Chapter Six: Six Hours 'Til Dinner
Xander decided unequivocally that he hated the holidays. Name any holiday, any holiday at all, and he could tell you ten ways a demon had ruined it. Anything that was a cause for celebration for humans had its equivalent in demon societies. Take Thanksgiving for example. Every family in America sacrificed a turkey for health and good fortune, just like each family of big, fat, and slimy gathered in the old, abandoned YMCA building across the street sacrificed a person to their big, fat, and probably slimy god for the same reason. And he had thought that maybe this year would be different. But nooooo, here he was, two in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day with his battleaxe and a crossbow waiting with Willow and Giles for Buffy's signal.
Buffy and Dawn had come across a pod of demons abducting a woman Tuesday night. They hadn't been able to beat much out of the creature they had kept alive other than there was some big annual sacrifice planned for the full moon, which of course was Thursday. And unfortunately they had no idea at the time what the demons were, what the sacrifice was supposed to do, or where it was going to happen since none of the Hellmouth's alarm spells had gone off. Thus they had spent the last two days and nights around the dining room table doing research. And with everyone home for the holiday for the first time since Sunnydale, not to mention Jack, Buffy was in full holiday mood and determined to have a normal Thanksgiving dinner.
Xander had slept maybe eight hours since Tuesday, any available nap time having been commandeered by Buffy for chopping vegetables, mashing potatoes, or making gravy while the other cooks in the kitchen - namely Willow and Giles - brewed a potion that would null the effects of the consecration or something. Xander was a little fuzzy on the details. All he knew was that Andrew had saved all their asses when they had run out of eye-of-newt by first suggesting then braving the supermarket for fishheads and the eyes therein. Xander just hoped the substitution worked cause they really didn't have time to kill the several hundred demons. Robin and Faith were flying in at three, Jack at four, and poor Andrew and Dawn, under protest, had the rest of dinner to get finished and the house to clean until it was social-worker perfect.
Xander almost wished Jack wasn't coming so they didn't have to worry about cleaning up. Though it had been he who had had to remind everyone in the first place that keeping his military father in the dark was probably a prudent idea at the moment. It wasn't that he didn't like Jack, he did, but he was still unsure of how he would react to all of a sudden being told that vampires were real and there was an army of superpowerful girls destined to fight them. After the whole fiasco with the Initiative, no one, not even Xander was willing to risk the girls, especially when they were on their own and far from the Scoobies' protection. Everyone had gone home for the school year except for Vi and Diana who were both survivors of Sunnydale with no other homes to go to. It was funny how things hadn't settled down much.
"They're ready," Willow broke the silence in the car.
"Guys?" Buffy's voice echoed inside his head as Willow included him and Giles in the telepathic connection. "Once the fighting starts give us a few minutes to get everyone occupied."
"You got it," Xander thought as the three of them gathered their weapons and the potion they had to get intact to the focal point of the ceremony. Right. No problem. Happy Thanksgiving.
The Cleveland airport was crowded and noisy on the most traveled holiday of the year, but not nearly so much as it must have been the day before. Still annoyed that he couldn't write off visiting his son as a valid reason for needing an F-18 to get halfway across the country, Jack made his way as quickly as he could away from the family of four whose two-year-old had decided that the plane was the perfect spot for a tantrum. He hated flying commercial, but at least he was on the ground now, and would soon be out of here and heading for food. He was a little nervous about spending his weekend in the company of Xander's surrogate family - he'd have much rather spent it in Colorado in the company of his surrogate family - but his son had already had plans. Hopefully it would go better than the last time he'd been in town. Just think before speaking, he reminded himself. And don't piss off Mr. Giles. Right. No problem.
Since Jack had packed lightly again, he didn't bother gathering around the baggage carrousel with his fellow passengers, and instead searched the sea of faces for Xander. But he didn't see him. Probably was stuck in traffic or something.
"Jack! Jack O'Neill!" a voice, decidedly not Xander's called out over the uncaring masses. He stiffened, eyes immediately scanning for exits and whoever it was calling his name. "Over here!" A hand wave from a brown haired girl standing on a chair by the sliding doors. Of course, he shouldn't have been surprised. As Jack made his way over to her he recognized her as his inquisitor from his first visit though he couldn't remember her name. She easily jumped off the chair and spoke to the couple who stood with her, a tall lanky black man and a shorter brunette woman with a couple of bags gathered around their feet. "Hay, Jack!" the girl waved at him brightly when he joined them, shifting slightly from foot to foot.
"Hey," he replied with an easy smile, wondering if Xander were around somewhere.
"I'm Dawn Summers. We never really got introduced before," she said. "Xander got sent to the store by Buffy and wasn't back by the time I had to come pick them up," she gestured to the couple who were looking him over curiously, the woman especially. "Oh, this is Robin and Faith," she introduced them. "This is Jack."
"I'm Robin," the black man offered his hand resolving the first question in Jack's mind with a smile. "It's nice to meet you."
"So you're Xand's old man, huh?" said Faith as she too shook his hand. Her voice was low and a little raspy but her handshake firm, a little too firm even. And Jack definitely didn't like that appraising look in her eye that made him feel like an interloper.
"You're not going to threaten me too, are you?" he asked warily. "'Cause I think you'll have to get in line. Buffy's already claimed my arms and Mr. Giles hinted they wouldn't be able to find my body."
