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Chapter Eleven: Eleventh Hour Tango

Force of habit woke Jack around six thirty the following morning. It took him a moment to register why the sun was shining from the wrong direction before the sight of the bunk above him reminded him where he was. Xander had put them up in Diana and Vi's room that had two sets of bunkbeds and its own bathroom. Unlike the guest room that he had stayed in over Thanksgiving, this room was well decorated with the lives of two teenage girls. Movie and band posters were on the walls, photos of friends were stuck into the mirror, and pastel colored curtains hung from the top bunks giving the room a homey feel. To look at it, he would never have guessed that the two girls fought vampires on a nightly basis.

He and SG-1 had stayed up the better part of the night talking about everything they had learned thus far, especially Xander's denial of help the night before. And all the other little bombshells he had dropped along the way, namely the Watcher's Council and the Initiative project. Daniel had quickly jumped to their defense, saying they couldn't really blame Xander for resisting what he essentially saw as a hostile takeover, even if it would benefit them in the end. Jack hadn't really argued; they'd run into too many situations offworld where this had happened for him not to see the broader cultural implications. But it still didn't change the fact that having kids on the front line was wrong, and since they were dealing with the kids themselves, it was going to be very difficult to get them to see this. Jack wasn't about to give up though.

Other than convincing Xander that they needed help, Jack needed to call the General today to report and Carter wanted to call her contact at the NID - the legit branch - to see if he knew anything. Yesterday's revelations had completely sidetracked Jack from the actual matter at hand, namely Kinsey, the rogue NID, and how they were going to handle this mess, especially now that it had just gotten messier. He was positively dreading his call to Hammond.

Unable to sleep anymore, Jack got up and went to the bathroom. He really hoped today was better than yesterday. Maybe with everyone rested and not pulling secrets out of their hats, they could get something accomplished. Daniel and Teal'c were stirring when he returned, woken no doubt by his movements, while Carter was still curled up under the covers. Jack told them to go back to sleep in a whisper since he doubted anyone else would be up at such an early hour. Quickly, he dressed as quietly as he could and left the room, padding softly down the stairs. The house was peaceful for once though as he drew closer to the kitchen, Jack heard soft voices.

The kitchen was empty but a quick peak into the dining room showed Dawn and Courtney in their pajamas pouring over a laptop on the table. Neither one of them noticed him so absorbed were they in their work. Dawn seemed to be showing Courtney how to do something so Jack drew back from sight wondering why they were up this early but not wanting to intrude. Instead he kept an ear open as he searched the cabinets for coffee fixings.

"Willow showed me this one," Dawn was saying. "It's easier if you go to advanced search then try to do it there. That's down here." A few mouse clicks. "Then you type in the keywords," now the sound of typing, "author," more typing, "and sorted by date, latest first." Another few clicks then, "Voila! All the papers and abstracts written by Dr. Jackson."

Jack's head shot up at this last. His attention riveted on the other room, he stared at the door as if he could see through it. Looking into Daniel now were they? Oh, this couldn't be good. It took all of his self control not to go in there and find out what they had found. And how the hell did they find every paper he'd ever written on the internet?

"That's a lot of papers," Courtney commented quietly.

"They're probably not all the same person," said Dawn. "We can eliminate all these down here cause they're too old for him. Now we'll go through the rest and see what looks right."

"Won't they all be right?"

"Nope. The computer just grabs everything that matches, even if it doesn't fit exactly what we're looking for. See? Jackson, C. We don't care about what he wrote. Here, you want to go through and get all the Ds?" He heard some shuffling as the two girls must have traded places, then footsteps and he quickly turned away from the door and tried to look like he hadn't been listening.

"Jack," said Dawn stopping short at the open door that separated the two rooms. "You're up early," she said recovering. She headed over to the fridge with her head held stubbornly up, deliberately not looking at him.

"Couldn't sleep," he replied as she pulled out the orange juice and turned to the cabinet for glasses.

"Us either," said Dawn. She poured two glasses of OJ then looked up and said helpfully, "Filters are in the one to the right."

"Thanks." He turned to the cabinet she indicated. He heard her go back into the dining room while he fixed himself coffee.

"I think I got them all," he heard Courtney report then Dawn showed her how to do the next step of downloading the files they wanted. Next thing he knew, a printer was going in the background. Deciding he better interrupt before they read the papers from who-knows-who's-computers, Jack quickly scooped ground coffee into the filter, filled the top with water and set it to drip. A moment later he was in the dining room with two faces looking up at his abrupt entrance.

"Hey kids! Whatcha doing?" Jack asked cheerfully as if he didn't know what they were up to. Courtney looked anxiously at Dawn but the older girl just shrugged, not seeming to care that he knew, her head again lifting slightly.

