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Chapter Eight: Eight Men in Black

Jack was distracted all morning. At the briefing of SG team leaders at 0900, he barely heard as Hammond went over the intel they had received from the Tok'ra last night about Anubis on P-something. Basically the general was warning them that the military teams might be called to duty even though it was Christmas. SG's 1 and 6 were the only ones on standby at the moment for the recon missions.

But since Jack knew all this, his greatest fear at the moment was that Hammond was going to call on him for input. Because he really wasn't in any sort of mental state to know what he was supposed to add since he hadn't been paying attention to what the general had already said. His mind instead kept going over his fight last night with Xander, trying to figure it out, figure out a way to speak to him again after his son's flat refusal to talk.

It was just . . . confusing. And frustrating. And he wanted to check out that fire in Broomfield because he was sure it was Courtney Xander was protecting. But from the military? She was a kid. The military wouldn't care about her unless she was a miniature terrorist in disguise. Wait - that couldn't be it, could it? Xander as a part of some terrorist cell? The very thought chilled him as he immediately rejected the idea. Not Xander, he wasn't the type. He didn't have a mission and he was too lighthearted to care. But then, it wasn't the lighthearted Xander he had gotten to know that had faced him last night, deadly serious and not giving an inch.

And that was another thought that scared Jack because how could he have missed the capable young man underneath all the friendly banter. He knew he hadn't, not completely. Glimpses were there, buried in stunned memory of their first meeting and snatches of conversation since. But it wasn't something he had really thought about before because he had never tried to profile Xander before. He just was. And now the question was what was he doing that he didn't want the military or government to find out about. That left knife wounds on his arms and handprints on his friends. That had him practically kidnapping a beat-up girl whose house had burned down. That had a metaphor in vampires.

That was maybe the weirdest part of all this. And the most cutting, being flat out told that whatever he and Xander had did not even scratch the surface. But mixed up with the stinging hurt, Jack still couldn't figure out the vampire thing. All he knew about them was that they drank blood, slept in coffins, and could count really well. Though he didn't think Sesame Street was what Xander had been talking about. But then sometimes he really couldn't follow what Xander was talking about, and now he couldn't ask because his son had taken off, kidnapped girl and all. Though she certainly hadn't been resisting. But having nightmares of people coming and people screaming - people in Heaven - and taking a cross as a security blanket.

Why had Xander had a cross in the first place? Jack knew he wasn't religious. But that he did believe in Heaven and Hell. And the friend he'd mentioned, was that Jesse? Anya? But still, why was a cross a security blanket? That made no sense. None of it made sense to Jack's sleep deprived brain. And Xander had hopped the first plane back to Cleveland.

"Colonel O'Neill?" General Hammond's voice snapped him back to the briefing at hand. Around him the other team leaders were shuffling to their feet, the briefing obviously over. On his pad, Jack had drawn stick figures with fangs and bat wings, underlined by a row of question marks. One of them wore an eyepatch. Maybe that was it, he though sarcastically as he pushed the pad away face down and turned to Hammond. Maybe Xander was really a vampire.

"Are you all right, Colonel?" asked Hammond a concerned frown on his face.

"Yes, sir," Jack mustered a smile for him, despite the cold inside. Hammond paused a moment longer before deciding to take him at his word.

"SG-1's briefing will be at 1100," he went on. "We don't have too much information about the planet Anubis is using so we'll be working with the Tok'ra on this one, Colonel. I expect you to at least make an effort."

"Oh, I always make an effort, sir," said Jack. "Besides it's Christmas. Good will and all that." Hammond gave him a hard stare but said nothing at the dig. Jack knew he would rather be at home with his granddaughters too and suddenly felt bad for opening his mouth. "Sorry, sir."

"I've had another call from Major Davis," Hammond continued as if he hadn't said anything. "Kinsey has moved on from Christmas phone calls to members of the Congressional Appropriations Committee to a few people at the Pentagon. Now, I don't know any names yet . . ."

"But he's looking for support come inauguration day," Jack finished. "Are we sure the election wasn't rigged?"


"Yeah, I know," Jack sighed. Politics and power. Kinsey and Anubis, both converging pains in the ass.

"I'll see you at 1100 then," Hammond dismissed him. Jack nodded and left, his thoughts temporarily redirected angrily at Kinsey for fighting them from the inside. It was no wonder Xander didn't trust the military, because if Kinsey was in charge?

Which reminded Jack of Xander's own deduction that he worked on a top secret project. He sighed again. They really needed to come up with a better cover story, especially for why Daniel worked for them. He still didn't know how he was going to explain this one to the general. Arrrrgh! Why did all this have to hit the fan right now? God, he needed a cup of coffee. Daniel better have something good and strong, he thought as he neared the archeologist's office. Cause if he didn't Jack would be very disappointed.

A quick glance at the coffeepot perched precariously on a filing cabinet showed good news, however, the first Jack had had all day.

"Jack," Daniel said by way of greeting when he came in without knocking.

"Hey, Daniel," Jack gave him a half-hearted smile. He made his way, carefully, to the coffee, grabbing the spare mug from an equally precarious position on a stack of books nearby.

"Bad news?" Daniel finally asked, his voice filtering softly over the stream of dark liquid.

Jack shrugged, turning and taking a sip. He leaned back against the cabinet. "Same as last night. Briefing's at 1100."

