~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander sighed as he set the ax on the floor next to the dresser. Of course Buffy recommended the ax heavy enough to make Xander’s arm pull out of its socket. He was just glad Teal’c purchased three more axes that he could use until he worked up to Buffy’s beloved.
“Where did you get those?” Daniel picked up a mammen ax with the intricate scroll work on the side. The matching pair was designed for close combat or throwing, but Xander couldn’t imagine throwing one unless he was really desperate. First, his aim sucked, but he believed Teal’c when Teal’c said that he would learn. However, if he threw one at a Jaffa and ran, he’d lose it. It was too beautiful to leave behind.
“These look Etruscan. Who would put Etruscan symbols on a Danish-style ax?”
Xander pulled his P90 off and checked the weapon before putting it on the dresser. “You know axes?”
Daniel gave him a fondly indulgent look. “I’m an archeologist. I’ve spent hundreds of hours digging up ax heads.”
“Huh. And here I thought you were just a beautiful man with a silver tongue.”
Daniel’s smile was small, but the edges of his eyes crinkled. “Tu es fou.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Xander leaned in for a kiss. “That’s what I love about you. You insult me in ways I can’t understand.”
“I thought you loved me for my body.” Daniel slipped an arm around Xander’s waist, and all the tension of the day seemed to drain out of Xander. Things were bad, but they weren’t as bad as they could be. Joyce and Dawn were off to a safe zone. Buffy was listening to sense, and Carter and Willow had narrowed the search field to one corner of town. Life wasn’t horrible.
“That too,” Xander agreed. He reached out and fingered the scrollwork and symbols. “It’s a demon language. Anya says that the curse means that if you really hate the enemy, the ax will go out of its way to kill him.”
“And you believe it?” Daniel sounded less than impressed.
“This is coming from a thousand-year old demon who still complains bitterly about getting turned into a human and being stuck in one timeline and one dimension.”
Daniel studied him for a second as though waiting for the punch line, but there wasn’t one. Eventually, Daniel shook his head. “This whole new world is taking a little getting used to.”
“And your world isn’t hard to swallow?”
Putting the small ax next to the others, Daniel focused on Xander, his fingers pulling the bottom of Xander’s shirt out so he could explore the hot skin below. “Maybe I’m more rigid in my thinking than I thought. I have to admit that I’ll feel better when Sam has scientific terms to attach to these things. But for now, I’ll take your word for the fact that the axes have curses. Is that safe?”
“Ahn always said that you should never trust a new curse. You didn’t know how it would mutate once it hit the real world. But she trusted old curses just fine. And since she was a wish-demon, which is another word for a curse-demon, I’m going to assume that she knows what she’s talking about.”
Daniel seemed to think about that for a second, his fingers brushing across the skin above Xander’s belly button. Xander wondered if Daniel’s hunger to touch came out of living with military men too long or if he’d always been this affectionate. Either way, Xander enjoyed it. He let his own hand creep up under the back of Daniel’s shirt where he could rest his palm against the muscles of Daniel’s back. For a geek, he was beautifully well muscled and he seemed to generate heat like a little engine. Xander loved soaking it all up.
“So, if this is demonic language and it shares structures with Etruscan, I have to wonder how closely they’re linguistically linked.”
“Giles said that demons hate humans because they were here first and humans drove them out of this dimension. They’ve been trying to reclaim it ever since.”
“So, an advanced species was driven off the planet by humans with less technology and less sophisticated weaponry?”
“That’s your thinky face,” Xander said. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that sounds like the story of the Stargate. An advanced civilization enslaved humans only to be driven off the planet, and the gate ended up buried.”
Daniel shook his head like a dog coming out of the water. “Meaning nothing. I’m a scientist observing data and commenting on the need to collect more data to determine if there’s a possibly hypothesis we can form about the history of demons and aliens on this planet. Would your friend talk to me?”
“Anya? Sure. She loves to tell stories about the old days. But fair warning, when you can’t keep your alaeata apart from your aleeti, she gets really annoyed and refuses to tell any more of the story because you never listen to her and you clearly can’t be bothered to remember the important parts of the story.”
Daniel sucked air through his teeth in a sympatric hiss. “Ouch. I’ve had a few professors like that. What are those things, anyway?
“Alaeata is a demon ceremony where you cleanse a clan’s sins by sacrificing their youngest child. Aleeti is like rice, only it moves. And makes these little tiny squeak sounds. And really, you so don’t want to eat it. Have I creeped you out yet?”
“Aztecs ripped out the hearts of their sacrifices so the men would have the pleasure of seeing their heart going to the gods before dying of the trauma.”
“Yep. So, if this Anya wants to disgust me, she’s going to have to try harder. I’m an archeologist. So, is Jack done with you for the day?” Leaning closer, Daniel placed a kiss on the side of Xander’s neck. Xander turned his head so the next kiss landed on his lips. Opening his mouth, he kissed back, the gentleness quickly turning into something hungrier. By the time Daniel pulled back with an impish smile, Xander was ready to come in his pants. “So, does that mean you’re off duty?”
“Teal’c is apparently my sensai now, and he said I’m off for the evening. He suggested I rest, and I can’t imagine a better way to unwind,” but when Xander leaned in for a kiss, Daniel leaned back to escape him.
“Teal’c is your what?” Daniel asked, those beautiful blue eyes of his wide.
“My teacher. O’Neill was a little frustrated… more than usual anyway because he’s been pretty frustrated since I showed up. But leaving any weapons behind and putting you in a position where you had to cover me because I was an idiot… yeah, that was more than he could handle. He shoved me over to Teal’c before he could snap my neck, and I’m pretty grateful for that.”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Xander, what exactly did Jack say?” He had that carefully controlled tone, but Daniel’s fingers were digging into the meat of Xander’s leg.
“That I should report to Teal’c because I was his chal’til now.”
“Skurwysyn. Damned interfering kozojeb.” Daniel took off for the door, and Xander froze. Okay, that was not the reaction he’d expected, but a little Daniel-fury wasn’t going to scare him. Much. It definitely scared him a little. Tucking his shirt back in as he ran, Xander ran after Daniel, the sound of a fist pounding against a door warning him to move faster.
Xander got into the hall just as O’Neill opened the door with a very cranky, “What?!”
“Really Jack?” Daniel demanded, and even Xander could see the flash of confusion on O’Neill’s face. “You told Xander to be Teal’c’s chal’til?”
O’Neill narrowed his eyes and glared at Xander. “Hey,” Xander defended himself. “I’m fine with it, sir.”
Daniel whirled around. “No, you aren’t,” he snapped before he focused on O’Neill again. “And you didn’t think to discuss this with me? No, of course you didn’t. And you didn’t discuss it with Teal’c, because if you had, he would have discussed it with me before agreeing to this. God Jack, what are you thinking?”
“That he’s Air Force and I can assign him to the unit I want,” O’Neill said coldly.
Daniel threw his hands up and actual spun around as if trying to avoid taking a swing at O’Neill. Xander started in surprise, but O’Neill kept on leaning against the doorframe like nothing was wrong.
“This is just like you. Just like you, Jack. You always have to have the last word.” And with that, Daniel headed down the hall. Or stormed down the hall. Xander flattened himself to the wall to keep from getting run over as Daniel went for the elevator.
“Should I?” Xander looked from Daniel’s back to O’Neill, not even sure what he’d just witnessed.
“He’ll cool off,” O’Neill offered with a shrug. “For someone who accuses me of always having the last word, he gets the last word in a lot.”
“Sir?” Major Carter appeared at O’Neill’s shoulder.
“You get a reading on our missing man?”
“No, sir. But if you told Xander to report as a chal’til, that might explain some of Daniel’s annoyance.”
“Hey, Teal’c likes him. More than I do,” O’Neill pointed out. “Of course, I don’t like anyone. Harris, get in here so we aren’t standing in the hall giving SG3 a floorshow.”
“Yes, sir,” Xander said as he tucked his shirt in more. Carter gave him a sympathetic look.
“Sir,” Carter said, holding the door until Xander could get in the room, “a chal’til is a little more than someone who gets trained. I think Daniel’s probably more upset about the parts that don’t have to do with training.”
“Like what?” Xander asked.
“Teal’c didn’t tell you? Or maybe suggest that that wasn’t the right word?” Carter was giving him a sympathetic look now. Xander had gotten millions of those from Buffy and Willow, but he squirmed a little getting it from Major Carter. She didn’t know him well enough to know how pathetic he was and feel sorry for him.
“I even asked him if I was saying the word wrong, and I know it’s something pretty close to slave, but this is Teal’c, so I’m assuming that isn’t necessarily a bad sort of slavery.”
“A what?” O’Neill demanded loudly. “Aw. Crap.” Shoving a large map aside, O’Neill sat on the end of the bed. “Well, the good news is that Teal’c isn’t going to take it seriously.”
“Sir, he seemed pretty serious today when he told me I screwed up and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without him,” Xander offered softly. He really didn’t want to get into this, but he didn’t want to leave O’Neill thinking it didn’t matter. After talking to Teal’c, Xander had the feeling it mattered a lot.
“There are a number of things that happen between a chal’til and a master that Daniel might not appreciate,” Carter offered before going back to a computer set up on the tall dresser. She poked the mouse and a map of Sunnydale came up, highlighted with different colors. A dozen tiny television screens showed various streets.
“Don’t tell me about them. My ability to repress is already strained,” O’Neill said with an unhappy look in Xander’s direction. “And if Daniel didn’t want me assigning Teal’c a chal’til, he should have said something.”
“He did, sir,” Carter said with a glance over her shoulder. “He’s told about a dozen stories about abuses of the master-chal’til relationships, and Teal’c has pretty much agreed that too many Jaffa abuse the rights of a battle master. That’s how I know what happens.”
Xander noticed that she was giving O’Neill her sympathetic look, which surprised him because O’Neill really didn’t look like the bungling sort. Of course, O’Neill had accidentally given him away as a slave, so maybe he simply covered his bumbling a little better than Xander did.
O’Neill ran a hand over his face. “Daniel needs to warn me when he’s saying something important so I don’t tune him out.”
“I think Daniel thinks that everything he says is important.”
“Which is my problem with how he thinks,” O’Neill said.
Xander shifted uncomfortably. “Sir, I really don’t mind, I mean, I’m not really sure what Major Carter is talking about or what Daniel is upset about, but I—”
“Forget it, Harris. Daniel is worked up and he’s going to stay that way until he gets it out of his system. Teal’c’s the safest place for him. He can threaten Teal’c to his heart’s content.” That wasn’t what Xander had been planning to suggest, but he closed his mouth and decided to wait out the drama.
“He’s probably threatening to kill you,” Carter pointed out.
“Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Xander blinked, not sure when he fell down the rabbit hole, but this was not the Colonel O’Neill he knew and respected while still trying to stay as far from him as possible.
Carter glanced over. “If you’re not careful, Daniel’s going to make sure all your MREs get replaced with Country Captain Chicken.”
“Hey, if I don’t have to eat a C-Ration or one of those old ham omelet things they used to give us, he can make me eat whatever he wants.”
“That’s not what you said last time you mysteriously ended up with twelve packages of that goop.”
O’Neill shrugged. “It made him feel better to listen to me complain.” O’Neill pointed a finger at Xander. “And if I even think you’ve told him that, I’m going to throw you in the smallest cell I can find and lose the paperwork, got it?”
Xander nodded. “Yes, sir.” There was no way he’d get between O’Neill and Daniel.
“Actually, sir, I think you’d need to clear that with Teal’c first.”
O’Neill’s gaze turned deadly. “Carter?”
“A weapon master makes all decisions about his chal’til. The chal’til has no job other than to follow the master around follow every order, no matter how unethical. So, I think you just assigned Harris to SG1.”
Xander felt his stomach drop, and from the way O’Neill bolted to his feel, he was equally shocked. “Damn it, Carter. You’re my second in command. You’re supposed to stop me from doing anything this stupid.”
“Sorry, sir,” Carter offered, but when O’Neill turned away, she gave Xander a big grin.
“Yeah, well I’ll talk to Teal’c about it. Do not get your hopes up,” O’Neill ordered Xander.
“I would say I’m happy to go back to dishwashing, but I’m kind of not. But SG1 is probably aiming a little high for the first time out the soldiering gate,” Xander agreed.
With a snort, O’Neill sat back down on the edge of the bed. “At least you aren’t lying to yourself. I might not hate you as much today as yesterday. Just tell me you’re armed.”
“Um, I have my sidearm, a knife, two stakes and a string, but I left my P90 and my axes in the room.”
“Axes? Harris, is there something you need to tell me?”
“Um, Teal’c bought me axes because I said I was most comfortable with them. But if we’re in the hotel do we really need to—”
O’Neill cut him off. “Well that’s going to be interesting to explain on the expense report. It’s a good thing we aren’t a traditional command, but tell me, where exactly were you when you first fought a Jaffa?” O’Neill demanded.
Xander frowned. “Delivering peaches inside one of the most secure bases in the country. Okay, point made. So I will make sure I carry weapons all the time.”
“At least you accomplished your mission, so we’ll call the axes a bonus.”
“Mission?” Xander’s stomach knotted into a tiny little ball. He didn’t know about any mission.
O’Neill gave him a strange look. “You got Summers to agree to sending her family to safety, right?”
“That was your mission.” O’Neil rolled his eyes. “Which Teal’c didn’t tell you,” he concluded. “At least you had the good sense to do the logical thing. Keeping civilians on the battlefield—”
“Sir,” Carter interrupted. “Sir, we have the target.” She pointed to one of the television screens, and Glory stood there in front of one of the older hotels on the other side of town.
“Get SG2 saddled up for recon. Keep SG3 on guard duty here with SG4 at the Magic Shop. I’ll call Summers, keep me in the loop. I want eyes on her the whole time.”
“Yes sir.” Carter starting working on the computer and a number of the television screens changed to new views.
