Chapter Thirteen: Thirteen of Friday
Friday, January 7th Xander reveled in the absolute quiet around him. For the first time in months he had the house entirely to himself. This included everything in said house, notably the TV and the remote control, access to the kitchen and all the goodies he had unearthed in the pantry that was usually under Andrew's strict watch. Almost gleefully, he settled in the best spot on the couch with his cheddar popcorn, NuttyButty's, and Cherry Coke ready for a night of channel surfing and brain rotting.
The last week had been long. After New Years, everyone had gone into a state of panic as they suddenly realized they were leaving for other continents. Willow and Kennedy were now somewhere in Brazil while Giles and Buffy were on their way to Europe. Courtney had gone to her new home in Missouri with her aunt and uncle, phone numbers and email addresses in hand along with a promise to pick her up for summer training. Vi and Diana had finally gotten back from their vacation to England and were presently out with Dawn and Andrew seeing a movie and no doubt getting the lowdown on the Great Christmas Caper of the US Government. Xander didn't care, just as long as they were gone and stayed that way for several hours. He needed time to himself to chill out, relax, and generally miss his best friends who were now a world away. But he wasn't going to think about that now. No, he was going to vegge out and watch whatever he wanted and eat all the junk food he could.
So it was when he had finally gotten into an episode of That 70's Show that the phone chose to ring. Given that it was either an international call or another attempt on hellmouth, Xander sighed to the empty house and went to answer it.
It was neither. "Xander?" Jack's voice queried over the phone. Xander suppressed another sigh. He really didn't want to deal with this now. This was the first and probably last time he'd have the house all to himself, dammit. And they'd found out last week that despite an unspoken promise to start afresh, they really had very little to say to each other.
"Hi, Jack," he replied anyway. He couldn't just hang up like he was a telemarketer. And as long as it wasn't Xander footing the bill he could afford not to make things worse between them. He did after all like the guy, he just didn't know what to say to him anymore.
"Hi, how are you doing?"
In the uncomfortable pause that followed, Xander wondered if he should mention that everyone had left for unintelligible places. But Jack thankfully found something to say first.
"How's demon fighting going?"
"Quiet so far," said Xander. "Normal newbies on patrol but nothing major."
"Any word from your flamey friend?" he asked.
It took a moment for Xander to figure out whom he meant. "D'Hoffryn? Not him, but we did meet Norman. He came the day before yesterday. Had a few good ideas on how to keep the wish low profile." Xander had mostly stayed out of the conversation while Willow and Buffy worked out the details. "He's been cursed so that the President will see him as a self-serving idiot who he'd be better off without. The President that is."
"No humiliating public growth of horns or something?" asked Jack and Xander could have sworn he sounded disappointed.
"People don't like to notice stuff like that, and we certainly don't want people in certain five sided buildings tracing anything back to us."
"Yeah," Jack agreed. Xander heard him take a breath to say something, but in the end he didn't and more silence followed. "I hope I'm there to see Kinsey's face when the President fires him."
Xander shrugged to himself since he couldn't care less as long as the dude wasn't poking his nose where it didn't belong. Noses got broken that way after all. "Yeah, well, I don't know when it's going to happen."
"I'm sure I'll be the first to know when it does."
Xander turned toward the den during the next silence, but though he couldn't see the screen he could hear the ads going on. "So how's work?" he asked.
"Busy," was Jack's short reply. He didn't elaborate, not that Xander had really been expecting him to. He was still marginally curious about what exactly Jack did, but it was mostly because Jack had found out so much about him. On the other hand, part of him really didn't want to know. He had enough nightmares to deal with already.
Nevertheless, Xander just couldn't resist. "Meet any new aliens?"
"Xander," said Jack warningly.
"Well, I can't tell you that we did."
Xander grinned at the exasperation and obvious smile in Jack's voice. "If they were little green women I'm gonna be jealous," he said.
"Nothing to worry about. They weren't green," Jack easily shot back making Xander laugh. "Next time I see them I'll be sure to give them your regards."
"And my phone number?"
"At a charge of ten bucks a number."
"If they try to kill me I'll expect a full refund," said Xander.
This time Jack laughed, an easy sound that reminded Xander of his September visit to Colorado when their secrets had been nothing more than forgotten whispers of something not quite right. This time though, the shadows were out in broad daylight. The silence that followed was not quite as strained as the preceding one, and Xander didn't mind so much his interrupted evening.
So exactly a week later when Jack called again in the middle of their playing Jedi Knights, Xander easily passed off his losing Apprentice to Diana who had a much better chance against Andrew's Sith Lord.
"Hi, Jack," he said accepting the phone form Dawn who had answered.
"Hi," said Jack letting the word out in sigh. "How's Cleveland?"
"Cleveland's good," said Xander. "The rest of us are doing fine too. How was your week?"
There was a noticeable pause on the other end before Jack sighed again and said, "Crap, to be honest."
"What happened?" Xander leaned against the counter in the kitchen.