Daniel waited a beat, then asked, "Then what's with the . . . long face?" he settled on.

Jack rubbed a tired hand over his face sincerely hoping he didn't look as bad as he felt, but at the same time knowing he did. But he was glad Daniel had asked. Saved having to bring it up himself, at least. "Xander left this morning," he answered.

"Left?" Daniel was surprised as well he should be. "He didn't come back?"

"He came back," Jack corrected. "Around four this morning. Brought a ten-year old girl with him. Said her house had burned down. He wouldn't tell me what was going on beyond that. They left for Cleveland this morning before I got up."

Daniel stared in surprise, a crease forming between is eyes. "He just left?"

"We kinda had a fight," Jack admitted. He smiled sourly. "Turns out he's stubborn too."

Daniel didn't crack a smile. "I'm amazed he got a flight out."


"Four days before Christmas he got a flight home within what? six hours of needing it?"

It was expensive too, now that Jack thought about. He knew Xander had a job but he didn't think he made that kind of money. Drugs? Again, Jack rejected the idea. There were no signs of that, though the vampire metaphor might fit that, sucking his life away little by little. But what did a girl's house burning down mean? Who was Xander protecting?

"Jack," Daniel repeated his name he realized.

"Sorry, what?"

"Did you sleep at all last night?" He shrugged in answer. Daniel glanced back at the computer screen he'd been working on, hit a few keys, then turned back to Jack. "Explain what happened again."

"What happened?" asked Carter as she walked in with Teal'c. Jack noticed she had brought her own mug.

"Xander left this morning," Jack said moving out of her way. Both Carter and Teal'c stopped short at the news while Jack went on to tell about the girl, her nightmare, and Xander's complete lack of trust in him or the government. "And he figured out that I work for a top secret project," he finished, hearing again in memory the harsh accusation that Jack had lied to him too.

"Xander Harris is most perceptive," said Teal'c. "Last night he asked me if I was human."

"He what?!" Jack started so violently his coffee sloshed over his hand.

"He asked if I was human and then hastily retracted the question," Teal'c repeated. "I believe. It was difficult to follow but he did not press the subject."

Perceptive indeed, thought Jack worried more than ever. Now what did that mean? His mental list of mysteries was getting way to long. "Daniel, what do you know about vampires?" he asked.

"Vampires?" both he and Carter chorused at this new wrench in the works.

"He said I wouldn't know him until I believed in vampires," Jack explained with another grimace. "And if I knew what that meant you'd be the first to know," he added off his team's questioning looks.

"Well, they drink blood," Daniel offered recovering quickly, his expression furrowed as he thought about it. "Don't like sunlight, garlic, or religious objects . . . I think you have to kill them with something wooden. Are you sure he said vampires?"

"Dead sure," Jack grimaced at the pun that slipped out.

"Well," said Daniel. "I don't have time to really find anything now, but I will once we get back from the mission."

Right, the mission. The job they paid him the big bucks for, and yes that was sarcasm. Jack should be focusing on that right now. Daniel and Carter had background research to do and he had to get his requisitions in before the briefing as well. And then there'd be no time while they were offworld figuring out what Anubis was up to - and then he'd be tied up trying to figure out what they were going to do about whatever they found out. No time 'til later to call and try and patch things up, no time for Carter to make sure Xander wasn't a terrorist or drug lord, no time to do anything but worry about keeping the planet safe. This really sucked.

But when Jack got back to his office after reminding his team about the briefing, he decided that it was too important to put off. So he grabbed his phone and called Xander's number from memory only to hang up disappointed when the dull tone of the busy signal washed back across the country.

Xander hung up the phone with a sigh. Courtney's aunt and uncle in Missouri were frantic and not taking too well to the fact that he'd made off with her after the fire. Suspicious and confused, they kept threatening to call the police and were greatly surprised when Xander told them to go ahead and even found the local number for them. Speaking to Courtney had helped and finally after two days of phone calls, they had agreed to drive to Cleveland to see her.

From what Courtney had told him, they weren't very close, but they did see each other every couple of summers when schedules lined up so they weren't strangers by any means. And family was what Courtney needed right now, people who had known and loved her parents and brother whom she could grieve with. And since they were probably going to become her legal guardians they needed to know the truth about how they had died and accept it sooner rather than later.

Standing, Xander stretched the kinks out of his back that came from sitting too long and glanced out the kitchen window over the back yard. Fresh snow covered the ground and hung lightly on the tree branches like in a picture book. Indented lines of old footsteps crossed back and forth with a new path broken over them that led toward the bench under the trees. Courtney sat there alone. She was still in shock, Xander knew, that phase of knowing but not *knowing* in her heart that they were gone. Buffy or Dawn would go out and get her soon, the Slayer offering training and the teenager a chance to bake cookies or something. It was funny how much better they'd gotten at this, knowing when someone needed time alone and when they needed a distraction. But Xander didn't smile because it really wasn't funny at all.

"She still out there?" asked Willow, coming up behind him. He felt her move to just behind his right shoulder, not needing to look at her as he nodded. Willow was silent for a moment, then said, "the police in Colorado are still looking for her but don't know you took her. They think she ran away."

"Have they talked to her aunt and uncle?" asked Xander, slightly surprised.

"I don't know," said Willow softly. "They're calling it a Christmas tree fire right now but the investigation's still open."

