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Fate's Little Plaything (Volume One)

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This story is No. 4 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Fate hasn’t finished playing with Cordelia – and this time there isn’t even a Vengeance Demon in sight. Continued from “Someone Else’s Mess”

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > Cordelia-CenteredCordyfanFR1333426,219118809254,84719 Aug 0926 Feb 11Yes

Home And Other War Zones

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 (but not much of any in this chapter).
Disclaimer:  I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NCIS, or Stargate SG-1.
Notes:  Loosely set during the 5th season of BtVS.  Continued from “Someone’s Else’s Mess” – this will probably only make sense if you’ve read the two preceding stories first.  Note that there are some major AU components.

 

HMS Vigilant, North Atlantic – 24th December 2000

“Sir?  I have a sonar contact.  Can’t quite identify the source – and neither can the computer,” the duty sonar operator alerted the Officer of the Watch who, on this occasion, was also the ship’s Exec, or First Lieutenant in Royal Navy parlance.

“What d’you hear, Simpkins?” the Commander picked up a set of headphones, but was unable to hear much more than the usual background noise of sea life and a few distant merchant vessels, in some cases well over a hundred miles from the sub’s sensitive Type 2046 towed-array sonar.

“Something very small, heading about one hundred and forty degrees away from us...  About thirty miles, at a guess.  Making 42 knots.  And I’m pretty sure it isn’t a boat, sir.”

The operator, known as Earache to his shipmates, had some of the best aural apparatus in the business.  The UK’s Vanguard-class deterrent subs were always assigned the finest sonar specialists.  Their job was to hide and the only way to effectively accomplish that was with advance warning of any potential threat.

Having spent the last few days running drills closer to home, Vigilant was now heading northwards towards one of her designated patrol areas, deep within the Arctic circle.  Up to this point, nothing even vaguely threatening had been picked up by the sub’s Type 2054 integrated sonar suite.  Nor had HMS Torbay, the attack submarine detailed to delouse Vigilant’s outward route.  Patrols by the RAF’s Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft had similarly failed to detect any surface or subsurface threats.

The Commander blinked worriedly. “Homing torpedo?”

“Don’t think so, sir.  No launch noises, no active sonar ranging...  And it doesn’t sound like any torpedo I’ve ever heard...” the sonar operator responded doubtfully.

“Whale?”

“Definitely not that, sir,” Earache replied firmly.

“Can’t take any chances,” the Exec grabbed for an internal phone.

His CO was currently off-duty, but necessarily always ready to respond to an emergency.

“Sir?  We have an unidentified high-speed contact in the water...”

“Take us to Action Stations, Number One,” Captain Faraday was off his bunk in an instant and heading the few steps to the Control Room.

He was at his post in under a minute. “What have we got, Jimmy?”

The First Lieutenant shrugged in bewilderment. “No underwater or surface contacts.  Just this unidentified contact at thirty miles, with the distance opening, sir.  Sonar conditions are highly favourable for us – and pretty bad for anyone trying to pick us up.  Good, deep thermocline layer.”

“Take us down another hundred feet under the layer and give me revolutions for eight knots.  Stand-by to release decoys and prep two Spearfish for a snap-shot.”

It wouldn’t be Vigilant’s first false alarm, but Faraday was taking no chances with his country’s nuclear deterrent.  If the whatever it was showed the slightest hostile intent, he’d fire a pair of Vigilant’s advanced homing torpedoes right up its arse.

“Down planes five degrees...” the First Lieutenant ordered, the massive submarine doing its best to impersonate a silent hole in the middle of the ocean.

Thirty-one miles away, oblivious to both the consternation she was causing - and the fact that her prize was only a short distance away - Glorificus continued on a course directly towards the Scottish mainland.

 

USS Bonhomme Richard, Off the Coast of Somalia, Indian Ocean – 25th December 2000

“Cordy?  Is that really you?” Buffy’s voice wavered slightly on the other end of the sat-phone.

“No, it’s fricking Santa Claus.  Speaking of which, guess it isn’t time to wish you merry Christmas, yet.  With the time thing and all...” Cordelia responded evenly.

“Forget Christmas, time differences, and Santa Claus!  Are you okay?” her sister pressed worriedly.

“Just fine, Slay Girl.  Nothing some sleep and hot food won’t fix...” Slayer Lite assured her half-sibling.

There was a low growl on the other end. “Just making sure, little sister... ‘Cause mom isn’t here, so it’s my job to have the slipper ready for your ass when you get home.  We’ve been worried sick!”

“You wouldn’t hit someone with their arm in a sling, would you?” Cordelia asked reasonably.

“No.  I’d wait ‘til...  Hey!  Thought you said you hadn’t been hurt!” the worried tone was instantly back.

Slayer Lite smiled to herself. “Just a scratch – or a lot of scratches, actually.  There was a lioness, who wanted fresh Cordy for lunch.”

“You so weren’t attacked by a fucking lion,” Buffy replied disbelievingly.

“Afraid so...  Five new scratches on the right arm, just to match the set on the other side.  Fifteen stitches, too.  Big ones - the doc here won’t make his fortune in face lifts and breast enhancement,” Cordelia assured her glumly.

She could almost hear her sister shaking her head two entire continents and an ocean away.  The brunette couldn’t just stop a bullet or a grenade fragment like anyone else in the business, for which Buffy was admittedly grateful.  No, as a Slayer – and at least a half-Summers - she had to attract the meanest set of teeth and claws in the vicinity.

“Kinda embarrassing, actually...  I was squatting behind a bush with an attack of the Somali Shits and wasn’t keeping my eyes and ears open,” Slayer Lite admitted sheepishly, knowing that Buffy would eventually worm the truth out of her.

The Slayer snorted in amusement at the mental picture.

“Besides, not so long since I was sitting by your bed, Slay Girl,” Cordelia moved onto the attack. “Heart failure?  Kinda puts my kitty scratches in the shade.”

Buffy sighed. “Guess we’ll both just have to get used to the sister-in-deadly-peril gig.  At least mom and Dawn aren’t here to worry.”

“They’ll just be worrying somewhere else,” Slayer Lite predicted gloomily.

“What was it like?” Buffy ventured quietly.

Cordelia paused. “Later, Buffy.  And there might have to be alcohol of some sort.  If I’m honest, I haven’t really started to process just yet...”

In truth, she was still strung out on adrenalin from her first full-scale – albeit short – pitched battle.  While she’d definitely been afraid during the fight, it had been pushed to the back of her mind for the most part.  Nor had Cordelia yet dwelled overmuch on the details.  The brunette, in truth, didn’t yet know how she’d react when the reality set in.  In any case, the first thing she needed was sleep.  The after-action navel-gazing could come later.    

She forced the weariness out of her voice and tried to sound jovial. “But the important thing is, I’ll be home in about two days.  And you’d better have kept some of that Christmas dinner for me.”

“There will be no Christmas dinner-eating ‘til you step in that door.  Haven’t even fixed the tree yet,” Buffy assured her.

“You break out the baubles, Slay Girl!  And my taste runs to a tasteful, minimalist tree – a few gold ornaments and single-coloured lights,” Cordelia replied.

“And I like a nice, bright tree, multi-coloured lights, every colour of fricking bauble you can think of...” Buffy retorted.

“I’m the wounded soldier, returning from her first war,” Slayer Lite smirked. “You’re supposed to make me feel at home...”

Her sister smiled at that. “Make you feel at home?  Okay, I’ll invite a nest of vamps round for the main course.  And a couple of dozen Initiative commandos for dessert...”

Cordelia laughed. “Tell you the truth, Buffy?  Nice bit of quiet Slaying is just what the doctor ordered right now.  But I have to go..  Big ship, not many phones and – as you might guess - a whole lot of people who want to call home right now.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Buffy responded happily. “Might even keep some of the roast beast for you...”

 

The Goatlocker, USS Bonhomme Richard, Off the Coast of Somalia- 25th December 2000

Cordelia awoke screaming and shivering, drenched in sweat, eyes wide open.  She’d just had one doozy of a nightmare.  Or possibly several, running together.  Whichever was the case, Slayer Lite was scared shitless, and the First Slayer was growling defensively in the background.

The brunette’s scream rapidly turned into a yelp, as she sat bolt upright in the rack and bumped her head sharply on the steel cabin roof.  Space was always at a premium on a warship, even one the size of Bonhomme Richard.  The only free berth for a woman was currently in the female Goatlocker, home to the ship’s senior non-coms, of Chief Petty Officer grade and above.  Usually, the handful of senior female Chiefs guarded their living quarters against all comers – protocol demanded that even officers have an invitation – but were prepared to make an exception just this once for an exhausted Special Forces NCO, who’d certainly earned her temporary berth in spades. 

Besides, Cordelia was the living, breathing embodiment of what these experienced USN non-coms had been saying for years.  Namely, that there wasn’t an armed forces role that couldn’t be performed just as well by a suitably trained and skilful woman, as by a man.

“You okay up there, Sergeant?” one of the female Chiefs, occupying the rack below, asked warily.

Chief Petty Officer Gwendolyn Truelove was quite intrigued by the young soldier and also prepared to cut her a little slack.  That was distinctly unusual – she usually tore anyone who woke her up a new one, just on general principles. 

“Yeah...  Just a bad dream...  Sorry I woke you all, Chief,” Cordelia mumbled, taking a deep breath and rubbing her cranium.

Some of it Slayer Lite could recollect quite clearly.  She’d relived Traeger’s brutal killing three times over, while the lioness had also made an appearance, this time managing to grab her by the throat.  Then Cordelia had re-fought her final battle twice, each time with rather less success than in reality.  Awake now, she could still almost feel the bullet embedding itself in her guts.

That, however, wasn’t the real cause of her terror.  It was Glorificus, standing in the middle of a Sunnydale street, grinning evilly at her.  Then the Hell Goddess had transformed into something terrifying.  And Cordelia couldn’t remember a single detail of what it looked like, just that it was massive – no, positively monstrous - unquestionably demonic, and absolutely terrifying.  Perhaps that section of her dream had been some sort of mystical premonition.  If so, it was way less cryptic than last time.  But if this had, indeed, been a crucially important Slayer dream, why the Hell couldn’t she remember?

“Just scared the shit out of me, is all,” Truelove replied easily. “I was only half-asleep.”

She indicated two empty berths. “And “all” is just me.  The others are on watch.  ‘Cept for Ingles, who dragged herself out of bed to deal with an emergency.  We had a distress call from an oil tanker – thought they were being attacked by pirates.  Not likely – these bastards tend to stick to daylight – but we had to respond.  Decatur and two choppers loaded with Marines are investigating...”

Decatur was Bonhomme Richard’s accompanying 8400-ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.  Not something any sane pirate wanted to tangle with.

“Ingles doesn’t think certain Ensigns – or some Lieutenants JG - should command a rowboat unsupervised and she’s pretty protective of the guys and gals in her department.  So she decided to go watch and offer a few well-placed words of guidance,” the Chief explained approvingly, demonstrating the usual attitude of veteran non-coms towards inexperienced officers.

“Bad one, was it?  Guessin’ you had an after-action flashback...” she asked carefully.

