Disclaimer: I do not own any characters relating to either Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Stargate SG-1. This story is intended for entertainment purposes only and does not provide any financial compensation.

Return To Normal

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Chapter Eight

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It wasn't really a long drive from Denver to Colorado Springs, but long enough for Buffy to do some thinking. She'd enjoyed herself, immensely, but she wasn't certain how much further she wanted to take the relationship with Faith. Of course, it wasn't entirely her decision: she had never met anyone less into 'relationships' than Faith. The original 'get some; get gone' girl, so far as Buffy knew Faith had never been involved in a relationship which lasted more than a few days. That she had gone for a second tumble with Robin Wood back before they attacked the First was unusual, and probably had only happened because of the stress they had both been under. Chances were that Faith wouldn't be exactly desperate for a repeat encounter, and Buffy didn't want to develop feelings which probably would not be reciprocated. Not that Buffy had any objections to it happening again! Faith had been exciting and intense and sensual and passionate. It had been interesting and fun and different, but she wasn't certain she was willing to change her entire life to accommodate the relationship, the way Willow had. For years she had wondered what it would have been like to make love with Faith. Now she knew. And it had been wonderful. But it wasn't… 'The One.'

No matter how awkward it had been, her one time with Angel was still the highlight of her sexual life. He hadn't had sex in the better part of a century and she had been a virgin. They'd been tentative and awkward and fumbling… but the emotional intensity had been wonderful. Sex with Spike, by comparison, had been far more physically intense. He was a machine, able to bring her to heights of passion she had never thought herself capable of reaching… but the emotional connection hadn't been there. She'd never 'made love' to Spike, not the way she had with Angel. Although the sex had been mind-blowingly better, the lack of an emotional connection bothered her on a deep, fundamental level.

There was still a part of her which still believed you shouldn't 'make love' unless you were 'in love,' and that part of it just hadn't ever been there between her and Spike. He'd certainly tried his best to reach her, to give her what she demanded. But what she had physically needed wasn't what she wanted, emotionally speaking. In the back of her mind there'd always been the suspicion that he wasn't making love to her; he was Screwing A Slayer. Until, maybe, towards the end…when he came to her after it all fell apart between her and the Potentials, had offered her comfort without reservation. And later, when he had become the man, and the hero, he was meant to be, down in the Hellmouth. But it was all water under the bridge now, because unlike Angel, he was dead, immolated by the fires of whatever had powered the amulet. So she'd never know what might have happened, where their relationship might have gone.

Riley had been…well, Riley. He was a good man, honest and decent, and a part of her wished she could have loved him the way she wanted to love him, the way he deserved to be loved. But she'd been young, and naive. At the time she'd mistaken 'passion' for love, had sought intensity over emotional compatibility. Spike had later showed her the foolishness of her attitude, and the horrors that lie at the end of that road. But her relationship with Riley had also showed her that emotional security wasn't enough. She wouldn't have been satisfied in a relationship without far more passion than he had been able to provide. Faith, on the other hand, brought passion with an intensity only Spike could match. But there had been a need there she found… uncomfortable.

Like Riley, Faith needed more than Buffy felt capable of giving. Sex with Faith, like sex with Spike, had been unbelievably intense… but afterwards, there hadn't been the emotional bonding she found herself seeking. The little things she could see in other relationships which she wanted to experience in her own. The gentle smiles, light touches, or quick glances of reassurance Tara and Willow constantly shared. There could be no doubt they shared an entirely satisfactory sexual relationship –after living with them for awhile, she had far more proof of that fact than she ever wanted to admit—but the part of their relationship Buffy most envied hadn't been their bouts of sexual frenzy. It was the way they constantly looked to each other, the contented silences, the sheer joy they took merely to be in each others presence.

Buffy hadn't said anything, but she hadn't seen any of that behavior in Willow's relationship with Kennedy either, just as she hadn't seen it in her own relationship with Spike… nor had she seen it in what she had just shared with Faith. There was passion –damn, had there ever been passion!—but she was now mature enough, and experienced enough, to know that passion alone did not a relationship make. She wanted something more. Something that would last once the passion was muted due to time and familiarity. Something that Willow and Tara had shared. Something that, had circumstances been different, she and Angel might have shared. She didn't regret for a second what had just happened between her and Faith, or, truth be told, most of what had happened between her and Spike. But she found herself wanting something… more. And wondering if she would ever find it.

Doubling the problem were her own sexual peculiarities. The time had come to acknowledge the fact that when it came to sex she wasn't June Cleaver. Given that she'd just 'done the nasty' with another girl that fact should have been obvious, but it was actually only the tip of the horny iceberg. It was really tough to acknowledge even to herself that it took something more than the missionary position and a bit of finger action to get her off. Nice white girls from the 'burbs weren't supposed to crave certain fetishes in their bedroom activities, none of which could be discussed in polite company. Telling her mom she was a superhero from another dimension was one thing; telling her that she liked a bit of mild S&M during foreplay was a whole 'nother thing entirely!

Perhaps it was the Slayer, or possibly it was her own nature; but Buffy found she enjoyed sex a whole lot more if there was some preliminary rough-housing involved. Nothing extreme; she didn't consider herself to be a masochist. It wasn't 'pain' itself that turned her on, and she liked to dish it out as much at take it. But, she had to admit, if only to herself, that she found something erotic in the 'hunt,' in both the literal and metaphorical sense. It wasn't very nice, but one of the reasons she found vampires disquietingly attractive was their capacity for violence, both inflicting and tolerating it. The sensuality of acting as both predator and prey, facing someone just as powerful and dangerous as herself, was something she found incredibly erotic as an aspect of foreplay.

Scowling as she drove along the well-maintained road out of Denver, Buffy tried to reassure herself that she wasn't 'weird,' or 'disgusting' for finding pleasure in acts most people would consider the opposite of erotic. In her case the fetish wasn't self-destructive, or even an indication of self-loathing. She was a Slayer; she could shrug off violence on a scale which would kill most normal people, and she had almost a genetic predisposition towards enjoying the hunt. It wasn't something she ever wanted to talk about --to anyone!-- but it was a fact, and she would have to deal with the fact that any relationship she wanted to last would have to accommodate her own admittedly unconventional sexual peculiarities. It was also something she really shouldn't be thinking about while driving her mothers' SUV, since she was easily-distracted at the best of times, and a beeping horn warned her to get back into her own lane.

Unfortunately her mind refused to be distracted from the issue. She had to acknowledge that for all the other aspects that made them 'unsuitable' as potential mates, a vampire's ability to tolerate violence made them far more acceptable as sexual partners than a normal person would be, given her own fetishes. But she also had to admit that what had just happened between herself and Faith had been pretty damned good, even without extraneous violence. OK, there had been some spanking; but Faith had her own fetishes. Neither one of them were ever likely to win awards from their local church for good Christian morals, but they hadn't hurt each other, or anyone else, and they'd both enjoyed the activities immensely.

It came as quite a relief for Buffy to realize that her fetishes weren't so overwhelming that she was incapable of enjoy sex without violence. For months she had been telling herself that some of the things she had done with Spike were not about 'sex,' but about the need to feel anything beyond an existence she found almost intolerable. As she began to reconnect with her friends, and even to feel something more for Spike than using him as a convenient scratching post, the need to indulge in the more extreme forms of her fetish to achieve satisfaction had lessened. She was fairly certain she wasn't going to turn into a bondage queen. But, she had to face the fact that for her to achieve a lasting relationship, she was going have to do it with someone strong enough to handle a bit of impulsive kinkiness. And, because she wasn't a sadist, she needed someone who would enjoy it as much as she did.

Which left her with a lot to think about as she drove back to Colorado Springs.