Another pause as Jack tried to figure out what he could say. "A good friend died a few days ago," he finally said.
Xander's heart stopped. "It wasn't - "
"No, my team's fine," Jack hastily told him. "They're off working right now."
"Do you remember Janet Frasier?"
Xander did. The short doctor at the General's Christmas party ages ago. They hadn't really chatted, but Xander had liked her. She'd had a daughter his age too. "Yeah," he said.
"I'm sorry." He knew the words were inadequate but they were all he had to give.
"Yeah," Jack murmured.
Xander wanted to ask if he was okay but he knew that he wouldn't be. You were never okay when a friend had just died. But he wanted to know how it had happened. Wanted to know whether it was a disease or a demon attack - or alien whatever - as impossible as that sounded. How did one die under a mountain in Colorado?
"How is her daughter doing?" he asked instead.
"Okay," Jack said, then huffed and added. "God, I don't know."
"Make sure she eats," Xander offered, recalling how Buffy's and Dawn's appetites had disappeared, even his to a degree, when Joyce had died. Eating felt so pointless for some reason when the person who should have been there wasn't. "She'll probably not be hungry for a year."
"I know." The gentle words reminding Xander that this was not the first person that Jack had lost in his life.
"Was it because of work?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes," Jack answered but he said no more than that. Couldn't say more than that. The knowledge was enough to make Xander glad he was leaning against the counter for support because Janet had been the doctor. Jack on the other hand was Special Ops. Images of the Initiative the night they had defeated Adam came to his mind, all the soldiers they couldn't save in their fight to get out themselves.
He'd never thought of Jack's job as really dangerous before even though he knew that it had to be. The difference between knowing and knowing, like the difference between patrol and an apocalypse. Both were dangerous, both could get you killed, but the odds between them were drastically different.
"Things still calm out there?" Jack finally broke the silence that had fallen between them. But Xander heard the question underneath, a little taken aback still by the concern the older man held for him.
"Yeah. I don't go out since it's been quiet. Vi and Diana both have enough experience to handle whatever's out there," he said.
"Just -" Jack cut himself off, the rest of his sentence lost. Xander waited for him to go on, unsure if he would or not. Finally, Jack did. "Be careful."
And for some reason, Xander felt the need to make a joke lest Jack know what those two words meant at that moment. Instead he said, "I will."
Jack left it at that and they turned to other lighter topics. But beneath it all was an all too familiar tension, a worry that was not easily dispelled.
Over the next three weeks, Jack and Xander managed to find things to talk about during their Friday phone calls. Most of the time it was inconsequential stuff like movies or the price of strawberries in the dead of winter, establishing new boundaries that they no longer had to tiptoe around. Even after hearing about the Doc, Xander didn't push about the classified stuff, for which Jack was grateful. In some ways he hated having to keep Xander in the dark - and he never did tell him about his own injury at the time - but at least it didn't put him in a compromising position.
For his part, Jack tried to keep his inquiries about his son's life to a minimum. So far it seemed nothing remarkable had happened in Cleveland and instead their conversations turned to Kinsey and the impending wish. After inauguration on the 20th, Jack began to doubt that anything would happen at all, but he didn't tell Xander that. He also didn't tell Xander about the phone calls Hammond had made that had Kinsey backed in a corner for the moment. There hadn't been any more attacks.
The moments Jack liked the best though were the ones where the sarcastic, funny Xander he was coming to know better slipped to the side and let the deeply caring, passionate Xander through. It had happened only a couple of times, the first time after Jack had asked if anymore freelance carpentry jobs had come his way. One had, and Jack had listened without understanding a word for half an hour as Xander told him all about it. He'd made sure to ask the next time he called as well. The third time had taken Jack a bit by surprise when Xander had told him about Diana having trouble in school. She'd had an essay due that she'd completely forgotten about and had gone into a panic for which Xander had been totally unprepared. He was worried about how well she was coping with having more slayer responsibility now that it was down to her and Vi. Jack had listened and let Xander talk himself out, suggesting afterwards that Xander maybe start by helping her organize her time. If everything she had to do was laid out then it might help her wrap her head around it.
Xander had sounded relieved by the suggestion, and nothing could have made Jack prouder or happier in that moment than to be giving advice to his son. And that he'd accepted it. After Christmas, Jack hadn't known if that was ever going to happen.
Jack found himself looking forward to the calls that were his chance to connect with his grown child. And he was pretty sure that Xander liked them too. Just the week before he'd been the one to call, not Jack. So on Friday, February 11th, Jack was disappointed that no one was home to answer the phone. He left a brief message to let Xander know he'd called, then tried to watch TV, but failed miserably when all he could think about was where Xander was and why he had missed the phone call. It was their thing now, and in Jack's opinion not something to be shrugged off lightly. He told himself that maybe Xander was home late from whatever, but as the clock ticked past ten, eleven, midnight, Jack knew that Xander wasn't going to be calling that night. With a disappointed sigh, he went to bed.