Even in the middle of the night, scuttlebutt was working overtime, even leaving aside Cordelia’s unique position.  The Special Forces Sergeant had, according to the Marines who swooped in to save the day – and now they’d be insufferable, the Chief reflected – single-handedly taken on equivalent to a reinforced company of Somali militia.  In the process she’d killed slightly more than an entire platoon’s-worth of them. 

And the Force Recon Marines weren’t given to exaggeration.  If the brunette was, indeed, having a flashback, it was scarcely surprising.

“You might say that,” Cordelia replied with some feeling, swinging her legs over the side of the rack, dropping to the cold deck and working the tension knots out of her back and neck.

“I was still pretty jazzed when I fell asleep.  Guess the whole crappy last few days are just catching up.”

The fact was, unpleasant though the other dreams had been, Slayer Lite knew it was only the supernatural variety – whether of the Slayer or normal nightmare-type - which tended to make her wake up, screaming like a frightened cheerleader.

“I’m guessing you Green Berets see some pretty bad shit all the time,” the Chief allowed soberly. “Not like some of us.  Hate to admit it, but been in the service twelve years and never heard a shot fired for real.”

Cordelia looked down at Chief Truelove.  The Navy E-7 really looked a whole lot like Buffy – blonde, short, with a distinctive nose and a no-nonsense attitude – albeit about ten years older and a lot more weather-beaten.  For a moment, she wondered if Hanks Summers had been sowing his oats even earlier than everyone thought.  The brunette shook her head.  Buffy resembled Joyce more than her father and, so far as she knew, her new mother hadn’t had any children prior to the Slayer.  It was, she decided, just a freaky coincidence, if also slightly unnerving.

“First time?” Truelove asked.

“Hmmmm...” Cordelia wasn’t sure if Operation Van Helsing counted, nor her skirmishes with Initiative and Council hitmen – but officially, this was her first Army mission.

The Chief rolled her green eyes – another eerily Buffy-like trait, Slayer Lite decided – and nodded. “Yeah – I guess you Snake Eaters can’t talk about everything you’ve done.”

Suddenly the deck lurched and tilted sideways for a few moments.  Cordelia groaned, her adrenalin-hyped state having enabled her to forget something else.

“What’s the matter?” Truelove asked curiously.

“We’re on a ship – and it’s rough.  I’d get seasick on a boating pond...” Slayer Lite explained ruefully.

Buffy and fast jets might not mix, but her sister had a definite aversion to anything that floated.  She’d discovered that aged twelve, on a particularly stormy cruise in the Caribbean.  Cordelia, inevitably, had been left alone in the cabin for a very uncomfortable week, communing with King Neptune via the porcelain altar, while her unsympathetic parents enjoyed the ship’s attractions.  

The Chief snorted with amusement. “Seasick?  Rough?  Hardly a knot of wind over the deck and no waves to speak of.  Ship was just turning at full speed – heels over slightly...”

She looked sharply at her guest. “You’re not gonna barf, are you?”

Cordelia shook her head. “Just a tad queasy.  Got anything that’ll fix it?”

Truelove smiled reassuringly. “Sergeant, we’ve got seasickness remedies that would fix a horse.  And as you aren’t crew, I don’t even have to give you the no-drowsy version.  We’ve a magic pill that’ll both fix your seasickness and knock you out cold!”

“Sounds good,” Slayer Lite agreed, absently rubbing her bandaged arm as the local anaesthetic began to wear off.

“How’s that arm?  Scuttlebutt said you were bitten by a crocodile...” the Chief was pretty sure scuttlebutt had it slightly wrong this time – unsurprisingly, she’d heard that one from some of the most junior ratings.

Not that she’d have been wholly surprised if this particular piece of Mess Deck Intelligence was also true.  Everything else about the Special Forces Sergeant, after all, seemed out of the ordinary.

Cordelia shook her head in sardonic amusement. “The rumour-mill on a ship seems as reliable as the Army version.  Still got an arm, haven’t I?  Think a croc might just have left me with a stump...”

“So what really happened?  Bullet fragment?   Poison Ivy?  Trip over your own feet?”

“None of the above.  I got scratched by a lioness,” the brunette informed her coolly.

“You’re shittin’ me, Army!” Truelove frowned.

“Believe me, I’m not.  I was just...  Well, even on operations, a girl’s sometimes gotta...” Cordelia muttered in embarrassed tones.

The Chief chuckled and put two and two together. “So there you were, skivvies at half-mast and a lion decides to have a chew?”

“Skivvies fully up, but otherwise?  Pretty much,” Slayer Lite confessed.

Truelove shook her head. “Think I’ll need to fix you somethin’ special, Sergeant.  You certainly deserve it.”

The Chief disappeared into the mess area and returned five minutes later with a mug of milky chocolate and two large white pills.

“Can’t beat Goatlocker coffee.  Unless you wanna sleep, that is...  So I went with the extra-milky chocolate instead.  Touch of something medicinal in there, too,” Truelove confided.

“Thought the Navy’s ships were supposed to be dry, Chief,” Cordelia arched an eyebrow, sniffing the proffered beverage.

“But I’m so not complaining here!” she added quickly.

If anyone on a USN ship could lay hands on a bottle of the hard stuff at a few moments’ notice, it would always be the Chiefs.  Senior NCOs in the Army had exactly the same talent for “finding” illicit articles when required.

“As I said, medicinal only,” Truelove replied with a wink. “And the MO would back me up.”

“Now you tip that down your neck – and those pills.  Then get your head down, Sergeant,” she switched to a Chief Petty Officer’s command tones.

 

Base Hospital, Stargate Command, US Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex, Colorado – 26th December 2000

““Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!””

Tara frequently read to her girlfriend, as one way of passing the time.  Since Willow had been moved to Cheyenne Mountain, the Wiccan hadn’t eased back on her daily bedside vigil.  Today the text of choice, selected from half-a-dozen of Tara’s offerings, was Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The redhead might be Jewish by upbringing, but she still enjoyed all the trappings of the festive season.  Especially A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Snoopy Dance, as performed by Xander.

At least Willow was effectively out of the coma and largely cognisant of everything that was going on around her, though she still couldn’t talk or coordinate her movements properly.  The Wiccan’s magical powers were, however, seemingly intact – or at least partially.  The previous day, in her increasing frustration at being unable to communicate properly, the redhead had sent a vase flying across the room by force of magic alone, to the alarm of the infirmary staff.  Fraiser and various Air force neurologists were also still unsure if there had been any permanent nerve damage from her spinal and head injuries.  Willow could certainly move her legs and feet in reaction to external stimuli, but at least one limb was to some extent – and worryingly - less responsive than the other.  Answers would only be forthcoming over the coming days and week though, to a certain extent at least, diagnosis would be simplified once the young witch was able to verbalise her responses properly.

“Ta – Tara...?” Willow suddenly forced out, one hand reaching for her lover’s.

The other Wiccan blinked in surprise. “Willow, sweetie?”

“What happened?  Where am I?” the redhead asked painfully slowly, blinking in confusion.

“You’re at Stargate Command, Willow.  You’ve been in a coma for three weeks – Doctor Fraiser brought you here,” Tara replied, gripping her hand.

“Why was I in a coma?” Willow screwed up her eyes, trying hard to concentrate.

“It was Glory.  Don’t you remember?” Tara asked gently.

It probably wasn’t the best time, she decided, to mention Astral Willow.  Perhaps her girlfriend would remember without being prompted.

Willow visibly shivered, suddenly recalling that night. “Oh yeah.  Didn’t duck in time...  Oops...”

She looked questioningly at Tara, every word still seemingly an effort. “Did we get her?”

“She’s still out there, Willow...” Tara replied regretfully, not about to list the Hell Goddess’s toll of death and injury to date.

“Don’t talk too much, sweetie,” she advised, urgently signalling for a nurse.

The Duty MO and several nursing staff were at Willow’s bedside in moments, Tara reluctantly leaving the redhead to their ministrations.  With her fully awake, they’d gradually be able to gauge whether any permanent damage had been done.  And Tara could only pray to the Goddess that her girlfriend would ultimately emerge unscathed from her ordeal.

The Wiccan was pacing nervously to and from when General Hammond wandered past.  Technically, he was on a long-overdue Christmas leave, but the SGC was currently on a war-footing, meaning that many of his staff couldn’t enjoy that luxury.  Nine SG Teams were also out there right now, including SG-1, and the General felt duty bound to visit the base for a few hours every day - and leave be damned.

Part of his daily routine included visiting the Infirmary each day, just to check on Willow.  Hammond had only met her for a comparatively brief period, but he’d become unaccountably fond of the red-haired witch, and hoped in the future to offer her a scientific research position within the SGC.  Tara had also surprised him, the shy Wiccan having great strength of character beneath her apparently introverted exterior.  Her loyalty and devotion to Willow were certainly indisputable, given that she spent almost every waking moment at her girlfriend’s bedside.  And if there was one thing Hammond appreciated as a career officer, it was loyalty, especially where it was accompanied – as in Tara’s case – by a solid grasp of right and wrong.

A recent conversation with the Wiccan had also revealed a wholly unexpected side.  Tara, it seemed, wanted to be a cop.  Preferably with AFOSI, apparently, given that she was already technically an agent with that organisation.  Of course, Tara wasn’t naive enough to think that the mere possession of AFOSI ID turned her into an effective law enforcement officer by some kind of osmosis, but she planned to apply to the agency on graduating college. 

Tara herself wasn’t yet sure exactly what was pushing her towards becoming a Federal agent, aside from the desire to do good – and not necessarily in a chasing demons and vampires sort of way – but it might have had something to do with her upbringing.  Suffering abuse at the hands of her father and witnessing his treatment of her mother, while constantly listening to him spewing forth the most outrageous bigotry of all types and also spouting half-baked anti-government cant at every opportunity had, evidently, affected her in more ways than one.  Beating the crap out of the bastard had certainly done wonders for her self-esteem, while his head, she’d reflected more than once, would probably spin around and explode if he ever saw her in the AFOSI windcheater.

For his part, Hammond was quite willing to support her application.  In his book, anyone courageous enough to fight the good fight on the Hellmouth was ideally suited to law enforcement.  The blonde Wiccan had, moreover, fought unflinchingly alongside Cravitz and his SEALs during Operation Van Helsing and had an Air Force Civilian Award for Valor to prove it.  Admittedly, her confidence could still do with some work, but the General was quite convinced that would develop over time.

“Any change, Tara?” Hammond paused in mid-stride.  “I was just on my way to the Infirmary.”

The startled Wiccan looked up. “Uh – hi, General Hammond...  Willow’s f-fully awake now and even talking.  The doctor’s with her now.  Guess we’ll soon know if she’ll c-completely recover...”

“Perhaps,” Hammond allowed. “But it might take a little while longer, Tara.  I’ve seen a few of these cases and it’s best if you don’t look for an instant recovery.”

Tara smiled sadly and nodded. “Doctor Fraiser said the same, but...”

“I know it’s difficult, but you must try to be patient,” the General offered gently.

“You also need to get out of here once in a while, if only for some fresh air.  Why don’t you come and eat with my daughter and I this evening?” he suggested.

