Chapter 6: One Girl in All the Worlds

Giles listened to Willow and the Bracken demon, O'Leary, sketching out a floor-plan of Kheper's compound. The demon had been there for the better part of a year, after all, and Brackens were naturally disinclined to take part in the usual apocalyptic madness (the only recorded Bracken assault had been the infamous Guinness brewery raid of 1878, and the only casulaties there had been thirty-nine ruptured kegs of stout ... which, it turned out, had been poisoned by a mad Ulsterite anyway, so the Watchers had written it off as no harm, no foul); any information that could be gathered would be useful.

Teal'c silently observed the map being drawn; Xander was craning to see, with Anya occasionally whispering in his ear; Joyce was sitting on the sofa, quietly sipping coffee and observing the tableau.

He walked over to where the rest of the commandos were sitting and said in a low voice, "I need to clarify a point. What are your intentions regarding the creature Kheper?"

O'Neill shrugged. "Stop him from whatever he's doing. Capture him if the opportunity presents itself, kill him if there's the slightest immediate threat to anyone. Nabbing his stash would be a plus."

Giles slowly took off his glasses and looked O'Neill right in the eye. "I won't tolerate meddling from self-professed 'experts', Colonel." He took a breath. "Doctor Jackson has apparently heard of the legend of the Hellmouth; but let me reassure you, there is a reality beneath that legend. The gateway between our world and the inferno Dante wrote of is less than two miles from here, and if ever it is opened, the result will be Armageddon."

"Why is it always the Hellmouth?" Buffy asked with a frustrated breath. "Big ugly comes into town, and it's always the same: get a mocha from the Espresso Pump, boogie at the Bronze, and try to crack open the Hellmouth before I kill them. Why can't they be original?"

"'Cos that's where the money is," Xander quipped, sauntering over.

Giles blinked. "I beg your pardon, Xander?"

"That's what the bank robber said when they asked why he kept robbing banks; that's where the money is. And if you're a Big Bad looking for unlimited power ... well, the Hellmouth's where the power is."

"Xander, that is..."

"Dumb? Simple? Fortune-cookie evil mastermind philosophy?" Xander asked, beginning to wilt.

"Remarkably sound thinking," Giles concluded.

Xander was searching for a response when Anya came up and kissed his cheek. "Compliment, sweetie. Take the money and run."

"In any case," said Giles, "opening the source of that power will lead to the end of life on Earth as we know it."

"Which would be bad," O'Neill cracked. "So I think we can make keeping that closed our top priority." He leaned forward. "Are we agreed that waxing the evil overlord would pretty much accomplish that?"

"Quite," Giles agreed grimly.

"So we case the place, figure out the best ways in, rustle up some hardware and sweep through and take him apart."

"That's a plan?" Xander yelped.

Jackson nodded. "We need more than that."

"Okay, so we sleep on it tonight, we draw up a more coherent plan tomorrow, and - don't touch that!" O'Neill barked at Buffy, who had been carefully moving one of the staff weapons out of the way.

"Chill, okay?" Buffy snapped back, bristling. "It's not like I'm a kid playing with a loaded gun."

O'Neill visibly stiffened at that, his face flushing in anger. Carter quickly put a hand on his arm. "Sir, I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it."

Buffy paled. "What? What'd I say?"

O'Neill took a painful breath and looked over at Carter. "You're right. They couldn't have known." He looked hard at Buffy. "My son found my sidearm one day and decided to play with it. He was ten."

Joyce gasped. "Oh, God ... that must have been awful..."

Giles had to put his coffee cup down, lest the liquid slosh over the rim and betray the attack of shakes that had just come over him. "This must be difficult, then."

"Kids fighting a war," O'Neill mused. "If they really understand what's going on here..." Then his resolve hardened visibly on his face. "Not here, though. Not in this place. I can't have a bunch of civilians risking their lives in a war zone here."

Giles nodded. "Perhaps if you were to ask your superiors for the files concerning the fall of the Initiative, Colonel, your fears might be allayed."

"Agent Finn said it was a bloodbath," Carter said. "You were there?"

"I was," Giles said. "And those ... children ... Willow, Xander, and Buffy, they succeeded in spectacular fashion where the select troops of the government failed miserably. They stopped Adam ... well, they destroyed him. And they made the survivors' escape possible."

