Council?”

“Longer than four days,” he replied which earned him another smile though he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t have time to ponder it however as the doors at the opposite end of the conference room burst open as a man barreled through.

“Sorry I’m late,” the man said. His arms were laden with file folders, one hand gripping a cup of coffee. In green fatigues, it took Xander a moment to recognize him as Daniel. At the same moment, the haggard archeologist, who looked like Xander felt, stopped short as he caught sight of their guest.

Xander quickly shook his head at him and said hastily, “Dr. Jackson, I presume?” Please get it, please get it, he chanted mentally. If they knew each other, Weir would want to know why and then all these awkward questions would come up and Xander really wanted to avoid that. At all costs.

Daniel stared at him for a long second before snapping his mouth closed and saying, “Uh . . . yeah, Daniel Jackson.” He came around the table next to Davis and carefully put down his coffee and papers.

“Dr. Jackson, Director Harris of the Watcher’s Council,” Weir introduced them as they shook hands. “He’s here to be briefed on the project.”

“Right.” Daniel frowned briefly, then grabbed his folders, checking a few before sliding one over to Xander. “Right,” he repeated. He looked at the folder in his hand for a moment then looked up and fixed Xander with his gaze. “The Stargate Project rose out of a discovery in 1928 on a dig in Egypt. An artifact was uncovered, a giant ring that had been purposefully buried.”

“How big a ring?” Xander interrupted as he tried to get a picture of it in his head.

Daniel grinned slightly. “Big enough to walk through. Also covered in symbols. The US government ultimately took possession of the ring and a few years ago figured out what it was: a stargate.”

“A gate to stars and aliens,” said Xander in not quite a question. Across from him, Major Davis sat up straighter and frowned, obviously wondering how he’d jumped to that conclusion.

Xander spared him a glance. “A meteor shower that only takes out communications arrays? I’m sure that was a coincidence. There is a reason we wanted to talk to you.” He resisted the urge to roll his eye. He caught another grin from Daniel who continued.

“Other planets actually. But essentially . . . aliens. In fact most of the people we encounter are humans descended from people here on Earth.” Daniel paused to let that sink in, going on when Xander nodded. It did make sense and explained why Teal’c looked human and why the Air Force had archeologists.

“Originally they were taken there by another alien race called the Goa’uld who are a parasitic species that take humans as hosts. There’s a picture in there.” Daniel motioned for him to open his folder. Xander found the picture of the freaky snake-like thing that looked like a tentacle from the demon they had killed last August. Except smaller.

“The Goa’uld pretend to be gods and they take humans as slaves. Whole civilizations were uplifted and moved to other planets.” Xander looked up at Daniel’s tone, meeting eyes that mesmerized him with their intensity. “They are pure evil. There is no talking, no negotiating, and no mercy. We’ve been at war with them for about seven years now.”

Xander felt his heart clench, his mind going back to Jack’s phone call in a panicked rush. “And . . . they attacked,” he said slowly.

“Yeah. One of them.”

Xander looked back at the picture, only half listening as Daniel rambled on about them being feudal and having their own armies and ships and not playing nice together. It was so small. He wondered how it took control over someone. Demons did it so many different ways – there used to be a book on parasitic ones that would burrow through your back or only attach after sex or eating. He wondered if this should be harder to wrap his head around.

“Director Harris,” Dr. Weir’s gentle voice interrupted Daniel’s flow. “Are you all right? I know this is difficult but I can assure you that it is very real.”

“What?” Xander looked up out of his thoughts into her sympathetic eyes. “Yeah, real,” he agreed absently. “How does it take a host?” he turned back to Daniel.

“Through the back of the neck or the mouth. They attach themselves to the brainstem. There’s an MRI.”

Xander flipped though his folder till he found it. It gave him the shivers just looking at it, a pale serpentine form wrapped around the brainstem. Ick. “Now there’s something that would drive you mad. I don’t suppose they pay rent?”

“Uh, no,” said Daniel with another ghost of a smile, reaching for his coffee. Weir and Davis both shifted uncomfortably at the joke, which pleased Xander no end. Not so confident now, were they?

“So the guy who attacked. What happened?” he asked, putting aside the MRI for now.

“Anubis,” said Daniel. “He wanted to take over Earth, kill us, enslave us.”

“Doesn’t like us much, does he,” Xander commented.

“We tend to piss them off,” Daniel replied. Beside him Davis smiled a bit. Daniel went on and explained the happenings of the last few days. How the older, more advanced alien race that had made the stargates had left a weapon behind in an outpost in Antarctica. How they had recovered the location from a library device on another planet. How his CO, Jack O’Neill, now had so much information in his head from the device that his brain would deteriorate.

Daniel’s eyes held Xander’s as he told him this last bit, soft and kind while Xander felt an emptiness rush through him. “He used his knowledge to activate the weapon which destroyed Anubis’s fleet and afterwards he was frozen and placed in stasis. At least that’s what we think.”

“Is he . . . alive?” asked Xander.

“We think so.”

But frozen in Antarctica with stuff in his head that could kill him. Would freezing him help?

“Director Harris,” Dr. Weir said, pulling him out of his introspection. “What sort of analysis do you need of the last few days?”

Xander shook his head to clear it. Focus, he told himself. Twisting his thoughts away from Jack, he turned towards her. “I need to know everything you can tell me about the weapon that was used,” he said. From the descriptions, that had to be it.

“The weapon?” said Dr. Weir. “May I ask why?”

“Aren’t you supposed to cooperate?” he shot back.

“Director, you were given clearance for the Stargate Project and recent events. It was not my understanding that you were allowed access to knowledge about a very powerful weapon.” Weir’s voice was stern but still on the right side of polite.

“Right, cause I’m gonna run home and make one in my backyard,” Xander said before he could stop himself. “Look,” he said more seriously before Weir could say anything. “Something happened when that weapon did its thing. Something drastic.” Xander searched for words that wouldn’t give too much away. “I could care less about the weapon. If I wanted to blow something up I’d go steal a rocket launcher. So help me out here.”

Dr. Weir regarded him for a minute with that same unreadable expression while Xander tried to look sincere.

“Dr. Weir, there’s no way he could get access to the site and with as little as we know about the Ancients’ technology, it can’t hurt,” said Daniel into the silence. Finally Weir nodded.

“I’m afraid there’s not much we can tell you,” she said, sitting back in her chair with a sigh. “Access to the weapon has been severely limited due to the political situation. We’re having difficulty getting even Colonel O’Neill back.”

“But you will get him back, right?” Xander asked suddenly sidetracked by this news. Jack couldn’t stay in Antarctica forever, ‘cause even in stasis he would waste away.

