Changing the Death Toll

By PaBurke

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, no money made. I own none of the canon characters or universes, nor the tiny allusion to Harry Potter, Star Trek, Heartbreak Ridge and Pooh. All writing has been done in fun.

Distribution: Wormhole Crossing, TtH

Spoilers: Fragile Balance for SG1, Chosen for Buffy and Episode III for SW

Rating: for language, violence, death, and major angst-'cause I'm not changing the big parts of Episode III or the rest of the SW movie cannon and how can you not have angst with Post-Chosen Buffy and Clone Jack?

*****

"Save the Children, get them out of here."

That was the only thought in Buffy's brain when she woke up. She had been having a Slayer Dream. Right now she didn't remember the particulars but she felt such a sense of urgency. She knew that this dream was important. The urgency of this situation matched that of when she found the scythe.

She jumped to her feet. And blinked. Okay . . . one answer solved but so many more questions created. She was in the middle of a nursery. A futuristic nursery. "I don't think we're in England anymore, Toto," she muttered. Babies of all shapes, sizes and colors slept in little, detachable bins that wheeled around on cart-thingies. Demon babies, maybe? Humans too, so if the PTB wanted her to save babies, Buffy would save all the babies. A quick glance and Buffy counted twenty-one bins.

"Save the Children, get them out of here."

This time someone else said the words with Buffy. A quick glance at the floor revealed the 'who.' A man-young- was collapsed in the next aisle. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, just like she was, though hers were definitely more stylish. And was that a knife sheath like hers around his ankle? Buffy scooped up two of the babies and put them in a bin with a third. With any solution she came up with, it would be helpful if the babies were grouped. It just happened that the third baby was right next to the man on the floor. She kicked him gently.

"Hey Buddy! Wake up!" Buffy said urgently. "We have a lot of frickin' babies to move!"

The young man was on his feet in a second. Then he swayed and blinked at Buffy and their surroundings. "Where are we?"

She rolled her eyes. "See babies? Save babies."

He paused, trying to get his bearings. "Do we know from what?"

Buffy glared, "No and if we're really lucky we won't find out."

"Are we sure . . ."

"Yes," Buffy put her hands on her hips. "If we're wrong we can always put them back. Now. See Babies? Save babies."

He immediately realized Buffy's plan and followed suit. He didn't wince anymore than Buffy did at the many species represented, just picked them up and grouped them. Most of the babies never woke up and the few that did just stared at Buffy and the stranger intently. For the species with some sharp-looking natural defenses, the stranger paired the babies. In the end, Buffy and her new partner had eight bins with a total of twenty-one babies. The cart thingies didn't look like they could hold up in a fight, so Buffy and the guy had wordlessly agreed to put all the bins on the floor and leave the carts behind.

"Rope would be good," the guy muttered.

Buffy shook her head. "There's not even decent sized blankets to rip up and tie together." She looked up and suddenly had an idea. "What about wire?"

He looked up and saw the hanging lights-dimmed. "Wire would work."

Buffy crouched down and then jumped as high as she could. She might have gotten better air if she had taken a running jump, but the male's gasp of surprise was its own reward. As it was, Buffy overshot her mark by a lot. She nearly hit the ceiling. It was as if gravity wasn't holding her down anymore. She had to reach out and grab the light fixtures and slide down to the bottom. She hung on a pair of lights and heard the ceiling groan. She yanked with all her might and momentum. Buffy and the pair of lights came crashing to the ground. Buffy absorbed the fall in her knees and held the lights far enough over her head that they didn't shatter on the floor. Thus, no noise. Crying babies would be so of the bad right now. She gently placed the light fixtures on the ground and, ignoring the slight electrical shocks sparking on the wires, started pulling on the wires for one light. Soon she had gained a goodly length and ripped it out of the ceiling. She tossed the wires to the guy . . .

"What is your name anyway?" . . . And started pulling on the wires for the second light.

"Jack O'Neill. You?"

"Buffy Summers."

He paused in his work, considering a comment Buffy was sure, but then just said, "Nice to meet you."

"Likewise." She finally had a second set of wires to offer Jack. She held them out. "You need more?"

Jack looked down at his handiwork. He had tied the bins together and had even added a makeshift seatbelt to the assembly. He had packed the light blankets around the babies to hold them even more securely. The bins were ordered in two sets of four, pairing each bin with approximately the same weight load. "One more length should do it." Buffy liked his efficiency.

She jumped again to bring down another light. "Coming right up . . . or rather down." This light was a little more stubborn than the last two, but it inevitably succumbed. "Just leave me enough wire to pull the whole she-bang."

"Roger that."

Buffy jerked her head away from the wires in her hands. That was way too Initiative-like. But she saw the gentleness Jack bestowed on the babies, no matter the species. She had to remind herself that not all military was bad and that she had a job to do.

By the time she had decided to trust the partner the PTB dumped her with, Jack had finished tying all the baby bins together.

"Want me to tighten the knots?" she offered.

Jack looked vaguely insulted but quickly stomped it down. "Sure, just don't stretch the wires too much, it'll weaken them."

"Got it." Buffy tightened every knot as much as she dared. She glanced up once and Jack was at the door, checking for any problems. There was one wire that mystified the Slayer.

"What's with the tail?" she asked. The lone wire trailed after the bins.

"I'm guessing that you're strong and fast," Jack said.

Buffy snorted. "No, I just offered to pull the babies because I was a husky in a previous life."

Jack grinned. "If you're half as fast as I think you are, we have to be careful about whiplash. You could accidentally send the tail end of the baby train into a wall while you round a corner. I'll hold the tail and try to keep the caboose on track."

"Oh." Buffy hadn't considered that. "Good idea."

Jack accepted the compliment with a nod. "The way's clear. We'd better get."

Buffy slung each part of the improvised harness over a shoulder and pulled. The bins sliding on the floor whispered its scraping. The weight wasn't anything she couldn't handle easily. Jack held the door open for her. She was at a slow jog by the time she had cleared the nursery and started down the hallway, following the directions the PTB had given her in her dream. Jack grabbed the tail and followed.

The nursery exploded behind them.

Buffy promptly broke into a sprint and Jack desperately tried to keep up.

****

The female looked on and mourned the children in the other nurseries. The clone troopers had set the charges in their normal efficient, unemotional manner. The younglings died in a fiery blaze. From the Powers' perspective, they were whisked straight to the happiness of heaven.

"You did not allow the Chosen One and the Young Champion to see the other nurseries," the Power accused the Balance Demon.

Whistler took a drag of his cigarette. "How many can they save before the Balance will be upset again? Eight? Ten?"

"The Dark Side is moving many forces into position. He is shifting the Balance greatly in his direction," said the brother. "He cannot-would not expect us to do any less but counter his move."

"But Evil has been setting this coup up for a generation," counted Whistler.

The sister smiled. "What makes you think that this is an impulse for us?"

Whistler paused. "But you wasted effort by not using Earthly means to get them to the Temple. You stole them out of their beds."

"Indeed," chorused the Powers that Be.

The sister shook her head. "We learned our lesson from the last time we had thought we had placed the Slayer out of the reach of the Witch."

****

Buffy jumped down the set of stairs. The train of babies and then Jack flew behind her. She turned the corner and kept on going. Jack might have been a pilot but he didn't like flying this way. The wire was twisted around his wrist and was cutting off circulation. He swung his legs out toward the oncoming wall, collided, absorbed the shock and pushed off. He'd have to be careful, this body was too young to injure its knees permanently.

It was a damn good thing that Jack had the foresight to give the babies seatbelts and package them in their bins with the extra blankets. Jack made a promise then and there to never allow Buffy to drive any vehicle. He was sure that the baby train would take Buffy out once she tried to slow down. Or she would send Jack and the babies flying into a wall before Jack could protect them. He had thought about kicking off his shoes and 'sock-skiing' down the hall, instead of letting his rump take all the abuse, but he was sure that he'd need his shoes sometime soon. To run, to fight, to hide, Jack just knew that he'd need his shoes.

He was so having a long chat with Thor when this was over. The Asgard non-interfering ass.

A human kid jumped in front of Buffy and the baby train and activated some sort of light weapon. Jack wasn't sure what kind of damage the 'light sword' could do but the boy held it with a calm authority that frightened Jack. The kid was younger than Charlie had been when he died. In Jack's opinion, he had no business challenging adults-or mostly adults, the Buffy girl couldn't be older than twenty-five – to battle.

Speaking of that Buffy-girl, she did the most unexpected thing. She put on a burst of speed, then swung her torso in such a way that the train whipped around. She released it, forcing the infants' bins to circle like a giant lawn mower blade toward the kid's feet. Jack hung on for dear life, trying to slow the train enough so that it wouldn't go flying off the ledge on the other side of the hallway. The boy jumped over Jack and the babies with the height that would put a NBA player to shame but Buffy was on the same playing field.

Jack would have never thought that a jumping boy would be a sitting target, but Buffy treated the child as such. She leapt into the air and collided with the boy; he couldn't change his trajectory mid-lift. The two tumbled to the stone floor, grappling over the weapon.

The baby train was still speeding for the ledge, so Jack trusted Buffy to do her thing and focused solely on trying to create enough friction to stop. Jack rolled a couple times then spied a column on the edge of the walkway. With all his strength, he pulled the baby train, trying to direct its path toward the column. It didn't take to much work. Buffy might have been sending the train for the same target but her aim was slightly off. Forgivable, considering the rest of her multitasking.

Finally, Jack and the tail end of the train collided with the column and bounced off like a pinball back towards the safe part of the walkway. Unfortunately the front part that Buffy had been pulling swung around back to the edge. Jack watched in horror as the first two bins fell off the cliff. Jack grappled backwards, his shoes giving him the necessary traction to prevent the other bins from following.

"Buffy!" he yelled.

The sounds of a fight abruptly stopped.

"What does your heart tell you?" Jack heard Buffy ask. If he could have spared the attention, he would have rolled his eyes. Just like a girl to get touchy-feel-y when there were lives on the line.

There was a heavy pause and Jack was slowly losing ground. He cursed whoever designed the stupid baby bins so heavily.

"To . . ." the boy spoke slowly, "To trust you." He sounded surprised at his own conclusion.

"Good," said Buffy. "Help Jack. We're here to get as many children out as possible."

In an instant, both Buffy and the boy appeared by the baby train and started pulled back. Bins three and four were pulled completely back onto the walkway. Buffy was right at the edge, leaning over and lifting bin two over the edge. Jack counted three little heads in the bin and breathed a sigh of relief. His seatbelts held firm. He thanked any non-gou'ald gods listening that he had swallowed his pride and let Buffy tightened the knots.

Buffy reached for the last bin over the edge, but her arms just weren't long enough. If she leaned off the edge anymore, Jack would be fishing for his partner.

"Got it?" he asked the boy.

The boy wrapped the wire around his wrist, found his footing and nodded grimly. Jack let go and the baby train barely budged. Jack hurried to the opposite side as Buffy. Once he had stopped rushing, he crawled to the edge. He leaned over to see what was taking so long.

And set eyes on the most horrific battle scene. How had he not recognized the sounds of war before now?

