~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Daniel's phone rattled against the nightstand, the vibrate mode not really all that much quieter than an actual ring. "God, I hate that thing," Daniel muttered. He rolled away from Xander and snatched it up. Xander groaned. His body had new aches on old aches, but it felt good. Really good. He was trying to remember why he'd always been so dead set against being anyone's butt monkey. Butt monkeying was good. He would be sure to not mention that to Willow and Buffy because they’d think he was possessed or something.
"Trouble?" Xander asked as he forced one eye open. Daniel was glaring at his phone.
Daniel snorted. "I doubt it. Jack's calling from his cell."
Opening both eyes, Xander propped himself up on one elbow. "If the colonel is calling...." Xander let his voice trail off. He really hoped that meant Daniel was needed at work, but at this point, he wouldn't bet on it. As someone who had lived in the land of denial for so very long, Xander recognized a fellow-citizen.
"If it were official, he'd be calling from the mountain," Daniel said as he dropped the phone back onto the nightstand and rolled toward Xander, slipping a hand around his waist. Xander, however, stayed up on one elbow.
“Why do I have a feeling that the colonel does not like being ignored?”
“Because you’re an insightful person who recognizes unmitigated arrogance when he sees it?” Daniel guessed sleepily. Xander laughed. Under all the absent-minded professor shtick, Daniel had a sharp sense of humor. Xander liked that.
“I don’t know about the insight, but the arrogance I can buy.” Xander moved Daniel’s hand and then groaned as he forced his sore body to sit up.
“What are you doing?” Daniel squinted at him.
“Getting pants on. Color me suspicious, but I don’t trust the colonel.”
“And that’s why I would call you insightful, and I’m not saying Jack likes you, but you’re acting like he’s going to come busting in here,” Daniel said with an exaggerated eyeroll. However, his expression immediately turned thoughtful. “Just because I went home with someone we met a few days ago who showed up in the middle of a foothold situation does not mean Jack will break in under some deluded belief that only psychopaths are ever attracted to me.” With a sigh, Daniel sat up. “I’ll get dressed.”
“Can I borrow a robe?” Xander asked. His clothes were still in the living room, and after the number of times Spike had picked a lock, Xander had learned to not walk around naked. Daniel pointed at the floor, and Xander went to dig through a pile in the corner.
“So, what are you searching for?” Xander asked as he pulled a blue robe out of a stack of semi-folded clothes.
“The books. You’re looking for something specific.”
“No, I’m not.” Daniel’s voice was fast and a little high.
Xander turned around and looked at him. “You lie about as well as my friend Willow. You turn the same color, too.”
Daniel glared as he grabbed a shirt and pulled it over his head.
“It’s okay to tell me to fuck off. Really. I was just going to offer to look through any Babylonian books you needed to check, and can I just say that somewhere pigs are flying because me volunteering to do research is definitely one of the signs of an apocalypse.”
Daniel chewed on his lower lip, and Xander got the feeling he’d just stepped into a big steaming pile of emotion. “It’s complicated,” Daniel said softly.
“Yeah, seems like, and hey, I’m fine with you telling me that you need to have your complicated to yourself. Honestly.”
Daniel closed the distance between them and rested his hand on Xander’s arm. “No. It’s just hard to explain, and maybe this isn’t the best time for it.”
Xander nodded. It hurt to have Daniel shut the door in his face, but Xander understood that sometimes you just couldn’t talk about things. Willow had come over post-graduation to talk about Larry, and Xander had pretty much shoved her out the door and refused to even talk. Throwing himself into a sex-only relationship with Anya had seemed like such a great plan after that. Looking back, Xander sometimes wondered how much of their distance was college, and how much was that he backed away from the girls. It seemed like there were more and more secrets between them, and even after the whole spell that joined them during the Adam fight, something hadn’t been right. Maybe he would have healed if he had stayed—if he hadn’t signed up for the damn Air Force—but there were wounds that he carried, and he felt like sharing them was the same as wounding the girls. And after the joining spell, he was painfully aware of how many wounds they already carried. Yeah, maybe a little distance and some healing was the best thing for all of them, especially since Willow said that Sunnydale was quiet post-Adam.
“If you ever want to share, I’m here, and trust me, I’m not going to go running away in shock, not unless you tell me you’re a thousand year old demon who wants to make wall decorations out of my intestines. Then, running might be involved.”
Daniel snorted his laughter and promptly started choking. Smiling, Xander patted him on the back. “Hey, no choking to death over one bad joke. It’d be seriously hard to explain to the colonel.” Xander shifted into his very worst Valley Girl accent. “You see, we were just talking and I made one little demon joke and suddenly Daniel lost the ability to breathe. He just, like, keeled over. Yeah, not really believable, and in the long run, I suck at lying as bad as you do, so stop trying to die.” It might not be all that funny as far as jokes went, but it was almost as if Daniel had all this emotion that had to come out and Xander had popped the bubble. The result was a Daniel gasping for air and turning red as he laughed. Xander knew that his words were making it harder for Daniel to catch his breath, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to see Daniel laugh. The man lit up with joy when he finally put down all the burdens he carried with him every day.
“Jack would write you up after congratulating you. I think some days he wants to kill me.” Daniel opened the door and started out into the living room.
“Only when you make me listen to your lectures,” Colonel O’Neill commented. He sat on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table, looking down the hall, and Xander had only realized he’d moved when he looked down to find a vaguely penis shaped statue from the floor in his hand like a bat ready to bash someone.
“Jack? What are you doing here?” Daniel stalked down the short hall, and Xander carefully put the statue back down before he broke it only to find out it was some priceless artifact or cursed stone or something like that.
“Someone didn’t answer his phone,” the colonel pointed out. He might be talking to Daniel, but he was definitely looking at Xander. Checking to make sure the robe was tied closed, Xander started down the hall. What was the protocol for having a superior office catch you boffing his best friend? Were salutes involved? Xander had pretty much thought that basic training had covered every stupid, silly, unlikely and improbable situation and the rules for handling it, but clearly they’d left out a couple of pieces of protocol.
“And yet you’re here.” Daniel had out the cranky voice.
“You didn’t answer your phone.” The colonel finally focused on Daniel.
“Because I didn’t want to.”
“Which is why I’m here.”
Daniel stopped mid-word with his mouth still open. Taking a step back, he visibly collected himself. “Jack,” he said slowly, “why are you here?”
“Daniel, because you didn’t answer your phone.” The colonel smiled for one second, and then he seemed to notice that Daniel was not amused. With a sigh, he turned his attention back to Xander, which was so very much of the bad. “Teal’c said he was working out with Harris. I wanted to make sure he didn’t break anything Harris might need to wash dishes tomorrow.”
“Jack,” Daniel snapped.
“Hey, it was concern. I was showing concern,” the colonel insisted, but Xander was fairly sure that was pissiness.
“You’re being an ass.”
“Right now, no. In general, often,” the colonel agreed. “So, Harris, did Teal’c break anything important?” The colonel looked Xander up and down in a way that might be sexual coming from someone else, but it definitely felt contemptuous coming from the colonel.
“No, sir,” Xander crossed his arms over his chest and looked at his clothes on the chair. Oh yeah, subtlety for the win. Xander figured by tomorrow morning, he would be a civilian again with a big old dishonorable conduct discharge, not that gay sex was any more dishonorable than any other sex. Actually, the sex with Daniel was way more honorable than the Faith sex.
“Xander, you’re right. You’re a terrible liar,” Daniel said as he went over and scooped up Xander’s clothes, bringing them over and dropping them onto the table near Xander. “Show Jack the hip.”
Xander made a noise that sounded a whole lot like a squeak, even to his own ears. It wasn’t the manliest reaction, but being asked to show a naked hip to a colonel that hated him was not high on his list of things he A) wanted to do or B) had any idea how to react to.
Putting his feet on the floor, the colonel leaned forward. “Is there a problem?”
“Xander says no, but I say if I had bruising that looked like that, I’d be in the infirmary.”
“It’s not that bad. Geez. How many times do I have to say that?” Xander glared at Daniel.
“Until the bruising goes down so the leg isn’t swollen enough to feel like a football,” Daniel shot back.
Before Xander could come up with an answer, Colonel O’Neill was up and closing in on him. “Airman, let me see the extent of the damage.”
Xander make another unmanly noise and looked to Daniel for help, but the traitor stood there with his arms crossed and a triumphant look on his face. Xander glared.
“Now, Airman,” the colonel insisted. With an unhappy sigh, Xander lifted the bottom of the robe to show the bad leg.
Stepping backwards, Colonel O’Neill whistled. “Teal’c got you good. You must have a dozen serious hits on that side.”
“I never cover my left as well as I should,” Xander said with a self-deprecating shrug. It was the truth.
“Sam contributed to that hip. I told him he should go to Janet,” Daniel piped up.
“You mean, instead of you two playing doctor?” O’Neill asked, and the tone of voice was sharp enough that Xander’s guts twisted. Dropping the edge of the robe, Xander grabbed his clothes.
“With permission, I’d like to go put my clothes on, sir.”
O’Neill looked from Xander to Daniel and then back. “Oh for cryin’ out loud. Don’t look at me like I just kicked your puppy, Harris. I don’t ask, and as long as you don’t tell, I don’t care. I do care about the men in my command ignoring serious injuries.”
“It’s a bruise, sir,” Xander pointed out. God almighty these people got worked up about a bruise.
“Jack, do not start that conversation with him; you will not like where it goes,” Daniel suggested. “Just order him to have Janet check on that.”
O’Neill glanced over. “Calling in the head of exotic medicine for some bruising might be a little over the top, Danny.”
“Ha!” Xander pointed a finger at Daniel.
“But you clearly need to get that iced, take some anti-inflammatories, and have the on-call doctor check to make sure you haven’t done any permanent damage,” O’Neill said as he pinned Xander with a hard look. Xander barely managed to avoid rolling his eyes. He found commanding officers really didn’t appreciate the gesture. “Go get dressed. We’re heading back to the mountain.”
“For a bruise, sir?”
O’Neill stared at him for several seconds. “When the bruise is severe enough to raise the skin, make the skin hot or turn black, yes, Harris. We have someone who knows enough about the human body to recognize serious damage check it out. Consider it a rule.”
Xander sighed. “Great, more rules.” When O’Neill narrowed his eyes, Xander offered a quick “sir” and then darted back to Daniel’s room to get dressed. Even going as fast as he could, he still heard the raised voices get pretty loud by the time he got back out. Daniel was near the sliding glass doors with his arms crossed, and O’Neill had his back to him, so Xander was guessing no one had won this round.
“Good,” O’Neill said, “you’re ready. Daniel, are you following?”
“Following?” Daniel tilted his head and took a step forward, his eyes searching O’Neill. “I can drive him.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re busy, so I’ll drive Harris in.” O’Neill offered a crocodile smile, but before Xander could manufacture a reason to avoid getting in a car with him, O’Neill had caught him by the arm and was ushering him out of the room.
“Wait, my shoes,” Xander said, but O’Neill didn’t stop. “Government issue. The government can issue some more.” Xander ended up trotting to keep up with O’Neill who was adding new bruises to Xander’s arm. Xander was starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that he was in custody.
O’Neill used the stairs, hurrying Xander down two flights, and Xander could only hope that this wasn’t as ugly as it looked, because it looked plenty ugly. They headed out a fire exit, and the colonel did slow as Xander had to cross the rough asphalt to get to his car.
“I have extra boots in back,” O’Neill offered, and that sounded a bit like one of Buffy’s apologies where she didn’t actually apologize but she did do something really nice to make up for having run off in the middle of a vampire attack to suck face with her undead boyfriend. Yeah, he wasn’t bitter, not at all.
“Sir, am I in trouble?” Xander got in the car O’Neill gestured toward. Part of him said to run, but without shoes, that didn’t seem wise. Well, that and this was a colonel in the United State Air Force. Running from him was way different than running from an angry vampire, even though O’Neill had the same look on his face.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell means that I am not officially required to report anything you don’t tell me, so please do not tell me anything. Ever.” O’Neill slammed his door and started the car.
“Okay.” Xander frowned. “Sir, I really didn’t mean….” How the hell did Xander end that sentence? He definitely meant to have sex. Hell, he’d really had to work to get Daniel to finish the deed. He really did know that Daniel and O’Neill had the sort of knotty relationship Xander usually avoided. Hell, Xander should have seen this mess coming from about a million miles away.
O’Neill rubbed a hand over his face. “Airman Harris, Dr. Jackson is not in the military and I do not expect him to follow military rules. If I did, I’d be disappointed on a very regular basis.” O’Neill gave a weak laugh. “You, however, are a serviceman on my base. I have a certain expectation for how you conduct yourself.”
Xander cringed. “You heard about training.”
“Yes, I did. And if you have time, try teaching Danny to run like that. I’d have less gray hair.”
“But…” Xander studied O’Neill, struggling to see if that had been a really bad joke. The colonel actually looked serious.
“I haven’t seen the tapes, but I tend to trust Teal’c’s judgment on fighting. It also helps that you punched Carter. Not many men do that and live to sing baritone.”
“Um, okay.” Xander was definitely confused. That usually meant he’d fallen asleep on the important part of the lecture. The problem was, Xander didn’t know what he didn’t know.
“Any symptoms other than pain?”
“No, sir.” Xander squirmed in his seat. Oh this felt bad. So very, very bad.
“Harris, I don’t bite.”
“No sir, I didn’t think you did.”
“Then stop squirming.”
They drove in an awkward silence until O’Neill hit the first red light. Xander twisted in his seat, and two cars behind them, Daniel followed. “He’s back there,” O’Neill offered. “He probably thinks I plan to zat you.”
“Zat?” Okay, that didn’t sound good. O’Neill glanced over at him. The light turned green, but O’Neill was so busy staring holes into Xander that the car behind them had to lay on the horn to get O’Neill moving again.
“Seems like Sunnydale is a dangerous place to grow up,” O’Neill commented in a falsely casual voice. A huge bolder formed in the pit of Xander’s stomach. This was pretty much every one of his worst nightmares coming true at once.
“Uhhh.” Xander’s brain failed him.
“So.” O’Neill focused on the road in front of him, but that didn’t change the fact that Xander felt like the colonel was dissecting him. “How many fights have you been in?” For the first time, Xander realized that Colonel O’Neill was like Buffy, always distracting people with this air-brain image before kicking their ass. And Xander was about to be the kickee.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Xander answered. “High school bullying is a real problem in America, you know.”
“Are you going to play it that way?” O’Neill glanced over, and that was the look of a man who already knew something. That was Uncle Rory after he already knew about the accident Xander had with the car. That was Giles who had already found the crushed half of a Twinkie between the pages of his book on high muckity muck somethings. Although, in Xander’s defense, that had been Cordelia’s fault. She had slammed the book shut after insisting she wouldn’t compete for his attention.
“Uh, will it work?” Xander asked although he already knew the answer. He was so fucked.
O’Neill straightened up. “How many fights have you been in with people who honestly wanted to kill you?”
Xander considered that. Jesse, Amy, Amy’s mom, Ms. French, Spike, Moloch, Angel, the Master, Drusilla, Principal Snyder… and that was just sophomore year. Giles had even come close to killing him a couple of times that first year, although Xander suspected that wasn’t the sort of fight O’Neill was asking about. For one second, Xander considered lying, but he sucked at lying and this was a colonel who saved the world on a regular basis. He was a good guy. A really scary good guy. Xander sighed in defeat. “I couldn’t say, sir.”