“It’s tempting, General, but Willow...” Tara began.

“...Won’t miss you for just a few hours,” the General pointed out. “Willow would probably say the same – and I would imagine she’ll be quite tired by the time the doctors have finished with her.

The Wiccan paused for a moment, then smiled. “I’d like that, General.”

Hammond nodded and checked his watch. “Good.  We’ll leave about eighteen-hundred.  And I hope you’ve plenty energy, because my granddaughters are still over-sugared and over-excited from Christmas day...”  

 

1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California – 26th September 2000

It had been a long journey home, Cordelia reflected.  And the jet-lag was a killer.  It seemed like hours since they’d left Djibouti, the C-17 flying non-stop back to Acheson and leaving Africa before dawn.  Slayers, even the Lite variety, might have incredible endurance, but even Cordelia was longing for her bed.

After her trials and tribulations in Somalia, the twenty-four hour stop-over at Camp Danjou hadn’t been nearly enough time to recharge her batteries.  Of course, the rest of ODA-5943 were relieved to see Cordelia and Clifton in one piece, and Annelise Cazaux was similarly delighted her new friend had survived, but she’d also had to sit through the inevitable initial post-mission debriefing.  The latter had been a real trial, when she only really wanted to curl up and sleep.  Needless to say, the Sergeant had also been the object of much leg-pulling.  Special Forces simply weren’t supposed to need rescued by the Marines and someone – she suspected it was probably Parsons – had located a copy of the Marine Corps Hymn.  Returning from Bonhomme Richard, she’d stepped off the Marine chopper, only to have her ears assaulted by The Halls of Montezuma blaring from the airbase PA system, and a mock guard of honour formed by her team-mates.  The resident French had simply appeared totally bewildered by this particular example of American humour.

It was nearly midnight when Cordelia arrived home.  Walking up the path, she noticed that Bill Haggerson had hung a US flag outside his house and tied yellow ribbons around the trees in his front garden.  It all might be a little clichéd and over-the-top for her tastes, especially since she’d only been away or a short time, not fighting or languishing in a POW camp for years.  Still, it was also touching to think that he cared.  Slayer Lite made a mental note to call in on the ageing ex-Navy veteran.  She’d also be visiting her CO, now recuperating in Fort McGregor base hospital and, on a more sombre note, she owed Melissa Traeger a visit.

Cordelia reached for her key, only for the door to fly open.  A pint-sized blonde octopus promptly wrapped itself around her neck, for once at a loss for words.

“Steady, Buffy.  Not like I’m just coming home from a six-month tour...” the brunette pointed out gently, catching her smaller half-sister in a warm hug.

“Felt like it when you were missing, little sis’,” Buffy responded, slapping her sharply on the thigh.

Slayer Lite still couldn’t quite get her own head around how swiftly she’d bonded with Buffy.  Some unaccustomed adversity and ill-fortune on Cordelia’s part, a shared sense of Slayerness – if there was such a word – a greater degree of maturity for both, and the unexpected family tie had utterly changed their relationship in under a year.

Buffy eventually released her sister, who took the opportunity to replace the air that had just been squeezed out of her lungs.  Of the handful of core Scoobies left in Sunnydale, Xander was next in line. 

“Hey, Cordy...  You scared the crap out of us.  Just don’t do it again – please?” He asked quietly.

Xander was increasingly fearful for all his girls, as he still thought of them.  Willow had only just regained full consciousness in Cheyenne Mountain and the future health of his best friend was still unclear.  Buffy’s recent Glory-induced cardiac arrest was also a reminder that even the Slayer wasn’t immortal.  And then there was Anya.  His girlfriend needed round-the-clock care, the Assembly paying for a specialist nurse.  Routine had rapidly become the key to caring for the former Vengeance Demon, who could just about handle his absence during the day, while he was at work.  Any extended absence in the evening, however, and she seriously freaked out.  As a result, Xander could rarely even patrol at night.  Instead, he was supporting the others on the research front, wading through books and computer files at home, while tending to Anya’s needs.  It was all thoroughly depressing.

Unsurprisingly, Cordelia’s brief disappearance in Somalia, and the subsequent delay prior to her rescue, hadn’t helped his frame of mind.  Xander knew his ex was a professional soldier and, therefore, subject to a soldier’s risks.  On the other hand,  he’d always have deep feelings for the woman he briefly dated and then foolishly threw away.  There was no sense crying over spilt milk, but ever since Slayer Lite had re-entered the lives of the Scooby Gang, Xander’s ever-present White Knight-impulse was once again making itself felt.  He kept telling himself it was a ridiculous state of mind since, like most of the female Scoobies, she had a far greater range of abilities and talents than him.  Logic, however, never had a snowball’s chance in the face of his protective streak.

“No promises, doofus, but I’ll do my best...” Cordelia promised.

As ever, Giles was somewhat more reserved.  He nevertheless snatched a quick hug, these days as quietly proud of Cordelia as he was of the other Scoobies.

“Well done...  And welcome home,” he offered simply.

“Do I get a hug, too, girl?” Bateson demanded from the background.

“You get a hug,” Cordelia confirmed with a tired grin, as her friend pounced.

The paratrooper hadn’t wished to interrupt the family reunion tonight, but Buffy insisted that she and DiNozzo stay around for the celebrations.  Celebrations, Cordelia reminded herself while stifling a yawn, which also meant that her jet-lagged body wasn’t likely to see a bed anytime soon.

 

Checkpoint, Iranian-Turkish Frontier, Western Azerbaijan Province, Iran – 27th December 2000

“We’re stopping,” Wesley noted, as the truck ground to a halt.

“Well spotted, Mister Bloody Obvious!” Caroline Dent snarked.

“Big question is, where?” she reached for her MP5K.

It had been a long and wearing journey up to this point, along rough and unfinished roads, with the ever-present threat of discovery hanging over their heads.  Days of hiding and running from the authorities had finally come to and end when Azadeh Faradi finally decided it was safe to smuggle the Assembly duo out of Tabriz.  The options had been limited, however, and they were simply hiding in the back of a truck, surrounded by cardboard cartons and hoping that the border guards wouldn’t search too thoroughly. 

Faradi had assured them that the route and method were safe enough.  She’d used this driver many times to smuggle people across the frontier, in both directions.  Furthermore, she had an understanding with the guards at the chosen crossing point.  It wasn’t one of the busiest, but neither was it one of the more out-of-the-way crossings favoured by narcotics gangs.  The latter were always at risk of a sudden, surprise effort by the government and, therefore, best avoided.

Esmeray Sahin raised a warning finger to her lips.  The Turkish Wiccan, returning to her base with the Ankara Coven, had used this route on numerous occasions, though always with a different driver.  She still, however, knew it could be a hazardous undertaking.  Faradi might be on good terms with the guards, but spot-checks by central authority were always a danger.  The Wiccan also wasn’t sure whether or not to trust the driver, in spite of the Iranian Watcher’s assurances.  He was a distinctly unsavoury looking character, with an even more unsavoury past, having worked for SAVAK, the former Shah’s hated secret police force.  Apparently, the ex-maestro of the thumbscrews had something of an epiphany, when one of Faradi’s Potentials saved him from a vampire.  The former secret policeman had assisted her whenever possible ever since.  Sahin, however, was reserving judgement until they were safely inside Turkey.

Wesley had also drawn his Glock, hoping they wouldn’t have to shoot their way out.  Aside from the likelihood they’d be heavily outgunned, in the event of a successful escape on foot, it was a long way over the mountains.

The trio abruptly froze, as someone began to undo the strap securing the truck’s canvas cover.  Dent had her MP5K-PDW at her shoulder and aimed, stock unfolded and selector on full-auto.  The first few hostiles would almost certainly be dead meat, but thereafter the odds dropped away sharply.

The cardboard cartons shielding them from prying eyes were suddenly tossed aside and the fugitives found themselves face-to-face with two Pasdaran and a nervous-looking customs officer, and an even more anxious driver.  And one of the Revolutionary Guards was already aiming his big G3 automatic rifle straight at them, while the other was unslinging his own weapon.

“Don’t!” Sahin barked at Dent, even as her finger tightened on the trigger.

The Assembly operative decided that the Pasdaran had the drop on them and, in response to shouted orders and warning gesticulations, reluctantly lowered her MP5K.

Then things momentarily became very strange.  The Revolutionary Guards were in the midst of ordering them out of the truck, one at a time with their hands in the air, when they suddenly froze in mid-sentence, eyes fleetingly glazing over.  Without a backward glance, the Pasdaran simply turned around, slung their rifles and wandered away, the customs officer and driver hurriedly – and with clear relief - stacking the cartons back inside the truck.  Two minutes later, the truck was bumping down the road on the Turkish side of the border and headed to safety.

“I’m guessing we have you to thank for that?” Wesley asked Sahin, as Dent mopped her brow.

The Turkish Wiccan nodded, rubbing her temples and wincing. “It is a very difficult thing to do when the target is excited and aggressive. There is much more background noise to overcome.  And of course it is doubly difficult with two.”

“ “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for...” Dent muttered, still in shock.

Wesley ignored the Star Wars reference. “D’you think the driver tried to betray us?”

Sahin shook her head. “That was just a spot-check.  The Pasdaran occasionally like to flex their muscles, just to remind the other agencies who is actually in charge.  If they had been aware of our presence, more than two would have been used to search the truck.”

It was, Wesley reflected, exactly why Quentin Travers had always been reluctant to directly challenge the Covens, in spite of their mutual antipathy.  They were capable of much more than simple short-term mind-control.  Sahin probably could have incinerated the two Revolutionary Guards on the spot, or turned them into rats, had she so wished.  That wasn’t the Wiccan way, however, and the Covens were dedicated to using their powers for good.  Which didn’t mean they wouldn’t defend themselves with all means at their disposal, if necessary.

“What next?” Wesley wondered.

“There is a helicopter waiting about fifty miles from here, owned by my uncle.  We will all be flown to Ankara, from where you can fly home,” Sahin replied, visibly relaxing.

“Until Buffy finds another bloody suicide mission for us,” Dent noted glumly.

 

SG-1, P6L-738 – 28th December 2000 (Earth Date)

No matter the planet, the aftermath of battle generally had the same stench, especially in an urban area.  Smoke, burned wood, melted plastic, charred human flesh, and a hundred other unpleasant odours.  The capital city of P6L-738 – known respectively as Felonu and Tramizar to the inhabitants – was no exception.  Wave after wave of Death Gliders and Alkesh had reduced a once-bustling metropolis to wreckage over the course of several days, with a Jaffa ground assault crushing any remaining resistance from the Tramizari and, in the process, decimating the surviving civilian population.  Another potential ally, this one more useful than most recent contacts, had fallen to Bastet’s forces.

SG-1 watched silently from a hilltop, overlooking the remains of the city, as the Jaffa swiftly herded hundreds of still-stunned civilians towards troop transports, which had landed in a large park.  From there, they’d be transferred to Bastet’s slave planets.  The scene was being repeated in cities all over Tramizar and there wasn’t a thing O’Neill and his team could do to stop it.

