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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
CordyfanFR1321305,83153447100,76210 Mar 115 Feb 14No

Conversations

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


* Many thanks to my sounding board, Vidicon, for his opinion on various parts of this chapter. *

 

Varrini Settlement, Delta Site – 17th April 2001

The number of times General Hammond had travelled through the Stargate could be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Usually, excursions off-world were deemed too much of a security risk, given his responsibility for the defence of Earth against alien attack.

This, however, was different.  Hammond had never missed a memorial service or funeral for any SGC personnel who’d fallen in the line of duty, nor did he aim to start now.  The three dead Varrini might only have been on attached duty, in their temporary guise of SG-Sentinel, but so far as the General was concerned, they were still part of the family.  In any case, from a security perspective, the Delta Site was just about the safest place he could travel through the Stargate, as one of Earth’s designated Sanctuary Planets.

The Varrini had placed Bastet on display in the settlement main square, where she would remain for the next two days.  After that, their prisoner would be held at the Delta Site barracks complex near the Stargate, where she’d be within easy reach of interrogators from Earth.  The Goa’uld would also be under the close watch of Marikha, who’d cast a binding spell on her symbiote, just in case it had any ideas of escaping to a new host.  O’Neill had been particularly enthusiastic at the idea of a Goa’uld binding spell, until he discovered that it required a complex three hour ritual and, therefore, couldn’t exactly be described as tactically useful.

“I ought to feel sorry for her, but just can’t find it in me…” O’Neill confessed.

“According to the Tok’ra, she was a vicious warlord – by the name of G’avlira - even before the symbiote took her,” Hammond replied. “Conservative estimates of two million-plus civilians killed by her forces – and she apparently had a predilection for personally eliminating some of her enemies.  The Varrini Council of Elders have asked the Tok’ra to bring some judges from her original home planet, to participate in the trial.  Varrini thinking is that they’ll be trying the symbiote, but that G’avlira’s own people should have a chance to pass judgment on the host.”   

“Makes things easier when it comes to the big cookout, not having to worry about barbecuing an innocent host,” Cordelia shrugged.

Jackson grimaced. “I really don’t think we should be condoning this…”

Cordelia impatiently cut him off in mid-sentence. “Grow a fricking pair, Daniel!  This is like Attila the Hun, with a demon inside as a bonus.  Yeah, maybe my preference would be to string the bitch up or shoot her, but we aren’t the people who’ve had our damned planet destroyed.”

“It’s totally barbaric!  We’re talking about a prisoner of war here.  What happened to the Geneva Conventions?” Jackson shot back.

“Barbaric?  Just like our ancestors.  You keep telling me the Varrini are about the same level as late 16th or early 17th century Europeans.  Wanna tell me that our ancestors weren’t even more bloodthirsty?  Varrini don’t execute people very often – and then only for some cases of murder.  Even that’ll normally end with a sword to the neck.  Only special cases get the treatment they have lined up for Bitchtet,” Cordelia countered, without the slightest trace of sympathy.

“Gotta say, Daniel…  I’m one-hundred percent with the newbie.  And the Varrini and Goa’uld?  Pretty sure they’ve never even heard of Geneva…” O’Neill put in dryly.

Sometimes, the archaeologist was just a little too soft for this business, he reflected.  The System Lords were genocidal megalomaniacs and the Colonel would never shed a tear over one.  And, as Hammond had already pointed out, even the host had no redeeming features in this case.  Given that they’d established that the Goa’uld were demonic in origin – and obviously of the evil variety – O’Neill suspected that Cordelia’s Slayer instincts were also kicking in, hence her somewhat merciless perspective.  Not that the Special Forces Lieutenant had ever been noted for a compassionate standpoint on any of her enemies.   

On the other hand, SG-1 also had been on the Varrini homeworld, seen the destruction of a beautiful world and most of its population.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be too difficult to channel the Lieutenant in this case.

“It will be a just and well-deserved fate,” Teal’c agreed.

“Sam?  You can’t possibly agree,” Jackson persisted in horrified tones.

Carter looked slightly pained. “Sorry, Daniel.  But I was on the Varrini homeworld that day…  Heck, so were you.”

“Gonna show the same sympathy for the Sentinels who died to nail her demon ass?” Cordelia growled.

The Lieutenant was quite fond of Jackson – Hell, at one point, just after Operation Van Helsing, she’d even had erotic dreams about him - but sometimes he could be just a little too sanctimonious and naive for her liking.

“Of course I am, but…” Jackson began.

“This is neither the time nor the place for this discussion,” Hammond told them all sternly. “Bastet isn’t our prisoner and her crimes weren’t within our jurisdiction.  However much we might, or might not, dislike the possible penalty, she hasn’t even been tried yet.  And from what I can gather, Varrini courts have at least as high a standard of evidence as our own, with the same presumption of innocence.”

Of course, even with the fairest of trials, this one was probably a foregone conclusion.  G’avlira/Bastet’s defence would find it difficult to argue against the evidence – namely, one utterly destroyed planet.

The General glanced briefly in the direction of Bastet’s cage.  The former System Lord had already tried the usual threats and bluster, then moved onto promises of limitless power and wealth.  Neither approach had worked with her captors and he wondered how long it would be before the futile begging and pleading phase started.  Probably not until sentence was pronounced, Hammond decided.

Not that Bastet didn’t look broken already.  Sitting in a corner of the cage – which was just high enough for the diminutive woman to stand up – she appeared thoroughly defeated, shivering under the rough blankets draped around her shoulders.  The latter hadn’t been provided out of kindness, however.  The Varrini simply didn’t want their prize to succumb to the early winter cold before the interrogation could take place.  Tradition nevertheless dictated that the mass murderess be placed on public display, even if the same custom also stated that she should not be subjected to ridicule by the populace.  For their part, the Varrini were scrupulously following the convention and not as much as an epithet, let alone an egg or rotten tomato, had been directed in Bastet’s direction.  The coldly satisfied stares alone were probably enough to make the self-styled Goddess squirm.

Hammond was pretty sure he only knew about a small fraction of the Goa’uld’s atrocities – and even less about those perpetrated by her host – but he nevertheless couldn’t help feeling some natural sympathy for her.  Due process or not, and barring a miracle, the woman was doomed to an excruciating death.  Burned alive at the stake or slowly impaled on a blunted pole – the General wasn’t sure which was worse.  In spite of his heavy USAF-issue coat, Hammond shivered.

 

International Applied Psychology Conference, UCLA, Los Angeles, California – 17th April 2001

Kate Heightmeyer sipped her semi-skimmed decaf latte and allowed herself a contented half-smile, as she soaked up the cut and thrust of academic debate around her.  The psychiatrist hadn’t realised how much she’d missed the conference circuit recently, but a few months in Sunnydale was more than sufficient to remind her.

Normally conferences were smaller, more specialised affairs, but this one was much larger than most, with a very wide coverage indeed, albeit split into countless research groups.  Applied psychology could, after all, mean anything from the study of the criminally insane to observations on the mating habits of primates.  Heightmeyer herself was delivering a paper on her own specialty, namely combat-related stress.  It would, she reflected, be a refreshing change from the horror that was Sunnydale. 

True, Heightmeyer had volunteered for the task of counselling the so-called Scooby Gang, the request from Buffy Summers having been relayed by General Hammond.  The latter had actively encouraged her to accept the offer, given that her then-current study was coming to an end, as a change of pace and focus.  Like most people, the psychiatrist usually associated the words “change of pace” with a more relaxing one, however.  The last thing Heightmeyer had even considered was that she would be thrust into a terrifying world of vampires, monsters, and demons, where magic was all too real, and the denizens of Hell itself were held back by the efforts of a small group of terribly damaged young people.  She’d almost needed counselling herself, just to deal with her whole world view being turned upside down, shredded, and stamped all over.

Of course, it couldn’t even be that simple.  Several of the individuals she’d met and talked with – Xander Harris, Cordelia Chase, Tara Maclay and Willow Rosenberg – also had deep issues with parents who’d been abusive and/or just plain neglectful for many years.  Between the Hellmouth and varying levels of parental abuse, her patients had all provided more than enough material for several small conferences.  Of course, if she divulged anything about Sunnydale, Heightmeyer mused ruefully, then she’d be the one who was the subject of intense professional scrutiny.  The sort where she was held in a locked room for an extended period and scrutinised by her fellow psychiatrists.

The sooner her friend Caroline Lam returned from a galaxy far, far away – or wherever she was – the better.  Then they’d be able to compare notes and commiserate with each other.  For the moment, Janet Fraiser – yet another unfortunate medical professional who was also in the loop on the supernatural – was offering a kindly ear.

Anyhow, after a series of sessions with Buffy – who was probably level pegging with Cordelia for the title of most damaged, albeit in different ways and for different reasons – Heightmeyer was grateful for the break.  Now, in the recess between sessions, the psychiatrist was flipping through the conference materials, looking for something different from her usual interests.  In truth, the next three hours, for all the variety on offer, didn’t actually hold anything of specific interest for her.  She’d forgotten, moreover, to sign up for any of the next round of sessions and some were already full, so the choice was even more limited.  One session on child and adolescent psychology seemed as good a choice as any.  After all, when Buffy’s little sister returned from the stars – with who-knew-what kind of deep-seated issues - she might also wind up as Heightmeyer’s patient, though admittedly the youngest Summers was currently Lam’s responsibility.

The psychiatrist shuddered.  Her current group of Sunnydalers might be her responsibility for a long time yet, along with the rest of The Slayers’ Assembly.  Buffy and Rupert Giles had already made overtures about her providing long-term support for those who fought the supernatural.  If anyone needed psychiatric back-up, Heightmeyer acknowledged, it was those who spent their lives fighting the literal forces of Hell.  She just wasn’t sure if she was the woman for the job, so she hadn’t accepted or declined the offer as yet.  Admittedly, the pay was excellent – better than the USAF typically paid its consultants – and she had nothing else lined up for now.  On the other hand, she liked to sleep without horrendous nightmares and was thoroughly attached to her own sanity.

Heightmeyer drained her cup and checked the list of registered attendees, though not expecting to see anyone in her own field listed.  Sure enough, the names were largely unfamiliar, but two of them certainly stood out. 

Professor Sheila Rosenberg and Professor Ira Rosenberg.  If even half of what Willow had told her was true, Heightmeyer rather wanted to give them a piece of her mind.  Or more likely several pieces. Fraiser’s account of a rather acrimonious encounter she’d had with the Rosenbergs only served to reinforce that impulse, and nothing would have given the psychiatrist more pleasure than to disgrace these two in front of their peers.  Unfortunately, professional ethics and strictures prevented her from saying much that she wanted to, without Willow’s express permission.  There were, nevertheless, ways of letting those two excuses for parents know that she was quite aware of their shortcomings.  One of the papers listed in the schedule would be a useful handle.  In fact, Heightmeyer was surprised they’d actually have the gall to sit through it.

The psychiatrist carefully positioned herself close to the lecture theatre entrance, so that she could unobtrusively scrutinise the name-tags.

“Professor Rosenberg?” Heightmeyer smiled pleasantly and stepped out beside her targets.

“Uh…  Do I know you?” Sheila replied politely.