"Research," she said vaguely looking back at the computer screen.

"Wouldn't happen to be on, oh say, Daniel would it?" asked Jack in the same sarcastically cheerful tone.

"It's a matter of public record," said Dawn primly cutting her eyes at him, daring him to challenge her actions. "Perfectly legal."

"Uh huh." Jack didn't believe her. "So where did you get the papers? They were just lying on the internet?"

"Actually yes," she said smugly. "Database of academic journals and everything they've ever published." She looked at him triumphantly, her eyes saying 'beat that.'

"What makes you think you'll find anything in there?" he asked.

"What makes you think we won't?" she countered. "We have to start somewhere, unless you want to fill us in . . ." she trailed off hopefully.

"Does the word 'classified' mean anything to you?" he asked.

"Interesting?" Dawn suggested impishly. Jack had to stop an eye roll at that, wishing she would just drop it. Poking around Daniel's past papers wouldn't yield much direct information but it would lead to other questions that Jack would much rather not have raised. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be much he could do about Dawn's curiosity at the moment short of breaking her computer, and all that would accomplish would be postponing the inevitable and making her hate him.

"Some things are better left alone," he said quietly, hoping to impress upon her the gravity of the situation.

"And some things shouldn't be ignored," said Dawn. Her large eyes caught Jack's in a gaze that was both enchanting and too old for the face that held it. It wouldn't matter what Jack said; she was going to look into it anyway. Nothing could stop that now. With a resigned and frustrated sigh, Jack went back into the kitchen and stared at the coffee maker trying to straighten everything out in his head, but his thoughts were a tangled mess. It wouldn't hurt anyone if they knew and kept it to themselves, but if they told others or let something slip or if the wrong people wanted to keep them quiet . . . There was more than one way to ruin a life, most a lot more unpleasant than a frontal attack - blacklisting, anonymous tips to local cops, a random hit-and-run accident crossing the street. Jack sighed. He'd seen them all, and damn it he didn't want that to happen to anyone here, but what could he do? What a mess indeed.

He was still thinking about it, and his options if the worst occurred when the coffee finally finished and even twenty minutes later when it was finally late enough for him to call the General. As much as he didn't want to make the call he was glad to be distracted. He fished out his cell phone that was secured for just these purposes and stepped outside to dial the Mountain.

"Hammond," the General answered the phone briskly.

"Good Morning, General," said Jack with a cheerfulness he didn't feel. Oh, this was not going to be fun.

"Colonel O'Neill, how's the situation in Cleveland?"

"Oh, still here," said Jack. "Xander really does have the NID locked up in his basement. I'm gonna call the base and get someone to pick them up."

"Did he explain how he managed to get them there?" the General asked calmly.

"You're not going to like it," said Jack.

"Colonel." He could hear Hammond frowning at him over the line.

"Yeah, so," here went nothing, "do you believe in magic?" he asked.

"Colonel." The General's frown increased.

"I know it sounds ludicrous. Believe me, I know," he ran his free hand through his hair. Once more he couldn't believe he was defending the idea. "But just hear me out. Xander and his friends claim to use magic, and unless they're hiding some Asgard technology somewhere . . ."

"Colonel, you're saying that your son and a few friends aided by magic captured a team of the Black Ops trained soldiers?" Disbelief colored every syllable.

"Yes, sir. I don't have all the details yet of what exactly happened," Jack said, "but I did see the commandos sitting in the basement being held prisoner by a force field that is not being produced by any technology that I could see anywhere in the house."

"What about some other technology that we are not aware of," said Hammond, latching onto a rationalization for Jack's insane babble. "Are they another alien race we haven't encountered yet?"

"Could be, but I doubt it," said Jack. The thought had crossed his mind last night but the kids didn't act anything but human and had been all too surprised at the revelation that Teal'c was an alien. Xander was human; there was no doubt of that. And Jack couldn't forget the sight of Andrew's bite mark that looked like it came out of a Dracula movie. No, if they were aliens, they had at least been born on Earth and had a vested interest in protecting the planet. Ironically, it was this explanation that Jack should have believed but didn't. "You want the really bad news?"

"Bad news?" Hammond practically growled. Yeah, he wasn't happy.

"Two of Xander's friends hacked the SGC, NID, and Groom Lake computers." Silence on the other end. Jack figured he might as well tell him the rest before the storm broke. "And one of them figured out by looking at Teal'c that he wasn't from Earth."

"Colonel," the General's voice was heavy. "If they aren't another alien race, I hope you have a very good explanation for this."


"Colonel O'Neill." Clearly the General still didn't believe him if the increase in volume was any indication.

