Chapter Seven: Seven Swans
"There they are," Jack whispered. He passed the binoculars to Teal'c who lay beside him behind the bushes on the top of a little hillock overlooking a valley where twenty Jaffa were putting together a machine of some sort. He needed to get Carter to take a look at this. Since there was so little cover she had stayed with Daniel out of sight further down the slope.
"They are indeed Anubis's Jaffa," said Teal'c a note above a whisper. "And to the east there are several more in the trees." He handed the binoculars back for Jack to take a look. The colonel counted eight standing around. From their positions he guessed they were guarding something. The intel they had received from the Tok'ra had been incomplete, as usual, and had only warned them about a possible weapon being built. But what Jack couldn't figure out was why here in this valley? They were miles away from the gate and the valley wasn't that great a spot for an ambush. Taking one last sweep of the activity below, Jack crawled back from the edge and signaled for Carter to take his place while he joined Daniel below.
"How's it look?" the archeologist asked quietly.
"Ten working on that weapon, another ten standing guard, and eight off in the trees to the east," Jack told him. "We'll see what Carter makes of what their building, then get back to the 'gate." He looked at his watch; it was almost four o'clock on Earth.
"Do you think the Tok'ra were right about this being a staging ground?" Daniel asked.
"Maybe," said Jack with a shrug. He always took what the Tok'ra told them with about a barrel of salt. "They're up to something alright. But I'm not sure what. For the moment it looks pretty low key." He cast his eye about their six but there was no movement. Above them, Carter and Teal'c were still checking out the scene.
"Sir," Carter hissed suddenly, "we've got two Jaffa heading our way." She and Teal'c quickly slithered away from the edge and back down the slope until they were crouching beside Jack.
"How far away are they?" asked Jack, immediately turning in his crouch to face the hill.
"Approximately one hundred yards," said Teal'c. "I do not believe they saw us."
"Did you see enough?" Jack turned to Carter.
"Yes, sir," his major replied. "And I think we have time to set up the camera."
"Do it," Jack ordered. "Daniel, Teal'c, start back for the 'gate. We'll be right behind you." The two men nodded, Daniel shouldered his pack, and they started off. Carter quickly went to work, wriggling back to the cover at the top of the hill with the video equipment while Jack kept watch beside her. The two Jaffa drew closer, probably heading for the gate themselves. They would be hard pressed to get there ahead of them. But soon Carter finished, and with a quick confirmatory nod, they too got out of there as fast as they could.
The way back to the 'gate was grassy with stunted trees and bushes like the ones scattered about their observatory. Jack hoped to make it back to the trees about half a mile away before the Jaffa caught sight of them, but he doubted they would make it. And the sudden shout and blast of staff fire just proved him right. Jack hated it when he was right like this. He swore silently as he and Carter broke into a run. Ahead of them, Teal'c and Daniel returned fire until they joined them in the woods in an all out sprint to the gate. The Jaffa were slowed down, though not by much, by their clunky armor.
"So much for a nice easy recon mission before Christmas," Jack panted to Carter as trees brushed past and fallen logs tried to grab their feet. Teal'c led them off the beaten path in an effort, trying to find a spot they could hide in so they could double back, but the trees were too small for them so they just ran. By the time they rejoined the path, Jack felt like his lungs were going to burst. He checked behind them for the Jaffa, who had been slowed a little but were nonetheless still there. A few minutes later, they burst into the 'gate clearing. Daniel in front ran and dialed home while the rest of them made for the wormhole that blossomed in the stone ring. Staff fire peppered the ground beneath their feet but Jack ignored it in favor of speed. He was the last the dive through the gate, whoosh through the wormhole, and land in a barrel roll on the ramp on the other side, shouting, "Close the iris!"
Jack took a moment to catch his breath from the run before pulling himself to his feet amid the hustle of armed marines and the blaring claxons. Daniel, Carter, Teal'c, all were winded but alive and accounted for. Didn't look like anyone was hurt. In the control room, General Hammond watched gravely so Jack threw him a cheery if a bit sardonic smile.
"Welcome back, SG-1," said Hammond. "We'll debrief in one hour." Jack glanced at his watch. Four twenty-nine blinked back at him. One hour for the post-mission, one for the briefing, one and a half for the paperwork, two to get to the airport and pick up Xander an hour late. Great. Jack reminded himself for the millionth time to never say yes to a quick mission ever again. And he really needed to stop throwing himself through the 'gate, he thought as his shoulder protested movement and his knees throbbed from where they'd hit the ramp, not to mention the run.
The next hour passed in the blur of the well familiar. No doc, no snakes in our heads, yes General, something is going on there. Jack listened as Carter explained that she thought the Jaffa had been building a platform for something much bigger, though again she didn't know what it was exactly. Hopefully the video would tell them more - if it wasn't discovered and destroyed. There really wasn't much more to add. Jack could practically feel the freedom of the holiday like a little kid in school as the briefing drew ever closer to being dismissed. And then, right after Hammond wished them all a good break and reminded them about the Christmas party, he said those fateful words, "Colonel, could you stay a moment?"
"Of course, sir," Jack stopped and sat back down in his chair with a forced smile. With all due respect, he could have killed his CO.