It was late by the time she reached her destination. Willow had emailed her a convenient map showing how to find the house she and Tara had moved into, but Buffy had never been there before so it took awhile to find it. The stupid map didn't show how twisty and turn-y the streets were in that part of town, and Buffy actually got lost on side streets on more than one occasion. But eventually she found the place, mostly because there were several vans from local media outlets parked across the street. Unless Willow was living next to a Hollywood celebrity, chances were they were waiting for her. Since they hadn't known she would be returning, this would only be the 'night crew,' just in case she showed up. Buffy was surprised, and wondered how insane it had been during the daytime. Given the revelations about aliens, interstellar war, and the StarGate, she had assumed she'd be all but forgotten. Apparently it would take something on the order of Paris Hilton going missing in the Caribbean after being attacked by a shark for them to be diverted completely.

Taking a quick glance in the mirror to reassure herself that she looked decent, Buffy was relieved to note that she was almost back to looking like herself. Her hair had been bleached blonde and her teeth were restored enough that she could smile without looking like a hockey player, but there was no denying the physical changes she had undergone since her fight at the airport. Looking down at her chest, she could only sigh. Faith hadn't seemed disappointed, but she was annoyed that the whole slayer 'recovery' package didn't automatically include C-cups. Still, she looked reasonably good, which was what mattered most. Buffy really believed in the whole 'leave a pretty corpse' thing.

When she pulled in to Willow's driveway, there was sudden and intense activity as people bolted from the vans, cameras were brought up like shoulder-mounted bazookas, lights suddenly flooded the area, and far-too-perky-for-this-hour-of-the-night anchor-women wanna-be's with visions of networks dancing in their heads began shouting questions. "Miss Summers, could you tell us…"

"Miss Summers, could you tell our viewers…"

"Please look into the camera Miss Summers…"

They were talking over each other, four on-camera people, four camera people, three sound people –one station must have been PBS so the cameraman was forced to be his own soundman for budgetary reasons—and Buffy tried to speak over the cacophony. "Would you mind getting out of the way so I can at least park?"

They did, and after parking her mother's borrowed car she returned to the edge of the driveway, where the gaggle remained behind the property line. A rather decrepit fence marked the boundary, and an iron grate door could be swung across the driveway. The fact that it had been left open for her was probably why they were waiting. So she slowly walked down the gravel driveway, in the glare of the lights, seeing the satellite dishes on the support trucks go up, the lights in some of the neighboring houses come on. Closing the gate in front of her, making the boundary line clear, she nodded politely to the reporters once they stopped trying to speak over each other and finally, with mutually loathing glares, decided that there would be no answers unless they took turns asking questions, and somehow reached an understanding as to who would go first. She was pretty, and wore more makeup than a French whore, but also had the highest number of viewers in the Greater Colorado Springs Television Ratings guide. "Welcome home, Miss Summers. How are you feeling?"

Buffy shrugged. "Not bad. Stomach is a bit sore, but it's coming along fine." Without really thinking about it she lifted her shirt a bit to show the remnant scar on her stomach, six-pack abs clearly defined from all the abdominal exercises she was doing to prevent it from healing wrong. Quickly bringing down the shirt when she realized what she had just done, she hoped she didn't come across as showing off or flirting with the camera. There was some amazed comments and she merely shrugged without commenting on the degree of healing evident.

"So it will heal without leaving any scar at all?"

"Yeah, if I don't do anything stupid and re-injure it. I've got a few where that happened." At least, her old body did, which was something she would rather not bring up. "One of the down-sides of the whole slayer gig is you get hurt a lot. On the other hand, falling in the 'fortunate' category is that the scars usually fade. A bit of a trade-off, there."

She smiled wryly, disingenuously, trying to look cute and aiming for outright adorable. Yes, she was milking the audiences' sympathy, but she suspected she would soon need all the support she could get. Even without paying a lot of attention to the news, it hadn't escaped her notice that a lot of powerful groups were jockeying for position in running the suddenly-transformed world. Some of those groups were not ones she cared to associate with. It took a few more leading answers before she got the questions she wanted. At the airport, Berklyn had been identified by the Doci as a 'prior.' Buffy had referred to his acolytes as 'Priors In Training.' They had been the humans who possessed at least a rudimentary version of the 'thrall,' or the ability to mentally dominate other people. The media had been filled with speculations on the existence of more of those 'PIT's' ever since. It was turning into a frenzy, and people were terrified. She wanted to put a quick stop to that nonsense. "No. I haven't been looking for more Priors In Training, because there aren't any more of them out there." That answer, to a seemingly throw-away question from one of the reporters, caused consternation, and she soon overheard whispered notification over one of their ear-pieces that the broadcast was now going out live over one of the 24-hour news services.

Instead of a puff-piece on 'the Slayer comes home,' the broadcast was suddenly News, and the reporters all knew it. All stood straighter, looked more serious, the gleam of 'network exposure' visible in their eyes. "That's not what we have been told, Miss Summers. State Security and the White House have been warning of possible infiltration by hundreds, perhaps even thousands of these individuals. Their power to cloud peoples' minds and affect their judgment is considered one of the greatest potential threats this country is facing, perhaps second only to the Goa'uld threat itself!!"

Buffy snorted in contempt at the warning, which had been delivered in a tone of breathless excitement strangely at odd with the supposed danger. "That would be the case if there actually were any more of them. But if there were more of them they'd have all been at the airport. The thing at the airport was for all the marbles; they weren't holding anything back. Since there weren't any more of them there, chances are about a hundred percent that there aren't any more of them out there."

"State Security says there are others hiding amongst the population..."

"State Security is full of crap! They're just using it as an excuse for a witch hunt. Everyone who ever pissed them off will suddenly just disappear. Watch who they're probably hauling in. Some congressman is going to say that the only way his precious daughter could have allowed herself to get knocked up was if the guy 'controlled her mind' and made her put out. Some big-money political contributor is going to claim that the only way they would have made some bet and lost all his money was if they other guy used his Mind Control Powers…" she tossed in air-quotes to make the sarcasm obvious "…to make him do it. Some rich athlete is going to say that the only reason they were snorting all that cocaine was because they were being 'forced' to do it, by enemies who knew that only they, and their athletic prowess, could Save America, so were setting them up by using their super mind control powers. Utter, pure, and complete crap. There aren't any more PiT's! People are doing stupid things for the same reasons they've always done stupid things; because they're friggin' stupid! Nobody is forcing them to do anything. The whole thing is bogus. Deal with it."

Another of the reporters jumped in. "They say they have a way to test for the ability to influence, and are only taking into custody those who..."

Buffy interrupted, more irritated than she thought she would be by having this discussion, even though she'd actively sought it out. "Great! If they do, then they don't need me anymore, and I don't need to out and get gutted again. Pretty amazing of them, though, since no one else, not even the Asgard, have got something which can do that. But, hey, it's all good! If they no longer need me to find them, I'll be putting in for a loooong vacation! On the other hand, since they called me back in so soon after I was damned near disemboweled, it would seem that they do still need me. In which case I think we can conclude that State Security is full of it."

The media reps were confounded by her unexpected irritation. Part of the reason for the media saturation regarding Buffy Summers had been her physical appearance. They all understood the reasons; the American television-viewing audience liked Hot Chicks; especially hot chicks who could kick ass. But those 'hot chicks' weren't supposed to have an opinion. They weren't supposed to disagree with their superiors. And by superiors, read 'males.' If anything, Buffy looked even cuter than she had when she made her spectacular entrance at the airport. Tinier, thinner, and it also kind of helped that this time she wasn't covered in blood, with her intestines hanging out, and holding onto a severed head. She was exactly the sort of 'media-friendly' face advertisers were looking for. Career-wise, all she had to do was smile prettily, say a few polite, non-controversial words, and she was looking at multi-million dollar endorsement deals with any company she deigned to shill their product. She didn't seem to understand that this would not happen if she called the government in general, and State Security in particular, lying bastards.