There were adults, dressed the same as the boy and the infants and using the same 'light sword' as the boy and they were obviously on the defensive against the army clad in white armor. The 'home team' was out numbered maybe ten-to-one. The only reason why it was not a massacre was that they were taking a good number of the armored soldiers with them.

Jack ignored the battle below and set to the task of getting the last bin back on the quiet walkway. He grimly set his jaw. He didn't need to be told that those white armored soldiers had tried to blow up the nursery with the babies still in it. That would have been a massacre.

There were kids down there.

The adults were trying to protect their backs but children were fighting and dying down there in that battle.

Buffy caught a hold of the dangling baby bin and started reeling it in. Jack helped but one part of his brain wished for a gun, a sniper rifle would be good, from this position he could cover the 'home team's' retreat. Why hadn't whoever had dropped him in the nursery given him a gun? Surely Thor would have given him a gun, wouldn't he?

Stray weapons fire hit column by Jack's side. Jack tried to take cover and bring the baby bin with him but secondary weapon's fire hit the bin. The three babies inside started crying. For once Jack was pleased that the bins were built so tough. None of them were harmed.

But then another weapon fired and hit the baby bin and Jack's wire connectors broke. The bin and the three infants fell.

"Nooo!" Buffy yelled.

Jack tackled Buffy before she could fling herself off the ledge after the falling babies. In her grief, she let him. Jack peeked over the edge. The battle was dying down. The 'home team' was mostly reduced to corpses littered on the ground. But amazingly enough the babies hadn't hit the ground yet!

They were slowly being raised back to Buffy and Jack. Buffy's head tilted toward the right and Jack followed her line of sight. There a wounded alien leaned against a column and raised one outstretched hand. Sweat poured off the alien from the effort.

Jack knew that the alien was trying to give the infants back to them.

From behind the alien, weapon fire aimed at the babies. First the lowest infant was hit. The alien could not waste energy on the dead, so he/she/it let the child drop. Then the second infant was hit. The alien poured all its remaining energy into the final baby. Buffy reached, stretched her arms, yearning for the infant. Jack anchored her lower body, trying to give her a couple more inches.

"Got'cha! Nooo!" Buffy's joyful cry turned into a wail of anger. The third baby had been shot to death in her hands.

Buffy cradled the tiny corpse. Her eyes drifted toward the alien who had tried so hard to give back the child.

He/it turned its face toward Buffy. "Save the Children," he said. A man, hooded and robed like the boy and the alien, stepped out from the shadows. He had a blaster in one hand and a 'light sword' in the other. With a dismissive flick of his wrist, he beheaded the alien. He then ordered the troopers to attack Buffy and the others.

"Get them out of here," Jack finished in her ear.

Buffy's face set in stone. "Let's go. But we're going to come back for the Traitor."

Jack couldn't agree more.

****

Whistler winced. "Oh, hell."

The demon on Whistler's left laughed and clapped him on the back. Most of the group of demons had cheered when the babies had gone over the edge, 'cause hello-demons! Money was changing hands as fast as the action they were watching in the one-way portal the Powers had created to observe.

Whistler had won a good many pots already. The stupid Fertlit demon had bet that the Slayer would not survive the first explosion. Wishful thinking. But then the Fertlit was only in the service of the Powers because the Slayer had killed it with a Contatract Sword. The Fertlit had always cheered for the Dark Side before its death, so why change now?

****

Ro'hane glanced between the two young adults. Masters, Knights-maybe? But he was unfamiliar with their faces and they hadn't joined the fight with the other Masters and didn't have their own light sabers. He had paid attention to all the Masters with and without padawans with the hopes of being apprenticed himself. He could feel the Force grow dark within these two, but they contained it, focused it and turned it back to the light. The girl, Buffy, gently placed the dead infant in a bin with two other younglings, readjusted the first bin in the train to be more centered and tied it into place. She took up the harness again and started back down the hall. The young man, Jack, took the tail away from Ro'hane and waved him Buffy's way.

"Be our look-out up ahead," he ordered. Then Jack snickered, "If, of course, you can outrun Buffy."

"May I have my light-saber back?" he asked as he jogged beside the girl.

"No!" The refusal echoed from both Buffy and the man.

"But . . ."

Buffy sped up her pace and Ro'hane struggled to just keep up. He kept waiting for the clone troopers to appear around the next corner and cut down the adults and kill the children. Buffy turned another corner and the baby train went flying behind. Ro'hane found himself impressed by how Jack twisted his body to absorb the impact.

The next corner was approaching fast when Buffy shed the harness and threw it his way. Ro'hane struggled to catch the reins and not get run over. Buffy jumped up on the wall, activated the light saber and swung around the corner. By the time Ro'hane and Jack turned the corner with some semblance of control, Buffy had finished off an entire squadron. The clone troopers lay dead or dying on the stone floor.

Maybe his light saber was in the best of hands at the moment.

Buffy bounced on her toes and jogged toward Ro'hane and Jack. On the way, she swooped down near and plucked a knife off one of the troopers' neck. She smoothly took the harness away from Ro'hane and started pulling the baby train again. She never paused, never hesitated, her rhythm never faltered. She just flowed.

"Girl, you and me are gonna haf'ta have a little talk about communication," Jack drawled. "Warn me and the kid here when you're going to pull a stunt like that . . . please?"

Buffy laughed, not even out of breath. "An ex taught me some hand signals, next thing you know, you'll want me to actually use them."

Jack brightened, fell to his butt and started sliding on his pants, wincing when he hit a bump. "Actually-hmmp- that'd be perfect." With a slight catch of his shoes on the stone, he managed to pull himself back on his feet.

"Jack," Buffy sounded exasperated and not at all as concerned as Ro'hane thought she should be with the circumstances. "He's an ex for a reason."

"A Jarhead?"

"Nope, Army."

"You're a smart woman to dump him."

"Thanks." Buffy's voice was drier than anything Ro'hane ever heard. Was this the appropriate time to have this discussion? Why wasn't Buffy out of breath? Was she a species other than human?

Buffy turned another corner and this time caught up with a foursome of younglings running toward the council chamber. They were three or four years younger than Ro'hane and carrying the practice light sabers, two each. Buffy hid her knife somewhere and Ro'hane's light saber disappeared on her person. With her hands freed, she simply picked up two of the younglings and swerved around the other two.

Jack threw Ro'hane the tailing wire of the baby train with a, 'Catch kid.' Jack picked up the other two younglings and kept on running.

"Wait for me," a child's voice pleaded.

Both Jack and Buffy slid to a stop. Ro'hane tripped and fell as he tried to keep the baby bins from taking out Buffy's feet. After he rolled on the ground a couple times, Ro'hane shook his head and looked behind. A youngling, a Caamasi, of about three was running and stumbling much further behind. He was juggling three light sabers and dropped one. He slowed down to go back for it.

"Leave it, kid!" both Buffy and Jack yelled. "Run!"

The Caamasi obeyed with very wide eyes but his little legs couldn't move fast enough. Jack dumped his two younglings into the middle of the baby train, where they were supported by the edges of the bins and wouldn't squish the infants. "Hang on tight," he ordered them and turned to Buffy. "Run, I'll catch up."

She nodded, put the two younglings she had picked up next to Jack's on the baby train and started moving. With the extra weight it took her longer to get the momentum going. Jack took advantage of the pause to strip one of the younglings of his light sabers. He handed one to Ro'hane.

"Buffy, I'm taking the kid. Don't run into any more walls." Jack was already running for the trailing youngling and muttered, "What I wouldn't give for my team right now."

"Yes, sir," Buffy's voice echoed behind them.

Ro'hane followed Jack, but he was surprised. "Master?" he questioned breathlessly, "Should we really go back when we already have . . ."

Jack grabbed Ro'hane's robe and jerked him close. "No one gets left behind. Got it, kid?" he hissed venomously.

Ro'hane nodded and Jack dropped him. Ro'hane struggled to keep his feet under him.

But that was not the way of the Jedi. These were not Jedi. They must be friends of the Jedi. Jack caught up with the youngling, swung the alien up into his arms and sprinted back down the path Buffy had taken. Ro'hane kept an eye out for any clone troopers, waiting for the sounds of the battle to encroach on this particular hallway.

He let the Force flow through him and activated the practice light saber just in time. Someone had had the foresight to put it on its highest setting. Ro'hane pivoted and blocked the blaster shots that were aimed at Jack's back.

"Keep running, kid." Jack ordered.

Ro'hane did so. He followed Jack's weaving and dodging example. The man was surprisingly agile considering he was carrying a youngling. The trio rounded a corner before the clone troopers could land a shot. They picked up even more speed while they were safe from the blasters. They managed to round yet another corner and jump down the set of stairs. A few blaster shots hit above their heads, but Jack acted as if they didn't matter, as if his sheer will would prevent them from harming.

"How do you know . . ." Ro'hane asked breathlessly.

"Bins . . . scraping . . . floor."

Oh. Ro'hane felt a little stupid. He knew better than to question during such a situation but he was thankful that Jack had answered and had answered so matter-of-factly. Ro'hane wondered if Jack was giving Ro'hane what he would need to survive if the clone troopers did end up hitting the man.

They ran for a horribly long time. The tall ceilings and the wide hallways of the Jedi Temple had once comforted Ro'hane as just being part of his home. Not anymore. Sometimes they had to jump the bodies of Masters and their Apprentices. Near the Jedi, the corpses of the clone troopers always lay as they had fallen. The smoke and haze clouded their view but Jack never wavered. The youngling in his arms whimpered at the destruction, but Ro'hane clamped down on his feelings. Ro'hane could feel the heat of flames through the soles of his shoes. The Jedi Temple was on fire and the Jedi were dead. Would any survive this? Would Ro'hane with his saviors?

A closed door on a lower level forced the trio to stop dead in their tracks. Jack glared at the blockade. Ro'hane slapped the control panel and the doors slid open. Jack sprinted on through and toward the spacecraft at the end of the hanger. Ro'hane spared a moment to close the doors behind them.

"Kid! Move!" Jack yelled.

Ro'hane obeyed and as soon he was out of the line of fire, Jack shot a blaster at the controls. Ro'hane blinked. When had Jack had time to pick up a clone trooper blaster?

Jack sent the three-year old Caamasi running toward the ship where Buffy and the four other younglings were struggling to lift the bins onto the ramp. The slight step onto the ramp had stopped the baby train in its tracks. Now every one of the infants was crying. The clone troopers would be alerted to their attempted escape any moment now, even those who had not been chasing Ro'hane and Jack.

Jack positioned himself behind a group of barrels and found a hole to fire his stolen blaster through. Ro'hane stepped to his side, his light saber ready.

"No, kid." Jack pushed Ro'hane toward the ship. "Can you get that thing started?"

"Yes . . . Master, but I'm not much of a pilot," Ro'hane admitted.

"Fine. Get it started and I'll fly us out of this cluster-flop."

Ro'hane ran for the ship. He jumped over two of the younglings helping Buffy and hustled the Caamasi into the ship. "Sit there until Master Buffy gives you an order," Ro'hane told the youngling. The youngling sat in a passenger's chair and nodded wide-eyed, his hands still clutching the two practice light sabers.