“Yes, eventually,” Weir smiled. “Major Davis, the latest science report is on my desk, if you would.” The Major nodded and went to fetch it, returning a moment later. Weir smiled a ‘thank you’ as she accepted it and slid it to Xander. “What we do know is that the weapon is controlled mentally by a person, in this case Colonel O’Neill.”

Between her and Daniel, they explained the very vague particulars on how the weapon worked. Basically, you plugged in the power source, sat in a chair, and thought real hard for globules of energy to come out of the floor. The energy packets could be consolidated or could work independently of each other. Except Xander reasoned the energy was magic and what they thought was a power source was probably a key or something. Dangerous whatever it was, if it unleashed the full magical power of the Earth. And now that magical power was in space. Great. Xander rubbed his eye tiredly as they finished up. Why couldn’t this be easy? Just once?

“So what’s the prognosis?” asked Daniel cautiously.

Xander smiled humorlessly, his gaze flickering from him to Weir and back. “Do you want the bad news or the bad news?” he asked.

“That bad?”

“With the nice energy shake in space? We’ve got . . . issues,” he said not sure if Daniel understood what he meant or not.

“Issues?” asked Weir sharply.

“Yeah,” Xander nodded, unsure of how much more he could say. The scary part was, he had no idea what to do about it. The person best suited to solving this problem was Willow and she was either still unconscious or still sick from the backlash. And what were they going to do until the Earth naturally restored itself? Crap. Crap, crap, crap. With a cherry on top.

Xander leafed through the science report again, ignoring the words that were far too technical for him and focusing on the pictures of the underground room and the equipment covered in strange symbols. And then suddenly he was staring at Jack through a block of ice like some warped piece of art. He was staring at nothing, his face blank and lifeless, and Xander felt something akin to panic flutter in his chest. Jack in Antarctica, frozen with something in his head that would kill him if he woke up. It hit him then that he might not ever see him again, alive. This picture might be his last. Killed from knowing too much.

Abstractly, Xander knew he should be focusing on the weapon at hand, but Scooby instincts to protect people first and deal with the consequences later kicked in and he couldn’t look away. “What’s been done about getting Jack back?” he asked.

“We’re working on it,” said Dr. Weir. “Several countries have just been briefed on the Stargate Project given the recent attack and are reluctant to let us take anything from the site, but it is a priority. That’s not really relevant to this discussion, however.”

Xander looked up at her. “So he’s just being left there?”

“Director Harris – ”

“He’s got all that stuff in his head that’s killing him and you’re just leaving him there?” He couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t he the guy that had just saved all their asses by knowing what to do? Even if he inadvertently caused the drain to make the weapon work . . . And if he was left there he was as good as dead. Wasn’t there some way they could fix him?

“So this problem you’re addressing,” said Daniel slowly yet abruptly shifting topics. “It has to do with the . . . energy . . . and how it works?”

“I think so, yeah,” said Xander watching the archeologist carefully as he obviously thought through something.

“Then Jack should know,” he said finally. Daniel sat up straighter but seemed hesitant to continue. “He’s got the knowledge of the Ancients who built the weapon. In theory if we revive him, he should be able to tell us what you need to know before . . .”

“His brain leaks out of his ears?” Xander suggested. It was obvious, of course, more so now that it had been thought out loud. And it was terrifying because that would only speed up the deterioration of Jack’s brain once he was thawed, if it had even been stopped at all. He couldn’t risk that, even if what he could tell them would help. “Waking him up will kill him.” And that was the bottom line.

“We’re working on that,” Daniel shifted slightly in his seat with a quick glance at Davis. He tried to smile reassuringly though the worry never left his face. “We’re not going to let him die. We have some allies that can help and when they get here we can do it. We won’t rush into anything.” He turned to Weir. “But there’s got to be a way we can use that to get him back here.”

Peripherally, he heard Daniel, Weir, and Davis start talking diplomacy but he ignored them and instead looked back at the picture of Jack encased in ice, cold and dead-like. Xander wouldn’t lose him this way. He couldn’t. In his head he heard Jack’s words come back to haunt him, words he’d shoved down with anger so they wouldn’t become goodbye. Words he needed to hear again suddenly because sometimes being able to say goodbye was worth it.

There it was, the traitorous thought he’d managed to keep away for the last six days. Jack could die. Was probably going to, in fact. And Xander didn’t want to lose him.

“How much can you tell us about why you need to know about the weapon?” Weir interrupted his morbid thoughts.

“Nothing anyone would believe.”

“Then there’s not much we can bargain with. Barring an act of God, this is going to be very difficult.”

“Then just go kidnap him in the middle of the night,” Xander suggested the simplest answer he could think of. He probably should have kept his mouth closed given the raised eyebrows he was getting, though Daniel did seem more amused than shocked. “Or something,” Xander added hastily.

“Not a bad idea,” Daniel muttered and from the expectant look he gave Weir, Xander figured he must have been harping on getting his best friend back since it had happened.

“Dr. Jackson.”

“I’m just saying . . .” Daniel lifted his hands in his defense.

Dr. Weir gave him a final warning look before she turned to Xander. “We’ll see what we can do. You’re welcome to stay on base. Dr. Jackson, perhaps you could show Director Harris to the commissary?”

“Sure,” Daniel nodded, rising and gathering his things while Xander followed suit and shook hands with both Weir and Davis before following him out the door.

“You want to see the stargate?” Daniel asked as they exited through the door through which Daniel had entered. Xander didn’t even have a chance to say yes as suddenly he was looking at it through the window of the control. It was large. Slate blue-gray in color with symbols and funny triangle things around its edge and a metal pinwheel across its face.

Xander stared at it for a second before saying the first thing that came to mind. “That’s cool!”

Daniel grinned. “Wait till you see it in action. Come on.” With a last look at the portal to other planets – planets! Xander thought excitedly – he followed his guide down the steps into the corridor below. He almost wanted to try it. Andrew was going to be so jealous.

“I was surprised to see you here,” said Daniel giving Xander a quick look as they started down the hallway. “You look like you’ve had a rough couple of days.”

“Yeah, well, getting all the magic sucked out of your body while your dad uses it to save the world on top of finding out that he might die afterwards will do that to you,” Xander replied. That got Daniel’s attention, his step faltering a second before reestablishing itself.

“Jack called you?” he asked. Xander nodded. “And the . . . magic . . .?”

Xander sighed and returned the curious gaze, clear and hiding nothing. Xander was relieved that there was someone else who knew about his world that he could talk to in this cold place. Another person who, even if he didn’t get it all, wouldn’t disbelieve him or the magnitude of what they were facing. It probably broke all the rules, but he didn’t care. Rules were made to be ignored. “I’ll tell you over breakfast.”