"Hey, don't be modest, Giles," Buffy chided. "You were kicking ass too."

"Well, I ... I suppose I was some help, yes."

"Some help? Who knew the Sumerian stasis spell that stopped Adam in his tracks? Who was able to put together the ritual that amped me up so I could take him apart?"

Jackson frowned. "Sumerian stasis spell?"

"Well ... a great deal of our arsenal here is magical in nature," Giles said. "And the presence of the Hellmouth does seem to amplify magic quite a bit."

"So you could, say, turn someone into a frog if you had to?"

"Transformation isn't easy," Giles responded. "And if done with impure motives, it could have disastrous side-effects on the caster."

"Nuts," O'Neill said wistfully.

"Sir, you're not thinking...?"

"Come on, Carter. Like you wouldn't turn Harry Maybourne into a frog if you had a chance?" That earned him a smothered laugh from his subordinate.

Giles took off his glasses. "I'm sorry, who?"

"Long story. Boring story. Classified. Let's just say that I know this guy who would make an incredibly cute frog," O'Neill said, and this time both Carter and Jackson were struggling not to laugh at the mental picture he'd painted, whatever it was.

"Yes. Quite." Giles put his glasses back on. "Be that as it may ... I have to do some research into this. If Kheper does indeed plan on opening the Hellmouth-"

"God forbid," O'Neill broke in.

"-then there are only a few specific times that he can put his plan into action. I have texts at my flat that may provide the answers, but on occasion my translations and maths have been ... a touch imprecise."

"You've gotten better, Giles," Buffy said cheerily.

"Yes, but still, it would be prudent to have someone check my work. Perhaps if Doctor Jackson would be willing?"


"I gather that you have some expertise in ancient cultures."

"Well, yeah, I know a lot of the ancient languages, quite a bit of the history."

"Then between us perhaps we can shed some light," Giles said. "I have a spare room with a bed in the flat if you require sleep."

Jackson sighed. "I don't sleep much these days. But I appreciate the offer."

O'Neill stood up. "We should be going too," he said. "I appreciate the hospitality. Carter, Teal'c, let's pack it up. Daniel, you'll check in with us when you have anything?"

Willow stammered, "Ah, ah, where are you going?"

"Army barracks outside of town," O'Neill answered. "We've made arrangements."

"Oh, you mean Uncle Sam's Vampire Bar and Grill?" Xander asked sarcastically. "Almost as bad as the fleatrap motel on Route 39."

Buffy cringed. "That's right. Public housing; it's not a home, so no invite needed."

"Invite?" Carter asked, frowning.

"A vampire cannot enter someone's home unless he's invited by someone who lives there," Giles said. "You did say the balance of Kheper's forces were vampires, no?" he asked the Bracken.

"Most of 'em, yeah. A few random demons, he actually got the drop on a Mohra-"

"Scratch the Mohra," Riley interrupted. "Courtesy of Major Carter here."

The Bracken looked over at Carter, and his blue spiky face broke into an oddly charming smile. "You whacked a Mohra? Sweet."

Carter and Jackson glanced over at O'Neill. "What?" the Colonel asked defensively. Carter shook her head and smiled.

"Anyway," the Bracken continued, "there's a few nasties still in his core force, but at this point, if he's gonna attack, it's gonna be with vamps. I think I was the last of the straight-up demons he had out there, and only because I'm good at staying out of sight." He looked up at Teal'c. "At least I thought I was."

"Teal'c's good at finding people who are good at staying out of sight," O'Neill said. "That plus a lot of other things."

"The point is that your chances for surviving the night are a lot better if you're in an actual house," Buffy said.

Teal'c stood. "Perhaps that is the case. However, we are forbidden from such a course of action."

O'Neill stood up too. "When did this taboo come into effect?"

"I believe it was the year 1791," Teal'c answered. "Officers of the military are forbidden from seizing private homes as living quarters by the Third Amendment to your Constitution."

Joyce cleared her throat. "Does it make any difference if you're invited to stay?"

Teal'c blinked. "The Constitution states that permission of the owner is required. So, I believe, an invitation would satisfy the law."

"Then you're staying," Joyce pronounced. "With those monsters out there, I'll feel a lot safer with soldiers under my roof." She glanced over at the Bracken. "No offense."

"None taken, believe me," the Bracken said with a smile over a cup of coffee.