“Kate Heightmeyer,” she shook the other woman’s hand, then that of her clearly uninterested husband. “You don’t know me directly, but I do know your daughter.”

Sheila was immediately wary, while her husband’s bored expression turned into a scowl. “Can I ask the connection?”

“Professional…” Heightmeyer answered vaguely. “I’ve been doing a little consultancy work for the Air Force, which brought me into contact with Willow.”

The Rosenbergs’ guard was definitely raised by that revelation.  Not only did they disapprove of their daughter’s connection with the USAF, but they were also intelligent enough to realise that this woman could potentially do them a great deal of damage, if she’d believed what Ira described as Willow’s “petulant, childish, and ungrateful whining”.  In this particular forum, that damage could drastically and directly affect their professional reputations.

“So why the interest in child and adolescent psychology for someone in your field?” Ira demanded suspiciously.

“Professional interest, Professor Rosenberg.  I have a particular interest in the fifth paper…”

The Rosenbergs glanced uneasily at each other, as Sheila suddenly recalled the title - ‘Professional Parents, Gifted Children and Emotional Neglect’.

“I dare say we’ll catch up later,” Heightmeyer smiled again and disappeared into the lecture hall.

 

“Were we really anything like that?” Sheila asked her husband as they exited after the session.

She didn’t really think so, but after the accusations levelled by Xander Harris and Willow’s girlfriend – not to mention Willow’s ghost-like projection – that day in the hospital, she needed reassurance.  And some of the speaker’s assertions had hit rather too close to home.

The research had centred around a tendency of some highly educated parents to see their children solely in terms of their intellectual development, mistaking advanced levels of capability for a level of independence, which in their eyes negated the need for ‘excessive’ emotional engagement and even the presence of the parents much of the time.  Part of Sheila Rosenberg wanted to deny that she’d ever treated Willow that way, part of her disagreed with the entire methodological basis of the study, while yet another part cringed every time the speaker even glanced in their direction.

“Sentimental clap-trap,” Ira snorted dismissively – he’d found other papers much more engaging.

Sheila wasn’t quite so sure any more, however.  Too many of the speaker’s points had mirrored her own parenting practices.  Not that it would make much difference now in any case, she rationalised.  Willow hadn’t been in touch since that day in the hospital.  Enquiries were simply met with the response that she’d been transferred elsewhere, under the care of the US Air Force, with the legal authority of her friends.  Willow could be absolutely anywhere right now.  Even if her daughter was right here, Sheila didn’t know what she’d say – or even if she had anything to apologise for.  After all, hadn’t Willow turned out just fine, her choice of friends and careers notwithstanding?  When all was said and done, she’d transformed into her own woman, strong, intelligent and self-possessed.  And surely that pointed to the positive impact of good, progressive, scientific  parenting, not hidebound by mawkish attitudes towards children.

“Quite illuminating, wasn’t it?” Heightmeyer noted cheerfully, as she wandered past. “And there’s an interesting session on denial and self-delusion, too...”

As she strode away from the Rosenbergs, the psychiatrist was gratified to see that there was at least a little confusion, perhaps even a smidgen of guilt, on Sheila’s face, albeit completely absent from Ira’s truculent expression.  The woman certainly had plenty to feel guilty about, Heightmeyer ruminated.  And if Willow’s parents ever met General Hammond, who seemed to have become an avuncular uncle-type figure to the young witch, they’d certainly feel the rough edge of his tongue.

 

Varrini Settlement, Delta Site – 17th April 2001

This world somehow felt different to Cordelia.  After sunset back home on Earth, nowadays she always felt at least a vague urge to go out and Slay something.  It was especially pronounced when she was in wild places – deserts, mountains, and forests – and she guessed that was the First Slayer’s instincts coming through.  The Varrini settlement was, however, surrounded by dense forest and Cordelia still didn’t feel any sort of imperative to hunt, find and kill vampires.

Not that she was likely to find any here, unless they came through the Gate.  So far as they could tell – and it was a large planet admittedly – no one had ever lived here, at least since the Ancients installed a Stargate.  Even the wildlife, in the immediate locality at least, was pretty benign, so there was little chance of adding to her growing collection of scars.  The vague sense of a Hellmouth presence that seemed to accompany her everywhere in Sunnydale, even if she’d learned to ignore it most of the time, was also missing.  But beyond that, the planet just felt different.  Buffy had previously said the same, with Willow explaining how the magic on this world was pure and neutral, with no Hellmouth taint.  Slayers could evidently pick up on such things, even if neither Cordelia nor her sister possessed sufficient magic to float a toothpick.

In another part of the village, her Varrini hosts were still feasting, singing and drinking, the Lieutenant observed.  The funeral itself had been over for hours, a solemn but brief ceremony, where the bodies of the dead Sentinels were cremated on open pyres.  The smell of burning flesh, Cordelia reflected, had almost made her gag, and no doubt the stench had also been a grim reminder to Bastet of her own likely fate.

With the cremations and appropriate invocations to the Varrini Goddess completed, they had then started the local equivalent of a wake.  Actually, about ten hours ago, according to Cordelia’s watch.  With other pressing matters to deal with Hammond had returned to Earth immediately after the funeral rites, but SG-1 were left behind, for reasons of protocol.  While Cordelia understood the idea behind the Varrini post-funerary festivities, as a means of celebrating the deceased’s life and sacrifice, it still seemed somewhat excessive to her.  Apart from anything else, to her mind at least, there were sufficiently few Varrini left that they shouldn’t be celebrating the loss of even more of their sadly depleted population.  On the other hand, the Sentinels had died helping to defeat their people’s greatest enemy and, in raw arithmetical terms, it was a fair exchange rate.  One System Lord deposed and her forces decimated, for the loss of three Sentinels.

Having wandered away from the feasting – and even some of the Varrini were beginning to drift off to bed by now, so she hadn’t broken any cultural taboos – Cordelia sat down with her back against the wooden stockade that encircled the village, and contemplated the unfamiliar constellations in the clear sky overhead.  In some ways, this planet reminded her of the Cascades, where her first full-scale exercise with Special Forces had taken place.  The mountains, lakes and evergreen forests all made it feel familiar.  Of course, the trees in the Cascades, unlike those in the forests here, didn’t quite reach an average height of five hundred feet.

She absently rubbed an uncomfortably over-full and complaining stomach.  At least SG-1’s hosts knew how to feed their guests – even one with a Slayer’s appetite, but even Cordelia had her limits.  Unfortunately refusal was considered to be almost a mortal insult.

Cordelia lifted her head as someone approached out of the darkness.

“You okay?  The Colonel noticed you’d wandered off…” Carter dropped to one knee beside her.

The Lieutenant shrugged, but sounded  slightly pensive. “Fine, I guess…”

“Doesn’t sound too convincing.  It wasn’t your fault, you know,” Carter said.

“Reading minds, ma’am?” Cordelia responded wryly.

The Major shrugged. “So was I right?  Are you blaming yourself?”

“Suppose I am, just a bit.  These girls died on a mission I planned and that’s kinda hard to ignore.  I know General Hammond’s after-action briefing said that I couldn’t really have done anything else with the resources I had.  And that he - and the Tok’ra and Colonel O’Neill - signed off on the concept.  I also had all the lectures during officer training and the General, the Colonel, Teal’c, and Buffy have all given me the ‘don’t blame yourself for things you couldn’t prevent’ speech.  Mainly I’m okay, but there’s still a little bit of me that says they were my troops and I was responsible for them,” Cordelia admitted.

“The whole feasting and celebrating thing seems just a tad screwed up for me.  Yeah, I know…  Respect for different cultures and all that crap.  But you know what really got to me, ma’am?  The part of the funeral where Ianhte’s little sister put her flowers on the pyre.  She looked just like Dawn and she wasn’t celebrating anything.  Just wanted her sister back…” she sighed.

Carter nodded.  All the pep-talks and training in the world couldn’t quite eliminate the guilt completely.  It was illogical, but she probably felt guilty because she didn’t feel that she was feeling guilty enough.  Perhaps the full impact would hit her later, but for now she could certainly live with it.

“But you can tell the Colonel that I’m not out here getting all depressed and guilt-having, ma’am,” Cordelia assured her.

The Major wasn’t quite convinced. “I’m not so sure about that.  You do seem a bit preoccupied.”

“That’s just indigestion,” Cordelia joked. “Seriously, I’m just thinking about all sorts of stuff.  Did my social bit already – made small talk with the Varrini Elders, danced with Daniel and Teal’c – and I so need to work on his two left feet by the way – and ate myself to busting point.  So I took the opportunity for some Cordy time, ma’am.”

“I’ll leave if you want…  I just thought you might like some girl company.  The guys are all pretty much busy with their things,” Carter told her.

Teal’c was happily providing sparring practice for Sentinels and trainee Sentinels, even if the cumulative experience must be getting painful.  Especially since Saedria had been first to effortlessly bounce him off the ground.  For his part, Jackson, meanwhile, was in his usual anthropological heaven in the midst of an alien culture.  And O’Neill, true to form, was busily beating off advances from Varrini females.  Even Captain Kirk, Carter mused, hadn’t been such a babe magnet as he intended.  It was just as well she trusted him, else the green-eyed monster would’ve been surfacing by now.

“Sure you don’t want to keep any eye on the Colonel, ma’am?” Cordelia smirked.

“No more than you’re watching Teal’c,” Carter retorted smoothly.

She shifted gear and parked herself alongside the other woman. “So…  Whatcha thinkin’ about?  Life, the universe and everything?”

“Close, but no cigar…  Just the freaky weirdness that’s my life, is all,” Cordelia replied.

“You don’t have a monopoly on the weird, Lieutenant, but I have to admit that you even have SG-1 beat.  And not twenty-one yet…” Carter replied.

The Lieutenant snorted. “When I was back in High School, before my parents went AWOL?  Not sure what I expected to be doing with my life – marrying some rich guy and making with the high life, I suppose – but I sure as Hell didn’t expect to be sitting under the stars on some alien world.  In a Special Forces uniform – and as a Slayer, or near as damn it.  And as Buffy’s half-sister!  But the real kicker?  I actually like this life.  The whole being in the Army, working with you guys, fighting the good fight in all sorts of ways – the Goa’uld, vamps and demons, and whoever else the government sends me to fight.  The old version of me would have thought I’d gone far beyond nuts, ma’am!”

In fact, the new version wasn’t always entirely convinced of her own sanity.

She turned to Carter and waved an arm towards the skies. “And what d’you think of all this?”

“I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t want to join the Air Force.  Well, maybe a few times I thought about being a civilian scientist…” Carter admitted. “Though of course I couldn’t have guessed anything like the Stargate Program existed.  And dad thought getting me into the astronaut training was the most exciting thing he could do for me!  Then you and your friends bring the whole supernatural world and the existence of magic into my ordered, scientific life.  Know what that was like for a physicist?  My brain nearly melted.”

Cordelia laughed sympathetically, then turned to the Major. “Want to know something, ma’am?”

“Sure – unless it’s another world-view changer,” Carter replied.

“I’m kinda glad you’re around.  The Slaying half of my life?  I’ve got Buffy and Willow for advice.  But they don’t understand the Army part – or not all of it, anyway.  And the guys in 15th SFG?  Captain Clinton, Lieutenant-Colonel Royle and the team are great, but they’re all…” she hesitated.

