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Chapter Ten: Ten Years Taken Off Of Life

A brisk breeze greeted Xander when he stepped outside onto the back porch, escaping the after-dinner cleanup in the kitchen. Jack stood on the steps in borrowed shoes, having slipped away as soon as he could. He was looking up at the stars, muted by the neighborhood lights, and a waxing moon when Xander joined him, the older man barely acknowledging his presence with a slight flicker of his eyes.

Xander didn't know what to say so he said nothing and simply looked over the back yard that seemed to glow from the reflected light on the snow. It was his first winter in Cleveland and Xander had already had enough snow to last him a lifetime. The delight of those first flakes had quickly given way to weary annoyance as more just fell from the sky. Though making snow angels had been fun back in November. Dawn, Vi, and Diana had gone all out with a snow vampire too and then practiced demolishing it.

Jack hadn't moved from stargazing when Xander snuck a look at him. Following his eyes to the constellations, he wondered what the older man saw when he looked up there. Teal'c's planet? Were there other aliens that had made contact with Earth? Were they a threat, he couldn't help but wonder given that it was a top military secret. Xander had never given much thought to it. E.T. was about as far as he had gotten in thinking about life from other planets. Though there had been that Queller demon the year of Glory. Probably all sorts of things living on the moon. Did that mean, then, that aliens were really demons? Murray or Teal'c, or whatever his name was, was certainly human enough looking. His beanie probably hid an ingrown horn or something.

He wanted to ask about a million things, but Jack didn't look like he was up for questions he probably couldn't answer anyway. It was as if he had completely forgotten Xander was there even though he had been standing there for at least a minute in the freezing cold that didn't seem to be bothering Jack. They were back to the not talking awkwardness of those first meetings last summer. Not that they had really pushed the big things before, or at all, but now that they had both fessed up to being Batman, it was as if Jack didn't even know where to start, and neither did Xander for that matter. Here they were, standing on a dark winter's night, supposing to be friends. "So aliens," Xander said breaking the stillness. He still wasn't sure how he felt about that, somewhere up there on the cool but weirded out scale.

"Yep," said Jack without moving, his eyes remaining on the stars.

Xander decided to take the verbal response as a good sign. "How'd that happen?"

Jack sighed and finally looked away from the sky at him. "It's classified," he said softly, his words underscored by regret both in his voice and eyes and how they quickly darted away.

"I guess I'm gonna get that a lot, aren't I?" said Xander just as softly, also looking away over the yard. Jack didn't answer. "So much for sharing." So much for getting past the gaping plot holes in their lives.

"Xander," Jack sounded tired. "You already know too much."

"I don't know anything," Xander countered. "I only know you have an alien in a mountain in Colorado. Except here now, because some guys want you to retire or something."

"It's a power play and definitely more than you should know," said Jack with annoyance. "I don't know what Willow did with the computer stuff or the . . . the . . . thing she did with Teal'c, but whatever it was I wish she hadn't. I don't know how I'm going to explain this to the General," he sighed again, running a hand through his hair. "The computer breach alone is going to send him through the roof."

"Willow's not in any trouble, is she?" Xander asked apprehensively. Jack gave him a what-do-you-think look that obviously said 'yes' in big bold letters. "It was completely justified, you know," he replied, immediately defending his friend.

"I know. If I was in your place I'd have ordered the same thing," Jack nodded, then asked after a pause, "The magic stuff's real, isn't it? Not some sort of technology? Even seeing the thing in the basement . . ." he trailed off, but Xander understood. There was nothing like watching someone do their mojo to make you a believer.

"Yeah, it's real."

"Is she really going to erase their memories?"

"She's done it before," Xander replied.

"Could you do it?"

"Me? No," said Xander, his thoughts flickering back to both times Tara had broken up with Willow because of memory magic. He remembered Anya wondering later if this would have fallen in her jurisdiction had she still been a 'justice' demon. "I don't hone my inner warlock." Off Jack's questioning look he added, "Even with a spell to follow it takes skill and power to do something drastic like that. I can only do the little stuff any idiot who can read can do."

Jack smiled a little at that but it didn't reach his eyes. Instead he regarded Xander as if he were searching for something but couldn't find it, and it was beginning to make him uncomfortable. "What?" Xander finally asked, hoping against hope that he didn't have alfredo sauce anywhere embarrassing.

"Nothing," said Jack glancing away, the awkwardness like a shroud between them. But there was definitely a something there.

"What?" Xander repeated as his curiosity won out over caution.

"It's nothing. Really," said Jack looking up and away again, crossing then uncrossing his arms and jamming his hands in his pockets. "I was just thinking about . . . about how much I don't know about you at all."

"Yeah, well same here," Xander agreed. A lifetime's worth of stuff he thought, even as the word 'classified' echoed in his mind. "But I guess you won't tell me much about what you do."