He slept too. Until three in the morning when the phone that had been so stubborn in its earlier silence decided to ring noisily. His face still buried in his pillow and denial, Jack started awake, groaning when he realized he was safe in bed. If it was Hammond, he was going to kill him. Daniel, torture.
"O'Neill," he snapped into the received that he had groped from his bedside table.
"What?" a startled voice came over the line. Jack cursed. If this was a prank call he was going to kill the person on the other end.
"Who is this?" he demanded still more asleep than awake, though that was rapidly changing.
"Uh, Jack?" the voice said hesitantly. It took him another moment to recognize Xander's voice.
"Xander?" What the hell was Xander doing calling him at three in the morning?
"You're not Giles," said Xander.
"No, I'm not Giles," Jack replied irritated. Correction, why was Xander calling Giles at three in the morning?
"Right. I'll call you later then."
"No, wait Xander," Jack said hastily. "Is everything all right?" Jack's brain was catching up with him now and it was curious, and a little worried. It was four am in Cleveland.
"Not really," Xander sighed. "Look, I really need to call Giles right now."
"Anything I can help with?"
"Unless you know the nesting habits of random ten footed demons with really big teeth."
"Well, no," Jack couldn't say he did. "I take it you had a run in with these guys?"
"Diana and Dawn did." Xander sighed heavily. "Dawn's in the hospital with a concussion, broken ribs, and some internal bleeding they had to take care of."
Jack froze at the news. "Diana?"
"Missing," he said quietly, the one word summing up a long terrifying night. "Jack, sorry for waking you up. I really do need to talk to Giles though. I'll talk to you when this is all over."
"Bye." And he hung up. Jack hung up his own phone harder than necessary. Dawn hospitalized and Diana missing he thought, dropping his head back on his pillow. Xander must be going nuts with worry. And they still had those demons to fight. What if Xander got hurt, or was the next one to go missing. All Jack could think about was his missing eye. He looked at the clock again. Barely two minutes had passed during their conversation.
Kids. They were just kids. There were only the five of them at the house right now and they were already down to one young slayer, one incompetent Andrew, and his son. He just knew that he was going to be sitting by the phone all day, waiting for Xander to call. If he called. He'd only called the house by accident this time, maybe he wasn't going to call again until the whole mess was sorted out. And by that point, for all Jack knew, Xander could be dead.
"That's it," he abruptly sat up and grabbed the phone. It was Saturday for crying out loud. He had the damn weekend off. Quickly he called information for an airline and booked the next flight out. No way was that the last time he was talking to his son.
By ten in the morning, Xander started to feel the exhaustion creep into his veins as he listened to Giles and scribbled notes on a legal pad. He'd been running on pure adrenaline since eleven last night when the shit had hit the fan. Now he had to force himself to concentrate. The info wasn't very helpful. The Depedius Ravana, the demon that had Dawn and Diana had run into, liked cold dark place like every other demon of the face of the planet. They were relatively rare and hibernated for about two years every decade. However when active, they were known to hire themselves out to other demons, which meant that now Xander and Vi, and Andrew, had to figure out who it was working for. Terrific. Xander had no clue where to start other than the art stuff that was turning out to be a dead end as far as his foggy head was concerned.
"So how do we kill this thing?" he asked as Giles wound down.
"Any way you can," the Watcher sighed from England. "It has no magical defense, just its size and arms."
"Right," Xander sighed as well, a hand snagging the rough sketch Dawn had given them at the hospital. It was essentially a stick figure, oval head, two eyes, large triangular teeth, oval body, two legs, and eight arms. There was a stick person drawn beside it to give a sense of its size that was about three times too big. Looked like a giant rabid porcupine.
He was about to ask if Giles had any ideas on how to trap it or something when the doorbell interrupted. The noise startled Xander but after a second he told Giles to hold on, set the phone down, and went to answer it. He grabbed his axe off the side table in the foyer then went to check the peephole. "Shit." He opened the door, his axe arm falling to his side and demanded, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Jack only smiled brightly. "Hi, Xander. I had the weekend off, thought I'd come and visit. Can I come in?" His eyes flickered over Xander lifting slightly when he saw the axe but not commenting.
Xander did not need this right now. He was tempted to shut the door in Jack's face but politeness won out over lack of sleep and he stepped back to let him through. "What are you doing here?" he repeated turning and leading the way back to the dining hall where Giles waited.
"You sounded like you could use some support," was Jack's only answer from behind. "Whoa."
Xander glanced at him over his shoulder when they came into the dining room, grabbing the phone before reclaiming his seat. The table was a mess of books and papers stacked on top of each other. The laptop was plugged in at the other end. "I'm back," he said into the phone.
"Jack showed up on the doorstep. Wants to help," he glared pointedly at his old man for a good second. Jack only grinned again and started poking through the books and papers. "So," Xander looked around for the legal pad he's been taking notes on. He'd deal with Jack in a minute. "Any ideas on how to trap this thing?"