"Sir, that was Xander's explanation, and as crazy as it is I believe him," Jack immediately jumped in. "There's more."

"More?!" Hammond was about to blow a gasket and Jack was suddenly very grateful he was halfway across the country at the moment.

"Yes, sir," said Jack. "Now I know this is going to sound just as insane but try to keep an open mind. I didn't want to believe it either but too much of it fits together." Jack took a deep breath to steel himself. "There's another war going on against vampires and demons," he said.

Hammond was silent. Jack gritted his teeth and squinted his eyes in preparation for the explosion, but in the end what came was far scarier. "Colonel, I sincerely hope you are pulling my leg," the General said in a deadly quiet voice.

"Sir, I wish to God I was," he said. "But I watched a girl break a four-by-four with her bare hands and I don't think she's an alien." He then proceeded to tell Hammond everything they knew about slayers and the creatures they fought including why he didn't think they were extraterrestrial, his desire to get the kids off the front line and Xander's resistance to the idea. Jack kept the conversation short and to the point. "I'm hoping that Daniel will talk them round once he's set loose on them," he finished. "Xander's right about one thing though. We can't let anyone know about the superhero kids."

"We'll worry about that when we get to it," said Hammond. He had listened gravely, asking a few questions here and there, but ultimately accepting Jack's analysis of the situation on trust alone. "Right now we have to worry about the NID that you have there. Mr. Freyland asked about your retirement papers yesterday. He doesn't know that the kidnapping failed."

"So there's a chance we can stick this to Kinsey before he can get his hands clean," said Jack, visions of publicly humiliating the Vice-President-elect eliciting a grim smile.

"We will have to be careful, Colonel," cautioned Hammond. "Chances are we'll only be able to keep him away from your son. I expect a report once you've taken the agents into custody."

"Understood, sir," Jack replied.

"Colonel." The General hung up, and Jack flipped his cell closed, looking out over the snowy back yard. He had a lot to think about.

Boxes of cereal littered the countertop when Xander finally dragged himself downstairs around nine. A little disappointed that it was Special K, Cheerios, or Life for breakfast instead of sausage and waffles, he grabbed the latter and a bowl. Through the kitchen window, he saw Jack talking intently with his friends on the porch. He was tempted to go out and see what they were talking about, but it looked like the kind of conversation that would stop abruptly as soon as the door opened. Instead Xander took his cereal into the dining room, which, no surprise, held Giles, Dawn, and Courtney, the laptop, and a hell of a lot of paper. All three looked up and smiled with a brief 'good morning' when he came in but quickly returned to their work.

Since this was normal research behavior, Xander simply sat and ate his cereal, snagging one of the papers to see what was up. 'Third Dynasty Upper Kingdom Extends South to Khmunu,' he read the title of the article from, his eyes flickered to the top of the page, the Journal of Egyptology. Then the author caught his eye: Daniel Jackson. Feeling a little guilty on the man's behalf he asked, "Does he know we're looking up his stuff?"

"Jack does," said Dawn glancing up, her pen retreating from the paper in front of her. "Since they're not telling us anything . . ." she shrugged letting the rest go unsaid. But somehow, as curious as he was, Xander felt like they were violating a trust, especially since the man they were snooping about was standing on the back porch.

"You know, I don't think the Third Dynasty has much to do with aliens," he said nodding at all the papers scattered about.

"It tells us that a really good archeologist suddenly quit his job and started working for the Air Force sometime in the last eight years," said Dawn.

"How do you know that?"

"His last abstract was published in 1997, then nothing after that," said Courtney with a quick glance at Dawn for approval.

"Abstract?" asked Xander, unfamiliar with the term.

"For scientific papers it's the summary of the paper," Courtney reached over and pointed at the paragraph set just under the title on the paper he held. "For talks at conferences, there's just an abstract," she pulled a single sheet of paper from a stack by Dawn who winked at Xander while the younger girl bustled around like a professional. Xander smiled to himself at Courtney's newfound expertise on abstracts, schooling his features when she turned back and handed it to him. It was entitled 'Dating of Hanuptra Temple Pushes Back Age of the Great Pyramids.' He tried reading the paragraph but immediately ran into words that he didn't think Giles knew.

"So what's it mean?" he asked waving the paper.

"It means that the Pyramids are older than everyone thought, according to Dr. Jackson," said Giles succinctly, finally putting down the paper he'd been reading. Obviously he had known what a few of those words meant. "I'm afraid that doesn't tell us much. Even in Watcher circles there isn't much known about Egypt or the Middle East before the Crusades. What we have, or I should say had, was sketchy at best in terms of history, especially following the purging by the Muslims. Mostly what survived over the years were the rituals and spell lore. Modern archeology has unearthed more than we ever had on our own given the written language barrier until the Rosetta Stone was found. I'm afraid I don't know much more about it as the Council primarily ignored Egypt since demons tend to regard the area as taboo."