"There's all this paperwork and a pesky court martial if you spill the beans," Jack said regretfully, and Xander knew he was too good of an officer to do that. "So vampires," Jack echoed his earlier comment about aliens. "Andrew showed us his bite mark." Xander smiled at that. "How did you find out about them?"

"I met Buffy," said Xander pretty much summing up the day everything changed with a slightly nostalgic smile. "Tenth grade. I overheard her and Giles talking about them in the library first day of school, then Buffy saved Willow from a vamp a few days later and, voila, the beginning of a beautiful friendship full of untold danger with a dash of terror thrown in for kicks." The rest was history, Xander added to himself even as Jack regarded him with a carefully neutral expression. High school felt so long ago now, like a dream that bordered on a nightmare but one you still recognized as just a dream that you could wake yourself up from if it got too bad.

"How much danger?" Jack asked.

Xander looked at him for a moment wondering how much to tell him. He'd never told his own parents, his mom and the man he'd thought was his father, never told them anything. Even at his wedding all of Anya's friends had been introduced as circus people still in costume. Tony had been too drunk to notice.

But Jack wasn't Tony. Jack had noticed and he had worried and he hadn't been put off by excuses. His words from a week ago - 'you are my business' - suddenly came back to him, and Xander decided that he wanted this to work. He wanted what Buffy had found with her mom and not what Willow held onto with her own parents from afar.

"It's dangerous. We fight against creatures that go out every night to find someone to eat. People die," he said. "Do you remember about Jesse?" he paused, continuing when Jack nodded at the familiar name. "He was the first vampire I staked." Jack started at this but Xander went on. "Me, Giles, Willow, we've all lost a girlfriend along the way, in Buffy's case two boyfriends. Two years ago I lost my eye."

"A fight?"

He nodded abruptly. "I got in the way of a really powerful guy who was more interested in playing. Thought it'd be funny," he added with a bitter twist to his lips. The memory of how it felt, the sickening squish of his left eye into his head still gave him nightmares, and even now made him shudder.

"I'm sorry," said Jack but Xander carefully shrugged it away. It wasn't going to bring his eye back, or Anya or any of the other slayers or Tara or Jenny or kids he'd grown up with or . . . he stopped because he could think of too many more people that were dead or forever hurt by the supernatural. "I guess . . ." said Jack, "at this point it's pointless to ask you to stop." He crossed his arms across his chest again as if he were trying to distance himself from the Xander's life.

"Pretty much," Xander agreed though he appreciated him saying it. But there was too much work to be done, too many reasons to stay. The fight had become so much of his life that he didn't think he would ever be able to just walk away.

"Why do you train them?" asked Jack suddenly. "The girls. If it's so dangerous they shouldn't be anywhere near this."

'Them' being the slayers, Xander couldn't fault him for demanding an answer, but at the same time there was no choice in the matter. "That's what Courtney's parents said," he said quietly. "They wouldn't let Courtney come to training last summer. Didn't take us seriously. If they had, maybe they'd be alive now." He returned Jack's heavy gaze with one of his own. "It's not fair and it's not easy but slayers just can't ignore the Slayer inside. It gets them killed."

Jack sighed and ran his hand over his face as he absorbed this, clearly not happy with the situation.

"Xander," the back door banged open and Andrew leaned around it while keeping his feet safely inside. "Buffy wants you. Courtney's aunt and uncle are here," he said before quickly closing the door on the cold.

"I gotta go," Xander turned back to Jack who simply nodded without looking at him. After a tense moment when neither one of them said anything, Xander left him on the porch and went inside. When he glanced out the window as he kicked off his shoes, Jack was again staring at the stars.

Jack's eyes flittered from Orion to Cassiopeia seeing planets filled with trees and people he didn't understand, and he felt suddenly that he was on another such planet now as anger gave way to helplessness. It reminded him of the children on that one world upon whom the fate of their people rested to the point where they hadn't a chance to just be kids. Here it felt worse: the slayers were losing their innocence to violence. They were essentially soldiers born to fight a never-ending war. And despite what Xander had told him about Courtney, Jack almost had a mind to go up to Giles or Buffy and demand that they just stop training them and let professionals take care of the vampires.

And Xander . . . tenth grade, Jack thought. He'd been what? Fifteen? Sixteen years-old? Christ. It made him wonder again if this was all real because sixteen was just way too young to be killing what was left of your best friend. It was a wonder Xander was as normal as he was. Hell, he was still a kid to Jack, younger than most of the recruits they saw at the SGC. But at the same time so much older.