One of the male reporters stepped up to the plate. "I'm uncertain how much of our coverage you have been able to watch, but we have had numerous experts on various shows discussing this issue, and they are virtually unanimous in stating…"

Buffy interrupted him with a contemptuous growl. "What 'experts'?! There are no 'experts' on this. Everyone is just guessing. And doing a pretty lousy job of it, too. I'm closer to being an expert than anyone else—after all, I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. This thing fails the 'smell test,' and none of you seem to care." She sighed, allowing her frustration to show to the camera. "We just won a huge thing here! We made the Asgard happy and set back the plans of a major potential threat by years, if not decades. But instead of celebrating us winning a major victory, it's been turned into an excuse to do something offensive. Well, offensive to me at least. This has become a witch hunt. I don't do witch hunts. Uh… unless there's an actual witch involved. A bad witch. An evil-type witch. Not a good witch."

After a few more random comments Buffy politely excused herself, before making her way up to the house where Willow was hiding behind the partly-open door. After giving her friend a big hug and assurances that she was fine, recovering nicely thank-you, Buffy basically lost it the moment she saw Tara. They hadn't been that close, and she did try to remember that this Tara didn't know her from Adam. But within seconds she was bawling like a baby, hugging the girl far too tightly, unable to think of anything except the horrible events losing her had precipitated. How their lives might have been different had Tara lived. How someone who, on the surface, seemed not to matter very much in the Great Scheme of Things, could leave such a gaping void in the lives of everyone who knew her. How her loss had caused a succession of events which would lead to pain, failure, and disaster for all of the Scoobies. Luckily Willow must have warned her what might happen, because Tara didn't resist the hug, not even when Buffy used a bit more strength than she should have, and just made soothing noises throughout the babble-fest Buffy unleashed. Nobody understood one word in three. Not even Buffy.

It took awhile for her to gain control over herself, and embarrassingly offer an introduction while she wiped her tears and runny nose off with her forearm. As she should have expected, Tara took it all in stride. Buffy's actions actually made her feel more comfortable and in control than would have been the case had she simply met the girl she had only previously seen ripping the head off of a monster on television. Rather than that intimidating warrior, she was consoling an ordinary girl, prettier than most, who was having something close to an emotional breakdown. When Buffy looked up at Tara with huge, tear streaked green eyes and asked for some pancakes –"Funny-shapes, not rounds"-- Tara's heart went out to her, and whatever potential problems she had been imagining since Willow informed her they would be getting a famous house-guest were unceremoniously tossed aside. This person was the real Buffy, not the gladiator she saw on television, and suddenly everything was right in Tara's world.

While Buffy ate –and regaled them with tales of them eating Tara's pancakes back in Sunnydale—Willow filled her in on events at the SGC since their abrupt and unexpected thrust into the public eye. Everyone was having a difficult time adapting, even though they'd had plans for going public nearly since the beginning of the program. Their freedom of action had been severely curtailed by both public and Congressional interest in their affairs. They didn't discuss it much however, as it was getting late, Buffy still needed far more sleep than usual for her to aid the healing process, and they soon showed her to her room. Like the rest of the house it was in pretty rough shape, cracks in the walls letting wind blow through from outside, but Willow loved the character of the old place, so Buffy didn't complain. Especially since the old bed was comfortable and the thick blankets were warm. Within seconds of lying down she was fast asleep.

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Early the next morning, after a quick breakfast of leftover pancakes, Buffy asked Willow to take a detour to the airport before heading to the mountain. They were sharing Willow's new Bug rather than have Buffy drive her mother's SUV, Buffy earning a frosty glare when she casually mentioned that "If it wasn't for the whole 'Poland' thing, Adolf Hitler would be most famous for designing the Volkswagen Beetle." Abandoning the topic rather quickly once she recalled Willow's religion, they were discussing how they could get her mom's vehicle back to LA when they arrived at the entrance to airport. Willow had heard via the local media that Thor's Hammer was on display at the public airport, having been brought over from the military side where Buffy had left it by forklift. It was behind armored glass and under armed guard, on a set of scales to show that it really did weigh 28 pounds, but people had a chance to try to lift it using a pulley system. Few people could. TV stations had been amusing themselves showing clips of random people trying. Despite the early hour there were a dozen people or so in line awaiting their turn to try.

Nobody recognized her, and most frowned when Buffy cut through the line to knock on the door of the glass enclosure to get the guard's attention. He glared at her, pantomiming that she should go away, so she scowled back at him. "That's my hammer! I need it back." There was quite a commotion in the crowd, and the guard's eyes went wide in recognition as he rushed over to unlock the door to the enclosure. He was speaking into his walkie-talkie, calling his boss over, just in case there was some question as to whether Buffy would be permitted to take back her own hammer. It wasn't a choice Buffy intended to give them, so as soon as the door was opened she went in, casually picked up the hammer, removed it from the pulley attachment, spun it around a few times balanced on the tip of her index finger, then with a casual swing fastened it to the shoulder harness she was already wearing.

There were a few flashes as everyone with digital cameras took pictures, but Buffy was already leaving when the guy in charge of security arrived. He wanted her to sign some paperwork, which didn't make a whole lot of sense to Buffy since she figured her display with the hammer pretty much confirmed her identity, but rather than argue about it she signed whatever document he handed her for the return of missing property. She did point out that it wasn't luggage, and hadn't been lost on a plane, but the bureaucracy didn't need to make sense: it just needed to Be.

It didn't take too much time before they were finally on their way to Cheyenne Mountain. There was another delay at the main gate while Buffy got a replacement ID card, the various military personnel treating her like she was a conquering hero returning from a glorious victory over the Huns. As they walked from the parking lot to the tunnel entrance every one of the hundreds of soldiers who saw them saluted Buffy, something which had never happened before and she had no idea how to handle. Smiling and nodding seemed appropriate, or was at least deemed acceptable, but Willow had to giggle when a unit marching in formation performed the "Eyes, right!" pass, with the leaders saluting, which normally only happened when one of the senior officers was around.

"I feel like I should whisper in your ear: 'Sic transit gloria mundi.'"

Buffy looked over at her, confused. "You're going to vomit all over Gloria on a bus this Monday?"

As intended, her translation made Willow laugh. "No, it's a Latin phrase, meaning 'Thus passes the glory of the world.' It translates better into English as 'All glory is fleeting.' When the Romans threw a parade for a conquering General, they had a slave whisper it into his ear to let him know that even when you're on top of the world, it doesn't last forever."

With a quiet grunt of acknowledgement, Buffy admitted what many, many others had discovered over the succeeding two millennia: "Smart people, the Romans." In truth, she didn't really need the reminder. She doubted her moment of glory would last the hour, let alone continue long enough to inflate her ego. Or, well, inflate it any more than it already was. Even she had to admit that she wasn't exactly modest. 'Hey, saved the world, here!' It was, however, kinda nice to have people acknowledge her standing in their community with such overt displays of respect. She would miss it when those expressions of respect disappeared, as she was certain they soon would. "After my comments to the reporters yesterday, there won't be any saluting by noon. It was nice while it lasted, though."

Willow looked at her a bit uncomfortably. She had watched the morning news and saw what a bombshell her friend had dropped when arriving at her house, and the media was all over it. Even the White House had been forced to make a statement challenging her 'personal opinion.' Like everyone else, Willow had assumed that Buffy was too naïve to realize how much of an impact her words would have, and would have to quickly learn to temper her comments to the media. It hadn't even crossed her mind that the Slayer had done it deliberately. She was a bit embarrassed to admit that even she sometimes underestimated her friend, and despite knowing better she was taken in by the 'dumb blonde' act the Slayer put on to ensure people did exactly that. In some ways it was manipulative. But Willow had to admit, she played fair. If she could use people's own prejudices against them, Buffy had no problem doing so. "Why do it then? You were on top of the world. You know they're going to get on your case about it."