Ro'hane slid into the pilot's chair and hurried through all start-up procedures. He knew how to do this. He could do this. He would help save these younglings. He would not be the reason why the younglings died.

****

Whistler flexed his cramping hands and watched the events of the Jedi Temple unfold. Anakin Skywalker was now in the Jedi Council Chamber murdering children. Clone troopers were swarming the burning temple, closing in on the Champions' position. Had the Powers given the Slayer and the Clone enough to succeed? He had a lot riding on their success.

So did the Powers.

****

Finally.

All eight . . . no, seven of the baby bins were on the ramp of the spaceship. Buffy could feel the vibrations as the oldest kid started her up. The ship just looked like it could cross galaxies in a single breath, plus there was the rest of the Slayer Dream to guide her. Buffy pulled the baby train onto the ship and the four kids followed, looking to her for orders.

In a very odd way, Buffy knew she could handle that. "Tie the bins down to the ship. It's going to be a rocky ride out. Work together."

The foursome obeyed with a simple, "Yes, Master."

Buffy would correct them later. She turned around, only to be met by the hopeful eyes of the little kid that Jack had gone back to rescue. He offered both of the light weapons to her. Buffy ruffled the fur on the top of his head. "Thanks, but I'm good. Put those somewhere safe and help the others."

"Yes, Master Buffy," the little alien intoned.

Buffy pulled the gun-like-thingy she had stolen from the enemy out of one of the baby bins where it had been tossed and looked it over as she hurried to the cockpit. There the oldest of the kids was messing around with the controls.

"Ready?" she asked.

He shook his head, worried. "No."

"What do you need?"

"Time, Master Buffy."

Buffy shook her head. "Sorry, but I left my nifty time-turner back home in the pages of a book. You'll make due."

The boy frowned. "I don't think . . ."

Buffy cut him off by laying a hand on his shoulder. "I know. I know you can do this. I'm going to help Jack buy you some more time. If anything happens to us, you're in charge. Fly the kids out of here."

"But Master Jack said . . ."

"That applies for everyone but us. I know you can do this."

Buffy sprinted out of the ship and to Jack's position. She watched the sliding doors to the hanger bay explode open. She and Jack fired their stolen 'guns' side by side and held the white army at bay. The enemy's corpses littered the ground around the forced door. Moments and seconds dragged by. Buffy could feel each change of the spaceship's vibrations as it powered up.

How much more time did the boy need? How much more time did they have?

Buffy's Slayer Sense warned her to turn around. Just in time, she saw a door on the other side of the hanger slide open and the white army spill out. Buffy shot at them, forcing them to take cover, but she had no cover herself from this direction and couldn't protect Jack's back with her weapon. She tossed the blaster to Jack's side, activated her light sword and sprinted toward the approaching troopers. She had watched the other robed-people use the light sword to defend as well as attack, but it would be effective only if she used both hands. Jack picked up her 'gun' in his free hand and started firing them like a cowboy of old with a pair of six-shooters.

Buffy dodged the fire coming from the enemy and closed in. Soon she was decimating the soldiers with all her skill as a Slayer. If this group was all of the enemy than Buffy would have won, but she knew that there were many more coming. A small part of her wondered if her enemy was human, but was quickly silenced by the memory of the tiny baby killed in her hands.

Come on, kid. Hurry it up.

The enemy seemed innumerable, like cockroaches scurrying toward the dark. The swathe, the destruction Buffy was making in the enemy was for a purpose. The longer the enemy didn't realize that an escape vehicle had been chosen, the better the chances that the ship would not be harmed.

Buffy actually heard the help arrive before she saw it. The sound of another light sword brought a smile to her face. Making quick work with those around her, she turned to see a robed woman using a light sword as did her pint-sized helper, a young, blue alien female. The head-tails were a big clue that the kid was alien. They were working, somewhat efficiently, as a team. The pair was on the other side of the enemy mass, trying to work their way into the hanger. The very sight of another child to save gave Buffy a burst of energy.

She became the Slayer, the Defender of the Innocent. The Bringer of Death. Her Gift was Death and she was a generous giver.

She disemboweled the nearest soldier, pushed his body into one of his comrades and threw her light sword like a boomerang toward the robed females . . . and beheaded every enemy in the path. The older woman seemed prepared though. She smoothly caught the light sword, deactivated it and pocketed it. The pair jumped over the falling bodies to Buffy's side.

Buffy had not been weaponless in the meantime. She was still breathing and all her limbs were in working order. She had stolen a gun from one of the soldiers, blasted off his head and those of his nearest comrades. She had also been using her knife to a deadly effect. Once the woman landed at Buffy's side she tossed Buffy the light sword. The Slayer caught the light sword, stuffed the gun in the waistband of her jeans and continued her lethal dance.

The threesome fought, with the apprentice protected in the middle. The adult had this nifty trick where she could push the enemy back with a motion of her hand. Buffy had a brief moment of jealousy but soon learn to follow up the woman's magic trick with a deadly attack with her light sword. Slowly, oh so slowly, the edged their way toward the spaceship with the other children. Under the first ship they hid behind, the adult swung her weapon high and punctured the hull of the ship. A grayish liquid started dripping out. Buffy noted the placement of the strike and took a short detour to the other ships. There she followed the adult's example. Liquid meant fuel or some other combustible and even if it didn't, it meant that the ship was un-flyable to chase down Jack and the kids when they escaped.

The first ship Buffy sabotaged nearly dumped its tank straight on her head. Only Slayer reflexes kept her dry. The second ship Buffy had to hit three times to strike paydirt. The couple dozen soldiers that died in her path were just icing on the cake. Buffy fought her way back to the females' side. This time they were using the protection of yet another spaceship. Buffy blocked two blasts that were aimed at the child. The girl took advantage of the added light sword and jumped high to puncture the hull of the ship above her head. The girl hit the mark the first time.

"Nice shot," Buffy admired.

From there, the trio worked their way back to Jack and the escape ship. Sometimes Buffy would veer away to sabotage other ships in the hanger though not in their path, but she would always return to the robed females to defend them. The girl was tiring, Buffy could tell. They didn't have much more time.

Then the vibrations from the escape ship hit a different pitch.

"Master Jack! Master Buffy!" one of the children called.

Buffy needed no other hint that it was time to make a break for it. She was waiting for the perfect moment to give them all a chance.

"Ready?" she asked her companions.

"I will protect your retreat and ignite the . . ." something. The woman spoke some word that Buffy didn't have a chance of repeating. The girl stepped closer to the adult's side.

"You sure?"

"Yes. There is no death. The Balance is being restored."

"Right." Confused, Buffy shook her head and dismembered the nearest soldier. The soldier looked pretty dead to Buffy. "We were sent to save the children."

The woman pushed the girl Buffy's way. "You are needed with her."

The girl looked torn and her head-tails twitched.

"HIT THE DECK!" Buffy heard Jack yell.

Buffy dove for the little girl and the two fell hard to the ground. The woman followed Buffy's example a half moment later. Then the air above their heads rippled with weapon's fire. Buffy covered the girl's head and watched as wave after wave of the enemy fell. Buffy's ears detected a pattern before her brain could process it. For no conscious reason, Buffy picked a time and scrambled to her feet and the weapon's fire concentrated to her left. She pulled the little alien to her feet and sprinted toward the escape ship.

Buffy had the light sword in her left hand and the girl's hand in her right. They both reflected the weapons' blast that came their way. As connected as Buffy was, she knew the instant the weapons' fire hit the little alien. The female stumbled. Buffy held her close and lifted the girl as if she was a sack of potatoes. The stench of burnt flesh filled Buffy's nostrils. Buffy ran as hard as she could. She watched Jack leap onto the escape ship and followed his example.

"We're in!" she yelled to the front.

Someone in the cockpit must have taken that for a hint, for the door closed behind her.

"We left someone behind!" Jack yelled in alarm.

Buffy dumped her burden in the laps of the four kids sitting in the bench. The girl's head-tails flopped lifelessly. "Do something for her," she said. Then she pointed at the youngest of the walkers, the furry one. "You strap in." Buffy hurried toward the front of the ship.

****

Whistler winced.

Could the Clone Champion make the sacrifice without destroying himself? Or would the whole trip be in vain? For the adult could not live. Her survival would tip the Balance greatly.

****

Jack watched in horror as the woman fought all of the remaining army on her own. Buffy appeared in the cockpit. She placed a sweaty hand on his shoulder.

"Jack, she's going to make our escape work. I think she's going to make a little boom. She's buying us time."

With blood, her own blood. Jack glanced at the boy next to him and knew all the babies in the back would live if he let the woman sacrifice herself.

But no one gets left behind.

Then the woman suddenly burst into flame.

"Holy Hannah!" Jack exclaimed.

The woman was still fighting, her robes aflame. Then the nearest clone trooper burst into flame. The path he and his comrades had taken from the open door was being highlighted by fire. The fire was hopping from one footstep to the next, sometimes the boots of the soldiers ignited as well. The fire burned a brilliant blue-violet and was quickly approaching the puddles near the other spacecrafts. Jack knew a lit fuse when he saw one. He drove the spaceship toward the exit but one eye was still watching the woman.

He saw when she was hit.

The enemies' blasts felled the woman but the damage was done. The fire had reached the drains. The run-off volatile liquid heated much too fast in a fixed amount of space. The resulting blast shook the escape craft and destroyed three of the other spaceships. The fire was out of control.

With a murmured, 'Forgive me,' Jack sped the spaceship out of the hanger. Jack was barely out of the docking bay when a bigger explosion and the resulting shock wave pushed the space ship far into the atmosphere. Jack steered the rest of the way. He could barely feel the drag of gravity against the controls of the escape ship. He smiled at the dark starry universe. He had been itching to get back into action, yearning for the moment when he could join the SGC again and travel the unknown. He stole a moment to appreciate the stars and to thank the nameless woman.

"Anyone have a preference of where we're going?" he asked.

A sudden missile shook the spaceship and the infants wailed in fright. Jack turned the craft around to face his enemy and jerked the spaceship to the side to evade another missile.

"Kid, what kind of weapons do we have on this thing?" demanded Jack. You know, he thought to whoever was listening, a dogfight in an unfamiliar ship was not the kind of action he was looking for, especially with kids in the back seat. Jack listened to the boy explain the weapons as he flew the craft to evade enemy fire.

Buffy knelt in front of the navigation computer. "Just buy us a couple moments, Jack."

"I plan on buying us a hell-of-a-lot more than moments," Jack threatened.

The petite blond glared at Jack. "You're not about to do something stupid are you?" She muttered some very unkind things about military boys under her breath.

Jack grinned, adrenaline rushing his system. Some of those unkind words were highly deserved. "Nobody can know which way we go, Buffy. Nobody can follow us."

He jerked the craft up and fired a missile. He winged one of the enemy. Very nice targeting system. Jack fired again and the explosion of the first damaged the second fighter craft. A third missile and this part of space was empty.

"Damage report," Jack barked.

The boy answered just as crisply. "Communications are off-line and possibly the landing gear."

An indicator light flashed. Buffy had been waiting for that. She punched in a button and the stars were suddenly streaming by.

"Safe for now?" Jack asked.

"Safe for now," Buffy confirmed. "How are you on landings?"

