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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
(Current Donor)CordyfanFR1326398,64958537124,78410 Mar 1117 Dec 14No

Interludes Before the Storm

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, Stargate SG-1 or Dempsey and Makepeace
Notes: Loosely set during the 5th season of BtVS. Note that there are some major AU components.

 

Fitzroy Square, Kensington, London – 30th March 2001

Two black-painted Land Rover Defenders and a pair of similarly coloured Mercedes E-class saloons pulled up just around the corner from the Assembly’s objective.  Several watching police constables did a double-take as the passengers quietly and unhurriedly assembled on the pavement, but otherwise didn’t interfere.

The evening shift in this quiet and wealthy corner of Kensington usually tended to be uneventful for the local police.  Occasionally, some chinless wonder with a hyphenated name would find himself in champagne-fuelled trouble, or a foreign tourist would look the wrong way when crossing the road, but that was the exception rather than the rule.  Tonight, however, something major was clearly afoot.  The local constabulary had been detailed to quietly cordon off several streets close to Fitzroy Square, on the direct orders of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who, in turn, was acting on the instructions of the Home Secretary.  In other words, enough authority to make the average Bobby on the beat ask “how high”, and certainly enough not to encourage questions.

Not that they wouldn’t have plenty of questions amongst themselves later, primarily because the newcomers were armed to the teeth and dressed for action.  At least a dozen of them were toting M4 carbines, MP5/10s, or Remington shotguns, while another half-dozen had a handgun apiece.  All were dressed in what the Assembly called Slayer Tacticals, a one-piece midnight blue and dark grey Nomex body suit, with similarly-coloured Kevlar helmet, web-gear and protective vest, faces partially concealed behind dark goggles.  The whole ensemble screamed special operations and officially, in keeping with the Met’s alphanumeric system, this group were apparently designated SO36.  A few of the more inquisitive police on duty tonight had made discrete enquiries, only to find out that there was no such unit on the books.  As a result, they were almost unanimous in deciding that this had all the hallmarks of one of the intelligence or counter-intelligence services.

“Sorry sir, but you can’t go any further…” a Constable said firmly, as a man approached, head slightly down and the collar of his jacket turned up against the cold drizzle.

“That’s okay, Constable.  This is one of the team,” Director Lady Harriet Makepeace told him.

The office nodded and moved away to a discreet distance, albeit obviously bursting with curiosity.

“Took your time gettin’ here, Harry,” the newcomer grumbled, with just a trace of a Bronx accent.

He glanced around. “And what’s with the travelling circus, huh?  I know times are a-changing, but it ain’t exactly screaming low-profile.”

“Snurgg’s been a very bad boy, Jim.  Not sticking to the rules at all.  And we simply can’t have that, can we?” Harriet smiled pleasantly at her husband.

James Dempsey shuddered inwardly and was only glad it was the demon who’d attracted his wife’s ire tonight.  She was always at her most dangerous when apparently serene and smiling sweetly.

“We certainly can’t, your ladyship.  So what’s he done this time?” He asked.

“First, he’s hiring vampires as muscle.  That’s against the agreement, especially as we can be pretty sure they aren’t drinking pigs’ blood.  So our friend will find himself without some of his hired help after tonight…” Harriet replied.

“You said ‘first’?” Dempsey pointed out.

“Yes, I was getting to that.  Snurgg has a new right-hand man – demon, whatever – fresh from your side of the Atlantic.  Vegas, to be exact.  This individual isn’t averse to pitched gun battles with the opposition, regardless of the collateral damage,” his wife’s expression hardened.

“Watched the news today, Jim?”

Dempsey shook his head. “Been kinda busy, watching this place.”

Harriet nodded grimly. “Snurgg’s heavies went after one of his rivals today and shot up a greasy spoon over in Hackney.  Target was a half-Brachen by the name of Peters – strictly non-violent stuff and partial to his pie and mash. Missed their target, but wounded three civilian bystanders – one of them is in intensive care.  The word is that Snurgg didn’t authorise it and he’s pretty annoyed about the whole thing.  So we’ll help him out and make sure his second-in-command finds out all about the new policy.”

“New policy?” Kate ventured.

“The Old Council tended to focus its attention on what it called the ‘big picture’,” Harriet’s voice dripped with aristocratic disdain.

“Which meant that they ignored a lot of demon activity right under their noses here in London, even when it affected civilians.  That included a lot of criminal activity, just like this type of thing.  But things are different under the new regime.  They can slaughter each other – or the London human criminal gangs – to their sweet little hearts’ content.  If any innocent civilians so much as break a fingernail?  I believe the Americanism is ‘one strike and you’re out’…  And they know we have the will and the ability to enforce it nowadays.  So while the main objective is to recover the Sword of Acre, sending a message to others of Snurgg’s ilk is an important secondary aspect.  Hence the fully-armed Hunter-Killer Team, rather than a few of our girls with swords and crossbows.”

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Dempsey turned to Kate.

“Ex-Special Agent Kate Todd, formerly of the US Secret Service.  Presidential Detail, no less,” Harriet explained. “Kate?  My husband, James Dempsey.  Formerly of the Metropolitan Police.  And before that, NYPD.”

Dempsey shook her hand. “Buffy’s latest draftee?  Guess you musta been involved in that Air Force One caper.  What d’ya do to get yourself kicked outa that plum assignment?”

Harriet frowned at her husband’s usual lack of tact. “James!”

Kate shrugged. “I broke the rule about workplace relationships.  President’s Ball Carrier was my boyfriend.”

“So what happened to him?” Dempsey grinned.

“Dead.  Poisoned by a Revorka Demon,” the new future Director of Covert Operations replied tightly.

The ex-cop’s grin faded. “I didn’t realise…”

“You didn’t read the report, idiot!” Harriet punched his arm.

“It’s okay, Harry.  Still a little raw, but…”

Harriet decided to change the subject. “So you’re certain Snurgg is in there?”

For several days, her husband had been camped out in a currently vacant town-house, belonging to one of her old school friends and directly across the square from Madam Dorian’s.  Police-style surveillance techniques were just one of several changes being introduced to the Assembly’s repertoire and Dempsey had a lot of experience in that field.

“Hasn’t moved in three days.  If there’s vamps in the apartment with him, they musta been there already.  Some of the less sunlight-sensitive types have been coming and going, though.  Not easy separating them from Madam Dorian’s usual clients – and she must be making a fortune.  Pretty select clientele – I counted a Cabinet Under-Secretary, a Member of Parliament, one Church of England Bishop, and two Judges in three days.  Guess there must be something in this whole demon-lovin’ thing…  Maybe ought to get me a bit of tail and find out,” Dempsey smirked.

His wife didn’t bat an eyelid. “I know you better than that, James Dempsey!  But maybe a few words in the proprietor’s ear might give us a clearer picture.  I’ll bet she isn’t declaring any of that profit to HM Revenue and Customs, after all…”

It wouldn’t be the first time that UK tax law had been used to close down a major house of ill repute in London.  The Assembly preferred to keep it open, as a key source of information, however.  Certainly, Snurgg and his associates only occupied the flat above on the brothel Madam’s sufferance.  Madam Dorian’s, after all, was a worldwide franchise and much more powerful than a mere local demon gangster. 

 

Snurgg’s Apartment, Fitzroy Square, Kensington, London – 30th March 2001

The arrival of a heavily-armed Assembly Hunter-Killer Team caused not a little consternation in Madam Dorian’s.  Madam Eva - the local franchise owner - was, however, predictably quick to tell them everything she knew about the current occupants above, in return for some discretion over her clients.

Leaving some armed Potentials outside the building, both to the front and rear, to prevent any attempt at escape by another route, the assault team made their way silently upstairs and assembled in front of the door.  Snurgg’s security was remarkably lax, but only because he was probably counting – at least in part - on Madam Dorian’s own powerful connections to keep him safe.

This was Kate’s first Assembly operation and she was keeping well out of the way, four Potentials and a pair of attached M-Squadron SAS troopers taking the lead. 

It was a textbook breaching operation.  The door proved no match for the heavy battering ram and the assault team stormed inside, with a liberal use of stun-grenades.  Clearing the flat room by room took less than fifteen seconds, while a series of short M4 and MP5/10 bursts, muffled slightly by attached suppressors, signalled the end of Snurgg’s associates.  Whether they were resisting or not. 

The all-clear given by the assault team, Kate, Harriet, Dempsey, and a pair of coven witches followed inside more sedately, albeit all with sidearms drawn.  Only Snurgg himself remained alive, face down on the floor, hands secured behind him with plasticuffs, an M4 trained on the back of his head.  Two other apparently human corpses lay alongside, each with a drawn automatic which neither had been able to use.  Bright orange blood in one case, and green blood – plus six fingers per hand – in the other, were the only signs that these weren’t, in fact, humans.

“Apartment secure, ma’am.  One hostile captured, seven hostiles – five vampires, two demons – eliminated,” the lead Potential told them.

In a confined space such as this, stun grenades were an excellent antidote to vampires, even more effective against sensitive vampiric ears and eyes than they were against hose of humans, albeit only for a brief time.  Dazzled and half-deaf, Snurgg’s muscle hadn’t stood a chance against the Hunter-Killer Team’s highly trained and experienced Potentials.

Harriet holstered her Assembly-issue Glock 20. “Very nice work, Penny.  You can withdraw the assault team, while we have a chat with Mister Snurgg…”

“This isn’t part of the agreement!” Snurgg tried to bluster, twisting his head sideways, as Harriet and Kate sat down on a sofa just at the edge of his peripheral vision.

Just like his chief lieutenants, he looked mainly human, albeit with a nose more akin to a pig’s than a person.

“You broke that agreement when you hired vamps, Snurggy-boy,” Dempsey prodded the prone figure with his foot.  “And when you hit that diner today.”

“How many years have you been on this side of the pond, Jim?  We don’t have diners, we have cafes,” his wife interrupted.

“Whatever.  We don’t like innocent people gettin’ hurt, not on account of a no-good bag of demon pus like yourself,” Dempsey continued.

“It wasn’t my idea!”

“We know.  Which is why you aren’t dead.  Yet…” Harriet said dryly.

“What we want, Snurggles, is the Sword of Acre.  Last reported in your possession.  Belongs to some friends of our, who’d really like it returned,” her husband picked up an axe from a nearby table and absently tested the edge.

“Don’t know what you’re…” the demon started to protest.

The axe promptly embedded itself in the floor, half-an-inch from Snurgg’s head.

“Try again, pork-features,” Dempsey growled.

“It’s in the other room.  Just over there…” with difficulty, the horizontal Snurgg jerked his head in the general direction he wanted to indicate.

“See what you can do when you put your mind to it?” Harriet offered pleasantly.

The Sword of Acre, a magical weapon with the power to at least damage Glorificus quite significantly, had been stolen several years before from the Budapest Coven.  It had passed through several different sets of demon hands, more as a status symbol than anything else, given that none of them could wield it.  The Budapest Coven had promised to lend the ancient weapon to the Assembly, but they’d have to find it first.  This raid was only the culmination of an extended research and investigative effort.