Xander glanced at the time on his cell phone again only to see that two minutes had passed since the last time he had checked. The rest of the passengers from his plane had already deserted the baggage claim, leaving him alone with his duffel on a bracket of chairs. He wasn't sure what felt worse, sitting alone feeling forgotten or the impatience and nervous energy that came from waiting. Jack's cell was turned off and only his machine was answering at home leaving Xander wondering where the hell he was. And oddly, beneath the slight hurt, his greatest fear was that something had eaten Jack in the parking lot.
Where was he? He was forty minutes late and counting. Not showing was something that Xander would have expected of his own parents but not Jack. Jack was better than that, and this small shattering of expectation only served to remind Xander of how little they really knew each other. Six months, most of that spent apart with only two real visits and a scattering of phone calls. And now a few more days to try and get to know each other. Though after Thanksgiving, he wondered if they ever really would.
The woosh of the sliding doors opening grabbed his attention, but it wasn't Jack who walked through. Had he forgotten? Xander didn't think so, but the worry lingered. He just wished he would hurry up and get there. And then he heard his name being called from the left. Turning so he could see, he smiled in relief as he saw Jack walking toward him.
"Hey, kid," Jack smiled, looking more tired and stiff than Xander had ever seen him. "Sorry, I'm late. I got held up at the base."
"It's alright," Xander replied, just happy that he was there and not being digested or anything. "Been a busy week?"
"Yeah," Jack sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. "Nothing like being understaffed to load up the paperwork."
"At your desk all day?" Xander asked, thinking of his stiffness.
"I wish," Jack half laughed. "I've been dealing with stupid requests and meetings for the most part."
"And they didn't spring for pizza?" Xander joked, receiving a sideways glance from Jack that wasn't very amused. "Not even donuts?"
"No. But that sounds like a good idea. You mind stopping on the way home? I don't feel like cooking."
"As long as you're asking about pizza and not donuts," Xander agreed. His days of sugar subsistence were long over.
"So how are you doing? How's work?" Jack asked.
"Oh you know, it's Christmas," said Xander. "Everyone comes in looking for the perfect present. Some people have some really weird ideas. There was this guy who came in the other day wanting to build an automatic clothesline for his wife so she wouldn't have to go outside to hang the wash. I tried to get him to check out a dryer but he insisted. Stupid man didn't know when to quit." It wasn't really all that interesting, but Jack smiled anyway and they ended up talking about other customers with strange ideas for the ride home. It was comfortable and Xander found himself relaxing into the easiness of the conversation that held no hidden traps or pitfalls.
They picked up pizza at a place not far from Jack's place and arrived at the house ten minutes later. Xander was staying in the same room where he deposited his stuff before rejoining Jack at the kitchen table.
"So are you all getting together for Christmas again?" asked Jack as Xander took his first slice, judiciously chosen to have the most toppings. Xander was only staying for four days until the twenty-third. He and Jack had both decided that a short visit was better than a long one at this point.
"Just a few of us," Xander replied. "Buffy's home now with Dawn and Andrew. And Willow and Kennedy never left. Giles will be getting back the same day as me. Diana and Vi went to England to Vi's aunt's place.
"Robin and Faith are in Africa?"
"Sounds like another fun filled Christmas."
"Holiday season," Xander corrected him. Off Jack's inquiring look he added, "Willow's sort of Jewish and sort of pagan."
"That's an interesting combination," said Jack evenly, doing his best not to judge. Xander appreciated it, but it really wasn't necessary. He thought they were mutually exclusive too.
"You should see our decorations," he said dryly. "It's like Santa came in circumcised and decided to follow his wood sprite girlfriend's suggestions." Jack grinned. "I'm serious," Xander went on. "We have Hanukah candles lighting up an Earth shrine with the statue wearing an elf hat."
"But does it look good? That's the true test of a decorating disaster," Jack noted, taking another piece of pizza.
Xander shrugged. "I think I'm used to it now. Though what about you? There isn't even a wreath on the door."
It was Jack's turn to look about his undecorated house and shrug. "We're celebrating at Carter's house this year," he said by way of explanation. "Even when we have it here, I don't put much out. I'm usually working down to the wire."
"But you're a colonel. Don't you get extra time off?"
"I could," Jack agreed. "But there's not much to come home to." No family except his friends, Xander remembered. And now him. Funny how similar they were in that regard.
"Have you ever thought about remarrying?" asked Xander.
"I've thought about it," said Jack, a little surprised by the question. "Doesn't mean anyone was available."
"Who was she?"
"She?" Jack lifted his eyebrows innocently, but Xander knew better.
"You don't think about getting married without someone in mind," he said. "So spill. Who's my potential stepmom?"
"Have you ever thought about getting married?" Jack asked instead.
"Hey, no changing the subject!" Xander raised a pointy finger. "You're not answering the question."
"Neither are you."
"It's a personal question."
"And I should answer it because . . . ?"
"We're bonding here. Guy talk."
"I though guy talk was supposed to be about sports and stuff."
"The 'and stuff' is girls," Xander said as if he were explaining it to Andrew. Though he suspected Andrew's mind was on other things.
"Fine," Jack sat back in his chair, a slight smile playing across his lips. "I'll tell you if you tell me who you thought about marrying."