Xander nodded again. It was only a matter of time till the authorities figured out that she was in Cleveland, especially since they weren't really making a secret out of it. Xander thought back over his impulse to have Courtney call her best friend. A stupid idea but at the time important. Important for her friend to have hope, and yeah, worry a lot, but at least know that she was alive. He wondered if Courtney had ever told her that she was a slayer. He knew she had gone out and hunted a few times, scared and alone but curious and excited about her new power coursing through her blood. She had staked a few fledglings and a minion or two, which had only served to get her noticed by the local posse. Who had then decided to let her know who was in charge.

"Why don't we quit, Will?" Xander asked quietly. "Why don't we just wake up one morning and walk away? Leave all the death and danger behind us and never look back?"

No answer, just white snow, pure and innocent, then, "Do you think you could?" Willow's voice was soft. Xander didn't answer. He didn't need to because they both knew the answer was simply 'no'. It was as much their destiny now as it had been Buffy's, only theirs by choice.

"We should call the other girls," he said instead. "Make sure they're doing okay." He turned away from the window and the bleakness outside. "Courtney's relatives are coming. They should be here in a couple of days."

"I'm going to leave soon to get Giles. You wanna come?" asked Willow. But Xander shook his head, the drive to the airport not appealing to his exhaustion. Willow smiled slightly and then left him to go get her shoes and coat. Xander went to the sitting room and collapsed on the couch. It was the twenty-third and felt nothing like Christmas. He was supposed to be getting back from Jack's today, home from the vacation that wasn't.

His last night there was a blur of smoke and worry, shadowed by distrust. Xander didn't know what scared him more: the fact the Jack hadn't denied working on a secret government project or his unwavering concern that seemed genuine. No one besides the Scoobies had ever cared so much about what was going on in Xander's life or had even been worried that he might be doing something dangerous. How was he supposed to react to that? Telling him the truth didn't seem like an option in light of the secret project, but then for all Xander knew it could be something as normal as an anti-terrorist bomb or something. A linguist would sure be useful there.

And in the back of his mind, Xander couldn't help but think about what Murray had said, that Jack would stick by him no matter what. And the pleading on Jack's face when he'd said the same thing. One more time. Jack had been saying it since they met that, that he was going to be a part of Xander's life come hell or high water. So should he tell him? Was it caution or the cynicism born of being raised by drunks that was holding him back? Xander didn't know the answer to either question. He just . . . didn't know.

The first clue Xander had that something was wrong was the sound of birds screaming through his ear, shocking him into wakefulness. His second clue was the green glow that pervaded his and Andrew's room, lighting it up slightly in some warped version of night vision goggles. He could barely make out the normally red numbers on his alarm clock - it was three o' seven.

"Wha - what's that noise?" groaned Andrew from the other bed. Xander could see him curled up against the softening sound.

"The wards have been breached," Xander told him groggily, rolling out of bed. "Come on, get up." Barely awake he simply reacted to this new threat and leaned over the foot of his bed to grab his favorite battleaxe and stake from where they lay on top of his toolbox. Behind him he heard Andrew hiss from the cold and scramble for his own stake. Two seconds later the two of them were out in the hallway - Andrew wrapped up in his bathrobe and Xander in his blue flannel pjs. They joined at the end of the wall at the top of the stairs where they couldn't be seen from the open foyer below. At the other end of the hall, also standing back from sight, were the girls who looked madder than hell that their beauty rest had just gotten interrupted. Willow was the only one missing.

But suddenly her voice was echoing inside Xander's head. "There are eight of them just past the first ward," she said. The first ward was at the edge of the lawn. Their cue that the second ward that was etched into the walls of the house had been crossed would be the return to darkness. "I think they're human but they have guns and look military. Four are approaching the front door, four the back." She was silent. "They're not stopping at the light." The soft green glow that illuminated the house was meant to scare away those who dared attack them.

"Kennedy, Giles, Willow, and Andrew, take position here," ordered Buffy through Willow's telepathic link. "Giles and Andrew hide downstairs. Wait till they all get inside then hit them. Kennedy, you and Willow will have to distract them enough so Giles and Andrew can get them from behind." The younger slayer nodded confidently in understanding. "The rest of us will cover the back." Without waiting, Buffy led them down the stairs to the kitchen and the back door, ducking and grabbing extra weapons along the way. Dawn she put in the hall bathroom to get at the first person through there, Xander got the spot just behind the dining room door in case they came through there, while Buffy and Courtney covered the kitchen, hiding behind the island counter.

"Courtney, are you ready for this?" he heard her ask the young slayer. "Remember, you're stronger and faster. Don't look at the gun; it's doesn't matter. You'll knock it out of their hands before they can use it. Here, this is for you." Whatever Courtney's response was, it was too low for him to hear. For his part, Xander felt the rush of adrenaline even as the rest of him stood calm and relaxed, not thinking about anything but waiting for what came through his door.

And then the green lights went out. And it was so quiet you could hear a vampire breathe. He heard the back door creak open, slightly stuck in the cold, then felt the draft as it was opened. Footsteps, barely there and cautious. No voices or whispers, just the suggestion of sound. A minute passed, or it felt like a minute, but then the dining room door eased open, and Xander held his breath behind it, the swinging door sticking open. He heard the stranger enter but he didn't move far, no more than a couple feet from where he hid. He was waiting for his fellows before moving on. The slight hiss of a radio and the soft whisper of "Dining room clear. Leads to a living room."

