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Fate's Little Plaything (Volume Two)

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This story is No. 6 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: With greater experience comes ever-increasing challenges for Cordelia. Sequel to "Fate's Little Plaything Vol 1" and next in the "A Different Future" series.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > Cordelia-Centered
NCIS > General
CordyfanFR1322326,31655467108,24610 Mar 117 May 14No

Graduating

Summary: Fate hasn’t finished playing with Cordelia – and this time there isn’t even a Vengeance Demon in sight.
Pairings: Beginnings of Cordelia/Teal’c, with Samantha/Jack in the background and others as canon for now.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NCIS or Stargate SG-1.
Notes: Loosely set during the 5th season of BtVS. Note that there are some major AU components.

 

The Bullpen, NCIS, Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC – 16th March 2001

Gibbs shook his head and sighed.  Special Agent Baer certainly hadn’t been kidding when he’d predicted that the paperwork would take weeks, especially given the highly unusual circumstances of the attempted assassination on Air Force One.  To the outside world, the assassin had been an everyday fanatic, who’d somehow infiltrated the press pool several years earlier.  Inevitably, there were inevitably calls for heads to roll.  Of course, Baer and Gibbs knew the truth and, in consequence, were forced to write two reports.  One carefully edited version for public and media consumption and another with the truth, which would never see the light of day beyond a few selected individuals.

Needless to say, no one was any closer to establishing who the Circle of the Black Thorn actually were.  Given the demonic aspect, the case was probably best handled by The Slayers’ Assembly, though officially an assassination attempt on the President meant it was automatically the job of the FBI and Secret Service.  Normally, the latter two would already be engaged in a pissing contest of epic proportions, but not over this one.  Both organisations were out of their depth and confining themselves to supporting the Assembly.  However, none of the parties involved expected a quick answer – or perhaps any answer at all.  The Circle of the Black Thorn was, apparently, unknown in both the supernatural and human underworlds, with all normal sources coming up blank.

All they had was a tenuous link to Wolfram and Hart, both in the form of the dead initial informant and a business card discovered when Buffy and an HGC team raided the dry cleaning business linked to the incident.  On the basis of such flimsy evidence, even for such a serious crime, there was little or no chance of a successful investigation.  Wolfram and Hart were simply too big and powerful, and their activities too wide-ranging, to pinpoint anything concrete.  And sending someone undercover into the belly of the beast was tantamount to a death sentence for whichever poor unfortunate was selected, even in the unlikely event that they actually uncovered something incriminating within the vast and unspeakably evil legal empire.

Not that Wolfram and Hart would be left alone.  Buffy had the firm in her sights, as number two priority once Glory was dealt with.  That, Gibbs assessed, would be one Hell of a grudge match and probably a lengthy battle of attrition.  From what he knew about the law firm, however, such a confrontation had been a long time coming.

At least Buffy also had to produce her own report.  She might be one of the top Directors in the Assembly, but the disgruntled Slayer had admitted that she wasn’t immune to paperwork either.  Rupert Giles was apparently seeing to that part of her ongoing leadership training.

Gibbs had to reluctantly admit that his own professional development was taking no end of unexpected twists and turns.  The Slayers might be difficult to deal with – he’d discovered that with his very first Cordelia encounter – but they were also thoroughly competent, in an eccentric way.  If anyone could be both annoying almost beyond measure, yet thoroughly likeable at the same time, it was Buffy Summers and Cordelia Chase.  He’d also implicitly trust them with his back and the Slayers at least had a refreshing willingness to learn.  Gibbs and Buffy had quite readily exchanged investigative techniques for knowledge of the supernatural during the latest combined operation.  Besides, she’d actually saved his neck – quite literally – on Air Force One, and that was something he wouldn’t forget.

The raid on the dry cleaning business had certainly been a model of efficiency.  With the operation delayed until the evening of the assassination attempt, Buffy had gone straight from the presidential aircraft to the target.  All day, the street had been cordoned off by DC Police and FBI units, Fornell praying that nothing nasty would emerge in the meantime, while they waited on an HGC unit to perform the actual door-kicking.  Gibbs had initially been somewhat territorial about that.  After all, two Navy and Marine offices had been murdered by someone, or something, inside the store.  Buffy had quickly stomped on him, pointing out that demon venom probably equalled a demon inside, which the NCIS crew were far from prepared to deal with.

The reason for the HGC delay soon became apparent.  With the weapon employed against the two deceased officers taken from a Trenigar Demon, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller had pointed out that special precautions needed to be taken.  A Trenigar might be barely sentient and hardly mobile, but it was also highly toxic.  Properly dispersed, a mere cupful of its venom could kill half the population of Washington DC.  It was, effectively, a demonic bio-weapon.  HG-1 had, therefore, brought an SGC decontamination team with them.

Miller had additionally flown in with two of the HGC’s Piranha III armoured personnel carriers and NBC gear.  Much to her disgust, Buffy had also been forced to don the protective clothing and gas-mask.  DiNozzo, needless to say, had gleefully snapped a few incriminating photos, with the Slayer threatening unspeakable revenge worthy of a Vengeance Demon, if any of the images ever arrived in anyone’s e-mail inbox.

The raid itself was uncomplicated and swiftly carried out.  The two APCs had simply raced down the street, one of them slamming into the front of the store, with both disgorging a full load of HGC troopers.  SpecOps to a man – aside from Buffy, who was in a class of her own – they’d gone through the store like a SWAT team on speed.  They very rapidly discovered the bodies of the two owners, drained by a quintet of vampires.  Four of the latter were promptly dispatched, though not without seriously injuring an HGC trooper, and the fifth briefly held for questioning.  The Trenigar in the basement – basically a thirty-eyed venom-sweating spiny blob on four stubby legs – was meanwhile rapidly dispatched, albeit not before it absorbed an unfeasibly large number of bullets, and its corpse handed over to the USAF decontamination team for safe disposal.

Elsewhere, the surviving vampire was persuaded to talk, with the usual application of a cross and holy water.  Evidently, he and his four compatriots had been there since early morning, having been hired by an unknown intermediary to kill the two owners, to prevent them from talking.  The vampires had also been ordered to eliminate the Trenigar, but that had proven harder than anticipated.  Finally, they’d decided that the best method would simply be to burn down the building, taking the slow-witted, but immensely tough, demon with it.  The vampires hoped to escape at dusk, but even with their comparative resistance to bullets, they hadn’t rated their chances against the thick police cordon.  Indeed, they were vainly looking for sewer access, when the first Piranha smashed into the store front, and the Slayer led the charge.

Realising that they wouldn’t get anything more from the vampire, who was simple teeth for hire, Miller rapidly staked the creature – after all, he couldn’t come all the way from Colorado, just to watch Buffy dust every one of them – then they turned the building upside down.  The only piece of potential evidence remaining was a Wolfram and Hart business card – and no doubt the firm could produce all manner of innocent explanations, given that they also handled legitimate legal cases on the side.  A background check of the two store owners might yet turn up something useful, but neither Gibbs nor anyone else were holding their breath about that possibility.

Buffy had remained in DC for the rest of the week, both helping to wrap up the case, and also playing diplomat.  Gibbs almost snorted aloud at the latter.  In his opinion, Slayers had about as much natural diplomatic ability as himself, which was to say nada.  In spite of that natural handicap, Buffy was nevertheless learning fast and had already charmed a large part of the Washington bureaucratic and political machine and not a few foreign ambassadors.  The Slayer could, it seemed, slip in and out of her false blonde airhead persona and into that of a sophisticated negotiator, with the same facility she could turn into a brutally effective killing machine.

Gibbs smiled to himself.  The last time he’d seen the blonde Terminator before her return to Sunnydale, she was still complaining about the NBC gear leaving her sweaty and her hair matted, even days and numerous showers after the event.  All clearly part of the act, for someone who could take out half the NCIS Bullpen in moments.

He forced himself to return to work, longingly eyeing the phone.  All he wanted was a case – any case.  They’d drawn Saturday duty, but it was a quiet day, so Gibbs couldn’t procrastinate any longer over the Air Force One incident paperwork.  Nor could he even delegate it, since none of the others had been there.  DiNozzo was looking as smug as he dared about that and about ten seconds from a head-slap.

Gibbs lips tightened slightly.  He wanted to ask DiNozzo what was happening between him and Buffy right now, but the NCIS team leader made a point of never interfering in subordinates’ personal lives.  The change was barely perceptible, except to someone who spent his life building cases and working hunches based on minute differences in behaviour.  Something had changed on DiNozzo’s end and he was definitely slightly cooler – even awkward – around his girlfriend.  For her part, Buffy barely seemed to be noticing, and Gibbs had the distinct feeling that she was both quite inexperienced and also naive on the relationship front, certainly more so than the older Special Agent.

It could be nothing, Gibbs ruminated.  Equally, DiNozzo might be going cold on the whole long-distance relationship.  He hoped it wasn’t something worse.  His least experienced agent had a reputation, albeit much of it in his own mind, as a serial lothario.  To the best of Gibbs’ knowledge, however, he’d never two-timed someone.  Surely, if there was someone else, DiNozzo would have the guts to admit it, as soon as possible.