"You first," Xander agreed, his curiosity piqued.
Jack was silent for a moment before he spoke. "There've been a couple actually. One was a woman I met while I was abroad for a couple of months . . . We were just friends at first, working together and after awhile it became more. But then work pulled me away again." He paused, then continued. "And the other . . . I still work with her."
"Fraternization regulations?" Xander asked.
"How did you know?"
"I watch tv. Everyone knows about those," Xander thought it was pretty common knowledge. "What kind of women are they?"
"Smart. Independent," Jack shrugged searching for words. "They're both people I respect a great deal."
"Will I get to meet the one you work with?" asked Xander as he tried to picture her. It was kind of odd how thinking about Jack with someone wasn't too bad.
Jack shrugged noncommittally as if to say maybe, maybe not. "So what about you?" he asked.
It was Xander's turn to sit back and think about how to describe Anya. How did you describe a hurricane to someone who wasn't there? It still saddened him to think about her, but time had indeed softened the loss into good memories. "Her name was Anya," Xander began. "She was pretty amazing." He pulled out his wallet and got out his only picture of her, worn around the edges by a year and a half of grief. It was of her standing by the cash register in the Magic Box holding a fan of twenty- dollar bills and smiling like the sun. Jack took the photo and smiled.
"She's beautiful," he said.
"Beautiful and greedy and embarrassingly blunt," Xander smiled back getting a pair of raised eyebrows from Jack.
"That why you broke up?" he asked.
"No," Xander accepted the picture back. "We were going to get married. But I wasn't ready; left her at the altar, families there and everything." He glanced up to see what Jack thought of that but the older man's face was inscrutable. "I was afraid we'd end up like my parents. A year later we were almost back together. And then she died."
"I'm sorry," said Jack quietly. Xander nodded looking back at the picture. God, he missed her! "She loved money," he heard himself say. "Loved the way it smelled and the way it could buy her pretty things. Sounds all valley girl when I say it like that, but it wasn't. She wasn't." He looked up. "She thought fifty years was too little time to have together."
"How did she die?"
"She never made it out of Sunnydale," Xander answered. And even this half-truth felt like betraying what she had died for. No matter how much she protested, she always came through for them against whatever big bad reared its ugly head. Once again he wondered what would have been had she lived. Would they be married now? He liked to think so.
He and Jack finished eating in silence that was only broken by Jack's offer of coffee, which Xander happily accepted. His thoughts still centered on Anya, but now he wondered what she would have thought of Jack. She would have wanted to see his gun. And he could just see Jack fluttering about nervously when she would say something about orgasms, perhaps with a witty comeback like Giles, only not as British. Or maybe not fluttering, Xander amended smiling at Jack's gray and rather dignified head across from him.
"What?" Jack noticed his gaze.
"Nothing," said Xander. "Just thinking." Mentally shaking himself, he corralled his thoughts back to the here and now. "So, we going clubbing tomorrow?" he asked.
"Clubbing? Ah, no," Jack shook his head. "But my CO did invite us over for a Christmas party."
"Will there be eggnog?" he asked hopefully. Xander loved eggnog. He hadn't had any good 'nog since that last Christmas with Joyce. He grinned when Jack nodded. "Then consider me party going."
The next evening, Jack waited impatiently by the door for Xander to get ready to go. When he finally emerged from his room in a clean long sleeve shirt, jeans, jacket, and shoes, Jack looked pointedly at his watch. They were going to be late. Jack hated being late.
"Didn't you hear me tell you we were leaving in ten minutes?" he asked as they got into the car.
"I live with girls. You say ten minutes, I hear half an hour," Xander replied easily. "Your CO's not going to kill us for being late to a party unless he's a social stickler of the deranged kind." He paused before adding, "He's not, is he?"
"No," Jack answered. "Where do you come up with this stuff?" Xander didn't deign to answer.
As it was they were still the first to arrive. "Jack!" He was greeted enthusiastically by George's granddaughter, Kayla who threw herself at him for a hug which Jack happily returned.
"Ooff! You're getting big!" Jack exclaimed, amazed at how much she'd grown since the last time he'd seen her.
"Not that big, Jack," Kayla protested as she stepped back with a huge grin. "Who's this?" she asked noticing Xander behind him.
"This is Xander," Jack introduced the two. "My son," he added after a brief hesitation. He and Xander still didn't bring up their relationship that much, if ever. But if it bothered Xander, he didn't show it as he shook the little girl's hand.
"I didn't know you had a son!" Kayla was indignant that he hadn't told.
"I lived with my mom," Xander explained with an easy smile.
"Oh. Well it's really nice to meet you," she said. Just then, George and his daughter joined them from the kitchen.
Jack introduced Xander, amused at how the young man unconsciously straightened up in George's commanding presence.
"It's nice to meet you, sir," said Xander shaking his hand.
"The pleasure's all mine, son. Jack here can't stop talking about you."
Xander glanced at him, surprised by this news. Jack only shrugged. He really didn't talk about him that much; George was exaggerating, but Jack didn't bother to correct him when he was having so much fun. "Now you've made me nervous," said Xander.
"Would I say anything bad about you?" asked Jack mock hurt.