And then Kennedy said, "We're ready," and Buffy yelled, "Now!" all in his head. The soldier in front of him never knew what hit him. First it was the door, slamming into him as Xander emerged with a burst of energy, then it was the flat of his axe, taking advantage of his moment off balance. In the kitchen he heard the sounds of guns clattering to the floor, and Dawn's battle cry as she distracted the third who had never made it to the hall. In the foyer, crashing and thumping and an "Ow!" from Willow and a girly scream from Andrew and more sounds of slayer kicking butt and taking names. Xander rushed into the kitchen to give Dawn a hand. She was sword fighting her guy's gun, mangled at the tip, only holding her own because her blade wouldn't let him close. Xander came up from behind and banged him over the head, knocking him unconscious. Dawn just grinned and together they turned to watch the rest of the fight.

Buffy's guy was down, a black lump laying wide eyed and shocked against the wall by the fridge. Buffy stared him down. He started to get back to his feet, slowly, painfully, but the Slayer was simply there before he was fully upright and punching him out.

And Courtney . . . Courtney was on fire. Smaller than Buffy, she fought with the Scythe like the slayer she was. Her guy had regained his gun but it was wrecked beyond usefulness until its only purpose now was to fend off the red weapon of the girl half his size. She couldn't quite get past his guard, not using her full strength, months of holding back working against her as did her size, yet she was just that much quicker, that much ahead of each counter move he made. And suddenly she was there. She faked high and went with a low kick that knocked the soldier back into the wall. Xander winced when he heard the boards crack from the impact. He was down and out for the count. Courtney stared at him in wonder, her breath slowing quickly now that it was over. And silence reigned throughout the house.

Xander looked at the three unconscious soldiers on the floor, then up at the pajama squad, Buffy already searching out the duct tape, and felt a twinge of sympathy for the men when they woke up, but it quickly faded.

"Is that what it's like?" Courtney broke the silence. She looked at Buffy with wide, amazed eyes, still holding the Scythe ready for battle.

The older slayer turned and nodded, a slight smile on her face. "Yeah," she said. "That's what it's like."

And Courtney burst into tears. The Scythe slipped a bit in her grip but she never dropped it. Alarmed, Buffy turned to Xander, but before he could do anything Dawn was there, gently taking the weapon and handing it to her sister before gathering the girl into her arms murmuring nonsense.

"I'm gonna make some hot chocolate," said Xander at large. Chocolate solved most problems and he figured that right now it was what everyone needed before even trying to process what had gone down here in the space of, he looked at the oven clock, twenty minutes. He turned the lights on, and Buffy taped up hands and feet before gong off to check on the others. As he busied himself with the water and mugs and extra doses of chocolatey goodness - tea for Giles - Xander heard the others' low voices as they decided to put their new prisoners in a corner of the basement in a containment field. Kennedy and Buffy dragged out the four from the kitchen. He heard Velcro rip and metal clank as the soldiers were stripped down to harmlessness then shuffled down the stairs. The scent of burned herbs mixing for the containment spell floated back up, such a natural part of the scene that Xander barely noticed. Everything was ready by the time they came back up.

Courtney and Dawn trailed in from the living room and they all clustered about the island counter. No one said anything, no one really looked at each other. Except for the odd stake or axe on the white surface it looked like they were at a slumber party. A really quiet and depressed slumber party. Xander decided he was too tired to think about it. In fact he was pretty sure that he was too tired to think at all. They drank their hot chocolate.

"It's Christmas Eve," Dawn said softly, her voice catching in her throat at the unexpected use. Xander glanced over at her where she stood with her arm around Courtney still, a pensive expression on her face as she drained her mug. "We don't have to do anything with them till after Christmas, right?" she asked hopefully. But the way she didn't look up said she knew, like they all did, that dealing couldn't wait.

"Are we still going to the mall tomorrow?" asked Andrew hesitantly. "Because I still need to get stuff . . . for people . . . since we didn't go Tuesday . . ." he trailed off but Buffy smiled at him.

"And miss the holiday masses?" she asked a little too brightly.

"We need to go to the magic shop too," added Willow. "So I can redo, you know, the protection spells." She brightened up a little. "Oooh, and we can get more balsam branches for the hearth. And we forgot to find mistletoe the other day, too." She gently whapped Kennedy on the arm for not reminding her before.

"Can't forget about that mistletoe," agreed Kennedy with her own gentle shove back. Xander smiled, watching as Willow grinned.

Silence fell once more but this time it was a little lighter. Until Buffy said, "Willow can you go get your very-truthful stuff?"

"Veritaserum," Dawn corrected her quietly as Willow nodded and went to the dining room where it was kept.

"Veritaserum?" Courtney repeated. "Like in *Harry Potter*?" Dawn just beamed and looked smugly at the rest of them, extremely satisfied that another slayer had gotten the reference to the name she had given the truth drops.

"Yep," said Dawn.

"Cool." And for the first time a genuine smile eked out of the corners of Courtney's lips. The knowledge that the magic of books actually existed and was real finally sunk in in a way that her own power hadn't yet.