"Well, technically, three soldiers and an archeologist," Daniel said.

"You're going to do research, remember?" O'Neill reminded him.

"Oh. Right."

"I'll stick around too," Riley said. "Make sure that you all can get a decent night's sleep."

"I think Xander should stay at my place," Anya said. "That way we can have sex without worrying about distracting the soldiers from guard duty."

Xander opened his mouth, closed it, and then shrugged. "How do you answer something like that?"

Buffy looked at the tableau. Giles was hemming and hawing and polishing his glasses - and Jackson seemed to be doing exactly the same thing. Riley was trying to smother a grin, Teal'c looked puzzled, and Carter and O'Neill were exchanging a very odd look.

"Sleep well," Joyce finally said with a chuckle in her voice.

"Not if I do my job right," Anya answered cheerily, and then they were gone, Anya almost dragging Xander by the hand out the door.

"What about you?" Willow asked the Bracken. "What are you going to do from here?"

"I'm gonna head for Willy's. See if there's an easy way I can get back home."

"Good luck."

"Yeah, you too," the Bracken said. "Hope you don't think I'm doing the coward cut-and-run thing - it's just that I've been here too long. And I'd join up against him, but I don't think I'd last four minutes."

"You think we're gonna get wiped out, don't you?" Buffy said flatly.

"Hey, if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on you. It's my odds I don't like, especially with what Kheper does to anyone who breaks his control. One time one of the Skilosh took a shock from an electrical wire when he was out scouting; he was gone for three weeks, came back looking for blood." He shuddered. "Kheper took one look at him, put on that bracelet thingy, and pretty much char-broiled him from the inside out. I go back and I'm toast." He got to his feet. "I think you got everything I can remember, but if I think of anything else, I'll try and pass it along."

Giles frowned at his notepad. "We appreciate it, of course, but there may not be time enough for it to matter."

The Bracken nodded. "Here's hoping it doesn't come to that. Oh, and Slayer?"


"Give Kheper my regards. You know, right before you send him back to hell," the demon said, and with a wave, he was out the door.

"I suppose I should bid good night as well," Giles said. "Shall we, Doctor?"

"Yeah, good idea," Jackson said. He turned to his companions: "I'll call as soon as we find anything concrete. If we find anything concrete," he concluded under his breath.

Willow stood as well. "I guess Tara and I should get going too."

Buffy shot to her feet. "Absolutely not, Will. You're staying here."

"Buffy, I think I can take care of myself."

"Will, I know you've got some mojo, but King Tut knows you, he wanted you pretty badly. They spot you out there, they'll be gunning for you." Buffy took a breath. "I think it's safest if both of you stayed the night."

Tara gulped. "Are you sure? I mean ... ah ... is that okay?" she asked, looking at Joyce nervously.

"Absolutely," Joyce said without a moment's hesitation. "I'm not leaving a friend of Willow's out in the cold."

"Is there a problem?" Teal'c asked mildly.

"Don't ask," Buffy snapped back. "Don't tell," she told Tara, with a bit of a smile on her lips.

Teal'c looked back to O'Neill and Carter.

"Later," O'Neill said. "Much later," he continued quietly.

The Citroen had seen better days, Jackson decided, but it wasn't nearly as bad as being dragged across the Abydos deserts by the ankle behind a mastadge. Actually, though, he thought, looking at the street crawl by, the mastadge would probably have gotten him there faster.

"Let me guess. Speed traps?"

"I beg your pardon?" Giles asked, turning his head.

"The local cops set out speed traps, I take it. Why you're driving so slowly."

"Ah. Actually, the police here are ... really rather lax in their duties. No, this car just tends to get erratic if I take it much past thirty anymore."

"I thought Citroens aged a little better than that."

Giles sighed. "It doesn't help when fair-weather friends drive them into foundation pilings at speed. Frankly, I'm amazed it still runs."

"It could be worse," Jackson muttered.

"I'm sorry?"

Oops. "Oh ... I just mean that if worse comes to worst, we can get out and walk. I don't always have that option."

"Driving is probably a lot safer in this town," Giles commented.

"Yeah, I noticed what kind of foot traffic is around," Daniel noted wryly. "What I don't understand is how this sort of thing can happen in a town like this without it being noticed all across the state and probably the entire West Coast. I mean, you don't even find this sort of thing mentioned in the National Enquirer."