The problem was that his junior team member had all the emotional maturity of a pimply fifteen year-old, and an approach to women which sometimes bordered on the blatantly sexist.  His natural playfulness and habit of practical jokes – not mention blatant disregard for personal privacy – had been misconstrued from time to time.  More than once, Gibbs had been forced to step in, in order to persuade one of the NCIS female staff to drop a harassment charge.  Usually on the support side, since field agents tended to take a more robust approach to such things, involving a punch in the mouth.  He defended DiNozzo because he was a member of his team, a good agent, and not deliberately spiteful.  But on three separate occasions, Gibbs had talked them out of initiating formal harassment proceedings, on the basis that DiNozzo was just being stupid, not malicious.  Others might say that the formidable team leader had intimidated them into dropping charges, but Gibbs would simply argue that he’d appealed to their reason – even charmed his way around them.  Still, it was perhaps time to remind the agent that one day, he’d piss off the wrong woman – and Gibbs wouldn’t be able to protect him from either the official, or unofficial, fall-out.

Such as his current relationship with Buffy Summers.  If this one went tits-up on account of DiNozzo, he reminded himself grimly, it wouldn’t be a matter of harassment charges, just one very distressed young Slayer.  Buffy definitely took him as being someone who was quite vulnerable in the emotional department, at least when it came to relationships.  And if DiNozzo hurt her, Gibbs was pretty sure his problems wouldn’t primarily come from the little blonde.  Instead, her furious sister would pummel the young agent until he hollered for his mother.

 

882 Frontier Drive, Colorado Springs, Colorado – 16th March 2001

“Six weeks, mom?  That’s so unfair!” Cassie Fraiser yelled, slamming the door between the kitchen and the dining room, her faithful dog barely following her inside without losing its tail.

The smell of pancakes and bacon filled the kitchen as Carter, Willow and Tara arrived for a leisurely Saturday breakfast.  So did the smell of domestic trouble, the two witches and USAF officer noted.  That didn’t bode particularly well for their business here today.  They needed a level-headed Cassie, not one throwing her toys out of the pram.

“For that little snit, we’ll just call it seven,” her mother told her through the door.

“That totally sucks!” Cassie’s voice rose further.

“Just keep going, honey...  Plenty of weeks left to play with,” her mother responded in placid tones. “And what have I told you about using that word?”

Carter raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Bad timing?”

Fraiser shook her head. “Not at all – I called you, after all.  Just me being a bad parent, that’s all.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” the Major responded.

“I’m talking about last night, not this morning,” Fraiser clarified. “My darling daughter came home from school with a punishment to write for the Principal.  She was apparently trying to ditch school in the afternoon – and also admitted trying to forge my signature...”

The SGC CMO sighed. “I wasn’t quite feeling myself last night.  Reading these Slayer diaries got me all teary and emotional and...  Well, I grounded Cassie for two weeks.”

Willow blinked. “Not trying to interfere, Janet – ‘cause hey, not a parent and I’d probably be a lousy one...  But education’s important and Cassie’s not a Slayer – even a Potential - so two weeks was kinda lenient.  I mean, my own parents weren’t the best – with the whole not being there thing – but even I was once grounded for a month, when Buffy, Cordy, Xander and me took an afternoon off school to kill a demon.  ‘Course, they weren’t around long enough to see the grounding through...”

The witch realised she was rambling. “And stopping now.”

Carter agreed. “Forging your signature’s a bad one, too.  That could get her jail time in some circumstances when she’s older...”

Fraiser nodded. “That’s what I woke up realising at three this morning.  So I just called her friends’ parents this morning.  Their offspring each got a month – and none of them played master forger.  So I decided to bump up the punishment level a bit.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t go down too well,” Tara noted.

“You might say that,” Fraiser allowed. “There was a lot of whining and she asked if I couldn’t just turn her over and roast her butt instead.  But from now on, I’m keeping that as an extra, for very special occasions when I really need to pound the lesson home, so to speak.  The rest of the time, like now?  I’m staying with the grounding, especially now I know she hates being stuck in the house so much.  Means it works.”

Carter chuckled. “Well, Mom tended to go for the solitary confinement.  Dad, on the other hand?  The Air Force background meant he tended to be more inventive with Mark and I.  Like cutting the grass with a pair of nail scissors...  Or when a couple of friends and I decorated a neighbour’s house with toilet tissue?  We had to clean it up, then do push-ups in his front yard, ‘til our arms nearly fell off!”

There were also dad-imposed tasks involving a toothbrush, but she really didn’t want to go there.

Fraiser heard a faint sound from the other side of the door and grinned, her voice getting louder. “I really like the sound of that, Sam...  Nail scissors, you say?”

There was a worried squeak from the other side of the door.

“Get your butt in here, Cassandra Fraiser!  And stop listening at keyholes!” Fraiser ordered crisply.

Her adopted daughter was the very picture of early adolescent sulk.  A chair was dragged out from the kitchen table and Cassie sat down with an exaggerated sigh, a sizable pout, and arms defiantly folded across her chest.  Her dog lay down beside her, eyeing his mistress sympathetically.

“Just keep the attitude up, young lady, and you’ll need a calendar to figure out when you’ll next be allowed out with those friends,” Fraiser warned, putting her breakfast down in front of her.

Cassie glanced around, hoping for support from the visitors, but none was forthcoming.  Plus her mother looked particularly implacable this morning.  It might, she decided, be best just to play along.  After all, the next weapon in her mother’s arsenal was likely to be exile to her room for the whole weekend – with the computer, TV and sound system removed. Besides, she reminded herself, they were going to tell her something important this morning, so it might be worth cooperating. 

“Yes mom,” Cassie now tried to look like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

Fraiser glanced suspiciously at her daughter.  Before Dawn arrived in Cassie’s life, the latter had been somewhat introverted and quiet, without any real friends.  The youngest Summers had taught her to be somewhat more outgoing – and also slightly naughty, but well within the rules.  In Dawn’s absence, however, Cassie now seemed to pushing the limits whenever possible.  This, after all, wasn’t the first time she’d recently been in trouble.  Fraiser hoped she wasn’t falling in with a bad crowd, though that was probably an overreaction.  Still, Dawn would be a good moderating influence when she finally returned from her galactic travels.  Certainly, Cassie was still very much more attached to her friend from Sunnydale than the current crop of acquaintances, as the reaction to Dawn’s letter had proven only the previous evening.

“So...  You said last night you were gonna tell me stuff...” Cassie ventured cautiously, reaching for the maple syrup.

Whatever the revelation, there were worst places for it than over one of her mom’s breakfasts, she reasoned.  Janet Fraiser’s talents didn’t only run in the medical department.

The SGC CMO glanced at Carter and the others. “Over to you, ladies.”

Carter, meanwhile, grimaced and looked at Willow and Tara. “Definitely more your area, I think...”

Willow nodded and took a deep breath.  She never knew how people would react to the supernatural version of The Talk.

“What d’you know about Earth’s myths and legends, Cassie?  Magic, demons, ghosts, monster, vampires, that sort of thing?” the witch asked carefully.

“Well, there’s the really bad movies I’ve seen.  These old Hammer films they show at night...  Pretty funny – not scary at all,” Cassie declared.

Her mother smiled. “And that’s why you woke up screaming, insisting that Dracula was trying to climb in your bedroom window.”

She winced inwardly, wondering what would happen when Cassie discovered that there was a real Count Dracula out there.

“Mom!” the youngster complained. “You said you’d never tell...”

“Anything else?” Willow probed.

“I’ve seen Penn and Tellers’ magic show,” Cassie offered.

Tara glanced at Willow.  So far, the young Fraiser didn’t seem to have a clue about the supernatural.

“That’s illusion, not magic, sweetie,” Tara replied. “Anything else?”

“Read a few books...” Cassie paused and fidgeted uncomfortably. “Weird thing is, a lot of the myths and stuff on earth?  We had almost the same back on Hanka...”

Fraiser looked at her daughter in surprise. “You never said anything, dear.”

“You never asked,” Cassie replied defensively.

“So...  Myths and legends on Hanka?” Carter ventured.

The girl’s homeworld was a touchy subject, she knew.  Cassandra was the only survivor of her people, the rest deliberately killed by a Goa’uld virus.  But anything she could tell them would add to the still far-from-clear picture of the supernatural beyond Earth.

“We had lots of prophecies.  Like the one that said we’d all die at the eclipse.  And everyone did, but was that the prophecy, or just because Niirti knew about it?” Cassie’s eyes were slightly haunted, both at the memory of what had happened to her home planet, and also the Goa’uld who’d turned her into a human bomb.

“Anything else?” Willow asked.

“My grandparents had all these stories about vampires on Hanka.  And there were other stories that were way older, about vampires and demons.  When things got really bad, a girl always came through the Stargate to help – sometimes two or three – but always not too much older than me.  In th stories, they were very strong and fast, and knew how to fight the evil things...” Cassie recalled.