"I don't know, would you?" Xander asked back, only half joking. He really wasn't sure, Jack saw, still uncertain about his place in Jack's life.
"Nothing but glowing praise," Jack reassured him, making Xander shift uncomfortably. "None of Willow's stories got out."
The look of horror on Xander's face was priceless. "They better not have."
"Well, I'm sure if you chat up Dr. Jackson and Major Carter, you can get some dirt of your own," George smugly smiled. "And I know a few stories myself." Jack definitely didn't like the grin that blossomed on his son's face.
"You are an evil, evil, man, sir," Jack told his CO.
"Yes, and there's not a thing you can do about it."
And with that, Jack knew that by the end of the night Xander would know every story the General had to offer. He could only thank God most of his exploits were classified.
A little over an hour later Xander managed to slip away for a moment with a plate full of food. More guests had arrived that he'd met while chatting with George. He really liked the portly general who had regaled him with the many headaches of Jack O'Neill. His father was apparently a practical joker, though it didn't surprise Xander that much. His favorite story was of when Jack had enlisted Private Shepherd, an actual German Shepherd who had a series of complaints filed against him for insubordination and slobbering on his colleagues. It had taken three weeks for the administration to realize they'd been played.
Now, sitting on the sidelines, Xander watched as Jack talked to Sam and Janet whom he'd met only briefly with her daughter earlier. When Kayla interrupted them, Jack gave her his full attention as if what she had to say was the most important thing in the world. He was good with kids, Xander thought, really good.
But the arrival of Daniel and Murray in his little corner of the living room pulled his attention away from Jack. Xander smiled at them in greeting, watching Murray in particular as he sat with his back straight and calmly began shoveling food into his mouth.
"I see you finally got away from Hammond," said Daniel in greeting. "I heard he was dishing out Jack stories?"
"Yep. Vengeance for my best friend spilling at Thanksgiving," Xander replied around a mouthful of scalloped potatoes.
"Well, if he ever gives you a hard time, we've got a couple that the general doesn't know about," Daniel gestured between himself and Murray.
"Vengeance, as you say," said Murray solemnly but with a smug little smile that was eerily reminiscent of George's. Good to know.
"So you're only staying till the twenty-third?" asked Daniel.
"Yeah, I've got to work on Christmas Day," said Xander. Though not the main reason for leaving a little early, it at least didn't make him sound like he didn't want to be there. The truth was all about semantics.
"And how has your vacation been?" asked Murray in his precise tone that didn't sound quite right.
"Good," said Xander. It was an all-purpose answer but he didn't really have a better one. "I just got in yesterday."
"Would you care to join us at the mall tomorrow? We are going on a shopping excursion."
"I'm not sure Jack's going to give you much of a choice," Daniel smiled. "He hates having to suffer alone. And he says the rest of us don't count."
"I guess I'm in then," said Xander, not sure how he felt about going shopping with Jack and his friends. He suddenly felt like Giles in reverse, the young man out of the group, though he was at least grateful he wasn't going out with a bunch of older women. "You guys Christmas shopping, or what?"
"Christmas shopping," Daniel sighed. "We've been working pretty hard lately. Haven't had much time to get stuff done."
"And I shall be purchasing a new hat," added Murray, very pleased with the idea. Xander eyed the monstrosity of red and white fake fur that sat low on the tall man's head. He had been wearing a hat the last time he'd met him, too.
"So does the hat hide a perpetual bad hair day?" he asked curiously. "Cause they have stuff for that now."
"I like hats," was the simple reply that was and wasn't an answer. Murray was just weird, Xander concluded. And possibly not human. The words, the posture, the hats - no self-respecting adult wore a Santa hat to an informal party and actually kept it on. But then again, George was wearing a reindeer sweater. Nevertheless, it was rather worrisome. Because what if he really wasn't human? The military had to know; those sorts of things didn't slip by them. Most of them.
"Anyone want anything else to drink?" Daniel interrupted his musing by standing with his empty cup. Both Xander and Murray shook their heads and the linguist left in search of a thirst quencher. They ate in silence for a moment before Xander decided to go ahead and ask.
"So Murray, where're you from?"
The big man looked up at him, swallowed the food in his mouth, and said, "I am from Chulak, Colorado."
"Three hours west of here."
"Are you human?" The flat stare he received was anything but amused. "Just kidding," Xander hastily backpedaled. "Though it'd be okay if you weren't. Mostly. It'd actually depend but since I've no doubt that you are it's not really an issue so forget I even asked." Murray's expression didn't change. In fact, the blank stare was starting to creep Xander out, but finally Murray spoke.
"I am. Why do you ask?"
"No reason," Xander waved it off, wishing once more that he'd just kept his mouth shut. It was probably a really stupid idea to antagonize the seven-foot giant sitting next to him. He was better off wondering in silence 'cause the silence wouldn't kill him. An uncomfortable minute passed during which Xander concentrated on eating and trying to ignore Murray's watchful eyes. It didn't work too well; he still felt like a bug under a microscope. He just wanted the other guy to look away.
"Xander Harris," said Murray suddenly, "how are things between you and O'Neill?"
