~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack checked the number on his cell phone as it rang. Crap. Danny. Considering he was supposed to be tucked up in the hotel safe and sound, that was an ominous sign. “Major Brehane, I want a full inventory in six hours,” Jack ordered even as he walked out of the room. The Sunnydale Army base was disorganized, dirty, and poorly secured. And he wasn’t even going to think about why Army officers were so quick to accept orders from an Air Force colonel. Either General Hammond had made a few calls or these people really were worthless.
“Yeah?” Jack answered the phone as soon as he had some privacy in the hall between the major’s office and a common area that a number of lower-level officers seemed to share.
Daniel had that tone that meant he was about to say something Jack didn’t want to hear. “What went wrong?”
“What? Who said anything went wrong?”
“Daniel,” Jack warned.
Xander’s voice came through the phone. “Nothing really went wrong. Okay, so a couple of things went a little sideways, and it’s not my fault that I outed us because Buffy was totally eyeing you. I know Buffy, and that was eyeing.”
Jack frowned. “Summers was there? Did Carter let her up?” Teal’c had come with Jack. He was in the armory checking on the condition of weapons, so Jack couldn’t figure out why Carter would have let her inside their perimeter.
“Not exactly,” Daniel said, and there was some scuffling on the other end of the phone. Jack was trying hard to not think about what Xander and Daniel might be doing.
“Then what exactly did happen?” Jack demanded. He really wanted a nice, clear military sit-rep, not a drawn out conversation.
“Buffy scaled the side of the hotel and came in a window,” Daniel finally admitted. Frowning Jack started reassessing some of the risk assessments he’d made. The hotel had flat sides, no finger-holds or ledges for easy climbing, and low, thorned bushes at the base. If Summers could climb that, she had some talent, and Jack needed to put another layer of security on that hotel.
“What did she want?” Jack asked, even though he had a good idea. If someone tried claiming Daniel, Jack would throw a fit, paperwork or no paperwork. He expected Summers to be equally unreasonable about Harris. Unfortunately for her, Jack wasn’t the sort to compromise or negotiate.
Xander answered. The cell phone wasn’t on speaker, so the two of them must have been crowded around Daniel’s phone. “She thought I should come home with her and she was a little unhappy with a few of the things I said.”
“Things?” Jack prompted. If Harris ruined their change for an alliance, Jack was going to drop him in the deepest cell he could find at the bottom of Cheyenne Mountain.
“I kinda outed us as gay—”
“I’m not asking, and you’re not telling, Harris,” Jack snapped. His ability to claim plausible deniability was taking some fairly heavy hits.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry,” Harris offered. “My habit of saying whatever crosses my mind is a habit I learned after a lot of practice and some pretty good role models. I spend the first week of boot camp sleeping on the floor of the shower after falling asleep while scrubbing. Internal editing is for wussies.”
“And for men who want to avoid being restricted to base for the remainder of their lives,” Jack added dryly.
“I’m a little more interested in Xander’s suggested he went up against a zombie by himself and that he had to stake his best friend after he got turned into a vampire,” Daniel said in an equally dry voice, and Jack leaned against the wall as that information filtered in. Well crap. Part of him was surprised Harris hadn’t already eaten his gun.
“Yeah, well it’s not like Buffy is any better. Her and Willow blurt inappropriate things all the time.” Harris defended himself. He clearly didn’t understand which part of the conversation was truly horrifying. A lack of internal editing led to far fewer mental health problems than having to kill your own best friend after he’d turned into a monster. Jack and Daniel both had a little too much experience on that front. Jack hadn’t been able to kill Skaara, not even when the goa’uld monster inside had threatened Jack and Daniel. And Daniel. Crap. Daniel had shown too often that he couldn’t face down the monster wearing Sha’re’s face. Killing someone with a friend’s face—Jack wouldn’t wish that on his enemy, much less on the man Daniel had chosen to share his bed. What a mess.
“Did she cause a problem when Harris refused to go with her?”
“How did you know I refused?” Harris asked.
Part of Jack wanted to point out that Harris was still there, still with Daniel, and smart enough to not turn his back on a lover as compassionate as Daniel Jackson. However, he really did want to maintain some plausible deniability in case the general decided to ask questions. “I guessed,” Jack said instead.
“She wanted information. Xander let it slip that he’d done some fighting for us,” Daniel offered.
“That was you with the slippage. I was just babbling when you had to add that.”
“I did not,” Daniel complained.
There was one second where Jack was afraid that the two of them were actually going to get into a did-not fight right there over the phone. Instead, Daniel seemed to pause for a second before changing the topic. “I told her that she needed to talk to you about any information she wanted.”
“Yippee,” Jack said in a flat tone.
“You and Buffy.” Daniel sounded thoughtful. “Two people with no internal editors trying to play nice. I wish I could see that.”
Jack really wished Daniel were in the same room so he could glare at the man, but before he could come up with a retort, Harris jumped in.
“NO! No w-words. We do not use w-words, and you do not with that. That would be bad. You as a fly would be way less than good, and your brain would be fly-tiny, which would make understanding human speech hard, so no wishing.”
“Xander, it was just a saying.”
“It was a w-word, which are verboten on the Hellmouth,” Harris responded. His voice was growing more distant, so he was moving away from the phone, but Jack could still hear the tone and the volume spike. He was truly upset.
“Seriously?” Daniel asked. “You seriously worry about common hyperboles and sayings like wishing for something?”
“When there are wish demons in town? Hell yes. I dated a vengeance demon, which is pretty much just a less-friendly name for a wish demon, and her stories included a lot of blood and evisceration and the skinning of penises. Penii? Anyway, there will be no wishing. Ever.” Harris was definitely panicking, and Jack could feel his stomach sour. He wondered if the President would just let him nuke this whole damn town.
“Do I want to know why you dated a vengeance demon?” Daniel asked. Clearly Harris wasn’t the only one to care about the least important detail because Jack was more interested in how your identified wish demons, what their primary weaknesses were, and how many existed in the local area. That and he wondered if he should just keep Daniel gagged until they left town because if there was a demon around, the man was going to attract it.
“It included her losing her powers and showing up at my house with condoms.”
“Oh.” Daniel sounded a little deflated, and Jack wondered exactly what the man must think of this mess. There was no way that Daniel understood what kind of mess he was stepping into when he started dating this guy. “I’m starting to think you win on the ‘bad ex-lovers’ front,” Daniel admitted.
“I am at Olympic levels of talent on that front,” Xander agreed. His voice was distant.
“Daniel, how did it end? Is Summers a problem?” Jack just asked. If he didn’t, he was never getting a sit-rep out of these two.
“No, but she’s going to have some questions for you.”
Jack rubbed a hand over his face. “Great.”
“Do you want me to—”
“I’ll handle it, Daniel. Just keep Harris on lockdown.”
“Daniel, no. You stay with Harris. I will handle Summers.” Jack just hoped that Finn’s assessment was correct and that Summers was more interested in results than conflicts. According to the reports, Summers had even tried to work with the NID before losing her patience and going to war with them. Jack could sympathize with the urge, even if his commanding officers had always vetoed his suggestion that they do the same.
“What is he saying?” Harris asked.
“Go deal with Harris. I’ll talk to you later,” Jack said, hanging up the phone before Daniel had a chance to talk him into something. So, he could now add wish demons that skinned penises and a past history of having to stake a best friend to Harris’ file. If McKenzie ever caught wind of even half of the crap in Harris’ file, the man was going to let locked in a little rubber room.
Jack grabbed his radio. “Teal’c, you there?”
“Meet me at the car.” Jack put his radio away and headed out to the parking lot. He’d planned to have all his other ducks in a row before dealing with Summers. He still didn’t know exactly what weapons this base had to offer and SG3 was an hour outside of town, but if Summers was asking questions and breaking into the hotel to do it, she clearly wasn’t going to wait.
At least Jack had some peace as he drove them to Summers’ house. Hopefully she’d had a chance to get home because he didn’t want to deal with Rosenberg. He didn’t have the intel on her he needed, and she wasn’t the commanding officer. If he mishandled some piece of information with Rosenberg, Summers likely would go to war with them. If Jack could figure out a way to frame the suggestion in a way that would work, he’d recommend that General Hammond come out and deal with these people because Jack really questioned his own patience in this situation. Summers had broken into the space he had chosen as a base. She’d tried to remove his airman. And worse, she had the nerve to have done the one thing he always wanted to do: open fire on the NID. There was some jealousy there.
Jack pulled up in front of her house, and only then did he also realize he was going to have to deal with Summers’ mother. He hadn’t had the awkward mother moment since he’d picked Sarah up for their senior prom.
“Shall I accompany you?” Teal’c asked.
“Nope. I think I’d better handle this myself since Summers thinks you aren’t human.”
“She is not incorrect,” Teal’c pointed out.
Jack didn’t answer. No, she wasn’t incorrect, but given her habit of slaying anything that wasn’t human, he really didn’t want her to spend any significant amounts of time with Teal’c. Personally, Jack would bet on Teal’c winning that fight, but killing Summers probably wouldn’t cement any alliance. “Keep an eye on the perimeter,” Jack said before he got out of the car and headed for the door.
Out of the side of his eye, he watched Teal’c head around back. Wishing he could do something as simple as assess perimeter security, Jack rang the doorbell and waited to see if Summers’ little trip to visit Daniel and Harris had soured her mood—not that she’d been thrilled with them last night. Her body language had pretty much screamed ‘go away,’ but luckily, Jack had a lot of experience ignoring social niceties.
The door came flying open, and Summers stood there with an aggravated expression on face, and Jack hadn’t even said anything yet. “Summers,” he offered in his best ‘playing-nice’ voice.
“You.” Turning her back, Summers headed back into the house, and Jack assumed that was an invitation. Even if it wasn’t one, Jack headed into the house, closing the door behind him.
Rosenberg had been sitting on a couch, and she stood as Jack walked in. “Oh.” She looked at him like she’d just been caught stealing so something.
“Willow, you remember Xander’s rude commander.”
“I haven’t said anything rude yet,” Jack defended himself.
Summers gave him a cold look. “You said Xander should stay at the hotel instead of with us.”
“Because he needs some down time,” Jack said, and he could feel his aggravation rise as she questioned his orders. Harris needed more than some downtime; he needed serious decompression and some intensive therapy. Either that or he needed enough time to forgive himself, and that might take a while. Jack had spent a good year sitting on his roof, drinking and staring at the stars.
Jack watched Rosenberg and Summers exchange a concerned look. So they’d been talking about Harris. Good. At least they had the good sense to worry.
“Summers, I was hoping to talk to you privately.” Jack kept a neutral look on his face as he watched the two women exchange more looks. These two really shouldn’t take up poker—they didn’t have the faces for it, Rosenberg in particular.
Summers finally said, “Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of Willow.”
“No, no I can’t.”
That seemed to aggravate Rosenberg pretty seriously, but she wasn’t Jack’s main concern. “Hey, mister. Just because you learned a few secrets, you can’t come in here and tell us what to do.”
“Nope,” Jack agreed amiably, “but I can stand here and refuse to speak my mind until Ms. Summers is alone.” He gave them his sweetest smile.
“You would, wouldn’t you?” Summers crossed her arms and gave him a serious shit look.
“Yeah, sure, you betcha,” Jack agreed.
With a dramatic sigh, Summers turned to her friend. “Willow, can you give us some time?”
“Hey, I want to get rid of him, too,” Summers pointed out. “We can figure the rest out later, okay?”
Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to know what “the rest” might mean, but right now, he had to get some rules in place before he started trying to push Summers to share more. So he watched more looks pass between the women before Rosenberg finally turned and, after one last unhappy look in Jack’s direction, she headed for the kitchen. “I’m going to go by Giles’ and pick up some books.”
“I’ll see you later,” Summers said. She waited until Rosenberg had left and another door opened and closed before she turned to Jack. “So, what is so important that you can’t say it in front of Willow because you know I’m just going to turn around and tell her.”
“That’s fine.” Jack settled down onto the couch and studied the room as he talked. “It’s your choice, but I tend to think of you as the commanding officer of this base. You have your resources and your personnel, and my general has sent me in to provide backup. That makes you my commanding officer in a way, and I try to avoid calling my commanding officers idiots in front of other people. Oh, I don’t always succeed, and you’d be amazed at how many formal reprimands I have in my file for that very flaw, but I do try.” Jack gave her a grin.
Summers looked suspicious. “I’m not your commander.” So, she wasn’t as much of a soft touch as she looked.
“True. But the other option is that I’m going to set up my own command, and I don’t think that’s best for either of us.”
“You could leave town,” Summers offered. Crossing her arms, she moved into Jack’s line of retreat. He could feel his guts tighten just a little, but he ignored that internal warning alarm.
“And let you suffer through this alone? Unlikely. In fact, I might go so far as to say improbable. Unless I have my own world-ending scenario to deal with, which isn’t impossible, I’m here to stay. So I can report to you or ignore you, your choice.” Jack finally took the time to really stare at Summers, waiting for her to think through those choices, and she did seem to be thinking.
“That’s not much of a choice.”
“Yeah, Summers, it is. I am one of the best tactical officers in the United States, and I have my very own linguist, technology and explosives expert and a guy who’s just really talented at shooting people.”
“I’m hoping that Xander is sleeping with the linguist or the technology guy, and not someone who specializes in shooting people.”
“I hear you visited Harris and Daniel.” Jack watched as Buffy twitched. He had to respect the fact that she was worried about her friend, but that didn’t absolve her or Mr. Giles. Someone should have noticed that Harris was approaching a breaking point. Finn should have noticed. It made Jack wonder how close Rosenberg was to that same point.
“Someone didn’t leave a forwarding address, so I thought I’d track him down.”
Jack shrugged. “He signed up for the Air Force, Summers. That makes him mine. The fact that he’s sleeping with a man who’s been my teammate and my linguist for four years… that just makes me a little more touchy than usual.”
Surprisingly, Buffy actually seemed to relax a little. “He does seem to like Xander.”
“And Harris hasn’t tried to kill him, which is one step up from Daniel’s usual love interest,” Jack pointed out. “Apparently they have similar romantic backgrounds.”
Summers cringed. “That’s not good.”
“Not really,” Jack agreed. “But even if you’re the commanding officer, Summers, that doesn’t give you a right to reclaim Harris, particularly not when he’s battle fatigued and running on the thin edge of sane.”
“Okay, that’s harsh.” Summers was back to tense lines and hard expressions.
“Having ridden that line myself more than once, I can tell you he can’t handle more fighting without paying more of a psychological price than a man should.”
