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Chapter Five: Five Days Under the Sun


Xander glared at the fasten-seatbelt sign that refused to shut off. The plane had stopped, they were on the ground, so what was the hold up? It couldn't be that hard to park a Boeing 387. Really. Xander fidgeted in his seat. Okay, so he was nervous about this whole visiting thing. Sure it sounds great on the phone, but then it's like your wedding come back to haunt you. He took a deep breath to steady himself. Five days. He could do this.

Around him his fellow passengers were shuffling for their things and finally, the seatbelt light went off. Like a living mass, everyone surged into the center, compressing and undulating like a stuttering snake as people jostled to get off the plane. Xander joined them, nearly tumbling his duffel on top of a woman's head when he yanked it from the overhead compartment. He only had the one bag with a couple changes of clothes, a Coke bottle of holy water, and his trusty dusty stake. The green and pink water gun had gotten him stripped searched, and for a while he had been worried that he would miss his flight, but in the end, everything had gotten through. Let it not be said that he was unprepared. Though he did wish he could have brought along his axe.

Xander followed the crowd off the plane and up through the tunnel to the gate. From there he followed the signs to the baggage claim where Jack was meeting him. And there he was leaning against a bank of tv monitors with his hands in his pockets. He wore the same leather jacket he had had in Cleveland over a button-down shirt and a pair of worn jeans. He straightened up when he saw Xander, a big grin splitting his face. Xander felt the corners of his mouth tug reflexively in response. Oh god, was his last thought before he reached the older man.

"Hey!" said Jack cheerfully. His hands came out of his pockets and he rocked back on his feet.

"Hey," said Xander. Neither one of them made a move to touch each other and he didn't know if he felt happy or sad about that. Maybe it was just the break in ritual throwing him off.

"Do you have any bags?" asked Jack.

"Nah, just this," Xander replied, hefting the duffel a little.

"Alright. Car's this way," Jack smiled again and led the way to the parking deck. "So how was your flight?" Oh, yeah, this was going to be a long trip.

"I felt like I was in a sardine can," said Xander with a half smile, and was rewarded when Jack chuckled. Sense of humor still intact, he thought with relief.

"Yeah, I hate flying commercial," Jack said. "There's no leg room, no elbow room, and I always get stuck next to the noisy kids."

"Always?" Xander asked, feeling heartened by the start of an actual conversation.

"Always," Jack gave him a serious look that was belied by the humorous glint in his eye. "But I guess you know what that's like."

"Actually that's only my third flight ever."

"I meant about the kids," said Jack. "But it's only your third flight?"

"Yeah, after Sunnydale we went to Europe for while. See the sights, you know?" said Xander. And find slayers and restart an international secret organization. But it had still been fun. Except for Rome. Rome would never, ever be mentioned again. Ever. "I'd never been out of the country before."

"That's not surprising. I'd never left the country before I joined the Air Force," said Jack with a shrug. "And I wouldn't recommend most of the places I've been," he grinned.

"Bad service?" quipped Xander. Given that most of Jack's file was blacked out he figured he really wanted to steer clear of the heavy military stuff.

"The worst. Can't find clean towels anywhere." The colonel said with a completely straight face that all of a sudden made Xander feel like a weight had been lifted from his chest. This wasn't going to be a disaster. With Jack's sense of humor definitely not going anywhere, Xander could deal with this. He'd been so worried after the last phone call that had promised nothing but uncomfortableness, but here they were, chatting about the worst hotel service money could buy as they walked to the car. And when silence fell as they pulled onto the highway, it wasn't a dead weight. Jack fiddled with the radio until he found a good station.

Xander snuck looks at him every few minutes, really taking him in for the first time. Gray hair cut close, wrinkles around his eyes from too much laughing or squinting, a slight sunglasses tan, the hint of a grin. He seemed like the kind of guy who would laugh a lot at life.

"What?" Jack asked after twenty minutes of this.

"What?" Xander played innocent.

"You keep looking at me. I don't have something hanging out of my nose do I?"

"What? No. Sorry." Xander smiled at that, looking instead at his hands then back at the road. "Just you know . . . really seeing what you look like," he practically mumbled.

"Oh," Jack shifted uncomfortably, obviously self-conscious now.

"I'll stop," said Xander with another smile. "I didn't mean to stare or anything."

"So do I pass?"

Xander looked at him then out the window, confused. "Pass what?"

"Inspection," Jack gave him an amused smile that made him feel silly for misunderstanding. Xander hated that feeling.

