Chapter Nine: Nine Lives of Scary Cats
Jack shut the engine off and looked at the house in trepidation. It was covered in snow with Christmas lights in the trees and a wreath on the front door like every other house on the block in the quiet neighborhood. The early morning light reflected brightly off of everything as if nothing were wrong, making the whole situation feel surreal. It was just after eight, December twenty-sixth, and Jack couldn't help but feel very tired.
Honestly, he didn't know what to expect. His phone call to Xander last night had been terse and to the point. His son hadn't wanted to discuss anything over the phone, just requested that he come and offered to pick him up from the airport, but that hadn't been necessary. Jack and his teammates had flown cargo out of Peterson late last night and been issued an SUV at the base about forty miles outside of Cleveland. And here they were. Jack felt a strong revulsion to going in because that would mean that this was really happening and Xander really had gotten pulled into his dangerous world.
"Jack," Daniel prodded from the backseat. Jack nodded and sighed, getting out of the car. The path to the front door was clear and sprinkled with salt that crunched beneath their feet. Daniel found the doorbell easily enough beside him when they reached the top of the steps, and it was only a minute before Dawn answered the door.
"Jack!" she said, clearly surprised to see him there so early. "And friends," equally startled by the three additional people.
"Hey, Dawn," Jack greeted the young woman. She was still in her floral print pajamas with heavy socks covering her feet.
"We thought you were coming later," she said, stepping back to let them in.
Everything looked just the same as Jack remembered it except for the decorations and the stack of wood that sat by the staircase waiting to repair the damage to the banister. The sight of it an unpleasant reminder that all was not well. Off to the left, Jack could hear the tv from the den.
"Everyone else is still asleep except for Courtney and Giles. They should be up soon though. Jackets and snow boots off," Dawn pointed to the coat rack next to the door and the rows of shoes underneath. Once they wouldn't spoil the carpet, she led them around to the den. A modest sized Christmas tree sat in the corner and wrapping paper still seemed to cling to everything. Decorations of every kind were on every available surface, from cute plastic elves to a Menorah and candles. The little girl Xander had brought to his house barely a week earlier sat curled up under an afghan on the couch watching cartoons, and nearby Rupert Giles sat in an armchair with a book. Both looked up when they entered, the latter getting slowly to his feet to greet them.
"Colonel O'Neill," the Englishman offered his hand after a moment, which Jack shook briskly. He looked curiously at the others behind him.
"Ah, Rupert Giles, I'd like you to meet some colleagues of mine. Major Carter, Dr. Jackson, and Murray." Giles shook each of their hands with a polite smile as if visitors at nine in the morning the day after Christmas were completely normal.
"A pleasure to meet you," he said. "I'm afraid the others aren't awake yet."
"That's what Dawn said," Jack nodded toward the teenager who was coolly looking over his team. Carter and Daniel both shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny while Teal'c simply lifted an eyebrow in her direction. Dawn, Jack was surprised to see, met him stare for stare.
"I can go wake them up," Dawn told them after a distracted second. "Though you will so owe me for this," she said turning from Teal'c to Giles. The older man merely nodded, a pensive look on his face while she disappeared.
"Would you like some tea or coffee?" he offered.
"Coffee would be great," Daniel spoke up, and Giles nodded and went to the kitchen leaving them the four of them alone with Courtney and the cartoons. Jack turned to his teammates to see what they thought of things so far. After a quick exchange of silent 'guess we wait and see' looks, Daniel, predictably, wandered over to the bookshelf by the tree and Teal'c over to the collection of movies. A statue of a naked woman with tree branches extending from her outstretched arms and hair, her feet melding into roots - and plastic miniature ornaments on every branch that clearly had not come with the statue - had caught Carter's eye, and now Jack's. He remembered Xander saying something about how Willow was sort of pagan.
"It's an Earth symbol," Courtney surprised them both by saying. She was watching them look at the statue with clear eyes and an empty expression. "Willow says it's to remind us that we're part of the Earth and the Earth is part of us."
"And the ornaments?" Jack couldn't help but ask, flicking a small plastic snowman with his finger.
"It represents our culture," said Courtney. "Since our culture's part of who we are, it's part of the Earth too. I think it looks pretty." Jack personally thought it looked tacky, but who was he to argue? He was about to make some bland comment about it for conversation's sake but Courtney beat him too it. "Thanks for letting me stay over that time," she said. "I know you were kind of mad about it."
"I wasn't mad," Jack interrupted. He came over and sat on the couch beside her. She watched him with that same beguiling stare of the young and suddenly Jack didn't know how to explain. "Just . . . surprised." Surprised, confused - and Jack still didn't know what had been going on, was still going on. "I'm sorry about your house," he said, remembering it had burned. The sudden welling of tears in Courtney's eyes only confirmed why she was here and not with her own family. Another thing Jack was going to grill Xander about when he got down here.
"Did you get anything good for Christmas?" asked Carter in an effort to distract Courtney, who smiled weakly and nodded in return. Jack listened halfheartedly while she and Carter chatted Harry Potter books and clothing. The unsettled feeling was back and with it impatience. Jack just wanted to get to the answers right now. Enough of this waiting and wondering. He stood to pace off some of his sudden energy but luckily Giles returned with a coffeepot and four mugs before he drove everyone nuts.
Giles set about pouring but Jack didn't really notice because just then Xander walked in with Dawn and her sister Buffy. His son had taken time to pull on jeans and a sweatshirt though his hair was still tousled from sleep. Dawn too had changed; she and Buffy were both in the same kind of casual warm clothes meant for hanging around the house, but Jack only noticed them peripherally.
"Yeah," Jack didn't know what to say to the penetrating stare that wanted to know why he'd been absent on Christmas Day. "So you had some visitors?" he asked lightly to open up the subject.
"Yeah," Xander nodded, breaking eye contact and looking over Jack's shoulder at the others. "And I see you brought friends."