“…All guys?” the Major guessed.

“Yeah.  I know there’s supposed to be no difference in the Army – or Air Force – with all the equality rules.  But with the Title Ten Regs, some areas are still pure testosterone-driven.  Like Special Forces…  Not that I’ve ever faced any discrimination – really only that asshole Ollie March, in Basic Training, who didn’t like any women and especially me – but still…” Cordelia shrugged.

“…It’s nice to have a woman who understands?  I’m with you one hundred percent, Cordelia.  And if you can keep a secret, I’m glad you’ll be working out of the SGC before long.  Because remember I’m the only female Air Force officer currently assigned to an SG unit.  There are a few other non-military women filling Daniel’s role in other SG teams, and a few civilian scientists who go through the Gate, and we’ll have more combat-trained officers over the next couple of years.  People like Cadet Hailey, for instance.  But for now?  Just you and me to fly the flag,” Carter said.

She’d joined the SGC with all guns blazing, determined to show that women could do anything just as well as their male equivalents, and very rapidly proved herself.  At least Cordelia had nothing to prove to anyone, given her record to date.  And if some guy had an inferiority complex, then that was his problem.

It was good to have another mentor, Cordelia mused.  In fact, she already had mentors coming out of her ass.  Colonel O’Neill in the SGC, her fellow Special Forces officers back at Fort McGregor, Buffy, Willow and Giles on the Slaying side.  Another one could never do her career any harm, however.  Carter’s formidable intellect might still intimidate the Lieutenant slightly – not that she’d ever admit it – but it would be nice to have a close female friend, at least such as their differing ranks allowed, within Stargate Command.

Cordelia decided it was time for girl-talk.  Otherwise, the Major would probably ask how she was progressing with Space Science 101.  The latter was Cordelia’s least favourite college class, even if she was – somehow – keeping up with the work, despite everything else in her life.  Carter had insisted she take it, however, on the basis that every officer in the SGC ought to have a basic grounding in how the universe worked.

“So…  Wedding plans completed?” Cordelia asked.

“Not nearly.  Chosen the venue and booked the caterers.  But a thousand-and-one other things still to do.  Like getting your sister fitted for her bridesmaid’s dress.  After all, it’s the least I can do.  Colonel O’Neill probably wouldn’t even be able to get married, if it wasn’t for Buffy,” Carter replied.

Cordelia just grinned evilly to herself.  So far as Buffy was concerned, if the Major really wanted to show her gratitude, then she wouldn’t try to pressgang the Slayer into bridesmaid duty.  Cordelia could foresee a monumental battle of wills between Carter and Buffy – and both were equally obstinate in their own distinct ways.  

 

The Infirmary, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 18th April 2001

With the funeral rites completed, Saedria had returned to Earth with her team.  She also still had the welfare of one other to consider.

Fraiser shook her head worriedly. “Physically, Freya is healing quickly.  Psychologically, I’m not so sure.  She hasn’t eaten or spoken since she regained consciousness.”

The SGC CMO had seen similar symptoms before, after Carter was briefly joined with a Tok’ra symbiote.  In the Major’s case, recovery had been relatively quick, even if she’d been severely depressed for some days.  That, however, had been after only a few days’ link to the symbiote.  Freya had been joined with Anise for very much longer and Fraiser wasn’t sure what would happen.  In general, hosts tended to die before the symbiote, not vice-versa.

“I will talk with her.  Her welfare is, after all, at least partially now my responsibility,” Saedria said quietly.

“How so?” Fraiser asked.

“Freya fought alongside my Sentinels and shed blood with us.  And it was – at least to a degree – my fault that her symbiote died,” the Protector replied.

Fraiser pursed her lips. “Don’t be too quick to blame yourself, Saedria.  According to the debriefing, there was no way you could have guessed that Bastet would have a secret exit.  Neither the architectural plans we obtained, nor Tok’ra intelligence, gave us any indications.  Same goes for the information Willow and Marikha dragged out of Bastet’s Third Prime.”

“If we had properly secured Bastet, her First Prime, and Ash’rak at the first opportunity, then this may not have happened,” Saedria countered.

The doctor’s eyes narrowed – people were too quick to blame themselves. “Not the world’s greatest tactician here, but I was part of the debriefing.  And if I remember correctly, it was stated that immediately securing the prisoners may – and only may – have helped in this situation.  You could just as easily have been busy cuffing their wrists when Bastet’s guards burst in.  Between taking the Gate and capturing Bastet, there also weren’t enough of you to do the job properly.  Sometimes, we just have to work with the resources we have.”

Fraiser abruptly clammed up.  She was the last person to be lecturing on combat tactics.  Still, the fact was that Cordelia, Saedria and the Sentinels – the Varrini with only relatively perfunctory training in modern fighting techniques and weaponry - had performed wonders against massive odds.  It didn’t take a Napoleon to see that, even if she knew perfectly well what O’Neill sometimes called her.

“So what happens to her now?  Another Tok’ra symbiote?” Saedria couldn’t quite hide her distaste for that possibility.

The doctor shook her head. “Sometimes a symbiote can disengage from the brain stem without causing problems to the host, as was the case with Major Carter.  In Freya’s case…  Well, Anise was too far gone, and she disconnected too abruptly.  The resultant scarring will, I believe, make any connection impossible in future.”

She chewed her lip. “The Tok’ra are still likely to insist that she return with them, as a potential security risk.”

Saedria’s eyes flashed. “I will ask what Freya wants.  Only her wishes have any bearing on this.”

Fraiser knew that the Varrini trusted the Tok’ra little more than the Goa’uld, Anise’s belated assistance notwithstanding.  If the Tok’ra demanded that Freya return with them, regardless of her own wishes, the doctor could see a very sticky situation developing.  The Varrini might well object – in their usual blunt and vigorous manner - and Hammond could find himself stuck between two important sets of allies.  Personally, Fraiser was with Saedria on this one, but the politics were problematic to say the least.

Saedria pulled up a chair by Freya’s bed and said nothing at first.  Initially, the Tok’ra woman just lay motionless, facing the wall, while her visitor waited patiently.  To Fraiser’s surprise, after about ten minutes, Freya rolled over.

“I am truly sorry,” Saedria offered guiltily.

“You have no need to apologise.  I did not react quickly enough and such things happen in combat,” Freya replied, voice hollow and distant.

The Varrini woman wasn’t yet prepared to accept that, but it also wasn’t the time or place to argue the point, so she swiftly moved on.

“How do you feel?”

Freya sighed. “I feel as though half of me has been ripped away.  Anise and I may not have parted on good terms, and for a long time, she excessively dominated our – my – everyday life and interactions…  But she was part of me for many years, Saedria.  I was a terrified, almost catatonic sixteen year-old when I joined with Anise.  She effectively saved my life.  That was seventy-eight years ago, in Tau’ri terms.”

Saedria blinked in surprise at that revelation.

“A Tok’ra symbiote can slow the ageing process.  Not to the extent of the Goa’uld, who also use the Sarcophagus, allowing hosts to reach thousands of years old.  Such as Ra and Apophis…  Now I will simply age at a normal rate,” Freya explained.

She shook her head and sighed. “But it is a long time to live with two personalities in one body, with all the additional knowledge brought by one.  Even now, there is so much I can no longer remember…  And I do not know what will become of me.”

“What do you wish to do?” Saedria asked.

“I am not sure my ‘wishes’ will have anything to do with it,” Freya replied sadly. “The Tok’ra will certainly want me to return with them, whether or not I can accept another host.  Even if Anise’s knowledge is already fading from my surface memories, it could be recovered using a Goa’uld Memory Device, making me a security risk.”

“That is not what I asked.  What do you wish to do?” Saedria repeated.

“I am not certain,” the Tok’ra admitted. “For so many years, I have constantly moved from planet to planet, avoiding the Goa’uld.  It would be pleasant to have a safe world to call home for a while.  I am also not the scientist that Anise was, though I learned a great deal over the years.  I do enjoy flying…  I am a very good pilot, but Anise always dismissed that as a waste of time for a scientist, almost as a menial task.”

“I am quite sure that the SGC could make use of a pilot.  Or perhaps even one of this country’s armed forces.  But once you have been released from here?  I think you should come to our world for a time, to rest and recover, and to consider your future,” Saedria suggested.

Freya brightened momentarily. “I believe I would like that.”

Then her face fell once more and she sighed in resignation. “But I also do not think the Tok’ra High Council will allow it.”

Saedria’s expression showed exactly what she thought of that idea. “To use a Tau’ri expression – admittedly a strange one – the Tok’ra High Council can go piss up a rope.  They have Major Carter’s father, formerly a high-ranking General on this world with all his attendant knowledge, and the Tau’ri did not object.  So what is sacred about the Tok’ra’s security interests that all others should be considered secondary?”

Freya mulled over the Varrini’s words for a moment.  Saedria might come from a less-advanced society, but that didn't make her any less intelligent or insightful in her analysis.  Perhaps she might yet have some choice in her future.

“In the meantime, I will station two of my Sentinels here at all times.  You are under our protection.  And if the Tok’ra High Council have any doubts about that, I would invite them to visit the pathetic specimen currently occupying a cage on our world,” Saedria folded her arms.

 

Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 18th April 2001

“That’s a pretty senior Squid,” O’Neill observed to his companions, once the Admiral and his retinue were out of earshot.

Representatives of the US Navy – especially those of flag rank - were a very rare sight around the SGC and O’Neill wasn’t sure if he liked where this might be heading.  He’d only just barely gotten his head around the idea of eventually having a Special Forces company operating out of the Mountain, even if one element would be led by Cordelia.  He consoled himself with the thought that he’d have a full year to properly brainwash her into the SGC’s – and specifically SG-1’s – way of doing things.

“A Helluva lot of Squid rings, sir.  Seen less on a seafood platter…” Cordelia concurred. “Think he might be their version of a four-star.”

“Great,” O’Neill complained. “First we have Trench Rat and her Neanderthal buddies tromping around the base in their muddy size-twelve jump boots.  Now it’s the damned Navy brass shoving their way into our act.”

“Hey!  I so do not have big feet!  For your information, I’m a size 7 – Ladies.  A very slim size 7, too.  Any idea how much trouble I had getting jump boots to fit?” Cordelia protested.

“And quit with the Neanderthal already – sir!”

“If the boot fits, wear it…” the Colonel smirked provocatively.

“Dainty feet, but they can still do a lot of damage,” Cordelia reminded him darkly. “When applied in the right place...”

“Threatening a superior officer, Lieutenant?” O’Neill raised an eyebrow.

“Absolutely, sir,” Cordelia was the supreme Mistress of the Eyebrow and wouldn’t be fazed by anyone else’s.

“Just checking,” the Colonel nodded.

If everyone in the US Armed Forces were given as much latitude on insubordination as Lieutenant Chase, discipline would collapse totally, O’Neill reflected wryly.  On the other hand, his own record for inappropriate comments, sarcasm and ill-timed humour was hardly stellar, and at times he wasn’t sure whether she was just being her usual sarcastic self, or merely channelling him.  It certainly wasn’t the first time someone had suggested that assigning him Cordelia was General Hammond’s personal revenge on the SG-1 CO.

