Note: Couldn't see our President doing it, but am NOT adding another fandom. I mean, seriously, can you see George W going over there for a visit?
GHS in Space 4: Ferret Rule
Queen Nethisha looked around her nearly empty throne room and sighed in her boredom. Her first wife, sponsor to those humans, gave her a pat on the arm and a smile. "You haven't yet seen their animals," she reminded gently. "You did ask for them to be brought because the first ferret tickled you."
The Queen smiled. "Yes. Can we get them? I know their fathers' are in the market today, our daughter ran out to watch Xander pound out pretty things." They shared a smile.
"It's a harmless flirtation," the first wife said softly. "She knows this." She stood up. "I'll go get you those animals."
"Take the formal cart," the Queen requested. "The people were amused with Dessie, they might like to see these also." Her wife left her alone, but now she had an end in sight to her boredom.
Oz jogged up to the jewelry stall, leaning around the women to be able to see his husband. They moved a little bit for him, giving him smiles. The muse was here! "The Queen asked to see the ferrets. Sam let them go a half-hour ago and just told me."
Xander groaned and finished his work on the latest link in his chain. "Okay. We'll go up there and rescue her." He held up the chain, smiling at his groupies. "Well, it's not as long as yesterday's," he told them apologetically, "but I've got to go."
"Oh, mine!" one woman called, starting to push forward. "How much?"
The local jeweler took the chain to look it over. "One weak link," he pronounced, handing it back to Xander, who snipped it at that link. The women cheered. "Forty for each," the local jeweler said.
The crown princess bought them both. "Come on," she said with a teasing grin. "We can all go together." She waited long enough to get clasps on the chains then led them back to the palace. "Mother, I brought presents," she called as she walked into the throne room. "And the animals' fathers."
The Queen squealed, taking the ferret out of her breast cups. "Good." She smiled at the boys. "I think this one is a little odd."
"It's a fascination," Oz explained as he took control of Jedi, their mommy ferret. "She's fascinated by breasts."
Jedi squeaked at the kitten coming out to investigate her kits, warning it off.
"Shh," the Princess said, reaching over to pet her. "The kittens aren't going to hurt them. They're just very curious."
Xander got down to let the kitten sniff his hand. "Hello. You're very pretty."
//I'm a ferocious hunter,// the kitten told him telepathically, looking quite sure of itself.
Xander stared, then laughed and gave her a hug. "I'm sure you are the most ferocious of hunters, little one."
The Queen smiled down at them. "You've been given a very high honor. They talk to almost nobody, especially outsiders." She came down off her throne and sat next to her kitten. "This is Trismshan, it means Lead Huntress. She's nearly six months old."
"And very intelligent," Xander told her. He picked up the ferret that was batting at Trimshan's tail. "Trimshan, this is Skip." The kitten nosed the ferret, then grabbed it by the back of the neck and carried it off to go play chase. A very fast game of chase, which sent priceless artifacts crashing to the floor.
"Stop that!" Oz called. "You don't destroy other people's houses!"
"It's fine," the Queen said gently. "The cats do it all the time." She leaned closer. "I hated that vase anyway," she confided. "It was a diplomatic gift so I had to have it in here, but the thing was ugly."
Xander nodded his understanding. "I have a painting like that."
"Where?" Oz asked. "We don't have real art."
"In a safety deposit box. The insurance agent said it was expensive," he said with a grin.
Oz shook his head and sat down to play with the animals. Who said diplomatic work was hard and no fun.
They were ready to leave, all but one ferret. Skip was stubbornly being bathed by another of the kittens that lived in the palace.
The Queen sighed. "You should leave him, they'll get tired of each other soon enough."
"M'lady, I'd gladly do that but you're not really equipped to take care of it tonight. The ferret is litter trained and we're left its food at home."
She smiled serenely. "I'm sure we can pick some up when we take you back.
Xander looked at his ferret, who looked content. "All right," he agreed. "We'll show whomever brings us home how to take care of the little one." He looked at his mate. "We need more bedding anyway."
"Okay," Oz said with a shrug. "You're the one who handles the adoptions." He gathered up the last of the escaping ferrets and put it into the fabric carrier, strapping it on. "Come on, let's get these guys home before they can escape again."
Xander bowed to the Queen and strapped on his own carrier. "Are we walking or taking a cart?"
"Let's walk," the Princess suggested, pointing toward the door. "I need to know how to take care of Skip."
"And he will be *your* responsibility, Siblinth, not your Guard's," the first wife said as she walked in. "Not like your last pet."
"I was nearly a newborn," Siblinth said with an eyeroll, which she had obviously picked up from Xander as it wasn't a native move. She led the way out of the palace and down into the market.
A woman ran up to them, looking at the ferrets starting to crawl out of the carrier and all over their fathers. "May I pet one?" she asked, reaching toward one.
"No," Xander said, pulling away just in time, the ferret had tried to nip her. "You never reach out, you scare them that way." He glared and patted the kit to calm it down.
She glared back and stormed off.
Siblinth shook her head. "She's a Tuthan," she muttered as she started walking again, calling her a Marine goat. She managed to catch one that was trying to jump off Oz's shoulder. "We should dedicate you to Lissa, she would be amused and show up again."
"She hasn't been around?" Oz asked.
"Halt!" a guardwoman called, striding toward them. They stopped and waited on her, calming down the escapees. "A complaint was made against these animals." She frowned as one jumped onto her. "Stop it," she ordered Xander.
Xander took the ferret back. "It's not dangerous. The woman ran up to us and tried to pet it without any sniffing time." The guardswoman blinked. "The ferret needs to sniff you before you can pet it. Just running up and grabbing it makes it defensive and it nips you, which is what almost happened to her. I moved her before she could actually nip the idiot." He made a futile grab as the ferret jumped again, this time making it down into the guardwoman's tunic.
She pulled it out and looked at it. "That's not polite," she told the ferret. "You're not my species." She handed it back and then watched as the animal jumped back onto her.
"It's not dangerous," the Princess pointed out. "We just adopted one," she said, trying to help.
//Yes, my kittens find them odd but fun,// one of the not-often-seen telepathic adult cats said as she walked up to them. She huffed at the ferret, who snuggled back down inside the tunic. She looked at the complaining woman. //Shut up, they're fun and good for my sister's cubs to play with. The one in the palace already has many fans among the servants and the other cats.// She nudged Xander and sent him a mental purr, with the message, //I think you're fun for a man//. Then she left them alone, not aware of the baby ferret following her until it pounced on her tail. //Do not do that,// she told him. //Males do not pounce on tails.// She looked at Xander, then sent him another mental purr before picking up the kit and trotting off.
The guardswoman sighed and shook her head. "I have seen no aggressive behavior."
"One of them tried to bite me!" the woman complained again.
"And it's the same one that's snuggling up to her breasts," Oz pointed out. "Not vicious, you scared it." He shoved the rest of the ferrets back into the carriers. "Would you help us get them home?" he asked the guardwoman. "They're a handful."
"So I can see," she said, smiling at the one still inside her official uniform. "You can't stay in there," she told it, pulling it back out to look at it. "No men allowed down there, I took an oath."
Xander picked up the ferret's tail. "It's a girl." He took Oz's hand and walked with him, letting the Princess and the guard talk behind their backs.
"They really are quite fun. The one we've just adopted knocked over that ugly Chin vase, the one mother hated."
The guardwoman nodded at the men. "Their people would have given her that."
"Oops," the Princess said, grinning at Oz when he looked back. "I'll try to piece it back together when we get home."
"I didn't give it to your mother," he said with a shrug. "But if our diplomats did, you might not want to tell them how it happened."
"It could get them in trouble," the guardwoman said, sounding knowledgeable.
When the guardwoman tried to hand over the ferret, once they had walked the boys home, it stubbornly refused to let her go. It had bitten into her shirt and had it's claws gripped tightly in it too, and was squealing in distress at being separated from her new friend. It was not leaving her. Oz offered her a bag of supplies but she shook her head. "I can't take a gift."
"It's not a gift. We're firm believers in letting our animals pick their own owners. And she likes you." He held out the bag again, and when she didn't take it, he handed it to the Princess. "Here, for her new friend. And they'll both need litter boxes."
The Princess smiled. "Sure." She looked at the female kit that was being so persistent. "You might as well accept it, they're great little friends. I'm sure everyone in your barracks will love them."
"Just watch out for their 'finding' habits," Oz told them. "They like to 'find' stuff and bring it to their parents to show them off, or to line a nest with, either one."
The guardswoman shook her head. "I can't, sir, really."
"If you don't, you'll insult us," Oz said firmly. "She likes you, it'll break her heart to not go home with you."
She looked down at the little face, which she would later swear was pouting up at her. "Fine, I'll take it just so as not to offend." She took the bag of supplies and headed back into the market.
The Princess smiled and waved, then ran off to head home.
Oz closed the door and leaned against it. "She agreed, after a long ferret pout."
Sam walked past, holding out a tray of sandwiches. Oz took one. "That's good. Three less ferrets are three less I'll find playing in my underwear." She went in to watch the news, that was part of her job, to make sure nothing bad was being said about them.
Oz shook his head and walked up to their room, where Xander was doing a mass grooming. "You're not going to start pouting, right?" he asked from the doorway.
"No, but I might have to go check up on them," Xander said quietly. "Just to make sure that they're being treated properly." He looked up. "Did she take it?" Oz nodded. "Did you warn her about the 'finding' thing?" Oz nodded. "Good. Can I have some?"
Oz walked in and handed over the last half of his sandwich. "Want to go home and get bedding materials?"
"Sure." Xander looked down at himself. "Let me get dressed." He handed over the brush and stood up, heading to their closet to find something to wear. He pulled out a large wrapped box. "Um, Oz?"
"That's your birthday present, but you can't have it for another two days."
"Okay then." Xander carefully put it aside and pulled down an outfit, getting dressed quickly. "Just ferret bedding?"
"Maybe something along the lines of Hershey's," Oz said mildly. "I'm craving chocolate for some reason."
"Okay." Xander started a list. "I can't believe that they don't have wood shavings with all the area that the Empire encompasses."
"It's probably not necessary," Oz said philosophically. "They don't have ferrets, hamsters, or gerbils, or anything like them that we've seen. Why would they need bedding like that."
"Point, I guess," Xander admitted, pulling on shoes. He checked his bracelet then grabbed the wallet Oz tossed at him. "Just those two things?"
"Just those two things," Oz agreed, watching as he left their room. He felt a wet nudge and looked down, smiling at the cat sitting there. "Want this?" he asked, brushing his kitten.
Xander walked down the ramp of the portal, smiling at the woman standing there. "Hey, Janet," he said, kissing her on the cheek. "No usual guards?"
"General Hammond told them to stand down if one of you came through," she explained, handing over a bag. "He also figured it was about time for you guys to need some of this."
He looked inside and nodded, giving her a grin. "Yeah, we kinda do. And we adopted out three of them today. Two to the Queen and one to a guard. Well, technically two to the Queen's telepathic cats, but they're hers and they've proven it by playing chase."
She groaned. "I know how bad that can be. Dessie by herself was bad enough when I babysat her, but cats too must be maddening." She patted him on the arm. "Needed anything else?"
"Oz wanted something of the Hershey's variety. He's craving chocolate."
"He's not the one I would think would be doing that," she said with a smile. "Come to the infirmary and we'll get that settled." She looked over his shoulder as the portal rippled. "Hey, Daniel, what's up?"
"Just a small something I thought the General would like to know," he said with a faint smile. "Is he busy? I noticed the lack of guards."
"He told them to stand down," she said with a shrug. "He should be up in his office with Jack. Come on, Xander, we'll go get Oz his chocolate fix."
"Oz is craving chocolate?" Daniel asked.