"Yes," Giles interrupted the tense atmosphere. "Xander, why don't you and Jack go talk in the sitting room. And Dawn you might want to clean up the dining room a little bit so we can eat in there later?" He lifted his eyebrows and Dawn's eyes opened wide and darted to Jack before she hurried off. Great, more secrets, thought Jack, wondering just what it was they were hiding in the dining room. And he was tired of it all. Just tired of double talk and silence, and he was sick of doing this by their rules.
"Why don't we just talk here," he suggested instead, anger just held in check. "You all know what's going on. We're all going to find out. Let's just get it in the open right here." He looked from Giles to Xander, challenging either one to disagree. He wasn't disappointed.
"This is between you and me right now," said Xander. And the uncertainty Jack saw in Xander's face for one unguarded moment decided him. Remembered words from that awful night - people to protect, don't trust who you work for . . . The conflicting mysteries hadn't added up to anything he or his team could figure out on the flight over. But whatever it was, it was important to Xander, something that he didn't trust the government with - which actually scared Jack. And it looked like Xander was about to tell him anyway.
"All right," Jack agreed. He exchanged a look with his team, but none of them protested, only nodded in understanding. So Jack followed Xander to the sitting room where they had first talked on that summer day half a year ago. He felt like he was meeting his son for the first time again, which he supposed he was in a way.
"So," he said, once they were seated opposite each other, the door firmly closed behind them. "You really have eight NID agents in your basement?"
Xander nodded, unsmiling. "Yeah. I'll take you down later." He looked down at his hands then back up. "So, this isn't how I normally do this," he said. "But with the NID wanting something from you, and me being a convenient target, and me being Mr. North America to people that the government would probably like to experiment on, all adds up to bad."
"Xander," Jack closed his eyes briefly, wondering just how he did it, "One more time. In English. With coherent sentences."
"I need to know that what I'm about to tell you won't get passed on to your CO or anyone else where you work," said Xander sitting up and leaning forward so his elbows rested on his knees. "I'm telling you because you're my father and if we keep seeing each other you're going to find out anyway."
"I'm going to have to tell my team," said Jack after a moment. "Daniel, Carter, and Murray. I've told them enough already, but you can trust them." Xander didn't look too surprised by that; he probably had suspected it the moment he saw SG-1 in the den with Jack. "And I have to tell my CO."
"Jack - "
"You remember General Hammond?" Jack spoke over him, raising a hand to ward off protest. "Yesterday we got an ultimatum from some people who want control over our project," he said carefully. Xander deserved to know after all, since they had tried to use him as a pawn. A part of Jack was perversely proud that his pawn had teeth.
"No, they just used the NID," said Jack. "They gave me a number to call, where you supposedly were. The phone was off and then I got your messages. Hammond was there for that and wants answers as much as I do."
"Then I don't know if I can tell you," said Xander.
"You can trust Hammond," said Jack. "He's a good man and one of the best commanders I've had. Ever. I can promise it won't go beyond the five of us."
"That's reassuring," Xander's voice dripped with sarcasm. "And how do I know once you find out that you won't go 'hey, I bet we could use these people to make better soldiers.'"
"Xander!" said Jack exasperated. "I don't know what you're talking about - obviously, since you refuse to tell me anything - but General Hammond told you every embarrassing story about me that he could remember. Do you really think that he's the type of man that would hurt innocent people just so we could get better soldiers?" Xander looked surprised by this outburst but remained silent and wary. Frustrated, Jack went on, trying to get him to see that the government and the military were not always the evil people he took them for. "I know there are people like that but we've been fighting those kinds of people who want to force me into retirement for years. And we don't let them win, no matter what. And on top of that, I wouldn't let Hammond do anything that would endanger you or whoever you're protecting because you're my son and that's my job as your dad!" Xander didn't move or say anything, just stared with that same unreadable expression and Jack couldn't tell whether that was good or not. "Look," he said self-consciously, "all I need to tell him is how you managed to beat off eight NID. Beyond that . . ."
"They wanted you to retire?" asked Xander, finally speaking.
"Yeah," said Jack. "They forced Hammond out once and we had to blackmail them to get him reinstated. Thought they'd use you to get me out of the way this time. Might have worked, too."
"Oh. Kind of anticlimactic," Xander relaxed back into the couch, and Jack heaved an internal sigh of relief. "Okay," he looked directly at Jack who met his one-eyed stare evenly. "I don't know how much you can avoid telling your CO. I'll leave that up to you, and so help you if you double cross me." He paused, dead serious, and waited for Jack's equally solemn, "You have my word."
"All right," Xander began. "So this is the part where I tell you that demons and vampires and all sorts of ugly evil things are real. And then you say 'no, that's crazy,' and want to have me locked up but can't figure out a way to do it since I'm over twenty-one and my psyche test is clean. Then I say 'yes, they are,' and you yell and scream, then I prove it, and you go into shock over the whole deal until finding refuge in 'okay, it's real' but not really believing it until you almost get eaten."
Jack though about it for a minute then voiced the only response he could come up with. "What?" Because Xander didn't just say what he thought he had, had he? Demons? Vampires? All sorts of ugly evil things?
"Jack," Xander sat forward again with no grin or glint in his eye that suggested he might be joking. "The world is far creepier than you ever thought possible. Every myth and urban legend you've ever heard is probably true including and especially the monsters part. They're real. Vampires, werewolves, things you've never even dreamed of that are looking for a nice human snack in the middle of the night when you're out walking your dog."
"I don't have a dog," said Jack absently, still trying to absorb what Xander was trying to say.
"Fine. Cat. Whatever," Xander brushed it aside. "The point is, it's real and it's out there, and we're the front, middle, and last line of defense."
Demons? Vampires? All sorts of ugly evil things? Jack was still stuck on that part. "So when you asked me if I believed in vampires - "
"I meant actual vampires," said Xander.