Yet another wrinkle in the story of off-world Slayers, Willow noted to herself.  Travelling Chosen Ones, who didn’t confine themselves to one planet.  She wondered if they’d ever find out where they came from, but reluctantly realised it was unlikely.

“They’re called Slayers,” Cassie’s mother told her. “And they aren’t just legends.”

“Dawn’s sisters are both Slayers, Cassie,” Willow added.

The youngster’s eyes widened.  Buffy and Cordelia had both seemed so normal.  Though, she realised, very fast and strong – as she and Dawn had discovered during Prank Week, when they were confined to the Mountain.

“And I’m afraid vampires and demons are real.  We have them on Earth,” Carter put in.

“Magic’s real, too.  And Willow and I are both witches,” Tara added her two-cents worth.

Cassie glanced around the kitchen, wondering if they were all just yanking her chain.  The expressions were, however, all too serious for that.  She didn’t say anything for a moment, merely digesting the fact that some things were even weirder than the SGC’s day-to-day business, and chewed on a piece of pancake.

“Cool!” she grinned broadly, mouth full.

 

Two disturbing hours later, after their guests had departed, Cassie wasn’t so sure that “cool” was the word she was looking for.  The crash course in the supernatural had commenced with a thoroughly edited version of the Initiative footage.  This time, it wasn’t intended to shock, so much as to inform.  In relative terms, it was the Parental Guidance version, but still rather frightening to the twelve-year-old, despite the editing.

In short order, Cassie had learned about Hellmouths, Slayers, and their various opponents.  She’d additionally learned the real reason – or certainly as far as everyone present knew – why Dawn was off-world.  It was either that, or risk being sacrificed by a Hell Goddess, risking the destruction of all existence.  The adults, however, decided not to tell Cassie that the world could still be destroyed by Glory – there was no sense adding to her worries at this stage.

She’d felt mildly jealous of Dawn the previous night, making friends with a powerful Empress and exploring another galaxy.  Now Cassie wasn’t so sure.  Dawn’s life in Sunnydale had been a thoroughly dangerous one and she didn’t envy her friend, or her sisters.

Dealing with the existence of magic was slightly easier.  To Carter’s secret delight – or at least the rational scientist part of her – Cassie had been downright dubious at first.  Even Tara and Willow levitating a variety of objects only led to her claiming that it could be telekinesis – and she’d seen a TV programme on that.  Fireballs were likewise dismissed as being possible with technology.  Finally, the two witches had made white rabbits pop out of thin air, enough to give Anya the screaming wiggins.  With Fraiser complaining that they were crapping all over her kitchen floor and Cassie’s dog almost hysterical with so many rabbits to chase, the demonstration quickly turned into a farce.  Nonetheless, Cassie was finally convinced that magic was, indeed, real – and nothing to do with charlatans on the television.

“At least you don’t have to worry about vampires in Colorado Springs.  Not most of the time, anyhow,” Fraiser reminded her daughter.

The occasional itinerant bloodsucker might make an appearance, but there was no Hellmouth in the area, nor even a high concentration of mystical energy.  The SGC doctor had, nevertheless, laid down a few ground rules.

“But what did we agree?” she asked once more.

“That I’ll never go out alone after dark, or even in a group of less than four.  Not to ask anyone in, whether I know them or not, and especially after dark.  And that I’ll never deliberately go looking for any of these things.  Like I would, anyways...” Cassie shuddered, head leaning against her mother’s shoulder as they sat together on the sofa.

“Plus the part where it’s all a huge secret,” she added.

Not that keeping one more big secret would be difficult for Cassie.  To the world at large, she’d always have to be Janet Fraiser’s adopted daughter, from Toronto.  In some ways, it might actually be easier, having a friend – in the shape of Dawn - she could share such secrets with.

Fraiser had wanted to keep the supernatural world from her daughter for as long as possible – and preferably permanently – but the unexpected arrival of Dawn’s letter raised too many questions.  Cassie wasn’t a stupid child, quite the opposite, and her mother didn’t want any freelance investigating.  Hence the admittedly limited supernatural induction.  It certainly wouldn’t be sufficient for the nightmare that was Sunnydale, but was perfectly adequate for Colorado Springs.

Or she certainly hoped it would be.  Dawn Summers seemed to be a trouble magnet, especially on Tuesdays.  Not that it was always – or even usually – her fault, but Fraiser decided she’d always try to find a reason to keep her daughter away from her friend on that particular day.

Cassie glanced hopefully at her mother. “Mom...  You know how this has been kinda scary and unexpected?”

“Yes...” Fraiser knew a wheedling tone when she heard one.

“Does it get me any credit on the grounding thing.  Maybe a week or two off?” her daughter ventured.

“Nice try, honey.  But the seven weeks stands, I’m afraid.  D’you think Dawn’s mom goes any easier on her, just because she’s the Slayer’s sister?  Or just because she keeps getting herself kidnapped?” Fraiser pointed out.

“K-kidnapped?” Cassie stammered – they hadn’t covered that part.

Her mother nodded. “Back in Sunnydale, every evil thing with a grudge against Buffy sees Dawn as an easy way of hitting back against her sister.  I think it’s probably the reason why Joyce wants to move here.”

Cassie shivered again. “Really not surprised.  And hey, groundings?  Lock me in my room already.  After hearing this stuff, I’m gonna be a hermit.  I don’t want to go out after dark, ever again!  Not without a couple of SG teams to protect me.”

Suddenly, the little argument with her mother that morning seemed unimportant.  There were real monsters out there, after all.  Worse than – or at least as bad as – the Goa’uld.

“Not so bad as all that, dear.  Not in Colorado Springs, anyway,” Fraiser assured her, hoping they hadn’t gone too far.

“Yeah, sure,” the youngster replied dubiously.

She was already planning to sleep with a stake and holy water by her bed and nail a few crosses to the walls.

“Mom?  Will you stay with me today?  And if I get nightmares tonight... ‘Cause this so beats the time I watched Bride of Dracula,” she added in a small voice.

Fraiser smiled kindly. “You might be grounded, but we can still have a great mom and daughter day.  Your choice of movies and there’s enough ice-cream in the freezer to feed half the SGC.  And if you can’t sleep tonight, I’m sure you can come in with me.”

Any nightmares would, after all, be largely her fault.

“Mom?” Cassie murmured again, more contentedly this time.

“Yes honey?”

“I’m so glad I don’t have to be a Slayer,” the youngster replied in heartfelt tones.

“So am I, Cassie.  So am I...” Fraiser assured her, giving her shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

 

1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California – 17th March 2001

“Keep mom and Dawn safe, they said!  Attacked by man-eating aliens, local nutcases trying to kill my little sister, and a fricking galactic war!  And maybe an Old One on the loose…  I am so gonna kick Asgard ass!” Buffy snarled wrathfully, throwing the letters from her mother and sister onto the table.

Having been in Washington all week, with Cordelia at Area 51, the deliveries from Tallura Prime had only just caught up.  Hand-delivered – and on a Sunday morning – by Army messenger from Fort McGregor, Hammond clearly wasn’t about to trust such things to the US Postal Service.  The General also had a good inkling about the likely reaction and was only glad there was well over eight-hundred road miles between Sunnydale and Cheyenne Mountain.

It was pleasant reading at first.  Clearly her mother and sister were missing the Slayer, every bit as much as she was missing them.  Buffy had even felt a tiny lump in her throat when her sister apologised, at some length, for being a brat.  In truth, her little sister wasn’t so bad – and certainly no worse than she’d been at that age.

The revelation that her family were guests of an immensely powerful Empress almost made Buffy choke on her cereal.  Apparently, however, Dawn had very rapidly bonded with the older girl.  She still couldn’t quite imagine her high spirited little sister loose in a world of imperial protocol, but stranger things had happened.

Such as the part where her mother, the quiet owner of a Sunnydale art gallery, was now apparently a crucial researcher on a vitally important project.  Buffy and Cordelia were already scheming ways of bringing Joyce into the Assembly, in a purely research capacity.  Their mother, however, had hinted that given the sort of thing she’d been researching, she might approach General Hammond for a job.  Clearly, she thought running an art gallery would be too tame in future.

Then Buffy had reached the less palatable parts, the details which made her blood run cold when she thought about the danger that her mother and sister might be in, with her helpless to do anything about it. 

Cordelia was also seething but, after some consideration, reluctantly realised that there wasn’t much she could do right now. “I’m guessing the SGC could do without us starting a war with the Asgard.  Hell, we’re not exactly winning against the Goa’uld right now.  But I get where you’re coming from, Slay Girl.  Thing is, the Asgard were probably less interested in keeping mom and Dawn safe, than they were about making sure Glory couldn’t get her hands on little sis’.  After all, end of existence?  Just the same for them, as us.

“And I don’t think they expected all of this crap, either.  I get the feeling there just isn’t a guaranteed safe part of space out there,” she added.

Buffy glared at her. “Don’t get all logical on me, Cordy.  It’s unnatural, for one thing.  Plus, I want a rant and I’m sure as Hell gonna have one!  Next time I see Thor, I’m likely to take his butt-probe and….”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “ ‘Butt-probe’?”

