Airman Harris

Chapter 14
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Xander pushed open the door to the Magic Box, not sure what to expect. Anya had been less than supportive over the whole signing up for the military gig. He really didn’t want to even consider his reaction to him just showing up, and if she ever found out he’d decided to go with the whole gay package, he was going to have to move to another dimension.

“Hello?” The shop was eerily silent. Riley had said that Joyce was sick, so maybe they were at Buffy’s house or at the hospital. Xander slipped into the shop and let the door close behind him. Maybe it was time to let his fingers do the walking. But if he called them, he wouldn’t be able to see if they were really happy to see him or if they were doing that thing where they sounded all supporto while making squinchy faces at each other.

Xander walked toward the back, and suddenly Giles came through the door to the storeroom, looking about as frazzled as Giles got, which wasn’t all that frazzled, but then he was English. The English didn’t seem to do frazzled. They did tea.

“Hey, G-man!” Xander put on his best smile to hide the crawling fear in his guts.

“Xander.” Giles stopped dead.

"Yep, it's me, back from the wars. Well, not back from them as much as back to them. Assuming you have a war here. You usually do." Xander bit down on the rest of the words. Shit. Back in town in for less than an hour and he was already babbling. Maybe it was the air.

"Wonderful. Another of these young people to whom you have trusted our most sacred duties." And a new English man came out from behind Giles.

"Um. Hey." Xander gave Giles an odd look, but either Giles was ignoring him or... or Giles was pretty much ignoring him.

"Why have we not been given access to this one?" And this faintly familiar English dude was followed by a third English dude. Either England was invading or something big was going on.

"Because he has not been in town." Giles looked at Xander with this expression like there was a stick firmly lodged up his ass. "Xander." Giles only got that expression when Buffy was in huge world-ending sorts of badness.

"I insist that we have access to all those associated with the slayer."

"Well, funny enough, I'm sort of slayer non-associated right now," Xander said. Yep, there was something majorly stinky in Denmark, and if Giles was trying to keep him out of it, Xander was assuming the stinky something was not good for Buffy. "I'm just in town to say hi and bye and maybe a couple of words between, only it seems like maybe now is not a good time."

"Unfortunately not," Giles agreed. "This is a rather serious meeting you've interrupted."

And that was Giles' way of telling him to go away, which Xander really couldn't blame him for because sometimes, just sometimes, Xander did have a habit of making serious people cranky with his endless joke-telling. Like O'Neill. Not that O'Neill was really all that serious... but he did get annoyed. Xander started backing toward the door.

"Xander! Oh Goddess. Xander!" Before Xander knew what had happened, he had an armful of Willow. Wrapping his arms around her, he lifted her into the air. This is what he wanted. He wanted to know that everyone was still safe and happy and that they loved him. "Why didn't you call us and let us know you were coming?" And that had an edge of reproach to it. Xander put her down. Yep. Willow was hiding something. He could tell because she had her Willow-hiding-something face on.

"I didn't think I needed to call before visiting my bestest girls on leave. Getting leave is the best part of being in the military, you know."

"The military!" New English guy seemed overly interested in that part. Yep, Xander had definitely accidentally stepped in something.

"Xander's in the Air Force, only I didn't think you were going to get leave for another five months. You told us five months."

"Yeah, well," Xander shrugged. "That was before there was a fire in the storeroom and I got burned and they felt guilty." Xander made a face. "Okay, maybe they didn't feel guilty, but still, they gave me some time off." Oh yeah, Xander was lying out his butt now, and either he had learned to lie a whole lot better than he used to or Willow was too distracted to notice that he was being a big old liar boy. Either way, he didn't like it. He wanted home to be homelike, not changing. And as the man who had joined the military, turned gay, and joined a big secret conspiracy to fight aliens, he did recognize the irony in that statement. "Do you want to see the scar? It's really cool. This shelf fell so it's almost a straight line. I'm thinking of telling people it was a ray gun. Whatta think? Could I convince people it's a ray gun scar?" Xander pretended to start undoing his pants.

"Xander!" Willow shrieked, and all was good with Xander's world. Yep, whatever was wrong, it wasn't so wrong that a Xander joke couldn't put all right again.

The door opened, and Xander smiled at the sight of Buffy. She looked good. Okay, she looked sweaty and kind of stained, but she made sweaty and stained look good.

"Xander?" She stopped in the doorway and swung the sword up onto her shoulder. "Is that you? Well, I'm assuming it's you unless you're a shape shifter, but what the hell, even a shape-shifter Xander hug would be welcome right now." Despite her words, Buffy didn't hesitate at all. She opened her arms and gave him a huge slayer hug that threatened to crack ribs.

"Human, here," Xander reminded her, his voice strained.

Buffy made a phfft noise. "Yeah, yeah. You always say that, but you never really break." She did, however, back off some. She smiled at him, all eye-crinkly and everything, and Xander felt his guts untangle just a little.

"You are late." Obnoxious English dude #2 took a step forward, and maybe it was seeing Buffy that made the connection finally flair to life. Travers. He was the idiot boy who had fired Giles and promoted Weasley. Great. This so wasn't a good sign.

"Yeah, I noticed." Buffy turned to face Travers, but her shoulder still brushed against Xander.

"Was there an attack?" Giles stepped forward, his voice strained, and that was not Giles asking a casual sort of 'hey, did some random vamp try and snack on you' tone of voice. Xander narrowed his eyes and studied his friends, struggling to figure out what was going on.

"Yep," Buffy agreed. Unlike Giles, she did seem pretty casual about it, and none of this was making sense. If Giles was all tangled in the panties, usually they all were.

"We can begin the review, despite the obvious omission of Alexander Harris' official statement." Travers gave Xander a look that made it clear he considered Xander a lower life form.

"There isn't gonna be a review." Buffy let the sword fall, point down, to land on the floor with a thunk and then she leaned on it. Oh yeah, she wasn't going for subtle.


"No review. No interrogation. No questions you know I can't answer. No hoops, no jumps, and no interruptions," she said fiercely when the English dweeb #3 tried to cut her off. Idiot. "Nope. I'm going home and spending time with Xander and torturing him for not being here during the whole ugly Riley breakup scene with many, many tales of woe and a couple of Indian movies."

"Excuse me?" Travers looked ready to swallow his own face.

"See ... I've had a lot of people talking at me the last few days. Everyone is just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I've finally figured out why." Buffy looked around, and Xander could feel her confidence like a creature... a big cat that prowled the room. "Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them."

Xander frowned. Who was bothered by Buffy power? Well, other than vampires, but generally none of them spent a whole lot of time discussing vampires and their needs, at least not after Xander had once asked whether a people-killing cow might be considered a slayer-cow who was going the job avenging all the hamburgers in the world.

"Glory came to my home today." There was a tiny little insecure hitch in Buffy's voice that scared the living snot out of Xander. He was snotless. Because no one made Buffy sound insecure.

Xander's reaction was nothing next to Giles' though. He looked panicked. "Buffy, are you alright?"

Buffy shrugged. "Funny enough, she wanted to talk. She told me I'm a bug, I'm a flea, she could squash me in a second." Buffy made a little squinching gesture with her fingers, and Xander tasted bile. Something big enough to talk to Buffy that way had come to her house. What the hell was going on? What sort of bizzarro world had he found where anyone got to say that to his Buffy? And why was this Glory not really really dead? Well, if she was human, that would explain the lack of deadage, but if she were human, that really didn't explain why Giles was having a very English, very quiet freakout.

"Only she wasn't big with the squashing," Buffy continued. "She came into my home, and we talked. We had what in her warped brain probably passes for a civilized conversation. Why?" Buffy looked around the room, clearly building up to her big finale. "Because she needs something from me. Because I have power over her."

Giles looked ready to polish his glasses to nothing, Travers was on the verge of a seizure, and random dweebie guy... he was just looking confused. Clearly none of them had expected Buffy's big power speech. This was her, "I am a slayer, I will not fail math" pep speech, only with some big bad taking the place of math, and no big bad had every scared Buffy as much as math.

"You guys didn't come all the way from England to determine whether or not I was good enough to be let back in. You came to beg me to let you back in. To give your jobs, your lives some semblance of meaning," Buffy said, and now she was channeling her inner Cordelia, and even gay, Xander had to admit that was a little hot.

Dweebie guy decided this was a good time to throw his two cents in. "This is beyond insolence."

Xander wasn't even a little surprised when Buffy threw the sword javelin style, embedding it about three inches in front of the guy's nose, right in the wall. Xander had a brief moment to wonder who was fixing the walls now, but before he could actually open mouth and insert foot, Buffy started going again.

"I'm fairly certain I said no interruptions. You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watchin' Masterpiece Theater. You can't stop Glory. You can't do anything with the information you have except maybe publish it in the "Everyone Thinks We're Insane-O's Home Journal."

Xander cringed. Okay, that was not exactly true. The Watchers had the assault team guys, the special forces badasses trained to take out bad slayers, so if Buffy felt the need to make fun of someone and really get her Cordelia on, there was way more going on that anyone had told him about. There was more than just a sick Joyce, that's for sure.

Buffy gave Travers the nastiest smile Xander had seen out of her since.... pretty much since ever. "So here's how it's gonna work. You're gonna tell me everything you know. Then you're gonna go away. You'll contact me if and when you have any further information about Glory. The magic shop will remain open. Mr. Giles will stay here as my official Watcher, reinstated at full salary..."

"Retroactive," Giles said with an oh-so-not-subtle cough.

"To be paid retroactively from the month he was fired. I will continue my work with the help of my friends..."

"Children," Travers said with a cold glare.

"We're talking about two very powerful witches and a thousand-year-old ex-demon." Buffy glanced up and spotted Tara and Anya watching over the balcony. Yep, they'd been smart enough to avoid ground zero of the verbal slapdown.

"Willow's a demon?!" Anya looked around shocked. Xander opened his mouth to point out that Anya was the demon and she was always very happy to embrace her demoniness, but one sharp glare from her and he shut his mouth. He'd dated her long enough to know the look that meant she was considering evisceration with a kitchen fork. What the hell was going on?

"And Xander. He's a real soldier," Willow added, wrapping herself around Xander's arm.

Buffy smiled at them, that real smile that made Xander believe that she could do anything and that she'd be his bright and shining girl forever.

"He's now our official soldier who has clocked more field time than all of you combined," Buffy agreed as she sneered at the Watchers again. Oh yeah. As soon as everyone else was gone, Xander was tickling Willow until she confessed everything or peed her pants. And since making her pee her pants would so not be safe, he was really hoping she'd tell him everything.

"So, what's it going to be?" Buffy stared at Travers. It was Buffy and Xander and Willow together against Travers and dweebie guy, and Xander could feel the power shifting.

"Your terms are acceptable," Travers finally said, all the time looking like the worst loser in the land of Loserville.

"Good." Buffy's smile returned. "So. Glory. I wanna know, what is up with her?"

"Well, yes, that is rather a prickly situation..." Travers looked so very Gilesean in that moment.

"Just tell me what kind of demon I'm fighting."

"Well, that's the thing, you see. Glory isn't a demon."

Buffy frowned. "What is she?"

Travers stood up a little straighter. "She's a god."

"Oh." That was it, Buffy dropped one "oh" into the conversation and the whole room seemed to fall silent. A god. They were fighting a god and hadn't even called him? Xander felt that hard knot like when everyone else gets picked in gym class and he was standing there with Tucker just knowing that people are about to pick Tucker over him and there's nothing he can do about it except stand there and look like a goofy idiot. They were fighting a god. Without him. And he'd talked to them. Oh, he hadn't talked to them much what with the whole attempt to keep them away from the freaky secret government conspiracy people, but he'd talked to them. They'd told him about Willow adopting a cat and Buffy breaking up with Riley, and Dawn getting caught shoplifting, but no one had thought to mention the god.

Xander had a chill go through him. What if this was an alien-type god? If this was some goa'uld, she would have ships and Jaffa and frikken staff weapons, and those things hurt. Yeah, Teal'c said that P90s were way more effective, but funny enough, they were one P90 short of any P90s unless the girls were keeping even more secrets from him. Xander could taste the bile rising up his throat.

Willow found her voice first. “A god? Like Osiris?”

Xander dearly wished he could tell them about gods like Apophis and Ra, but that would so not go over well with O’Neill, and Xander was already in enough trouble with the colonel. The way he figured it, when the colonel got his hands on Xander, he was going to strangle him before throwing him under the jail. But hopefully they wouldn’t send anyone after him until after he helped his girls. He’d worry about the mess he’d made out of his life later. Maybe he’d even send Daniel an email and offer to turn himself in as soon as he’d settled some problems at home. Yeah, and Xander had totally screwed that up, too. O’Neill was Daniel's best friend/first choice, and Xander knew that when he’d snuck out of the mountain with the garbage. But his love life didn’t compare to having a god wandering around Sunnydale.

“Okay, I know I’ve missed one or two meetings, but what the hell is going on?”

“Xander! Language!” Willow mock punched him in the arm. “Those other soldiers are a bad influence on you.”

“Airmen,” Xander corrected her automatically. "Which doesn't really matter as much as us facing a god. And can someone please provide a nice simple definition of 'god'? I mean, if her big power is getting people to come to church twice a year, that's one thing, but if we're into locust plagues and killing new born sons, I'm kinda worried."

"She hits hard," Buffy muttered, and the stone in Xander's guts got a little heavier. Buffy thought this Glory-god hit hard? Buffy wouldn't think Refrigerator Perry hit hard. Buffy made fun of Spike's attempts to hit hard, and having been the recipient of fist of Spike more than once, Xander could testify to just how hard the bleached one hit. Xander frowned, wondering where the annoying one had gotten to.