“I could—” Xander got one look at O’Neill’s face and stopped. “I could go find Teal’c and find out what he wants to do,” Xander finished.
“Good plan.” O’Neill gave him a sharp look. “I think I might like the chal’til thing after all.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack walked down the street after rental car number three had gone missing. This town was a land version of a Bermuda Triangle with all the charm of a horror movie. Jack could hear the reassuring click of the comm as Anderson followed, watching their six. The fact that he needed someone on his six to walk down the street in California gave him a sour stomach. Either that or he really hated the guilt of having fucked up. “So, how pissed are you?” he asked Daniel.
“Plenty,” Daniel snapped.
Given a choice, Jack would have left Daniel with Teal’c to cool down, but he needed to get Daniel away so Teal’c and Harris could sort this mess. Jack would have just ordered Teal’c to unchal’til Harris, but he had the feeling that would cause some conflict. If Jack had been thinking instead of reacting to his own fury at seeing Danny put himself in danger, he would have stopped and considered how close Teal’c and Bra’tac were even after a century or so. Yeah, chal’til definitely meant more than the person responsible for keeping Harris from self-destructing and taking the rest of the team with him. And Harris wasn’t the only one reacting with his gut entirely too much.
“How could you, Jack?” Daniel finally demanded, putting an end to the silent treatment Jack had been enduring. While normally Jack didn’t mind a little silent treatment from Daniel, they had a mission, and these sorts of feelings would be a detriment to their performance if they didn’t sort it out.
“Because if someone didn’t sit on him, he was going to get himself and someone else killed.”
“Don’t exaggerate. I fly into battles without pulling my weapon all the time.”
Jack glared at Daniel. While that was entirely too true, Jack didn’t like thinking about it. “First, you have a weapon. Second, you’re science. You’re allowed to be a tactical idiot.”
“And you keep trying to call Xander a soldier. He’s not. That’s what I really hate. You keep trying to turn him into a soldier, and he’s not one.”
“Don’t say that around him. I finally got him to stop calling himself a dishwasher. Don’t pretend he’s a fluffy puppy, Daniel. He’s not. The man blew up a snake, faced the threat of hell popping out of a damn hole in the ground… he lost his friends in battle.”
“I know that. But you’re not helping with your unrealistic expectations.” Daniel stopped and faced off against Jack. “He wants to be a dishwasher because he’s avoiding being a soldier. Avoiding, Jack. Avoiding.”
“Yeah, I think I figured that out.” Some days Jack really wondered how stupid Daniel assumed he was.
“Then why make him be a soldier? He has incredible talent with ancient languages.”
“And he denies being a linguist with a vehemence that makes it pretty clear it’s not an option,” Jack countered. He couldn’t see Harris sitting behind a desk sixteen hours a day any more than he could see him washing dishes. The kid was too quick to jump into a fight, and too level-headed once the bullets started to fly. Of course, leading up to the fight he pulled bone-headed moves that would strain the patience of a saint, but Jack didn’t intend to get into a case of ‘insult the lover’ with Daniel. If he couldn’t talk Daniel out of a relationship with a murderous woman who nearly killed them all, he wasn’t going to be able to talk Daniel out of dating Xander Harris.
“But you keep calling him a solider and acting like he should follow your whole code. Face it, Jack, if I had done the same thing you wouldn’t have treated me like that.”
“Because you’re not a fighter. I expect you to piss me off in the field!” Jack was almost sure he heard Anderson’s snicker come through the open comm.
“He’s not a fighter either!”
“Yes, he is. I wish he wasn’t.” Jack started walking toward the Magic Box, cursing these people for not having secure phone lines and cell phones. A busy signal. These people were trying to save the world, and their phone kept coming back with a busy signal. “He has a favorite weapon. He asked Teal’c to buy him axes, Daniel. Axes. And when there’s a fight, he always mysteriously ends up in the middle.”
“So do I,” Daniel argued.
“No. No, you keep your head down during a fight. You stick your neck out when you think someone’s in trouble. If a girl is on a cliff, you’re there. If you see a primitive people threatened, you’re there. If you see a damn library ready to sink into the sea, you’re there. And when the team is in danger, you’re always there. But you aren’t interested in fighting.”
“I fight all the time.” Daniel’s anger was approaching nuclear levels. For the life of him, Jack could never figure out why people were more afraid of him than Daniel. As far as he was concerned, Daniel was the scary one. Part of him even felt sorry for Harris because living with Daniel was going to be a little like handing live explosives. Then again, Harris was pretty good with those, too.
“Yes, Daniel. You fight. Most of the time, you even managed to remember your weapons training. But your first instinct is to get out of a fight by talking.”
Daniel caught Jack by the arm, dragging him to a stop. “Just because you shoot weapons first and talk later—”
“Yes, Daniel. That is my first instinct. And yes, I try to listen to your hare-brained ideas before I actually do shoot. But your precious Harris has those same instincts. He wasn’t out there trying to negotiate with this woman. He antagonized her.” Jack pulled his arm away. “Focus on the job at hand. We have a man down, so you can be as angry as you want with me later. And for the record, no I did not remember exactly what a chal’til meant. And for the record, no I am not sorry. Teal’c will teach him to not get himself killed, and I’m pretty sure that’s the goal.”
Jack hit double-time as he trotted down the street. Three rental cars that had all vanished, a phone system that didn’t seem very useful at actually connecting people, a missing man and an angry archeologist. This was just turning into a wonderful day. Jack was so frustrated he was actually starting to lose most of his guilt over turning Harris over as a slave.
The Magic Box appeared around the corner, and Jack kept up a brisk enough pace to slow Daniel’s ability to complain. He threw the door open, and four people fell instantly silent. Summers reacted first. “Did you find him?”
“We found her,” Jack confirmed. Summers’ smile frightened him.
“Good.” Grabbing a sword off the counter, she announced, “Let’s go.” The man, Giles, grabbed a crossbow, and the two girls started following, but Jack held up a hand.
“Hey, remember how I said I would warn you if I thought you were being stupid?”
“And you said you’d follow orders anyway,” Buffy put her hands on her waist, which made the sword stick out at an odd angle, and Jack wondered exactly how many training injuries these people had suffered.
“I said I’d follow your orders as long as you’ve listened to what I have to say first. Remember the part where I said I had a whole lot of tactical experience?”
“Oh yes, fighting Soviets and Iraqis no doubt,” Giles said in a mocking tone. Jack had to rein in hard on his own frustration. He appreciated a man jumping to his team’s defense. He really didn’t like being the target.
“Hey, we’re all on the same side here,” Daniel said, slipping right into feather smoothing mode. “We all want Spike back and we all want to protect this world. That’s all.”
“And we know how to do that,” Giles said, bringing his hand down on the counter. So, he was second in command. Jack ignored Giles now that he understood the dynamic. Giles was pushing Summers’ agenda and doing it well, but Jack needed Summers to listen to some common sense.
“You’ve done amazing,” Daniel said, and Jack watched as that caught Giles by surprise. “I’ve seen how the NID handles things, and I don’t know why they think they had any chance of moving in. They had footage of that snake at graduation, and we all know they wouldn’t have handled that well. They probably would have called for a bombing and then tried to blame Iran,” Daniel snorted like he’d made a joke, but Jack could see that happening pretty easily. “But we’ve done a few amazing things as well.”
“In Colorado?” Giles’ hard glare dared them to explain that, but Jack had no intention of compromising national security.
“Something like that,” Jack said, giving Giles a knowing smile. “But we have a tactical team moving in right now. We’re installing a window microphone to get sound and we have medical moving into position. They need time. I also have Carter pulling schematics for the building, sewer, any possible entrances, and I have well-armed soldiers. However, my question is how your people will react to a full scale gun battle?”
“Guns?” Rosenberg lost some of the color from her face.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jack said, softening his tone some. Harris had suggested that she was pushing herself too hard, and Jack could almost see her struggle to put on her brave face. She was terrified, and trying to hide it and that was no way to live on the front lines.
“We don’t have Buffy’s advantages,” Daniel offered. Leaving Jack’s side, Daniel wandered into the middle of Summers’ territory, ignoring the way his closeness made her tense. Rosenberg and Maclay stood at the end of the counter, and Daniel stood close to them. “We can’t fight her the way you would, but we can fight. I’ve seen Jack win fights where everyone bet against him. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing he can’t do with the possible exception of minding his own business.”
“Hey!” Jack protested, but he let Daniel do his thing, ingratiating himself with this culture. Besides, as Harris’ lover, they had some reason to listen to him. “If certain people weren’t so busy staying up until oh-four-hundred when we move at at oh-five-thirty, then other people wouldn’t have to make a point of nagging them.”
Daniel gave him a dirty look, and Jack rolled his eyes. That’s right, see us as regular people just like you, he thought to himself. Then he focused on Summers. “I have Teal’c, Anderson, Warren and myself ready to go in. Carter and Daniel there are keeping the retreat open. Johnson, Penult, and Sully have perimeter to make sure the enemy doesn’t bring in backup. From the base, I have support teams including a med unit and an ambulance on standby. In addition, Johnson will have anti-tank missiles.”
“Good lord. That’s a little excessive,” Giles said, and boy he did look shocked.
“That’s standard. You should see what I do when I go overboard,” Jack said with a smile. “Now, that’s what I have to offer, so now I’m looking to see how we need to adapt the plan. I know my people, but you know yours.”
“Xander,” Daniel said.
“Oh for crying out loud. Can we argue about this later?” Jack demanded.
Daniel gave him a withering look. “If Teal’c is going in, Xander will be going with him.” Jack opened his mouth to object, but Daniel ignored him. “You assigned him to be the chal’til, and that means learning by watching and following.”
“He assigned Xander to what?” Summers demanded.
Daniel’s expression grew a little more friendly as he turned to Buffy. “Jack seems to think that Xander can’t handle his own in a fight.”
“Jack is right,” Summers said, echoing Daniel’s tone. That almost made Jack cringe because Daniel did not take mocking well. Luckily, Daniel kept focused on the mission.
“A chal’til is an apprentice. Since Xander has been training with Teal’c and really is more comfortable with his fighting style than the military’s, Jack asked Teal’c to take Xander on as an apprentice. That means Xander goes where Teal’c goes.”
“Teal’c?” Rosenberg looked around the room in confusion. “Who’s Teal’c?”
“I suspect the demon who came with O’Neill,” Giles said, and his tone made his disapproval all too clear.
“Something like that,” Jack said with a shrug. Alien, demon, po-ta-toe, po-tah-to. He certainly wasn’t getting involved in all there right here.
With a sigh, Buffy said, “Leave it to Xander to get mixed up with demons.”
“But not all demons are bad,” Rosenberg offered softly. “I mean, around here they pretty much are, but in LA, Cordelia said they have lots of not-so-bad demons. Mofo demons are neutral, fighting for both sides, and the Powers that Be are sort of demony what with the having of powers, and the demon gods like Osiris often help people. Besides, Teal’c doesn’t seem dangerous.”
“Oh, he’s dangerous,” Jack corrected her, “But he’s a good man.”
“I question that,” Giles said softly.
“Summers, how do we coordinate this?” Jack asked, ignoring Giles.
She rubbed her hand over her eyes, and Jack was grateful to see she was thinking. “You know, usually we just run over to the bad guy and try to kill him.”
“Perhaps not the best tactical approach, although I give you credit for getting to the point.”
Summers shook her head. “We move tonight. We don’t leave Spike in there for one more night.”
“Agreed.” Jack nodded.
“And you have a lot of guys with guns.”
Giles cleared his throat. “Guns are rather unreliable when it comes to demonic forces.”
“Yeah,” Summers agreed, “but they’re great against demonic knees. Will?” Summers turned to Rosenberg. The woman was still pale, but Jack could see her straighten up under Summers’ gaze. First task, get Rosenberg some support. The woman had a core of steel to stand up straighter in the face of that much fear, but Jack couldn’t see that core lasting forever. And when it snapped, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“We could…” she stopped.
“Sweetie, without knowing which dimension she’s from, we don’t even know which magic to use,” Maclay said gently.
“This might not be a fight for magic. Sometimes good old fashioned penetration force words better,” Jack said, patting the M16 he’d traded his P90 in for.
“That worked for the Judge,” Rosenberg said, but she was still biting her lip.
“The judge? Please tell me you don’t mean a criminal judge in a juvenile court case,” Jack begged. Daniel rolled his eyes, but so did Summers, so Jack considered the comment a success.
Summers explained, “He was an ancient demon who burned the humanity out of the world. Xander got us a rocket launcher.”
For a second, Jack closed his eyes. “Summers, please try to avoid telling me how an airman in my command stole from a local military base,” Jack asked. “It puts me in an awkward legal position. But you have to choose the right tool for the right fight. If magic doesn’t work this time, I’m sure the next time someone tries to destroy the world you can spell him into oblivion,” Jack offered.
“It does seem like we’re on a two-year world ending cycle,” Buffy said. She gave Jack a hard look. “Are you guys taking every other year with your little hellmouthy program?”
“We only nearly lost the world once, Summers. Only once,” Jack defended himself. “Actually, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the NID was behind trying to shut us down and nearly letting the world get overrun. If you ever want to blow up another NID station and you don’t call me, I really am never going to forgive you,” Jack warned. Oddly, the gallows humor in the face of battle fit here. These kids had the attitudes of hard-core special ops teams, every one of which developed its own sick and twisted sense of humor to deal with the sick and twisted world they fought in. “So, Rosenberg and Maclay?”
Summers turned to them. “Do you guys mind staying back?”
“We should back you up,” Rosenberg protested.
“How?” Maclay asked gently. “I think the men with guns can do more good here than we can. Xander trusts them, and they have good auras.”
Rosenberg looked from one to another with near panic in her eyes. If Jack thought Harris had a raging case of PTSD, the man was nothing compared to Rosenberg.