There had to be another way. This just couldn't be the only way to hold off all the . . . ugly evil things. Maybe he could talk to Davis about it since this would fall into the category of national security. At least he hoped so. If the government didn't know and hadn't done anything about it at this point, convincing the people who mattered might be a little difficult but if he could get Xander's help with the briefing, or even Buffy's, he was sure they could at least get people thinking about it. And put a bullseye on the girls . . . so maybe not Buffy's help. If they spun it right though, the Pentagon would never have to know about the girls or Xander or anybody, just the monsters.

With a parting look at the stars, Jack went back into the house quickly passing through the now clean kitchen and the dining room into the den. On the floor in front of the tv, Teal'c and Andrew were playing Jedi Knights while Daniel, Carter, and Dawn chatted on the couch. Or rather on closer inspection, Daniel and Carter were discussing mythology that could be reinterpreted while Dawn read a book and cast glances at the foyer.

"Hey, Jack," Daniel greeted him looking up from the conversation when he walked in. His eyebrows lifted slightly in a small frown as if to ask Jack if he was all right. Nodding in response to both the greeting and the question, Jack glanced once more over the sparely populated room.

"Where is everyone?" he asked.

"Xander, Giles, Buffy, and Courtney are with her relatives in the front room," Carter supplied. "Don't know where Willow and Kennedy are."

"On patrol," Dawn spoke up.


"In the city," she said. "I think tonight's the west side. Today's Sunday, right?"

"So they're out looking for . . . " Daniel didn't know quite how to finish but Dawn understood anyway.

"The usual fledges and signs of impending doom. Not much happens around Christmas though." She cast another look at the foyer before shrugging. "They'll probably make a date out of it."

Jack stared at her and wondered if she even heard what she was saying. What Xander had just told him was a very dangerous life where people died Dawn was shrugging off as nothing to worry about. "When are they checking in?" he asked perhaps a little more harshly than he intended.

"You mean call?" asked Dawn. "They'll only do that if they need help. Otherwise they'll be back by morning at the latest."

Morning was an awful long time for them to be out there on their own, especially in a city at night where other dangers lurked besides the ones they were looking for. They could be mugged or trapped in a bad neighborhood or lost, and Dawn wasn't even sure where they were? To Jack's military mind, that was too many risks to take without enough back up.

"What do you mean by 'signs of impending doom?'" asked Daniel, getting back to her earlier comment.

"Weird stuff that doesn't fall into the normal category of weird," Dawn frowned, having trouble defining it herself. "Like, really strong demons - or talkative, threatening ones. Or missing artifacts from graves. Stuff like that . . ." she shrugged. "It's the kind of stuff that when you see it, you know it's gonna be bad, I guess. Though sometimes we miss it 'til it's almost too late."

Her last comment didn't sound very reassuring and neither was the thoughtful look on her face that was obviously thinking of specific examples. "What sort of impending doom are we talking about here?" asked Jack sharply.

Dawn glanced at Andrew on the floor who snuck a look over his shoulder full of apprehension and a hundred meanings. "Massacres," said Dawn carefully. "Rituals for any number of things. Sometimes the end of the world."

"End of the world?" Jack asked in chorus with Daniel and Carter. Even Teal'c paused in his game with Andrew and looked up at this news.

"It hasn't really happened in while," Dawn rushed on to reassure them, but Jack if anything felt even less reassured. "There's only been, like, one major try here, everything else's been local scale stuff."

"You're saying there have been attempts to end the world?" asked Daniel who was the first to recover. "What are we talking about here? A magical destruction of Earth's existence or some apocalyptic scenario of wide spread natural destruction? There are many myths that -"

"Hell on Earth," Dawn interrupted, her bluntness prompting him and everyone to silence. "Mostly they just want that."

Jack's mind flashed to Netu, the Goa'uld hell world that had been beyond anything he had ever imagined that Hell could be. If Dawn's definition was anything like what they'd been through . . . but it couldn't be, right? But if it was . . . Jack's outrage only increased at what these kids were dealing with. Damnit, they knew. SG-1 had been there, done that and bought out the save-the-world t-shirts. It was difficult enough when you had years of training to fall back on. "And Willow and Kennedy are out there on their own?" he asked. Looking for things that wanted Hell?

"They're not going to die from walking in the street," said Dawn as if it were obvious but nonetheless on the defensive. "You should pity who they meet."

"Besides nothing smart is stupid enough to attack them if Willow's there," added Andrew in that brand of logic that was prevalent around this house which Jack for the life of him couldn't follow. He took a small measure of relief from the fact that both Carter and Daniel looked at each other in mild confusion before turning to the young man and asking,

"Why would they be afraid of Willow?" asked Daniel. It was a very good question, and one that Jack wanted an answer to as well. Andrew blushed under the sudden scrutiny, shifting uncomfortably from side to side as everyone stared at him for the split second before Dawn drew SG-1's attention back to her.