“More than twenty?”
Xander snorted. “Oh yeah.”
O’Neill took a deep breath, but he didn’t look particularly surprised.
Xander had expected surprise. Actually, Xander had expected shock. “How did you know?”
O’Neill shrugged. “You’re too used to the danger and too young to be this battle hard, Harris.”
“Okay, that’s funny, because battle-hardened is not the first word I’d use to describe myself. First two words?” Xander frowned. “First hyphenated word?”
“It’s one of the first words Teal’c used to describe you.” O’Neill shot the words back at Xander like a weapon, and for a second, Xander couldn’t catch his breath.
O’Neill rolled his eyes. “Do I look like I’m joking?”
“Um, I’m guessing no, but sometimes your jokes are only moderately jokelike, sir.”
O’Neill gave him a dirty look, but Xander just shrugged. It was the truth. “When I surprised you, you grabbed the first weapon on hand.”
“Well, if you break into someone’s house, you really can’t act surprised when you surprise them.”
O’Neill gave him an odd look. “Most people don’t instinctively keep track of possible weapons, Harris, but you knew exactly how to grab the nearest heavy object, and you didn’t even think twice. Teal’c is impressed with your fighting, and when Carter looked up your hometown, she couldn’t believe her eyes. It takes a lot to shock Carter, but Sunnydale’s death rate did it. Do you want to tell me what’s going on in that town?”
The boulder in Xander’s guts grew. This guy hadn’t been around Xander for more than a few minutes, and Xander had totally let a lot of cats out of the bag. Tons of them. Other than the whole demons-real secret, Xander wasn’t sure there was much more for O’Neill to figure out. But that was a conversation Xander really wasn’t having with anyone, not unless Giles signed off on it first.
“Really bad cops,” Xander lied. Oh, he exaggerated the lie to make it clear he was lying so that it wouldn’t really count as an actual intentional lie, but anything was better than the truth right now. “I mean, seriously bad.” Xander could feel the panic rising up his throat. “And it’s sort of contagious. I once broke into the local Army base, and I talked my way into an armory despite the fact that I was sixteen or seventeen at the time.”
Xander cursed himself. Okay, that hadn’t been the best example to pull out. Of all the incompetence he’d seen over the years, he had to pull out the one example that made him look like a criminal. Clearly the Sunnydale police weren’t the only incompetent ones. “It seemed logical at the time,” Xander offered, channeling his inner Vulcan. O’Neill didn’t look impressed.
“Were you involved in anything illegal or immoral, Harris?”
“Immoral, no. And I was never caught doing anything illegal, so technically I don’t think it counts.”
“Oh, it counts,” O’Neill said ominously. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“Because it’s not my secret to tell, sir.”
“Airman?” That was a seriously unhappy voice.
Xander held his hands up. “Sir, I would never give Stargate secrets to anyone. They are not my secrets to tell. However, I can’t give you someone else’s secrets anymore than I can give away your secrets.”
O’Neill paused as he turned off the main road to start the private drive up to the mountain. “The Stargate is classified. Are you trying to claim that Sunnydale is classified?” he demanded once they were away from the last car except for Daniel who was definitely tailgating.
Considering that someone had built a big-ass military base under the town, Xander had his suspicions about that. “I honestly don’t know, sir.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Harris.”
“Shitloads,” Xander agreed. “Sir.”
O’Neill sighed, but at least he had an expression that looked more weary than angry. Hopefully Xander wasn’t about to land in a cell. “If I went to Sunnydale, would I figure this out myself?”
“I sincerely hope not, sir.” Xander really didn’t want to think about O’Neill and Spike in the same room. Then again, that might be one way to get rid of the annoying vampire.
“You’re making this difficult on me, and if this is difficult for me, I’m likely to take that out on you, Airman Harris.”
“Yeah, I figured, sir. I’m still not going to tell you someone else’s secrets.”
O’Neill was silent for an uncomfortably long time—long enough that Xander started calculating the odds that the colonel would arrest him. They passed the outer perimeter in a few minutes, a guard passing a mirror under their car while O’Neill gave him the silent treatment. Only after they were moving toward the main entrance did O’Neill speak again. “Is there someone you could contact, someone who might be willing to tell me their own secrets?”
Xander blinked. He hadn’t thought about that. “Um, maybe.” He considered all the people who were involved in the secret. Xander didn’t want to give O’Neill the girls’ names, and Giles would have kittens all over his floor if the government called him. If Xander were there to watch the birthing, it might be worth it, but the fallout when the girls found out definitely would not. But one person would know how much the government already knew and which secrets were still vaguely secret. “Captain Riley Finn.”
“Captain?” O’Neill straightened at that bit of news. “What branch?”
“Um. I’m not sure. He was a little vague about that, and then he wasn’t in the military at all, but apparently he’s gone back to his unit since I signed up, and it’s all a little confusing.”
O’Neill’s eyebrows were all the way up now.
“He’s actually a nice guy, but he walked into a strange situation, and then a few people… um…” Xander stopped, not sure how to explain the joy that had been Adam.
“Died?” O’Neill guessed.
Xander considered that. Mostly, he blamed Maggie Walsh and her drugs, but he had no idea what had gone into the official reports, assuming there had been any. “Sir, I really don’t know. I left Sunnydale before I joined the Air Force. The military wasn’t knocking down my door and inviting me to briefings.”
And that was O’Neill’s narrow-eyed cranky and suspicious look. “This story had better be worth my time, Harris. If it’s not, you’re going to be scrubbing the Stargate with a toothbrush. A really small one.” O’Neill held up his fingers to show how small, and this time he definitely was not joking.
“Sadly, it is, sir. However,” Xander added quickly when O’Neill got a hopeful look on his face, “that is not my story to tell.”
“Harris, you’re a real pain in the mik’ta.”
“Neck?” Xander guessed hopefully. O’Neill gave him a cold look before pulling the car into his reserved spot.
“No,” he said tersely. Reaching into the backseat, O’Neill grabbed a pair of boots and shoved them at Xander. “Get them on and report to the infirmary. On the double.”
Oh yeah, this was going to go great, but at least he’d pointed O’Neill at someone else. Xander took a second to mentally apologize to Riley before he pulled the heavy boots on. When it came to having to explain Sunnydale, it was every man for himself. Riley would understand that.
If Xander hoped for a little privacy for his infirmary visit, he was destined for disappointment. O’Neill and Daniel both stood just outside O’Neill’s car, waiting for him to get the boots. It looked like he’d picked up an escort.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack watched as the nurse examined Xander. “Does this hurt?” he asked before poking a bit of leg that didn’t look as bruised but that had a definite raised lump.
“A bit. It’s like you’re pushing on the whole leg.” From the nurse’s expression, that was not good. As far as Jack was concerned, this whole situation was FUBAR, even without the very serious nature of Harris’ injuries. The nurse moved to a nasty purple bruise dangerously low on Xander’s back. That would be one of Teal’c’s strikes because no soldier trained in the service would risk that sort of hit with an untrained recruit straight out of basic. That had been a dangerous hit.
“How about here?” The nurse pushed his thumb into the center of the bruise. “On a scale of one to ten, where’s the pain?”
“Um, more like a ‘I’m going to have some pink in the pee tomorrow’ but not really enough to think I hurt anything seriously,” Xander said after he’d hissed in pain. Jack had suffered a few of Teal’c’s nastier blows, so he knew how very serious the injuries could be. Usually Teal’c was more careful with the newbies, though. It definitely suggested that Teal’c considered Harris a real player. Jack needed to get his hands on the surveillance tapes ASAP.
“If you’re bleeding into your urine, you have hurt something seriously. That needs to be noted on your medical file and we need to do testing to see the extent of the damage. We need to get you in for a CT scan and sonography.”
“It’s not that bad. Hey, I’ve had worse and lived to take the trig test the next day,” Harris protested softly. However, when he caught Jack’s eye, he closed his mouth. The kid had some sense of self-preservation, then. Jack just couldn’t figure out why it hadn’t kicked in when Teal’c had been beating the stuffing out of him.
“You also need to avoid any activity that might aggravate the injury. So, if you’re on a gate team, we need to contact your commanding officer and arrange for desk duty until you heal.” The nurse looked over to Jack.
“He’s on dishwashing duty,” Jack commented, and the nurse gave Harris a quick sympathetic look as if that were some punishment duty. Considering that the second-in-command of the country’s most secure facility was overseeing the kid’s treatment, the nurse had reason to assume that Harris was normally more than just a dishwasher.
“You can do some translations from bed,” Daniel offered brightly.
“I can identify texts with specific words. I don’t actually know enough to do real translations.”
“I’ll send you the scans, and you can tag texts according to the god and which version of hell is mentioned, okay?” Daniel stepped close enough to rest his hand on Harris’ ankle. From any other department head in the mountain, that would be the same as stepping out of the closet, but everyone knew Daniel got his mother-hen going with his translators. The nurse just stepped around Daniel and started preparing the stretcher to roll. He called some other helpers over and then nicely invited Daniel to get the hell out of the way so they could take Harris to testing. If Jack hadn’t known better, he’d swear from the look on Daniel’s face that they were taking Harris out to execute him.
The two nurses started pushing Harris out of the room, and Daniel was left with his arms wrapped around his waist.
“It’s a test, Danny. He’s probably right about this being nothing.”
Daniel glared at him. “So, tell me, exactly how long were you out there in my living room?” Oh yes. And angry Daniel was a Daniel on the offense.
“Drop it, Daniel.”
Daniel slowly turned red, although Jack couldn’t figure out if Daniel was embarrassed or angry. With Daniel, he was never quite sure what the man was thing. “You… you,” Daniel finally spluttered. Angry then. Daniel only ran out of words when he was really, truly furious.
“Me… me,” Jack shot right back. He’d discovered around year one that it was better to lance the boil and just let Daniel blow. Otherwise his slow burns were nasty enough to make entire departments put in for transfers. “Look, I didn’t interrupt you, did I?”
The red color spread to Daniel’s neck. “Oh my God. You were… the whole time?” Daniel’s whole body practically vibrated with tension.
“Well, for the main event anyway,” Jack said with a shrug. He’d gotten an earful. He never would have guessed that Daniel was gay, and he really never expected the man to be such a talker during sex. Actually, Jack planned to repress the memory of what Daniel sounded like when he came. Daniel glared murder, but Jack figured that he’d gotten that look so often that he had developed immunity. “Hey, that was me being polite. I could have barged in.”
“Only if you wanted me to shoot you.” Daniel shifted his arms to they were crossed over his chest.
“Yeah, yeah. You keep threatening, but you never actually pull the trigger.” Jack sighed. He had tried to take the moral high ground here, and he was still getting shit for it. “Look, I was worried.”
“About what? Me having a friend?”
“That was more than a friend.”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed.
“And you have to admit that something’s not right with him.”
“No, no I don’t. Xander is a very nice young man. He’s not an alien. He’s not a psychopath. He’s not trying to kill me.”
“Two out of three I agree with, but the jury is still out on number three,” Jack warned. There were just too many holes in Xander’s story, and too many odd reactions. Jack would feel a lot better about this when he could track down this Captain Finn and get a briefing that made sense out of all Harris’ reactions.
“Don’t start.” Daniel poked a finger in Jack’s face.
Jack shoved Daniel’s hand to the side. “I am very used to being surrounded by people who are smarter than me, including you, Danny. However, when it comes to relationships, you need a keeper. Look me in the eye and tell me that you haven’t noticed that there’s something wrong with Harris.”
Daniel backed off a step, but Jack could see the color fade from his face and the way his lips pressed into one thin stubborn line. Yeah, Daniel had noticed. As usual, he’d just ignored the warning signs.
“Carter tried to look up the kid’s hometown. She couldn’t. All the census data and crime statistics from Sunnydale, California are missing.”
A bit of anger faded, replaced with confusion. “What?”
“Do you know how she found them? She hacked the NID database. Would you like to guess why the NID has an entire town blacked out?”
“Why?” Daniel’s big old brain was starting to spin now.
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked, but I think it’s interesting. Even more interesting, Harris doesn’t deny anything.”
Daniel glanced toward the infirmary door. “He’s a nice young man.”
“Maybe,” Jack agreed. It actually bothered Jack how nice Harris had been to Daniel in bed. He’d said all the right things to make Daniel feel good, he’d teased him and gotten Daniel to laugh, and Jack was really not ready to face what any of that might mean. “Harris told me that I had to ask a Captain Finn about Sunnydale because he wasn’t going to go telling other people’s secrets.”
“Was he NID?” Daniel’s whole body stiffened. An uncharitable part of Jack wanted to say ‘yes,’ but he didn’t think that was true.
“He was too young for that kind of work. However, I think he was caught up in the middle of something. Terrorist cell, secret testing, secret training… I don’t know. I do know that Harris is not just a nice young man. I’ve spent twenty years around new recruits, and when they have injuries like that, they have two reactions. Either they show everyone every single bruise and brag about how tough they are or they whine. I mean, they really whine. I’ve considered shooting one or two recruits just to shut them up.” Jack wasn’t sure which reaction annoyed him more, but Harris’ sort of blasé attitude came after years of hard injuries in the field where no one had time to listen to whining or bragging. “Harris’ attitude doesn’t match the image of a small-town kid just out of high school.”
“Not everyone reacts the same way to stimulus,” Daniel said, but he had that absent-minded professor tone that suggested his brain was busy mulling something else over.
“What?” Daniel’s gaze shot up to Jack, the eyes wide. Yep, that was his guilty expression.
“What did you just remember?” Jack demanded.
Jack sighed. Some days he missed having a team that actually listened to orders. “Daniel, this is a serious situation. We have an unknown in the middle of our most classified military secrets, and we have some nebulous connection to the NID and not even the NID will admit to being interested in Sunnydale. I do not have time for you to keep secrets.”
“Xander is not plotting against us.”
“But…” Jack drew out the word, inviting Daniel to share whatever thought he had rattling around in that oversized brain of his.
Daniel sighed. “But he has a very skewed Akkadian vocabulary. He can recognize multiple geographical variations on the names of all the gods, eleven different variants of hell, and any number of words we associate with alien technology—magic, spells, wonders, miracles—all of them. However, he doesn’t know ‘goat’ or ‘mother.’ I thought it was because his friend was some sort of Goth who taught him words associated with magic or wicca or whatever they call it.” Daniel made a face.
“But now you’re remembering something else,” Jack prompted him. A strange vocabulary alone wouldn’t make Daniel look this worried, especially since a screwed up teenage obsession with magic would explain it.
Running his hand over his face, Daniel leaned back against the wall. “When I teased him about not knowing ‘goat,’ he asked why he needed the word. When I asked why he needed to know eleven versions of ‘hell,’ he looked…” Daniel stopped.
Jack was getting a bad feeling about all this. “Daniel?”
“He looked panicked,” Daniel blurted out. “Guilty. I thought maybe he was religious and his friends had gotten into magic spells or something, but he looked really uncomfortable with the whole conversation, so I dropped it. And he changed the subject to some girl he knew who had a rabbit phobia.”
The back of Jack’s neck itched. He needed to find out what was going on, and he needed to do it before any of this came home to roost. “Daniel, I know you like him.” And boy was Jack avoiding thinking how much Daniel liked him. “But be careful. Even if Harris isn’t the bad guy here, he’s been mixed up with bad guys, and we don’t know who might be lurking behind the corner. Stay on base, and don’t go anywhere alone with him.”