The Slayer nodded vehemently. “I saw this documentary about people who said they’d been abducted and experimented on.  By aliens that looked just like the Asgard.  And there were always butt-probes involved.”

“I don’t know, Buffy.  The SGC seem to think the Asgard are the good guys and there’s no evidence to back up the whole experimentation thing.  I mean, I was just at Area 51, and it’s not the huge secret government base everybody seems to think it is…” her sister replied.

Cordelia’s ultra-high-altitude jump training had taken place at the secretive Nevada test site.  While the base’s activities included supporting the SGC – and other things she wasn’t cleared for – it seemed to be largely an aerospace testing site and storage area.

“Butt-probes, I tell you!” Buffy insisted, returning to the Roswell-aliens theme she’d briefly fixated on after her first visit to the SGC – and before even knowing its true purpose.

“That was an episode of South Park,” Cordelia replied. “And if we could maybe have a little less of the obsessive-psychotic Slayer?  Plus the whole disturbing ‘butt-probe’ fixation?  Gotta say eeuuwww….”

The Slayer’s glare made her sister edge back in her chair.

“I am not obsessive-psychotic, little sis’…” she replied slowly and dangerously, brandishing Mister Pointy.

“You so need to Slay something,” Cordelia told her.

“Yeah, but it’s only breakfast time.  Vamps won’t be up and about for the rest of the day,” Buffy decided that a little violence might go a long way towards working out some of her frustrations, especially if she mentally pictured the vampires as Asgard.

“You could spar with someone.  Just not me…” Cordelia suggested carefully. “Why not go round to Spike’s crypt, kick him out of bed, and beat the crap out of him?  You’ll feel way better.”

“Tempting, little sis’, but wouldn’t really be fair - even on Spike.  I kinda need someone who can fight back.  Guess it’ll have to be Amyra,” the Slayer pondered her options.

“Lucky Amyra,” Cordelia muttered.

Buffy pretended not to hear and reached for the newspaper.  It was a comparatively new habit, but a necessary one, given her political duties these days.  The Slayer had quickly come to realise that Assembly negotiations didn’t occur in a vacuum for any of the people she encountered.  It was, therefore, useful to know what else was going on, which might have an impact on their responses.  It had originally been Giles’ idea, but Buffy had to admit that it was also a useful one.

After a few minutes, the Slayer paused and re-read an article.  She didn’t particularly like what she was seeing.

“Cordy, is this likely to affect your unit?  Seems to have gotten very serious, very quickly… ‘All necessary means’?  That’s pretty strong language coming from the State Department,” Buffy asked worriedly.

Cordelia took the newspaper and quickly scanned the article. “Throwing mustard gas around and threatening his neighbours?  Not of the good, especially when the bastard’s under a UN embargo.  I’ll see what the word is when I’m at McGregor tomorrow.”

When she was first posted to Fort McGregor and working with Malanowski, part of Cordelia’s duties had been to collate intelligence on this particular regime.  One of what the USAF Colonel had called the “Dirty Dozen” – those countries where military action was deemed to be most likely – judging by the newspaper article, General Eduardo Diaz’s Republic of Saguerra had probably just risen to near the top of the list, if not the very top.  Saguerra, moreover, just happened to be within 15th SFG’s normal area of responsibility.

“Whatever the politicians say, it takes weeks to put together a full military response – on the ground anyway,” Cordelia tried to sound reassuring.

She didn’t tell her sister that Special Forces could be deployed much more rapidly than the conventional heavy units of the US Army.  Especially to a country like Saguerra, with multiple rebel movements and an ongoing civil war against Diaz.  In other words, a situation tailor-made for Special Forces involvement.

If, however, 15th SFG were deployed in the next few weeks, they’d be leaving her behind.  Her temporary attachment to the SGC for the strike against Bastet was effectively set in stone, as was her part in the operation against Glory.  Cordelia had distinctly mixed feelings about that.  She’d eventually be part of the SGC, while dealing with the Hell Goddess had to be of paramount concern, but even the possibility of her Special Forces unit going into action without her didn’t quite sit well.

“Sounds like a total wackjob,” Buffy snatched the paper back, shaking her head as she continued to read.

“A wackjob with a Helluva lot of tanks, artillery, aircraft and – it seems – chemical weapons,” Cordelia agreed pensively.

“I don’t like the sound of that, little sis’…” Buffy began to slide towards worried sister mode.

“Neither do I, Slay Girl,” Cordelia agreed.

Diaz was unstable and she didn’t particularly relish going to war against a well-armed nutcase, but neither did she want to be left behind.  A visit to Clifton and company was definitely on the cards for the following day, she decided.

 

15th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort McGregor, Sunnydale, California – 18th March 2001

Predictably, ODA-5943 were crowded around a large-scale map of a certain area of Latin America when Cordelia arrived.  The Sergeant only had a brief break from the latest instalment of Captain Wilma Bolland’s riveting class on Uniform Code of Military Justice, but she just had to satisfy her curiosity.

“I knew it,” she declared triumphantly, materialising silently and at her stealthy best behind Clifton and looking over his shoulder at the tell-tale map.

The Captain almost left his skin on the floor. “Jeez!  They ought to put a bell on you, Cordy…  And you knew what, exactly?”

“Map of Saguerra.  So when are we going, sir?” Cordelia demanded.

“We aren’t - or not yet, anyhow.  This is 7th Group’s patch – we only play support.  But there’s no harm in being ready with some contingency plans, just in case,” Clifton replied.

He suspected that their broad contingency plans would not only have to be worked up into something more detailed, but actually executed.  7th SFG had a hemisphere-wide remit and were already engaged in several other countries, while the Saguerra situation would almost certainly require a large Special Forces presence.

“What’s the situation on the ground, sir?  Papers kinda contradicted each other and the TV news?  Not much better,” Cordelia asked.

“Short version?  Diaz dropped a shitload of mustard gas on a village that was supposedly harbouring rebels.  We didn’t even know he had a fucking chemical capability – and he might not have much of the stuff left, but it’s been enough to get his neighbours and the State Department all riled up.  Saguerra’s a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Treaty, which Diaz has just pissed all over.  Then there’s the part where he claims big chunks of most of his neighbour’s territory, has bombed rebel camps in several of them, and has armed himself to the teeth – at least before the UN embargo finally bit.  The OAS are meeting later today and the UN Security Council tomorrow.  Guy’s a regional menace, so he won’t have many supporters – probably the usual suspects in the UN – but if Washington grows a pair, then we’ll have to do most of the heavy lifting on this one,” Staff Sergeant Lee O’Hagan, ODA-5943’s Operations and Intelligence Sergeant explained.

General Eduardo Diaz was amongst the last of a fortuitously dying breed, the old-fashioned Latin American military dictators.  In their heyday, most of them had tended to concentrate on solidifying their internal power base, but Diaz had blatantly expansionist aims – and he was also somewhat unstable.

“Any chance the diplomats can work something out?  It’s broken kinda quickly…” Cordelia noted.

“Nada.  I don’t think anyone actually wants a settlement with this nutcase.  They just want his ass gone.  And it’s actually been brewing for months – hence the embargo – just nobody’s been paying too much attention,” Clifton replied.

“Bad news is, we’ll have to do this one by forcible entry.  None of the nearby countries have much in the way of airbases and military facilities and infrastructure – not enough for a large-scale build-up beforehand.  So we aren’t talking a leisurely bombing campaign, followed by a land offensive, like in the Gulf in ‘91.  More like an old-style amphibious and airborne landing, which could turn into a real meat-grinder,” he continued grimly.

He turned to the inquisitive Cordelia. “But you have other things to worry about right now, Sergeant Chase.  You’ve OCS to complete and next month you’ve – uh – whatever you’re doing then.”

The Captain quickly reminded himself that no one else here was read into the SGC.  He could understand her – albeit wholly unnecessary – concern about being left out of any operation with the team.  It wasn’t likely to be the case here, but the Sergeant had more irons in the fire than anyone else he knew and she wouldn’t always be able to attend to them all.

“But I can help…” Cordelia protested.

“If we need your services, you’ll be the first to know.  Don’t go looking for trouble, Cordy.  You - of all people - oughta know that it’ll find you fast enough.  Now scoot!” Clifton pointed to the door.

 

Training Area, Fort McGregor, Sunnydale, California – 19th March 2001

The whine of several MILES sets was testament to the fact that Cordelia’s plan hadn’t quite worked out in practice.  That, and the Sergeant’s blood-curdling snarls.

She was right in the face of an ROTC candidate. “Okay!  Tell me where the Hell you learned basic tactics, ‘cause from where I’m standing, I reckon it was the fricking Boy Scouts!  What part of “base of fire” didn’t you understand?  That means you hold the damn position and give your buddies covering fire and provide them with a position to they can fall back on.  It doesn’t mean changing position, just because you thought there was a more comfortable spot…  Why the Hell d’you think it was in the plan?  Five of your guys, plus yourself – though not a loss, from where I’m standing – are now dead.  All because you didn’t follow the fucking plan!”