Xander nodded. "Yup. It happens rarely." He followed his favorite doctor up to her office, waiting there while she went to procure him treats from the commissary. He looked up when the door opened, smiling at Jack. "Hey, Janet's doing a chocolate run for Oz."
"That's good, I guess." He sat down across from his friend. "Xander, I need to share something with you." Xander nodded. So Jack leaned forward and tried to put something on him.
"Nope, not going to happen," Xander said, frowning at the device he had plucked from Jack's hand. "What is this?"
"It's the new people counter that your Governor instituted. He wants every one of his people to wear one so he knows how many there are for the next six months."
"Fat chance," Xander said, tossing it into a nearby trashcan. "I don't need to be counted and I doubt it'll read off world." Jack's face went blank for a second. "What's wrong with you?" he asked, standing up and getting away from his friend.
"Nothing," Jack said, getting up to get the 'counter', brushing it off. "You have to wear it, Xander."
"No." He dropped the packages and faced off against his friend. "Do you have one on?" Jack nodded. "If it's only California's governor, then why are you wearing one? And won't it mess with the project?" Jack's face went blank for a second again and Xander took the opportunity to knock him out. Then he patted him down, finding and ripping off the device. He stepped back and nudged Jack with his toe. "Hey."
Jack groaned and sat up, holding his head. "What hit me?"
"I did," Xander said, holding up the device. "You tried to plant one of these on me." Jack shook his head. "Yeah, you did." He pointed at the one on the floor. "This one," he said, waving the one in his hand, "was on you."
"No," Jack said, standing up. He took the device to look at. "Where?" Xander pointed at his chest so he looked down at the spot, and the little drop of blood there. "What happened?"
"Jack, do you know what day it is?" Xander asked him. "You've been gone a few days in the other time."
Jack checked his watch, still frowning. "This is impossible."
"Apparently not. You tried to give me a story about my governor wanting all his people to be counted so we had to all wear those for the next few months." He snapped his fingers. "Danny's here. He went up to see Hammond."
"Crap, that's where I was the last I knew," Jack said, taking off at a run for the General's office.
Xander grabbed his packages and ran after him. He got there in time to see Jack ripping the device off General Hammond's chest, and tossing it down to stomp on it. "Maybe we should keep a few," he suggested lightly. He leaned against the door. "Hey, Danny, what's up?" he asked.
"I checked him," Jack told him.
Xander walked over and moved Danny's t-shirt collar, plucking the small device off his shoulder. "Only the front," he said, handing it over. "Want to get Janet first?"
"Tell me what's going on first," General Hammond suggested, looking between them. "What was that?"
"Something that I resisted Jack putting on me," Xander told him. "That's all I know."
"And I seem to have lost time," Jack reported.
The General shook his head. "Huh?" He looked at Xander, then at Daniel. "When did you two get here?"
"About fifteen minutes ago," Xander told him. He didn't move when the door opened.
"Here you are," Janet said, smiling at them. "I thought I told you to wait in my office." She handed over the requested chocolate bars and put a 'counter' on Xander's arm. She pulled a gun out of her pocket and pointed it at them. "The rest of you, put one on."
"No," Daniel said, pushing his glasses back up. "Why should we?" She pointed the gun at him. "Which is a really nice argument, but why would we want to put a device back on? It won't work on us."
She laughed. "Your pitiful logic amuses me but you will put one on."
Jack sent a thought outward as he bent to pick up the device that had been on Daniel, hoping that any of the people who protected Xander would get Oz to them. Or Blair. Or even Sam, even though she had been planning some glutton time today. "Um, I kinda broke this one," he offered, handing her the pieces."
"You pitiful men, always so violent. That's why we sent most of ours away."
Daniel looked up at her. "I found a diary from that time. Not all the women were for it but you forced them, didn't you?"
A little girl appeared next to the desk, stomping her foot. "My fun!" she declared. "You're bad, need punished."
"L...Lissa?" Janet stuttered. "But you're a myth made up by the merchants to gain business."
She laughed. "Really? I'm real, are you?" She started to wave a hand but Jack moved between them. "What?" she said, glaring at him.
"That's not really her. It's something in her that's making her bad," Jack explained. "The woman is our friend and she's usually very good."
Lissa pouted. "But she bad!" she said with another foot stomp. "Me call my mommy." She tipped her head back. "MOMMY!"
A blonde goddess appeared, picking up her daughter. "What's wrong, sweetling?" she whispered, cuddling her. She saw Jack pointing and frowned. "Where did she get those?"
"Not a clue," Jack said with a shrug. "However it was done, it's taken over our doctor," he pointed at Janet, "and now Xander."
"He my fun," she told her mother. "Me and Strife."
"Yes, I met Strife earlier today," she said dryly. She looked at Jack. "You have a *male*, *adult* God of Trouble?"
"Not mine," Jack defended.
"We, um, actually have a few versions of religion on this planet," Daniel explained, reaching back to take the thing off Xander's arm. "Can you fix our doctor? I would gladly go and get my book on our religious systems. I have a comparative book of the major ones in my office."
"That would please me," the Mother said, smiling at him. "I can fix her, it won't take me that long." He nodded and got up, heading down to his office.
"If I may ask," General Hammond said. "What are those things and why hasn't Xander come out of it yet?"
She handed him her daughter. "The first is easy. The women who banished most of the men from our home world to find peace created them. They went street by street, doing so many of the women at a time so they could take all the violent men and removed them after they were gone. The next morning, a few of the devices remained but most had went with the most violent of the men." She waved a hand over Janet's chest, her hand getting filled with a device. "As for why he's not back yet, I have no clue. There were a few side effects for the more violent men." She walked closer to Xander. "Is he normally violent?"
"Not hardly," Jack snorted. "He can fight but he doesn't pick them."
General Hammond had to nod at that. "We're all military men, and women here, all except Xander. He's a civilian helper."
"So am I," Daniel said as he walked back in. "Is there some problem?" he asked, handing over the book and sitting back down.
"Xander's not coming out from under it," Jack said grimly. Everyone stopped as the portal whooshed open. "Please tell me that's the stargate," Jack whispered.
"No, the stargate's much louder," General Hammond said, getting up to go check. "It's Sam."
"Oh, man," Jack said, starting to relax. "At least it wasn't Oz."
"Oz?" the female Goddess asked. She nudged Xander. "I can't bring him out, he'll have to come out naturally." Jack started to laugh hysterically. "What?" she asked.
"Xander's ... protected," Daniel explained, having had to search for the right word.
"His Gods might be able to help him then," she said, looking upwards. Then she looked at her daughter. "Call your friend, dear."
"No!" Jack shouted.
"And why not?" General Hammond asked.
"Because I prayed for help," Jack told him, looking panicked.
"And you got it," the Goddess said, pointing at Lissa.
Ares showed up, glaring at the men in front of him. At least he was until Sam nudged him out of her way. "Sir, Oz told me to come fix Xander?" she said, looking confused. "He said he couldn't come do it at this time because he was going to have a long talk with someone about leaving Xander alone for a few days."
"That might be a good idea," Ares said dryly, looking Sam over. "Gee, you don't *look* stupid," he noted.
She blushed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to shove you."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Militaries are not what they used to be." He looked at Xander, then prodded him gently. Then poked him. Then he smacked him across the back of the head. "Huh. Yours?" he asked the Goddess. "Because my son and nephew would start a fight with you over him. They like him a lot."
She laughed. "No, just the effects are what we're worried about. Is he a violent man in his heart?"
Ares considered the man in front of him then nodded. "He doesn't usually let it out, but if you get him angry enough he will react in the most unexpected way possible. His ideal way to get you back is to fuck up your life." He smacked Xander again. "This feels good. I can get him back for lack of sleep now."
"Could this have something to do with his bonding?" Daniel asked him. "And he'll pay you back. I'm pretty sure he'll realize his hair's been messed with."
Ares stroked the hair flat again. "Not if you don't tell him." He smacked him again. "It might. Oz is a beserker. Giles is still an asshole, though he's starting to realize how very desperate he's about to become." He looked at the Goddess. "If he's bound soul deep with a beserker and someone with a God complex, would that matter?"
She nodded. "Probably. If it's a true soul bonding then it would have to affect him."
"He's got a soul sword," Daniel told her.
"He does?" Ares asked, looking a little surprised. "I didn't think the kid had it in him. He's definitely a protector."
"He used it against Giles," Jack agreed. "But for some reason it went away."
"That happens sometimes," Ares sighed. "If you think it's not so desperate anymore, it can go back in. Or he might have given up for a few seconds. I've seen them disappear with a strong enough doubt." He smacked Xander across the back of the head again.
The female Goddess smiled and shook her head. "I think we could probably force him to come out faster if it's a worry for you all." She held out a hand to Ares. "I'll need your help as he's yours."
"Technically only part of the time," Ares said, taking her hand. They poured power into Xander, making him shake and finally fall down, after peeing himself. He looked down. "You all right now?" he asked.
Xander opened his eyes and glared up. "What did you do to me?" he asked hoarsely.
"They fixed you, Xander," Daniel told him, dropping his jacket over his friend's body. "I'll get you a change of clothes." He looked at the three Gods, bowing to them. "Thank you for your help, his Oz would be devastated if something serious happened to him." He headed out to get Xander some clean clothes. They all kept a change on base, no matter that they were hardly here.
General Hammond bowed to the Goddess. "If I may ask, who are you and what position do you serve in your pantheon? We've had some very interesting discussions about the majority religions on your home world."
"I am Grethan, Goddess of Grief." She smiled down at Xander. "I will instruct my daughter to leave you alone for a few days."
"I don't mind," Xander said with a shrug. "As long as it's not contagious, harmful, or will get me in trouble with my Gods, Strife and Cupid."
"This Cupid, I've heard of him. What does he do in your pantheon?" she asked Ares.
"Cupid's my son and he's a God of Love and Lust," he told her. "Xander's is high priest for all three of us."
She nodded. "A well rounded man then." She smiled at him. "If you have a headache later, it's understandable and will go away. As will the lack of appetite for anything other than sweets." She and her daughter disappeared, with Daniel's book.
Ares looked down at Xander. "You didn't want to hurt her feelings, right?" he asked. "Because Strife is worn out dealing with you."
"Hey, pissing her off after she saved my life would have been bad," Xander pointed out. "Besides Lissa's not doing anything harmful to me. She's doing fun things, like making a kitten follow me to work last time. Nothing that Strife should have to deal with."
Ares shook his head and disappeared. A leash, collar, and harness, all in chain and leather, landed on the desk a few moments later. "Use it, Jack," floated out of the air.
Jack snickered. "Sure. I'll give them to Oz."
Cupid appeared, shaking his head. "Nope, Oz is too nice. Sometimes Xander needs a firmer hand on his leash."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?" he said, wrapped Daniel's jacket around his waist as he stood up. "I don't need a leash, Cupid, I have a wonderful keeper already." He licked his lips and gave his God a sultry look. "Can you imagine what I would do if I didn't have a little outlet for my mischievous being and creative urges?"
Cupid eyes went wide and he whimpered, leaving quickly.
"That is a scary picture," Jack agreed, handing over the equipment to Xander. "Here, you can put them on Oz," he said with a smile.
"Yeah, I can, can't I?" Xander said happily, heading out of the office. "I'm going to take a shower because this is nasty," he said, waving over his shoulder. "Danny found something."
Jack sat down in the chair across from the desk, relaxing. "Sir, how much longer do we have?" he asked quietly, looking at his boss. "If I have to continue to deal with Xander's....mischievous being I might explode."
"Not more than another year until diplomatic ties are firmly established," the General soothed. "Is it really that bad? I would have sent Oz but I couldn't see Xander letting him go alone."