It wasn’t that the Tramizari hadn’t fought hard.  On the contrary, resistance to the Goa’uld invasion had been ferocious.  Their planetary defence fleet, composed entirely of short-range, non-hyperspace ships had, admittedly, only lasted minutes against Bastet’s mighty Ha’taks.  The bulk of the Tramizari ground and air forces had also been caught by surprise, most dying in their bases before they knew what was happening.  Enough, however, had survived to give the attacking Jaffa a bloody nose, at least initially.  The first two ground assaults were repelled with huge losses to Bastet’s forces, the landing zones still strewn with wrecked troop carriers and dead Jaffa.  The first two Goa’uld secondary incursions through the Stargate had also met with disaster, against the well-trained and technologically advanced Tramizari ground troops.  Indeed, only a further wave of Jaffa-laden ships had finally dislodged the natives from their defensive positions around the gate.

Ultimately, however, sheer numbers and command of the air had been too much for the gallant defenders and organised resistance inevitably collapsed under constant pressure.

“Damn!” Carter lowered her binoculars, tore off her helmet and ran her hands through her hair in an agony of frustration and sheer powerlessness. “Not another one!”

“Bastet has someone inside the Tok’ra, Jacob,” O’Neill growled at Sam’s father.

“I believe you are right, Colonel O’Neill.  This is the fifth operation in recent days which has been compromised.  Of these, the Tau’ri were only involved in two.  The Goa’uld source must, therefore, be hiding amongst our people.”  It was Selmak, not his host, who responded.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” O’Neill snorted.

Not only had Tramizar fallen, but they’d also lost SG-20.  Indeed, SGs -1, -3 and -7 were only present on this planet to investigate a sudden loss of contact with the other team four days previously.  With a MALP probe briefly revealing the presence of Jaffa guards before it was blasted into pieces, the reinforcements hadn’t used the local gate, instead arriving on a cloaked Tok’ra transport.  The search hadn’t taken long.  They’d soon located the bodies of Lieutenant-Colonel McCormack and his team, plus two accompanying Tok’ra, killed by Jaffa before they could reach safety.

Tramizar had seemed a very promising ally, probably just over a century in advance of Earth in terms of technology.  Like their counterparts from the SGC, the Tramizari had an ongoing program of exploration via the Stargate system.  Lately, they’d become worried at the extent of the galaxy-wide Goa’uld civil war, reported by their recon teams, and apparently encroaching into their own region of space.  Furthermore, following several unplanned skirmishes between their scouts and Bastet’s Jaffa on distant planets, the Goa’uld had obviously become aware that there was a previously undiscovered planet and civilization, of a technological level that might be considered threatening by their usual measures.  Feeling somewhat alone, the Tramizari were, therefore, relieved to make contact with a race – even a less-advanced one – with some experience of fighting the Goa’uld.  Their planetary location – armed encounters notwithstanding – had remained unknown to the Goa’uld, not appearing on the Abydos cartouche or copies elsewhere. The SGC had only obtained Tramizar's address from the Ancient’s list, previously accidentally downloaded into O’Neill’s brain.

SG-20 were laying the groundwork for negotiations on a mutual assistance pact, even as Bastet’s forces struck hard at the strategically positioned planet.  And in less than five days, an advanced civilization had been reduced to rubble, its population – or what remained of it – enslaved for Bastet’s war effort.

“If you have a Goa’uld spy in your midst, General Carter, he or she must be found, interrogated and eliminated,” Teal’c rumbled.

The spy’s treachery had cost a civilization, millions killed or enslaved, and a dead SG team.  A small sample of Tramizari military technology, provided by Defence Force survivors, and some data crystals with further technological information were not, by any reckoning, worth the price.

Selmak switched back to his host. “Easier said than done, Teal’c.  Kinda hard to identify a Goa’uld amongst so many Tok’ra...”

“You could try narrowing the field, Jacob.  I’m guessing only a few Tok’ra knew about each of these operations – and that you have heard of compartmentalisation?” O’Neill put in sarcastically, wincing at the spectacle below.

“Or is it just the Tau’ri you don’t like sharing intel with?” he added, an edge to his voice.

“The Tok’ra High Council will be clearing house very thoroughly after this, Colonel,” Jacob responded.

O’Neill shook his head. “They’d better, Jacob.  Two teams lost in two missions?  Don’t know how much longer we can afford the luxury of cooperating with you guys...”

He eyed the burning city once more.  Hammond had been placing considerable hopes on an alliance with the Tramizari.  A large population, a good level of technology – which they were willing to share – a strategic location and, as an added bonus, abundant untapped reserves of Naquada and Trinium.  For the SGC, Christmas had apparently arrived in more than one way.

Now, however, hard questions were likely to be asked about the Tau’ri-Tok’ra alliance.  Of late, its benefits to Earth had been vanishingly small.

“I don’t know how long we can keep this up, Jack,” Daniel said soberly.

The Colonel knew what he meant.  For the moment, an uneasy alliance of System Lords was holding the renegade Bastet at bay, preserving their own holdings.  Of course, there was always a renegade within their ranks, but she was the most dangerous to emerge in a long time, and this was the most savage war between Goa’uld in centuries.  Normally, that would be good news for the Tok’ra and others opposed to the System Lords.  This time, however, the conflict was leading to an unprecedented arms race on all sides.  With a temporary stalemate between Bastet and her former allies, she was striking out in other directions and increasing her territory and resources at an alarming rate.  And O’Neill wondered how long it would be before she decided to ignore the Protected Planets Treaty and strike at Earth.

Firstly, having been expelled from the ranks of the System Lords, Bastet might not feel tied by their treaty obligations.  Secondly, as her military power increased, she might feel powerful enough to breach the Protected Planets Treaty, in spite of the risk of Asgard retaliation.  Thirdly, O’Neill was beginning to wonder if the Asgard were largely relying on their reputation, rather than their military power, to enforce the Treaty.  If that was the case and a System Lord of Bastet’s power decided to call their bluff, countless planets would be at risk.

The Colonel shrugged. “That’s the million-dollar question, Daniel.  All I know is we have to start hitting back at the snake-heads – no offence, Selmak...  And I don’t just mean with a few pounds of C4 here and there.”

“Any ideas, sir?” Carter asked.

“You’re supposed to be the brains of the outfit, Major.  We need to start thinking outside the box.  Pretty much throwing away the box and setting it on fire.  Thinking about how we can hurt that bitch and her allies – and hurt them hard...” O’Neill responded grimly.

“I’ve a few ideas, Colonel, but they’ll probably have to go higher – much higher -than the General,” his fiancée said.

Over the last few weeks, Carter had been mulling over potential options for effective offensive action in this war.  However, her plans would need a great deal more than was available from the SGC’s resources alone.

“And I’m not sure if the Tok’ra will be so keen...” she added, with a sidelong glance at her father.

She was answered with Selmak’s distinctive tones. “Samantha, we are – as your father would say – fast running out of options.  If you have any ideas that might help to ease the pressure on us all, I am sure the High Council would be amenable at this point.”

“You heard him, Major.  So reach for that thinking cap!” O’Neill told her.

“Down!” he suddenly commanded, as a pair of Death Gliders made a low-level pass nearby, apparently failing to spot the SG team.

“This, as you would say O’Neill, is getting very old,” Teal’c noted dryly.

They couldn’t return to their cloaked transport until after nightfall.  There were simply too many Jaffa patrols around, both in the air and on the ground.  At the same time, O’Neill also wanted to avoid some of the surviving Tramizari, who were currently hiding out in the forests and mountains.  It wasn’t that he wouldn’t be welcomed, but the Colonel simply didn’t wish to lead Bastet’s forces straight to them.

Several hundred Tramizari soldiers were in the process of rounding up as many civilians as possible, before the Jaffa caught them, at the same time gathering up stray forces from other areas.  The Tramizari CO’s plan was relatively simple, namely to spend a few weeks – or as long as was practical – assembling as many refugees as possible, then to storm and take the Stargate long enough to evacuate them to a previously identified sanctuary planet, similar to Earth’s Alpha- and related sites.  At least five thousand civilians had already passed through during the initial stages of the attack, while the Defence Forces still controlled the area.  The Tramizari people would at least survive as some sort of independent entity but, as a major advanced civilization, they would effectively have to start from scratch.

Nor was that their only problem.  SG-1 and the other two teams had arrived during the hours of darkness, only to discover that this was one of “those” planets.  The unfortunate vampire hadn’t lasted very long against O’Neill’s crew, who were used to such things by now, but it was still pretty much a given that his fellow bloodsuckers were taking full advantage of the chaos.  According to Rupert Giles, vampires on Earth tended to hang around war-zones and disaster areas, with was no reason to doubt that their off-world equivalents had similar habits.  The senior surviving Tramizari officer confirmed that his people had a trio of Slayer equivalents, tasked with guarding the planet’s highly active Hellmouth equivalent.  The Huntresses and their support teams had, however, been killed during the third Jaffa landing operation, fighting to the death against hugely superior numbers.  Another three would doubtless have been Chosen, or Elevated in the local parlance.  They were, however, either amongst the Goa’uld captives, or with those already evacuated, or were still in hiding elsewhere.  As a precious symbol to his people, the Tramizari CO hoped to locate the new Huntresses before finally fleeing his home planet.  After all, they had very little else left of their world.

With any luck, O’Neill mused darkly – and if there was such a thing as natural justice in the universe- the planet’s Hellmouth would open right in Bastet’s face, when she arrived to inspect her latest conquest.  The murderous bitch deserved nothing less than to have some demon drag her by the hair, into the deepest reaches of Hell.  

 

Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura – 28th December 2000 (Earth Date)

Faith leaned nonchalantly against a wall of the Imperial Palace gardens, outwardly relaxed, but nevertheless keeping a close eye on her precious charge.  The brunette Slayer, in no doubt of her fate if anything happened to either Dawn or Joyce on her watch, was taking Buffy’s and Cordelia’s warning very seriously.  In any case, she’d also become very attached to the youngest Summers and was prepared to give her life to protect her, if necessary.  Of course, Faith was wholly unaware of the Order of Dagon’s spell, which gave any Slayer – even including the off-world varieties, such as the Varrini – an irresistible compulsion to protect the Key-turned-human.  Unaware of the truth, the Slayer was, meanwhile, only half-jokingly blaming her ridiculously protective impulse on the Summers blood she’d received in the transfusion from Buffy.

The brunette smirked as she watched Dawn with her new friend.  Only the squirt could find herself in trouble – and with the Imperial Tutor no less – a mere ten days after arriving on the planet.  And Joyce would, no doubt, be spitting nails.  Back at the Mountain, it had been Cassie Fraiser and Dawn who were Mischief Incorporated, with the latter usually the instigator.  Dawn’s new royal friend, however, easily had her beat in the trouble stakes.

“I am sorry that I caused you trouble,” Empress Drayana the First offered ruefully, dipping her hands in the cold water of a fountain in an effort to cool them off.

Dawn smiled sympathetically. “Kinda serves me right, too...  Shouldn’t have laughed.  But it’s not like I’ve never been in trouble in school.”

“Perhaps, but after so long, I should have known better than to provoke him,” the Empress responded with a sigh.