"And...??" Xander waited for someone to add more information. Unfortunately no one seemed to have a whole lot of information.

"Yes, well, I'm sure we can find something in the texts now that we know what we're looking for." Giles would have sounded more convincing if he hadn't been polishing his glasses. "But perhaps right now, you would like to spend some time with Xander. Travers and I can..." Giles let his voice trail off.

Travers still looked cranky. "I had noticed during our inventory that you have a single malt scotch."

"Yes, well, I had..." Giles sighed. "Come on, then." With that, he headed into his office, Travers and dweebie guy following.

The second the real adults were out of the room, Xander grabbed his two girls to hug them again. This time, he held on with a desperation that made his knees feel strange.

"Hey, you just gave me a hard time for inappropriate hug strength," Buffy complained, and Xander had to force himself to ease up. Tara was there, her hand going to Willow's back as she smiled at him.

"Welcome home," she offered.

Anya was right there, too. "It's about time. You know, we shouldn't have broken up before you left because long periods of time apart require gift-giving, and I would like to have a gift.”

“Considering he dumped you, that’s not going to happen,” Buffy said softly, but not softly enough.

Anya sniffed. “I dumped him, but that’s only because I know the likelihood of men putting their penises in someone else when they aren’t near their women. I will not have Xander’s penis in anyone else if he is committed to me.”

Xander smiled and opened his arm. “Ahn, I’ve missed you.”

For a second, she blinked at him, clearly confused. But then her expression softened and she came close and let him pull her into a hug. “Does this mean we’re getting back together?”

“Nope,” Xander said. Considering where his penis had been, he really didn’t need to lead Anya on. “But I’m still glad to see you.” Xander wondered how long he’d have to wait before seeing them all again. He suspected top secret prisons didn’t have visitor days. “So, now that the hugs are out of the way, what are you guys doing not telling me that you have a god running around loose?”

“Technically, we didn’t know she was a god until just now,” Willow pointed out, but when Willow started citing technicalities, Xander knew full well that they’d left him out on purpose.

“Hey, you were off doing your own thing, and we were being supportive,” Buffy said, giving Willow a hard look. Great. They’d discussed this. They’d discussed leaving him out of the loop. They were loop-excluding co-conspirators.

“By not telling me your mom was sick and you were fighting someone who hit hard?”

“I’m always fighting someone who hits hard,” Buffy said, poking him in the stomach.

“You fight people that I think hit hard. You don’t think they hit hard. The vampires around here hit you, and you laugh at them. We have vampire therapists to handle all the insecurities you cause in the undead.” Buffy was grinning, but as much as Xander loved making her laugh, that wasn’t really his point here. “But you think Glory hits hard. You think that. Which means she’s more than the average big bad, and you didn’t tell me.”

Willow pressed close. “We didn’t want you to feel like you had to give up your life to come back here.”

Xander suffered a wave of guilt. They didn’t want him to give up his life, but they’d given up theirs.

“Let’s all get something to eat, okay?” Tara suggested in the awkward silence the filled the room. Xander dropped his gaze to the floor and fought with emotions that darted through so fast that he couldn’t even put a finger on them. He couldn’t even tell if he was angry. He felt something, or many somethings, but the feelings were all like oily smoke that raced through his brain and made him feel dirty and scummy and then vanished before he could really get a handle on them.

“Food. Yeah. I could eat a couple of buckets of chicken. Or a cow. I might eat a cow,” Buffy said, and Xander found himself smiling despite the tangled web of ugly in his heart. Maybe if he just let himself get swept up by his girls, he could forget everything else. Besides, he didn’t have time to break down. They had a god to kill, and he definitely needed a briefing. When the hell had gods started using hellmouths?



Chapter 15
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"Oh my god. It's so wonderful to see you back." Willow clung to his arm like... well, like Willow.

"And buff. You definitely have some buff going for you, mister," Buffy added.

Xander raised his free arm and flexed it. "That's me, the Xan, Xan the buff dishwashing man."

Buffy looked at him sideways. "Okay, that needs work," she informed him.

"You look very good," Tara said before Xander could take offense at Buffy's rhyme-hating. "We've missed you."

"And I've missed my girls. I kept telling the guys on base that I had the three bestest girls ever, and they seemed to think I was lying. Imagine that."

"They're just jealous of your buffliness. Buffness?" Buffy shrugged.

"That they are," Xander agreed. He didn't point out that a couple of the kitchen staff were jealous of Daniel. Daniel would sit on the back counter and punctuate his lessons with stories. So one hieroglyph thingy that looked like a squadron of flying arrows came with a colorful story about a warrior king and the goddess who fell in love and out of love and a borderline inappropriate relations with a horse and no one in the kitchen would ever forget a few Akkadian words. The SGC had the only dishwashers in the Air Force who could recognize Sumerian for bestiality. And frighteningly enough, that might actually come in useful at some point, what with the way things went at the SGC. Either SGC dishwashers were really open-minded or that alien viagra thingy had really convinced everyone to have a new view of homosexuality.

"Hey!" Xander stopped. "Why are we going to the cemetery? I mean, I'm really kinda not interested in doing any more hunting."

"We have to pick up Dawn and Mom," Buffy said.

"We... what?" Xander stopped. "Has everyone gone crazy?"

"Hey!" Willow aimed a mock punch at his arm.

"I didn't swear."

"You called us crazy."

"If Buffy put her mom and Dawn in a cemetery, you are," Xander countered.

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. "I needed a safe place to hide them."

"So you put them with a vampire? Newsflash, Buffy, that's like the anti-safe."

"Xander, don't start with this again. Spike is our strongest fighter."

"Which is kinda not good considering the doesn't have a soul."

"He's protecting them." Buffy started walking fast, but before he lost sight of her face, Xander could see the stone-faced fury there. Great. Yeah, it wasn't like he could expect anything to change just because he'd gone and changed.

"He's been helpful," Willow said, but she let go of his arm, and that right there pretty much said everything. "It's not fair to make Buffy feel guilty when she's doing her best."

"I didn't mean to pull the guilt card," Xander said. "I was more going for the vampires-evil card."

"Well you missed," Willow said with an edge in her voice. She looked ahead to where Buffy was quickly outpacing them with her long, angry strides.

Xander could feel the guilt and the plain wrong wrongness clinging to him like cobwebs. Buffy was turning to Spike, only Spike was more the sort to talk someone into joining the military to get them out of the way while he set everyone else up. But on the other side, Xander wasn't here anymore. He couldn't protect his girls, and Spike had stepped up to do the protecting.

"I should--" Willow gestured toward Buffy.

"Go on," Tara urged her softly, and with that, Willow started running to catch up with Buffy and Xander was left in their shadow. Again. Maybe this was karma for all the years it was him and Jesse and Willow was left in their shadow.

"Spike truly is doing his best to help," Tara said softly.

"He doesn't have a soul." Xander considered Angel--who he also hated. "And even if he did have a soul, he still considers us food, and a lamb who goes and makes friends with a wolf... well, he has that right, but I'm still going to call it stupid."

At least Tara was nodding. It was more than Willow and Buffy would do. "He has no aura. It makes it hard for me to trust him."

Xander snorted.

Tara moved closer, and Willow and Buffy had slowed down enough that they weren't pulling ahead, but there was definitely still a distance there. "However, as much as I am cautious, I have to admit that he has acted against his own interests to protect us. Perhaps the wolf needs a pack enough that a pack of lambs is better than being alone."

Xander gritted his teeth. Spike wasn't some warm fuzzy thing to feel sympathy for. "And what about if the wolf gets really, really hungry?"

Tara pursed her lips as she thought about that. "Then we have to be ready to put it down. But until the wolf turns against the pack, the other lambs can't live in fear of their protector."

"They can if they're smart."

Tara gave him a sad smile, but Xander wasn't stupid. He did get what Tara was saying. He just didn't want to get it. It was so much easier to keep shouting from the rooftops that Spike was evil, mostly because he was. Evil. Totally evil. And having him near Dawn was enough to make Xander's gut ache.

"How bad is it?" Xander asked softly as he walked with Tara down the dimly lit cemetery path. His eyes tracked the shadows.

"Bad," Tara confirmed. "Even before we knew she was a god, we knew we were in trouble."

"I still want to know what 'god' means," Xander complained softly. If there was even one Jaffa involved, Xander was calling O'Neill, even if it turned his life into a big steaming pile of shit. O'Neill would definitely kill him, especially considering that this was going to put Daniel in a really hard position, and O'Neill really liked Daniel.

"She's powerful. She thinks we have some key that will open a door to her universe."

"Do we?"

Tara seemed to genuinely think about that. "I don't know."

"Well that's just great." Xander ran a hand over his face. He felt about a hundred years old. It was like he could fall over from age at any point. Buffy and Willow turned toward a mausoleum and Xander stopped. He really didn't need to have Spike make fun of him, not today. He felt entirely too rough. The fact that prison was looming in his near future wasn't really helping, either. Well, maybe. His sergeant in basic training had said that if anyone of the little worms wanted to run home to mommy, the Air Force wouldn't chase them. It would dishonorably discharge them with a swift kick to the ass and a big dishonorable across their records. Oddly, the sergeant had looked right at Xander when he said it. However, O'Neill wasn't nearly as nice as the drill sergeant.

Sitting on a gravestone, Xander waited for the others to come back, and Tara hovered near him. Xander wasn't sure if she was trying to make him feel better or just avoiding Spike.

"So, is anything new with you?" Tara asked as they waiting between the long shadows.

"Um. Not really. I've gotten really good at washing dishes, but only if I have a really big dishwasher with this drive-through dishwashing thing. It's actually pretty awesome."

Tara nodded and ducked her head, and Xander had the feeling that he'd given the wrong answer. Or maybe he simply felt wrong overall. That could be it.

"Xander!" Dawn squealed his name and came running over, throwing herself in Xander's arms, and Xander hugged her as hard as he could. He felt so strange in his own skin that for the length of one heartbeat, he felt like he'd never done this before, never held Dawn close as she clung to him.

Joyce followed. "Xander! Oh my. How wonderful to see you." She came over and put her hand on Xander's shoulder, and the knot of wrong unwound.

"I heard about you getting sick. I'm really sorry," Xander said.

"I'm okay now," Joyce said with a smile, but Xander could see the difference. She had tight lines around her eyes she'd never had before.

"The doctors said that?" Xander asked. He could read the awkward pause and flickering glances as easily as a comic book. The doctors hadn't said that.

"I'll be fine, Xander. It's just so nice to see you back home. And you've grown so much. I can't even believe you're the same young man who used to eat all my oatmeal cookies," Joyce said.

"Hey, that was totally Buffy," Xander pointed out. He ate a lot, but he didn't eat nearly as much as Buffy.

"Hey!" Buffy protested. "Was not." But her smile made it clear that she was teasing him.

"Can we go home now? Is that woman gone?" Joyce asked.

"Yep, all gone. Only maybe we should be a little careful for a while." Buffy added that last part after a brief pause. The problem was that Xander didn't know what it meant to be a little careful around a god. Personally, he'd like some personal armor and a P90, but he was guessing Buffy wasn't planning on being that kind of comfortable. Xander opened his mouth to ask just what she would suggest since a stake probably wasn't going to cut it around a god; however, he spotted Spike. The vampire leaned against the wall of the crypt with a cigarette hanging from his one hand as he scanned the entire cemetery like a big cat searching for prey. Yeah, Xander did not plan on trusting the bleached one.

"Spike, would you like to come over?" Joyce called. Xander watched Dawn's face light up, and his mood darkened even more. Spike lazily finished his scan before looking over. He glanced at Joyce before his gaze caught Xander.

"No thank you, luv. I've got some business of my own."

Joyce gave him one of her mom-smiles, and Xander’s jealousy found whole new levels of unhappy. "Oh, well then, I hope we can continue our conversation later."

"Oh god, remind me to not be in the same room," Dawn complained. "They like the same stupid show." Dawn pulled away from Xander and rolled her eyes in an elaborate pattern. “Do you know what it’s like to listen to them talking about some stupid soap?”

"I can't wait until I can start embarrassing you in front of your friends," Joyce said dryly.

"You already do," Dawn countered.

Xander grinned. This was familiar, and he had missed it enough that he could even overlook the fact that the others were including Spike, which was still creepy in his book.

"Dawn, that isn't nice," Willow hissed as though being not-nice were the worst thing in the world. It was all so normal. Xander listened to the banter as they all headed back to Buffy's house. The group moved slow, but Joyce still seemed to be out of breath by the time they turned onto the street where Buffy lived. Dawn had migrated to Xander's side, chatting about boys and how much all her teachers hated her. Willow and Tara walked hand in hand and Buffy came up the rear, walking at her mother's side. Xander could imagine that the Air Force was a dream, no more real than his soldier memories from that Halloween night. His girls were his world, and surrounded by them, Xander couldn’t care about anything else. That lasted all the way up to the point when a dark figure separated from the trees lining the street.

Immediately, Buffy moved forward with Tara and Willow sliding back to stand in front of Xander and Dawn. Until this moment, he’d never really noticed that the others always put him in the most sheltered position. Yeah, he was the normal one, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t fought his share of battles. Besides, this was his fight. It had come a little quicker than he expected, but he’d known that he would have to face it at some point.

“Colonel O’Neill,” Xander said as he detoured around Buffy. He tried to sound friendly, like he was happy someone had come to arrest him. But happy was better than running because then O’Neill would chase him and Buffy would take O’Neill down, and it would be one big mess.