The exercise was an easy enough one.  Cordelia had been given command of the ROTC contingent, tasked with gathering intelligence and then attacking a simulated enemy supply dump, defended by 21st Infantry troops.  They’d only been given an hour to plan the mission, but it had seemed straightforward enough – so long as everyone stuck to the script.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time…  The position looked better and…” the unfortunate ROTC candidate’s words trailed away and he wriggled under the Sergeant’s scrutiny.

“ ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’?  They’ll put that on your fricking tombstone!  Until you moved your fat ass, the enemy had no idea we were coming.  Then you might as well have flown a fucking big “’here we are – please shoot us’ banner!” Cordelia yelled.

“Sergeant Chase?”

She turned to see two of the training cadre – Sergeant Major Fegen and Captain Nash – standing with clipboards and assiduously taking notes.

“What are the main functions of Special Forces in the US Army?” Nash asked in cordial tones, as Fegen deactivated the annoying MILES harnesses in the background.

“Direct action, reconnaissance, counter-insurgency, foreign military assistance and training…” Cordelia immediately replied.

“Yes, training….” Nash replied with a nod, scribbling a few more notes, then moving on.

Cordelia suppressed a groan, suspecting that she’d just blotted her copybook.  Then in a moment of comprehension, she saw exactly what Nash was getting at, and groaned aloud. 

As a fully-fledged Special Forces Sergeant, she might be wholly familiar with basic combat tactics, but the ROTC guys weren’t necessarily.  The plan might also be adequate, but perhaps not for the quality of the troops she had available.  Leaving that to one side, an essential part of the OCS was to learn from others also on the course.  The ROTC people were green as grass and still had to undergo training in their specific MOS.  In this instance, the cadre were therefore expecting her – a highly decorated Special Forces NCO held in awe by most of the ROTC contingent – to pass on her knowledge, in an appropriate manner.

In an appropriate manner, she reminded herself.  One that didn’t include pulling an Ollie March and screaming in their faces, or turning them into quivering lumps of jello.  Hell, part of her job description in future was to train foreign troops – and perhaps anti-Goa’uld rebels on other planets – and she couldn’t use the screaming Drill Sergeant model then.

Cordelia took a deep breath, ignored the smirking 21st Infantry troopers, and squatted down in the dirt to gather the ROTC crew around her.  Moderating her tone, she decided to approach this another way.  One that acknowledged that this might not only be their fault.  Ultimately, she’d been commanding this mission, so the buck stopped with her.

“Okay, folks…  Let’s take this from the top.  What was the first thing we did wrong?  And what should we have done?” she asked patiently.

Standing at the treeline, Nash and Fegen continued to take notes, faces inscrutable.

 

Basic Officer Candidate School, Fort McGregor, Sunnydale, California – 25th March 2001

“You may now turn over your question papers.  You have three hours, starting now,” Sergeant Major Fegen instructed the OC candidates.

It was just like being in school, Cordelia mused.  They seemed to have a lot of written tests, though these were the biggest so far.  Two days of them, three hour papers, in the morning and afternoon.  The Fort McGregor BOCS was an experimental course and covered a wider range of topics than the more established syllabus elsewhere.  This week’s tests included Military Science, US Army Regulations, Administrative Procedures, and Leadership.  This morning was the Military Science element and she silently thanked O’Neill for insisting that she enrol in that class at UC Sunnydale.  Much of this element wasn’t covered during OCS classes, so it had be learned on the candidates’ own time.  Unlike Cordelia and the OTC students, most of the others hadn’t encountered much of the material elsewhere.

Question One:  To what extent can it be argued that Clausewitzian friction has been largely eliminated from the modern battlefield by network-centric warfare?

Question Two:  What are the central tenets of a successful manoeuvrist strategy?  Illustrate, using recent examples.

Question Three:  Assess the argument that guerrilla warfare is largely the preserve of the weaker side in any campaign.

Cordelia smiled to herself.  There was nothing here she hadn’t covered in that first semester class at UCS.  The questions were, nevertheless tricky for this level and wouldn’t have been out of place in a junior staff officers’ course. 

She picked up her pen and began to write.  Only four more days to go, before OCS formally ended.

 

Basic Officer Candidate School, Fort McGregor, Sunnydale, California – 28th March 2001

It was, Cordelia reflected nervously, almost like being called to the Principal’s office.  That had happened to her a few times at Sunnydale High, always for Scooby-related activities, but Snyder had never really been able to intimidate her.  No, this was more like being sent to the Mother Superior, sweaty palms and all.

Logic told Cordelia there was nothing to worry about.  The panel was the last part of OCS and up to now – at least to the best of her knowledge – she hadn’t come remotely close to failing any element of the course.  But she’d also heard stories of people falling at the last hurdle.  Of course, those generally pertained to Special Forces training, while this was just supposed to be an appraisal of sorts, pointing out strengths and weaknesses.  Still, no one liked to have their personal failings coldly and clinically listed.

There was also the slightly troubling fact that not everyone had completed the course.  Of three-dozen initial candidates, six had already failed.

She swallowed, licked her lips, and checked her uniform one last time – the last just out of habit – then gingerly knocked on the door.

“Enter,” a voice commanded from inside.

“Sergeant Cordelia Chase, reporting as ordered, sir,” she saluted and stamped to attention.

There were six of them seated behind the table.  Major Ogden, commanding her OCS intake, plus Captains Nash and Bolland and Sergeant Major Fegen, in addition to two officers – a Captain and a Colonel from 21st Infantry – she didn’t recognise.  It felt more like a Court Martial than a simple assessment session.

“At parade rest, Sergeant,” Fegen told her.

Cordelia wryly decided she’d probably feel more at ease in front of a firing squad.

“Relax, Sergeant Chase,” Ogden suggested. “This is more or less a formality.  Colonel McClure and Captain Wayne are simply here to provide some independent input.”

Relaxing, the Sergeant told herself, was the last thing on her mind.  Ogden was one of the scariest officers she’d encountered in a long time, US Army issue from the top of his buzz-saw haircut to the tips of his spit-shined boots.  He had zero tolerance for fools and no sense of humour.  Given her own tendencies, Cordelia reckoned it was a miracle she hadn’t fallen foul of the Major during the last three months of training.

“So we’ll take this from the top, Sergeant Chase,” Ogden opened the file in front of him, the others doing likewise.

He briefly took in the figure standing before the panel.  There was, on the face of things, little outward sign that this was a consummate warrior, considered to be utterly lethal even by the standards of her fellow Special Forces soldiers.  At the same time, Cordelia had a face and body which could just as easily grace a catwalk, as a set of fatigues and a green beret.  For someone who’d been in the Army only a very short time, she’d come a long way, in a very unconventional fashion.  Involvement in BlackOps for such a junior soldier – and that had to be the reason for the gaps in her record – was virtually unheard of.  As if her unique position wasn’t enough, she had a Medal of Honor on top.  In truth, if his cadre had failed this woman, his superiors would definitely have wanted to know the reason why.

“I’ll start by saying that you’ve put in an excellent performance and are definitely in the top percentile of your intake.  You aren’t, unfortunately, eligible to be considered for the Best Candidate trophy, given that you were absent for three weeks of the training.  We aren’t worried about that.  It was mainly fitness, weapons training and field-craft, to bring non-combat soldiers up to speed and with your Special Forces background, you’re assumed to be highly proficient in these areas.  As, indeed, your record shows.  It wouldn’t, however, be fair on the others to give you full credit for weeks you were elsewhere,” the Major told her.

He paused for a moment. “Okay, now the nitty-gritty.  We’re in the business of constructive criticism here, Sergeant, so please take anything the training cadre say in that spirit.  Our job is to both highlight areas where you’ve excelled and to indicate those where improvement is possible.  Understand?”

“Yessir,” Cordelia acknowledged, wondering how many deep-rooted personality defects they’d pinpoint.

Nash was the first to speak. “You hold yourself to very high personal standards, Sergeant Chase.  As a result, you also tend to expect the same from others, a not unreasonable assumption for any leader.  It does, however, mean that you have a tendency to be somewhat impatient with those who don’t catch on immediately.  This won’t necessarily be a problem where you’re headed – Special Forces are, by definition, high achievers – but it is an attitude you may have to moderate slightly.  Not everyone finds their Army feet quite so naturally as you.  Is that a fair assessment?”

Cordelia nodded. “I guess it is, sir.  You could say that I don’t suffer fools gladly…”

“By all accounts, you don’t suffer fools at all, Sergeant,” Ogden actually smiled.

That was, Cordelia told herself, the pot calling the kettle black.  They did, nevertheless, have a point.  She ruefully recalled that debacle with the OTS candidates as a prime example.

Bolland was the next member of the training cadre to offer her opinion. “Your weakest area is definitely administrative procedures, Sergeant.  There isn’t necessarily a problem – you scored above average in that area – but there is certainly room for improvement.  You may well be a superlative combat soldier and a good leader, but even as a junior officer, much of your time will be spent behind a desk.  No one particularly likes the routine paperwork, but administrative mistakes are probably the biggest source of black marks in officer’s service records.  So let’s make sure you don’t have any, okay?”