Shrugging, Buffy nodded to the armed guards who saluted her as they entered the tunnel leading into the mountain. "They're going to do that smug, pretentious lecture crap first, 'explaining' how I need to be careful, that 'older and wiser' heads need to deal with these issues and I shouldn't worry my pretty little head about them. Not to mention that I shouldn't say anything to the media about it, or about my opinions, or thoughts, or anything actually. And since they are going to be saying the same thing about stuff that is a whole lot more important than this particular issue once they realize how serious the confrontation with the First is going to be, I want to get this out of the way now, while I have the time to deal with it. If there's anything I've learned it's that things always come down to: 'Who has the power?' We're going to have to settle that particular matter right now, because I need to know how pissed off they are going to be when they find out it isn't them."

Swallowing on a suddenly dry throat, Willow looked over at her friend, who for once didn't look anything like the sweetly naïve girl she usually strove to appear. Her expression was set, determined, and it was pretty obvious she was expecting fierce opposition to her plans. It was equally obvious she intended to steamroll through any such opposition regardless of who might try to stop her. Willow had seen it a few times when they first met back in Boston, the dark side of the Slayer, the ruthlessly determined intensity of someone adamantly determined to carry out what she saw as her mission. Normally that relentlessness was hidden behind a façade of intellectually-challenged naiveté. Most people never saw beyond that façade, their own prejudices regarding her size and looks preventing them from seeing what should have been obvious. Hammond had told the media that the Asgard had told him Buffy was probably the greatest Slayer who had ever lived. Nobody received an accolade like that from the Asgard if they were a moron. Or a push-over. Willow had the feeling some poor bastard was about to learn that lesson the hard way. Unfortunately, Buffy was also going to learn the hard way that the people she was now facing had their own power, and they were going to push back.

Hard.

Normally, Willow would be worried about how much pressure the government might try to put on her friend. Looking at her set expression, Willow was suddenly a lot more concerned about how hard her friend would push back. Not only did the girl possess her own formidable powers, but the Asgard had made it abundantly clear they considered Buffy's mission to be of overwhelming importance. The SGC had a long-standing policy of treating the slightest hint from the Asgard as instructions from On High. They were Earth's most powerful allies, the planets' best source of technical insight and final protection. It was also a policy far easier to maintain while the StarGate was a secret than it would be now that they were known to the public, with all the attendant political jockeying disguised as oversight. If Buffy pushed so hard the government got their backs up, it might force the Asgard to intervene. Nobody wanted to see where that might lead.

Buffy had been thinking along similar lines. "It's too bad Sif told them it was my idea to have the Asgard threaten to renegotiate their arrangement with Earth. Now too many people have convinced themselves they didn't mean it, that it was just me doing some saber-rattling as a distraction. I'm going to have to convince them that if push comes to shove, the Asgard will back me up."

Relieved to note that Buffy didn't seem truly angry, just a bit irritated, she decided that this matter fell into her prevue as 'The Slayers' Best Friend' and required her advice. Because Buffy was operating under the horrific miscalculation that the government wouldn't do something so 'obviously' stupid just out of pique. Willow needed to dissuade her from that delusion before she backed everyone into positions nobody could get out from. "The Asgard probably will support you, even against the SGC, but are you sure you want them to? Once you go that route everyone else will find ways to go around your back. If you don't want that to happen you're going to have to make some kind of deal, which means horse-trading. You can't just threaten them, Buffy. You need to offer them something in return." Noticing her friends' sour expression, Willow lightly swatted her arm. "Even if you don't think you should, or don't think you have to, it's the way of the world. Being willing to negotiate now will make things a lot easier in the long run."

Looking over at her, Buffy slowly released a frustrated breath. "Okay. I'll be good. Unless they really piss me off."

She still wasn't getting it. "Uh, newsflash here, Buff. They will. It's what they do. I've seen it just dealing with academic advisors. Some people have the idea that if you can't beat them on brains or ability, do something to make them fly off the handle, turn it into a circus, and you win by default. You're already out of patience with them, and until now you've been dealing with the SGC who knew they couldn't push you too far so treated you with kid gloves. I've never dealt with politicians, but if they're anything like university administrators, they won't care if you get angry, or quit, or do anything which affects the safety of the rest of the planet if the alternative is them losing some perceived standing within their private little empire. Give them something to placate their ego's and it will be fine. But if you are dealing with someone like, say, that Kinsey person I've been hearing so much about, they would rather see the entire world destroyed than give up one iota of their personal power. They'll always win, because they are always willing to sacrifice more people than anyone who isn't as crazy as they are."

Grunting noncommittally, Buffy privately acknowledged that her friend was right. As usual. She pouted. She was getting impatient, and looking for a fight. By talking to the media she had even set one up, knowing the government would freak out over her calling them on their bullshit. But, of course, the end result was that she had just set herself up for a confrontation with people who didn't believe they would ever suffer the consequences of pissing off the wrong people. She had been operating under the assumption that the facts were obvious, and triumphed all other considerations. If she was fighting against the SGC that might even be true. But she was opposing the government this time, and they didn't give a damn about 'facts' or 'truth' or any such rubbish. To them, what mattered was the spin they could put on the story so they came out of it looking good, or at worst weren't left holding the bag, regardless of the consequences. Sighing, Buffy realized she should have discussed it with Willow last night. She wasn't really geared for this sort of combat, either temperamentally or through experience. She had assumed that she held all the cards, and if she went in still believing that, she was going to lose, as Willow was gently reminding her. "What is it they want?"

Shrugging her shoulders, Willow didn't even have to pause to think. "Power, of course. Power over you if they can. Another kind of power if they must. Remember they know what they've got in you. These people aren't much into risk when there is a sure thing on the table."

Buffy scowled. She knew what Willow meant. Risk-adverse people wanted huge rewards before they would consider playing against the odds. Or they needed to find out that their 'sure thing' wasn't so certain. She would have to be constantly aware that the government would want, more than anything else, control over the Slayer. Her primary objective had to be to convince them they were not going to realize that ambition, and that attempting to do so would lead to serious consequences. Not just with her, but with the Asgard as well. So, as usual, it all came down to 'carrot and stick.' She hadn't realized she would need so much carrot. Unfortunately, the bottom line was the fact that she cared more about the planets' continued survival than they did. Scowling, her expression frightening the few people in the hallway who didn't know her but knew what she could do, Buffy tried not to pout. She hated politicians. Politicians were the First writ small.

--

So it was without the slightest bit of surprise when she was escorted into the SGC boardroom several hours later that the first thing she saw was Hammond being harassed by Senator Kinsey and a few Pentagon weenies, uniform-wearing politicians who were there to suck up to Kinsey and in general make life miserable for the SGC. Buffy was glad to see them. The average SGC grunt held them in even more contempt than they did Kinsey, and if they tried to back up the Senator, Hammond was going to have a field day challenging them. His oath prevented him from doing the same to someone on the Armed Services Committee. But to a man like Hammond, there were other ways to make points he wanted made. There were random greetings and introductions before Kinsey got down to the point, which, as expected, was their '…concern for maintaining a unified message regarding the potential for enemy agents to be infiltrating contemporary American society with the goal of destroying our freedoms and way of life."

Buffy shrugged. "I never said anything about 'enemy agents.' I said there are no more PiT's around. And there aren't."

Sighing theatrically, Kinsey gave Buffy the same look men and boys had been giving her for as long as she could remember; the sad, frustrated head-shake implying she was cute, but dumb as a post for not automatically agreeing with their profound words of wisdom. "How can you know that!? Lets get real here, Miss Summers: there is no way to know if any of these 'mental dominants' continue to walk our streets, coercing people to do their bidding. It just boggles the mind what sort of mischief they might get into, what sort of evil machinations they might be forcing unsuspecting people to perform against their will."

Smiling prettily, Buffy nodded. "Yeah, that would be a problem. If there were any of them. Which there aren't. So it isn't. And they aren't."

Kinsey was getting irritated, and glared at Hammond when he dared to attempt to speak. "You don't know that! You might think it, or believe it, but given the danger these creatures represent, that's not good enough. We need to know there aren't any more."