"Willow's a witch," she said which was no answer at all since Jack and his teammates had already surmised as much from dinner. And from what Xander had said, she had enough skill and power to do more than low level spells, whatever that meant exactly.

"Just how powerful is she?" asked Jack suspiciously. Because if even the bad guys were afraid of her - and from Dawn's uncomfortable glance away, that was more telling than anything she could have said. Willow added up to more than just average. Andrew was suddenly very absorbed in his video game, doing moves even though Teal'c was no longer actively playing. "Dawn?" Jack turned back to the young woman on the couch.

"What?" she said defensively. "She's good, big deal."

Jack didn't answer. Big deal, indeed. It didn't really change anything except for the fact that Willow's power was considered something not to be discussed, but maybe they were simply wary of talking to virtual strangers about it, especially with the problems they had with the military in general. Don't let the enemy know just how powerful your weapons really are. Carter and Daniel for once taking their cue from him didn't press the matter, instead simply exchanging looks with Jack, Teal'c, and each other. At every turn, things were more than they seemed, convincing Jack further that these kids needed help. And that matter of national security? Hell on Earth definitely qualified.

Sudden shouting from the direction of the foyer broke off any further thought of how exactly Jack was going to get them help. "You expect . . . believe . . . crap?!" an unfamiliar man yelled, his words obscured by the doors and distance. Every head in the den snapped up but the reply was too soft to hear. Then, "No!! We . . . Courtney away . . . lunatics . . . police . . . near my niece again!!"

"They . . . dead . . . didn't listen . . .!!" he heard Buffy shout back this time. ". . . want that?!"

"Stay away . . .!!"

"Hey!!" That was Xander.

"Stop it!! Stop it!! Stop it!! Stop it!!" Courtney's high voice broke over the argument ringing clearly through the house. "They're dead!" she screamed, her voice breaking at the sudden abuse. "Vampires . . . right in front of me! They . . . screaming and they died! They died!!" Then the sound of a door crashing open and running feet and the front door slamming open and closed. Dawn jumped up and ran after her while Jack and the rest of them got up, bewildered and wondering if they should follow or not. Andrew was the first to move, going to the window and pulling the curtain back just enough to see out into the front yard. Jack and his teammates soon joined him. In the background they could hear the murmuring voices of those in the sitting room.

Outside under the dull illumination of a street light, Courtney had run to one of the three trees in the front yard and started hitting it, knocking snow from the branches above. Dawn stood several feet behind her, not trying to stop her but waiting until she had tired herself out and collapsed to the ground. Then Dawn was there, cautiously at first then suddenly pulling the younger girl into a close hug as her anguished sobs echoed softly through the night.

"Oh, god," Daniel whispered as they pulled away from the window, the haunted look in his eyes no doubt remembering the loss of his own parents as a child.

"I thought . . ." Carter never finished her sentence but from the stunned look on her face she felt as Jack did - that his stomach had just clenched into a knot. What had been haltingly accepted till now, even with the disturbing facts he'd since learned, was now devastatingly summed up in one little girl crying in the snow.

"We've got to help them," Jack murmured. "This isn't right."

"What are you suggesting, O'Neill?" asked Teal'c. "At the moment we are unequipped to deal with the vampires and other demons."

"I'm not saying right this instant," said Jack. "When we get back to base we make a few phone calls, see if we can get some ball rolling so these kids don't have to deal with all this . . . crap."

"You're gonna tell?!" Andrew's sudden entrance into the conversation reigned Jack's thoughts in, reminding him of Xander's demand that he not tell anyone beyond his team and Hammond. "You can't do that!"

"Andrew, we're not going to tell anyone about the slayers," Jack turned to him impatiently. "That's the whole point: to keep them out of this. Her parents are dead because she got dragged into all this vampire stuff!" He didn't know who he was angrier at right now, the vampires, Xander and Giles and Buffy for dragging Courtney into their world, or Andrew for not seeing that it had to stop.

"But . . . but . . . that's impossible!" Andrew protested. "That's like asking Superman to stay in the phonebooth or Aragorn to stop being noble and kingly or -"

"That is not the same," Teal'c interrupted before anyone else came out of his mouth.

"Did you not see Spiderman?" Andrew shouted, his voice squeaking slightly even as his eyes took on a slightly impatient manic glint that was perhaps the most surprising thing of all about the young man's outburst, aside from the fact that he was standing up to them at all. "Courtney was Chosen," said Andrew, the capitals practically audible. "It's destiny!"

"Destiny?!" Jack shouted back. "Getting her life destroyed was destiny?!"

"Andrew," Daniel interjected in his reasonable voice that had calmed many an excited native. "Don't you think destiny is exaggerating things a little? What about free will?"