“No buts. He’s going on report for failure to tend to injuries sustained during training, so he won’t be leaving base for at least a week, anyway. But the last thing I need is for the two of you to get kidnapped by someone from Harris’ messy past. Am I clear?”
“Crystal,” Daniel agreed. Of course, Jack knew that meant he only had a sixty percent change of Daniel actually following his orders, but it was a start. Harris would be the safer bet. Jack would put in an on-base order for him and that would stop Harris from going anywhere, at least until Jack got a handle on what the hell was going on.
“Jack, about what happened.” Daniel stopped and his arms were around his stomach again. Jack really needed to convince Daniel to join the poker game because he could not hide his emotions. Maybe that’s why every bad guy in two universes gravitated to Daniel—they could see how every word impacted Daniel and tailor their bullshit to match.
“It’s your life. As long as you aren’t taking a serial killer to bed,” and here Jack intentionally edited out the word again, “then it’s not my business. I just want to make sure you’re safe.” As far as Jack could see, Harris was a kid caught up in something, not another Hathor or Shyla, but given Daniel’s track record, he wouldn’t bet his favorite archeologist’s life on it.
“You aren’t bothered by….” Daniel stopped, and his face was pinking up again. Jack decided to put him out of his misery.
“What? Your crappy taste in men?” Jack rolled his eyes. “You have hundreds of men on base, dozens of which are gay, and you pick a nineteen year old dishwasher. Danny, I’m more worried about your taste in men than your sexual orientation.” Jack slapped Daniel on the shoulder and turned to head for his office. He had a Captain Finn to track down and a general to brief. This was turning out to be the messiest transfer they’d had yet.
Daniel, however, had his normal need to talk everything to death. He followed after. In the open hallways, Jack really did not want to discuss anyone’s orientation. Those sorts of conversations ended military careers. Harris might not think he wanted to be career, but Jack also knew how fast that could change. Besides, there were some people who might make a fuss if Daniel were openly gay. Of course after the alien Viagra ray sent all the soldiers off to bonk like bunnies in the closets, there would probably be less. Jack wasn’t a fan of alien tech that screwed with people’s heads, but it was one way to get rid of some of the homophobia that could sometimes breed in all-male stations, and they were pretty damn close.
“Daniel, not here,” Jack warned.
“I don’t want you to take this out on him.”
Jack spun around, nearly taking out a sergeant who had the bad luck to be passing him at the time. “Do I look like a vindictive man?”
“Yes,” Daniel shot right back. Jack flinched. Okay, he really should have asked that when Daniel knew him so well.
“I’m vindictive toward Tok’ra, not kids from California.”
“He’s not a kid.”
“Trust me, I heard.” Jack’s sarcasm got ahead of his good sense, and Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not trying to ruin his career.” Jack turned and started for his office again. He needed a little time away from Daniel to get his balance back. Sitting out in Daniel’s living room listening to the sound of his best friend sleeping with a guy, not because of some alien device but because he wanted to fuck a nineteen year old dishwasher—that was doing strange things to Jack’s head. Unfortunately, Daniel chased him down the hall. “Not now, Daniel,” Jack warned. Of course, he didn’t expect the warning to work. It never did with Daniel.
Jack reached the elevator and pressed the close button as fast as he could. Daniel was faster. “If you have a problem with this, we need to clear the air.” Daniel had his stubborn face on again.
“I don’t have a problem with it. Now, the way you go running off chasing rocks when people are shooting at us, that I have a problem with. Do you want to talk about that?”
“I don’t want this to get between us in the field.”
Jack rubbed his hand over his face. Before this assignment, he never thought he’d miss living in a six by six hut with four other special ops soldiers as they tried to take out a target, but he was starting to miss that. Career soldiers knew to just not mention some things. If you didn’t say anything, then it wasn’t real. You didn’t mention that you hated the way your teammate scratched his junk or picked his zits or looked at your ass. You didn’t mention these things, and they slowly faded into the background where they could be ignored. But if you talked about them, that was light shining a big, fucking spotlight on them. It made it hard to ignore.
“We’re fine, Daniel,” Jack said. He wanted to beg Daniel to drop it, and he would if he thought it would do any good. When it came to Daniel, Jack had very little dignity left to protect. “I have a lot of work to do. Carter’s trying to dig through NID databases looking for more intel and I’ve got to find Captain Finn. Maybe we can talk about this later.”
“By later, you mean never.”
“Yes, yes I do,” Jack agreed.
“Daniel, not now. If I’m lucky, not ever.”
“Because you have a problem with it.”
The elevator opened and Jack headed for his office as fast as he could without looking like he was fleeing from a hundred and fifty pounds of scrawny archeologist.
“Jack, we have to talk about this.”
Most of the time, Daniel respected Jack’s office. Oh, he would stand at the threshold and point out all the ways that Jack was a repressive, repressed, gun-happy fascist, but he wouldn’t actually come into Jack’s office. It was like they had a tacit rule that Jack needed one safe place on base that Daniel wouldn’t burst into without warning. However, this time, the power of the office failed and Daniel stormed in after Jack, slamming the door behind him. Yep, this was hell.
Jack collapsed into his chair. “I could order you to leave, you know.”
“Yes, and I’d ignore the order.” Daniel stood with his arms around his stomach, his body fairly radiating fear and insecurity and distress, and yet he stood there ready to go toe to toe with Jack. It was funny. When Jack had first seen Daniel, he’d thought the man was soft. Without a doubt, he had a soft exterior, but that just hid a spine of steel and balls the size of watermelon. Yeah, his Danny did have balls, and after tonight, that phrase had a whole new meaning. Jack glanced at the clock. Oh-two-hundred. Fuck.
“I don’t care if you’re gay, Daniel.”
Daniel dropped into the other chair. “Bisexual.”
“Gay, bisexual, anti-sexual, straight, omni-sexual or tri-sexual. I don’t care, Daniel. Your life is yours.”
Daniel studied Jack, and Jack tried hard to look honest. True, he was a little bothered by the idea of Daniel with Harris, but in his defense, he’d wanted to lock Daniel in a cell to keep him away from Shyla. The general had to veto him on that one because Jack never would have let Daniel go back and visit that nutjob. And the thought of Hathor and Daniel was still enough to make him want to hurl.
“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable if we’re sharing a tent.”
Closing his eyes, Jack silently asked the universe what he’d done to piss it off. Sadly, there were more answers to that question than he could count. “Daniel, I don’t care if you’re bisexual. I won’t care when we’re sharing a tent. I won’t care when we’re sharing a sleeping bag because of the cold. I won’t even care the next time you fall into poisonous thingamajigs and we have to strip, wash and change in forty degree weather.” Daniel had the grace to blush when reminded of that incident. “You’re my teammate, and what you do in your private time does not change that. If you were a special ops soldier, you’d know that. You’d know that I will have your six no matter what stupid thing you do.”
“Are you implying that sleeping with Xander was stupid?”
“Yes,” Jack said. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat his opinion about that.
“We’ll see once I find this Captain Finn and figure out what happened in Sunnydale.”
Daniel continued to stare at Jack for some time, and Jack just gave him time to sort out his thoughts. Eventually, Daniel stood up. “You’re going to apologize once we get the whole truth.”
“I doubt that,” Jack said. Daniel opened his mouth, probably to lecture Jack again, but Jack held up a hand to stop him. “But if it’s warranted, I will. Meanwhile, you need to make sure that both of you stay out of trouble until we figure out what sort of spooks might be on his tail. If he’s bringing NID trouble to base, I need to know you won’t be in the middle of it.”
“I’m not avoiding Xander.”
“Fine, just make sure you’re not avoiding him on base where the NID can’t get to you.”
Slowly, Daniel nodded. Now that Jack felt like he could trust.
“Now get out. Your friend has doubled my workload and I plan to take my bad mood out on anyone who has the nerve to come within twenty feet.”
“Okay, okay.” Daniel stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “Jack, thank you.”
“For what? Not interrupting you mid-coitus?”
“Actually coitus means…” Daniel stopped. “Nevermind. But thank you for not making a big deal out of this.”
“It isn’t a big deal, Danny. Now, you choosing the one man on base that has nebulous ties to the NID and a questionable background. That’s a big deal, so go check on Harris while I try to clean up that mess.”
Daniel nodded and headed out the door, closing it softly behind him. Jack glanced at the clock and wondered if he should call Carter. No way would she go home without solving the mystery, and if she had solved it, her first call would have been to him. Deciding to leave her to her work, Jack started the computer and decided to focus on finding Finn and writing up a report for the general. General Hammond was going to be just thrilled, especially since Jack had asked for Harris’ transfer. Yeah, there was plenty of shit rolling down this hill, enough for everyone to get splattered with it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Hey, how are you feeling?” Daniel asked.
Xander groaned and cracked one eye open enough to glance at the clock. Six am, so he’d had two hours’ sleep. “Like roadkill,” he admitted. Day two always hurt worse than day one. He knew that from a lifetime of getting the snot beat out of him.
“Is it your back?” Daniel leaned closer, a worried look on his face. Xander couldn’t help but smile at the evidence of Daniel’s concern. He reached out and stroked a finger over the back of Daniel’s hand.
“More like lack of sleep. They poked and prodded me only to announce that I was fine and I just needed to avoid getting hit again.”
Daniel leaned closer to the bed. “And you were planning on going back to training today. Idiot.”
Xander shrugged. “It wouldn’t have killed me.”
A new voice interrupted them. “Now, you let me determine that. The way you flyboys act, you’re all indestructible.” A short woman with a medical chart walked up to the foot of the bed, flipping through the pages. Xander vaguely recognized her from his last trip to the infirmary when a staff blast had taken him out. Mostly she’d been hurrying through the infirmary barking orders at other people. Apparently things that caused every single member of the base to need STD testing, pregnancy testing and/or psychotherapy all at once made her cranky.
She clicked her tongue at him. “Twice in less than two weeks. I wish I could call that a base record, but it’s not.” She took a second to glare at Daniel.
Xander looked at Daniel and frowned. “I thought you were the archeologist?”
The woman answered before Daniel could. “Oh, he is. He is also the linguist, a frontline team member and the favorite target of much of the universe. You, however, are giving him a run for his money. Now, would you like to explain why you didn’t report to the infirmary after training?” She looked up from the chart, and Xander had the feeling that this woman would have been a slayer in another life. She had a fierceness to her that warned him not to lie. This base had the scariest women this side of Sunnydale.
“Um, because I didn’t think it was a big deal?” Xander tried for puppy dog eyes, but the doctor pinned him with one seriously nasty glare.
“Janet, this is Airman Xander Harris. Xander, this is Doctor Frasier,” Daniel introduced them.
“The one you threated to sic on me if I didn’t take care of myself?” Xander asked, connecting the dots. Frasier gave Daniel an amused look.
“You’re one to be giving that talk. I can’t even get you to eat regular meals.” Her lilting drawl had just enough teasing in the tone to suggest she was one of Daniel’s good friends.
“Yeah, but if someone hit me that hard, I would definitely come in,” Daniel said, totally throwing Xander under the bus. Karma didn’t usually work that fast.
“It’s bruising. Bruising. I didn’t break anything, I wasn’t bleeding, and nothing green or slimy was dripping out my nose or oozing from open sores.”
Dr. Frasier and Daniel both gave him odd looks.
“Long story,” Xander said wearily. He wondered if Riley would rat him out about the magical syphilis. “But the guys who did the testing stuff said I’d be fine.”
Dr. Frasier hooked the chart onto the end of the bed. “They said you had minimal damage to your kidneys and severe swelling that required treatment to avoid possible loss of blood circulation. You will be on medication for at least three or four days while serving light duty. I’m also going to talk to Teal’c about the appropriate use of force in training.”
“Hey, no. I’m the one who told him to stop pulling his punches.” Xander pushed himself up in bed, all sleepiness forgotten. “I mean, how can I get ready for an enemy if I don’t know how hard they hit? I don’t want to go out there expecting German shepherd strong and then find out in the middle of the fight that I’m up against a grizzly. If I’m fighting something grizzly-strong, I need to know that.”
Dr. Frasier frowned at him. “I’m regular military, airman. I understand training, and even training hard enough for stupid accidents. However, you do not ignore injuries while you are on my base. If I even suspect you’re hiding your physical condition, you will go in my little black book, and you do not want to know what happens to soldiers who are on my bad side.”
“You can ask Jack about that later,” Daniel said in a stage whisper.
“Don’t you start. You’ve come close to landing in that book yourself,” she warned, poking a finger in Daniel’s direction. The distraction didn’t last long, though because she came right back to Xander. “Now, let’s get a few ground rules settled. If you get hit hard enough to cause enough swelling for the skin to look slick or the flesh to feel hard, you come to the infirmary. If you get hit hard enough to have even one drop of blood in your urine, you come to the infirmary and if you have any open sore dripping anything, green or not, you definitely come to the infirmary. Are we clear, Airman?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Xander quickly answered.
She gave a little sniff and a nod, and hopefully that meant that Xander had managed to keep his name out of her book because she struck him as the kind of woman who could make someone regret pissing her off. “Now that that’s settled,” she said with one last long glare at Xander. “I am not asking and you are not telling, but if you two need anything, you should know that I am your doctor first, and a major in the Air Force second. What they don’t know won’t hurt them even a little bit.”
“Janet!” Daniel looked around quickly.
“We’re alone. I’m not about to give that speech in front of one of my nurses, but you needed to hear it.”
Xander could feel his face slowly redden, but Daniel had an ability to blush that rivaled Willow herself. His face was turning a violent shade of red. “We never… but….” Daniel sighed. “How did you know?”
Dr. Frasier laughed. “If you two want to stay in the closet, you need to learn how to look at each other without making those lovesick faces you have going. One look at you two and a blind man could tell you were suffering a raging case of young love. Now, unless there’s something else you’re hiding—” Janet took a second to look at Xander, but he shook his head. As thorough as last night’s exam had been, they pretty much found everything. “Well then, I have real patients to tend to. Xander, light duty only, and I still plan to speak to Teal’c, although I will keep in mind that you were the idiot who asked him to use his full strength. Lord, what fools these mortals be,” she muttered as she walked off. Xander made a mental note to avoid pissing her off. Ever. She scared him. Hopefully Teal’c would forgive him for siccing her on him.
“I think she likes you,” Daniel said softly.
Xander frowned. “That’s her liking someone?”
“She didn’t threaten you with the big needles. She threatens Jack almost every time he’s in the infirmary, which might be why he avoids the infirmary. Anyway, I brought you clean clothes and your boots. Don’t worry, I will be talking to Jack later about what an asshole move it was to push you out of the apartment in your bare feet.”
“Hey, threatening the people who get close to the friend group, that’s a tradition among my friends, only usually with my friends, shovels are involved,” Xander assured him. Daniel gave him an odd smile.
“It’s better than threatening people with swords. Harder to get the police to actually take it as a serious threat,” Xander agreed. He looked at Daniel, and there was something odd in the way Daniel wasn’t quite meeting his gaze. “Hey, we can be more careful about staying in the closet if you want,” Xander offered softly.
That made Daniel look at him. “I don’t care what people think. You’re the one with the military career to protect.”
Xander snorted. “I’m not protecting a military career at all. If they want to kick me out, I don’t really care. Oh, it’s nice to have a steady income. Income was less than steadish back home. But this isn’t going to be my life,” Xander said with a wave at the concrete walls. He may not know what he wanted to do, but this wasn’t even on the list of possibilities.
“Oh.” Daniel was back to not making eye contact.