Faith smiled broadly at this, her entire demeanor relaxing. "Guess I'm covered then," she said. "But if I were you, I'd worry about Willow instead." Jack raised his eyebrows at this mention of Xander's other close friend he had yet to meet. This was new. "She'll toast you like flambé if you hurt him."
"Well, that's comforting," said Jack dryly, which only made Faith grin again.
"Yeah, I can see the family resemblance," she said unexpectedly. Jack felt a jolt of warm surprise shoot through him at this pronouncement from a stranger. "So D, we getting out of here or what?" Faith abruptly turned to Dawn who jangled her keys and led them out to the car.
"So Dawn, how's your senior year been?" Robin asked as they began walking.
"I can't wait till I graduate!" the young woman told them emphatically. "But at least there's boys."
Jack listened quietly while the others chatted about how much Dawn's school sucked. It sounded like a normal teenage rant of a smart kid ready to burst free of the system. Robin asked about her classes and how she was doing in them while Faith alternated with questions about boys. Miraculously, the two threads of conversation never broke as Dawn handled them both with aplomb. It was so different from Sam and Daniel's one-track minds, reminding Jack instead of Cassie's ability - and Xander's for that matter - to shift topics with barely a thought between breaths. When Robin asked about college as they merged onto the highway, Dawn just shrugged.
"Depends on how the money works out," she said. "I'll probably end up working with Giles."
"What does he do?" asked Jack curiously. Xander had never said exactly and ever since his last visit he'd wondered.
Dawn glanced at him where he sat next to her in the passenger seat of the car. "He, um, works with this group in England. Doing book stuff."
"Book stuff?" that sounded a little too vague for Jack. Though Xander had told him Giles had been a librarian.
"Research," she amended. "Helping people find what they need to find. Some translations. That sort of thing."
"Ah," Jack nodded. Made sense, but still, he felt there was a lot left unsaid. "So what's he do in Cleveland?"
"Same thing you're doing," Faith answered, staring at him in the rearview mirror. "Visiting."
"Hey, I was just asking," Jack defended himself. Jeez, these kids were so protective of the guy. What was up with that? All he wanted to know was what the man did for a living. It was like it was some big secret.
"He usually brings his work with him when he's around," interjected Dawn before Faith could reply, giving her a look in the mirror. And before anyone could add to the conversation, a phone rang. Dawn immediately snatched up the red cell phone in the cup holder. "Buffy?" she answered it, her voice squeaking up. Watching her, Jack noticed that she had tensed up. Then she let out a breath and smiled. "Good," she said. "I've got everyone. We're on our way home." A pause. "Okay. See you then."
"That was Buffy?" Robin asked tentatively as Dawn hung up.
"Yep," the teenager grinned. "The turkey crisis has been resolved." She seemed awfully excited about it for some reason, but then teenagers were fickle about food Jack supposed.
"Well, that's good," said Faith also letting out a sigh of relief. "Though I'm sorry I missed it. But right now, I'm so hungry, I could eat a zebra."
"You don't like zebra," said Robin.
"Yes, I do. I had it when we were staying with Nagyia."
"That was beef."
The two of them continued arguing over when they had eaten the zebra, and it wasn't until Dawn leaned over and told him they had just come from Africa that the conversation made any sense at all. "What were they doing there?" he asked.
"Teaching English and stuff," Dawn replied with a vague hand wave. Africa, Jack mused. The first thing that came to mind was Giza and the pyramids. In a way it had been they that had ultimately changed his life by bringing Daniel into it.
Out of conversation, the two of them fell silent, content to listen to the happy bickering of the couple in the backseat. The trip to the house took longer than Jack remembered, but nonetheless, they arrived intact around five. And as soon as Dawn had parked the car, two people appeared at the front door. Jack grinned when he saw that one of them was Xander.
Xander heard a car pull up in the driveway and frantically looked around at the sitting room and open den for any remaining axes or stakes. Or weirdly named books. Or anything else mystical that couldn't be passed off as decorative. He hadn't realized just how much they had lying around until they had tried putting it away. It was a miracle Jack hadn't noticed everything when he'd been here the first time. It had been almost impossible to find space for it all - the largest repository being the finished basement a.k.a. the Slayer Barracks. But for the moment, everything looked okay. Weapons were in Buffy and the slayers' bedroom upstairs, magical stuff in Willow and Kennedy's room, books downstairs, and weird invoices in the office that served as Giles's room. Pretty much everywhere but the ground floor was a mess. It was a good thing they only had to keep this up for the three days Jack would be here.
"They're here!" Diana exclaimed, rushing out of the kitchen like a cat with its tail on fire. The young slayer had been able to sit still after the fight, and Buffy's Nazi-chef routine was enough to drive anyone that could escape out of the kitchen. Xander could only marvel that she still had energy to burn. He felt like he was going to go narcoleptic at any second now, exhausted from too little sleep and sore from the demon fighting. Regardless, he joined Diana at the open door in welcoming their guests, because, well, he was actually excited about seeing Jack again.
"Faith!" Diana shouted, running out to meet the older slayer as she and Robin emerged form the back seat.
"Hey!" Faith smiled. "Diana, right?" she asked as she gave the younger woman a hug.