“Hey, Will. You can make some of that really stinking healing salve. Slayer strength is good, but if this fight is as tough as I think, I’m going to need something to take the edge off the soreness or I’m going to be one giant bruise tomorrow.”
“We can do that,” Maclay said quickly. “Maybe we should get together some smaller healing spells, something that would work for any of the soldiers who get injured,” she added.
Rosenberg started nodding. “We can do that. I know a Sumerian spell that is gentle enough for a human.”
Jack breathed a little easier as he watched Rosenberg shift herself into a support position. Jack was the first to admit that she might be the best fighter in the world in other circumstances, but not now. Not until Jack could have a long talk with Summers and send her some materials on command and recognizing stress in subordinates. On the positive side, Summers did have a knack for leading.
“Well I’m going with you.” Giles came out from behind the counter with his crossbow. Jack looked at it and then at Daniel and Buffy. Okay, some circumstances might require magic. Jack got that. Some circumstances might require slayer strength, especially if slayers were as connected to the demonic community as Finn had suggested. Jack refused to believe that a crossbow was ever a good idea. Not unless…
“Magic arrows? Poisoned tips?” Jack guessed, gesturing toward the crossbow. Giles stopped, his mouth coming open for a second before his glare turned murderous.
“Colonel Cranky is right,” Summers said, interrupting what was about to be a major explosion. “You stay here and make sure Glory doesn’t double back on us. You have the spells around this place, right? And the explosives?”
“I’m sure we could—”
Buffy interrupted Giles. “Hey, if Glory gets Willow and Tara, my back is going to be against a wall, and Colonel Cranky took his guys off guard duty.”
“I requested to reassign them,” Jack corrected her. He would never take men off guard duty without clearing it with the officer in charge. Besides, once Joyce and Dawn Summers were safely out of town, these four scattered to do their own things, making defending a base a little pointless.
“Yeah, yeah, same thing,” Summers said. “Giles, stay here and make sure you cover them. And if the knights or Glory’s minions get too close, set off some explosives so we know you’re in trouble.”
“Or call,” O’Neill pointed out. “Some of us have phones. Others of us should fill out a requisition order to get government paid cell phones so they’re reachable.”
“Let’s do this.” Summers lifted her sword and headed for the door. Jack had to fall back out of her way just to avoid a collision. “Oh, where are we going?” Summers asked as she stopped at the door.
“Well, that explains where Xander got one bad habit,” Daniel whispered as he fell in next to Jack.
“South 7th Street,” O’Neill offered. “I’ll call Carter and have her get the last teams in position now. And you need a comm, Summers.” Jack held out an earpiece, but Summers was already heading down the street. He had to say this for her—she didn’t let the grass grow under her feet.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack crouched outside the old hotel and listened to the conversation going on inside through his earpiece. Summers crouched near him, frowning as the sounds came through a little too loud and clear.
“Think I can skin you in one long strip?” A woman’s voice asked. The sound gave Jack the same sort of shivers that a goa’uld’s voice did. She might not have that odd reverberation, but there was something inhuman in her tone. Spike’s scream made it pretty clear that she was starting. Summers tightened, and Jack could see she was about to rabbit into the building.
Jack leaned close. “Give the men time to get into position or she might escape with him in tow.” Hopefully appealing to her need to rescue her man would work. If she bolted into the middle of the battle before everyone had moved into position, she would risk everyone’s life. She gave him a furious look that made it clear she wouldn’t wait long.
“Warren, you hearing this?” Jack asked.
“We copy,” Major Warren’s voice came back. “South secured.”
“Enough,” came Spike’s voice over the comm. “No more. I'll tell you who the sodding key is.”
Pressing his lips together, Jack silently cursed. No one could hold out forever. No one. But it would be nice if Spike held out for ten more minutes. “Johnson?” Jack called.
“Almost, sir,” Johnson offered. They’d better double time it or they were going to have an even bigger problem. “We have some locks to cut through.”
Spike’s voice came though the comm again. “I need a drink, don’t I? Can’t talk with my mouth this dry.”
“Fine. Whatever. Get me drink!” Glorificus shouted.
“We should go now.” Summers was almost vibrating, but Jack started grinning as he heard the exchange.
“He’s stalling for time, Summers. He’s nowhere near telling her anything.”
“What?” She looked at Jack like he’d just grown a new head, which in this town seemed possible.
“When they break you, you don’t bother to ask for anything. You tell them everything you know and you keep telling them, you repeat yourself. You tell them stories about your fourth grade English teacher. You do anything to keep talking because as long as you’re talking, they aren’t torturing you. He’s not broken, Summers. He’s playing an angle.”
Summers’ anger turned to horror. “You people scare me. Please tell me you’re not saying that out of personal experience. You saw that on the Discovery Channel… right?”
Jack shrugged and turned his attention to his door. Part of him wanted to rush in there, just like Summers. But men died that way. He wasn’t about to put lives at risk, not when Spike was still up and kicking with enough life to play the bitch-god.
“Buff, seriously. Don’t ask questions like that. You are not going to like the answers, particularly if they come with full color pictures,” Harris suggested.
“And I thought you were going to be safer in the Air Force,” Summers said, her mouth twisting into a grimace. “You’re not allowed to run off and meet new people, Xander. You attract weird. You’re like a big magnet of the weird.”
“Hold it down,” Jack ordered. “We don’t need to announce our presence. “Carter, report.”
“Energy levels steady. I have one unusual reading, three floors up.”
“It sounds like it’s time to kick some scanky butt,” Summers complained quietly, sounding like a teenager chafing at a curfew. Jack honestly didn’t know how these people had avoided an early and brutal death. He really didn’t.
Glorificus’ voice came through again. “Is that better?” she demanded. From Spike’s coughing, she’d been trying to shove water down his throat. “Do you think you can try to talk again now? Because I'm tired of these games!” A crash came through the microphone loud and clear. Jack flinched as he recognized the sound too easily. When glass hit flesh, it had a particular sound, a dull thud followed but the cracking of the glass. Pieces tumbled to the ground.
“’I need time, I need a drink,’ you're a very needy little bloodsucker,” Glorificus said, mimicking Spike’s accent. “And it's not very attractive.”
“West secured,” Johnson offered, his voice pre-empting the feed from the target room. Jack sent up a quick prayer of gratitude and quickly checked his team. Carter moved closer, pulling her M16 around to the front, and Daniel followed. Daniel always got a particular expression on his face when he planned to shoot first and ask questions never, and he wore that determination now. It made Jack feel a little better to know that Daniel didn’t plan to try and negotiate with this fruitcake.
Jack looked over to Teal’c, and Harris who stood two feet behind him with a big ass ax. If Jack had his way, Harris wouldn’t be anywhere near this fight, but questioning Teal’c’s judgment in the field wasn’t something Jack was willing to do. And he had to admit that Harris was more focused and more relaxed than Jack expected. A soldier with stress disorders tended to get hypervigilant and downright twitchy. Jack had been there more than once. But Harris had settled into a pre-battle calm that surprised Jack.
“So start talking,” Glorificus demanded, and Jack gestured for the team to move out. Summers didn’t know the signals, but when Teal’c moved, she moved with him, keeping herself and her sword one step ahead of Harris.
“Yeah. Okay. The key. Here's the thing. It's that guy... on TV ... what's his name?” Spike’s words came through the comm, and Jack could see Summers pause.
“On the television?” Glorificus asked. Personally, Jack was more confused by the discussion of the key being a person. God knows they’d had a few aliens shove things in his head, but up to this point, Summers hadn’t given any hint that Glorificus was after a person. And as far as Jack knew, there were only three people Summers had shown a desperate need to protect—her mother, her sister and Rosenberg. Either someone had shoved the key in one of those ladies, and putting the key near the slayer was a smart move, or Summers didn’t care about protecting the key that could end the entire world. Jack assumed the first.
“That show ... the prize show ... where they guess what stuff cost,” Spike asked, clearly struggling to come up with a name. Another voice offered, “The Price Is Right?”
“Oh, Bob Barker!” Someone else blurted out. These people were insane. All of them. “We will bring you Bob Barker! We will bring you the limp and beaten body of Bob Barker!” From the excited tone, Jack guessed that someone needed some good tranquilizers. If Chihuahuas learned to talk, that’s what he would expect one to sound like.
“It is not Bob Barker, scabby morons!” Glory screamed as Teal’c and Summers took the stairs. Harris followed, and Jack took up the rear, leaving Carter and Daniel to hold their retreat open. “The key is new to this world and Bob Barker is as old as dirt. The vampire is lying to me.” New? Jack had a sinking feeling about that. Hopefully none of these women were pregnant. If someone had shoved a key into an infant, Jack would find them and shove something right up their asses.
Spike sounded like he was pretty close to an edge. He giggled. Jack felt a twinge of sympathy because he’d been there. “Yeah ... but it was fun,” Spike offered weakly.
Teal’c reached the third floor and opened it only to have Summers rush through before him. Teal’c followed and Harris was hard on his heels, but they all moved faster than Jack had expected, and he had to run up the last few stairs, silently cursing all three.
“And guess what, bitch,” Spike was saying. “I'm not telling you jack. You're never going get your sodding key, 'cause you might be strong, but in our world, you're an idiot.” Well that was a dumb move. Never antagonize the people torturing you. Jack definitely needed to teach Spike that rule.
“I am a god,” Glory said, and now Jack could hear her, not just her voice coming through the comm.
“The god of what, bad home perms?” Spike taunted. The words were almost lost under the shouts.
“What are you doing here?” Glory screeched. Jack went through the door and found Teal’c already firing a zat, Harris at his side swinging his ax. He was missing as much as he was hitting, but he did keep the demons off Teal’c six. Jack went to one knee and started aiming for joints. One dog-faced demon was raising a hand to throw something at Summers’ back. The sharp bark of Jack’s machine gun preceded the enemy’s elbow vanishing in a cloud of red haze.
“Coming in,” Warren called.
“Clear,” Jack confirmed and three more fighters moved into the room. As briefed, they aimed at joints since body shots didn’t slow these guys down, but hitting a joint or a head wasn’t as easy as targeting bodies, and Jack felt the sweat roll down his back as the fight took far longer than he expected.
He missed the knee of one demon, and it leaped over the still squirming body of a legless companion to strike at Teal’c. Harris moved fast—frighteningly fast. Even so, he didn’t have time for a full swing, so he ended up bringing up his ax into position so the demon essentially beheaded himself by running into it. Harris then promptly tried to swing at another enemy and on his backswing, got his ax stuck in the wall.
Summers and Glory danced between them, ignoring the gunfight, and Jack cursed her more than once. No wonder Harris went for a bladed weapon because a number of times he had to disengage an enemy because Summers came flying through his line of fire.
Hanging from his chains, Spike cheered Summers on until she turned and swung at the chains with her sword. That was one hard sword because it severed both sets of chains, and Spike crumpled to the ground. Jack had seen people hurt, but Spike’s injuries—a human would never survive, and clearly a vampire wasn’t totally immune. Spike crawled to the side, tripping a demon on his way, but able to do little else.
Anderson went down, a knife lodging deep in his guts, slipping in just under the body armor and above his hip. He screamed and Lieutenant Devron moved to cover, grabbing the injured man and dragging him behind the fighters while still keeping his weapon trained on the enemy. Realistically, Jack knew it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but the intensity of the fight required such focus—the fear of hitting Summers as she performed her deadly dance with Glory was so acute—that time slowed to a crawl as Jack targeted enemy after enemy. These guys would go down with two legs severed at the knees, and they’d crawl with the stumps and pull themselves along with their hands. Not to retreat. No, these guys were still attacking, calling out their love for Glorificus as they took machine gun fire that literally tore their limbs off.
Teal’c wasn’t having much better luck. A zat blast didn’t do more than give these guys pause. A second hit, and they stumbled, but in the melee, Jack could see Teal’c was having troubling hitting the same enemy twice. But the most terrifying part came when Teal’c got in the third strike. Instead of quickly disintegrating the demons, the third strike made lights dance across their bodies as they still moved in with knifes and axes and teeth and claws. They screamed with pain, attacking even as their bodies slowly pulled apart, chunks vaporizing until only a head and shoulder with half an arm or two legs twitched at them like a chicken still twitching after its head had come off.
“Harris! Two o’clock!” Jack called as Harris struggled to pull his ax out of a demon’s collarbone. His foot seemed to be slipping in the blood. Harris started to turn as Teal’c did, but the demon was coming up on Harris at an angle where Harris’ body prevented Teal’c from firing and Jack couldn’t fire without hitting Harris.
Harris fell back, his blood slicked fingers scrabbling at his sidearm, which was better than just flailing, but Jack could still see that he wasn’t moving fast enough. Warren didn’t see the danger, and Jack couldn’t cross Warren’s firing path, but Teal’c was moving fast to get to Harris. Before he could, Spike flung himself from his corner, crossed Warren’s path with such speed that the major couldn’t stop firing, and bullets tore through Spike’s guts, leaving in a spray of blood, and then Spike landed on the demon, driving a knife down into his brain.
Harris didn’t hesitate to grab Spike’s shoulder and pull him to the relative safety behind Teal’c.
Jack was almost surprised to see that the room was largely clear, only the twitching bodies of demons, and Glory left. Glory backhanded Summers so hard that she flew across the room and crushed the drywall at her back. A human soldier would stay down after a hit like that. Hell, a human soldier would need a medic to pick him out of the wall. Jack suspected Summers wouldn’t even slow down. However, he did take the opportunity to turn his M16 at the bitch.
He unloaded all forty rounds in the thirty seconds it took Summers to crawl out of the wall and then slapped a new magazine in his weapon. Warren joined him after a few seconds, reloading his own weapon while Jack continued firing in brief bursts. Teal’c took the opportunity to get Spike and Anderson out of the room, Lieutenant Devron covering their retreat. This wasn’t a goa’uld. No shields blocked their bullets. No damn rings saved her. But a goa’uld would have died under the hail of bullets. It could have been put in a sarcophagus, but it definitely would have died and needed reviving. Glory seemed to take every round as a punch. The force of the bullets pushed her backwards, and her hair flopped forward, but she didn’t go down. Blood didn’t even appear on her dress.