~*~

Daniel and Xander’s interesting breakfast took place in a forgotten corner of the dining hall and was joined midway through by Jack’s other friends Sam and Teal’c. Xander eyed them carefully at first – he hadn’t seen them since Christmas – but nevertheless recapped what he’d already told Daniel and finished with the guesses the Scoobies had made. Daniel and Sam both asked questions focusing on the details of the drain, which they accepted as magic with little protest, and on the nature of magic in the world and what its loss meant. Surprisingly, they knew more than Xander had first thought they did.

“We had a long talk with Mr. Giles,” Sam told him with an amused smile when he asked.

“And did a little reading on our own,” Daniel added with a shrug. “You’d be surprised at how many Internet sources there are on the supernatural the way you described it.”

“Trust me. They’re all bookmarked on our computer,” Xander replied with a grin of his own that the others shared. Except for Teal’c who was starting to make Xander uncomfortable as always. Xander didn’t think he would ever figure the guy out.

He took another bite of soggy French toast as silence fell over them briefly, the other three not bothering to fill it with chatter as they turned back to their own neglected cups of coffee. It was kinda funny how they had just pulled him into their circle. Sam and Teal’c’s arrival had effectively shielded Xander from the rest of the room. At Christmas, he hadn’t talked much with them beyond the little stuff so it was a little awkward not knowing what to say. But on the other hand, there was no pressure. Sam smiled when his eye met hers, and Daniel seemed to be distracted by his thoughts again. He was probably thinking about Jack, wondering like Xander was about what would happen to him.

“How was he when he . . . you know . . . fired the weapon?” Xander asked suddenly. Jack’s friends all looked at him then each other before Daniel answered.

“He’d already lost the ability to speak English,” he said quietly. “The migraines hadn’t set in yet though.”

“So when they wake him up . . . You can fix him, right?”

“We’ve been trying to get in touch with the Asgard,” said Sam. “They took the library out of his head last time.”

“Asgard?” Xander didn’t recognize the name that must have belonged to the allies Daniel had mentioned earlier. And more importantly, “Last time?”

“Another alien race with advanced technology,” Daniel explained. “We met them the last time it happened.”

“O’Neill is friends with a commander in their fleet,” added Teal’c. “If they can help, they will.”

The relief that surged through him that Jack had lived through this before was short-lived. “When did you call them?” The question sparked another round of worried looks and Xander knew that it had been far too long ago for comfort.

“Last week when he downloaded the library,” Sam told him.

“I’m sensing a need for plan B,” said Xander, abruptly putting down his fork. He wasn’t so hungry anymore. Of course, what did he know about getting in touch with aliens, anyway? Even if the three people sitting with him thought it was taking too long and were worried and –

“Xander,” said Daniel gently. “We’ll get him back.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes,” said Teal’c, surprising Xander enough to look up at him. “We will find a solution. If the Asgard do not come, then we will find a way to replenish the Earth’s magical forces and your friend will restore him in your manner.” The calm confidence in his voice was reassuring and the belief that Willow would be able to cure Jack comforting. “O’Neill will never stop fighting. Do not give up on him.”

“I know. I’m not. It’s just . . .” Xander picked his fork back up and started resolutely picking at his sodden toast, unsure how to put his feelings into words.

“He’s your father,” said Daniel for him, and Xander heard in his voice understanding of what he was going through because the three of them were struggling with the same thing for their friend, their brother.

“Yeah,” Xander quietly agreed looking around at knowing eyes. And it didn’t seem so weird that he was a part of this group, in this place, at this time. Not so weird at all.

~*~

When they met back in the conference room a few hours later, Dr. Weir greeted them with a smile. “Good news, gentlemen,” she said. “The ambassadors have managed to come to an agreement. Dropping the name of your organization did wonders for the negotiation,” she looked at Xander with unvoiced questions undoubtedly running amok behind her eyes. “Once the British ambassador heard you were looking into the situation he apparently disappeared to make a few phone calls and came back supporting Colonel O’Neill’s return to us.”

“What can I say? We’re connected,” Xander said modestly, giving grudging points to the old Council.

“Yes, you are,” Weir agreed with the unreadable look. “We’re expecting his return once the scientists have figured out how to get him here.”

“Thank you,” said Xander in relief. One obstacle down, fourteen gazillion to go.

“I’ve assigned you quarters in the VIP rooms while we wait. Until then I only ask that you stay with your escort.” She nodded to the airman by the door. “Dr. Jackson, if I might have a word?”

The meeting obviously over, Xander went and followed his new friend to the ugly little room they’d given him a few floors up. Dark colors, boring walls, what was it with the military? And of course, absolutely nothing to do. So Xander did the only thing he could: kicked off his shoes, threw his coat on a chair, and went to sleep.

A few hours later a knock on the door woke him with a start, his new surroundings confusing him for a minute before he put two and four together to get three in the missing spot. When he got up to answer it, he found Daniel at the door grinning like a loon.

“You’re not gonna believe this,” he said excitedly.

“Jack’s here?”

“No, not that, but almost as good,” Daniel shook his head coming in. “Kinsey has just been quarantined in the infirmary.”

“Kinsey? The guy who wanted me kidnapped?” Xander stared at him. The Vice President of the United States Kinsey?

“The very same. Did you know the President fired him during the attack?”

“He did what?!” Xander found a chair and sat in it, Daniel joining him

“Fired him. Dr. Weir just told me when she told me he was back and in quarantine.” Daniel was still grinning. “Apparently he tried to run to another planet to hide.”

“And the President fired him?”

“Yeah.” Daniel paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. “You know under normal circumstances I would feel bad for the guy, but considering how much I hate him . . . Anyway,” he pulled himself back from his rambling thoughts. “He was on his way back to Washington when he suddenly developed a nasty case of boils on his ass.” Daniel lifted innocent eyebrows at Xander who couldn’t stop the glee from surfacing. “Now the firing is . . . understandable. Normal even. But the boils . . . well they figure they’re some sort of alien virus that he picked up here. Funny thing is, no one else seems to have the same symptoms.”

“You know, I have this friend,” said Xander conversationally as he leaned back in his chair, very satisfied with life at the moment. “And you really shouldn’t try to hurt people she cares about. She gets a little cranky.”

Daniel smiled, his arms crossed comfortably across his chest as he too sat back very satisfied with poetic justice. A major pain in the ass for the major pain in the ass. “Does she like presents?”