"I don't know," said Giles. "Due to its rarity, its weaknesses aren't well documented. That and our bloody library was blown up." He started talking about the last time he'd heard of an encounter with a Ravana but Xander started to zone out as he watched Jack.
His unexpected guest had one of the demon indices in his hand now, the one that had the more common murder and mayhem variety. Usually a good place to start but this time it had come up empty. The smile was gone from Jack's face as he flipped through it. He frowned near the middle and Xander knew that he was looking at the picture of the Sarcathogen, a demon covered in oozing sores that looked like it'd been hit by Ebola. They were related to Chaos demons and apparently liked to eat boiled wombats in a diseased-brain stew, the younger the better. If they couldn't get the wombats they settled for the brains.
"I'll ask Buffy for any ideas," Giles finished, snapping Xander's attention back to the phone in his hand.
"Okay," he said. "Just don't tell her how bad Dawn is."
"Xander, she should know."
"Yeah, and she'll freak. She's got to get used to us managing on our own."
"I'll tell her Dawn was hurt but will be fine."
"Good. Give her a broken arm or something."
"I'll call when I know more," said Giles, and Xander could tell he didn't agree but would accede anyway. "Get some sleep if you can."
Xander snorted at the likelihood of that idea and said his goodbyes. Jack lowered the book when he heard Xander put down the phone.
"So what's going on?" asked Jack.
Xander stared at him, him brain a couple of seconds behind the spoken words. Why was Jack here again? He had a vague recollection of talking to him last night but he had no idea what they'd talked about much less what he could have said that made Jack decide to get on a plane and fly to Cleveland. "Why are you here again?" he asked.
"You said Dawn was in the hospital and Diana was missing," said Jack. "I thought you could use some help."
"You should go home, Jack," Xander sighed. He didn't have time for this. Art, he had to figure out what was stolen.
"Xander, I'm not going home," said Jack quietly yet forcefully, drawing Xander's attention back to him. "Now, tell me what's going on so I can help."
Xander was too tired to argue. "This week there's been a bunch of break ins at artsy places with some interesting coroner's reports that we thought were worth looking into. Tuesday it was the museum. A whole wing got smashed up. They're still sorting through what could be missing. Yesterday it was an art show on the East Side. Dawn and Diana were checking it out last night when they were attacked."
"Why was Dawn out there?"
"Because she wanted to go." Jack gave him a look that asked if he was crazy for allowing such a thing. Given that Xander already hated himself for it, the look only served to piss him off. It wasn't like Dawn couldn't handle herself in a fight, and it wasn't like they had been expecting more than a normal B&E. "Don't say it."
Jack sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. "How's she doing?" he asked.
"Asleep last time I checked. Andrew's with her." He glanced at the clock through the kitchen door. He should probably go in and see her soon. Unfortunately, he had way too much to do here.
"Sleeping. She got home around sunrise so I made her go to sleep." Vi had been out looking for any sign of Diana. She tracked the Ravana through the East Side but had lost it once it crossed the tracks.
"Did you get any sleep?" Xander just looked at him. "Right," Jack nodded with a humorless smile. "So what can I do?"
Xander looked at all the paper and books around him. He really didn't feel like trying to explain all this right now, not on an empty stomach. "Donuts," he said looking up.
"You can go get donuts. Scooby tradition at the research party." Xander frowned. "Of course it's hard to have a party of one, or two I guess."
"How about I make an actual breakfast instead," suggested Jack. "That way you can give me the details while I'm at it."
The donuts flashed before Xander's eyes. "But . . . but . . . donuts!"
"Well, grab some on the way to the hospital," said Jack as he passed behind Xander's chair into the kitchen. "Come on."
Xander watched him go and start banging around looking for a frying pan and food, wondering just when he had lost control. But it was still kind of nice.
Over the next hour, Jack got a crash course in how to be a Scooby starting with who Scooby was and why Jack's life was dull and unfulfilled for the lack of a big brown cartoon dog. But they had quickly moved past that to the situation at hand. Listening to Xander as he cooked was a challenge for Jack in two ways. First he was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen which meant he to interrupt to ask where the spatulas and other things were. Secondly, Xander was beyond tired and worried and his normally disjointed way of saying things had more mixed metaphors than Jack had thought possible. But in the end he gleaned the important facts.
The eight-armed Ravana thing was working for something else that was after a few pieces of art. The wing that had been raided in the museum had been of African art, as had the art exhibit where Dawn had been injured. So far they didn't know what was taken, though from the looks of it, whoever was after this stuff was assembling something . . . to do something nefarious and evil no doubt. Vi had traced the Ravana to the railroad tracks on the East Side of town but then lost the trail. Xander thought it might mean the creature had gone underground at that point but they couldn't be sure until they went back there.
That meant that four of the five Ws were left unanswered - who, what, where, and when. 'Why' they didn't care about.