“I’d have thought – with you being Empress and everything – that you could make the rules...” Dawn shrugged.

Drayana shook her head. “Rules – and the law – must apply to me, just as much as the people.  That includes the Education Law, even though I am legally old enough to rule.”

The Empress’s new human friend shook her head at the seeming incongruity of Drayana’s situation.  Dawn, her mother and the others had arrived on Tallura only to find, to their surprise, that the Empress was barely sixteen years-old in human terms.  Indeed, she’d only just assumed the throne two years previously, after a long period of rule under a Regent.  Drayana had eagerly seized the opportunity, as one of her first truly independent royal acts, to host the human group.  Inititially, she had mainly been fascinated at the prospect of meeting beings from another galaxy.  Additionally, Drayana had been permitted very little contact with others of her own age while she was being raised and trained for the throne.  Now that she was Empress, the young woman could, of course, associate with anyone she wished.  In practice, however, Drayana was finding that rather more difficult.  In particular, it was difficult to differentiate between those who genuinely wanted to befriend her and those who were trying to ingratiate themselves. 

Dawn, on the other hand, might be somewhat younger, but she was only a visitor to this world with no agenda.  The younger girl also had the same wicked sense of humour and fun that Drayana had, all too often, been forced to hide during her formative years.

For her part, Dawn had been more than slightly  apprehensive about being the guest of an Empress.  She’d had visions of some ageing absolute monarch, with no sense of humour and a very rigid set of protocols.  Instead, she’d met a fun-loving teenager only a few years older. 

Nor was the post of Empress in any way an absolutist one.  It wasn’t, in fact, so much different from the post of President back home, except that it was for life and also hereditary.  Drayana ruled the Tallurans in combination with elected Consuls, drawn from every planet of the Empire, and divided into three – not two - separate legislative houses, powers clearly laid down under a constitution.  For the next few years, the young woman would also have an Advisory Council, to help her make the transition to power.

Drayana’s age also meant that she was still being educated and her day was, therefore, split between Throne Room and schoolroom.  She might rule in the former setting, but by law her old tutor – aged around 140 in human terms – was definitely master in the latter. 

Dawn had unexpectedly become her classmate only two days after arriving.  Initially, Joyce and Doctor Lam believed that some time spent in a Talluran classroom environment might be a good experience for her.  Instead, she’d been teased unmercifully, on account of coming from a “backward” planet.  Faith had only just averted an inter-galactic incident, when she stopped Dawn from practicing some of Buffy’s Slayer moves on the son of the Trade Proconsul, who was probably double the weight of the youngest Summers.

On hearing of the incident, Drayana insisted that her young friend join her for lessons.  For the most part, they were necessarily taught separately within the same room, but Lam and the Empress’s tutor, Arius Myrnn, agreed that it would benefit both to learn something of the other planet’s history.

The arrangement was working out extremely well, but Dawn had quickly learned that Myrnn ruled his schoolroom with the proverbial rod of iron.  The venerable tutor also doted on Drayana – and she on him - having been one of the main influences in her rigidly structured young life, but that didn’t stop him from laying down very strict boundaries during lessons.  Myrnn was quite capable of handing out detentions and lines to his sovereign, or a sharp slap across the shoulders to make her pay attention.  If he was really annoyed, Drayana would receive five stinging strokes across the palm of each hand from the formidable two-foot stick he always carried.  And during today’s history lesson, Dawn had discovered that she wasn’t immune to consequences, either.

It was Drayana’s fault, actually.  Pretty – if stick-thin – about six-foot tall, with thick black hair that reached to the small of her back, she could be the very definition of regal when required.  At other times, when the royal mask slipped, Drayana also radiated mischief when she smiled. 

This time, the Empress had impishly coated her tutor’s desk with the sap of a particular plant which, she’d discovered, had some very interesting properties.  Properties not dissimilar to that of itching powder back on Earth, in fact.  Needless to say, neither Dawn nor Drayana could stop themselves from laughing at his discomfiture.  At least, not until he washed off the offending substance and returned with the dreaded cane. A severely pissed-off Myrnn ordered each to produce three-hundred lines for the following morning – even this advanced society still had pens and a paper equivalent – and both Dawn and Drayana were glumly contemplating several boring hours.  The Empress also found herself on the receiving end of her tutor’s rod, on the basis that firstly, she ought to know better, and secondly, as sovereign she ought to be setting an example.

To make matters worse, both Lam and Colonel Logan – who had the guard duty today – both seemed to approve heartily.  

The Empress pursed her lips. “Arius can be very pompous at times.  Three hundred times  “a willingness to show authority figures the respect they deserve constitutes a fundamental step on the road to adulthood, but insolence is symptomatic of immaturity”?”

“At least you’ve been using Talluran script all your life...  I have to copy out the characters,” Dawn muttered.

Fortunately, she had an ironclad defence if Joyce was on her case.  This was indisputably the Empress’s fault, even if Dawn could hardly blame her.

“And how can you have an alphabet with ninety-eight characters?”  she mused, to no one in particular.

Drayana blew on her hands. “At least you can still hold a pen...  Would the same thing happen to you on Earth if you misbehaved?”

“Kinda the same at my new school.  Just a different target...” Dawn replied wryly, wriggling meaningfully on the stone bench.

The Empress winced and nodded her understanding. “That is Arius’ ultimate sanction.  One we were both lucky to avoid today...”

Drayana suddenly giggled. “But Arius knows me - and the things I do – very well.  He would be worried if I suddenly became serious and stopped playing tricks on him.  Actually, he told me that once!”

If the truth were told, the Imperial Tutor was quite content to let his charge  release some of the pressures of her life and the heavy expectations of her role, even if her stress-relief took the form of practical joking.  Just so long as the Empress accepted that there would also be consequences when she crossed a line. 

Her new friend laughed and waved an arm around. “What’s a bit of trouble?  With all this?  I love it here!”

Dawn glanced around the courtyard, a low wall enclosing a beautiful garden, with numerous fountains and ponds, shaded with ancient trees and scented with flowers.  Overhead, tiny birdlike creatures – they were actually mammalian, according to Lam – fluttered overhead on twin pairs of wings.  The sky had a slightly pink hue to the overall blue, while mountains as big as the Himalayas were visible in the distance.

Tallura was stunningly beautiful and most of the people she’d met were very friendly.  Most of Yaherin Var, for its part, was a spectacular metropolis of delicate metal and crystalline towers, somehow appearing incredibly ancient and futuristic at the same time.  The Old City, where the Imperial Palace was located, was of more traditional stone construction, honeycombed with narrow streets and passageways, and with countless shops and markets for Dawn and her mother to explore.  Apparently, the Old City dated back almost fifteen hundred years, to the Tallurans’ first arrival on this planet.

Then there were the awesome gadgets.  The Tallurans might not be nearly as advanced as the Asgard, but Dawn was still totally geeking out.  Transport devices that could whisk people from one end of the city to another in a blink.  The three-dimensional holograph entertainment system and super-advanced computer in her suite of rooms.  Even an AI-based robot to clean up after her and produce snacks and drinks on demand.

It was also all sufficiently different from Earth that the young brunette knew she’d never be bored here.  As added frosting on the cake, there wasn’t a hint of the supernatural on the entire planet.

The others were equally delighted.  Joyce had a whole civilization’s art to study, while off-duty Faith was teaching the Royal Guard advanced unarmed combat and simultaneously lusting after every one of them.  Logan and SG-15, meanwhile, were exchanging ideas with the Guard at every opportunity, and Caroline Lam was enthusiastically studying a new culture, when she wasn’t busy teaching Dawn. 

Faith, too, wasn’t exactly a stranger to the Imperial Palace schoolroom, working on her High School Equivalency diploma, with a possible view to entering the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs the following year.  That aspiration, apparently emerging from nowhere, had surprised even her.  Up until recently, Faith’s opinion of her own academic abilities had been decidedly negative.  Since her release from prison, however, she’d met plenty of people who’d encouraged her to think otherwise, especially Caroline Lam.  Besides, Faith’s competitive streak was also insisting that if Buffy and Queen C could go to college, why shouldn’t she?

Lurking at the back of the class during lessons also, of course, allowed her to keep a close eye on Dawn.  The brunette Slayer never forgot, not for one second, the reason she was here.

“Shall we visit the market?” Drayana suggested brightly – school was over for the day and she had no outstanding business of state.

The Empress made a point of frequently being seen by – and making herself accessible to – her people.  Some of the government old guard thought it was unbecoming, but Drayana didn’t care a whit, especially since the population thoroughly approved.

Besides, today was the Crystal Fair, probably her favourite market of the season, where the Jewellers’ Guild displayed and sold their beautifully crafted wares.  Gems of all types were quite plentiful on this planet, selling at fraction of their price back home and prized for their beauty more than any intrinsic economic value.

“Maybe something with sapphires...  Or perhaps emeralds...” Drayana, as her most recent friend was quickly realising, had a very impressive shopping habit.

“What about the lines thing?” Dawn pointed out. “Don’t want to honk off old Arry again...”

Drayana laughed dismissively. “Arius is much more malleable outside school hours.  I believe I can persuade him to abandon that part of our punishment.”

The old tutor had been one of the few people within the Imperial Household who’d actually showed the slightest affection for the young Empress-Elect, orphaned before she was old enough to remember her parents.  For many years, he’d been not only her tutor, but also her confidant, mentor, friend and surrogate-grandfather.  She’d also had many years to learn how to manipulate the old man, at least outside his personal realm.  When he wasn’t in tutor-mode, Drayana could use her enormous grey eyes and impossibly long eyelashes to devastating effect.

“Besides, he will already have forgiven us,” the Empress predicted.

“You sure?” Dawn asked cautiously. “’Cos after today?  Really don’t want to find out what happens if I push his buttons again...”

“Quite sure.  Maybe I should buy him a gift...”

Dawn looked mildly askance at her companion. “A gift?  An apple for the fricking teacher?  There’s a name for people like you where I come from.”

Suck-ups, she reflected in amusement, also tended to wind up with their head forced down the toilet.  But that was probably a treason charge and a quick trip to the chopping block here, the young Summers snickered to herself. 

The giggling Empress – she seemed to giggle a great deal when not in sovereign mode - responded by grabbing Dawn by the hand and dragging her towards the courtyard gate. 

She called to the commander of her personal guard detachment, who was already checking his sword and plasma rifle.“Centurion?  Dawn and I will be visiting the central market this afternoon.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

The officer bobbed his head and signalled the half-dozen men in the guard detachment to follow.  They’d never be needed to safeguard the Empress from the Talluran people.  Anyone who threatened a hair on Drayana’s head was likely to find himself hanging by the neck from the nearest tree, summarily executed by his fellow citizens.  The young woman was an exceptionally popular sovereign.  In any case, for this afternoon’s excursion, his men were more likely to be used as bag carriers.  If there was one thing the Empress enjoyed, it was shopping in the many marketplaces of Yaherin Var.  Not that she ever forgot her guards, who always returned from such trips with gifts for themselves, their wives, girlfriends, and children.  Plus Drayana unfailingly ensured they were well-fed in one of the Old City’s subterranean taverns. Truthfully, protecting the Empress wasn’t only the most prestigious duty in the Imperial Guard but also, by a long way, the most enjoyable and rewarding.