He also didn't like where this conversation was going. When he'd agreed to come for the visit, he'd thought he was used to the fact that Jack was his father. But sitting here, right now in the car, going to his house was another whole can of worms. And why can worms anyway? See - nervous! Getting sidetracked in his head was never a good sign. He knew he liked Jack, he knew Jack wanted to be in his life. For some reason something was bothering him about that. Trying to explain it was like trying to explain why he didn't like squash but did like zucchini.

"I don't know," he finally said. "I'm still all with the weirdness." And how lame was that, he wondered. He really should just go ahead and have his mouth sewn up.

But Jack smiled at him. "Yeah. Well, if it bothers you, don't think about It like that." Xander could here the capitals around what they were decidedly not mentioning. Maybe Jack was repressing too. "Just think of me like an old friend of your mom's inviting you for the weekend."

"A friend who just happened to have sex with her and whoops! Here I am," said Xander a bit more harshly than he intended. Beside him, Jack winced, the smile slipping a bit, making Xander feel bad. He hadn't meant to hurt him, but really . . .

"Are you saying you don't want to be here?" Jack asked quietly, his earlier levity gone.

"No, sorry," Xander shook his head. Okay, now he felt rotten, like he'd just stolen a kitten from a slayer. "I didn't mean anything like that. It's just still weird. And I think the not thinking about it thing would work much better if I wasn't you know, thinking. Or not talking and thinking. Not thinking would be good right now. You know?" When Jack didn't reply, Xander turned more so he could see him around his blind spot. Jack had a curious look on his face, his brow slightly crinkled in thought as he glanced between Xander and the road. "What?"

"Could you repeat that in English?"

Xander couldn't help but smile, the nervousness once again lifting from the debacle of the conversation. "I said, let's just talk about something else."

"Oh." Jack still seemed a little puzzled.

"Sorry," Xander apologized again for being incomprehensible. Jack still looked a little unsure, and Xander desperately racked his brains for something, anything to talk about now that the silence had gone sour. "So," he looked back out the windshield, "tell me what's so great about hockey."

And Jack did. And listening and making snarky comments that Jack returned as good as he got, kept Xander's mind away from uncomfortable thoughts. As long as they kept talking, he'd get through this.

"So this is it," said Jack as he unlocked the front door of his house. Xander looked about him taking it all in. It was a small, dark brown with a log house kind of look too it, nestled in a quiet neighborhood in suburbia. Bushy plants lined the path to the door looking like they'd been there forever. Inside it was calm. The builder in Xander recognized a good design and nice work. Light walls contrasted with dark, but tasteful furniture.

"Your room's down here," Jack led the was to the guest room, opening it for Xander to enter first. Nice bed, pretty comforter, chest of drawers, mirror - all the amenities of home. "Bathroom's to the left," Jack pointed in the appropriate direction as Xander set his bag down on the bed.

"It's nice," said Xander. Way better than the room he shared with Andrew at home, in fact. It was much more . . . adult.

"Come on, I'll give you the nickel tour," Jack bobbed his head toward the rest of the house. "My room's that way," he began, pointing to the next room down the hall. "Another bathroom here. Kitchen. Dining room. Living room." They went through in the opposite direction. The living room was nice with windows looking over the back yard across one wall and plump armchairs and a couch with plenty of pillows. There was a stone fireplace on an adjacent wall and above it . . . Holy bejesus! Xander felt his jaw drop open a bit. A whole buttload of medals were framed above the fireplace. Unconsciously, Xander stepped forward to take a closer look at the dozen or so decorations. Willow had said he was decorated but it hadn't really sunk in until he saw the stars and ribbons of a few very top honors. Xander was impressed. And a little jealous. After all, what had they ever gotten, besides Buffy's sparkly umbrella from their graduating class?

Behind him, Xander could hear Jack shifting from foot to foot as his eyes roamed over the medals and flags and caught on the photos on the ends of the mantle piece. There were two. One was of Jack in full military gear with a bunch of other soldiers grinning at the camera. They were all young, like in the picture of Jack and his mother. The other was of Jack and a little boy about seven or eight in a soccer uniform. Grass stains covered his knees as he grinned proudly at the camera. "Is this your son?" he asked, turning his head over his shoulder to Jack.

The older man nodded and came to stand beside him. "Yeah, that's Charlie," he said with a fond, sad smile. "He had just started playing soccer then."

"My brother," said Xander quietly, his own soft words surprising him. He'd had a brother. He remembered growing up wondering what it would be like. Jack glanced at him sharply at this tacit acknowledgement of his paternity after they had agreed not to talk about it in the car.

"He'd be eighteen now," he said.

But he wasn't because he had died. The thought was too much for Xander at the moment. He didn't want to think about dead brothers. There was just too much death everywhere in his life. Even in this new normal part with Jack, death still left its mark.

"How did you get all these?" Xander turned his attention back to the medals. "Did you save the world or something?"