Jack shrugged. "Better'n average. Had more than my share of rough ones."

Buffy eyed her partner. "Just remember that you're risking some pretty precious cargo back there."

"I'm not about to forget," Jack replied. Then he tried to lighten the conversation, "Warp speed?" he asked.

She shook her head. "No idea. The Powers just drilled that computer part into my Dream a couple hundred times."

"She engaged the hyperdrive," the kid said with awe in his eyes. Both Buffy and Jack's attentions were suddenly trained on him. He looked a little embarrassed and a lot impressed. "You fly almost as well as Knight Skywalker," he told Jack with very wide eyes.

Jack messed up the boy's hair. "Nothing to it, kid. What is your name, anyway?"

"Ro'hane, Master Jack."

"Just Jack, Ro'hane. I'm not a master of anything, not even my own fate. Since I'm not even sure how the hell I ended up in that nursery."

"Ditto for me," Buffy chimed in.

"Are any of us master of our own fates, Masters?" Ro'hane asked.

Both Buffy and Jack frowned at him.

"Right." Jack shook his head. "Look kid, if you don't like to call me Jack, how about 'Colonel'? Or 'Colonel Jack'? Or just 'sir'? Any of those would work."

"Yes, Colonel Jack, sir." The boy responded.

Buffy giggled. "How the hell did a kid your age earn the rank of colonel?"

Jack flushed, with some embarrassment and a lot of anger. "It's a long story."

Buffy leaned close with a certain light in her eyes. The battle fire had yet to truly die down in her. "I look forward to it," she said huskily.

Jack scooted away. His hormonal, battle-charged body reacted much too quickly to her invite. It was the first time since he had been cloned that a woman over the age of twenty had flirted with him. "Ah, yeah. So where are we going?"

"Yawn 4. I'm guessing that there's someone there to take care of the kids." Buffy reached a hand to the right side of Jack's hair. "You're looking a little singed."

"Lucky shot," Jack demurred. He checked out Buffy's body . . . for wounds. Her clothes were sweaty, torn and burnt. "You're bleeding."

Buffy shrugged. "Just winged me. I'll heal before your hair recovers."

Ro'hane looked so confused. "I know of no planet or system by the designation of 'Yawn 4', Master Buffy," said Ro'hane.

"The name's Buffy. No 'Master', no 'colonel', no nothing."

Ro'hane shook his head. "Surely a warrior such as yourself has a title. If not one given to you by your comrades, if you need any, than by those who are your enemies."

Buffy stared out the window, watching the blur of stars as if they held the secrets to the universe. Then she turned and headed back to the passenger area with the children. She paused at the door and said quietly, "They call me 'Slayer.'"

****

Whistler rubbed his hands together in glee. Not only did the Slayer and the Champion survive their task; they had saved twenty-four children, possibly twenty-five children. The bets he had won certainly put him ahead in the Void, but they didn't mean anything if the Slayer killed him for delivering a message.

The Slayer took the 'Kill the Messenger' mentality to a whole new level, a very painful level.

The real question now was what did the Powers have planned at the end of the tunnel and would Whistler be needed to communicate something to the Slayer?

He certainly hoped not.

****

Ro'hane looked at Master Jack -no- Colonel Jack again. He flew as well as Ro'hane imagined the heroes of the Clone Wars flew.

"So are we on auto-pilot, Ro'hane?" Colonel Jack asked.

Ro'hane frowned. "I do not understand the question . . . colonel."

"Do I have to steer?"

"No, sir. The computer will fly straight to Master Buffy's destination." Ro'hane paused. "Provided that nothing goes wrong." He knelt by the hyperdrive computer. "According to this we are on our way to Yavin 4. That is a four day journey, provided that nothing goes wrong."

Jack laughed and jerked his head toward the back. "Then go help Buffy quiet those kids. I imagine that they're hungry."

"Yes, colonel." Ro'hane stood.

Jack put a hand on Ro'hane's shoulder. "You did good, kid, real good."

Ro'hane tried to squash the pride the simple words seeded, but the grin broke through. "Thank you, Colonel Jack." Ro'hane straightened his shoulders and walked to the main cabin where the other children were strapped in.

It was controlled pandemonium.

The Twi'lek Master Buffy had saved was unconscious on the floor, a blaster hit directly in the middle of her back. Master Buffy had torn the padawan's clothes out of the way. The blaster had destroyed the skin, tissue and even some bone. Master Buffy's pain-filled eyes looked at Ro'hane.

"How are you at first aid?" she asked.

"First aid, Slayer?" Ro'hane did not understand the question.

"Medical help?" she re-phrased.

"I know a little of healing, Master Buffy." It did not feel correct to call her 'Slayer' or 'Slayer Buffy'. 'Master Buffy' would have to do. Perhaps 'Master Slayer'?

Buffy glared but ignored the title for now. She addressed the line of younglings. "Any of you any good at this healing gig?"

All four pointed to the three-year old that Jack had gone back to saved. Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

The Caamasi nodded vigorously, eager to help. Ro'hane was not surprised. His species were strong in the healing aspects of the Force.

"Very well, come help Ro'hane. The rest of you have baby duty with me."

"Yes, Master Buffy," they chorused.

Buffy rolled her eyes and led the way. Ro'hane watched for a moment as they started freeing the infants from their protective bonds. The many wails were starting to grate on his ears. He could see Buffy wince every time the infants hit a higher pitch. Ro'hane assumed that Master Buffy's senses were as acute as his were.

"She has entered a healing trance," the Caamasi youngling said.

"Is there anything we can do to assist?" asked Ro'hane.

The furry alien nodded and pointed to a shelf high up on the wall. "We can clean and bandage the wound. Then I will share some healing."

Ro'hane had to jump to reach the material that the youngling needed. He landed carefully to make sure none of the containers broke. Ro'hane placed everything within easy reach of the youngling. The Caamasi smiled his thanks.

"What is your name?" Ro'hane asked. He decided to follow Master Jack's example.

"Afep, Padawan." The youngling did not turn his face and attention from his healing work.

Ro'hane winced. The poor Caamasi hit his sore spot so quickly. "I am not a padawan, Afep. I am Ro'hane, a youngling like yourself."

A brief expression that might have been pity quickly flickered to confusion on Afep's face and then to certainty. "Perhaps that was true at the temple but as the oldest you will be padawan to both Master Jack and Master Buffy."

Suddenly Ro'hane understood Colonel Jack's insistence that he was not a Master. Master Buffy was the same way, but having tangled with her hand-to-hand, Ro'hane was hesitant to call her anything but 'Master'. "I would not presume to call myself a padawan without being chosen. Master Jack has asked to be called 'Colonel Jack.'"

Afep nodded. He quieted his spirit and offered healing to the Twi'lek. Ro'hane watched and waited. He could feel the flow of the Force. The flow did not last long, the youngling did not have the strength nor the reserves to do a complete healing, but the Twi'lek had a chance at living now.

Afep roused himself and then drooped. To Ro'hane's infinite surprise, the youngling crawled into his lap. What was he supposed to do? Ro'hane glanced around the empty cabin for help or ideas. None were found and within seconds Afep was asleep in his lap. The youngling didn't even stir when Master Buffy started yelling.

"Hell. Hell. Hell! Shit. Shit. Shit!"

Ro'hane tried to shift his body so that be could look into the adjoining room to see what Master Buffy was shouting at. He was unfamiliar with the words but the emotions behind them were easily recognizable.

Master Jack –no, Colonel Jack- sprinted out of the cockpit, concerned. "What the hell is going wrong now?" The colonel slid to a stop at the sight of Ro'hane and Afep in his lap. A smirk flitted across his features, but he stooped to check the heartbeat of the Twi'lek. He seemed to relax a fraction at her subtle improvement.

"Ro'hane, take the kid and sit in the driver's seat. Yell loud if anything looks like it might be going wrong there too. We'll have to hear you over the babies."

"Yes, sir."

Ro'hane picked up Afep and followed orders. As he passed by Colonel Jack, he heard the man mutter again. "What the hell is wrong now?"

****

Whistler glanced back at the Powers. They were watching as avidly as he was and they didn't really look concerned. They looked . . . chagrined?

That didn't bode well for the Slayer, or for the Messenger to the Slayer, for the decision to send a message had been made. Whistler started thinking through the favors he had won in the recent betting. He needed insurance, life insurance. What kind of insurance could a Balance Demon beg, borrow and steal?

****

Jack walked into the back cabin doorway. Buffy was glaring at the food stores as if they might suddenly multiple before her eyes. She switched her glare to the ceiling, crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. "Well," she said. "I'm waiting."

"Master Buffy?" one of the kids asked hesitantly.

Buffy smiled at the little kid. "It'll be alright. I promise." She glared at the ceiling again. "Especially if some certain Powers in their asses in gear and do their part in this rescue."

The four kids exchanged worried glances in the following silence. At least one of them worried about the sanity of their rescuers.

"Buffy?" Jack scooted into the room and stepped over the infants. "What's wrong?"

She pointed to the food stores and said, "Tell me that my math sucks and that we won't have any problem whatsoever. Ro'hane said four days, right?"

Jack was surprised. Buffy had to have amazing hearing to have heard Ro'hane. Jack ignored the implications and looked over Buffy's shoulder. He glanced through the very organized food drawers and set his jaw. There were enough formula bottles for a nine-day journey with three infants, with five meals a day. That didn't equal near enough when he knew that they had eighteen babies for a four-day journey. There were many piles of ration bars for adults. "They're well fed kids, Buffy. They'll survive for four days if we need to go to rations. Or we could always stop . . ."

Buffy shook her head violently. "We can't stop. We stop and the white soldiers will kill all the kids. I know that."

"Okay." Jack evaluated Buffy's resolve. "Like you knew which hall to go down and which ship to steal and which planet we're going to?"

"Exactly. Though I don't know who we're going to meet there to hand over the kids."

Jack decided to trust her. "So we just go to rations. The babies are big enough that we can take the formula, dehydrated milk and ration bars and mash it together. The babies should eat it. The kids and we can eat the ration bars, no problem. There was no reason for all the yelling, Summers," Jack chided. He was trying to silently communicate the idea of not concerning the silently observing children.

Buffy glared. "If the Powers plan to dump me in the middle of another universe to save some kids, than they had better the hell provide enough food in the getaway ship. I'm going to make that very clear when Whistler finally gets his ass down here to tell me what's going on." She yelled at the ceiling. "Blood and broken bones! You hear me, Whistler? Things had better be better planned when we land to give the kids over to safe keeping or there's goin' be lots-a blood and demon bashing!"

"Summers." Jack spoke authoritatively. The tone of voice made Buffy stop her tirade and blink at him.

"Yes?"

"Babies to feed, remember?"

Buffy looked slightly green and fearful. "I know nothing about babies. Nothing." Jack realized that the responsibility of all the children was starting to set in with rapid intensity. It made sense. She had all the fighting qualities of Black Ops or an assassin but none really of a search and rescue soldier, let alone a caretaker of infants.

"I do," Jack said smoothly.

"Really?"

"Yes. My wife and I had a son."

"Wife?" Buffy asked. "Had?"