Xander looked up at the odd use of his name, slipping it into the see-he's-not-human column before his mind caught up with the question. "Fine," he said. Other than the fact that they never really talked about anything.
"He worries about you," said Murray. "He wishes you would not hide things from him." Xander stared as Murray took another bite of his chicken. Where had that come from? But he knew - Thanksgiving. Secrets peeking out of shadows. Murray returned his gaze with that same calm expression that never seemed to change. "I too have a son that I seldom see," he said softly. "I know it is difficult. But O'Neill cares for you a great deal. I have known him for many years. He is an honorable man and he will never turn away from you."
"Even if I'm really Batman?" asked Xander, a little stunned by Murray's unwavering faith in Jack.
"Even if you are Batman," Murray nodded once. "Though he lives in Gotham City and not Cleveland."
"He could have moved."
"And leave the citizens to the evilness of the Joker? I think not. He would not abandon his responsibility to them."
"Whose responsibility to whom?" asked Sam Carter joining them with Daniel. The blond woman took the seat next to Murray.
"Batman's to the people of Gotham City and why he would never leave," replied Murray. Sam looked at him in surprise, a wide grin breaking out on her face.
"I don't know much about that," she said, "but I sure do love Robin's bike."
"That was the only reason you saw that movie in the first place," said Daniel.
"You didn't like it either," Sam retorted.
"Well, no," Daniel agreed.
"You have no taste," Murray intoned. "It was an excellent movie. Though the first film was my favorite."
Xander watched as the three friends began arguing over the merits of the Batman movies. Murray loved them while Daniel and Sam kept poking holes in plots and special effects. But the banter was friendly and they were having a good time. They were obviously close, closer than Xander had realized the last time he was here. Daniel and Sam seemed to finish each other's thoughts while Murray had a counter argument for every point they brought up. Xander's opinion was asked for a couple of times and he had to agree that they were fun in their campy goodness. Soon he was arguing about who had been the best Batman. And every now and then he'd meet Murray's eyes that were smiling now instead of glaring, but that were still watchful. And seemed to say, 'even if you were Batman.'
Across the room, Jack watched Xander laughing with his team. It was cool to see the people who meant the most to him together and getting along. Not that he thought they wouldn't or anything, but it was still good to see.
"Jack, you've got a fine son there," announced George as he joined him at the coffee table he'd commandeered. "A very nice young man."
"I'm afraid I didn't have much to do with that," said Jack.
"Maybe not," the general conceded, "but he does remind me of a certain young sarcastic officer I used to know."
"Well, I certainly don't know who you're talking about, sir," said Jack playfully to the tease. "So what stories did you tell him?"
"Only the best," George evaded.
"Stories?" Cassie Frasier said joining them. "You were telling Jack stories and I wasn't there?" She batted hurt eyelashes at George, very disappointed she had missed it. Jack on the other hand was very grateful. Xander knowing was bad enough but at least he had the inside scoop on him. Cassie on the other hand he couldn't touch, the reason in the form of one short doctor settling in beside her daughter next to him.
"I think you already know enough about me," said Jack. "You already had an unfair advantage over Xander."
"It's still not fair," Cassie grumbled, though she wasn't really that upset about it.
"Maybe if you talk to Xander, you can ask him," suggested Janet with a sly look at Jack.
"Doc, are you trying to set our kids up?" he asked suspiciously.
"I wouldn't go for him anyway," said Cassie while her mother protested innocently. Immediately, Jack switched to being offended on his son's behalf.
"And why not? There's nothing wrong with him."
"He's not my type," Cassie shrugged. "He's too . . . happy."
"You know . . . going on though life unaware. He just seems like the kind of guy it'd be hard to have a deep conversation with . . . I mean . . ." she stopped, suddenly realizing what she had just said and blushed. "I don't mean that he's shallow or anything . . . cause I'm sure he'd not. And he has the whole one-eye thing going for him that's pretty cool . . ." She trailed off, deciding that stopping was better than digging the hole deeper.
Jack smiled to show he wasn't offended. He could see how she would get that impression. Here Xander was always smiling and joking, hell most of the time he acted as if the next great disaster was a bad day at work. But then there were the little things he didn't talk about like growing up in Sunnydale, his parents, his eye. Xander lived in the here and now, not dwelling on the past, not worrying about the future.
"How did he lose it?" asked Janet.
Jack could only shrug. "He hasn't told me. I asked the first time we met, and he wouldn't say anything. I thought at first that it was because we had just met but . . ." He had lied about the deep cut on his arm too. "I guess he's just not ready to tell me some things," he smiled for the others, not wanting to bring up things that were better left between him and his son. Though how he would find out without driving Xander away, he didn't know. From where he sat, it looked like serious fighting, gang fighting, though Xander seemed far from the type to get involved in that sort of thing. And his friends seemed to be involved which was even weirder if it was gangs because the bubbly girls he had met were also not the type. There were just too many mysteries and none of them added up.
Jack sighed and let it go for now as it was neither the time nor the place. Maybe later he'd work up the nerve to ask. Maybe he should just wait until he knew Xander better. Maybe he shouldn't say anything at all.