Jack shook his head. "It comes and go, but they like Xander quite a lot more than they do Oz. They see him as the serious middle ground between the diplomats, and Xander is their example of humans. Danny, Blair, and I are seen to be normal but they're looking forward to finding a lot more men like Xander down here. He's the one that's making it move smoothly. Oz translates and Xander sands the corners and pulls the splinters."
The General sighed. "They're the best we've got but I can see how it must be hard dealing with someone so very different." Jack gave him a wry look. "Think about doing this without them though. Just you and your team."
Jack shuddered. "No, sir, I'm very glad Oz has taken over most of my duties." He sat up straighter. "Is the President really coming up for a meeting?"
"He is," the General said with a bright smile. "I've told him all about my trips up there and the Queen, he's very anxious to meet with her."
"Not to be indelicate, but what do we do with Xander and Oz, sir? They're not exactly members of the program or even the military."
"He knows they're there, Colonel. Trust me, he wants to meet them too."
"Then let's hope for a normal day that day," Jack said as he heaved himself up. He shot off a salute. "Permission to go to bed, sir?"
"Granted. Have a good sleep period," Jack." He smiled as his future replacement walked out. "Maybe I can convince Xander and Oz to work for us after all," he told himself, looking at the report for the next planet the portal could go to. "Those two, with their other two friends, Steve and his friend Richie, and my first team should be the perfect full diplomatic compliment."
Cupid appeared, shaking his head. "No, dude. Please don't do that to us. Getting to Xander now is wearing us out."
"You're free to use our portal," the General offered. "It should take some of the strain off."
"Thanks," Cupid said with a grin. "We'll see. What's this newest one like?"
"An idyllic place, a lot of forest, a nature religion."
"Then don't send Xander. He's not good in the woods," Cupid pointed out. "Oz might be."
The General leaned back in his chair. "Can you really see Xander letting Oz go by himself?"
Cupid rolled his eyes. "Not at all. Why the top heavy contingent?"
"Because these people have apparently declared war with a nearby set of neighbors. We'd need people who we can count on to protect themselves."
Cupid looked down at the papers, then snickered, pointing at a line. "That religion is intolerant to gays. They cut off their heads, among other things, so there's no chance of their evil ideas being passed on." The General blanched. "Yeah, so maybe some of your more gung-ho soldier boys should go instead."
"Good point," General Hammond said, making a note on the paper. "I'll pick a team with that in mind. Thank you, Lord Cupid, and please thank your father for me for helping us earlier."
"Sure." He waved and left.
Xander walked in a few minutes later, wearing camouflage pants and a t-shirt. "Anything else we needed before I go back?" he asked.
"Did you get the bedding?" Xander pointed at the packages. "Did you need anything else?"
"Janet got the candy bars Oz was craving." He checked the bag then thought about it. "How's Steve holding up?"
"He's fine, Xander. He said that the state is still in the 'looking at options' stage. It's given him time to find the perfect place to move your house if it becomes necessary." He pulled out a package and handed it over. "That's the new proposed lot. He'd like an answer soon."
Xander sat down to look at the pictures. "Wow, that's a beautiful view," he said quietly, showing the picture off. "Where is this?"
"Canada. Somewhere on the west coast. He also said he's got your new identity all set up and ready whenever you are. He can trigger it whenever."
"Cool." Xander flipped through the pictures. "Give me a day, your time, to talk to Oz. I'll send a message back." He grinned. "I got to talk to two of the telepathic cats when they adopted two of the ferrets."
"Really?" The General looked impressed. "About what?"
"The first one, a six month old female named Trimshan, told me she was a ferocious hunter when I called her pretty. The second was an adult in the market when we were accosted by someone who didn't like my ferret babies after they tried to nip her because she scared it. She told me I was fun for a man and that the ferrets were good playmates for hers and her sister's cubs."
The General nodded. "Interesting. Do you think they'll continue to talk to you?"
"I have no idea," Xander said happily. "I was told it was a great honor. Queen Nethisha said they never talk to outsiders."
"I would like to know if they've got a culture of their own," the General said thoughtfully. "They remind me of cougars, their lines and such, but to have made that specific evolutionary step is something very interesting to me personally."
"I'll ask the Queen if she knows anything," Xander told him. "She and the Empress breed them. There's not that many of them left. Oh, and they can breed with other types of cats. There's *never* been a cat that wasn't black or albino, but because they can breed with one of our cats, which seems we need to have fixed now, they had a pink one." The General's mouth opened and hung like that for a moment. "Siblinth, the Crown Princess, is one of my groupies, and she told me all about the puzzlement of the pink cub. It's never happened, even when they've outbred before. They think it'll darken though."
The General closed his mouth. "What color was your cat?"
"It was Fluffy's son," Xander said dryly. "Pink and gray tabby."
The General just nodded. "I would like to know about their breeding also. We don't have any species that can outbreed that way."
Xander nodded. "I'll tell her you're interested, see what she says." He stood up, tucking the pictures into his bag. "Thanks for this. I'll be back in a few." He picked up the bag of wood shavings and headed down to the portal.
The General leaned back in his chair. "Well, it's interesting," he told himself. "But how do I report this to the President?" He shook himself. "He knows about Xander, he'll probably understand." He picked up the direct-line phone and waited for it to be answered. "Sir, a small report to be made. No, Xander has made contact with their telepathic cats." He smiled. "Yes, sir, it is very interesting. They like his ferrets so there's some common ground. I've asked for some information on the species as we don't have anything similar and they're interesting to say the least." He smiled. "Of course, sir, when would you like to go? I'll send word though. Xander should be back in an hour our time." He hung up and made a note for Xander.
Xander flopped down onto their bed and handed over the candy bars on top of the pictures. "What's this?" Oz asked, looking through the stack. "Pretty place."
"That's where Steve wants to move the house to if we have to move the house," Xander said, snuggling in.
"You're still in trouble," Oz said lightly as he unwrapped the first candy bar. "And why are you wearing different clothes?"
"I didn't start the trouble, I walked into it and I kinda sorta had an accident during it." Oz looked over at him. "What? I was unconscious at the time!" Xander said defensively.
"Xander, you start trouble by walking in."
"Do not," Xander said, looking very upset. "They were already in trouble and I just walked into it. I even started to fix the trouble when I got caught by it. Janet was possessed by this little disk thing."
"And *why* did you have to be rescued?"
"Because Janet found me fixing the trouble," Xander said sullenly. "I was being good."
"Xander, trouble is innate to you. I wonder sometimes how you lasted so long without a keeper."
Xander got up and walked out, heading out to go be alone.
"I'm sorry," Oz called after him. "Come back."
"Go to hell!" Xander yelled as he walked out and slammed the door. He headed down to the jewelry stall, knowing it was still open. He walked in and slammed the stall door, heading immediately to the forge to pound something out.
"Something wrong?" the jeweler asked. Xander nodded so he let it go. At least for a little while, until Xander started pounding out something that looked like one of his hair ornaments. "Did you break one?"
"Had a fight," Xander said between blows. "He didn't see how I had managed to stay out of trouble before he came along," he said sarcastically, hitting the metal harder. "Gee, I wasn't *in* trouble before he came along. He even knew Strife first." The hammer was taken from him. "Hey!"
"You're going to break the table anvil," the jeweler said quietly. "Was this really that serious of a fight?" Xander nodded. "Your first?"
"Second real one," Xander sighed, putting the metal in to start it heating again. "The second one in about fifteen years." He took the hammer back and started to work on the small dagger again. "He really thinks I'm a trouble magnet."
"Well, things do happen to you a lot," the jeweler said diplomatically. Xander glared at him. "Sorry."
"Yeah, well, nothing much happens to me out of the ordinary. But today, well gee today, I walked in on trouble happening." He started to strike harder again. "And I was even fixing it when I got caught by the trouble."
"What sort of trouble?"
"I don't know for sure, all I know is that they were little disks. One had possessed one of the doctors on the base and she was sticking them on everybody." He gave one final blow and put the metal in to heat some more, turning to look at his friend. "I had released everybody that I could when she caught me and put one on me. So *of course* someone had to come rescue me."
"And this made your Oz mad?"
"Apparently," Xander said shortly, blowing some air into the fire to raise the temperature. "Then he got mean and called me 'trouble incarnate." Xander took out the dagger and picked up a cutting tool, slamming it down the center of the dagger to break the metal. Then he put it in the water to cool down. "Not only was he mean, but he was snide."
"Sometimes mates say or do things which displease us," the jeweler said diplomatically. "We have to get past that to stay with them though."
"Yeah, well, Oz has some *major* groveling to do before I forgive his ass." He lifted up the two hairpins and nodded before putting them back into the fire.
"Why didn't you make them separately?"
"Because I usually end up with an uneven number that way," Xander said with a faint shrug. "The guy who taught me told me to do it this way so I wouldn't lose count."
"What are you making now?" a young female voice asked from the front of the stall. "You're not supposed to be here today. Your women weren't even ready for you, you should have given us some warning."
Xander looked over at her. "This is how I wear out my anger when I and my mate fight. Only my forge at home is bigger and I usually end up making weapons, but I figure some hair pins will do this time."
"Ooh," she said in sympathy, reaching out her arms and grabbing his sleeve so she could pull him in for a hug. "I'm sorry you fought. Was it bad?" Xander nodded. "Then where is he?"
"Probably sitting at home trying to justify himself to our animals," Xander said, returning to his sullen mood. "He told me I'm trouble incarnate and he didn't know *how* I'd managed to get along without him."
She snorted. "Easily. You had other things to worry about when you were that young." She pinched him on the chin. "Now finish up my new hairpins. I'll give them to my Aunt for her birthday."
Xander nodded, going back to shaping and decorating the gift for her. The jeweler gave her a smile.
At that moment, back at the house, Oz was hanging by his throat. He never realized how tall Strife really was until he'd been picked up and held off the ground.
"Nevah, *nevah* hurt Xander like that again," he warned the immortal. "Xander is *not* trouble, *I* am! Xander may have a gift for it, but he harnesses it well enough that you don't have to deal with *real* trouble." He got a nod from his victim. "Now then, why were you bein' bitchy because Janet got possessed?"
"Um, 'scuse me," Blair said from the doorway. "Why was Janet possessed? I couldn't help but overhear the screaming from our room."
"Don't know 'xactly," Strife admitted. "Unc said it was these little disk thingies."
"Oh. Okay, I think I know what those are, Danny just ran across them in his research." He glanced around. "Where's Xander? I wanted to ask him to give a message to Jack since he won't be back for a few more days and I needed to add stuff to the shopping list."
"The forge probably," Strife said with a shrug. "That's what he does when he's pissed enough to hurt someone." He glared at Oz, who was still hanging. "And you, if I *evah* hear of you sayin' shit like that to Xander again, I'll make you sorry." He dropped the immortal onto the floor and glared down at him for a second more. "A Xander is a terrible thing to waste. Or to hurt. And when he's upset, his innate mischief genes start to take over, all aimed at *you*," he said, kicking Oz in the side. "And I won't help him either, he's a smart guy, he can make your life a livin' hell without *any* help from me." He turned to look at Blair, giving him a smile. "I'm gonna go back, wanna write it out and I'll drop it on Jack's pillow?"
"Sure, thanks," Blair said, hurrying to write out the notes. He came back a few minutes later with two folded-over pieces of paper. "The top one's for Jack."
"You're welcome," Strife said, glaring at Oz, who had wisely stayed on the floor. "I mean it, you've better grovel *real* well. I won't let Xander be hurt by you too." He disappeared, heading back through the portal.
"Ow," Oz said, rubbing his throat.
"Feel thankful it was him and not Cupid," Ares said as he appeared, pointing at the pictures. "Steve said he needed an answer and the General needs to see you two. Think you can apologize that fast?"
Oz shook his head. "No, I think this one's going to take me a damn long time to apologize," Oz said as he pushed himself up off the floor. "Oh, damn, that hurt," he said, rubbing his side. "I didn't mean it."