“What about me?” Snurgg briefly toyed with the idea of revenge, but against the combined efforts of the Covens and Assembly, he might as well cut his own throat now.

“You, Snurggle-kins?  I’d be running real fast if I were you.  Tonight put a real crimp in Madam Eva’s business and she isn’t the forgiving type.  Besides, more than Eva will be looking for your ass…  Peters’ people aren’t usually prone to the violence, but you made ‘em real mad today.  And there’s a shitload of others who won’t thank you for attracting our attention, either,” Dempsey offered conversationally, cutting through the plasticuffs with his switchblade.

They met Madam Eva and two of her girls on the stairs.

“Is he still there?” the brothel owner asked, not hiding the lightweight axe in her hands, two of her girls similarly armed just behind her.

Harriet nodded. “He’s all yours, Eva.”

The future clearly didn’t look good for the demon upstairs – and the Assembly’s London Director could have cared less.

Dempsey, meanwhile, appreciatively eyed the two demonic hookers behind her.  Aside from slightly odd purple patches on their cheeks and bushier than normal eyebrows, they merely looked like very well-endowed and attractive women.  Of course, there was one distinguishing feature.

“Is that tail for real, honey?” Dempsey just had to tease his wife a little.

“Why don’t you stick around and I’ll show you, dearie?” the hooker offered, running her tail slowly up the inside of his leg, to his crotch, then tickling him under the chin.

“If he does, I’ll be borrowing Eva’s axe to use on him…” Harriet threatened her grinning spouse.

“If I behave myself, what’ll I get?” he smirked.

“Maybe I’ll dress up in a tail.  I still have that tacky old devil suit from three Halloweens ago,” Lady Harriet offered with a suggestive grin of her own.

“Are they going to…” Kate asked nervously, as they continued downstairs.

“I expect so,” the other woman shrugged.

“All your cases like this?” Kate enquired.

Working for the Assembly promised to be considerably more varied and exciting than the Presidential Detail.  The latter might have been one of the most prestigious posts in US law enforcement, but it was still bodyguard duty.  Her new post, on the other hand, allowed her to make more use of the intensive counter-terror and counter-intelligence training she’d received from the Secret Service.  Gamekeeper turned poacher, or something like that, she mused.  And the Assembly desk jockeys seemingly had no qualms about getting their hands dirty, either.

“Not even close, my dear.  This was an easy one,” Harriet responded with a smile.

 

Holding Cells, Anaheim Police Headquarters, Anaheim, California – 5th April 2001

“ ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow…’” Cordelia screeched discordantly, only lacking a tin mug to rattle on the bars.

Locked up in a police cell, it just seemed the right thing to do, she decided.

“Nobody knows the earache I feel!” Buffy grumbled.

Tara shook her head, voice plaintive. “Only you t-two could turn a trip to Disneyland into a m-massacre.”

At least Willow - not directly involved in the deadly fight which landed them in this cell - had escaped police attention, the witch consoled herself.

“Massacre, my ass!” Cordelia briefly stopped singing. “And it was you who took down Sleeping Beauty.”

“Uh, oh… Trouble…” the Slayer watched a distinctly overweight and formidable looking prisoner rise from a bench and advance towards her sister.

There were eight women currently in the holding cell, including Buffy, Cordelia, and Tara.  Three others, picked up by the local police after a bachelorette party which had developed into a minor brawl, seemed distinctly cowed.  The last pair, however, definitely had the violent air of women who were no strangers to these surroundings.

A large hand on the end of a muscular and heavily tattooed arm tapped Cordelia on the shoulder.  Buffy suddenly had a bad feeling about this.  Not so much for her sister, but for Big Betty, or whatever her name was.

“Knock off the fucking cabaret, honey!” the prisoner growled.

Cordelia shrugged, not even slightly intimidated, but also not wanting to cause a confrontation. “You got it, no more singing.  Sorry if I disturbed you.”

Then the other woman smiled unpleasantly, clearly unwilling to let things go. “With a real pretty face and cute ass like that, you’ll soon learn to keep your head down in here.  Else you’re gonna be eatin’ one Helluva lot of pussy.”

“I said I was sorry,” the soldier replied evenly.

“Guess you are, but I just gotta have me a taste…”

Cordelia almost rolled her eyes.  It was nothing short of a cliché moment and Colonel O’Neill would never let her live this down.

“I don’t ever super-size,” she returned smoothly.

“Funny bitch, huh?  How ‘bout I teach you a lesson?” the other prisoner snarled, grabbing her arm.

Cordelia calmly looked at the arm, then at the woman, then back at the offending arm again. “How about I give you two seconds to move that hand?”

“Or what?” her assailant smirked, transferring her other hand to Cordelia’s left breast.

The Special Forces Lieutenant took a deep breath, as Buffy and Tara inwardly winced. 

“Think we n-need to help her?” the witch ventured doubtfully.

Buffy shook her head. “Really don’t want to get in the way when Cordy’s got her soldier-on…”

Let alone her Slayer, she reminded herself.

“I really wouldn’t do that, if I were you…” Cordelia warned, in dangerously placid tones.

“Whatcha gonna do ‘bout it?”

A micro-second later, two-hundred-and-eighty-plus pounds of morbidly obese flesh found her entire world inverted, as Cordelia bodily picked up her assailant, flipped the woman over, and ground her face into the cell bars with frightening ease.

The woman’s companion, who by contrast was almost cadaverously thin, began to rise from the bench.  Buffy quickly and wordlessly blocked her path.  Something about the Slayer told the other prisoner that it wouldn’t be a good idea to challenge the diminutive blonde.

Cordelia, meanwhile, had things well in hand.  Her would-be attacker was now the right way up, but held fast to the cell bars by the throat, feet dangling in the air.

“Hate to damage your self-esteem, but you’re so not my type – honey…” Cordelia remarked conversationally, before dropping the self-styled queen of the holding cell onto the concrete floor.

The woman dragged herself painfully to her feet, then waddled back to the bench, not taking her eyes off the much smaller prisoner for a second.  Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have taken such a humiliation lying down, but this was different.  The other prisoner had thrown her around like a rag doll and a rematch seemed like a very bad idea.

“What did you all do?  I mean, to get yourselves locked up in here…” one of the bachelorettes whispered nervously after a moment, watching Cordelia in horrified fascination.

Buffy shrugged. “The cops say I killed Snow White and Ariel…”

She pointed to Tara. “She’s supposed to have offed Sleeping Beauty…”

“And my sister there?  Allegedly took out Cinderella,” the Slayer indicated Cordelia, who simply smiled in return.

The bachelorette laughed weakly, unsure if he was locked up with a gang of psycho killers, or if they were only pulling her leg.  After witnessing Cordelia throw around someone who was probably double her weight, she wasn’t discounting either possibility.

At that moment, three police officers appeared, obviously alerted to the brief fracas by CCTV cameras.  They seemed faintly surprised to see Cordelia’s opponent sitting quietly with her partner in crime, watching the three Sunnydalers with a wary respect and even a degree of anxiety.

“What’s the problem here?” one of the officers demanded suspiciously.

“Just showing my cellmate a few moves,” Cordelia answered easily.

“Guess the Lieutenant was too much to handle this time, Mary-Jo,” the officer sniggered, as the rotund prisoner glared and rubbed her throat.

“Lieutenant?” one of the bachelorettes asked timidly.

“ ‘This time’?” Buffy’s eyes narrowed.

“Lieutenant Cordelia Chase, US Army Special Forces,” the officer explained, ignoring the Slayer.

“Maybe PFC Chase after this…” Cordelia muttered.

This wasn’t her fault, but the Army sometimes moved in mysterious ways.

“ ‘This time’?” Buffy repeated ominously.

One of the other officers chuckled. “Oh yeah.  Mary-Jo’s a regular…”

The Slayer was about to retort when a Sergeant appeared. “Chief wants to see Special Agents Summers and Maclay and Lieutenant Chase…”

He turned to the three Scoobies. “Don’t know what the Hell’s going on, but you three have friends in some pretty damn high places.  Looks like you’re getting kicked loose.”

The Sergeant was downright bewildered by this case.  These three had allegedly killed four Disney actors in cold blood, but suddenly it appeared that the four victims weren’t actually who they were supposed to be.  The real actors had, apparently, been found dead in their homes.  Moreover, they’d seemingly been dead for some time, according to the ME’s preliminary assessment.  Then the telephones started to ring and everyone involved with the arrest was abruptly sworn to secrecy and prevented from leaving the building, with a specialist and unidentified team – from an unspecified agency - on their way to take over the investigation. 

Now the station-house rumour mill was vaguely suggesting some sort of undercover counter-terrorist operation.  The Sergeant supposed that made total sense, given the identities of the three prisoners.

“About frickin’ time,” Cordelia grunted, as the key rattled in the lock.

Buffy, meanwhile, was still regarding the Sergeant with some disfavour. “You said ‘this time’?  You mean Lard Girl over there has a rep for attacking other prisoners, but you locked her up in here with us anyways?”

“Uh, yeah…” the Sergeant muttered uncomfortably.

He’d initially though that locking up the aforesaid Mary-Jo with the three women might help to make them more amenable to answering questions.  With hindsight, it had been a stupid idea.  Two Federal Agents – however young and inexperienced they might look – plus a proven military hero weren’t likely to be intimidated by the thuggish regular.  On the other hand, now that charges were being dropped, he might just find himself in a lot of trouble.

“So are you just leaving shot-putter girl here with the others?” Buffy pointedly indicated the terrified bachelorettes.

The Sergeant turned to his two compatriots. “Move Mary-Jo and her sidekick to the other cell.”

“Umm – uh – Special Agent?” one of the other women timidly waved a hand in Buffy’s direction.

“Yes?”

“Uh…  Is there something you could do to – ah – like, get us out of here?  We’ve never been in trouble before and…” the woman asked hopefully.

The Slayer laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

If necessary she’d post bail for the trio.  They’d hardly committed a capital offence and probably the experience of being arrested, handcuffed, and dragged off to a cell would be a salutary experience.

 

Chief Virgil Puller wasn’t a particularly happy man.  First of all, he didn’t like murders within his jurisdiction, but tonight was a definite record, with eight bodies in the Medical Examiner’s hands.  At first, it had seemed like an open and shut case, at least for the first four murders, with the perpetrators apparently caught red-handed.

Then the complications began to pile up.  Two Federal Agents, from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and one Army officer.  The latter, moreover, only recently awarded the Medal of Honor.  On the face of it, they seemed like an unlikely trio to run amok in Disneyland.  However, on the other hand, the officers on the scene were adamant that only these three could have done it – and weapons had been recovered at the scene.

That was when things started to get seriously strange.  All three had been given their single phone-call, then stubbornly refused to cooperate.  Then a very shaky and ashen-faced ME had appeared in his office, rambling something about the four corpses not being human. 

Puller had been quite certain the man had been drinking, until he’d seen the bodies himself.  Each was roughly human shaped, about the size of an average adult male, but there the resemblance stopped.  Each was covered in scales, with very large yellow eyes, no nose worthy of the name, and bat-like ears.  Hands and feet had more digits than normal, each ending in a large hooked claw, and the creatures’ mouths were full of sharp triangular teeth.  The ME also quickly ascertained that these certainly weren’t humans in disguise.