“Harris.” Oh yeah, O’Neill sounded all kinds of pissed. Hoping for some help in defusing the situation, Xander searched the shadows, but there wasn’t a Daniel in sight. Xander definitely expected the worst. He really needed to get these two groups away from each other before some seriously badness happened to someone who wasn’t him.

“Hey, maybe we could go talk… oh, I don’t know… somewhere else?” Xander gave his goofiest grin, but O’Neill’s eyes just narrowed.

“Xander?” Joyce asked. Xander could hear the shifting behind him as Joyce moved forward.

Okay, introduce the adults and hope the rest of the problem disappeared on its own—that was Xander’s new plan. “Joyce, this is Colonel O’Neill, who is technically my boss. Colonel O’Neill, this is Joyce Summers, the mother of a friend.” Xander didn’t introduce anyone else, as he stepped closer to O’Neill. His guts were so heavy that he could actually feel his stomach squeeze into one small, tight ball of fear. He thought he’d have more time. “We probably need to go,” Xander said as he gestured down the street, praying that O’Neill would just let him exit stage left with a little bit of dignity left.

“Your commanding officer came to California?” Joyce asked, and Xander found himself really wishing that Joyce was just a little bit less smart.

“And his friend is definitely setting off the wiggins,” Buffy said. Xander looked over his shoulder, and Buffy was eyeing Teal’c with her slaying look.

“Hey, no. He’s a friend,” Xander said as he quickly moved to block her. “He’s teaching me how to not get my ass kicked, which is good.” Xander figured it come in handy in jail. Shit. He really thought he’d have time to help Buffy deal with whatever she’d been hiding from Riley before he had to face this music. “But this isn’t the time or place to discuss my amazing skills at ass kickage. I bet the guys need to get back to their hotel.” Xander gave O’Neill a hopeful look.

“Nope. We’re good,” O’Neill said. Xander’s heart dropped. Shit, that was the colonel’s amused face—the one he made before he did something really embarrassing… like break into Daniel’s apartment to listen to Daniel and Xander have sex. Xander really hated that look.

“So,” O’Neill said with that annoyingly playful tone. “Nice little town you folks have here. The costume party theme is a little unusual, but then I never have gone for the whole knights of the round table look. Should you really let people run around with swords? Personally, I’d ask city hall to pass an ordinance about that if I were you.”

“What?” Xander frowned.

“You ran into guys with swords?” Buffy definitely sounded guarded.

“Yeah, you betcha. Interesting lot. Not a lot upstairs,” O’Neill said tapping his head, “but at least I don’t feel like the strangest guest at the party around here. I wouldn’t suggest asking for the slayer if you meet them, however. They have a very limited sense of humor.”

Xander cringed. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, and one more fuck for good measure, and that was a lot of fucks for someone who normally avoided that word.

“Slayer?” Buffy’s voice was brittle and Xander could almost feel her fury stabbing out of those words. Behind him, he could hear feet shifting, but it was like watching a car accident—Xander couldn’t take his eyes off O’Neill and Buffy.

“Yep,” O’Neill said, still as cheerful as ever. “Well, Finn didn’t tell us which of you was the slayer, but I’m guessing you,” O’Neill said as he looked right at Buffy. “You look like a woman who would blow up the NID, and as someone who has wanted to do that for decades, congratulations. I don’t suppose you kept video, did you?”

Xander watched as O’Neill managed to do something a legion of teachers, hordes of vampires and her mother had all failed to do: he left Buffy speechless.

O’Neill shrugged. “Between Finn’s stories and Xander here going AWOL, I had to assume there was something interesting going on in town. I was hoping you wanted to blow up more NID bases because I have to tell you, I’m feeling a little cranky that no one called me for that party.”

“You didn’t come to arrest me?” The words blurted out of Xander before his brain could do a common sense check; however, the gasps from the girls reminded him that he was supposed to hide that fact.

O’Neill turned his attention toward Xander. “If I was here to arrest you for going AWOL, I would have a couple of airmen with me. Colonels don’t do that sort of paperwork. Besides, Danny would never forgive me and I’d have to listen to him complain for the next decade.” About the time Xander had decided he’d dodged the metaphorical bullet, O’Neill’s expression turned hard. “However, you will face the consequences of that action, clear airman?”

“Yes, sir,” Xander agreed.

“Wait,” Buffy moved to Xander’s side. “What are you talking about? AWOL? Consequences? What is going on?”

O’Neill turned his back to them and headed for the front steps, sitting down like he was some neighbor who’d come over to chat. Teal’c, however, continued to be very Teal’c like in his corner of the yard. “It turns out that Harris didn’t have permission to leave, but something Finn said sent him running. You feel like sharing with the class, Harris?” O’Neill asked.

“My Finn? Riley Finn?” Buffy hadn’t sounded this confused since the Russian revolution in tenth grade.

O’Neill leaned back. “Yep. Harris’ hometown set off a few alarm bells in our background search, and when I went poking around, I found Finn. We have some mutual acquaintances since we’re in the same line of work.”

“Is that supposed to be some sort of subtle hint, because if it is, you need to be way less subtle,” Buffy suggested.

For a second, O’Neill considered her. Xander held his breath as the two parts of his world collided, and then O’Neill shrugged and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “I’m special ops. I’ve been doing the sort of work Finn’s in for a long time, although generally I go up against humans. Yeah. I know about the hellgate. Now, did I expect to hear that we have some sort of gate to hell in the middle of California?” O’Neill tilted his head. “Actually, if you’re going to have a gate to hell, having it in California makes some sense. But trust me, I did not appreciate the fact that the NID kept that little secret to itself.”

Xander watched as the Sunnydale group shifted. The others maneuvered Dawn and Joyce to the far side of the porch, away from O’Neill and Teal’c while Tara stood near them, and Willow took a position halfway between Buffy and the others. Xander stood next to Buffy, not because this was his place but because he really didn’t want any slaying. On either side.

“What do you want?” Buffy demanded.

“World peace, a really good chicken wing and time to catch up on all my taped episodes of The Simpson,” O’Neill said with a straight face. Yeah, he was feeling amused, and Xander did not trust an amused Colonel O’Neill. Clearly Buffy didn’t either because she crossed her arms and didn’t move.

Sighing, O’Neill stood up. “Look, I’m not the diplomatic one. Usually someone else does the meet and greet; however, since my favorite meet and greet scientist is stupidly in love with Harris, I pointed out that his biases made him a liability in the field.”

“Ouch,” Xander whispered as he imagined how that conversation had gone over.

“Xander, you’re in love?” And that was Willow, always focusing on the happily ever after ending, even in the middle of imminent disaster.

However, O’Neill’s glare made it clear that he wasn’t all that amused. “You will pay for every moment of misery I endured,” he warned Xander before focusing back on Buffy. “Summers, right?” Buffy nodded.

“Summers, I’m a fighter, and I get the feeling there’s a fight to be had here. Either that or your friends are displaying an unhealthy level of paranoia. So, what I want is a clear idea of what you need help fighting, a clear chain of command with the understanding that Harris reports to me, and a clear requisition order. I get the feeling you have a serious battle brewing here, but I can’t tell if you need P90s and flak jackets or unmanned drones and Javelin anti-tank missiles. The paperwork you have to fill out for anti-tank missiles…” O’Neill whistled as he held up his fingers to measure out an inch or so. “Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t get you those Javelins if you need them, but right now, I’m flying in the dark, and I hate flying in the dark unless I have some really good instruments and a co-pilot I trust.”

“You’re offering me weapons?”

O’Neill shrugged. “Do you have a clear idea of who we’re supposed to be shooting at?”

Buffy didn’t answer, but Willow inched closer. “Buffy, maybe they could help. You said it, we don’t have the firepower to take her down.”

“Her?” O’Neill pounced on the word.

Buffy looked around, her eyes finally settling on Teal’c. “He’s not all human.”

“Nope,” O’Neill agreed without offering any other explanation.

Xander could feel the lines of power draw tight as each side pulled back, each holding their secrets. Xander swallowed around the lump in his throat and forced the words out through his fear—fear of court-martial, fear of losing his friends or disappointing people or prison. But his fears didn’t matter in the face of his girls being in real danger.

“A god has targeted them. She thinks they can help her open a door to her dimension, and apparently she has some godly powers of indestruction,” Xander blurted out before he could chicken out.

“Xander!” The punch Buffy aimed at his arm was hard enough to leave a bruise.

“A god?” O’Neill’s eyebrows went up. “Well, crap. You couldn’t settle for vampires and the soul-sucking NID, could you? Okay, so you’re the expert here, Summers. How do you fight a god in this neck of the woods?”

“You don’t. I do.” Buffy said fiercely, “You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t know anything. I’m the slayer. This god, she can come to my town and made a lot of noise. She can play her psychological games and annoy me with her ability to recover from a punch and questionable fashion sense. But in the end, I’m going to take her down just like I’ve taken down every threat that has ever come to town. That’s my destiny. Slayers have been guarding hellmouths since the beginning of time. Literally. So you don’t come in here and play soldier-boy.”

Xander braced himself for the explosion.

“I wasn’t planning to. That’s where a clear chain of command comes in,” O’Neill agreed with an easy shrug, and Xander was so shocked that he could almost feel his balance wobble.

“So, you’re the slayer and you’re in command. I’m here to provide tactical support wherever you need it, so I’m going to repeat myself… do you want sidearms, explosives, automatic weaponry or the really good stuff? Personally, I find blowing up gods particularly effective, but this is your turf, and you know the rules.

“But before that, Harris and I need to have a little talk about our own chain of command and where he fits on it. So you discuss your tactical needs and decide where we can provide support. Teal’c and I are experts in shooting things, and we have a good comedy act on the side if that helps, but I also brought a linguist who doubles as my diplomatic officer and a technology expert who can turn two paperclips into a cell phone. So you figure out where you could use those sorts of resources, and I’ll get in touch tomorrow.”

O’Neill reached out and caught Xander’s arm, pulling him close before shoving him toward the street. Then Buffy caught Xander’s other arm, and Xander definitely felt like the stick in a tug of war between two really scary dogs.

“Leave Xander alone,” Buffy warned. Weirdly, Xander chose that moment to realize that Tara, Dawn and Joyce were gone. He supposed they had gone to safer ground. And Joyce had painted the shutters. Xander knew full well that his brain was doing the crack-monkey on a gerbil wheel thing, but trying to focus would mean focusing on two people he liked in a showdown over him, and that was more than he could handle.

“Airman Harris is a member of the military and under my command. Any disciplinary action he faces for his desertion is not part of your turf.” O’Neill didn’t wait for an answer before striking down the walk toward the street. For a second, Buffy held on, and Xander’s arms developed bruises before she let go, allowing O’Neill to pull him out toward the street.

Xander almost felt like some thread connecting him to the others snapped at that point. They couldn’t protect him, no matter how much they wanted to. And he’d done all this to protect them, and he couldn’t do that, either. This wall separated them, and Xander wasn’t sure if the wall was called the Air Force or growing older or growing apart or a simple case of not knowing how to help. However, something rose up, and Xander could feel a door close on his life. And worse, Xander really had no idea what sort of trouble he was in; he only knew that it wasn’t in his control to fix any of this. Whatever O’Neill wanted to do, Xander didn’t have the strength—not the emotional strength or the legal right—to stop him. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.


Chapter 16
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Looking at Harris now, Jack wondered how he had missed all the signs. The kid was a chameleon. Either that or Jack was getting too old to do a proper assessment. Harris was sweating, his eyes on the ground like he thought he was walking to the grave, yet his eyes kept darting around, and when Jack walked too close, there was a tenseness, a borderline panic that Jack recognized.

He glanced back at Teal'c who had their six. "We clear?" Jack asked. He really did not want to get surprised by any more sword-wielding idiots. Actually, they'd been fairly nice nutballs until Jack had made some quip about the slayer, and then they had lost their minds. Those three should be waking up from the zats any time now, but Jack didn't have the manpower to manage prisoners, so he couldn't do anything about it.

"We are," Teal'c assured him.

Jack nodded and pulled out his phone. He suspected this conversation wasn't going to go well, and he wanted to make sure they didn't get interrupted by any more drama. He hadn't been joking about one thing--he definitely wasn't the strangest person in this very odd little town.

The phone rang on the other end, and Danny picked up within a second. "Did you find him?"

"Yes, I found him," Jack said as calmly as he could. He hadn't seen Daniel this worked up since the snakeheads had taken Sha're, so any thoughts that this was a sex-induced infatuation had pretty much vanished. "And yes he's fine, and yes, he's in trouble, and no, I'm not going to just ignore this, and no, you can't come rescue him from the big bad colonel," Jack added before Daniel could even ask the questions. The man was predictable.

"Jack." The harsh tone made it perfectly clear that Daniel was reaching a breaking point, but Jack had been dealing with Daniel and his breaking points for years. They weren't as nerve-wracking as they used to be.

"Daniel," Jack shot back in the exact same tone.

"He's a kid, Jack."

Jack doubted that Harris had been a kid for a very long time, but he wasn't about to debate Daniel over the phone. A wise soldier knew when he was outgunned and he retreated.

"I will handle this. You and Carter join us at the secondary site in the morning."

"The morning?" And that was a Daniel-squawk, a sure sign that Daniel was about to start swearing in obscure languages.

"Yes, the morning," Jack said firmly. The conversation he needed to have with Xander wouldn't be pretty, but the boil needed to be lanced. Daniel, however, would try wrapping Harris up in cotton and protecting him, which was exactly the wrong tactic to take. "Daniel," Jack said in a softer tone, "trust me."