Maintaining her smile, Buffy shrugged. "Fine. Your call. But if anyone asks me, it's a load of bull. Anyone with mental powers like that would have used them to become rich. All of the ones at the airport were. How many millionaires have you picked up as potential PiT's, senator?"

Annoyed that she wasn't getting his point, and even more irritated because he had a fairly good idea that she did get it and was simply ignoring it –or, worse, mocking him-- Kinsey allowed a bit more of his feelings to show in his voice and expression. "It is important to maintain a consistent tone coming from all government voices, Miss Summers. It is the official policy of this government that the potential threat these 'mind rapists' represents cannot be ignored, or wished away with baseless opinions that they have simply disappeared. It is ludicrous to content that we can ignore them now based solely on your unsupported opinion."

Buffy had to hold herself back from shrugging yet again, but didn't even attempt to hide the fact that she didn't care how upset he was with her. "They didn't ask me for the 'official government opinion.' They asked me for my opinion. That's what they got."

"You're not paid to have an opinion, Miss Summers! You work for me! You work for the United States government. Your 'opinions' are those you are told to have, and in the future I will expect you to remember that at all times!"

Figuring the fact that he lost his temper meant she had won, Buffy allowed herself a small, slightly patronizing smile, knowing it would just drive him up the wall, and enjoying that fact. "I don't work for you, Senator. Technically, I don't even work for the government. I am a contract employee charged with fulfilling a very specific function within the SGC. I'm subject to all the security regulation every other person under contract to the SGC is required to follow, but none of them require me to tow the company line on issues not covered by the security agreement. If you don't like what I say you can terminate my contract, but nothing in there says I can't offer an opinion on public issues. And yes, I did check with a lawyer just to be sure."

Infuriated by the implied middle finger being thrust in his direction, Kinsey glared at Hammond, not quite asking him how he could have been so stupid as to give her such a contract, but the point was implied just by his expression. Hammond had too much self-control to smile, so simply responded with no change in his moderately-respectful expression. "The contracts signed by all civilian employees of the SGC have been mandated by the Pentagon. It's a standard form, Senator; we have no local discretion. The only options we have are varying pay scales. The contracts themselves are standard DOD forms, as was mandated by government regulations."

From his expression, Senator Kinsey was not impressed with that argument. His eyes promised Hammond they would be 'discussing' just how unimpressed he was in the very near future. But, in the meantime, he turned back to face Buffy. "Recent events have forced us to reassess your status within the SGC. Instead of being here to help us take on the Goa'uld, you now want our help to fight this 'First' creature. A being which you claim has 'God-like' powers. Who inhabits a completely different universe from ours! You should know that I see absolutely no reason to involve ourselves in an altercation with a being who has done us no harm, who doesn't even exist in our reality, and whom even the Asgard think is something too powerful to confront. If you are expecting our assistance in your private little war I would suggest you reconsider your attitude, and start to co-operate."

Even knowing it was coming Buffy still was barely able to leash her temper at his threat. Once again she gave thanks for having a friend like Willow, knowing that had the other girl not warned her, she would be throwing a major tantrum right about then. As it was, she knew Kinsey could see the anger in her eyes, and wished she had some of Hammond's self-control. Fortunately, Willow's warning allowed her to maintain her temper. Barely. "I would never ask you to fight a battle you don't feel you have to, Senator. Although I thought the Asgard had already explained to you that if the First succeeds in its plans, you are just as screwed as everyone else. But if you don't want to help me, I'm sure the Asgard will do what they can to assist me. Unlike you, they don't have any doubts about the seriousness of the danger."

"We're already at war with the Goa'uld. Now we're under threat from these Ori jokers. The last thing we need is to pick a fight with yet another powerful alien species."

Buffy frowned at him. "The First is an 'it,' not a 'species.' And the Asgard will tell you that it represents the most serious threat facing you right now, including the Goa'uld. If you don't want to fight it, that's your business. But I intend to."

This time it was Kinsey's turn to glare at her. "Are you insane?! You are not going to start a war with a powerful alien entity on your own initiative! You will not put this nation or this entire planet on the firing line just to pursue some ridiculous vendetta against this creature. If –and I stress 'if'we decide the First represents a threat we need to deal with, the President will make that decision, and not…" he struggled not to say what he wanted to call her "…not you."

That was the argument he should have made from the beginning. Even Buffy had to admit some qualms about doing exactly what he was accusing her of wanting to do. But she didn't see any alternative. "Whether or not you decide to declare war on the First, it's already declared war on you! Just ask the Asgard. You're trying to make it out to be just something between me and the First, but everyone is involved in this, whether they like it or not. You can't be neutral in this. If the First wins, you die! It's that simple. You die; I die; everybody dies. Which is why the Asgard are going to want me to fight it no matter what you decide. They've got their own Quantum Mirror. They will not let you prevent me from doing this. Even if you decide not to help, it would be a really bad idea to try to stop me from doing what I have to do."

She actually made an effort not to make it sound like a threat, but it was one, and everyone in the room knew it. Buffy wished that other SG-1 personnel besides O'Neill were around the table. Jackson, especially, would have tried to act the peace-maker, would have attempted to find common ground and work out a mutually-satisfactory compromise. As it was, they all knew she wasn't going to budge, even Kinsey, but it seemed like he was only arranging the spin he would use to make it all her fault when he went public with the story. And she was giving him exactly what he wanted.

With a theatrical sigh, Kinsey rolled his eyes, and carefully looked to his lapdogs to ensure they witnessed how hard he had tried to accommodate her outrageous demands. "This is the issue we've been having ever since you dropped in on the SGC, Miss Summers. You appear to be operating under the assumption that you, and you alone, can decide for the entire world who we will fight, and where we will fight them, and how we will fight them. You are not God, and it is not for you to decide these things. We already have someone who makes these decisions. And you were not elected."

He was trying to put her on the defensive, and he did have some very valid points. But Buffy had been making life-and-death decisions for a long time, many of them with world-wide impact, and she had come to the rather disconcerting realization that her decisions were generally about as good, and rarely as bad, as those made by most elected officials. It was hard for her not to shrug, knowing it would come across as arrogant, but at this late date she really wasn't going to buy into his argument. "I've never claimed to be God. But it is 'for me to decide these things.' That's what a Slayer does. That's why she is Chosen. No, I wasn't 'elected.' But if it came to a vote, the Asgard would out-vote you. Yes, I know there are more humans than there are Asgard; but there are a lot more Asgard than there are Americans, and I don't see you giving the Chinese a say in this. The Asgard are the ones pushing this, Senator. I don't understand why you're bitching at me when you should be talking to them if you have a problem with it."

Glaring at her for trying to brush the matter off to the Asgard –who didn't give a damn about his arguments, or his power, and he knew it—Kinsey tried to get things back on track. "So you are 'Chosen' to handle this. Who exactly 'Chose' you for this, Miss Summers?"

Buffy cocked her head, disappointed in him. It was pretty obvious he wanted her to claim that she had been 'Chosen by God,' and bring in a whole crap-load of arguments about religion and delusions of grandeur. It was not a trap she intended to fall into. "Who 'chooses' anyone for anything, Senator? Circumstances, random chance, deliberate selection; who knows? Who cares? However it happened, whoever did it, the fact is: it happened. Someone got picked. I was Chosen! Deal with it, because it's a reality you can't argue away. Not because I am 'above the law' or dictating policy or wanting to start a war. You have to deal with it because the Asgard will insist that you deal with it. And even if they don't, the First sure as hell will. So there's really no point in getting on my case about this. I'm just a tool they are going to use to get this job done. I have even less choice in this than you do."

He looked irritated, having lost the argument he was setting up for public spin. Instead of claiming Divine right, she had just downgraded herself to 'tool,' and that didn't fit the arrogant, deluded storyline he was spinning. "You can bet that I intend to bring this matter up with the Asgard, the next time I see them…"

There was a brilliant flash of light, and suddenly, right on queue, Thor was standing in the meeting room, short and grey and thin, shocking the two Pentagon officers out of their chairs. His movements were slow and deliberate, conveying a grave sense of dignity despite his naked alien form. "Greetings O'Neill, General Hammond, Miss Summers."