The Anaheim Chief of Police was no fool.  He very quickly told the ME not to share his discovery with anyone and also placed the morgue under wraps.  It was also quite obvious that he couldn’t hold his prisoners for murder, as that only applied to humans.  Nor could he even pin a firearms violation on them, as each had every permit he could think of, plus several he’d never encountered.

Then the phone began to ring.  His three prisoners’ calls had stirred up a veritable hornets’ nest.  In quick succession, Puller received calls from the State Governor, the local Mayor, the Directors of the FBI and AFOSI, and the General commanding US Army Special Forces.  Allegedly, his prisoners were part of a multi-jurisdictional counter-terrorist task force, involving a host of Federal law-enforcement agencies, supported by various military units.

Counter-terrorism.  Puller almost snorted at that one.  Not only did the corpses in the morgue look like no terrorists he’d ever seen, but the fact that the Air Force and Army were involved screamed something else. 

Something like aliens, in fact.  A team had already arrived to remove the evidence, bearing all the authority in the world, and a thick stack of non-disclosure forms for everyone who’d been involved in this somewhat bloody and sinister affair.  Apparently whatever was going on here, it was covered by some obscure clause in National Security legislation, with an extended stay in Federal custody for any breaches.  All in all, it was enough to give every conspiracy theorist in the country a conniption.

Puller sighed and took a long gulp from his rapidly cooling coffee.  It tasted like battery acid, or perhaps that was just the bad taste in his mouth from this whole affair.  At any rate, now he had to meet his now ex-prisoners.  There was no legal reason to hold them – and with the Mayor breathing down his neck, Puller wanted to keep his pension – but he still wanted some answers.

 

Buffy could scarcely blame the unfortunate Chief of Police for regarding her and the others with extreme disfavour.  She suspected that Puller was rarely involved with the day-to-day realities of police work and spent most of his time fighting the department’s corner in City Hall.  Now they’d just turned his world upside down and brought the full weight of local, State and Federal political and law-enforcement pressure to bear on his balding head.  The Assembly was now in the fortunate position of being able to use the same clean-up procedures as Stargate Command and all it had taken were three phone calls.  Buffy had contacted Tobias Fornell, who’d brought his own Director’s authority into play.  Tara, for her part, called the Director of AFOSI, while Cordelia informed Hammond of their temporary incarceration.  Willow, meanwhile, slipped away and called everyone she could think of, while continuing to remain below the local PD’s radar.

Needless to say, none of their contacts were exactly happy that they’d called such inconvenient attention to themselves, but it was also recognised that occasionally Slaying activities would attract the authorities.  The Assembly, HGC and SGC had a whole raft of links and procedures to deal with such an eventuality – just as the SGC did for Goa’uld and other alien-related activity.  HG-4 swiftly set out from Sunnydale, while the local FBI were ordered to immediately secure the ME’s lab, and hold all involved officers for debriefing.

“So what the Hell are you three doing here?  In my city, without notifying us that you were operating here?  And what the fuck are those – those – things down in the ME’s office?” Puller demanded.

“Don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said they were Hill-Billies? I mean, in-breeding can do some really weird things…” Buffy suggested hopefully.

There was no way she’d tell the Chief that he actually had a clan of Warnok Demons in the morgue.  It had only been luck that they’d set off her Slayer senses in passing.  No one had expected an innocent visit to Disneyland to end in a demon encounter, but the Warnok had apparently infiltrated the amusement park some days before.  Their purpose was quite clear, nevertheless.  Every five years, the Warnok were required to sacrifice and ritually eat two-dozen children on the night following the full moon, which was in three days’ time.  Disneyland was obviously a prime source of sacrificial victims.

“More like refugees from Roswell!” Puller retorted.

Cordelia and Buffy glanced at each other.  That was a perfect reaction from their point of view.  Conspiracies about aliens might be someone else’s problem – maybe General Hammond’s – but certainly not the Assembly’s.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.  And I couldn’t possibly comment on that…” Cordelia told him, with a knowing gleam in her eyes.

“But you still have to sign the Non-disclosure forms,” she added.

“Wait a Goddamned minute.  You come into my city, doing God-knows what, without informing my officers, turning Disneyland upside down, and leaving several children traumatised…  And I’m just expected to let you go?” Puller’s voice rose.

The trio wriggled uncomfortably.  They’d done their best to take down the demons as subtly as possible, but a number of young children – separated from their parents and lost behind the scenes - had still seen them gunning down four Disney princesses. 

Then Murphy had struck yet again.  Several Anaheim PD officers were investigating an alleged robbery nearby and only seconds away from the apparent murder scene.  Four bodies and three suppressed Glock 20 automatics were all the evidence they needed to take Buffy and her companions into custody.

The Warnok, aside from their Disney character costumes, had also taken the precaution of a magical glamour, giving them a human appearance.  That had, of course, faded several hours after they were slain.  Right in front of the Medical Examiner, who was now almost as traumatised as the unfortunate child witnesses.

Doctor Mallard, Buffy decided, had far more backbone than his local counterpart.

“Classified operation.  And you’ve less than squat to charge us with.  So unless you’re holding us unlawfully – and can I say humungous law suit – then we’ll be on our way…” the Slayer shrugged.

All at once, she imagined herself in the Chief’s shoes and decided to be a little less confrontational.  It was perhaps time to wear her Director’s hat, at least in tone and approach.  After all, it wasn’t Puller’s fault he’d been put in this position.  Making him feel helpless, useless, and humiliated was both totally unfair and also pointless.  And from a pragmatic point of view, making enemies in law enforcement, despite all the clearances and allies in the world, could make her job that much harder in future.

“Look Chief.  The stuff we do?  You really don’t want to know what it is – and you’ll sleep easier if you stay with the not knowing.  I’m really sorry for the mess – and when we cause problems, boy do we go over the top – but believe me when I say that a lot of lives have been saved tonight.  It’s hard to believe, but we really are on the same side…” the Slayer switched into apologetic diplomat mode.

“There’s really nothing else you’re allowed to tell me, Agent Summers?” Puller asked.

“I wish I could, but…” Buffy shook her head regretfully.

The Chief didn’t need to know that she was final arbiter of who was told about the supernatural, and who wasn’t.  Buffy preferred to wait until someone needed the truth.  It was always better for a person’s psychological well-being and, in some cases, their physical welfare.  Anaheim might not exactly be the Hellmouth, but Puller and his officers simply didn’t need to know at this moment.

The Chief nodded his understanding, wondering who called the shots on this one, and utterly unaware that she was sitting directly opposite.  For her part, Buffy only felt slightly guilty at the subterfuge.  It wouldn’t, after all, be the first time.

“If you’re operating in this are again, Agent Summers, it might be helpful if you inform my people.  Then we can avoid another incident like tonight’s – or worse,” Puller suggested.

He smiled wryly. “Leaving aside my curiosity, which is driving me crazy right now, I rather hope we don’t meet again.  At least under professional circumstances.”

“Feelings are entirely mutual – no insult intended,” the Slayer replied, this time quite sincerely.

“I’m not sure any of you will be welcome around Disneyland anytime soon, however,” the Chief cautioned.

Cordelia consoled herself with the observation that while they all might be persona non grata at Disneyland California – and most likely Disneyworld Florida – she’d at least had her few days of fun.  Even if it had ended with her shooting Cinderella.  She could almost hear Colonel O’Neill’s jokes already.

 

Varrini Barracks, Stone Valley Training Facility, Colorado – 7th April 2001

“Wakey, wakey!  Stand by your beds!  Officer present!” Staff Sergeant Honey barked, in full MTI mode.

Cordelia resisted the temptation to rub her ear.  Hopefully she was past all that sort of thing in her career now.

As always, the Varrini were out of their bunks in an instant, immediately alert and awake.  Freya was only a few seconds behind.  In her months spent here, the Tok’ra had grown accustomed to the rigorous training regime.  She’d even grown quite fond of the Sentinels, and they of her, while both shared a dislike of their MTIs.

“I want you all outside, weapons and full kit, ten minutes ago!  There’s a platoon from 4th Infantry down by the river.  And we’re gonna start the day with a nice little ambush…” Honey grinned.

Despite the hideously early hour – 05.30 – the Sentinels liked the sound of that.  Combat training was always fun.

“That’s just a warm-up.  After breakfast, we’re running the Goa’uld base simulation again,” the Staff Sergeant added.

A generic Goa’uld facility – lots of faux Egyptian symbols, corridors lined with gold and bronze-painted panels, and all the usual trappings – had been set up for the SGC in a Colorado Springs warehouse.  The internal layout could be changed very quickly, allowing a wide range of simulations to be mounted, and Cordelia’s assault team had already spent a lot of time in there.  Zats and Intar shots added to the realism – no one wanted to be on the painful receiving end, so everyone treated it as the genuine article. 

“Not you, Freya,” Honey added. “Lieutenant Chase wants a word.  Rest of you?  Move your asses!”

The Tok’ra winced fearfully, recalling her first encounter with the then-NCO.  Freya wondered what she’d done wrong this time.

“Relax,” Cordelia sat down on the bed and smiled encouragingly, much to the Tok’ra’s intense surprise. “Take a seat.  I won’t bite this time!”

Freya relaxed slightly, but remained wary.

“Saedria and Colonel O’Neill tell me you’ve done just fine here.  Not easy being the weakest link physically, but even those motherless MTIs tell me you’ve given this one-hundred percent all the way,” the Lieutenant told her.

“It has been an interesting experience.  My body has not felt so fit in a very long time,” Freya admitted.

It was all the more gratifying that she’d achieved that level of physical fitness without the help of her symbiote.

“Pretty handy tactically, too…  I hear you bushwhacked Colonel O’Neill’s team more than once,” Cordelia added approvingly.

Freya ventured a smile. “I must admit, it was rather satisfying.  And I cannot spend enough time jumping out of aircraft.”

“You and me both, sister,” Cordelia grinned appreciatively.  

“So is the snake still on strike?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Freya grimaced. “If by ‘snake’ you mean Anise, then she has refused to communicate with me since I arrived here.  She does not agree with the methods the SGC and Tok’ra High Command plan to use against Bastet.  I can access her memories, but I am not sure that she would currently assist me if I were injured, for example.”

“But she won’t hinder your efforts,” Cordelia clarified.

“She cannot, not without actually taking over my mental processes.  I believe you Tau’ri would say that she is in a colossal snit,” Freya shrugged.

“Okay.  I can live with that.  From now on, you’ll be helping me finalise our plans to crack the Fortress of Bastitude.  Not much else you can learn on the combat side, but I really need to pick your brains about the snakes.  How they think, how their technology works, that kinda thing…” Cordelia told her.

The Tok’ra woman nodded. “It will be a pleasure.  I am rather impatient for the mission to begin.”

“It’ll come along soon enough,” the Lieutenant assured her. “But while the Varrini play psychotic Girl Scout, you and I can grab some breakfast.  Where it’s warm…”

She glanced sympathetically around the archaic, poorly heated barrack block.  Fort McGregor might have been too close to Sunnydale, but at least it was warm and modern.