"Any reason why?" asked Dawn at this new bit of information.

"No, no explanation has ever been found," said Giles. "Some have speculated that it's because of the desert. There's also a theory that the gods protect the land, however I don't believe that. The Egyptian pantheon are rather strong as gods go but they can only work peripherally in our dimension through the rituals that have been established."

"That still doesn't have much to do with aliens," said Xander turning back to his cereal. It was a little soggier after being ignored.

"We have to start somewhere," Dawn shrugged. "Hopefully it'll give me ideas for when I start running the internet searches." Xander didn't have an answer to that. That's how research went, you started with what you could and went from there. Finishing his cereal, Xander left them to it and went back into the kitchen. This time he chose Cheerios, mourning slightly that they were regular and not Honey Nut, but oh well, couldn't have everything. He was rummaging around in the cupboard for honey when the door opened behind him and Daniel and Teal'c came inside.

"Morning Xander," Daniel smiled at him coming over and helping himself to a refill of coffee. Teal'c nodded but didn't say anything.

"Morning. Sleep well?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Very well, thanks," said Daniel. "I was wondering if we could talk later," he said hesitantly. "After you get back from work or - "

"About what?" Xander finally found the honey hiding behind two jars of crunchy peanut butter. Taking the cap off of the little golden bear he squirted a generous amount over his cereal. When he looked up both Daniel and Teal'c were watching him and his cereal curiously. "They're plain," he explained.

"Right," Daniel started, frowning a bit at being caught staring. "Well, I had some questions about what you do here with the . . . vampire fighting," he got back to his earlier train of thought. "Jack was probably a little premature yesterday, but I still think we can help." He blinked and set down his cup of coffee. "Xander," he said carefully. "I know the military isn't always what it's cracked up to be, believe me I know." He gave him a humorless smile. "And I realize it doesn't help that you've had some bad experiences. But the military has a lot of good people, Jack's one of them, Sam's another. And we can help if you let us."

"So what, you asking for a chance to convince us to quit?" Xander asked for clarity, not quite sure what Daniel was asking for.

"No, not at all," Daniel hastened to explain. "For the moment we just want to learn a little more about what you do here. I promise we won't try anything without your permission." The archeologist looked at him earnestly, sincerity in every word.

Xander picked up his bowl of Cheerios and shoveled a spoonful into his mouth. They better not try anything without their permission. Things would get ugly for them both if they did. As for telling them what the Council did, hadn't they already done that? Fight vampires, save the world, make everywhere a safer place. What more was there to know? Besides, full disclosure felt a little too much like baring their collective neck to the wolves.

On the other hand . . . Xander looked back at Daniel who still regarded him hopefully, and at Teal'c who had been worried about his and Jack's relationship. Outside, Jack and Sam were still speaking. He'd given his word it wouldn't go farther than five people; he was worried about kids fighting and getting hurt. Above all, Xander trusted him still, and his friends. The question remained, was he being foolish by doing so?

"I'll have to ask the Council Board members," he finally answered.

"Of course," agreed Daniel nodding though he didn't look too pleased by the answer.

"How long will it take for a response from them?" asked Teal'c.

Xander shrugged and looked at the clock. "Six of us are here. Once Willow wakes up we'll have to call England and Africa to get the other three on the line." The others being Faith, Robin, and Vi who rounded out the Scooby Board which was composed of Giles and the chief slayer and watcher from each headquarters, as figurative as a few of them were.

"Africa?" asked Daniel.

"International remember?" said Xander. "Think the American military will help with that?" he asked sarcastically. Of course, Riley's 'anti-terrorist' team worked out of South America but that was one squad in the middle of the jungle. How would they cover the world?

"You probably guessed we're already intergalactic," said Daniel with a wry grin and a nod at Teal'c. The reply startled a grin out of Xander even as he felt the weird dislocated feeling he got from thinking about aliens. Unable to think of anything to add, he headed for the dining room with his cereal. When Daniel and Teal'c followed he turned to them.

"I should warn you that they're reading all the papers you ever wrote," he told Daniel who only smiled.

"Jack said as much," he said. "To be honest it's a little flattering."

"I'm just warning you," said Xander, pushing open the door. All three gluttons for punishment looked up from their reading, glanced at each other then Daniel a little nervously.

"I hear you're reading up on me," Daniel said by way of breaking the ice as he and Teal'c sat down with Xander.

"Would be easier if you could write," said Dawn playfully, with a hint of a challenge.

"Excuse me?"

