Chapter Two: Second Time Through
Xander stared at the closed door, listening as Jack's car started up and drove off. It all felt so surreal, like he was watching someone else's life. Because how could this be happening?
With a sigh, Xander turned and headed out back to check on the girls in the yard. They were talking and laughing as Vi led them through their stretches, the novelty of their calling not yet worn away. Xander let them be and went inside, back upstairs to his room. His unfinished email to Willow was still on the screen where he had left it. He'd have to rewrite it now, he thought. Add that his parents were dead.
Turning away from the computer, he sat instead on his bed, elbows on knees as he gazed at the pictures Jack had given him. He had lost all his pictures when they closed the Hellmouth, not that he'd had many of his parents.
Dead. His parents were dead. He felt his eye prick and a tear slide down his cheek. They were gone. It was one thing to look at the carnage from the riots and guess, another to hear the words that cemented it into reality. His mom had been so beautiful. Young, free. She couldn't have been much older in the picture than Xander was now, but he had never felt as young as she looked. At least not in a long, long time. And she was gone now. Like Anya. And as much as he had sometimes hated his parents, he wanted nothing more than to see them one last time. But he couldn't. Xander's head fell into his hands and silent sobs accompanied the pictures falling to the floor.
He didn't know how long he sat there, but after a while he felt someone sit on the bed next to him and an arm snake around his waist. Sighing he sat up and hugged Dawn back, glad of the simple comfort she offered. Neither of them said anything; they didn't have to.
"I'm sorry about your parents," Dawn said softly after a while.
Xander let out a soft, sad huff of air and wiped the tears from his cheeks. "Yeah. I never would have thought I'd be crying over them."
"They were still your parents," Dawn replied. Xander caught the note of longing in her voice. Their dad still hadn't contacted them. Not like Jack.
"And now there's this guy who says he's my real dad." Xander still didn't know if he believed it or not.
"I googled him," said Dawn. "He's who he says he is. We'll have to get Willow to do the deep dark secret search. And a paternity test if you want."
"Yeah," he absently agreed, thinking back over the man who had flown from Colorado just to see him.
For an old guy, Jack was in shape and actually looked pretty good over all. Also not horribly out of fashion, he noted remembering the casual khakis, shirt, and leather jacket he had worn. Xander couldn't decide if that bothered him or not. Then he wondered why he was focusing on something so entirely irrelevant.
"He's coming back tomorrow," he told Dawn. "He says he wants to get to know me."
"Is that good?" asked Dawn hesitantly. "I mean, do you really think he's your dad?"
Xander shrugged not wanting to think about it but unable not to. He'd lost his original birth certificate with everything else in Sunnydale. Regardless, having someone else call him son wasn't really going to change anything. Dad hadn't really been his dad since high school anyway. "He thinks so. Said I looked like his uncle."
"What did you talk about?"
"Nothing really. I asked about his family, he asked if I had a girlfriend." But she was gone too. "He asked about my eye." Dawn nodded and silence settled over them again.
Xander wondered where this was going to go. He wondered why he had told Jack he could come back. With his current luck he would probably turn out to be another demon trying to get to them through him. His eye found the pictures on the floor. Mom and Jack. Jack and Mom. "Are they really real?" he half-whispered.
"Willow's all-purpose truth spell came up positive."
So maybe not a demon. He hadn't even gotten to the Colonel thing yet. Those were scabs best left alone for now.
"Can I come with you to pick up Buffy and Giles?" asked Dawn, breaking the quiet.
"Yeah," he turned and smiled at her, for real this time. "Thanks. I could use the company."
"Anytime." And they both knew it was about more than a ride to the airport. Dawn gave him a final squeeze then left to get back to whatever translation she was working on for Giles. Xander stared after her for a minute before going back to the email to Willow who was somewhere on the East Coast. He deleted the last few lines then started a new paragraph.
The next day after overseeing the usual chaos that was cooking for and feeding over thirty slayers and making sure the veterans had the newbies under control, Xander and Dawn headed for the airport with Dawn in the driver's seat. They hadn't told Buffy yet that she'd gotten her license, deciding that what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. She'd become better about letting Dawn grow up but still had the tendency to be overprotective. So when she was gone, Xander let Dawn drive. And if she found out he had his lack of depth perception as an excuse.
The airport was noisy but not too crowded. They waited in the baggage claim area passing the time by filling in the words to other peoples conversations as they greeted each other. It was nice to just sit and people-watch with Dawn, see how the other side lived. Xander hadn't done this since working construction.