Smiling at his timing, Buffy gave him a split-fingered Vulcan salute and greeted him in return. "Gnorts, Mr. Alien." O'Neill couldn't hold back a snort of laughter. He hadn't heard that one in awhile.

Thor appeared confused by the greeting, but noted O'Neill's reaction and wrote it off as a cultural particularity. Which was too bad, because he had actually watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon from the moon. He paused while Hammond introduced the others. Nobody in the room had the slightest doubt that the alien knew exactly who they were, up to and including what they had eaten for breakfast every day for the past decade. He didn't offer to shake hands, although he knew the human custom, and might have done so were those being introduced different people.

When Hammond asked what brought him to Earth, Thor held up his hand, a light from his transporter system flashed, and a small box appeared. "We have managed to reverse-engineer the Ori psychic inhibitor field generation device. I apologize for the delay. It took considerable time to come up with a design your own relatively crude level of technology could mass-produce. The instructions and blueprints for the manufacturing process are contained in the embedded memory chip in this device, which we have built specifically for Miss Summers. The technology is far more advanced than the standard model, and is embargoed according to our treaty with Earth. I should caution you all that by 'specifically' I mean no one but Miss Summers may use it. It would be very unwise for your people to attempt to examine it."

He presented Buffy with the small device, demonstrating that it worked like the mp3 player whose design they had copied, and he appeared somewhat bemused by the fact that she seemed far more concerned with its fashionabilty rather than its functionality. After their earlier experience with Buffy Summers this should not have surprised him, but it was so outside his experience, even when dealing with other humans, that he was continually baffled by her priorities. How someone like her could have achieved all that she had was a source of continuing amazement to the Asgard. And like all things that amazed the Asgard, it was something they studied very, very carefully.

O'Neill had been under strict orders to remain silent during the 'discussions' with Buffy, but he decided they didn't apply to dealings with Thor. "How did it go on your end with the Ori, Thor ol' buddy? We monitored some serious explosions in the outer solar system while Buffy was pounding on the Doci, so we know you kept them off our back. Thank you for that, by the way. I know you had an arrangement with Buffy, but I'm wondering what it cost you."

Coloring slightly in embarrassment, Buffy wished she had remembered to acknowledge the price the Asgard had been willing to pay to defend earth while she got them the pendant housing the psionic device. After quickly nodding to O'Neill in gratitude for the reminder, she turned back to Thor. "And did the Replicators hurt you too bad while your fleet was defending us against the Ori?" The comment was intended more to remind the Senator how much they owed the Asgard, and if he really wanted to piss them off by interfering with their plans.

"As we had hoped, the battle caught the attention of the Replicators, who investigated and discovered that some of the technology within the Ori fleet was different than any they had previously encountered. None of the Asgard ships possessed similarly unique technological enhancements. Deliberately so, of course. The Replicators immediately attacked the Ori fleet. This came as quite a relief, as we had already lost seventeen ships during the course of the battle. At that point we had destroyed fourteen Ori ships, which might give you an idea of the relative strengths of the respective designs. Given the overwhelming Ori advantage in total hulls available at the start of the battle, this is probably the only time in history that an Asgard fleet has been 'rescued' by the Replicators. They then followed the Ori back to their host galaxy, and continue to test Ori defenses on their 'home turf,' to use an Earth expression.

"Since then we have also been mass-producing the psionic disruptors and providing them to subject races within Ori-dominated space, using stealth ships. Between ourselves and the Replicators, we have caused considerable inconvenience to the Ori."

Kinsey took that as an opportunity to butt into the conversation. "That's a relief. At least we don't have to worry about facing another enemy while we're concentrating on the Goa'uld."

It was meant to be a sarcastic jab at Buffy, but Thor either didn't understand that or, more likely, didn't care. "The Ori will quickly adapt, as will the Replicators. Hopefully, we will be able to as well. We estimate that within little more than ten of your years we will face a more powerful Ori threat returning to our space. They will seek to destroy both our races to prevent us from providing any distraction from their new-found –and far more threatening--confrontation with the Replicators. We have bought some time; but the future implications are somewhat disconcerting. Unfortunately, as most of us in this room have learned to our chagrin, this is often the case when immediate tactical needs must be addressed regardless of their long-term strategic consequences."

Buffy reassessed her thought that Thor hadn't cared about Kinsey's crack. His not-so-subtle knife to the ribs about the Senators' lack of military experience –or Buffy's equivalent—wasn't missed by anyone. Certainly not by Kinsey, whose expression looked a bit sour, but who was smart enough not to say anything about it. It was one thing to use his position to intimidate government workers who couldn't really fight back. Nobody was sure what an Asgard might do if it took offense to some smart-assed remark by even a fairly high-ranking diplomat. There were many who claimed the Asgard were beyond anything so mundane as 'taking offense.' Few at the SGC believed that to be an entirely accurate assessment of their emotional state. But even if it was true, and the Asgard weren't really offended, they tended to punish those who irritated them as if they had been offended if only to discourage the reappearance of said annoying behavior. So the results were the same. Whatever his other faults, Kinsey wasn't foolish enough to think his position would prevent the Asgard from slapping him down hard if they felt so inclined.

His point having been made, Thor politely bid them adieu and disappeared in a burst of light. The distraction of his visit had forced Kinsey to reassess his campaign strategy. Clearly, the Asgard were going to support the girl's efforts, no matter what the government wanted. The presentation of an Asgard-designed-and-built device right in front of his face also meant they likely now had the means of monitoring her, and would take immediate action should the government move to prevent her from acting despite their wishes to the contrary. Nor was there a damned thing they could do about it. Cheyenne Mountain was among the best-defended sites on Earth, and the Asgard could 'beam in' at will. There was nowhere they could put her that the Asgard couldn't get her out of, and simply killing her, well, that was probably not a good idea on sooo many levels. So, if she was determined to fight this 'First' thing, there wasn't much they could do to stop her. But Kinsey had never really expected they would be able to. That hadn't even been his real objective. What he wanted to do was to frame the mission parameters so that he –and the President, of course—got all the credit if she succeeded, and none of the blame if she failed.

"Consider your point made, Miss Summers. However, if you do act without government sanction, then you do so without government resources. In other words, no backup team. No support team. No documents or pre-built 'brain shield' devices. You try to do this on your own, then you are on your own. Completely. How does that grab you?"

Buffy appeared to consider his words. Both O'Neill and Hammond expected her to blow her top –and they figured Kinsey did as well-- so they were all surprised when she simply sighed. "I hate to say it, but that's probably for the best, Senator. There are things in my world you people just aren't ready to face. I guess you already know that magic works there. Evil magic, the kind that can kill. Yeah, I'm sure the SGC would like to study something like it, if only to learn how they might defend against it should someone use it against them, but I can't help but feel that there is too much danger such knowledge could get out and be used inappropriately. Even 'good' magic can be abused. For example; my friend Willow can convert lead into gold just with some potions and a few mystical words." Everyone could see Kinsey's ears perk up at this tantalizing bit of information, but Buffy wasn't finished. "The economic implications of transfiguration of base metals is something you will really have to study, so that you can assess the potential impact before word of even the possibility of it occurring gets out and causes market chaos." She paused, hoping the senator hadn't studied her closely enough to realize that she barely understood what she had just said, and was simply quoting Willow.

"And that's not even the worst." She was speaking directly to Kinsey now, and her wide-eyed, earnestly vacuous expression might be misinterpreted by those who didn't know her as too naïve to discern the greed in Kinsey's eyes. "There are spells back home which can make a man virtually immortal. Mystical glamour's that can make him brilliantly intelligent, irresistible to women, incredibly competent at everything he does, anything he even tries; a veritable real-life Superstar! I don't know if they would work in this universe, but we all know that things were changed so that a Slayer can exist here, so that sort of magic might now be possible. And nobody in this reality has any defenses against those sort of spells! The danger of inadvertently allowing such power loose on an unsuspecting populace are too great to ignore! So great that I cannot, in good conscience, ask you to take such a risk."