When they got home that night, Xander sat down heavily on the couch, tired from the long evening. Behind him Jack was talking to Daniel as the two looked for the book the linguist had stopped by to get. Apparently he'd been looking for it for a week before he remembered he'd left it at Jack's after coming over to dinner once. Though from the sound of things, Jack had lost the book too. Xander let their playful back and forth wash over him as he relaxed. He was almost dozing when the phone rang in the kitchen.
It rang once more before Jack picked it up. "O'Neill . . . alright . . . alright . . . call Major Carter. Dr. Jackson's with me." Xander heard him hang up, and wondered what was going on. Jack soon appeared from the kitchen, all trace of humor gone from his face. "Xander, Daniel and I have to go to the base. Will you be alright here?"
"At eleven thirty at night?" Xander asked. That seemed a little late to him.
"It's probably nothing," Jack forced a smile and Xander could see that he clearly didn't believe it was nothing. If it was nothing, there'd be some serious shouting going on over the phone right now. No, Jack was worried about something. And Daniel the linguist and Sam the astrophysicist were wanted too. "We'll be back soon." Vaguely Xander nodded as he watched them grab their coats and go. They had a silent conversation in eyebrows and headshakes and then they were gone, leaving Daniel's car in the driveway.
Whatever they were doing, it made Xander nervous all of a sudden. Initiative nervous. Because why did a deep space telescope need a linguist and a special forces colonel in the middle of the night?
Wide awake now, he turned on the tv to try and banish his worries from his head but it didn't work too well. It was only when he heard the electronic strands of the Peanuts theme coming from his room that thoughts of secret military organizations finally went away. Because he suddenly had bigger fish to worry about. After a stunned second, Xander leapt up and ran for his phone that he'd put on top of the dresser.
"Hello?" he answered.
"Xander?" Willow's voice came down the virtual line.
"Yeah, it's me. What's up?"
"We just got an SOS from a slayer in Broomfield, Colorado," said Willow. Xander's blood ran cold. "Her name's Courtney, she's thirteen - "
"Her parents didn't want her coming to training this year," Xander remembered the conversation he'd had with them that had been so frustrating.
"She was hysterical on the phone and hung up before I could get all the details. All I know is that there was a major attack and that she's in trouble. Have you got a car?"
"If you have directions." Xander went to his bag and dug out his stake, cross, water gun and liter of holy water. Quickly, he went into the living room and found Daniel's keys, only feeling a little guilty about borrowing his car. Willow stayed on the phone and gave him directions from her computer in Cleveland. The drive took two hours going almost ninety on the highway. Xander only hoped a cop didn't stop him. But he was more scared about what he would find once he got to Broomfield.
Potentials became slayers when they hit puberty at which time Willow felt them join the network. She had a special locator spell that found the new slayer, wherever she was so that the Watcher's Council could find her, offer her training, and help her into her new life. In North America, Xander was point man in that department. Now, driving in the dark, he couldn't help but feel like he had failed Courtney somehow by not talking her parents round. He'd thought he'd done well by getting them to agree to next summer, but now it looked like next summer would be too late.
Once he was off the freeway, Xander followed Willows direction to a nice neighborhood in suburbia. And then he saw the fire. A great billow of smoke rose above the houses with tendrils of orange licking at its base. As he drew closer, he heard sirens and shouting and water hoses as firefighters tried to control the blaze. It was like graduation all over again. How was he going to find Courtney in this mess?
He got as close as he could before parking the car and going on foot. Willow had said she had called from the house that was now torching to a crisp. Xander hoped she had made it out alive. A quick look through the emergency vehicles came up with nothing so he moved past them to the edge of the spectators who watched in disbelief. He'd met Courtney once, over a year ago. She'd been in awe of her new power, excited and scared all at once. Where would she be now? Xander just kept walking away from the crowds, the heat of the burning house at his back.
And then he saw her hidden in between two closely growing trees in someone's front yard, staring at the flames, unnoticed by anyone else but him. As soon as he started walking in her direction though, she looked at him, watching like a scared cat as he approached. Her shirt was torn and dirty, bleeding cuts streaked down her arms and the corner of her mouth was a brilliant red. In her hand she clenched a stake, her whole body ready and tense for a fight.
"Courtney?" said Xander softly. He held up his cross and stake from her to see, see that he wasn't burning. "I'm Xander Harris with the Watcher's Council. Do you remember me?" She didn't answer but her eyes flickered from his face to his hands and back. "I'm going to get out my driver's license and my id card, okay?" He waited until she nodded slightly before fishing out his wallet. The id card was for the Council, charmed so that it couldn't be tampered with. He tossed them to the ground in front of her where she picked them up and inspected them. Courtney looked up a moment later, the tension fading from her.
"Sorry," she whispered. "I - "
"Don't be sorry," said Xander. He walked slowly towards her making sure she wouldn't suddenly attack him. "What happened?"
"They came." She turned back to the house. "A whole gang. My little brother let them in . . . there were so many of them."
The tears that streamed down her face were the only answer he needed as the girl before him started to shake. Xander reached out a hand to her shoulder offering her the only comfort he could. The gesture broke the wall that had held the reality at bay through the horror of the last few hours and she latched onto him with a wrenching sob of pain. Xander just held on while her world crumbled around her like the house down the street, lost to the violence of the night.