 

Interrogation Room, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 8th April 2001

“Sure you feel strong enough for this?” O’Neill asked, pausing outside the door of the interrogation room.

Willow shrugged. “Think so…  Never cast a Truth Spell before – and I’m not nearly as strong as Marikha – but I think I can do this.  And she’s already pulled out all the most important stuff.  This is just a tidy-up exercise…”

The witch had offered to help interrogate Nar’auc one more time.  Marikha, the powerful Varrini Protector, had already questioned her on a number of occasions and SG-1 were pretty sure they had most of the critical data on Bubastis and its defences.  Any more was, therefore, a bonus.  Though Marikha couldn’t help out today, Willow had fully acquainted herself with the necessary spell and accompanying ritual.  She knew that her efforts might not be quite so productive as the Varrini’s, since the effectiveness of the Truth Spell was directly linked to underlying magical power, but anything that helped to bring Cordelia, Saedria and the others safely back from Bastet’s fortress planet was to the good.

“I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” Hammond frowned.

“It won’t hurt me,” Willow assured the General. “Might make me a teensy bit tired, but nothing else.”

She knew she wasn’t as strong, in magical terms, as had once been the case.  Her injuries at the hands of Glory and the period of recuperation which had followed had left Willow acutely aware that for now, at any rate, what she could do with her magic was still restricted.  With practice, she was still regaining some of those abilities, but the witch had also been forced to learn patience. 

“I haven’t done this before, though,” she admitted.

O’Neill didn’t seem at all bothered by that fact. “Not a problem if you scramble her brains.”

The General and Carter both shot him a look, as Willow instinctively winced at that idea.

“I don’t think this spell can do anything like that, but now you mention it...” the witch’s voice trailed away uncertainly.

“Just do what you can, short of damaging either of you,” Hammond told her.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Willow was sitting opposite Bastet’s Third Prime.  The room was filled with the sickly sweet aroma of burning herbs, and she’d just completed the incantation.  Securely handcuffed to her chair, Nar’auc meanwhile wore a look of utter contempt for her interrogator.  A pair of SFs stood guard on the door, while O’Neill and Carter waited watchfully in the corner, but Willow had no doubt that the Jaffa would come out of her chair fighting to the very death, given half a chance.

“The other witch was much more impressive,” Nar’auc said dismissively. “And when my lady Bastet is finally victorious, she will eliminate every last one of you.  Together with the accursed Kek’taur.”

“Be quiet.  And listen to my voice,” Willow tried to sound commanding.

She stirred up the burning herbs, to increase the volume of smoke they were producing, then leant forward slightly.  If only she had Marikha’s ability to project hypnotic tones in her speech, this would be much easier, Willow told herself.

“You will tell me nothing but the absolute truth, with no omissions and no additions of your own making,” Willow continued.

She checked the first question on the list provided by Cordelia and SG-1.

“How often is the guard changed in the Gate Room?”

As before, Nar’auc felt a great urge to tell this witch everything she knew, even if part of her mind was screaming that she couldn’t betray her Goddess.  The time, however, the impulse felt somewhat weaker.  Neither the spell itself, nor the witch’s voice, felt quite so strong and compelling as they’d previously been with the Varrini Enchantress.  Bastet’s Third Prime decided that she might just be able to fight this time.  A Jaffa’s need to regularly enter a deep state of Kel’noreem should, she reasoned, at least have given her the necessary mental discipline to fight this less powerful witch.

Gritting her teeth, Nar’auc closed her eyes tightly and tried to force her mind away from the dangerous path of truth.

“How often is the guard changed in the Gate Room?” Willow meanwhile repeated.

The Jaffa remained stubbornly silent, despite being asked the question several more times.  A change of question had similar effects.

“Well this is one gigantic waste of time,” O’Neill muttered.

“Sir!  I’m sure Willow’s doing her best,” Carter sounded slightly reproving at the implied rebuke.

“No offence meant, kiddo,” the Colonel said hastily. “But maybe we need a stronger witch.”

“None taken, Jack.  She’s fighting me – and pretty hard.  Compared to Marikha, I’m a stage-show conjuror.  Just can’t break her concentration and will to fight me,” Willow admitted.

“Not without causing her pain as a distraction – and so not big with the torture here!”

“Unless you want me to bring Cordelia in and have her try the third degree, I’m outa ideas,” O’Neill replied, shaking his head.

Carter suddenly smiled. “Cordelia…  That’s it!”

The Colonel looked taken aback, as SG-1’s second-in-command hurried towards the door. “I was just kidding…”

The Major returned a few minutes later, with Cordelia in tow.  Nar’auc felt the new presence immediately, her symbiote squirming with discomfort.  Suddenly, the Third Prime wasn’t so convinced of her ability to fight the invasive Truth Spell.  The mere presence of a Kek’taur was enough to discomfit and momentarily confuse a Goa’uld symbiote, mature or otherwise.  That, in turn, seriously affected her own ability to distract herself.

“Just answer the questions, Snakey Girl…” Cordelia’s voice had just a hint of underlying menace as she laid a light hand on each of the Jaffa’s shoulders.

Nar’auc’s hair practically stood on end with the Slayer in such proximity.  She just couldn’t figure out how Teal’c could stand being in this abomination’s presence for any length of time, let alone have any feelings for her.

“Shall we try again?” Willow asked pleasantly, the Jaffa’s sudden change of demeanour suggesting an opportunity.

“We seriously need to follow up on that theory about Goa’uld being demonic,” Carter whispered to her CO. “Buffy, Cordy and Rupert Giles are pretty certain that Slayers couldn’t sense them otherwise.”

O’Neill looked questioningly at her. “And this helps us how?”

“Don’t know yet, but sure I’ll come up with something,” Carter replied.

The interrogation lasted for two long hours.  This time, Bastet’s Third Prime – to her own horror – found herself unwillingly spilling every last secret and detail of Bubastis, including several Marikha hadn’t previously been directed to ask.  By the time they were finished, O’Neill was quite satisfied that the Jaffa had nothing left to spill.

“Thanks for the heads-up.  I’m sure Bastet’s gonna appreciate all the help you’ve given us,” O’Neill told her in sardonic tones.

“It will avail you nothing.  You cannot fight against a Goddess such as my lady Bastet,” Nar’auc blustered, as Willow gathered up her notebook.

“Don’t bet on it,” Cordelia replied.

“In fact, we’ll save you a seat at the Varrini cook-out, after her trial,” O’Neill chimed in.

 

Teal’c’s Quarters, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 8th April 2001

“What are your thoughts on Cordelia Chase, Master Bra’tac? Teal’c finally ventured.

The Jaffa Master looked intently at him. “I presume you are not referring to her prowess as a warrior, nor her rather scathing wit.”

Bra’tac, for all his years of service, had never encountered a Slayer until this morning when he was introduced to two of them.  With hindsight, he almost laughed at his own stupidity, having accepted a challenge by Saedria to spar.  Six-foot-ten of the most lethal warrior the Jaffa Master had ever encountered promptly, as the local vernacular put it, “kicked his ass”.  Not only was she stronger and faster than him, with the reflexes to defeat his every move, she also had a much greater reach.  Bra’tac hadn’t been on the receiving end of such a beating since he was a mere apprentice.  It was, he reflected, a highly educational and somewhat sobering experience.

On balance, it might have been better for his ageing body if he’d gone head-to-head with the other one, who Teal’c seemed rather taken with.  As it was, the younger Jaffa had sparred with Cordelia Chase, having assured Bra’tac that her abilities were somewhat less than Saedria’s.  Given that Teal’c’s partner had still won four out of five bouts and drawn the fifth, the Jaffa Master suspected that the Varrini Protector had been holding back in his case.  Teal’c certainly hadn’t been with Cordelia, but it equally clearly wasn’t sufficient.  Obviously, all the old stories about the Kek’taur were frighteningly real.

“I am not,” his protégé replied hesitantly. “I believe we have a relationship, but it is in its infancy.  In truth, I am not sure what exists between us, only that we have strong feelings for each other.”

“You have been amongst the Tau’ri for much too long, my friend,” Bra’tac replied with a chuckle. “Teal’c of Chulak never showed such vagueness or hesitancy in the past.”

“You have been like a father to me, Master Bra’tac,” Teal’c acknowledged. “And your opinion would be most welcome.”

Bra’tac nodded, a faint hint of humour in his voice. “Just so long as you do not expect me to bless your union.  With over one hundred years behind you, even tradition can only be pushed so far.  You are old enough to make your own decisions in such matters.”

“We have no plans for a formal union at present,” Teal’c responded.

“But you are courting the woman,” the Jaffa Master pointed out.

“Indeed, I am.  The ways of the Tau’ri are different, so it is probably best that I do not make an assumption of betrothal,” Teal’c explained.

The Jaffa was beginning to wonder if this had been a mistake.  His mentor’s approval was important but, at the same time, there was the real possibility that Bra’tac wouldn’t understand.  If Teal’c was still learning the ways of the Tau’ri, then they would only be so much more alien to his teacher. 

“A most sensible approach,” Bra’tac replied. “After all, she is young enough to be your granddaughter – and quite possibly her daughter.”

Teal’c stiffened slightly. “The age difference has not been an issue, Master Bra’tac.”

“I do not suggest that it is, merely that the difference is considerable.  In any case, it is perhaps the least important difference.  I presume I do not have to remind you of differences in culture and experience, or that you are two quite different people?  Or that elsewhere in the galaxy, the Kek’taur hunt our people without mercy?” the Jaffa Master probed.

Teal’c almost bristled, which was unheard of in the presence of his mentor. “Only where they or their people are being threatened or oppressed by the False Gods.”

Bra’tac held up a pacifying hand. “I do not mean to accuse, only to point out what must be apparent even to you.  After all, you did ask for my opinion.”

This particular Kek’taur was certainly, in spite of her age, already a renowned warrior amongst her own people, he reflected.  Also a fearless one, if her plan to attack Bastet was any guide.  She would, indeed, be a fitting match for Teal’c, but only if he pursued the relationship for the right reasons.

The younger Jaffa bobbed his head in acceptance. “So you believe that we are fundamentally incompatible?”

“Do not put words into my mouth, Teal’c.  I said no such thing.  Differences, even fundamental ones, do not necessarily mean incompatibilities.  Sometimes, they may be complementary,” Bra’tac responded.

As a hot-headed young warrior, he’d once fallen in love with a non-Jaffa woman.  She was everything that Bra’tac was not at that age – refined, patient, and humane – but also a member of a race subjugated by Apophis.  For ten months, they’d carried on their relationship in secret, knowing that neither his master nor her people would approve.  She’d done much to temper the impulsive young Jaffa, making him both a superior warrior and a better person in Bra’tac’s opinion.  In many ways, they were as different as day and night, but they’d also had the deepest of feelings for each other.  Then she’d been killed as a collaborator, by her own people, leaving a deep hole in the Jaffa’s life that had taken a very long time to heal.

Arguably, Bra’tac’s protégé wouldn’t face half the difficulties he’d had to deal with.  Ultimately, those had been insurmountable, but it was different for Teal’c.  Their relationship could be carried on in the light of day, for one thing, and they had a warrior’s bond for another.  If each felt deeply enough about the other, then even that might be sufficient for a successful future.