"She said you should learn how to write," said Courtney heavily, rolling her eyes as only a thirteen year-old could. The open dictionary was by her elbow.

"Yeah, well," Daniel smiled self deprecatingly, "I don't think my writing cleaned up 'til I started writing reports on a regular basis."

"Oh what a wonderful idea - "

"Giles, no," Xander cut him off before he could finish the thought. "We have so many other better things to do with our time."

"Xander, we do need to document. Think of all the lovely reference books we don't have," he held up a hand to forestall the next protest. "And before you say it, I would never presume to ask you or anyone here to write anything. Posterity would never understand it."

"Hey!" Xander lifted a threatening spoon.

"What's 'posterity'?" asked Courtney.

"I rest my case. Do you want the job?" Giles turned to Daniel, a playful glint in his eye. Xander could tell the senior watcher was just loving the presence of other old people.

"I know what it means," Dawn gave Giles an unamused look, slightly offended.

"Yes, and when will you have time to write reports between university and translations?" Giles asked. "Not to mention everything else that will invariably come up."

"You're right. You should hire a secretary," Dawn agreed readily.

"You do translations?" asked Daniel curiously.

"Someone has to," said Dawn modestly. She grinned slightly and tried not to look like she was seeing if he was impressed. No crush his ass, thought Xander, but luckily for Daniel he didn't seem to be aware of it.

"What do you translate?" he asked curiously.

"Other languages?" said Dawn eliciting a snort of laughter from Courtney.

"I believe Daniel Jackson is asking about what languages you translate," said Teal'c perfectly serious, which only caused Courtney to giggle harder. The alien raised an eyebrow in her direction in apparent confusion, which made Xander sputter on his Cheerios.

"Are you all right, Xander Harris?" Teal'c turned to him and Xander managed to nod and swallow, a semi decent face presented to the alien before he took another bite. At that moment Teal'c added, "If you are not careful milk will come out of your nose. It is most uncomfortable."

Xander lost it. Worst of all, milk did come out of his nose as he tried to keep from spewing cheerios all over the table. And did it hurt like hell! Giles and Dawn were immediately on their feet to rescue all documents in his vague vicinity while Courtney giggled uncontrollably in her chair.

"Teal'c, leave him alone," said Daniel chuckling as well while Xander tried to learn how to breathe again. The alien quirked an eyebrow at his friend, and Xander was sure he saw the corners of his mouth twitch. Suitably recovered he darted into the kitchen for a paper towel to clean up the mess he'd made.

"So what languages do you translate?" Dawn was asking Daniel when he returned.

"I can't really talk about it," said Daniel.

"Ah, yes, the infamous military secrets," said Giles. "Do they include the age of the Pyramids?"

The lack of an immediate answer made Xander look up from his mess. "No," said Daniel a moment too late. But the damage was done. And he knew it.

Giles sat back contemplatively. "I see," he said softly.

"What?" asked Courtney, looking from one adult to the next. Daniel looked decidedly uncomfortable while Teal'c face had returned to its stoic mask, his gaze fixed on the China cabinet above Dawn's head.

"Aliens built the Pyramids," said Giles. "Am I right?"

"The Great Pyramids?" Dawn squeaked. "The ones at Giza?"

"Am I right, Dr. Jackson?" Giles repeated. Daniel and Teal'c looked at each other but remained silent. "Since you're not saying anything, I can only assume that I am correct." He removed his glasses, the hand that held them covering his mouth in thought. "This is . . ."

"Look," said Daniel but Giles waved him to silence.

"Yes, yes, you didn't tell us anything," he said absently, his eyes finding Teal'c. "And though I'm sure the threats are very interesting, we can skip them if you don't mind. Now what can you tell me about the Pyramids?"

"I'm afraid there is nothing we can say without the permission of General Hammond," said Teal'c.

"We could give them the . . . you know," Courtney stuttered to a halt as both Daniel and Teal'c turned stony gazes on her. "Or not."

"Give us what?" asked Daniel, now looking from Xander to Giles for an answer.

"No one's giving anyone anything," Xander jumped in before more was spilled. They did not need the military knowing more than they needed to, especially if they did need to use the Very stuff later. Courtney was about to protest but Xander's glare and Dawn's gentle hand on her arm stilled the young slayer. It was into this tense silence that Jack and Sam walked into a minute later.

"Hey! . . ." Jack's cheerful greeting fell flat yet still managed to break the spell that had fallen over them. "What's up?"

"We figured out that aliens built the Great Pyramids," said Dawn with equal false cheer. Xander winced at the obvious dare in her voice and waited for Jack to confirm with Daniel and Teal'c before he sighed in frustration, all traces of a good mood gone. He probably already needed an aspirin or six.