Not that his Imperial Guard detachment would let their vigilance fail for a moment.  The Centurion might trust the Talluran people as a whole, but he wasn’t so sure about many of those associated with the Regency.  Some hadn’t liked handing over power, as was legally required when Drayana came of age, while others had been summarily dismissed.  The Empress might be young and frivolous in some ways, but she could also sniff out corruption and incompetence very quickly, and had moved to root out the worst offenders.  The Centurion wholeheartedly agreed with the changes she’d wrought in a short period of time, fully endorsed by the Consuls and wildly approved by a population, who were growing tired of the faceless collective Regency ruling in place of a sovereign.

At a window overlooking the courtyard, former Regent Fen Ilarius positively scowled, as Dawn and Drayana wandered down the hill towards the Old City, trailed by the Royal Guard and the two duty members of SG-15, plus the ever-watchful Faith.  The girl – the child – was wholly unsuited to the role of Empress, with her ideas for change and popularity.  The whole notion of the “People’s Empress”, as Drayana had become known, jarred with his concept of the monarchy.  That old fool of a tutor should have literally thrashed respect for tradition into the Empress-Elect on a daily basis, when she was young enough to be amenable to such forms of “persuasion”.  Now, however, it was too late, especially since Drayana – out of all her studies – excelled in Political Science, History and Rhetoric.  Of course, Arius had always hated the Regent – and vice-versa – but age-old family connections with Drayana’s family had made it impossible to dismiss and replace him.

Even more importantly, the Imperial Advisory Council, from which Ilarius’ chief supporters had been systematically excluded, were besotted with the whelp, with only the former Regent himself occupying a distinctly marginalised seat.  The archaic law that allowed mere children to assume the throne certainly had a great deal to answer for but, enshrined in the constitution, it was well-nigh impossible to change.

Ilarius also disliked Drayana’s fascination with other worlds and races.  The Asgard alliance was a necessary evil but, in Ilarius’ view, the Tallurans should shun such things as far as possible and forge their own destiny.  Outsiders had only ever brought trouble to the Tallurans – history provided numerous examples of that.

Outsiders that now included primitive humans, especially those taking refuge from a supernatural threat.  Ilarius was all too aware of the malign role supernatural forces had played in decimating his people over the millennia.  He was sure the Asgard weren’t telling that foolish Empress, or those idiot Consuls, everything about their guests.  One was a Slayer, a rarity amongst humans and positively unheard of amongst the Ancients.  In the ex-Regent’s opinion, she was nothing more than a superlative killer and, therefore, a dangerous item to have around the Imperial Household.

Ilarius suddenly smiled evilly to himself.  A Slayer and some heavily-armed off-world soldiers might just unwittingly provide the answer to that insufferable brat on the throne.  They would, he decided, be ideal in the role of sacrificial scapegoats.

Faith’s hyper-aware Slayer vision abruptly homed in on a slight movement at a window above.  Her eyes narrowed as she recognised ex-Regent Ilarius lurking behind the drapes.  Of all the people she’d met on Tallura, he was the only one who’d set off her Spidey-sense, albeit on a non-demon level.  Ilarius had been distinctly cold and unwelcoming to the party from Earth.  Moreover, it didn’t take a behavioural psychologist to realise that he was pathologically jealous of the Empress.  The Slayer wouldn’t trust him to tell her the sky was blue – or pinkish-blue on this planet – and she certainly didn’t trust his intentions towards either the visitors or the likeable young Empress.

Faith settled for throwing him a knowing smirk.  She’d be watching the asshole very closely and if he also knew that, so much the better.      

 

Near The Bronze, Sunnydale, California – 29th December 2000

Andrea Bateson was thoroughly enjoying her reunion with Cordelia, short though it was, and she’d been made to feel thoroughly welcome by the Sergeant’s slightly scary sister.  She definitely missed having the sardonic brunette around the office back at Fort Bragg, especially since her replacement urgently needed a personality transplant.  While they’d kept in touch by letter from time to time, the Corporal had thoroughly enjoyed catching up on a face-to-face basis.  Cordelia had certainly had an eventful year, though it was clear she couldn’t share everything with her friend.  The permanent transfer to Special forces, for example, was a complete surprise.

There was, however, something odd about Sunnydale, Bateson had decided after a few days around the town.  She couldn’t quite put a finger on it and there was certainly nothing to explain why, months previously, Cordelia had been so reluctant to return home from Fort Bragg.  Some things didn’t add up, however.  Bateson had served with the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion for almost three years now and she’d learned to spot anomalies and patterns, almost without consciously looking for them.  Sunnydale seemed to be a prosperous town, with more than its fair share of facilities – parks, a university, two movie theatres, an amusement park, and so forth – compared to many larger cities.  Inexplicably, it also had an inordinate number of cemeteries and churches, the Greyhound having taken a circuitous route to the bus station on her arrival, which made them hard to miss.  Moreover, the locals noticeably avoided certain areas after dark and banded together in larger-than-normal groups, as though fearful of attack.  While the crime rate appeared to be small - Bateson having seen no signs of gangs, with little graffiti or other forms of vandalism – after nightfall, the citizens of Sunnydale acted almost as thought his was an inner-city ghetto with a massive drugs and violence problem.

Then there were her hosts.  Over the last few days, Buffy had periodically disappeared into the basement for extended periods – and she didn’t seem to be doing her laundry.  Anthony DiNozzo, the blonde’s NCIS boyfriend, had accidentally let slip that she was an AFOSI Special Agent.  Given her age, that also seemed unusual to Bateson.  In fact, it should have been impossible.  The Corporal also had the distinct feeling that the occupants of 1630 Revello Drive were censoring some aspects of their conversation around her.  Of course, there was also Cordelia’s own manifestly abnormal career path for a woman.  Also the fact that the group seemed to move more like a patrol in hostile urban territory, than friends and family out for an evening on the town.  Buffy and Cordelia, especially, seemed constantly and eerily alert, while DiNozzo just looked plain spooked half the time.

Admittedly, Bateson had also felt distinctly uneasy since the moment she stepped off the bus.  There was no particular reason for the feeling, but it hadn’t really faded over the last few days.  The Corporal sighed to herself.  Adding all these things together didn’t bring her any closer to understanding why this town felt so weird.  In any case, she was leaving in two days, assigned to the 313th MI’s duty component of the 82nd Airborne’s Division Ready Force for the next six weeks.  At least this time she’d be able to catch an Army flight from Acheson back to Bragg, rather than spending a couple of uncomfortable days on the Greyhound again.

“You know, I’m almost jealous of you, girl...” Bateson told Cordelia, as they made their way from The Bronze to a new club that had apparently opened only recently.

She was pretty sure most of the locals didn’t frequent this somewhat dark and narrow alleyway, connecting two of the town’s main streets.  Neither of the sisters appeared overly perturbed at the prospect, though DiNozzo seemed even more twitchy.

“Jealous?” Cordelia quirked an eyebrow at her friend.

“I’m headed back to Bragg, to drive a desk, make coffee and Xerox copies for the officers and – if I’m really lucky – they’ll let me make a few low-level analyses.  Boring as Hell most of the time, ‘cept for the occasional exercise, intel refresher down at Fort Huachuca, or re-qual jumps.  Been in the Army three years – two with the 82nd - and haven’t had a whiff of a crisis, let alone any action.  But you?  You’ve all this fricking secret shit goin’ on with Special Forces...  Active combat duty, just about every kinda training possible.  And next time we meet, I’ll have to call you ma’am!” the Corporal pointed out.

Slayer Lite shook her head. “With the DRF, you could be headed for some crisis eighteen hours after your Duty Cycle starts.  As for the combat duty?  Be careful what you wish for.  It’s what I do, Andrea, but a helluva lot of it wasn’t nice and...”

Suddenly Cordelia felt an unmistakable sensation, her alert state increasing dramatically.  The brunette stopped dead in her tracks, scanning the surrounding area.  Buffy, she saw, was also on alert.

“Feel it, Cordy?” the Slayer was ready to go for her Glock or stake.

“I feel it.  More like a them, actually...  A helluva lot of them!” her sister responded.

“Both ends of the street, so nowhere to run,” she added in a grim undertone.

“Can you...?  I mean, with the arm...” Buffy’s voice trailed away worriedly.

“Scratched and stitched up, not torn off,” Cordelia assured her tartly, slipping on a pair of brass knuckles.

They were a Christmas present from the Slayer.  Buffy, the brunette thought wryly, seemed to slipping out of her once-impressive shopping habit.  On the other hand, the knuckles might be just what she needed right now. 

“What’s the matter?” Bateson demanded, alarmed at the sisters’ sudden change of demeanour, as though they expected to be attacked.

Buffy ignored her. “Tony?  Watch out for Andrea and try not to get underfoot.  This is gonna get really nasty!”

“What’s going on?” Bateson protested, as DiNozzo dragged her towards a doorway and drew his automatic.

“Think Enter the Dragon, meets Dracula,” DiNozzo wasn’t too impressed with his own choice of movie references – he usually did better – but now wasn’t the time for finesse.

“What the fuck?” Bateson rolled her eyes at him and shook her head, both mystified and scared.

Tony handed her a stake and wooden cross. “Stay behind me.  If you’re attacked?  Shove this into the heart...”

The Corporal stared at him as though he was crazy.  Martial arts and horror movie references, wooden stakes, crosses, a population that got very nervous after dark...  Surely it couldn’t be, the paratrooper told herself fearfully.

“Hey, boys!  The Slayers brought extra snacks tonight...  Isn’t that nice of them?” a voice offered harshly and mockingly, as a group of half-a-dozen figures emerged from the shadows.

“Do I look like a fucking Twinkie?” Cordelia demanded, hand close to her Glock in its concealed holster.

Buffy grinned. “Sure you do.  Got that whole sweet, sugary goodness thing going for you...”

“Bite me, Slay Girl!”

“That’s our job...” a vampire growled.

“Can we just make with the killing and forget the jokes?” another voice demanded, from the other end of the street.

Eight more vampires were advancing from the opposite direction, cutting off their escape route.  Clearly, they’d planned this one.  What was more, many of them were carrying weapons – knives, clubs, metal rods, a couple of axes, and so forth.  Facing the combined forces of the resident Slayers, Amyra’s Sentinels, an HGC team – though HG-1 had redeployed to the Mountain and HG-2 wouldn’t arrive for another week – and under attack night and day, the Sunnydale vampire population was increasingly looking for ways to tilt the balance again.  Many were banding together into larger groups and also carrying weapons as a matter of course. 

So far, against the well-trained HGC and Sentinel teams, the vampires’ new approach had been ineffective, simply giving their enemies a more concentrated target.  On the other hand, fourteen was taking the numbers game to a new level.  The odds, both Slayers realised, were far from good.  Buffy had the distinct impression that this was a planned ambush, aimed at taking out two Slayers, rather than a mere chance encounter.  At least there weren’t any firearms in evidence, but DiNozzo would be of limited use and Bateson a positive liability.