“So, is this you having your version of the gay freakout that you thought I was going to have?” Xander asked. “Because if so, you need to be really specific with me or I tend to misinterpret things. Badly. I tend to assume I’ve done something to piss people off, probably because most of the time it’s true.”
Daniel stepped close and caught Xander’s hand in his. “No. Absolutely not. Xander, I’m not sorry we had sex. I’m just feeling guilty.”
“Because I’m nineteen? That’s an adult. I get to vote and have sex and everything.”
Daniel gave him a dirty look. Okay, Xander had clearly missed the boat again. “I told Jack about your Akkadian.”
“Told him what about my Akkadian?”
Daniel turned away, and for a second, Xander thought he was going to get walked out on. Instead, Daniel sat on the edge of the bed with his back to Xander. Lack of eye contact was never a good thing. “I told him that your vocabulary sounded a lot like you’d been studying Stargate issues. You know every word we associate with advanced technology. You know every god. You know every variation on hell, and we already know at least one hell was a real place, another planet. Jack is trying to get ahold of this Captain Finn to figure out what you aren’t telling us.”
Ah, so it was guilt. Xander reached out and rested his own hand on the back of Daniel’s. “Hey, I wish I could tell you everything right now, but I don’t know what’s really safe to say and which part of the government is aware of what facts.”
“So, were you working for the NID?” Daniel turned to look at him, and Xander had the feeling that Daniel was searching his face for an answer.
“No,” Xander promised. “I don’t know who the NID is, but I have some bad memories of the military. I saw them do some things they shouldn’t have, which makes it more than a little ironic that I signed up for the military, but then I’ve never been the sharpest crayon in the box.”
Daniel gave a rough laugh. “It sounds like you’ve met the NID. If it’s slimy, unethical, and inhumane, the NID is mixed up in it somewhere.”
“Oh, well then I helped blow up a lot of NID shit.”
“You…” Daniel tilted his head to the side. “You blew up NID equipment?”
“More like NID buildings, but yeah. They were doing some scary things, and then their scary things got out of hand and started doing horribly scary things, and I was there trying to stop it.”
“But you can’t tell me about it?” Daniel guessed.
Xander sighed. He hated this. He hated secrets, but he wouldn’t betray one group to another, even if his heart told him that they were all on the same side. “I want to,” Xander said softly.
Daniel shifted his hand so he could intertwine his fingers with Xander’s. “I understand that sometimes you can’t talk about things, even when you really want to. I get it. I understand confidentiality agreements and ethical obligations. Just tell me that, looking back, you still believe you were on the right side.” Daniel dropped his gaze to the bed, and Xander could feel the fear and the need hovering in the air around them. Daniel had been hurt, and Xander could feel a homicidal need to figure out who had done it and break them into little pieces.
“Without a doubt,” Xander said firmly. “I know I did the right thing, and I don’t always feel good about the fact that people got hurt, but I know I always did my best to make sure that the good guys won. Every time, Daniel.” Xander even thought sending Angel to hell had been the right move, and yeah, the girls disagreed with him on that, but he always tried to protect people. Angel wasn’t a person, so Xander really didn’t feel any need to protect him, but that was an issue for another day. For today, it was enough to honestly say that he always tried to do the right thing.
Daniel looked up and smiled at him. “I believe that. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know your secrets, though.”
“Hey, my secrets are only thirty-seven percent as interesting as yours. Aliens? Wormholes? Invading fleets? Now that is interesting. And you guys wouldn’t have told me anything if I hadn’t gotten whammied. Twice. Two alien devises in less than an hour, and Colonel O’Neill still didn’t want to tell me anything.” Xander shoved at Daniel’s butt with his leg. “But now I have to go wash dishes for the guys and gals who deal with aliens and wormholes and whammying alien devises.”
“I hate that you’re washing dishes.”
“Someone has to,” Xander pointed out. “Otherwise the whole base would look like your apartment… or my old apartment. There was definitely a lack of dishwashing in that place, although to be fair, I think the funky smell came from my mother’s washing machine. Besides, they have a really cool conveyor-style dishwashwer, so it’s pretty awesome to run.”
Daniel’s fingers tightened around his. “Xander, with a little tutoring you could be a translator. You could pull down real money.”
Xander frowned. Logically, that should sound great, but the idea of men and women going through the Stargate based on his translations? Yeah, that wasn’t sounding so great. Washing dishes was more his speed, but he wasn’t sure how to explain that to Daniel. If he went with the self-deprecating humor, Daniel was going to have a total Willow moment and insist on tutoring him, which would defeat the whole purpose.
“I have this friend named Oz,” Xander said slowly. “He is really smart. I mean, people in suits showed up to our school and tried to get him to do something really important and high-paying. He’s scary smart. I can’t even figure out how smart he is. But he isn’t really comfortable being that person because it isn’t him. He’s more the sort to relax and watch life go by. He’s like a Buddhist or a Hindu or Taoist or something.”
With a laugh, Daniel pointed out, “Those are three very different religions.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t really listening when Oz talked about it,” Xander said with a shrug, “But I know he thought it was important to do what you wanted and not what someone else thought you should do or could do.”
Daniel looked confused. “And you want to be a dishwasher?”
Nodding, Xander said, “Yeah, I do. It’s quiet and there’s something simple and easy and just nice about shoving the racks through the machine. It’s a groove you get into.”
“Dishwashing as meditation,” Daniel said slowly.
“Maybe,” Xander answered. “But I’d rather do it dressed.” He gave Daniel another shove with his foot.
Daniel laughed and got off the bed. “You know, meditation is a means, not an end, Xander. I know more about meditation than most people, and it’s about making a connection with something. It’s not about avoiding something.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Xander said. Daniel gave him a skeptical look. “No, really,” Xander promised. “No running away from things, and I will honestly consider whether I’m running away, but right now, I just need to report to duty before someone is buried under breakfast dishes.”
“Okay, okay. I’m going.” Daniel started heading for the door, grabbing for the curtain around Xander’s bed to give him a little privacy.
“Daniel?” Xander called out. Daniel stopped and looked back at him.
“I really am sorry about the secrets.”
Daniel’s sweet smile forgave Xander before he even said anything. “Trust me, I understand secrets. So, after your friend tells you how much you can share, we can talk about how much it really doesn’t matter. Okay?”
Xander nodded, the fear in his stomach easing as he realized that Daniel meant what he said. With one last look, Daniel pulled the curtain shut and Xander was left to get ready for work. Moving slow, Xander got out of bed and grabbed for his clothes. Yeah, even without Dr. Frasier’s very realistic threats, Xander would not have been working out with the others today. Teal’c hit hard.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack was waiting in Hammond’s office when the man came in at ten am. If Jack could have gotten Finn to Cheyenne Mountain faster, he would have asked Hammond to cancel his off-base morning meeting, but so far, all he’d collected was a lot of odd circumstances that together, made his skin crawl. Something was very wrong, and it had nothing to do with Jack being intensely uncomfortable with the thought of Daniel having sex with a man he’d known for a week. Daniel’s whirlwind romances often ended badly. Even Sha’re had ended badly. He couldn’t blame her for getting goa’ulded and killed, but he also couldn’t escape the fact that her loss had wounded Daniel deeply.
And now Daniel had set his cap for Harris. Shit.
Some days Jack wanted to wrap Daniel in cotton and shove him in a cell where he couldn’t go bumping into things that were going to gut him. Like Harris. Like Hathor or Shyla or Sha’re or those damn runes on PB2-908 that enchanted Daniel so much that he wanted to stay and translate them even as the tower collapsed into the sea. It was Jack’s job to keep Daniel out of these situations. Hell. Maybe it was time for Daniel to do something long and boring. SG-11 had been nagging him to let Daniel come on a long term archeological mission that involved digging up goa’uld bones. That should be boring enough to keep Daniel happy and out of trouble for some time. And as a bonus, Harris would never get clearance to go through the gate, especially not after the general got a look at the report Jack had prepared. A little time apart would be a good thing.
“Colonel.” Hammond’s voice startled Jack out of his reverie.
Standing up, Jack offered a respectful, “Sir.”
“How did your scavenger hunt through Airman Harris’ background go?” Hammond asked as he settled behind his desk.
“I should have known you’d keep up with the scuttlebutt.” Jack had worked for a lot of superior officers who focused so much on the paperwork that they forgot the men behind those pages. The whole reason Jack kept going through the gate year after year was because he trusted General Hammond to have his back every time. He was the best commanding officer Jack had worked for, and he seemed to know a little about everything and everyone.
“When the scuttlebutt has my second in command this concerned, I try to stay in the loop.” General Hammond put his leather satchel down next to the desk, dismissing it and focusing on Jack. “What do we know?”
Jack slid the file with his report across the desk, but Hammond opened it without looking at it. They both knew that some things would only be said, not written down. They’d learned early on that certain facts, when written in black and white, sounded crazy. Actually, in this command, that quite a few facts never reached the page for that very reason.
“NID had a base in Sunnydale.” That was the most explosive bit that Jack had dug up, and General Hammond’s eyes stared holes in Jack—like he was waiting for the joke. Jack did not joke about the NID, or as he liked to call them, the soul-sucking human equivalent to the goa’uld.
“A base? Is it still active?”
“Now that’s an interesting point.” Jack rubbed his hand over his face and wished he could have gotten at least an hour’s sleep. Maybe this would make more sense with more sleep. “They ran for a few years, sucked up more and more money, and then suddenly… nothing.”
“They shut down?” Hammond looked down at the report.
“If by shutting down you mean suffering sixty percent mortality, sure,” Jack said. That number horrified him. It was eclipsed only by the death statistics for the civilian population Carter had finally shaken out of the NID database.
Jack wished he had a good answer for the general’s question, but the fact was that he didn’t. He had no idea what the hell was going on. “That’s where the information gets sketchy,” he confessed. “I have to wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that a lot of the surviving members of the base required medical treatment.” Jack wanted to surprise Hammond with the next bit of intel, but the general was leaning back in his chair with an expectant look on his face. Clearly he’d worked with Jack long enough to know where to expect the punch lines. “They needed treatment months later for systemic damage caused by an unidentified and systematically dangerous drug administered over a two year period and the side effects from the unmonitored cessation of that drug.” For a military doctor, that line had sounded downright snarky. Hell, Janet could have written it.
“Administered?” Hammond asked, jumping on the relevant word.
“That’s what the medical report says. They were administered a drug. A dangerous one. I’ve put in a call for one of the affected soldiers to report here. Captain Riley Finn should be in Colorado tomorrow.”
Hammond looked down, and Jack gave him some time to sort through until he found Finn’s records. They started out rather unremarkable. Bachelor’s degree before joining, exemplary training records that got him into the Rangers, some suggestion he might have done some psyops before focusing on fast-tracking his career and landing in California of all places. He had several citations for meritorious service with the actual service rendered conveniently missing and a strange gap about the same time he needed medical treatment for whatever had gone down in Sunnydale, but then he reappeared months later and joined a unit providing tactical training and assistance in South America. Jack found it amusing how many ways the government had to nicely say covert ops and executive action without actually writing those words into someone’s file. Finn was hard-core covert ops, Jack knew that for a fact.
“What’s been left out?” Hammond asked.
“More than should have been,” Jack said humorlessly. “Most of the people I contacted don’t have anything on him, either.”
Jack watched Hammond react to that. He was shocked, but he should be. Covert ops was a very small world where everyone knew everyone else, but Finn seemed to have found a corner all his own. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
“A few people said that Finn is good people, both him and the other soldiers in his unit. One or two mentioned that Finn had some incredible stories that were all true despite sounding ridiculous.” The irony was not lost on Jack since those same people probably described Jack the exact same way.
“Could they have been running a competing Stargate program?” Hammond asked. Jack sighed, not sure but not sure what else it could have been either. He shrugged helplessly.
“What’s the connection to our new airman?”
“Now here’s where it gets interesting.”
Hammond gave a short laugh. “Colonel, this is already too interesting.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it. I’m guessing that Finn and Harris know each other pretty well. Harris pointed me at Finn when I kept asking questions he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer, but he didn’t mention that on two different occasions, he and Finn were admitted into the same emergency room on the same night with the same blunt force trauma. Serious trauma. Each time Harris had a concussion. It appears he liked to try to stop buildings with his head.”
Hammond made a sympathetic face. “Fighting each other or fighting a common enemy?”
Leaning back in his chair, Hammond put on his serious-general face—the one that usually showed up right before Jack got lectured about the importance of paperwork. “How big of a threat is Harris?”
Part of Jack wanted to throw the kid under the bus and watch General Hammond confine him to the brig. The better part of him pointed out that wouldn’t exactly be fair. “He knows more about fighting than he should, sir. Serious fighting. I reviewed the tapes of the training session with Teal’c and Carter, and I can tell you a few things. He’s used to fighting with a group. His technique is all about distraction and evasion.”
“Which means he’s used to someone else stepping in and taking advantage of a distracted enemy,” Hammond finished.
“Yep. And he’s fast—quick to use whatever is in the environment to gain some sort of cover. He even bluffed Carter.” Jack really hated how much admiration he felt for the man over that, but any man who could fake out Carter had earned some respect. “When he sparred with her, he made himself look like a helpless nincompoop, and the second she dropped her guard, he caught her in the nose with a right hook. And he knew that punch wouldn’t take her down.”
“He didn’t drop his guard,” Hammond guessed.
“Not for a second. In fact, he announced to some of the other recruits that unless someone was bleeding out multiple orifices or decapitated, he would keep on hitting them.”
Hammond looked thoughtful at that bit of news. Jack figured he was thinking the same thing Jack had—that was a battle-trained response. “Practical even if the philosophy is somewhat dangerous in the field,” Hammond eventually offered. “He actually sounds a little like someone else I know who tends to distract people with exaggerated stories of his bad knees and general ignorance before completing a complicated tactical maneuver.”
“I know you’re not talking about me, sir.”
“Of course not,” General Hammond said in an amused tone. “What else do we have on Harris, and why didn’t any of this show up on our first background check?”
“To answer your second question first, the NID not only flagged a lot of intel out of Sunnydale as classified, but they also removed it from the system. It simply didn’t show up at all until Carter went poking through their computers. The town has a murder rate four hundred times the rate in Detroit or New Orleans. You’d be safer living in the Gaza Strip, and as much as I wish that was an exaggeration, statistically, it isn’t.”
“What is going on?” Hammond started spreading out the pages of Jack’s report across his desk.
“Good question, sir. I tried asking Harris, but he informed me that he wouldn’t share other people’s secrets with me any more than he would share Stargate secrets with other people.”
“And did you glare at him?” Hammond asked, that dark humor of his showing up again.
“He was immune,” Jack said dryly. It still annoyed him that an airman would refuse an order like that. “And before you ask, I checked to see if he had any other confidentiality agreements or security checks in his records—I even had Carter dig through the NID computers. There is no record of Harris ever agreeing to keep any official secrets.”
“So, he’s doing it out of an ethical obligation.” Hammond’s voice made it clear that he admired the idea, and maybe Jack would have admired it under different circumstances, but a mystery this deep that stunk this bad had no business being within ten miles of Daniel. Harris had no business within ten miles of him, and yet Daniel was spending his free time with the man. It annoyed Jack, and Jack was the first to admit that he was less than charitable when annoyed. “What else do we have on Harris?”
Jack opened his own copy of his report. “Harris’ parents are both rather unremarkable, a few domestic violence calls that seem to suggest a history of screaming more than any physical violence. Harris has taken a remarkable number of trips to the emergency room, though. Including the two times he showed up at the same time as Finn, Carter found no fewer than sixteen visits.”