Then Summers was back, her sword retrieved from the floor. “You know. I’m really tired of you messing up my town,” Summer complained.
“You’re tired? I’ve waited an eternity for my key. And do you know how tight human skin is? Twenty five years shoved in this body, but when I get my true form, you will beg for mercy, worm.”
“Oh please. You people always brag about your true form. ‘When I’m a giant snake, I’ll eat you,’” Summers said, her voice mimicking someone as she swung her sword. It killed Jack that he couldn’t get an angle on the bitch, but Summers moved too fast for him to risk it. Warren moved to the other wall, and Teal’c and Harris appeared at the door again, so Johnson must be evacuating the wounded. “It. Never. Works.” Summers punctuated each word with a sword strike, but Glory actually blocked with her bare hands.
“Never is such a negative word. Let’s try and have a positive attitude about this. Look at it this way, no more The Nanny. I hate that woman’s voice.” A kick to Summers’ hip, and she went flying again. Summers was a terrifyingly good fighter, but Jack could see her tire before his eyes.
Opening fire, he took a step closer, hoping to distract her long enough for Summers to get a second wind. He let off the trigger, and Warren followed suit. It was hurting her, but not enough and Jack needed to buy some time. “Lady, you are seriously nuts,” Jack pointed out.
The bitch had the nerve to laugh. "Funny, because I look around at this world you're so eager to be a part of, and all I see is six billion lunatics looking for the fastest ride out,” she said as she threw her arms out as if gesturing toward the whole world. “Who's really crazy?”
“Trust me, you are,” he said, mentally filing away the fact that Glory wasn’t counting on all the other worlds the goa’uld had colonized. These guys might travel dimensions, but they couldn’t travel through space, or at the very least, they didn’t know about space.
“Look around... everyone's drinking, smoking, shooting up, shooting each other.” She paused to look down at Jack’s gun with the condescension of a peace protestor.
“Trust me, I’m not planning on shooting anyone except you. You’re the one crazy enough to think we’ll let you end the world. And here I thought I had already met my quota of wack jobs.”
“I'm crazy?” She laughed again, and out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see Summers stretching her shoulder. Yeah, she was tiring. “Honey, I am the original one-eyed chicklet in the kingdom of the blind,” Glory announced as she stepped on the dismembered torso of one of her worshippers, “because at least I admit the world makes me nuts. Name one person who can take it in this dirty, cramped excuse of a world. That's all I'm asking. Name one.”
“Me,” Jack said, opening fire again. He heard Harris yell, “Buffy, heads up,” and then an ax flew through the air. Summers caught it mid-flight, and turned the momentum into a swing as she twirled around and then aimed for Glory’s ribs. Jack barely cut off his fire in time to see Glory fly back from the force of Buffy’s hit. She hit the wall, and Jack and Major Warren had already resumed firing. For a second, the air shimmered and then a handsome young man appeared in her place. A dozen bullets hit him before Jack and Major Warren discontinued firing.
“Ben?” Letting the ax hang at her side, Buffy moved to the enemy, kneeling down next to him. Jack’s guts tangled in a knot, but he reminded himself that this wasn’t his command. If it was, Summers would get dragged away and sent to KP duty for a month for dropping her guard.
“Buffy? I’m sorry.” The man coughed, and the amount of blood spray suggested serious internal bleeding. “I tried to stop her. I did. I’m so sorry.” He reached out as though to take Buffy’s hand, but the gesture ended as the arm fell limp. Jack watched as his body struggled to survive for a few more breaths before he went silent.
“Wow,” Harris said softly, “Ben was Glory.”
Buffy stood. “We knew she’d been locked in a human form.”
“We did?” Harris asked. Jack felt like echoing the same thing.
“Casualties?” Jack asked Teal’c.
“Medics are transporting Captain Anderson to the hospital. Spike says he requires only blood and rest. Major Carter has gone to secure a source of human blood because the medic units have only blood products.”
“Try Willy’s,” Buffy said, and Jack could see her pull her attention back to the living. “It’s on corner of Carson and Fairview. They serve everything, and as long as they get paid, they don’t care who they’re selling to. Tell Carter to threaten him a few times if the blood isn’t fresh.”
The comms were still open. “Carter, you catch that?” Jack asked.
“On my way, sir.”
Jack nodded. “Warren, coordinate with Johnson to clear the building. Teal’c, Harris, you’re with the wounded. Try and keep Daniel out of trouble, and definitely don’t let him see this room,” Jack said as he looked around at the carnage. He’d never seen an uglier battlefield in all his life. Dismembered hands still clawed the floor as if trying to stage one final attack.
“No orders for me?” Summers asked as the other left. She picked her way around the worst of the gore, seemingly not even noticing it. It bothered the hell out of Jack to think how much she’d seen that this didn’t bother her.
“You’re not part of my command, Summers. I report to you. However, we need to get our reports on the same page, so if you don’t mind, I think we need to debrief.”
“Now? My shoes are all squishy.” Now Buffy wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“I can make it brief.”
With a put upon sigh, Summers nodded. “Okay, what’s so important that we can’t wait until I find clean shoes?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Excuse me?” In an instant, Summers had gone from a teenage girl unhappy about ruining her shoes to a dangerous adversary. The switch was so sudden that it almost reminded Jack of a Tok’ra shifting from the host personality to the worm’s.
“Some things shouldn’t appear in written reports Summers. I have a good team. The best. That doesn’t mean that the base hasn’t been infiltrated in the past and it doesn’t mean we can ignore operational security.”
Summers moved closer, a predator’s gait, and Jack ordered his body to not react to the threat. “Meaning?” she demanded.
“We all heard what was said on open comm. Now, I’m going to order my men to avoid including any details that might identify the key when they’re writing their reports. Spike was questioned as to the location of the key, he denied knowing anything and accused the enemy of being a god of bad perms. That is what’s going in the reports. There will be nothing written down, and I will present an oral report only to my general.”
“A report saying what exactly?”
Jack’s fingers twitched as Summers looked at him with a hostility that bordered on homicidal. After seeing the damage she could dish out and take, Jack certainly didn’t have any illusions about who would win the fight if she lost her temper, but he was on her side. “The key is a person,” Jack said. “The enemy said it was new to this world, so that could mean it is in an infant. It could also mean that someone shoved it inside the head of someone, someone close to you so that you’d protect it. You have shown extreme protectiveness over your mother, your sister, and Rosenberg, making them the three most likely targets, but your initial willingness to have Rosenberg join the fight here narrows that field to Joyce or Dawn. That said, none of this can ever go into a report. Ever.”
“And you’re telling me your crazy theories because?” Summers was going for casual, but her entire body was coiled tight and ready for battle.
“Because you let us hear too much, Summers. If you’d demanded protection of more people, it would have been harder to determine the true target. If you would have briefed Spike, you might have kept him from admitting the key was inside a person.” Jack thought about how Spike had looked when Summers had cut him down. “Maybe. Under torture, people do talk. My point is that the trick to keeping a secret is to keep it all the time. Never let anyone get that close.”
“Because they might turn into an enemy?” Buffy asked with a predatory smile.
Jack took a step back, his instincts screaming at him to defend himself. He didn’t. “I’m not your enemy. I’ve been given orders I disagreed with. Carter, Daniel, Teal’c, and myself were ordered to stand down when politicians tried to take over command of my unit, politicians I’m fairly sure were in bed with the NID. We didn’t. We stole equipment, tricked the staff, and went on a suicide mission to save the world, Summers. The four of us don’t have anything to prove because we’ve crossed our Rubicon and proved that the safety of our world means more than anything.
“If it had turned out that we were wrong about the threat, we would have ended up in Leavenworth. Actually,” Jack corrected himself, “Carter and I would have been in Leavenworth, Daniel would have been in a civilian prison charged with treason, and Teal’c probably would have been dissected. They knew that and they accepted the risk. Warren rescued me at great risk to himself. Johnson got a terrible disease and was offered a full medical discharge. He chose to keep serving because he believes in this mission. There’s not a man I brought that I don’t believe in—every one of them fully accepts that there’s a good chance he’s going to die protecting this world. That doesn’t mean that everyone is equally trustworthy.
“If it quiets down and you have base personnel who haven’t proven themselves, you can’t let them get that close, Summers. You can’t let details slip, details that someone might put together if they read enough reports. Operational Security. You need to talk to your people about the sorts of things you never say.”
“Like the key is a person,” Summers said quietly, and Jack could almost see her go off full alert. Her ability to switch that fast was making the hairs rise on his neck, even if she was one of the good guys.
“Yeah. I did warn you that I planned to tell you if you were being stupid.”
Summers nodded. “At least you do it in private. Sometimes Giles is a little too much with the public sharing, and when I’ve really done something stupid, that’s hard to take.”
“Yeah, that’s why we do this in private. So, do you want to give me an informal evaluation of my team’s performance now or would you rather think it over and do a formal report?”
Summers looked at him like he had lost his mind. “A what?”
“A report Summers. If men are stationed here, you need to provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses.”
“And you’ll listen to it?” That really seemed to throw her. With a sigh, Jack rested his arm on the butt of his weapon.
“Summers, I’m going to listen to everything you say. I’m going to try and understand any weakness and fix it, and I’m going to take any positive reports and make sure I continue with that behavior. Now, I won’t agree with everything you say, but I will consider it, especially given your expertise in the area. Any formal reports you write will be added to the personnel files of the participating soldiers, including my own. Now, my file is already an interesting read, but do keep in mind that my superiors review it before handing out promotions, so try to keep it a little professional.”
For a second, Summers’ mouth actually hung open. “Okay,” she said slowly. “That’s… that’s kinda creepy. I don’t want to judge you.”
“Tough,” Jack said. Then he sighed. “I get it, Summers. Hell, I’m about the worst colonel on base because I hate judging others, especially when I wasn’t in their positions. However, like it or not, being a leader means evaluating others.”
“Or letting others do their own thing,” Summers said with a hopeful smile. Well, that did explain a whole lot.
“While I’m debriefing, there is one other thing,” Jack said carefully. He hadn’t meant to broach this subject so soon, but this did seem like the right time. Summers had to start paying attention to the men and women who reported to her.
Summers cringed. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“Heightened fear responses, intense distress, physical reactions out of proportion to the threat like sweating or rapid breathing, easily startled, a sense of shame at not being able to fix everything or control the world, a need to prove their own worth. Is this reminding you of anyone?”
“Xander?” Summers guessed.
“Okay, true. Anyone else?” Jack waited, but Summers stared at him. “Someone who is desperate to back you up, who feels panicked when she can’t, who has out of control physical reactions ranging from all the blood draining out of her face to her hands trembling.”
“Willow,” Summers said softly. “Oh god, that’s Willow. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Harris and Rosenberg are human. I’m saying they’re reaching a breaking point and as the commanding officer you have to find a way to take the pressure off them before they exceed their ability to adapt. Well, actually I’m only saying that about Rosenberg because I’m taking care of Harris.”
Buffy flung her ax at the floor where it stuck, handle up. That freed up her hands to put them on her waist and glare. “What are you suggesting I do?”
“I have no idea, Summers. She’s not in my command, I don’t know her, I don’t know who else you might have who can reduce her operation obligations. I’m just telling you that from my vast experience at leading troops into covert operations that she’s riding a thin edge. You have to decide how to take care of your own people. Hell, if she were in my command, I’d send her home to get away from the battlefield for a while, so clearly I’m not the one to ask for advice.”
“It’s a little hard to do that when you live on top of the battlefield,” Summers said quietly.
“Your job sucks, Summers.”
“Your job does, too.”
“Yeah, but I get paid more. When the bureaucrats come out here to try and negotiate, make sure you don’t end up with the raw end of the deal, and do not offer to write reports to anyone except General Hammond. Believe it or not, he’s used weird reports.”
“Because you have a hellmouth or a hell gate or whatever you call it?”
Jack shrugged. “We have something. Now let’s go check on our wounded.”
Summers ripped the ax out of the floor and headed for the stairs. “You’re going to tell me about it sooner or later.”
“I probably am,” Jack agreed. “But I believe in operation security, Summers. I’ll tell you when you have clearance and when we’re in a secured location.”
“You pull out a cone of silence and you’re on your own,” Summers said before she practically raced down the stairs. Jack was exhausted and the truth was that his knees did ache a bit, but he started down after her, moving a whole lot slower.
By the time Jack got downstairs, a medic was patching Harris’ arm, and Daniel hovered close. It didn’t look serious, though. Spike looked far worse. He lay on a stretcher next to Harris, his stomach covered with a blood-soaked pressure bandage and raw flesh showing through where Glory had started to skin his chest. Teal’c and Warren watched, their eyes scanning the edges of the parking lot. Considering they still had the crazy knights running around with their swords, Jack appreciated the vigilance.
“Geez, Spike, you look like crap.” Summers said. Harris was holding his ax again, so she’d touched base with him first.
“Feel like it, too,” Spike answered.
“You going to live?”
Despite all the wounds, Spike smirked up at her. “I haven’t since 1880.”
Summers rolled her eyes, but when she crouched down next to Spike, she moved slowly, careful to only touch the least bruised part of his arm. “Are you planning on being more dead any time soon?”
“I’ve got enough blood to tide me through until that Carter woman comes back,” Spike said, and he looked over at Harris.
Summers stood and turned. “Xander?” Her voice rose to a disbelieving squeak.
“Well, he lost some of that blood saving me.” Harris sounded downright unhappy about whatever they were talking about.
“And you were a right nummy treat,” Spike offered. Only then did Jack start to catch on to what they meant.
“Don’t start, bloodbreath,” Harris warned.