"So you want to look for what they're after or figure out how to kill the decipede?" asked Xander carrying his plate of eggs and toast back into the dining room.
"Kill the thingy-pede," Jack answered immediately. Art was not something he was about to touch with a ten-foot pole or a good handy archeologist to throw at it first. He had no idea where he would even begin to look for information.
"All right. Here's what we know about it," Xander tossed him a legal pad full of barely legible handwriting and a drawing.
"A giant porcupine?" he asked.
"Those are arms," Xander rubbed his face tiredly.
"Never mind," he said. He had been going to suggest that Xander get a little shut eye. He looked like hell. His hair was an unbrushed mess, his skin was pale, and his clothes rumpled. But Jack knew what was running through his head. One wounded and one missing. How often had he been in the same position? There was no way he would convince his son to sleep now.
Instead he turned his attention to the stick figure and the legal pad, wondering how they were going to get past eight arms and thick skin with nothing more than medieval weaponry. How the hell had they survived this long using weapons that were ten centuries out of date? The main problem was the multitude of arms; they needed a way to neutralize the arms, and he didn't think just chopping them off one at a time would work.
After about ten minutes of worrying at the problem, Jack started to get restless. A glance at Xander showed his son on the computer, a little dazed but nonetheless staring intently at the screen. He only looked up when Vi walked in a little while later, fully dressed in clothes that had been slept in but nonetheless looking ready to go. The young woman summoned a shaky smile for Xander, and Jack watched as he tracked her to the kitchen with a worried frown, never wavering as she grabbed food and returned.
"How's it going?" she asked in a low, subdued tone.
"I talked to Giles so we know what we're up against," said Xander. "Jack's working on a plan to kill it." Vi glanced over at Xander's nod in Jack's direction, doing a double take.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, clearly surprised by his presence.
"Just thought I'd visit," Jack replied easily.
"I'm sifting through the art stuff now," Xander continued. "Something will come up once I can think."
"Are you okay?" Vi asked timidly.
"Nothing a little sleep won't fix," Xander smiled. "We need to relieve Andrew at the hospital. I don't think much will be happening before dark."
Vi nodded. "So meeting tonight?" she asked him.
"Xander shrugged and yawned. "I don't know is there a meeting tonight?" he asked her back.
Vi looked at Jack nervously then back at Xander who's gaze had never left her face. Jack watched the interchange interestedly. "We'll meet at dinner time?"
"When do you want that? Sunset's around six."
"Before dinner," Vi said a little more decisively. "At five."
"Five it is," Xander agreed. "You want to change before we go see Dawn?"
"Yeah." Vi gave herself a once over then swallowed the rest of her toast in two bites before leaving and going back upstairs.
"What was that?" Jack asked when they were alone again.
"What?" asked Xander through another yawn.
"Making her set the meeting like that?" said Jack, a little puzzled by it since he'd thought that Xander was the one in charge.
"She's the Slayer," was Xander's reply that really didn't answer the question. He must have seen Jack's confusion though because he went on. "She's not always going to have someone to hold her hand. She's Chief Slayer of the Hellmouth, she's in charge. She has to know how to deal." He closed his eye, exhaustion getting the better of him. "This is the first big thing she's had where Buffy or Faith haven't been around," he said. "With Dawn and Diana . . ." he stopped, and Jack plainly heard the fear in his voice. Didn't matter that Vi was the battle commander, Xander was the one who took care of them the rest of the time, and his kids were in trouble.
"They'll be okay," Jack said quietly, words the only comfort he could give. "Dawn's going to be fine. She's a little banged up, but she'll be just fine."
Xander opened his eye and huffed. "Buffy's gonna kill me."
Jack smiled. "You'll get over it," he said. "And we'll find Diana. She's a slayer, right? Any four-by-four that gets in her way will be pulverized." And that did it, a brief smile from his son that faded into another yawn. "You need to get some sleep."
"I know," Xander acknowledged quietly. "I'll sleep when we get to the hospital."
He ended up sleeping on the way to the hospital while Jack followed Vi who was driving the other car so they wouldn't have to make two trips later. Xander's head lolled back and his face went slack when he finally succumbed to the gentle motion of the car. Jack nudged his shoulder when they arrived. Xander started awake looking all around him before recognizing the hospital's parking garage.
Xander led the way inside to the elevators, hitting the button to the fourth floor where they got off and followed the signs to the ward. "We're looking for Dawn Summers?" Xander asked the nurse at the desk who smiled and pulled out a list to check.
"Third down on the right," she pointed to the left hallway.
The door was cracked open and the only light came from a side lamp above the guest chairs where Andrew was reading a comic book. He looked up when they came in, his eyes flickering to Dawn who was asleep.
"She's been out for awhile," he said by way of greeting. He frowned when he saw Jack. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Visiting," Jack told him. Xander and Vi went to stand beside Dawn to check for themselves that she was okay. There was some light bruising on her chin, but otherwise there was no visible sign of her injuries, the blanket no doubt hiding the bandages around her ribs.