"Oh." Actual vampires. "Okay." And demons. "I can accept that." And all sorts of ugly evil things. Because, hey, went to other planets and fought aliens on a daily basis. Sure, no problem. "Except for the fact that it's completely insane!" Jack snapped out of his initial shock getting to his feet suddenly. Because, hey, fought aliens on a daily basis. He would have known about alien-like things on his own planet, he thought angrily. The SGC got wind of everything weird that went on, thank you very much.
"The reason Dawn picked you up from the airport on Thanksgiving was because the rest of us were at a deserted YMCA stopping a ritual massacre," Xander went on as if he hadn't said anything. "I got that cut on my arm and Willow got those scratches during the fight. You didn't see all the bruises down my side from getting thrown into a wall. And the fish in the soup didn't have eyes because we needed to use them for the potion that would disrupt the ritual."
"Potion?" Vampires, demons, ugly evil things, and now potions? It was just . . . "Xander, are you even listening to yourself?" he asked. He couldn't believe this, though he remembered the soup well enough. "You're talking about fairy tale stuff!"
"No, I'm talking about my life."
That simple statement brought Jack up short mid rant because Xander was not smiling. And instead of looking frustrated or bothered about not being believed, he just looked . . . like this was a normal reaction that would eventually pass. For some reason that just made Jack angry, like he was the one coming up with wild stories and talking out of his ass when it was the other way around. Because what did vampires or demons or whatever have to do with having eight NID agents in Xander's basement?
"I'm getting to that," said Xander, annoyance creeping into his voice, and Jack realized he had practically yelled the question.
"Let me guess, they're vampires," Jack bit out caustically. Part of some delusion that because they were bad men they must be quote-unquote evil.
"If they were vampires, they'd be dead, you wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be having this conversation," Xander informed him evenly. "The NID guys are here because of whatever you do, not me, so don't go blaming them on us."
"Fine," said Jack tersely. "So explain it to me. What do 'vampires' have to do with the NID?"
"So, we've established that there are creatures of pure evil in the world - "
"So you claim." Jack couldn't believe he was listening to this. Couldn't believe Xander, his calm, rational, sometimes funny son who worked at Home Depot was talking to him about vampires. The surrealism of this whole conversation was unreal.
"- who like nothing better than to eat humans and end the world," Xander ignored Jack and his seething comment.
"Still here, though, aren't we."
Xander nodded reasonably. "Because in opposition to the bad guys are the slayers."
"Slayers?" Jack asked at this new word. That hardly sounded reassuring to know there were a bunch of people called 'slayers' who went around 'slaying' monsters. "That's where you come in? You're one of these 'slayers'?"
Xander actually smiled at that, a hovering self-deprecating smile accompanied by a shake of the head. "No," he said. "Slayers are girls. Properly known as vampire slayers since they're what they kill the most of."
"Teenage girls." Jack didn't like where this was leading.
"Chosen by whatever chooses slayers," Xander nodded. "Sometime during puberty." Puberty. Courtney's age. Memories of thirty girls crowded into the house over the summer. Self defense camp, he'd called it then. Before Jack could respond, Xander went on. "When they're called, slayers get superhuman strength, speed, reflexes. Basically you put them in a normal fight and they'll win. Against vampires and demons, you even the playing field."
"Teenage girls," Jack said again, this time for clarity. "Superheroes against the monsters? You do know how ridiculous this sounds, right?"
"Jack, would you just hear me out?" Xander was now exasperated with him. "I know you don't believe me right now, all right? I get that. But you wanted to know what the big secret was and I'm telling you."
"Secret?" Jack asked incredulously. "This is the secret? This is why you left in the middle of the night without a goodbye? Because of 'vampires'?"
"Yes," Xander glared at him defiantly. "You wanted the truth - "
"What truth?" snapped Jack angrily, his words loud in his own ears. Of all the . . . He spun and loomed angrily over Xander who glowered up at him from his seat on the couch. "You're talking about god damned vampires, for crying out loud! You still don't trust me enough to tell me what's really going on!"
"The only reason I'm telling you is because I trust you, Jack!" Xander stood now, too, forcing Jack to take a step back. His single brown eye practically burned in its socket.
"You call this trust?!" Jack yelled back. "You tell me you have eight NID agents in your basement - who I have yet to see proof of - then start talking about vampires and little girls who kill them. This is not a game, Xander, and I don't know what you're playing at, but I want answers and I want them now! How the hell did you capture eight highly trained NID agents?"
"They came, they tripped the wards, the got their asses knocked unconscious by three slayers and the rest of us. I hit mine over the head with an axe," said Xander.
His words froze Jack's next retort on his lips, a dozen emotions rushing through him. Anger, hurt, but most of all disappointment in Xander for thinking he would take this cooked up explanation as the truth. And trust? They didn't have that. They didn't have anything, he saw now. Just more lies on top of happy small talk about nothing. It was all a joke, just another laugh for the universe at his expense.
"I want to see the NID agents," said Jack softly in his command voice, the one that even Daniel listened to on occasion. The one that went with the closed off, cold glare he was now giving his son like he was some young airman who didn't know who he was messing with.
But Xander glared back just as stubbornly, not giving an inch. "No," he said. "Not until you hear me out and see my proof."
"Proof that vampires exist?" asked Jack sarcastically, admiring Xander's tenacity if nothing else.
"Proof that slayers exist," Xander corrected him. "We don't keep vampires around," he added in a 'duh' tone.
"Of course not."
"You want proof or not?" Xander ignored the sarcasm.
"Fine," Jack sighed, his curiosity piqued in spite of himself. "This I gotta see." How was Xander going to prove the existence of slayers, get one the girls to kill a hamburger?
Xander went to the door and called for Buffy who came in a moment later with a four-by-four piece of wood. She smiled cheerily at Jack who simply watched her suspiciously.