The silence at the other end spoke of fear and of a certain disbelief that Jack could handle things diplomatically. Jack did appreciate the irony that Daniel was judging Jack based on a facade Jack deliberately constructed. He could do diplomacy. If he couldn't, he wouldn't have risen through the ranks. However, he'd had others betray him often enough that he didn't like to do diplomacy because his trust levels were a little unpredictable. Harris wasn't the only one with battle scars that were more emotional than physical.

"Don't do anything to hurt him," Daniel finally warned him. Jack sighed. That really was the last thing on his mind, but given the way Harris was flinching at shadows, achieving that goal wouldn't be easy. So Jack just closed the phone without answering. Daniel would torture him for it later, but right now, Jack didn't have any reassurances.

"Let's head for the hotel. Harris, are there any particularly dangerous corners between here and the Griffin hotel?"

"All of them?" Harris said with a derisive snort. That answered one of Jack's questions--Harris was damaged enough that he couldn't rank relative danger. All dangers appeared extreme. Part of Jack wanted to file the paperwork for an honorable discharge and put the man in therapy. God knows that's exactly what MacKenzie would do.

"Teal'c, take point. Harris, stay sharp. If we have more adversaries on the field, I really don't want to end up dead. I'd never hear the end of it from the general." Pulling his weapon, Jack held it out for Harris.

Harris looked at him with alarm. Yep, that was alarm. His gaze darted down to the weapon, up to Jack's face, down to the weapon. He was going to pull an eye muscle at this rate.

"Go on. I know you passed your small arms test with flying colors. Just do me a favor and avoid shooting any bystanders. It's hell on the paperwork." Jack lifted the weapon, and slowly Harris reached for it. From the kid's scores, Jack trusted him to hit what he aimed at. From the raging case of PTSD, he really did worry that Harris might startle at some six year old and shoot her. But with active enemies on the field and only three of them, Jack wasn't about to disarm one-third of his forces.

"Stakes work better. Vampires don't really care about getting shot. Well, they do, but it's more of a 'hey, you shot me, you bloody idiot' sort of way," Harris said, his humor starting to reassert itself. Harris had a strong core in him, even if the edges were fraying a bit.

Teal'c spoke up, his calmness probably doing more good that Jack's irreverence would at this point. "I have little experience with vampires. What vulnerabilities should I target, Xander Harris?"

Xander shifted his grip on the weapon and tucked it into a pocket as he straightened up. "Knees and eyes. If they can't see you, they're pretty much helpless, and without knees, they are definitely not up to chasing you. Despite popular mythology, they do not turn into bats."

"Sounds like solid strategy," Jack agreed. "And we have enough tree limbs around here to finish the job. Why would vampires live around all these trees? I would think New York City would be a lot more comfortable for people with a wood allergy."

"Yeah, well don't expect them to be all that bright. We had a big bad around here once who liked psychological torture. His big thing was to kill Willow's fish. It was really sad."

Jack didn't answer, but it did reassure him a little. If these kids had to fight on their own, at least they weren't fighting Apophis or Ra levels of evil.

"Of course then there's the Master who actually killed Buffy and I had to bring her back with CPR, but it turned out that he was so old that he could be resurrected from his bones, and normally vampires don't leave bones behind, so that was different. This whole group of vampires pretty much kidnapped everyone to use them in a ritual sacrifice."

And there went all of Jack's reassurance. Crap.

"But Buffy saved the day. She does that a lot. She's one of the oldest slayers ever, you know." Harris kept right on talking, but Jack and Teal'c exchanged their own concerned looks. Summers was a baby, in Jack's book. She was barely out of high school, and compared with him or Teal'c, she couldn't even be considered full grown, but Harris said she was one of the oldest slayers. Soldiers and airmen and sailors that age fought every day, but they did it under the protection of older, more experienced fighters who would protect them from their own mistakes. Whatever fucked up situation had developed here, Jack was making it a personal mission to make sure that it ended here and now.

"Finn thinks highly of her," Jack said carefully. The written briefing Finn had provided made it abundantly clear that Summers was competent, irreverent, and damn hard to kill. It was a good combination. It also suggested that she was oblivious to certain military truths in life, and after seeing Harris in his native environment, Jack agreed. Harris screamed PTSD. The red-head looked pretty damn twitchy, too. Although oddly, Summers was alert without giving any of the panicky signs of someone on hyperalert. The dynamics here were more than Jack could make sense out of.

"Riley was a good guy. Okay, so he started on the wrong side and he was a little clueless with the whole unconditional trust of the military thing, but he was a good guy, and he made Buffy happy. She deserved a little happiness after all the not-happy she's gotten. And on the subject of Buffy not-happiness, I'm pretty sure that the doctors didn't clear Joyce to leave the hospital, and she's going to kill me for saying that, but I'm worried about her."

"That's Buffy's mom?" Jack asked.

Harris nodded.

"Why would she take her mom out of the hospital if she wasn't ready?"

That got another snort. "Oh, you have no idea the things that wander the Sunnydale Memorial Hospital. Vampires go there for bagged blood, there are ghosts in the halls and sometimes the nasty sorts of demons hunt there for easy prey. When Buffy was deathly sick, she had to fight this creepy guy who could turn himself invisible... sort of... but anyway, he fed on sick children, sucking out their lifeforce. If you get shot in town, I would really recommend just letting it bleed until you can get back to LA."

Jack's threat assessment nerve was twitching, and he was starting to wonder if Harris was hypervigilant or just being reasonably afraid given how strange this town was.

"If we need to, we can use the Army base."

"I wouldn't," Harris warned. "That's the place where I pretty much took whatever weapons I wanted and then there was the case of the vampire master who tried setting up a nest inside the base using a couple of officers he turned into childer, and it was a big mess and Buffy complained for a week that she tore her pants on the barbed wire, climbing it when the base alarm went off. And considering that we live in town, we really shouldn't have been that hard to find, but no one came looking."

Jack rubbed a hand over his face. "Great. The police?"

"They usually try to arrest Buffy."

Jack was starting to think the whole town should be bulldozed. A tactical nuclear strike might be the best option. Unfortunately, the higher-ups frowned on nuking their own world, and wasn't that ironic considering how quickly they decided to nuke Abydos?

"SG3 is on call, and I think I'll call," Jack said wearily. He had expected fucked up, but this exceeded even his levels of pessimism.

Teal'c reached the drive to the Griffin hotel and stood in the drive on full alert. In any other town, a giant black man at full military alert in the middle of a driveway would catch some attention. Here, no one even seemed to notice.

"We have rooms 403 and 405," Jack said as he urged Harris to keep walking. Jack wasn't surprised at the flinch when his hand touched Harris' shoulder.

"Only two rooms?" Harris sounded on the verge of hyperventilating. Jack suspected that he was afraid of being trapped in the same room, of being penned in. Too fucking bad. The boil needed to be lanced before a discharge was the only option available.

"Never divide your forced when you're outnumbered, which, given the circumstances is always."

"You and Teal'c left Daniel and Carter behind," Harris pointed out. For someone who liked to play dumb, the kid was too sharp for his own good.

"Well funny enough, I thought we were in friendly territory."

And Harris answered with another snort.

"You know, a lot commanding officers don't appreciate the attitude, Harris."

"Pretty much none of them do," Harris answered. So the kid knew he was annoying, and he kept it up. Either he really didn't care or Jack could add self-destructive to the list of symptoms. After that, they fell silent as they rode the elevator up, Teal'c standing between them and the doors as though they were in enemy territory, but then Jack had that same feeling. Sunnydale definitely didn't give off the warm and fuzzy vibes.

They reached the rooms with Teal'c peeling off to room 403 while Jack pulled Harris toward 405. They'd already swept the room, set up their own security and unlocked the connecting door; however, Jack still moved into the darkened room on full alert, checking the steadily blinking beacon for confirmation that they were the first life forms to enter the room since he and Teal'c had left.

"You want to give me my sidearm back?" Jack asked. Harris handed it over without a second thought, so he definitely wasn't planning to try and fight his way out of any messes. If he was, he'd be smart to make a move while Teal'c was in the other room. "You have any weapons of your own?" Jack asked, just to be sure. Harris shook his head, and Jack tended to believe him. He also thought that wandering around Sunnydale unarmed was about as self-destructive as anything he'd ever seen a serviceman do.

"Where's Daniel?" Harris asked as Jack turned on the lights and gave two knocks on the connecting door to let Teal'c know his side was secure. One knock answered him. All clear.

"He's at the Seaside Inn about forty minutes outside of town. You have any stories about that place?"

Harris shook his head. "Most of the bad guys stick close to town because the hellmouth is under the old school."

"The one you blew up?" Jack clarified.

Harris looked at him with eyes so wide that Jack could see the whites around them.

"Riley told you?"

"Riley showed me," Jack corrected him. "The footage was pretty grainy, but it gave me a fairly good idea of what went on at graduation. The snake as a nice touch. Blowing it up was even better."

Harris started breathing faster. "Look, Colonel, I know you don’t like me."

"Don’t tell me how I feel, Harris," Jack said, cutting him off. He had no idea was was in Harris' mind, but it was wrong. Jack may not want to like Harris, but he had to respect a man with the balls to pull off what Harris had.

"Okay. You have an expression on your face that makes you look like you just stepped on a bug whenever I get too close. See? I didn’t mention your feelings at all." Xander gave a totally insincere grin.

"Yeah, well looking in a mirror is never pretty, especially not at my age," Jack pointed out dryly. He was actually starting to have a little sympathy for the many commanders he'd annoyed with irreverent humor.

"What?” Harris was confused out of his self-hate.

"You. I saw the footage from your graduation. That was a military action."

Harris shrugged like the whole incident was nothing. "Stuff happens."

"Stuff?" If Harris really thought that a full-scale military maneuver with resulting casualties was stuff, he was insane. However, Jack suspected that Harris was just avoiding the real meat of the subject to avoid feeling the pain.

"Yep." Harris turned around and headed for the window. Sweeping back the curtains with his hand, he looked outside. A little voice in Jack's head screamed about sharpshooters and backlit targets, but everything he'd read suggested that sharpshooters weren't part of the problem here, so he ignored that crawling fear in his own gut.

"Like friends dying when they’re following your orders?" Jack asked. It was time to lance this boil before Harris put another numbing layer on top. Right now he might feel raw, but Jack needed him to feel a whole lot more.

Harris whirled around. "Hey, I am not the sort to give orders."

Jack sat carefully on the edge of the bed, watching Harris' body language. A man could only be pushed so far before he snapped, and Jack wasn't fool enough to discount Harris' abilities. Teal'c thought enough to train him, and Harris was half his age, so Jack wasn't discounting him as a threat. "Buffy might be the general, but you were the one on the field directing the action," Jack pointed out.

"You’ve confused me with someone competent." Harris gave a pained laugh.

"You’re right that the man on that field was competent," Jack said mildly. Harris' body had tightened up like an overwound spring, and Jack could almost hear the cracking as the facade started to slip. "From a military perspective, I can say that the man on that field managed to meet a superior force, handle a flanking maneuver from a new enemy on the field and keep his troops in formation the whole time." The compliment might be true, but it wouldn't make Harris feel better. When people complimented an action, it felt like a slap in the face, every damn time. Jack knew that feeling all too well. If he was so damn good, why had people died? Yeah, Jack knew exactly how Harris would hear his words. Sure enough, Harris turned an alarming shade of white.

"And yet people died."

"People do that," Jack agreed. It was cold comfort, but he wouldn't lie to Harris.

"Yeah. So I hear." Harris backed up until his pressed himself to the dresser before going for a quick change of subject. "Look, if you’re going to arrest me for desertion, I’m not even going to fight the charge, but you make sure that Buffy has backup. She doesn’t ask for help, not even when she needs it, and Giles spends all his time explaining exactly why the slayer has to handle everything. And I am not suggesting you can take over because I don’t care how many aliens you fought, you don’t have her instincts or her prophetic dreams or her weird ability to quip and asskick at the same time. You can’t do her job, but she can’t do it without help, and everyone always tells her that she shouldn’t need help. It’s killing her, and it’s killing Willow because she’s pushing herself way too hard just so that Buffy isn’t out there alone."

Jack blew out a breath. Okay, the kid surprised him. He hadn't expected that much insight out of someone eighteen or nineteen years old. Xander might play stupid, but he had a better handle on the truth than Finn had given him credit for, and Finn had clearly liked him. "You want to be arrested, don’t you?" Jack asked.

Harris jerked as though hit by an electric charge. "What? No. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I’m not looking forward to bending over in the shower for my soap."

"If you were in a cell, you wouldn’t be responsible for any of this," Jack pointed out.

Harris was quick to spit out his response. "You’re full of shit." However, Jack could see the shadowed doubts in Xander's eyes. He didn't know if he wanted to be arrested or not. He was at least considering his own illogical reactions.

"You’re so caught between wanting to run away and wanting to back up Buffy and protect her from her own mistakes that you can’t see straight. I bet there are nights that you wake up in a cold sweat, terrified that you’ve forgotten something. You look at people and you find yourself constantly trying to figure out if they’re a danger, and when you catch yourself doing it, you try to stop. But when you stop, you feel this cold panic like the woman who just passed you in the cereal aisle is going to turn around and shoot you in the back."

"What? No." Harris might have insight, but he was clearly the worst liar Jack had ever met.

"You suck at lying, Harris."

"I don’t… I’m not the one who has to carry the weight of being the one girl in all the world."