Jack's brown eyes burrowed into Buffy's. "He died . . . in an accident when he was eight years old."

Buffy tilted her head as she did the math. "We're back to the colonel thing, aren't we? Didja get magically young-ed?"

"What?" Jack tried to translate the sentence. "Ah, no. I'm a clone with the memories of a fifty-year old galaxy-hopping Air Force colonel."

"Oh." Dismissively, Buffy turned back to the formula and the dehydrated milk and started to measure out equal amounts. "That was my next guess."

Jack gaped at her blasé attitude at his revelation. He glanced at the children to gage their reactions. Three of them were merely curious, one could hide his emotions too well for Jack to read. "Okay, so let's feed the kiddies." He pointed at the nearest kid, a male alien. "You."

"Yes, Master Jack?"

"Colonel, Colonel Jack," Jack corrected. "What kind of species are you, anyway?"

"Sullustan, colonel."

Jack shook his head, glanced at Buffy who giggled at him. "Right. What's your name?"

"Nien, Colonel Jack."

"Nien, Right. Nien." Jack would never remember that name. He ordered the kid. "Find us some little spoons to feed the kids, as many as you can. One for each baby, if possible."

Nien bowed and hurried to the nearest drawer.

Jack pointed at the next kid in line. "You." The female had a crown of horns on the top of her bald head.

She bowed. "I am a Zabrak, Colonel Jack. I am called Natal."

"Okay, Natal. Unwrap a half-dozen ration bars and start mashing them up."

Natal bowed hesitantly.

Jack caught the indecision. "Yes, Natal? If I'm screwing up, you have to tell me early."

She frowned. "It's concerning the Nautolan, colonel."

Buffy looked up from her counter work. Her confusion matched Jack's. "The Na-huh-what?"

"The Nautolan, Master Buffy, Colonel Jack." At the adults' continued confusion, Natal shyly reached for Jack's hand and pulled him over to the baby bins. She singled out one of the babies. Jack thought it looked like Thor, if Thor had mated with a squid. Then he winced at the concept and concentrated on what Natal was saying. "That is a Nautolan, Mast-Colonel Jack. That species only eats raw fish, even just after hatching."

Jack stared in the serious, black eyes of the infant. Okay, raw fish? On a space ship?

Before Jack's thought could take a decidedly dire turn, Natal spoke again. "I noticed raw fish in the cooling unit."

Jack breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, Natal. Thanks for telling me. Feed the squid the fish. When . . . it's done eating, you can help with the others."

Natal nodded, bowed and hurried to comply. After she gathered a serving of fish in her arms, Nien silently passed her a spoon. She smiled her thanks.

Jack breathed deep. Even for him, twenty-five kids of various ages and species were a huge challenge. He pointed to the next kid in line, a human presumably.

The girl bowed. "I am Sabè."

"Human?" Jack checked.

She giggled a tiny bit. "Yes, Colonel Jack."

"Ration bars. Mash."

Sabè bowed. "Yes, Colonel." She scurried off.

"And last but not least," Jack pointed at the small boy.

He bowed low. "My name is Bail, Colonel Jack and I am human."

Jack blinked. These kids were so serious. Buffy snickered. All Jack could think of was 'bail me out of jail,' but he didn't think it would be considerate to say aloud. "Okay, Bail. Find bowls."

Bail bowed, turned toward the cupboards and Nien handed him a stack of bowls. Jack grinned at Nien. "Nice preemptive strike." He looked over Buffy's shoulder at the unappetizing-looking mix in the big bowl. "Well, if they're hungry enough, they should eat it." He picked up the first of the little bowls and plopped a serving in. "Take a bowl, a spoon and fill a baby's belly."

Bail held his hands out to receive the 'baby food.' Jack passed the boy the first bowl and filled another. Nien took that one.

He shook his head again at the enormity of the task. "Well campers, let's get to it."

****

"No."

Whistler glared at the Rraft'llih demon. "You lost the bet. The Slayer has twenty-five children, still alive, on the nursery ship and no Imperial clone troopers on her tail. They're safe."

"For now," the Rraft'llih threatened.

"You lost," Whistler reminded. "You bet that the Slayer would only get twelve children out of the Jedi Temple."

"That was not in the pot."

"I need it."

"That was not in the pot," the Rraft'llih repeated.

"I'm just borrowing it," Whistler reasoned. "And then we'll call it even."

The Rraft'llih considered it. The Fertlit was not the only demon who had bet on the Slayer's demise. He owed Whistler. "For how long?"

"No more than an hour."

The Rraft'llih was very suspicious. "Which hour?"

"A certain hour," Whistler hedged.

"Which hour?" the Rraft'llih growled.

"Just the one half hour. The orders came down from the top, the Powers have to send the Slayer a message."

The Rraft'llih consigned Whistler to all nine levels of hell, twice. "NO! NO! You'll take it with you and the Slayer will kill you and I sure as hell am not going anywhere near the Slayer to get it back. And if she doesn't kill you, though the odds are nine-to-one that she will, she'll destroy any and all protective amulets that you'll have on your person."

"And if I die, guess which Balance Demon is next in line to tell the friends of the Slayer what's going on? You want to face the Witch and Ripper? It's not like an amulet like this will protect you from the likes of the magically inclined."

The Rraft'llih growled and threw the protective amulet at Whistler's feet.

****

Buffy did not drop her gaze. She met Jack's fury head on, though it was hard. Had the boy taken Ripper lessons in those fifty-years of memories?

"What on earth were you thinking?"

Jack's question brought Buffy back to the present. "So you're from Earth too?" Sort of.

Jack glared harder.

Buffy realized that distraction techniques weren't going to work in this case. "I didn't know what weapons would be useful, so I just collected a bunch as I ran," she defended herself.

"And gave them to the kids?"

Suddenly Buffy understood what had Jack so upset, but that didn't mean she was about to address the problem. "It wasn't as if I could clip them all to my belt. Can you image that fashion disaster? I picked them up and threw them at the kids. If they caught them, they either used it or tucked it in with the baby bins. There's only that many weapons because the kids are really, really good catchers."

Jack blanched. He glanced at the kids who were avidly observing the argument. "They used them?"

Buffy nodded, mourning the lost innocence just as he was. "They save our lives several times, Jack. If the white soldiers . . . "

Natal whispered, "Clone troopers."

" . . . came at us, the kids would pick them off with the gun-thingies. They have great aim. All I had to do was drive."

Jack ground his teeth. "For the duration of the trip, I think all weapons should be locked up."

Buffy shrugged. Jack would have to confront this sooner than later but that could be done in private. The kids had earned the right to defend themselves; it was too late to take that away. "Sure, why not."

Jack looked around, his arms full on weapons. He spied the shelf where the medical supplies had been and started stuffing weapons in. Buffy noticed that he was treating each weapon with respect and was mouthing numbers. He was counting supplies.

She shrugged, grinned and reached a hand out to Bail. "Hand me that light sword, kid."

"Light saber," Natal softly corrected.

Buffy waved away the term. "Whatever, thanks."

Bail reached into the baby bin and gently disengaged the light saber from the baby gumming it. Buffy was pretty sure that was what had really sent Jack off the deep end. The four kids searched the baby bins with Buffy, pulling out all the light sabers and blasters she had acquired. Buffy and her little helpers piled the weapons at Jack's feet so that he could deal with them as he saw fit.

Buffy glanced around. The babies were all fed and most were sleeping. The kids ate the ration bars without complaint. Buffy had complained, very loud. Jack had laughed at her and had threatened to give her an MRE some day to compare.

Buffy sat where she was in the middle of the crowd. There would be no privacy for the next four days. She was tired, her hunger was temporarily sated and her hormones had stopped hyping up every one of her senses. Oh, was she tired. She needed to sleep. She needed to re-center herself. She rolled her neck down to her chest and heard it crack. She rolled her shoulders and felt the muscles loosen.

She breathed in and breathed out.

She calmed her spirit and meditated.

Buffy forgot about death and being the Bringer of Death. She forgot about life and light and fire. She forgot about the baby that had died in her arms. The baby Jack had oh-so-gently-placed in a far drawer to await burial. She forgot about the babies that had been killed with as little emotion as someone at target practice. She forgot about the children she had watched die beside their mentors.

And she remembered.

She remembered love. She remembered her sister, her mother, her friends, her Watcher. She remembered laughter and a determination to stick with each other come what may. Her mind flitted to betrayals but quickly moved on. Now was not the time for that.

She remembered the scent of love and laughter as her sister had hugged her for her birthday present. She remembered Willow and Xander laughing and playfully flirting with every girl they met in the clubs. She remembered Giles, with his glasses in his hands more than on his face in reaction to the Scoobies' antics. She remembered knowing that she didn't have to hunt that night because the other Slayers had done it for her. She remembered falling into bed, still dressed with happy, content exhaustion.

Buffy latched onto that emotion with her whole being.

And smiled.

****

Whistler grinned and considered this time as the time to deliver the message. He shook his head no. The children were following Buffy's example and meditating. The peace of the Slayer was flowing out to every one of the Jedi; even the young O'Neill was peripherally affected. She was calming the children. She was giving them peace and hope after they had seen their world crumble to bits and the Masters of their Temple dead on its steps.

No, he'd let them be.

Besides, it would be hard to stay out of the Slayer's reach on something as small as a spaceship. And he, out of anyone, knew how the Slayer's emotions could quicksilver into destruction.

He'd wait a little longer.

****

Ro'hane woke up quickly breathing heavily, his heart thundering in his chest. He rolled over and glanced around the nursery ship.

It had just been a nightmare. They were safe. They weren't in the Jedi Temple anymore. Ro'hane was not surrounded by the dead but by the living.

Master Buffy sat in a corner with a baby on each knee, trying to feed both of them at the same time. Her concerned eyes touched his, but Ro'hane offered a shaky smile. Master Buffy let it go and turned back to the infants in her lap. The two babies were gurgling their contentment and had probably had enough to eat. Master Buffy looked slightly-playfully- upset. She had more of the formula-mash on her clothes than the babies again. It had taken Master Buffy all of the last three days to grow comfortable with the infants. She had tried very hard the first day to pass the jobs on to anyone else. Colonel Jack would have none of it and had patiently taught the Master Slayer how to hold a baby, how to feed a baby and how to change a baby's diaper. Master Buffy still avoided the diaper task if at all possible. Natal had good-naturedly assumed that task from the adult. Now Natal sat next to Master Buffy, feeding two more babies. At her feet, the Nautolan chuckled and cooed and waved its limbs in the air. Natal had fed the Nautolan first, Ro'hane was sure.

Ro'hane stretched his weary and stiff body. Even the sparse conditions of the Jedi Temple had not prepared Ro'hane for sleeping on the floor of a nursery ship for four nights. He stretched his neck one way and then the other.

Colonel Jack was nowhere to been seen. He was in the cockpit, ensuring the safety of the flight. Ro'hane could hear Colonel Jack tempting yet another baby to eat. Colonel Jack ate all his meals 'in the saddle' as he had a tendency to say. The colonel only left his post to sleep and to use the refresher. Then Ro'hane was given the duty to watch over the ship. Colonel Jack had forbidden Master Buffy from anything that resembled driving. Master Buffy had protested loudly that all she had to do was sit in the driver's seat and watch the stars fly by. She couldn't mess that up.