Xander followed more slowly while they chatted, getting their things out of the trunk. "Hey Jack," he called cheerfully to the older man, who already had his one bag in his hand.
"Xander, it's good to see you," Jack grinned back, holding out a hand which Xander shook heartily. He wore his habitual leather jacket and jeans, and looked glad to be there. "Though you look like you haven't slept in a week." Xander shrugged ruefully, if only Jack knew.
"Yeah, well it's the holidays," he said instead.
"Hey, Xander!" as Faith as she and the others caught up to them on the walk.
"Hey, Faith," Xander smiled at her. "Robin, glad you made it this year," he shook the other man's hand. "Long time, no see."
"No kidding. I think I'm having reverse culture shock," said Robin. "But do you remember Peter Rhinbald? He's been a great help. He's holding things together while we . . . have this little vacation."
Xander nodded, glancing quickly at Jack who listened with a mild expression of interest at the unfamiliar name. Xander did indeed remember Peter Rhinbald; he was one of about fifteen of the old surviving watchers that Giles had dug up in the last year that was willing to help out with finding and training slayers. Rhinbald's presence in Africa was the reason Faith and Robin could get home this year for the convening of the Council which would be held next week in the dining room to discuss the state of the mystical portion of the world. But that was still one turkey dinner and three days of freedom away.
For now everyone simply herded inside to the noisy cacophony that had not dissipated despite the mini-slayers returning home. At the moment, they could hear Buffy and Andrew having a . . . rather strident conversation about how to mix the gravy.
"Xander, how 'bout you show us where we're staying first," suggested Robin upon hearing the shouting match. "I don't think Buffy's ready for us yet."
"Good idea," Xander was only too happy to agree. He certainly didn't want to go into the kitchen at a time like this. So he and the girls led their guests upstairs. The house was large with six bedrooms. The master suite was another slayer bedroom where for the holiday Buffy and Dawn would be joining Vi and Diana. Andrew and Xander were next door on the left with the office across the hall where Giles was staying. In the middle was an empty slayer room where Jack would be staying, and around the corner were the last two rooms for the two sets of couples. During the summer all but the guys' room and the office were the home for as many girls as needed to fit since the other residents of Scooby Central were in and out for most of the year.
Xander let Diana and Dawn show Robin and Faith to the other end of the house while he stayed with Jack. "So, just ignore the other beds," he told Jack, gesturing toward the two sets of bunk beds that lined the far walls. "Or next time bring your friends."
Jack grinned as he dropped his bag by the bottom bunk with the pile of linen at its foot. "Watch out, I just might do that," he said as he gave the place the once over. The walls were bare, bereft of the posters and life of the summer. Xander grabbed the sheets and started making the bed.
"Sorry we didn't get to this. It's been pretty hectic around here," he said. Jack grabbed the other end of the sheet and helped fit it into place.
"No problem," he said easily. "It sounds like you have a pretty wild bunch here still."
"And would you believe there's only nine of us?" Xander shook his head. Had they been this loud back in Sunnydale?
"Only nine?" Jack looked up with a teasing grin.
"Hey, you didn't live here with forty-two teenaged girls over the summer, Mr. I-Live-Alone," Xander retorted. "Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in estrogen."
"And you have my congratulations for surviving," said Jack in such a way that Xander wasn't sure if he was being sarcastic or not. "So you still working at Home Depot?"
"Yep," said Xander, tossing him an end of the blanket. "Still in the lumber yard. I think I'm getting a raise in January. One of the other guys there also does some free lance work and he asked if I wanted to go in with him on a job next week."
"That sounds cool," said Jack. "Interior carpentry?"
"Yeah," Xander nodded, pleased he'd remembered his specialty. "I'm looking forward to it."
"That's great," Jack grinned at him. "I always love going back to work after being forced out of things for a while."
"How do you get forced out of work that consists of looking through a telescope?" wondered Xander at the rather odd statement.
But Jack just shrugged. "Not necessarily on this assignment, but you know, in general," he said, taking a seat on the now made bed. Xander joined him, thinking again about Jack's blacked out file, both curious and still not wanting to know. He wondered what kinds of Special Forces missions Jack had been on, wondered how much they had helped the country in the unseen war for power that Xander largely ignored. Had it been bad stuff? Worthy stuff? Was it like in the movies where soldiers did questionable things in order to preserve peace on Earth? And if he had liked what he did why had he quit? He was a decorated colonel, he should have had some say about his final posting.
"So do you like being out of the action now?" Xander asked. In their own war against the minions of darkness, to use Andrew's phrase, Xander didn't think he could ever just walk away. Not knowing what he knew, knowing what he could do.
Jack was silent for a moment, his eyes turned inward. "We do good work at the Mountain," he finally said. "I don't regret being a part of it."
"I thought you said it was boring?" He'd said it several times in fact, and his friends had made fun of him for it.
"Well, there's boring, and then there's really boring," Jack neatly sidestepped the issue, a fact that was not lost on Xander though he did it very well. "And the people are some of the best I've ever worked with." More points for the subtle shift in conversation. He was actually up there with Veronica on the don't-notice-I'm-not-talking-about-it scale.
But Xander didn't know how to ask without seeming pushy, so he let it go and chalked it up under the other questions he would ask later someday. "Daniel, Sam, and Murray?"