"Daniel," Jack said tiredly.

"They didn't tell us anything, though their silences were most telling," Giles stepped in. "And there is nothing you can do about it now in any case."

Jack met his challenging stare a moment before sighing, his eyes closing briefly. "Will you stop? Please?" asked Jack. "Just stop fishing for information."

"Like you?" asked Xander innocently. Because if they were going to keep snooping around he wanted to have a little more blackmail material than 'Look, aliens!'


"No. You have been hounding us about what we do ever since you found out with no guarantee beyond your word that you won't start stalking us," Xander looked Jack straight in the eye. "You say it's need to know and classified. Fine. So's our info. And you already know all you need to."

"Why don't we both agree not to push any further right now and concentrate on the situation at hand," Daniel cut in trying to calm everyone down. "Truce, all right?" He looked from Jack to Xander who continued to stare at each other.

Xander couldn't tell what Jack was thinking. His face was closed off from all emotion, and watching him Xander couldn't help but wonder when everything had gotten so screwed up between them. The fragile trust that had been growing was gone, replaced by sheer uncertainty about motives and methods. Now, he realized, instead of the slow steps into each other's lives they were standing on opposite sides of the chasm after the wood had crumbled away beneath their feet.

"Truce," said Xander hating the word that echoed from a battlefield. He looked away at the table, the papers, Giles who gravely held Daniel's eyes.

"I called the base. They're sending a team to pick up the NID," Jack changed the subject back to their mutual problem. "They should be here in a couple of hours."

"Dawn," said Giles softly. "Would you go get Buffy, Willow, and Kennedy, please? We'll need to do the memory spell soon."

Without a word, the young woman rose and went upstairs. Jack and Sam joined the rest of them at the table, the Major snagging a paper as she sat. Not a word was spoken, the silence gaining pressure as the seconds went by. After what seemed like an eternity of avoiding each other, Dawn finally returned, standing nervously at the doorway, but the others weren't with her.

"Xander, could you come?" she requested, her voice slightly strained, but she didn't need to say anymore. Willow. In a heartbeat, he was on his feet and up the stairs. Buffy and Kennedy were with her in her room, her girlfriend standing in front of her, holding her hands, while Willow looked about to bolt.

"You are not going to fall," said Kennedy with conviction. "You hear me? I'll be right there with you. Buffy'll be right there. If you even slip we'll be there to catch you. You can do this."

"I can do this," Willow repeated. Despite her words, her voice was soft and high from hidden fear. "Sure, I haven't done anything like this since Tara and it's not nice magic and I haven't used power like this for a long time and they're people and - "

"Willow," Buffy interrupted gently with a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You're not going to mess up. You're strong. White Witch, remember? It's all about how you use the power. It's for the slayers' protection."

"But - "

"Wills," Xander joined in, coming in and pulling his best friend into a hug. "You will be fine. We're right behind you."

"Promise?" Tension vibrated in every fiber of her being.

"Promise." He gave her one last squeeze before letting her go. Willow smiled a little shakily at them, hands reaching out for both Kennedy and Buffy. She took a deep, steadying breath.

"Okay," she said. "Okay." Another breath. "I'm just gonna stay her a minute and get ready."

"Take as long as you need," said Buffy with a parting squeeze. Both she and Xander looked to Kennedy who nodded back. She would stay with Willow while she meditated and got her supplies ready.

"She'll be fine," said Buffy once the door had closed behind them, but her tone indicated that she was reassuring herself as much as Xander. He understood how she felt, a mix of fear and nervousness for their friend. Willow's uncertainty was disturbing. She hadn't been this bothered by serious magic since last August when she'd had to do a rather nasty banishing that had relied heavily on some of the darker forces. This spell should have been a piece of cake compared to that, but Xander knew that the difficult casting was complicated by the raw emotions that Willow associated with this particular type of spell. Add to that that she would be performing the spell on eight humans, and they had a very nervous witch on their hands. Xander just hoped they got through it in one piece.

Jack watched Willow disappear into the basement in silence from the dining room where he and SG-1 had been banished to wait. It was a stunned silence in the wake of the argument between Daniel and Carter and Buffy and Xander over whether or not they could watch the magic spell that was about to take place. And in the wake of one floating bowl of cereal. Xander had been the one to suggest a pencil in exasperation when Carter kept pressing the point about needing proof that magic really existed. So when Willow and Kennedy had finally appeared, he'd asked his friend to do it. She had. And it was sinking in once more for Jack that magic was real.