"Yay," Ares said, shrugging. "I don't care. Tell him that. Preferably soon. One of the warriors guarding the President kept hearing Xander's name mentioned and finally mentioned it to me. He's coming here." Oz winced. "So fix it, before *I* have to get into the middle of this." He disappeared.
"Why do they like Xander so much?" Blair asked.
"Because he's Xander. And because Jace really liked him and they all really like Jace." He twisted his head to pop his neck. "Can you hold down the fort? I'd better go spread some cheer."
"Sure." Blair watched as Oz walked out, shaking his head at the other man's back. This wasn't going to make Xander any happier. Nervous and uptight but not happy.
"You're tellin' me," Cupid said as he appeared, grinning at him. "I like you," he announced. "You're uncomplicated and normal."
Blair snickered. "I'm not, you're basing this against Xander, who's anything but normal." He winked. "But would you really have him be *normal*?"
Cupid shook his head. "Not a chance, he's too much fun. Oh, by the way, Xander is a distant relative of Strife's. Oz knew but he's never pushed it back in Xander's face before. He's a lot better than the other kids though, not nearly as much trouble as some of them. One of the top assassins is his kid, as is one of the top comedians and one of the better circus performers hangin' around in the world."
Blair nodded. "I can see the genes telling in that case. Anything I can do to help them along?"
"Yeah, become more of a buffer. Xander's missing his house again and this fight is only so bad because they're not in a normal environment. Even the animals have noticed," he said, giving a pointed look at the bed, where every animal was curled up on one side. "Xander needs a vacation from being 'on' all the time and he's not gettin' it here. Oz needs one too."
"Could Methos and Ray come back?"
"That's only a temporary measure," Cupid pointed out. "Xander really needs to go connect with his house. We found that one for him because we knew he needed a stable base." He sat down on the bed, frowning at the hardness. "Dude, this thing is like a rock."
"It's better than ours," Blair said with a smile. "Different cultural tastes."
"Yeah, I guess." Cupid stood back up. "I'd better be gettin' back. Strife's mom is looking for him and Discord is not happy at the moment." He waved and disappeared.
Blair went back to his room and thought about what he knew. Xander could cause more trouble intentionally than he did naturally, it was almost amazing to consider.
Oz walked up to the jewelry stall, holding out the plate of food he had gotten for his mate. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, leaning on the show platform. "I'm an ass and it shows sometimes. Tonight was one of those times."
Xander came over and picked up a piece of the vegetables, nibbling on it. "You'll have to do better than dinner. I'm still pissed."
"I know, but I also just got some information that I needed to tell you. Otherwise, I'd be doing this at home and waiting on you to come home so I could apologize in private." Xander nodded, still not looking impressed. "The President is coming for a meeting."
"Oh, man," Xander sighed. "What are our duties?"
"Probably to be a native tour guide," Oz said dryly. "He'll probably have a dinner in his honor. We'll have to attend and smooth things over with the diplomats. They're still not comfy the way we are."
Xander shrugged. "I'll make sure we have clean, appropriate clothes."
"I think you would consider it a great honor," the jeweler said.
"I do, but if I start thinking about it, I'll stress," Xander admitted with a wry smile. "I'm not the type of person he'd normally see in his daily life."
"Ah, I thought you might not be average among your men."
Xander shook his head. "No, none of us are *really* average. Daniel and Blair are really smart, they've got Ph.D.'s. The fact that we're gay is also unusual, but we were the best people for the job."
"We're all approaching average on some levels," Oz told him. "Some of us have things that are less than average." He looked at his husband. "Some of us are higher in other areas. That's the way we are. There's not really an average man."
Xander looked over at him. "You're still not off the hook, even with a romantic dinner."
Oz flipped up the gate and walked in, giving his husband a hug. "I'm sorry, Xander. My mouth and my mind had a momentary divorce and I didn't mean it. I know that you don't plan on getting in trouble. I have no idea why I said that, but I was really wrong and stupid to have not stopped myself." Xander nodded. "And I know I hurt you, but I really didn't mean to."
A little pink nose peeked over the top of the show platform. It was soon followed by a ferret kit and a kitten landing on the platform, and an adult cat standing up on her hind feet. //We need a collar,// the adult told the jeweler. //Good evening, giver of obnoxious cubs.//
"Good evening," Xander said, bowing to the adult cat. "Which one did you need the collar for? I make a very fine chain."
She huffed and nosed the ferret. //Nethisha has asked for her to be collared so tonight's diplomats aren't alarmed when she comes to dinner. A chain would be fine.//
"Xander, what do you want me to tell Hammond?" Oz asked. "I'll let you get back to work while I do that."
"Tell him we'd be honored to serve the President however. Oh, and give him an answer about the Canadian property."
"I like it," Oz said quietly. "Even if we don't have to move the house."
"Cool. He'll tell Steve. Oh, and he's got our next ...personas done."
"Good." Oz kissed him on the cheek. "I'll find a way to apologize better," he said quietly, leaving them alone. "And eat," he called as he walked away.
Xander picked up a piece of meat to nibble on, then reached down to measure the ferret's neck. "Should the collar be form fitted or give it room to grow?"
//Will it grow much bigger?// the kitten asked, her voice was higher. //Will it get big like Mommy?//
"No, sweetness," Xander said, scratching her under the chin. "Skip won't be growing too much more, maybe just getting a little thicker around."
//Then please make the collar to fit, Xander,// the adult said. //Nethisha said you would be the best to make it.//
"I'll do my best," Xander told her, going over to take out some of the metal his coworker had started heating for me. "Her neck's about this big," he said, measuring it out so the other jeweler could cut a string to length. He pulled some of the metal out and started to thin it out, making the first link in the chain.
Xander wiped his brow as he finished fitting the clasp to the collar, then handed it over. "There we are," he said, sitting down on the stool.
"Drink," the other jeweler ordered, going to put it on the ferret.
//Are you all right?// the kitten asked.
"I'm fine," Xander said, giving her a weak smile, "just a little tired and hot."
"Aren't you going to the dinner tonight?" the other man asked.
"We weren't invited. It's not our diplomats, it's the other ones that have come in for a real meeting." He wiped off his forehead. "I don't feel great."
"You're probably just worn out from all the work," the jeweler teased. Xander had made enough chain for three collars, he wanted the best for his former baby. "Go home, take your dinner with you, and relax for the night." He bowed to the adult cat. "Does that suit you?"
//It does,// she agreed. She looked at Xander. //Who wished you to ask for information about us?//
"The General who is over our stay here," he admitted. "He thinks you're fascinating, and the pink cub made it even more so. We have no species like you, not that are telepathic or as advanced."
The adult did something much like a snort. //I will talk with him, gauge his motives. Send him to us and have him ask for Lethshan.// She got down onto all fours and huffed at the two smaller ones. //Let us go home. There will be presents tonight.// The ferret jumped down onto her back and the cub dropped to the ground, trotting after her.
Xander hummed. "That was interesting."
"Yes, it was," the jeweler said, nudging him. "Go home and rest, you need it. I'll even tell your women that you're not coming in tomorrow."
Xander gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks." He picked up his plate and walked out, heading back to the house.
The jeweler shook his head, going to reclean up his work area. It was a high honor to serve the cats, but he was late for dinner himself.
Oz walked down the gate's ramp and smiled at the soldiers. "Hey, guys," he said, walking past them. "General in his office?"
"Yes, sir," one soldier said, looking him over. "You run into problems yet?" he sneered.
Oz stopped to look at him. "Not at all, we need to make plans to show the President around the town." He headed up to the office, tapping gently on the door. "Hey. Tell Steve we want it, we both love it, and he can take the money out of my account. Tell the President that we'd love to show him around the marketplace. Xander needs to know if he has to make a present, and I need to know where I can go to get Xander a special dinner because I messed up badly."
The General laughed. "It's never simple for you is it, son?"
"Oh, it is," Oz said as he walked in and sat down. "But my mind and my lips had a short-term divorce and I messed up badly. This is something that not even a long, romantic dinner will cure."
The General nodded. "I don't suppose flowers will do?" Oz shook his head. "I'll have Jack take you into town to get what you need." He tossed over Oz's wallet, which was kept in his desk for their shopping needs. "As for the President, he'll want a tour of the market, he'll want to try some of the food too. Have you had the chance to eat a few of the cuisines?"
"Actually, we've been steadily working through them," Oz told him, getting comfortable. "We've tried all but the five or six that we thought looked really exotic. Does he like spicy or not?"
"He's pretty well open to anything. No allergies." The General leaned back in his chair with a groan. "It shouldn't be a long visit, but he'll probably like to experience all he can."
"Is he into animals?"
"He has a farm," the General told him. "Horses and cows. He might like to see the animal section. Do try not to let one of the Marine goats eat him." Oz smiled at that. "He'll be traveling with only one guard due to security issues. We'll expect both you and Xander to be armed as his companion will be his personal assistant."
"Why not his wife?"
"Because we couldn't get her cleared. She'll be coming on the next trip, if there is one." He tossed over a folder. "That's a profile of what *not* to show him."
Oz picked it up and read it, nodding throughout. "I can do that. I'll let Xander do the tour part and I'll continue to smooth over things with the diplomats." He tossed it back onto the desk. "One of them has got to go, General. He's an ass, and he's been making snide comments about some of the cultural items." General Hammond nodded. "He's really got to be kicked in the ass."
"I'll send for them to come back for a small intelligence conference before the President goes there. Which one is it?"
"Ours. The American male diplomat, or as we're calling him future food for the goats, walked up to the Queen's first wife and made snide comments about the food they were eating, how it was primitive." The General winced. "She was very nice about it, but passed word back that she would like him castrated and hung outside as an abject lesson for the other men in the diplomatic party. It seems," he coughed, "they've been thinking that the planet is all about sex and the locals aren't liking it too much. We're making a better impression than they are."
"I'll have a word with them," the General said quietly. "They'll be reprimanded and Mathers will be removed." He wrote something on his desk calendar. "I'll send a message over with Jack to have them reappear ASAP." He looked up. "Any idea how you're going to kiss and make up?"
"Um, Godiva, a steak, a good bottle of wine, and maybe some serious pampering. He deserves it anyway, he's been working very hard."
"What about those stories?"
"We sent one back with Jack, who's sending it onto Xander's editor directly. We should be hearing something back soon." That got a smile. "Actually, he's probably got another one ready but you'd have to ask him. I know he's said he's got a few things finished, but I'm not sure if it's the stuff he's supposed to be doing or not."
"Yes, I heard about the porn from Sam." He studied the young man, who didn't look fazed. "Is that normal?"
"Xander started out writing porn and got frustrated because it all seemed the same to him. We consider it a good sign. She didn't seem to mind."
"Oh, she didn't, she passed it on to the doctors. Where it went into one of the other teams. Where it got confiscated by one of the Colonels because his man wasn't paying attention to him." He gave Oz a steady stare. "Tell him to keep it over there, son, it's not good for morale." Oz nodded. "Good. Let me send someone to get Jack up and we'll let you go out and find spoiling stuff for him. Do you have your ID?"
Oz patted himself down then shook his head, rolling his eyes. "I forgot it on our dresser. Do I have time to get it?"
General Hammond looked at his clock. "It's six, you might already be too late for some shops."
"Yes, but money can cure a little bit late," Oz said as he stood up. "Jack should have his, right?"
"He should." The General pushed a button on his phone. "Someone please get up Colonel O'Neil. He needs to go into town." He hung up and looked at Oz. "Any other problems? Any side effects from Xander's earlier exposure to the technology?"
"Should there be? We fought right after he got home."
The General shrugged. "The nice woman, Grethan, said he might be craving sweets and he might have a headache."
"The Goddess of Grief came to help Xander?" Oz asked, looking a little awed.
"She's Lissa's mother."