"Yeah," Jack nodded with a soft smile.
"How did you guys meet? 'Cause based on your job descriptions . . ."
Jack smiled again at the open-ended question. "Daniel was already working on the project when I got there. We didn't like each other much. I thought he was some geek I had to baby-sit, and he thought I was a military hardass, which I guess I was. It was just after Charlie died and I was pretty torn up inside." He looked at his hands and was silent for a second. "Anyway," he went on, "we had to work together in the field for a while and we ended up friends."
"What were you doing?"
"Oh, you know . . . maneuvers. Testing out his . . . theories and codes," Jack waved a vague hand. "It's still classified," he shrugged apologetically. But Xander wondered why the designer of the code would be allowed in the field at all. He was a civilian and a liability - even on maneuvers that were meant to simulate real conditions. It just didn't sound quite right. But then if it was classified, maybe they had been doing something else, though for the life of him Xander couldn't fathom what they could do like that under a mountain.
"Carter joined us about a year later taking no crap from anyone about being the best in her field and a woman. She's got to be one of the most brilliant people I know, including Daniel," he grinned again with that contemplative look once more in his eye.
"Carter is Sam?" Xander asked for clarification, not recalling ever having learned last names.
"Sam, yeah," he said softly, turning the apparently unfamiliar syllable over in his mouth. "I can't say we liked each other from the get-go, but we respected each other. And Murray and me just hit it off when we met. There wasn't a lot of conversation to it." Jack smiled again at the memory.
"He certainly never said much while I was there," Xander agreed. Though he still wasn't sure what bothered him about the man, but there was something just off . . .
"DIIIINNERRRR!" A loud call to the table put an end to the conversation as both men looked toward the door.
"You ready?" asked Xander, with a sympathetic lifting of his eyebrows. He'd worry about the mystery surrounding Jack later. Right now they had to get through dinner without him caging onto any Scooby secrets.
"Yeah. Sure," said Jack, standing up and stretching slightly. "How bad can it be?"
"Just don't be afraid to fight for your food," Xander advised him. "They all like you better now since I like you. And if anyone gives you trouble just remind them that I control the house funds." But Xander didn't expect trouble. Everyone was just happy that he was happy - Dawn was even a little jealous. Besides, Jack could charm the skin off a rattlesnake. A house full of people giving him the benefit of the doubt shouldn't be a problem.
It took a full fifteen minutes to get everyone settled around the dining room table. And what an impressive table it was with every available space filled with turkey and potatoes and beans and garden salad and bean salad and boiled onions and soup and bread and even more food at the other end of the table. It had been a long time since Jack had been at a real family Thanksgiving with twelve people. Xander gave him a whirlwind of introductions in all the hustle and bustle, and he barely remembered the names to go along with the blur of faces. Though he did notice that the only blood relatives here were Buffy and Dawn and himself and Xander. But watching them as Faith and Robin got passed around for hugs or handshakes they had missed earlier, as Buffy and Andrew still squabbled over whether or not the gravy was ready, as Xander poked fun at Giles, and the girls giggled and stole carrots from the salad bowl, he could see how close they were. They were their own family, like he and his team were family.
And finally they were all seated. "Oh my god! Wine!" Buffy exclaimed as soon as she sat down, immediately jumping to her feet again, her eyes as round as saucers at this new crisis. "We have wine, right?"
"It's in the cleaning cabinet," said Giles calmly, who sat at the head of the table with Buffy on his left. The young woman sprang from the table and into the kitchen.
"So that's where it is!" said Xander across from Jack. "I thought someone," he glanced pointedly at Dawn and Vi next to each other on his left, "had sneaked it." The two girls looked up with innocently outraged expressions that he would even suggest such a thing.
"No, no, it was me," Giles said a little embarrassed at having been caught out and the kids immediately started asking if his nerves were becoming too delicate in his old age and other, equally insulting things. Buffy returned in the midst of this, a happy look of relief that everything was finally ready to go.
"Buffy," said Dawn with a meaningful look at her sister while the wine bottle was passed around.
"Oh, right," said the other girl. "Hey everyone," she called over the micro conversations which quickly dried up. "Okay, so Dawn and I wanted to try something new this year before we get started." She looked across the table at Diana on Jack's left. "It was a tradition in Diana's family to go around and say what you're thankful for and we wanted to do that this year. I hope that's okay."
Clearly stunned by the suggestion, Diana simply nodded. And Jack wondered why she wasn't with her family now. Her and Kennedy and Vi, though with the English girl's accent he wondered if she was related to Giles at all. Xander had told him about Buffy, Willow, and Andrew - and Robin and Faith had clearly been on their own for a while - but the other girls were still teenagers, hardly at an age when they stayed at a friend's house for Thanksgiving.
"Okay, so I'll start," said Buffy. "And if someone says yours you have to come up with a new one too. I'm thankful that everyone made it today and that I've gotten to have a nice long visit with everyone, Xander and Willow and especially Dawn."
"I think that was two," said Xander who was next, eliciting smiles and a few chuckles.
"Hey, it's a new tradition," said Buffy. "We're allowed to make mistakes."