"Hey, maybe she’s even more screwed up. I haven’t talked to her enough to know for sure. But right now, I know that you’re falling apart. Have you gotten to the stage where you start looking at alcohol and wondering if it would dull some of the pain? That’s the next step, you know.”

Harris stared at him with a barely disguised panic raging just below the surface.

"Harris, do you really think you’re the only man to be this fucked up? Hell, after my first tour in Iraq, I couldn’t sleep in the same room with my wife because I’d wake up and panic at the feeling of another person touching me. It took a lot of therapy for me to get over that, and I was older than you. I was older, and I had officer training behind me, so I knew what to expect. I knew the psychological toll of war, and even that couldn’t protect me from feeling it."

"You couldn’t sleep with her?" Harris' voice came out thin and strained, like he was struggling to even speak or maybe he was struggling to not scream. Jack had been both places as he tried to get his own balance back.

"Nope. That happen to you?" Jack asked softly. This wasn't some raw recruit doing something stupid, like going AWOL to visit a girl. This was a battle weary soldier with too much pain to make any sort of rational decision. And it didn't escape Jack's attention that Harris' instinct had been to run for the war, not away from it. He just ran for the war he knew.

Harris gave a reluctant nod. “I moved into my basement because when my mom would get up to go to the bathroom, I would panic and think that someone had gotten in the house or that she’d been turned. I would spend the rest of the night checking the locks and clutching a cross."

"That’s normal, Xander."

The explosion came, but Harris stormed across the room instead of attacking. Jack leaped up to keep Harris from running out into the hall, but Harris reversed direction and ended up back at the window, his body trembling. "How can that be normal? I feel like I’m always waiting for the next person to try and kill me."

"Let me tell you something Captain Finn said."

"Great," Harris said, self-hate coloring his voice. "I bet he said I was a real basket case."

"He said you were traumatized. You didn’t have the support you needed to fight this battle. He also said you were less damaged than anyone else in your group." Jack was really hoping that he was dead wrong on that. If Harris was the least damaged, they were going to need a whole squadron of psychiatrists. However, Jack suspected that Harris had effectively hidden a lot of this damage from his friends. The fact that he had hidden it from a field commander with training in psychology didn't say much about Finn's skills, though. A kid should not be able to bluff an officer.

"God, I hope that’s not true. If they’re more damaged than me, we have a problem," Harris whispered, his voice utterly defeated.

"The only problem is if you don’t get help, Harris."

"I don’t…. I can’t….” Harris lost the pattern of breathing and seemed to flail for a moment.

"You can, Xander. It’s hard. It’s hard facing your psychological demons, but that’s what we do in the military. We face them."

Harris rubbed his eyes even though Jack couldn't see any actual tears. Yet.

"Who died that day at graduation?"

Harris stopped breathing.

“Just one. Remembering won’t change anything, and it can’t hurt you unless you let it, unless you lock it up and let it fester. Come on, Airman, cough up a name. Who died?”

“Larry.” The name seemed to slip out without Harris' permission, and the moment he said it, Harris just froze. The guilt almost leaked from him, and Jack so wished he could pull out every bad memory and toss it away, but that's not how it worked. Xander had to find a way through this pain. And he'd have to find a way over and over and over until he figured out how to have a life without the pain ruling him. Jack waited, not sure how Xander would react and he really didn't want to get punched.

A wordless cry followed, and Xander seemed to crumple to the ground. Jack darted forward, trying to catch Xander's head, but it thunked against the dresser with a hollow sound. However, the second Jack touched him, Xander grabbed his shirt, the raw desperation circling like a low-lying fog. Jack caught Xander by the back of the neck and pulled him close, holding him as tight as he could, but Xander still clung like he was afraid someone was going to pull him away. After the first cry, Xander fell silent, but Jack could feel the trembling ripping through his body. His breathing turned ragged and then the real tears came.

Jack ached for him. He'd spent his own time trying so hard to push his pain way. He'd wanted to die after losing his son. But his pain wasn't Xander's and he couldn't do anything to dull Xander's pain. He could only hold on as Xander struggled to feel everything he'd spend years trying to avoid.

The connecting door opened, and Jack looked up as Teal'c stood in the doorway, silently watching. He had no censure on his face, but he stood as a mute witness as Xander's cries gradually faded. It took over an hour, but eventually the stiff muscles and hard tremors faded until Xander lay limp in Jack's arms, either asleep or too worn out to keep grieving. Jack didn't fool himself. This was the first step in a long journey. But at least Harris had the balls to start down it. Plenty of men could never face their own fears.

"You want to give me a hand?" Jack asked softly. Teal'c moved into the room, a silent shadow as he walked over and knelt down to scoop Harris up. Harris was really out of it. His eyes didn't even flicker as Teal'c lifted him and took him into the other room.

Jack sat on the floor feeling nearly as exhausted himself. Watching Harris fight through all the pain made his own wounds feel more raw than they had in a while. Losing people. It wasn't easy. And the officers for whom it became easy weren't worth their spit. Mostly, those bastards joined the NID.

Teal'c reappeared at the connecting door, and Jack made a production of standing with his stiff knees. Usually he was exaggerating when he talked about his old legs, but Xander had put his weight onto Jack's left leg, and he had a raging case of pins and needles. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jack rubbed his sore leg.

"He has endured much," Teal'c commented.


Teal'c nodded but he didn't say anything more. Jack figured that neither of them needed to talk about it because both of them had seen their share of men struggling to carry the emotional burdens the world required them to carry. Really, Daniel should have found someone with fewer scars.


Chapter 17
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander woke on the bed, not sure how he got there. All his clothes were on, so Daniel hadn’t been involved. Sitting up, Xander cradled his head in his hands and tried to think through the pain. His head ached and his whole body had that recovering-from-the-flu achiness that made him want to pull the covers over his head and ignore the world.

“Here, coffee.” O’Neill shoved a cup at him, and Xander jumped, startled that he hadn’t seen him coming. O’Neill didn’t comment, he just continued to hold the cup out.

“Thanks.” Xander took it and sipped slowly as memories crowded back in. He wondered how you handled crying on your commanding officer half the night. Yep, military protocol class left out all sorts of situations.

“You feel better?” O'Neill asked.

Xander had to think about that for a second. “Yes, sir. I just feel exhausted.”

"Good. That means your body is finally coming down off full alert."

"Just in time for a big Armageddon. Yea," Xander said tonelessly. Oddly, he couldn’t even come up with the energy to care about that.

O'Neill leaned against the hotel dresser. "SG3 is inbound. They were holding at Vanderburg waiting for us to call them in. Trust me, the world is not going to end on my watch."

Xander pushed himself up. "But you aren’t taking over from Buffy, are you?” Xander’s heart started to pound faster because pushing Buffy out of the slaying business was a really good way to make things go really, really wrong, really, really fast.

"Nope," O'Neill said. "She’s the general, and that’s fine. She knows the territory, and if the NID and Initiative reports are right, she’s hardwired into the demon community. We’ll follow her lead as long as she doesn’t give an illegal order."

Xander thought he should have some sort of comment about her being hardwired into the demon community because that sounded so not right, but he was too tired to really care. The fact that O’Neill wasn’t taking over was enough to make him a little happier.

"Daniel is worried about you,” O’Neill commented. “I told him you needed a night to really stand down and that he needed to give you some space. I love him, but sometimes Daniel pushes when he needs to back off."

Xander cringed at the idea of Daniel having seen him the night before. Yeah, there was pathetic and then there was having your lover see you cry like a baby on his best friend. "Having him see me cry on my commanding officer, yeah, not really something on my list of things to do before I die," Xander admitted. It was as close as he could come to thanking O'Neill. This whole situation was so uncomfortable that Xander really wanted to just run away.

"That wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Losing someone is hard, losing someone in your command is so much harder that you can’t even explain the pain to someone who hasn’t felt it. You knew Larry well, didn’t you?”

Xander expected the sword through the guts at Larry’s name, but it was only a dagger that caught him just under the ribs. He carefully set the coffee to the side. He remembered driving on his big road trip, screaming his rage about all the deaths—screaming Larry’s name. But since then, he’d grown used to editing Larry and Harmony and all the others out of his reality. “We grew up together,” Xander said, the sorrow washing over him. “He always bullied me, all the way up into high school. I hated him, only then in high school he came out as gay and suddenly I could see how much he’d been afraid his whole life that people would pick on him. When I tried to rally everyone for the graduation day fight, Larry was the first one to stand by my side. He would have been a good man."

"He was a good man, and he died fighting for what he believed in, just the same as you and I would do if the time came," O'Neill corrected him.

Xander studied the pattern on the bedspread. "It was my fault, sir."

"No,” O’Neill said firmly, “it was the enemy’s fault. You just feel that way because you’re a good fighter, and you always want to find a way to do your job better. Sometimes there isn’t a way to avoid casualties, and the only thing we can do is respect their memories."

Xander blinked as his brain rewired. That sounded unexpectedly supportive. "Huh."


"You’re looking at me without that just stepped on a bug expression," Xander pointed out.

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Hell, Harris. It isn’t you that disgusts me. It’s this situation. Kids aren’t prepared for this sort of war, and what the Watchers do is unforgivable. Fine, a slayer is called at fifteen. So protect her, train her, give her the sort of psychological training she’s going to need to fight the long battle. Teach her to be a leader and make sure she has backup that respects her skills. It’s not like I never worked with a translator or a local guide who was young enough to be in high school. We have troops capable of doing that without stepping all over her paranormal toes. But your Watcher friends dumped you in the middle of a war without any help and then didn’t notice that you had a raging case of post-traumatic stress." O’Neill definitely sounded cranky.

"Okay, the world is a little tippy-tilty again."

"Oh, why?"

Xander thought about that for a second. "Because Giles is supposed to be the know-everything man, and it sounds like you’re calling him an idiot."

"Because I am,” O’Neill said dryly. “He might know demons, but I know fighters."

Xander frowned at the cheap hotel bedspread and thought about that. "I'm not sure that's true, sir. Well, not that I'm saying you don't know your fighters because you.... Hell." Xander just stopped when he realized he was digging the hole deeper.

O'Neill looked surprised, but at least he didn't shoot Xander down. Instead he moved to the corner and settled into the chair on the far side of the second bed. "Airman?" O’Neill’s voice made it pretty clear that he expected a little clarification.

"You know normal fighters, sir." Xander tried again. He looked up to see if the colonel was on the verge of telling him to shut up. Oddly, he looked amused.

"Well, yeah,” O’Neill shrugged. “Although Danny would debate you on the normal part."

Xander scratched his throat. It had an odd itchiness he couldn’t seem to reach. "Buffy is kind of my bright and shining girl, you know?" he said, carefully picking his words, which wasn’t easy because normally he just let words fall out of his mouth without edit. Boot camp had helped fix that, though.

"Your first crush?" O'Neill guessed.

"Yes, sir, but that's not it. No matter what happened, she bounced back. She came through all shiny and bright when anyone else would have been destroyed."

"That doesn't mean she isn't damaged," O'Neill said softly.

"Yes, sir, I know that. But I also know Buffy. Like that guy I told you about with the dead fish?"

Leaning back in his chair, O'Neill seemed to be taking Xander a lot more seriously than Xander expected. "The big bad?"

Xander snorted. "Angelus the kinda sorta bad. Oh, he was totally a badass in the past, only he was the sort of bullying badass that ate nuns, and I'm thinking that it doesn't take a whole lot of impressive badassery to kill nuns. I mean, it's not like they fight back. What? They're going to pray you to death?"

"He sounds less than impressive," O'Neill commented.

"Thank you." Xander threw his hands up. He found Angel way less than impressive most of the time. Now the whole dark brooding hotly muscled part--yeah, Xander was totally intimidated and jealous of Angel's body. He just didn't think much of the personality in it.

"But before he went back to his soulless and fish-killing ways, he had this soul that got cursed on him and he was dating Buffy."

O'Neill's disgusted scrunchy face made Xander feel a whole lot better than he wanted to admit. "She was dating a murdering vampire?"

"She kept pointing out he was a reformed murdering vampire, only then his lost his soul and he went back to murdering, and there she was having to kick her ex-lover's ass, and trust me, Angel was playing all sorts of head games with Buffy over the fact that they'd done the horizontal mambo."

"I'm starting to wonder how any of you survived this long," O'Neill said wearily.

"But that's it. Buffy had to send Angel to hell, only she did it after he actually got his soul back. There was a demon and a portal and all sorts of world-ending fun, but the point is that Angel had turned back into the annoyingly soulful boyfriend, sir. He was back to being Buffy's Angel, and she had to send him to hell to stop the world from getting sucked into a vortex."

O'Neill rubbed his hand over his face and leaned back in the chair. "And now I’m thinking about how many psychiatrists I can get here by tomorrow."

"That's it, sir. She doesn't need one. She sent Angel to hell, and then he came back, and there was yelling and screaming involved, mostly because she figured out that I had kinda lied to her to get her to fight her hardest." O'Neill gave him a weird look. "I kind of implied that there was no chance of getting the soul back, sir."

"Sweet. That went over well, didn't it?"

"Oh yeah." Xander cringed just remembering that fight. "But then Buffy forgave, and she really forgave. Like she still shoved popcorn down my shirt while we watched Indian movies and she still loved Angel when he came back from hell and she was totally sad when Angel moved away, but it was sort of a normal girl sad, not a 'I doomed my lover to a century of hell' sort of sad. And when Riley came around, she fell in love. She didn't spend all her time wondering if he was evil or if she was doomed. Hell, Willow and I spent more time worrying about that stuff than she did. I'm pretty sure she doesn't worry even when she should. And I don't know if that's a Buffy thing or a slayer thing, but I'm pretty sure you can't blame Giles for ignoring the psychological damage because I'm pretty sure that Buffy doesn't have any more screws loose than a normal teenager."