Back-to-back, the two Slayers faced down seven-to-one odds, Cordelia urgently calling for back-up on the Sentinels’ radio frequency.

“Quite happy to get down and dusty...  But did someone call a vampire’s convention and forget to ask us?  ‘Cos that’s just bad manners and...” Buffy began equably, picking her initial targets.

“...Take ‘em, Cordy!” the Slayer’s hand went for her Glock.

In a well-honed combat drill, Cordelia instantly snatched her weapon from its holster, dropped into a two-handed firing position, and put three rapid-fired Vamp Smackers into the head of the nearest axe-wielding vamp.  She’d sighted on the next one even before the dust had settle from her first kill.  He was tougher, taking five of the big 10mm bullets before his skull exploded.  Her Glock 29’s last two rounds knocked down a third vamp, but there wasn’t time to reload and finish him.

Instead, her stake handily disposed of the bloodsucker.  Then Cordelia was fighting hand-to-hand for her life, vaguely hearing Buffy’s quips in the background and Andrea’s terrified screams.  Right now, though, it was every woman for herself.  Mustering every ounce of strength, she drove her brass knuckles into the game-face of one snarling vampire, knocking him backwards whilst barely avoiding the slash of a knife.  She countered with a kick to the nuts and another to the head, then finished the job with her stake.  Three more vamps, respectively brandishing a tyre-iron, knife and baseball bat, were immediately on her, however. 

Slayer Lite found herself backed against a wall, ducking a swing from the tyre-iron and dodging a knife thrust.  Then the baseball bat impacted against Cordelia’s left leg, knocking her off balance, a fist to the jaw dropping her to the ground.  Before she could recover, a boot smashed into her side.  Winded, Cordelia tried to roll out of the way, as a vampire took a swing at her head with his tyre-iron, the baseball fan aimed at her torso, and the knife-wielding vamp prepared to pounce.

The brunette kicked out wildly, certain she only had seconds to live, but determined to go down fighting.  All of a sudden, two detached vampire heads flew through the air, bodies dusting an instant later, while four well-placed Vamp Smackers took out the third.

“Real vampires don’t need sodding weapons, arsehole!” Spike’s dulcet tones meanwhile came from further down the alley, where the blonde vampire was helping Buffy clean up, with his usual gusto.

A white-faced DiNozzo held out a hand and helped Cordelia to her feet, while Amyra scanned the surrounding area, Slayer Blade in each hand.  The cavalry had, yet again, seemingly arrived just in time.  One of these days, Slayer Lite told herself, she wouldn’t be so lucky.

“You okay?” the NCIS Agent asked, holstering his automatic and looking around.

Spike was repeatedly and energetically bouncing a vampire’s head off the wall, seemingly intent on turning its skull into calcified powder.  Having beaten his fellow undead opponent into unconsciousness, the blonde vampire staked the limp body with a flourish and a broad grin.  A somewhat bruised and battered Buffy was, meanwhile, brushing the dirt and vampire dust from her jacket.  Aside from Spike, there wasn’t a single bloodsucker in sight.

“All things considered?  Fourteen vamps and we’re still standing?  I feel fricking ecstatic!” Cordelia breathed, rubbing her aching arm and vaguely wondering if the stitches had torn.

“And thanks for saving my neck!” she added, with some feeling.

“Whatever happened to just drinking your blood?” Her sister asked rhetorically, tucking Mister Pointy back inside her jacket.

Fourteen vampires in one night was quite possibly a record for Sunnydale.  It would also put a major dent in the undead population, making their job slightly easier for the next few weeks, at least.

“The Eunuch and I were sweeping the area,” Amyra explained nonchalantly, sheathing her Blades.

The Protector and vampire might have been utterly incompatible on a sexual level – and the Varrini woman was still berating herself for getting into that position in the first place – but they made an excellent slaying team.  For that reason, and that reason alone, they were often found together in the evening.

“I am not a sodding eunuch, you cheeky bint!” Spike retorted, voice rising in protest.

It seemed as though Amyra would never let him forget his failure to perform that evening.

“You certainly sound like one,” DiNozzo pointed out with a twisted smile, having already decided that he disliked the blonde vampire.

“Sod off, pillock!” the dislike was wholly mutual.

Buffy and Cordelia, meanwhile, were attending to a quivering Andrea Bateson, who was curled up in a doorway, eyes wide.

“V-v-vampires!” The word came out as a combination screech, accusation, and expression of disbelief.

“Don’t suppose you’d go for trick of the light?  Or gangs on PCP?  Or maybe they had rabies...” Buffy suggested hopefully, as Cordelia wrapped a reassuring arm around her shaken friend.

“And I’m the fricking President!” Bateson glared. “I know what I saw, girl!”

“If you’re still bored in a year or two, Andrea?  Pretty sure we can use you in my other line of work...” Cordelia offered gently, albeit pointedly.

She wondered if this incident would spell the end of their friendship.  The brunette could hardly blame her friend if she never wanted to see either her, or Sunnydale, ever again.

“I knew there was something weird about this town!  I knew it!  And about you two...” the Corporal exclaimed.

Buffy glanced over at Cordelia. “Guess we have to do the big reveal.  You or me?”

“Be my guest, Slay Girl,” her sister replied.

Cordelia reckoned she’d soon have to do the same for Clifton.  He’d seen too much of her abilities in Somalia and would, doubtless, be seeking answers.  Besides, as someone she’d fought beside – and would doubtless have to do so again in future – she owed him an explanation.  Trust, after all, was absolutely crucial in a combat situation.  Which didn’t mean it would be easy, or comfortable, for either of them.

“Okay.  First with the explanations, then the Non-Disclosure Forms...” the Slayer began, keeping her voice as light as possible.

“I’ll keep things simple.  Questions later.  First, vampires are real.  Second, Sunnydale’s infested with them – and much worse.  Third, Sunnydale’s on a Hellmouth.  And fourth?  Cordy, me and Amyra over there are all Vampire Slayers, while Spike’s our pet vamp...”

“You can shove the “pet” part, Slayer!” Spike retorted.

Bateson nodded dumbly, with a fearful sideways look at the blonde vampire, and had a sudden urge to pinch herself.  Surely she’d wake up soon.

 

General Hammond’s House, Colorado Springs, Colorado – 30th December 2000

George Hammond watched approvingly, breath freezing in the chill air, as his two granddaughters put the finishing touches to their latest snowman.

The eldest, seven-year-old Tessa, added the finishing touches, in the shape of a battered hat and an old pair of spectacles.

“It looks kinda like Mister Obermann,” she offered gleefully, stepping back to examine their creation.

“Mommy says we shouldn’t make fun of people,” Six-year-old Kayla primly reminded her sister.

Tessa shrugged. “Grumpy’s not here, so he doesn’t know we’re making fun of him. ‘Sides, it’s just a snowman...”

The General chuckled and decided that the figure did, indeed, more than slightly resemble his daughter and granddaughters’ rather cantankerous elderly neighbour.  The notoriously humourless Obermann would doubtless accuse the youngsters of perpetrating a libel.

“Snowball fight, grandpa!” Tessa called out.

Before Hammond could respond, a well-formed and accurately-aimed snowball caught him right in the mouth, swiftly followed by several others around his head and shoulders.  His eldest granddaughter certainly had a killer instinct, the General decided, spluttering on a mouthful of snow.  Then a giggling Kayla opened fire, too.

“I’ll get you both for that...” Hammond mocked-growled, advancing on his two squealing and giggling granddaughters, and launching a counter-attack of his own.

“Dad?” Hammond’s daughter, Patsy, was calling him from the kitchen door. “It’s your special phone...”

The General sighed, wondering who was on the other end of the secure phone in his study, and exactly what the world-ending calamity was this time.  He really grudged any interruption to his precious family time, which didn’t come around nearly often enough.  Just once, it would nice to get away from the crisis of the moment.  Next leave period, he was tempted to borrow O’Neill’s cabin in Minnesota.  It didn’t have a phone, especially not a secure connection to the Whitehouse, Pentagon and elsewhere in the political-military hierarchy.

“Hammond...” He picked up the handset, brushing a few remaining patches of snow from his jacket.

“What are we gonna do about your girl, George?” Lieutenant-General Anthony Hashima demanded, without further ceremony.

“And Season’s Greetings to you too, Tony,” Hammond responded acerbically. “If you’re referring to Sergeant Chase, she isn’t – as you put it – “my girl” just yet.  And she won’t be for at least another ten months.”

“Where your HGC business is concerned?  She’s part of the Oversight Committee right now.  And close enough to SGC operations that you ought to be concerned, way the press are sniffing around,” Hashima retorted.

Hammond sniffed dismissively. “We’ve dealt with the media before, Tony.”

“Maybe, but Sergeant Chase has attracted a lot of attention.  And SecDef and SecArmy are all over me to deal with it.”

Hashima was beginning to wonder if having a Slayer in Special Forces was going to be more trouble than she was worth, despite the deadly capabilities the Sergeant – and future officer - brought with her.  On the other hand, the decision wasn’t really his to make anymore, so the Army would just have to deal with it and move on.

“So we make use of that attention.  Don’t even try a cover-up, but quite the opposite.  We play up Sergeant Chase’s exploits, publicise that amendment to Title X regulations – obviously not giving them the classified appendix that names the SGC, HGC and other units – and point them in the wrong direction.  Now, who do we both know that admits to having certain highly classified units under command?” Hammond suggested.

“JSOC?  The CIA?” Hashima ventured, after a moment.

The USAF Major-General grunted. “We’ll leave the Dark Forces out of this, but JSOC fits the bill perfectly.”

Joint Special Operations Command, part of the wider SOCOM community, had two specific roles.  The first was largely an administrative/experimental role, concerned with developing and overseeing joint forces tactics and doctrine, to enable the various Army, Navy and Air Force components of SOCOM to work together more effectively. 

The second function, however, was much more secretive.  JSOC was responsible for a range of counter-terrorist operations, and included 1st Special Forces Detachment-Delta – or just plain Delta Force – plus the Navy Special Warfare Development Group and the USAF 24th Special Tactics Squadron amongst its units.  It also incorporated a number of clandestine units, whose identity was not within the public domain, but which were nonetheless periodically the object of some speculation in the press.  And JSOC were secretive to the nth degree about their counter-terror operations and associated units.  Press enquiries about Cordelia would simply meet with a polite “no comment”, which would simply encourage inquisitive journalists to seek links where none existed.

“What was that Somali mission, but a counter-terrorist operation on a large scale?  Fits the JSOC profile exactly,” Hammond pointed out.

Operation Certain Retribution – a less than subtle name by any standard – had been primarily designed to grab a handful of terrorists, with anything else a bonus.  The initial concept had come out of JSOC, though other units were actually tasked with carrying it out.

The head of USASOC ruminated for a moment. “We can work with that.  I’ll start diverting enquiries about Sergeant Chase to the JSOC office at Fort Bragg, sit back, and listen for the sound of reporters beating their heads off a brick wall...  Maybe arrange a leak, tying her to JSOC.  Which we’ll deplore in the strongest possible terms, of course.”

“You best throw them a carrot, too,” the SGC commander suggested sagely.

“Press conference,” Hashima decided.