Jack gave him a funny, unreadable look before smiling slightly and saying, "something like that." He shifted again, then stepped back from the mantle a bit. "So we have two choices for dinner," he changed the subject brightly, the seriousness of the last two minutes dispelling. "I can cook us up some grub, though I'll warn you that I didn't have a chance to finish the grocery shopping. Or, my choice, we can go out to eat."

"You paying?" asked Xander.

"Of course," said Jack, looking a little hurt that he'd asked. "Consider it part of the bribery."

Xander grinned. "Then let's eat out."

Half an hour later, Jack and Xander were safely ensconced in a booth at Patrick's Grill, a local steak house from which Jack wasn't banned. It was a good place with pretty good service. One look at Xander's face told him that it had been a good choice. The young man flipped through the menu with glee.

"Now that's what I call food," he murmured happily.

Jack couldn't help but grin. "What do they feed you at that camp of yours? Worms?" he asked.

"You have no idea," Xander sighed wearily. "Did you meet Andrew?"

"No." Jack sensed a story coming, a glimpse into his son's life.

"Well Andrew's our cook and I'm not saying he's a bad cook, or anything, because compared to other options, he's a culinary god."

"Your other options being?"

"Me or other people who don't know how to cook. I mean we have like fifty people at each meal and given that the . . . girls eat like hyenas, that's a lot of food. Andrew does a good job in spite of that. But we also have a limited budget, you know?"

Jack nodded for him to go on.

"Anyway, Andrew tends to get creative with things like Klingon Blood Pudding."

"Klingon?" Jack had watched enough Star Trek with Teal'c to get the reference.

"Yeah," Xander said knowing what he was really getting at. "Andrew's a little . . . well I guess the nicest thing I can say about him is he's a nerd."

"And the worst?" Jack couldn't help but ask. Xander looked up from the menu and answered without missing a beat.

"He's the most annoying little creep ever. He's whiny and never shuts up, always complains and everything he says is related to comics or bad scifi. And I do mean everything."

Everything? Jack wondered. "He's one of the friends you set up the camp with?"

"Friend is stretching it, but yeah, he came with us from Sunnydale. He didn't have anywhere else to go either." Now the distant look was back as thoughts of his hometown undoubtedly fluttered through Xander's mind. It must have been hard for him, all of them, to suddenly have nothing because of one random earthquake. Everything gone in a few short minutes.

"So Andrew cooks food that keeps him in touch with his inner dork?" Jack tried to get the conversation back on track.

"Pretty much," Xander agreed, shaking off his mood. "He actually kinda reminds me of me when I was in middle school. Except I don't think I was ever that . . . obsessed."

"How old is he?"

"Nineteen or twenty. Trust me, he doesn't act it."

Jack shrugged. "He'll grow up. He just needs a healthy dose of reality." He knew many a recruit who just needed a kick in the pants to straighten them out.

But the distant look was back in Xander's eye as he shook his head. "He's grown up a lot actually. He used to be ten times worse than he is now. He's just the way he is, you know?"

And Jack did see. He saw that despite what he said, Andrew was important to Xander. "Sounds like a kid brother," he commented.

Xander dropped his head slightly and blinked slowly. "You're kidding right?" his voice was colored in disbelief. "Because there is no way Andrew is anything like a brother to me. No way in hell. That's like saying twinkies are a good replacement for broccoli. Which they are, just not in a vitamin kind of way."

"Broccoli?" Jack asked. How the hell did broccoli come into this? And what the hell was he talking about now? Xander needed a road map to understand.

"You didn't have an affair with Andrew's mom too, did you? Because I could so not handle that right now." Xander visibly shuddered at the thought.

"No!" said Jack, latching on to what he understood of the conversation. "There are no other lost kids, I promise."

"There better not be," Xander grumbled. "'Cause, Andrew? That's just *wrong*."

Jack couldn't help but chuckle at the vehemence of the protest. "I'm just saying that it sounds like you like the guy," he defended his observation only to earn another look from his son.

"I'm not gay if that's what you're asking," he said.

Gay? What? Where had that come from? Definitely needed a roadmap for this kid. "That's not what I meant," said Jack.

"Oh," said Xander. "Well, I'm still not."

"I never thought you were."



"What were we talking about?"

"Your friend Andrew."

"Oh." Xander looked back down at his menu, seemingly not interested in talking anymore about it. So Jack, still a little confused about the inner workings of his son's mind, also went back to his internal debate over a classic steak or spare ribs. Neither one of them said anything until the waitress came and took their orders. Jack decided on the spare ribs while Xander asked for a steak well done. After she left, Xander started fiddling with his straw. Jack watched, unsure what to say to break the silence. But in the end, he didn't have to.