They had been waiting for about twenty minutes when two familiar figures finally came down the escalator. Beside him, Dawn shrieked and bounded over to tackle her sister and Giles, Xander trailing in her wake. Having just come from London, they both looked tired and unkempt, but happy to be back. Giles smiled at him and gave him a hug when he reached them. Dawn was already chattering a mile a minute at Buffy with no sign of stopping, so Xander took his life into his own hands and commandeered the slayer for a hug, which she laughingly returned. Dawn's commentary on life at the house never stopped.
By the time they got their bags and were on the way home Dawn had caught them up since their last phone call four days ago. While the news about Xander's parents didn't surprise them, the news about his possible father did. But Dawn, bless her, wouldn't let them ask questions, saying they could get the details after they got home. She wanted to hear about London while she had them to herself. So they pushed aside talk of Jack in favor of making fun of the Land of Tweed. Even Giles had a thing or two to say about British drivers.
As far as work went, the rebuilding of the Council was progressing slowly, but progressing nonetheless. Though Xander got the impression that Buffy had spent most of their time dragging Giles to see the sights. She looked good. She looked like she'd finally had some badly needed rest.
Xander smiled as he watched the girls go on in the back seat about all the crazy things Buffy had tried in order to get the guards at Buckingham Palace to quit their statue routine. Beside him, Giles shook his head, silently denying any part in the escapade. Just like normal. It was good to have everyone home.
At precisely four o'clock, Jack rang the doorbell to the nice, old house where Xander lived with a bunch of girls. It was simply too odd to contemplate at the moment, so Jack wisely chose not to as he listened to the stampede heading for the door. This time two brunettes, a blond, and one faded blue met him cheerfully at the door.
"Hi," Jack smiled more sure of himself today.
The girls giggled and said, "Hi, Jack," as they let him in.
"XANDER!!!" two of them shouted together, this time toward the back of the house, and once again Jack winced at the noise. He figured it wasn't often quiet around here.
Xander emerged from the back hallway followed by another, much older man. He had gray hair and glasses and wore a blue pullover, managing to look both casual and distinguished at the same time. Jack wondered who he was, maybe a parent dropping off his daughter?
"Hey!" another girl shouted from the kitchen. "Buffy says break's over," she called to the teenagers who had let him in. With a chorus of disappointed 'awe's, the four reluctantly retreated casting wishful looks over their shoulders.
"They never give up," said Xander by way of greeting, watching the girls leave. "Of course I don't blame 'em for wanting to avoid Buffy." He turned back to Jack and the parent who hadn't left yet. "So Jack, this is Rupert Giles. He's helping us out for the summer. Giles, Jack O'Neill."
"A pleasure to meet you," said Mr. Giles in a soft British accent.
To say Jack was surprised would have been a gross understatement. This was Giles? Xander's friend that he was running this place with? He had expected Giles to be some dumb kid, another refugee from Sunnydale with no money and a stupid idea. One old man, one young one and thirty teenage girls did not paint a pretty picture. And he was British! Just what had this guy gotten his son wrapped up in?
Hiding his surprise and suspicion with a neutral smile, Jack shook the offered hand. Mr. Giles had a firm handshake that almost hurt, but his mild expression suggested he wasn't aware of it. "Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee?"
"Uh, coffee would be great," said Jack, the civil custom bringing him up short and reminding him of his manners. This was Xander's 'friend' after all, good or not, and for once he didn't want to pick a fight.
Xander disappeared into the kitchen to get the drinks while Mr. Giles led Jack into the sitting room. Mr. Giles didn't say anything to him, instead seeming to prefer to let Jack make the first move. It was all very uncomfortable. Jack wasn't quite sure what was going on but he wanted to find out. Now.
"So how do you know Xander?" he asked as innocuously as possible.
Mr. Giles didn't flinch. "I've known him since he was in high school. Yourself?"
"I, uh." Suddenly thrown on the defensive when he knew Mr. Giles was aware of who he was made Jack take a strong dislike to the man. He was being tested and he really didn't like it. "I'm his father. His biological father anyway. But you knew that."
"I know that's what you claim," Mr. Giles met his challenging gaze. "A birth certificate and a picture are hardly concluding evidence."
"Xander seems to think so."
"Does he?" Mr. Giles lifted a skeptical eyebrow. And suddenly Jack wasn't sure. Yesterday, after Dawn had confirmed the birth certificate they had talked . . . it hadn't been the most stellar conversation he'd ever had, but he thought they had made progress.