“Really?” Summers looked honestly shocked, and Jack decided to change the topic before they could get too sidetracked.
“So, Summers, most commanding officers would give their right eye to get me to follow their orders, and I retired at one point because I wouldn’t take orders from someone I didn’t respect. However, I’ve seen your success rate, and I’m willing to say that when it comes to demons, you know more than I do and I’ll follow your orders. Also, you blew up the NID. That’s a personal fantasy of mine. So, until I get other orders, I’ll follow your lead and really hope I get that chance to blow up something from the NID. That sound like a deal?”
“Sure, until you change your mind and think you know better.” Summers dropped down into the chair, and Jack’s anxiety level dropped.
“Oh trust me, if I think I know better, I will pull you aside and privately tell you all the reasons I think you’re an idiot,” he offered. “I’ll lay out all my evidence for you to consider. I will also follow your final orders as long as I believe you’ve heard my side of it. I’m an officer. I know how to follow an order, and unless you give me an illegal order to shoot someone’s baby, demon or not, I’m not going to risk charges of insubordination.” Summers opened her mouth, but Jack continued before she could cut him off. “Because you can believe that General Hammond will skin me alive and hang my body out as a warning to future officers if I disobey a lawful order from a legitimate authority.”
That earned another calculating look from Summers. She was cagey. Jack could respect that. “And you think I’m a legitimate authority?”
“I think you’ve been running your own little Hellgate program without any help at all. That… that’s impressive, Summers. I’ve never disobeyed an officer I found impressive.”
“That’s not how the Initiative saw things.” Now she was putting her real worries out for him to see. Good. If she was honest with him about her concerns and questions, Jack could provide honest answers. Hopefully. Some topics were still classified, and Jack suspected that no one wanted Summers knowing about the goa’uld.
“The Initiative is one project carried out by the NID, a little group I’ve run into more than once. Don’t paint me with the same brush as those soul-sucking sons of bitches,” Jack warned.
“The NID?” Summers hadn’t heard that name, so clear Harris hadn’t given her any information.
“Yep. Their official name is the soul-sucking sons of bitches from the dark side of the government, but they use NID instead because it looks better on the letterhead.”
“Hey, as a bonus, if I’m working for you, the NID is going to hate you even more. They keep trying to get rid of me.”
“So we’re on the same hit list?” Summers asked.
“I guess we are,” Jack agreed. “Anyone the NID wants dead can’t be too bad, can they?”
Summers laughed. “That has to be a pretty long list.”
“It is,” Jack agreed. Most of the good officers he knew would go out of their way to trip up those sons of bitches and their flagrant abuse of US law. For some time they sat in silence, and Jack waited for Summers to make up her mind. Unlike a traditional military officer, she didn’t have reports to consult or junior officers to provide alternatives. So, he gave her the only thing he could. Time.
“Is Xander okay?” Summers finally asked, and that came from out of the blue. Part of Jack wanted to point out that Harris was his problem. His and Daniel’s problem. However, he wouldn’t accept that answer from another officer, and he tried to not give her an answer that he himself wouldn’t accept.
“I think so. I hope so. Post-traumatic stress is tricky. He’s going to take some time to recover,” he answered honestly.
“He’s really...” Summers chewed on lip looked about fifteen years old as he eyes skittered across the room. For the first time, Jack could see the fears and the insecurities beneath her basic competence. Maybe Xander was right that being the slayer gave her a psychological edge as well as a physical one, but she could still hurt. “If he hadn’t come to you, would he have been okay?” she asked.
Jack could almost read her mind. She was the commander realizing she had misjudged her troops and nearly lost them. “For a year or two, he would have stumbled through. He would have held it together, particularly if he had to—if the threats were real and imminent,” Jack said slowly. He didn’t want to lay on the guilt, but he couldn’t have Summers continue to disregard the psychological reality of human soldiers. “And then one day he would have looked at a bottle or at some pills and he would have wanted to take the edge off. But having some relief from all the pressure, it would prove too seductive. And maybe one day he would have sat on his couch with his gun thinking about all the people he couldn’t save.”
Feeling like he’d just kicked a kitten, Jack shrugged. “I’d give you a pretty lie if I thought I could, but you’re the general here, Summers. You know the enemy, you have the connections, and you know what the risks and needs are. So I’m going to give you every bit of intel I know, and after thirty years of fighting wars, I know a lot. And then when you tell me what we need to do, I’ll believe you. But part of this contract has to be that I can trust you to not make a stupid play. Pushing Harris to the point where he’s constantly on edge and unable to fully function is not smart; however, pushing away your backup is a flat-out stupid play. So I’m going to assume you aren’t serious about wanting me and the team to leave. Yeah, we aren’t as tough as you and we might die, but that’s our choice to die protecting our planet, and you don’t have the right to suggest we shouldn’t.”
He could see Summers stiffen up. “This is my job.”
Jack snorted. “Protecting the planet? No. It isn’t. I’ve been doing that since before you were born. Your job is to understand the demon population and fight it, and I’m not going to stop you from doing exactly that. However, if you are scared to have men go into battle with you, I would also recommend that you take some military ethics and training classes. Dying in battle is not the worst fate a military officer can face. Standing by and letting civilians die while you protect your own ass, that sounds like a much worse fate. I may not be cleared to give you details, but I can say that I’ve faced worse than this Glory.”
Now Summers was angry—a quiet sort of anger that made her body tense up and face contract into an unpleasant expression. “No, no you haven’t, and that’s the problem. You have no idea how deep you’re in here.”
Jack shook his head. The absolute conviction of youth still amazed him at times. “The problem is that you don’t have enough intel to judge our relative situations,” Jack corrected her. “I have requested clearance to brief you, and that hasn’t come through. However, I can say that knowing both your situation here and the situations I’ve faced, I have categorically faced worse. The difference is that I never faced anything this serious alone.”
“When the Initiative came in, they thought they could handle this, too.”
“Yeah, yeah. Back to the soul-sucking sons of bitches. Funny enough, they’ve tried to take over my job and miserably failed, too. In military training, we would accuse them of lacking cognitive complexity and relying too much on image theory to make decisions rather than doing a full analysis of the adversary and his tactics,” Jack said. “Trust me, I won’t make that mistake. Those mistakes.” Jack shrugged off the grammar. “I may like to play dumb for an audience, but I know more about fighting and winning wars than you’ve ever dreamed of. So let me back you up on this, Summers. If you don’t, I’m going to be out there fighting anyway, but I’ll be doing it blind because you really are the only one with the intel to run this war.”
“Every time someone tries to help, they die.” Summers’ emotions shifted again, and Jack really did wonder if they shouldn’t assign a psychiatrist to permanent duty. It’d be an easy way to get rid of McKenzie.
“That might be true this time, too,” Jack admitted. “It doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to be part of the fight. If the world is in danger, I’ll die fighting before I’ll stand back and let other people do my fighting for me.”
“Xander would be fine if he hadn’t always been trying to get in the middle of my fight.” Summers spat out the words as if angry, but Jack suspected there was more guilt and worry there than honest anger.
“Keep telling yourself that, lady. It won’t make it true. Harris is the sort that if he’d sat back and done nothing, he would have eaten his gun years ago out of guilt.”
Summers sucked in a surprised breath. She could sit on that and think about it for a while, but it was true. Sooner or later, she’d figure that out. It took her a while to answer. “It’s my duty,” she said softly.
“Yep. I got that. You fight demons; it’s your thing. It’s my duty to fight bad guys. So we both have a duty to do. So, you tell me what I need to do, and I’ll get the job done. I may take twice as much time and a flame thrower to achieve the same results you could, but trust me, the job will get done.” Jack sighed. Making a command decision, he decided he could compromise a little on the confidential briefing. “Look, I shouldn’t say anything, but let me ask you something. How many gods have you taken down?”
Summers narrowed her eyes. “Gods? This will be my first, and she is going down.” There was a fierceness there that made Jack believe her.
“I don’t doubt you. But she’ll make my third. I get a special tingly feeling when I take out a god. Occasionally, the firepower required is a little over-the-top, but then how many colonels get the joy of setting off an itty bitty thermonuclear devise?” Jack held up his finger and thumb. The shock on Summers’ face was comical.
“Nuclear? You have nuclear weapons?” Summers leaned so far forward that Jack feared she might fall out of the chair.
Jack shrugged. “Ya gotta do what you gotta do, and the Lord has not given me slayer powers. Luckily, the Air Force trusts me with some big-ass weaponry, and do not repeat that in front of Daniel because he thinks we should try to negotiate with everyone. Every time someone mentions the nuclear option, you can believe there will be at least two hours of lecturing about ethics and karma or some crap like that.”
Summers snorted. “Yeah, my rule is that if someone considers me a food group or a pest to be stepped on, I’m okay with nuking them.”
“We’re going to get along just fine,” Jack said happily.
“You’re not like most officers I’ve met.”
Jack shrugged. “You have no idea how true that is. But I’ve been in this game a while, long enough that the spit polish from boot camp wore off a long time ago. So, I would recommend that we assess Glory’s strengths, weaknesses, needs, and methods of operation. We probably want to set up some sort of system to track her movements, any suggestions?”
Summers leaned back and settled into her chair. The tension level in the room definition dropped as Summers seemed to think about that. “I tried following her. It didn’t work out well.”
“Yeah, gods are cranky about stuff like that. Are the Initiative cameras still in place?”
“I don’t know. I could ask Willow to check on it.” Summers glanced toward the door, and Jack half expected to find Rosenberg come back into the room now that she was welcome, but it was silent. Summers looked back to him. “If we knew where she was going, we might have some warning when she was about to show up. I really hate getting interrupted by someone who doesn’t break when I punch them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So, no weaknesses? Is that what Xander meant by her powers of indestruction?”
Summers nodded. “There has to be something. I mean, if she was all powerful all the time, you’d think she would have her own little kingdom set up already.”
“So, a nuke would probably take her out.”
“Along with a big chunk of California, sure.” Summers did not look happy.
“Relax Summers. It’s not something I would consider unless I saw the hellgate to another dimension opening. Even then, I’d try to send the nuke through the gate first.”
“Is that what you did last time?” The woman was not dumb, Jack gave her credit for that, but she also wasn’t likely to guess the real situation.
“I am not discussing classified missions with you.”
The elfish grin looked more like a schoolgirl considering a prank than a leader of a military resistance front that stopped demon invasions on a regular basis. “That is seriously cool. Giles never lets me nuke anyone.”
“You worry me, Summers.”
Her grin got bigger. “Don’t worry, one good shoe sale and I’ll forget all about nuking Glory. But I’ll get Willow on the cameras—see if we can’t start watching town.”
“What do you need me to do?” Jack watched the confusion dart across her face. Summers might be one hell of a slayer, but she didn’t know how to handle a team. Jack made a mental note to have General Hammond switch out Castleman for Warren as commander if they stayed in Sunnydale. Summers didn’t need any help blowing things up, but she was going to take some careful handling until she understood command structure and team leadership. “Do you want us to work on determining her goals, looking for this key?” Okay, that was a hot button. Unless Jack missed his guess, Summers knew where the key was. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to keep that piece of intel to herself, not with a god wandering around. “Or we could set up defensive perimeters, plant shaped explosives in areas she’s most likely to frequent, unless you object to blowing up a few streets.” He waited for her response.
“Hey, as long as you don’t take out civilians, blow up all the streets you want.”
Jack nodded. “ Okay, Carter and Teal’c will work on setting up defensive perimeters. What structures do you want covered?”
Buffy chewed on her lip for a second, but now Jack had the feeling she was seriously considering strategy. “The Magic Box,” she said. “Willow and Tara will need a lot of supplies if we have a full assault, and that’s the only place that will have them. And we’re too spread out. We should move people in here and set up a perimeter around this place.”
“That could make your house the center of a battle,” he warned.
“Trust me, it’s too late to worry about that. Between the zombies and the vampires and the werewolves chewing on the bathroom baseboards, this place has already been through the wars. Mom probably won’t even blink an eye unless we blow out a wall.”
“Then we’ll try to avoid that. But I’ll blow up more than a wall to defend the unit, especially if Daniel and Harris are here, and non-military personnel should be moved out. There’s an excellent military medical facility in Los Angeles. Maybe we could suggest that your mother’s doctor has recommended more testing.”
“Lie to mom?”
“Unless you have another suggestion.”
Summers seemed to think for a second before she sighed. “The hospital here is too dangerous, and she won’t leave if she thinks she can help, so I vote for lying to her, but,” Summers pointed a finger at him, “if anything happens, I will irrationally and violently take it out on you.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Try to sound a little less like the bad guy complete with mustache twirling and overblown insults,” he suggested.
“Geez. You’re really good at making people feel about two inches tall. If I’m your commanding officer, shouldn’t you try to avoid that?”
“Usually it’s my commanding officers that I go out of my way to belittle. It’s not nice to pick on people lower than you in the ranks. Of course lately I’ve found that taunting gods is enough to satisfy my urge for sarcasm.”
Summers smiled. “Huh. Imagine that. We have something in common.”
“So, we have a deal?” Jack confirmed.
Summers gave him a nod. “Yep, until you try and stab me in the back, and then I’ll blow you up like the Initiative.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Standing up, Jack stepped toward her and offered his hand. Summers took it and they solemnly shook.
“This is going to be so cool,” she then said, breaking the mood. “I can’t believe you get to nuke things.” With another of those odd smiles, she headed off for the phone, and Jack got the feeling he’d been dismissed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack could feel the headache pounding behind his eyes as he and Teal’c headed through the college campus on a quick recon. The longer he was in town, the more he admired Summers. She hadn’t set fire to the damn town, and as far as he was concerned, that showed more self-restraint than Jack had.
“You notice our admirer?” Jack asked as they headed across a sunny lawn full of college students sprawled over green lawns. In any other city in the country, two old warriors wandering through a college campus would have raised at least one or two eyebrows. Here… not so much. Jack had seen alien planets that felt more normal. Many of them.
“Indeed. He has followed us since we left the home of Buffy Summers.”
Jack hadn’t noticed that, but he continued to stroll at the same rate. “Spike?” he asked in little more than a whisper. The bleached hair and ridiculous coat matched the description. Only a vampire would wear a heavy coat in eighty degree weather, and their follower had been staying to the deep shadows.
“I concur,” Teal’c agreed.
With a sigh, Jack weighed his options. Harris and Finn didn’t trust him, but both had confirmed that he had helped Summers. Besides, Jack preferred to make his own conclusions. “Head right, comm open,” Jack whispered, hoping that vampire hearing couldn’t hear a whisper at seventy yards.