“Abuse?” Hammond looked bothered by that.
“Maybe, but given the fact that police reports the NID marked classified have him as the victim of a mugging, a school break-in, a home invasion at the home of a friend, a kidnapping, and no fewer than six random gang beatings, I don’t think his parents carry the blame here. And his whole school appears incredibly clumsy and prone to unlikely accidents, none of which the police follow up on. Someone left a door open at the school, and stray dogs supposedly ate his school principal.”
Hammond’s eyebrows went up. Yeah, as cover stories went, that one sucked. Someone wasn’t even trying. When the guys in charge of covering up illegal operations didn’t even care enough about the quality of their work to come up with a plausible bullshit story, it said something sad about the American work ethic. Jack continued. “Several students were murdered, more disappeared, and my personal favorite is the swim team that apparently all ran away from home together, leaving all their personal belongings behind. They were never heard from again.”
“Someone is preying on these young people.”
“Yes, sir.” Jack could see the slow fury building in Hammond, but considering how sick to his stomach Jack had been when read Carter’s statistics, he couldn’t blame the general. Soldiers fought each other. That was part of life since time began. Somewhere back in history, two cavemen had tried to beat each other to death with really big rocks. He could accept that. But targeting kids was a shitty way to do business. And when Jack thought shitty, the NID always came to mind. “The scary thing is that Harris’ graduating class had the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class coming out of Sunnydale High in twenty years.”
Hammond ran a hand over his face. “Good God. Why would a high school have mortality figures? Colonel, I want to know what happened in Sunnydale.”
“Do you think Harris was fighting whatever was targeting these kids? Is there a current danger? I can make some calls over to Edwards or Vanderberg and see if they could get some people over to the high school to keep an eye on things.” Hammond looked ready to jump on the phone immediately, and Jack could understand why. The idea of US citizens, children really, being left at the mercy of the NID was enough to turn his stomach, and still, Harris wouldn’t tell him what the hell was going on. It wasn’t improving Jack’s mood.
“That would be difficult, sir. It seems the high school just happened to blow up on Harris’ graduation day after an unexplained gas leak.”
Hammond narrowed his eyes. “Unexplained gas leak?”
“Yep. It seems they have a lot of those in Sunnydale.” Jack glanced down at his report to make sure he didn’t get the next part wrong. “Gang beatings, accidental falls onto sharp objects and gas leaks account for more deaths than heart disease, cancer, infections, car accidents, stokes, firearms incidents and suicide combined. It’s a fun little town to visit, Sunnydale. Don’t even get me started on the sheer number of cemeteries in the damn town. Sir,” Jack quickly added when he realized his tone had gotten a little disrespectful.
“It’s a bad situation,” Hammond said in a quiet voice. He didn’t point out that Harris had grown up in the middle of the situation, but Jack was painfully aware of that. At best, Harris was going to have a few screws loose. At worst, he’d been part of whatever the NID had done. Plenty of victims turned to working for their abuses either out of self-preservation or some misguided and twisted loyalty.
“Yes, sir,” Jack agreed. He wasn’t going to let this drop even if the general ordered him to.
“Are teenagers the only victims?”
Jack shook his head. “No, but they seem to have the highest mortality rate followed by the elderly and then teachers.” Jack really didn’t understand what those three groups had in common to make them so prone to accidental falls and exsanguination by puncture wound, but then he didn’t understand most of what happened in Sunnydale.
“Any further information on Harris?”
Jack shook his head. “Unremarkable grades, barely high enough to qualify for the Air Force. He did a number of menial jobs before signing up for the military, and he seems to have a knack for annoying people.”
“I noticed that,” Hammond said, and Jack glared at his commander for a brief second—not long enough to be insubordinate, but long enough to let Hammond know he wasn’t amused. Yeah, yeah, Harris annoyed him. But he had a right to be annoyed. “And now,” Hammond continued, “he’s washing dishes.”
“And the kitchen staff think he’s the second coming because he attacks every shift as if the war with the goa’uld will be won with clean salad forks.”
“Well it sounds like we’re at a standstill until Harris chooses to explain himself or Captain Finn arrives on scene. Major Ferretti is unavailable, so brief Major Warren. I want more eyes on this problem.”
“Yes, sir.” Jack stood up and saluted the general. After returning the salute, Hammond focused on the papers scattered across his desk.
Jack wandered off to find Warren before he collapsed from sheer lack of sleep. He might sometimes exaggerate his physical or mental shortcomings, but the fact was that he couldn’t pull all-night research sessions the way he could as a young lieutenant. If someone was shooting at him, fine. He’d stay awake no problem. But staring at computer screens and printouts did not keep his attention enough to make him forget how much he wanted his bed. He just wouldn’t give himself permission to go to bed until he’d briefed Warren.
Major Warren was a good guy, one of three majors that SG3 rotated on command depending on the mission—exploration, negotiation, or blowing shit up. Jack thought it was pretty significant that Hammond wanted Warren briefed since the major definitely tended to blow shit up. Wade did the exploration and Castleman was a creative son-of-a-bitch who could get information out of a rock, in part because he was twice as stubborn as a rock. However Warren had a talent for knowing which bit of the enemy to blow all to hell. He’d taken out a death glider with a Stinger missile his first time through the gate. Jack enjoyed the thought of turning Warren loose on the soul-sucking, kid-killing NID bastards. Oh yeah, General Hammond was feeling even more unforgiving about this Sunnydale situation than Jack was. If Finn didn’t come up with some good intel, Jack would not want to be in Harris’ shoes. General Hammond would find out what was going on, and if Harris was the person in his way, the rock would meet the hard place.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander slipped down the hall with the tray of food held out like a talisman. It was amazing how many times you could get into places when you looked familiar and harmless. Between the ability to slip around base unnoticed and the amount of gossip he heard in the kitchens, Xander was starting to understand why the SGC dishwashers needed to have clearance.
“Hey,” Xander said as he approached the airman standing guard on one of the conference rooms. If the rumors were right, Riley was in there. If they were wrong, Xander was going to have to explain why he felt the need to deliver a tray of donuts to some random dude. Unless the visitor was someone really important. Then someone might shoot him.
“This room is restricted.”
“Yep. I hear Colonel O’Neill was really giving this guy a hard time. Maybe that’s why Jackson told me to bring over some treats. I think he’s trying to smooth feathers.” Xander lifted the lid on his tray to show the donuts and pastries and fruit. The airman on guard took one of the dull plastic knives and carefully lifted them to check underneath.
“That sounds like Dr. Jackson,” the airman agreed. “But this guy is military. He’s not even making a fuss about the guard, so I don’t think he’s as upset as Dr. Jackson assumes.”
“Well, I just deliver donuts where I’m ordered to,” Xander pointed out.
The airman nodded and put the knife back down and Xander lowered the lid. “Go on,” he said, opening the door for Xander.
“Thanks.” Xander quickly ducked inside, and sure enough, that was Riley sitting in a uniform and working on the computer that was hooked to the room’s projection system. Riley quickly stood while the door closed behind Xander. He was jumpy. Unless Xander missed his guess, Colonel O’Neill had already done his demon impression for the man. And honestly, Xander hadn’t seen any human who wasn’t at least part demon do so much growling, glaring and barking.
“Riley,” Xander said as soon as the door clicked shut. Some tight little knot in his stomach loosened when he saw the man. “Hey. Oh wait, should I be saluting you?” Xander looked around in panic, his tray still in his hands.
“Xander. No, please don’t. I’m having trouble enough thinking of you being in the service. I don’t need more reminders.” Walking forward, Riley took the tray from Xander, setting it on the big conference table.
“What? Why?” Xander was good at his job, and yeah, his job was washing dishes, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t good enough to wash Air Force dishes.
“Because you are not the sort to take orders,” Riley pointed out.
Xander snorted. “Yeah, Ri, I am. I just started taking orders from different people.” Seriously, if Riley thought that about him, the man hadn’t just missed the boat, he’d fallen off the dock into the ocean while he was at it.
“Very different people,” Riley agreed. “Are you okay here?”
Xander frowned. He’d had way less people try to murder him since he joined, but Riley was looking big with the concern. A little lightbulb went off in Xander’s head. “Colonel O’Neill totally intimidated you, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” Riley didn’t even try and sugar-coat it.
“I am glad I am not the only one slightly, totally afraid of that man. He has an evil eye.”
Riley laughed. “I’ll give you that one. He made vague threats if I didn’t give him a full briefing on Sunnydale. Actually, the threats might not have been as vague as they were specific and violent.”
Xander cringed. He hated that he’d put Riley in the middle. They’d had a sort of truce in Sunnydale, an understanding that as the only two male Scoobies they wouldn’t do anything to embarrass each other, and that meant something to Xander because most of the time, big jock-like men lived on Harris-humiliation. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that. I didn’t know what was classified and what wasn’t and I was pretty sure that certain people didn’t want certain names getting circulated in certain circles and there were a few too many certains for me to keep track of what I should and shouldn’t say.” Xander had to fight to cut off his own babble.
“I understand.” Riley patted Xander’s shoulder before he turned and headed back for his seat. Xander knew he was pushing it timewise. Eventually the guard was going to wonder how long it took for an airman to deliver a tray of sugary goodness, but Xander had to know what Riley would say, and he had to apologize before one of the very few male pseudo-friendships in his life turned into a big steaming pile of shit.
“I mean, I’m really sorry I threw you under the O’Neill bus.”
“It’s okay. It was the right call, Xander. We have protocols for this situation, depending on the security rating of the group requesting information. We have the level one disclosure that offers only a general story about hostile forces, the level two with organized groups posing a threat to national security and the level three with full disclosure of all the things that go bump in the night.”
Xander didn’t want to make any assumptions. “So, are you telling them....”
“Everything except names. Those are my orders.”
Blowing out a breath, Xander tried to imagine what Colonel O’Neill’s face would look like during that briefing. As much as Xander would love to be a fly on the wall, he suspected that even the flies wouldn’t be safe from O’Neill’s temper. And that’s if the colonel didn’t believe Riley. If he did, the man was going to go thermonuclear. “Yeah, have fun with that. I mean, without visual aides, they're going to think you're crazy,” Xander warned. Mentally, Xander made a note to warn Daniel to steer clear for at least a day. O’Neill’s bad moods had the ability to tie Daniel into big old knots.
“I brought surveillance video.”
“Oh.” Xander cringed as he realized what the video might have on it. Riley said he wasn’t outing Buffy or Willow specifically, so he trusted that their faces weren’t clear, but that didn’t mean that the footage couldn’t still have a high humiliation factor. Xander knew he spent a lot of time running and screaming like a little girl while some vamp chased him. He spent even more time flying through the air from some well-timed kick he didn’t manage to duck. And if the universe really hated him, there was probably footage of Xander stealing shit, and O’Neill would love to have an excuse to throw Xander in a jail cell. He would dance a jig and sing with joy, even. “Um, Riley, would you have anything that will humiliate me for all time and/or land me in jail. I mean, I'm kinda fond of not being the base idiot. Well, I was until I got my ass kicked so bad during training that the doctor pulled me out. I guess the clumsy followed me. But I’m really hoping you don’t have anything on those tapes that I’m going to regret.”
“Is that how you got hurt?” Riley leaned forward, and Xander dropped into the chair nearest him.
“You heard that I got hurt?” Xander was almost certain that the whole aliens trying to take over base thing was a secret. This is why he hated secrets; he never knew who was in the know for which parts. It made conversation awkward.
“Colonel O'Neill suggested that you needed to heal from something, but I'm relieved that it was only a training accident.”
“Oh.” Okay, so he’d heard about the Teal’c ass kickage. Teal’c and Xander had already come to an agreement that they would scale back training not because it was in any way, shape or form logical but because other people got their panties in a wad way too easily, and Xander really was never going to use that expression in front of Teal’c again because explaining it was just too embarrassing. “Yeah, well it'd be less embarrassing if it had been an actual injury.”
Riley frowned. “Xander, some of my worst injuries were training injuries. It's not common, but people have died during training, so don't think that a training injury is any less serious than one suffered in battle.”
“I'll keep that in mind, Obi Wan. So, are you planning to humiliate me with your home movies?” Shaking his head, Riley got an expression that suggested he knew he’d lost that round. But it was true, getting hurt in training was embarrassing. If Xander were the officer who’d gotten his elbow cracked on a weight machine by a dishwasher, he’d be humiliated.
“Most of the video is grainy enough that you can't tell who trips over which tombstone,” Riley promised.
“Three cheers for cheap cameras.”
“More like three cheers for cameras that were too far away from where the actual action took place.”
“That too." Xander leaned forward. He knew the next bit was none of his business, but no one would tell him why Riley had left Sunnydale. Xander hated that his girls were keeping secrets, but more than that, he hated that he was too far away to easily find out what their secrets were. Usually he could just torture Willow with his puppy-eyes and she cracked like a pistachio. "Ri, what happened with you and Buffy? I mean, I really thought you were the anti-Angel, and trust me, from me, that's a compliment.”
“I appreciate that. But I made my own mistakes.”
“Did your mistakes include sex with a woman a hundred years younger than you or random murder and mayhem?” Xander asked. “If not, you're way ahead of Deadboy.”
Riley looked down at the tabletop. “I'm not so sure about that.”
“Okay, that's sounding ominous.” Xander wondered if he was going to have to try and kick Riley’s ass, not that he could, but for Buffy, he’d try.
With a shrug, Riley looked back up at him. “Yeah, well it turned ugly. Dracula visited.”
“Wait. The Dracula? Like Dracula Dracula?”
Riley nodded. "Don't mention him around the watcher. He's still a little sensitive about Dracula's brides."
“Whoa. Do you mean... the watcher got down with vampire chicks?” Xander scrambled to avoid Giles’ name before he could accidentally out someone. “Okay, my brain is officially rewiring itself right now.” Xander leaned back, his whole world slightly skewed and warpy after that little revelation. Giles getting his funk on with vampires. Yep. Brain broke.
“He's not the only one who got himself in trouble during that visit.”
The guilt on Riley’s face made Xander’s heart sink. “Oh, that is not a good tone of voice. Tell me you weren't orgy adjacent. Tell me that you’re talking about Spike ending up with a good case of dusty after mouthing off to the wrong vamp.”
“No. Neither of those happened." Riley ran a hand over his face. "Dracula thralled me in order to keep me out of the way while he seduced the slayer."
"Oh geez. Please tell me she didn't boff another vampire. I swear, I will go back and give her my 'vampires bad' speech right now. She keeps telling me she doesn’t need to hear that speech from me, but then she keeps doing things that make it pretty clear my message didn’t soak in the first three thousand times I said it.”
“There wasn't any sex involved, but there was biting.” Riley’s face twisted with disgust, and Xander was right there with him. Yuck.
“I leave town for eight months and she's off letting vamps suck on her. Isn't there anyone pointing out that vamps are undead, arrogant, evil bloodsuckers? I could get postcards made, every week a new reason to hate vampires.”
“I went to the suckhouses.” Riley blurted the words out so fast that Xander’s brain couldn’t quite keep up.
Riley. Suckhouses. Nope, those two did not fit in the same sentence. Riley was normal man. He was the Buffy-boyfriend who didn't have issues. He was the official anti-Angel who Xander loved in a manly, brotherly, I-really-don’t-want-to-think-about-what-you-do-to-my-sisterish-best-friend type way. “Okay, no offense, but are you a moron?” Xander finally demanded.