"Andrew's like," Xander paused, searching for words in the crushed ice of his Sprite. "He's not like a brother or a good friend, though I think I'm past hating him. He's more like a pain in the ass all the time," his eye flicked up to meet Jacks. "He's just *our* pain in the ass."

"And because of that you'd protect him with your life," Jack finished. Internally, he shook his head. Sounded a lot like brotherhood, or at least comradery to him.

"More than you know," Xander half smiled. "So what about you?" he asked, his tone shifting away from contemplation as his eye fixed on Jack. "Do you have annoying friend-like people too?"

Jack smiled at the turn of phrase. "Yeah," he said. "I have friends. And yeah, they can be annoying," he added thinking fondly of Daniel. "But I wouldn't trade them for the world. They're actually interested in meeting you."

"Me?" Xander sounded surprised.

"Yes, you," said Jack impatiently. "What, your friends get to threaten me and my friends don't get to do the same to you?"

"Betchya my friends are scarier," Xander suddenly grinned.

"So it's okay if I invite them for dinner tomorrow?"

"Sure," Xander said a little too brightly. But Jack knew it would go well. He was just nervous. So was Jack a little, but his team were all dying to meet the kid they'd been hearing about for months.

"Great," he let out a breath of relief. "Cause I already invited them."

"Oh, thanks for the warning," said Xander sarcastically.

"Sorry," Jack apologized, worried now that he'd messed up again. But after a moment, Xander relaxed.

"No, it's no big deal," he said. "I guess this is revenge for me setting Giles and Buffy on you."

"You set them on me?" Jack lifted his eyebrows, not sure he liked what he was hearing. Had he scared Xander that much at first?

"Well, 'set on' as in 'couldn't prevent,'" Xander corrected. "You should see Buffy with Dawn's boyfriends."

"Your friend Giles said something about a knife being present?"

Xander nodded with an evil grin. "It's so much fun to watch. I get to glare convincingly."

The image of a poor teenage boy surrounded by overprotective young adults made Jack chuckle. "Poor kids," he said. Then another thought struck him, but he didn't know if he could ask. "I take it Buffy's parents aren't in the picture either?" he went ahead and asked delicately.

Xander shook his head. "Their dad's around somewhere," he shrugged. "Willow's are still alive but they're not what you'd call ideal."

Willow must be his other friend, Jack mused. "And Mr. Giles?" he asked. "Where did he come from?"

"England," said Xander dryly. Jack fought the urge to roll his eyes. But Xander went on after a moment. "He was our high school librarian. Willow being the big nerd she was was always in the library, and me and Buffy being the big slackers we were were always in the library while Willow got us through the classes we slept through. Giles was there too," he shrugged this last.

"So you kept in touch with him after you graduated?"

Another shrug. "He was still there for us." Xander took a long sip of his drink. "So you said you went to college, where did you go?"

"University of Illinois," Jack sat back in his seat. There was a lot Xander wasn't saying about Giles. And hanging out in the library all the time studying? For some reason, Jack didn't think that was the whole truth either. It just didn't sit well with him. But whatever it was Xander didn't want to share, Jack wasn't going to push him on it. Hopefully Xander would tell him eventually, trust him enough with the truth. The potential scenarios running through his head were not pleasant, revolving mostly around Xander avoiding going home. But without confirmation, Jack didn't want to jump to wrong conclusions that could lose him this burgeoning rapport they had going. So for now, he let it go and talked about college and ROTC with the Air Force. Xander listened, throwing out the occasional sarcastic comment. His son certainly had a cynical streak a mile wide, there was no denying that.

Their meal came, and as they wolfed down their respective haunches of meat, they kept talking. Xander asked him some logistical questions about the army, which was hardly surprising since he had just spent the summer running a camp for thirty kids, before they moved on to lighter topics of crazy natives from his son's trip to Europe. But it was odd that he never once asked where Jack had fought or what he'd done as a soldier. That was the one question that almost always got asked by civilians. Hell, it was what had ended up splintering his marriage. But it was like the question never crossed his son's mind.

But whatever his reason for not asking, Jack wasn't going to question it. Dinner was going well and he wasn't going to spoil it by telling Xander to stop being weird. So instead he listened to stories about getting lost in Paris and scamming a scam artist in Prague and told a few of his own from when he was stationed in England. And they laughed and joked and ate dessert. It was definitely a good start.

The next morning Xander slept in late, only getting up when enticing smells from the kitchen wafted in around eleven. The first thing he noticed after that was the quiet, and he couldn't help but grin at the utter lack of responsibility he had here. Jack had even bought him dinner last night. It had been practically a lifetime since anyone had done that for him.