The diminutive officer was right on the mark, Cordelia told herself uncomfortably.  A large proportion of OCS had been spent learning about Army regulations and procedures, much of it brain-numbingly tedious, but also necessary.

“A few more observations, Sergeant,” Ogden offered. “You have a somewhat unconventional mind-set, well-suited to your current MOS.  Out of this entire intake, your career route is probably the clearest.  Most of the others don’t even have their next posting yet.  You, however?  One week’s leave immediately after Graduation, then attachment to AFSOC for several weeks in April.  I’m guessing that’s for a specific operation – and the reason why you were absent for two weeks – but obviously I don’t have need-to-know.  Then you return to 15th SFG until June, and spend the second half of the year at Fort Bragg, on the Special Forces Detachment Commander course, for the 18A MOS.

“After that, you’re apparently to be attached to AFSOC, for an unspecified period,” the Major scanned the notes in front of him.

Air Force Special Operations Command, Cordelia noted.  At least AFSOC was more convincing than Deep Space Telemetry as cover for the SGC, with the former’s clear implication of potentially highly classified operations.  In her opinion, people were more likely to accept AFSOC at face value than DST.

“My point is that your career path would seem to revolve around SOCOM and associated elements, which is perfectly logical.  A Second Lieutenant in Special Forces is admittedly unusual…  But you’ve also already started to tick the joint operations boxes, which can only be to the good.  A few words of advice, however.  Later in your career, it might be wise to think about some service with a more conventional unit.  In your case, given the Title Ten exemption, that could even be heading up an infantry battalion – maybe in the 82nd, for instance.  Also a few desk postings somewhere.  Everyone gets those eventually, I’m afraid…” Ogden continued.

“Maybe I’m getting a little ahead here – you’ll only Graduate as a Second Lieutenant on Saturday – but to progress onto the higher echelons of the Army, a more rounded career path might be advantageous,” he advised.

It was useful advice, Cordelia conceded, though Ogden didn’t know the full story.  In any case, her rate of progression would now slow to an extent.  She’d gone from PFC to Lieutenant in a very short space of time, after all.  Admittedly, others on the 90-day course were also being fast-tracked – that was the whole point of BOCS, after all – but none to the same extent as her.  If she survived the encounter with Glory, then the next six months would be spent on more officer training, at JFK Special Warfare School, before spending a year with SG-1.  Cordelia was looking forward to the change of pace.

“Anything else?” the Major glanced around the cadre.

Fegen nodded. “One thing, sir.  The Sergeant has a reputation for being somewhat – uh – outspoken.  I’ve no problems with a full and frank exchange of views, but as you progress through the Army, political skills become as important as leadership abilities.”

“What the Sergeant Major is basically trying to suggest, Sergeant, is that you watch the mouth,” Ogden clarified, this time waiting for a response.

Clearly, the Major knew all about her sometimes borderline-insubordinate attitude, even if he hadn’t experienced it himself.  For the hundredth time, Cordelia reminded herself that not all senior officers – not the majority in fact – would be as tolerant as O’Neill, Malanowski, and Clifton.

“Yessir,” the Sergeant replied quickly.

“If no one has anything else they’d like to add?  Then my congratulations on successfully completing Basic Officer Candidate School, Sergeant Chase.  It goes without saying that the Army will expecting great things in future.  Partially your own fault, of course, for setting the bar so high at an early stage…” Ogden smiled and shook her hand, followed by the others on the panel.

“Dismissed,” the Major ended the proceedings.

Cordelia saluted, turned crisply and marched out, resisting the temptation to whoop.  Now she only had to take the oath at Graduation on Saturday and she’d be an officer, albeit one at the bottom of the commissioned heap.  Something she’d worked hard for, all by herself - though admittedly, the Slayer essence hadn’t exactly hindered her in getting this far – and mommy and daddy Chase could stick that where the sun never shone.

Now if only she could run into that bastard, Ollie March, who’d made her life a misery all through Basic Training.  That would definitely be added frosting on the cake.  

 

The Slayers’ Assembly Headquarters, London – 29th March 2001

Demons, vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and every nightmare creature ever mentioned in myth and legend.  Plus a lot which weren’t.  Caitlin Todd hadn’t realised just how much supernatural evil was out there when she’d taken this job.  Even the death of her friend to a werewolf, some years before, hadn’t really opened her eyes, with the authorities rationalising it away as a wild dog attack.  Only now was Kate beginning to see how common such occurrences were.

On recruiting the former Secret Service agent, Buffy’s first move had been to send her to the London HQ, for a crash-course in the supernatural and the workings of the Assembly.  The new girl on the block would be taking over leadership of a department and the Slayer wanted to make sure she was brought up to speed as soon as possible.  For now, they were keeping her off the streets, until she was totally aware of what lurked in the darkness.  Poring over a thick volume on demonology and shuddering at some of the descriptions, Kate was quite happy to take things slowly.

Her current mentor was Lady Harriet Makepeace, head of the London HQ, a former cop, and born into a family with generations of experience as Watchers.  She’d also been fired by the old Council which, from what Kate had been told, definitely made her one of the good guys. 

To a newcomer, the Assembly itself felt like a work in progress, still being rebuilt from the ground up, following the dissolution of the Watchers’ Council.  It was slowly shaping up to be a powerful organisation, with strong allies, and a completely different ethical code from its predecessor.  Kate was pretty sure she couldn’t have worked for the old guard, not with people who regarded teenage girls as weapons to be used, discarded and if necessary, eliminated.

It would be a long time before she could claim to be anything like an expert on this strange new world.  Not that she regretted taking the job, rather than the one with NCIS offered by Gibbs.  In fact, Kate decided wistfully, it would be virtually impossible to go back to a normal life of ignorance about the supernatural, having spent a few weeks here.  Ultimately, she’d relocate back to the States – whether Colorado Springs or Sunnydale hadn’t yet been decided – but London would be home for months yet.

Kate briefly looked up from the heavy tome on her desk.  Assembly HQ was in a very pleasant area of London.  They’d even given her an office of her own, as befitted the soon-to-be Director of Covert Operations.  Now she just had to actually build the department.  At present, the London branch consisted of one former Council Watcher, one former Council general operative with former criminal tendencies, and a team of eight Potentials.  According to Lady Harriet, there were others scattered across the world, but a full assessment of capabilities and requirements was top of Kate’s priority list.  Covert Operations, at least in part, were intended to operate in areas where the Assembly wasn’t welcome.  In addition, the department was charged with black operations, either where the Assembly had to operate illegally to head off potentially serious supernatural threats, or where the threats directly emanated from humans.  The Initiative, for example, would have come under that heading.

Lady Harriet’s – or Harry as she preferred – elegant head appeared around the edge of the open door. 

“Do you have a moment, Kate?” she asked.

“I have all the moments in the world, especially if it means I don’t  have to read about things like this…” Kate responded with a laugh.

Harry looked over one shoulder. “Aaahhh…  A Havrekular Demon.  I haven’t seen one of those in years.  Has a taste for human bones – leaves the skin and organs lying around like an empty sack.  Rather disturbing, but a simple matter to kill.”

She perched herself on the edge of Kate’s desk. “We have a lead on the Sword of Acre, one of the magical weapons Rupert Giles needs to fight Glorificus.”

Kate reminded herself that she possibly hadn’t joined the good fight at the best of times, not with a full-scale apocalypse looming.  Insane three-hundred foot Hell Goddesses were even worse than the creatures she’d been studying lately.  On the other hand, if the Assembly and its allies failed in Sunnydale, it really wouldn’t matter who she worked for.

“Anywhere interesting?” she asked, aware that such an artefact could be anywhere on the globe.

Harry shook her head. “I’m afraid not.  Apparently, it’s in the possession of a rather unpleasant demon named Snurgg.”

Kate sniggered. “Sounds like something out of Tolkien.”

“Nothing so classy, my dear.  Snurgg is a demon cross-breed, who holds the supernatural population of Soho in an iron grip, if you pardon the hyperbole.  Protection rackets, loan-sharking, gambling, demonic prostitution…” her mentor explained, with some distaste.

“Why don’t you just take him out?” Kate shrugged.

“If Snurgg targeted humans, you can be rest assured that he’d be dead by now.  As it is, his ‘business’ only affects other demons.  When he does come into conflict with humans, it tends to be his opposite numbers in the London criminal underworld – and some of them are even worse.  So no tears for either side,” Harry replied.

“And I take it he won’t simply give us the sword if we ask,” Kate nodded.

“Not a chance.  So we’ll hit his place tomorrow night.  I’ve placed a Strike Team on alert and the Devon Coven are supplying back-up,” the Watcher responded.

She grinned wickedly. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a demon brothel?”

“A what?” Kate’s eyes almost popped out.

“Demonic knocking shop.  Snurgg operates out of the Kensington franchise of one Madam Dorian, who has branches all over the world – the biggest is apparently in Beverley Hills - and a rather mixed demonic and human clientele.  It takes all sorts, I suppose…  Madam Dorian is a rather powerful woman – or we think she’s a woman,” Harry explained.