Willow returned a second later with the very-stuff and handed it wordlessly to Buffy. The Slayer looked at the small vial expressionlessly for a moment before leading them to the living room where her guy sat tied to a chair, his head lolling on his chest. Xander wordlessly splashed half of the glass of water he'd grabbed into his face. The shock of cold water had the soldier sputtering back to consciousness. He looked around wildly, taking them all in as he yanked on the rope and tape that held him fast. His eyes that glared defiantly would have been so much more convincing if he hadn't been so disoriented by the sight of a bunch of kids in pajamas.

Buffy took the glass from Xander and added a couple drops of the truth-maker-teller to the remaining water. "Drink this," she shoved the glass in the soldier's face while he yanked his head away. "Look, we can do this the easy way or the way with me holding your nose and forcing it down," she told him impatiently. When he still made no move to accept she said, "Xander," and he took the glass while she took the soldier's head. A minute of snapping teeth and gagging later and they let him go.

"What the hell was that!?" he demanded, anger finally provoking him to speak. "And who the hell are you!?"

"Hey! Watch your language!" snapped Xander with a quick look at Courtney. "We're the ones asking questions here."

"You won't get anything out of me," the man practically growled.

"What's your name?" Buffy calmly took over.

"Ethan Sloan. Captain. 0983745-8332." Over by the couch Dawn was taking notes. "Where's the rest of my team?"

Buffy ignored his question. "Why did you break into our house?"

"Orders." Sloan looked unhappy that he had said anything at all. He was going to fight it. The potion only made someone tell the truth as they knew it, and it did allow a little wiggle room around inexact questions. Good thing Buffy was pretty direct.

"And what were your exact orders?" she asked with a little more steel in her voice. Oh, yeah, she was starting to get impatient. Sloan better start talking if he didn't want the old fashioned Summers treatment.

"To extract Alexander Harris and hold him in a safe location until we received orders to release him."

Everyone looked at Xander while he just stared at Captain Sloan. Him? They were after him? What the hell? He was of no value, no superpowers, no reason the government would be interested in him. "Why me?" he asked.

"I didn't question my orders," said Sloan with a disdainful glare. Right, soldier, don't ask questions, just do as you're told.

"Who do you work for?" asked Buffy.

"The NID."

"What does that mean?"

"It's a committee."

"Commanding officer?"

"Colonel Howard."

"Where are you stationed?" asked Willow.

"Brighton, Ohio."

The questions went on but they didn't learn much more than that besides the hotel they were working out of. Sloan only had his orders; he didn't know any of the reasons behind them. Black ops trained, yes, but that only meant he and his teammates were highly specialized grunts.

It was about four am when Kennedy and Willow took him back downstairs with the others. Xander was too tired, the late hour and the stress finally making their presence known in the absence of adrenaline. He didn't want to think right now about being a government target. It actually bothered him less than it should have, but that was probably because he was tired. More awake and he'd be freaking out about the implications. Nevertheless, it still took him a long time to fall asleep.

The next morning everyone slept in late. It was almost ten-thirty before Xander and Andrew dragged themselves out of bed and downstairs to the kitchen. Willow and Kennedy were already there making pancakes for everyone, and Giles sat off to the side reading the paper, cup of tea already in hand, looking more awake than necessary. But then, he was still jet lagged so it was no wonder he looked so chipper. Xander contributed to breakfast by putting on the coffee while Andrew was a bit more productive with a skillet and ten eggs. It didn't take too long for the aromas to rouse the other girls from their warm beds and not long after that they were all comfortably seated in the dining room chowing down on scrambled eggs and Mickey Mouse pancakes.

"So research all day?" asked Willow once the initial feeding frenzy calmed a little.

"Quite," said Giles. "The sooner we find out why the government wants Xander the better. And we need to know how much they know about slayers."

"We should probably contact Riley, too," said Buffy. "See if the Initiative is behind this." But she didn't sound very convinced of that, and with good reason. The Initiative if anything stayed out of their way, especially now that Riley seemed to be one of the top dogs of the program. In fact, his housewarming gift had been a check with a good six zeroes on it that had gotten them through the first year of traveling and training slayers. But it looked like the rest of the government hadn't gotten the memo.

So why him? he wondered again. If the government wanted slayers, the only thing he was good for as a hostage was pissing them off. Besides, it would actually do no good because Willow would just magic him away, no problem, since military bases probably didn't have a magical signature much less protection. And you didn't hear about slayers without hearing about The Witch. So what was up with the Xander kidnapping? It only made sense if they didn't know and if they didn't know why were they attacking? Why would anyone care about just him?

And then it hit him like a punch to the gut, so hard that he forgot to chew and ended up choking on his eggs.

"Xander?" asked Dawn giving him a pat on the back while the others looked at him curiously.

"It could be Jack," he said once he regained his breath. Though it still felt like his breath was coming in gasps because Jack wouldn't, would he? "He works for a classified project. And he's been . . . but I don't think he'd try to kidnap me." Jack was more the let's scream-at-each-other-until-we-settle-it type. He wouldn't do something like this. He cared too much about wanting the father-son thing to work, surely he wouldn't throw it all away to curiosity. But doubts flitted around in his head because, well, there were eight black ops soldiers in the basement.

"We'll find out," said Willow dangerously. And Xander was suddenly grateful, once again, that she was on their side. And God help Jack if he was behind this. But he wouldn't be, would he? Xander desperately wanted him not to be. He wanted it to be some rogue group of the Initiative or something, anything other than Jack.