"I take it you've filled him in on the basics?" Buffy asked Xander.
"Happy in denial-land," was his response. Buffy nodded, glancing back at Jack and assessing the false smile he sent her way.
"Forgive me if I expected an actual explanation for everything," he said sickly sweet.
Buffy just handed him the beam and said, "Try to break it in half," at which Jack lifted his eyebrows. She had to be kidding. The beam was solid wood about four feet long and splintered at one end. Like someone had broken it. He ran his hands over the wood but neither felt nor saw any cracks along its length. He gave it an experimental twist with his hands but nothing gave. Hell, Teal'c would have a hard time putting a dent in it.
"Don't tell me. You're going to break it," he said, handing it back to her. Buffy was a small woman who couldn't have weighed more than a hundred twenty pounds, and he felt that was pushing it. She accepted the four-by-four confidently however, gripped it at either end - and snapped it in half with a simple jerk as if it were no more than a banana.
Jack blinked and accepted the two new pieces of wood that Buffy handed back to him. Okay, that was impressive, he conceded. Impressive and . . . wow. She had just broken practically a log in half with her bare hands. And okay, he didn't see the trick because it looked like there was no trick. And just how the hell had she done that?! He looked up at his son and Buffy who both were waiting for a reaction but Jack didn't know what to say. Or think for that matter. If this had happened in the briefing room, he probably would have believed it with only a minimum of bad jokes and reassurance from Frasier that she wasn't snaked. But Buffy wasn't snaked; neither Carter nor Teal'c had sensed anything. And Buffy had just broken a four-by-four in half with her bare hands. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? And where did a girl her size get that kind of strength from anyway?
"Show off," he finally said, earning him a relieved grin from Xander and a wry, so-sue-me smile from Buffy.
"Yep, three ring circus, that's me," she said. "Except without the rings and hoops of fire though I can do those too. Jump through them, I mean. And, only one me instead of three . . . but you probably figured that one out." Jack looked up at her from the splintered wood and she abruptly stopped talking. Did they have lessons in how to confuse people with words? Granted, Jack didn't understand a lot of what Daniel or Carter spouted off, but he at least was comforted by the fact that somewhere someone did.
"Jack, meet the Slayer," said Xander, and something in the way he said it put capital letters around the word.
"Of vampires," Jack asked looking again from the split wood to the blonde and back. "And demons and other ugly evil things?" This was not happening, he told himself. He was not about to accept this. But damn it, he was, against his will like catching a cold he swore he was never going to get.
"Whose slime never gets out of your clothes," Buffy added, which only made Jack think of the biohazard hampers in the locker room on base.
"So those NID agents - "
"Never stood a chance," she finished.
"And those wards you mentioned?" he looked at Xander questioningly
"Magical alarm system. Set off on the lawn."
Three really powerful girls and a magical alarm system. And vampires and stuff Jack really could have done with knowing less about. He should have been yelling again or something, anything but this sudden calm. Oh, hell. Hammond was never going to believe this. He could see his report now: Went to Cleveland to investigate botched kidnapping of son. Agents ambushed by barely legal residents. Agents beaten into submission by girls. Egos badly bruised.
"So you want to see them?" asked Xander not needing to specify who. Still stunned, Jack followed him to the basement stairs, where Buffy left them for the kitchen and the smells of breakfast, and followed Xander down. It was a nice set up and obviously where the . . . slayers, he tried out the new word, stayed for their summer training. The tv had been moved in front of the back two rooms where sure enough four men in black gear sat on the floor before it, backs to the false wall. All four stood when they approached, one poked his head around a door and summoned the others from inside. And Jack saw that while there was nothing holding them back none of them moved any closer.
"Harris," one of them said coolly, and Xander nodded to them. But all eyes were on Jack, the stranger, though none of them seemed to recognize him.
"How are you keeping them restrained?" he asked lowly.
"Upstairs," was his son's short reply. He didn't want them to know. A good precaution given what he'd told Jack. The rogue NID cells were among those who wouldn't hesitate about experimenting on Buffy or any of the other slayers given half a chance. So he followed Xander back upstairs and back into the sitting room and listened as his son explained that by mixing a little bit of this and a little bit of that and saying a few words you could effectively make a one way force field to keep things from getting out while still being able to send things like food and remote controls in. It didn't sound like there was much to it. In fact, it sounded pretty damn useful. But he kept that comment to himself.
"So that's it," said Xander when he finished. Once more he was leaning forward, elbows on knees with his hands loosely clasped between them. A thousand questions stuttered through Jack's mind but he didn't know where to start - didn't know if he wanted to know the answers, like how Xander had gotten involved and what exactly it was that he did now. But most of all what held him back was still a bad case of skepticism, because even though he'd seen it, he wasn't ready to just believe it yet. He smiled privately: this from a man that had a tv character based on him.
"Is that a good smile or a bad smile" Xander broke in on his thought, a little of the wary puppy creeping into his expression.
"An I-don't-know-what-to-think smile," Jack replied. He held up a hand to stop whatever Xander was going to say. "I think I need to talk to my team," he said.
Xander let go his breath and nodded then got to his feet. Jack followed him out to the den where Teal'c was watching cartoons with Courtney right in front of the tv and Daniel and Carter were chatting with Dawn, though it looked like Daniel was doing most of the talking. Giles and Buffy had disappeared, presumably to the noisy and aromatic kitchen. It took a moment for them to register their presence in the room and Jack took the time to really look at the two girls lounging around like normal girls on vacation. He wondered if they were the other two slayers of the house, if they went out and fought vampires and knew how to kill them. If they could cast spells. And watching Courtney watch the animated adventures of pink and green sketches with a distracted expression as unchanging as Teal'c's, he wondered why her house had burned down.