Colonel Jack had stood firm. Master Buffy was not allowed in the driver's seat of any vehicle that had passengers. Ever. Master Buffy had stuck her tongue out at Colonel Jack and relented.

But there was plenty to keep Master Buffy busy, especially with eighteen babies aboard. Ro'hane lurched to his feet. The babies that had slept on either side of him whimpered as he took his warmth with him. Ro'hane placed one baby beside the other. The third baby woke up and stared at him.

Ro'hane kept this baby in his arms and carefully stepped over the other younglings and infants between him and the galley. One of the younglings started thrashing in his sleep. Ro'hane detoured to the boy's sleeping pallet and shook Nien awake before he could startle the babies sleeping on either side of him. The Sullustan blinked at Ro'hane and blinked away silent tears. Nien nodded his thanks.

Ro'hane continued to the galley. There he filled two bowls of the warm formula-milk-mash and grabbed a ration bar for himself. Nien would need the extra bowl for whichever of the infants in his care awoke first. Each of the younglings was responsible for three children, sort of.

The Twi'lek had come out of her healing trance on the second day of travel. Her name was Vayla and her wounds had paralyzed her from the waist down. Nothing Afep or any of the others attempted could give her feeling in her feet and legs. Neither Master Buffy nor Colonel Jack had allowed her a moment of self-pity. They had handed her a baby and told her that she needed to pull her weight on the journey.

So Afep was paired with Vayla as her feet. The two of them were given the three most difficult babies. Between Afep's healing abilities and Vayla's racial memory and training, the pair had managed to keep the three alien infants alive.

Colonel Jack and Master Buffy assisted every youngling as they were overwhelmed, which was often. Right now Master Buffy was feeding two of Bail's infants as the third one had kept Bail up until the very late hours. The baby had clung to Bail's robes and refused to be passed on two either of the adults. Even the calm Force radiating from Master Buffy during her meditation time had not put the baby to sleep like it had all the others. So Ro'hane sat next to Natal and started spooning mash into the little female's mouth. Bail and the troublesome baby were still asleep and would hopefully stay that way for a while. Though Ro'hane hoped that Bail could wake and then exhaust the baby in time for Master Buffy's next meditation session.

Master Buffy's meditation had created a phenomenon that even Vayla had not seen before. The Force flowed through the master and settled everyone in her wake. Nearly every one of the infants would drift to sleep during her meditation. The rest, the comfort and reassurance relaxed the younglings. It eased their nightmares for hours. For that reason alone, Master Buffy had agreed to partake in her meditation more often than she would normally would or than what she needed to keep balanced.

Though it was painfully obvious that Master Buffy was not a Jedi, every one of the younglings called her 'Master Buffy,' and could not be convinced to drop the title. Master Buffy had finally given up trying. She said that she was about to give up the kids to someone who could take care of them better anyway, so she could endure a journey with a bunch of impudent kids. The short journey was also the reason why the infants had not been named yet.

Colonel Jack and Master Buffy were sure that they were delivering the younglings and the babies to a Jedi who knew who they all were. Ro'hane kept current with the gossip of the Jedi Temple. He knew who had not been in the Temple at the time of the attack. He hoped that they were meeting with Master Yoda, or perhaps Master Kenobi and Knight Skywalker, his two favorite heroes of the Clone Wars. Vayla was hoping that Aayla Secura, the Twi'lek Jedi Knight, was waiting at Yavin 4.

But it didn't really matter.

Ro'hane and Vayla were waiting 'like good little Jedi,' as Master Buffy liked to put it. They didn't bother to argue about possibilities that the Force would soon reveal. They would wait and they would help keep the infants alive. In an odd way, Ro'hane thought that Master Buffy would have preferred Vayla and Ro'hane to argue about events that they had no control over. Even Colonel Jack seemed uneasy with the obedient behavior of the younglings.

Ro'hane shrugged and finished feeding the infant in his arms. He returned to the galley to get another bowl of formula-mash for the next baby in his care. The sooner all the infants were fed, the sooner training could begin.

When the babies were all occupying themselves, which was rare, Master Buffy would lead the younglings in a kata. Ro'hane and the others enjoyed the release of energy and the controlled and choreographed movements. Even Vayla could participate some and exercise her upper body.

Ro'hane's third baby howled in hunger. Any babies that had been asleep now joined the chorus. He hadn't been paying enough attention to his charges and now everyone was awake. Ro'hane picked up the little human and tried to feed two babies at the same time. It was a messy attempt. Master Buffy put Bail's infants in their travel bin and picked up one of Nien's. Colonel Jack stuck his head out of the cockpit and traded a fed baby of Sabè's for an un-fed baby. In a matter of minutes, the infants all calmed down.

A scraping in the galley made Ro'hane look up. Sabè was trying to transfer every last drop of formula-mash to the serving bowl.

"Is there any more?" she asked softly.

Master Buffy shook her head, anger just below the surface. "Use it. Everyone else has their share. We're goin' to land as soon as everyone's eaten and is strapped in."

Ro'hane jerked. He must be tired. He hadn't even notice that the hyperdrive was no longer humming. Finally they had arrived at Yavin 4. No matter what happened in the future or who was waiting on the surface, Ro'hane would never forget Colonel Jack and Master Buffy and how hard they had fought to 'leave no one behind.'

****

Whistler wondered to himself for the hundredth time 'why couldn't the Powers protect their Messengers from their Champions?' Why did he have to see to his own protection?

He admired the suit he was wearing. It was specially made, tailored to his specifications.

It had more protection spells woven into its fabric than stripes.

****

Landing time.

It was time to see how good of a pilot Jack really was.

He was slightly nervous but careful not to show any indication. It had been a very long time since he had piloted a spacecraft, and this body never had. He mentally reviewed all the terms Ro'hane had taught him concerning the ship. He was as familiar as he could be with the equipment and the capabilities of the escape ship. Jack was impressed with the construction and the abilities of the nursery ship. He wished he could take the ship to the SGC.

Carter would be drooling as she took the ship apart piece by piece. Hammond would be pleased with the targeting and armaments. Jack considered that if this ship was built especially for transporting children, than what would a fighter ship for these Jedi-types be like? What kind of fighter ship could Carter make out of the technology?

Not that it mattered at the moment. The SGC was in Jack's past. It was the other Jack's present. Though after Buffy and Jack dropped off the kids, maybe the contact would let the pair keep the ship to get home. Hopefully the contact could give Jack a map to Earth as well. So the SGC could be a part of Jack's near future. He looked forward to going home.

But first, he had to survive a landing.

Jack and Ro'hane checked every last instrument in the cockpit and then re-checked them. Communication was still down, so if an adult Jedi was trying to contact them, he/she/it would just have to wait until the nursery ship landed. Buffy had the landing coordinates in her head, so Jack knew his LZ. Thankfully the sun would be shining on the LZ; it would be day on that side of the planet. He couldn't contemplate crash landing a strange ship in the dark. He just hoped that the contact waiting had cleared the landing strip of his or her ship.

The last thing Jack wanted was to land on someone else's ship, especially a friendly.

Ro'hane reported that the skies were empty. Not another ship within sensor range.

Vayla had recalled that Yavin 4 was an abandoned planet. No enemies should be around to see them land and no one of loose morals would be near to enough to observe and to earn credits by selling the information.

Buffy reported that all babies and kids were properly padded and strapped into place. She was carrying a 'blaster' and a 'light saber' encase there was a big bad waiting on the surface and the rough landing made an extra door in the hull.

Jack prayed not. Hadn't the kids gone through enough already? Did more danger need to waiting on the planet's surface?

Sabè reported that the galley and the refresher, the Jedi term for the bathroom, were cleaned and prepared for landing.

Well, it was now or never.

Jack steered the nursery spaceship toward the planet. He felt the resistance from the atmosphere steadily increase. Several of the infants started crying but the distraction was nothing like a CO yelling into a headset or the screams of the dying. He barely noticed other than watching Ro'hane keep turning around in his seat.

Jack tapped the gauges on Ro'hane's side of the cockpit. "Attention here, kid," he said quietly. "Buffy's watching your babies."

Ro'hane flushed and obeyed.

"Hull Status?" asked Jack.

"Status unchanged. Sub-light engines fluctuating in their output."

"Increasing or decreasing?"

"Decreasing, colonel."

Jack ground his teeth together and stayed alert to any loss of power. At the moment, everything was holding steady. The worst of the atmosphere friction was over and now he steered the ship toward daylight. He flew low over the trees toward the LZ. The trees blurred by in a mass of green. He pulled back on the steering column, slowing the ship down. He could now see the trees from the woods. But Jack needed to slow down even more.

There. He circled the flat land in a lazy arch. He saw the sparkling ribbon of a river reflecting up at him. Jack turned away from the foothills of the mountains to the forested plains.

Just ahead, a field of sorts appeared from amongst the canopy of trees, just as Buffy had promised. He slowed down more and more. Then the power went. The ship lost altitude and gained speed.

Jack cursed softly. "Everybody hold on tight!"

"Sub-light engines are not responding," Ro'hane said with a slight shake in his voice.

"Yeah, I noticed." Jack held on to the steering column with all his strength. They were going down fast.

"BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

And then they hit the dirt. Jack's body collided with the controls, his head smacked the gauges and he blacked out.

****

Whistler slid his hand down his checklist. A protective amulet was wound around each limb and three around his neck. His hat was spelled to offer the protection of a motorcycle helmet. His suit was cleaned, pressed and fit perfectly. His shoes were polished and would help him move, run and just generally be light on his feet.

Magically, there wasn't much more he could do to improve his odds for surviving the up-coming meeting. The odds were now thirteen to one against him and no one would let him bet. He did have a friend who was betting on his behalf. Whistler was sure that his 'friend' was also betting against him, betting that either the Slayer or the Clone would kill him.

And if he did die, he would be looking mighty fine.

Whistler looked down onto Yavin 4. Had the Clone just crashed the spaceship? He better not kill any of his passengers. The last of Whistler's bets were contingent on everyone making it out of the nursery ship onto the planet alive.

****

Master Buffy, for obvious reasons, was the first one up and about after the crash. By the time Vayla had roused from her crash-induced stupor, Master Buffy had already inspected the ship to insure nothing might explode or nothing from the planet could sneak in. Thank the Force, the hull was not torn or leaking.

The babies were crying but after four days stuck in the ship with these passengers, Master Buffy could ignore the screams. No one in the main cabin was severely injured. Head bumps and mild concussions were the worst of it. Jack and Ro'hane had faired worse. Both males were knocked out cold, or so Vayla guessed from her position on the floor.

Master Buffy did not do much more for them but to pull them out of their chairs and onto the floor. She propped up their heads and their feet and covered them. Afep and Vayla were trying to calm their charges, so Master Buffy asked them to turn their attentions to the pilots afterward.

The babies were slowly quieting. Nien, Sabè and Natal had each assumed one of Ro'hane's babies. Master Buffy murmured pleasure with their initiative. She stood in front of the door and wondered how to open it. She needed to get off this ship. She really needed to get off this ship. Vayla saw her dilemma and sent Afep to the cockpit. He returned quickly and handed Master Buffy an electronic gadget about the size of the infant's serving spoon.