~*~

By dinnertime, Xander was bored. Very bored. All this free time waiting and nothing to do. Not even a TV to rot his brain on. He’d hung out with Daniel for a while, but he hadn’t been too interested in all the translating stuff and eventually he’d drifted back to his room with a book on mythology that wasn’t nearly as interesting as Daniel had said it was. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough when Sam came by to ask him to dinner.

“Oh, thank you!” said Xander. “I was ready to tear out the pages and play wasteketball. Here, take this,” he handed off the book before harm accidentally befell it.

Sam only grinned at his antics. “You’re as bad as the Colonel,” she said fondly, which made Xander shake his head in embarrassed pleasure. He was his own person, had been for a long time, but it was still nice to hear.

“Hey, you’ve had something to do all day,” Xander defended himself. “I have done nothing but catch up in sleep and imagine how much pain Kinsey must be in.”

“You guys really did it, didn’t you?” said Sam with a bit of amazement thrown in her tone. “I honestly didn’t think it would happen,” she shook her head. “When I heard he’d been fired, I thought Hayes had just finally seen him for the jerk he was. Nothing magic about that. But the boils . . . how the hell did you manage that?”

“Wishful thinking,” Xander deadpanned. Sam cut her eyes at him with a look that told him she knew there was a little devil somewhere behind that innocent expression.

As they rounded the next corner, it took a few seconds for Xander to notice it. And when he did, he thought it was just the hall and the strange place. His steps slowed and Sam stopped as he did, staring at him curiously.

“Xander, are you all right?” she asked, worry at his abrupt change in behavior now marring her brow.

Xander held very still, one hand coming up in the universal ‘wait’ gesture. Senses suddenly turned on to their max, he listened, his eye darting back and forth trying to pinpoint whatever it was, though he had a fairly good idea. Things were *shifting*. Subtly and more slowly than before, but nonetheless sliding back into place, feeling inexplicably right.

“Something’s happened,” he said quietly, his eye finding Sam.

“Xander?” She stepped towards him and laid her hand lightly on his arm.

“In Antarctica. Everything’s right again. Or getting there faster than it was.”

“Everything . . .” Sam trailed off getting it. “We need to tell Dr. Weir.”

“No!” said Xander. At Sam’s startled expression he explained. “If we tell her, I have to leave, and if I leave I won’t see Jack.”

“We still need to figure out what caused the correction,” said Sam. “You don’t have to leave till after we figure that out.”

She was right, he supposed. They had to know what had changed so they would know what not to do to prevent the drain from ever happening again. At the moment though, Xander needed to make a phone call.

~*~

In the end, Sam did convince Xander that they needed to tell Weir, but only after he called Giles so it looked like the confirmation was the original report. Weir listened and agreed that Xander could stay until the situation was resolved and after two days and a lot of confusing reports that Xander was only too happy to let Sam translate, they had an answer. Sort of.

The simple explanation was that it had to do with unplugging the thing Jack had plugged in. The complicated part had to do with connections and energy and Laws of Thermodynamics that made Xander’s head hurt. The plan was still to pick Jack’s brain before it up and walked out on him, but for that they were still waiting on the Asgard. Xander was waiting on Willow.

But Xander didn’t really care about any of the ‘whys’. As far as he was concerned, the crisis had been averted and he didn’t really care about the details. All they had to do was not use the key thing again and they wouldn’t have any more problems.

No, what Xander cared about was the other significant event that took place that day: the return of Jack’s partially frozen body. He’d arrived that afternoon, the surprising de-stasitizing process already begun by the key’s unplugging in Antarctica, but it was thankfully slow going. The doctors were all scratching their heads, trying to figure out how he wasn’t dead as he slowly recovered his normal body temperature like a thawing turkey left to sit on the counter. At a loss, they had finally stopped hovering for the night. A little nurse distraction by Daniel and guard distraction by Teal’c and Xander found himself in a chair in the isolated room where Jack lay as still as death.

But not dead yet. Xander had been sitting there just watching him since Sam had left some twenty minutes ago. Silver hair framed a peaceful if pale face with lips that were a little too purple for comfort. Jack looked older, tired. Frail. It was at once frightening and heartening to see him there so vulnerable but still alive. The monitoring equipment hummed in the background.

“I know I told you to call me,” Xander finally broke the silence softly. “But then you had to go popsicle on me and now I’m the one calling on you. I hate hospitals but I guess you know about that with Dawn and all.” He stopped. They always said talking helped. Sometimes Xander wondered.

“Sure made a mess of things, huh? But it got you back anyway. Can you believe those guys, fighting over who gets what with you just stuck there? I’ll never get politicians. Oh, and you’ll never guess what happened to Kinsey . . . though I think I’ll tell you when you wake up. You’d appreciate it more.” He paused again while Jack continued to breathe in and out, in and out. Xander hated watching him. Hated sitting by his bed waiting. He hated knowing that the last thing he’d said had been harsh and cruel and deep in denial.

“I’m sorry I was mad at you,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t let you finish saying what you needed to say. I just couldn’t . . . couldn’t think about losing you.” Xander sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees letting his head sag down a moment before looking back up at the man who had just waltzed into his life last summer. Had it really been almost a year already?

“It was kind of scary actually. When you said you were proud of me. Not a run-for-your-life scared, but you know . . . It’s been a long time since anyone’s said that to me. My dad, Tony, when we talked he would yell. Of course, he was drunk most of the time – you can imagine how pleasant that was.” Xander let out a dry chuckle. “In less than a year and from another state you managed to be more my dad than he’d been since . . . a long time. I keep saying that – ‘long time.’

“I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t die on me, Jack. You can’t die on me because I don’t want it to be another long time before someone decides to hop a plane for me because of one crazy phone call in the middle of the night. Not that you have to do that every time, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Right.” He trailed off.

“Teal’c says we’ll find a way to put your marbles back in your head. You’ve got some cool friends, though I almost killed one of Daniel’s books. Sam said I was as bad as you about that. I can see that. You know I have an irrational fear of old books? Comes from reading too many trying to save the world. Giles just loves them. It’s always about the books with him. Though I did find a TV at his apartment back in Sunnydale, so there is proof that he’s moved into the twentieth century. Hasn’t made it to the twenty-first yet, but we’re working on him. Did I tell you about how he killed his cell phone? There was a demon involved but I think Giles just used that as an excuse.”

Xander rambled on, talking about anything and everything that popped into his head. He didn’t know how long he sat there, just that he couldn’t stop talking. He talked until he no longer made sense to himself and the pauses between ramblings grew longer and longer. The whole while, Jack breathed in and out, in and out, steady and strong until he seemed to be more sleeping than just lying there half-dead. And when Teal’c came in and told him to go to bed, Xander left feeling at peace for the first time since Jack’s phone call. His father might not have been out of the woods yet, but he was going to be fine.