Oz groaned and slumped a little. "I'll need to go make an offering at her temple in thanks. Maybe she'd like some chocolates too." He sat up as the door opened. "Hey, Jack. I've got to run into town, you're driving."
"Sure," Jack said, grabbing the list the General held out. "Does this have Blair's new items?" He got a nod. "All right, let's go." He led the way out.
"You have your ID, right?" Oz asked quietly. "I forgot mine at home."
Jack patted him on the back. "Blair told me about the fight. Where did you need to go?"
"Good chocolates, decent wine, and maybe a few good steaks. And anywhere else that might have good presents to make up for my stupidity."
"I know just the place," Jack said cheerfully. "Got your wallet?"
"Yeah." Oz followed him up to the surface, heading out to get something to make it up to Xander.
Oz dragged his bags through the doorway. "Come get your crap," he called, dropping most of it by the door, bringing his and Xander's things up to their room, the special treats carefully nestled in his arms. "Hey," he said as he walked in. "Can I start the makeup process?" Xander nodded listlessly. "Headache?" he asked as he sat beside his husband on the bed. "I brought you Godiva, the ones you like. And a present for Grethan."
"He told you?"
"He told me after he asked about you." He stroked over the soft but firm stomach. "I also brought you a real dinner and good stuff for later." He handed over the large package and went to put the rest of their things up, coming back once he saw Xander sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on a caramel. "Are they okay? No one's ever tested how the really good food comes across the portal." He slid onto the bed, pulling Xander to sit against him, opening the box with the steak dinners. "May I feed you?"
"Please," Xander said quietly, accepting the first bite. "It's still warm."
"We got it last," Oz said, kissing him on the head. "I know I've been craving steak so I figured you might be too."
Xander nodded, giving his husband a smile. "Not even Godiva and a good steak will get you out of trouble."
"But it's just a start," Oz told him, kissing him again then feeding him another piece. "I stopped in at a special store that Jack took me to to get you more presents, but those have to wait until you've eaten."
"Aren't you eating with me?"
"I'll nibble while you eat," Oz agreed, picking up a piece of steak to eat before feeding one to his husband. "How did the collar making go?"
"I made the best one I could, so there's some extra chain lying around." Xander flipped onto his side, rescuing the glass before it could tip into the chocolates, and put his head on Oz's chest. "The mommy was pleased and she wants to talk to the General when he comes up. I'll introduce them."
"Good. He'll probably be up in the next few days, before the Prez comes up. Oh, I told him to tell Steve to buy the land. I also reported the problems with the diplomats."
Jack stuck his head in. "I heard Hammond's name mentioned. Oh, and there's a kitten downstairs."
"The General said we couldn't bring any porn back over there, you might want to tell Sam, she's been spreading it around," Oz told him.
"We have porn?" Jack asked. "As in real porn? Not those 'arousing' stories you showed me?"
"Some," Xander admitted with a small smile. "I'll tell Sam she can't spread it around." He rubbed down Oz's thigh. "What was this store?"
"It's a surprise for later," Oz said, tapping him on the nose. "No fair asking him to spoil it." He fed Xander another piece of steak.
"Tell the General that I've gotten him an introduction with one of the cats. She's willing to speak with him to see what his intentions are."
Jack looked impressed as he leaned against the doorway. "Good. I'm sure he'll be happy. He finds them really fascinating."
"I told him about the pink cub," Xander told him, smiling. He stole the bite from Oz's fingers. "So, the next time he comes up, he needs to come and see me so we can go talk to the cats. Lethshan is one of the lead cats."
Jack nodded. "All right, I'll tell him. When is the President due?"
"No firm date yet, but we'll be showing him through the marketplace." Oz stole a piece of broccoli to eat. "I also talked to him about the other diplomats." Jack nodded. "You're going back?"
"I've still got some stuff I've got to do in training the new team. Need anything else?"
"We've got everything." Xander looked up and mouthed something, and Oz slapped himself on the head. "We need lube."
"Use the oil," Daniel said from behind Jack, sticking his head in. "Where did you guys get steak?"
"I had to get something to make up for my stupidity."
"Oh." Daniel looked at Jack. "Get us a steak before you come back? We'll wait for a few days."
"Sure," Jack said, patting Daniel on the shoulder. "Just the one for you?"
"No, one for me too!" Blair called. "I'll beg if I have to."
"No need," Jack called back. "It'll be a few days local time though."
"Hey, I'm a patient man, dreaming about it will make me stronger," Blair called, then his door slammed.
"That one oil, the light green stuff, is very good for lube," Daniel shared, then he went to go check on his lover.
Jack shook his head. "I didn't want to know that much. Anything else?"
"More wine?" Xander suggested. "And more chocolates, I need some more."
Jack sighed. "All right. Oz, wallet?"
"I left it in your locker with your extra jacket," Oz told him, eating another piece of broccoli. Xander pulled his fingers down and ate the rest of the stalk. "Sorry." He picked up a piece of broccoli and fed it to his mate. "I could use some munchies too."
"Oh, yeah, Doritos," Xander said happily. "And Cheetos, I've *got* to have some Cheetos."
"I'll see if I can sneak some across," Jack sighed. "Anything else?"
"Tell Steve that I want to see him soon," Xander told him.
"Send up the kitten," Oz told him.
"Sure." He left them alone.
Oz looked at the doorway as he heard quiet steps on the stairs. "Hello," he said as the kitten walked in. "We're sorry we made you come up here, but we're making up after a fight."
"You're telling everyone?" Xander asked. Oz nodded. He smiled. "Okay." He looked down at the kitten. "How can we help you, pretty one?"
//May I play with your ferrets? I'm bored.//
"Sure. They're downstairs in the big room that I use to practice, on the first floor. Should we call Nethisha to tell her you're here?"
The kitten sat down and stared at them, then sneezed. //No, she knows. I'm going to go play.// She stood up and trotted out.
Oz picked up the communication device beside the bed and rang their sponsor, who answered but was putting on some earrings. "We just got a little furry visitor," he said. "She said you guys knew but I thought I'd make sure."
The First Wife shook her head quickly and looked behind her. "Lethshan, did one of your cubs leave the palace?" She got an answer and smiled. "It's one of our orphan cubs. Did it come to play with the ferrets?" Oz nodded. "All right, we'll come get her later. Please tell her not to come home alone as there's been trouble lately in the market." She hung up.
Oz gently put Xander down and went down to talk to the kitten. He came back a minute later. "She told one of the guards but not anyone else. She's agreed to stay until someone comes to get her." He slid back into the bed, stealing a piece of chocolate to eat. "Still hungry?" he asked, picking up a piece of steak for his husband to eat.
"Yeah, I kinda am," Xander admitted, then he sucked the piece off his husband's fingers. "What is the surprise?"
"If you're ready, we'll move to that now." Xander looked up at him. "Really. I can always put your steak aside for later." His husband nodded so he closed the container over the steak dinner and put it aside. If no one else ate it, he'd eat it for breakfast. Then he grabbed the extra bag from beside the desk. He pulled out the candles inside, the special oil, and the powder. "Let me go get a washpan and cloth and I'll be right back," he whispered, heading down to Sam's room. He remembered to knock first, and she grunted. "I need the pan and a cloth."
"That's cool," she said, waving at the bathroom. "Anything from the General?"
"No more spreading porn," she frowned at that. "And the President is coming."
"Oh," she said, looking surprised. "Already?"
"Yup, already." He walked in and ran some water into the small copper pan she had brought across. "Thanks." He carried back to his room, putting it beside the bed. "You ready?" Xander smiled sleepily. "If you want, I can wait."
"I can't," Xander told him. "I do have a headache, this'll make me feel better." He put his head down and relaxed as Oz climbed onto his back. He made his purring noise as the powder was poured onto his back. "What is that?"
"Corn silk powder. It's supposed to feel really good." He rubbed it in little circles, working it into Xander's skin slowly, wanting this to be good for his mate. They needed this. They really could use a vacation, but he would take this. "What did you want to do with the new land?"
"I want to build a wonderful house that makes me feel like the one in Sunnydale does," Xander said quietly, his eyes closed. "I felt really great when I was looking at it. I want to go look at it soon."
"We'll try," Oz agreed, relaxing. "Maybe have a few days at home?"
"I'd love that," Xander admitted. "I would *love* a day at home." He opened his eyes and turned his head, smiling at his lover. "Do you think we could arrange that?"
"I think so, I'll try my best," Oz told him, leaning down for a kiss. "Is the powder good?"
"I'd like it a lot better if it was on my neck," Xander suggested.
"Let me wash this off the both of us and I'll give you a scalp massage," Oz said, reaching for the washcloth he'd brought in with the water. He rang it out then started to slowly wipe the soft skin clean. He heard a moan and smiled. "Want more of this?"
"I'd love a hot soak," Xander said quietly.
"We did find the individual tubs downstairs. We could go share one."
Xander shook his head. "I don't want to move."
//Xander?// a small telepathic voice.
"Yes?" Xander asked, looking at the door. "What's wrong, little one?"
//They're all napping.// She padded in and jumped up onto the bed so she could look at them. //I'm bored.//
"What can we do to help with that?" Oz asked, reaching over to scratch her behind the ears. She sent him a mental purr. "Like that?" She leaned into his hands. "What else can I do to make you unbored?" he asked, giving her a smile.
//Just do that,// she told him, leaning into her petting. //I wish I had someone to do this all the time. The others have mommies but mine died.//
"I'm sorry," Xander said, reaching out to pet her too. "Maybe you could ask the other mommy cats, or a grandmommy cat, to pet you."
//But they all have cubs.//
"Then what's one more that needs attention?" Oz suggested. "It wouldn't hurt to ask."
"I tell you what," Xander said, pulling her over for a hug. "I'm going to be bringing someone over to see Lethshan in a few days. Should I ask her to look out for you?"
//No. She's *very* busy and can't be bothered with us cubs.// She looked over at Oz. //Can I come back often for more petting?//
"Anytime," Oz told her, stealing her back to pet her some more. He smiled at Xander. "I'll pet you in a few minutes."
//I didn't mean to interrupt,// she said, starting to struggle.
"You're not," Xander soothed, running a hand down her back. "You're not interrupting anything. Oz can always pet me later." She relaxed. "Would you like to play with some of our kittens' toys? I know we've got a few up here somewhere."
She got free and searched the other side of the bed, coming back with a few fuzzy mice and a jingly ball. //What do you do with these?// she asked, after dropping them in front of Oz.
"Well, most of the cats bat the mice," Xander told her, picking one up and teasing her with it. He laughed as she batted at it, stealing it away to bat across the bed. He laughed. "See, you know what to do with those."
Someone cleared their throat from the doorway and Sam walked in. "What's up? I heard one of the cubs was here." She waved at the little cat. "Hello, pretty one, what's your name?"
//Sacryn. My mommy named me.//
"It's a very pretty name," Sam replied, reaching out to pet her. "May I? You look like you have very soft fur." Her fingers were sniffed and licked so she sat down to pet the little cub. "You do have soft fur," she said, pulling the cat into her lap to stroke over it's back and play with it's ears. "Are the ferrets all napping?" The kitten looked up at her. "They seem to do a lot of that recently. Maybe the daddies should get a vet to look at them."
"There's none up here that can," Oz told her. "We talked to some of their vets and they didn't want to hazard a guess without some reference works."
"We can ask the General," she suggested. "I know the Army has vets because they still have a horse cavalry unit."
"We already did," Xander told her. "No luck. Short of breaking security and bringing a vet...."
"We'll have to bring one up sometime for the education stuff," Oz reminded him.
"Yeah, but that isn't for at least a year," Sam sighed, switching her petting to a scratching. The kitten stretched out and let her pet it all she wanted. "Maybe we can get one here without telling them where they are," she suggested. "It might work."