“And we know this, how?” the former agent was still coming to terms with non-human sources.

Her mentor waved a hand. “Oh, the usual low-life informants.  And my husband’s had the place under observation for several days.”

She grinned. “Just so long as Jim hasn’t been looking for a ‘bit of tail’…”         

 

810 Wilkins Boulevard, Sunnydale, California – 29th March 2001

It always happened, Cordelia cursed, turning off the shower.  Just as she was beginning to relax and enjoy the hot stream of water, someone had to ring the doorbell.  She could ignore it, of course, but then she’d spend the rest of the evening wondering who she’d missed.  Besides, someone might be in trouble.  Cordelia reluctantly shook off the worst of the water, quickly towelled down, and reached for a robe, as the bell continued to ring.  Whoever it was, they were persistent, she decided with considerable irritation.  And if it was a salesmen, the Sergeant would teach him a few new words, courtesy of the US Army.

“What?” Cordelia snarled, flinging open the door and ready to glare balefully at the interloper.

Giles blinked, confronted by a damp and irate-looking Special Forces soldier, wet hair in all directions.  She certainly hadn’t looked like this on the cover of Time-Life magazine after her MOH ceremony, the Watcher considered.

“Ah...  I’m sorry...  Is this a bad time, Cordelia?” Giles asked tentatively.

Cordelia glared at him, wrapping a towel around her wet tresses. “Dragging me out of the shower, looking like a half-drowned rat?  Of course it isn’t a bad time...”

The Englishman hesitated, as she folded her arms impatiently and continued to drip on the rug.  Cordelia might be a soldier, but she still retained some of that old Queen C vain streak.  She didn’t like to be seen at anything but her best – and fresh out of the shower certainly didn’t qualify.

“Well?  You know better than to expect me to fricking ask, dammit!” Cordelia growled, stepping aside to let him inside.

In truth, she’d been happy to be left alone tonight.  Buffy was out Slaying vampires – or Asgard, as she’d recently taken to calling them – while her sister prepared for OCS Graduation next day.  The powers that be wanted them all to look as spiffy as possible for the ceremony, so they’d spent half the day on intense close-order drill.  It had been an age since Cordelia, or many of the others for that matter, had exercised their skills in that department, and their lack of practice was immediately apparent.  Predictably,  Sergeant-Major Fegen hadn’t been amused, as his vocabulary and volume rapidly indicated.  It had also been a while since many of the OCS candidates were yelled at on a parade ground, Cordelia reflected, let alone collectively – and probably for the last time - referred to as “maggots”.  Her sensitive Slayer’s ears were still ringing, while even her feet eventually grew tired of pounding the asphalt.

“What?  Oh yes, of course...  Just so long as I’m not intruding,” Giles replied, stepping inside in response to the Sunnydale “invitation”.

His host satisfied herself with another glare and pointed towards the kitchen, while also wondering what was in the long paper-wrapped package under his arm. “While I go finish drying off - so I can stop dripping on the fricking floor like one of Aunt Melody’s wet dogs - you go make yourself useful.  Hot chocolate and cookies for me – with the little marshmallows.  And I’m fresh outa tea, so you’ll have to settle for coffee or chocolate.”

Giles simply nodded and did as bidden.  Sometimes, it was best just to do what the two Slayers told him, if only for a peaceful life.  The kitchen was incredibly neat and tidy, he mused, checking the cupboards for what he needed.  It had to be the military influence.  Cordelia had once privately admitted to him that prior to putting on uniform for the first time, she’d been an incredible slob at home, probably because she’d been used to having maids pick up after her.  Barrack life, however, had rapidly and permanently put paid to her untidier habits.  Having a Drill Sergeant regularly throw her gear on the floor, until it was stowed in perfect regulation fashion, apparently had that effect.

“Hey, you really can do something that doesn’t involve the dusty old tomes...” Cordelia approvingly sipped her chocolate.

“Thank you.  I think...” Giles replied dryly.

“So what’s the deal?  Usually you don’t visit me here, unless there’s some kinda impending apocalypse.  But then you’d have brought Slay Girl with you.  And you don’t seem big with the concern about anything,” Cordelia cut straight to the point, one curious eye on the package beside his chair.

The Watcher shook his head. “No world-ending emergencies this evening, Cordelia.  I just came to wish you well, before tomorrow.”

“But you’ll be there, won’t you?” Cordelia asked, both hopefully and worriedly.

She wanted all of the Scoobies to be there.  With Joyce and Dawn still gone, they were her other family, and family were supposed to attend the Graduation ceremony at Fort McGregor.  As for Giles, Cordelia actually thought of him as a vaguely straight-laced uncle, who she’d grown increasingly fond of over the years.

“Of course,” the Watcher replied. “But this might of some small use tomorrow, I believe.”

He handed over the still-wrapped package.

Cordelia quirked an eyebrow and began to tear off the paper wrapping. “A present for me?”

Her hand went to her mouth, as she opened the presentation case. “Giles!  An Army sabre!”

It was a very fine example of a US Army dress sabre, perfectly sized to fit her, in a gleaming scabbard.  Cordelia hadn’t yet had an opportunity to buy her own and would have been borrowing Clifton’s the following day.

“I believe that every Army officer requires a dress sword, Cordelia,” Giles offered with a faint smile.

The Sergeant partially withdrew the blade from its sheath, admiring the gleaming finish.  The slightly curved sabre was originally intended as a cavalry weapon, but over the years had gradually become the standard for US Army officers.  Cordelia had never seen a finer example.

“There are a number of sword-smiths, who specialise in ceremonial blades for the various armed services, all making very fine weapons.  This, however, was crafted by the specialist who makes and repairs my own weaponry.  Correct US Army specification, of course, but with that little extra attention to detail and personal touch…” the Watcher explained.

“I would only ask that – except in extremis - you keep it solely for ceremonial occasions.  It isn’t really designed for hacking the heads off vampires...”

“Thank you!  You really shouldn’t have...” Cordelia didn’t know quite what to say.

The Watcher smiled tolerantly. “It’s only a small token of my esteem, for someone who’s come an impossibly long way since we first met.”

Cordelia grinned almost sheepishly. “I was a total pain-in-the-ass, wasn’t I!”

She ticked off her perceived failings on her fingers. “Bitchy, arrogant, snobbish, stubborn, opinionated…  Guess I still have a few of those.”

“You could be rather exasperating, but it wasn’t entirely your own fault,” Giles allowed. “And you had some excellent qualities, too.  I also remember the brave young lady who bit – actually bit – a vampire, that evening the Master opened the Hellmouth.  Or the one who faced down a vampire in the library at Homecoming, when Buffy and I were both unconscious.  Or perhaps the same one who staked her first vampire on Graduation Day and was deservedly proud of herself for doing so.”

The Watcher still wondered just how much Cordelia’s inherent Slayer’s nature - almost entirely masked though it was throughout her latter Sunnydale High years - had forced her to hang around with the rest of the group, regardless of the danger.  It was perhaps a pity that the physical attributes hadn’t come to the surface at that point.  On the other hand, their absence had kept her well-below the Council’s radar, which was a blessing given Travers’ approach to Slayers.

“The very same young lady who, I believe, will make an excellent officer,” he added.

“You really think I will?” Cordelia asked, with just the slightest trace of uncertainty.

She normally kept such self-doubts to her closest circle of friends and family.  A public lack of confidence had been the eighth Deadly Sin in the Chase household and Cordelia still found herself driven by that attitude much of the time.

“The Army seems to think so.  And at some very high levels,” Giles reminded her.

Cordelia made a face. “Yeah, but they hardly know me.  It’s the whole being responsible for people’s lives thing, Giles.  End of next year, I’ll be heading up a whole fricking Detachment-A, taking them through the Stargate.  By that time, I should be a mighty twenty-one year-old First Lieutenant, leading a bunch of NCOs with about ten years on me in age and experience.  Helluva responsibility.”

“You’re due to lead a mission much sooner than that, I believe,” Giles replied. “And everyone has full confidence in your abilities.  People with a good picture of how you function on a day-to-day basis, on both a practical and theoretical level, and – as a Slayer - in a much wider variety of extreme circumstances than any of your compatriots in the Army.  While I’m not wholly au fait with what the Armed Forces look for in an officer, I would tend to assume that your experiences to date have most likely prepared you better than most of your graduating class.”

He smiled encouragingly. “Self-reflection is a fundamentally healthy thing, Cordelia, but I don’t think you should overdo it.”

She considered that for a moment, then nodded. “I guess I’ve you to thank for being a role model.  Never really thought about it, but you probably were the one leadership figure I actually respected those last few years of High School.  And let’s face it...  Sunnydale High?  Not exactly busting with them!”

Giles chuckled. “Perhaps we ought to stop there with the mutual appreciation society.”

“Yeah. ‘Cause I might yark if it gets much more sickly sweet…” Cordelia grinned, returning to her normal far-from-pensive self.