“Oi, its smells of your blood then, doesn’t it?” His smirk got wider. If Jack had half those injuries, he wouldn’t be taunting Harris, especially since Harris looked like his temper was ready to pop. Yanking his arm away from the medic, Harris stood, and Jack could see Spike go still. But then all the anger drained from Harris.
“I think I need some distance.” He started to walk away, and Daniel followed. Jack stood ready to order Harris to stay close, but the man had the good sense to stop at the edge of the parking lot, his hand on his weapon as he laid his ax on the car in front of him.
“I can’t believe he did that,” Summer said quietly. “Of course, he wouldn’t have needed to if some people hadn’t gotten themselves so beat up. God of home perms? Really? What were you thinking?” Summers demanded as she pulled a knife out of her belt.
“I bloody well had a plan.”
“Oh sure. That totally looked like a good plan. Step one, get captured. Step two, get beat senseless. Step three, get dusty. Good plan.” Summers drew the knife across the fleshy part of her forearm, making Jack cringe. There were a lot of nerves there, but she didn’t flinch.
“Hadn’t come time yet for me to close my trap,” Spike insisted despite the fact that he looked like a piece of raw hamburger. His eyes followed Summers’ arm, and when she held it out toward him, he hesitated a second, looking up into her face to see if she was joking. Only then did he lean closer, closing his lips around the wound and sucking.
“No offense, Spike, but you’re like our reverse-plan boy. Whatever plan you come up with, we all do the reverse. So next time you feel like taunting a god with Bob Barker, do the opposite and keep your mouth shut.” Summers started breathing faster, her face flushing. Jack remembered how Finn described the bite as addictive, but before too long, Summers pulled her arm back. The medic was there with a bandage ready.
“You heard that?” Spike asked, licking his lips.
“Yes I heard that, you big idiot.”
“I wouldn’t have told, ya know. Couldn’t do that to you.” Oddly, Spike looked away. Jack got the feeling that he was looking in on something oddly intimate, and he started wandering toward Daniel and Harris.
“Besides, Angelus hit harder when it was foreplay,” Spike said, his voice a lot stronger now.
“Seriously, do not ever mention Angel and foreplay in the same sentence again. Ever.”
“Wot? It’s not like I bedded Angel. That sod’s so uptight it’d take a bloody crowbar to loosen his arsecheeks.”
“Stop, Spike. Unless you want me to drop you on your head, just stop.”
“Physical violence is foreplay for us vampires, luv, you know that,” Spike was teasing as Jack finally got far enough away to tune out their banter. Jack’s own love life was odd enough that he couldn’t see throwing any stones, but sleeping with someone who used you for food… that was a new one. But from what Jack could see, that was the path they were on. At least Spike could keep up with Summers’ endless energy.
As Jack closed in on Daniel, Teal’c came over. “Major Carter has secured a source of blood and is returning,”
Jack nodded. This command was going to require a pretty flexible team. “Any sign of the crazy knights?”
“No,” Teal’c offered, his eyes on Harris. Jack could see it too—something had changed, and Jack had a pretty good idea what it was.
“You can debrief now or in the morning,” Jack offered.
Harris laughed. “I just about got myself killed. Spike had to come to my rescue.” Daniel moved closer, resting a hand against his back.
“We all came close to dying up there,” Jack said. Honestly, he hadn’t expected the fight to go on that long. Even his battle-hardened nerves felt a little raw, and he was actually looking forward to seeing Summers’ report. He needed to know what his performance looked like through her eyes.
“I got my ax stuck. I nearly got myself killed.”
“You misjudged a swing. You will do better after practice.” Teal’c said calmly.
“A little practice is not going to make me unclumsy,” Harris pointed out.
“Several thousand hours of practice will,” Teal’c answered. Jack cringed at the thought of Teal’c-level drills for thousands of hours, but Teal’c showed no sign of joking and Harris didn’t complain.
Jack watched as a car pulled up, and Carter got out. She was carrying a cooler, so she must have quite a bit of blood. Jack thought about the blood spray when Warren’s bullets had torn through Spike’s stomach. Spike had done that even though vampires clearly felt pain. Jack wondered if the vampire cared for Harris despite all his protests or whether he just cared for Summers enough to want to spare her the pain of having a friend die.
“I just… I need some time, sir.” Harris looked at him, and Jack could taste the raw fear just under the surface. The kid wasn’t afraid of enemies out of the dark though. His gaze kept slipping over to where Spike lay on the stretcher. Summers had found a folding chair and sat next to him, her hands resting against his arm. Carter unpacked jars of blood, and Summers unscrewed the top of one, helping Spike up so he could drink it. With Summers handling that, Carter trotted toward them.
“Harris, Daniel, have Carter drive you back to the hotel.” Jack glanced toward Teal’c, but he only inclined his head in agreement. Harris might be ready for some hard truths later. He needed some space right now.
“Sir,” Carter greeted him. “Anderson is in surgery, the prognosis is good. No other major injuries other than Spike.”
“Good. See that Daniel and Harris get back to the hotel, and get a secure line set up for me. I need to give General Hammond a rough outline so he knows what anyone in this command can expect.”
“Yes, sir,” Carter agreed. She smiled at Daniel and Harris. “Come on guys, I’ll give you a lift. I found one car that doesn’t seem to vanish the second your back is turned.”
Harris started toward the car, Daniel’s arm hooked in his. Reaching out, Jack put a hand on Harris’ arm to stop him. Harris looked at him with all his confusion shining out his eyes. “Good job, Airman Harris. You kept your head, never stopped fighting, and protected the wounded. That’s what I expect of every airman in my command.”
Harris nodded, his gaze slipping back over to Spike.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. Daniel flashed Jack a brilliantly happy smile before the two of them headed back to the hotel.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander sat at the bar and stared at his beer. It was a stereotype. The soldier finished the fight and then went to the bar to drink, leaving his lover in the hotel room alone. Yep, that was him—the big old stereotype. Well, except for the part where his lover was gay—he was pretty sure that was breaking stereotype. Maybe. Teal’c said that most Jaffa soldiers took gay lovers while they served on ships. After all, five or ten years was a long time to be satisfied with your own hand.
Willy inched closer. “You’re sure the slayer isn’t coming? I mean, I’m still fixing chairs from the last time she visited. My back room is full of pieces I’m still gluing.”
“She’s not coming,” Xander confirmed.
Willy looked down at the bar. “Then maybe you could either start drinking or start leaving.”
Xander glared at the man.
“Or no. I’m fine with not.” Willy hurried to the other end of the bar. Xander took the temporary reprieve to look around the bar. The two guys sitting at a table in the opposite corner were vampires. Definitely vampires. They kept glancing over at him, probably wondering if he was some tourist who’d wandered into the wrong bar. They definitely looked hungry.
Xander shifted so the M16 was more obvious and then loudly announced. “I have a huge gun, several stakes, and one seriously bad-ass ax. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got the slayer on speed dial, so if anyone feels like going for it, I’m really in the mood.”
The vampires looked at each other for a second, and then they slunk toward the door. They felt fear like humans. Xander wondered if they could learn other emotions. Could either of them have learned to protect a human family? Xander laughed as he thought of families hiring a vampire bodyguard. A couple of the other drinkers gave Xander an odd look before heading for the door themselves. “You’re bad for business,” Willy complained, but he didn’t make any other comment. Usually Willy was grabbing him by the arm and shoving him out the door by now.
The door opened and Teal’c walked inside. Xander cringed. Here came the big lecture followed by the scrubbing of latrines and the long training sessions that would lead to much pain. Xander had it coming by taking off while Daniel was in the bathroom. Colonel O’Neill followed Teal’c, and that was just the cherry on the shit sundae. O’Neill meant that whatever was going to happen would probably be a little more official.
Teal’c sat down on the seat closest to Xander, his eyes staring at the shelf behind the bar.
“Barkeep, one beer,” O’Neill called out. “And if it has anything other than beer in there, I’m coming back and burning the place down,” he added as he looked at the bottles behind the bar. A few looked like the refuge from a high school biology classroom.
Willy pulled a bottle out from a cooler and handed it to O’Neill. “You’re hanging out with a bad crowd, Xander. Does the slayer know about these guys?”
“Yep,” Xander answered. With the bar essentially cleared out, Willy headed into the back, leaving Xander, Teal’c and O’Neill alone.
“So,” O’Neill started, and Xander expected the recriminations to start. Instead, O’Neill asked, “Is he demon or human?” He used his beer bottle to gesture toward the door where Willy had vanished.
“Human. Really slimy human, but human.” Xander ran his finger around the top edge of his beer glass. “I know you’re here to yell at me about running off. So, just get it over with. Unless you plan to add a second case of desertion to my official charges. If you are, I think the jail time is enough, so no yelling necessary.”
Teal’c finally looked at him. “I will not allow you to be jailed.”
Xander looked from one to another before focusing on O’Neill. “Does he even have that power?”
O’Neill shrugged. “He seems to think that I don’t have a right to thrown his chal’til in a prison cell. Personally, I don’t like disagreeing with Teal’c. Or with anyone who weighs as much as Teal’c.”
“You often disagree with those far larger than I,” Teal’c countered.
“Yeah, but I don’t like it. Besides, Danny offered to give you the tongue-lashing to end all tongue-lashings just as soon as we could find you,” O’Neill said with a sadistic smile, and then he took a drink of his beer. “So, how much have you had to drink, Harris?”
Xander looked at his glass and used his finger and thumb to measure the distance from the top of the glass to the level of beer. He held up his hand showing about three-quarters of an inch. “That much.”
O’Neill snorted. “You’re a real drinker there, Harris.”
“I don’t want to turn into my father.”
“So you come to a bar?” O’Neill sounded almost amused, which just annoyed the shit out of Xander.
“It seemed logical.”
“And I logically thought you would go to spend time with Daniel,” O’Neill said, pricking that wound. The last person Xander wanted to spend time with was Daniel. And boy wasn’t that healthy? A bubble of emotion rose until Xander was ready to choke on it. “Or maybe you don’t want Daniel to see you this way. Maybe you’re running off to lick your wounds.”
Teal’c spoke up. “Retreat can be the best option.”
“Yeah, like you two would ever retreat from anything,” Xander said with a dark laugh.
“I retreat to a fishing cabin I have. I got it cheap because there are no fish in the lake,” O’Neill said.
“I will retreat to the quiet of kel’no’reem or reading to regain my equilibrium,” Teal’c offered.
Xander stared at them, his brain having a little hiccup as he tried to process that information. “Really? Because if you’re lying to make me feel better… Well, it’s kinda working, but in the long run it’d be a crappy thing to do.”
O’Neill put his beer on the counter. “I thought maybe it was too early to talk about this, but if you’re feeling strong enough to run off, it’s time you dealt with your emotions. I know you took a shot to the gut tonight.”
“He did not take any injury,” Teal’c interrupted. “However, a challenge to one’s belief system can be more disruptive than any physical injury. One can easily divide oneself from the needs of the body, but one’s emotions are a part of your being.”
Xander stared at them. No way could they know what he had going on in his head. He didn’t know what he had in his head.
“I’m not challenged,” he protested. “I mean, sure I rode the short bus for a couple of weeks after having a really bad day of testing, but I’m good.”
“And that’s why you kept staring at Spike,” O’Neill said, nodding. “Yep, you expected him to nearly dust himself to save your life and to suffer endless torture to protect Summers’ secrets. I can see that didn’t shake you at all.”
“Sarcasm isn’t attractive, sir,” Xander said dryly.
“Neither is lying to yourself,” O’Neill countered.
Xander exploded. “You guys are soldiers, and I’m the schmuck who would have left Spike in there forever. I mean, if it wasn’t for the whole, ‘he knows where the key is’ bit, I would have suggested we let him rot. I would have insisted that he was a traitor and he was probably busy selling us out.” Xander brought his hand down on the bar so hard that his palm stung. “I would have brought up every single time he’s already betrayed us.” Xander frowned as he thought back over the last few years, “And actually, he did betray us a lot. He tried to sell us out to Adam only to sell out Adam and he hit me over the head with a microscope and he tried to kill Willow—although those last two were less backstabby than him just being evil.” With a sigh, Xander picked up his beer and took a drink. He didn’t have any answers.
“So, you were basing your belief on actual evidence as well as a need to hate all vampires,” O’Neill summarized.
“Vampires, bad.” Xander snorted. “Yeah, that turned out real well, huh? Shit. How could I be that far off? I normally think of myself as pretty good at reading people. I always know when a bully is about to pound me to a pulp. And yeah, I have a slight blind spot when it comes to my dick. I mean, my little head has fallen for some pretty scary people—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” O’Neill interrupted. “Focus on the ‘vampire, bad’ rule since that seems to be the one that took a beating today.
Xander rubbed a hand over his face and tried to forget the image of Spike hissing in pain and lying pale on the cot. He’d given his blood because he really thought Spike might dust right there. “It didn’t get beat as much as Spike did.”
“And despite that beating, he didn’t talk,” O’Neill pointed out. “If all vampires are bad, that’s a strange reaction. Either your rule is wrong or Spike was working on the world’s worst plan.”
With a joyless laugh, Xander pointed out, “You haven’t seen how bad Spike’s plans are. It’s a possibility.”
“So, that was him carrying out an evil plan?” O’Neill asked.
Xander rested his face on his hands. He wanted to think that. He wanted to think that Spike was evil, but he couldn’t erase the image of Spike—torn and bloody and broken and still asking about Joyce and Dawn. He couldn’t ignore that Spike was desperate to hear that the Summers’ family was safe. That’s all he wanted. Xander could feel his shoulders start to shake.
“Hate is a powerful motive,” Teal’c said quietly. “For many decades I was driven by my hatred for Lord Cronus. My hate allowed me to continue to fight, to believe that Lord Apophis offered a chance to strike at a more dangerous evil. I killed for Apophis. I murdered the innocent from the safety of my vessel, and I told myself that as long as I fought Lord Cronus, the chance to fight justified any compromises of my ethical beliefs.”