"He said it was retribution," Courtney cried. "I don't even know what that means! And then he killed them, right in front of me. They were screaming and I couldn't do anything!" Her voice broke in her throat in counterpoint to her labored breathing. "I should have died too!" she sobbed. "I should have died!"
"I know," Xander murmured, rubbing her back. "But you survived." Survived to live in a world without her family. And though she wanted to die now from the pain, Xander knew that she would make it because she was a fighter. He didn't need two eyes to see that she hadn't given up, not in the house, not out here.
After a few minutes, she calmed some, her cries dissolving into hiccups. Beyond them the firefighters had gotten the fire under control, diminishing the flames to embers. "Do you think they'll be mad?" Courtney asked. "About the fire? It was the only way." The only way to kill the vampires, Xander knew.
"We don't have to tell them," said Xander. They would figure out what they needed to on their on own.
"So what now?" she asked. "I mean, my family's dead. I've got nowhere to go. My house is gone. I burned my house!
"Hey, hey, hey," Xander soothed before she lost it again. Courtney looked at him wide-eyed and terrified. "Let's not panic."
What now indeed. The authorities would only take her to a children's shelter, then foster care if no relatives stepped up to claim her. All were people who wouldn't know that her family had just been murdered, wouldn't understand, wouldn't care. They'd find out she set the fire and then she'd be blamed. What she needed was support right now, friends, family.
"Do you have any relatives nearby?" he asked.
Courtney shook her head. "My aunt and uncle live in Missouri."
"Is there anyone you want to stay with?" But she shook her head. "Then you're coming with me," he decided. He wasn't about to strand her here, not traumatized and an easy target for the rest of the local vamps. No, the safest thing for her was to come with him now. He handed her his cell phone. "Call your best friend, let her know you're okay. Tell her your cousin came to get you," he instructed when she just stared at it then him blankly. But she did as he asked.
A few minutes later, they were skirting the dwindling group of spectators behind the fire trucks, heading toward the car. Not long after that they were back on the road heading for Colorado Springs. It wasn't until Courtney fell asleep exhausted, that Xander even thought about what he would tell Jack.
To say Jack was worried was an understatement. To say Jack was worried and mad and confused as all hell would be closer to the truth. In fact he was pretty pissed off. Things had been bad enough when the Tok'ra arrived with their sudden discovery of Anubis amassing his forces and Jack's Christmas holiday was cut short. Then he came home around one trying to figure out what he'd tell Xander only to find that Xander had taken off in Daniel's car without so much as leaving a note and some pretty hasty unpacking of his bag. The only good thing Jack could see in this whole situation was that most of his stuff was still here, and even that really hadn't helped his bad mood much
But now it was four in the morning. Daniel had gotten a cab home, and Jack hadn't slept for worrying about Xander and what the hell he had been doing for the last three hours. He was going to kill him when he got back. Just what was he playing at?
Headlights in the driveway immediately grabbed his attention. He rose as the car doors opened and shut and was in front of the front door when it opened. Xander stopped short when he saw the glare Jack was leveling at him.
"Where the hell have you been?!" he demanded. He could see the sarcastic reply forming on Xander's lips until he thought better of it and answered simply.
"Broomfield." He licked his lips. "It was an emergency." And then Jack saw the girl standing slightly behind his son. She was young, barely a teenager with auburn hair that was a tangled mess. Dried blood and dirt streaked her clothes underneath Xander's jacket that she wore while faded bruises and tearstains peppered her chin.
"I see," said Jack softly, taken aback. The girl looked like she was about to fall over. "I'm Jack," he offered her his hand, which she dully shook.
"Come on," Xander ushered her to his room, laving her in the bathroom to get cleaned up. "Where's your first aid kit?" he asked when he returned. Jack got it for him then waited in the kitchen for Xander to get back after getting the girl settled. Jack was so surprised by this sudden turn of events that he didn't know what to think. Mostly he was confused and even more worried than he had been. His anger giving way to fear which only jumpstarted more anger. He ended up making coffee while he waited.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" he asked when he heard Xander in the doorway. His son didn't move for a moment but he finally joined Jack at the table. He looked exhausted. Small wonder after a long day and four hours of driving to Broomfield and back.
"Courtney called Willow. Willow called me," was all Xander said as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"She was in a fight," Jack commented, trying to keep his voice low. "And you both smell like smoke."
"Her house burned down."
"So why is she with you?"
Xander looked up then away quickly and didn't answer. And Jack knew that when he did it would be another lie.
"Jesus, Xander, what are you involved in?" he asked.
"Who said I was involved with anything?" Xander snapped back, getting angry. "She's a girl from camp this summer. She was in trouble, she called us."
"She calls people she barely knows in Cleveland instead of her local 9-11?" Jack couldn't believe it. "She was in. a. fight. I'm not an idiot Xander. I can tell grab marks and punches from a random crash to the ground. And it's not just her. You and Willow were pretty beat up over Thanksgiving." That got Xander's attention. The young man's head snapped up but he remained silent. "So, yes, I think you're involved in something," said Jack. "Feel free to prove me wrong."
"It's none of your business."