"What did the doctors say?" asked Xander, turning back to Andrew.
"The internal bleeding was from one of her ribs but it's stopped now. They want to keep her till tomorrow to be sure. Her concussion's not that bad though."
"Good." Xander let out a long breath of relief, locking eyes with Vi who mustered a weak smile. "Right, ready to learn all you wanted to know about African art?" he asked Andrew.
"Does what I know from the X-Men count?"
"I wish." Xander stepped over and began filling his friend in on what they had found out so far and what the computer had cross-referenced from the two sites.
Jack took the opportunity to join Vi by Dawn's side. The young woman had taken the unconscious girl's hand lightly as she watched her sleep. "Looks like she's going to be just fine," he said quietly, making Vi look up in surprise. She eyed him warily for a second before dropping her head.
"She shouldn't have gotten hurt," she said. "I should have gone instead of her."
"Hey," said Jack gently, feeling for the guilt that laced her voice.
"I'm the slayer, I should have been out there with Diana. Then Dawn wouldn't be here and Diana wouldn't be . . . somewhere."
"Vi," Jack waited until he lifted his eyes to his. "You can't change what happened," he said quietly. "But you do control what happens now and you can plan for what happens ten minutes from now. If you're going to be in command you have to be in the here and now, not feeling guilty about what happened last night."
"So I'm just supposed to forget that I nearly got my best friend killed?" she demanded harshly, but still quietly so as not to disturb Dawn.
"No," said Jack. "But you need to accept that Dawn is fighting this fight too, and that sometimes your people will get wounded. It sucks, you'll have nightmares about it, but unless you lock her in a room for the rest of her life, it's going to be a risk."
Vi looked away and smiled bitterly, sniffing a little though no tears fell. "That's what Xander said," she told him. "It doesn't help."
"I know." And Jack did know. Every time one of his teammates got hurt, he felt it. Every time. "She'll be okay," he said again. "And look on the bright side, you get to beat up the thing that did this to her. That always makes me feel better."
Vi grinned at that, a steel gleam of retribution in her eyes when she looked up that Jack knew well. Behind them, Andrew was gathering his things. Xander asked him to leave the comic books, which then surprisingly made Andrew stop and stare at him gravely.
"Leave my comics? Where just anyone could take them?" he asked as if Xander were asking him to leave his wallet or something equally important. "I don't think so."
"Andrew, nothing's going to happen to them," said Xander in exasperation.
"You could sit on them! Or bend the pages. I've seen what you do to books."
"Yeah but since when have I ever hurt a comic book?"
"I haven't seen you not hurt one."
"I haven't touched any!"
"So how do I know you won't hurt them?"
"I control your paycheck."
"We don't get paid."
"But when we do, I'll control it."
Andrew thought about this, a man who knew he would have no choice. Grudgingly he put down the comics and ruffled through them, considering as he looked them over. Finally, he pulled one out and started to hand it to Xander, holding back when Xander's hand touched it. "If anything happens to it . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, you know where I sleep," said Xander with a grin. "I promise I'll treat it with the utmost respect it deserves."
"If - "
"Andrew," Vi drew out the word and rolled her eyes. "Let's go." With a last surly look in Xander's direction, he followed her out the door.
Jack looked at Xander. Xander looked at Jack and grinned, very pleased with himself. But Jack had a question. "You don't get paid?"
"Not yet," Xander told him. He checked out the comic; it was an X-Men part of the Age of Apocalypse universe. Pretty good win if he said so himself.
"I should have guessed," said Jack in such a way that finally made Xander pay attention.
"Is it worth it?" asked Jack with an impatient glance at Dawn's prone form.
Xander sighed. He'd thought they had gotten past all this at Christmas, but it looked like it was still bothering Jack. "I think having the world around in the morning is pretty good compensation. Is what you do worth watching your friends die for?" He knew he'd struck a nerve when Jack flinched and looked away.
"Sorry," said Jack.
Xander found one of the armchairs and sat down. He looked at the bright cover of the comic in his hands. Fitting in a way that he held an encounter in the Age of Apocalypse universe where Magneto was a good guy, Cyclops and Beast were bad guys and everything was on the verge of going to hell at the whim of absolute Evil. "Sometimes I want out," he said quietly. "We all do." He paused, thinking of the horror he's seen. "Buffy even tried it once" - twice if he counted the time she died and the awful year of her return - "but she couldn't stay away. Because it was denying a part of herself." He looked across the room at Jack. "Willow could have gone to college anywhere, but she stayed. And me, I guess I never tried that hard to get out. I didn't have anything else going for me for a long time, so I stayed."
"Without superpowers," said Jack with a trace of sarcastic humor. Xander thought back to that first time when he'd simply been at the right place at the right time, and the second where he knew no one else would have succeeded.
"It doesn't take superpowers to save the world," he said.
"And a whole lot of luck," Jack added, his sense of humor definitely sneaking in there, and Xander knew, he just knew, that Jack had done it too.