"I've often wondered about that myself," Giles mused, struggling with the gearshift in the dash as he took a turn. "I suppose that mentally, a lot of people in the town are not capable of handling the true nature of such events, and as a result, they look for a plausible explanation. Any plausible explanation." He banged the car into second gear. "No matter how flimsy it may seem to a witness."

"A world more wondrous and terrifying than one can imagine," Daniel said. "More things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

"Quite so," Giles commented as he pulled up to an apartment block. "And it sounds as though you know whereof you speak."

"I wish I could say," Daniel replied, getting out of the decrepit Citroen with Giles and walking up to the apartment. "I've seen things ... terrifying and beautiful, and I can't talk about them. They're secret, they have to stay secret, and I understand why ... but sometimes I almost want to shout it out to the rooftops."

Giles smiled quietly. "I believe I can sympathize," he said as he turned the key in the apartment door. "Make yourself comfortable, Doctor; we may be working for quite a while."

Daniel looked around at the apartment, neat and orderly and stacked high and low with books. Many of them looked like standard references and encyclopedias, some looked like antiques, and a few looked like they had seen a hundred wars or more. One large book on the coffee table by the television was almost drawing him in.

"You've got ... quite a collection here," he commented.

"Occupational hazard. Obscure references are often my life's blood, and in the past year, I haven't had anyplace else to keep the necessary volumes."

Daniel picked up the heavy tome from the coffee table, fingered its spine reverently, then opened it up to the title page. "My God," he whispered in awe. "The Pergamum Codex."

"We may need that later," Giles said. "Our first task, I believe, should be to make certain our working calendars are aligned properly."

"But ... the book!" Daniel sputtered. "It's like ... this book is referenced in some of the most obscure works ... and you've just got it sitting out here like a coffee-table book? That's almost like having the original Book of the Dead in your possession!"

Giles handed over a rolled-up piece of parchment.

"No," Daniel breathed in disbelief.

"A copy only, I'm afraid. Rescued from the burning of the library at Alexandria and transcribed from papyrus to parchment in the twelfth century. I haven't had occasion to use the reprint to date, but we may have need of it."

Daniel fingered the edge of the scroll with trembling fingers. "May I?"

"Work first, Doctor, then pleasure. We must determine if an opening of the Hellmouth is near; for that, we must set to the calendars."

Buffy heard the faint voice from downstairs at the edge of her consciousness.

"Stay on target ... stay on target..."

The sun was up. Willow and Tara had somehow managed to tangle their sleeping bags together, but it looked like they'd restrained themselves to cuddling. Not that Buffy would disapprove, necessarily, but it had been a rough day and night, and she had needed the quiet.

Having four commandos doing rotating watches in the living room had helped her peace of mind. Especially with one of them being Riley; he knew the difference between Buffy needing cuddling and Buffy needing unconscious time.

"It's a hit - negative - negative, just impacted on the surface..."

Carefully, so as not to wake her roommates of the past night, Buffy slipped into something appropriate for breakfast and light combat.

"...let's close it up. We're going in, we're going in full throttle..."

Had Xander found that tape he'd left behind? Because if he was playing that movie at this time of the morning, she was seriously going to kill him. Death by noogies sounded pretty good - and with Slayer strength, it was doable.

Oh, wait - Anya hijacked Xander last night. Wanted to boink his brains out until sunrise. So who's watching...?

She quietly went down the stairs to see an odd tableau.

Major Carter was asleep on the couch, looking as young as Buffy herself. Colonel O'Neill was on a mat on the floor, far enough away from Carter for propriety's sake but still awfully close. Carter's hand had flopped off the couch and was brushing O'Neill's cheek.

Riley was by the door, pistol in his lap, cup of coffee by his elbow, relaxing now with the rising sun; and by the television set, sitting in a lotus position on the floor, was the man who answered to the name Teal'c.

"You're all clear, kid; now let's blow this thing and go home!"

Buffy looked at him; the implacable fighting machine had a genuine, childish smile on his face as he watched the climax of the movie, and when the Death Star finally blew, she almost expected him to pump his fist in triumph.

Some guard, Buffy thought; he's so wrapped up in that movie that we could get assaulted by a hundred vampires and he might not notice. She sighed and quietly padded her way over to Riley, ready to give him a shock.