“You are both very different from the rest of the Tau’ri,” Bra’tac pointed out. “That may also have pushed you together.”

His mentor was nothing if not insightful, Teal’c ruminated.  It was, indeed, one of the things both had discussed.   The difficulties facing both a Jaffa warrior and a Slayer in finding a compatible partner on Earth were not to be underestimated.  Cordelia had certainly come to the realisation that each might well realistically be the best that the other could aspire to.  Equally, given each other’s qualities, they’d also recognised that it might just be enough.

Teal’c, for his part, had tentatively suggested that Cordelia would certainly find it much easier to find a more suitable companion on Earth than he would.  The young woman had promptly raised an egg-sized bruise on his bicep at the mere suggestion.  He suspected that she was also rather inexperienced and nervous about playing the field, as the Tau’ri put it.  Certainly in her current persona – he couldn’t believe that Cordelia had ever been so false and unpleasant in the past as she now uncomfortably claimed. 

Such considerations, however, were gradually fading into the background.  Teal’c was feeling the same distinct tug on his heart-strings as he’d once felt when courting Drey’auc and Sha’nauc.  What was more, he was pretty sure Cordelia’s eyes increasingly mirrored his own feelings.

“There is that,” Teal’c admitted.

“Shared differences alone may not be sufficient, my friend,” Bra’tac suggested gently.

“I am developing strong feelings for her, Master Bra’tac.  I feel them within me – and I see the same in her eyes,” Teal’c replied.

The Jaffa Master smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Then that is the most important thing.  Again, perhaps not sufficient by itself, but a relationship is problematic at best without it.  Communication being the other important factor, of course.”

“We do not have problems communicating.  She talks and I listen.  In fact, she talks a great deal, just like all Tau’ri women,” Teal’c replied.

“One person in a relationship must talk, Teal’c,” Bra’tac teased. “You, however, talk very little amongst the Tau’ri – and not much more amongst your own people.”

“I speak when there is something worth saying,” Teal’c protested.

“A habit you must cultivate, Teal’c.  A relationship cannot consist solely of you regularly being beaten black and blue on the sparring mat, however much it improves your combat skills.  Though you also appear to enjoy it immensely…” Bra’tac joked.

“Your Kek’taur will never bend her knee to you, Teal’c.  Nor should you ever expect her to be less than your equal.  There is a fire in that one, as in all of her kind.  But as I said, you can share more than a common warrior spirit.  From what I hear of Tau’ri culture, it is rich and varied – even according to different regions of this planet.  You have chosen to fight amongst the Tau’ri.  It makes sense that you should learn exactly what they – and you – are fighting for, and share all that this planet has to offer with Cordelia Chase.  In many ways, this old man envies you,” the Jaffa Master told him sagely.  

Bra’tac shook his head impatiently. “I did not come to this world simply to counsel you on your love life, Teal’c.  Hammond of Texas wishes to meet with me, to update our plan to destroy Bastet.  So I will leave you to consider what I have said.”

 

Canteen, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 8th April 2001

Casting spells at such an intense level gave Willow something of an appetite.  Several different appetites, actually, she mused wryly.  It obviously wasn’t only Slayers who sometimes had the big double-H.  Since Tara was at Peterson AFB today, and Willow would have been too embarrassed to drag her girlfriend into an empty SGC room for a quick nooner, the witch reluctantly settled for satisfying the other H.  At least as far as USAF canteen food allowed, in any case.

Cordelia certainly had her own thoughts on that, eyeing Carter’s inevitable blue jello with distaste.

“I dunno…  Something about blue jello that’s just unnatural…” the Lieutenant mused.

“You mean, the part where it looks kinda like demon slime?” Willow piped up helpfully.

Cordelia nodded. “Yeah, like a thicker version of the mucus secreted by a Pelorack Demon…  The stuff that eats through solid stone and dissolves people’s flesh and bones into a bubbling goo.”

She’d been dipping into a few demonology books recently, as part of her ongoing Slayer training.  This one had stuck in her mind, however.  The more gross the demon, the harder it was to forget.

“Trying to gain points with your Watcher?” Willow grinned.

Carter made a face, sighed and put her spoon down. “More like trying to ruin my lunch!”

“Not like it has any nutritional value, ma’am.  Not so sure about the dead dog, either…” Cordelia warily prodded something masquerading as meat loaf on her own plate.

The regular chef and his assistant were apparently on a training course somewhere and their temporary replacement just didn't have the same touch.

“I think it is quite palatable,” Teal’c countered, attacking his own plateful with gusto. “So if you do not wish to eat it…”

“Be my guest.  And can I say, ‘garbage disposal’?” his girlfriend snorted, pushing her plate over.

“Indeed, having observed you eat, I believe another Tau’ri saying is ‘people in glass houses, should not throw stones’.  Though it is a mystery to me why anyone would wish to construct a dwelling from such a material…” Teal’c retorted smoothly.

Carter and Willow grinned slyly at each other.  So the relationship between Cordelia and the Jaffa had now reached a point where they were more than comfortable with an exchange of banter.  That could only be a good sign, the Major considered.  She’d rarely, if ever, known Teal’c to tease anyone in the Tau’ri fashion, so Cordelia was clearly helping him to embrace local habits.

“Whatever happened to her being your ‘Warrior Princess’?” Carter asked mischievously.

The eyebrow rose, in customary fashion. “You called me that again?”

She knew it wasn’t the first time Teal’c had used that particular moniker.  Not that it was surprising, given his favoured TV programmes and typical movie selection.

“I believe that is how I introduced you to Master Bra’tac,” the Jaffa admitted, as close to uncomfortable as Carter had ever seen him.

“Is that really how you see me, as some kinda Xena?” Cordelia demanded.

Teal’c nodded, wondering if he should bolt for the door right now.  Unfortunately, she could outsprint him any day of the week.

“You have many of Xena’s more admirable qualities.  Of course, you are also much more versatile,” the Jaffa replied carefully.

Cordelia actually grinned in appreciation. “Not so much with the leather-clad skank look, but I kinda like that.”

“Nice save, big guy,” Carter smirked.

She couldn’t resist it.  The big Jaffa was utterly smitten, in his own impassive fashion.  And in O’Neill’s absence, it fell to her to take up the light mockery, especially at the expense of the rookie.

“With all due respect, ma’am?  Never heard the Colonel calling you his princess.  I think it’s – uh…  Well, I think it’s sweet,” the Lieutenant retorted.

Willow almost choked on her lunch. “Did the big, bad Special Forces trooper and Slayer just say “sweet”?”

Carter shrugged. “Think she did.  Reckon they’ll take back her beret for that one - and maybe your people will ceremonially snap her stake…”

“Laugh it up, comedians,” Cordelia sniffed. “But Teal’c will get his reward.”

She deliberately leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, ignoring the good-natured banter from the SG-1 XO and her Watcher.  If Teal’c considered her to be his warrior princess, then so be it.  Maybe later in the year, it might just be time to introduce him to that Tau’ri custom known as Halloween.  Though without any real magic this time, because Ethan Rayne had more than earned his name on one of her bullets, if they ever crossed paths again.

Meanwhile, Teal’c somehow made deadpan look smug.  He knew Cordelia had plans for after the raid on Bastet.  What was more, Master Bra’tac approved of their relationship, while Cordelia’s slightly older sister had no objections – though the Slayer had certainly made a wide variety of ever-more inventive threats to his person, should he ever hurt her.  That only made him feel more at home.  Jaffa fathers – and mothers - typically threatened their daughters’ suitors, too.

“Eating that second bowl of jello, Carter?” O’Neill announced his and Jackson’s arrival by snatching the aforementioned dish from his XO, pulling up a chair and sitting down beside her.

“Actually, sir…” the Major was about to protest, but knew she was wasting her breath.

“Demon slime – you won’t miss it, ma’am,” Cordelia suggested.

O’Neill rearranged the dishes on his tray, not really paying attention. “What’s that, Trench Rat?”

“Nothing, sir.”

The Colonel grinned and waved at Willow, sitting further up the table. “Hey, thanks for dragging more intel out of our guest, Madam Sin…”

There was an unnerving silence for a few moments, as the witch stopped eating and glared at him.

“Something I said?” O’Neill wondered.

“Tends to be everything you say,” Jackson muttered.

“ ‘Madam Sin’?  So it was you who put spread all these rumours about Assembly regional HQ being a CIA brothel?  With me as the hooker-in-chief…” Willow growled.

“A school for honey trap agents, not the same as a brothel…” the Colonel’s voice trailed off.

The Assembly had been looking for a suitable cover story for the Colorado Springs HQ, but still hadn’t settled on one.  Then overnight, suddenly Willow allegedly found herself in charge of an Agency school for sex.  Or so a lot of the neighbours seemed to think.

“Explain that to the old lady who runs the store, where I buy – used to buy – my milk and cookies for the office…  Or the people who go to the church down the street…  Or the guy who owns the gas station.  I’ve heard the whispers, seen the glares and the smirks,” Willow regarded him with some menace.

“Do I look like Madam Dorian?” she demanded, crossing her arms.

Teal’c turned to Cordelia. “Who is Madam Dorian?”

“Runs a chain of demon brothels across the world.  Quite popular with some politicians, apparently,” she’d only heard a few snippets on the subject.

“I can spread something better, if you like…” O’Neill offered, desperately thinking about damage control.

“Still digging, sir,” Carter was in a mischievous mood.

It was odd, but the Major often felt like that when more than one of the Sunnydale gang was around.  In fact, it sometimes only took one of them to bring out her inner imp.  She wondered what would happen when Cordelia was finally assigned to SG-1, at the end of the year.  O’Neill would most likely end up as bald as the General.

“ ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of red-haired witches, for they are subtle and quick to turn you into a frog...’” Jackson put in dryly.

O’Neill blinked in alarm. “A frog?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Daniel?  Frogs are icky, slimy things.  I might turn him into a bunny, but never a frog!” Willow kept a straight face.

“But that’s not so easy.  Boils?  Now that’s a simple spell…” the witch allowed, enjoying the sight of a squirming O’Neill.

The Colonel held his hands up. “Okay, poor choice of rumour…  I’ll do what I can to fix it!”

“I think you need to cool off a bit, Jack,” Willow suggested, with a glint in her eye, muttering an incantation under her breath.

“Just a mom….  Jeez!  That’s cold!” O’Neill’s eyes almost popped out of his head and he dashed from the table, clutching at his crotch.

“What did you do?” Carter demanded, worried for the most precious part of her fiancé’s anatomy.

“Just a few ice cubes, Sam.  If he hurries, he’ll get to the little boy’s room, before they melt,” Willow smirked.

Carter winced. “But – but the Colonel might get frostbite!  Damaged…”

“I wouldn’t cast a harmful spell, Sam,” Willow reassured her. “Magical ice.  All the properties of the normal stuff – cold and wet – without the side effects.  I wouldn’t ever do that to the good guys.”

The Major relaxed somewhat. “In that case, I guess it’s okay to laugh at him.”