"Okay, so I think I'll add my voice to the I'm thankful everyone's here chorus I can tell is coming. And I'm thankful that I survived this summer - and today," more grins from everyone, "and I guess mostly I'm thankful that I met Jack this year." His son looked directly at him and smiled softly. Jack felt an intensity build between them and it was just the two of them in the world for that one second. And when the torch passed on to Dawn at Xander's left, they smiled and both turned their attention to the young woman who was thankful that she only had 112 days of high school left before she graduated.
Vi was thankful for her aunt who had let her take this exchange year in the States (which explained to Jack why she was here for Thanksgiving but made very little sense as to why her guardians were young twenty-somethings with unstable jobs.) Robin came next with a thankful for Africa, the continent that had enchanted him, and for Faith, this last said with the besotted smile of one in love to which Jack internally rolled his eyes. Andrew at the foot of the table was much more dramatic.
"As head culinator for the Xena-like warrior women, I would like to take this opportunity to be thankful for the trials and tests of strength that have proved my quality and shown that I would never have taken the ring or anything else of corrupt evilness no matter how much good I thought it could do." Jack looked across at Xander to see his response to this . . . interesting and nonsensical speech. The one eyed man merely shrugged and grinned with the others who rolled eyes in the way of those exasperated but fond of their friend's idiosyncrasies.
"Andrew - " Faith began, but the young man kept going.
"*And,*" he said pointedly, glaring at her, "and I'm thankful for you guys being . . . you know . . ." He trailed off uncomfortably, then added, "and for the Thanksgiving parade because it was cool and I'd never been to a parade before." This sparked a few comments about the parade in general before they continued on with Faith who was thankful for surprises and second-chances and Kennedy who was thankful for being back and getting a chance to hang out more with Vi and Diana.
"And I'm just glad we're off the road," said Willow, the red head next to Jack whom Faith had warned him about. Since they'd sat down she'd been tossing quick glances at him when she thought he wasn't looking, much as Xander had when he had come to visit. It was a little annoying but at the moment he couldn't do anything about it. "Not the road was bad or anything," she quickly looked at Kennedy and grinned. "Just good to be back home with everyone."
Then it was Jack's turn and he suddenly found all eyes on him from behind pleasant but guarded expressions that still weren't sure what to make of him, this stranger in their midst. Hell, he didn't know quite how *he* felt about being this far outside of his comfort zone. "Well, I guess you all know what I'm thankful for," he said lightly. "Finding Xander and being given a chance to get to know him. It means a lot to me." And it did. Jack felt so . . . lucky, especially sitting here with all these kids whose parents weren't here.
"I guess it's me," said Diana next. "It's been forever since I've done this. And even though it's all different, it's just the same. So I guess I'm thankful for thankfuls because they're a little bit of home I haven't had since . . . and I don't know why I'm crying," she smiled through tears that slid silently down her cheeks.
"Hey now," said Xander softly. "If you keep that up you're going to dilute the taste of the food." Diana laughed in a short burst, wiping her eyes with her napkin.
"But then" added Jack seriously, "she wouldn't have to add salt." The gentle teasing led to a few more smiles as finally Giles took the floor.
The Englishman raised his glass of wine and looked around the table at everyone before speaking. "I'm thankful - grateful even - that you are all here, safe, alive and well. And I'd like to propose a toast to Diana's parents for such a wonderful tradition, and to all others loved and lost who cannot be here today." Solemnly, they all rose their glasses in a silent tribute. Giles's words touched a place deep inside Jack where memories lived, giving them air for a moment of pure sunlight and tasting bittersweet with the wine as it slid down his throat. Across from him Xander had closed his eye briefly, his mouth twisting into a sad smile when it opened and met Jack's gaze. And when he looked at Buffy to Xander's right and Dawn to his left and the others around the table, Jack felt the undercurrent of shared grief like a gentle wave - and he wondered again about the lives of these kids that had left this kind of mark.
"I think the food's getting cold," Dawn broke the spell. "Let's eat. I declare it turkey time." So they ate, the graveness giving way to the clank of serving spoons on porcelain and the sputter of conversations, mostly about the food and if more could be passed along. Xander hadn't been kidding when he'd told Jack to fight for his food. With the way the girls seemed to eat, they would easily demolish the immense quantities of food on the table. Not all of it had gotten around yet, too much of the food on the closest platters already on everyone's plate. And for the first few minutes everyone just ate. Somehow at the far end of the table, the zebra conversation started back up with Andrew delightedly asking a hundred questions about it and the lions in Africa in general. Eavesdropping, Jack concluded that Xander was right, Andrew was an odd person.
"So Jack," Willow turned to him after a few minutes. "How did you track Xander down?" Jack looked over at the bright, interested expression on the young woman's face that was marred only by some nasty parallel scratches along her jaw.
"Willow," said Xander like he didn't want her to ask at all.
"What? It's a perfectly reasonable non-threatening conversation starter," the young woman turned to her friend. "It's not like I'm telling him that I'll turn him into a turnip if he hurts you." She gave Jack a sideways look, and he couldn't help but smile as Xander again sighed her name in exasperation. Here they went again.
"If I ever hurt him you can turn me into a turnip and feed me to a rabbit," Jack told her. Willow smiled at him then turned back to Xander smugly as if she had won an argument, which Jack supposed she sort of had.
"Willow, I like Jack. He of the good, non-asskicky type."
"Asskicky?" Jack lifted his eyebrows. Was that even a word?