Xander lifted his head to look at Teal’c, desperate for this to be some sort of lie or lesson or really bad joke. However, Xander held his breath as the truth of Teal’c’s words sank in. Teal’c was a murderer. And Xander’s big argument against vampires usually came down to them being murders. But Teal’c was definitely good, and after today, Xander was eighty percent sure Spike was good. And none of that fit in his brain.
“How do you…” Xander stopped and bit his lip. He couldn’t believe how much this hurt. Physically hurt. His chest ached and his head pounded in time with every heartbeat.
O’Neill filled the silence when Xander didn’t. “I still have trouble getting past a gut-level hatred of Russians. The shit I’ve seen—.” Jack stopped.
“We have noticed,” Teal’c needled O’Neill in that perfectly flat tone he had.
“Yeah, well we all have your own moments of irrational behavior.” O’Neill shrugged. “When you’re fighting, you need simple rules. Soviets are evil, vampires are bad. We all have to simply the world or every time we pick up a weapon, we’re going to spend way too much time asking ourselves if we’re justified in using lethal force.”
“So, you’re saying it’s normal that I totally just assumed that Spike would turn on everyone? That it’s normal to completely misjudge someone?”
“Yep,” O’Neill said, cutting Xander off. “Perfectly normal. And yeah, we can’t let that feeling rule us. I would never admit this to Daniel, but more days that not, I need is perspective… I need his moralizing, even if he annoys the crap out of me.”
“I still want to hate him,” Xander confessed as he stared at his beer. “I still do hate him only I have to admit that maybe it’s not rational to hate him.” Xander took another drink of his beer and for the first time, he honestly considered getting drunk. He hated Spike, but his big head knew he shouldn’t hate Spike, but his guts were still filled with spiders at the thought of Spike near his girls. Only they weren’t his girls. Xander could feel the headache, and he couldn’t escape the memory of Spike’s battered body. “How do I deal with the fact that I made a mistake like that?” he asked softly.
Teal’c shifted closer. “In my case, I considered myself a foolish young man of ninety. One makes such mistakes when one lacks life experience.”
Xander looked up, and he was almost sure that was a joke. The almost part made him afraid to laugh, though.
“Some of us better learn to deal with it before ninety,” O’Neill said dryly. “I still hate Russians. I learn to share that hatred only with a select group of friends who know how to take my hatred with a grain of salt. I’ll complain to the general every time, but I won’t tell some recruit that I hate Russians because he’ll be too young and stupid to understand that hating someone is not always rational or reasonable.”
“You’re telling me,” Xander pointed out. He was about as raw as a recruit came. He still forgot the saluting rules often enough to make him squirm every time he ran into an officer.
“Harris, I think you understand the real world well enough that I don’t have to pussyfoot around you like some sort of recruit who’s never seen battle. You hate vampires. I hate Russians. We both know that our feelings are only partially based in reality and a lot of it is emotion. And personally, I don’t have a problem with that,” O’Neill said. “In general, hating vampires seems like a pretty good rule with the number of fledges running around this place. However, maybe you can admit that the hatred is not always rational. If that fails, we’ll just have to give you a reality check from time to time. General Hammond overrules me every time I suggest we drop the Russian team on an ice planet while wearing speedos.”
Xander laughed. “Great. I hate vampires, but they aren’t always that bad, and hey, Buffy, have you given that vampire a good and evil quiz before slaying?” More laughter slipped out, and Xander could feel the edge of panic pressing in against him.
“Maybe we can skip that,” O’Neill suggested. "Summers seems remarkably unbothered by the subtleties, but still… she didn’t kill Spike or this Angel that you all seem to hate with such a passion. Maybe she’s got it figured out more than both of us.”
“She’s acting on instinct,” Xander said firmly. He knew it. Buffy had these warrior instincts that meant she always came out the other side alive, even if she was a little bent and battered at times.
“And did you respect her instinct to save these two?”
“Hell no,” Xander blurted out. “If Jesse had to die than…” Xander stopped. He couldn’t finish that, not if he wanted to call himself a good man. Jesse’s death was a seeping wound, but one death didn’t justify more. Could Jesse have turned out like Spike? Could he have learned to love some people, even if he couldn’t love all people? Could he have loved Xander again? He swallowed as questions he never allowed himself to ask floated up.
“Welcome to the human race, Harris,” O’Neill said quietly. “We’re bitter and damaged souls, all of us. You and I just prove that a little more than most. So you cry in your beer or you scream or you go back to the hotel and train until your arms fall off. That’s between you and Teal’c, but there’s one thing you can never do.”
Xander swallowed, afraid of what O’Neill was about to say.
“You can never put these feelings back in the box and ignore them. They’ll eat you alive, and I swear, if I think you’re a danger to this team or to Daniel, I’ll drop you off the back of a C-130 and I’m not sure I’ll hand you a parachute first, got it?”
Xander nodded, watching as O’Neill got up and headed for the door, his bottle of beer still sitting on the counter with no more than a few swallows gone.
“I thought threatening me was your job,” Xander said to Teal’c, trying for humor. It fell a little flat.
Teal’c seemed to measure his words carefully, not that he was exactly one for blurting. “The battle master who accepts a chal’til knows that if one fails, he cannot be allowed to return to the ranks with his superior training. The common Jaffa knows little of military tactics for to have it otherwise would expose the System Lord to dissent and rebellion. There is no place for a chal’til who has begun training and is unable to complete it.” Teal’c considered Xander with some sympathy in his expression.
“So you retire him to a nice farm out in the boondocks?” Xander asked even though he was sure Teal’c meant something entirely different. “And you’d never retire me to the boondocks because you like me, right?” Xander was almost sure that Teal’c wouldn’t kill him for failing, just like he was almost sure O’Neill wouldn’t throw him out a plane, but that "almost" part did give him a little twinge of fear.
“I have never taken a chal’til because I will not accept one who might fail. You will not fail, so you must follow O’Neill’s orders.” Teal’c left it at that. “Come. We shall train and you shall tell me of Spike.”
Teal’c headed for the door, not even waiting to see if Xander would follow. But then again, Xander was following, so it’s not like Teal’c had anything to worry about. Yep, time for training and talking and brain rewiring. Maybe it was time that Xander took a good look at some of his beliefs.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander dragged his sorry ass into the room he shared with Daniel, expecting to find it dark. Instead, Daniel was propped up in bed, his glasses set on his head while he had his nose to a set of squiggles printed on large size paper. He looked up as the door swung open.
“Xander.” Immediately Daniel put the pages aside.
“Hey. I’m home. Kinda home since this isn’t technically a home.” Xander eased farther into the room. “And if you’re going to yell at me about running off, that’s totally fair because I was huge with shutting you out.”
Daniel carefully set his papers and books off the bed, creating a lopsided tower on a bedside table. “Are you okay now?”
“That would definitely depend on the definition of okay,” Xander admitted. “I spend years hating vampires because they were evil, and after seeing what Spike did today…” Xander stopped. He’d thought about this and talked about this until his head was ready to split open. Or maybe that was just the side effect of having Teal’c knock him on his ass fifty bajillion times.
“That didn’t look evil,” Daniel said softly.
“Not really.” Xander came to the end of the bed and sat down, wincing as he did. “Which means I’ve been pretty wrong for a long time because I called them evil.”
“I don’t think they’re good.” Daniel’s hand ran up Xander’s back to rest against his shoulder blade. “They kill people and eat them, and not in that order. So I can see why you came to that conclusion.”
“So what conclusion am I supposed to come to?” Xander let himself fall backwards so he was lying down looking up at Daniel.
“That they’re dangerous. That they’re amoral. That I really don’t ever want to see one again in my life because aliens is about as weird as I really want my world to get,” Daniel said. “At least, that’s what I’m going for.” Daniel ran his hand up and down Xander’s arm. “You’ve been sweating.”
Xander looked down to see that he was sweating through his good shirt. “I worked out with Teal’c, and I guess I didn’t cool down enough before I changed.”
“You’ve been working out with Teal’c for three hours?” Daniel asked in horror.
“I spent one hour at a bar staring at a beer I didn’t drink.”
“Oh, that’s so much better. Teal’c only beat on you for two hours.” Daniel rolled his eyes. “I swear, there’s something in the mountain that causes testosterone poisoning. I’m going to do a study on it one of these days. Sam and Janet have both offered to help.”
Xander laughed. “That’s the first time in all of history that I’ve been accused of being too manly.”
“If you keep sparring with Teal’c, it won’t be the last,” Daniel said. He traced circles against Xander’s arm, sending little tingles through Xander’s skin. “Are you okay?” Daniel asked, but Xander didn’t need to talk about Spike. He needed to know that something in his life hadn’t shifted under his feet while he wasn’t looking.
“Mmmmm. I love you Dr. Jackson.” Xander reached up to catch Daniel by the back of the neck. Daniel yielded easily, his palm resting against Xander’s chest as he leaned down for a kiss. When Xander stopped, Daniel sat up and let his hand drift up to rest against Xander’s cheek.
“I love you too, Xander Harris.” Daniel shifted around and then leaned in for another kiss, their lips pressing together as Daniel’s hand slipped down to Xander’s neck, resting against the curve of it. Wrapping his arms around Daniel, Xander pulled him closer and Daniel’s mouth came open. Xander returned the favor, and their tongues pressed close until Xander could taste the coffee-musk that was all-Daniel. Moaning in lust and pain, Xander thrust up.
Daniel pulled back. “Was that pain?”
“Not much,” Xander said.
Daniel snorted. “I don’t trust you when you say not much. Strip.”
“Sir, yes sir,” Xander said, saluting without standing up. He groaned as he tried to follow orders, toeing off his shoes before standing.
“That was pain.”
“That was soreness,” Xander argued. “Teal’c promised Dr. Frasier that he wouldn’t break me again, and he’s a little obsessive when he promising things.” Even though Xander knew he wasn’t seriously hurt, Xander kept stripping, dropping his shirt to the ground and unbuckling his belt. He was starting to get the feeling that Daniel just had a kink for ordering him to strip—which was just fine with him.
Daniel knee walked to the edge of the bed and reached up to trace the edges of a bruise.
“I got that in the fight, not from Teal’c, and it really isn’t serious.”
“It still looks like it hurts.”
“No stretched skin, no black, no deep pain—it’s not medical treatment requiring sort of bruised, but if you want, you can kiss it and make it better,” Xander teased, pausing before he lost his pants. Daniel, however, got a wicked look in his eye. Leaning forward, he braced his hands on Xander’s waist and then licked his way over the bruised skin, letting just the tip of his tongue trace a line north. Xander shivered.
“Better?” Daniel teased.
Xander turned and caught Daniel’s shoulders. “Much. Only I’m overdressed.” He started pulling at Daniel’s shirt, shifting forward as Daniel moved back on the bed to make room for him. Finally Xander tossed the shirt to the side and considered the strong, lithe body in front of him. He leaned in, only instead of kissing Daniel on the lips, he placed a kiss at the base of Daniel’s throat. Daniel made a hungry little noise and settled back against the pillows, letting Xander work his way down over Daniel’s chest, tasting the salt from his skin.
Xander rolled Daniel’s nipple between his finger and thumb while thrusting down into Daniel’s body. Daniel’s mouth fell open in a silent cry. After a brief second, that silence was broken by a string of guttural cries that might or might not have been a foreign language. Smiling, Xander sucked at the puffy nipple while Daniel dug fingers into his shoulders.
Reaching down, Xander pulled at Daniel’s pants, grateful that the man had already lost his belt and shoes. Xander didn’t always deal well with those, and at one point he’d gotten Daniel so tangled up in his own pants that they had both ended up on the floor. Luckily, Daniel had been too busy trying to pin Xander to the ground to care. Daniel caught his wrists, pushing Xander’s hands out to the side before unzipped his own pants and started wiggling out of them. Xander grabbed the sides, and pulled down.
The first sight of Daniel’s cock pressing up through blue boxers made Xander freeze. Daniel wanted him. That was about the best feeling in the world, and Xander took a second to press a kiss to the fabric tented over Daniel’s cock.
That flipped some switch in Daniel. He pulled his knee up, flipping Xander. Because of their position on the bed, Xander ended up flat on his back with Daniel’s crotch in his face, which was not a problem. Xander kissed it again before Daniel squirmed down so they were nose to nose. “No distracting me,” Daniel said. “I’m inspecting.”
“Bossy, aren’t you?”
“Yep,” Daniel agreed with a grin. He ran his fingers over Xander’s shoulders and down his chest, fingers exploring every curve as he worked his way down with a scattering of kisses. Fisting the sheets, Xander arched his back, and before he realized Daniel’s clever fingers had undone his pants, Daniel was pulling them off. Xander’s underwear got caught in his pants, and Xander’s hard cock bobbed into sight.
“Everything looks in order,” Daniel teased as he stroked up Xander’s body until he reached the nipples. He ran his fingers over them feather light and Xander’s skin seemed to grow more sensitive. Then Daniel pulled at one nipple hard enough to make Xander cry out while he sucked at the other. The different sensations coming hard on the tail of the gentle teasing left Xander writhing as he moaned low in his throat.
“Daniel. Fuck. Oh Shit.” Xander couldn’t really find any other words in his overtaxed brain. Daniel ran a thumb over Xander’s slit, catching the moisture starting to weep from it. A strangled shout slipped out of Xander’s throat and he involuntarily thrust up, sending Daniel up into the air like a bronco rider. The force of it brought Daniel down onto Xander so their overheated bodies pressed together.
“Those curls of yours, soaked in sweat and slicking to your skin… you look debauched,” Daniel whispered.
“Um, Air Force cut off my curls,” Xander pointed out. Daniel reached down and ran his fingers through the tangle of curls around his cock, and Xander was suddenly aware of the thin trails of sweat that gathered where their bodies met.
“Those curls,” Xander said. “I thought—” Xander stopped when Daniel’s fingers curled around his cock. Every brain cell he had turned off and all the blood went south.