And so casual. Xander had simply called out when Willow and Kennedy had finally come downstairs an hour after he and Buffy had reappeared. Giles had already left for his meeting with Courtney's relatives while Dawn and the young slayer had disappeared with Andrew into the back yard for a snowball fight. So it was just SG-1 in the dining room with Buffy. Xander had asked about floating something; Willow had raised her hand at the forgotten bowl that sat on the table. Even Carter had been speechless after that. They hadn't seen anything like it since Cassie's manipulated genetics had suddenly given her control over magnetic fields thanks to Nirti's experiments.

Not alien, he had to repeat to himself. Magic. Force of willpower that Carter couldn't explain with quantum mechanics or magnets or other equally obscure physics. Not alien because there was too much evidence against that.

When the door closed, Jack turned back to the table. His teammates were over their initial shock much as he was now. "So she's going to wipe their memories," Carter turned to Buffy and Xander who had remained with them. Obviously not as comfortable with the idea as she seemed.

"Yeah," said Buffy shortly, still irritated from the argument. She and Xander had been antsy ever since they had come back downstairs though neither had said why. Now that Willow and Kennedy were in the basement, their nerves had only escalated. Jack watched Xander keep glancing at the door.

"Is something wrong?" he asked a little irritated himself by his son's obvious worry.

"No." Xander shot him a startled look then exchanged a quick one with Buffy.

"She has done this before, right?" asked Jack, recalling their conversation on the porch. He really hoped she wasn't doing anything experimental down there because in his experience that rarely ended well.

This time the young man quickly glanced away, not meeting Jack's eyes. "Yeah," he said quietly. Another look at Buffy then a return to the door.

"What happened?" asked Daniel softly picking up on the undercurrents that were shifting around them.

"God! Can't you people just lay off?" Buffy snapped, abruptly getting to her feet and going into the kitchen. A moment later they heard the back door open and slam shut. A waft of cold air hit them in the dining room. All eyes turned to Xander who shifted uncomfortably at the sudden scrutiny of perplexed and worried adults.

"What happened, Xander?" asked Jack seriously. "Did someone hurt her mind with this spell?" His eyes briefly met Carter's. Hell, they had all been mentally raped at one point or another. If that was the case then Jack understood her reluctance to have an audience as she confronted the thing that had hurt her.

But Xander seemed reluctant to answer. Finally, he said, "No, she wasn't the one hurt. But you don't mess around with magic, especially this kind of magic."

"What kind is that?" Carter pressed.

"The dark kind," said Xander, a slightly haunted look in his eye as he stared at the tabletop, obviously seeing something other than paper.

"So you think Willow might get hurt by doing this spell?" asked Daniel which only made Xander look up and snort humorlessly.

"The spell won't hurt her," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if she can't sleep tonight." He gave a twisted smile that held anything but humor. "Bad memories." He lapsed back into silence and refused to look at them, the conversation effectively over.

Jack and his teammates knew better than to push. In his mind, 'dark magic' echoed ominously. When Xander had first mentioned magic, the word had summoned images of disappearing tigers and fairies with a healthy dose of skepticism and searching for alien technology. In fact once he'd calmed down, he had even wondered if it could be used to their advantage in the fight against the Goa'uld. But given Xander's obvious discomfort with the memory spell, Jack wasn't so sure now. Worst, he couldn't even ask since Xander wasn't in a sharing mood. In fact, aside from the whole revelation Xander hadn't been in a sharing mood since they'd arrived. Given the circumstances, it was understandable Jack knew, but it also underscored the lost progress they had made.

Ah, who was he kidding? He and his son had barely scratched the surface of each other's lives before, and even that had crumbled everything back to the stiff silences like the one that held them right now. And deep down, Jack felt . . . betrayed was hardly justified, but disappointed didn't seem to cover it. Unsettled, Jack tried to put it from his mind, but watching his son fidget nervously and unable to do anything to ease his concerns, it was impossible. It was almost a relief when the doorbell rang.

Xander jumped in surprise at the unexpected noise then frowned, wondering who could be at their door at noon two days after Christmas. Nevertheless he went to answer it.

Two men in suits and overcoats stood on the front steps. While not identical in dress or looks, they wore matching expressions that could have been etched from granite. "Mr. Harris?" the man on the right spoke first.

"Yes," said Xander cautiously. He didn't like them knowing his name - that was not a good sign. Quickly he scanned the street and saw their inconspicuous car parked on the street in front of the house.

"I'm Detective Gladi and this is Detective Olus," the man went on. Two badges flashed quickly before Xander's eyes as his heart suddenly went into overtime at their words. Just what were detectives doing here? Now? Today? When they had eight people being held prisoner in their basement? If Xander had been a suspicious person he would have thought the two things were connected. And Xander was a suspicious person.

"What do you want?" he asked rudely keeping his body squarely in the door so they didn't get the idea that they could just walk into his house.