"It was in his mother's will," said Jack, needing something solid to hold onto. He remembered reading it. "I didn't find out until they called me about it."
"Again, all we have is your word on that," Mr. Giles replied. "But I suppose that is neither here nor there at the moment since it can easily be cleared up at the hospital."
"You know, your DNA, my DNA. Seeing if it's all happy little DNA," said Xander joining them with the drinks. "It's not that we don't trust you, it's just that, well . . . we don't." He handed Jack a Snoopy mug. "Milk or sugar?"
Jack shook his head, sighed and pushed the hurt away. To be honest he had anticipated doing a paternity test sometime. He just didn't know if he could handle it if it came out negative. He watched as Xander handed Mr. Giles a Kiss the Librarian mug and settled beside him on the couch with his own that said 'We ♥ Snow'.
His son, because he knew he was, looked better today, more relaxed than yesterday to be sure. And he looked comfortable sitting next to Mr. Giles, which rankled Jack a bit because it wasn't him. Who was this guy anyway? And what was he doing here? How did he know Xander? Yesterday's challenge of impressing the friends wasn't so fun anymore when confronted with this man.
"So when do you want to do the test?" he asked. "I've got to get back tomorrow."
"I already set up an appointment at the clinic in town in the morning," said Xander. "And it wasn't easy getting a spot on such short notice."
"Oh." Jack wasn't sure what to say to that. "That's good." And awfully fast. Jack tried not to think about what would happen if it came back negative. He'd been dreaming of this meeting for six months. Of course the reality of it was far from anything he had expected, but at least there was still hope.
"So," said Mr. Giles. "You work at NORAD, Colonel?"
Jack glanced up sharply at the man, wondering just why he asked that. He'd never said anything about where he worked yesterday. And he didn't like that look of mild curiosity either. "And you teach teenaged girls . . . self defense?" he shot back, letting him know exactly what he thought of the situation.
To his surprise, Mr. Giles actually blushed. "Yes, actually," he sputtered. "It's not what you're implying."
"I wasn't implying anything," Jack denied, happy he'd finally scored a hit. "Just wondering what you've got my son doing here."
"Hey! Why should you care?" Xander snapped. "You don't live here. And even if you are my biological father, so what? You haven't been a part of my life. You don't know the first thing about us."
"I wasn't there because I didn't know about you. I'm here now," said Jack a little too desperately. This wasn't happening, was it? "I want to get to know you. Why do you think I came here?"
"I don't know!" Xander suddenly shouted back. "You just showed up, all 'Luke, I am your father' and you're not like him and I don't even know you."
"Xander," Mr. Giles put a calming hand on the young man's shoulder while Jack looked on in shock. Did that even make sense? "Xander, why don't you go check on Andrew in the kitchen," said Mr. Giles.
Xander ignored him. "What, you tell me my parents are dead and expect to take their place protecting me? I'm not a kid."
"I'm not expecting anything!" Jack yelled back, feeling like he'd been kicked in the teeth. He's was going to lose him! The thought seared through his mind like fire, burning so deep it was all he could think of.
"Xander," Mr. Giles repeated sharply.
"Yeah. Fine, whatever." Without sparing a glance for Jack, his son stormed out of the room leaving Jack with the older man. Mildness replaced by ruthless hostility.
Jack scrubbed a hand over his face. Shit. This wasn't going right. "Look, I'm sorry," he said not quite sure what had just happened. "Whatever I said - "
"I daresay you called me a pervert," Mr. Giles interrupted coldly.
Jack bristled. "I - "
"I don't want to hear it," Mr. Giles cut him off again. "You want to make sure he's all right, I can see that. You can say anything you want to about me; I honestly don't care, but I highly doubt that insulting his friends will garner you his good will, however well intentioned."
"I'm sorry," Jack repeated with a sigh. "I'll admit I'm probably jumping to conclusions, but frankly I don't like you," he bit out. "Whatever you're doing here doesn't look good from where I'm sitting. I know it's a little late, but I just want what's best for him."
"As do I Colonel O'Neill," said Mr. Giles. "Even if that means getting rid of you."
Jack caught his breath. He must have heard wrong. "Did you just threaten me?" he asked, eyebrows lifted at the audacity. Mr. Giles continued to calmly stare him down.