“What do you want?” Daniel asked. “Tell me one thing you want.”
Xander looked up into those beautiful blue eyes. What he wanted was to hear Daniel babbling in strange languages, to see the muscles of his legs strain as he dug his heels into the mattress, to hold that strong body as it strain toward orgasm. He wanted to watch as Daniel’s body hijacked that brain of his and gave Daniel that perfect moment.
“I want to suck you,” Xander said. Okay, he blushed a little because dirty talk wasn’t his strength, but then Daniel pinked up too, so Xander wasn’t worrying about it.
“Oh yeah,” Xander agreed. Slowly Daniel slid over to the side, wiggling out of his underwear as he went. Permission given, Xander ran a hand over Daniel’s slicked skin, feeling the muscles contract and tremble before he slid down to explore Daniel’s cock. Glancing up, he watched as Daniel titled his head back, the arch of his neck and the underside of his chin curving into each other. Around his face, Daniel’s hair was darkened with sweat, and he panted even though Xander hadn’t started yet.
Xander kissed the end of Daniel’s cock, before licking his lips to taste the salt and sweat that transferred. Daniel was muttering now—vocal even as his cock bobbed up into the air with need. Without warning, Xander took the head of Daniel’s cock in his mouth, using his tongue and lips to feel the shape of it, the firmness. Daniel’s words grew louder and more exotic as Xander slid down until the head nudged the back of his throat. Maybe it was his imagination, but Xander could almost feel the heat gather in his mouth, feel the throbbing and sense Daniel’s cock grow.
He pulled back and then slid down again. This time Daniel thrust up to meet him, and Xander’s gag reflect kicked in. Xander backed off fast, but Daniel was too far gone to notice. Wrapping his fist around the base of Daniel’s cock to keep from having another accident, Xander went back to sucking the end, using the tip of his tongue to explore the slit and the ridge and the veins that stood out from the skin.
The throbbing in his own balls approached the level of pain, and Xander’s lower jaw ached, but he wanted to feel Daniel lose control. He wanted to see that. More than that, Xander wanted the pleasure of feeling Daniel inside him, part of him. He pulled back and brushed his lips over the head of Daniel’s cock and then sucked in a breath before going in for another round. He could feel the second that Daniel lost control. Maybe it was the air across his damp cock. Maybe it was the tightness of Xander’s hand around the shaft. Either way, Xander could feel as Daniel’s body twitched and the cries grew wilder right before Daniel struggled to thrust up, his heels braced against the mattress. With a rough shout in some guttural language, Daniel came, splattering himself with come.
Daniel muttered in something that might have been French, his fingers blindly reaching for Xander. When he found Xander’s arm, Daniel pulled him up until their bodies slid against each other, the come smearing between them. Xander’s cock ached and his balls were pulled up tight, but he ignored that for a second, focusing on the sight of a panting and worn Daniel. He looked so incredibly sexy laid out on the white sheets.
Eventually those blue eyes opened, and Daniel reached up to pull Xander in for a kiss. As they kissed, Daniel’s hand stroked Xander’s side, over a hip, and then down to Xander’s cock. Daniel’s fingers teased, fingertips brushing over the end of Xander’s cock, but Xander thrust hard against Daniel’s hip, trapping Daniel’s hand between their bodies and that was enough to make him come with a shout. Thrusting against Daniel a few times, Xander panted through his orgasm and then sank down into the bed, not even caring about the mess.
“So much for teasing you beyond endurance,” Daniel teased gently, his breath warm against Xander’s chest.
“That was my endurance. Yep, I’m all enduranced out.”
For some time, Daniel lay silent, his hand wandering over Xander’s overheated body. “You’re a good man, Xander Harris.”
“Sometimes I have trouble believing that.”
Daniel inched closer and rested his palm against Xander’s cheek. “Then I’m going to keep reminding you of it until you believe it all the time.”
Closing his eyes, Xander leaned in and let his head rest against Daniel’s shoulder. After a second, Daniel started stroking the back of his head, and that’s how Xander fell asleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xander opened the door to the Magic Shop. Buffy was lying face down over the counter, and Spike leaned on it right next to her, still looking battered, but on his feet. Willow and Tara were huddled over something witchly on one of the tables, and Giles was just gone. Anya was stocking new whatsits on the front shelves. “Hey guys,” he offered with a bright smile, wishing he had thought to get doughnuts.
Buffy rolled her head to the side to look at him, but she didn’t move anything else. “Ow,” she offered.
“The knights didn’t go down that easy, huh?”
Slowly, Buffy pushed herself up onto her elbows. “They seemed to have the mistaken impression they were right.” Buffy was clearly mimicking someone, but Xander wasn’t sure who. O’Neill and Teal’c had taken two new SG teams out to back up Buffy, but they’d left while Xander was still passed out in Daniel’s bed. Xander wasn’t sure if that counted as Teal’c excluding him or if Teal’c knew how sore and useless Xander would be. Because Xander was. Sore and useless. Training with Teal’c was good for the emotions, but not really great on the back.
Buffy sighed. “At least the bulk of the army is gone, and can I just say that I really hate people who think they’re fighting for good when they’re really being all evil. Moral ambiguity is not our friend.”
“I’m sorry, Buff.” Xander was, he wished that she didn’t have to face those sorts of doubts, but he couldn’t save her from the world any more than he could hide himself from it.
“Hey, no problem. With the bad guys mostly dead, the world is once again safe for puppies and kittens, and it will be safe for kittens or certain demons are going to be meeting certain fists up close and personal.” Buffy gave Spike a nasty look. Xander, however, had no idea what they were talking about. And from the guilty expression on Spike’s face, he didn’t want to know, either. “You know,” Buffy said, turning back to Xander and actually standing all the way up, “this was a hard enough fight that I’m not sure how we would have done it without you. So thank you for showing up with Colonel Cranky and the cavalry.”
“Colonel Cranky?” Xander asked in horror.
When Spike moved in to stand close to her back, she didn’t even twitch. “That’s a harbinger of bad news sort of face you have on, Harris,” Spike said, his voice suspicious.
“And can I just say, huh?” Xander inched in. Outside, two cars waited, but Xander didn’t know how to start this part of the conversation.
Spike rolled his eyes. “Go on then, spit out whatever bad news has your knickers all knotted.”
“Everyone is okay. No one died or anything,” Xander blurted out, which to him was the important part.
Crossing her arms, Buffy eyed him. “And who exactly might have died that didn’t?”
“Um… your mom?” Xander rushed to say the rest before the panic set in. Well, before more panic set in because Xander could see Buffy’s eyes go large, and he was totally trying to not notice how Spike’s hand immediately went to Buffy’s back. “The doctors gave her a checkup because of the whole tumor thing, and she had blood clots and some weakness in some part of her brain near where the tumor was, so they started her on medicine, but there was a big blood clot or maybe it wasn’t a clot but something else, but anyway, they took her in for surgery, and the hospital has been trying to call you, but they keep getting a busy signal.”
“The shop needs to have a presence on Netscape. It’s a wonderful way for people all over the world to see and buy my merchandise. I plugged the phone line into my computer,” Anya announced calmly. Buffy started to take a step toward her, murder in her eyes, but Spike caught her arm.
“You need to get to your mum, luv.”
“Surgery?” Buffy sounded so small. Xander hated it.
“There’s a car outside. Colonel O’Neill called for a helicopter to pick you up and take you to Stanford.”
“Um, they have some fancy hospital that’s just for brain stuff,” Xander explained softly. “They didn’t want to tell us anything because of the whole medical confidentiality thing, but the major general from the marine base went with your mom and sister, and marine generals don’t really take ‘no’ for an answer. So the doctors finally told him what was going on, and he just called Colonel O’Neill.
Buffy turned startlingly white.
“If you want to grab a bag, the car is outside,” Xander offered.
Buffy looked around, although Xander really didn’t know what she was looking for. “The knights. Lots got away. And Glory’s minions…” Her voice trailed off.
“Buff, Spike can handle things here.” Xander looked over, and Spike’s face was hanging open. Xander was a big enough man to admit that felt good. He liked shocking Spike enough to make him look stupid, only maybe now was not a good time to revel in the Spike-shock.
Spike closed his mouth with an audible click of teeth. “He’s right, luv. You go to your mum. I’ll take care of the last of these ponces with delusions of knighthood.”
“I should…” Buffy looked at Spike just once, and then she was out the door.
Willow stood up. “Could we?” She bit her lip.
“She needs both of you,” Xander said. He wished that she needed him, but she didn’t. Not anymore. Willow held out her hand for Tara, and they both scrambled to get out the door before Buffy could leave.
That left Xander and Spike and Anya. “I should go…” Xander gestured with his thumb toward the door. The others were waiting. He should leave, but after spending all night telling Teal’c about Spike, about how he’d tried to bring the Judge back to make Drusilla happy and he’d eaten orphans… with Drusilla and how he’d tried to kill Buffy, and that one Xander was fairly sure he’d actually done on his own. After Xander had talked about Spike not killing Willow after kidnapping her and Buffy’s description of Spike’s whole “love’s bitch” speech. After explaining how they’d come to be roommates and how Spike had tried to kill himself, and wow, Xander never thought vampires could be depressed and suicidal. After all that, Xander felt like he owed Spike something. Without the hate to cloud his judgment, Xander could see so much clearer.
If the chip were out, Spike would still be dangerous, but he wasn’t bat-shit Angelus level crazy. He was someone who would follow the person he loved into hell if that’s where she wanted to go. And if Spike really loved Buffy, the chances of him turning on her were somewhere between hell freezing over and not a chance in hell. Now the odds of him killing Xander were a whole lot higher, Xander knew that. Looking back at some of the things he’d said after Spike got chipped, he couldn’t even blame Spike if he did. Xander had grown up hating bullies, but that’s exactly what he’d turned into.
“I don’t know why everyone is so tense. Lots of people die of aneurysms. They’re often painless and quite boring,” Anya offered with a dismissive sniff.
“It’s the dying part that freaks us out,” Xander pointed out.
Anya turned to give him one of those looks like she couldn’t quite figure out why she loved someone so stupid. “Everyone dies. That’s why being a demon is so much better.” Huffing at his stupidity, Anya took her empty box and headed for the back.
“That’s my Ahn,” Xander said softly. Part of him did still love her, but it was a small and masochistic part. “Falling in love is never really sane, is it? I mean, I think my love with Daniel is sane from my end, but I bet everyone else thinks he’s crazy for getting mixed up with me and my hang-ups.” Xander made a face as he realized he was the loony half of the relationship this time. Xander looked at Spike. “Like you… you and love, not really much with the logic.”
Spike narrowed his eyes looked at Xander suspiciously, but Xander couldn’t blame him. There was a lot of hate under this particular bridge.
“If you hurt her, I’m going to beat you do death with a shovel and hide the ashes,” Xander warned. When Spike’s eyebrow went up, he reconsidered that. “Or I’ll have Teal’c hold you while I’m beating you to dust since the idea of me taking out you is a little on the comic relief side. But still, if you hurt Buffy or break her heart, there will be beating and shovels will be involved.”
Spike ran a tongue along the inside of his lower lip as he seemed to think about that. “Fair enough, mate. But I don’t plan to hurt her. And I won’t leave her, not unless she makes me go.” With a loud sniff, he shrugged one shoulder. “And like as not, I won’t leave even if she does make me. I’ll just stalk her.”
“Well, that’s a lovely thought.”
“I never have been good at changing my loyalty.”
Xander nodded. For Xander to trust a vampire that much, it would take blood oaths and spells and all sort of bondage of the non-kinky side. But Buffy did trust him, and looking at the situation with more logical eyes, Xander had to admit that she wouldn’t do that if Spike hadn’t earned the trust. He might not trust Spike, but he needed to trust Buffy. “Spike, what do you… why…” Xander stopped. Even if Spike did answer, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
For a long time, Spike simply looked at him, his expression blank, but maybe he saw something in Xander because after several minutes, he offered, “She’s strong. Stronger than my sire. It started there, but it’s more than that. I follow my blood, I don’t lie to myself about being love’s bitch. I never have.”
“So, you love her?” Xander wanted to believe that. He needed to believe that.
“Wot, you aren’t going to tell me how vampires can’t love because we’re evil and all that rot?” Spike demanded.
“Can you love?” Xander came out and asked.
Spike stood up a little straighter. “Bloody hell, yes. I didn’t risk getting dusted to save your sorry arse. I’d rather be dust than watch her suffer and know that I stood by and didn’t try and save her from it. And as much as I wouldn’t mind if some demon turned you into a throw rug, it’d hurt Buffy.”
“And it would hurt her if you turned to dust,” Xander pointed out.
Spike gave a quick nod, and if Xander could ignore the fact that Spike was a vampire, he could see the hope there, the hope that Buffy did love him.
“I hope you two make it,” Xander said softly. “You’re a good… not-man. You’re a good not-man, Spike. Why do I have a sudden urge to wash my own mouth out with soap?”
“Bloody hell. Statements of truth are not insults, you nit.”
“They’re the best ones,” Xander pointed out. He had the feeling there was more to say, but Xander didn’t know what, and he didn’t have the emotional energy to keep going. “I have to get back to the colonel. We’re pulling out tonight. Something back home is trying to do something that would be amazingly bad.”
“Articulate as ever there, pet.”
“Yeah, well that time I actually was doing it on purpose.”
Spike sucked air through his teeth and watched Xander with a blank expression. They might not be friends, but Xander could admit that Sunnydale was safer—that his friends were safer—with Spike here. “Be careful, Spike. Take care of my girls.”
Spike twitched, and for one horrible second, Xander thought he might actually offer his hand. Xander was definitely not ready to touch Spike, not when he knew how it felt to have Spike suck on his arm. Riley’s vampire addiction made a lot more sense now, and Xander had a firm policy of avoiding any and all addictive substances. Luckily, Spike kept his distance. “I will, Harris,” he promised.