"So Willow and Dawn, you two okay for computer duty?" asked Buffy and the two nodded. "Me and Kennedy will go by their hotel room, see what we find there. Xander, you can get in touch with Riley? See what he knows?" Xander nodded. "Giles - "

"I'll help out here," he said. "We need to reset the wards as well."

"Okay. When Kennedy and I get back, we'll go to the mall," Buffy forced a smile that no one really returned.

"So should I make more pancakes?" asked Andrew, drawing Xander's attention to the plate that held a remaining three. No one made any move to claim them, but before he could point out the obvious, Andrew went on, "For the prisoners, I mean . . . or we could starve them," he suggested when he only received blank stares.

"I think I vote for the starving plan," said Kennedy.

"Seconded," said Dawn.

"So no pancakes?" asked Andrew. "And I don't have to make Christmas dinner for them, do I? Because that, like, doubles what I was planning and I'd have to put on my Kevlar and face the soccer mom's at Kroger's. That'd be like sending Neo against all the Agent Smiths and their kids. You're not going to make me do that are you?" And Andrew looked so pathetic and terrified that Xander couldn't help but grin at the thought of him fighting off a hundred housewives with a stick of bread.

"I think they'll survive on pancakes," Xander reassured him. No need to go out of their way for the bad guys. If they were anything but human . . . he sighed. Stupid morals.

Once everyone had finished eating, they broke up to go get dressed and get on with their assigned tasks. Willow and Dawn quickly took over the dining room table with their laptops and scramblers and other hacking equipment. Xander grinned to himself when Courtney gummed up to Dawn, listening raptly as the young watcher explained how they were going to break into some of the most secure computers in the country. The girl had a bad case of hero worship going on. Giles was in the kitchen with a book and supplies for the wards while Andrew did the dishes. Xander grabbed the phone and the official address book and started trying to track down Riley.

The day passed rather anticlimactically as research days often did. Xander ended up taking Andrew and Courtney to Home Depot with him while they were still waiting for Buffy and Kennedy to get back. He needed to fix the battered kitchen wall and part of the banister of the stairs that had gotten broken in the attack. Willow and Dawn were deep into their search for information - Willow having taken a quick break to do the protection spells with Giles - and barely noticed anyone else around them. Giles was actually helping them by organizing the scattered information they dug up and reading some dusty book when he wasn't needed.

Xander had just started prying off the broken boards in the kitchen when the slayers returned with lots of nifty military toys but little useful information. Half an hour later they left for the mall and last minute shopping, mostly for Courtney. Xander made sure they stopped by the local magic shop on the way home. The best magic shop in Cleveland was no Magic Box. The owner was a New Age "believer" with three kids and a love affair with incense who thought she sold nothing more than health crystals and herbs. Giles had a supplier up in Chicago who gave him discount prices on bulk orders on their more obvious magical supplies, but for basics and mistletoe, it was good enough.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wrapping presents and watching Christmas specials on tv. Xander worked on the kitchen wall, keeping both his hands and mind occupied. Willow and Dawn were still working, but from the mixed sounds that kept echoing form the dining room, they were making progress. Andrew fixed grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and distributed them with Christmas cookies to everyone scattered about.

"Xander?" he came up a few minutes after his initial pass. He held a plate of pancakes with red and green M&M smiley faces. "We should feed the evil army of darkness," he said, shifting uncomfortably. But Xander just nodded, understanding. He set down his screwdriver and followed Andrew to the basement. It was a large, finished basement that stretched under the whole house. The stairs opened into a den with couches and another tv. False cubicle-like walls partitioned off 'rooms' next to the real outer wall, each one containing two sets of bunk beds that housed slayers during the summer. There were two bathrooms at either end. The soldiers had been sealed in two of the rooms, one on each side of the green bathroom with a little strip outside the doors so they could walk between the two rooms and get to the facilities.

"Are you sure it's just kids?" he heard one of them say from the room on the left.

"Yes," another sighed, Sloan, and from the way he said it Xander could tell they'd been going over it all day long. "Kids in floral pajamas and bathrobes."

"The girl who got me looked about ten," said another glum voice.

"I still don't believe it," the first guy replied. And Xander felt a perverse set of pleasure that these government issued lethal weapons just got their asses kicked by a bunch of girls and dorks.

"Better believe it, buddy," Xander called out crossing his arms across his chest, coming to a stop just beyond the invisible line. Silence from within, then all eight emerged crammed in the little space Willow had allowed them. None of them tried to push forward; they knew exactly where the bars of their cage lay. "Captain Sloan," Xander nodded to the one he recognized.

"Mr. Harris," Sloan acknowledged him tightly. "What do you want?"

Xander shrugged toward Andrew. "Though you might be hungry," he said. Andrew shifted forward and pushed the plate of pancakes through the barrier, waiting nervously while Sloan just looked at it. "No, thanks."

"Suit yourself," Xander didn't care one way or another and he turned to go.

He waited for Andrew to set the plate on the floor. "It's not drugged or poisoned or anything," said Andrew. "Just happy faces, see? And if you want milk or kool-aid, I think we have grape left . . . and, uh, well . . . Merry Christmas." The soldiers looked at each other then back at Andrew, unsure what to make of him or the pancakes. But when Xander glanced at them from the foot of the stairs, he saw Sloan pick up the plate and take it back inside with them.