"I'll leave the threats to the girls. They have a much more colorful way of putting things," said Mr. Giles, and Jack knew he wasn't talking about the girls he'd met yesterday. "But let me make one thing perfectly clear: neither your rank nor your government will be able to protect you from me if you have one ill thought toward Xander." Now Jack was used to being threatened, in fact he often felt that in his old age he was getting rather immune to it. But at the moment he got the feeling that he was treading on very thin ice. Mr. Giles's tone was clear, crisp, and deadly, his accent only chilling Jack more as eyes full of mortal promise bored into him.
Whatever he had thought before about Mr. Giles being mild mannered when right out the window. "You have my word," Jack murmured seriously.
"Good." And like that, the spell was broken so quickly Jack wondered if it had really happened. "Then you can stay for supper." Mr. Giles smiled at him with only a hint of his earlier menace and took a sip of his tea. "So, Colonel, how do you like Cleveland?"
Jack tried to smile back and hoped he would make it out of this conversation intact.
The constant sound of knife against cutting board pounded like the blood through Xander's head. He could feel Andrew watching him from across the island counter and wished he could say something reassuring but he didn't know what. Hell, he couldn't even sort out why he was mad. Yesterday Jack had been okay and today he and Giles were at each other's throats.
Xander cleared the chopped carrots into the waiting pot and grabbed another handful. Something about Jack scared him. He was so . . . certain about being his dad. And he cared. And Xander didn't know how to handle that, not from some stranger he met yesterday who was fifty years old and in the damn army.
But there was a niggling voice in the back of mind whispering "what if . . ." What if Mom had told Jack? What if he had stuck around like he said he would have? As a kid in middle school, when things had really started to go downhill in the Harris household, Xander had sometimes imagined having different parents. Parents who didn't drink, didn't yell at him, and didn't make him want to sleep outside on Christmas Eve.
Xander dumped the carrots in with the others, grabbing the last handful, but his hands were shaking so badly now, he cut his finger, red blood spilling over and clashing with the orange to make a nice vampire rabbit snack. His blood, Jack's blood. They'd find out tomorrow. They still didn't know for sure. Would Jack still care even if he wasn't his father?
Taking the carrots with him to the sink, Xander ran cold water over the wound and ignored Andrew's fussing as the blood washed away. It didn't matter. Blood didn't make you family, it only gave you a place to start. And Xander had a family. He didn't need someone who didn't know the first thing about him or Giles or anyone to come in making assumptions. Tomorrow they'd know for sure, then Jack would go back to his army and life would get back to normal on the Cleveland Hellmouth. Maybe he'd get a Christmas card like Buffy used to get from her dad. Whatever. It didn't matter.
Jack was impressed that he and Mr. Giles had managed to find safe ground in seventies music. Granted it had taken Cleveland's weather, England's weather, Colorado's weather, and an aborted attempt at sports to get there, but they did manage to have a civilized conversation without mentioning Xander or what anyone actually did for a living. Nevertheless, Jack was relieved when the sitting room door opened and put an end to the conversation.
Unsurprisingly, it was a girl, a blonde this time and fairly short. She was wearing a tank top and sweat pants, obviously just having come in from a workout session.
"Hey, Giles," she practically bubbled though her eyes never left Jack as both he and Mr. Giles stood. "This him?" she asked, giving him a professional once over.
"Uh, yes. Colonel, may I introduce Buffy Summers, one of our instructors here. Buffy, Jack O'Neill."
"Ms. Summers," Jack used his best smile for Xander's other friend. By the way she was eyeing him this must be one of the girls Mr. Giles had mentioned. She took his offered hand with a firm grasp, leaving a sheen of sweat behind.
"So you're the dad, huh?" She didn't seem too impressed.
"That would be me," Jack affirmed.
"So if this pans out, you planning on becoming a fixture or is this a nice-to-meet-ya-I'm-going-off-to-Spain-with-my-secretary kinda deal?"
"Uh . . ." Unsure just what she had asked, Jack suddenly wished Daniel were there to translate.
"Well?" Her sharp gaze just sharpened even more while he stood there like an idiot.
"What Buffy is asking is if you plan on being a part of Xander's life if you are indeed his father," Mr. Giles helped him out, though Jack swore that the two questions didn't share a word.
"What he said," reiterated Buffy impatiently.
Feeling like he was caught between a rock and a hard place with one in front of him and one behind, Jack nodded. "Yeah. If he'll let me."
"Good," said Buffy taking a step closer and staring into his eyes. "Because if you back out I'll rip off your arms, shove one down your throat and the other up your ass so you can twiddle you thumbs in your stomach. Do I make myself clear?"