Riley wiped a hand over his face. “Most addicts are, Xander.”
“Most addicts don’t let monsters suck on them. And I’m trying to be understanding here, but EWWWW is as close to understanding as I can come, and that’s not very close. Not even in the same zip code, actually.”
“No, but it’s honest. I wanted to know why she let them bite her, and I... I can't explain it. Dracula's thrall made me see vampires differently, and when I did go to the suckhouse, it felt so good to let them feed on me. I've gone through addiction treatment, and the Army knows about my problem in Sunnydale. However, that's why I left town.”
Xander felt like the world just kept tilting out of control. Why the hell didn’t he know about any of this? He was in the next state over or maybe two states over—Xander would have to check a map on that one—but it wasn’t like he was on another fucking planet. Someone should have mentioned something. But no. He leaves town and suddenly no one thinks to mention that Buffy is screwier in the head than normal or that Giles has gone all Ripper-kinky with vamp girls. Panic. Xander was feeling panic. He had to force himself to focus on the present conversation. Riley. Suckhouses. Stupid. “Okay, I know Sunnyhell has more than its fair share of suckhouses, but seriously, why would you leave you-know-who just to stay away from a few suckhouses?”
“Suckhouses,” Riley answered.
“Wow. That’s a lot of suckhouses. Okay, when you have more suckhouses than Starbucks, that’s bad, but when you have thirteen times more suckhouses than Starbucks, that’s really bad. But I’m still not seeing the logic, Ri. I mean, you’re going to run into vamps no matter where you go. Well, unless you’re a frikkin mile under the ground in a mountain, but trust me, these people have their own issues.”
“I’m not cleared to know about them,” Riley quickly said, his hand sliding across the table toward Xander as if he could physically hold back any words. Right, like Xander would just go blurting about aliens. That wasn’t going to happen for so very many reasons.
“Yeah, neither was I,” Xander pointed out. “I was supposed to be delivering Jell-O and looked at how well that turned out.”
Riley laughed. “Colonel O’Neill did seem to think you had a talent for getting in trouble.”
With a snort, Xander pointed out, “He doesn’t know anything yet. I’ve been playing nice and washing dishes. And you know me, I’d be very happy to wash dishes for the next three and a half years.”
“But you don’t think it’s going to happen that way,” Riley finished.
“Hey, I’d be happy if it did work that way, but I’m not holding my breath for normal. Now that you’ve changed the subject, do you want to tell me what’s the what in Sunnydale? Yeah, suckhouses bad, but trust me, she’s stood by boyfriends who did loads worse. You don’t even want to get me started down that path because that way lies raving and babbling and really vicious comments about stupid hair.”
Riley leaned back in his chair, all emotion gone from his face. “It just didn’t work out.”
“Bullshit. When things don’t work out, it usually means that someone is making them not work out.” Xander studied Riley, struggling to understand his expression. “Did she throw a fit over the whole vampire thing, because if she did, I am very happy to go back and remind her about a certain incident involving beer or Halloween candy or eggs because it’s not like she hasn’t seen things get a little wonky and out of control before, and Dracula-thrall sounds like extenuating circumstances.”
“She found me in the suckhouse.”
Xander cringed. That would have been ugly. He loved Buffy, but she was big with the overreacting when she felt betrayed. He was pretty sure it was a father-issue thing.
“And Spike’s the one who told her,” Riley added. Clearly there was one person Riley was happy to throw under the O’Neill bus, but then, Xander wouldn’t mind if Colonel O’Neill put a few dozen rounds of ammo in the bleached one.
“Spike? She listened to Spike? Okay, when did I fall into wonky-world because her listening to Spike makes me want to go looking for the pod, and I mean that in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers way rather than any actual pods.”
“I caught the allusion,” Riley said. “However, Spike wasn’t the problem. She’s a slayer, Xander. She wants someone who can keep up with her, and I couldn’t. She kept trying to protect me, especially when it turned out that Dr. Walsh had used some experimental medicine on me to amp up my strength. The stuff was killing me, and when I got clean, I couldn’t keep up with her anymore.”
Xander closed his eyes. Shit. She’d tried to make Riley fray-adjacent. Buffy had this terrible habit of shoving people off to the side and insisting she had to protect everyone, and that was a problem when people thought they had a right to defend themselves. Xander had learned to just do what he could around the edges. Kill a zombie here, stake a vampire there and not mention it to Buffy. And yeah, he killed one for every two dozen she took out, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to get in the fight and kill his one. But Riley… he was a bad-ass soldier who was used to being on the front lines.
“It isn’t you, you know. She does that to everyone,” Xander offered gently. Hell, Willow was turning all magic-girl in her efforts to not get shut out by her best friend, and Giles wasn’t exactly a big help on that front. The Watchers might think Giles was too lenient, but too lenient still included filling Buffy’s head with stories of being the one and only person responsible for all evil in the world.
Riley nodded. “I know she did it to you, but I guess I thought I’d be different—that she’d trust me as a fighter.”
“You’re giving her too much credit, Ri. I mean, I love her in a perfectly platonic, brotherly way, but when it comes to fighting, she’s not the most even-headed person in all creation. She has trouble letting go because everyone keeps telling her that she has to handle everything herself, and she believes them, which is slightly craplike, but that’s what she does. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love you, because I’m telling you, she was way, way happier with you than she ever was with Deadboy. I mean, yeah Deadboy had the whole Romeo and Juliet darkness going for him, but everyone ends up dead in that play, and that was definitely the path she was on with him. But you were more… and I’m trying to come up with a play that is all-American here.”
“Death of a Salesman,” Riley said dryly. From the tone, Xander was guessing some self-insulting was going on.
“You were happy-making,” Xander said instead.
Riley sighed. “Maybe I was when Dr. Welsh’s drugs made me strong enough to keep up with her. These days, I’m not making her happy, Xander. That’s why I had to leave. She has enough pain in her life without me making her unhappy.”
“Pain?” Xander frowned. “I haven’t heard of pain. What pain?”
“You didn’t hear?” Riley seemed surprised. “Her mother had an operation. They said she had some sort of brain tumor.”
Xander’s mouth went dry as he thought of Joyce’s strength and the way she’d held them together through way more crap than any parent should ever have to deal with. Hell, his own mother hadn’t been able to handle it when Xander failed ninth grade math, but Joyce had been right there with them from the time she found out about slaying. “Is she okay?”
“The doctors say she will be, but that sort of brain injury is going to have consequences, and if I can’t help, the best thing I can do for all of them is to stay out of the way.”
Xander totally disagreed with that. Totally. However, he wasn’t sure how to convince Riley of that. All he knew was that Buffy pushed people away the most exactly when she needed them the most. And Xander had been idiotic enough to sign up for the military so he couldn’t be there. “How about on the slaying front?” Xander asked casually. He’d really limited his calls home since he’d joined the Air Force because he didn’t want anyone to slip and say something not-so-good over a government monitored phone. However, Riley would have kept up with Buffy and the others—Xander knew that for sure. He was an idiot who let vampires suck on him and who had managed to miss that his girlfriend was screwy in the head and couldn’t admit how much she needed him. Oh yeah, idiocy was involved. But he still cared for her.
“They say it’s all quiet. Not a peep.”
Xander’s guts turned to stone. It was never peepless in Sunnydale. If they weren’t talking it was because there was something so big that Buffy didn’t want people feeling obligated to come home and help, and they were back to idiocy, only this time Buffy’s sort.
“That’s good,” Xander said weakly. “I still think you should try to work things out.”
Riley shook his head. “I’m seeing someone else, and I’m sure she’s seeing someone else by now.”
Xander doubted that. Buffy had worse taste in lovers than he did. Well, than he had had in the past. Xander was pretty sure Daniel was a keeper. Two visits to a closet and one night in bed, and Xander was pretty much willing to buy the wedding ring. But that also might have something to do with the fact that Daniel could explain things without making Xander feel stupid and he laughed at Xander’s jokes, and he had this adorable expression when he ducked his head and blushed. Yep, Xander planned to keep Daniel if there was any human way possible. The only fly in the ointment was that O’Neill looked like he might start spitting nails any time he caught of glimpse of Daniel in the back kitchens, sitting on a counter and talking while Xander shoved dishes through the machine.
“I hope she has a good life, but I can’t be part of it,” Riley said sadly.
“I get it,” Xander said with a nod. “I think you’re an idiot, but I get it.”
Riley smiled. “Thank you. Not just for getting it, but for helping her and loving her and for making it possible for me to have even the short time I had with her. You were always good at getting her to see things in a new way, and I suspect that you talked to her about me.”
Xander shrugged. “I said the Initiative were dangerous idiots and someone needed to blow them up,” Xander pointed out, but the fact was that he’d also told Buffy that she needed to give someone normal a chance. At the time, Xander figured anyone that distracted Buffy from Angel was of the good, but looking back, Riley had been a good choice. Yeah, he didn’t fit in and he was an idiot, but he’d loved Buffy.
“And look, you were right,” Riley said with a wry grin.
Xander nodded. He really didn’t need reminding of the number of times he’d been right because his guts were screaming at him, and if he was right about how wrong things were back home, there was serious trouble on the horizon. “Hey, I should let you get with the preparing because O’Neill is not exactly a fountain of patience. He doesn’t even have a faucet of it.” Xander stood up.
“That’s a deal,” Riley agreed as he stood as well. He reached out his hand, and instead of saluting an officer, Xander shook his hand, feeling oddly adult as he did so. “Take care of yourself, Xander.”
“You too, Riley. You’re still the best man she ever had in her life.”
“But I’m not the one she needed.” Riley took a step back. “That doesn’t mean I won’t be there for her with a P-90 and a bucket of grenades if she calls.”
“Keep ‘em ready,” Xander said before he turned and headed for the door. If his gut was right, things were, as Giles would sometimes mutter when he thought no one was listening, going arse over teakettle. But one call home would make it clear whether or not Xander’s gut sirens were misfiring.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Finn went to attention as soon as General Hammond came into the room, followed by Jack and Major Warren. The general settled in at the end of the table and Jack took his place next to him. Before Major Warren had even settled in his chair, Jack started. “So, what did all that mean?”
“Sir?” Finn glanced over at the general before focusing on Jack.
“Vampires, suckhouses, addiction. What are those codewords for Finn?” Codewords were the only thing that made any sense given the conversation Finn and Harris had just finished. After watching the surveillance cameras, Jack was reassessing his position on whether Harris was NID.
“Vampires suckhouses, and addiction, sir,” Finn said in a tone that fell just shy of insubordinate. “I know it’s hard to believe, but if you’ll give me some time, I did come prepared with a full briefing.” Finn turned on the projector and a professionally produced title card with the name of all officers involved on the credits.
“Did you know what we were going to ask about, Captain?” General Hammond asked.
Finn nodded. “Sir, there’s really only one reason why people ask about Sunnydale. We have a standard briefing for those with top level clearance. I should start by pointing out that physicists have long suggested that many dimensions actually intersect this one.”
Jack shared a quick look with General Hammond. If he known that Finn was going to open with a discussion of physics instead of secret weapons testing, he would have brought Carter.
“The project I served had a mission to capture and identify weaknesses in unidentified hostiles of not Earth descent.”
“Aliens?” Jack asked. This was bad. If they had a foothold situation in California and the NID hadn’t told them, Jack was going to kick all their asses… personally. And the general would hold them down for him to do it.
Finn actually laughed. “No, sir. No little green men. However, the truth is actually stranger than that. It turns out that species from other dimensions do sometimes cross over into this one. The creature that mythology has named a “vampire” is really a hybrid race… a cross-dimensional creature that reanimates a corpse in order to move from their home dimension into this one. We never allowed the soldiers to call the hostiles vampires due to the psychological impact of such a word; however, mythology came frighteningly close to the truth. They are strong, bloodthirsty, violent and dangerous. When they are first brought into this dimension though contact between a dead body and a current vampire, they are often little more than mindless creatures intent on feeding, although there are notable exceptions.”
“Son,” General Hammond said softly, and that was the voice that usually showed up right before someone got thrown into a cell, “what you’re saying sounds a lot like vampires not only live in California, but they are busy making other vampires.”
“Yes, sir,” Finn agreed. In the shocked silence that followed, Finn stared the video presentation. “I can verify which of the films I was present for the making of. I can also provide a list of servicemen and women who witnessed each of the following in person.”
Jack watched as vampires in labs turned to dust, and vampires crawled their way out of the ground, as ground troops used tazers to bring down vampires behind a fucking Tastee Freez. Various segments were followed by crisp narration and scientific explanations, some of them describing experiments that passed immoral and illegal and went straight to NID/goa’uld levels of sliminess. The worst part was that Jack knew two of the special ops soldiers leading anti-vampire teams. He didn’t even have to see their faces; he knew the way they moved in the field as well as he knew the back of his own hand. Better. Jack didn’t spend a lot of time looking at his hand, but he’d spent three months in Bolivia in ’86 and more than that in Grenada watching his fellow team members. He knew these men. He also knew that he’d offered them jobs, and they’d turned him down with vague excuses. Well, now he knew why.
The video paused. “The next bit is harder to believe,” Finn offered, and that sounded like an apology.
“The first part wasn’t exactly easy,” Jack pointed out. Major Warren looked ready to accuse Finn of lying and throw him out of the mountain, and even the general had an uneasy expression. Jack figured that the man would be burning up the secure phone lines the second the briefing ended. However, Jack couldn’t figure out one reason Finn had to lie, which did suggest that this was real. Hell, Jack had given some equally implausible briefings in his day.
“Yes, sir,” Finn agreed. “However the next part relates to the use of cross-dimensional energies. Beings who have some connection to another dimension appear to have the ability to use the laws of physics from their home dimension while in this one.”
“Meaning?” Jack leaned forward.
Finn took a piece of paper and drew a circle on it before looking around at the table. Not seeing whatever he wanted, he broke the eraser off and put it inside the circle before drawing a dot next to it. “If I was this creature, a being that lived in two dimensions,” he said, pointing to the dot, “then this circle would appear as an unbreakable barrier. It would limit how large my world was because I would have no way to break through using the rules of a two-dimensional world.” Finn reached in and picked up the eraser. “And to the two-dimensional creature, I just made an object vanish. I appear to have destroyed mass, which we know is impossible. Worse, I can make this same mass reappear on the other side of this impassable line that marks the edge of the world.” Finn put the eraser down outside the circle. “To a two-dimensional creature, I’ve just performed miracles. I’ve created and destroyed matter. I’ve broken the laws of physics.”
“You did magic,” Jack summarized. He could see where the captain was going, and he didn’t want to take all day to get there.
“Yes, sir,” Finn agreed. “We’ve actually employed two magic users in our current combat units. Both of them have ancestors who came from other dimensions. We also suspect that the current human who controls the demon population in California has ancestors from another dimension. When we first went to Sunnydale, we were unaware of this bending of the rules of physics, and we discounted her.”
“Is this the slayer you and Harris were talking about?” Jack said, mentally reviewing their conversation. Someone using Dracula’s name had tried to seduce her. From the sounds of it, he might have succeeded, but then he wouldn’t be the first honeypot to actually get his target to fold like a cheap card trick. Finn had also referred to her as being stronger than a human, so it made sense she might have alien blood.
“Yes, sir. She’s stronger, faster, and she heals better than a human. She also has prophetic dreams that warn her where to find the worst of the danger. As far as our scientists can tell, those with prophetic dreams can either see nearby quantum realities and are unconsciously judging the likelihood that our world will follow a particular path or they can perceive folds in time and glimpse the actual future.”