"Dawn," Xander's voice disturbed the scene, pulling the teenager's attention from Daniel's story to him. "Can you drive me to work?" he asked, making Jack turn to him in surprise. He'd forgotten all about that. Dawn nodded and got to her feet, brushing past Jack as she and Xander left the room. "I'll be home around five," said Xander in parting. SG-1 turned to Jack.
"We need to talk."
"So explain to me again that thing you were talking about," was the first thing Xander asked once he and Dawn were safely out the door. The chill wind felt good against Xander's face as they headed for the car.
"What thing?" Dawn frowned in thought.
"The file thing you were spouting before I was awake when you woke me up."
"Oh, that," Dawn nodded now. She slid into the driver's seat while Xander went around to the other side of the car. He waited patiently while Dawn focused on the ignition, heat, and backing out of the driveway, but once they were on the street and moving forward she continued. "Daniel Jackson and Sam Carter's files were in the NID computers too, along with another person called Teal'c. There weren't any photos but I remembered the names because they were in the same folder as Jack's file."
"Did you read them?" he asked.
"No, not yet," Dawn replied. They turned onto the main road out of their sleepy neighborhood. "Though I don't know how much it will tell us. Jack's was pretty vague. All this stuff about projects he's thwarted. If they played darts I bet his picture would be on the dart board."
Xander was comforted by that news that Jack was not a part of the let's-attack-on-Christmas party. "Did they say what projects?"
"They were only listed by designation. Stupid smart spies," she grumbled this last. Xander gave her a quick glance at her frustration, marveling at how she'd grown up following in both Giles's and Willow's footsteps. Their better footsteps, he amended.
"How did telling him go?" she asked.
"By the book," said Xander his mind jumping tracks from Dawn to Jack. As there were four stages of grief, there were four stages of learning about the dark and nasty underbelly of the world. Jack was still in stage three of conditional acceptance but not complete belief. "He was a little calmer about Buffy than I thought he'd be, but he'll deal okay when it sinks in, I think."
"What he'd say about the NID?"
"We didn't get that far. He wanted to tell the others first, so I figure we'll have a big happy talk tonight."
"Should I get ice cream?"
"Dawn, do the words 'strapped for cash' mean anything to you?"
"You have a job," she retorted.
"Which covers normal groceries for eight people and now eight honored guests," Xander shot back.
"We're only feeding them pancakes."
He ignored her. "Which leaves little things like water, electricity, heat, and all the extra stuff for Christmas including Courtney's new stuff and the emergency plane tickets -"
"Okay, okay, sheesh," Dawn interrupted Xander's long litany of just exactly where all the money went. "We're not that bad off are we?"
"No," Xander admitted. "But unless Giles gets things straightened out soon in England it's gonna get pretty tight." Winning access to Council accounts was turning out to be a long, slow process that yielded money in fits and bursts. So far they'd only gotten the small potatoes, but come summer training they would need gigantic faire sized potatoes. "It won't be so bad once everyone goes off in January," he added referring to the end of the four-month visit from Buffy, Willow, Kennedy, and, though he'd been in and out, Giles. They were needed in other parts of the world and at the Council meeting after Thanksgiving they'd each chosen a continent to start in.
Xander wasn't happy to see them go. It was like they were finally splitting apart after practically a lifetime together, and for him and Willow it was. Sure they'd have Christmas and other holidays, but Xander knew it wouldn't be the same. They'd have their stories of their own slayers and slayer schools while Xander had his with Dawn and Andrew and Vi and Diana. And then Dawn would leave next year and then the older slayers would go off and new ones would come guard the hellmouth until they destroyed this one too. Or it destroyed them. Slayers would die and be chosen and he would be there helping, training, guiding, and it would never end, this fight against all that tried to hurt humanity. Cheery thoughts. Barely twenty-three and Xander already felt like an old man.
"So what were you guys talking about in there?" he asked to distract himself.
"History stuff," Dawn answered. "He asked about school and we started talking about college stuff. I told him I was interested in a good language program and he just started talking. He said I should look for places with good exchange programs too because living in another country is the best way to learn. So that means I should go visit Buffy a lot. And Willow and Faith and whoever gets China." Xander smiled at this obvious maneuvering, having no doubt that Dawn would travel widely over the next couple of years. "Anyway," she went on, grinning too, "then we started talking about places he's been. You know he was born in Egypt? He's an archeologist now and did the teaching thing before he went to work for the military. His specialty's Egypt, obviously, but I get the feeling that he's pretty up on every other ancient culture too, but that's just a hunch."
Xander was impressed that she had gotten that much information out of one relatively short conversation. "Any other deep dark secrets come to light?" he asked teasingly.
Dawn shrugged. "He's cute."
"Oh, I so did not hear you just say that."
"What? He is. Even you should be able to see that."
"Please don't tell me you have a crush on him."
"Me? Come on, Xander. He may be cute but he's still old."
"And since when has that stopped anyone in our house?"
Dawn just gave him a withering look that Xander couldn't help but grin at. "When did Angel, Spike, or Anya act their age?" she asked back and Xander had to concede the point.
"Just as long as you remember that."
"So it's okay if I date immature vampires?" Dawn asked slyly.
"No!" Xander glared at her. It wasn't funny. No, not funny at all. "Dawn . . ."
"I'm kidding," she said. "Jeez, relax. Not dating here."
"Keep it that way."
"I'm just saying . . ."
"I know what you're 'just saying.' Dating evil, sex bad. Trust me. I'm never going to get involved with someone I can't have sex with."
"Dawn!" He really didn't want to hear this. Dawn and . . . god, he couldn't even think the word in the same sentence.
"Xander, I'm eighteen," she retorted disdainfully. "And you're one to talk, Mr. Sex-Olympics."
Xander let out a strangled noise. No, definitely not going to think about Dawn and . . . at all. Ever. And thank god for work, he thought desperately as Dawn finally turned into the strip mall where Home Depot sat in all its orange glory. He practically leapt from the car away from the conversation.