Feeling like it was a brand new day, Xander rolled himself out of the comfortable bed and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Forgoing shoes for the moment, he groggily made his way to the kitchen where Jack was cooking bacon and eggs. The older man looked up when he came in and smiled.

"Morning, sleepyhead," he greeted him.

"Morning," Xander replied. "Smells good. How long have you been up?"

"Since six. It's when I always get up," Jack shrugged. "How did you sleep?"

"Good. Great. It's really quiet here," Xander smiled. "You need any help?"

"No, I'm good. You want orange juice?" Jack moved to the fridge and pulled out a new carton when Xander nodded. He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and set both on the table. He went back to the stove and fished out the bacon, keeping an eye on the scrambled eggs. A few minutes later the toast popped up and Jack served up the food and joined Xander at the table.

"So what are we doing today?" Xander asked after a few minutes of mouth- watering goodness. Jack really could cook. Normal food too. Xander could do toast and sometimes bacon, but eggs had been a mystery. His were either too runny or too rubbery; no matter how closely he watched them they never came out like this.

"Well, I was thinking we could go out to see some of the sights. I didn't know what you wanted to do so I don't have any fixed plans or anything," said Jack.

They spent the remainder of their late breakfast hashing out a plan for the day, finally deciding on going downtown to look around and maybe pick up a matinee at the movie theater. After helping Jack clean up the kitchen, Xander went back to his room to get shoes and socks on before they headed out.

It was a nice sunny day outside, with not a cloud in the sky. It was so bright out that Xander ended up borrowing a pair of Jack's sunglasses after duly mocking their clunkyness. Jack gave him a sharp glare for that, saying Xander wouldn't know style if it bit him in the ass. "Style for fifty," was Xander's quick reply.

They stuck to the walkable portions of the business sector, browsing shops and generally commenting on the coolness or stupidity of various trinkets. Xander was surprised by how much they both agreed and how much they disagreed over stuff, mostly along generational lines. Really, when was a singing duck ashtray ever cool? He had tried explaining this to Jack, but he just got this funny look on his face like he couldn't understand what Xander was saying. It happened a couple of more times before Xander connected the beffudled look to the Giles of old and realized that Jack really didn't understand southern California speak. Jack muttered something about roadmaps and connecting dots between random references that just made Xander laugh.

In the end, they skipped the movie, saving it for tomorrow or the day after, and ended up just chatting about simple random stuff until they had to head back. Jack's friends were coming around seven and he wanted to have dinner at least started by the time they got there.

"Can I trust you to make salad?" Jack asked as they walked into the house at twilight. Xander was tired from walking all day but it was the good tired of a time well spent in the sun. He figured he hadn't gotten this much sunshine in years.

"Yeah, I think I can handle butchering a head of lettuce," he answered. "I'm supposed to avoid cutting myself, right?"

Jack looked back at him before grinning. "Smart ass," he said. In the kitchen, Jack began pulling out vegetables from the fridge, tossing the tomatoes in quick succession at Xander who caught all but one.

"Hey!" the young man protested. "Okay, I am not cleaning that up," he pointed indignantly at the dead tomato that was now dripping juice all over the floor. But Jack only tossed him the roll of paper towels.

"Sure you are."

"Oh, no, this is so totally your fault. I am not cleaning up after you," said Xander.

"You're the one who dropped the tomato," said Jack innocently.

"You're the one who threw it in the first place," Xander countered in the same sweet tone of voice.

"So now you're the one who gets to clean it up," Jack smiled, pleased with this final non-argument.

"Aren't I supposed to be the kid here?"

"Which is why you have to do what I say," Jack nodded sagely. And at Jack's expression of knowing importance as if everything made perfect sense, Xander couldn't help but laugh. Jack held out a moment longer before he too chuckled at the complete idiocy of the conversation. To Xander it felt wonderful, like the most terrible thing in the world for once was a stupid tomato on the kitchen floor.

When they finally calmed down a bit, Xander wiped up the mess with the paper towels and Jack went to work fixing up some pork chops for dinner. Xander found a knife and started on the salad - not cutting himself as he minced up tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. They worked in silence, but it was a comfortable one that didn't need to be filled. Xander smiled to himself. It had been a really good day. And he really liked Jack. He was funny, easy to tease, and didn't push on subjects Xander didn't want to talk about. He just felt . . . comfortable to be around. He was pretty easygoing as far as old people went and he didn't get annoyed with Xander's lame jokes or endless sarcasm. In fact he made worse jokes than Xander did. It was pretty cool.