Gotcha, the thought flickered through Jack's mind as Andrew floundered for words, his face melting through an array of frustration. "There's free will . . . but there's also destiny . . . like an umbrella . . . destiny, I mean. Only instead of keeping the rain out it just wants you to stay dry underneath. It doesn't care what you do under there as long as you stay dry . . . dry is free will . . . You can't escape," he said. "'With great power comes great responsibility.'"

"So you're saying that because they can fight, they should?" said Daniel looking over the tops of his glasses. He glanced quickly at Jack, and then said, "Is that right?"

"No, you don't understand!" Andrew said in a more normal voice though he was clearly still frustrated with them. Daniel's soothing tone had worked its magic and had even made Jack's own temper simmer down. "It's not about the fighting, it's about the power!"

"Power?" asked Jack, unsure what he meant.

"You know, power. Everyone has it, but slayers more," said Andrew, again trying to explain but not having the words. "She could kill a regular person if she wanted, or by accident. She could join the Dark Side of the Force just 'cause. If she hides she'll be found. She's always going to be involved because she is power. Destiny. The rest is keeping dry." He huffed. "It makes more sense when Buffy explains it," he half whined.

But Jack thought he sort of understood where they were coming from, Spiderman not withstanding. Kids with superpowers were like kids with guns and Jack knew only too well what innocent tragedies came from that combination. If Xander and Giles and everyone else here didn't find them, train them, and give them an acceptable target then the death toll might be just that much higher. In their war, these were the soldiers they needed and they weren't going to turn them away. But it still didn't make it right, and given Andrew's resistance, of all people, he knew they would have their work cut out for them convincing the others.

He let out an explosive sigh, barely listening as Daniel continued arguing with Andrew. Here he'd come to Cleveland, fearing the worst from having inadvertently dragged Xander into his world, when in fact it was he who had been irrecoverably drawn into Xander's.

"I hate parents!" Buffy groaned as she flopped back on the shoddy sitting room couch. Xander merely rolled his head to look at her from where he sat already splayed out. The relatives had just left, and it was only nine-thirty. It felt like half the night had already passed away.

"Aunt and uncle," he corrected her, but Buffy only muttered a half hearted "Guardians, whatever" in response, which made Xander grin. Poor Buffy had no patience for normal people. He pitied the families she would have to talk to in Europe - in a foreign language. Thankfully they'd done a lot of the initial legwork last year so it wouldn't be quite the same disaster, but there were still all those newbies out there that had been called since then and all the ones to come. Xander was just glad he got to stay in America.

"Well, at least they finally listened," said Giles from where he sat a little straighter in the armchair. "That's something. I suspect they'll be all right in the end."

"I hope so for Courtney's sake," said Xander though he agreed with the assessment. Kim and Paul Laysan had reacted by the book and had only lashed out in fear and denial. However, they loved their niece enough to take Courtney's blowup to heart. This family would make it. Others hadn't; some probably shouldn't have been told. A couple of the slayers had told him they had ended up denying it again to their parents who couldn't cope. Getting them back for the summer was going to be a challenge that Xander was not looking forward to.

As for the Laysans, Giles as the resident 'parent' was going to meet with them tomorrow, somewhere more neutral to talk about the details. Courtney would probably stay in Cleveland until all the legalities and school stuff were taken care of so they could maximize her training time. The real work wouldn't begin until the summer of course, but she needed more than just instinct for the interim.

Xander sighed. He hated this part of the watcher gig, dealing with the support systems and families that were changed forever. Sure the system was better now for the slayers but it was still pretty high up on the sucking scale.

Thinking of families and the Laysans in particular made Xander think of his previous revelation of the day. All things considered, Jack had taken it fairly well, but that was where Xander's experience with parents ran out. His own he had avoided as much as possible after eighth grade, like squeaky boards when you were trying to sneak in after curfew. Not that they had really cared enough to give him a curfew. Had Jack been his dad growing up, he was sure there would have been not only a curfew but an angry and worried-out-of-his-mind parent waiting up for him. Xander could handle Jack mad now only because of nerves steeled from years of standing up to Buffy and Giles, but his high school self would have stood no chance.

"Hey Buffy," he said, again rolling his head to look at her. "How did your mom take finding out, after you came back, I mean?" he added referring to the summer Buffy had run away to LA.

She thought for a moment before answering. "Things were different," she said slowly. "At first I think we were both just getting used to each other again. She didn't push too much but she did ask what was going on." Buffy smiled faintly, "A couple times she stayed up late and made cookies that were warm and gooey when I got home."

"It was hard on her," said Giles softly. "She held up remarkably well."

"She was amazing," Buffy agreed sadly. "And it took me so long to see it. It was almost too late." She let out a sigh that held the edges of tears though her eyes were still dry.

"But such are teenagers," Giles replied gently. "No one ever knows as much as they do about anything."