"Uh, yeah," said Jack fighting the urge to laugh in her face. She couldn't weigh more than a hundred pounds. Only the crazy intensity in her eyes kept his lips from twitching. She meant what she said, and even if she couldn't hurt him physically, he respected that she wanted to keep her friend from getting hurt.
"Good. I'll see you at dinner then." She looked past him at Mr. Giles then left as quickly as she had come.
Jack turned to Mr. Giles and grinned. "That was one of the girls?" he asked. "I see what you mean about colorful."
"Yes, quite," said Mr. Giles offering a short, polite smile in return. "I'm surprised she went easy on you."
"Threatening to rip my arms off was easy?" Jack raised his eyebrows in surprise. Not that he felt very threatened. What more could she do?
"Well, with Dawn's boyfriends, she brings a knife and threatens to make them eunuchs." The evil glint was back in Mr. Giles's eye, which made Jack shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, just to make sure everything was all there.
"So what's for dinner?" asked Jack to change the subject to healthier matters.
"You if you're not careful," Mr. Giles replied, picking up the mugs. "I don't think Buffy was done with you."
"Great, just what I need. Another hostile woman drooling over me." Jack stopped short at the look Mr. Giles leveled at him. He winced. "I did it again, didn't I?" When would he learn to keep all those random thoughts in is head. Must be the stress.
Xander was waiting for him by the back door. Jack looked a little surprised to see him there offering him a beer, but he took it nonetheless with a gentle smile and followed him outside to the back steps.
"I figured you could use one after being cooped up with Giles," said Xander, putting his plate on his knees. It was sunset and the evening was cool. It would be dark soon. He looked up and saw Jack watching him with an unreadable expression on his face. He didn't know what he wanted to talk about, but he felt like the poor guy needed a break from the third degree.
"Thanks," Jack said without looking away. "Listen, about earlier, I'm sorry for what I said. It was uncalled for."
The unexpected apology made Xander grin. "Giles scared the living shit out you, didn't he?"
Jack smiled and let out a chuckle. "Maybe a little. I don't think he likes me too much."
"Probably not," Xander agreed. You could be the First for all we know, he added in his head. But they had shaken hands so Xander knew he wasn't. He was putting his money on his being a demon though. It would make everything easier if he was.
"So," Jack said into the silence that followed, as at a loss as Xander for conversation. "Are we just going to sit here and be awkward?" he finally asked.
The question made Xander smile again. "You could go sit with Buffy. I know she's just dying to meet you." A grimace etched its way onto Jack's face.
"We've actually already met," he said. "She seems like a pleasant person - threatened to rip my arms off and everything." Jack smiled and shook his head. "It was kind of touching actually."
"Dismemberment?" asked Xander surprised by the comment.
"She loves you enough to threaten me. Mr. Giles too."
Xander didn't know what to say to that stark observation. He knew it was true, but usually he was one of the ones dealing out the threats and not on the receiving side, or however it worked.
"Well, tomorrow we'll find out if you need to make funeral arrangements," he joked, but Jack only cracked a small smile. Okay, so it wasn't a great joke but damn it, he was nervous about all this too.
"Xander," hearing his name for the first time made him look up sharply at the older man, "I meant what I said. I want to get to know you." Jack looked away searching for words in the darkening sky. "I know I can't replace your parents," he finally said. "But I'd like to be your friend." He turned back and Xander saw the pleading in his eyes that he would never say. "Even if tomorrow doesn't work out . . . Jessica would have wanted it that way." And he meant it, Xander saw. He really meant it. Xander didn't know what to say. "Xander?" Jack was waiting for an answer, hoping, dreading.
"Jack," he started then stopped. "You're leaving tomorrow," Xander continued. "Whether you're my father or not. You'll live your life, I'll live mine."
"I can visit you," said Jack looking hurt. He really wanted to do this father-son thing, Xander realized. "You can come visit me." And he wasn't going to give it up easily.
"Can we get a dog, too?" asked Xander.
"Yeah, we can get a dog," said Jack enthusiastically. "Any kind you want."
"So now it's bribery," Xander raised his eyebrows. Jack grinned.
"If that's what it takes to get me a chance with you."
"You know, I could use a new car," suggested Xander, beginning to enjoy this a little.
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Watch it, junior. I'm not that rich." Nonetheless, he seemed pleased by the suggestion. They settled into a light conversation about cars until dark fell and Xander insisted that Jack get back to his hotel. He'd ask whoever was on patrol to make sure he got there safely.
As he watched Jack's rental car pull away down the street he smiled quietly to himself. The dad thing still weirded him out, but maybe being friends would work.
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