“Article 133 – Conduct Unbecoming, ma’am,” Cordelia smirked.

“Quite apart from the part where you’re a permanent walking, talking violation, Lieutenant Chase?  If you can quote chunks of UCMJ, that must have been the most mind-numbing OCS in existence,” Carter retorted, with a broad grin.

“Besides, SG-1 tore up that particular article a long time before we’d even heard of Sunnydale,” she assured a giggling Willow.

 

Assembly Regional Headquarters, Sunnydale, California – 8th April 2001

It was, Giles reflected, nice to finally have a proper headquarters building near the Hellmouth.  The Magic Box had long since outgrown the rebuilding of the Council and the resultant influx of reinforcements, while he was also glad to reclaim his own apartment from assorted Slayers, witches, and soldiers.  Now he almost had his office organised just the way he wanted, with the best Watcher’s library outside London.

He pushed another completed report into the Out tray and contentedly contemplated the steaming cup of tea and freshly baked scone in front of him.  Aphrodite and Althenea liked to spoil him with baked goods – prepared with their own hands, not magic – and Giles decided he’d have to pay close attention to his expanding waistline.  When he was librarian at Sunnydale High, the Watcher had burned calories helping the Slayer and her friends to patrol, but there was much less opportunity these days, given the availability of highly trained Sentinels and HGC commandos.  Even the Slayer herself, much to her chagrin, had to spent at least some time behind a desk.  Giles had to admit that Buffy’s complaints about her directorship of the Assembly and the paperwork it entailed gave him a certain degree of Schadenfreude.  Still, she was amazingly effective at the various inter-agency work and diplomacy the post entailed.  In fact, Giles was pretty sure that Buffy herself was surprised at how well she’d adapted to the new role.

The door suddenly burst open and a blonde tempest whirled inside.  Danced, Giles corrected himself, rubbing his eyes.  The fearsome protector of mankind was actually gleefully dancing and whooping, while waving a piece of paper.

“I’ve got it!  I’ve got it!  I finally got it!” Buffy told him excitedly.

“I sincerely hope it isn’t infectious,” Giles replied. “And do stop bouncing around – you’re making me feel rather dizzy.”

“My driver’s licence,” the Slayer grinned.

Her Watcher blinked.  Buffy hadn’t told him she was planning to take a driving test today.  Most likely, given her reputation for erratic driving, she’d been wary of failing once more.

“So should I send the card and flowers to the cardiac care unit?” Giles couldn’t resist the obvious joke.

The Slayer shot him a mild glare. “The instructor’s just fine, Watcher mine.  In fact, he said that I had some of the best reactions and most precise control he’d ever seen in a driver.”

Giles wasn’t at all surprised.  Buffy’s driving skills, or alleged lack of the same, were one of the longest-running Scooby jokes.  At one time, Giles would even have agreed, since he’d had a momentary aberration and offered to help teach her.  The first couple of lessons reduced the Watcher to a quivering wreck but as time went on, he’d actually began to see that her apparently erratic style was anything but.  She simply harnessed a Slayer’s reflexes and drove accordingly.

Buffy folded her arms. “And you just volunteered to go car shopping with me.” 


Chesterfield’s Classic Cars, Glossonville, California – 8th April 2001

“Are you sure you wouldn’t be happier with something more practical?” Giles asked, looking around the showroom at the rows of 1950s and 1960s classics.

“Hey!  Did I say that when you bought the Mid-life Crisis Special outside?” Buffy pointed out. “Anya was right…  Red and penis-shaped…”

Giles realised he didn’t have an answer to that.  His BMW convertible wasn’t the most practical vehicle on the road.

“If I want practical, I’ll borrow mom’s Jeep, or that pink pimp mobile Cordy hasn’t sold yet.  Or one of the boring Assembly cars.  But this is Buffy fun time.  I’ve Slayer back-pay, government money for Operation Van Helsing and another consultancy cheque for fixing that vampire problem in DC,” Buffy pointed out.

“Don’t you think I’m present-deserving?” the Slayer almost pouted. “Freakishly busy year – even for Sunnydale - and I’ve done a whole lot of stuff. Besides, Cordy has her sports car…”

“A slight touch of the green-eyed monster?” Giles teased gently.

“Oh yeah…” Buffy nodded. “Little sis’ can’t have all the fun.”

Admittedly, until she’d seen Cordelia’s Corvette, buying a classic sports car had been the last thing on the Slayer’s mind.  But now she definitely wanted one of her own.

“The insurance premium will be rather high, especially as you’ve just passed your test, Buffy,” Giles pointed out.

He had to admit that his Slayer deserved the occasional treat, even if it was something as extravagant and impractical as a classic car.  Just like he hadn’t really needed the BMW.  It had simply, as he’d told the Scoobies, seduced him with its red sportiness. 

“You just have to squash the fun out of everything, don’t you Giles…” Buffy sighed.

Giles raised his hands in defeat. “No more words of pragmatic wisdom, I promise.”

 

“Can I help you, sir?” the proprietor emerged from a workshop behind the showroom and approached Giles, wiping his hands on well-worn overalls.

Buffy frowned at the assumption, but bit back a retort that women could drive as well as men.

“No…  But you can help me,” the Slayer said firmly.

“My apologies, ma’am,” the owner replied. “Joe Chesterfield…  I’d shake hands, but kinda oily right now…  So how may I help you?”

Buffy grinned. “Something sporty.  My sister has her car serviced here and told me you’ve a nice range of classic stuff.”

“Your sister?”

“Drives a red 1969 Corvette,” the Slayer told him.

Chesterfield’s face lit up. “Ah yes!  The Special Forces Sergeant…”

“Officer now,” Buffy corrected, with a hint of pride.

“Either way, I’m honoured to look after that beautiful little Corvette for a national hero,” Chesterfield replied.

“So…  Whatcha got?” the Slayer only just refrained from bouncing.

“If you want to follow me, miss?” the auto dealer gestured towards a row of vehicles in a prominent position.

“1957 Ford Thunderbird…  1956 Austin-Healey 100…  1963 Shelby AC Cobra…  1965 Ford Mustang…  1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing…” Chesterfield slowly wandered along the line.

Buffy had, however, already spotted something she liked. “Ooh, classy!”

“1967 Jaguar E-type Series One Roadster, ma’am.  Just finished restoring it..”

“Me likey!  It’s all curvy and shiny…” the Slayer cooed.

Giles fought back an urge to roll his eyes only with some difficulty.  Buffy the Slayers’ Assembly Director could match wits with diplomats and senior military officers, but sometimes she still pretended to be a simpering Valley girl.  He suspected she only did it to irritate him.

“Yes…” Chesterfield looked sideways at her, then continued his spiel. “4.2-litre engine.  It doesn’t have the original Series One brakes and gear-box – these were always pretty poor – or the seats from that version, which were notoriously uncomfortable.  But unless you’re a purist…”

He shrugged. “Of course, it has a manual gearbox…”

“I can handle a stick-shift,” Buffy assured him, gazing longingly at the silver Jaguar.

To drive Giles’ old Citroen, she’d been forced to master that particular system.  The Watcher still cringed as he recalled some of the hideous noises she’d produced from his long-suffering car’s gearbox.

“One of the fastest cars on the road for its time and – at least when it was launched – the most sought after.  We were the Brits’ biggest market…” Chesterfield began.

The Slayer blinked. “It’s British?  They make cars like this in England, Giles?  And you drove that French rust bucket?”

“My Citroen was a genuine classic,” Giles protested. “Besides, not everything produced by my country’s car industry has been quite so appealing.  Though as a young student, I must admit to a slight hankering for an E-type myself…”    

“If I buy this, you can relive all those naughty student hankerings,” Buffy teased. “Well, maybe not all of them…”

She turned to the owner. “Can I test-drive it?”

“Certainly, ma’am.  Do you have your driver’s licence with you?”

Buffy promptly handed over the slip of paper, as though it was the most precious thing in the world.

“Ummm…  According to this, you only just passed your test.  This is an immensely powerful car, ma’am.  It has none of the modern gimmicks – you really have to drive it,” Chesterfield said nervously.

“Buffy can handle it, Mister Chesterfield,” Giles assured him.

The proprietor considered that for a moment.  Was the possibility of a sale worth the danger to life and limb potentially posed by allowing this tiny blonde Valley girl – who was almost a walking caricature – behind the wheel?

“This help to assure you that I won’t be a totally irresponsible psycho on the road?” Buffy slipped her AFOSI ID from her wallet.

Chesterfield eyebrow’s both rose up his forehead.  His potential customer looked even less like a Federal agent than a typical buyer of a classic sports car.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “There’s an old airstrip nearby, which is big enough to really let you open it out properly…”

The airstrip also had one other virtue, he reasoned.  It was agreeably flat and unobstructed, with nothing to hit.

 

With no space for a second passenger, Giles was left pacing the asphalt in front of the garage for half-an-hour, hoping that Buffy could indeed handle the powerful Jaguar.  It was, after all, the fastest and most powerful car she’d yet driven.

To the Englishman’s surprise, Chesterfield was grinning from ear to ear when he stepped out of the passenger seat, the Slayer wearing a similar expression.

“If Special Agent Summers only just got her licence, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!  I race cars for a hobby and she most certainly has the touch,” Chesterfield declared.

“So…  Can we deal with the buying part now?” Buffy asked eagerly, casting another eye over her soon-to-be pride and joy.

“Certainly.  The office is thisaways, ma’am…” Chesterfield could almost smell the dollars already.

 

Conference Room, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 13th April 2001

The Conference Room was unusually crowded today, with Hammond, SG-1, Freya, Cordelia, Jacob Carter and Saedria gathered together for a final planning session.  Based on a variety of intelligence sources, ranging from Nar’auc’s interrogation to Tok’ra information, a large and well-detailed model of the Bubastis fortress complex had been constructed.  At least so far as O’Neill could recall, this was probably the best-planned and most complex mission ever launched by the SGC.  He also recognised that in-depth planning, to the point of OCD, was utterly crucial in this case.  SG-1 had never been involved in the infiltration of such a well-defended Goa’uld base, nor had they been expected to carry out such a range of tasks once inside.  Capturing a Goa’uld System Lord alive – from under the noses of hundreds of Jaffa - copying the base computer core and the valuable information kept inside, and demolishing the whole complex, while other installations on this and other planets came under heavy missile attack.  SG-1 had taken out Goa’uld System Lords before, but never in such a blatantly aggressive fashion.  Hopefully some of the others would get the message that the Tau’ri’s teeth were growing and it was a very bad idea to attack their home planet.

“Seemed like a good idea, ‘til I saw this.  Talk about paranoia…” Cordelia whistled, shaking her head.

She took in Jaffa barracks, Plasma Cannon installations, minefields, force shields which could be raised in the blink of an eye.  The odds facing her team were certainly formidable.  On the other hand, Bastet’s fortress was primarily set up to repel an external attack, both from orbit and also on the ground.  Given that the Stargate on Bubastis was protected against intruders and the fact that transport technology couldn’t be used, she probably wasn’t expecting to be attacked by a small group of infiltrators.

“Cold feet, Lieutenant Chase?” O’Neill smiled.