Teal’c gave a single nod and headed right for a long shaded walkway. Jack wandered a few feet into the sun, letting the distance grow between them. Their follower vanished between two buildings to the north, but Jack figured he was tracking Teal’c. Hopefully, this wasn’t about to turn bloody, but if it did, Jack was betting on Teal’c winning any fight. He cringed as he remembered the video footage Finn had provided. Well, maybe he trusted Teal’c to hold his own until Jack could show up with the zat he’d smuggled out of the mountain.
Silence warned Jack that something had happened. Teal’c’s footsteps stopped echoing against the old brick building. Reaching in his pocket, Jack boosted the volume on his comm unit.
“You are the one called Spike,” Teal’c offered calmly. Okay, so no fangs had been drawn yet.
“And you’re a bloody demon, only I can’t figure out what sort.” There was a pause, and Spike was probably waiting for some sort of explanation. Yeah, right, because Teal’c was one to ever explain himself, even when accused of being a demon. And sadly, Teal’c had encountered that accusation more than once. “So, Harris ran away and he still ended up in the soup. That boy’s a bloody menace the way he finds trouble,” Spike eventually offered.
“I find him honorable.” From Teal’c, that was high praise. Jack wandered down the lawn closer to where Spike and Teal’c were having the world’s oddest conversation.
“I find him ridiculous,” Spike disagreed. “I go telling him how his birds don’t need him, and the pillock goes and believes me. That caused all sorts of wailing back here, you know.” Spike gave a snort, and Jack’s opinion of him dropped. This one definitely didn’t take responsibility for his actions. “So, what’s your game?” Spike demanded.
He got a classic Teal’c answer. “I play no game.”
“All demons play games, mate. What are you getting out of this whole circus? Out of hanging around with the solder boys?”
Teal’c paused before answering. “A chance to kill false gods.” Jack cringed. Sometimes Teal’c was a little too honest.
“Right. I’m fond of a bit of violence myself. I figure that having a god in my kill tally will set me right up.”
“In what way?”
“In what way would the death of a god set you up?” Teal’c asked. Good thing because Jack was wondering that himself.
“I don’t know where you come from, but around here, the demon community is all about status. You impress people, and they’ll go out of their way ta take care of you. I’ll get set for whiskey and smokes for the next decade or so. But if demons think you’re weak, you’ll be prey in no time.” Spike’s voice had a hardness to it, and Jack’s assessment of Spike’s character shifted suddenly. If his world required strength and the NID had chipped him, he would have lost most of his power bases, but at the same time, he’d clearly managed to find or create new power bases. That took some impressive lateral thinking. Jack doubted he’d ever like or trust this Spike, but he could admit to feeling some respect for a creature that had done so well to make lemonade out of lemons.
Jack started wandering closer.
"So, the world is arse over tits then, with demons taking up with soldiers," Spike mused as Jack came around the corner. His eyes were on Jack from the moment he came around the column, so Jack was guessing he hadn’t surprised the guy. At the same time, Spike seemed determined to appear as nonchalant as possible. He leaned against the brick and smoked, blowing out plumes with a sort of dramatic flair Jack associated with villains who tied damsels to train tracks. However, as soon as Jack took his place near Teal’s, Spike’s gaze returned there. Jack would have been offended at the idea that this guy had dismissed Jack and focused on Teal'c as the larger threat, only Teal'c was the larger threat. He couldn't fault a vampire for having better tactical sense than fashion sense.
"It’s a little more complicated than that," Jack said carefully. Clearly vampires could tell a Jaffa from a human, but as much as that might be interesting at another time, right now, it wasn’t exactly intel he planned to share with someone who clearly put his own need for power before any sort of patriotism. "So..." Jack let the word trail off, and slowly the vampire's gaze switched over to him. “I guess you were around Summers’ house.”
"Might have been,” Spike said with a sniff. He shrugged as if nothing mattered to him, but that was hard to pull off after he not only followed them, but chose to start a conversation. He had balls, Jack gave him that. After the NID had tortured this bastard, Jack hadn’t expected him to handle this head-on. Personally, Jack tended to be a little less reasonable when it came to people who’d tortured him, and he’d be downright unreasonable if any ass tried to shove a chip in his head to control his behavior.
“Heard what you said to the slayer," Spike admitted after some time.
"Good to know." Jack waited.
It took a little time, but the silence finally pricked that act Spike was putting on. He narrowed his eyes and pushed off the wall. "If you're playing with her head, I'll rip your ears off and stuff 'em down your throat as ya scream," he warned, and oddly, that made him flinch. Jack was starting to think that vampires might have some mental health issues.
"I meant everything I said," Jack said. “I found out about the hellgate, and I’m here to help.” Spike’s eyes yellowed, and Jack had to quash a bright flash of fear in the pit of his stomach.
"Right then, Harris been filling you in on all my comings and goings then?" he demanded.
"Nope." Jack waited. The vampire clearly had trust issues, but then Jack had to imagine that being undead and siding with a vampire slayer didn't make you the healthiest nut in the box.
"That little pillock is like to rip the slayer apart with all his nattering on. He likes to point out that I’m not to be trusted at her side—like he’s any better.” Spike’s body coiled with fury. “She needs fighters. She doesn't need some nancy-boy hanging onto her apron strings like some sort of tyke who can't figure out that mummy has better things to do. But he’s so bloody insecure, he’ll push me away just so he can feel all manly as he stands by her side and gets her soddin’ killed." Spike's expression challenged Jack to disagree, but Jack didn't plan on saying anything.
If Harris was fighting vampires at fifteen--if he had to kill his best friend after the boy had gotten vamped--then that meant he'd needed some pretty strong mental defenses. Demonizing the enemy was an old strategy, even if demonizing them was usually a metaphor rather than being so literal. Harris would have needed a hard line to help himself feel better about the death he'd seen—he’d caused—and 'all vampires bad' was an easy line for a fifteen year old boy to make. Jack suspected that drove Harris’ hate more than any inherent insecurity. Most men who were insecure tried to prove themselves, and Harris was a little too happy as a dishwasher.
"Harris really doesn't have anything to do with this," Jack said. "As soon as my relief gets here and we kill this particular god, I'm going home, and I'm taking Harris with me."
That earned a huge snort from Spike. "You'd bloody well better. He's a menace around here."
"Is that why you talked him into joining the military?"
"Don't think I plan on trustin' ya," Spike snarled, the yellow back in his eyes. "The slayer's survived worse than you lot. If it comes down to a fight, she'll eviscerate you lot and dance on your cooling bodies."
Somehow Jack doubted that. Oh, Summers might kill them or leave them to get killed in order to protect her hellgate, and Jack could respect that. He’d had to sacrifice men for a mission himself. However, he didn't see any dancing in gore in her future, even if she did. "We're just here to back her play," Jack said. If she says we should play nice, I'll play nice with you. If she tells me that you're an enemy..." Jack smiled. "Well, I'm betting I won't be the one getting eviscerated."
Oddly, that seemed to please Spike. He nodded. "Right then, this Glorificus... she packs a right punch. I don't suppose you brought any toys to hit back?"
"A few M16s, a few P90s, some C4 explosives," Jack said with a shrug.
"I might just think you're not worthless," Spike said, and without another word, he turned and headed down the shadowed path to a sewer grate. Reaching down, he ripped it out of the concrete and carelessly tossed it to the side before dropping down into the sewer. Jack was impressed. Even if Spike had needed every bit of strength he possessed to pull that off just in order to look impressive, Jack was still impressed.
“That went well,” Jack said sarcastically.
“Indeed. No one died,” Teal’c offered. Jack glared at him.
“Let’s go home. Or, since we’re stuck in town, go back to the hotel,” Jack said. He’d sorted out the base as much as he could in one day, arranged for some weapons, called in SG3 and made peace with Summers. His work for the day was done. And he hadn’t even gotten shot at once. That made for a good day in his book.
The phone rang, and Jack grabbed it. “Yeah?”
“Sir,” Carter said, “we have a massive power surge about a half mile south, south-west of you.”
“Power? What sort of power?” Jack was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“I don’t know, sir. I would say it almost looks like a nuclear decay signature, but there’s no heat or other disturbance, and the disruption lasted such a short time that—”
“Are we in any immediate danger of blowing up?”
Her pause did not settle his stomach, but she eventually did offer a rather weak, “I don’t think so, but I’m using cell phone towers to track energy signals, so I can’t make any promises.”
“Okay, Teal’c and I will check it out,” Jack promised.
“Sir, I should meet with you.”
Normally Jack would agree, but that would leave Daniel and Harris exposed. Besides, they were functioning in someone else’s territory. “Contact Summers. Let her know we’re heading over to do a little recon,” Jack ordered.
“Call if it looks like we might blow up.”
“Yes, sir,” she offered in a tone that sounded suspiciously like she was laughing at him.
“So, south, south-west,” Jack said to Teal’c before he headed that direction. “It’d be nice if we had a few eyes out there. SG1 needs to put a priority on getting surveillance up. No engaging Teal’c. We don’t know what this particular god can do, and I really don’t want to find out she has some magical power after we engage her.”
“Magic.” Jack snorted. “Why didn’t I retire before having to deal with all this crap?”
“Because you are an honorable man who will not allow others to fight his battles,” Teal’c answered.
“I’m not that honorable. Trust me, I was happy fishing.”
“The way others are happy washing dishes?” Teal’c asked.
“Trust me, I do see the parallels.”
“He is capable of participating in this fight.”
Jack glanced over, but Teal’c never did have an expression Jack could read. “He’s compromised, Teal’c. He can’t even evaluate relative danger.”
Teal’c didn’t answer, but there was still something in his posture that radiated disapproval. For a man who didn’t talk, he did a good job of communicating.
“People can’t live in this kind of war zone and keep their perspective.”
“People on earth are different, Teal’c. We aren’t raised to expect war.”
“I have read of many cultures that are steeped in violence: Israel, Columbia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Honduras. Humans continue to survive such violence.”
“They’re brought up in a war, Teal’c. They know what to expect, unlike some California boy who finds himself dropped into a war with demons.”
“In that case, why do all the human seek the sun, even in the heat of the day?” Teal’c asked. Jack frowned and looked around, but Teal’c was right—all the college students had gathered on the lawn, avoiding the shaded walks.
“Perhaps it is subconscious, but they are aware of the battle, just as Xander Harris was aware at some level. He simply chose to fight back.” Teal’c walked a little faster—either signaling the end of the confrontation or taking point as they approached the danger. As much as he wished he could discount Teal’c assessment, the fact was the Teal’c had spent more time with Harris than anyone except Daniel, and Jack truly didn’t want Daniel’s assessment.
In special ops, bonds formed. Tight bonds. Men remained close for years after they’d left their unit because the act of relying on others for your very survival created a love that couldn’t be easily defined. With Carter on the team, Jack had to watch himself because he could feel the strain—feel that love for a brother-in-arms twist under his hand until he wanted her.
But now that he knew Daniel was gay… he was shocked at how jealous he felt. He’d built a bulwark against his feelings for Carter, but he’d never done that with Daniel. He’d left himself vulnerable, and now that he knew that Daniel was sexually available, Jack could feel that love twisting and writhing in his heart and he utterly hated Harris for being in that spot. And the worst part was that he couldn’t trust his own assessment of Harris for that very reason. Part of him wanted Harris gone, so he had to guard against making decisions that would lead to that very end.
Of course, even without Harris, Jack wouldn’t have bedded a member of his team. It was unethical and dangerous. He couldn’t. However, that didn’t mean he wanted anyone else in that spot that he couldn’t take. This whole mess was so fucked up that Jack didn’t even know how to handle any of it, and after decades of leadership, that didn’t happen often. However, Jack needed to focus on the mission and push the rest of the emotions aside—and he did have a lot of experience with that. It was time to figure out what had caused the energy spike Carter had found.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander frowned as he watched Daniel's face. Worry... Frustration... Aggravation. Xander was guessing that Daniel was talking to Colonel O'Neill. That man spread aggravation everywhere he went, and that was probably totally not fair because a lot of what the colonel had said to Xander actually did make him feel better… sorta. But then again, the fact that he’d made Xander cry led to some aggravation, so Xander was holding just a little seed of O’Neill annoyance.
"I could--" Daniel stopped, clearly getting cut off. Again.
Another cut off.
This time he must have gotten hung up on because Daniel slowly took the phone away from his ear and oh so carefully put it down, all the time giving every impression of wanting to smash it against something. Yep, O’Neill just inspired joy everywhere he went.
"Problem?" Xander asked when Daniel stayed silent a little too long.
"Not exactly," Daniel said in that same careful way. Xander’s guts started to knot.
"So, only mostly?"
Daniel turned and really looked at Xander. "I don't know," he admitted. “Carter found some energy signature. She's having Jack and Teal'c check it out the source while she tries to track down Buffy."
"Wait. They're going alone?" Yep, that was cold fear dancing through his stomach. Getting out of bed, Xander grabbed his pants off the chair and started pulling them on.
"What are you doing?"
"Why?" Picking up his phone again, Daniel shoved it in a pocket.
"Because I'm not going out naked," Xander pointed out. "Duh."
For a second, Daniel just blinked at him, and Xander grabbed his shirt and started shoving arms in as fast as he could. "Whoa, hold on. Why are you planning on going out?" Daniel held out his hands like he was trying to slow Xander down, but the line dancing in Xander’s stomach was definitely not the sort of thing that meant slow and steady was an option. A stomach that churned like this came with end of the world badness.
Xander paused long enough to look at his idiotic lover. "Unknown energy signals. They're looking for Buffy, meaning they haven't found her. Do you know what this sounds like?"
"Wednesday?" Daniel guessed with a shrug.
Staring at Daniel, Xander tried to figure out how that even made sense. With a shake of his head, he grabbed his socks off the floor. "It sounds like imminent ass-kickage. Or eminent ass-kickage, I always get those confused. Giles really lost it once because I thought that Willow's message was that there was an imminent demon visitation and she really said eminent demon visitation, and Giles got all twisted up about some immediate threat, and does it even make sense to have words sound that much alike when they aren't anything alike at all?" Xander grabbed a shoe.
"They both come from the French word for mountain, derived from the Latin mont. But Xander," Daniel stepped right in front of Xander so that Xander couldn't even bend over to reach his shoe. Before continuing, Daniel put both his hands on Xander's shoulders. "Explain why you want to leave."