Chapter Text

When Xander innocently passed by the infirmary the next morning, he was surprised to meet Dr. Weir in the hallway about to go in. “Director Harris,” she greeted him warmly with her customary professional politeness.

“Dr. Weir,” Xander nodded back.

“I was just going to check on Colonel O’Neill. Would you care to join me?”

A bit startled by the offer, Xander nodded and followed her through the infirmary door. A nurse noticed their arrival and went to fetch the doctor on duty who was introduced as Dr. Brightman. She sighed when Weir asked about Jack.

“According to our estimates, he will be physically recovered by early tomorrow morning. His vital signs all show consistent improvement which is accelerating as he warms up. The levels still lay well below survivable hypothermic conditions, but he’s alive.” The doctor seemed at a loss to explain. “None of us have ever seen a thermal recovery like this before. We think it must be linked to the anomalous reading we saw in the MRI yesterday. We have another one scheduled for 1100. Hopefully we’ll know more then.”

“And the brain damage?”

“As far as we can tell, that process has been retarded as well,” said Dr. Brightman. “Recovery, from what I understand, will be impossible without the Asgard. You can go on and see him, if you wish.”

“Thank you,” said Weir. Dr. Brightman led them to the private room and left them at the door. Xander was surprised to see Teal’c sitting by Jack’s bed. He rose when they entered.

“Dr. Weir, Xander Harris,” he greeted them. After a moment, he added, “Would you like privacy?”

“Yes, please. Thank you,” Weir nodded. Bowing slightly and giving Xander a lingering look, Teal’c left.

Jack seemed much as he had the night before, like he was sleeping. The monitors were all still attached and providing background noise. Weir moved to the foot of the bed and was silent. Unsure, Xander hesitantly came and stood beside her, his own thoughts revolving around tomorrow and what would happen then.

“I understand you lost your escort last night.” Taken by surprise, Xander turned to the woman beside him like a deer in headlights. “You came here?” She looked at him already knowing the answer.

“Yeah,” said Xander.

“May I ask why?” But he remained silent, tearing his gaze away from her to the still body on the bed. “Director Harris, please understand I’m not accusing you of anything,” Weir said. “You’ve been spending most of your stay here with SG-1, and last night they sneaked you in here where you sat till nearly four this morning. You haven’t been very forthcoming in your reasons for being here and if you have an ulterior motive, I’d like to know.”

Xander almost laughed. Sure he had an ulterior motive: making sure Jack lived, but there wasn’t much he could do about that at the moment. First he had to finish thawing, then he had to call Giles to see what could be done, see if Willow was okay, or barring that another witch, hopefully closer. He might have to call LA. Angel was sure to have someone who could pull off the tricky magic, though it killed Xander to ask the vampire.

“Daniel and Teal’c let me in. Shouldn’t that speak for it self?” he asked.

“It begs the question to why.”

“It has nothing to do with why I’m here.”

“All right, Director Harris,” Weir’s voice sharpened and when he looked, her gaze was as cool and commanding as any slayer’s, one that said don’t-mess-with-me. “I will accept that for now. But understand that this man is under my command and that any threats to him will be dealt with accordingly.”

“I’m not a threat.”

“Just so we’re clear,” said Weir. She turned and started heading for the door.

Xander watched her back for a full second before he impulsively called out, “He’s my father.” Weir turned, raised eyebrows the only show of surprise at his announcement. “You can ask Daniel or Teal’c or Sam,” he added. If she wanted more proof he bet he could find the paternity confirmation at Jack’s house, but he didn’t think he needed it.

“I didn’t know he had a son,” she said.

“You’ve only been here a week.” Weir nodded in acknowledgment, eyes darting from Jack to him as she absorbed this new information. “Thanks though,” added Xander. At her inquiring look he smiled. “For threatening me. It means a lot.”

Weir smiled in return. “Thank you for telling me.” With a final nod she left him to his visit.

Xander sighed as he settled into the chair Teal’c had recently vacated, a mixed feeling of pride and dread clenching his stomach. His gut instinct about her better not be wrong, he thought, but he didn’t think it was.

“Dr. Weir, please come to the briefing room,” the PA system requested. Xander looked up curiously but knew that until his name was called he wouldn’t be welcome. So he stayed and wondered how the girls were doing at home, prayed there wouldn’t be anyone else in the hospital, and that Andrew was still in one piece. He didn’t know how much time had passed as he let his thoughts wander to friends far and wide.

But when Jack’s body disappeared in a flash of white light he was up and running out the door before his heart had started beating again.

~*~

Numb . . . cold . . . floating . . . There were noises around him . . . humming but not a song. There was light . . . then it was gone. Words, smells, all faded back into fog. There was no hurry. What would come would come. He was safe.

Time melted. Sounds came again more insistently. Familiar sounds that converged into words that Jack knew. Questions asked that he had answers to. Answers that faded and words that transformed into gibberish that he couldn’t understand. Awareness slowly pushed back the fog. He tried to open his eyes, but they were heavy. He sighed in frustration and tried again. The voices stopped.

“Jack?”

He opened his eyes. “Daniel?” Slowly turning his head at the semi-familiar surroundings, he found his friend smiling at him, arms crossed across his chest. And beside him was another, much shorter friend. “Thor!”

“Greetings, O’Neill. It is good to see you well,” the tiny gray alien inclined his head briefly before coming over and releasing him from the medical pod. Still stiff, sore, and cold and with a crushing headache, Jack slowly sat up and swung his legs over the side. The first thought that came to mind was to wonder what was he doing here, but through the haze in his head, he remembered, the planet with the library. That was about it.

“Jack?” asked Daniel concerned now.

“Anubis?” he asked. Daniel nodded.

“No longer a threat. How much do you remember?”

“Not much.” It wasn’t so much a haze anymore as a blank, with pieces snapping out too fast too see every once in a while. He tried to identify them as Daniel recounted the last couple days of the mission.

“And then you put yourself in stasis,” Daniel finished.

“How long?”

“Five days. You actually started defrosting when they removed the power source from the chair two days ago. Thor got here this morning.”

“Impeccable timing as ever,” Jack smiled at Thor.

“I am only sorry I could not arrive sooner.”

“Hey, you got here,” Jack said lightly. He stood up to protesting muscles, experimentally stretching his arms. The burning stretch felt refreshingly good. “Don’t happen to have anything for a headache, do you?” But Thor shook his head.