O’Neill took a deep breath and seemed to let that soak in, and having officers listen to him was definitely a new experience in Xander’s book.

“The human body can’t go on forever, Harris. We wear down. And if we’re always in danger, we wear out. You were worn out, but you were too damn stubborn to admit it. I’ve been worn down to nothing. Even Teal’c has had his days. You’re assuming your Buffy is such a bright and shining girl that she can carry everything alone.”

O’Neill’s words made Xander really stop and think. “I don’t think she can carry everything. Her first year… there was this prophesy that said she would die, and Giles kinda told her that she couldn’t get out of it. She was so…” Xander struggled to come up with a word. Sad didn’t cover it. Not even hopeless came close. It was like she’d lost her light, and Xander remembered the pure panic in his heart, the absolute belief that if her light went out, the rest of them were doomed.

“How did she win the fight, then?”

“She didn’t.” Xander gave a small smile. “The Master killed her. Only he drowned her and I’d had CPR in sixth grade. I was actually pretty good at it. It turned out that the prophesy hadn’t said anything about her coming back. So I know she has her breaking point, but it isn’t the same as ours.”

Pursing his lips, O’Neill seemed to think about that. “I’ll take it under advisement. Meanwhile, you have pushed yourself far beyond your reserves. We’re doing some simple recon and trying to get a feel for the field. I need you stay here and do some recuperating.”

“I didn’t feel worn out, sir, not until this morning,” Xander said in way of an apology. He wanted to be out there in the fight, but O’Neill was right that he felt so utterly exhausted that he didn’t know how to get out of bed. Oh, he could if something slimy or demonic came through the door, but even if there was an entire Twinkie convention eight feet past his hotel door, he still wouldn’t find the energy to crawl out of bed. And for him, that was saying something.

“And that’s the healthiest thing I’ve heard you say yet. I might not have to hate you, after all.” O’Neill stood up and headed for the door.


“Airman?” O’Neill stood with a hand on the doorknob.

Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Xander asked the one question he couldn’t have faced yesterday. “Could I have done something different?” he blurted out. “At graduation, was there something I could have done to cover that one side better?” Xander wanted the quick answer, the easy ‘no,’ the promise that he had done everything right and nothing was his fault. Instead O’Neill seemed to take some time to think.

“It’s hard to tell from the video. There weren’t any obvious mistakes, and given who you had to work with, I’m amazed at how well you did,” he finally offered. “I would have called the maneuver a success with regrettable losses.”

Xander pressed his lips together. He wanted to beg O’Neill for some sort of promise that he was telling the truth. Xander needed that so much.

“When you’re feeling better, we’re definitely going to talk about where you learned to shape C4,” O’Neill said with an edge of threat to his voice.

Xander huffed, the threat somehow pulling him away from all those fears. He had done that right—he knew that for sure. He’d watched that building go up, and of all the things he regretted from that day, he’d known he couldn’t have placed one ounce of explosive in a better postion. “I told Giles it was a fertilizer bomb,” he admitted. He hadn’t wanted Giles worrying about just how often Xander had broken into the local Army base.

“Now I know the man’s an idiot,” O’Neill said dryly. “If that had been a fertilizer bomb, you would have had collateral damage for half a mile. That was too controlled for anything other than C4. I just can’t figure out how you learned to shape it without blowing yourself up.”

Xander shrugged. “Long story. Long unbelievable story featuring magical uniforms and a seriously hacked off chaos mage.”

“I hate this town.”

“Yeah, most people do.”

“I wonder why,” O’Neill said sarcastically. “Look, Danny’s going to kill me and hide the body if I don’t let him in here, and I need to go play nice with Summers so we can form some sort of alliance here, so I’ll see you tonight.”

“Oh,” Xander sat straight up, panic slamming into him. “Public buildings. Public buildings have no protection from vampires. They don’t need an invitation to come in here.”

“Understood, Airman. We have our defensive perimeter set up around this entire floor, and SG3 is bringing in heavy duty sun lamps.”

The fear that had closed in around Xander’s heart eased as he realized that O’Neill really did have it under control. With one final look as though waiting for Xander to panic about something else, O’Neill turned and headed out of the hotel room. However, before the door could close, Daniel pushed it back open. Daniel stood in the open doorway, glasses a little askew and his face lined with worry. Xander could feel tears threaten again as he saw the concern on his lover’s face.

“Oh god this is stupid,” Xander said as he raised a hand to wipe tears away. Daniel came in, letting the door close behind him, and while Xander was still trying to get his emotions back under control, Daniel settled in on the bed, pulling Xander close in a desperate hug.

Xander said,“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you everything.”

“No. Xander, I should have known. You didn’t hide anything, even if you didn’t tell me anything, either.” Daniel’s arms tightened, and Xander hugged Daniel back, holding on for dear life as his whole life seemed to crumble around him. “It’s okay,” Daniel muttered over and over, and each time, Xander could feel the emotions rise and his tears force their way out, despite his every effort. “I promise it’s okay.” This time the tears came easier. For a man who didn’t like to cry, Xander felt like it was all he could do anymore. Luckily Daniel didn’t mind crying, snotty lovers because he just held on even harder.


Chapter 18
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander sighed his way to consciousness, stiffening when he felt a warm body next to his or under his maybe. He was definitely laying on something warm.

"Good morning."

Xander blinked and realized that Daniel was in the bed, a book in hand, and Xander had managed to half sprawl over his lap. Crap. He'd fallen asleep crying. Again.

"Alex, can I take embarrassing for three hundred?" Xander joked as he rolled away and rubbed his tired eyes.

"Hey, you don't need to be embarrassed. I've cried more than I really want to admit, and about half the time, I've cried on Jack. For someone who claims to not know where to find an emotion, he's better than more of my therapists."

Xander looked over his shoulder, bothered by the idea of Daniel hurting enough to go to a therapist. "Dr. Therapist O'Neill?"

Daniel laughed. "Yeah, don't say that to him." With that, Daniel turned serious. "I cried on him when Sha're died. I cried on him after a woman who liked me got me addicted to the sarcophagus and I nearly killed my whole team. I got drunk and slobbered all over him after Hathor chose me to father a whole generation of goa'uld larvae."

Xander frowned. "So you cry on Jack any time a woman is involved? And can I say that I never thought I would ever meet someone with as many issues with women as I have. I'm surprised we didn't turn gay years ago."

Daniel gave a small smile. "Two days ago, I would have assumed you were joking. You never were, were you? It was all true."

"Hey, the truth makes the best joke," Xander said with a shrug. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you." Stones gathered in Xander's stomach when he thought about how many times he'd let Daniel make untrue assumptions.

"Actually, I think you told me more than I was willing to hear. So, you have a bad history with women?" Daniel put the book on the side table, and scooted down so that he was lying next to Xander, his hand coming to rest on Xander's hip.

Rolling onto his back, Xander stared at the ceiling. "Oh yeah. Although my bug lady didn't actually get any babies out of me." Xander wondered what it would feel like to look at monsters and know they were your children. It wasn't a pleasant thought. It was almost as unpleasant as thinking about how Hathor got the DNA. "What happened to the... larvae," Xander asked, stopping himself before he could say children.

"They caught fire in the fight."

"Oh. That's..." Xander stopped. Was that a good or a bad thing?

"Yeah," Daniel agreed. "I don’t know how I felt about it, either. Well, other than the fact that I was bothered enough to get truly drunk, and that's not exactly normal for me. So, you had a bug lady, too?"

Xander shrugged. "It didn't get to larvae stage. She was a teacher only, she was a praying mantis teacher and she wanted virgin flesh, and at the time I was kinda virginish."

"A teacher? Your school hired a praying mantis teacher?" Daniel looked alarmed.

"Yep. Welcome to the Hellmouth, although in the school board's defense, she didn't look like a bug when she came to school. She turned buglike only after she had me in a cage in her basement."

Daniel's face scrunched up. "And you were how old?"

"Um. Sixteen? Maybe?"

Daniel sighed. "I'm officially creeped out. But that does explain why you don't act like a nineteen year old. I guess you grew up fast. Young men on Abydos were like that. They were men by fourteen and running their own flocks by sixteen, but I tend to think of America as being better than that, as protecting their children and providing a more prolonged period of adolescence."

"Around here, it's sort of every person for themselves, and getting eaten is a real possibility," Xander admitted. It felt strange to admit that to someone from outside the group. Xander wondered just how pissed Buffy and Willow would be when they got him in private. Or Giles. Giles was going to want to kill him, and not a nice, clean, quick sort of death.

"Well, you're not on your own now," Daniel promised softly.

"Wow. I did make it sound like I was alone, didn't I?" Xander frowned. "I wasn’t. I always had the girls. Buffy's the one who showed up before the teacher could bite my head off. And she showed up when I was dating a mummy who came back to life by sucking lifeforce, and Angel saved me from a case of strangulation from Faith, but I'm not admitting that because I don't like Angel, and I don't like thinking about how he caught me in a very embarrassing situation. But I wasn't alone. I couldn't have done any of it alone. And maybe there at the end I felt a little aloneish, but that was my fault as much as anyone's." Xander closed his eyes and thought about how alone and lost he'd felt after high school. He'd been stupid to believe Spike, but he'd really thought the girls didn't need him--didn't want him. Even now, he could feel the threads of pain as he remembered. "I got tangled up and I didn't know how to tell them I felt lost."

"Then I'll have to remember to tell you how much I want you around all the time."

Xander opened his eyes when Daniel's fingers slipped under the hem of his shirt. Considering how unsure Daniel had been last time they'd been in bed together, Xander was surprised at how direct Daniel was being. Happy, but surprised. "You aren't upset about the secrets or the demons or anything?" He asked warily.

Daniel rolled closer, and now his leg pressed against Xander's thigh. "I’m really upset about demons and anything covers a lot of territory, but I'm not upset at you. If anything, I'm feeling a need to show you how much I want you to feel like you belong here. Because you do." Daniel shimmied his body and inched up so that he could lean closer and kiss Xander on the lips. "You survived Jack's version of supportive, and he hasn't scared you off, so you definitely fit in."

"I haven't brushed my teeth," Xander said self-consciously. Anya always hated it when he kissed her without brushing his teeth first.

"I lived on a planet with no running water for a year. I'm fine with it." Daniel sounded almost amused. "And you keep changing the subject, so I'm going to keep telling you that you belong until you believe it and you don't change the subject." Daniel pressed another soft kiss on Xander's mouth, cutting off his protest. And then Daniel's hand slid down, fingers questing under the waistband of Xander's pants.

"Okay. That wouldn't be a bad thing." Xander arched his back and sucked air through his teeth as Daniel's clever fingers quested deeper down into his pants.

"I hope not." Daniel peppered kisses down the side of Xander's neck. Bringing his hand up to Daniel's shoulder, Xander tried to pull Daniel closer, but the man was stronger than he looked.

"Shhhh. Let me," Daniel whispered. Daniel shifted his weight so he was straddling one of Xander's legs, pinning him down. Xander groaned as talented fingers worked his jeans open and allowed Xander's hard cock to press upward. Teasing him, Daniel ran a finger over the cloth covered cock, and Xander arched his back and groaned.

"Oh God."

"Nope, just me," Daniel joked. Xander might have had a comeback, but Daniel slipped his hand inside Xander's underwear and fisted his cock. Xander clutched Daniel's shoulder, his body hot and sweat gathering where skin touched skin. Still, Daniel moved with painful slowness. He kissed down Xander's neck, unbuttoning one button at a time while kissing the newly exposed skin with such reverence that Xander squirmed. He should be doing something. He should be returning the soft touches so that Daniel got something out of this, but when he reached up to do that. Daniel would twist out of the way, his body undulating as he moved down Xander's torso, exposing him.

Once Xander’s shirt was fully open, Daniel moved back up. Resting his palm against Xander’s cheek, he looked into Xander’s eyes, and Xander wondered what Daniel saw. Some days Xander wondered if people couldn’t see all the cracks and the fears right under the surface—if they couldn’t look in his eyes and trace the damage. But then Daniel shifted so he straddled Xander’s body and leaned close for another soft kiss, only Xander returned it. He pulled Daniel closer until the kiss turned feverish and fervent.

Daniel pressed his body closer, his hands cradling Xander’s face as he started to rock gently forward. Xander opened his mouth, and their tongues met before Daniel finally pulled back. He was panting, his fair skin blushed a shade of pink, and Xander could feel his own body give off heat. “You are beautiful and I want you more than anything.” After that, Daniel squirmed backwards so that he could suck at the hollow of Xander’s neck before murmuring endearments in at least two different languages. The words drifted over Xander as he squirmed and arched his body. His cock was throbbing, but Daniel let his hands and mouth slowly graze across his body as he inched downward. He didn’t even inch… he centimetered downward. He milimetered downward, and Xander was panting by the time Daniel kissed the soft skin right below Xander’s belly button.

Then Daniel mouthed Xander’s cock through his cotton undershirt—the sucking sound obscene in the silence of the room. Sweaty palms slid up Xander’s hips and sides, and Xander reached down and grabbed Daniel’s wrists, determined to pull him closer for another kiss, but then Daniel shifted, sucking at the head of Xander’s cock, and Xander cried out and threw his hands to the side to clutch at the edges of the mattress. If he didn’t, he was going to fly apart and lose gravity and do something stupid like slip off the earth altogether.