Xander took a deep breath and really tried hard to get ahold of his fear before he said something really not nice to Daniel. "If they're investigating big and bad without backup from bigger and badder, or in our class, blonder and scarier, they're going to get their ass kicked. Buffy can do amazing things. The rest of us, not so much."
That made Daniel frown. "Xander, we can all do amazing things."
"Okay, I'm forgiving you that because you've never see Buffy fight because our amazing things are not her amazing things."
Daniel tightened his grip on Xander's shoulders when Xander tried to reach around him to snag his last shoe. "I've seen Jack go up against gods. We took out two battle ships coming to wipe out Earth, and we had almost no resources. Trust me, I have seen amazing. I have been part of amazing. Jack can handle this." Daniel had a tone of voice like he was trying to convince a crazy person to stop with the being crazy. Now, Xander knew he might have some squeaky hinges in the old brain, but going after demons without Buffy was still all kinds of stupid.
Xander took a deep breath and looked up at Daniel. Faith. That's what was in Daniel's eyes. He had faith in Jack. Xander wondered if that's what people saw in him when he started talking about Buffy because after seeing her come back to life after dying in that water, he pretty much thought she could do anything. But at least they were on Buffy's home turf. Glorificus wasn't going to kill her. Nothing could kill her. But Colonel O'Neill was so far out of his league that it wasn't funny, and he didn't know any better. He didn't know that he was about to get seriously slaughtered.
"Daniel, do you trust me?" Xander asked.
Daniel pulled back as though burned. "Of course I do."
"Honestly trust me?"
Daniel's expression turned a little more wary. "There are limits to how far I trust anyone. After all, I got stoned on a sarcophagus and tried to kill my entire team, so I am very aware that trusting someone doesn't mean that they won't do something dangerous or destructive."
"That's oddly logical." Xander frowned. "But I'm not addicted to anything or being self-destructive. As someone who grew up on the Hellmouth and who has a very well-tuned sense of impending doom, I’m telling you that something is about to go wrong. Really wrong. World-ending wrong."
"So you're going to...?" From the look Daniel was giving him, it was pretty clear that Daniel really didn’t know what Xander planned.
"If the world's ending, I'm going to be there to at least try and stop it. I mean, if I have to die, I don't want to do it in bed so that I spend eternity wondering if I could have tipped the balance, you know?" Xander could feel his darker emotions rising again. Clearly he'd cried them into submission rather than actually crying them out. “I may not be the chosen one, but I can be the one with the rock who will do anything to try and give her one more second to fight or one millisecond of distracting the bad guy.
Daniel reached out and rested his hand against Xander's arm. "I understand. Believe me, I do. I'm the idiot who has thrown himself in front of disaster more than once, and at least half those times, I didn't expect to survive.” Daniel cringed. “And a few of those times I actually didn’t survive. However, you aren't alone here. Jack and Teal'c..."
"...don't know the Hellmouth like I do," Xander cut him off. "Even if I have to piss off O'Neill and you, I have to go." Xander stopped as soon as he realized something. "Just as soon as you tell me where that signal was."
For a long time, Daniel stared at him, and Xander fidgeted--feeling like a total idiot for making that whole speech before finding out where he needed to go. If he was even a little bit smart, he would have conned that information out of Daniel before showing his hand. Eventually, Daniel capitulated with a sigh. "Fine, but we're calling SG3 and Carter so everyone knows we're heading over." That said, Daniel turned around and headed for the closet where he'd put his boots.
"You aren't going to warn Colonel O'Neill that we’re coming?"
Daniel looked back at him and shrugged. "If Jack doesn't already know I'm on my way, he's an idiot."
"But--" Xander stopped, not sure what he'd planned to say.
"I was going to talk you into waiting here for me," Daniel confessed as he slipped his gun into his side holster. "So, I'll make my calls on the way. The signal came from an area between the university and hospital, and Jack and Teal'c are a lot closer than we are, so get the lead out."
Xander grinned. "Sometimes you surprise me, Dr. Jackson."
Daniel’s grin was so infectious that Xander could feel his own cheeks ache as he smiled wider. "I hope so. We've only known each other a few weeks, and I like to think I'm not exactly an open book." Daniel gave him a wink.
"Huh. Okay, officially weird."
"What?" Daniel asked as he watched Xander shove an assortment of things into his pockets.
"I feel like I've known you longer than that."
"We were on the accelerated track. After all, I don't normally have sex on my first date. Although last time that happened, I was married to the girl by morning. So compared to that, we're moving at a glacial pace."
"I'm dating someone stranger than me," Xander joked, but the stone in his stomach was growing heavier by the minute, so he grabbed the last of his crap and shoved it deep in his pockets before heading for the door.
"I could argue that," Daniel countered.
By the time Daniel's phone chirped to tell them that they were in close proximity to Colonel O'Neill's phone, the jokes were strained on both sides. Xander didn't say anything, but he could feel the danger skittering over his skin like spiders. Sometimes he wondered if this was some special power--some actual Spidey-sense--or if he was even screwier in the head than even O'Neill suspected. However, if he had to grow up on the front-lines of hell, it did seem fair to let him get some sort of superpower.
"Jack?" Daniel called out quietly, his hand hovering near his gun.
Colonel O'Neill stood up from behind a bush, and that expression would have sent Xander running for safety. He would have run, only that would mean leaving Daniel behind, which Xander was not willing to do.
O’Neill’s whole body screamed anger with every tense line. "Daniel, what are you doing here?"
"Checking on you," Daniel said with a calm that clearly aggravated O'Neill even more. Xander followed, just trying to keep his head down and avoid eye contact.
"We're fine. I thought you were Harris-sitting."
Xander opened his mouth to make a smart ass comment, and then closed it again without saying a word. He didn't need to get in a pissing match with the colonel, because he'd lose.
"And I thought I was backing up my team, imagine that," Daniel commented. "What did you find that I’m backing you up?"
Xander followed Daniel behind the bushes, but he darted past O’Neill and went several feet farther down the narrow path between the tall bushes and a brick wall to crouch down next to Teal'c. There was something in the calmness of Teal'c that made Xander's heart beat slower. That and he was damn big so that if something came at them, next to Teal'c felt like a safe place to be.
"Signal's coming this way," Colonel O'Neill commented as he settled behind the bushes again. Xander and Teal's were at the north end, near a short set of steps that led to a higher terrace and Colonel O'Neill and Daniel were at the far end where the walk curved around and gently rose. With a stone wall behind them, no one could sneak up behind, but the bushes didn't feel like good cover.
"Is this safe?" Xander asked as he reached out and touched a thin branch.
Teal'c glanced over. "Were we interested in engaging an enemy, it would not be. However, given a need to survey the area, the position seems optimal."
Xander crouched low to look at the narrow V-shape where two bushes met, leaving a bit of space. Xander could see all the land in front of them. There was a gentle roll of hill down to the parking lot of the hospital where cars waited in ragged lines. A few hospital employees or patients wandered through, some going to their cars to leave and others pulling into the half-empty lot. Xander was guessing it was some sort of shift change. Turning around, Xander looked at the top of the stone wall behind them, and a chain link fence had pine branches poking through where the screen of trees tried to topple the fence. If something showed up in the parking lot, this was the best place to watch, although Xander wouldn't want to get caught here in a fight. Hopefully Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c were feeling equally fight aversive.
"How do we know something is going to happen here?" Xander whispered.
"We do not. We survey to determine the source of the energy."
"Oh. Okay." Xander quieted and settled in on his butt so his legs wouldn't go to sleep. If he crouched or knelt too long, he'd get pins and needles, and then trying to fight turned into a Three Stooges routine, only with less funny and more of the mortal danger. Xander glanced over, and O'Neill was dividing his time between watching the parking lot and glaring at Daniel.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, a stunningly gorgeous blonde in a tight red dress walked between the cars. Even if he was gay now, Xander's cock still sat up and took notice because this woman was stunning... model stunning. Of course, between her beauty and her ability to attract Xander's cock, Xander was guessing demon. That had no more occurred to him when a demony-looking demon, a scabby little thing that kept his head low like some sort of minion came darting down the stairs near Teal’c and hurried to her side.
"Have you found my key?" she demanded.
"No mistress. I am so sorry. I have failed you. My life is yours." The thing crouched even lower. Wow. This guy had minioning down to an art. Spike would love him, Xander mused. That thought made him check the sun, and unfortunately it was drifting entirely too low.
"Find my key!" The woman backhanded her minion, and he practically bounced off an old green car before chasing after her as she headed for the steps. Xander all but stopped breathing as he realized how close she would have to come. He'd definitely picked the wrong end of the bushes. And his instincts suggested that the stake, some wire and a box of matches shoved in his pockets wasn't going to be much help against this demon.
"Yes, mistress. I will die before failing you again. You are the sun that—."
"If you fail me, you'll be lucky to only die," the woman responded. Yep, they had officially met Glorificus.
"Of course, oh magnificent one. If my death or pain can glorify your name, they are yours."
"All I want is my key." Glory stopped and actually stomped a foot on the ground. It was a little surreal, even for Xander, and Xander had seen some pretty damn messed up stuff. "Make that slayer give me my key. I know she has it. Go. Find it." Shooing her scabby little minion away, she watched him for a second before giving a mighty sigh that reminded Xander eerily of Cordelia. Either this god had a cheerleader vibe or Cordelia wasn't kidding when she called herself a goddess. Either was possible. With one last huff, Glory headed for the stairs. Xander froze like a Popsicle. With his luck, she was going to spot him, fall in love with him, and consider disembowelment an appropriate courting ritual. She wouldn't even be the first to think so.
"Hey. I hear you're looking for me." Buffy casually strolled down the stairs. With her hair pulled up into a pony tail, she l like some college cheerleader just out for a stroll, but Xander’s stomach started churning out enough acid to eat through metal.
"You!" All the childish body language fell away as Glory took a step backwards, her hands curled into fists at her side.
"Yep, me. Well, usually. Occasionally, I'm not me, but I'm pretty good at reclaiming the body after someone else moves in. So, whatcha doing?" Buffy asked, grinning in that way that warned of imminent slayage. She leaped over the low wall on the far side of the stairs and then circled around Glory with that catlike predator’s gait she’d get when she spotted something on patrol. Xander could see Colonel O'Neill curse silently, his mouth moving furiously and silently.
Glory turned to face Buffy. "I offered you a chance at a truce. If you do not give me the key, I will destroy you, your family--everyone you love."
"If you had the power to do that, you already would have. I mean, it's not like you're a font of mercy."
"You will discover how merciless I am if you attempt to thwart me."
Buffy threw her hands up. "Oh, big word. Remind me to be impressed later." With that, Buffy pulled a sword out of her short little jacket. At one point, Xander had thought that Highlander ranked high on the unbelievable scale, but after watching the improbable places Buffy hid long, pointy things, he could believe there was a whole group of people running around with swords hid under miniskirts.
"Fine. I'll solve this the old-fashioned way," Glory said with a shake of her curls. This god was seriously running without her running lights on. Xander hadn't seen anyone this loopy since Drusilla. Moving forward, she made a fist and swung it. Buffy ducked, which was a little weird looking because Glorificus looked like she was swinging like a girl--and not an athletic girl. She looked more like Harmony, and considering that Xander had held his own in a slap-fest with a vampire version of Harm, that wasn't good. Despite that, Buffy was ducking and weaving as if afraid of the hits, so Xander assumed there was a lot to be afraid of.
"What is her most likely strategy, Xander Harris?" Teal'c asked calmly, as if Buffy wasn't fighting for her life ten feet away, because it was quickly looking like that. Glorificus advanced, and Buffy fell back with wide swings of her sword. Glory swung, and Buffy scrambled out of the way. For years, Xander had come to accept one thing--Buffy kicked people's asses. It didn't matter how big people were or how mean or how many centuries of fighting they had behind them. Buffy kicked their asses. So watching her flail like a normal person was not good for his sense of reality.
"I think that's called avoiding ass kickage," Xander admitted.
"A wise strategy with an unknown opponent."
Buffy chose that moment to slip at the top of the slope and take a half-tumble, half-roll down half the hill, only to bounce back up, but Glory was hard on her tail and Buffy was off balance.
Not even thinking, Xander threw himself forward. "Geez, Buff. I'm gone for a few months, and I find you growing your big bads more um...." Xander's brain grayed out as he searched for an insult. His initial plan to make fun of blondes definitely wasn't a smart one.
Glory reversed direction and closed in on Xander who backpedaled until he ran into the bulk that was Teal'c. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"No one you need to care about," Buffy said as she took the second's reprieve to get her feet under her.
"Maybe I find him interesting," Glory said, which was about the scariest thing Xander had seen since the last time Colonel O'Neill had growled at him.
Teal'c pushed him to one side, and Xander rushed to clear the line of fire.
"Hey lady," O'Neill said. "Pick on someone your own size."
"Hey, I'm her size," Buffy complained with a mock frown.
Colonel O’Neill stepped forward. "I think that was my point. Good to see you, Summers. Subtle as ever."
Buffy grinned despite the not-so subtle insult. "Well, someone warned me you might be out here getting in trouble. I thought I'd save you. After all, you haven't given me my toys yet. I want a nuke, a really big one."
"You what?" Xander looked from O'Neill to Buffy and back. Clearly he had missed a memo. When had they agreed that Buffy could nuke someone?
"Forget it Summers. You're a little nuke happy for my comfort. Start with a nice block of C4 or a tank or something."
"You're no fun." Buffy was really getting her good pout going--the one that she used to torture Giles when she was feeling particularly bored, but Glory interrupted the moment with another foot stomp that looked like it should come from a five year old.
"Which of you has my key? Give me my key and I will make you emperor of the world."
"The world you plan to destroy?" Buffy asked. Glory narrowed her eyes.
"So..." O'Neill drew the word out. "What sort of key are you looking for? I have the name of a really great locksmith if you locked your keys in your car."
Buffy answered for her. "She wants some key that some monks had--it opens the portal between all the worlds and lets the demons invade."
"I'm voting no on that," O'Neill said, and weirdly, he sounded a lot like Buffy--except for the part where he was an oldish man and Buffy wasn't.
"Yeah, I already told her that. She doesn't listen well," Buffy said with a shrug.
Xander could see the moment when Glory's patience snapped. Screaming, she leaped forward and grabbed Xander by the shirt. And considering that he wasn’t making fun of her, it was really unfair that before Xander could even blink, he was flying through the air. Flying. And without wings or brakes, flying wasn't actually all that fun. He saw the ground coming up to meet him, and he tucked himself into a ball as he heard the group explode with shouting.