“We should probably be getting back,” said Daniel.

“Oh? What’s up?”

“I think I’ll let Xander explain.”

Jack stopped and did a double take at his friend who was most definitely sporting a grin and waiting for him to ask. Jack didn’t disappoint him. “Xander is at the SGC?”

“Yep.”

“My Xander.”

“Showed up three days ago.”

“Daniel,” Jack growled at his friend for withholding information.

“Who is Xander?” interrupted Thor. “And why is he yours? Does not your race abhor slavery?”

“What? No,” Jack started, turning to the short alien. “Xander’s not a slave or anything.”

“Then how is he yours?”

Jack stared at him for a long moment then said, “He’s my son.”

“Your offspring?” Thor actually seemed surprised. “I did not realize that you had any.”

“Yeah, well,” Jack shrugged. Neither had he. “And he’s at the SGC?” he turned back to Daniel who nodded.

“I think I would like to meet your offspring,” said Thor.

But Jack still had more questions for Daniel and only told the Asgard commander, “Sure,” before asking his teammate in a carefully deliberate voice. “Why is Xander at the SCG?”

“Well –” was as far as Daniel got when the sound of an Asgard transporter interrupted.

“What the –”

“Are you Xander?” asked Thor. And sure enough, Jack’s son was standing on Thor’s ship.

“Ahhhgg!” Xander jumped back when he caught sight of diminutive Supreme Commander, his hands reaching for his belt, no doubt for a weapon that wasn’t there. Shell shocked by his sudden . . . appropriation, Xander could only stare. Jack didn’t know whether to laugh or jump up and hug him. Or yell at Thor, though he really wasn’t angry at the little guy.

“Thor!” said Daniel at the exact same time that Jack said, “Xander!”

“Jack!” the young man was clearly surprised to see him alive and well.

“Hey, kid. How’s it going?” Jack sauntered over, grinning at the utter confusion on his son’s face as he darted looks from Thor to Jack and Daniel to the sleek grey room they stood in. Numbly he took Jack’s offered hand.

“Okay. Stop.” Xander closed his eye and shook his head, disbelief in every line of his face when he opened it again. “Explanations would be good now. The whole disappearing, shiny room, and you not half dead and crazy, and please tell me I’m hallucinating,” he glanced at Thor.

Jack grinned at the confused string of words. “You’re not hallucinating.”

“Okay. Right. You sure? ‘Cause I’d be happy to be.”

“Xander, I’d like you to meet Thor, Supreme Commander of the Asgard Fleet. Buddy of mine, well known for coming and saving our butts every once in a while.” He got another long incredulous stare before Xander blinked and let go of his hand. He eyed Thor up and down warily before glancing back at Jack to see if it was a joke. Jack grinned and nodded back towards Thor who was waiting patiently. Xander took a deep breath and offered his hand.

“Nice to meet you,” he said. “Sorry about all that, just not used to the transporter thing.” And when their hands shook, Xander broke out into a grin. “My friend Andrew is going to be *so* jealous.”

~*~

By the time Jack and Daniel had finished explaining the healing thing, Xander’s heart was back in his chest. He’d spent half the discussion staring at Thor who had been just as curious about him. Xander found that once he’d wrapped his head around the fact that he was on a spaceship, everything else was easier to accept. Just another factor of weirdness to add to his already weird life.

Thor was nice too. He showed Xander around the control room and answered his half joking questions about ray guns and shields (which he had after a fashion) and photon torpedoes (which he didn’t) with utmost seriousness. Jack and Daniel were amused, both adding comments here and there. “You should see the Goa’uld run in fear of these babies,” Jack said of the ship.

All and all Xander was rather impressed. And a little disappointed. Thor and his ship were pretty cool in and of themselves, but the barrenness of the interior felt cold and hard. Alien. He shook his head ruefully as they reconvened back by the tube bed. That was the point wasn’t it? That this ship and the little person with big black eyes were from another planet. They were not a part of the Earth.

“So why did you bring me up here?” Xander asked once the tour was over.

“I wanted to meet the offspring of my friend O’Neill,” said Thor in his soft and formal tones. Xander looked over at Jack who shrugged back.

“Oh,” Xander didn’t know what else to say.

“So what do you think?” Jack saved him from adding anything else. “Good kid, huh?”

Xander glared. “I’m hardly a kid,” he groused, but both Thor and Jack ignored him, while Daniel gave him a sympathetic smile.

“He possesses your same instinct for humor,” Thor nodded. “And he carries himself well in the face of new experiences.”

“Yeah well,” Xander shrugged embarrassed, “this is hardly the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” One of the weirdest, but face it, he’d *dated* weirder.

“So what were you doing at the SGC anyway?” asked Jack. He was sitting back on the pod like he had been when Xander had first arrived, reminding him that not four hours ago, Jack had been hooked up to a bunch of machines to make sure he was still alive. It almost bothered him that he’d gone through all the trouble of worrying about him to just find him here on this ship, healthy as a clam. The technology around him a kind of magic in its own way.

“Oh you know, looking for the Earth’s magical energy,” Xander said lightly though he felt anything but. He was rewarded with two incredulous eyebrows rising. “That weapon you used ripped the magic from the Earth.”

“The power source looks like it’s really a conduit for channeling magical power,” said Daniel. “It acts like a magnet – or it enables one – that draws power from the Earth. We tried to ask you about it while you were recovering and you kept repeating ‘One world, one life, one source,’ over and over no matter how I asked the questions. So we went ahead and woke you up.”

“He did?” asked Xander

“I did?” said Jack.

“Those were the only words,” Thor confirmed. “They do not make sense to me, nor does this magical force that Dr. Jackson told me of.”

“It’s like doing stuff with technology without the technology,” Xander tried to explain. “You say some words, sometimes you need a ritual, and you make stuff happen.”

“Interesting,” said Thor, tilting his head slightly. “I would like to see some of this magic.”

“I can’t really do any on my own,” said Xander. “Some people can, the rest of us need the rituals and stuff to help.” He tried to avoid it these days anyway.

“What do you need?”

“I, uh, I’d need a spell book first, so I’d know what to do. Then probably lizard guts or something,” said Xander, not quite sure how to answer. He also had sneaking suspicion that he needed to be on Earth unless he was someone like Willow who had a heapful of innate power.

“Next time you’re on Earth, Thor, we’ll see about getting you a demo,” Jack came to his rescue. “If you have time now . . .?”

“No. I am afraid I do not have much time to spare. I have already stayed too long.”

“We owe you,” said Jack solemnly as he stood.

“I have lost track,” said Thor. He turned to Xander. “It was an honor to meet the child of the great O’Neill.”