"Were we really as awful as I remember?" she asked.

"Do you really want to know?" There was a teasing twinkle in Giles's eyes as he said this, lightening the mood.

"Buffy, think of Dawn and multiply by three," Xander suggested. He, Buffy, and Willow had probably broken every school rule there was for their regular teachers, and poor Giles had had to deal with them the rest of the time along with their significant others. "And add a factor of ten for Cordelia," he added at the thought of his ex-girlfriend.

"Uhhgg. I am never having kids," Buffy declared.

"Yes, because that plan works out, oh so well," said Giles dryly surprising a bark of laughter out of Xander and a wide eyed look from Buffy.

"Great," she said resettling. "I can just see myself in ten years, old and fat, clucking over my glasses at my slayers about doing their homework." The image of her little and old made Xander laugh again and that prompted an arch look from the 'little old lady.'

"I wouldn't worry, Buffy," he said consolingly. "You'll never be fat or wear glasses."

"I'll still be old," she grumbled.

"And this is a bad thing?" asked Giles.

Buffy turned to him a smiled, serious now. "No," she said quietly. "I guess . . . I'm still getting used to the idea that I've got a life beyond twenty-five." Giles smiled back, as did Xander, the three of them sharing mutual love and hope for a better life for all of them. Leaving Sunnydale had been like breaking free of a curse, and traveling America and Europe looking for slayers had been the best medicine for all the hurt and pain they'd suffered. The trip had shown them that despite all the bad stuff - vampires, corrupt cops, human crime, global climate change - there was still so much to live for in the world, so much to fight for. There were puppies and basketball games and carnivals and cafes and Yosemite Park and people. Millions and billions of people who loved life too.

Xander knew it wasn't all black and white, he'd need only look at their own lives to see that, and he was cynical enough to ask twice what the catch was. Good people messed up, bad people changed for the better, and everyone was just struggling through life as best they could. It was having that chance to struggle that was important. Hope. Somehow it was easier to see outside of Sunnydale.

"So Xander, how's the dad thing going?" Buffy broke the silence that had fallen over them like a warm blanket. "He didn't look too happy at dinner."

Xander thought back over their stilted conversation on the porch that hadn't done anything it seemed except reinforce the gap between them. "He's not happy about any of it. His work's classified and no one is supposed to know about it." Jack hadn't appeared too angry though, just tired and worried. "I think he was more upset about us fighting vampires for a living."

"This from a guy who's friends with an alien?" asked Buffy.

"I suspect his problem arises more from the existence of the supernatural," said Giles. "Dr. Jackson and Major Carter earlier were trying to rationalize everything with science. Honestly, I couldn't understand half of what they were saying, but they were more concerned with the reasons behind the belief than the actual beliefs."

Thinking back on it, Xander wasn't so sure. "Not Jack," he disagreed. "He had a problem with us fighting. 'Kids'. Basically told me he wanted me to stop because it was too dangerous."

A ghost of a smile flittered over Buffy's face at that news. "I like him," she said. "Not that you should stop," she quickly added, suddenly worried Xander might take it the wrong way, "but it's cool that he asked."

"So I can keep him?" Xander joked, but internally giddy that Jack had won Buffy's approval.

"Xander, I think you would be foolish to let him go," said Giles, making Xander this time look at the other man in surprise. Giles was actually for Jack now? After all the hemming and hawing about the American military and casual questions about his visits and general disapproving vibes? Xander was so startled, he just stared at the one adult that had been constant in his life and who now smiled knowingly back at him, clearly amused by his frank disbelief that he approved.

"Xand, you're gonna catch flies if you leave your jaw there," said Buffy with a giggle. Abruptly, he shut his mouth and looked from one to the other.

"He's been good for you," said Giles still smiling like he knew everything. "And I must say that I'm impressed he has not disappeared on you."

"I don't think I could get him to if I wanted it," Xander replied, finally over most of his shock and decidedly happy about Giles's sudden support.

"Just as long as the military thing doesn't backfire on us," said Buffy. "If it does I reserve the right to blow up their mountain."

"I know I'm going to regret asking, but why blow it up?" asked Giles, wincing in anticipation.

Buffy shrugged impishly. "I'm better at blowing up stuff. Three for two record, you know."

"Besides," Xander couldn't help but add. "Finding the mountain would be a hell of a lot easier than going after the people involved."

"Plus, we could give them time to evacuate," said Buffy magnanimously, as if utter destruction were not her goal. Giles merely regarded them calmly, unfazed by their plan.

"Just as long as I am not in the country when you do so," was all he said. He stood up and grimaced from moving stiff muscles. "Either of you like tea?" he asked as his back popped.