"Yep," Dawn confirmed to Willow. "And if he had a sticker it would say 'Inspected by number ten.'" Jack was glad he wasn't the only one who looked up at this odd statement. "You know, like a sweater," Dawn clarified.
"Yes, I'm sure Colonel O'Neill enjoys being compared to a sweater," said Giles dryly.
"Jack," he offered the other man the courtesy of his first name feeling a little out of his depth. A sweater?
"And I don't want to scare him away," said Xander with a grin for Jack he was only too happy to return.
"Scary?" said Willow, her voice squeaking higher. "I'm not being scary am I? Am I Kennedy?" she turned to the girl on her other side.
"No, baby," Kennedy laughed, taking Willow's hand reassuringly. "You're not being scary." Jack blinked in surprise at this new development, caught off guard by the display of obvious affection.
"Well, I'm glad you came," said Buffy, pulling his attention back from the couple at his side. "You get extra points for showing up."
"Points?" Jack smiled nervously at the idea. "You keep score?"
"Don't worry, you're doing fine," Dawn reassured him, though he was hardly reassured. Now he felt like too many people were watching his every move and waiting to see if he messed up; it was a little eerie when he thought about it. On the other hand, Buffy's show of support was a nice change from the outright suspicion of his previous visit.
"So how long have you known Xander?" Jack asked Willow, hoping to deflect the conversation away from himself.
"Since kindergarten," Willow replied with a fond look at his son who in turn looked horrified.
"Oh no. No. We are not doing this," Xander shook his head wildly. "Willow, I'm warning you..."
But Willow was ginning excitedly and Jack just knew he was about to get a whole lot of childhood dirt. And he was right, starting with how the two kids had met on the first day over spilt milk - Xander's all over Willow. Things quickly deteriorated from there, and Jack had the luxury of listening while he ate to 'the time when.' He heard about another boy named Jesse who joined them in first grade, and a girl named Cordelia who was rich and the leader of the mean little girls who constantly terrorized the trio. He found out that Xander was a goofy little kid but with a loving heart who had once snuck out of his house and run all the way to Willow's because she had gotten sick and had left school early. As the others were reminded of stories from their own childhoods, they chimed in allowing time for Willow and Xander to eat. And so they worked their way through dinner.
Eventually, the other dishes got passed around the table. Willow passed him the soup bowl as she recounted the time in middle school when Xander and Jesse had tried to build a water balloon slingshot. Smiling at the image of the two boys getting completely soaked when the slingshot failed, Jack dished out some soup - and jumped in surprise with an, "aaahg!!" A fishhead with no eyes floated in his bowl. And it was very, very disturbing. Who the hell cooked fishhead soup for Thanksgiving?
"Andrew," Diana giggled, answering the question he had accidentally asked out loud. The young man in question waved timidly from the other end of the table while the others laughed at Jack's expense at having been the first besides Andrew to actually put it in his bowl.
"Do I even want to know why it doesn't have any eyes?" he asked.
"Uh, that would be a big no," said Xander who looked uncomfortably at Willow. And Jack noticed that the lighter mood of a minute before had tensed up suddenly for no apparent reason.
"Well, I guess it's good that it can't see it's about to get eaten," he commented, poking the head with his fork. "Though I don't think I'm going to eat it either."
"Are you sure you don't want to try just one little bite?" asked Andrew. "It won't bite back. See?" And the kid actually brought spoon to mouth and swallowed a healthy dose of fishhead. Now, Jack had eaten a lot of things in the name of not pissing off the locals - but the very thought of having to sacrifice his stomach while on Earth made him his insides shudder at the thought.
"I think I'll pass." He smiled tightly. No way, no how.
Andrew's face fell and he resorted to mumbling about how no one appreciated fine cuisine anymore. Jack just stared at him. Something was seriously wrong with that kid. Conversation picked up again, this time centered around Andrew and the stranger things he cooked, both a mixture of what had turned out and what hadn't. Soon Andrew himself was joining in with self-criticisms and references to the Iron Chefs, and Jack added his own edited versions of strange food he'd eaten on missions with MRE's at the top of his list.
Before Jack knew it, he was feeling happy and stuffed and Buffy was serving pumpkin pie and ice cream. Xander was the first to yawn, followed by Dawn, the effects of the heavy meal making themselves known, even at such an early hour. Jack for his part was content, pleased to have met Willow and heard some stories, pleased that Xander's friends had welcomed him this time - even if he had been threatened again. And though his friends hadn't been there, it had been a good Thanksgiving.
The house was finally quiet. Good food, good company, and utter exhaustion had Xander laid out and half-asleep on the couch in the den where he and Jack had ended up. Buffy and a few others were still cleaning up in the kitchen. Giles was making tea. Willow and Kennedy, Dawn, Diana, and Vi had gone to bed, the week and the day finally catching up to them. Xander was surprised that all of them had lasted as long as they had. For his part, he felt like for the last few hours he'd been running on nothing but sugar and excitement. Warm on the couch, he pushed up his sleeves and closed his eye in contentment and let sleep dance seductively across his eyelids.
"Xander can I ask you something?" Jack asked a few minutes later, his voice edging in on his trance.
"Yeah, sure," Xander rolled his head against the back of the couch so he could see Jack. The older man was in one of the armchairs, a pensive look on his face.