"Tarith'na. Were you able to sleep?"

She froze. "Uh ... yeah. Guess you weren't as wrapped up in the movie as I thought?"

"I have learned to be aware of many things at once. Riley Finn stands guard, but I am ready," he said, laying a hand on the staff weapon at his side. "I rarely have a chance for ... pure enjoyment."

"You really like it, huh?"

"Among my people, stories of hope and triumph against a powerful foe do not exist. All who do so, we learned, are doomed to fail." He indicated the screen, where Princess Leia was draping a medal over Luke Skywalker's neck. "I wish I were able to tell my son this story."

"You had a son?" Buffy asked, gingerly, hoping she didn't step on a land mine like she had with the Colonel.

"He lives yet," Teal'c responded, almost reading her mind. "I have not seen him in several years, but he and his mother are safe and well."

"Why haven't you seen him?"

"It is for his safety," Teal'c said. "I regret I cannot tell you more; but some secrets are best kept, unfortunately. I fear for him if he is discovered."

Buffy took a breath, a piece of the puzzle clicking into place. "The ghouls."


She looked to his forehead. "That serpent guy. Apophis. He's still alive, isn't he?"

Teal'c's shoulders stiffened. "Of that I am certain."

"And he ... God, that's not just decoration, is it? He branded you. Like a cow in a herd."

"Just so." Teal'c slowly removed the bandana from his forehead. "The golden mark is that of a First Prime, the chief warrior of a god."

"You really think...?"

"I did once. No longer," he said grimly. "Now I know the truth. That they are not gods, but parasites. That they can be defeated." He indicated the screen, with the last strains of the movie theme were playing out. "Freedom is more than an impossible dream. The fact that we can discuss such things ... that we can speak of the Goa'uld not as gods, but as the monsters they truly are ... I am prepared to lay down my life to bring this freedom to my home."

Buffy thought about it a moment. "Guess I take it for granted sometimes."

"You are fortunate," Teal'c said. He paused a moment. "Were your friends able to sleep?"

"Yeah, they slept," Buffy sighed. "Probably still asleep." She grimaced. "You don't approve, do you?"

Teal'c paused a moment. "It is not my place to pass judgment."

"And if it were? What would you say?"

Teal'c stood and walked to the kitchen quietly, beckoning Buffy to follow. When they were alone, he said softly, "Five years ago, it was my place to pass judgment on such matters. I enforced the will of Apophis among my people." He paused. "Among my people, a relationship such as that enjoyed by your friends would be punishable by death."

Buffy opened her mouth to protest, but Teal'c continued: "As was failure to properly worship the false god that enslaved us. As was appearance on the streets without a proper reason while Apophis was among us. As was any speech that might even give the slightest hint ... at all ... that Apophis was not divine, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful." He took a breath. "It was even my place to conduct executions for no reason at all, beyond the whim of the god I served. Apophis would wish to emphasize a point ... and he would choose a random passer-by ... and I would kill him."

Teal'c looked Buffy in the eyes. "I have rejected Apophis as a false god, and for that I merit death myself. But I will stand in judgment over others no longer, and for that I am grateful." His face grew somber. "My fears are for matters far greater than whether two people can find happiness."

Buffy frowned. "I don't get it. Why would you do it in the first place, if it made you so miserable?"

"The Goa'uld and the Jaffa are linked in a manner few of the Tau'ri can understand."

"Try me."

"Do you swear that you will never reveal what you see here to anyone?"

"I swear. Now what are you talking about?"

Teal'c lifted his shirt, showing washboard abs ... and an incredibly ugly wound on his belly. The skin looked as though it had been sliced with a hot knife in an "X" pattern.

Buffy was about to ask how he'd been hurt when she saw it. Motion under the flaps of skin, and then a hideous, fishbelly-white, snake-like creature poked its head out from the flaps of skin. Buffy jumped back, backing into the counter. "Wha ... wha ... what is that?"

Teal'c tucked the snake back into his belly and pulled down his shirt. "That is a prim'ta. The immature form of the Goa'uld."

"And you ... you just happen to have one of those things in your gut?!"

Teal'c took on a look of disgust. "This is how my people serve," he said. "We provide them with a place to grow and mature within ourselves, and in return they grant us health and long life."