He’d long since discovered that the best way to ease Cordelia’s pre-combat nerves was a few well-placed snarky remarks, which she’d immediately return with interest.

“Hell yeah, sir.  Wouldn’t ever stop me going, though.  And better cold feet than frozen- uh…” Cordelia smirked, always willing to play the Colonel’s game.

“You won’t just be Slaying ‘toons this time,” the Colonel teased her.

Cordelia fought a juvenile impulse to stick her tongue out at her superior officer.  That little encounter at Disneyland would undoubtedly give O’Neill ammunition for years to come.

Hammond cleared his throat. “If you would care to knock off the customary badinage, Colonel O’Neill and Lieutenant Chase?  Time’s pressing and we need to start this briefing.  Jacob?

Cordelia didn’t have the slightest clue what the General meant by badinage – it sounded suspiciously close to bondage, she reflected – but decided it might be best to keep her mouth shut.

“Our intel sources suggest that Bastet’s gearing up for another offensive,” Carter senior told the assembled group.

Bra’tac agreed. “We have reports of ships massing in the Bubastis system and elsewhere.  Her Jaffa have also undertaken a number of probing operations in recent days, against Lord Yu and Morrigan.”

“Bastet has additionally assembled a number of particularly skilled Ash’rak.  In the past, she’s made considerable use of assassination, as a prelude to major offensive operations.  Kali was apparently killed three days ago, perhaps by an Ash’rak, though our sources haven’t been able to verify the exact circumstances,” Carter added.

The Tok’ra had lost a number of key operatives over the years to Bastet’s Goa’uld assassins.  In the past, such tactics had actually been her preferred modus operandi.  Following Kali’s demise, Bastet had moved quickly to absorb the former’s Jaffa into her own ranks, providing a major boost to her forces without the heavy cost in casualties associated with major conventional operations.  Given the comparative ease with which Kali’s troops were being integrated into Bastet’s forces, Carter suspected that the latter had a great deal of inside help from those surrounding the dead System Lord.

His daughter couldn’t quite suppress a small shudder.  Samantha Carter vividly recalled her own ordeal at the hands of an Ash’rak, sent to kill the Tok’ra Jolinar who had briefly been forced to join with her.

“Much more than the security of Earth is resting on this,” her father agreed. “if Bastet absorbs the forces of one or two more System Lords, she might be pretty much unbeatable.”

“Guess we’d better make a good job of skinning the cat, then,” O’Neill replied.

Hammond nodded his agreement. “Okay, people.  Where are we on phase one?”

The raid on Bubastis was only part of the overall plan.  A heavy missile bombardment of Bastet’s numerous facilities was also an important factor.  Firstly, to prevent them from falling into the hands of other Goa’uld when she was captured and her empire crumbled.  Secondly, to demonstrate to the other System Lords that the Tau’ri had more offensive options than a handful of SpecOps teams.

“We’ve set up launch facilities on P7B-162, P3C-804, P5F-689, and P8T-118.  The missiles and launch teams are in place.  Forty-three different targets identified - the Tok’ra and Free Jaffa have provided all the targeting intel we need,” Carter replied – this part of the plan was very much her baby.

Each of the four planets’ Stargates had a number of jury-rigged launch rails, for Tomahawk cruise missiles and Army TACMS systems, plus a small crane for rapid reloading.  Unlike Bubastis, most of the Stargates on the target worlds were relatively undefended.  The Goa’uld – all of them, not just Bastet – tended to think of the Stargates as a potential source of ground-based attacks, not a mass missile strike.  Where there were defences capable of bringing down the missiles as they emerged – and a Tomahawk, in the final analysis, was a fairly large and slow-moving target – MLRS rockets would first be used to blanket the area around the Gate with anti-personnel bomblets, to take out any Jaffa defenders.

“None of the targets are shielded in the same way as Bubastis.  Some internal shielding, but not enough to protect against multiple hits from thermobaric and Naquadah-enhanced warheads,” Carter added.

“Targets, ma’am?” Cordelia had been somewhat out of the loop for Phase One – coordinating missile strikes was far from her own area of expertise.

“Construction docks, research centres, production facilities for Death Gliders and Al’kesh, Naquadah refineries…  Anything that might be of use to another System Lord,” the Major replied.

“Or Bastet herself, if we screw up and don’t capture the bitch,” Cordelia replied soberly.

“We have every confidence in you, Lieutenant,” Hammond assured her. “Besides, taking her alive is only the preferred option.”

It would, he thought grimly, actually be better for the System Lord if she died quickly and cleanly in the attack, than burned at the stake or impaled by the Varrini.  However, the SGC had long since agreed to turn her over, once they’d emptied her head of secrets.

Jackson fiddled with his pen. “I do have one reservation, Sam.  If this works, won’t all the other System Lords beef up the security on their Stargates?  Energy shields doing the same job as the Iris, that sort of thing?  Seems like this is a one-shot trick – and one that might make even normal access to enemy planets pretty difficult afterwards.”

The archaeologist simply didn’t see any Goa’uld worthy of the name ignoring the potential danger of Tau’ri missiles raining down on them, like so many oversized firecrackers.

Selmak entered the conversation. “You may be correct to a certain extent, Doctor Jackson, but our assessment is that this will change Goa’uld defensive postures comparatively little.  For thousands of years, their Stargates have remained relatively unprotected, even if the Goa’uld have the capability of delivering weapons of mass destruction through the Gate system.  One relatively small-scale attack by the Tau’ri will not change that perception.

“Also, most Stargates are located at some distance from major Goa’uld facilities – and there are simply too many of them to defend in such a way.”

“I could see the Goa’uld changing their defensive stance if we employed this tactic on a regular basis,” Hammond acknowledged. “But we simply don’t have the resources for an extended campaign.  It’s one more weapon in our armoury, but one which we’ll have to use sparingly.”

“Pity,” O’Neill grunted. “It’s kinda nice to be able to hit them more than one target at a time.”

“We’ll have more options when Prometheus enters service,” the General replied.

He hoped Earth’s first deep-space warship, still under construction, would indeed justify the expense, especially since it was the SGC’s hard-pressed budget which was taking the strain. 

The briefing quickly moved onto the main part of the assault.

“Operation Catnip…  My team are ready and raring to go, sir.  They’ve been running simulations for days and I don’t think we can keep them on the leash at this pitch for much longer, before the edge begins to wear off.  Keeping Slayers – even the trained Potential variety – from a fight they know is coming?  Not a good idea…  And I speak from experience, sir,” Cordelia told Hammond.

“We’re going in with a lot of firepower.  A fifty-fifty mix of SAWs and M4s with M203s attached.  Lots of nice long, wide corridors, so we can use grenade launchers indoors – HE and flechette types.  Plus hand grenades and enough to C4 to level the Mountain.”

Cordelia tapped the central structure on the Bubastis model with her pen. “We’ll drop straight onto the roof of the central palace complex here.  Tok’ra intelligence produced pretty detailed plans of the place and there’s more than one way inside, but the best one brings us out pretty close to the Stargate.  It’s a maintenance conduit for cooling and heating systems – tight, but there’s none of us need to go on a diet anytime soon…”

She paused. “Most of us will take the Gate Room and hold it, until reinforcements arrive.  From there, Freya can tap into the control systems and lock down most of the Jaffa barracks.  Means we only have to deal with the duty force, while a small team – Saedria, Freya, and two Sentinels – snatch Bastet from the throne room.” 

Cordelia looked distinctly uncomfortable for a moment. “But there is a small problem, Freya and I identified only half-an-hour ago…  Actually a pretty big one…”

Freya nodded and joined the briefing, pointing to one particular Jaffa barracks. “I have just reviewed the latest intelligence information provided by the Tok’ra and there is, indeed, a problem.  This is a recent addition to the complex, with updated security systems.  I can seal it off, using control system access in the gate Room, but the Jaffa trapped inside will be able to override the lockdown within five minutes, perhaps less.  We estimate that there are some eight hundred Jaffa in that block, perhaps a thousand.”

There was a moment’s silence.  The barracks in question was perilously close to both the Gate Room and Bastet’s throne room and even with the SGC and rebel Jaffa reinforcements, the attackers would be hard-pressed to defend against those numbers.

“I need ideas, people.  Else this a non-starter…” Hammond didn’t want to abandon the operation, but what had seemed like a risky venture from the beginning was now starting to look positively suicidal.  

“Freya has one, but you aren’t going to like it, sir.  I don’t either, to be honest,” Cordelia offered grimly, turning to the Tok’ra woman.

The Lieutenant and Freya had discussed this unexpected wrinkle – and Freya’s solution – just before the meeting.  Cordelia definitely hadn’t approved of the Tok’ra’s ruthless solution.

“I could release concentrated weapons and reactor coolant into the air re-circulation system for that block.  It would be lethal to all inside within three minutes,” Freya suggested.

Hammond shook his head firmly. “We don’t employ chemical warfare, Freya.”

“That’s what I told her, sir.  Hell, there’s a good chance we’ll be invading Saguerra, partly ‘cause they used mustard gas on rebel targets,” Cordelia agreed. “Plus the whole part where we’re a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

“Only applicable to signatory countries on Earth, Lieutenant.  And from what I understand, the Saguerrans used gas against civilian targets,” Jacob Carter pointed out.

“That’s hair-splitting, sir,” Cordelia pointed out dryly.

Carter wondered how the SGC would react to the symbiote poison currently under development by the Tok’ra.  He could understood her position in a way.  There was almost a genetic memory of the First World War poison gas experience, which persisted to this day amongst those uniformed services involved in that conflict.  But this enemy was in a different league from any other.  They couldn’t always worry about the ethical position when fighting the Goa’uld.  On the contrary, it was a matter of how far they could throw the kid gloves.

“So you are happy to kill Jaffa in large numbers with explosives and automatic weapons, but not by this means?” Freya also clearly didn’t understand.

“It’s…  It’s just different,” Samantha Carter replied.

Bra’tac shook his head. “I do not see the difference, General Hammond.”

“Nor I,” Teal’c agreed.

“These are your people, Bra’tac.  To kill them indiscriminately in large numbers is an unacceptable option,” Hammond responded.

Teal’c shook his head. “With respect, General Hammond, I must disagree.  These Jaffa are well aware of the rebellion and they know that a number of False Gods have already been killed over the last few years.  Yet they cling to the service of this one.  And we are agreed, are we not, that this is the best opportunity to stop Bastet, before she recovers her strength?  Perhaps the only one.  You should not let your distaste for this plan jeopardise the mission.  After all, if we fail to stop Bastet, then many millions may die.”

“The end justifying the means?” Predictably, Jackson was horrified.

O’Neill, meanwhile, made a face. “I hate to say it, Daniel, but not sure we’ve got a choice here.  Teal’c’s right – we’ve only got one shot at this.”

“But…” Jackson was about to argue the point.

Hammond held up a hand. “I find the whole idea quite unpalatable.  On the other hand, we still have the strategic imperative of dealing with Bastet.  God forgive us, but we may have to go with this idea.  But I think I’ll have to go to the President on this one.”