Quite frankly, O’Neill could have cared less.  There was a refreshing lack of stuffiness about his future team member – unlike the usual run of newly-minted, stick-up-the-butt Lieutenants – and her snarky irreverence and sense of humour were a perfect foil for his own. When all was said and done, he enjoyed having someone who could give it back with interest.  Carter admittedly had her moments, but was still far more conventional, while neither Teal’c nor Jackson were a match for the Colonel or Lieutenant.

“What’s your problem with us Army types and the Navy, anyways?” Cordelia asked curiously.

O’Neill shrugged. “Just the part where everybody and his dog seems to be muscling in, when we were the first people through the Gate...”

“Uh huh.  And the SGC had all the resources it needed day before yesterday.  Like a dozen Sentinels, Bra’tac’s Jaffa, Freya and Anise, Navy Tomahawk and Army TACMS missiles…” the Lieutenant pointed out.

She was also tempted to remind him that his service had once been a mere branch of her own, as the United States Army Air Forces.  On balance, Cordelia decided to keep that in reserve for a future argument.  There was, after all, no sense in using all her ammunition at once.

“This is an irrational turf-protecting rant, Lieutenant Chase.  Logic has no place here,” the Colonel retorted, rolling his eyes.

“Want me to find you a rattle, so you can toss it out of the pram, Jack?” Jackson interjected.

O’Neill scowled at him and jerked a thumb in Cordelia’s direction. “She’s a bad influence on you, Daniel.”

Carter smiled tolerantly at her fiancé. “Joint service thinking, Colonel…  The only way to get promoted to the big leagues these days.  You want that first star, you have to learn to play nice in the sandbox with the others.”

The Colonel shot her a sour glance. “A star?  The last thing I want is a star.  D’you really see me as the Man?  It’s my mission in life to avoid the big chair.”

“You are second-in-command of this facility, Colonel O’Neill, are you not?  In General Hammond’s absence, you already sit in ‘the big chair’.  And rumour has it that you are his favoured successor,” Teal’c suggested.

“A vicious rumour put around by those who want to shackle me to a desk,” O’Neil sniffed.

So far as the Colonel was concerned, an admin post was somewhat akin to being exiled to a Goa’uld slave planet.

Cordelia roundly agreed with him this time. “I’m so right there with you, sir!  The Slayer in me would go totally buggy if I was stuck in an office.”

When she first joined the Army, her chosen MOS – Intelligence – would have been a largely deskbound one.  At that point in her new career, Cordelia had been more than happy with the security of an office posting.  Various other things had, however, since combined to make her the very antithesis of a chair-bound warrior.  Jump School and the 82nd  Airborne, her emerging Slayerness – if that was a word – and Special Forces training had all made her crave a more active, even dangerous, life. 

Carter and Jackson, meanwhile, shrugged in perfect synch.  Both enjoyed the adventure – if not necessarily the incessant life-in-deadly-peril aspect - of Stargate work and especially the exploration and scientific discovery elements, but each was every bit as much at home in a lab or library.

“That’s why you and me will fight the evil personnel weenies to our last breath, Trench Rat,” O’Neill nodded approvingly at his feisty protégée.

“Frickin’ amen, sir!” the Lieutenant concurred.

“Excuse me, sir,” Sergeant ... cleared his throat. “General Hammond and Admiral McInroy would like to see SG-1 – including Lieutenant Chase – in the Briefing Room, in twenty minutes.”

“And so it begins,” O’Neill exhaled. “Got my six, Lieutenant?”

“We will fight them on the beaches, sir,” Cordelia confirmed.

 

Briefing Room, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 18th April 2001

Admiral Leonard McInroy hadn’t been sure what to expect when he asked to meet the SGC’s premier team.  Judging by the various after-action reports, the Vice Chief of Naval Staff perhaps expected them to be ten feet tall.  They were, in any case, a somewhat eclectic group.  He quickly scanned the faces once more, before the briefing began.  One career Colonel, with a slight reputation as a maverick, and a background primarily – though not exclusively – in SpecOps.  His Exec, who was both a combat-experienced fighter pilot and a notable figure in the science community, while also having the distinction of being the only female officer currently permanently assigned to an SG Team.  One civilian archaeologist, whose apparently eccentric theories had seen him laughed out of academia, and a large alien - possibly older than anyone in the room - who seemed to say very little.  On this occasion, they were accompanied by the Army’s only female Special Forces officer, painfully young but already with a formidable record – even leaving aside her special attributes – and apparently destined to join the SGC in the near future.  In other words, one of the most eclectic mixtures he’d ever encountered in a SpecOps team.

Diverse in personalities and skills or not, the core members of SG-1 had saved Earth on a number of occasions, against the toughest enemy humanity had ever faced.  Or certainly the toughest non-supernatural enemy, McInroy reminded himself, glancing at Cordelia.  Their latest coup, admittedly with substantial additional help, was nothing less than the toppling of probably the most powerful Goa’uld System Lord in the Milky Way.

“What do you know about the X-303 project?” Hammond asked, after concluding the introductions. 

“X-303-class deep-space Battlecruiser.  One-hundred and ninety-five metres long, seventeen decks high, and can reach fifty-nine percent of the speed of light with impulse engines.  Eight F-302s, twenty-four railguns and a dozen missile batteries, with a maximum crew of one-hundred and fifteen.  Uses a mixture of Earth tech and reverse engineered Goa’uld technology, especially for the shields and Naquadah-based hyperspace propulsion systems,” Carter rattled off the specifications.

Of SG-1, she’d perhaps inevitably had the most involvement in the programme to date.  As possibly the most technologically advanced engineering project ever undertaken by humanity, the scientist in her couldn’t wait to see the X-303 take off into space.  The USAF officer part of her also realised that Earth urgently needed a robust defensive and offensive capability of this type, if it was to continue fighting the Goa’uld with any degree of success.

Cordelia, meanwhile, seemed distinctly underwhelmed as she closely studied the model on the table and the plans alongside.  Not that the Lieutenant understood the technical jargon one whit, but the ship certainly didn’t look anything like she’d expected. 

“Is this thing supposed to fly?  Or is it a design for a parking garage? ‘Cause it looks kinda like a brick, sir,” she offered dubiously.

In her admittedly engineering-challenged mind, a spacecraft was supposed to be sleek and elegant, like the spaceships from the TV series she’d watched with Xander and would vehemently deny ever having done so.  The X-303, on the other hand, didn’t look as though it could get off the ground, let alone traverse the galaxy.

“You aren’t impressed, Lieutenant?” McInroy asked neutrally, as Hammond glared daggers at her down the table.

“Uh…  Just not quite what I expected, sir,” Cordelia replied hastily.

The Lieutenant wondered if she’d broken her first two personal rules of acceptable insubordination.  Firstly, never overdo the flippancy with a superior officer you don’t know, especially Generals.  Or Admirals, for that matter.  Secondly, even if you do know them, make sure they’re in the mood.

She squirmed slightly in her chair, as the VCNO regarded her curiously for a moment.  Afraid her mouth might have gotten her into trouble, Cordelia nevertheless found she couldn’t keep her eyes off his nose.  McInroy was a thoroughly average-looking man.  Average height, weight, build, nondescript brown hair.  He did, however, sport a disproportionately large nasal apparatus.  A Roman nose – roamin’ all over his face.  She only just avoided smirking and laughing aloud at her own excruciating pun.

“Sorry you couldn’t be given the Starship Enterprise, Lieutenant, but aesthetics weren’t exactly first on the list of priorities,” Carter felt the need to defend her fellow scientists and engineers.

O’Neill actually wanted to call it the Enterprise, but had been firmly told that his favoured name wasn’t even in the running.  The Navy, he’d been reminded, already had a carrier of that name.  Still, he wasn’t quite as bad as Teal’c, given that the Jaffa had quite seriously suggested Millennium Falcon as a suitable name.

“I rather agree with the Lieutenant,” McInroy replied with a smile. “Spent most of my Navy career as an aviator – part of that as a test pilot.  There’s an old adage which says that if it looks right, then it’ll probably fly right.  Given what’s being spent on this ugly baby, surely a little could’ve been spent on prettying her up…”

O’Neill, meanwhile, wanted to cut through the niceties.  They’d just been invaded by the US Navy and he wanted to know why.

“So what’s the Navy’s interest, sir?” he asked carefully.

“It all comes down to funding, Colonel,” Hammond replied.

The General was all too aware that SG-1’s CO often didn’t play well with others.  Hopefully he’d behave himself today, otherwise Hammond would just have to extend the cooperation with the Navy  and ask to borrow a destroyer and re-institute that quaint old naval tradition known as keel-hauling. Just for O’Neill.

“Funding and operational efficiency,” the VCNO amended. “But initially, funding.”

“The X-303 Battlecruiser project and plans to build a fleet of at least four – possibly more advanced – versions mean that funding for the SGC will take a hit.  A large portion of that already comes from the Air Force budget and as things stand, we’ll have to scale back our operations quite significantly, to pay for the ongoing X-303 programme,” the General explained.

“That’s insane, sir!  The SGC is the first line of defence for the planet,” Carter protested.

Jackson vigorously nodded his agreement, acutely aware that the exploration programme would probably be the first to feel any funding cuts.

“If the powers in Washington want us to catch up with the Goa’uld in technology – or even try - then they have to continue funding an exploration programme at least at its current level.  Heck, we’re barely scratching the edges as things stand,” the archaeologist protested.

“That point has already been made at a high level, Doctor Jackson.  Equally, others have argued that the Battle-cruisers can just as easily act as bases for SG Teams,” Hammond responded.

Carter shook her head. “If we’re talking efficiency, sir, that’s just about the most inefficient way of doing things.  From here, with a Stargate, we can be on any planet in a matter of minutes – and at any time.  A ship can only explore whatever planets happen to be nearby.”

“For what it’s worth, Major Carter, I agree with both of you.  Fortunately, so do a sufficiently large number of highly placed individuals in Washington.  There’s agreement that both supporting the X-303 programme and maintaining the SGC programme in its current form are desirable from a security point of view,” the General told her.

“Some of the SGC’s funding also comes from what’s commonly known as Black Funding.  You aren’t, however, the only people who are scrabbling for a slice of that.  And by their very nature, you can only hide so much in Black Programs,” McInroy added.

“Which doesn’t balance the books, sir,” O’Neill sighed reluctantly. “Hence the Navy?”

This, he realised, was a losing battle even before it started.  He’d faced down human, alien and supernatural enemies, but no one ever had a chance against the foes of all respectable officers.  Namely, the Bean Counters.

“Hence the Navy…” the VCNO confirmed, his voice oddly sympathetic.

He was obviously a respectable officer – for a Squid – O’Neill decided.

“The Navy and the Air Force have already reached an agreement on this, Colonel O’Neill,” Hammond continued. “In return for major participation in the X-303 Program, they are also willing to cover much of the funding shortfall.  Which, in turn, will enable us to ring-fence the SGC budget.  As it stands, maybe even increase it slightly.”

O’Neill immediately bit back a witticism about Doctor Faustus and the Devil.  With the second highest-ranking officer in the USN present, it probably wasn’t a good analogy.

“Maybe we could all use more inter-service cooperation.  I’m pretty sure we can all learn something from each other,” Carter ventured, trying to be diplomatic.