She released another elaborate sigh, not looking away from Kinsey, not daring to glance towards O'Neill or Hammond, knowing what she would see in their eyes. "I do realize that it would really improve my odds of success if your government were to help me. The knowledge they might gain could also turn out to be incredibly useful in designing defenses against the Goold, and later for when the Ori return. And God only knows that helping me would make the Asgard happy! But the potential danger is just too high!" She was going to say more, something about how an unscrupulous rogue could use such magic to become anything he wanted --even, say, President of the United States-- but figured being so explicit would be just a bit too un-subtle. From the look on Kinsey's face, she figured she didn't need to say the words. He was getting the message just fine all on his own. "So if you recommend that the President not allow the SGC to help me, I'll understand. Personally I believe the benefits outweigh the risks, but I can certainly see why you might think differently."

Her eyes were huge and innocent, her voice whisper-quiet and loaded with an undertone of maidenly fear, but such firm determination to carry on regardless, that there wasn't a man in the world who wouldn't have gladly stood up and promised to ride off on their steed to kill the offending dragon just for the favor of her glance. Had it been anyone but Kinsey being played, O'Neill would have hurled all over the concrete floor. Despite that, even knowing she was doing it deliberately, O'Neill wasn't surprised in the slightest when Kinsey left soon afterwards promising to inform her of the President's decision. He also didn't have the slightest doubt as to what that decision would be. Glaring at her, he folded his arms over his chest in an intimidating pose. "You oughta be ashamed of yourself, young lady! Okay, telling him he could be superstud using magic that doesn't even work in this universe is one thing. But that thing with the eyes? That was embarrassing."

She smiled a bit at O'Neill's pretense of offended disgust. "Do you think it worked though?"

"Are you kidding?! Of course it worked! Hell, even knowing you were playing him, I'd have friggin' agreed to do whatever you asked. Uhm… that magic stuff won't really work here, will it?"

Buffy covered her face with both hands, rubbing her lips, trying to wipe the bad taste from her mouth. It didn't go away. "I don't think so. I'm told that the changes were made specifically to allow a Slayer to exist here. I don't know if that will have any effect on permitting other magic to work. If it does, I think it will be pretty limited. But I was told by someone a lot smarter than me that I had to offer him some incentive to cooperate or he'd have tried to stop this thing just out of spite."

With a quick nod, as if he had just won a bet with himself, O'Neill looked over towards Hammond. "You really are going to have to give Rosenberg a raise, sir."

"Consider it done." The General had also been expecting Buffy to blow a gasket, had in fact been seriously concerned about it, and had been amazed when she not only kept control over herself, but had zeroed in on Kinsey's weak points: his greed, and his ambition. He was rather proud of her for that, but also somewhat surprised. Despite his best efforts at demonstrating negotiating techniques, so far she had shown few signs of meeting such challenges with anything except threats of violence or displays of anger. Given the level of political interest in her ever since the events at the airport, neither would do her much good any longer in her attempts to achieve her goals. Like it or not, at the level she was now playing, ultimatums weren't going to cut it. That she had finally realized that simple fact was as welcome as it was unexpected. He couldn't help but notice that she didn't seem happy about it. "You did well, Miss Summers. This could have gone very badly for all of us. Offending the Asgard for no good reason would not endear them to us, and they are already a bit upset with us over some of our recent decisions."

Scowling, Buffy considered her reasons for feeling a bit disgusted with herself rather than proud or herself for escaping what could have been a disastrous trap. "I played him! I didn't convince him, or make him understand the need to do what I wanted. I saw his weakness and manipulated him! I don't think that's something I should be proud of."

Smiling without humor, O'Neill waved his fingers at her. "Wrong. Be proud. You did good. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid."

When he said nothing else, the General followed up. "Colonel O'Neill is correct, Miss Summers. Ethical or not, when dealing with people like Senator Kinsey you had better be prepared to play on his emotions, his weaknesses, or you will fail. Like it or not, manipulation is part and parcel of the art of negotiation, and if you're not willing to play by the established rules you will inevitably lose out to those who are willing to do so. That is the reality, and you ignore it at your peril."

Giving a quick shake of her head to acknowledge that she heard his words, Buffy didn't look up at the two men, more interested in staring at her hands, apparently wondering who they belonged to. "It might be good tactics, but it's not me. Not the way I do things. Not the way I want to do things. And the fact that I did it that way means I'm changing into something different than the 'me' I was, the 'me' I want to be."

O'Neill didn't see the problem. "You're growing up. Congratulations."

"It's not that simple for a Slayer, Jack. Slayers don't really 'grow up.' They usually die long before they have a chance to 'grow up,' emotionally speaking. When a Slayer changes her personality it's because she needs to adapt to meet the challenge of the next Big Bad. Her power isn't constant; it will vary depending on what she'll need to defeat whatever it is she is about to face. We're usually at least partly psychic, so often have a bit of advanced warning about how powerful the next Big Bad is likely to be before we face it directly. You wouldn't believe the things I had to do to beat Adam! The powers I needed. I was waaay more powerful than I was when I took out the Master. And I was a lot stronger facing the Master than when I went up against Lothos. Even that much power won't be enough this time around because magic doesn't work here. So I'm changing in other ways. I've been noticing it for awhile. I'd hoped it was just a temporary thing. My personality… the way I act. The way I… am. I wasn't like this, before. I used to be… different. Happier. I've been… depressed… for a long time. I haven't told you why. But you need to know."

She took a deep breath before finally meeting their eyes. "I've been kind of messed up ever since I died. Not the first time, I mean the time before the one that brought me here. When I fought Glory. She was the one who was searching for the Key. She was the reason they sent the Key to me for protection. I did what I had to do, but just barely. I died doing it. Only without me, things got really bad for the people left behind. So about six months after they buried me, my friends performed an ancient spell to…well, resurrect me. They ripped me out of Heaven to bring me back. I had to dig my way out of my own grave. It was… unpleasant."

She explained to the increasingly horrified soldiers the events leading up to Glory's defeat, and its horrible aftermath. They suddenly realized another reason the Asgard were so adamant about helping Buffy take on the First. How many other people were there who had actually defeated a god? Neither man thought Glory was anything like God-God, but the Asgard had explained that a 'god' was a creature immune to the paradoxes of exercising its own power. A god could change history, and emerge unaffected. But, as powerful as they were, a 'god' wasn't on the same level as God. As in 'who art in Heaven.' Although many were not overtly religious, very few soldiers didn't believe in God in some form, and what she described met their definition of an abomination. Heaven was a Divine reward for a life of service, a reward they both felt she had more than earned. To be torn out in such a way, to awaken entombed within her own casket, was a horrifying abuse of everything they believed in. It was difficult for them to believe that Willow, who was rapidly becoming a favorite at the SGC for her enthusiasm and brilliance, could do something like that, in any reality.

As interesting as it might be, the Glory episode was not the point Buffy was trying to make. "I thought the changes I saw in myself were just being depressed. That I'd get over it. Ever since they brought me back I've found myself doing things I never thought I'd do. Act in ways I never thought I'd act. I used to be soooo different; nicer, and funnier, and happier, and I kept thinking that once I got over what happened I'd go back to the way things used to be, the way I used to be. But I haven't gotten over it. I am not changing back to the way I was. And it's not just the whole 'leaping into Elizabeth's body' thing either. This has been going on for a long time. Over two years now. Even before I came here. I'm changing. Becoming harder, less emotionally connected, less… human. I've been having dreams about the First almost since this started. From the moment I realized I would be going up against the First. The Slayer in me knows how powerful it is, and I'm changing to become strong enough to face it. And that's not good, because I'm becoming a real Slayer."