Xander had moved on to tipping and tailing green beans when there was a knock on the front door. "IT'S OPEN," Jack shouted without looking up from the gravy. Xander heard the door open and a couple sets of footsteps echo in from the foyer. Suddenly, putting down his knife seemed like a good idea. He wasn't exactly nervous about meeting Jack's friends, it was just that he was meeting them at Jack's house without any of his other friends to hide behind. It wasn't like he was at work and could be all professional and just talk about the new wall they were putting in. But thinking about work actually made him feel a little better because, hey, contrary to popular opinion, Xander was an adult and as such he could handle this. All this went through his mind in the fifteen seconds it took for the two men and woman to get from the front door to the kitchen.

"Hey, guys," Jack looked up and greeted them, still stirring the gravy. "This is Xander. Xander, guy in glasses is Daniel, lady's Sam, and the big guy is Murray," he introduced them. Xander grabbed a nearby dishtowel to wipe his hands so he could shake their hands. Daniel was about Xander's height with brown hair who gave him a friendly smile as did Sam, a shorter woman with equally short blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Murray didn't smile so much as smugly beam. He stood behind the other two ramrod straight, and wore a black beanie pulled low over his forehead. He was very stiff, and it struck Xander as odd at first but he decided to worry about getting through this meeting instead.

"Nice to meet you," he said.

"The pleasure's all ours," said Daniel, brightly. "We've been waiting to meet you since Jack first heard about you."

"Oh," Xander shot a quick look at Jack who looked back with concern in his eyes at his friend's turn of phrase. But Xander simply smiled instead, a little shakily perhaps but it was still a smile. He suddenly felt like he had an image to live up too, and he never did well under pressure. Especially now that he wanted Jack's friends to like him. And he all of a sudden realized that he was very young compared to all of them. "Me too," he said. "I mean, except with you. And only since yesterday." And realizing how stupid that sounded, Xander shut his mouth before he dug himself any deeper. "Something to drink?"

Both Daniel and Sam nodded with amused smiles, cheerfully accepting the beers Jack got for them while Murray received a Sprite. "Relax Xander," Jack told him. "It's not like any of them are your long lost relatives."

"Right. 'Cause we know how awkward that is," Xander returned, but relaxing nonetheless at the return to their earlier banter. "Don't mind me. I'm normally an idiot."

"I'm sure you're not," Daniel contradicted him easily. "Don't let us rattle you. We don't bite . . . except for maybe Sam." He cast a sly look at her as she sputtered on her beer.

"Daniel!" Sam swatted his arm, playfully outraged. But the tension was broken.

"Come on, come on, come on," Jack shoed everyone to the dining room while he shook Xander's beans into a pot. "We'll eat in ten minutes. Let's go sit down." It took a few minutes to get everyone from the kitchen to the living room and happily situated. Xander found himself in one of the big comfy armchairs, Murray had claimed the other one. Jack took a hardwood chair by the kitchen where he could keep an eye on dinner, and Daniel and Sam sat on either end of the couch.

"So what do you guys all do?" said Xander to get the conversation going. Across from him, Daniel and Sam exchanged a look before Daniel spoke up.

"We all work on the base together up at the Mountain. I'm a civilian consultant in the linguistics department."

"The Air Force has a linguistics department?" asked Xander, surprised. "For what?"

"Codes," said Sam quickly. "Some encryptions use other languages as another layer."

Xander nodded while everyone else was doing the group communication thing. Made sense. Uncle Sam wouldn't want just anyone to be able to listen in on their top secret conversations. "So what kind of languages do you use?" he asked curiously.

"Oh . . . well, I usually work with the uh, ancient languages," said Daniel.

"So you know stuff like Latin and Indo-European?"

Xander watched Daniel's eyes light up in surprised delight as he leaned forward like Giles sometimes did when he was getting into a serious, yet incomprehensible discussion. And he should have known better than to ask about the Indo-Europeans - he'd already had Giles disturb his dreams over them once. Just what had he gotten himself into here?

"Well, we still don't know much about Indo-European, just that it was the language and culture that unified ancient humans before they branched off into separate tribes," said Daniel. "Now what's really fascinating - "

"Daniel!" Jack overrode the really fascinating fact with a tired and put upon sigh. "Do we really have to have a lecture about dead people right now?"

"I'm sure the hockey scores can wait, Jack," Daniel bit back, cutting his eyes at his friend. "Xander did ask . . ."

"No, it's okay, we can talk about something else. I heard about the horse sex already," Xander interrupted hastily. "Couldn't sleep for a week."

Dead silence met this remark as everyone stared at Xander for a heartbeat. Then, "I fail to see what equine copulation has to do with the Indo-European tribe," said Teal'c.

"I'll second that," said Jack who was looking at Xander strangely, making him feel uncomfortable for opening his mouth. So he knew about an obscure ritual, what was wrong with that? Okay, so he could think of a lot of things wrong with it . . . but so not the point here.