By the time Xander came back up, Buffy was trading hits hard and fast. The two women danced forward and back across the walk and the upper part of the hill. Looking around, Xander spotted O'Neill on one knee, the side of his face vivid red where he'd been hit with something, but he had his zat out and he was tracking every move the women made. Teal'c stood near Daniel, his handgun out as he did the same. The deepening dust made the whole scene surreal. Impossibly long shadows were fading into the dark
"I. Want. My. Key." Glory shrieked each word. Xander was the first to notice scabby demons joining the fight, since a number of them came running up from the parking lot, and he had landed pretty close to it.
"Oh no you don't." Xander grabbed at the nearest minion, catching him by an arm. The thing was solid though. It punched Xander in the stomach hard enough to make him dry heave a couple of times, and when Xander kicked it between the legs, it just repeated the maneuver and Xander fell to the ground. Well, he'd distracted it for at least sixty seconds, that was a victory. Sort of. Gunfire barked out now, and the whine of the zat. Teal'c's bullets only seemed to annoy the things, so Teal'c started swinging. Xander could hear the impact of his hits from yards away, and one of the scabby things fell back. Unfortunately, five more seemed to jump into the fray.
"You are really annoying me now," Buffy warned, but she sounded winded. Glory hit her, and Buffy fell to one knee.
A scabby guy tried to run up behind her, but the zat fired and it fell to the ground with blue lights chasing across his skin. Xander got up to his knees and headed for the fight. Before he could get there, another fighter threw himself into the fight, leaping over Buffy to land a flying kick in the middle of Glory's stomach. It took Xander's brain an embarrassingly long time to figure out the he was looking at Spike. For one, he didn't expect Spike to fly to Buffy's side in a fight. Spike was more of the, 'why can't you people remember I'm evil' sort. But more importantly, when Spike kicked things, they went down. Hard. And they stayed down, unless they were Buffy.
But Glory broke that rule. She stumbled back a step, but she didn't go down. Colonel O'Neill shot her once, sending that blue light skittering across her skin, but she only flipped her hair in his direction before focusing on Spike. Now there were so many of the minions that one actually turned toward Xander since all the real fighters had their own cluster of the ugly bastards already. Without a weapon, Xander braced himself for the hit, but Daniel yelled and then a handgun barked over and over, and each time, the minion jerked until he finally fell to the ground with a dozen red blotches of blood on his back.
Before Xander had any time to recover, Buffy yelled something, and then Colonel O'Neill was yelling, "Fall back. Teal'c cover the rear."
Buffy took a position near Teal'c who had gotten a long medal pole from somewhere. She punched while he swung, only Teal'c's bat looked suspiciously like a street sign pole. Spike was gleefully careening through the minions, and Glory stood at the edge of the whole melee. Xander finally spotted Daniel behind Jack on the far side of the tangle of demons. That meant Xander either had to wade through a whole gang of bad guys or circle around. He chose circling.
"Running away so soon? I thought we could have some fun," Buffy joked before planting her fist in a minion's face so hard that he flew backward.
"I find this boring," Glory announced grandly.
"Hey!" Buffy started in on Glory’s fashion sense, trading barbs, but Xander was really too busy to listen for a little bit. Two of the minions had decided he was an easier target than Buffy and Teal'c, which was a logical conclusion since he was. Xander found himself dancing backward to keep from getting grabbed.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Colonel O'Neill and Daniel heading his way. The colonel's fire took down one of the guys, but the second one reached out and caught Xander's arm. Now the colonel couldn't fire his zat, and panic was a real possibility. Right about the time Xander decided to scream like a six year old girl, Spike was there pulling the minion off Xander with a snarl.
"You bloody moron."
Xander wasn't even sure if Spike was insulting him or the minion, but he was guessing it wasn't the minion. Before he could insult Spike back, Spike had wheeled away, and Xander rush to meet up with Colonel O'Neill and Daniel. Once O'Neill had gotten them a distance down the path, he turned and started firing his zat at any minion apart from the crowd, and Xander could see Buffy and Teal'c moving toward them, fighting minions off as they retreated.
"Harris, cover fire," O'Neill ordered. Opening his mouth to point out he didn't have a weapon, Xander looked down to find Daniel pressing a weapon into his hand. This was just like training only his friends' lives depended on him not screwing up. Oh yeah, no pressure there. None at all. Xander went to one knee and started firing low, taking out knees whenever the opportunity provided itself.
Suddenly, as quickly as they'd appeared, they all vanished, leaving behind the wounded and maimed who had to drag themselves away. There were no dead, so either these things were incredible hardy or O'Neill had used the zat to disintegrate them.
Xander gripped the weapon, looking around for the next enemy until it finally occurred to him that he was breathing so hard that he could hear the puffing of his breath like a steam engine. Reaching down, Colonel O’Neill plucked the gun out of Xander’s hands and handed it over to Daniel who holstered it without comment, and Xander still couldn’t get the strength to stand up. His had noodle legs going, and he knew from experience that he really needed to just stay down because if he tried to stand, his face and the ground were going to have a sudden meeting.
Eventually Buffy turned toward O’Neill. "Okay, not to sound ungrateful because I appreciate the backup, but what exactly did you think you were doing?" Buffy demanded. She looked unusually mussed and a little cranky--never a good combination.
"Excuse me?" Colonel O'Neill didn't look too amused himself.
"You, here, coming out alone. So not smart. What would you have done if I hadn't gotten here on time?"
Xander felt like he was watching Clash of the Titans, friend edition.
O’Neill crossed his arms. “Personally, I planned on staying in hiding and avoiding the enemy.”
Xander could see the second that registered with Buffy. Colonel O’Neill hadn’t needed rescuing, not until she came. She flinched a little and then straightened up. “Around here, hiding doesn’t always work that well. Hiding assumes that the other guy can’t smell you or sense your body heat or hear your psychic thoughts or something.”
Daniel jumped on that one word. “Psychic? There are psychic species?”
Buffy shrugged. “Hey humans can be psychic if they don’t mind their brain eventually blowing up and Technicolor image of their friends’ weird little fantasy lives.” Buffy took a second to look right at Xander, and Xander struggled up to his feet.
“Hey, I was eighteen. Eighteen year old boys thing about sex, okay? It wasn’t my fault you kept reading my mind.”
“Trust me, I was trying not to,” Buffy said with a smile, and Xander could feel the pieces of his world slipping back into place. Nothing was too bad if Buffy was joking.
“Right now, I only care about figuring out how to take that woman out,” O’Neill said. “Summers, how do you feel about some M-249 SAWs or M240 machine guns?”
“I don’t know.” Buffy looked suspicious. “Are they big?”
“They’re not nukes, but they’re bigger than the standard MP5 or P90s we normally carry,” O’Neill said. I’ve seen them take down trees.”
Buffy got a creepy smile on her face.
“Summers, you are really scaring me,” O’Neill pointed out.
“Hey, if you’re going to get me into fights, you can at least provide some good toys,” Buffy said. “This time, Spike really saved our bacon.” Buffy stopped and looked around, and Xander did the same as he realized what was missing.
“Spike?” Buffy called. The silence was broken only by the static popping of one defective streetlight that had gone on during the fight as the last of the dusk had finally faded to black. “Spike?” Buffy whirled and took a step in one direction before reversing and running a few steps the other way. “Spike?!” Buffy screamed with a desperation that made Xander feel a tickle of panic, even if it was only Spike. Buffy turned back to them and Xander could see the panic.
Colonel O’Neill grabbed his cell phone and hit one of the buttons. “Carter, you and Rosenberg get those cameras up. We have a missing man. Grid the area from this location and shoot SG3 out here the second they get boots on ground.”
O’Neill listened for a second. “It’s Spike. We have to assume a capture, so I want to know where this woman calls home.”
“He knows,” Buffy whispered, horror in her voice, and Xander hurried to Buffy’s side. “He knows about the key,” she said.
Xander sucked in a breath. Slowly, O’Neill turned toward her. “He knows about the key used to let all the demons in through the gate?”
O’Neill ran a hand over his face. “Well, that’s just peachy. Carter,” he said to into the phone, “Call the mountain. We have a potential foothold situation. We may need a little assistance on this one.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander followed Daniel and the others back to the hotel, even when Buffy gave him a long hard look. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the world he belonged in any more, and if he had to listen to Buffy mourn Spike’s disappearance, Xander was going to say something really irrational about the fact that Spike seemed to have taken his place. It was wrong… Spike being a Scoobie while he was outside looking in at them. It sucked.
“Jack, there’s more to the story of that key,” Daniel pointed out.
“Ya think?” O’Neill shot right back. “I thought she was simply playing her cards close to the vest by hiding the location, but there’s definitely more going on.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Get the civilians out of town, gear up, and kill a god.” O’Neill shrugged. “Standard operating procedure.” After that, they were silent for a while. They were approaching the hotel before O’Neill turned to Xander. “Harris, how much trouble will we cause carrying P90s? Or hell, the way this day’s been going, maybe we should carry some M-4s.”
“With the local authorities? Is anyone going to arrest us for carrying weapons?” O’Neill clarified.
Xander snorted at the thought of the police doing anything except giving tickets, but he gave the question some serious thought before he mouthed off and pissed off the colonel. Xander figured he’d already done that enough by leaving the hotel. “If someone big and bad is controlling them, they may try to start something, but if they’re threatened, they pretty much run away.”
O’Neill sighed. “Okay, we go with P90s and keep them tucked close and out of sight. Teal’c meet up with SG3 and get our gear.”
Teal’c inclined his head in the colonel’s direction and then detoured toward the side of the hotel. Looking that way, Xander could see the nose of a black van sitting in the glow of a streetlight.
“Daniel, coordinate with Summers. Make sure that we have at least one SG3 member with the evacuating civilians, and I warned the local Army base they were going to have to provide backup, so call them and get us a couple of armored vehicles and a full protection detail, his best soldiers. They won’t be good, but if I send Major Warren, he’ll make them toe the line. I want Summers’ mother and sister and anyone else who might get used as leverage on that transport out of town, and I don’t want them to stop until they’re at MCLB Barstow.”
“Marine base east of here. If this is a god, I want our civilians behind a few thousand special ops trained marines.” O’Neill stopped as they got to the front door and leaned in close. “Harris, is Summers more likely to send the key with the civilians or to keep it with her? She knows where it is, and she knows that if Spike cracks, that woman is coming after it.”
“He’ll crack,” Xander said bitterly. All Glory had to do was offer to get the chip out or provide a steady stream of blood, and Spike would fold like a house of cards.
O’Neill’s voice got oddly soft. “Harris, we all crack. No one stands up to torture in the long run, not if the interrogator knows his business. Even under the best of circumstances, the best we could hope was for Spike to provide so much disinformation that by the time he spilled the beans this woman wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The real question is whether he’ll crack before we get there. So, focus, airman. Is Summers keeping the key with her or sending it with the civilians?”
“She’ll want to keep it with her,” Xander said firmly. “She doesn’t trust anyone else to get the job done.”
O’Neill ran a hand over his face. “And before this is over, I’m going to have a little talk with that watcher about how she developed that attitude. Daniel, go,” O’Neill ordered. Daniel paused, giving Xander a long and panicked look, but O’Neill reached over and gave him a shove on the arm. “Play googly eyes later, get the job done now.” Daniel’s glare was vicious, but at least he did head into the hotel.
“Am I in trouble?” Xander asked, cringing a little at the sheer dumbness of the question. Of course he was in trouble. He still had punishment coming from going AWOL, so disobeying a direct order was the shit cherry on that crap sundae.
After a long look, O’Neill gestured toward the front door of the hotel. “Let’s talk in the room.” Xander felt a little like a kid being walked to the principal’s office as he followed O’Neill into the hotel. They passed a sleepy looking front desk worker who carefully didn’t make eye contact with them as they headed for the elevators.
“This is a public space, not secure. Vampires can walk right in here,” he pointed out in the privacy of the elevator.
“Do demons other than vampires need invitations?” O’Neill asked.
“Then don’t trust that invitation rule to keep you safe anywhere. Teal’c and I secured the hotel, and if it was compromised, Carter would signal us before we got anywhere near it.”
“Oh.” Xander stared at the ugly floral pattern on the floor.
“Summers implied that her house had been invaded, something about zombies and a werewolf…” O’Neill let his words trail off, clearly inviting Xander to fill in the blanks.
“The zombies were from a cursed mask, and the werewolf wasn’t an attack as much as it was a friend who fell asleep and missed the deadline for getting to his cage,” Xander offered.
“A friend.” O’Neill had a flat tone, and Xander could feel his anger rise.
“Oz is a friend. He was with us through most everything, including that graduation from hell, and if he’s a werewolf it doesn’t make him a bad person.” Xander stared right at O’Neill, almost daring him to try and call Oz a monster.
Both O’Neill’s eyebrows went up, and the elevator door dinged open on their floor, but neither of them moved. “Harris, I’m the man who asked for the ex-first Prime of Apophis on his team. I’m not judging your friend—I’m expressing surprise.”
Xander could feel his anger vanish like a popped balloon. “Oh,” he said, cringing again as he realized that he sounded like an idiot. The elevator doors started to slide closed, and O’Neill slapped a hand over one side to keep it open.
“So, do you assume that everyone has a deep-set hatred for demons?”
“Most people do,” Xander said as he got off the elevator and headed for their rooms. He had no idea how O’Neill managed to always get him off guard, but he felt like he needed a cheat sheet to talk to the man. Otherwise, he always managed to make himself sound as stupid as humanly possible.
O’Neill stepped in front of him and rapped on one of the doors. In a second, it opened and Carter stood there, gun in hand.
“Clear and secure. Daniel’s talking to Summers, but she’s resisting sending the civilians away.”
“Is he going to talk her into it?” O’Neill asked.
“He’s got his charm going, sir,” she said with a smile.
“Then I’ll put my money on him. Any sign of that woman or Spike?”
Carter shook her head. “No sir. The few operating cameras I’ve found aren’t recording. We have a few sightings of the secondary targets, and I’m attempting geographical profiling to determine home territory. Rosenberg is attempting to trace Spike’s quantum signature; however, she informs me that the process is more difficult because he is an inter-dimensional hybrid.” It took Xander a couple of second to translate that into Willow was doing a tracking spell, but the fact that Spike was dead made it a little hard.
“Coordinate with SG3.”
“Yes, sir,” Carter said. Holstering her gun, she headed out of the room, giving Xander a long look that Xander didn’t understand. Maybe she was pissed because he’d punched her, but given that she’d beat the tar out of him two seconds later, that didn’t seem fair.
“Harris, in here,” O’Neill ordered from inside the hotel room.