"But if you rejected them..." Buffy sputtered, her gorge rising. "Why ... why do you still have one of those ... things inside you?"

"Without it, I will die," Teal'c whispered. "I depend on the larval symbiote to protect me from disease, to heal my injuries. It is, perhaps, ironic that in order to fight the enemy, I must carry the enemy within myself."

"What if it takes over your mind?" Buffy asked. "Isn't that what those things do?"

"To a human host," Teal'c said. "Not to a Jaffa. And the prim'ta is still too young to assert control over a mature host."

Buffy blinked. "You're not human," she whispered, the realization only now dawning. "I mean you look human, but you're..."

"My ancestors were human," Teal'c said. "Of the Tau'ri. But the Goa'uld took us, bred us to serve."

"And that ... that Doorway to Heaven that Anya was talking about. That doesn't go to another dimension, it goes to another world, doesn't it?"

"I am not permitted to say," Teal'c answered in a tone that was all the answer Buffy needed.

"Now I get it. When you said I'd been born before ... you mean that a Slayer was called. On your world." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And when she died ... another was called."

"I was not alive then," Teal'c said. "My master, Bra'tac, saw to the execution of the last Tarith'na ... but not before he witnessed something impossible."

Buffy didn't make a sound, hanging on every word.

"When she was brought before Bra'tac, her pouch was gone, the opening sealed as though she had never been Jaffa. Her prim'ta had been consumed within her, and yet she was as strong as the most powerful Jaffa warriors, with none of the effects of removal. It was as though something had undone all that makes one a Jaffa ... and left a warrior even more powerful." He looked at her. "She told Bra'tac that her destiny had called her, that she was meant to fight the monsters and the forces of darkness wherever she found them ... and that the darkest force she knew was the false god Apophis. She said that if she died, she would only be reborn anew."

"So what did he do to her?"

Teal'c's face grew stony. "He did as Apophis commanded him. But afterwards ... he began to question. To consider. To think for himself. And he taught that way of thinking to others." He smiled grimly. "To me."

Buffy closed her eyes. "I had a dream the night before last. After Kheper first attacked ... I saw a rebellion. I saw ... Egypt. The pyramids. And I think I saw a Slayer fighting the Sun God."

"Ra," Teal'c whispered. "The Supreme System Lord." His voice deepened even more. "False god," he spat.

"Dead false god," Buffy mused.

Teal'c's eyes widened. "You know?"

Buffy shrugged. "The dreams work like that. They don't always make sense, but somehow they're important." She sighed and started rummaging through a cabinet. "Sometimes I just wish I could get the Cliffs Notes on the whole prophetic dream thing, y'know?" She held up a mug. "You want coffee?"

Sam Carter was falling. Tumbling, windmilling through a crack in reality, seeing flashes of her past ... of the experiences of a creature she had never chosen to know ... fears for the future, glimpses of what might have been ... stars whipping past, faster, faster, faster-

Her eyes snapped open just in time to realize that she wasn't just dreaming about falling - she saw Jack O'Neill's face right in front of hers an instant before she landed on him. Hard.

Jack woke up with an explosive cough, whipping around and sitting bolt upright; the sudden movement threw Sam to the floor, and it was a moment before she was awake enough to scramble upright.

Riley was right there, Beretta in hand, looking for threats. Teal'c and Buffy came rushing in from the kitchen, looking for threats; before anyone had time to react, Willow and Tara were clattering down the stairs, followed closely by Joyce.

"What happened?" Willow asked urgently.

"I must've rolled off the couch." Sam smiled helplessly. "Sorry, sir."

"Ooph. Apology accepted. And is that ... coffee I smell?"

Buffy went back into the kitchen and came back with a steaming mug, handing it to O'Neill. He took one sip and sighed contentedly. "Ma'am ... you are a goddess."

Sam couldn't help but smile again. If you took away the house and the couch and the TV, and ignored the fact that this was California, then she could imagine this happening in any one of a hundred worlds they'd visited over the years. The easy camraderie, the jokes ... the closeness that was second nature to an exploration team.

Closeness, Sam mused. When you trusted your life to people, day in, day out, for years, you had to get close ... but you couldn't get too close, couldn't cross the line beyond which the closeness began to affect your judgment.