Xander nodded as he felt his eyes warm. He didn’t know why he wanted to cry. The bad parts were over, but grief still pulled at him. “I know you will, Spike. Be good.”
Turning around, Xander hurried out of the Magic Shop before he could do something really embarrassing like cry in front of Spike. Outside, Jack had found yet another rental. Daniel opened the back door while both he and Carter scooted over to make room. Xander got in without looking back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jack sighed as he headed into the mountain. He’d crash here tonight. After the last few days, he needed to touch base with his office. He needed to make sure no one had gotten killed or injured or infected with some alien virus while he was off making nice with Summers. He needed to check on the Tok’ra situation that had brought them back, and honestly, why did they care about a missing Tok’ra?
That thought made Jack smile a little. Harris hated vampires, Jack hated Russians and Tok’ra. It wasn’t such a hard stretch to think the kid could turn out to be a fair fighter. He had some good instincts. And on that thought, Jack detoured toward the general’s office. He never doubted that General Hammond would still be in.
“Walter,” Jack offered as he passed the chief master sergeant. He was another one who seemed to live in the mountain.
“Colonel, good to have you back,” Walter said with a smile.
“The general in?”
“He’s waiting for you,” Walter said. Nodding at the lieutenant sitting next to Walter, Jack headed up to the general’s office, rapping on the door before he pushed it the rest of the way open.
“Colonel. Good to see you back.” General Hammond closed the file he’d been looking at. “How did you leave things in Sunnydale?”
“Well, the god is dead, but it took four soldiers firing multiple rounds, several direct hits with a zat, multiple hits with a sword, and apparently one local expert seems to think that she only went down because Harris passed Summers an ax made from an alien steel called Gamitum. We then engaged between eighty and one hundred sword-wielding madman, but look at the bright side. I only have four members of SGC in the hospital.”
General Hammond sighed. “I had hoped your reports were exaggerating things a little.”
“Nope. If anything, sir, I underplayed it.”
“And the slayer?”
Jack sat down and gathered his thoughts. He had a lot of respect for the job she’d done, but she was young and the young always had huge blind spots. Buffy wasn’t unique in that, but she was unique in the sheer amount of responsibility thrust at her. “She’s a leader. I’d have her in this command in a second, only maybe I wouldn’t let her sit in our chairs,” Jack pointed out. General Hammond nodded as he steepled his fingers in front of him.
“Strengths?” he asked calmly.
“She’s not battle fatigued, and I’m starting to think Harris is right when he suggests that something in a slayer prevents it because I’d be worn down to nothing trying to do her job with no time off for nervous breakdowns.” Jack laughed, but he wasn’t kidding, and General Hammond’s wry smile made it pretty clear that he understood that. “She’s calm in battle, loyal to her people, stronger than anyone we have on the payroll, and creative when she runs into problems. Frighteningly so.”
“So, she’s up to your standards?” Hammond asked.
Jack wished he could say yes. He really did. “Any fault she has comes from idiots who never gave her any leadership training. I had to avoid even talking to her 'mentor' because the man hasn't given her the right tools, and I truly wanted to dress him down and force him to scrub a few hundred toilets."
"Sabotage?" Hammond asked.
"I don't think so, sir. After talking to Summers and Harris, it seems like the Watchers who trained Giles think of these women as disposable and short-lived. He doesn't know the leadership techniques Summers needs, so she's developed a few dangerous blind spots."
“She doesn’t notice signs of fatigue in her support staff, she’s unrealistic about tactics, and she’s rash. She makes me look like a sedate old man who doesn’t want to take risks.”
“Dangerous qualities in a leader.”
“They could be,” Jack agreed. “But I give this woman some credit, General. She was told she had to fight and die alone, and she had the strength to tell the Watchers to go fuck themselves. If she was thirty years older or if I didn’t mind getting called a dirty old lecher, I’d propose.” Jack was only half joking--he always had preferred strong partners. Sara always could call him on his shit, and now that he was graphically and vividly aware of Daniel's orientation, he had to fight down a real attraction there. Harris was just lucky that Jack didn't plan to risk his career for anyone. The job was too important, and besides, Harris made Daniel happy. While part of Jack was annoyed and jealous, the more mature parts of his brain liked the idea that Daniel had found someone to love.
General Hammond laughed. “Be that as it may, Colonel, I think she’s a little young for you. She could be one of my grandchildren.”
“Only if you send your grandkids to war with an ax and a prayer.”
“I would hope not.” General Hammond turned serious as he leaned back in his chair. “I don’t like what these men have done to this young woman. I’ve talked to the President about trying to identify the members of the Watcher’s Council and limiting their access to the United States.”
“And just hope the next slayer turns up here?” Jack asked. This whole system smelled of rotting fish, but until they knew more about how to spot an up and coming slayer, Jack figured the Watchers had the power here.
“I would rather think of Summers cornering the market on slayers for the next fifty or sixty years,” General Hammond said. “So how do we make that a reality?”
“We offer her training. She’ll listen, sir. At least she listened to me.”
“And you aren’t our most diplomatic officer,” General Hammond said, but not unkindly. Jack certainly knew it was true enough.
“No, but I made it clear that I considered her the commanding officer on scene. I was painfully honest, and I gave her my unvarnished evaluation of her performance and her team. I also listened to her evaluation of my performance, and she nailed me to the wall by my ears.”
“I got the report,” General Hammond said, and from his expression, he found it amusing. “You rely too much on modern weapons, you have unwarranted faith in technology, and your interpersonal skills…” General Hammond reached for another file and opened it before reading directly from it. “Suck hairy monkey balls,” he finished.
Jack cringed. “And sadly, most of my previous commanding officers would send her a bottle of champagne if they ever saw that.”
“Only after she turned twenty one and could drink. Right now, she’s barely legal to vote. However, she also said that you were one of the bravest men she’d ever met, that she trusted your judgment, and that if she ever wanted to blow up another NID base, she was calling to invite you to the party. I get the feeling, you made a good impression. So, who do we send to back her up?”
“Major Warren,” Jack said without hesitation. “He’s seen Summers in action, he’s fought at her side, and he’s seen how I interact with her, so he’s not going to question her leadership. If we send in someone who tries to take control, I think she’s going to kick them out of town—especially after the fiasco with the NID.”
“Not Major Castleman?” General Hammond asked.
“Castleman’s a good officer—one of the best,” Jack said slowly. Castleman was one of the few officers who had taken control of SG1 while Jack was out of commission. “However, he’s ambitious. And while he’s normally one of the best at diplomacy, I tend to think that if Summers respected an interpersonal style that sucked hairy monkey balls, she probably wouldn’t want Castleman’s softer approach. Warren’s direct… borderline offensive at times.”
“Exactly,” Jack agreed with aplomb.
General Hammond shook his head fondly. He was the only general in the Air Force who could get a report like that one and not blow a gasket. Even now, Jack’s fingers itched to get ahold of that file and see exactly what Summers had written. Clearly her verbal debriefings were nothing compared to her reports. “I am concerned about this vampire. What’s your take on him?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know enough to have a take on him. I know he didn’t break under serious torture, but I can’t say why. Harris says that Spike has a long history of devoting himself to someone he loves. He seems to think that if Spike loves Buffy that he’ll do anything to make her happy.”
“That’s not exactly comforting,” General Hammond pointed out. “Love is a rather fickle emotion.”
“My thought exactly,” Jack agreed. “Harris did say that without his obsessive love and without the chip, Spike would be exceptionally dangerous. But he also pointed out that C4 is fairly dangerous too, and it still has its uses.”
“So, keep an eye on the situation and wait?” General Hammond translated.
“And do you trust Airman Harris’ judgment enough to risk having a non-human so close to Ms. Summers?”
“I trust his judgment when he says that Summers won’t turn against Spike and trying to make her will just strengthen their bond and leave us sucking in the wind.”
General Hammond’s eyebrows went up. “Well, colorful as that may be, it sounds like a fairly accurate description of an eighteen year old girl. God, Jack, when did we start putting eighteen-year-old girls on the front lines?”
“We’ve done it to eighteen-year-old boys for a while now.”
General Hammond rubbed a hand over his face. “Some days I think I’m getting too old for this job.”
“Nonsense, sir. You have another forty or fifty years in you.” That earned Jack a dirty look. “And speaking of people who really are too young to be fighting, but they’re fighters anyway, I need to talk to you about Airman Harris.”
“I hadn’t written the reports yet, but I assume you want him up on charges for being absent without leave and disobeying a direct order.”
“Actually, sir, I wanted to assign him to SG1.”
General Hammond blinked several time, shook his head as though clearing it, and then glared. That was not a good combination. “Excuse me, Colonel?”
Jack shrugged. “The kid listens to Teal’c and the two of them are oddly similar in fighting styles, so I thought Harris could use a little one-on-one time, so I gave him to Teal’c as a chal’til.”
“A chal’til? You mean a training slave?”
Jack hated that everyone seemed to remember Daniel’s stupid stories except him. “In my defense sir, I was frustrated with Daniel and Harris at the time.”
“So, Teal’c considers this binding?”
“Very,” Jack agreed. “He actually seems to think that if Harris isn’t on SG1, then he’ll have to transfer to whichever team we put him on.”
“Teal’c threatened you?” General Hammond sat bolt upright, shock clear in his face.
“No, sir. Teal’c does not threaten. He only states facts, and in his mind, the fact is that Harris is his chal’til and they cannot be assigned to separate duties. He even offered to move to SG3 and take Harris with him in order to reduce any conflict.”
“Have you tried to ask Teal’c to sever the relationship?”
Jack grimaced. “Yes, sir, but you don’t want to go there. Ending a chal’til relationship apparently involves public beating, the ripping out of the symbiote and potentially slitting the throat, but that last one is only if you really liked the chal’til. Teal’c has made it very clear that he will not end his mentorship of Harris until he feels Harris has mastered all the skills Teal’c has to offer.”
“That… that could be a problem. Harris is only signed up for four years.”
“I pointed that out, but Teal’c said that he would decide when Harris was ready to graduate. He offered an estimate of ten to thirty years, and surprisingly Harris did not disagree.”
The general sagged back into his chair. “Colonel, you can’t have Airman Harris on your team if there’s even a rumor of a relationship between him and Dr. Jackson. And you and I both know that there is more there than simple rumor. It’s against the regulations.”
“So is having a woman in a front-line combat unit. So is giving a turned enemy combatant access to classified materials. So is taking a civilian into combat. Hell, I’m the only member of SG1 who is legal under the regs.”
“I am aware of the irregularities of SG1. This whole base skirts the regulations on a regular basis. After that hormone attack, I’m aware of any number of irregularities all over this base. I told the Joint Chiefs that the same device that made all our soldiers…” The general stopped, clearly searching for a word.
“Libidinous,” Jack filled in for him.
With a sigh, Hammond said, “It’s rather disturbing how often that word creeps into our reports, but yes, libidinous. I suggested that the device also interfered with the video recording systems. If we turned over our surveillance from that period, the amount of against-the-regs fraternization would shock a porn star.”
Jack snorted. He had not expected that to come out of Hammond, but the man had a twinkle in his eyes. “So put Harris down as one more,” Jack suggested. If the mountain could survive porn tapes of all their soldiers, it could survive Harris. Hopefully.
“I thought you didn’t trust him, Colonel.”
Jack leaned back. “I saw him in action. He’s untrained, annoying, and quite frankly, I think that anyone who gets in a relationship with Daniel has a streak of masochism. That said, he’s a natural fighter, he’s a survivor, and he doesn’t turn on his people, not even when his life’s in danger. And he’s smart enough to adjust to a new reality. Would I trust him in a random combat unit? No sir, I would not. But Teal’c will keep him on the straight and narrow until some of the rough edges get sanded off.”
“And your psychological assessment?”
“He’s as healthy as I am,” Jack said with a smile.
“That’s less than reassuring,” General Hammond pointed out.
Jack shrugged. He’d be insulted, only the general was right. “I muddle through.”
“He’ll have to pass a formal evaluation from MacKenzie.”
Jack clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “Oh goodie. Can I watch?”
“Colonel,” Hammond said with an avuncular exasperation.
“He’s going to send MacKenzie straight to the loony bin. I think Teal’c’s the only one who isn’t driven half-insane by some of Harris’ less attractive traits. And I’m including Daniel in that. Hell, I think Daniel’s streak of masochism is showing in his choice of partners.”
Hammond shook his head. “This is potentially a bad idea.”
“So was including Dr. Jackson. So was letting Teal’c on the team. Hell, the first time I saw Carter, I didn’t want a woman on my team. Our bad ideas seem to turn out pretty well.”
“I hope this one does,” Hammond said, his serious tone making it clear he had a few doubts.
“Me, too.” Jack turned serious. “And if I think this is going to compromise us in any way, you know I’ll pull the plug on this experiment before I’ll put my team at risk.”
“That I believe, Colonel. Well, SG1 is officially a five-man team as soon as you can get Harris certified as field-ready. Dismissed.”
“I’ll let the team know,” Jack said as he got up to leave. Hammond wasn’t totally behind this decision, Jack could tell that. Considering that Jack had a few qualms of his own, he wasn’t surprised. However, he figured his second thoughts had a whole lot to do with his own missed opportunities and butt-ignorance. That and he still didn’t like looking in a mirror and seeing a younger version of himself.
Once he ignored that selfish part of himself that wanted Harris to fall down a very deep hole, he had to admit that the kid fit with the team. Jack cheered himself up with the realization that if Daniel ever again tried killing himself by staying in a library that was falling into the sea, the team had one more set of hands to drag him to the gate. And if Danny was sleeping with Harris, he would stop falling for every murderer that had a twinkle in her eye. And if Teal’c was training Harris, he would definitely have less time to put Jack on his back during training.
Actually, this might not turn out so bad. Jack started whistling as he headed to his office to fill out the transfer paperwork. Major Warren to head the new hell gate program and one Airman Harris to SG1.
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