If cooperating with the other services was a way of saving the SGC and her research programmes, then so be it, she decided firmly.

O’Neill cast a sideways glance at his fiancée and smirked. “Maybe Ranger School for you, Major?”

Carter glared at him for a millisecond and the Colonel just knew she’d give him Hell tonight.

“Ranger School?  I’ll tag along, too, ma’am,” Cordelia suggested enthusiastically, only to receive an equally sour look from the Major.

In addition to their Special Forces and Airborne tabs, a significant proportion of the Lieutenant’s fellow soldiers also sported a Ranger Tab.  At some point, Cordelia was quite sure she’d like to earn one of her own.  As far as Carter was concerned, however, it was a dangerous thing to even joke about.  After all, the Title X exemption covering Cordelia also applied to her and a few other women serving – or like Cadet Hailey – likely to serve, in highly classified combat units.  And that, in turn, meant they could effectively be sent to any of the US military schools.  What was commonly known in the Army as ‘sixty-one days of Hell’ might be a pleasant exercise for Cordelia, but Carter really didn’t like the idea.

Hammond cleared his throat and wagged a finger at the Lieutenant. “If there’s one person who could undoubtedly pass Ranger School without breaking a sweat – and even enjoy the experience - it’s you Lieutenant Chase.  Equally, if there’s one person who doesn’t need to prove herself in that way, it’s also you.”

Cordelia resisted the temptation to pout, even if only for effect. 

“But if we could return to the business at hand?” the General continued firmly.

“So what’s the deal, sir?” O’Neill asked politely, wondering where the Squid was about to poke his tentacles.

“Each ship of the X-303 class will have either a Navy CO or a Navy Exec, alternating with the Air Force as each comes into service.  We’ll also provide a percentage of the crew.  It not only helps with manpower issues, but also has certain operational benefits,” McInroy told him.

“How so, sir?” the Colonel was beginning to sound somewhat defensive – he didn’t like the sound of this.

Hammond cleared his throat. “Think about it, Colonel.  The X-303 class are warships – space warships, perhaps, but still warships.  Crewing, commanding and operating them will have more in common with a seagoing vessel than anything currently in Air Force service.  The design even drew upon certain features of current and projected naval vessels.  Command and control arrangements, the engine room layout, and so forth.”

“The X-303, from our perspective, is a combination carrier and missile cruiser, Colonel O’Neill, with a hint of submarine thrown in for good measure.  And space battles are probably closer to naval engagements than anything else,” McInroy pointed out.

He nodded towards Cordelia. “The SGC is already making inroads into the joint operations sphere.  A few of your teams are currently drawn from the Marines and by the end of next year, you’ll have a full Special Forces company bringing their own unique talents.  In a war on this scale, I’m sure you’ll agree that we can’t allow inter-service rivalries to get in the way…”

The Admiral was already considering offering a platoon of SEALs under Special Forces command, to further integrate the services, but that was perhaps a conversation for another day.

Cordelia, for her part, meanwhile wasn’t so sure that the previously planned Army-USAF arrangement would work out entirely smoothly for the Special Forces contingent.  The Army did things entirely differently from the Air Force.  With the latter, only a handful of Enlisted personnel were ever on the front lines, while officers dominated combat operations.  Within the SGC, every active team had at least a Major in command, with the lowest ranking being a Lieutenant.

It was different in the Army and even more so in Special Forces.  With the notable exception of herself, the lowest ranking officers in the field were highly experienced Captains, but the Detachment Alphas – the cutting edge of Special Forces – were almost entirely composed of seasoned NCOs.  Both NCOs and junior officers were expected to bear a great deal more responsibility in Special Forces than their counterparts in the USAF – or the more conventional parts of the Army, for that matter.  The dynamic between the two branches would be, to say the least, somewhat interesting.  She was tempted to raise the issue, but it had already no doubt been discussed – and at a far higher level than hers – when the Army and Air Force reached their agreement.  It might not, Cordelia decided, be politic for a mere 2nd Lieutenant to raise the issue in front of the VCNS and Hammond who were, after all, discussing a different joint arrangement right now.

“So what does this mean for overall command of the SGC, sir?” O’Neill ventured.   

“That remains under Air Force control, Colonel,” Hammond replied.

He could possibly foresee a time down the road when command of the SGC rotated between the services, but as yet it wasn’t even on the agenda.

“And the X-303 force will be fully under the authority of the SGC commander,” McInroy added.

“In any case, you’ll have some time to get your head around the arrangement…” Hammond glanced at the Admiral.

McInroy nodded. “At least twelve months.”

O’Neill had a lot of SpecOps experience and sufficient experience as an officer that he could feel a trap closing on him but, as yet, wasn’t exactly sure what it was.

“Sir?” he tried to hide the puzzlement in his voice.

“The X-303 begins its shakedown cruise at the end of July next year.  Of course, its CO will need to join a little earlier,” Hammond clarified, with just a hint of amusement.

The Colonel could see the sandbag approaching his head now. “You mean…?”

“No one is more experienced in off-world operations than you, Colonel.  And with an experienced Executive Officer from my service to help run the ship, it should be a perfect arrangement,” McInroy told him smoothly.

“With all due respect, sir…” O’Neill began to protest.

If there was one constant in the military, it was change, and at some point, the Colonel knew he’d have to give up command of SG-1.  Nevertheless, he’d never considered that it would be this way.  Purely based on personal satisfaction, commanding SG-1 had been his best posting since graduating the Academy, and leaving them wouldn’t be easy.  On the upside, he wasn’t being condemned to a desk job.  On the other hand, O’Neill had always been SpecOps to the bone, used to small unit operations, and certainly not commanding a warship, even with his experience as the SGC’s second in command.  The problem was, Hammond and McInroy’s argument made perfect logical sense from both an operational and a budgetary perspective.

Of course, there was also the whole matter of his impending marriage to Carter.  It seemed as though Buffy’s little HGC loophole wouldn’t be quite enough.  The brass had found a way to separate them after all.  Of course, it was no reason to cancel the nuptials and they wouldn’t be, by any stretch of the imagination, the only married officers in the USAF.  Inevitably, however, things weren’t going to work out quite so smoothly as intended. 

He suppressed a sigh.  No doubt his fiancée would want to discuss the abrupt change of circumstances at some length tonight.  At least Carter couldn’t blame him for throwing a monkey wrench into the works.

“You’ll be with us and still commanding SG-1 until at least the end of May next year, Colonel.  In the meantime, you can start to prepare Major Carter for her own new responsibilities after your departure,” Hammond’s tone made it clear that he wasn’t about to brook any argument.

The General wanted O’Neill as his successor.  Equally, the Colonel could also use a little seasoning, with a command somewhat larger and responsibilities more complex than running an SG team.  In Hammond’s opinion, a period as CO of the first X-303 would fit the bill perfectly, with the added bonus of forcing O’Neill to hone his joint service skills, as well as thrusting him more fully into the view of those who decided what to move and who to shake.

Meanwhile, it took a few seconds for Carter to figure out the General’s intentions regarding herself.

“You mean I’ll be taking over SG-1, sir?” she barely managed to keep her voice from squeaking but still it had taken her half a second to pick her jaw off the table.

“According to your most recent personnel evaluations, you’re ready for command.  Can you think of any reason why you wouldn’t be qualified, Major Carter?” Hammond queried.

Given time, she could probably think of any number.  Equally, they probably wouldn’t be valid ones – and certainly not in the eyes of the SGC’s CO.  ‘I’m marrying Colonel O’Neill, so you can’t have him’ certainly wouldn’t cut it, the Major reflected wryly.  Not that Jack would escape her clutches quite so easily.

“No, sir.” Carter answered quickly.

 

Buffy’s Office, Assembly Regional Headquarters, Sunnydale, California – 18th April 2001

“Glasses, Buffy?” Giles exclaimed in surprise, as he closed the office door behind him.

The Slayer looked up from her computer screen and glared daggers at him. “Yeah.  Glasses, Giles.  Who’d have thought it?  Told you we weren’t made for this office gig!”

“But I thought you had perfect eyesight…” the Watcher’s voice trailed off.

It was a somewhat worrying development, Giles considered.  Superior eyesight was one of the key advantages a Slayer had over standard-issue humans.  It was crucial to their work and, in some circumstances, arguably their very survival.

“Perfect for tracking vamps in the dark, spotting movement, great peripheral vision, and distance vision like you wouldn’t believe.  But one little Slayer design flaw?  So not made for extended close-in work!” Buffy explained with a sigh. “Eye-strain…  Since I took the Director slot, I’ve been spending three or four times as long every day, reading reports and sitting at a computer.”

She waved a hand across her desk, at the offending technology and piles of paperwork.

“Started getting headaches and sore eyeballs…” Buffy grimaced. “And with mom’s tumour and stuff?  Well, that was pretty scary, so I decided to get checked out.  Doc gave me the all clear, but sent me to get my eyesight checked.  Optometrist reckoned there wasn’t much wrong – and if the guy only knew how well I see for most stuff – but he wrote me a very mild reading prescription.  And it is kinda helping.  I’ll probably need them for the needlepoint, too…”

“I think they suit you very well, Buffy,” Giles replied diplomatically – at times his Slayer could be just as vain as Cordelia.

He was about to joke about reading glasses and advancing years, but Buffy’s version of a letter opener – a sharp stiletto-bladed dagger - was just too close to her hand for comfort.

“Guess Slayer evolution hasn’t quite caught up with us, Giles.  We’ve been around for thousands of years, but still made for spotting the bad guys miles away in a desert, or in pitch darkness.  Suppose not many of us lived long enough to work behind a desk, either,” Buffy reflected wryly. 

Giles, meanwhile, firmly decided that if there was any noticeable deterioration in the Slayer-critical aspects of her vision, he’d be doing his damnedest to make sure that she spent more of her time behind the aforementioned desk, and out of danger.  But for now, he was keeping that to himself.

“’Sides, designer frames…  And I think they make me look sexy and intelligent!” Buffy grinned.

Her Watcher wasn’t sure how to comment on that, so he contended himself with vigorously cleaning his own eye-gear. 

“So, fellow spectacle-wearer…  Weekly reports, then we do lunch?” the Slayer proposed.

“That sounds like a splendid idea,” Giles agreed.

“So first up…  HG-2 were called off-world for the first time,” Buffy read from a file. “One of the SG teams found a world with a vampire-infested town and the locals asked for help.  General Hammond passed on the request and there was no reason for us to use the veto.  Seems they’ve got a Slayer, but she’s kinda overworked, with no support mechanism – no Scooby Gang on that planet - and a pretty amateurish Watcher system.  Nice guys – the General says they’re not like super-controlling – but they suck at their jobs.  So HG-2 will spend a couple of weeks helping to cull the vamp population.  They’ll be back on Earth in time to help out at the end of next month, when Glory appears.”

Giles nodded – as a member of the HGC Oversight Committee, he’d also rubber-stamped the request. “I look forward to reading their report.”

Off-world vampires, indeed.  It was a long way from the motley band who used to hunt vampires from Sunnydale High library.  Things were so much simpler back then, the Watcher mused.

Buffy ticked off the first box on her check-list.  “Next up?  Ah, yes…  Personal firearms proficiency for all Assembly personnel.  Most people pretty much making the grade – both accuracy and speed of reaction – but the scores for a certain two senior personnel kinda drifted to the top of my pile….  Director Giles – a bare pass.  And Director Rosenberg – a great big fail.”