‘The great O’Neill?’ Xander glanced questioningly at his father who just grinned and shrugged again then nodded to Thor. “Thanks for having me and showing me around.” Andrew was never going to believe this . . . unless . . . “Do you have a pen?” he asked Daniel who blinked in surprise before patting his pockets and coming up with a Sharpie.

Xander accepted it while hitting his own pockets for something to write on, but he didn’t have anything. “Could you, uh . . . sign my sleeve?” he offered the pen and his covered arm to the small alien, vaguely embarrassed for asking but knowing that he’d regret it if he didn’t. He refused to look at Jack who he heard mutter “For crying out loud!” and Daniel who he was pretty sure was snickering.

Thor, while his expression didn’t really change, was obviously confused, but he got the idea when Xander told him to write, ‘To Xander, friend of the Asgard, Supreme Commander Thor,’ in alien symbols on his shirt.

“A peculiar custom,” said Thor as he handed back the pen.

“It’s a reminder that we met,” said Xander. “You know, in case anyone doesn’t believe me.”

“Ah.” Thor nodded. “Then will you write for me?”

Xander looked up from admiring his sleeve. “What?”

“Will you not write for me?”

“Uh, sure,” Xander grinned.

“Hey! How come he never asked me for an autograph?” Jack complained quietly in the background while Thor went and retrieved one of the half-egg things from the control panel.

“Jack, he named a ship after you,” said Daniel patiently.

A whole ship? Xander looked up and wanted to ask but since Thor was handing him the stone, he decided to get it out of him later. ‘To Thor, friend of the Watcher’s Council of Earth, Xander Harris, Watcher, N.A.’

“Thank you,” Thor seemed to smile as he accepted back the stone, though Xander wasn’t quite sure. “I will now return you to your base.”

Another short round of goodbyes and Thor sent them back so quickly that Xander didn’t have time to feel it. Instead, he found himself between Jack and Daniel in the middle of the conference room at the SGC where Dr. Weir, Major Davis, and Sam were all waiting for them.

~*~

Jack let his mind wander over appropriate gifts for a twenty-something witch during the briefing that was taking much longer than necessary. For once his post-mission – or he should say post-revival – physical had come with a very nice treat. He’d thought it was a conspiracy at first with his teammates and Xander grinning like that, so he’d followed them warily to the observation room, which, Daniel explained, just happened to look over the quarantine infirmary room, where a certain Vice President was being monitored for a sudden case of boils.

Jack would never forget the look on Kinsey’s face when he’d seen Jack grinning down at him. The obscenities and empty threats just bounced of the glass as far as he was concerned, turning the good Vice President purple with rage. There wasn’t a thing he could do to Jack from his little room. Ever again. It was deeply satisfying.

“How long will the boils last?” he’d asked Xander over his shoulder.

“Oh, there’s no going back,” Xander had said cheerfully. “Vengeance is forever. He’ll probably have an unnaturally long life, too.”

Jack couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more, which was why he was thinking about Daniel’s suggestion of getting Willow a present. Unfortunately he had no idea what would be a good gift. He needed to ask Xander, but his son was sitting too far away to slip a note, so he would just have to wait for the briefing to finish.

They were still going on about the nonsense he’d spouted while still in Ancient mode. Dr. Weir was interested in implications for future defense and of course, Daniel was no help in wrapping things up, and neither was Carter for that matter. Davis, the lucky bastard, had gotten out while the going was good.

Jack wondered if he could get away with sending Xander a paper airplane note. He could tell his son had no more interest in the briefing than he did. Xander had declared straight out that he had no idea what the phrase meant. But he had put on his guileless face, the one that suggested he wasn’t anymore than a simple man that left all the heavy thinking to others. Jack had a feeling that Xander had a very good idea what ‘one world, one life, one source,’ meant, and he wasn’t sharing. He wondered if he should call him on it, but since Weir wasn’t cleared for the supernatural, he decided to get it out of him later.

Xander only spoke when asked a question and the rest of the time ignored the conversation while he inspected his sleeve where Thor had written his autograph. Jack had no doubt that the first thing Xander would do when he got home was frame it. Jack shook his head just imagining Andrew’s speechlessness.

“Dr. Weir?” Jack interrupted, finally having enough. “Can’t all this be summed up in a report?”

Weir regarded him a moment as a small smile eeked across her face. “Impatient to go home?” she asked.

“When you put it like that . . .” Jack noticed Xander’s head come up at the new direction in conversation.

“Very well, Director Harris, if you have nothing to add?” Xander shook his head quickly, “Then the formal briefing is dismissed. Dr. Jackson, Major Carter, you’re welcome to stay.”

“Thank you.” Jack rose to his feet, Xander and Teal’c doing the same. Happy to escape they made for the doors and as they did, Weir called out,

“Enjoy your visit!”

Surprisingly, it was Xander who turned and nodded. Once they were out the door, Jack asked, “What was that all about?”

Xander looked at him then quickly away, taking two more steps before he answered. “I told her you were my dad.”

Teal’c almost ran into Jack, he stopped so fast. He didn’t know if it was the fact that Xander had told her or that he’d actually used ‘my’ and ‘dad’ in the same sentence. “You did?” he said stupidly.

“You told Thor,” Xander defended himself. “Besides it’s not like it’s a dirty secret or anything.”

“No. No, it’s not.” Jack grinned. He couldn’t believe it. He just . . . it topped seeing Kinsey miserable. ‘My dad.’ He hadn’t heard those words said like that since Charlie. He’d wondered if he ever would again, even once Xander had come into his life. And now he had.

~*~

Xander noticed that Jack’s smile didn’t fade on the way to the VIP quarters to grab his stuff or on the elevator ride to the surface. Jack had tried to keep it cool with light questions about Chinese takeout and whatnot, but his underlying happiness was hard for even him to keep in.

Xander just played along. The briefing had given him a lot of time to think, and after the initial reminders to himself to call Giles and see what could be done about getting control of the thing that had caused the magic drain, his thoughts had turned back to Jack.

His dad. He still didn’t know why he had told Dr. Weir. He still didn’t know why he felt weird about telling her. As he’d told Jack later, it wasn’t a secret, but at the same time it felt like it was, something only to share with close friends. Family.

Family. It had made him smile. For Xander, family were the people you went to to get away from your relatives.

Most of his relatives were gone now. None of them had tried to find him after Sunnydale, or if they had, he’d never known about it. And he didn’t really mind. He hadn’t been their grandson or nephew or cousin for a long time. Or son.

But he was Jack’s, and more than that, he wanted to be. And despite the universe conspiring against them, he was going to be for a long time.