"It's, uh . . . a ritual of kingship," said Daniel. "The ruler sets a mare loose and everywhere it runs is then a part of his domain. The king ritually has sex with the horse when it returns, thus marrying himself to the land. They usually sacrifice the horse. It's a custom that has been historically found in Ireland and as far east as Mongolia, thus indicative of an older tradition we call Indo-European."

"That's gross," said Jack with a grimace.

"That's what I said," Xander seconded.

"Where did you ever hear about that?"

"I accidentally walked in on a conversation Giles and Dawn were having," said Xander, unconsciously shuddering. "Trust me, had I known, I would have stayed away."

"Don't go for the academic stuff?" asked Sam with a smile.

"That and it's disgusting," said Xander. "Would you want to have sex with a horse?"

"No," she chuckled good naturedly. "But then I don't want to be king either."

"So what do you do?"

"I'm an astrophysicist."

"Oh." Pretty hard core, Xander readjusted his impression of her. Not that he had thought her stupid before just that he hadn't expected her to be Willow-smart. "So you actually do the telemiwhatsit?"

"Deep space radar telemetry, yes," said Sam with a grin and a quick glance at Jack.

"Xander, don't get her started either," Jack butted in. "Just smile and back away slowly."

"So this is the stuff that bores you to tears?" asked Xander with a teasing grin. Jack nodded as he sipped his beer. "Sounds pretty interesting to me."

"You want to talk about horse sex again?"

"No, I'm good," Xander hastily backpedaled. "So how 'bout those toothless idiots?"

"Hockey players?" asked Daniel, returning the grin. In the corner, Jack sputtered as Xander had known he would.

"I don't get why anyone would want to go out on freezing cold ice to beat on each other with sticks. That's crazy!" He lifted innocent eyes to meet Jack's outraged ones as the older man tried to form a coherent sentence.

"Yes, Jack. Do tell us what's going through their heads?" Daniel deadpanned, taking on an air of one truly fascinated by the subject. Jack-baiting was apparently a hobby of his too. He and Xander traded a conspirital look when Jack went off on how he had no friends who understood him. But he seemed pleased nonetheless.

Still grumbling, Jack shoed them all to the table to eat where conversation turned more toward Xander and the camp in Cleveland and then carpentry and construction working, finally ending up as a general discussion of first jobs and disasters. Xander learned that Sam was a major up at the base and that Murray had gone straight into the military though he never said exactly what he did now. He was an odd one, with a very precise and often formal way of speaking that, despite his accent, was nowhere near American. Xander couldn't place him; it was like he had been born recently or something, but Xander didn't feel comforable enough to ask. Daniel talked about archeological digs he'd been on in college and mixups they'd run into with the locals.

And Jack stuck to the stories about the odd jobs that he'd had in high school. Xander liked these the best because they most closely mirrored his own often degrading jobs. And through it all Jack kept making bad jokes at his own expense that kept everyone smiling and happy. The running banter between Jack and Daniel was funny to watch, as were the occasional but spot-on zingers from Sam and Murray. Xander could see how close they were and felt a like the odd man out. But then Jack would pull him back into the group with a well-aimed remark or question. And even though it was different from home, it still felt right.

The next two days flew by. Jack and Xander had spent a lazy day at the house watching tv then renting a couple of "manly movies" as Xander so eloquently put it - namely Charlie's Angels and the first Lethal Weapon - and generally vegged out. And it had been really good. It was certainly different than the usual hanging out with Daniel or Teal'c that Jack did. With Daniel it was always a struggle to get through anything without a million comments on taste or veracity, and with Teal'c Jack wasn't allowed to interrupt the dialogue with anything more than a brief cultural explanation. But Xander watched movies the way Jack did - with one eye on the girls and the other on anything comment worthy ranging from "That is so cool, I want one" to "You stupid idiot - look up!" After the movies they ended up staying up way too late watching the TNT Steven Segal ball buster before finally collapsing into bed.

For once, Jack slept in the next morning, though he was still up hours before Xander made an appearance. They had a light breakfast that turned into lunch before they decided to get out of the house and go exploring a little bit. So it was three hours later that they found themselves at the park, once again out under the sun. At first they just walked along the path stepping out of the way of joggers and their dogs. It was a rare moment of quiet for the two of them, unfilled with chatter. Xander looked relaxed as he walked beside Jack. Overall, things had gone pretty well, Jack thought. Better than he had expected in fact. Xander was a good kid. He was so young and irreverent about everything, it was difficult to remember sometimes that this was the same man he had watched calmly handle a bunch of teenaged girls. The same man who had picked up and moved when he had nothing left.