Back at the beginning of Operation Van Helsing, the Slayer had only reluctantly agreed to accept firearms as a necessary evil.  Since then, however, she’d come to regard them as a very useful tool of the trade.  Given the huge range of existing and potential enemies – both supernatural and human – everyone who worked for the Assembly was expected to demonstrate a certain degree of skill with standard-issue handguns, at the very least.  Arrangements were therefore in place to train everyone affected.  In the US, initial training and range access was provided by the SGC/HGC at Colorado Springs, AFOSI, NCIS and FBI facilities in various places – albeit with suitable cover and security arrangements – while in Sunnydale, the local Police department allowed use of their own range.  Elsewhere in the world, Assembly staff often trained with their own country’s military demon-hunting counterparts, or else on a private basis.

“Willow does have some unavoidable problems with her balance, Buffy,” Giles pointed out. “And perhaps the weapons are a little too powerful for her.  Certainly others have said that these 10mm handguns are ideal for stopping vampires, but aren’t necessarily the easiest to control.  We aren’t all Slayers and Potentials, after all…”

“Point taken,” Buffy made a notation on a pad in front of her. “I’ll look into issuing something a tad less powerful.  And have someone work with Willow on this.  Maybe someone from SG-1.  Or maybe Saedria.”

She smirked. “And what about Director Giles?  Senior staff are expected to set an example.”

Giles made his trademark annoyed tutting noise. “Director Giles will practice a little more.”

He muttered under his breath. “And I could really do without the tyrannical bureaucrat!”

“I heard that.  Just reading glasses, Giles, not a hearing aid.  The only person who can outshoot me is Cordy.  And it’s kinda like her job,” Buffy replied dryly.

“Ah, yes…” the Watcher nodded. “And your quest for a more powerful rifle?”

“Still on it.  Got about a hundred gun magazine reviews to wade through and Graham’s sent me a few different rifles from the HGC armoury to try out,” the Slayer told him.

Firearms might be useful tools, but most of the gun talk in the magazines and online forums nevertheless left her cold and confused. 

“Other training?  Been working on another idea about that, Giles,” Buffy said.

Having moved into a proper HQ in Sunnydale, the Slayer had already decided that some permanent training facilities might be useful.  Buffy and Giles had identified a suitable plot of vacant land outside Sunnydale, well away from any habitation and curious onlookers.  Their bid had been accepted and plans included a gymnasium, a firing range, a few cinder-block buildings for practice assault and indoor combat training, a mock-up cemetery complete with fake headstones and mausoleums, and even a small underground area to function as a replica sewer.

“You and ideas?  Always a dangerous combination…” Giles quipped.

“You and humour?  Always unmixy things,” Buffy retorted smoothly. “So you want to hear it, or what?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Buffy twirled a pen between her fingers. “The way Saedria and her girls took down those Jaffa kinda got me thinking, Giles.  The Potentials in our Hunter-Killer teams could be just as lethal, with a proper – and standard – training regime.  Cordy and I have been throwing this back and forwards for a while and she came up with a list of useful skills.  Mainly special operations stuff, but some law enforcement, too.”

She handed Giles a sheet of paper, with a simple list of bullet points on one side.

“Covert surveillance, intelligence gathering and investigative methods, ambush and raiding tactics, demolition, infiltration techniques – land, sea and air – and mission planning,” Giles summarised aloud. “Rather a broad spectrum.”

“Nothing there we don’t need,” Buffy replied. “Most of it’s for our usual line of work, but who knows what skills we might need against Wolfram and Hart.  Or some NID splinter group.  We also need to be able to work in a hostile country.  And you know as well as me that there’s a Helluva lot of places where we’re as welcome as a porcupine in a condom factory.  Still doesn’t mean we won’t have to send a team, if it means stopping an apocalypse, or tracking some Big Bad.  Plus some of these countries are the usual suspects, who might go all Initiative and start breeding demons as weapons, given half the chance.  I know that’s part of the reason why we have the HG Teams, but they might not always be available.  Or we might not be able to use them.”

Giles nodded. “There are parts of the world where they would be rather obvious, or where your government might prefer not to send what is still an American military unit.  Whereas a locally raised Hunter-Killer team might attract less attention.”

“Most of this is kinda out of our league to set up, even with Cordy’s help.  But it’s not like we’re short of contacts.  Cordy and her CO in Special Forces, Graham’s people from the HGC, the SGC, Cravitz and Temple from Operation Van Helsing.  And, like, half-a-dozen of the better demon-hunting units across the world.  On the law enforcement side, we’ve got Gibbs, Fornell – even Mann is on fairly good terms with us now, after we helped expose that weapons stealing ring,” Buffy continued.

“When that piece of crap Travers came to Sunnydale for the Cruciamentum, he was all pissy and English – no offence - about the Council fighting a war.  Might’ve been right, but they sure as Hell weren’t organised for one.  All they had was the Slayer of the moment, plus a few of the more experienced Potentials and Field Watchers – both of which tended to die even more quickly than Slayers – and the special operations teams, half of which were criminals and the other half criminally incompetent. 

“We’re in a much stronger position to wage that war now, Giles.  And way I see it, key to that is training and organisation.  So we recruit a training team and roll out this training programme for every Potential on the Hunter-Killer Teams – and anyone else who needs the training,” she concluded.

“You’ve run this idea past those foreign governments who support our activities?” Giles asked.

Buffy had spent a great deal of time in contact with the various foreign powers who’d once permitted the Council to operate within their jurisdictions.  She was also well able to charm the crustiest officials, whether meeting them face-to-face, by video-link, or on the telephone.  It hadn’t initially been certain that those who supported – or in some cases, barely tolerated – the old Council would automatically feel comfortable with the new organisation and its less experienced leadership.  By and large, however, those who’d been cooperative in the old days remained that way and, in many cases, were even more so now that they knew both the true nature of the Assembly’s predecessor and the successor organisation’s determination to do things differently.  Those who’d been uncooperative and hostile in the past were, unfortunately, still pretty much unchanged in their attitudes.

“Been a two-way street, Giles.  I’ve got politicians and diplomats coming at me from all sides, telling me I should increase our capabilities.  Especially in this country, where the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council have also joined the fricking choir…  Half the countries who have demon fighting units only formed them, ‘cause they weren’t sure the Council had enough muscle to deal with the problem.  Most of them are admitting they’ve bitten off way more than they can chew,” the Slayer replied.

She was hoping that the latter realisation might remain sufficiently solid in their memories that starting up Initiative-type projects would be the furthest thing from their minds.  Unfortunately, Buffy also knew that there would always be a rogue somewhere who thought he could harness the potential power of demons for combat purposes.

“Fact is, seems only one thing scares governments more than people finding out about supernatural…  And that’s being left with the responsibility for dealing with the vamps and demons and stopping the odd apocalypse.  Most of them have enough to deal with, whether it’s crime, terrorists, or human enemies over the border,” Buffy said.

“It will still take a great deal of time.  Building up a capability on the lines you suggest isn’t a simple overnight matter,” Giles cautioned. “But I think it’s an eminently sensible course of action.  Perhaps after we’ve dealt with Glory, it might be appropriate to assemble as many of these people as possible, to draw on best practice from each.”

Buffy rolled her eyes, imagining the ensuing snark-fest, with so many strong personalities brought together in one place. “What fun that’s gonna be…  But yeah, totally necessary.  I’ll put together a more detailed proposal and send it to the other Directors.”

Not for the first time in these meetings, Giles wondered if he’d been sucked into a parallel dimension.  Research had never been Buffy’s strong point – and in fairness, it had usually been considered the Watcher’s task in the traditional Council pairing – but the Slayer had more than stepped up to the mark in planning and research since assuming the mantle of Director.

She ticked off another action point on her list. “Next up?  Counter-signatures on these finance authorisation forms…”

“Spending money, Buffy?” Giles asked in mock horror, given his fellow Director’s well-deserved reputation for her iron grip on the Assembly coffers.

“Not a cent on paperclips that isn’t needed, Giles,” she pushed a spread-sheet towards him. “Anyways, the income column’s looking pretty good, with these new investments.”

The next hour was devoted to somewhat mundane, if also necessary, paperwork.  At length, Buffy pushed her agenda to one side and stretched.

“Lunch?” Giles asked hopefully.

“Soon.  And hey, I’m supposed to be the one who can’t stop eating.  Shouldn’t you be watching the weight at your age?” the Slayer smirked.

Giles maintained a dignified silence.  She was probably right, after all, even if he made a deliberate point of avoiding the bathroom scales.

“One more thing, then we eat,” Buffy promised. “I’ve made a start on the ‘Unfinished Business’ files.”

“ ‘Unfinished business’?” Her Watcher was suitably perplexed, as she removed a number of ring-binders from the shelf behind her.

“Yeah…  Bad guys still for the Slaying.  I’ve been working on this stuff for a few months, with some of the research people.  I just want to make sure that everything’s ready, just in case…” Buffy’s voice trailed off.

Giles definitely looked as though he was about to ask ‘just in case of what’, a conversation she wanted to avoid right now, so she immediately headed him off.

“Lyle Gorch…  Not a Big Bad, or even a Medium Bad.  By vamp standards, an inbred joke – and not a very funny one.  Doesn’t rate on the apocalypse risk scale, but he’s still out there and might come back to cause trouble, with the Hill-Billy revenge thing for his brother and girlfriend.  So everything we know is in there – habits, hangouts, all that,” the Slayer picked the first file from the top of the pile.

“Drusilla.  Pretty thin file, ‘cause what can you say about a crazy vamp with no clear behavioural patterns.  Except for the part about being a psycho bitch, who was quite happy to help Angelus end the world.  So way more dangerous than Lyle Gorch.  Might be worth more of an effort to track her down and put her out of everyone’s misery once Glory’s taken care of,” another file joined the first.

“Ethan Rayne.  Don’t know where Riley and his NID buddies stashed him, if he’s loose or still locked up somewhere.  Or even dead.  General Hammond’s looking into that, with some of the other team investigating the NID,” Buffy said.

Giles appeared distinctly uncomfortable for a moment. “He’s human, Buffy, and…”

“Human and pretty much lacking the usual range of morals, Giles.  Plus some pretty murderous tendencies.  The Halloween thing, Band Candy, and the rest?  All pretty amusing until you look more closely.  Ethan’s fun doesn’t amuse.  Want to know why?” Buffy folded her arms.

Giles sighed. “I suspect you’re going to tell me.”

“Too fricking right!  Back in High School, we – and I mean all of us, including you – weren’t too hot on the follow-up when a bad guy left town.  Two kids died at Halloween, Giles.  Official report?  Wild dog attacks.  Unofficial one, from bits and pieces of info I put together from sources in the nightlife?  Kids wearing costumes from Ethan’s were protected from anything that happened during the spell – just like Willow and her ghost costume.  But not those wearing home-made costumes or outfits they rented from Partytown.  Two of them were torn apart by their friends.  How the Hell did we miss that?  We should’ve guessed that some kids would die, with half of them running around dressed as vamps, monsters, and wild animals!” Buffy growled, as Giles winced.