Xander wondered if they had families waiting for them back home. And he remembered the look on Jack's face, worried and scared. For him, not wanting him to be in danger, needing to understand. When he reached the kitchen, Xander grabbed the phone instead of his tools. But Jack wasn't home.

"So the NID has two parts, good and bad. The bad part is what we're dealing with and it has a lot of really secret projects," said Willow later that night. It was around eleven and everyone was seated around the dining room table with a glass of wine except for Courtney who had purple kool- aid. "They recruit most of their agents from the military and what they all have in common is a somewhat flexible morality."

"In other words, people who have no problems kidnapping an American citizen on Christmas Eve?" said Buffy.

"Pretty much," Dawn nodded. "Anyway, we found Colonel Howard in Brighton and after a little computer magic - mine not Willow's - we found the guy who gave him his orders from Washington. That guy, Kielly, oversees a project called Area 51 in Nevada." Dawn paused and waited for a reaction. Which she got.

"Area 51?" repeated Andrew. "There's really an Area 51? That is so cool!"

"You're going to tell us aliens are real aren't you?" asked Kennedy who was watching Willow who shrugged.

"It looks like a research center. Weapons and planes and stuff. There wasn't any real stuff in the files we found. It was mostly administrative paperwork. No top secret anything was on the computers other than to tell us it was top secret. We checked, even cheating," she ducked her head about using magic.

"And these NID people are in charge of it?" asked Giles. "These weapons projects?"

"No," Dawn jumped back in. "They just have their people there. Like spies. Kielly isn't in charge of Area 51, he's in charge of the rogue NID keeping an eye on it."

"Like a KGB CIA office," said Andrew.

"Sort of. But we don't think Kielly was the top guy giving orders. But there's no electronic trial to follow so we don't know who the top guy is," she gave her sister an apologetic glance.

"So what does this weapons stuff have to do with me?" asked Xander.

"Okay, so here's where we really had to do some digging," said Willow as if what they had already discovered was barely anything. "While we were poking around Area 51 we found invoices from an Area 52 but all we knew was that it's another base somewhere. Then we started looking into Jack again and whatever he's into. And we found out that he works at Area 52, which is run by the Air Force."

"Wait," Xander searched for words, sure he was making the wrong connections but . . . "You're saying that Jack works at the place that's sending weapons stuff to Area 51?"

"Yeah," Willow answered. "We couldn't find out much of what they do there. We think their sensitive computers are an isolated network like the ones at Area 51, but the ones that were hooked up to the internet had some interesting archeological stuff on them, which was kind of weird. Some of the cultures they were looking at are ancient."

"And from all over the world," added Giles. "South America, the Middle East, Europe, China, everywhere."

"And they took us *forever* to get into," said Dawn. "Even with Willow cheating."

"It took me a while to figure out how I needed to get around some stuff," the redhead blushed. "Whoever designed the system was *good,* really good, some of the best protection I've seen. Which just made it harder because you gotta be careful with the magic and technology mixing. That and we didn't want them to know we were there."

"So, this and Xander?" asked Kennedy to get them back to the point.

"Well, we're not sure," Dawn traced the edge of her wineglass with a finger. "When we went back to the NID computers the only stuff we had that connected was a file on Jack and some other people at Area 52. They don't have anything else on the place really. It's always referred to as Area 52 or Project Bluebook or the SGC but nothing on what it actually is. It's like they don't keep that info where hackers can get to it."

"It's probably all nice and neat in some hard copy somewhere," Willow sighed.

"All right, so this it what we have," said Buffy. "The people who want Xander spy on a place that gets weapons stuff from the place where Jack works. Do they spy on the 52 place too?"

"There aren't any agents there," Willow shook her head.

"So maybe that's what they want," said Andrew. "Agents there."

"So why don't they just put them there?" asked Courtney as if it were obvious, but Xander thought he saw what Andrew meant.

"Because maybe they can't," he said. "The Air Force has control of Area 52. If it's so secretive that magic can only get us into the least dangerous computers, then maybe they don't want people with stretchable morals in charge. Maybe it's like when Riley joined us to stop Maggie Walsh only before Adam got made."

"So the NID wants you so they can force Jack, your dad, to let them in," finished Dawn. "That sounds like my life."

"Jack wouldn't kidnap me," said Xander confidently now. And he realized that he was relieved by this alternate hypothesis. Greatly relieved. And at the same time pissed off that he'd gotten dragged into some government power struggle, especially now since the eight commandos knew that something was up with them. How much time did they have before the government sent more people to find out what had happened to the people they had already sent? How did he tell Jack about the attack without him asking how they had defeated the team? He was already asking enough questions. And now he worked for a secret weapons project? But if Jack were preventing the NID people from taking over, then could he prevent them or others like them from getting their hands on the slayers?

"So what now?" asked Kennedy. "'Cause we can't just keep eight commandos as pets."

"Xander?" Buffy turned to him, open and waiting to follow his lead on this one.

"I'm gonna call Jack," he said slowly. "He at least deserves to know about the NID. But he's gonna have questions."

"Perhaps we should treat him like any other parent," suggested Giles watching Xander closely for any reaction. "Bring him here and explain things to him."