Major Warren looked ready to stroke out, but then, Jack could sympathize. This was a little more than he was willing to believe after one briefing. Of course, he’d have more trouble if he hadn’t watched Daniel basically do the same trick with quantum realities. The fact that he spotted two attack ships in another universe had given them time to save this universe. However, that was technology. That was a quantum mirror—an object that could be touched and turned the hell off. Finn was suggesting that someone had DNA in their head that allowed them to do something similar without any help. It was a lot to swallow.
“This will clear things up, sirs.” Finn turned on the presentation again.
By the time the last image turned black, Jack wasn’t sure whether to congratulate General Hammond on the best practical joke in all of history or to move to the middle of the Minnesota woods and start storing canned goods for the Apocalypse. Hell, from the looks of Finn’s briefing, he didn’t even know how to being fighting that sort of dimensional technology, but he sure knew who could start. “Sir, permission to have any and all Finn’s techno-babble transferred to Carter?”
“Granted,” General Hammond agreed.
“So, what can you tell us about the defensive troops on the ground?” Major Warren asked when the silence continued uncomfortably long.
“The Watcher is a trained magic user—low level, but he knows a lot of people in the demonic community.”
Jack flinched at the word demonic. He liked ‘alien’ so much more. Alien. Strange. Not of here. Yeah, he was going with alien.
“He trains the slayer. She has a lot of power. A whole lot. She took down one of the biggest tactical weapons the NID ever created.”
“Weapon? What sort of weapon?” Jack demanded.
“A weapon that combined heavy artillery, demon DNA and a nuclear core.” Finn gave Jack a blank stare that made it perfectly clear how he felt about the subject.
“That’s when you had your little vacation from the service,” Jack guessed. If his superiors had gotten mixed up in that shit, he would have walked.
“Yes, sir,” Finn agreed. “The slayer wanted to destroy it. The NID wanted to keep it. The slayer won, and I agreed with her.”
Jack nodded. He had to respect Finn for going against his superior officers when they’d clearly lost their fucking minds. Combining dimensional technology and a nuke sounded like a bad idea to him, so Jack expected Carter to give birth to kittens at the very thought. And Jack was starting to like this slayer. Anyone who blew up NID shit was alright with him. If she wasn’t busy with her own aliens, he’d offer her a job blowing up goa’uld shit.
Jack glanced over at General Hammond. He wasn’t sure how far the general wanted to push this. The general leaned forward. “And then this slayer asked you not to fight anymore? Is that when you rejoined?” General Hammond asked.
“Yes, sir.” Finn took a deep breath, and Jack could almost see him teetering on the edge of saying more. Looking around the room, he pressed his lips tightly together for a second before seeming to come to some sort of decision. “Sir, the slayer, her watcher, one magic user, and Harris stood between this world and the next dimension more times than I care to think about. Neighboring dimensions consider this one rich with food, and they have tried to invade more than once. But those four are all so caught up in their own mythology that they don’t know how to ask for help, and the Watcher has encouraged that sort of insular attitude.”
Jack frowned. “And they let him?” That didn’t match the story of a woman who would blow up the NID when she didn’t agree with their tactics. The more Jack considered that little fact, the more he liked this slayer.
Finn’s expression was blank in a hostile sort of way as he stared at Jack for a good minute. “He’s an adult… the expert. They were all fifteen when this started. He’s taught them to not ask for help, to not accept help, to not even trust outsiders. The in-group, out-group dynamics are so completely screwed up that I don’t even think they’d call me for help if the damn demons started coming through the hellmouth in Sherman tanks. Sir.”
“They were fifteen?” Jack’s guts tangled. What the hell were fifteen year olds doing fighting aliens? He’d assumed that Harris was the baby of the group… maybe that he’d joined the service to get out from under the shadow of an older and far more powerful friend. But if they were all fifteen… Jack’s brain refused to even process that thought. And from Finn’s tightly controlled fury and language, he was equally horrified. Jack ran a hand over his face. Good god. No one could go through a war like that without a lot of psychological trauma. Gate teams had terrible PTSD rates, and they were all adults with training and psychological support. Hell, Jack even knew that he was bordering on out-of-control at times, which is why he relied on Danny’s morality more than he would ever admit. When it was your job to shoot people, trying to make friends became a little harder.
Danny had gone and made friends with Harris, and from the sounds of it, the man was probably an emotional bomb ready to go off at any time. He hid it well under the jokes, but this explained his behavior in training. He was used to fighting for his life, and he’d done it without any significant training or backup.
“Sir, I did bring one other video that I think you should see.”
“More vampires?” Jack really didn’t need any more footage of them. His stomach was still trying to settle.
“No sir. This is from Airman Harris’ graduation. I only have second hand information and bad footage, but I think you need to see it.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. Finn was trying to make a point, and Jack hated that he couldn’t quite see what point he was going for. “Play it.”
Finn nodded and a new video image came up. It was so grainy that Jack could barely even make out the pixilated figures as human beings. “This footage is from the camera closest to the high school. It turns out that we poorly placed most of our surveillance. The figures on the ground are the students and parents. At the podium is the mayor of Sunnydale.”
Jack watched the silent video, edginess gnawing at his concentration. He needed to go find Danny… to go find Harris. He had no idea what to say to either of them, but he would rather have Harris safely out of Danny’s life. The video grew dark, and the color shifted as the camera switched into a low-light enhanced display. However, all Jack’s disinterest vanished when a huge snake seemed to grow out of the ground, rearing up over the school.
Finn narrated. “This is when the alarm went off. My unit mobilized, and at this point, most of us have received the alarm and we’re racing back to the base to gear up. That is the town’s major who had apparently opened a dimensional rift to allow a non-earth-based creature to enter this dimension.”
Jack studied the shifting audience. They weren’t acting like a panicked crowd. Suddenly the solid red vanished as students seemed to shed their graduation gowns. Now it was easier to see tiny individuals. Two bright flares lit up the screen as flame throwers attacked the snake. A figure dressed in white or something far too light for this fight stood up above the others, and Jack saw a hand come up, gesturing, and a chunk of the crowd started shifting. They were fighting back. He was looking at tactical maneuvers. The snake seemed to look around before striking out, and one of the pixilated people became snake food.
“Later reports suggest that Sunnydale’s mayor just ate the school principal,” Finn said.
“Well now, that’s a teenager’s favorite fantasy,” Jack said absent-mindedly. The defense had holes, but it wasn’t bad. It certainly didn’t match what Finn was suggesting, that these were kids. Jack could see clear flanking maneuvers and when new pixilated forms appeared and seemed to close in on their position, the main defensive line adjusted quickly. They’d expected the new attack.
The image on the screen froze and Riley used his light pen to circle the figure in white. He was standing on something and stood several head taller than the other forms with his dark hair only suggested by about five pixilated blocks. His white shirt made him a target for enemy fire, but it also made it easier for the troops to see him. “We have good intelligence that suggests this is Xander Harris.”
“He’s commanding the forces,” Jack said. “He’s also an idiot dressing like that in a battle. He stands out like a sore thumb.”
“I think that’s the point, sir. Harris will usually draw enemy attention. I watched him use that tactic more times than I can count.”
“Is it an intentional tactic?” General Hammond asked.
Finn considered for a moment. “I believe so, sir. He considers his fighting skills subpar, so he will often focus on opening holes in the defense for others.”
That matched what Jack had seen with the sparring session. Xander’s antics would have confused a Jaffa, and the enemy probably would have broken formation as one of them tried to chase him down. It was ironic that Teal’c considered the kid above average. Finn started the video again and suddenly the snake turned and darted into the school.
“At this point my unit had geared up and were in our vehicles, watching a live feed. We were prepared for a full-scale engagement.”
Jack could understand why. He hated goa’uld, but those snakes had nothing on this one. Suddenly the entire screen lit up, the low-light enhanced picture unable to discern anything but pure white.
“And here the entire school blows up, taking the hostile with it. By the time my men were halfway to the school, we’d received a stop and hold order.” Even as Finn spoke, the image on the screen resolved itself, and Jack could see the ruined outline and broken walls, all eerily highlighted by the fire that still raged inside the ruins of the school. There wasn’t any sign of the snake, and the enemy forces seemed to be in full retreat. Jack could still see the kid in the white shirt traveling the group, the defensive lines tightening everywhere he went. He was definitely turning Carter loose on this footage because he wanted proof as to whether or not Harris was the man in the picture.
General Hammond sounded calm as he asked, “What did they use on the school?”
“Who placed it?” Jack demanded. The damage was too localized, with the entire school demolished with not one misplaced charge taking out friendly troops as far as he could see. Someone with experience had shaped the charges before placing them.
“Harris.” Riley looked calmly at the group, even as Jack pinned him with a cold glare. No fucking way did an eighteen year old know how to handle military grade explosives, even if Jack had a pretty good idea of where Harris had gotten them. The joke about breaking into a military base didn’t really seem to be particularly funny right now.
“Captain, are you sure?” General Hammond asked. Major Warren had a thoughtful expression on his face, and Jack suspected that he was about to get a request from SG3 for a new team member. Of course, if he allowed the transfer, Daniel was going to skin him alive and leave his body for a reminder to all future military personnel about who really ran the base.
“Harris told me that placing those charges was the most terrifying moment of his life up to that point because if he was wrong, more people would die.”
More. Not people would die, but more people would die. “How many were lost?” Jack asked.
Finn gave him a cold look, one carefully devoid of any emotion. “None of them, including Harris, would ever discuss it. I only know of two, and that’s because they were close to the group. A woman named Harmony and a man named Larry both died. Harris steadfastly refused to ever discuss any details and just bringing up the names generally ended with inappropriate joking and a quick change of subject.”
And now Jack understood exactly what Finn was warning him about. Harris was more than just traumatized. He’d commanded men in the field and lost them, and none of these idiots knew how to help him through that, which would explain why he was so happy being a dishwasher. Jack remembered his first battle loss and he remembered that for a while he had desperately wished to never have any position of authority again. It was a normal reaction, but not a healthy one.
“It wasn’t his first loss, sir. The slayer once told me that Harris’ hatred for vampires came from the fact that they killed his best friend.”
“I didn’t think you needed a reason to hate vampires,” Jack pointed out, and he felt like he was trapped in a B-movie with cheesy dialogue for even letting those words past his lips.
“You don’t, sir,” Finn agreed, “but Xander was fifteen or sixteen when he had to stake a vampire wearing his best friend’s face to save someone else’s life. He went from that to being one of the main support personnel for a war on hostile forces in the area.”
Jack cringed. Great. When Daniel decided to bring home a stray puppy, he always picked the one with the biggest teeth or the most fleas. Jack wasn’t sure which of those applied to Harris. Maybe both.
“And I’m pretty sure he has suffered less psychological damage than some other members of the group, sir. They are highly isolated. My unit maintains some passive surveillance, and we are ready to render aid the moment we are asked, but there is little we can do without being a distraction.”
“Especially given your past with the slayer?” Jack guessed.
“Yes, sir,” Finn agreed without apology. “And she is suspicious enough of outsiders that any strangers offering assistance would likely be held at arm’s length.”
“Great. Clearly someone missed the mandatory inter-branch cooperation training.” Jack leaned back and closed his eyes. With Daniel involved, he’d expected FUBAR. He hadn’t expected this level of it. So, Harris was a dishwasher who could shape C4 with no discernible training and who had led untrained forces into a full battle and suffered losses with no post-mission debrief or counseling. And the people defending earth from a fucking hellgate or hellmouth or whatever Finn had called it were kids with trust issues and no backup. Jack’s life just kept getting better.
“And this slayer’s name?” General Hammond asked.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I was not cleared to reveal that information. I am only allowed to discuss the slayer, the watcher, and two individuals in support positions.”
“Harris,” Jack supplied.
“He is one of them, yes, sir.”
Jack traded concerned looks with General Hammond. If this was real, they didn’t have one front to worry about with the Stargate, they had two. And Jack would be damned before he’d let a bunch of untrained kids do their fighting or their dying for them. He was pretty sure General Hammond felt the same. The general was playing it closer to the vest, though.
“Thank you captain, dismissed,” General Hammond said. Finn went to attention and offered a salute before marching out of the briefing room, and that was one less person to worry about. However, now Jack was even more worried about Harris.
“Colonel,” General Hammond started saying, but Jack interrupted him.
“Sir, permission to go to California and knock some heads together.”
“Permission denied,” General Hammond said, but from the tone, he sympathized with Jack’s frustration. “I’m going to brief Major Benton and SG9 and handle this diplomatically. That excludes you, Colonel.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just because I tell people who stink to use deodorant,” Jack complained softly. General Hammond smiled at him.
“Colonel, go check with your team. Since Dr. Jackson has taken Airman Harris under his wing, you’re going to have to figure out how much to explain. Major Warren, SG3 will be primary backup for SG9. Get with Captain Finn and review any threat assessments he might have access to and prepare your men.”
“Yes, sir,” Major Warren said before heading out the door.
“Well, isn’t this another fine mess,” Jack said as soon as they were alone.
“It seems like it. Do you believe it?”
Jack rubbed his face again. He was too damn old for this shit. “I wish I didn’t. Every contact I reached out to warned me that I was going to find Captain Finn’s briefing impossible and that every word would be true.”
“And the NID concealed a danger to the entire planet in order to hide their involvement in human testing, kidnapping, and illegal experimentation.” General Hammond looked angry enough to shoot them on the spot. Jack suspected that the President would be getting a call later today.
“Nothing like a little vivisection between friends,” Jack said sarcastically. The NID made his skin crawl every damn time he crossed their path. The idea of a bunch of kids getting caught in the middle of an NID disaster disgusted him.
“What do you want to do about Airman Harris?” General Hammond asked.
Jack looked up at him, not sure where the general was going.
“Daniel Jackson wants him to work with the translators, a position that would fast track Harris’ promotions simply because of the responsibility involved. And if we can authenticate that footage, I have a lot more questions about his leadership potential and his training.”
“I’m more concerned about his emotional stability.”
General Hammond nodded. “I think we both understand why he’s been so determined to stay in the kitchens.”
Jack did understand. The kid was gunshy and probably carrying more guilt than he should. “It isn’t healthy.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Jack sighed. “I could point MacKenzie at him.”
“Do you think that’s the best solution?”
With a snort, Jack glared at the general.
“Talk to the boy,” Hammond said softly. “You know what he’s been through and where he is emotionally… where he’s been for over a year if Captain Finn’s dates are correct.”
Jack really didn’t feel good about Harris or his relationship with Daniel, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that the man had the strength to put one foot in front of another day after day, even after having the sort of command trauma he’d suffered. If Finn claimed that the rest were more damaged, Jack planned to make sure Daniel never stepped foot inside California again. With his luck, they’d all fall in love with Daniel and Jack would have to shoot them. Considering that he liked this slayer, that would be sad. “Is that an order, sir?” Jack asked wearily.
“Does it need to be?”
Jack pushed himself up. “No, sir, it doesn’t.”
“Go see if you can figure out where his head is, Colonel. Dismissed.”
Jack offered the general a nod before heading out of the briefing in search of Airman Xander Harris. What a mess.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
By the time Jack hit Danny’s office, he was getting frustrated, and he was the first to admit that he wasn’t the nicest when he was frustrated. However, he didn’t need to really damage his friendship with Daniel by making inappropriate comments about certain airmen sneaking off in the middle of their fucking shift to suck face.