“Yes, sir,” Xander agreed, heading in to his doom. O’Neill stood in the middle of the room, his arms crossed and a very cranky look on his face, and Xander decided to just take the bull by the horns… or the colonel by the cranky. Anything was better than waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Look, I know I wasn't much help,” Xander started, but O’Neill interrupted him.
“Yes, you were.”
Shock robbed Xander of the ability to speak. “What?” he finally asked, still not sure his ears were telling the whole truth about what they’d heard.
Sitting on the end of the bed, O’Neill said, “You were helpful. You distracted the enemy and gave Summers a chance to recover her balance. Now, I don't generally recommend you do that by offering to get thrown on your ass, but it's one option, I suppose. Now, the fact that you were in the field without a weapon? For that I might have you field stripping weapons until your fingers fall off.”
“I had weapons. I had a stake and some matches.” Xander reached down and felt the familiar lump in his pocket.
“Against a god,” O’Neill said dryly.
Xander crossed his arms. “Which works about as well as a gun.”
O'Neill glared at him. "If you ever go in the field unarmed again, you will be sorry. So, explain how you find it logical to carry a stake and not a sidearm."
"Because stakes work better against vampires." Xander thought that was pretty obvious.
“And were you going up against vampires?”
Xander flinched. Okay, so there was a little flaw in his thinking. "I'm not used to... I'm not a soldier,” he defended himself because when O’Neill put it that way, he’d been slightly stupid. Worse, now that he thought about it, Daniel’s gun had come in way more handy that Xander’s stake.
"You still aren't a soldier. You joined the Air Force, not the Army, Harris. That makes you an airman; however, you're going to get booted out if you can't make a decision about who you plan to be.”
“Sir?” Maybe Xander had taken one too many hits to the head, but he was definitely not following Colonel O’Neill’s train of thought.
O’Neill sigh was more than a little on the annoyed side. “Are you a dishwasher or a fighter, Harris?”
“What is it with you people? Daniel keeps trying to call me a linguist. Can’t I just be Xander Harris?” Xander gave a goofy grin, but O’Neill looked at him long enough that Xander got the feeling that he’d just given the wrong answer.
“Okay, so maybe Xander Harris isn’t exactly the awesomest of guys,” Xander admitted with a shrug.
“Harris,” O’Neill snapped. “Do you really want a performance evaluation right here and now?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and Xander could just imagine what O’Neill wanted to say right now. Xander was well acquainted with the ‘how could you be so stupid’ speech.
“Um, really kinda don’t.”
O’Neill started in anyway. “You acted without thought for your own personal safety when you saw a team member in danger. You correctly assessed danger and effectively distracted the enemy. You recovered immediately from an unexpected attack and avoided injury with a well-executed tuck and roll, and you managed to reengage the enemy. And once you had a weapon, you effectively disabled an enemy that was immune to bullets by targeting knees. And then you screwed all that up by not having a weapon in the first place.” O’Neill stood up and moved forward, all anger as he poked a finger in Xander’s chest. “Dr. Jackson put himself in a difficult position in order to cover you when the enemy targeted you. He put himself in danger, Harris, and if he had gotten hurt, I would have made you miserable for the rest of your life. The rest of your life.” O’Neill leaned in close, and Xander swallowed as a cold fury rolled off the man like a fog. Xander had met demons who didn’t scare him half as much. “He tried to cover you. He’s not a fighter, Harris, and he was trying to cover you. So I’m going to ask you again. Are you a fighter or a dishwasher because my patience is running out.”
Xander opened his mouth, but he had trouble gathering his thoughts. For the first time, he honestly felt a hellmouthy sort of fear looking at O’Neill. That outer layer of bad jokes and overblown frustration had vanished, and the man under that mask was a little scary. Or a lot scary. Xander might go with a lot. “Both?” Xander guessed. When O’Neill looked even angrier, Xander changed his answer. “Neither?”
O’Neill sighed, running a hand over his face, and the fury was gone just that fast. Turning around, he retreated to the tall dresser and leaned on it. “Harris, a discharge would be the safest thing for you, but if I did boot you, Daniel would still want to spend time with you and then I wouldn’t even be able to keep an eye on you, and trust me, you need a keeper.”
“I didn’t mean to put him in danger. I would never do that,” Xander said softly. He hated the idea that his stupidity had put Daniel in danger. “Most of the time, I patrol with Buffy, and it doesn’t matter how many times I fall down.”
O’Neill snorted, but even if it sounded like a laugh-snort, it came without any humor. “With Daniel in the field, he takes up most of the team’s quota for falling down,” O’Neill said wearily. “So, if you’re going to fight, you have to make a decision. You have to be focused. You need to train and you need to think about things like being armed and keeping track of which ammo and how much you have. You can’t rush into things.”
“But I’m the dishwasher,” Xander whispered.
Narrowing his eyes, O’Neill challenged him with a look. “Really? And how does a dishwasher react when he learns of a potential enemy in the area? If you want, I can get Staff Sergeant Powell on the phone and you can ask him what he did during the alarm on base.”
“He would have locked down his area and kept quiet while trying to watch for enemy movement in his area.” Xander knew that for a fact because on his first day in the kitchen the sergeant had given him very specific instructions on what he was supposed to do if he got caught in another foothold situation.
“So, are you a dishwasher, Harris? When this god comes knocking on the door, are you really a dishwasher?”
Xander swallowed. “No,” he admitted softly.
“Hell, don’t look at me like I’ve kicked your puppy. Do you really think I don’t get it? For me, it was fishing and watching the stars. I told everyone that I was happy being retired, that I liked spending my mornings fishing in a lake with no fish and my evenings looking through a telescope. Sometimes I still need to do that. However, I don’t lie to myself, Harris. I know I’m a fighter, and I make sure I’m ready for the fight. So, are you a dishwasher, a fighter, or someone I’m going to try very hard to just keep out of the way because he can’t pull his own head out of his ass long enough to take a deep breath of air?”
“A fighter.” Xander tried to sound firm, but he could hear his own voice waver.
O’Neill snorted. “It’d be nice if you said that in a way that made it sound like you meant it, but for now, good enough.”
“I’m not good at fighting,” Xander hurried to add, “I usually just get knocked down.”
“I’m already on the fence about recommending you for discharge, so don’t give me an excuse,” O’Neill said, his voice back to being cranky, which was better than his terrifying voice.
“I don’t want you to think I’m someone I’m not. I’m the guy who shows up to a fight with a rock. I’m the one who made his big move, and his big move was offering to let a zombie blow me up, although oddly that worked, so clearly it wasn’t an entirely stupid idea.” Xander verbally stumbled to a halt.
For a long time, O’Neill just looked at him, and Xander squirmed. “Did your side win?”
“Then don’t worry about it. Trust me, I’ve pulled some unorthodox moves in the field.”
Xander opened his mouth to argue that he was less with the unorthodox and more with the slightly boneheaded, but he snapped his mouth shut when O’Neill shot him a nasty look.
“So, I’m assuming that growing up in the middle of this war means you’ve picked up a few non-military habits. Actually, this town explains quite a few of your less charming traits, including your willingness to let Teal’c beat on you.”
“Dr. Fraiser told you?”
“I’m your commanding officer. Of course she told me. If it makes you feel better, based on the fact that she threatened me with a big old needle after one little masochism joke, she likes you. However, until we are back in the mountain, you are officially assigned to Teal’c. He’s not military—like you, he grew up in the middle of a situation so fucked up that it defies description. So if you show up with a rock, and that’s the best weapon for the job, he’ll congratulate you.” O’Neill stopped and frowned. “Maybe. Teal’c’s not one for a lot of praise. However, if you don’t take his advice and do every single thing he tells you to… let’s just say I’m giving him a wide latitude to deal with that. The military thing isn’t working for you, so we’re trying this Teal’c’s way.” From O’Neill’s sadistic grin, Xander wasn’t exactly sure what to think. He liked Teal’c. A lot. But from O’Neill’s expression, Xander guessed that he might not be liking Teal’c in the near future. “Comments, complaints?” O’Neill asked cheerfully, and Xander realized that O’Neill cheerful was almost as scary as O’Neill angry.
“No, sir,” he agreed.
“Good. Get your ass downstairs, check in with SG3, get a weapon, and tell Teal’c you are officially his chal’til.”
O’Neill gave him another scary smile. “Oh, you’ll find out. Go.”
“Yes, sir,” Xander said, turning and scurrying out of the room before O’Neill could change his mind and give Xander that discharge he’d threatened. Maybe Xander hadn’t exactly wanted to join, but he definitely didn’t want to leave now. Not now. Not with Daniel and an alien war to fight. And if he had to give up his dreams of becoming a dishwasher, well, Xander had done lots of things he really didn’t want to do—things that he was pretty sure were higher on the stupid scale.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander stopped at the edge of the hotel. As he looked around the parking lot, he could feel O'Neill's eyes on him, even if he couldn't see the colonel. Either he was watching to make sure Xander reported to Teal'c or he had the sort of evil eye that could make someone feel like they were being watched when they weren't. Two members of SG3 came around the corner carrying a heavy footlocker between them. Major Warren stopped when he spotted Xander, and Xander caught himself halfway through a salute. "Do I salute if I'm not in uniform?" he asked, his hand still half-raised.
"Then I'd rather you carry your end of this," Major Warren said, lifting up his end of the case a little. Xander rushed to take it.
"Holy crap. What do you have in here, a dead preacher?" Xander asked.
Major Warren looked at him oddly. "Actually, Airman, those are toys. Air Force toys, which are the best kind. Let's get them up to the fourth floor."
"Yes, sir," Xander agreed. He'd already managed to completely piss off one officer, and he really hoped to avoid repeating that feat. His carry-partner grinned at him before heading for the hotel.
“You act a little green for someone who’s so good at blowing shit up,” the other man said as they maneuvered the locker into the hotel.
Xander nearly dropped his end. “I… but… what?”
“That snake going up, solid work, Airman. Seriously solid work. I’m Daniel Johnson, lieutenant and munitions expert. So, are you joining up with SG-3?”
Xander’s brain was in danger of exploding. Serious danger. “You saw that?” His voice squeaked a little, and Johnson gave him a very odd look. The pause that followed gave Xander’s brain a chance to dart off on a little detour as he considered that Daniel Johnson and Daniel Jackson were almost exact opposites. Whereas Xander’s Daniel was cute and geeky, Lieutenant Johnson was a seriously large black man who had shoulders big enough to make Spike think twice about attacking. Well, maybe not Spike. That idiot would attack anyone, as evidenced by the fact that he’d come to town aiming to kill Buffy.
“Yeah, it was good work,” Lieutenant Johnson repeated. “So, you’re not coming over to SG-3?” Johnson looked a little concerned now. Holding the locker with one hand, he reached over to punch the elevator button, and it opened immediately.
“Um, Colonel O’Neill ordered me to report to Teal’c… just as soon as I can find him.”
“Selfish bastard,” Johnson joked. “So, what’s the sitrep around here?”
“Um, bad guy, or bad girl rather, trying to end the world.” Xander really was uncomfortable just talking about the latest potential world-ending. Apocalypse were supposed to be secret. Super-secret and only discussed over cheesy food.
“So, another day at work, huh? Is there anything that hasn’t hit the reports?”
“Um, I don’t even know what’s in the report,” Xander admitted, and he didn’t want to see reports. He didn’t like change, and his world was changing too fast. Reports and soldiers and weapons were part of a world of change, but O’Neill was right that he couldn’t wash dishes during the transition. The elevator opened on the fourth floor, and Xander picked his end of the locker up again, freezing when he spotted O’Neill in the hall. Johnson took a step forward, and the hard tug on the locker got Xander moving again.
“Colonel O’Neill,” Johnson greeted him with a nod.
“Lieutenant. Set up in 405.”
“Yes, sir. Major Warren brought the good toys.”
“Good, because there is a woman who is just itching to die.” Colonel O’Neill looked at Xander. “Did you get lost, Airman Harris?”
“Um. No?” Xander tried to walk on by carrying his end, but Johnson stopped.
“Thanks, Harris. I can drag it from here and let the hotel charge the Air Force for any carpet damage,” he said, nodding toward Xander’s end. Feeling his face heat up, Xander put his end down and watched as Johnson dragged it toward the other end of the hall.
“Helping him after I’d ordered you to report to Teal’c. Yep, I got that. I’m just quick like that,” O’Neill said, cutting him off.
“I’ll just go…”
“Find Teal’c before you’re in even more trouble?”
“Hey, that sounds oddly smartlike,” Xander joked, turning and fleeing for the elevator. Xander silently cursed himself as he watched the numbers light up at each floor. Okay, so O’Neill had ordered him to report to Teal’c, but Warren had asked him to carry the box, and this was why he hated the military. A little more logic would go a long way, and Xander suspected that when he was bothered by illogic, the levels of illogic had reached critical levels. It wasn’t like Xander was the big thinking of the group.
The elevator doors opened, and Teal’c stood there, blinking calmly at Xander, and right away the knots in Xander’s stomach started to unknot. Teal’c made sense in a way that other people just didn’t.
“Hey, O’Neill said I was to report to you.” Xander smiled and Teal’c eyebrow twitched up. Xander hoped that meant surprise and not horror.
“I think he was a little less than happy that I came running to the rescue without any weapons to actually rescue.” Xander shrugged.
“Your heart is pure, but the strategy failed.”
With a grimace, Xander admitted, “Yeah, sometimes I think after I act.”
“One who fails to consider his actions will likely die.”
“Yeah, there’s that,” Xander admitted. The truth was that he figured he was dead so many times that warning had sort of worn off, even when Giles delivered the same warning while polishing his glasses and gritting his teeth.
“We must check the perimeter. Name the weapons you carry.”
“Matches, a stake, some string, a knife in my shoe.” Xander watched as Teal’c seemed to think about that.
“In what way is a string a weapon rather than a tool?” Teal’c looked honestly curious about that, either that or he was testing Xander. The more Xander thought about it, the more it seemed more like a test than any sort of evidence that Teal’c couldn’t figure out for himself how to kill someone with string—he could probably kill someone a dozen different ways with it.
“Trip wires. Fledges come up out of the ground, and they aren’t really big with thinking or watching their feet,” Xander answered.
Teal’c inclined his head in approval for a second, but when he straightened up, Xander could see the other foot about to drop. “And who do we face in this battle.”
“And that would be not vampires for three-hundred, Alex,” Xander admitted with a sigh.
Teal’c ignored the Alex comment with only a single eyebrow twitch. “Indeed. What weapons would you take into this battle?”