Daniel took the opportunity to pull Xander’s underwear down and shimmy out of his own shirt, tossing it aside. In the silence, Xander could hear his own labored breathing, and he tried to sit up, he tried to be a good lover and return the favor by touching Daniel everywhere until the man lost all ability to think. But hot hands pushed him back down, and then Daniel’s mouth was on his cock, sucking urgently. Daniel hummed, sending shivers through Xander’s whole body.

“I… oh… crap. Daniel…” Xander flailed as he tried to warn Daniel or hold his orgasm or something, but he came with a wave of pleasure that made every muscle stiffen as he cried out. He came in Daniel’s mouth.

Daniel gentled his sucking, but he continued to mouth Xander’s cock as it softened. Xander trembled, his whole body worn as if he’d just run a marathon, but at least he could think straight. Propping himself up on one elbow, he reached down and caught Daniel’s arm, urging him to come closer.

“Did I make my point?” Daniel teased.

“Um. I don’t know. I had brain leakage pretty early on,” Xander pointed out. “And you weren’t speaking English.”

Daniel gave him a dirty look, and Xander grinned as he reached down to unbutton Daniel’s pants. “Hey, unless you’re speaking English or writing it out in Sumerian or Akkadian, I’m pretty much done. I didn’t even pass high school Spanish.”

Daniel settled onto his back when Xander pressed against his shoulder and now Xander could push Daniel’s pants open. For a second, he considered teasing Daniel the way Daniel had teased him, but Daniel’s cock already looked painfully hard, and his underwear had a spot where the precome had soaked into the cotton. Taking pity on him, Xander slipped a hand down into Daniel’s underwear and started carefully stroking him.

Xander didn’t have any oil, and friction burns on the penis was a bad idea—something Xander had learned firsthand—so he moved slowly, gently rubbing the hard cock and letting Daniel set the pace as he started thrusting up. Reaching down farther, Xander let his fingers explore the shape of Daniel’s hairy balls, his fingertips exploring the shape and size of them before he shifted his hand and ran a thumb over the top of Daniel’s cock. Daniel’s expression twisted into grotesque shapes and then he came, his come caught between Xander’s hand and the underwear.

Daniel was panting, his eyes mostly closed so that Xander could only see the barest line of blue. It matched his pink skin nicely. Settling down next to Daniel, Xander wiped his hand on the sheet and made a mental note to tip the maid big time.

As the minutes passed, Xander lay with his arm over Daniel’s bare stomach, sweat gathering between them and their legs tangled. “I do want you,” Daniel said softly. “You screwed up by taking off, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t belong. I’ve never seen anyone fit in so fast.”

Xander figured that probably had more to do with the fact that the base loved Daniel. As far as the support staff was concerned, he was the little brother—the absent-minded professor they had to take food to or he’d forget to eat—he was the mad scientist who stayed up all night saving the world. Although that last one was Carter too, but Major Carter didn’t really come off as little-sisterish to anyone with the possible exception of Teal’c who probably thought of all of them as ridiculously young.

It was a long time before Daniel spoke again. “I don’t think you can do this job without crying. Without hurting,” he said softly.

“I really wish I could not know that, but I think I figured it out already,” Xander admitted. He angled his face so he could smell the soap from Daniel’s hair and the coffee-musk of his body. Even if he’d only known Daniel a short time, there was something familiar about those smells, something that helped the knot of fears in his stomach unwind. Daniel reached up to run his fingers through Xander’s hair.

“On Abydos… I encouraged them to unbury the gate, which is how the planet came under attack. I thought I could have everything—that I could explore everywhere, and I never thought about what might look back in at me. And I’ve studied history. I know that explorers always meet indigenous forces, many of whom are not exactly happy to be explored, but still—” Daniel let his voice trail off. Guilt climbed into the bed with them.

“I led teenagers into a fight they had no business fighting because I couldn’t figure out who to trust,” Xander said quietly. “The police were the bad guys and most of the adults were either blind or making a profit off demons, so I gave up trying to get anyone to help. And part of me knew that I should get help. I have these memories from a magic spell, memories of being an Army officer, and part of me knew that I needed backup, and I still didn’t get it.”

“We’re a pair,” Daniel said softly. For a long time, they lay in the silence with fingers exploring tiny islands of skin. Daniel threaded his fingers through Xander’s hair, his thumb brushing over his forehead, and Xander let his hand trail over Daniel’s side and the perfect angle of his hipbone.

“I’m glad we can talk about this.” Daniel moved his hand up to rest on Xander’s chest, and Xander tightened his hold around Daniel’s waist. “I get it, you know. Oh, Jack is always telling me I don’t understand, but I know you’re hurting even if I can’t understand your specific genus and species of hurt.”

Xander smiled at Daniel. “Hey, I figure no one knows anyone else’s pain. When I was younger, I thought I understood Buffy’s whole tortured love thing because I had tortured love for Cordelia, only then I figured I really had tortured lust, not love.” Xander sighed. “I’m not good at explaining, but I guess it comes down to the fact that I figure if I found someone who doesn’t mind me falling apart, I’ll hang on to him. And it kinda helps that I love his sense of humor and his loyalty and the way he says things I don’t understand during sex, which by definition means I’m not supposed to be listening and taking notes. Having someone give a list of appropriate birthday gifts during sex… it’s distracting.”

Daniel laughed and shook his head. “As long as you realize I’m going to fall apart at some point, too,” he then warned.

“Yep. It’s a sort of tit for tat thing, only without any working tits,” Xander agreed.

Daniel snorted with laughter so explosively that he sprayed spit.

“Say it, don’t spray it,” Xander quipped.

“God, I’m in love with a twelve year old,” Daniel complained, but he did it in a fond tone of voice.

Xander shrugged. “Everyone has their flaws. Apparently immaturity and post-traumatic stress are mine.”

“Obsessive behaviors, an utter inability to recognize social signals and abandonment issues are mine,” Daniel offered up.

“Then we definitely need to stay together and save the rest of the universe from a really bad relationship, huh?”

“That’s logical,” Daniel agreed. When he chuckled, Xander could feel the breath against the small hairs of his arm.

Again, a silence fell over them, and Xander let his fingers drift north, exploring the shape of Daniel’s chest and a tight, hard nipple. This was comfortable. But as much as Xander wanted to curl up inside this one moment and never come out again, he had to deal with life.

“If I don’t call Buffy and let her know I’m okay, she’s going to make O’Neill’s life miserable,” Xander mused.

Daniel didn’t answer right away, but the fingers that had been playing with Xander’s hair paused. “Do you want me to leave?”

“Actually, I was hoping that you’d stick around in case I decided to have another crying jag.”

Daniel’s fingers started stroking him again. “I can do that.”

Even though Xander knew he should get the phone and start making calls before Buffy had a chance to make her own assumptions, he hesitated. This moment was perfect. No Air Force, no demons, just him and Daniel in a bed together. This little cowardly part of Xander just wanted to live inside this instant; however, since he couldn’t, he rolled away from Daniel and grabbed the phone. As he dialed, he felt Daniel press up against his back and Daniel’s arm slipped around Xander’s waist. He could do this. He could face Buffy. At least, he could on the phone.


Chapter 19
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xander swung his feet around so they were on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Where are you going?" Daniel sounded alarmed. Xander was guessing that O'Neill had given him the whole speech about how Xander was damaged and shouldn't be going anywhere. Xander would get upset, only the colonel was right. He could feel his blood like molasses and even sitting up took more effort than it should.

"No one is answering the phone, not at Buffy's or Willow's,” Xander said.

"If there's trouble, we can call Jack." Daniel put his hand on Xander's back, and the concern--the love and the worry--they almost soaked into Xander's skin. He looked over his shoulder and smiled.

"My friends aren't answering their phones. My friends who are worried about me and think I can't take care of myself. My friends who have magic that can be used to track me down." Xander waited as those facts filtered through Daniel’s oversized brain.

Daniel's eyes widened. "Right. I'll get dressed." Daniel practically scrambled out of his side of the bed, and Xander searched the covers for his own clothes. "You know," Daniel commented, "our friends are really annoying."

Xander snorted. "You don't know the half of it."

"Hey, my best friend dragged you out of the house without your shoes and did a good impression of the Gestapo while he was at it."

"And my best friends are probably going to threaten you with a shovel," Xander countered. He stopped as something occurred to him. "Do you think everyone has that one homicidal friend tucked somewhere in their past?"

"I don't know, but if they do, I'll bet our homicidal friends can beat their homicidal friends." Daniel gave him a smile that looked almost shy, and Xander laughed as he pushed his arms into his shirt.

"Well, you're safe as long as they don't start talking magic. If Willow offers to do a spell, and eventually she will, say 'no.' I mean, no matter how much it seems like it would be really cool to get rid of a little acne with some wand waving, it is just not worth it. Oh... and don't suggest witches use wands or ride brooms or anything. For Willow, it's her religion and she's about as willing to joke about it as your average Southern Baptist is to make Jesus crucifixion jokes."

Daniel gave him an odd look. "I'll keep that in mind. But while we're issuing warnings, be careful mentioning magic at all around Carter. She keeps talking about how sufficiently advanced technology just appears to be magic and talking about all the cases we've seen and then she breaks down into mumbling about alternate realities and the possibilities of alternate rules of physics. But what it really comes down to is that you shouldn't mention it until she has a chance to observe, measure, quantify and adjust."


"Oh yeah. She's not a happy camper." Daniel sat in the chair and pulled on his socks. "Now, I think she's going to be in rapture once she can quantify the science. From her point of view, this is an entirely new field, so she's going to start obsessing over delineating the basic rules of alternative physics, but until then, avoidance is the safest route."

Daniel was back to using words Xander didn't know, but he could get the gist of Carter cranky. "So, no setting Carter and Willow up on a blind date?" Xander asked as he realized both women were into other women.

"What? No." Daniel almost choked on his tongue.

"But Teal'c said that Major Carter and Dr. Fraiser...."

"No." Daniel held up a hand to stop Xander. "I am choosing to live in denial. Don't say it."

Xander frowned. These were Daniel's friends, so he knew them best, but Xander thought they made a pretty good couple, assuming they were staying together after the effects of the alien viagra wore off. "Don't you think they're right for each other?"

Pulling on a shoe, Daniel shrugged. "Good for each other, yes. Good for the entire male species--probably not. Sam has some stories from basic and even from the university that go a long way toward proving we have a sexist, misogynistic culture, and if you get Janet going on the subject of her ex-husband, it's even worse. Those two could convince each other that men aren't worth the oxygen they breathe and they have the skills to pretty much wipe us off the earth and start a new Amazon race."

"You... you're not serious, are you?"

Daniel tied off his laces and frowned at Xander. "Of course not. I just don't really want to talk about one of my best friends and sex. I've spent years teaching myself how to not see Sam as a woman, and I would rather avoid undoing all that work. Did you really think I was serious?"

Xander thought about that for a second. "My best friend was computer dating someone who turned out to be a demon locked in a computer, and my other best friend dated someone who lost his soul and tried to suck us all into hell, so having a best friend try to destroy all the men would actually... it'd be normal," Xander finished with a shrug.

"And here I thought I had the strangest job in the universe," Daniel muttered.

"Job implies I was paid for it. Trust me, it was not a job." Xander just about stood on his head as he searched under the bed for a missing shoe.

"That's just depressing. So, how long do you think it will take your friends to get here?" Daniel was dressed in a light blue pullover shirt that made his blue eyes stand out. What Xander really wanted to do was grab him and crawl back in bed until the rest of the world got the hint and went away. But that wasn't happening. Xander snatched up his shoe and sat on the edge of the bed so he could shove his foot in it.

"My guess is that they've been out there for a while, and they're arguing about how they're supposed to handle this. Willow will be setting all these rules for how they can't sound mean after I've been gone for all this time and Buffy will be cranky about me bringing strangers here, even if I'm not the one who actually brought you guys. And Tara will probably be really quiet. Sometimes she worries me a little bit because she doesn't really say much and sometimes my girls need to have said things to them, like, 'hey, he's evil, how about we kill him.'" Xander shrugged. One day he'd get over the Angel thing, but he'd be about ninety when he did it.

"At least they don't plan on acting like an ass, unlike some colonels I know."

"Don't count on it," Xander said as he opened the door. He expected to find a little cluster of women just outside, but the hall was empty. "Huh."

"Jack has this hall on lockdown. Carter fixed the elevators so they don't stop on the floor without authorization and Teal'c has secured all the service access. If we were in any other city in America, the manager definitely would have called the police, but somehow no one really seems to question someone's right to come in and tell everyone else what to do and how to run their business." Daniel actually sounded shocked.

"Welcome to Sunnyhell where the strong rule, the weak get eaten and the smart keep their mouth shut," Xander pointed out. It wasn't like he was surprised. "And there's no way you kept Buffy out of here if she wanted to get in here."

"They didn't." The window at the end of the hall slid open, and Buffy slipped inside with all the grace of a predator. Despite the fact that she must have scaled the side of the building, she wasn’t even out of breath. "They did, however, really annoy me. I've wrecked my manicure on this brick." Buffy made a show out of polishing her nails as she pushed the window closed. "Nice friends, Xander. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were the 2.0 version of the Initiative, and we both know how well that turned out."

Xander cringed. Yeah, this was about to be so very bad.

"Hi, I'm Daniel Jackson. I work with Colonel O'Neill and Xander." Daniel gave her a charming smile, and Xander could see the moment of startle. The second of shock, that brief hesitation where it was so very clear that Buffy thought his boyfriend was cute. Hot jealousy swept through him like lava.