"Five o'clock?" asked Dawn and Xander nodded, summoning a shaky smile for her. Dawn grinned toothily back.
His team's reactions were about what Jack had expected. Carter began with an outright, "Impossible!" while Daniel looked pensive and confused still mulling it over. Teal'c frowned.
"Sir," said Carter in her serious and reasonable tone of voice. "That's simply not possible." And then she started off on something about synapses and energy that he didn't really follow but that sounded pretty impressive nonetheless. Daniel looked impressed and that was enough for him. Only . . .
"You're forgetting about the magic part, Carter," he said. And why was he defending this totally insane idea? It wasn't like he completely believed it either. If not for Buffy's display of strength and the captured commandos, he would be dismissing it entirely.
"We've certainly seen enough that we haven't been able to explain before either," said Daniel quietly. "I'll have to research the myths. I'm not saying I'm convinced, but we should at least look into it."
"I am curious why we have never seen any indication of vampires before," said Teal'c. "We receive information on any suspected Goa'uld activity. Would not mass murder of civilians be a similar warning sign?"
"I don't know," said Jack scrubbing his face and running tired hands through his hair. "All I know is that Xander's explanation for the NID was magic and slayers. And you didn't see Buffy break that four-by-four," he pointed to the two pieces which were still by the sitting room couch. The others followed his finger and stared at it for a second.
"Well, let's accept for the moment that it's true," said Daniel, rising from his seat to pace. "The existence of magic and strong . . . girls gave them warning and a chance to take out the NID. How did they get past the guns?"
"Disarmed them before they could use them," Buffy's voice from the door had every head spinning her way. "Sorry to interrupt, but you guys want breakfast?" Seeing their chance at answers, Jack nodded and they moved the party to the kitchen where Andrew was dancing around the stove. Bacon and pancakes were already done and now eggs were getting scrambled. Courtney was already there munching on toast while Giles sipped tea in the corner, eyeing them as they came in. But what Jack noticed was the new unpainted boards filling in a section of wall.
"That's where mine landed," said Courtney suddenly. She was watching Jack study the wall. "Kicked him in the stomach."
"You kicked a full grown man into a wall?" repeated Carter incredulously. A brief glance at the others found them to be studying SG-1. Like Xander earlier, none of them were smiling. "I'm sorry, that's just -"
"I know it's quite incredible," interjected Giles. "But I assure you it's quite true. The supernatural is real, however much you may want to deny it."
"Your specialty is folklore, isn't it Mr. Giles?" asked Daniel, blinking owlishly.
"The occult and demonology actually," said Giles. "Though folklore does play into that."
"Then you know that there are usually alternate explanations for most superstitions, many of which are due to coincidence and fear."
"Great," said Buffy with a smile that definitely had teeth behind it. "My life is an alternate explanation. Like gangs on PCP or boiler room explosions or earthquakes and sinkholes or gas leaks or laryngitis." At each word her voice rose and she stalked closer to Daniel with eyes so hard and cold that it was as if another person glared out at them. One who had seen much and lost much and was about to pounce on anyone who got in her way. Buffy radiated power, controlled but with a terrible promise. Giles made no move to stop her. "I've heard them all. So don't you come in here to our house and our world and presume to tell me that I fight figments of my imagination."
Daniel managed to keep his retreat to one step back. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I meant no disrespect." He flashed her his sweet-innocent-mistake eyes that had mollified many woman in his time and that once more seemed to do the trick. Buffy nodded once and grudgingly stepped back, crisis averted. But Jack's eyes followed her even as Giles smoothly stepped in and started talking about the origins of vampires and the world. He watched how Andrew carefully watched her, the release of tension from the young man's shoulders when he tentatively offered her some bacon and she accepted with a tired smile. She didn't appear to be paying attention to what was going on behind her, but when she rejoined the group she was standing between Teal'c and Courtney her own eyes sliding over him and Carter and Daniel until they met Jack's, hard and challenging. And in that stare, Jack saw a leader asking him silently if there was going to be a problem here. He said no, by nodding and looking away first. No problem here. Because he had also seen in those few seconds of understanding, that SG-1 would lose and lose hard.
The next few hours passed in bliss for Daniel and Carter who ended up in the dining room arguing with Giles about what was and wasn't possible. Jack and Teal'c had stayed with them for the first bit about basic supernatural stuff like how to kill vampires but once the other three got going on the laws governing magical use, Jack couldn't say yes faster when Andrew asked if anyone wanted to play Jedi Knights on his new X-Box. The others would give him the Reader's Digest version later anyway.
"Andrew," said Teal'c while the kid was setting up. "Have you encountered many vampires?"
"Vampires?" Andrew adopted what would have passed for a knowing look on anyone else but him. Casually he tossed them controllers. Jack's fell short. "I've encountered many, my friend. Too many to count. I've braved the darkness and the creatures that lurk in the shadows and come out on top every time." He nodded gravely then hurried and sat down when the two men looked him over in disbelief. It wasn't just the faux tone of voice, but also the scrawny stature and complete air of incompetence the poor kid had. Andrew, Jack concluded, was one of the strangest people he'd met. And that was saying a lot.
"Really?" Jack finally said.
"Of course," Andrew tried again for the look of wisdom but then realized that it wasn't working. "Mostly because I was with slayers who get in trouble if I get hurt. But I have killed vampires! Over ten!" he said in a normal, if a little proud voice.
"So they do exist," said Teal'c.
"Yeah. You wanna see my bite mark?" He craned his head suddenly and pointed to a scar on his neck: two puncture holes linked by over and under arching lines. Just like someone had bitten him. Real. Evidence of vampires marked into Andrew's skin for life.
"Why are you not now a vampire?" asked Teal'c while Jack was still absorbing this new revelation.