Hammond raised an eyebrow in Cordy-esque fashion. “You’re planning to put Sergeant Chase in front of a bunch of reporters?  Are you insane?”

It wasn’t that Cordelia would blurt out anything she wasn’t supposed to. After all, Slayer Lite had a very personal interest in keeping her various roles secret.  On the other hand, she wasn’t the most diplomatic of individuals.  And, as Hammond well knew from previous postings prior to the SGC, sometimes the armed forces had to play nice with the press.

“The press conference will be about the op as a whole – remember, bringing in the bastards responsible for the American 619 hijack is big news, too.  And we’ll try to focus on that. 

“But Sergeant Chase will be up there on the platform, too... Of course, Public Affairs will make sure our girl’s properly coached beforehand.  We need to give them something on the human interest angle.  Sergeant Chase is interesting to the media, precisely because she’s a very young and attractive woman, serving with Special Forces and excelling at it.  So, as you say, we big up her exploits.  Perhaps not her initial role so much – the expert sniping thing might be a tad unsettling for some of the media – but that last fight against the militia.  We both know that individual soldiers have fought against similar odds in the past - and we mention that.  But also play on the fact that she’s the first woman to do it,” Hashima proposed.

Fortunately, there hadn’t been the first suggestion that Cordelia was anything but a super-competent soldier and, therefore, nothing to open the whole Slayer can of worms.  Though Hashima suspected that the Sergeant’s sister’s organisation was quite expert at concealing such things, in any case.

Besides, only Clifton had actually seen her in full Slayer mode, albeit on several occasions, with the Marine rescue party arriving in the aftermath of the final firefight.  And, having encountered the formidable brunette Sergeant himself – and been warned off by her fearsome sister - the USASOC commander was pretty sure Cordelia could deal with her immediate CO in that regard.   

“So what are you going to pin on her chest this time?  Or maybe hang around her neck, for that matter?” Hammond asked.

In the past soldiers had been awarded either the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross for such feats of arms.  Slayer powers or not, Hammond was firmly of the opinion that she certainly deserved such recognition.  Pinned down and fighting alone against those odds, the dangers were scarcely less than they’d be for a normal individual, and the level of courage required also of an equivalent level.  Slayer or not, being shot at by dozens of enemies was a distinctly unnerving experience, especially on her first real combat mission.

“Pretty much no doubt that we’ll have to go with the MOH on this one, George.  SecDef and SecArmy are both quite vocal about that.  If we give her a DSC, the feminist lobby will be at the Pentagon’s throats so fast...  And it’ll probably piss off half of Congress, too,” Hashima predicted.

“Besides, she more than deserves it,” he added firmly.

“No arguments from this end, Tony.  I guess this award will also be highly expedited, if only to keep the press pack at bay?” Hammond guessed.

He also wasn’t sure if the brunette would actually appreciate the award or the sentiment, but it wasn’t her call.

“You got it in one, George.  After that?  Hopefully they’ll find something else to interest them.  The award will be announced in about a week, with a trip to DC for Sergeant Chase within the month.  SOCOM-West and Special Forces Command will both be submitting recommendations and Clifton and the Marine CO have each provided pretty unequivocal evidence.  We’ll hold the press conference directly after the announcement,” the Army General replied.

Needless to say, the press conference would include at least one senior and grim-faced JSOC officer hovering in the background, to misdirect or very publicly ignore any questions outwith Cordelia’s remit.

“Might be a good idea to keep the Sergeant out of the public eye on her next mission, Tony,” Hammond couldn’t resist adding.

Media attention – excessive or otherwise - just wasn’t an issue with SGC missions, for which the USAF General was almighty grateful.

“Not our fault!  If the operation had gone to plan, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.  Besides, as you well know, most of our operations are a lot less public,” Hashima replied defensively.

He cleared his throat. “However, on the back of Sergeant Chase’s performance in Somalia, I think we may need to re-evaluate her training schedule for the second half of the coming year, to see how we can maximise the benefit to both the SGC and Special Forces.  Especially in the light of the Army’s increased involvement in the Stargate program...”

Hammond suppressed a groan.  There had been a growing tide of pressure from the upper ranks of the various services – at least, from those privy to the SGC’s activities – that the Air Force wasn’t playing the joint-service game.  Technically, Hammond’s command was separate from SOCOM, though it often served as a cover, but the Army in particular had been growing vocal on this issue.  The USAF General had to admit that they had a point, with most of the SGC’s missions taking place on land – albeit alien land.  The Army and Marines, to put it plainly, wanted a larger part of the pie, not simply the occasional personnel transfer.  Especially since the latter inevitably involved losing their best people on a permanent basis.  As a consequence – and in order to preserve the secret jewel in the USAF’s crown – the service chiefs had agreed to roll out certain organisational changes over the next few years.

Hammond intensely disliked such inter-service politicking, but at his level it was unavoidable.  Right now, he wasn’t sure how these forced concessions related to Cordelia’s future training, or what role Hashima had in mind for Slayer Lite.  He was, however, pretty sure that the wily commander of USASOC was plotting something.     

 

North of Ullapool, Wester Ross, Northern Scotland – 31st December 2000

The Army Air Corps Lynx hovered briefly just above the ground, half-a-dozen SAS troopers jumping into the calf-deep snow and rapidly making their way to where several of their comrades were waiting beside two Land Rovers.

“Glory’s work, boss.  No doubt about it,” the SAS Sergeant assessed grimly, indicating the horribly mangled body of a local constable lying half-buried in the snow at his feet.

Captain William Young sighed and shook his head. “That makes seven brain-sucked – she must have been pretty hungry and tired after the swim – and five dead.”

“Another one over here, boss,” an SAS trooper called out, finding a second body. “And their car’s upside down in the river.”

Having flown into Inverness several days earlier, setting up shop at Fort George, with supporting Lynx and Puma choppers operating out of Dalcross Airport, most of M-Squadron were currently deployed on the Scottish west coast.  They were, however, spread thinly as they had no idea where – or if – Glory would come ashore, though the position of the aircraft when it was intercepted indicated that this was the closest and most likely landfall. 

A sudden outbreak of catatonia around Ullapool had alerted M-Squadron to Glory’s presence like the proverbial smoking gun.  The best efforts of the RAF’s Tornado fighters obviously hadn’t been enough, if the seven new mental patients – all doubly sucked, it seemed – were anything to go by.  Not to mention the five bodies, all victims of massive physical trauma.  The first police officer’s head, for instance, had literally been turned 360 degrees, with every limb pulverised.  The second body didn’t even seem to have a head, a single blow having smashed the constable’s head to pulp.  To Glory, that was simply casual violence.

The Hell Goddess had evidently come ashore near this small fishing and tourist town a few days before, since that was when the head-cases started to show up.  She’d swum at least 150 miles and passed through a major storm – Force Nine on the Beaufort scale - to get here.  From what they knew about Glory, she would have come ashore barely able to function, after so many days without sustenance and had obviously grabbed the first people she met.  Seven individuals, drained even beyond the level of Hank Summers, would last her some time.  The others, for some reason, she’d simply killed.

“Most of the bodies have something missing,” another SAS trooper announced. “Mobile phones and money.  The bitch may be fucking insane, but she isn’t stupid!”

Young nodded.  That explained the civilian killings, while the Police had obviously been alerted by something odd, to their misfortune.  The SAS Captain made a mental note to pass on her description to every Police force in the UK, with instructions to report but, under no circumstances whatsoever, to approach.

“Keeping in touch with the minions back in America.  The CCTV footage they sent us only showed one boarding that plane,” he guessed.

“Think she’ll still head for London?  Good bet she took a bus – I’m pretty sure she won’t be able to drive, wouldn’t want to walk, and there’s no other way out of here.  Train or plane from Inverness, I suppose...” his Sergeant pointed out.

The snow wouldn’t, admittedly, be too much of an obstacle to the Hell Goddess.  On the other hand, Glory would probably prefer not to waste time.  But even if she was on foot, several hours of steadily falling wet snow would already have obliterated any tracks.

“If Glory isn’t too damned stupid to realise we’re onto her, she’ll figure out that we’ll have moved the Koh-i-Noor from the Tower.  Probably hasn’t time to find someone who knows where it was sent, which means she’ll wait for a lead on another artefact.  But she’ll probably head somewhere that isn’t a pimple on the arse-end of nowhere – most likely a city with magic shops.  When the bodies and the mental cases start piling up, that’ll give us a location,” Young mused.

“Edinburgh is the closest...,” an SAS trooper pointed out.

The Captain nodded. The Scottish capital was one of the most active supernatural hot-spots in Britain, with the sort of magic suppliers and practitioners, and demon muscle which Glory might be looking for.  The general consensus in both Sunnydale and within M-Squadron was that the Hell Goddess had some pretty sharp minions, given that she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack.  They would, most likely, point her in the direction of Edinburgh.  Unfortunately, the city was also big enough for her to lose herself, especially if she was careful where she dropped her gibbering leftovers.

“Then what, boss?” his senior NCO hefted an M16/M203-combo. “This type of stuff won’t even tickle her.  Eight missiles blew that fucking airliner to bits.  She falls thirty-thousand feet-plus into the sodding Atlantic, then swims here.  If we bump heads with this crazy Hell Bitch, we’re royally fucked!”

He glared half-contemptuously at one of his troopers, who was fondly and expectantly cradling his Barrett M82 fifty-calibre sniper rifle as though it were his child. “And that new substitute for a dick won’t even crack her fucking nail polish, either, Cribbens!”

“First I report in.  To the Major at Fort George, the Assembly in London, the Devon Coven, and directly to Buffy in Sunnydale.  We’ll try to put a trace on the numbers of the missing phones.  And I’ll have the choppers sweep the area, from here to Ullapool and down towards Inverness, just in case she’s on foot.  Then – uh – then we’ll take it from there...” Young temporised, wiping the snow from his cold-weather jacket.

The Slayer was most definitely not going to be happy that Glory had escaped the aerial ambush.  Especially since it had cost several lives, to no avail.  That, however, had to put to one side, Young decided.  Only three questions were now important.  Where was the Hell Whore?  What was her next objective?  And how the fuck were they supposed to stop her?

From where the SAS Captain was currently standing, the nuclear option was becoming more and more likely.

 

Note:

In case regular readers are wondering why I’ve suddenly brought this to a halt, I can assure you that the story hasn’t been abandoned or prematurely concluded.  Of late, however, it was beginning to feel a little lengthy and unwieldy – or certainly from the writer’s perspective - since there’s still some way to go before the end.  Having contacted a few regular readers for their thoughts, I therefore decided to split the story into two volumes.

A split at this point seemed to make sense, bringing a major plot point (Cordelia’s first mission) to a conclusion, winding up a few subsidiary plots, and setting up for some new ones (Cordelia’s officer training, Dawn on Tallura, another SG-1 arc).  In the meantime, Glory is still out there as the Big Bad.

Sorry if this chapter feels a little fragmented and busy, but there was a great deal to tie up and I also had to pave the way for future plot lines (and maybe a few red herrings).  Hope you enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

  

     

The End

You have reached the end of "Fate's Little Plaything (Volume One)". This story is complete.

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