"*You* are my business. And if that's not enough then I think stealing my friend's car and kidnapping a thirteen year-old and hiding her at my house make it my business."
"Fine," Xander got to his feet. "We'll go to a hotel. We'll be out of here in an hour."
"Xander!" Jack wanted to strangle him. Running was not going to solve this and he'd be damned if he let his son run out on him now. "I'm not throwing you out. I just want to know what's going on!"
"Well, I can't tell you because I've got people to protect!" Xander said harshly. They were standing, facing each other now. "Consider it classified, Jack. You should know all about that."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jack felt like he'd been slapped.
"Linguists don't go on maneuvers, Jack," said Xander. "And no one on a little shit project gets called into base in the middle of the night five days before Christmas. I'm not an idiot either and I spy with my little eye a secret government program."
At his words, Jack saw all the fear and distrust his son had for him at that moment. And it hurt like nothing else had since his team had thought he'd betrayed them. "Yes, my work is classified," he said. "But what does it have to do with you bringing home a kid whose house just burned down?"
"Nothing," said Xander looked away then back, meeting him stare for stare. "I'm just saying, I'm not the only one keeping secrets around here."
"So you don't trust me," said Jack. "Is that it?"
"I don't trust who you work for," Xander replied evenly.
"This is me, Xander," Jack pleaded, suddenly tired. "I'm your dad first. This has nothing to do with what I do or can't talk about. If you're in trouble, if you need me I'm yours."
The young man looked away at the table, uncertainty in every line of his body. When he finally looked back he said, "I'm not in any trouble."
Jack's protest at the obvious denial was cut short by a scream from the guestroom. Immediately, Xander bolted down the hall, Jack on his heels. Courtney was thrashing in her sleep while Xander tried to shake her awake without getting hit by flailing limbs.
"Courtney, wake up!" said Xander loudly.
"They're here!" the girl shouted as she woke with a start. "They were screaming! Oh God - "
"Hey," Xander pulled her into his arms while she dissolved into tears. Jack simply watched him soothe the distraught girl, realizing a moment later that this was another side of Xander he hadn't seen, hadn't even known about. His son as the adult in control, rocking the poor girl. Xander was the helper here, but why him, Jack wondered. He tried to make it sound simple, but how could it be? If anything Xander should be at a police station in Broomfield right now instead of at Jack's house. People to protect, he'd said. Courtney? The other girls? They had people to protect them already, families, police, in theory anyway.
"You want a book?" Xander asked a few minutes later when Courtney settled down some.
When she nodded, Jack volunteered to go find one. He didn't have much in the way of fiction around but he managed to find a Star Wars novel that Teal'c had left behind. Courtney accepted it with a watery smile.
"Here," Xander reached to his discarded jacket and pulled a rather large wooden cross out of the pocket. Courtney took it from him, her fingers running over the wood in fascination. "I know it's not much consolation, but they're in Heaven now."
"How do you know?"
"Friend of mine's been there."
"It should have been me," she whispered.
"It shouldn't have been anyone," Xander countered. "It just is." He squeezed her hand. "I'll be right outside."
He and Jack retreated to the kitchen. Xander once more refused to look at him. "We're leaving tomorrow," he finally said breaking the tense silence. "Willow's getting us tickets."
Jack nodded, unhappy about it, but what could he do? "What was with the cross?" he asked instead.
"Security blanket," Xander looked up, appearing very tired all of a sudden. And older than his twenty-three years. The man before him was far removed from the kid of yesterday.
"Security blanket, huh?" Jack didn't quite buy it. It was becoming a familiar feeling, and one that he really didn't like. "Don't you think we know each other well enough to cut all this crap?" he asked wearily. But Xander just gave him an inscrutable look.
"Do you believe in vampires?" he asked.
"Vampires?" Jack repeated, not sure he had heard correctly. He was way too tired to try and follow this. "As in Dracula?" Xander twitched slightly but nodded. "No, why?"
"Could you?" Xander went on.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Just answer the question."
Jack paused before saying a flat out 'no'. He wasn't sure what metaphor Xander was going for but maybe it was one of Daniel's paradigm shift things. Besides, he'd certainly seen enough other stuff walk out of legends. Only on other planets. So he shrugged and said, "Yeah, maybe," hoping it was the right answer. "Why?"
"'Cause until you do, you don't know me," said Xander. And with that parting remark, he went and crashed on the couch. Jack sat down at the table wondering what the hell he meant by that before finally deciding that it was way to late - early in the morning to try and figure it out. But as he went to bed himself, he wondered if he would ever have the chance to find out.
The next morning Jack woke to find the house empty with a note and brightly wrapped package on the table.
"Jack," he read. "We called a cab for the airport. I'm sorry that everything got out of hand last night. I left your present on the table. Hope you like it. Merry Christmas, Xander."
Jack set the note aside and fingered his oddly shaped present. White snowmen grinned up at him from a red background. Gently he tore it open. Inside was rough wood carving of a flying eagle with a little boy on his back. The detail wasn't great but the paint helped to fill it out and catch the essence of flight. A loop of string came through the boy's head for hanging on a tree. It was really magnificent. The maker's mark on the tail read 'XH.'
Jack smiled briefly, impressed and touched. And scared he wouldn't see Xander again.
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