She hissed the word like it was a profanity. The two men looked at each other in confusion, until O'Neill asked the obvious question. "Uhm, aren't you already a Slayer?"

"Not like this! Not like she was! Not like they wanted me to be! All this happened because I turned them down. Those bastard Shadowmen and their misogynic arrogance. They treated the Slayer like a tool, to be used as they saw fit! Yeah, they'll give you power; but at a horrible cost. It was nothing short of rape! Whatever was left of 'me' would have been cast out to make way for the demon, an instrument of their power and wrath. An automaton, a killing machine; nothing more than a fucking golem! That's what they did to the First Slayer. What is happening to me now isn't as bad as that, but the end result will be almost the same. I'm turning into something I'm not. Something I don't want to be!"

O'Neill didn't know what to say, didn't really understand what she was talking about, so silently made it clear he was leaving this one up to Hammond. The General kept his voice calm and concerned, not knowing what she meant, but knowing it was vitally important to a girl he was becoming extremely fond of. "You have been very clear about how dangerous the First is, Buffy. Surely anything which improves your odds of defeating it is something we should embrace?"

She tried to explain, her voice cracking. "You don't know what the First Slayer was like! What they did to her. They basically turned an innocent girl into a killing machine. I don't want to become a machine!" The cry was unexpected; the pain and fear behind it less so. A civilian would have misinterpreted the meaning behind it. Both of the men in that room understood, finally realized what she feared. In their own way, both had faced something similar.

Choosing his words carefully, Hammond tentatively broached a subject he had been discussing with the staff psychologists for some time. "Buffy, we still don't understand much of what a 'Slayer' is, but we do know a fair bit about what it means to be a soldier. And that, whether you like the word or not, is what you are: a soldier fighting an unending war against a powerful enemy. It is a war you have been fighting far too long, with too little time off to regroup and recover. You have told us many times about how short the life expectancy of a Slayer is, and I don't doubt you for a minute. Human beings simply are not capable of handling this sort of stress for years on end. The older you get, the more stressful it becomes, and the harder it is to deal with it. But in your own way you are a soldier, and you are at war, so you must deal with it. You adapt in ways you might not like. You change. The way you look at the world changes. The way you act and think and see yourself changes. Perhaps the changes you are presently experiencing are unique to a Slayer, but I don't believe this to be the case. Or not entirely, I should say. You meet all the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress, and it comes as no surprise to anyone who has dealt with PTSD that you are changing in ways you might not like."

After a few seconds of silence, while Buffy considered his words and struggled to gain control over her own fears, O'Neill cleared his throat, not wanting to speak, knowing that had there been anyone else in the room he would not have been able to, before quietly speaking of his experience in Iraq during the first Gulf War. The covert mission that went to hell. His capture. Some of the things that happened afterwards. What he had had to do to escape. What it had done to him; the change in his personality which had been the beginning of the end of his marriage, the pain leading to an inattentiveness which might have inadvertently caused the death of his son. Guilt overwhelming him to the point where he had considered suicide as a viable option to escape it. In some ways he might as well have done so. He wasn't the man he had once been. He would never be that man again. Post-traumatic stress was as insidious as it was overwhelming "There's no way back from it, Buffy. There's no way you can 'unsee' the things you've seen, 'undo' the things you've done. You can only go forward. Maybe this is some kind of Slayer thing, but it isn't that much different than the rest of us go through. It isn't pretty, and it isn't fun, and it sure as hell isn't fair. But it is human. And you do have some control over what you will be once you've become whatever it is you're turning into. It takes time and effort and support from the people who care for you. But you can handle this. Even if you can't stop it, you do have some power, and some choice."

Although she hadn't quite broken down in tears, Buffy had been pretty upset with the realization that she had been kidding herself with the delusion that what had been happening to her was a 'temporary' thing she would eventually 'get over.' But Jack's words helped. A lot. Just the realization that what she had assumed was a situation unique to Slayers was in fact something many, many others had experienced made it somehow, if not better, then at least bearable. Once again she had been acting like a prima donna, thinking she was so special nobody else could possibly understand what she was going through. She should have realized from Willow's comments regarding her own experiences that, no matter how unusual her situation was, others would have a valid analogue. She might be unique, but she wasn't alone. Knowing that words couldn't convey her gratitude, or express her regret that her friend had been forced to speak of things he would rather have left unspoken, Buffy reached over to squeeze O'Neill's hand. It was more than simply a 'thank you.' Jack understood the meaning of the gesture, and knew that as hard as it had been for him to speak of his experiences, it had been the right thing to do. It was what you did to help out a friend.

Meeting her eyes, knowing they would probably never speak of this again, Jack squeezed back. "You also have to put it into perspective. Never tell anyone this, but Daniel once told me that when he was nine years old, he saw his aunt naked. She was in her 70's." After shuddering in horror, Jack resumed speaking. "My god, can you imagine how that would traumatize a kid?! Scarred him for life, it did. Nothing you or I will ever see could come close to the sheer horror of it! That being said, I speak from experience when I say you need to keep busy. Next to a long vacation, nothing helps more than thinking up ways to slaughter the son of a bitch that did this to you. You've got a mission and an agenda. So lets get to work. What are your priorities? What do you need? What do you want to do? What do you need to know?"

Smiling, if a bit tremulously, and feeling considerably better –not happy, and far from relieved, but at least a bit comforted with the realization that the Shadowmen didn't have to win, Buffy considered Jack's suggestion, telling herself to get a grip because the First wasn't going to go away. No matter how tired she was, no matter how much she just wanted to sleep, the cold hard fact of the matter was that her sister was in danger, and she were counting on her. Everyone was counting on her. Conceited she might be, but part of being the Chosen One meant you were the one who had to suck it up when things got tough, and do what had to be done. She figured she needed to do something useful, but relaxing. Or at least something she found relaxing, because she had always been proud of her martial arts skills.

Which reminded her of Teal'c, which in turn reminded her of something she had been thinking about for awhile. "Just to let you know: I wasn't kidding about Willow being able to change lead into gold. She doesn't bother, because it's really hard to do; well, a lot harder than simply stealing it. But she can do transformation spells in order to create things that are real hard to get any other way. For instance, if you provide a sample, she could whip up a batch of tretonin." O'Neill's sharply indrawn breath confirmed the importance of her offer. "His snake will be hatching in less than a year. From what I understand, without it, he'll die. Unless he gets some tretonin. Well, it just so happens I know a place you might be able to make a deal to get some. Not for free –Willow will probably take you to the cleaners once she finds out how badly you want it—but it will work, and give you a reliable alternate supply. If we win. And to win, I am going to have to quit moping. What I really need is somebody really good at unarmed combat to train me how to fight."

Both men looked at her in confusion, still thinking about the drug that might keep Teal'c alive once his Goa'uld symbiote came to term, and not expecting the sudden shift in subject. "You want to be trained how to fight?! You took down Teal'c in a fair fight! Bruce Lee would have a tough time fighting you! Hell, I don't just mean 'risen-from-his-grave, Zombie Bruce Lee.' He'd have had a tough time fighting you even before he died! There isn't a helluva lot you don't already know about unarmed combat!"

"When I go back, I'll be facing other slayers. Slayers who have had the opportunity to fight other slayers. I was trained by a Watcher, who was really good at it and followed a training regime worked out over centuries, but who couldn't actually do any of the moves he taught me. If you have a bunch of slayers, testing themselves against each other, I figure they could go beyond the Watcher teachings pretty quickly. I've faced another Slayer in combat, and have a pretty good idea how tricky we can be. Slayers are generally faster and stronger than all but Master Vampires. If I have to fight another slayer, I want to be able to surprise them with something beyond the Watcher training manual. Because they sure as hell are going to be able to surprise me."

Hammond was smiling thinly, and from the irritated look in his subordinate's eyes he figured Jack realized exactly who he had in mind to help Buffy out. "It just so happens I know someone who might be able to do just that…"