"Bringing them blindfolded through the mountain and across the portal will probably make them wonder," Xander said dryly. "We could send them back for a moment and let someone there do the vet visit."
Oz shook his head. "No. I don't think that'd work real well. The vet would ask about things like diet. Maybe it's the stuff we're feeding them. We did switch them off ferret chow almost as soon as we got up here, they might need some vitamins."
"They do have veterinarians who specialize in strange and unusual animals."
"But they'd have to dissect them," Xander said quietly.
"Babe, they use a scanner, like on Star Trek, they wouldn't have to dissect anyone." He stroked down the side of Xander's face. "We can ask and be there to make sure if you'd like, but I do think that it's time for them to get a checkup." He gave him a deep kiss. "Can I ask?"
"Sure," Xander sighed, leaning into his mate's touch.
//Those two groom each other a lot,// the kitten snickered.
The couple looked over at her, both shaking their heads but smiling. "Not really, Sacryn. I've groomed him more before but Sam wouldn't want to watch us do that."
The kitten huffed and then stood up and jumped off the bed, heading over to look out the door. //Someone's here.//
"We're up here," Sam called.
The kitten scampered back as Daniel walked up and to the doorway. "Hey." He looked at the cat. "Did we adopt another one?"
"This is one of the Queen's cats, she came over to play with the ferrets but they're all napping," Xander explained. "Her name's Sacryn."
"Like the sweetener?"
"Well, she is very sweet," Sam said with a smile. "Can he pet you?" she asked the black purring lump in her lap.
//Men aren't like that,// the cub told her, looking over at Daniel.
"He's Dessie's daddy," Oz pointed out.
//Oh, okay then.// She stretched her neck up. //You may pet me.//
Daniel walked over and let her sniff his hand, then gently scratched her behind his ears.
"Aren't you allergic to cats?" Xander asked.
"But not to them for some reason," Daniel said with a smile. "I was supposed to tell you two that Steve will be on base in two days, local time."
"Our local time?" Oz asked. "The General doesn't usually give us our local time."
"He did this time. He knows that we're starting to become acclimated." His smile got brighter. "And, and," he said, holding up a finger, "we are getting a vacation right after the President tours. One week at home."
Oz and Xander smiled at each other. "Good," Oz said, nodding. "We could use some time at home."
Xander nodded. "I'd really like some time at home. And maybe going up to Canada and picking out the spot for the house?"
Oz nodded. "Sounds good to me." He reached over and gave Sacryn a long stroke down the back. "What else would you like to do?" he asked her. She just sent him more mental purrs, apparently very comfortable right where she was.
Xander bounced into Steve, giving him a hug. "Hey. So, how is it?"
"It's going well," he said, settling the younger man into a seat next to him. "What did you want to do with the houses? There's a new tax coming up and your rate's going to be going up by a very high percentage."
"Is that because of what we have?" Oz asked as he walked in and sat down.
"It is, but Sunnydale's also raised their taxes recently, there's been a business come in and it's sending people running from the town."
"Any way around it?" Steve shook his head. "Then I guess we'll have to deal. What about the house in Canada?"
"It's just a log cabin." Oz looked confused. "There was a small house found on the land, it's a small log cabin, one of those one-room ones. We did a thorough check and no one's ever owned the land so we're guessing it used to belong to a hunter. It's in such bad repair that obviously no one's used it in forever. I did have Ray dream up his dream house to put up there," he said as he pulled some papers out of his pocket and put them on the table.
"It looks like his condo in Vancouver," Oz said, looking down at the plans. He looked up. "We both love the house in Sunnydale. Any chance of getting something like that?"
"There is actually," Steve said with a smile, pulling out a brochure. "This is a very old building but they've just lost the lot to taxes. They're looking for a buyer who will be willing to love it wherever they move it."
Xander looked at the small house, smiling at the simplicity of the design. "I like this but it's not big enough just for us and the animals."
"Ah, then there is another option," Steve said, pulling out another brochure. "I'd like your permission to move that first house anyway, it's a beautiful old building and deserves to be preserved."
"Sure, go for it, where to?" Oz asked.
"You do have over a hundred acres in Canada. You could use it as a guest house if you wanted."
"Point," Oz agreed, leaning over to look at the pamphlet his husband was salivating over. "What's that?"
"It's a rich people auction." He put it down to let the other two look at it. "It's got a few houses in it, furnished even."
Oz took it to look over. "Hmm. Rappers who spent too much and went broke once their string of luck ran out?"
"Some, some are tax seizures. Some are even from the ungrateful offspring who don't like parents taste in houses." He leaned back. "There's a few in there that I would love to own. And one that I would love to redecorate and resell because what they did to the gracious old mansion is nearly criminal."
"Pictures?" Xander asked. Steve pulled out an envelope and tossed it onto the table. "Only the good ones?"
"All of them, with a note about Ray's feelings on the houses." Steve looked around the meeting room. "How's things with the animals? Ray wanted to know."
"The ferrets need a checkup, they're getting lethargic," Oz told him. "Fortunately, I have found a vet that is willing to look at them for us, but she'd like some references about diet and the like."
"Your ferret care book be good enough?"
"It might be," Xander agreed absently, sorting through the houses. He smiled at the one comment that simply said, 'ICK', passing that one to Oz.
"That was the one I wanted to redecorate," Steve said dryly. "Ray and I both wanted to tear off some of that tacky and gaudy crap so it could be fixed." He caught one of the pictures Xander tossed down. "We both loved this house though. The outside has nothing on the inside."
Oz took that stack to look it over, holding up the picture of the full wall of glass windows. "Do you miss these sort of windows?" he asked Xander.
Xander looked over and shook his head. "I hated cleaning them." He looked over at Steve. "Speaking of cleaning. How's Henri and D'Nalia?"
"They're in Florida. Both are fine. Henri has all but decided to retire soon, she's waiting until you guys get back though. It seems she's getting paid for some minor dusting and playing with the boys so she's really happy," he said with a smile. Xander grinned. "The boys are both fine, getting very tall now. They're seven in a few more days."
"Did we remember to get them a present?" Oz asked his mate.
"I got a few and put them away the last time I had the chance to go shopping," Xander said, stopping at one picture. He opened the comment letter, then shook his head. "Too small."
"Let me see." Oz looked at the pictures, then shook his head too. "A two bedroom house, Steve?"
"Sorry, that's mine," he said, snatching them back. "Ray must have gotten them mixed up. Are there *any* there that you like?"
"There are a few that I like the looks of," Xander admitted, sorting them out into piles. "These," he said, touching the left pile, "are ones I'd like to walk through. All my favorite houses have given me tingles." He leaned back and looked at his friend. "Any of them feel like the Sunnydale house to you?"
"Just that first one I showed you," Steve sighed. "You know you're impossible right?" Xander nodded. "I understand it and all, but big mansions aren't really on the market right now. Everyone that wants one has one and the rest are smaller houses."
"We could do one with about eight bedrooms, that'd be enough room to convert some of the rooms," Oz suggested, taking Xander's hand to hold.
"We could," Xander agreed, but he wasn't happy. "I know that there's a perfect house out there for that property."
"There is," Steve agreed. "I could try looking overseas."
Oz shook his head. "That's like rape to me. I'd like to see the old gems stay in their old country as a visible history."
"The house in Sunnydale was moved over from Ireland," Steve pointed out.
"We know," Xander told him. He looked at his husband. "What about one that would be torn down otherwise?"
"Where?" Oz asked carefully.
"That small one we saw on the drive up to your buddy's our first trip to England."
"Xander, that's another tiny house."
"No it wasn't," he argued. "I looked it up, it's on the endangered list. It's got a full library, a large living room, and five bedrooms, plus assorted living and drawing rooms downstairs."
"If we could find something like that, then yeah," Oz agreed. "Otherwise we'll have to build."
"I wouldn't mind that," Xander admitted. "But there's a few things in the old house that I'd like to fix. Like the way the kitchen's set up irritates me."
"I can find you guys a building program," Steve suggested.
"Bring that one house up there if you really think it'll fit," Oz told him. "If not, ask Methos, he has some lands somewhere."
"Was that first one a transplant too?" Xander asked.
Steve nodded. "From England. It started out as a small rectory house and got expanded into a foundation for the study of the paranormal."
"Giles," they said together.
"He was most pissed with them," Steve told them dryly. "He called them amateurs and cheap imitators."
"Yay," Oz sighed. "We could always move them to Sunnydale."
Steve shook his head while Xander snickered. "No, you don't want to move anything to Sunnydale right now. That new business is wrecking some things. Sunnydale is not what it used to be."
"How long have they been there?" Oz asked.
"About a month and a half. The State ignoring the town has really come back to bite them on the ass this time. Even the people who didn't want them there suddenly changed their minds. Now they're all sorry."
"Is it that bad?" Oz asked.
"It is," Steve told him solemnly. "Unfortunately, I'd really like to move the Sunnydale house just to get it away from there." He shrugged. "We'll figure out a way to fix it."
"Sunnydale has a way of biting things it doesn't like on the ass," Xander said wisely. "If it's hurting the town, it'll fix itself. It fixed a few buildings before, every time they started to build it fell down. This will be fixed soon enough too."
"If you say so," Steve said. "So, what about that first house? It'll have to be moved."
"I'm not sure. Where is it?"
"St. Louis. Ray wanted to move it to Chicago. He said plenty of strange crap happened up there." He stood up. "There is one other thing," he said, pulling a note out of his back pocket. "Micah insisted you see this, Xander." He handed it over. "It's in demon."
"Wow," Xander said, smiling at Oz. "There's a new hellmouth on the west coast. In Cascade."
"What?" Steve asked, snatching the note. "What says that?"
Xander took it back and went word by word. "This will interest some of you," he said, skipping around in the sentence to put it into English order. "There has been a new hellmouth, actually the literal word is portal to hell, that has opened. I know you know people from there and thought this information might better come from you. The new hellmouth is in Cascade, Washington. It's very small and not very active," he said, going on. "It's not called anything major to it but the newest girl is there now. She's very mouthy but an idiot and we're looking forward to meeting her next incarnation." He shook his head. "I wonder if he means that literally."
"Which? That the new girl is stupid, which we've seen, or that he's looking forward to her next incarnation?"
"That the new girl is sleeping with a member of the T'dranth line." Oz looked clueless. "Blue, eight feet tall, has slime sacs under it's three sets of arms, smells worse than the garbage dump."
"Eww," Oz noted.
"My feelings too." Xander looked at the note. "It says here that they haven't had a large influx of vampires yet, but they're not really expecting any. Micah said that the weather wasn't going to make them very happy. They don't like rainy cold places apparently."
"Yet a lot of them live in London," Oz pointed out.
"Most of them moved from London if possible," Xander told him. "Back in the day, every vampire that could beg or steal the money moved away." He looked at Steve. "It could be worse, it's not half as bad as Sunnydale's is at the moment."
Steve shook his head. "I didn't want to know that." He sat down again. "What should I do with the Canada property?"
"Leave it for now," Oz said. "I want to go up and look at it before we make a decision on a house."
"Set up that one house as a safe house if you want to," Xander suggested. "Or turn it into housing for college students."
"The books come with it," Steve noted.
"Then put it near a college that has a parapsychology degree and let that department know that we'd be open to taking renters," Oz told him. "It's only fair and it'd pay for itself."
"Plus the reference works. But please have Richard go through them to make sure nothing in there will hurt an innocent student."
"But if someone else *really* wants the house, let them have it," Oz added. "I figure that places like that draw others like us to them." He released Xander's hand as the door started to open. "Hey, Blair. Got news on Cascade from Micah."
"Which means it won't be good," Daniel teased as he walked in.
"There's a new Hellmouth in Cascade, but a minor one," Steve told Blair.