That wouldn’t go over well.
So Jack stood in the hall outside Daniel’s office and intentionally reined in his anger. He understood Harris trying to get into to see Finn. He even had sympathy for the fact that the man had gone absent in the middle of his shift. After seeing the footage Finn had brought, Jack suspected that anything that reminded Harris of Sunnydale and the losses they’d suffered there was going to poke him a little too close to an open wound.
But the part that Jack really was having trouble forgiving was that Jack had spent forty-five minutes on a wild goose chase trying to find the man in order to offer him support. Right now, Jack wasn’t feeling supportive. And if Jack thought for one second that Staff Sergeant Powell had intentionally sent him running all over base to try and hide the fact that Harris had left his station, more than one person would be scrubbing the Stargate with a toothbrush.
Taking a deep breath, and ordering his inner asshole to stand down, Jack opened Daniel’s office door without knocking, fully prepared for anything from a tutoring session to an orgy. Instead, Daniel looked up from his computer, blinking owlishly the way he did when he’d been staring at a screen too long and he couldn’t get his eyes to focus. “Jack?” he asked. Blink. Blink. “Is something wrong?”
Jack’s gut was starting to whisper all sorts of things that might be wrong. “Daniel, tell me you know where Harris is.” Stepping into the office, he closed the door behind him. He didn’t need the whole base hearing more ammo for the rumors. Daniel sitting in the kitchens giving Harris a love-sick puppy gaze was enough to set the entire base twittering already.
“I’m not looking for Master Sergeant Kevin Harris.”
“Have you tried the kitchen?”
Jack bit back a dozen nasty words, but he did take a second to glare at Daniel. “Funny enough, but since he’s the dishwasher, that was my first stop.”
Daniel shrugged. “Then he’ll be in his quarters.”
The VIP quarters that Daniel had conveniently coopted without anyone’s permission. Jack’s headache was getting worse. “My second stop,” he pointed out.
Daniel pushed his chair back like he was going to stand, but he didn’t. He did, however, start looking a little concerned. “Did you check with Teal’c?”
“Teal’c?” Jack frowned. Harris hung out with Teal’c? No one hung out with Teal’c. Well, Jack did, but no one else did. Jack grabbed Daniel’s desk phone, still glaring as he dialed Teal’c’s quarters. This time of day, Teal’c could be anywhere, but if he didn’t have an actual assignment, he tended to either train or read really boring books. Jack was hoping he was reading books because when Teal’c trained, he could be doing anything from working out in the gym to running twenty-six floors’ worth of steps.
“Yes?” Teal’c answered.
“Hey, Teal’c, have you seen a missing Harris around there lately?”
“I have not.”
“Well, crap.” Jack hung up without explaining the whole mess to Teal’c. He had no idea how Teal’c was going to react to vampires and demons and missing demon-fighters, oh-my.
Daniel finally stood and came around the desk. “Jack, what’s going on?” Daniel had on his sooth-the-colonel voice, and Jack was too annoyed to even snap at him about it.
“Harris is a giant pain in the mik’ta,” Jack pointed out instead.
“If this is about us being together…” Daniel’s voice trailed off, but his lips were pressed together tightly. Yeah, he was ready to blow.
“Hey, I never said anything about that. I didn’t even comment on the fact that you’re making mooneyes at each other in the kitchen until the staff feels a need to comment on how cute it is. Do yourself a favor—don’t eavesdrop on the kitchen staff. You hear things you really could have lived without knowing.” Jack headed for Daniel’s couch and dropped down onto it. He really had a bad feeling about this. He’d avoided paging Harris because the general was going to be entirely too interested in why no one could find one airman who was supposed to be in a kitchen. Worse, Jack had the itching feeling that Harris wouldn’t hear it. He’d had a strange look in his eye when he’d left Finn. At the time, Jack had dismissed it as gas. However, if he considered the possibility that Harris was a soldier… a warrior already suffering more than his share of trauma… well, under those conditions, Jack would have to say that Harris looked like a man who’d just been given an order he hated but he was going to carry it out anyway. Fuck. What a mess. And Jack really didn’t like that feeling that he’d misjudged someone so entirely.
“We do not make mooneyes,” Daniel snapped with fury in his eye, and that comment was so far from Jack’s current thoughts that he had to mentally rewind the conversation to figure out what Danny was even saying.
“Keep telling yourself that, Danny,” he said wearily.
Daniel’s arms crossed over his stomach, never a good sign. “So, are you looking for Xander because you want to try and embarrass him over some rumor that isn’t even true?”
“Harris is missing.” The words hung in the air for long, heavy seconds. Daniel blinked, uncrossed his arms, did a complex maneuver of blinks and then leaned back against his desk.
“What? No. Why would he leave?”
Jack ran a hand over his face. “I think he didn’t like something Finn said. Danny, Harris is one of the good guys, but that doesn’t mean he’s some fluffy puppy. Finn brought back some footage, and Harris has done more than his share of fighting. Nasty fighting. And unless I miss my guess, something Finn said has set him off.”
Daniel shook his head. “He would have told me if he was going AWOL.”
Jack snorted. “You’re the last person he would have told.”
“Will you stop assuming that we’re just fuck-buddies, that we don’t have feelings for each other?!” Daniel pushed off of the desk with his fists curled, and for one cold second, Jack actually thought Daniel was going to take a swing.
“I’m not assuming anything other than if he really likes you, Harris is going to keep you out of the middle. He’s not going to tell you anything and that way you won’t get hurt. That’s the only thing Harris has done that I actually approve of,” Jack shouted back. He stopped, the horror on Daniel’s face enough to keep a thousand more words from falling out of his mouth. It hadn’t been all that long since Sha’re died, and Daniel’s wounds were still so raw. Jack hated that it was Harris who had slipped into such a vulnerable spot in Daniel’s psyche. Why couldn’t he fall for the nice woman who made his coffee at that horrible little coffee shop he liked? Or Walter? Walter would be perfect for Daniel… nerdy, attentive, careful with his work. But no, Daniel has to fall for the battle-weary warrior.
Shaking his head like denial could change reality, Daniel asked, “How could he get out of the mountain?”
Jack gave him a dirty look. “How do we get out of the mountain every damn time someone tries to lock us inside?”
A confused frown flashed across Daniel’s face, but he was smart enough to figure it out. They’d gotten the Nox out, they’d slipped away from Senator Dickhead after he’d shut down the ‘Gate, Teal’c and his bug DNA had gone for walkabout. Hell, they’d all taken off to go drinking and eating when Urgo had hitched a ride in their heads. For a supposedly watertight high-security base, the mountain did seem to spring a lot of leaks.
Daniel seemed to sag. He leaned back against the desk as if he needed it to hold him up. “He wouldn’t have taken off, not unless something was really wrong.”
“Then page him. Have him call your extension,” Jack said with a gesture toward the phone. He watched as Daniel started dialing.
“Did you check the bathroom?” he asked as he entered the code.
“His room, the locker-room, and the commissary bathrooms. So unless he’s standing on the toilet ignoring me when I call his name…”
“Airman Alexander Harris, call extension 17-135. Airman Harris, call 17-135.” Daniel then hung up the phone and glared at Jack like all this was his fault. Personally, Jack was blaming Finn.
“Given your mood lately, he might just do that.”
“My mood has been just fine.”
“You’re clearly using a non-standard definition of ‘fine.’ Jack, what is going on?” Daniel’s anger was starting to return.
“Your boy vanished. That’s what’s going on.”
“He’s not my boy.”
“Fine, you’re his boy. I don’t care. He’s gone. You don’t know him as well as you think, so stop assuming you understand Harris.”
“I don’t?” Daniel had one of those moments where he looked like he might swallow his own face. Jack got up to leave. He really didn’t want to make any more of a mess than he had, but the fact was, until Daniel saw that briefing, he had no idea what Harris was all about.
“Oh no.” Daniel stepped right into his path, blocking him. “I know all about him. Unlike you, he doesn’t hide every emotion behind a brick wall and an inappropriate joke. I know he was involved in several incidents at school. I know his friend was in the middle of a gang fight at the school and a library got burned down. I know he spent a lot of time fighting, and I’ll admit that I thought we were talking about gang fights, and now with the way you’re reacting, I’m thinking terrorists or NID soldiers or something, don’t you ever tell me I don’t know Xander. I know more of him in two weeks than you’ve let me see in four years.”
Daniel’s finger caught Jack in the middle of the chest, and Jack struggled to hold onto his temper. What? Should he have paraded all his pain about losing his son out in front of Daniel so Daniel didn’t feel left out? Hell, Jack felt like he’d done that already. Clearly not. “Daniel, move,” Jack said slowly. His control was slipping. He wanted to yell every insult he knew, but Daniel was not the forgiving sort, and Jack truly didn’t want to ruin this friendship.
“You just keep pushing and pushing.” Daniel’s whole body was tight with anger. This is why Jack always found it amusing when every alien they met thought Daniel would be a softer touch. Daniel was a softer touch the way cyanide was softer than a bullet. It took longer to killer you, but the results were generally messier.
“I get that way when I have imminent threats and I can’t find my damn airmen,” Jack said softly.
Daniel took a step backwards. “Imminent threats? What sort of briefing did you guys have?”
Jack snorted. “The bad sort. The sort I normally make you give to the newbies because that special brand of deer-in-the-headlights staring really isn’t attractive on anyone.”
“The… what?” All Daniel’s anger vanished under confusion. Now was the time to act before that mercurial mind remembered that he was pissed at Jack.
“I’ll explain on the way. Well, I’ll explain some. I’m making you watch Finn’s briefing PowerPoint because you’re going to accuse me of pulling a practical joke on you.” Jack got a hand around Daniel’s arm and guided him out the door.
“I can’t imagine why I’d ever suspect that,” Daniel commented in the driest tone Jack had ever heard.
“Yeah, yeah. So I’m a pain in the mik’ta. You aren’t the first to say it. However, your Harris is not as innocent as he seems, Danny.”
Daniel opened his mouth.
“I’m not saying he’s a bad guy because he’s not. The general sent me out to play nice and make friends, so you don’t have to play den mother and make the other kids like him. Actually, I think Staff Sergeant Powell likes him well enough to lie about his whereabouts.”
“He’s pretty likeable if you aren’t acting like an asshole toward him.”
Jack thought about Xander sitting in the car with that total look of pure panic, and still he was answering questions and refusing to break confidentiality about Sunnydale, even not knowing what the consequences would be. He’d stuck to his guns even when he was scared enough to look like he might vomit in Jack’s car. “He’s actually pretty likeable even if you do act like an asshole,” Jack pointed out. Jack knew a lot of soldiers who wouldn’t have held out, and Jack had the feeling Xander never would have given up one piece of information intentionally. Of course, the kid kind of ruined that by letting Buffy’s name slip out when he was talking to Finn, but Jack could blame that on a lack of training.
“He won you over. Wow. That really must have been some briefing.”
When they got to the elevator, Jack shoved Daniel in and then glared at him. “He grows on you like mold. That doesn’t mean I like him, only that he’s likeable in general. But you need to see that he’s not just some kid. Daniel, he knows explosives. He’s fought the NID, and now…” Jack waiting until the elevator doors closed and they started down before he leaned closer. “It turns out that he’s been fighting a cross-dimensional war. Apparently there’s a dimensional gate or hole or some weird thing that only Carter will be able to understand right in the middle of Sunnydale. And I suspect that Harris is heading for home.”
That sent Daniel back to blinking. “But… dimensional gate? Another dimension, that’s what the NID was investigating?”
“Would you be surprised to know that creatures from other dimensions are less than friendly?”
Daniel sighed. “No, not really. It’s hard to be an optimist in the real world.”
“Well, realistically, I think Harris has headed for home, and I only have one name, and it has to be a nickname. One of the other fighters who’s been trying to protect this thingamajig dimensional whatsit is named Buffy. Ring any bells?
"She’s one of Xander’s friends." Daniel frowned. “She’s one part of the Three Musketeers.”
“Who were soldiers,” Jack pointed out.
Daniel gave him a shit look, which was a big step up from the earlier glare of death. “I don’t think Xander would be that literal.”
“Jack, you don’t even know him.”
“Daniel, you didn’t see the footage of him leading an attack against a giant snake, and I do not mean boa constrictor size
“A what?” Blink. Blink. If the whole situation weren’t so serious, Jack would be enjoying the fact that he got to rearrange Daniel’s brain for a change. Usually, he was the one getting his brain rewired as Daniel nattered on about morals and ethics until Jack finally just gave in and saw the world his way. Most days Jack actually appreciated that because the NID’s black-and-white, good-versus-evil, do-anything-to-win perspective was attractive when you’d seen enough death. Some days he really resented having Daniel in his face all the time. So this was a nice change.
“Exactly. There’s a whole lot of unbelievable going on in this story. So, if Buffy and Harris are Aramis and Porthos, who’s their Athos?”
Daniel seemed to chew on his lip. Clearly he still didn’t trust Jack with Harris’ secrets.
“Oh for the love of God. I’m not going to kneecap him, Daniel.”
“I never said that. I just don’t want to betray him.”
The elevator opened, and Jack headed toward the general’s office with Daniel following. “Did you promise not to tell the nice Colonel about Harris’ little friends?”
“You’re really acting like an ass.”
“Harris brings it out in me.”
Daniel snorted, and somehow he seemed to communicate oh so much in that one noise. “Fine. Willow. It’s Buffy, Xander, and Willow.”
“Just Willow? No Willow Smith at 9552 West Oak Street?”
“Funny enough, I wasn’t checking for references.”
“With your luck, you should.” Jack cringed. That little insult had slipped out without permission.
“You want Ex-lax in your chocolate rations, don’t you?” Daniel retaliated, so maybe their fight was over. “And just to let you know, I’m going to Sunnydale.”
“What?” Jack stopped and whirled on him, but Daniel didn’t back up even one step. “No, no you aren’t.”
“Yes, yes I am. And since I’m a consultant and not military, you can’t order me not to.”
Jack’s imagination provided images of Daniel’s broken body in the mouth of a snake—of Daniel screaming as some vampire bit him. “It’s going to be hard to get on a plane when you’re in the brig,” he warned.
Daniel put his hands on his hips. “The guards down there know to call the general when you pull that shit. It’s not working, Jack. I’m flying out to California, so you can either make arrangements on a military flight and do all that paranoid preparation thing you love, or I can get on a commercial jet and go alone. I don’t care. I’m going.”
Jack gritted his teeth. If Danny flew commercial, he didn’t even have the right paperwork to carry his sidearm.
“I’m going with you,” Jack said, even though he didn’t have permission to leave. He’d get permission or he’d go AWOL himself, but Daniel wasn’t going to step foot in California without him.
“Deal.” Daniel smiled sweetly, and Jack realized that he’d been totally played. Daniel had just gotten everything he wanted.
“Yeah, yeah. Look, go catch Carter and get read in on this mess Harris has dropped on our laps. I’m going to get Walter to trying to track down Buffy and Willow and make arrangements for backup.”
“Backup?” Daniel seemed surprised. Normally Jack had a dozen units at the SGC who could come through the ‘Gate at a moment’s notice if he needed backup. California was going to take a little more prior planning.
“Backup,” Jack said firmly. “Go watch the briefing, and trust me, you’ll be adding M1 Abrams tanks and unmanned drones to the supply list.”
Daniel gave him an odd look, but he did turn toward Carter’s office. It looked like Jack had a mission to prepare for. Yeah, the general was going to love this.
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