"Hey, Buffy, have you met the guy I'm currently dating?" Xander asked. Okay, maybe that sounded a little like a challenge. It was challenge-like.

Buffy's eyes got big, and Xander moved until his shoulder brushed up against Daniel's. Okay, that probably wasn't the smoothest coming out in all the history of come outs. Oddly, Daniel still gave him a fond smile. "That too," Daniel agreed, and Xander could almost hear the laughter hiding just under his tone of voice. Even Buffy's gaze got a little softer.

"Oh. Well, um. Good for you?" Buffy sighed. "You know, after Willow I really should be ready for this, but honestly, I'm kinda feeling a little resentful that you're dating a cuter guy than I am."

"Who are you dating?" Xander asked. He hadn't heard about anyone since Riley.

"No one."

"Oh." Xander cringed.

"Yeah, oh," Buffy agreed. "And I would go into one of my patented speech about how my love life sucks, only I'm saving that up for a time when we aren't facing some god in a fashion knockoff. I mean seriously, do you not have enough money to buy more than one dress? Sure a little red dress can go anywhere, but that does not mean you have to wear it everywhere."

Xander could see Daniel blink as he tried to keep up with the conversation. Sometimes Riley had done the same thing--struggled to keep up with the bizarre blend of important and silly stuff that sort of tumbled out of Buffy's mouth all at once.

"So, are you going to come back to the house?" Buffy asked. And that would be the important stuff.

"Um... no?" Xander guessed. From the way Buffy's eyes narrowed, that was not the answer she wanted to hear.

"Xander could get in serious trouble for leaving his station again," Daniel said. He took a step forward, and Buffy's eyes immediately focused on him. "Jack gets it, you know? He understands that Xander felt like he couldn't tell us about your war and he couldn't leave you to fight it alone. So I think Jack is going to try and minimize the damage, but Xander left his post. He put his career at risk because he wanted to help you."

"We're doing fine," Buffy insisted, and now she was even more annoyed. Of course, for Buffy, the definition of 'fine' was a little different. As long as she didn't have major arterial bleeding, she assumed that she could handle whatever life and the demon world threw at her.

Daniel was nodding like he agreed with her. "Maybe, but I don't think Xander's good at letting other people fight his battles, but I also know he really needs some time off right now."

"No I don't," Xander protested. He'd spent long enough getting pushed to the side, and he didn't need Daniel joining that particular chorus.

Daniel turned around and looked at Xander, and the worry was back--that genuine worry that made Daniel's eyes squinch up at the edges. "Xander, I love the hell out of you, but you know you're not ready for the battlefield, and if you even think of running off again, I'm sitting on you and tattling to Jack. Worse, I'm tattling to Teal'c, and you know he respects you, but he is not going to let a warrior go into a battle too fatigued to give his best. If you even try, Teal'c is going to make you practice training forms until you're one giant bruise."

Xander opened his mouth to argue, but honestly he couldn't say much because it was all kinda true. Now that Xander thought about it, Teal'c had spent quite a lot of time during training talking about mental preparedness. And Xander had laughed most of it off, pointing out that the mental part wasn't really for him. It had ended with him getting stuck playing chess with Teal'c while the other man talked about battles lost because of various errors. Pawns became mother ship thingies and bishops various goa'uld underlords, and Teal'c could make chess interesting, right before he slaughtered Xander's imaginary troops and captured his king. He was a little ruthless when it came to small pieces of molded plastic.

Buffy bristled. "Who do you think you are, talking to Xander that way?"

"The man who loves him," Daniel shot right back. "And the man who realizes that human beings need a break. He's gone from fighting for you to fighting for us, and there's hasn't been a chance for him to decompress. That is not allowed in a military command, and if Jack had any idea that Xander was coming out of a serious battle zone, he would have mandated some R and R because even the strongest soldiers develop PTSD and need time to recover from a fight."

Xander cringed.

"He's fighting for you?" Buffy leaped on exactly the words Xander hadn't wanted her to notice.

Daniel frowned and looked over at Xander like he was surprised. Yeah. Daniel tended to think of him as some linguist who was actively fighting the alien invasion. Xander preferred to think of himself as dishwasher.

Buffy turned on him. "Xander? You're fighting?"

"Hard water spots, sure," Xander said with his brightest smile. "Those military dishes can put up a real fight, too. Do you know how hard it is to get slop off plates?"

"And the accident with your leg?" Buffy crossed her arms. For a woman who liked to play dumb, she really didn't miss much.

Xander opened his mouth, but he really didn’t have anything to say—not without getting into wormholes and aliens and it was really tough to not point out that goa’uld had way worse fashion than anyone on earth… with the possible exception of Spike. He couldn’t exactly say that, so he ended up with an open mouth and nothing to say.

"It's classified," Daniel jumped in, and while he was trying to rescue Xander, he was seriously in danger of getting figuratively slayed.

"Classified?" Buffy looked ready to drop kick Daniel through a wall.

Xander sighed. "Can we go in the room so I can sit down while you yell at me? I'm still kinda tired." Without waiting for an answer, Xander turned and headed back into the hotel room.

"Are you okay?" Buffy asked. Behind him, Xander could hear a brief scuffle, and when he turned around, Buffy was behind him and Daniel had been sort of shoved behind her. Subtlety had never been Buffy's superpower. Luckily Daniel only looked annoyed. If she tried that with Colonel O'Neill, someone would be missing limbs. Xander wasn't sure who, but someone.

"I'm fine, Buffy. Well, maybe not fine as much as doing as well as I was doing before I left, which is a little shy of fine, but still. I'm fine." Xander sat on the edge of the bed feeling way less than fine.

Daniel pushed past Buffy to sit next to Xander on the bed, leaving the lone chair for Buffy. "That doesn't actually make sense," Daniel pointed out.

"Yep," Xander agreed. But when he looked at Buffy, he could see that she understood. She frowned at him like she was trying to see what she had missed, trying to understand what dysfunction she'd never noticed before he even left that would make him say that.

"I'll be fine, honest. Maybe I'm a little bent around the edges, but that's just me being tired."

"Tired?" Buffy didn't sound convinced.

"People who aren't the slayer get tired. We get worn down from all the fighting." Xander shrugged. He remembered when Faith had showed up and her and Buffy had pretty much horrified everyone with their discussion of how exciting it was to stake vampires. Exciting wasn't the first word on anyone else's mind. When Xander thought about Jesse turning to dust at the end of his stake, heart-sick was a pretty good description.

"And you're doing more fighting now?" And that was Buffy circling right back to the very part of the conversation that Xander didn't want to be conversating about. She sank into the one chair looking so very confused, which was better than when she had that slay-potential look.

"Um." Xander frowned. "I'm not actually supposed to be," he pointed out. "It's more of a 'stuff happens' kind of thing."

Buffy leaned forward. "Stuff like when Steven Segal was a cook and he had to save the ship from terrorists kind of stuff? Because if that's anywhere close to the kind of stuff you're talking about, I am going to kick someone's ass for putting you in the middle of a really bad B-movie."

"Seriously? Are you seriously asking if I went Steven Segal on someone?" Xander gave Buffy his most incredulous look. “I'm more the kind to go Barney Fife on someone. And yeah, there were one or two Fife moments, and maybe I had a wound, but maybe I'm not going to tell you their secrets any more than I would tell them your secrets."

Buffy pulled back like she'd seen a snake. A garden snake, because small things provoked girly recoil while giant snakes tended to make Buffy get this really dangerous smile on her face before she hacked bits off. "Xander." She said his name in such a soft, wounded tone that Xander immediately felt two inches tall.

Daniel jumped into the awkward void that followed. "We all want to do the right thing here, but unfortunately, just like Xander or your other friends wouldn't talk to us, Xander and I don't have the authority to talk to you about our battles. That's something you need to talk to Jack--Colonel O'Neill--about. I'm sure you're persuasive enough to convince Xander to tell you what's going on." Daniel tightened his fingers around Xander's leg, sending some message that Xander didn't really get, but that was okay. He was willing to give Daniel a chance to handle Buffy, because pout eyes and wounded tones had always been kryptonite for Xander. "However, I'm equally sure that Xander would feel horrible about betraying our trust and I know Jack would write him up and stick him in the brig for long enough to make Xander go stir crazy. Military officers," Daniel gave a shrug like all military officers were some alien breed, "they have no sense of humor."

"Really?" And in that one word, Buffy shot down Daniel's entire argument.

For a second, Daniel studied her, his eyes narrowed. "Really," he answered. "After all, Xander and I are together. Biblically. Enthusiastically. And when I asked him point blank what was going on, he evaded the question and made jokes to avoid betraying you people. I didn’t push it. I would think you would give him the same courtesy of not putting him in the middle." Daniel pressed his lips together in a stubborn line, and Xander held his breath as the immovable object met the irresistible force. Buffy seemed frozen, her one hand gripping the arm of the chair hard enough that Xander expected imminent breakage. The second drew out, and Daniel grew more tense, his fingers almost painful against Xander’s leg. Then, irresistible won.

Buffy sighed dramatically and leaned back. "So, you're saying I should torture the information out of the colonel." She looked a little too enthusiastic about that.

"Given that Jack was a POW during the first Iraq war and has served in covert ops for nearly thirty years, you might want to avoid the word torture,” Daniel advised, and Xander could see Buffy flinch. Yeah, jokes were less jokelike when actual torture was a real possibility.

“Point taken,” Buffy said, wrinkling her nose. “But I still want answers and I want to know what you’ve put Xander in the middle of.”

“Um, I think it’s more about what I fell into the middle of. There really wasn’t any putting,” Xander pointed out. “Actually, there was some anti-puttage because Colonel O’Neill is not exactly one of my biggest fans. And falling apart probably didn’t improve that much.” Xander shrugged.

“Why did you fall apart?” Buffy was right back to unhappy, and Xander didn’t really have an answer. Not a good one.

“He’s been fighting a long time,” Daniel pointed out.

From the look Buffy gave him, she wasn’t impressed with his logic.

“Hey, I’m the first to admit that it’s wimplike because you’ve been through way more, but Buff, I watched my best friend turn to dust because I staked him.” Xander’s voice hitched and he had to take a breath. “I watched the girl I was crushing on turn into a mummy and I just about got eaten when Deadboy tried to give me away and I stood in the school basement and offered to let Zombie Jack blow me up, and somewhere in there I sort of hit my limit.”

“You what?” Buffy’s screech rose above Daniel’s lower pitched. “You offered to let a zombie blow you up?” And from the expressions, both of them were now questioning Xander’s sanity, which was fair because Xander was questioning it, too.

“Yeah, see? Not firing on all cylinders, and I love you Buffy, but I’m really not up to explaining all this, especially not when you’re going to do the guilt thing and I’m going to do the joking thing, and it’s not going to end well.” Oddly, Xander felt like he had just put a weight down. Normally, unhappy conversations with Buffy or Willow made his heart feel like it was getting squeezed.

“Xander?” Buffy scooted to the very edge of the chair and reached out for him. Xander leaned forward and took her hand for a second before he pulled away.

“Hey, you know me. I bounce back, only maybe a little more sleep would help with the bouncelike properties,” Xander suggested. He looked down and realized that Daniel’s hand was still resting on his knee. Funny enough, Xander really thought he’d angst more about coming out. Clearly, he’d been wrong.

“Jack was going to head over to your house after checking in with the local base and seeing how bad things really are,” Daniel offered, and that was the nicest worded ‘please leave’ Xander had ever heard.

Buffy definitely caught the hint because she looked from Xander to Daniel and back again. “So if I want answers, I have to go home? I don’t suppose someone could turn on the elevator so I don’t have to climb down four stories.”

“I’ll have Sam turn it on,” Daniel offered. With one last squeeze, he stood up and headed for the phone.

“Sam?” Buffy asked. Yep, she was looking for intel.

“Major Samantha Carter,” Xander offered. He could give her this much without ending up serving time in Leavenworth. “She’s sort of on the sciency side, so magic avoidance is the word of the day.”

“Well, that’s not going to be easy. I hope she plans on staying in the hotel if that’s the goal.”

“Um, until Colonel O’Neill comes back, we’re all staying in the hotel. Daniel sort of has the sort of reputation with danger that Willow does,” Xander pointed out. Daniel frowned at him from across the room, but from what Xander could tell, it was accurate. Daniel was definitely the damsel in distress on the team.

“You could come with me—leave Daniel here,” Buffy offered softly. Daniel was talking to Major Carter, so he couldn’t do more than scowl when he heard the suggestion.

“I’m voting no. I signed up for the military, Buff. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t exactly voluntary what with Spike playing his games, but I signed up, and I’m not one to walk away after I give my word.”

Standing up, Buffy smiled at him. “I always counted on you for exactly that.” She glanced over to Daniel who seemed to be listening more than talking at the moment. Looking back to Xander, she smiled. “I’ll be at the elevators when your cute boyfriend decides to turn them back on. Oh, and next time you decide to switch sexual orientation, could you maybe give me a little warning. Smoke signals, hand gestures, a big sign maybe?”

“I freaked you out?” Xander asked, little flutters in his stomach.

“A little. That and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to wake up in bed with some random girl because the gay is definitely in the water.” With a shrug, Buffy headed out the door. That has almost not gone bad. Almost. Buffy definitely learned one or two things Xander would have kept secret, and being gay wasn’t even on the list of not-shares. He really hated how much of his life had turned into big world-ending secrets.



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