She continued, without waiting for an answer. “Band Candy?  One heart attack death – middle-aged guy behaving like a teenager – and who knows how many injuries.  And don’t tell me that Ethan – with your level of demon knowledge – didn’t either know exactly what tribute Lurconis demanded, or was at least inquisitive enough to find out.  So accessory to attempted multiple baby murders.

“Strike three?  Attacking me and leaving me nicely tattooed for Eyghon to kill, when I was trying to save his ungrateful ass.  And the last one?  Turning you into a demon, so I’d hunt you down.  So chaos magic?  How funny and harmless… Not.  We meet again, I turn him over to the nearest Coven and have them burn out his magic, even if it leaves the bastard as a drooling vegetable.  Otherwise…” the Slayer drew a finger across her throat. “He’s no better than some demons, but there’re no laws to deal with most of what he’s done.”

It was one thing the Assembly would have to face sooner or later, Giles acknowledged silently.  There was a world full of human threats, dabbling to one extent or another with the dark arts and supernatural, often with dire consequences.  Many of Wolfram and Hart’s employees and associates were a case in point.  But for the most part, they couldn’t be tried under any conventional system of justice.  The problem was, any other course smacked of vigilantism.

“And talking of seriously bad humans, there’s Wolfram and Hart.  The Assembly needs a Helluva lot more information before we go toe to toe with these bastards.  But the old Council way, ignoring them as too big, and just dealing with the problems they caused?  Not on our watch.  So our next big project – if Glory doesn’t fry the world – is to hit them hard and weaken them every way we can,” Buffy’s mouth set in a hard line for a moment.

“Marcie Ross, the invisible girl…  Taken away by two suits, who were probably NID.  Could be a nice little invisible assassin for them.  The General and his people are on that case, too.  I don’t really want her harmed, Giles, even if she did try to carve up Cordy and me.  She was just a seriously messed up kid.  So the twins think that magic could be used to make her visible again, if she was away from the Hellmouth.  Of course, we’d still need the industrial strength therapy and a straitjacket, but she might not be past help,” the Slayer suggested hopefully.

“Which brings me to the last two files.  Not so much ‘unfinished business’, as stay of execution.  Angel’s a good guy for now, but if he ever loses his soul again?  I’m not that confused seventeen year-old with her first love anymore, Giles.  I know I can’t hesitate next time,” she admitted pensively.

Giles, meanwhile, vowed to himself that Buffy wouldn’t be placed in that position again.  She might have drifted away from the souled vampire somewhat, but it would still probably be easier if another Slayer dealt with him in that eventuality.  Saedria or Amyra would probably be the best bet, as Angel had befriended Faith when she was in prison.  The alternative was Cordelia who might not be a physical match one-on-one for a master vampire like Angelus, but she still had any number of military skills to usefully compensate for her reduced Slayer powers.

“And last on the list?  Spike…  He’s a useful – if sometimes fricking annoying – ally right now.  Enjoys the fight.  Even unchipped, he was different from Angelus – could’ve killed mom a dozen times over, same with Willow and Xander when he kidnapped them.  But if the chip stops working and he goes back to old habits?  Or even mind-games like he played during the ADAM thing?  Then I get seriously dusty,” Buffy finished.

Giles studied her for a moment.  When he spoke, his voice was quiet.

“Why are you doing this, Buffy?”

“You mean trying to run things efficiently?  Isn’t that what you want?” the Slayer replied defensively.

“I mean the one-hundred-and-one special projects that you’re in the process of initiating.  And especially the way you’re clearly trying to make sure that everything’s in order and those closest to you have been fully briefed.  For instance, your ‘Unfinished Business’ file,” Giles pointed out.

“I just thought it was good practice to keep everyone in the loop,” Buffy replied, not remotely convincingly.

Her Watcher eyed her closely. “It is good practice.  I don’t, however, believe that it is your primary motive.  Willow and Cordelia have both raised their concerns with me.  So what’s really the matter?”

The Slayer glowered for a moment. “Jeez!  Best friend and little sis’…  Both of them running to my Watcher.”

“They’re simply concerned for you, Buffy.  That’s all,” Giles replied. “As am I.”

Buffy sighed and looked down at her hands. “I just want to make sure everything’s ready for my replacement – you or Willow, I guess.”

“Perhaps it might be sensible to have some sort of succession plan in place, Buffy, but it’s the almost feverish way you’re throwing yourself into things…” the Watcher told her.

“It’s Glory, Giles.  I’ve a feeling – a really strong one – that I won’t survive this time.  So it kinda makes sense to leave everything in neat-freak order,” Buffy blurted out.

So his suspicions had been correct, Giles noted.  His Slayer was having real doubts about her own mortality.  Not that her death – or indeed all their deaths – was anything but a real possibility when they faced down the Hell Goddess, but he needed to find out if there was anything underpinning her forebodings, or if it was simply pre-combat jitters.

“Have you had any Slayer Dreams to suggest such a thing?” Giles prayed that she hadn’t.

Buffy shook her head. “Nothing like that.  Just a feeling…  Plus the whopping big helping of logic that says going up against the Biggest Big Bad we’ve ever faced means that fat grandchildren probably aren’t on the cards.  Hell, Glory almost killed me when she was human-shaped.  This time?  She’ll be like three-hundred feet long, Giles.  Three heads full of humungous teeth and fire-breathing and big with the smiting down.  And all we Slayers have to do is get close enough to stick her with a few magic weapons.  Easy as pie…”

The sudden change of mood was startlingly, Giles reflected.  A few minutes ago, Buffy had been the amazingly self-confident planner, in full control and bursting with ideas.  In an instant, that had changed, with her fatalism now hanging over the desk like a black cloud.

“The Air Force are deploying a substantial amount of conventional firepower, Buffy.  It might well be enough to defeat Glorificus, without you having to engage her at close range.  Or she may be sufficiently wounded that your task will be considerably easier,” he tried to sound up-beat.

“This is a Goddess, Giles.  Not some two-bit demon.  She’s immortal, with mystical power coming out her ass…  Pretty sure anything the Air Force can drop – short of that nuke – isn’t gonna get the job done.  Human-shaped, she shrugged off anti-tank missiles, like they were flea bites.  Scaled up?  Not sure anything short of the Big One will even bruise her hide.  Hence the magical weapons – and the London team are on the track of another one, by the way – and whatever spells the covens can cook up…” Buffy mumbled.

It was, Giles thought rather bleakly, difficult to argue with her analysis.  On the other hand, Buffy probably had the best chance of all the Slayers in fighting Glory.  She was the smallest of them – and therefore also the smallest target - but also had by far the greatest agility and best reflexes.  As a result, she’d regularly demonstrated an ability to best the two much taller Varrini Protectors when they sparred.  Cordelia, on the other hand, was at a disadvantage in all the critical areas, compared to the three Chosen Ones.  There was, however, no way he’d point that out, not with Buffy in her current frame of mind.  Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before the Slayer figured out that her sister would be even more vulnerable in any close-quarter fighting with Glory.  Giles suspected that the realisation wouldn’t be pretty.

Still, he’d do his best to steer her away from the current fatalistic train of thought, even if it did have a logical basis.  The truth was, Buffy scarcely needed a traditional Watcher these days, but Giles still saw himself as her confidant, colleague and, these days, much more of a friend than he’d been in the past.  His actions during the Cruciamentum still didn’t sit well with his conscience and, if truth were told, he dreaded the almost inevitable day when some random vampire or demon had a lucky evening.

“This isn’t a healthy way to think, Buffy.  Such thoughts have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.  And if you don’t mind, I would rather like to be your Watcher for a very long time yet.  Hopefully, until we both retire,” Giles suggested.

“It’s not like I’ve got a Slayer death wish, like Spike suggested that night.  I’ve a long list of things I still want to do,” Buffy assured him. “Just that the luck can’t last forever.  And the bigger the Bad, the more likely it is too run out.  Already used up two of my lives, after all – and Slayers don’t come with nine, far as I know.”

Giles affected a stern expression. “We’ll have less of that fatalism, young lady.  You are going to come out of this encounter with Glory fully intact and, what’s more, I insist that you keep telling yourself that.  Besides what would your mother have to say, if she heard this kind of defeatist talk?”

Buffy smiled wryly. “I don’t know exactly what mom would say, but she’d probably still put me across her knee, even now…”

She sighed. “I wish mom and Dawn were here, Giles.  I know we sent them away to keep the world safe, but I could really use mom’s shoulder right now.  Heck I even miss Dawn being a pain in the ass!  Faith – I mean Diana – too…  Just doesn’t seem right that she’s missing a Slayer fight like this one.”

“I suspect that Diana is busy enough, judging by the letters you received from whichever galaxy they happen to be in,” Giles replied. “And I also suspect you’ll fight better without worrying about your mother and sister.  Just like when you sent them away before Graduation.”

“I guess you’re right.  All I can do is fight hard as I can and keep everything crossed.  Maybe make some vacation plans for after we’ve kicked Glory’s butt – give me something to work towards…” Buffy suggested gamely, trying to ignore the still-present feelings of impending doom.

“You’ve certainly earned one.  It’s been a very busy year for everyone, yourself included,” her Watcher agreed.

“I’m thinking Paris, Rome, Milan…  Lots of shopping…” the Slayer’s eyes almost glazed over at the thought of a European fashion-shopping trip.

“You may have earned a holiday, but meanwhile, I think I’ve earned my lunch…” Giles responded.

Buffy prodded his stomach. “I think you’ve earned yourself some extra time in the gym!”

“Don’t be impertinent!  I’m the same weight as I was fifteen years ago,” Giles spluttered.

“Moved South for the summer has it?” the Slayer teased.

 

Crystal Springs Hotel, Colorado Springs, Colorado – 18th April 2001

“I had presumed that we would be returning to the Mountain, Cordelia,” Teal’c offered, as they exited the elevator.

The meal in Crystal Springs’ restaurant had been excellent, though the Jaffa was well aware that Cordelia wanted a second helping of dessert.  Namely himself.

“If you think we’re spending the night together in some gloomy guest room in the SGC – with the SF’s listening at the door – then you better think again, big guy!” Cordelia responded firmly. “Ditto taking Willow and Tara’s spare bedroom, with them shagging away like mad next door.  Uh, uh!”

Teal’c raised an eyebrow. “ ‘Shagging’?”

A suddenly embarrassed Cordelia shook her head. “Don’t know where that one came from!  Musta picked it up from Spike…  I meant getting groiny, doin’ the horizontal salsa, knockin’ boots…”

“I believe I understand your meaning, Cordelia,” Teal’c nodded, as usual astonished at the range of terms the Tau’ri employed for just about any activity.

“281…  That’s our room,” Cordelia extracted the key-card from her purse.

She took a silent breath, hoping that Teal’c wouldn’t spot how tense she was, and opened the door.  While she’d been anticipating this evening for months, Cordelia was nevertheless distinctly nervous.  Her sexual experience to date had been limited to a few fumbles with High School Jocks, or Xander in a closet, and she’d never even got beyond First Base.  Of course, in the locker room after cheerleading practice, or at a Cordette sleepover, she’d been all talk.  Just like the other girls – and now she wondered how much of their alleged experiences had also been exaggeration, or even tall tales.