"He works for a weapons project for the military," Xander couldn't help but say, though part of him wanted to do just that. "And you want to tell him about superpowerful girls fighting the forces of darkness?"

"You know him best," Giles conceded. "But we'll have tell him something. And I'd much prefer it to be here where we can control the situation than in some other unsavory place."

Xander knew he was right, especially with the rate Jack was noticing things. Jack kept saying he came first, right? Looked like now he would see just how far he was willing to go. Xander only hoped his gut feeling panned out, but at the same time he couldn't help but wonder how well he really knew the man who was his father.

Jack stopped short when he entered the briefing room late in the afternoon on Christmas Day. He and SG-1 had just gotten back from their recon mission two hours ago and he had thought that the holiday couldn't get any worse, but here was worse standing in front of him in the form of Kinsey's aide all dressed up in a suit and tie. General Hammond did not look happy. No sir, not happy at all.

"Ah, Colonel O'Neill, Merry Christmas. It's nice to see you again," the aide whose name Jack had not remembered the first time they had met smiled cheerily.

"The pleasure's all yours, I'm sure," Jack answered with a not so sunny smile of his own. His feet regained the ability to walk and went and sat in his customary chair by the general. His team followed flickering looks back and forth amongst themselves, asking each other what new crap was about to hit the fan.

"Charming as usual," said the aide.

"Mr. Freyland has a proposal for us from Vice-President-elect Kinsey," said General Hammond. Who was still as far away from happy as a suicider.


"Mr. Kinsey feels that you have served your country well over the last several years and deserve a nice rest," Freyland smiled condescendingly. "I'm sure you've been looking forward to retirement, Colonel."

"I have, have I?" Jack couldn't believe this. Kinsey couldn't force him into retirement. Who did he think he was?

"How is your son doing, Colonel?" asked Freyland. "I understand he lives in Cleveland?"

Jack's blood ran cold. "You son of a bitch!" Jack was on his feet and only Daniel's quick reflexes kept him from jumping the table and throttling the smug bastard on the other side of the table.

"Mr. Freyland," Hammond began but the slime cut him off smoothly.

"General I believe your family is missing you today as well. Colonel, I'm sure you would like to talk to your son. Here's the number." He slid a piece of paper across the table to him. "I'll be here tomorrow to pick up those papers." And with another smug smile, he left.

"General - " said Jack, shaking off Daniel's hands.

"Use my office," Hammond told him.

Jack practically ran and grabbed the phone, his fingers fumbling over the numbers while his mind skipped over any number of horrible things that could be happening to Xander at this moment. Dial tone, then an automated message informing him that the number he had called did not have a voice mailbox that was set up. Which brought Jack up short because that wasn't how these things worked. Something was seriously wrong here. Had Freyland given him the wrong number? But that didn't seem likely because that's not how these people worked. They wanted you to know that they had your son in their possession and that they could and would do anything to him to get your cooperation. They didn't send cocky young aides to bluff.

Maybe someone on the inside was helping him out? Jack dialed his home voicemail. Please let there be someone helping him out. He couldn't think about what else a silent phone might mean. "There are . . . five . . .new messages," said the recording. "To listen to your messages press one." Jack did so. "First message. Eight thirty-six pm, yesterday: Hey Jack, it's me," his son's voice took over. He sounded normal, like nothing was wrong. "I just . . . um . . . Merry Christmas, Jack. Just wanted to . . . you know, tell you. I guess that's it. Bye."

Not kidnapped then, thought Jack as he punched through to the next message. "Second message. Eleven twenty-two pm, yesterday: Jack, it's me," his son's voice again but less unsure. Jack felt a little tension creep away. "Look . . . we need to talk. So call me."

Talk. He sounded serious but not frightened or anxious. That was last night. He was okay last night. "Third message. Six oh-three am, today: Jack, where the hell are you?" And Xander was not happy. But still not scared. "It's Christmas morning. Aren't you supposed to be up by now? I really need to talk to you. Like yesterday. Call me."

That was this morning. Safe and angry at him for not answering. "Fourth message. Eight forty-one, today: Jack," Xander's voice was agitated. "If I said I've got eight NID agents in my basement would you give me a call?"

Jack's heart stopped. He didn't just say . . . He replayed the message and established that he wasn't hearing things. How the hell did Xander get eight NID agents in his basement? He played the final message. "Fifth message. Two fourteen, today: So I get it, you're not home. Probably off eating chicken or something. Did you get my last message? Cause they're still there, and we're running out of pancake mix. We really need to talk."

Stunned, Jack returned to the briefing room. His teammates and General Hammond all stopped talking and looked at him. "So Xander's safe," he said with a calm that he did not feel. "And apparently he has eight NID agents in his basement."

"Eight - "

"NID agents in his basement," Jack finished Daniel's sentence. "Sir, I know we've got a lot going on here but request permission - "

"Granted," said General Hammond. "And take SG-1 with you. I understand he's your son, but please remember that there are issues of national security at stake. The higher ups . . ."

"Understood, sir," Jack nodded. He turned to his team who were still surprised by the news, even Teal'c's eyebrows seemed higher on his forehead then usual.

"And Colonel, I want to know how your son was able to subdue eight specially trained operatives," said the General. He nodded again before determinedly leaving with his team. Jack wanted to know too. And he was sure as hell going to find out.


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