Blair sat down and stared at him. "Really?" Steve nodded. "With all the strange crap and our level of homicidal maniacs I would have thought we already had one." Steve shook his head. "Shoot, that blew my theory." He snapped his fingers. "Any other news from home?"
"Darryl graduated college in December, he's going to Rainier for his Masters too. He's doing Social Work."
Blair nodded. "He'd be a fair one. Much better than some I've seen." He looked over at Oz. "How about the new house?"
"We want to look at the property first," Oz told him. He nodded at Jack as he wandered in. "How's the new group going?"
"They're green, they're arrogant, and more than ready for a fight. Teal'c and I have nearly broken them in but only a real-life emergency will finish it off. Their first mission will either kill half of them or they'll come through and settle into their positions." He took a seat near Daniel.
"Why did you get that assignment anyway?"
"Easy, I'm moving up in the ranks again," Jack said dryly. Daniel's face fell. "It would have to happen sometime, Danny. Most of us are getting old and shouldn't be the field all the time anymore. Sam's going to be moved up too, being put over the Sunnydale base, which I'm very glad I'm not going to have to deal with."
She shook her head. "I don't want it."
"Hammond's going to be retiring soon," Daniel guessed. Jack nodded. "What about the rest of us?"
"You and Blair are still going to be able to go into the field, but I was going to move you both to the 'lets be friends' team. Teal'c has recently been named an ambassador to his people in the resistance."
"We're all moving up?" Blair asked.
"Yeah, I know better than to separate you two. You work better together, back each other up very well." He stood, as did the other military members, as General Hammond walked in. "Sir. We were just talking about future hypotheticals."
"I know. I heard." He smiled at his team. "How is it going?"
"Just fine," Oz told him. "We forewarned Queen Nethisha that our President would want to come up and take a tour and talk to her. She was pleased." He looked up as the portal opened. "We're all here," he noted.
"Sir, you'd better come down here," a panicked voice called over the loudspeaker. Then it coughed and calmed down. "General Hammond to the Portal Room, ASAP."
General Hammond got up and headed down, followed by Jack. They came back a few minutes later and Jack was carrying a familiar young kitten, giving it ear scratches.
"Sacryn," Xander said, jumping up to get her. "Why are you here, sweetness?" He sat down, letting her rest on the table so she could be petted by Oz too.
//I was bored,// she sent. //So I got to bring the message.//
"What message?" Xander asked.
"Can she broadcast to all of us?" General Hammond asked, his eyes glued to her face. "You are very beautiful, little one."
She mentally purred to them all. //I'm supposed to tell you that the veterinarian has come over and she needs a reference book but she did say it was probably dietary. And the Queen would like to see the General this week, your time.// Her purring got louder. //Oh, and I'm supposed to ask the Xander if he would be so kind as to move his dance up by one day because another diplomat is coming and they'd like to see it too.// Her purring took on an air of smugness.
"I can do that," Xander agreed. "General, want to come with us when we go back?"
"Yes, I think I would. I still haven't seen all the diplomats so I should probably go fetch them directly." He smiled at the cat, holding out his hand for her to sniff. "May I pet you also?" She wiggled down the table, putting her head into his range. "You're very soft."
"They all are," Oz told him. He looked at Steve. "Can you get us a book?" He got a nod. "Thanks. And these," he said, passing over a list.
"Oh, and more chocolates," Xander said with a smile. "They have something similar but one of the candy makers wants to compare the two, so pure chocolate and good treats for us please."
Steve laughed. "Sure. Anything else for anybody?"
"I need some silk threads," Xander said, looking at Oz. "For the new outfit."
"I could use some of the natural silk to compare with the weaver I'm working with. They're starting to get very interested in our things and how we make and use them."
The General nodded. "All right. Xander, did you need anything from home?"
Xander sighed. "I've been wanting a few of my stones. They would look *perfect* one some of the newest metal I'm being taught to work in. It's pitch black, has the same consistency as platinum, and is purely for decoration purposes."
Oz patted him on the hand. "I'm sure we can find something else."
"No, it would be good to have a few backups, just in case we need a quick money exchange," Sam pointed out, pushing some of her hair back behind her ear. "It's not like we carry iron bars. Jewels are pretty universally exchangeable."
Oz shrugged. "That's a good reason." He looked at Xander. "Which one were you thinking of?"
"I have a killer piece of obsidian that I'd like to plant in that new metal. And I want a few diamonds. My women are very interested in them, they've even pulled off my ring to look at it."
Daniel snorted. "Did you have to fight to get it back?"
Xander frowned at him. "Why would I need to fight my groupies, Danny? They're all interested in having me make their promissory rings. That and chains."
The General shook his hands then went back to petting the little darling. "How many do you have now?"
"I've lost a few when their families objected to how much jewelry they were buying," Xander said with a grin. "They'll be back once they're not grounded. They're all young, of marriageable age, and all very good at teasing Oz about stealing me."
"A few aren't teasing," Oz told him. "A few would snatch you if they could get away with it." He looked down the table. "When is the Prez coming?"
"Three more days, your time." Oz nodded. "He does want a tour of the market, so that'll be your job, Xander and Oz. Daniel, you and Blair be ready to step in and help him understand any local customs. Sam, you and Jack are going to be working as ambassadors. Which there will be a few less of once I get up there today." He smiled at Sacryn. "Little one, I'm sorry my hands are giving out."
She lifted her head. //I know, but that's okay. Can I nap here?//
"Sure," Xander told her. He looked around. "We wouldn't be saying anything that she shouldn't repeat, right?"
Jack shook his head. "Not at all. We'll be announcing the President's schedule. Did you want us to spread the news that he's coming, sir?"
"Please," the General said, still smiling. "Were there any questions?"
"Sir," Sam asked, "I've been asked if I wanted to learn their form of math. I want to, but I thought I should ask first."
He nodded. "Feel free. Part of the reason we're there is to learn from them. Having them offer is a very good sign." He looked at Xander and Oz. "Have you two been offered any educational opportunities?"
"Nope," Xander said, shaking his head. "I've been offered to take lessons with the pros but that's probably not what you want or what the government wants to hear about."
"That would be true," General Hammond said dryly. "Jack?"
"Sir, it's widely known that I still have trouble with the language. I'm looked at very favorably for trying so hard."
"All right then. Doctor Jackson? Doctor Sandburg?"
"We're both in very well with the Social Science department at Park School, one of the major schools, but they don't make a distinction between the fields. We're working with a group of eight and ten-year-olds, who are about at our level as Ph.D.'s," Blair reported. "Their first year of school is like our freshman year of college. They suck up knowledge like *nothing* we've ever seen."
"That's true," Sam agreed. "I'm working with a four year old prodigy, but it's not that extraordinary as his father's into computers." She looked a little unhappy. "I've been allowed to check out their school program. It's all on computer and individually paced with an artificial intelligence running the main classes but teachers checking over its shoulder. The kids start officially when they're eight, but before then they spend time absorbing knowledge like there's nothing else in the world. They even go on a wander period when they're younger, during which they figure out where they fit into the world."
"They're genetic relatives of the cats like Sacryn, and it's not that far down the line as there's still animal characteristics in their lives," Daniel told him. "They're fully walking within a few hours of birth, and able to talk semi-intelligently by the time they're six months old. They go on 'wander', and that is what they call it, when they're around two. During that time, most children keep asking the question 'what do you do'. This is how they learn the roles of society."
"And this is acceptable to all of you?"
Oz chuckled. "I had one come up and ask me, and a guard came running to explain it to me when I was shocked that the little girl was alone. Together we explained what I do to her. She thanked me politely and wandered on, the guard trailing her."
Blair nodded. "I've met a few. They like to come into the library because the women who run it keep snacks for them. There's a tradition that no one can interfere with a wander, but everyone is expected to help. Even if they're caught in the middle of a war zone, all the Queen has to do is make a formal request to the Empress and they'll be getting that child back and it had better be unharmed or the offending party will rue their very lives."
Xander smiled. "I had one come up and ask me, he was very thrilled when I let him hold a warm chain. The jeweler I work with pulled him aside and asked him if he would like to learn from him. The kid's been in a few different times."
"And this is how they decide what they're going to do?" General Hammond asked. Everyone nodded. "I see. I'll make a note of that in my report so that we won't interfere with one of them." He looked around the table again. "Anything else of note?"
"I think I'd like to take the President around with Oz playing guard," Xander told him. "Oz spends some time working with specific groups, but so do I, so we should do that together and switch off. Do I need to make a present if Nethisha doesn't have one?"
"No, I think she'll have one," the General said with a smile. "Anything else?" No one said anything. "Then Mr. Ellison will go and fill the shopping list."
"I need more litter," Xander told him. "Splitting ours with the Queen and one of the guards has taken nearly all of ours. Get three or four bags this time and we'll give each ferret one." He stood up. "I dance in a few days so I'll be working downstairs." Jack grunted at that. "I won't make you watch me do a final run through this time," he teased. He and Oz walked out, after getting a hug and promising to be back in a day, earth time.
General Hammond picked up Sacryn and followed everyone back to the portal, walking through with them. He smiled at the guard on the other side. "She fell asleep after giving us a message," he explained at the dirty look. "We're taking her back to the palace." The guard let them pass and most of them went home, all except Oz and Xander. They walked up to the palace's gate and stopped. "She had a message that said I needed to come," the General announced.
"Sacryn," the guard sighed, reaching over to pet her. "She's napping?"
"She fell asleep after being petted," Xander explained. "Lethshan said to introduce him to her also."
"Lethshan and most of the other cats are in the garden. The Queen and First Wife should be nearby," the guard said, pointing the way. "Just walk toward the throne room and walk past it. Ask if you get lost." She let them pass.
Oz stopped to talk to her. "Where's our diplomats? He's here to beat them severely."
She nodded. "Thank you. They're all down in their house, under arrest now. One of them propositioned a woman and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. A guard had to come break them up."
"The German guy?"
"No, the American one," she told him.
"I thought Mathers was gone."
"Oh." Oz nodded. "I'll tell him. I'm going to follow them." He jogged to catch up, nodding to the women he passed. "The diplomats are under house arrest," he announced as he caught up to them. "Florence wouldn't quit hitting on a local woman and a guard had to step in."
The General groaned. "I'm going to beat them all," he promised.
"Hopefully not the cat," a little voice said from a side hall.
Xander smiled at the little boy standing there. "No, not the cats. Our diplomats. He's here to make them all behave or he's going to make them go home and send decent people. Is your mommy in the garden?"
He smiled. "Ris is in the kitchen tasting food. Mommy mommy is in the garden with the kittens." He went up on tiptoe to look at the cat the old man was carrying. "Hi, Sacryn. Would you like to play?"
//Sleepy,// she sent him. //Later.//
He laughed. "Okay. I have Skip and Dorthensan."
"What does that name mean?" the General asked.
"It means 'bringer of more trouble than even six kittens'," Queen Nethisha said as she walked up to them. "I see someone did make it through," she said, scratching the back of her kitten's head.
General Hammond looked at her. "I'm bringing them home and I'm going to get new ones, ones who will understand the importance of their job," he promised. "I'll find a way to punish them at home, even if I have to have them put in jail without a trial and lose the paperwork."
She nodded. "I will want a report of what was done to them."
"At the least, they'll lose their jobs with the State Department," Xander told her, looking serious. "They won't put up with this. They'll send someone higher this time, someone with more experience, to make up for the others' bad behavior."
She smiled. "Good. I like that." She waved a hand. "Shall we?" She looked at Xander. "You also as Lethshan wanted you to introduce them." She smiled at Oz. "When is your leader coming?"
"Three days, local time," Oz told her, taking her arm to walk with her. "We plan on bringing him to our house and briefing him on his schedule. Then we'll take a long tour of the market so you can handle your household for the morning and get everything ready, that way no one has to get too upset and lose things." She laughed at that. "Then we'll bring him up personally and present him."