"I was just wondering how Willow got those scratches on her jaw," he said, and immediately Xander woke up. "They look like fingernail marks."
Sitting up slightly, Xander wasn't sure what to tell him. Because it certainly wasn't going to be 'because we were fighting demons earlier.' Jack watched him as he pushed himself further upright, buying time to think. "She and Kennedy sometimes . . ." he trailed off, his face flushing at the implication he left hanging.
But Jack didn't seem to buy it. "And the cut on your arm?" He looked Xander straight in the eye. Xander pointedly did not look at the incriminating scratch and resisted the urge to pull down the sleeves of his sweatshirt that he'd stupidly pushed up, berating himself for being all kinds of an idiot. Hadn't they nearly killed themselves cleaning the house to prevent just this? Moron! It was a deep cut near his elbow, too long to be passed off as a cooking accident. Numbed by a handful of painkillers Xander had forgotten about it under soft fabric till now. He couldn't believe he'd been so stupid. "Xander . . ."
Caught, Xander didn't have an answer. "Work accident," he heard himself say, the lie sounding hollow in his own ears. He didn't quite look at Jack but he could feel his eyes on him, hurt and curious for secrets Xander couldn't tell him. Buffy's family had locked her up when she'd tried to explain everything, and even though Xander knew that wouldn't happen to him, the thought of losing Jack was suddenly uncomfortable. He was too close to having something . . . he didn't know what but it was there, growing under the surface. And explaining now would only shatter it into a thousand pieces. And that wasn't counting the thousand other lives that might be destroyed because what if after he tried to explain and prove the existence of the supernatural, what if, that little part of his brain wondered, what if Jack accidentally let something slip to his superiors or he told them about slayers. Because after all, how well did he really know the man? That possibility perhaps scared Xander the most. "It's just a scratch," he added.
"Some scratch," said Jack without his usual humor. When Xander looked up he could tell Jack didn't buy this explanation either. Suddenly the room felt too small for the two of them.
"I'm going to go see if Giles needs help," said Xander, and he fled the scene. He needed time to think.
Jack scrubbed an angry hand through his hair, cursing himself for a fool for opening his mouth. Work accident, his ass . . . that cut looked like a knife slice. And Xander knew it. And now Jack was worried about how he got it, more so now that his son had run from the question. Question, Jack looked down at his hands. All he had were questions upon questions about his son's life, about his friends' lives that had led them here to this house. Questions about fights and why every kid here had lost a parent or two. He just wished Xander would let him in that last step and *talk* to him. He could say how glad he was to have Jack here all he wanted, but Jack wanted to be more than just a person at the table.
Giles came in then with Xander trailing behind, his son avoiding his gaze as he retook his seat on the couch. If the Brit was aware of the tension between them now, he gave no sign of it as he passed Jack a mug of coffee. "Thanks," he murmured.
Giles nodded and sat back in his own armchair. "Goodness, it's been a long day," he said.
"I guess you've been pretty busy with everyone coming home," said Jack in an effort to have a conversation. Xander seemed to have gotten over pretending Jack wasn't there but his face was closed off and unreadable. And the sleeve of his sweatshirt was pulled down again.
"Mmm, yes," Giles agreed mildly.
"So you're a linguist?" Jack asked in a Herculean effort to dispel the silence, even knowing he was going to regret this conversation. For the moment, he put thoughts of Xander and knife fights to the side.
"I have studied a few languages, yes," said Giles modestly. "Xander said one of your colleagues was working on codes based on ancient languages?"
"Daniel, yeah," Jack replied. Except for the small fact that he didn't. How was he going to talk his way out of this one?
"And yourself? Any interest in the subject?"
Jack shrugged. "Latin's the only ancient language I know. More or less. From school," he added. No way was he explaining why he had actually learned a dead language. "Daniel wanted me to ask where you studied."
"Oxford," Giles replied. "What was your friend's last name?"
"Jackson, Daniel Jackson. Have you heard of him?" Jack asked, half-afraid of the answer.
Giles thought about it for a moment and shook his head. "Can't say that I have off the top of my head, but I've been out of the loop for a while as it were. What's his specialty?"
"No, sorry," Giles smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid I never really kept up with the Egyptian journals."
Somewhat relieved and oddly disappointed, Jack gave him an sympathetic smile. He could understand not keeping up with boring journals, but of course that probably meant that Giles had been reading other equally boring things. "So what's your specialty?" he asked.
"Folklore," said Giles. "Quite interesting to actually look at what people believed and the stories that cross cultures." Ah, another enthusiast, Jack inwardly groaned, wondering why he had even bothered to ask. "But if you're anything like Xander, I won't bore you," Giles surprised him by saying instead of the long-winded lecture he was expecting.
"Thanks, G-man," said Xander sarcastically from the couch.
"Will you ever stop calling me that?" Giles asked with a long-put-upon sigh to which Xander only grinned and shook his head. "Yes, well, I think I'm going to turn in," said Giles. "Try and catch up on all the sleep I've missed this week." He rose, nodded politely, and took his empty teacup to the kitchen before disappearing up the stairs. It was just the two of them again. The sounds from the kitchen had died down until only the gentle murmur of Buffy and Faith talking in the dining room whispered through to them, too low to understand.