"Do you miss Sunnydale?" Jack asked, breaking the peaceful silence between them. Xander looked up from the ground at him, caught off guard by the question for a moment.

"Sometimes," he said, looking back out at the trees. "Sentimental value and all that. I don't think I'd have ever gotten out of there if it hadn't disappeared."

"If you had wanted to you would have found a way."

"Maybe. What about you? Do you ever go back to your hometown?" Xander asked.

Jack shrugged. "Not really. My dad died about fifteen years ago but my mom's still hanging in there. My brothers take care of that end of the family. We don't really talk much anymore."

"Why not?"

Jack glanced over at him at the innocent question, then back across over the open field. He honestly didn't think about his family much. They were on an island whose bridges he had burned a long time ago. Now, it was simply easier to deal with them from afar with a phone call at Christmas. "We were never really all that close," said Jack. "My brothers were still kids when I left for college. Then when I went into the military, I never got home much." He shrugged. Jack didn't know exactly where thing had gone wrong, just that one thing had led to another and then when Charlie died, it had been too much.

"Do they know about me?" asked Xander quietly.

Jack shook his head. "No, I haven't told them yet. It's not you," he added when he realized how that sounded. "We just don't talk often. If you want to meet them . . ." He left it hanging.

"I don't know," Xander seemed uncomfortable at the thought. Hell he had just gotten used to Jack. "Maybe later."

"No rush," Jack smiled at him. "As I said, we're not really close."

They walked on, a quiet breeze ruffling through their hair. "It's kinda funny," said Xander. "You wanting a chance with me even though you never talk to your own brothers."

"I guess," Jack thought about it. But it was different. With his brothers, it was as if they had tried and failed, and now there was too much resentment to go back to the way things had been. Xander was a new chance and more than that: he was Jack's child. He felt that he at least owed him enough to try.

"Me and my dad never talked," said Xander. "Not like this. And he never would have taken me to the park just for a walk." Jack didn't say anything, just watched while Xander continued to stare straight ahead. And he remembered his son's comment about Giles the other night - the British librarian had been there, even after high school.

"I wish I could have been there," he said quietly.

Shrugging again, Xander said, "It's not your fault. Life just sucks like that. I bet you took Charlie to the park."

"But I didn't protect him." The familiar wash of guilt spiked through him, blunted slightly by the weathering of time. What he wouldn't give to have him back.

"You did what you could," said Xander who stopped walking and turned to meet Jack's gaze. "I know you miss him, but he's in a good place now."

"I thought you didn't believe in Heaven," Jack looked toward the field briefly then back. They started walking again.

"I said I didn't believe in religion. Never said anything about Heaven or Hell," Xander smiled. Having been to Hell, Jack didn't disagree. Still, it was a little odd to be on the receiving end of a life pep talk from a twenty-two year-old. Another reminder that the carefree young man had seen and done more in the real world than most in his short life.

They were walking again, heading around the last few bends before they ended up back near the parking lot. Jack's mind flittered over the age-old question of what to do for dinner. He thought they might go out again since it was Xander's last night in Colorado. The suggestion was met with enthusiasm and the return of the sillier, bantering Xander that didn't worry about life's larger questions. Like old friends, Jack easily swung into the same mood. It was funny how a few days had shaken away their former stuttering tenseness around each other. As they chatted over pasta about Xander looking for a job when he got back, Jack wondered briefly what it would have been like to have watched this son grow up. How would he be different? What would he be like then? But he decided not to dwell on those lost years, for he would never know, and all they had was now to make the most of it. Jack was going to miss him when he went home.

"So I guess this is it," said Jack when they reached the security line at the airport. "Next time I should fly you home myself."

"That would be cool," Xander grinned. "Can we get one of those harrier planes that does the vertical lift thing?" He could just see the slayers' jaws dropping when he landed in the backyard. Major impressive points. Giles would have a cow or even a heard of cattle.

"I'd have to ask the General, but he likes me," Jack replied. "So I might be able to swing it."

"Let me know when you do."

"You betcha," Jack's grin matched his own. "So you wanna come out here for Thanksgiving?"

Thanksgiving . . . Xander shook his head. "Can't. We got people coming home. You should come too."

Jack's eyebrows shot up at the unexpected invitation before settling into a pleased smile. "That'd be great," he said. "Count me in."

"Good. I'll be sure to keep everyone from killing you," Xander joked.

"Just as long as the turkey you roast isn't me," said Jack. "Now go on. Don't miss your flight."

Xander shook the offered hand warmly. "Thanks, Jack. For having me and everything."

Jack nodded. "Always. I'll see you in November."

As Xander joined the growing line, he looked back over his shoulder and waved one last time. It had been a good visit, and he was looking forward to the next one.


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