He indicated a button. "This will open the door, Master Buffy. And this will close the door."

Master Buffy smiled brilliantly. "Thanks kid. Does it beep twice when I lock the door behind me?" She didn't wait for an answer. "You take care of Jack and Ro'hane for me?"

Afep bowed. "Of course, Master Buffy." He turned to do just that.

Master Buffy opened the door to the world and then stumbled back. She shook her head, trying to clear the blaring 'spidy sense.' "No wonder they call this place Yawn 4."

Natal heard and dropped her head to her chest. She was too tired to correct Master Buffy yet again. Master Buffy didn't care whether or not she pronounced terms correctly.

Vayla spoke up instead. "Master, this world is named . . ."

Master Buffy wasn't hearing her. "You yawn four times," she shivered, "and something on this planet is liable to kill you." Then she jumped off the ramp into the high grass of the field. With her light saber, she started to chop down all surrounding vegetation that the ship's descent hadn't incinerated.

Vayla paused, blinked and looked to one of the younglings for direction. They couldn't offer any help. Master Buffy could switch from Jedi-like to as un-Jedi-like as possible in a blink of an eye. Vayla cradled one of the infants to her chest, crawled to the doorway and watched Master Buffy at work. Bail gathered Vayla's light saber and a random blaster that had shaken free of Colonel Jack's shelf and handed them to Vayla. Master Buffy cleared land with a speed, strength and dexterity that would be the envy of many a Jedi Master.

Master Buffy cut down a tree as easily as she had the tall grass. Vayla watched sap ooze out of the wound and the sight triggered her genetic memory.

"Master Buffy?"

Buffy held up her hand to indicate that she had heard. Vayla waited. Master Buffy struck the ground suddenly and hiss-shriek was heard. She stabbed the ground again and lifted up a fourteen-foot headless, squirming snake. The adult threw the corpse on to the pile of smoldering grass and debris she had collected. Master Buffy checked the area one last time and jogged back to the padawan.

"Yeah, Vayla?"

Vayla pointed to a tree beyond the master's clearing. "Could you please bring me a leaf cluster of that tree?"

Master Buffy narrowed her eyes. "You taking up botany at a time like this?"

It was odd working with a non-Jedi Master. Vayla had to remind herself that Master Buffy was well outside the realm of her experiences. "I believe that it might be a solution to the infants' next meal."

Master Buffy grinned. "In that case, be right back." Buffy was as good as her word. Less than a minute later, she delivered a leaf cluster to Vayla.

Vayla breathed a sigh of relief when she examined it. "It is as I suspected, Master Buffy. The sap of this tree species will make a suitable substitute for the formula for most of the infants."

"Great!" Master Buffy bounded back to the chosen tree and used the light saber to hack off a thin limb. She removed all the leaves, was momentarily distracted when another snake attempted an attack, and then carried the limb back to the safety of the ship. There, sitting on the ramp, she cut the limb into eight-inch cylinders. Next Master Buffy pulled out her knife and started whittling. When she was done, she had a pile of wooden canals, a single one could fit into Vayla's hand. One end of the tiny canal was pointed and halfway down, Master Buffy had notched the sides of the canal.

She smiled at Vayla. "I only know how to do this 'cause the last Hellmouth was near the Maple Syrup Capital of Ohio. They use the sap from trees back home to make sweets. Not bad, but I'd take chocolate over it any day of the week."

Vayla was confused but remained silent. The human infant in her arms sensed her unease and started to whimper.

Master Buffy leaned close and cupped a hand around Vayla's ear. She whispered, "Just don't tell Giles that I learned anything from the Mini-Slayers' field trip." She leaned back, her eyes sparkling like a youngling that just overheard the best piece of gossip straight from the mouths of the Masters.

Vayla's confusion increased. She looked to the other younglings but they shook their heads in helplessness. No one knew how to deal with this young Master. Perhaps the younglings should address her as 'Knight.' That would be proper, would it not?

Master Buffy stood and started stuffing the wooden canals into various pockets of her clothing. That done, she looked to the galley. "Need . . ."

Nien had anticipated her needs and held out a sack filled with dozen small cups that had a lip. Sabè stood at his side offering the wire that had been the 'tail' of the baby train.

Master Buffy looked stunned then she smiled as she accepted the tools. "I get seriously wigged when you kids do that, but do you have any chocolate on you?"

Vayla shook her head, more in frustration than in answer.

Master Buffy shrugged. "Oh well." She pointed at Vayla. "You're in charge until Jack wakes up from his little nap. The door stays closed and locked. No one comes in or out. You guys sit tight. You are only allowed to leave the ship if it catches on fire. And you are not allowed to set fire to the ship yourself. Got it?"

Vayla and the other younglings stared at the strange instructions. Who would set fire to a ship?

Master Buffy was not done. "And hand me those two torn up blankets."

Natal obeyed with a bow.

Master Buffy jumped off the ramp. "TTFN!" She jogged for the near-by jungle and pressed the button on the remote to close the door. The younglings exchanged glances.

Soon, they breathed, soon they would be in the company of a real Jedi Master.

****

Whistler stood in the waiting room of the Powers that Be, waiting. He drummed his fingers against his thigh. You would think that since the Slayer and the Champion were one of the bigger power plays currently going on, the Powers would schedule their Messenger with top priority.

But no . . .

The Powers were in a meeting with someone else and making him wait for his final instructions.

The Powers wanted to make sure that he knew the complete message before sending him to his demise. Now that he was ready magically, Whistler wanted to hurry up and get the job done.

****

Buffy bit her tongue in concentration as she bored a hole in the tree trunk. Then she shoved the pointy end of one of the drains into the tree and wiggled it around until she was sure it would stay. Then she tied the wire around one of the cups, leaving a bit for a taut handle. She forced the handle into the notch she had carved on the drain canal. The spout of the drain led straight into the little cup. Almost immediately, it started dripping. She covered the whole contraption with a torn corner of the blanket, with the vain hope to keep bugs out of the sap.

There, six done.

She had pocketed the leaves that Vayla had asked for so she would have an example. It was a good thing that this kind of tree, Buffy mentally dubbed them 'Gerber Trees', were so common. In Buffy's Slayer Dream, the Powers had given her directions to the temple ruin that was the end of the line. So Buffy tapped trees along the route that Jack and the Baby Train would have to take to get there.

She was hanging her last improvised bucket when the breeze shifted and a scent made her lift her head. She finished the job, tied a piece of the blanket on top and tucked the last scraps of the fabric into the now-empty sack.

Buffy headed toward the scent. The closer she got, the more animals she spied. Buffy had a staring contest with a large cat that looked a lot like a saber-tooth tiger. Buffy activated her light saber and waited. The contested ended in a tie when a brush of brown in the corner of their eyes distracted them. It was a pair of gazelle/deer-like creatures. The tiger decided that the mother and fawn grazer disappearing into the jungle made for a more appetizing meal.

The tiger gave chase.

Buffy watched the run of deadly beauty begin. She had no doubts of the end.

The chase startled the birds in the trees. They sent up a squawk and the bushes became alive with brightly colored feathers.

Buffy laughed at them and continued on her way. She stepped over a fallen tree and almost fell into a ravine. This is what she had smelled, water, a river. Clean fresh water, if the number of animals drinking from the riverbanks were any indication. Fish jumped and bugs hummed. It was a happening place, a Starbucks for the four-legged.

Buffy had stumbled into feeding the Nautilus squid-baby. She used her light saber to cut down a pair of trees and remove the branches. Next she used her knife to sharpen the one end into a spear. The river was so full of fish that she caught a fish with the spear after two practice throws. The second spear flew into the river as swiftly and efficiently. Buffy leaned off the edge of the bank to retrieve the spears and their catch, careful not to get wet. She could feel a predator's eyes on her and she didn't want to put herself in a vulnerable position amidst the murky water.

She pulled the spears back with their flopping fish. Target achieved. Buffy gathered up the now-empty sack and moved the two spears with their catches to her left hand. She really didn't want to get the fish smell all over the sack and herself. Buffy wrinkled her nose at the thought. She didn't want to touch the fish slime either. She'd take the entire fish back to the spaceship and let one of the kids skin it or gut it or whatever a person was supposed to do to dead fish before eating it.

A sharp pain on her leg precipitated a cry. She kicked her leg trying to loose whatever had grabbed a hold. It was a big black beetle taking a bite out of her skin.

"Ouch! Damnit!" she yelled. Buffy flicked the bug off her leg and turned around to see an entire black cloud of those beetle-bugs descending on her. "Oh, hell." She took off at a run. She ran for a couple miles at her top speed. Buffy circled around where the spaceship had crashed. She didn't want to lead the bugs to the babies. They'd have no defense.

Buffy leaned a hand against a tree to catch her breath. She had thrown one the spears, fish included, at the black cloud. She had seen the cloud reduce the fish to scales and bones before it hit the earth. Like mini-piranhas with wings. But the fish had distracted the group long enough for Buffy to escape. She was bleeding from a dozen spots where the bugs had taken a chunk out of her skin.

The tree beneath her hand heaved and spines pricked her palm. Buffy jumped back, shaking her hand and eyeing the tree. The tree didn't move anymore and her hand didn't seem the worse for wear.

"Yawn 4," she reminded herself. She had to pay attention. Danger was all around. Her spidy-sense warned her of trouble in nearly every direction. This was almost as bad as the Hellmouth on a busy night. Time to get back to the babies. If the bugs hadn't caught up with Buffy by now, they wouldn't. 'Course she had distracted them with a newly killed snake on her escape. She hoped they couldn't follow the scent of her blood in the air.

Buffy jogged back to the nursery ship, constantly aware of danger. This was no place for children to be. She'd help the Jedi adult move the children to just about anywhere else in the universe.

The jog back took longer than she had planned but she arrived alive and from all appearances, everyone else was still alive as well.

Jack had organized the children to get all of the babies out of the ship and into the clearing Buffy had started. Buffy watched the younger man with older memories move. He was energetic and sure. He wasn't just putting on a show so the children would feel safe either. Afep must have helped with the concussion. Only a few drops of blood on his collar remained of his crash landing. Ro'hane too had a couple drops of blood on his clothing, but was up and about following orders.

The babies were in their bins in the middle of the clearing. Vayla was protecting one side with her lightsaber and Afep was on the other. Their eyes moved rapidly to seek out any dangers. The other six were paired up; Ro'hane with Sabè, Nein with Bail and Jack with Natal. The older of each pair would use the lightsaber to cut down more of the grass or trees in the clearing and the younger would drag the rubbish to the burn pile. The logic was obvious: give everyone as much lead-time as possible to spot danger approaching. Buffy was surprised that Jack had let any of the kids touch a lightsaber, let alone use one. She wondered who had talked him into it or if commonsense and the children's serious nature had won him over. She did notice that Jack was the only one carrying a blaster.

Jack and Vayla were the first to realize she was back. Jack smiled first and then shook his head about her wounds. The look he gave her was both professional and assessing. Vayla just watched her and then sent Natal to Buffy to accept the one fish left for the Nautolan. Buffy handed over the fish, spear and all. The spear dwarfed the little girl.