"Nothing to worry about," Olus, the one on the left smiled, the action relaxing his face and making him much less threatening, which only served to heighten Xander's suspicion. "There was a robbery at the Home Depot you work at yesterday and we just want to ask you a few questions."

"We understand that you were working yesterday. We need you to come with us to the station to look at a lineup," Gladi trailed off expectantly, his body turned to allow Xander to pass.

"Excuse me?" asked Xander, startled by this sudden request.

"We need you to come to the station to look at the lineup," said Olus easily. "We have a suspect and since you were working yesterday, we need to confirm that he was indeed there. You boss said he saw you him in your section. Please, it'll just take half an hour."

"Look, now's really not a good time," said Xander with a frown. It had been pretty quiet at work yesterday, doubly so in the lumberyard. There had been maybe two customers that had come into his drafty section so he had spent most of the day doing inventory. And hey! Where were all the questions about yesterday? Cop shows always had the detectives explain the situation to people first. "What was stolen?" he asked.

"Sir, if you'd just come with us," said Gladi, a look of irritation sweeping across his face.

"No, you tell me - " Xander never got a chance to finish as all of a sudden Olus sprang. The detective went for his hands first while Gladi went for his head with a cloth that was no doubt soaked in something nice and sleepy.

Xander jerked back and tried to get free with a shout of "Buffy! Help!" even as he noticed two more men materialize from around the side of the house, both with guns drawn. At his call, footsteps thundered from the dining room as Jack and his friends ran into the foyer only to stutter to a halt at the guns trained on them from the backup.

Xander yanked his head away from Gladi and tried to tear himself away from Olus but the latter held him fast as they dragged him down the steps. Instinct from years of fighting vampires and demons kicked in. As soon as his feet hit the next step down, Xander kicked out with all his might sending himself backwards with his full weight toppling over Olus and Gladi. Overcast sky was all Xander saw as his body jarred loose from his captor, his head cracking painfully on another head. Shots rang out, cries, shouts, then the unmistakable sounds of fighting from the yard and all of a sudden Jack and Teal'c were on him subduing Gladi and Olus while Daniel and Sam got Xander safely out of the way onto the snow covered grass. All Xander felt was the stinging sharp pain in his head as the world around him blended together before snapping back into place.

"Ow!" Xander gently checked the integrity of his skull then stopped in surprise as he surveyed the scene. At his feet Jack and Teal'c were both kneeling on their respective captives who each had an arm twisted cruelly up their back. Olus wasn't moving, his eyes glazed probably from a concussion, having taken the brunt of Xander's fall. Gladi on the other hand squirmed, though Teal'c's bulk effectively put a stop to any shifty moves that might free him.

Further out on the lawn the two goons who'd had the guns lay unconscious in the snow, dark colored guns and rocks on the ground around them. Buffy stood over one, toeing him with her green snowboot, none the worse for wear. To the side, Andrew, Dawn, and Courtney stood similarly decked out in snowgear looking a little bewildered. Andrew hefted a snowball in one hand.

"Are you all right?" Jack twisted to look at him. Recognizing that he was still in mild shock, Xander nodded and expelled a deep breath.

"Peachy," he said. "What I always wanted for Christmas. See the world from the inside of a black van. Now you've gone and ruined it." Jack snorted at him but nonetheless a relived smile made it across his lips.

"More rogue NID?" asked Dawn as she, Andrew, and Courtney came over to them.

"I wouldn't bet against it," said Jack sourly as both Sam and Daniel nodded. Xander noticed another rock gripped tightly in Courtney's hand. She had the look of a stunned rabbit still but was quickly calming down. Buffy came up a few steps behind looking ready to kill someone.

"Jeez, what is it with these people?" huffed Buffy, this time nudging Olus's arm when she stopped beside his prone body. "They're like roaches or something. You kill one and there's like a million to take its place."

"Uh, Buffy? There's only four of them," Dawn pointed out.

"They get points for broad daylight," the Slayer grumbled.

"Right." Jack stood dragging Olus with him. "Let's get these guys inside. Daniel, Carter, grab those two. I assume you want them in the basement?" he asked Buffy who sighed and nodded. She wasn't happy about this, not at all.

While Jack and Teal'c took care of Gladi and Olus, Buffy offered Xander a hand up. "You all right?" she repeated Jack's earlier question.

He shrugged. The pain in the back of his head was settling into a dull throb, nothing exciting. "If I were getting paid for this, I'd demand a raise," he told her. "Think we can blackmail them for some cash?"

Buffy grinned. "I wish. Come on." She tugged gently on his arm and led him into the house. "Let's go see what we can beat out of this batch."


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