She looked at Jack - the Colonel, dammit, he's the Colonel - and wondered how the hell she'd managed to cross that line without even realizing it. How they had managed to cross the line.

She accepted a cup of coffee and an English muffin, sipped listlessly at the mug and chewed on the food without tasting it, and tried to get her mind back to the business at hand.

"You look kinda lost," someone said behind her. She looked back to see Willow, the redhead.

"It's just ... strange circumstances."

"I know the feeling," Willow said.

Sam frowned. "I don't see how you can. I mean, yesterday morning, if you'd told me vampires were real, I would have laughed in your face. And now..."

"'s like the world should be a lot different. Like people shouldn't be worried about the things that worry them. Like whether there's milk for the coffee, like what you want to do for lunch, like will that cute guy you've known forever ever realize the way you feel about him."

Sam's jaw dropped. "You know an awful lot about me."

"I was talking about me," Willow shot back with a disarming smile. "One night a vampire picked me up at the Bronze and tried to kill me. After that ... it was either go into denial or try and fight back." She shrugged. "I'm not much good at denial. And I can't turn my back."

"Can't be safe."

Willow laughed theatrically. "I laugh at danger." Then the shy smile returned. "Of course, I try and make sure danger can't hear me when I'm laughing at it." She cleared her throat. "So ... you think those electrical thingies will work to break the bad guy's spell?"

"The zat guns? They've worked before. Kinda dangerous, though."

"I heard," Willow said. "Buffy took two shots and didn't wake up for half a day, they told me."

Carter blinked. Two shots? She looked at the tiny blonde girl in the kitchen. "Two shots from a zat gun kill," she said absently.

Willow blinked. "Wow. I mean I knew Buffy was strong, but ... good thing they didn't hit her a third time."

"I'll say. The third shot would have disintegrated her," Sam said with a shudder.

Willow frowned a moment, then brightened. "Ooh. Electron bond disruption, right?"

Sam whipped her head around. "What?"

"The thing doesn't just zap you with electricity, it disrupts electron bonds in the target's molecular structure," Willow chirped. "So the first time you get hit, you get a lot of electrons breaking away and zinging around your body, and it's like an electric shock. The second time, with the body already energized, you probably get an exponentially worse shock, plus some molecular breakdown, which is really bad for your health ... and then with the third shot, the molecular bonds get so badly destabilized that you kind of get torn down to the elements." She shrugged. "At least that's how I'd do it."

Carter had to use her hand to physically close her jaw as she stared at Willow. For someone with no experience at all with Goa'uld technology to figure out the workings of the mysterious sidearm just from one or two observations and one or two comments ... "Wow."

"That's our Will," Buffy cracked as she wandered over. "Bad-ass Wiccan and science geek. How'd you guys sleep?"

"Quiet," Will said. "I needed it."

"I'll say," Buffy responded. "Night before last, you didn't sleep, you died. Take it from me, it is not restful."

"Okay ... you died?" Sam had to ask.

"Just for a minute or two," Buffy said, sitting down on the couch with a coffee cup and a blueberry muffin. "Ugly master vampire wanted to open the Hellmouth back when I first moved here from L.A. I wanted to stop him. He drowned me and went on to try and take over the world; my friends found me and got me going again; when it was all over, long story short, I'm alive, he's toast, the Hellmouth's closed, cue the party music and dance the night away."

"Save the world and have a party?" O'Neill asked, wandering over. "You think the General would go for that, Carter?"

Sam tried to imagine General Hammond authorizing a dance party in the Stargate complex. Then she tried to imagine his reaction if the idea was even suggested to him as a joke. This time, the giggle couldn't be stopped.

O'Neill's cell phone rang; he snapped it open quickly. "O'Neill. Yeah, what's up, Daniel? ... You got a date to work with? Sweet. How long have we got? ... Uh huh. Uh huh. ... Okay, Danny. Come on back; we've got some planning to do." He snapped the phone shut and stuffed it in a pocket.

Sam was afraid of the news. "How much time?"

"Three days and two nights. Apparently, whatever our friendly neighborhood snake-head wants to do, it's gotta happen about an hour after sunset, day after tomorrow."

Carter forced herself to calm down. Two nights, three days. The end of the world was coming. Day after tomorrow. Sundown. And what could be done to stop it?

Buffy smiled. She actually smiled. "Hey, that's a lot more warning than we usually get."