Jack met Natal at the center of the clearing. He took the spear and fish from her and handed her the Nautolan and its partner in the baby bin. Jack flipped the bin over and used it as a table. He pulled out his knife and expertly skinned and dissected the fish.

"You're going to have to point out the fishing hole, Buffy," he said conversationally. "I'm sure I can make myself a fishing pole."

Buffy sat on the grass beside Vayla and snorted. "You won't have time to cast a line between the sabertooth tigers, the snakes and the ugly black flying piranha bugs. Oh and that's not counting the big nasties that I couldn't see or just weren't out and moving in the daylight."

Jack looked so disappointed. "Damn, all that?"

"All that."

Jack separated the fish into two piles, one heap edible and one heap scrap. Then he moved out of the way. Natal took his place and began feeding the baby Nautolan the fish.

Jack stretched. "Vayla said that you were tapping the trees for sap. We're going to need it soon."

Buffy was exhausted and it showed. "Now?"

Jack looked to Vayla who shook her head. "Nah. Soon."

Buffy stumbled to her feet. "Then it's bed-y-by for me. Yell if you need help."

"Roger," Jack replied.

Buffy walked to the nursery ship, careful to smile and wave at each one of the kids. She found a corner that was quiet and forced her body to relax amidst all the danger she sensed. She trusted Jack to protect her while she slept.

Then she slept.

****

Now.

Now was the Time.

****

"Goo-chi-goo-chi-goo."

Jack whirled from his position near the trees. How had something snuck by any of the older children? None of them had fallen asleep. His gaze flitted over each face before speeding to the form crouched over one of the bins. It was smack-dab in the middle of the baby bins. How had he gotten there?

Was the male-human wearing a pinstripe suit?

"OUCH!"

The baby the stranger had been trying to charm had taken the proffered digit, dragged it to her mouth and clamped down.

"Damnit, Leggo! Let go already!" The guy tried to carefully extract his finger from the baby. Jack and Ro'hane were approaching from opposite sides to remove the stranger forcefully from the middle of the babies. He obviously wasn't the Jedi Master they were waiting for.

The stranger finally won, he took a step back and cradled his wounded hand. "Damnit! You're not supposed to act like the Slayer already!"

Ro'hane stumbled, Jack paused. Jack's eyes flicked from Ro'hane to the ship where Buffy was taking a nap and back again. Ro'hane took the hint. He turned around and sprinted toward the nursery ship. He did it so quietly. As much as Jack hated seeing weapons in the kids' hands, they did act more like warriors than children and that even spilled over to how they ran. Ro'hane managed to speed to the ship with barely a whisper of sound. Charlie's feet would have reminiscent a herd of elephants.

Sabè assumed Ro'hane's place. Her lightsaber activated. Natal stepped up to Jack's left flank, Nien Jack's right. Both readied their weapons. Bail started swinging his lightsaber expertly as he closed in from the right. Afep kept his position by Vayla too close to the stranger, but the other children reminded Jack of a pack of wolves circling for the kill.

All good, except . . . "Kids, watch the perimeter." Jack pointed his blaster at the stranger.

Jack felt more than saw the children's embarrassment at their obvious oversight. Buffy had a pile of corpses from wild animals that would attack if anyone forgot about the jungle like they had. Natal turned one-eighty degrees in her current position and stood at attention. She did not de-activate her weapon. Neither did the other children as they moved around to equidistant sentry positions surrounding the infants, their backs to the stranger. They trusted Jack to take care of the odd man.

The stranger rocked back on his heels. "Good kids, aren't they, Colonel?"

Jack rolled his eyes and aimed at the man.

The man threw up his hands in surrender. "I'm just here to deliver a message. I'm not going to harm any of your charges."

"Talk," Jack grunted. He never moved the blaster from being pointed at the stranger. "Why me?"

"Do'ya think the Powers were just going to let all your Air Force experience waste away in a high school? Youthful body plus experience and the Jack O'Neill psyche makes you a very important player. Too bad the SGC didn't recognize it."

Jack considered shooting the man just on principle.

"My name's Whistler," the stranger started. Then he screamed.

Every one of the children turned to stare in surprise. Jack blinked, startled. He was facing the ship and its only exit. How the hell had Buffy managed to sneak up on Whistler without Jack seeing it happen? She now held him, one-handed, off of his feet. Her grip must have been like a vise, gripping the back of Whistler's skull.

Whistler still hadn't stopped screaming with pain.

Jack glanced at the children. Most of them had turned their attention back to the jungle, but their eyes were very wide. Buffy threw the stranger at Jack's feet, far from the infants playing in the sun. Jack's aim followed the intruder, but it was unnecessary. Buffy was right on top of him, using her foot to pin Whistler to the ground.

Jack heard a bone snap. Whistler's colorful reaction was muffled with his face shoved into the dirt.

"Buffy," he said.

Buffy slowly brought her eyes up to his. Jack was frightened by how black they were, no emotion. This was how she had earned the name 'Slayer.' Jack hadn't really understood the handle before. Sure, she was an expert fighter, the best he'd ever seen, but . . . those eyes matched the ones that he saw in the mirror too many mornings.

"Buffy," Jack said again.

She softened right in front of him. She smiled at him. Then Whistler shifted and she looked down. Her smile turned positively predatory. "Whistler. Shall I lie? Or should I tell you what I really want to do you? There are three babies dead and countless children slain defending their home."

Whistler was silent.

Buffy toed the intruder to lay on his back. He groaned as his broken shoulder blade impacted the earth. Buffy put her boot in his throat. "I want the name of the Traitor. Now."

Whistler coughed, trying to breathe.

Jack waited until he felt Buffy had made her point. Then he said, "Buffy."

She smiled at Jack and let up on Whistler's larynx a bit. "Talk," she demanded.

"I can't . . ." the man breathed.

Buffy applied more pressure. She smiled softly and tilted her head like a little girl. "But I wanna name." Somehow this deceptively fragile looking woman was more frightening to Jack than the Amazon of before.

Apparently, Whistler reached the same conclusion. "Darth Vader," he spit out.

Buffy glanced at Ro'hane, who stood behind her. He was the only one of the children who had not assumed to a sentry position. He shook his head, not knowing the name.

Whistler took advantage of Buffy's attention being elsewhere and rolled out from under her foot. Buffy let him. "But you can't go after him." Whistler stayed seated on the grass.

Buffy growled.

Whistler ducked his head and raised him hands. He winced and lowered the arm that was attached to the broken shoulder. "If you guys cross Vader the results will make what the little Witch did to you seem like playtime at the Kiddie Corral." He glanced at Ro'hane and then at Vayla. "You know how the Balance is."

Jack shook his head. That meant nothing to him. But Buffy had turned white as a ghost.

Whatever emotion Buffy was feeling quicksilvered into anger. She advanced on the hapless man. "Whistler, I'm going to skin you alive and use your hide as diapers for the babies and use your ribs to construct crib mobiles."

Jack winced at the morbid idea, but for some strange reason Whistler brightened. "Wonderful! You're already planning for the long term."

Buffy's face went blank. "You're kidding me. What about our contact?"

Whistler spread his arms wide. "I am your contact."

"There is no way in hell the PTB's would put children into the hands of a Balance Demon," she countered.

"Of course not. They put the children into your hands."

Buffy shook her head, refusing what Whistler was implying. "I know nothing about children."

Whistler grinned evilly. "But you did so well with the new Slayers."

Buffy growled. "That's something totally different."

"Is it?" asked the demon.

"Here?!?!?" she screeched. "With no mall?"

Whistler winced.

"What the hell are we supposed to do?" Buffy asked. "Hang out here until the PTB decide that we're needed? We're the 'Break Glass in Time of War' weapon? The ace up the sleeve in the cosmic game the Powers play?"

"Well . . . more like the full house."

Buffy advanced. Whistler scrambled to his feet and hid behind Jack. Jack smiled briefly at Buffy. Then he swung his arm -blaster and all- up and hit Whistler in the nose. He felt the cartilage snap. Next he swung down and nailed the guy in the solar plexus with his elbow. Jack whirled, saw Whistler bent over and nursing his nose. He punched the stranger in the face and Whistler went flying back.

Boy, did that feel good.

Natal moved out of the way of the falling stranger and made no attempt to assist Whistler to his feet. She trusted Jack and Buffy to protect her and kept her attention to the jungle.

Whistler rolled to sit and tried to stanch the flow of blood. "Damn. I forgot that you two are the best." He looked up at the pair of avenging furies. "You two were redundant where you were. And redundant gives Evil an edge."

Buffy stalked closer. "Redundant, huh?" She picked Whistler up by his coat lapels and reached one hand toward his throat. She closed her hand around something Jack couldn't see and pulled. Jack heard something snap and Whistler jerked in pain. Buffy dropped Whistler at her feet and dangled three necklaces at him. "Don'tcha think three protection amulets are redundant much?"

"Facing you, Slayer," Whistler countered, "No."

One of the infants began to cry and soon others joined in. Afep and Vayla crawled over to the bins to comfort those they could reach.

Buffy seemed to soften and harden at the same time. "Why the hell should I follow what the Powers want? They didn't give us enough food for all the kids. They're not ready for me to do my job."

Whistler smiled. "Slayer, like every other time, you exceeded their highest expectations. But you have everything you need now, including the right partner for the job."

Jack frowned. He wasn't sure how he could be the best person for raising a bunch of kids. His 0-1 record didn't commend him in any way.

"So we what?" Buffy shot at the stranger, "Keep our heads down?"

"You stay out of the Empire until Vader's dead and emulate Atlantis."

Buffy blinked. "Huh?"

But Whistler vanished before their eyes.

"Whistler!" Buffy screamed at the sky. "Get your ass back here right now! I'm not through with you!"

Silence answered her.

"Damnit!"

Jack watched Buffy literally shake with frustration. The infants wailed louder. One of the aliens hit a pitch that made Buffy wince, but it gained her attention. She bent over Vayla and Afep and touched a baby.

"I'm sorry," she murmured. Buffy looked at Jack. "I need a run. You can hold the fort 'till then? I could even pick up the groceries."

Jack nodded. She was unsetting the babies and the children. She obviously had a lot of things to think over.

Buffy glanced around the clearing one last time, focusing on each one of the children. Nien gave her a waterproof bucket he had been using to carry trash to the burn pile. She would have to clean it out. Buffy accepted it, and then she turned toward the jungle at a jog.

"Buffy!" Jack called.

Buffy jogged in place.

"Be careful," he said.

Don't do anything stupid that would get yourself killed, Jack thought. I need you alive. I can't do this on my own. He left those thought unspoken.

For a moment, Jack was sure she was not going to respond.

"I promise," she said.

****

Whistler sat on the edge of the Void. Damn, he hurt.

His shoulder might never recover. There was something about the damage a Slayer did to a Balance Demon. Even the healing spells he'd won in the betting of his life didn't speed the knitting together of the broken bone. He only wanted to sit here on the edge of forever for a little while and rest.

The Powers appeared in front of him.

"Shit."

Trouble was just beginning to stir.

****

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The End

Of the Beginning

****