"Hot chocolate," they requested. Giles shook his head at them but nodded anyway and left for the kitchen. Xander and Buffy just stayed on the comfy couch, too lazy to move.

"You really like Jack?" Xander asked a minute later.

"Yeah," Buffy sighed, turning her head towards him and smiling. "I do. He's around, you know? You guys visit. He calls. Sometimes I wish my dad would bother himself about it, but then I remember how much I don't like him. But I like Jack. He's a lot like you."

"Witty and ridiculously good looking?" Xander joked.

"He could pass for cute," said Buffy with the devil in her eye. Xander threw his head back against the couch.

"First Dawn, now you!" he groaned.

"Dawn said he was cute?"

"Not Jack, Daniel. Which is marginally better I guess. At least he's not supposed to be my father." He looked critically at Buffy and tried thinking about her and Jack. It was a bad idea. "I need therapy," he said. "I think I just scarred myself for life."

"Why?" asked Buffy giving him a quizzical look at his odd statement.

Xander's mouth opened to share before he could stop it. "You as my stepmom. I will never forgive you if that happens."

Buffy looked at him a little stricken by that, and then burst out laughing. After a second, Xander joined in. The idea was ridiculous and so completely beyond messed up, but stranger things had happened. It felt good to laugh, like all the uncertainty and stress just drained away from his chest, down his arms, and out his fingertips, leaving only a relaxed tiredness behind. By the time Giles came in a few minutes later, their laughter had melted into spurts of giggles. The Head Watcher simply handed them two steaming mugs and quirked an eyebrow.

"Trust me, you don't want to know," Buffy told him as she accepted her hot chocolate.

"Do either of you have objections to putting up Colonel O'Neill and his friends for the night?" Giles took her advice to heart.

Xander shrugged. "No, why?"

"Oh, he just told me they were going to have to leave soon to get back to the base they're staying at. I thought why not stay here."

"Sure, but I want Willow or someone to put an alarm on their door."


"Xander, we're not chaining them up, but they could still be dangerous," the Slayer overrode his protest. "It's just in case. They won't even know it's there."

Unable to argue with that logic, and knowing he wouldn't win anyway if he did, Xander agreed to it. "Okay," he sighed. "I'll go ask them." With that, he pulled himself to his feet and went in search of Jack.

"Hey Jack," Xander's voice interrupted the discussion around the dining room table. Jack and his team were solidifying what they knew and trying to come up with a report for Hammond and possibly Davis about the situation here. Top on his list of recommendations was a program that eliminated the need for underage slayers.

"Xander, what's up?" he asked as his son joined them at the table with a cup of coffee. Jack wondered if there was any left in the kitchen.

"Giles said you have to leave soon. Do you wanna just stay here for the night?" he asked. "We've got plenty of space."

"That'd be great," Jack smiled, not very surprised by the offer but glad for it nonetheless. They needed to be back here in the morning anyway to see about the rogue NID agents and it would save them a long drive each way.

"Cool. So whatcha doing here?" Xander turned his attention to the looseleaf paper Jack was writing on. "'Intelligence, armament . . .' You planning a war or something?"

"Uh, yeah," said Jack carefully. Considering the way Andrew had blown up over this, he wasn't too sure he was ready for Xander's reaction to his little brainchild. He cast looks to Daniel, Carter, and Teal'c, silently asking them if he should broach the subject.

"We were actually thinking of what we could do to help," said Daniel, ever the diplomat. "From what you've told us, it sounds like a pretty big job protecting the world from vampires from out of Cleveland."

"So when you say help, you mean have the military come in with intelligence and weapons and just do the job for us?" Xander looked from Daniel to Jack questioningly. So far, no explosions, that was good.

"That would be the long term goal," said Carter. "With such a big project we would need a transition period but the ultimate goal is that the need for slayers would be gone."

"Gone." Xander let out a half laugh of disbelief, pulling Jack's piece of paper over and looking at it one more time. "You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"

A little taken aback by this response, Jack lifted his eyebrows and suggested, "Vampires? Ugly evil things? Look, I know we're new to this stuff, but there's got to be a better way to fight them than with little girls."

Xander leveled his eye on him. "And what about the next hell god or when the First makes his next move? Will your soldiers be able to handle that?"

"True gods do not exist," said Teal'c, but Xander wasn't smiling when he turned to the Jaffa.

"Yeah? Tell that to someone who wasn't there."

Jack glanced down the table at Daniel and Carter who looked just as bewildered as he felt. But Xander went on.

"It's not just vampires," he said sitting back in his chair so he could see them all more easily. "And it's not just demons you can kill by shooting. There are a lot of things out there, that trying to shoot them full of bullets will just piss them off. Intelligence isn't just finding out where they are either."

"We realize it's not that simple," said Jack a little annoyed at being talked down to. "This is just a start."