"Cause I didn't suck his blood," Andrew explained, his voice dropping so they had to lean in to hear his words. "It's a very dark ancient blood ritual where the vampire offers his victim eternity, and as the last drops of his blood seep away from him, on the verge of death, his sire opens a vein and lets him drink. Then at sunset the following night, when light disappears from the world, the new vampire rises from his own grave, powerful and hungry."
"Until he gets his ass staked by a slayer," Dawn's matter of fact voice made Andrew jump with a muffled 'eep' at which the girl rolled her eyes as she joined them on the couch. "Whacha playing?"
"Jedi Knights," said Andrew getting up and plugging in the fourth controller, which he then gave her.
"Are you one of these slayers?" Teal'c asked the question the Jack had been wondering all day.
"Me, no," said Dawn. "I'm just the tag-a-long little sister." Andrew snorted and she kicked him.
"So who's the third one here?" asked Jack. "Willow?"
"Kennedy," said Andrew, eyes glued to the screen as he picked his character. When he and Dawn started fighting over who got what, Jack realized that they weren't going to get anything more interesting out of the two, so he too threw himself into the game.
Around one, a very tousled Willow and Kennedy finally came downstairs in bathrobes and gave Jack and Teal's a surprised hello, before darting into the kitchen and back upstairs. Dawn yelled after them to be back down for dinner at six or starve, muttering something about nymphos under her breath afterwards that Jack really wished he hadn't heard. The afternoon passed.
The match broke up at quarter to five when Dawn had to leave to get Xander and Andrew needed to get dinner started. Teal'c and Jack followed still discussing tactics and levels and gave him a hand. By the time Xander and Dawn returned, bringing with them a carton of ice cream, Andrew had taken pancakes downstairs to the NID and ordered the three intellectuals to set the table. They looked a little confused at first but eventually managed just fine. By six, everything was ready and on the table, and by six ten, Willow and Kennedy showed up giggling like crazy. Jack tried not to think about it.
"So," said Buffy once the initial feeding frenzy had calmed down and conversation loomed on the horizon. "What are you going to do about the guys in the basement?" she asked. And Jack realized that business had finally begun.
Xander looked up from his spaghetti to Jack with everyone else.
"We can take them off your hands. No questions asked."
"No investigation or anything?" asked Xander.
"As far as everyone else is concerned, we are the investigation. And we have enough pull that no one else will look into the matter," said Jack.
"What about the people who ordered it?" asked Buffy. "They're gonna want to know, right? And they'll have people go inside or whatever and ask them what happened?"
Jack paused for a second before nodding. "Yeah," he said. "The NID we're talking about is a rogue section. And we don't know where all their cells are."
"Sleeper cells?" asked Xander, pulling the word out of the back of his head. Jack looked at him, surprised that he knew the term, but nodded.
"Like that sleeper agent thing?" asked Dawn. "Don't know they're there until you pull the trigger?"
"Except in this case, the trigger is orders form the top," said Xander. "Do you know who that is?" The looks their four guests shot each other said that they did know but were reluctant to say. "Jack, what will he do if he finds out about slayers?"
"The rogue NID would be very interested," said Daniel quietly when Jack didn't answer right away. "If they find out, they'll keep coming after you." He glanced at Courtney who stared at him wide-eyed.
"So there's no guarantee that they won't talk," said Buffy. And Xander knew what was coming next. So did Willow. He watched as his two best friends shared a long look that held a whole conversation and suddenly Xander was glad he had let Dawn talk him into ice cream. "So when can you get them?" asked Buffy quietly.
"You're still going to let us take them?" asked Jack. "Despite the risk?"
"There's not going to be any risk," Willow spoke up from her end of the table looking a little ashy to Xander. "I'm gonna . . ." she waved a hand vaguely.
But Jack seemed to get it. And he didn't look too happy about it either. Nor did any of his friends. "You're talking about wiping their memories?!" Daniel asked apalled.
"I see little other choice," Buffy snapped his attention from Willow to herself. "It's either that or kill them, and we don't kill humans as a general rule."
"And messing with their memories is excusable?"
"If it means keeping teenagers out of NID labs, then yes."
Daniel closed his mouth at that though his eyes were still not appeased. Xander could understand his protest, they all could having been there before, but at the same time, it was more important to keep their secret identities as secret as possible from the government.
"All right," said Jack also coming to the same conclusion. "We can have them out of here the day after tomorrow.
"So are you going to reimburse us for groceries then?" asked Andrew. "Cause they kinda ate a lot."
And Xander, seeing his opportunity for more money piped in, "And compensation for loss of sleep and hardship would be nice too."
"And incentive to not go to the police or press," Dawn added. Sam cracked a smile at that but Jack didn't seem too amused. "What?" asked Dawn him. "I've got college tuition to pay next year."
"I'll ask the General about the groceries," said Jack. "But I'm not making any promises."
"So about this general guy," said Buffy and Xander could actually feel Jack and the others wince at her irreverent tone. "He's not going to gives us any problems, right? Xander says you stood up for him and that he's an okay guy . . ."
"General Hammond is a most honorable man," said Murray in that weird formal way of his. "He will not betray your trust in him."
"Hey," said Willow suddenly, a worried frown on her face that put Xander immediately on guard. "Hey, hey," she said, this time staring but not staring at Murray, like she was trying to see the air around him. And when she blinked back from wherever, she looked a little confused and not the good kind of confused where it's something normal and . . . and now she was really staring at Murray. "Are you human?" she asked. "Because you're sort of are but you're also sort of not and you're not connected and I think you're what's been itching me all day even though I wasn't really paying attention, but you're not are you?"
Murray sat as still as ever. And more importantly, at Willow's first question Jack, Sam, and Daniel had all suddenly sat up and stared at her, then each other in what were definitely not she's-crazy looks but shit- she's-onto-us looks. Jack wasn't even registering the babble that usually had him scratching his head. Figuratively speaking. But Willow was right. For a second, Xander felt like shouting, 'I knew it!' but he refrained and settled for an internal trumpet fanfare because Jack did not look happy. Daniel and Sam didn't look happy either but they were both looking at Jack whose unhappiness doubled theirs combined. And Murray simply raised an eyebrow as if to say, 'moi?'