“So is that a normal week for you?” he asked Jack after they had passed the last checkpoint.

“More or less,” said Jack. “We actually don’t get attacked by Goa’uld in ships that often. And Thor doesn’t stop by that much either.”

“But the whole nearly dying because of alien crap in your head?”

Jack shrugged. “It‘s part of the job. Would the danger make you stop what you do?”

“No, I get it,” said Xander. “Don’t think I really did before.” He really hadn’t. Aliens had been abstract and Jack dying . . . he hadn’t let himself think about that until he’d actually seen him. “Thor’s cool though,” he said to get off that train of thought.

“I can’t believe you asked for his autograph,” Jack shook his head. “And I can’t believe he asked for yours.”

“Well, I am the child of the great O’Neill,” Xander glanced at him sideways.

“Thor likes me,” said Jack smugly.

“Did he really name a ship after you?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”

“Carter blew it up though.”

“ ‘Blew up’ as in ‘kablewie’?”

“Long story.”

“That sucks.” Xander grinned at a sudden thought. “Don’t tell Andrew that part.”

~*~

They stopped for Chinese takeout on the way home which had led to an ardent discussion of what was good and what was not. Cashew Chicken turned out to be the only thing they could agree on so they each ended up with a couple cartons of their own, which suited Jack just fine since that meant more of the good stuff for him.

Once they were back at the house, Jack headed immediately to the kitchen for two bottles of beer and a couple of forks. In the den, Xander had thrown his jacket in the armchair and settled down on the couch, pushing magazines around on the coffee table looking for the remote control.

“Here,” Jack handed him a beer and a fork which Xander accepted absently as he clicked on the TV. Jack sat next to him, fishing his Beef with Broccoli out of the bag along with his share of the egg rolls.

“Any channel requests?” asked Xander, one-handedly grabbing the rice and his Spicy Mongolian Beef.

“Twenty-five,” said Jack sitting back. Xander switched it to ESPN.

“I should have guessed,” he said, sitting back himself and plopping his feet on the coffee table.

“Shoes!” Jack elbowed him. Xander kicked his shoes over the opposite edge where they fell to the floor in two thunks.

“So what’re we looking at? Death toll?” he asked.

“Scores,” Jack ignored the sarcasm with the ease that came from putting up with Daniel. The past week had been the last of the NHL regular season. As he read the ticker tape summary of the day’s games he noted that there had been no major upsets.

“I can’t believe you watch this every week,” said Xander. “It’s so boring.”

“You watch sci-fi,” Jack replied. “That’s just plain bad.”

“You just don’t like it ‘cause you shoot aliens for a living. Face it, you might’ve liked it otherwise.”

Jack tore his eyes away from the screen long enough to say, “I didn’t watch Star Wars till Teal’c rented it.”

Xander shrugged. “I didn’t watch Interview With a Vampire until after I met Buffy. And let me tell you, that movie was crap. Vampires are nothing like that.”

“What about artistic license?”

“Did you like Star Wars?” Xander asked pointedly.


“Yeah, it was all right,” Jack admitted. “It’s just a movie. Have you seen the show Wormhole X-treme?”

“The one that came out a couple years ago? Once or twice. Andrew doesn’t even like it much.”

“Where do you think they got the idea for it?” Jack asked. That got Xander’s attention and stopped his fork halfway from his mouth.

“It’s based on you? The Stargate thing? No way!”

“I can’t say anything, but loosely,” Jack nodded.

Wormhole X-treme?”

“I said loosely,” Jack reiterated. He’d been on set and seen part of an episode himself so he knew it was bad. But Xander was laughing now. “And don’t tell Andrew,” he ordered because he knew that his next visit would be hell if the ultimate nerd ever found out.

“No telling Andrew, got it,” Xander said between snickers. “Until I want something . . . Colonel Ace Danning!”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Hearing the name of the character based on him, Jack knew he shouldn’t have told him. But his outburst only made Xander laugh harder. Jack tried to ignore him and focus on what the anchor was saying about playoffs while he ate his dinner, relieved when Xander finally started to calm down.

“Does Thor come over for guest appearances?” Xander lost it again.

“Just you wait until there’s a TV character based on you,” Jack grumbled. In need of something more distracting he reached for the remote by Xander’s knee. “And if you kick over the food, you’re cleaning it up,” he told him.

“I won’t kick anything over,” Xander protested, nevertheless stilling his twitching limbs. “Hey, flip to the Cartoon Network.”

Jack obliged, but only after going through ESPN2, CNN, and the local channels first. There was nothing on except the PowerPuff Girls and Jack let the episode wash over him, content to sit and eat, drink, and relax.

Beside him, Xander chuckled at the cartoon, at home on the couch. He finally seemed to have let the Wormhole X-treme thing go, but then he would glance at Jack and snicker. Jack pretended to glare at him which only made Xander laugh harder until Jack felt a contagious grin pull at his own lips. Shaking his head, Jack settled into the show, content to sit a watch and laugh with the young man by his side. It felt good and right in a way that Jack had almost forgotten.

By the end of two episodes, they had finished eating for the most part. Jack gathered together the empty cartons and bottles as the credits rolled, trying to get them together so he only had to make one trip to the trash. Xander helped put things in his hands, his earlier jovial expression giving way to something more serious. He seemed to want to say something, and Jack didn’t think it was the “thanks” he got. Not worrying about it, Jack took his load to the kitchen.

He was just reaching to get to the recycle bin for the bottles when Xander called out, “Hey, Dad, can you grab some napkins?”

Jack stopped. Turned. Looked through to the living room. “What?” It came out shaky. But Xander had just called him . . .

“Napkins,” Xander repeated, staring him back straight in the eye. And Jack knew that Xander knew exactly what he had just said. And that he knew what Jack was really asking. When Jack didn’t move right away, he added, “Like the nickname? ‘Cause it’s either that or ‘Ace’ . . .” his son grinned sheepishly, looking down and away then back, uncertain and almost afraid but at the same time defiant.

“No, ‘Dad’ is fine,” said Jack a smile breaking out across his own face even as he felt like the sun was rising in his chest and he wasn’t big enough to hold in all the love and pride he felt for Xander at that moment.

“Good,” said Xander, breaking out into a relived smile. “Napkins.”

“Right, napkins,” Jack shook away his shock and grabbed some napkins before rejoining his son in the den.

Chapter Text

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.

“What?”

“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 too!”

“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.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

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.

“Thanks.”

“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.”

“Me? Always.”

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.”

“We are?”

“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.

“Surprise.”

“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.

~*~

bridge complete
~*~