"You're talking about setting up a system we already have in place," Xander replied.

"Oh?" said Jack. This was news. Where was this marvelous system then? "You have people gathering info on all hostile movements? Backup standing by for Willow and Kennedy? Measures in place in case someone tries to end the world?"

"Yeah, us."

Great. Jack sighed impatiently. That was hardly an answer and all this was getting nowhere. "Xander, training hardly counts. We're talking about an organized defense against all the supernatural crap. No more kids fighting and dying."

"Taking them out of the action won't protect them," Xander shook his head. "You need the supernatural to fight the supernatural, and that's the slayers. They're drawn to it. Half your soldiers will be dead in their first skirmish. I'm not kidding, Jack," he added when the older man opened his mouth to protest. He was dead serious. "I know you don't like it," he said a little more softly. "Most of the time I don't like it either, but more people will die if we don't do it our way."

"What's the system you have?" Carter asked into the ensuing silence. Xander broke off his staring contest with Jack and smiled sourly.

"Welcome to the North American Headquarters of the International Watchers Council," he said.

"International Watcher's Council?" Jack repeated, not sure he was hearing this. He looked around at the china cabinet and the framed Ansel Adams posters on the walls. "Here?"

"This is just the central operations room," said Xander dryly, "also known three times a day as the dining room."

"You're saying that you run an international organization against vampires out of the dining room?" he asked.

Xander shrugged. "It's the table. Giles actually runs the international part as Head of the Watchers. I just take care of the slayers in North America, though Mexico and all those little countries down there are getting transferred to the South American office once Willow gets set up."

"Mr. North America," Jack recalled Xander's confusing statement from that morning. Xander was responsible for maintaining the safety of an entire continent? That was insane!

"Why have you been chosen for these positions?" asked Teal'c. "Would it not be more fitting for an elder generation to carry out these duties?"

"Because the 'elder generation' also known as the Stuffy Assholes in England Who Thought They Knew What Was Going On But Really Didn't went kablewie two years ago," Xander said, a little irritated. "Giles and about fifteen people he's found since then are all that's left of the old Council. That left us with a whole lot of new slayers all over the place so we decided to reform the council so that it would actually help the Slayer instead of try to enslave her."

"Wait a minute," said Jack, holding up a hand to slow him down. There had been a bit too much information for him to process in that last explanation. "There was another organization before you, who did the same thing?"

"No." Xander corrected him. "There was an older Council that claimed to do the same thing. The Slayer was just their tool in the fight. They didn't really do anything except cause trouble for us. It was about power," he practically spat the same word Andrew had used earlier. "We still do what we've always done just on a bigger scale now that there are more slayers."

"More slayers?" asked Daniel.

"There used to be one, Buffy. And I am so not explaining right now. Point is, we're set up to handle it. You'd just be getting in our way."

More complications, Jack figured. He could feel a headache coming on already. It sounded like some serious history, for what was clicking together in Jack's head was the timeframe. Two years ago Xander had lost his eye, Sunnydale had sunk into the ground, and his girlfriend had died. That sounded like too much of a coincidence for comfort. He almost asked what had happened but decided to wait until he and Xander were alone. Instead, he simply watched his son as Daniel tried to convince him that quitting would give him a chance at a better life, but Xander wasn't having any of it. Jack saw the same determination in his eye that had been there out on the porch, when he'd asked about it. Xander was in too deep. 'I'm talking about my life,' he'd said just that morning. Jack had thought earlier that maybe he would see reason and let the soldiers take over, but once again, Xander's deep seated mistrust of the military wouldn't give ground, no matter what Daniel said.

"Look, the last time you guys tried to take over we had to bail you out," Xander brought Jack crashing back to the present. "So just forget it already. The government tries to take over again we'll stop you. And trust me when I say you don't want to get Buffy or Willow mad." But it was his first statement that got Jack's attention.

"What do you mean 'the last time we took over'?"

Xander sighed, obviously wishing he hadn't said anything. "It was called the Initiative. Top secret, obviously. Ended with a lot of dead soldiers. The ones that made it only did because we stepped in. They didn't know what they were dealing with; you don't know what you're dealing with. And I don't care about your good intentions, there's always going to be some mad scientist who wants to play god and damn the consequences. So I'm telling you now, we will not let that happen again. If it does I'd stay away from that mountain of yours."

Jack sat up at the words that sounded ominously like a threat. "Why?" he asked.

Xander glanced at him then at the others. "Buffy said something about blowing it up," he said casually. And something in the way he said it made Jack certain he wasn't joking around. "Come on," Xander abruptly stood up, effectively putting an end to the conversation. "I'll show you where you're staying." He left the room by way of the kitchen, and as Jack and his team got up to follow him, he knew that they'd be spending the night talking instead of sleeping.


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