"Donuts don't hurt either."
Jack laughed. "Is that why you wanted donuts?"
"Never underestimate copious amounts of sugar."
"I'll be sure to tell the General that next time I'm ordering supplies."
"'Sir, we really need donuts, the world won't go round without them!' " Xander said in his best Jack voice. He could just see the portly Hammond giving Jack the evil eye. And Jack of course would just grin his ass off right back. The mental image just made him laugh, his head a little lightheaded. God, he was tired and now he was getting loopy. He closed his eye, just to rest for a moment. He didn't notice when he fell asleep.
He didn't know what woke him an hour or two later. Outside the window blinds, the light had shifted but inside the only light was still the one that Jack was now reading by. Xander shifted and stretched muscles sore from sleeping in a chair. His neck especially felt like he had yanked a knife down the side, but he felt much better for having slept.
On the bed, Dawn was still resting. He got up to check on her. She was still pale and asleep she looked like the little girl he had babysat for all those years. When had she gone and grown up, he wondered, though he knew it was around the same time he had. She looked young, but she wasn't. But she was. And she was hurt. He felt like he had let her down in some way though realistically he knew they had no way of knowing.
"Did you ever believe in happy endings?" he asked suddenly of Jack.
"Yes. I still do." Xander turned to look at him questioningly. Jack let loose a small smile at his confusion. "Pessimism is habit forming." He paused then added. "Optimism is too, I think."
Xander cracked a grin at that. "The new drug, optimism. Twenty bucks a pop."
"More like life," said Jack, a serious note back in his tone. "Did you know Charlie used to read the X-Men?" Wondering where that had come from, Xander waited for him to finish. "I almost didn't get a chance to remember that."
"A mission?" he asked, remembering the lost friend in January, imagining the others he must have lost in his long military career that was so black it could have been a gravity well for information.
"Habit forming pessimism." Jack looked back at the comic in his hand. "Daniel gave me a happy ending. Maybe not what I would have wanted but . . . maybe there's only happier endings."
"Is that why you came?" asked Xander. "Here. To make sure."
Jack shrugged. "I was half asleep and scared that that was the last time we'd talk. I may not like you throwing yourself into danger all the time but -"
"- that'd be sticking a 'pot' post-it on your forehead," Xander finished.
"Something like that."
Xander nodded. As they looked at each other across Dawn's hospital room, he felt more than words pass between them. Xander didn't need to ask if he'd ever get used to the fear of losing a loved one or a girl in his care. He didn't need to ask if it was always lonely at the top or whether fighting was worth giving up normal. He didn't need to hear that time healed wounds but until he let them go the guilt would burn as fresh as the day it happened. He knew his answers and had long since made peace with himself and the ghosts of his life. He didn't need Jack to tell him these things but they were said anyway in that one look between them. And for once it was about him, and the feeling felt like a bucket of warm water being poured over his head as he hadn't felt since Anya had last smiled at him, for him.
Jack had come for him.
Jack was beginning to regret having come. But that probably had more to do with the huge frickin' demon in front of him that looked absolutely nothing like a giant porcupine. For one it was an awful putrid yellow-green with no hair and really big teeth. Not to mention eight arms that were absolutely everywhere.
They had received a frantic call from Andrew and Vi that they had figured out that the ceremony thing to call forth some head honcho war demon was going to start at sunset of the night of the new moon, which of course was tonight, and been told in no uncertain terms to get their asses to the warehouses by the tracks. Well, Xander had, but since he didn't drive if he could avoid it, and since Jack had rather forcefully told him he was coming too, Jack had come along. And in the car, he had gotten the twenty-minute crash course in medieval weaponry.
"I'm giving you a crossbow and the axe. Careful of it getting stuck in any bones, especially skulls," Xander had told him when they'd pulled up next to Andrew who was waiting for them. Vi had already gone ahead to scout out the building. "And I want you to stay back as long as you can. You're the diversion if we get into trouble." Andrew had nodded as he loaded his own crossbow so Jack assumed he'd be staying back as well.
And now here the two of them were behind a stack of empty crates shooting bolts at the giant centipede in an effort to distract it from Vi's sword and Xander's double headed axe that darted in from behind whenever he had a clear shot. Jack tried to ignore his son before he could think about him getting stepped on and instead focused on hitting hands and shoulders. But he couldn't ignore Vi front and center as she ducked and dodged, stabbed and sliced, flipped and kicked, bounced off walls and got back up. She was pure determination, fury, and strength, and she kept the demon screaming and howling until it was so full of bolts and gashes that it could no longer stand up.
As soon as it had crashed to its knees, Vi was on it, brushing away its last attempts at resistance before ripping her sword up its middle. Oozing yellowish blood flowed out with its life. "I am not cleaning that up," muttered Andrew from beside him as they rushed after Vi and Xander who had already run through the door that was no longer guarded.