"Are you an alien?!" Andrew broke the tense silence first in an awed voice. "Because that is so cool! Ooh, you're doing the Spock eyebrow thing!" He lifted his hand in the Vulcan greeting. "Live long and prosper."
No, Jack was not happy at all. "He's not an alien," he told Andrew impatiently.
"But he is," said Willow, certain now. "He's not from Earth because he's not connected to her. Except for the little strands like a baby's but those don't really count since you're not a baby."
"Willow, Murray is not an alien," Jack repeated. "If he were, do you think the government would let him out of its sight?"
"He's not an alien." But no one was buying it. If Willow said he wasn't from Earth, he wasn't from Earth. And the import of that statement just hit Xander all of a sudden. Not from Earth. From another planet. Xander had to go with Andrew on this one - that was so cool! In a really, really freaky kind of way.
"So the deep space telemetry is really talking to little green men - or not green as the case is?" he asked a little giddy himself at the idea as he glanced at Murray's decidedly not green palor.
"Oh, and you're like the cultural person, right?" Dawn asked Daniel excitedly who looked decidedly uncomfortable at her sudden attention. "That's why all the archeological stuff was there!"
Sam's head immediately snapped to the teenager who realized her mistake as soon as the words slipped out of her mouth. "What archeological stuff where?" the major asked.
"Uh, nowhere?" tried Dawn as the tension at the table skyrocketed. Everyone stopped eating looking from Sam to Dawn to Jack to Buffy, the four of whom had their own circle of wary glances going.
"Dawn," said Jack in a gentle yet dangerous tone of voice that Xander remembered from earlier. "Where did you see that archeological information?" he asked. Dawn stared at him mesmerized and a little scared, her confidence shaken by his sudden commanding intensity.
"Jack!" Buffy snapped before Dawn could answer. "Where we got our information is irrelevant. As far as I'm concerned, Murray could be a cow and I wouldn't care as long as he kept his teeth off of humans. Stop threatening my sister!"
Jack swiveled his glare on Buffy who met it head on. "This is classified information. If we have a breach in security, I consider that very relevant," he said. "Now where did you get it?"
Willow tentatively raised her hand and waved. "Breach in security," she said. "That's me. I don't think anyone else could have done it."
"You hacked the SGC computers?" asked Sam, a note of disbelief in her voice.
Willow and Dawn exchanged a brief look that said 'guilty' to anyone with eyes. "If that's what you call Area 52, then yeah," she said. "But it totally wasn't the system's fault," she hurriedly added. "You have really good security and we couldn't have done it without cheating. And the not keeping top secret stuff on internet linked computers was brilliant." She smiled. Jack rubbed his hands through his hair and Daniel looked like he wanted to grin.
Sam asked, "Cheated?"
Jack looked up. "You used magic to hack into the most secure computers in the country?"
"Second most, and yeah. The old fashioned way wasn't doing too good."
"What second-most?" Sam sounded slightly offended by Willow's correction.
The redhead ducked her head modestly. "Ours are better. Because of the magic. Your code is pretty droolworthy though. You don't mind if I borrow some of it do you?"
"I designed the system," said Sam. Willow immediately sat up, awe on every line of her face.
"You did? That's like . . ."
"Carter, could you two drool over code later?" Jack interrupted while Willow was still searching for words.
"So you got into our computers," he continued, directing the question to Buffy.
"You were a suspect for being behind the NID, so yeah. But we thought you did weapons stuff," she answered.
"Cause all the stuff at that other place was weapons stuff."
"Area 51," Xander clarified before Jack had an ulcer. Though he still looked like he was going to have one.
"So intelligent life on other planets exists?" asked Giles getting back to the basic revelation of the evening. Xander could tell he was rather surprised by the idea. And when Jack sighed and nodded, the cat already running circles around them, Giles's only comment was "Dear Lord." He took his glasses off to clean them. Xander watched the familiar ritual not sure whether he was surprised or not by the confirmation. He was leaning toward not. But then . . . he looked at Murray and a shiver ran up his spine.
"Is your real name Teal'c?" asked Dawn then. "With an apostrophe?" At the sudden combined eyepower of the four she added, "Not your computers, the NID's."
"Is there anyone you didn't hack?" asked Jack.
"Chill out," Kennedy retorted, speaking for the first time. "So your secret's out. Deal with it. I mean it's not as if you don't know about our secret lives. Quid pro quo. Anyway, we have enough problems without aliens. Why do we care what you do in Area 51 or 2 or whatever you call it?"
Jack was about to reply when Andrew interrupted. "Can I have your autograph?" he asked Murray.
"Andrew!" at least three people exclaimed.
"What? You know you want one too," he replied. "It will commemorate the day the saucers landed, the day when Murrays arrived where no Murray had gone before!"
"Murray's his name, dumbass," Kennedy told him.
"Well, I think it's great too," said Willow cheerfully. "How do you like Christmas so far?" she asked.
"I have lived on this planet for seven years," said Murray. "And have had as many Christmases."
"Oh," Willow deflated at this news, but then brightened again. "But never Hanukah, right? Or solstice? Though both are past now, I guess, but we still have our decorations up and -"
"You've been here seven years?" Xander interrupted. Seven years and no news flash?
"It has been classified," said Murray or Teal'c.
"Very classified," added Jack. All went silent at this reminder that knowledge was not always a good thing. In fact, if Xander remembered correctly, it was a prosecutable thing.
"So now what?" asked Xander. "Now that we know stuff we shouldn't and you know stuff that you shouldn't." He met Jack's gaze across the table, his face inscrutable.
"I don't know," he finally said. "I don't know."
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