“A big freaking ax.”
Both Teal’c’s eyebrows went up. “And where would one find such a weapon?”
Xander shrugged, “The Magic Box, this store in town… it sells spells and creepy magic supplies and really big-ass bladed weapons.”
“Do you find an ax more advantageous than a handgun?”
Xander thought about that. A bullet had speed on its side, and it definitely did bad, bad things to knees, but if something were right in his face, Xander definitely preferred an ax. “It has weight and a cutting edge. It can do more brute force damage, and some things just aren’t bothered by little bitty bullet holes.” Xander held up a finger and thumb to indicate just how small a bullet hole could be.
“But were you to be a few dozen feet from an adversary, which weapon would work best?”
“Okay, you got me there. That’s more gun territory.” Xander narrowed his eyes. “But you carry a staff weapon, and that is definitely not the bestest and strongest of weapons. I got shot with one, and it hurt like hell without actually keeping me out of the fight.”
“For many fighters, the application of pain prevents them from continuing to fight.”
Xander snorted. “Teal’c, you could have a leg blown off, and you’d still fight, so I’m not buying that.”
Teal’c inclined his head and seemed to think for a moment. Then he gestured to urge Xander back into the elevator. Since Xander had never stepped off, just stood in front of the door to keep it from closing, he stepped back so Teal’c could get on the elevator with him. The doors closed, and Teal’c turned to look at him without hitting any of the floor buttons. “System lords wish to avoid permanently damaging slaves. A live human with minimal damage can be repaired and then either used as a host or tortured until they reveal their secrets.”
“Okay, ew and ew.”
“I concur. However, the system lords adopted the staff weapon to achieve their goals. I carry the staff weapon because it is a familiar tool, able to fight from a distance and in close quarters. However, it is also a familiar symbol.”
“So, you show up on new planets waving a symbol of the system lords?” Xander asked, not so sure that was a good idea.
“I wave,” he said with a significant pause to suggest he didn’t exactly agree with that word choice, “a symbol of strength, a warning that I will defend myself,” Teal’c corrected him. “People who are starved will fight for scraps, and some worlds will kill a stranger on sight.”
Xander grimaced. He really hated to think that the rest of the universe was more screwed up than earth. What with the demons and the politics and every country’s weird obsession with trying to prove everyone else wrong, Xander had always assumed that Earth was sort of the shitty end of the human spectrum. Sure, demon worlds had fiery lakes and soul-consuming demons, but earth had politicians. It evened out. So finding out that everyone else’s bad was worse than your own… not so good.
Without another word, Teal’c turned and hit the button for the fourth floor.
“Are you about to go tell Colonel O’Neill that you don’t want to do the whole chal’til thing? Honestly, I know I act without thinking, so trust me, I will not be insulted. Promise. And yes, I know there are people who say they won’t be offended, and then they are, but you know me well enough to know that pretty much whatever I’m thinking, I say. It just all falls out my mouth, good, bad, indifferent.”
“Chal’til?” Teal’c sounded honestly shocked. Or maybe it wasn’t that he sounded shocked as much as he sounded entirely too careful about not sounding like anything, which usually happened right after Xander did something like ask to take Junior out of Teal’c’s pouch.
“I may be saying that wrong. I do that a lot. So if I just offered to be your cherry-covered cream puff, ignore that and substitute in whatever word would actually make sense.”
“You used the correct word.”
The elevator opened onto the fourth floor, and Teal’c headed down the hall, leaving Xander to trail behind, but something definitely didn’t seem right. Teal’c was way too shocked at that word. “So, I’m wondering what a chal’til is,” Xander said. Teal’c kept on with that perfectly neutral non-reaction which really was different from the almost non-reaction or the kinda sorta non-reaction that he usually had.
“The word has many meanings.”
“Feel free to share some of them,” Xander suggested. Teal’c stopped outside room 405 and turned to face Xander.
“It is a student.”
“If it was that simple, it wouldn’t have many meanings. It would have one meaning—student. Many is not one,” Xander pointed out. His hellmouthy vibe was sort of singing up and down his spine.
“It is not,” Teal’c agreed.
“And you’re not going to share the other meanings? Why am I getting the feeling that you’re intentionally not mentioning things?”
“Because you recognize the truth.”
Teal’c turned and rapped on the door. Lieutenant Johnson answered it, and the two men were about perfectly matched—huge and scary for huge and scary. Funny enough, Xander had gone from hanging out with scary women to hanging out with scary men. It said something about his life that he always put himself in a position where he was the fluffy puppy of the group.
“Hey, Teal’c,” Johnson greeted him with a smile. “Did the colonel send you to check the supplies?”
“Airman Harris needs a weapon.”
Johnson looked over to Xander before focusing on Teal’c. “Colonel O’Neill didn’t say we were gearing up. Trouble?”
“Airman Harris requires a bladed weapon; however, he first needs a sidearm and a P90 before we travel across town.”
“In this town? Yeah, he does. Come on in.” Johnson stepped back, and Xander started following Teal’c into the room. He stopped when he looked at the sheer number of weapons laid out around the room. Both beds were shoved in a corner, and racks of guns had taken their place. It looked like an armory, which was clearly what it was. “We brought four extras on the P90s, a few M-4s and M-16s, and weirdest of all, an anti-tank gun. I’m not sure I even want to know what we’re planning on shooting with that if we don’t have any tel’taks on the ground.”
“Colonel O’Neill will brief the team. Xander Harris, choose a sidearm,” Teal’c ordered as he went over to claim a P90 and begin checking the weapon. Feeling a little weird, Xander went over to the small selection of sidearms. He wanted to claim that he was the dishwasher and he didn’t need a sidearm, but after his O’Neill’s lecture, he decided it was time to stop playing that game. So he picked up a Sig Sauer, feeling the cool grip in his hand before putting it down and picking up a the Beretta. It fit his hand better, and Xander picked up the holster that went with the Beretta.
“How many rounds will that carry?” Teal’c asked. Quiz time.
“Fifteen rounds in a magazine.”
“How many magazines shall you carry?”
Xander blinked. “Um, a million probably wouldn’t work.” The one think Xander didn’t like about a gun was that it needed bullets.
Johnson laughed. “I know that feeling. How about three clips?”
Xander nodded. “That’ll work.” Taking a deep breath, Xander tried to force himself to be a soldier. For years, the fragments of soldier memory had floated around, supplying odd images at inappropriate times. He could still remember duct-taping some recruit to a pole, which is one reason why he hated the frat-house feel of his basic training and first assignment at Peterson. He remembered being someone he didn’t like. He really hoped that Ethan was rotting in a jail cell after screwing with everyone’s memories on that Halloween night.
“Are the P90 magazines 30 or 50 rounds?” Xander asked as Teal’c handed him the larger weapon.
“Fifty,” Johnson said, reaching for one of three lockers stacked on the side of the room. “How many do you want?”
“Four,” Xander said. He looked at Teal’c. “Considering that it can put out 900 rounds a minute, I’ll go through clips fast if I’m not careful on the trigger.”
“You will,” Teal’c agreed.
“And I’m definitely going back to the room and grabbing a sweater or something before going out with this,” Xander added as he slung the P90 over his shoulder. He then attached the Beretta holster to the back of his jeans. If he was going to be a soldier and not a dishwasher, he needed to get used to the weapons, but right now, the corners of the P90 poked him and the holster made his jeans pull too tight across his waist.
“Just a hint. Most local police prefer you don’t carry the P90 around at all,” Johnson said.
“In Sunnydale, they won’t even notice.” Xander frowned. “Or they will notice and then decide to intentionally walk the other way and ticket someone for jaywalking… one or the other. I’ve never really understood how Sunnydale blindness works, but trust me, no one is going to question my right to carry a big-ass weapon. I just don’t want to stand out in a ‘hey, I’m challenging the world’ kind of way because older vampires and some demons seem to have a gut-deep need to attack the strongest enemy.” Xander thought about how Drusilla had hunted in orphanages. “Sometimes,” he amended himself.
“Then concealing strength is wise. Come,” Teal’c said as he headed for the door. Xander turned, and winced as the P90 bounced against him, but he rested a hand on the end to hold it down and he went to follow Teal’c out the door. Soldier. Be a soldier. Xander mentally chanted to himself. He promptly hit the P90 on the edge of the door as he tried to leave.
“Sorry. Sorry, shit,” Xander hurried to say as he checked to see if he’d damaged anything.
“One who fails is also a definition of chal’til,” Teal’c said calmly.
Xander snorted. “I have that down.”
“The goal of the chal’til is to learn to avoid failure.” Teal’c put a hand on Xander’s back, pushing him into the hall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander pulled at his borrowed jacket. “I look dumb in this,” he complained softly. Teal’c certainly didn’t disagree, which made Xander pull more.
“If you damage the garment, O’Neill will likely complain,” Teal’c commented mildly. Immediately Xander dropped his hand. It was one thing to look dumb in a weirdly cut beige jacket that looked like someone had mugged some grandfather to steal it. It was another to piss off O’Neill. Again.
“He has terrible taste in clothes,” Xander complained. Teal’c had no answer. But what could he do? Disagree? Xander was not seeing that in the near future. Teal’c was the master of following orders—kind of the opposite of Xander. But even if Teal’c didn’t agree, Xander knew he was right. If O’Neill wore this, he had horrible taste. It was shapeless, colorless, and lifeless—a civilian version of a uniform.
“Did you even tell Colonel O’Neill we were leaving because I’d like to avoid dying. And having said that, I’m thinking of course you’ve cleared it with Colonel O’Neill. You don’t screw up that big. Not like me. I really screwed up,” Xander said miserably. It seemed like the more he didn’t want to screw up, the more he did. When he was delivering peaches to people he didn’t care about, he helped hold off an alien invasion. When he tried to protect the people he loved more than life itself, he fucked up.
“You did,” Teal’c offered, which wasn’t a big reassurance.
“You know, normally when people say things like that, you’re supposed to reassure them that it isn’t all that bad.”
“Your lack of a weapon inspired Dr. Jackson to place himself in a difficult to defend position.”
Xander flinched. Yep, there was the gut-eating guilt. “You see, that’s what I mean. You’re making me feel worse.”
As they walked down the street, Teal’c looked over at Xander a little like Xander had just lost his mind. “Would my willingness to lie provide absolution?”
“I wish.” Xander sighed. "Not that I'm wishing. Nope, no w-wording for me."
“Then why request it?” Instead of making Xander sound stupid, Teal’c sounded honestly curious.
“Because it’s what people do. And sure, people are stupid, but that goes without saying. Well, most people. I get the feeling the colonel isn’t stupid, and I know Daniel isn’t dumb,” Xander thought about how Daniel had moved into the middle of the fight with the demons, “unless he has me around to inspire it,” Xander concluded. Yep, that was him, spreading stupid everywhere he went. “Colonel O’Neill is never going to forgive me.”
“During battle, mistakes are made.”
Xander stopped right in the middle of the walk. “I forgot to bring a weapon. That’s less mistake-like and more on the monumentally moronic side. See how I used alliteration there to emphasize the moron big part of the sentence? Feel free to interrupt me any time now.”
Teal’c didn’t even bother to have a facial expression. “Were I to interrupt, you would use my disagreement as an excuse to reinforce your arguments in favor of your own flaws.”
“What? No I wouldn’t.”
Teal’c raised an eyebrow and then turned to head down the sidewalk again. Xander had to run to catch up. “I wouldn’t,” he repeated.
“So, you would react differently were I to say the same things Colonel O’Neill or Daniel Jackson have said?”
“Were you hit in the head today?” Xander demanded. “I wouldn’t…” He stopped as his brain did a fast forward through his last few conversations with Colonel O’Neill. “I don’t mean…” The truth hit Xander like a slimy fish. A slimy demony fish that smelled like rot. “Well shit,” he sighed. “You know, the only thing more rude than not disagreeing is rearranging people’s brains without their permission. I mean, I kinda do that, don’t I? I don’t mean to. It’s just that sometimes I don’t feel like I really fit here. Or anywhere. Face it, I didn’t have the whole slayer super-strength or witchy brilliance, and now I’m surrounded by people who are super soldiers or geniuses or both. It’s hard on the ego.” Xander hated how saying that out loud made him feel it even more sharply.
“Do you feel inferior or untrained?”
“Both. Hugely both.”
“You are untrained, but were you inferior, I would not have accepted you as chal’til. The term has great significance among my people, and I would not accept one who was inferior.”
“I didn’t think O’Neill gave you a choice.”
Teal’c stopped and made eye contact with Xander. “I would not have accepted you had I not believed in your skills Xander Harris. You have made many mistakes in tactics. You have put lives at risk. However, your bravery and heart make you a warrior, even if you are untrained. At one point, I was untrained—a young man who wished to fight but lacked the skills to rise about the common Jaffa. Master Bra’tac took me as his chal’til, raising me above the level of a common soldier. I will provide training. You will not make any decisions or take any actions without asking my permission.”
Xander swallowed. Teal’c made it all sound so simple, but the way that he was laying it all out was making Xander’s hellmouth-trained hairs all stand up. “Um, Teal’c, that sounds a little like slavery, you know, with the not doing anything without your permission part.”
Teal’c’s eyebrow twitched up. That was not the denial Xander had expected. Nope. Not at all. He was feeling a little like the Karate Kid here, but Xander did have to admit that he trusted Teal’c. More, he understood Teal’c. Maybe he even understood him more than Daniel. Scratch that. He knew he understood Teal’c better. Most of the time, Daniel’s sex talk broke out into languages that Xander couldn’t understand a word of.
“Does O’Neill have any idea what chal’til really means?”
Teal’c turned back toward the Magic Box and started walking again. “Of that I am unsure.”
“Someone should probably tell him,” Xander pointed out as he followed.
“No doubt Daniel Jackson will the moment you inform him of this change.”
Xander snickered, and Teal’c looked back at him curiously. “I’m thinking I could get some guilt points out of this, a little sympathy maybe. I mean, he sold me into slavery. That has to be worth a few days off the punishment I so have coming after going AWOL.”
“You could,” Teal’c agreed. “You shall not.”
“Spoilsport,” Xander complained, but somehow, he wasn’t worried. If O’Neill wanted to throw him in Leavenworth, he was going to have to go through Teal’c. “Oh shit,” Xander said as the Magic Box came in sight around the corner. “I should have mentioned that Giles and Anya own the place.”
“They are allied with the slayer.”