 

Parade Ground, Fort McGregor, Sunnydale, California – 30th March 2001

By Army standards, the BOCS Graduation was a fairly small-scale affair.  21st Infantry Division had provided a marching band, whose repertoire so far had largely been confined to Sousa marches, to accompany the officer candidates’ march past, and there was a relatively small crowd of family and friends.  The reviewing stand was occupied by Major-General O’Keefe, CO of 21st Infantry, who’d been invited to officiate, and two large refreshment tents awaited in the background.

 "I, Cordelia Chase, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States in the grade of Second Lieutenant, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…  That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Symbolically gathered together beneath the flag with the other members of the 4th Fort McGregor BOCS intake, Cordelia solemnly repeated the words of her officer’s oath.  Technically, it didn’t actually mean anything until she’d actually signed an official form with the same wording, but this at least felt like the more important part.

“Well done, little sis’,” Buffy smiled, as she fixed Cordelia’s new rank insignia to her collar, then kissed her on the cheek.

Having a family member pin on the “butterbars” was a nice tradition, the Slayer decided.  It would have been even nicer if her mother could have been here to do it, of course, but at least some family and friends were present.

“Or should I say, ma’am…” she whispered, taking a step back as her sister glared – somewhat unconvincingly – and the base commander made a few closing remarks.

Then it was time to circulate and, Cordelia hoped, avoid the pack of Army photographers who were circling nearby.  She also knew who’d they’d attack first, especially as Major Benjamin was lurking in the background. “Commission for Medal of Honor Awardee” would doubtless be the headline in the next issues of Stars and Stripes newspaper and the various armed forces’ publications, she grunted.

The nearest camera, however, was currently in the somewhat less expert hands of Willow.  The witch had missed Cordelia’s MOH ceremony and was determined not to miss this one.  After all, a Watcher had to take pride in her Slayer’s accomplishments, Willow told herself.  Especially as she’d had precious little opportunity to fill that role in Cordelia’s life up to now.  She also had to admit that her newly commissioned friend looked really good in the Class-A Dress Blue uniform and – with a mental apology to Tara – not just in a regulation US Army manner.

Willow sternly told herself to lose that particular impulse and concentrate on her photography.

“Buffy?  That’s your sister, so you’re gonna be in the photo, Missy…  And don’t look like that, ‘cause this one’s for your mom,” she tried to put on her resolve face.

“Yes, ma’am!” the Slayer snapped to attention, ducking a solid head-slap from Cordelia.

"Quit with the 'ma'am', short-ass," her sister growled.

Willow continued clicking away, like a sugar-crazed paparazzi – Buffy knew she shouldn’t have been allowed that third mochaccino this morning – while cajoling and threatening Xander, Giles and Tara into the photograph.

“Say “lily”…  Not “cheese”, because that makes you all grin like mad people…  And will you stop that!”” Willow instructed impatiently, as Xander and Buffy insisted on making bunny-ears gestures behind Cordelia and Giles.

“Jeez!  Will you quit with the ears!  And can you say infantile?” Willow complained, shaking her head as Cordelia pretended to lick a flustered Giles’ ear.

Officer or not, Cordelia wanted to show that nothing had changed in her relationship with the Scoobies.  Well, perhaps she was a little more crass than she’d been in pre-Army days, but living in barracks and Basic Training had that effect.

“Do stop being tiresome, Cordelia…” the Watcher sighed in resigned tones.

"Cordelia? That's no way to behave yourself, young lady!" Melody Kendall agreed from the background, exceptionally proud of her adopted "niece", and determined to leave with a few snapshots of her own.

"Yes Aunt Melody," the newly commissioned Lieutenant replied hurriedly.

Officer or not, Harmony's mother could still bring her into line with a mere look, she reflected with some amusement.

“Indeed,”  a new voice chuckled. “And remember that you’re still technically commissioned as an 'officer and a gentleman'– or 'lady' in your case.  Though that might be stretching it…”

"Heard that one a hundred times, sir. I can be every inch the lady - when I feel like it," Cordelia sniffed in mock offence.

Clifton and his wife were surrounded by his brood, Nadifa immediately rushing over to greet her favourite soldier – other than her adoptive father – in all the world.  The Somali girl was far-removed from the beaten, malnourished virtual slave they’d rescued just before Christmas.  Well-fed, loved and secure, she looked extremely content.

“Cordelia, I – ah - happy to see you…” the Somali child’s English was still somewhat basic, but she was learning.

“Good to see you, too, Nadifa,” Cordelia smiled, as the youngster wrapped her arms tightly around her.

The other kids also closed in, hoping that Aunt Cordy might have something for them – a small toy or a candy bar – as she generally did when she visited.  This time, however, she had nothing, though the children didn’t seem too disappointed by the fact.

“Nadifa, you’ll muss your Aunt Cordy’s uniform,” Clifton’s wife warned.

The new Lieutenant shrugged. “Not so’s it’ll make a difference.”

Clifton, meanwhile, gently took the camera from Willow. “Why don’t you join your friends?  Seems like an occasion for a full group photo.”

Cordelia had to agree with that.  They had surprisingly few photos of the whole Scooby Gang and even this one would be minus Anya.  But given their hazardous lives, who could tell if they might ever have a chance to be all together again?

“Take a little walk with me, Lieutenant Chase?” Clifton asked, as soon as the photo session was over.

That, Cordelia knew, wasn’t so much a question as an order.  The Special Forces Captain obviously had things to share, which weren’t necessarily for an audience at this point.  Nonetheless, he didn’t exactly seem to be in a hurry.

Clifton rubbed his chin and sighed theatrically. “NCOs are always useful, but another Second Lieutenant?  What the Hell am I supposed to do with one of those?”

“Lieutenant Gofer, reporting for duty, sir,” Cordelia replied.

The Captain laughed. “That actually might be the way of it for a while, Cordy.  Easier to fit another Sergeant into a Detachment-A, than a spare junior officer.  You might find yourself being passed between the team and Company or Battalion HQ for a while.  Consider it a learning experience.”

“Yes, sir.  Learning how to make coffee, operate the Xerox machine, shuffle paper…” she replied dubiously.

Clifton ignored her. “I hope you’re actually taking that leave next week, before this hair-brained SG-1 operation.  Not as though you’ve really taken much time off since Somalia, or even before that.  I suppose you could also say we haven’t given you much breathing space, either.”

“Buffy, Willow, Tara and me are having a girls’ week.  Beauty spa, shopping, Disneyland…” Cordelia replied.

“Disneyland?” the Captain blinked.

“Why not?” Cordelia asked defensively. “My folks never let me go as a kid – said it was too childish.  So I kinda want to make up for it now.  Hell, I’ll even bring you a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.  And commanding that outfit, I really can’t think of a better person to wear them…”

Xander had been invited too, as had Giles.  The former, however, wouldn’t leave Anya.  Besides, he’d just been given a promotion of his own at work and was thoroughly enjoying the new job.  In any case, while Xander loved his girls, there was just too much girliness in their plans for the following week.  Giles had also politely declined, for similar reasons.

“See how much you like wearing those bars, when you have to deal with some smart-assed Article 89, Lieutenant,” Clifton growled good-naturedly.

His expression was abruptly more serious. “Make sure you do actually use that leave, Lieutenant.  Because I’m ninety-percent sure we’re gonna need you pretty soon after the SGC op.”

“Saguerra?” Cordelia wasn’t really surprised.

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the US would invade – and sooner rather than later.  The other OAS nations were screaming blue murder about the danger posed by Diaz, but only the US had the capability for large-scale forcible direct entry and a heavy follow-up.  Cordelia was pretty sure a lot of lights would be burning late into the night at both XVIII Airborne Corps HQ and various Marine Corps installations.

The Captain nodded. “7th Group will take the lead, but they’re pretty stretched already.  We’ve orders to prepare to deploy up to two full battalions.”

7th SFG more than likely already had lead units in-country, but 15th SFG would have longer to prepare.

“Any specific dates on this, sir?” Cordelia was suddenly at her most attentive.

“Not before the end of April, is my guess.  But nothing certain.  Could be a messy one, though…” Clifton winced.

The Lieutenant nodded her agreement.  There were a number of factions currently involved in an ongoing guerrilla campaign against the Diaz regime – and frequently against each other - but no single group had sufficiently widespread support to snatch power.  Even if the General was unseated quite rapidly, the potential for a lengthy civil conflict was enormous.

Her diary was getting rather full for the next few months, Cordelia noted wryly.  If any other crisis arose, she’d probably have to send her apologies.  Three wars – against the Goa’uld, the Saguerrans, and Glory – was more than enough for anyone.  And on the last and most important of these, it was probably time to brief the Captain.  Given that her CO already knew about the supernatural, Buffy had also agreed that he should probably be given a heads up on the apocalypse.

“Saguerra’s kinda small potatoes right now, sir.  So is Bastet, on the world-saveage scale…” she ventured quietly.

“What d’you mean?” Clifton demanded, wondering what could relegate a Goa’uld System Lord to the also-ran category.

It had to be something supernatural, he reasoned uneasily, and posing a much greater threat than the odd vampire.

Cordelia made sure there was no one else nearby.

“I mean a bat-shit-insane Hell Goddess nearly the length of a football field…  And an impending apocalypse, sir.”

 
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