Cordelia kept her silence, as befitted the most junior officer in the room, and having already made her own feelings clear.  She and Freya wouldn’t agree on the latter’s proposal, but she also knew that the stakes were enormous.  What horrified the Lieutenant in particular was that her plan, for a quick surgical raid, was mutating into something else entirely.

She felt Hammond’s eyes on her. “On the assumption that the President gives the go-ahead for Freya’s plan, can you please brief us on the rest of – uh – Operation Catnip?”

Cordelia nodded, now somewhat more subdued. “Yes sir.  While Saedria’s team are picking up Bastet, SG-1 and four other SG teams, plus about sixty of Bra’tac’s Jaffa, will arrive through the Stargate and expand our perimeter.  That’ll give Major Carter time to download a sizeable chunk of the computer core data and to wire the central reactor to blow.  Then we withdraw through the Stargate and Bubastis goes boom.  Thirty minutes between our landing and the withdrawal, tops.  We can’t hold for any longer.”

“Colonel O’Neill?” Hammond was satisfied with Cordelia’s plan, but he still wanted his most experienced officer’s input.

O’Neill, Cordelia, Freya, the Carters, and Selmak had, after all, spent the last few days refining the details.  Still, fresh intelligence- such as that which they’d just received – could always throw a monkey wrench into the works.

“I’d say the Lieutenant pretty much has it covered, sir.  We agreed a few slight changes earlier, but with the resources we’ve got?  This is the way I’d do it,” he smiled encouragingly at his protégé, who was meanwhile trying hard not to think about a thousand suffocating Jaffa.

“It seems to be rather a small team to capture Bastet,” the General pointed out.

“I would have joined them, sir, but staying with the main force at the Gate Room seemed most appropriate.  That’s our line of reinforcement and escape, so I’ve concentrated the bulk of our strength there,” Cordelia replied.

O’Neill nodded. “Exactly where the assault team CO ought to be, Lieutenant Chase.  Leadership 101 – sometimes you can’t be where you want to be.”

“Should be enough, with most of the garrison cut off from the palace, and the main threat apparently focused on the Gate Room.  Bastet will only have her First Prime and a couple of Jaffa.  Maybe a few lesser Goa’uld, too.  Surprise will be more useful than sheer numbers,” Jacob Carter shrugged.

Bra’tac looked thoughtful. “Bastet’s First Prime is a renowned warrior.  I believe that he would be able to defeat me with ease.”

He caught Saedria’s eye, the Varrini Protector wryly raising an eyebrow. “Of course, I am not a Kek’taur.  He will be no match for you.”

The words ‘torn limb for limb’ might actually be more appropriate, especially since Saedria knew that Bastet’s First Prime had personally led the fatal assault on her world.

“I do not intend to waste time proving my physical prowess, Master Bra’tac,” Saedria replied evenly. “Instead, I will simply shoot the bastard in the head.”

“Amen,” O’Neill muttered.

 

The Gate Room, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 15th April 2001

The operation had received its final go-ahead, including Presidential permission to use Freya’s solution to their last minute problem.  Not everyone was even remotely happy with that, but there was no useable alternative, certainly not within the available timeframe.  So now Cordelia, Freya and SG-Sentinel were waiting at the foot of the ramp, weapons, pressure suits and other equipment stacked up on wheeled, motorised pallets.  An captured Al’kesh, suitably modified for this mission, waited with Jacob Carter on a planet seventeen hours flying time from Bubastis.  Now the assault team just had to step through the Stargate.

“You take care of yourself, Cordy,” Willow told her Slayer worriedly, before reluctantly releasing her from a tight hug.

Buffy had wanted to fly out from Sunnydale, to see her sister off on this mission, but Cordelia had put her foot down firmly.  The Slayer had other important matters to deal with and, given that Cordelia would soon be a bona fide member of SG1, if Buffy insisted on travelling to Cheyenne Mountain every single time they went on a mission, she’d never be away.

Willow, based in Colorado Springs, was much harder to dissuade however, and the Lieutenant had given up trying.  As Cordelia’s Watcher, the witch worried just as much when her charge was away on a military mission, as when she was patrolling for vampires.  There had, both reflected, been an astonishing transformation in their relationship over the last year, especially given their High School history.

Cordelia smiled with an apparent confidence she wasn’t really feeling right now. “Always.  But Hell, anyone would think I was deploying for months!  I’ll be back here, this time tomorrow.  And with a bad case of the double-H.  You can deal with one part of it, at least…  I’m thinking a steak dinner cooked by my Watcher’s own hand.”

Willow shot a sly sideways glance at Teal’c, who was standing impassively nearby, having already said his farewells to his Warrior Princess. “I can do that.  And I guess someone else will be taking care of the other H.”

Cordelia grinned lecherously. “Oh yeah.  We already agreed on that…”

“SG-Sentinel, you have a go…” Hammond’s voice was amplified by the PA system.

“Guess that’s our cue,” Cordelia turned to her team. “Let’s go kick some Goa’uld ass!”

Saedria and the Sentinels cheered loudly.  They’d waited a long time, but revenge on the Goa’uld who’d destroyed their world was now in sight.

“Leave some for us.  See you on the other side, Cordy,” O’Neill called out.

“Just don’t be late for the party, sir!” Cordelia and her team disappeared one by one through the wormhole, followed by the cargo-carriers.

Willow sighed unhappily. “Wish I could go with her…”

O’Neill put his hand on her shoulder. “Wish you could join my team.  We could really use the mojo sometimes…”

The Colonel’s voice trailed away, as he realised he might have said the wrong thing.  The disabled witch would never accompany an SG-team on any kind of active mission, just as she could no longer help her friends hunt vampires.

“Don’t worry, Jack.  I’ve kinda gotten used to the idea that I’ll always be the one left behind.  Suppose it’s better for the life expectancy, but if I’d wanted safe, I’d have run a mile soon as I found out Buffy was the Slayer.  And my magic’s getting stronger again, but no real way for me to help people with it,” Willow replied.

O’Neill chuckled wryly. “You can still use it pretty effectively.”

Willow reddened noticeably. “Uh, yeah…  About that…  I’m really, really sorry.  I was just feeling good that my powers were coming back, ‘specially after the spell worked on Nar’auc, but I’m not really supposed to use my powers for stuff like that…”

A mass cookie baking was definitely on the cards, she decided.

“Forget it,” the Colonel smiled. “That cover-story wasn’t exactly my best idea, kiddo.  I probably deserved it, anyway – one bad turn deserves another...  Think I’d be pissed if someone told the neighbours I was running a whore house.  Might have been better if I’d left them all to come up with their own idea.  Hell, nobody would’ve been close to the mark…”

“It’ll settle down,” Willow predicted. “Tara heard some people talking about us in the supermarket.  Conspiracy theories are great things.  Consensus seemed to be that we’re Agency - or something similar - but not necessarily a Honey Trap school.  They reckoned that’s too obvious and probably a cover story.”

“Give ‘em time and they’ll find someone else to gossip about.  Besides, people will believe anything, except what’s right in front of their face.  But coming from Sunnydale, you’d know that,” O’Neill agreed.

Willow nodded and looked wistfully towards the Stargate. “Will Cordy be okay, Jack?”

“I won’t lie to you, Willow.  This is a dangerous mission – and I don’t need to tell you that she’s in a dangerous line of work, even back with her own unit.  But it’s a good plan – if they can get down safely – and she’ll be a damned fine leader,” the Colonel squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

It certainly wasn’t the time to tell her, but the SGC’s operational analysis team were predicting casualty rates of a third or more.  Potentially, some might not even survive the terrifyingly dangerous ultra-high altitude jump.  O’Neill, however, was careful not to give away his own concerns.

She nodded slowly. “I really hope so.  But I’m not leaving here ‘til she gets back, mister!”

“General Hammond thought you might say that.  He never leaves when there’s a major op running, either.  So he’s ordered take-in.  Chinese or pizza?”

 

SG-Sentinel Al’kesh, Bubastis System – 16th April 2001

The Al’kesh emerged from hyperspace close to the outermost of the system’s planets, an icy, uninhabited ball of rock surrounded by assorted space debris.  With the mass of the planet between the ship and Bubastis, there was little chance of detection by sensors.  The downside was the several hours of cautious approach, in cloaked mode, to the target.

In a compartment to the rear, Cordelia and her team were already suited up and breathing pure oxygen, in preparation for the jump.  In the cockpit, Jacob Carter was keeping one eye constantly on the cloaking system console.  This was very much an experimental installation – Cern’s modified cloak adapted to an Al’kesh – and there had been a few problems in maintaining the power feed.  The Tok’ra hoped that these had been fixed, since even a momentary glitch might lead to their detection.  Surprise was paramount and if it was lost, not only would the mission have to be aborted before it began, but they’d then have to escape the formidable array of defences around Bubastis.

Those defences currently included six Ha’taks, several dozen Al’kesh, and hundreds of Death Gliders, supplemented by minefields around Bastet’s home planet and heavy weaponry on the surface.  In the event of an attack, the shields which could be erected around the base itself were amongst the strongest Carter had ever encountered.  Only heavy power consumption prevented them from being raised at all times.  There was also the anti-transport screen, permanently activated unless lowered to allow authorised ringing to and from a ship in orbit, and which would scatter an unauthorised user’s atoms all over local space when in use.  It was the latter feature which had necessitated Cordelia’s dangerous method of infiltration.  The same system would also have to be rapidly seized by the raiding force, to prevent its deactivation and a counter-attack by hundreds of Jaffa from the orbiting Ha’taks.

Obviously, there was no such thing as being too paranoid if you were a System Lord, especially one who was currently in conflict with most of her peers, Carter mused.  But once Bastet was removed from the picture, the fragile truce between the others would quickly collapse and they’d be fighting over her realm and military resources within the month, or even sooner.  Usually when a powerful System Lord was deposed, his or her forces tended to fall into the hands of only one other, which tended to lead to an even greater imbalance between the various warring Goa’uld.  Bastet, however, currently held sway over such a large area of space that her forces would inevitably end up divided between several System Lords, thereby preserving some sort of balance.  Bra’tac, meanwhile, hoped to recruit at least some of her forces for the Free Jaffa rebellion. 

All in all, there was a great deal riding on the success of this mission.  If they failed, all the signs pointed to a resurgence of Bastet’s forces, perhaps stronger than ever.  The fourteen women aboard the Al’kesh, plus a force of SG troops and rebel Jaffa, were at present the best hope of preventing such an outcome.  It didn’t seem much against a veritable fortress, but they were relying primarily on stealth, followed by shock and surprise.

Carter had just carefully picked his way through a minefield, when a warning light momentarily flashed on the cloaking system’s panel.  Another power fluctuation – evidently the problem hadn’t been completely eliminated.  The only question was whether the Goa’uld sensors actually had a clear position and fix, or whether they had only momentarily registered a presence.  The Tok’ra cringed, as half-a-dozen Death Gliders swiftly turned towards the cloaked vessel, a Ha’tak also moving in their general direction, the latter having previously been hidden from sight beyond the planet’s second moon. 

He turned to his co-pilot, another Tok’ra. “Get Lieutenant Chase in here.  We might have a problem.”
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