From the tone, Xander couldn’t tell if that was a statement or a question, so he decided to assuming it was a question and answer it. “Hugely. Well, fifty percent, anyway. Giles is her mentor, but Anya is an ex-demon who basically wants to be successful at whatever she does. At one point she was really successful at making men’s penises fall off, and now she’s trying to be really successful at making money since that’s a human measure of being really good at something. She sometimes gets really frustrated with Buffy because Buffy blocks her ability to make huge amounts of money by doing ethically scary things. When Anya and Spike get to talking about the good old days of torturing, you do not want to be in the same room with those two.”
“Those interested in their own ends are rarely as dangerous as those following a cause.”
Xander frowned. “Are you implying that Giles is more dangerous than Anya?”
“Yes,” Teal’c said simply, and then he started walking faster. His long legs ate up the distance, and Xander had to trot to keep up, the P90 bouncing against his side as he did. He had no idea how other people ran around with this all day without getting really weird bruises in really uncomfortable spots.
Stopping outside the Magic Box, Teal’c gave him a few seconds to catch up and then he pulled the door open making the bell tinkle merrily. It was funny how that sound could make Xander feel a wave of homesickness. He could hear the chatter of voices go silent as Teal’c walked in the room, and then Xander followed. Buffy and Willow sat close together on the couch, their heads almost touching. Xander could just imagine the scene he’d interrupted. Buffy was tying herself in knots about not saving someone, and Willow was tying herself in knots trying to figure out how to be the perfect backup. Unfortunately, Buffy unknotted easier than Willow, and he really didn’t like that Tara stood off to the side. Xander tended to think of Tara as the perfect unknotter, but if Willow wouldn’t let Tara help, that wasn’t going to end well.
“Hey guys,” Xander offered brightly, and after a pause—a brief moment where time hung balanced and Xander felt like he was looking inside, unable to reach his girls anymore-- Willow threw herself forward, hitting the P90 and Xander flinched as it hit him hard enough to leave a bruise.
“Xander! "Hey, what the..." Willow pulled back and peered under Xander's borrowed jacket. "Is that a gun?"
"Well, yeah. I'm fond of not getting killed crossing town,” Xander pointed out with a shrug. Anya stuck her head out of the office and gave him a strange look before wandering to the counter without commenting. Giles was already there, and she shoved him out of the way before opening the money drawer.
“So you carry a gun?” Willow asked in the same sort of tragic voice she’d used when he and Jesse had shot a robin with a BB gun in fifth grade. Xander could feel that pull, that need to make Willow happy, but if he did, he'd piss Colonel O'Neill off by denying his own soldier-self. As much as he really didn't have a problem pissing off commanding officers in general, he didn't want to do that to O'Neill. Not only did he kind of respect the man, but Daniel loved him. If Xander screwed up with O'Neill, that was going to end up wiggling into his relationship with Daniel. Xander loved his friends. He did. He just didn't love them enough to sacrifice himself and his love and his life.
“Willow, I'm in the Air Force. They only let me carry a gun because I've shown I know how to shoot a gun. It's good. Promise.”
She didn't look convinced, but she did close her mouth.
"Have your friends found Spike?" Buffy asked, and Xander had rarely seen her look so worried. This was full red alert time, and Xander didn’t think a vampire rated that, but he had to admit that finding Spike fast was the best way to make sure he didn’t spill the beans about the key.
"Not that I know."
"They have not," Teal'c offered for him. Buffy gave him a sideways look, but didn't comment. She did, however, inch her hand toward her waist where she kept a weapon.
"And you would be?" Giles asked.
"Murray," Teal'c answered. Worse, he didn't even try to hide the fact he was lying. Either that or he was the universe's worst liar.
"He's a demon," Buffy said.
"I had rather assumed." Giles stood with one hand under counter. Yeah, Xander was not feeling the love here.
"Funny enough, it looks like we've decided not all demons are evil." Crossing his arms, Xander dared them to disagree with that. He took one little four-year hitch in the Air Force, and they invited the evil-one to join their band of do-gooders, so if they even dreamed of picking on Teal'c, Xander was going to throw a temper tantrum to end all temper tantrums.
Buffy glared at him. "You're like a dog with a bone, Xander. Enough."
"I will if you will."
Buffy's gaze flickered over toward Teal'c.
"I am committed to freeing all people and fighting those who would abuse power," Teal'c offered calmly. "And I am charged with teaching Xander Harris to defend himself and his team."
"Yeah, he's my teacher, so you should be feeling sorry for him, not picking on him. Speaking of, I really want an ax for the fight, something with a nice weight to it. What about it Giles?"
For a second, Giles just blinked at him. Xander swallowed a need to tell Giles to forget it; he’d just keep carrying string into battle. However, he was an adult man. An airman in the armed forces. He wasn’t backing down from a librarian who didn’t even have a library anymore, so he gritted his teeth and forced himself to meet Giles’ gaze. "Xander, do you remember what happened last time you carried an ax?"
"I killed a vampire."
Giles sighed. "And three shelves, a chair, and you nearly decapitated Willow." Giles did not particularly look like he was joking and Xander flinched at having Teal'c hear about that incident. Calling himself incompetent was one thing; having Giles do it for him was high on the embarrassing scale.
"He apologized for that," Willow said softly, which was probably her way of coming to his defense without suggesting that Giles was wrong. To be perfectly honest, Xander has swung a little wide.
Giles gave her one of those fond looks that meant he liked Willow even when she was being a little naïve. "Be that as it may, I would prefer to not facilitate the death of any more innocent furniture."
"Are you still mourning the death of your grandmother's chair?" Buffy asked in that overly innocent voice that always made Giles glare at her. She smiled sweetly, and Xander figured the distraction wasn’t an accident. Yep, his girls still loved him enough to distract the teacher, and that gave him a case of the warm fuzzies.
"I shall be responsible for training him," Teal'c said before Buffy and Giles had finished the mutual glaring.
Giles slowly turned and looked Teal’c over. “Yes, well, I prefer to choose my customers.”
“Well I don’t,” Anya announced. “If you have money, I’ll sell you whatever you want. You do have money, don’t you?” Anya narrowed her eyes and gave Teal’c a nasty look.
“I do,” Teal’c agreed, and he pulled a gold credit card out of his pocket. Xander could almost hear the ‘cha-ching’ sounds in Anya’s head.
“Do you want swinging axes or throwing axes? I have some beautiful mammen axes with inlaid curses for your enemies, but Xander is going to need a lot of training before he could throw those, at least without killing as many friends as enemies. But I have a battle ax with a thirteen inch blade and a nice collection of bearded axes—all solid pieces build to Viking standards.” Anya turned and gave Xander a long slow look, and Xander could feel all the blood rush to his face as he remembered the circumstances that often led to her calling him a Viking.
“Really, do you think it’s appropriate to sell spelled throwing axes to someone who can’t throw them?” Giles asked.
Before Xander could answer, Teal’c turned and slowly looked Giles up and down in a gesture that made the little hairs on Xander’s arm stand to attention. Out of the corner of his eye, Xander could see Buffy react to Teal’c’s gaze, but Teal’c continued to focus on Giles. “I assure you that Airman Harris will throw well within two weeks. One who is willing to train will learn, and Xander is a very apt student.”
“Our Xander?” Buffy blurted out. When everyone looked at her, her face turned vivid red. “Not that Xander isn’t or couldn’t… I just… seriously, someone tell me to shut up now,” she finished, leaning into the counter with a face as red as Xander’s felt.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Buff.”
“I don’t mean to be unconfidenty. I just know that sometimes you and sharp things are a little unmixy. Like porcupines and balloons. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with balloons and porcupines are kinda cute, but in the same room, there’s ungoodness to be had. Cute and loveable ungoodness but… Stopping now.”
“One must train a student on such weapons,” Teal’c said. “I wish to see a selection of the axes.”
“This way,” Anya said, leading them back toward Buffy’s training room.
“Hey, those are my things,” Buffy protested, and boy did she get her angry face going.
“Over half were purchased with pre-tax monies and claimed as business expenses, so they are legally part of our inventory and for sale,” Anya said firmly. Usually Buffy could pretty much terrify anyone, but a thousand years of cursing had clearly given Anya a thicker skin because she kept right on going, and Teal’c followed her without even a twitch.
“I won’t let her sell your favorites,” Xander promised in a whisper.
Buffy sagged onto the counter. “She’s right. They’re probably half hers anyway.” All the air seemed to have whushed out of her, leaving this shadow Buffy behind. The worry drew deep lines on her face. Now Tara moved closer.
“You’ve had a lot to worry about. Maybe you should rest some,” she suggested gently. Xander was thinking the same thing. Instead of following Teal’c, he stopped beside Buffy, resting a hand on her arm. The smile she offered in return was weak.
“I don’t have time. Spike is out there, and she could be dusting him right now.”
“That’s your job, huh?” Xander joked. The stricken looks he got from all three women made him feel about two inches tall.
“Xander, why don’t you head back to the hotel,” Giles said with this weary resignation that Xander knew all too well. “I need to make sure Anya doesn’t sell the building out from under us.”
Ignoring Giles, Xander waited until he was gone to focus on Buffy. Willow fluttered in the background, and when Willow reached flutter-levels of distress, that was never good. “Are Joyce and Dawn safely out of town?” Xander asked.
Buffy pushed away from the counter so fast that Xander fell back a step and the P90 cracked against the side of the counter. “They’re my family. It’s my responsibility to protect them. Not someone else’s. Mine.”
Xander got a sinking feeling in his guts as he realized that Buffy hadn’t taken Colonel O’Neill up on his offer. Both were still in the line of fire. When Xander looked to Tara, he could see the same worry reflected back at him.
“Buff, how can you search for Spike and protect them and research how to kill this woman?”
“I’ll do it,” Buffy said with a fierceness that almost scared Xander. Willow was playing with the buttons of her shirt now, the desperation rolling off her. How the hell had Xander missed noticing their pain? It was like a big neon sign flashing above their heads.
“How?” Xander asked gently. It earned him a withering glare. Yep, his girls could kill with a look from twenty yards. “Buffy, I pretty much think you can do anything. But even I think you have to fight one battle at a time.”
“I just need to get Spike back.” Mind made up, a cold determination settled over Buffy.
“And if Glory goes back to your house for Joyce or Dawn?”
The bubble of determination popped and Buffy seemed to sag. “Buff,” Xander said quietly, inching closer to his golden girl, “Teal’c isn’t human, and I bet he could give you or Spike a run for your money in a sparring match, although I’d be willing to bet you could take him on a good day. But as strong as he is, he can’t fight everyone. He left his wife and son with a friend because he couldn’t defend them and fight his enemies. He couldn’t, Buff. No one can. No one expects you to.”
Buffy glanced back toward the door to the training room, and Xander wondered what Giles had been saying to her. Up until this point, Xander had pretty much thought the Watchers were seven shades of evil for taking girls away from their families, but maybe he was starting to understand what they thought they were doing. They thought they were protecting the girls from this choice. Of course, that was still evil because Xander figured they had enough strike teams that they could defend the slayer’s family while the slayer protected the world, but clearly they didn’t think slayers were worth the investment. Colonel O’Neill did.
“Hey, I don’t know if Glory could tear through several hundred Marines with special ops training and tanks, but I’m guessing no. Trust O’Neill to keep your family safe. He will. And then you can concentrate on kicking godly ass.”
Buffy pressed her lips together.
“Would you trust Riley with your family?”
Buffy’s gaze snapped to him, and Xander couldn’t read her expression at all.
“Um, pre-vampire bite addiction Riley.” Xander offered. “Only maybe cloned so there are hundreds of Rileys with tanks. Okay, that might be a bad analogy.” Xander sighed.
Reaching out, Buffy put a hand on his arm. “It’s a great analogy, Xander. I get what you’re saying. These are good guys, not the Initiative.”
“They are. The Initiative’s bosses? Daniel says they’ve tried to go after O’Neill and he ended up tattling to the President and getting them in huge trouble.”
“The President?” Willow’s voice squeaked. “The President of the United States?”
Xander nodded. “O’Neill is kinda scary that way.”
Buffy tilted her head to the side. “Giles says that it looks like O’Neill has his own hell mouth problem. He says that the only other hell mouth the Watchers know about is in Cleveland and it’s fairly quiet, but that’s where most of the Watcher’s combat teams work. But he said that you guys are deep in a mountain, and it makes sense that someone might have buried a hell mouth or portal deep in a mountain to try and control whatever came through. And no offense, but it makes sense that you would stumble into a hell mouth, Xander.”
“Trust me, no offense taken. I pretty much trip over the nearest evil thing and fall face first into it,” Xander admitted. He thought about the Stargate program. It was a portal. And it might not open to other demon worlds, but it wasn’t really different. Evil guys, glowy eyes, world domination, snakes, weird weapons. Yep, it wasn’t all that different at all. “Can I just say that if you told Colonel O’Neill the whole story, he wouldn’t even blink?”
“So they do have a hell mouth.” Buffy ran a hand over her face. “Well, I guess if hell hasn’t opened and swallowed Colorado, so O’Neill has to be good at something.”
“He’s the best at something that I so cannot tell you about,” Xander agreed. “And he does it by knowing who to call when he needs help.”
“So you’re pretty much telling me I’m being a big idiot by not letting people help protect my family?”
“Um, kinda,” Xander agreed. Willow and Tara seemed to be holding their breaths.
With a sigh, Buffy threw up her hands. “Fine. I’ll tell Mom that she should get out of town with Dawn, just in case. But you tell O’Neill that if anything happens to either of them, I’m hunting him down and kicking his ass so hard he’s going to need chiropractic help to unbend his spine.”
“You know, I actually think that goes without saying,” Xander pointed out. “O’Neill is pretty much the same way with Daniel’s safety, which is why I’m not allowed out of the house without an automatic weapon, a backup, a knife, and apparently, now an ax. This is going to be hell to get though airport security,” Xander pointed out.
“You were slightly on the unwise side, facing down a god without a weapon.” Buffy punched him in the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. “So, let’s go help you pick a really good ax. There’s this battle ax with a gamitum-carbonite edge that will cut through bone. It’s beautiful. But if you cut through your own leg, I’m never letting you live it down,” she warned.
“Demon steel. Man, that is one beautiful weapon. I love her lines.” Buffy got a glazed-eye look that Xander normally associated with her talking about Angel or Riley.
“Maybe you want some time alone with your ax,” he suggested with a leer. He got a second punch in the arm, this time hard enough to make him stumble.
“Xander Harris!” Willow said, her mouth a shocked ‘o,’ but off to the side, Tara smiled at him, and Xander felt like maybe things didn’t suck. Maybe.
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