The sounds of battle already echoed from the other room, centered around one corner where something small was cornered amongst ten or so human sized demons that had gray pebbly skin, clawed fingers, and wore the same Wal-Mart brand as everyone else. A knot of demons in the center of the room who were obviously waiting for the corner situation to be resolved, jumped at their sudden entrance. Jack had no more time to think before one of them was rushing at him with his claws out, only noticing that he too had unhealthily big teeth before striking out with his borrowed axe. Xander was right about it sticking.
Around him were shouts from the others, but Jack only saw the snarling faces before him, up close and personal, and all of them wanting him dead. He knew that Andrew was beside him, that Vi had gone off after the person in the corner and that Xander was making for the big shots at the center and very firmly keeping Jack on his left side. The old soldier made sure he stayed there, all the way to the smashing of the funny carvings set up in a triangular formation in the middle of a complex drawing. And then it was over. The demons scattered. The dead were left lying.
"Diana!" shouted Xander. And there she was, limping slightly beside Vi as the two slayers joined them. Her hair was tangled and her clothes torn and there was a huge chain and a piece of wall attached to her wrists, but to Jack she seemed to glow with energy of a little kid that had had too much candy. It was like watching Vi fight the Ravana though the older girl had a quieter intensity to her. Watching them as they surveyed the scene with pride, Jack was reminded of the power he'd seen in Buffy's eyes at Christmas, a mere shimmer of what combat brought out. And he thought that he finally understood what Xander had meant about slayers. Forces of nature disguised as girls.
Arms burning now that the adrenaline was wearing off, and his knee telling him that he was getting way too old for this shit, Jack just wanted to go to sleep.
Sunday hosted a late breakfast at the house, filled with jokes and tales. Diana had indeed been captured by the Ravana and taken to its bosses, the still unresearched and unknown but fondly renamed Rock Heads, who were going to use her as the human blood ingredient. The giant porcupine hadn't realized that to people smaller than itself, this one girl that offered resistance probably hadn't been the best choice for the job. Considering that it was dead now, Jack couldn't help but point out the understatement of the year.
Diana had been knocked out during the fight and had regained consciousness once before being knocked out again. When she woke again just before the ceremony, she had taken part of the wall with her.
Dawn had screamed in surprise when she showed up in her room looking none the worse for wear. The two girls hadn't stopped talking as they first checked Dawn out from the hospital then drove home. No one really minded.
Dinner was another riotous affair of people who had faced death and were happy to have come out the other side. Jack joked with them but couldn't help feeling sad and a little old. He wondered if Giles ever felt this out of place at a table of kids. He felt Xander's gaze on him more than once.
After dinner, he went upstairs to pack the bag he hadn't really unpacked. He was back in the bare room he'd stayed in over Thanksgiving, which seemed so long ago now, a lifetime. When Xander and the girls had done exactly the same thing.
"I think Andrew got most of the blood out, but it's gray so you can say it's an ink stain or something if anyone asks." Xander stood in the doorway with Jack's clothes that he'd worn the night before. They had been hastily folded, and Jack accepted them with a thanks. Xander watched as he put them in his bag. "I'm glad you came," he said abruptly, making Jack stop and look up. His son looked vaguely embarrassed at admitting it but then he grinned. "You need a little work on the rapid reload of your crossbow, but you're a mean shot."
"Thanks. It was only my first battle of the twelfth century," Jack smiled.
"We could have gone caveman against vampires," Xander shrugged.
"Stakes. Little bits of wood through the heart. About as low-tech as you get."
Jack thought he could stand a little more low-tech in his life and a little less of the advanced alien doohickeys. They did come in handy, he had to admit, but what Jack wouldn't give to be able to smash an axe through Anubis's nonexistent head.
Joking aside, he was just glad that Friday night's phone call had had a happy ending to it. A happier ending. And that's what was bothering him. One girl and a little help had taken out a creature that Jack wouldn't have contemplated going up against without at least a grenade and a couple of bars of C4. And she had done it with a sword.
Perhaps most disturbing was that this was not a one-time deal. It was everyday and Xander was right in the thick of it, probably summing up injuries and a missing person as having a bad week. But Xander hadn't tried to hide it from him this time. He almost wished he had.
"What?" asked Xander.
"Just wondering how I'm ever going to sleep again from worrying about you," said Jack.
"You're going to worry?" Xander seemed slightly surprised. Jack could only lift his eyebrows.
"Of course, I'm going to worry about you!" he snapped. "You're out there fighting giant . . . green things! And I'm not always going to be there. And stop looking surprised," he added suddenly irritated. What? Did Xander think he'd come all the way out here on a weekend off just because the mood struck him?
"Sorry," said Xander not sounding sorry at all. "You're being all parenty." He smiled and flicked a hand to explain. "Not used to it coming from anyone other than Giles."
That stopped Jack for a second - no one other than Giles, he thought angrily. "Well, you better get used to it," he said, leveling a gaze at his son that spoke of 'elses' better not voiced aloud.
And Xander said, "Okay."
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