Teal’c was, however, highly observant.  Even as the door closed behind them, the Jaffa noticed that Cordelia seemed rather anxious.

“Are you alright?” he asked with some concern.

Cordelia smiled nervously. “Yeah…  Just kinda jumpy.  I don’t think I told you, Teal’c, but I’ve never – uh – been with a guy before.”

“Indeed you did not.  But that does not matter.  If you are unsure or unready, then we will wait as long as necessary,” Teal’c reassured her.

“No, I’m totally ready,” Cordelia replied hastily. “I just don’t want to mess up…  I mean, I think I know what I’m doing, but Cosmo isn’t always right…”

The Lieutenant wanted to kick herself hard.  She was pretty sure that Teal’c wanted the self-assured woman he was used to working alongside, not someone who turned into a quivering wreck at the prospect of sharing a bed with him.  The thing was, she desperately wanted tonight to be special, and hated the thought of ruining it for both them.

“In Jaffa society, it is always the duty of the man to see to the needs of the woman, to ensure that she is properly satisfied,” Teal’c told her with a calming smile. “But we will only proceed if you are entirely certain that this is what you want.”

“Believe me when I say it is!” Cordelia breathed.

Nerves or not, his proximity was making her feel as horny as Hell.

“I will be gentle,” the Jaffa offered.

“Thanks,” Cordelia almost whispered. “Just one thing…  I might – uh – be a virgin, but I’m not – ah – you know, intact…  That’s because of the gymnastics, cheerleading, Slayer and Army training.”

She felt herself blush at that revelation.  Teal’c simply responded by gently drawing her close and kissing her.  All at once, her remaining self-doubts simply drifted away.  The big Jaffa was hers – and all hers.

“It matters not, Cordelia.  With their rigorous training, the same is often true of Jaffa women,” he replied, kissing her again.

“Oh God!” Cordelia murmured, by now definitely feeling aroused, as he nuzzled into the nape of her neck.

Taking the initiative, she tumbled the big Jaffa onto their Emperor-sized bed and caught him in a passionate lip-lock.  It was some minutes before either of them came up for air.

“Let’s get naked, big guy!” she gasped, then paused. “You know, I’ve kinda had a certain fantasy about tonight…”

“As have I, Cordelia,” Teal’c rumbled, tickling her ribs.

“Hey ticklish girl here!  And I already know all about the Xena thing,” Cordelia giggled.

Extremely ticklish - if someone had tackled her with a feather during SERE training, the Lieutenant would have inevitably spilled every secret.

The Jaffa smirked – something she’d never seen. “This is yet another one.”

“So spill, damnit!  Just so long as it isn’t gross…”

“I believe it is your turn first,” Teal’c insisted.

“Whatever….” Cordelia shrugged, a rather awkward gesture from her horizontal position on top of the Jaffa.

“It’s nothing much really – and no kink involved…  I’ve just kinda dreamt about you undressing me slowly, one layer at a time…” she offered. “Now how about yours?”

Teal’c’s eyes glinted, as he gently ran his hands down her butt cheeks, drawing a shiver. “I would enjoy seeing you jump naked out of a giant birthday cake.”

“That’s all?  Pretty cheesy, really!  Can’t promise you that tonight.  But tell me your birthday and I’ll see what I can do…” Cordelia laughed at the wholly unexpected admission.

She grinned, moved in for another Frenchy, then nibbled his ear. “Better make with the undressing.  Not sure I’m gonna last much longer…”

“Indeed.”

 

Gymnasium, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 19th April 2001

Teal’c was pumping iron like a Jaffa possessed.  It had been a most enjoyable night – far beyond enjoyable, in fact.  Despite her self-admitted inexperienced, Teal’c had found her to be a warm and caring lover, with all of the stamina he might have expected from a Slayer, but much quieter and considerably more gentle than anticipated.  He should have been tired, given that his Kel’noreem session had been rather abbreviated.  Instead, he felt energised and eager for their next session of lovemaking.  Hopefully, it would be a few more days before Cordelia was recalled to her unit in Sunnydale.

He looked up from the bench, to see O’Neill and Jackson watching him with anticipation.

“So…” O’Neill asked slowly. “How was last night?”

“The meal was excellent,” Teal’c replied.

“Heard you and Cordy didn’t return to the Mountain,” the Colonel added casually.

“That is correct, O’Neill.  Cordelia wished for more privacy,” the Jaffa answered, adding more weights to the machine.

O’Neill decided not to press the issue.  Quite clearly, Teal’c wasn’t one for the locker-room comparisons.  And, he reflected, they were all getting a little too old for that nonsense.  Besides, Carter would kick his ass.

“So what was it like…?” Jackson asked impatiently.

“You have never been with a woman, Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c sounded amused.

“Of course I have!  But she’s a Slayer and you’re…” the archaeologist’s words trailed away, as the Jaffa fixed him with an impassive stare.

“Tactful, he’s not,” O’Neill remarked to no one in particular.

“In Jaffa society - unlike as is so often the case in your own - the male does not boast of his exploits, Daniel Jackson.  It is expected and accepted that the woman will talk of it to her friends, but the man should respect the fact that it is her decision – and hers alone – to share the experience with others,” Teal’c told him seriously.

Jackson was about to protest that he was only enquiring on the basis of academic cross-cultural interest.  If he was honest, however, it was simply prurient curiosity.  And perhaps underpinned by a little envy.

Teal’c decided to throw him a bone. “I will only say that making love to a Slayer is a remarkable experience.”

O’Neill whistled quietly.  Given Teal’c’s habitual understatement, the Earth must have moved for him.

The Jaffa returned his attention to bench-pressing the heaviest weight he could handle. “I also believe that the function of a gymnasium is to exercise the body and not the imagination.”

O’Neill shrugged and turned to Jackson. “Said you’d get nothing out of him.”

 

Canteen, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 19th April 2001

If Teal’c had energy to burn, then Cordelia had awakened this morning with a tremendous hunger.  The hotel breakfast – big enough to satisfy the heartiest of normal Special Forces soldiers’ appetites - wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy her post-horny hungry, so she’d dropped into the SGC canteen for another.

The Lieutenant was abnormally contented this morning, humming happily to herself as she returned her empty tray to the rack.  Out of the corner of one eye she spotted Fraiser approaching, with Carter moving to intercept on the other side.  The two officers both had an expectant gleam in their eyes.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” she asked Carter.

“So…?” the Major ventured, casting an eye over the junior officer.

There was something indefinably different about Cordelia today.  She almost radiated contentment, with a happy little half-smile on her face, and a sparkle in her eyes.  Carter was also pretty certain what had put the smile and sparkle there.

“ ‘So’ what?” Cordelia fought an urge to sigh.

It was quite clear why her two fellow officers were here.  She just hadn’t expected them to act like a pair of inquisitive teenagers with a hormone problem.

“So how was last night?” Fraiser asked.

Cordelia pretended to consider the question for a moment.

“You know how it goes.  Dinner, smoochies, followed by the hot mind-blowing sex…  Jeez!  I kinda expected more from you two…  Thought I was way past this after I graduated High School,” she frowned.

“I’m simply interested in your welfare, Cordelia,” Fraiser protested.

That was true, at least to a certain extent, she told herself defensively.  As far as she was concerned, the jury was still out on the wisdom of a relationship between Teal’c and Cordelia.  He was very much older – older than anyone else in the SGC for that matter – while Cordelia was probably the youngest officer currently working with them, at only twenty years old.  Then there was the immense cultural gulf between them.  On the other hand, they were at least a fairly close physical match for each other.  And both seemed to think they could make it work on some level.

The Lieutenant rolled her eyes. “Uh, huh.  Sounds like a BS line to me, Doc.”

“Okay!” Fraiser put up her hands in mock surrender. “Way too long since I’ve had a man in my life, so help me with the vicarious experience, please?”

Turning to Carter, Cordelia snorted in amusement. “And you, ma’am?  Nearly a happily married woman.  Unless Jack isn’t – uh – you’ve no need for the second-hand bit.”

Carter grinned and shrugged. “Just curious as all Hell…  From a purely scientific point of view, of course.”

“Of course, ma’am,” Cordelia replied heavily. “But what makes you think I’m a kiss-and-tell sorta girl?”

“Because it’s your duty to share,” the Major replied.

“My duty?” Cordelia raised an eyebrow.

“Your duty to the sisterhood, Lieutenant.  There aren’t many of us in the SGC,” Fraiser explained.

“And you’re gonna share every little detail about you and the Colonel doing the dirty?” Cordelia teased Carter, with a perfectly straight face.

The Major’s eyes widened. “Well, I… Uh…”

“Don’t worry!  So don’t want to know!” Cordelia hurriedly told her.

“Just so we’re clear on this…  Vicarious stays vicarious!  Teal’c’s totally built – and he’s all mine,” she added possessively.

Carter folded her arms impatiently. “We got that bit.  But is he any good?  Judging by the humming – and your general overall glow today – I’d guess you’ve caught yourself a regular Adonis.”

“Oh yeah…  Seven times and what a seven times they were,” Cordelia replied almost dreamily.

“Seven…” Carter mouthed to herself.

“Seven.  And no wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, either…  Teal’c’s designed for the long-haul,” the Lieutenant confirmed. “My first time ever.  With anybody.  So I’m a tad tender this morning. Hopefully I won’t have to wear a parachute harness for a few days…”

“Come along to sickbay later and I’ll check you over,” Frasier told her.

Curiosity or not, professional concern came first

“Yes, ma’am,” Cordelia mumbled.

These two were rapidly draining all the pleasure from her night of passion and it was beginning to piss her off.

“No repairs needed to the bedroom, then?” Frasier seemed to be making mental notes

"Ma'am?" Cordy asked, now thoroughly confused.

The CMO smiled. "I was just wondering how much control Slayers have over their strength in certain situations. Involuntary muscle spasm and such. But since Teal'c didn't come by the infirmary, I assume that you at least have complete control over some muscles."

Cordelia couldn’t quite suppress a blush. “We weren’t having a fricking orgy, Doc.  And so not a walking, talking, wrecking machine.  Slayers don’t exactly bring down the roof and walls when we’re having sex, if you must know.”

After all, Buffy, who was much stronger than either Riley or DiNozzo, hadn’t broken the spines of either in bed.  Though the Slayer might be disappointed that the former – treacherous bastard that he was - hadn’t been crippled for life, she reflected.

“Hmmm,” Carter sounded almost disappointed.

Cordelia fixed the CMO with an almost prim stare. "Doctor? All respect, but go and get your vicarious experiences from Major Carter.  She has way more experience and – allegedly - likes to scream it from the rooftops."

Now Carter was blushing, all the way to her blonde roots.

“But if you really must know?  Teal’c is gentle, patient and really passionate.  Way more stamina than any guy I’ve ever heard about, even in their dreams.  Apparently it’s a Jaffa thing – they can keep going all night.  Guess there’s advantages to having that self-healing baby demon inside them, after all…  And as for the foreplay?  God!  The things he can do with his hands and tongue…” she waggled her eyebrows in tantalising fashion, then walked away, before they could interrogate her any further.

It was, she reflected, even worse than cheerleading practice, or a Cordette sleepover.

Behind her, Fraiser could only whimper wistfully, as Carter patted her sympathetically on the shoulder.
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