"So does this mean he likes me now?" Jack asked to break the hovering silence.
"I asked him to be nice," said Xander. "But yeah, he's not all out against you anymore."
Jack watched Xander stare at his mug, feeling the distance that had suddenly resurfaced and not knowing how to bridge it. "Do you know why he decided to become a librarian?"
"He's always been a librarian."
"That's not an answer."
"Well, it's a loaded question," Xander finally looked up, one eye boring into Jack. "Giles is a good guy."
"I'm not saying he isn't," Jack replied, frustrated.
"Then what? You keep asking about him one way or another." Xander's tone was accusatory, attacking before he was attacked.
Because I find it weird that you live with your high school librarian, Jack thought but didn't say. Instead he heard himself ask "What were your parents like?" Jack heard before he even thought about it. Xander stared at him for a moment, another unreadable expression on his face.
"I wasn't abused if that's what you're asking," he said after a moment. Jack just watched him, relieved yes, but waiting for more, hoping the walls would come down. "They weren't the greatest parents in world. Mostly they just drank too much and yelled at each other and left me alone." Xander shrugged. "Poor me," he deadpanned without a shred of self-pity.
"I'm sorry," Jack told him softly, wishing he'd been there. It didn't sound like much of a home, but it was better than he had expected. And then Jack felt angry for thinking that such a compromise was a good thing just because it wasn't the worst that could have happened. It was practically neglect, for crying out loud. And he was suddenly angry at Jessica and her husband at himself for not being there when he should have been. Dammit, why hadn't she told him? Looked for him? Anything?
"Nothing you can do about it now," Xander shrugged again, looking back into his coffee cup. "They're gone and I'm grown. I had Willow and Jesse, Buffy and Giles and . . ." he didn't finish.
"Do you still keep in touch with Jesse?" Jack asked having not heard the name mentioned until today.
"He died," Xander answered flatly. He sipped his coffee, not inviting any questions while Jack simply stared surprised before murmuring another empty condolence, which Xander also shrugged off, "It was a long time ago." Jesus. From the stories, Jack figured a long time ago must have been sometime in high school. He swallowed hard, wondering what that must have been like for Xander. No one deserved to lose a best friend during the toughest four years of life.
"How did he die?"
Xander hesitated before answering, "Car accident." Another lie.
"And your arm?" Jack asked carefully.
"Is fine," Xander gave him a wary look, clearly not wanting to talk about it. Jack ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. This was a side of his son he thought they'd gotten past.
"It makes me worry," he said honestly. "I'm not going to hold it against you." He just wanted to know what had happened. And Xander just didn't want him to know, for whatever reason Jack didn't understand. "Look, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But I'm here."
"Is it weird?" asked Xander, the wariness still there in his face, shadowed by his eyepatch that also had no explanation. "All of a sudden having a son?"
"It was a little at first," Jack conceded. "But it feels right." It felt right like taking care of Daniel when he was sick felt right, or making sure Sam slowed down, or making sure that Teal'c was feeling loved. It was as if Jack had merely added Xander to that long list of people who meant something to him and who Jack looked out for, even if he did live in Cleveland.
Xander wasn't going to tell him about his arm. Or the scratches on Willow's face, or how Jesse had really died. Jack could see that. And it made him feel like an outsider in this house and as if all he had built with Xander over the last few months lay just on the surface. Yeah, he and his son joked and shared a sarcastic sense of humor and got along well enough, but beneath was a responsible man who thought about more than videogames that Jack had only glimpsed in brief snatches. Tonight, Willow had shared a little about the boy he had been, but nothing about who he was now. And that was the man sitting here with him, as much a stranger as when they had first met.
Xander didn't reply. Instead he sort of nodded and turned on the tv, resolutely ending any further conversation. Jack watched as he shifted down the couch so his head was resting on the back, his blindside firmly toward the older man. Jack took the opportunity to watch as Xander quietly fell asleep, all the while contemplating the mystery that was his son.
Xander and Jack were careful around each other after that night. By some silent agreement, they avoided deeper conversations and stuck to the little things like they had in Colorado. But the easiness of that trip was lost in the band of tension between them. And Xander wondered if he should tell him, get it over with since it seemed inevitable now that Jack would discover the truth. But it was still too risky, and a part of Xander wanted to keep Jack as far away from the truth as possible for his sake. Oddly, he didn't want Jack to worry about him. Which seemed to be defeating the purpose in light of what Jack had said. Basically, Xander didn't know what to do, so he did nothing but carry on.
And it wasn't as if Jack was being completely straight with him about what he did. Though Xander didn't really care as long as it had nothing to do with the supernatural - and from the sound of Sam the astrophysicist and Willow's discrete peek into their files, it didn't. So there.
But the secrets still gnawed at Xander while they were at the mall on Friday and watching movies all day Saturday, his own and Jack's. Would there ever be more to their relationship than the light banter that spread like palm leaves over a hidden trap that held the truth below? And if they talked about it, would they survive the fall? Xander didn't know. But he could think of a million ways that it could go wrong.
Jack left on Sunday morning without them ever having said anything more about it. Xander had been invited again for Christmas, though it would depend on when he got off work - for both his jobs. As he watched Jack head off for security, Xander sighed and decided that he didn't have time to stress about this whole . . . thing now. What would come would come. He had other stuff to worry about.
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