She nodded. "I like this idea. Will you be feeding him in the market?"
"We will," Xander agreed. "We hear he wants to try some of the different cuisines. We'll let him nibble his way through the food area."
She reached back and pulled him closer. "And your dance?"
"I would gladly move it up a day," he agreed. "I have it almost perfect."
She wrinkled her nose but she was smiling. "Xander, as long as it was as arousing as the last one, no one will care if it's perfect, as long as it's not noticeable." Oz laughed at that. "You tried to tell him?"
"I have," Oz agreed, smiling at his mate. "He wants it to be perfect though."
"I don't want to be a disappointment," Xander told them both. "There will be other diplomats there and I want to make a good impression on them too." He nudged the Queen lightly. "Much like I did to you the last time I danced for you."
She burst out laughing. "Yes, you did make quite an impression on me!" She turned to look at the General. "My wives and husbands were quite happy with me that night, we were all very happy after he was done."
"I've been told it was quite good," the General said kindly, nodding at the doorway. "Oz, could you open that? She's fallen asleep again."
"Sure." Oz walked ahead and got the door, holding it open for them. "Relax," he said quietly. "Sex is a necessity for their life. There's a very fine line but we do know where it is." He walked in after the General. "So, M'lady, how may I amuse you today?"
"Tell me more about this television system," she requested. "You actually *rate* them?"
The General put the kitten down on a cushion, there were other kittens laying on similar ones. "We do," he told her. "That's how we decide things like advertising and the price of the commercials."
She looked at Oz, then at the animals. "I will leave this to you while we stroll." She led Oz away.
Xander looked serene as he sat down on the ground. "Come sit," he offered. "It's not going to hurt, right?"
"No, son, it won't hurt. I don't have arthritis, I'm very lucky to be healthy that way." His breath caught as a bigger cat walked up to them. "Is that her?"
"No, that's one of the caregivers." He bowed to her. "Sacryn satisfactorily delivered her messages and we brought her back for a nap."
There was a snort. //She shouldn't be trusted to such important matters. She's just a cub.//
//Leave her,// another cat said as she walked out of the garden. //I sent her because she is comfortable around these humans.// She sat in front of Xander. //Is this him?//
"This is him. Lethshan, this is General Hammond. Sacryn was quite pleased with his petting, she fell asleep as soon as his hands stopped." He looked at the General. "This is Lethshan, one of the lead cats. She's one of the higher females and leads the local family group if I'm not mistaken?" he asked her.
She snorted. //That's my mother. I'm working up under her and slowly taking over as she's aging.// She shifted so she was sitting in front of the General, tipping her head off to the side to consider him. //You will do. You mean us no harm.//
"No, ma'am," the General said, bowing to her. "I would never harm a sentient being if it wasn't trying to hurt me first."
Lethshan purred. //Good, this pleases us, especially when it comes from a man of war.// She looked at Xander. //The animal doctor is here with all of your animals. We decided to join the groups together.//
He smiled. "Thank you. I have someone getting the reference books she asked us for." He stood up. "Is she around here?"
//She is in the solarium. Metcana, lead him please,// she ordered the older female.
Xander fell to his knees in front of her and leaned closer. "Before I go, I need to ask something," he said quietly. "Sacryn came to us the other night because she was bored and stayed because we petted her. She said she missed being petted and groomed because her mother had died. She said you were too busy for cubs, but could you maybe find her a mother or grandmother type to look out for her? I can see her easily getting into trouble without one."
She looked at him, then nodded. //I will. I will take a personal interest in her upbringing as she has proven herself very clever. Thank for telling me of this.//
"It won't get her in trouble?" Xander asked, clearly begging.
//No, it won't,// she said, nudging him with her nose. //She was too scared to speak up, I will make sure she has no need to worry or go wander for attention.//
"We don't mind petting her for hours," Xander said with a smile. "I thought you needed to know though." He stood up and left, following the other cat.
Lethshan looked at the General. //You are confused?//
"I was told that you are a protected species."
//We are, but there are ever idiots who would see us as the ultimate trophy because we can out- think and we fight back. Recently, such has taken out most of a family pack. Sacryn's mother was one of the ones that survived long enough to kill the hunters and call for help from a passing ship. Fortunately, it was a Marine and they were saved. Her mother died on the trip here though.// She looked over at the little cub. //I should have seen that she still needed the strictest attention from a mother. I will adopt her into my family.// She looked at him again. //Do your people do that?//
"Some do," he told her. "Some people do adopt other's children, but there's always more children than there are parents, and our rules are strict enough that sometimes parents can't get children."
//Then who takes care of them?//
"Our government makes sure that they have what they need to survive. We do the best we can in a system that's not designed to take care of that many children. That's another thing that we're working on."
The cat purred at him and leaned forward, nudging him with her nose. //Good. We like species who take care of their cubs above all else. Cubs are the most important or else you die off and are forgotten.// She tipped her head. //Come, let us find a shady spot to sit and talk. Sacryn, come with us,// she sent to the cub, who was lying there watching them. //You will be staying with my cub tonight and from now on. I had thought another was taking care of you but apparently I was wrong. I'll bite her tonight,// she sent in an affectionate tone. The kitten jumped up and walked over, rubbing up against her side. //That is enough. I will groom you while we talk with this human.// She stood up and led the way to a shady spot, the human and her new daughter following her.
Oz walked into the solarium, stopping when he saw the one kit laying motionless on the floor with a woman bending over it. "Please tell me that one's all right," he said quietly. "I promised my mate that you wouldn't have to dissect any of them."
She looked up with a glare. "That is a barbaric practice."
"Forgive me, my lady, but we're not as technologically advanced. Our medical studies have relied on that to get where we are today." He walked in and sat down near his animals. "Is that one all right?"
"It's fine," she shifted and he could see the small round object in her hand. "I'm checking her for a litter."
"I think she's fixed," Oz told her. The vet looked up at him. "We're presently over populated so we chose which animals we would want to breed. None of the ones born up here are fixed but half of the older ones are."
She nodded. "A wise way of doing it when you have too many." She sat back and scratched the moving stomach. "This one is quite healthy, and she isn't...fixed?" Oz nodded, telling her the word was right. "She's carrying two kits. Do you have those books?"
"I sent someone to get them for us. We'll have them in another day, earth time."
"Are they restricted?"
"No, they're hard to find," he said with a slight smile. "Ferrets are considered exotic pets. Not many of our veterinarians take care of them. Plus, our friend is getting some of their usual food, I asked him to on our shopping list. That way you can compare."
She nodded. "A good plan." She looked at the cats and dogs taking a nap too. "Are they usual pets?"
"Yes, though most people don't have both types. Most people consider themselves dog or cat people."
"Those," Oz said, pointed at Fluffy's son, the reason there was a pink cub somewhere in the palace. "We call the feline ones cats and the canine ones dogs."
She shook her head. "More unfamiliar words. I should work with my English more often." She scratched the ferret's belly again. "This one is very cuddly."
"It is. It likes to wear our female team member's bras too."
She laughed. "I have heard stories about the one ferret in the guards barracks. My student takes care of their Groltn."
"Groltn?" he asked.
"The small creatures that certain officers have riding with them. They smell bad things."
Oz nodded. "We have canines that do that at home." He got comfortable. "Do you have any idea what we're doing wrong?"
"It does look like it's dietary. I'll know more when we get some of their food." Something beeped and she looked up. "Yes?"
"There was just a shipment passed through the portal and the man named Jack is coming this way with a large bag."
"He must be bringing more litter and the food," Oz explained.
"I'll show him in then." The voice went away.
Oz looked over at her. "That's neat."
"You don't have address systems?"
"Yes, but usually they're reserved for places like schools and big places like that. The one we have at our house isn't that clear."
"You have a large house at your home?"
"We do. The animals have a room full of toys and climbing equipment. We brought what we could of it. They wander around our house all day and nap in that room as it's set up for them."
She nodded. "A wise choice with this many animals." She looked over at a bark. "What?"
The dog got up and came over carefully, sniffing her as he went.
"It's all right, Perry, she's a good vet." He reached out and scratched him, and the dog thumped his tail on her leg. "This is Perry, a son of our original dog," he pointed at Rocky. "We're keeping a member of hers and the mommy ferret's line for as long as possible."
The vet smiled at that. "It is obvious to me that you love your animals very much."
Oz looked down as he felt a creeping sensation in his lap. "We do," he agreed, petting his kitten. "I rescued this one from an alleyway. She's really my cat. Jedi and Rocky are both Xander's animals."
She nodded. "I figured he would be the true father as none of them jumped up when you walked in." She looked toward the door as Jack walked in. "Is that the book and their food?"
"It is," he said happily. "The rest is at the house. I brought two of the four bags of wood shavings for the two here." He sat down, patting the dog that came up to him. "Hey, Soldier. How's it shaking?" He handed over the bag. "There's litter, two books, and the biggest bag of ferret chow Steve could find."
She smiled. "Thank you, this will help us quite a lot." She pulled out the food and used the little tube to scan it. "Ah, not a vitamin, but a mineral." She opened the bag of food and poured some out, and the ferrets all came to life. They watched as there was a rush on the food. She smiled at Oz. "We have these little black shells that has the same mineral, but it doesn't taste very good. You should probably stick with importing food for them."
"What about the others?" Jack asked. "The cats are in heaven because the maids leave them wet food all the time."
"They're healthy, but the substitution isn't as great as it could be. We have different minerals in our water and air. We're missing one of the ones that they apparently need. You should stick with a mixture of the two to be safest." Jack looked confused. "That way they don't have a bad reaction suddenly to our chemicals. We meet on certain levels but not on others. I'm worried that one of the ones in our water may start to affect them if they go strictly on human food."
He nodded. "Okay." He looked at Oz. "I'll make sure we get a honkin' big bag of cat and dog dry food."
"We go through one of those every three weeks," Oz told him. "Get two, they're small and we have a lot of animals."
Jack laughed. "You just realized this?" Oz shook his head. "All right, so a stockpile of animal nuggets. Anything else from the pet stores?"
"We need new fuzzy mice," Oz noted. "And a thing of catnip." He looked at the cats. "And she needs another squeaky newspaper as Blair shredded ours."
Jack nodded. "All right, I'll go commandeer Steve and we'll head back to the pet store. He waited to get everything else until we did this part." He stood up. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, don't get anything latex, Xander's allergic to it." Jack frowned. "What?"
"I've seen condoms."
"They make non-latex ones," Oz told him dryly. "He's highly allergic to latex."
"Okay." Jack nodded as he walked out. "I've still got your wallet."
"Good, I want about sixteen pounds of chocolate," Oz called after him. "Hershey for me. Another ten or so for Xander, and make his Godiva or the expensive stuff. He likes the smoother chocolates. And nuts! I'm craving them."
Jack stepped back into the room. "Peanuts, other nuts, or mixed nuts?"
"Yes," Oz said with a smile and a nod. "I really like filberts, but yes, all of that is good."
"Geez," Jack sighed as he walked away. "You'd think those guys never ate."
"Oh, Jack," Xander called, running to catch up with him. "Please, man, I'll beg for junk food."
"Oz just asked for nuts and chocolate."
"Which is great, but I'm a chip person." He ran a hand down his arm. "Please, Jack, and some cheese? Colby or some sort of cheddar? And tortillas, not the chips, the flat flour ones. The ones with the *good* texture."
Jack just nodded and walked out. "We don't have a refrigerator," he reminded Xander as he walked away.
"We will by tonight," Xander told him. "Or the local equivalent. I just got a commission." He went back to the Queen to discuss designs.
In the solarium, Oz shook his head. "I won't see him for days," he sighed.
General Hammond looked up as Jack walked in with three bags of cat food. "What's all that for?"
"The vet over there said she wanted them to start eating part human, part their food." He dropped the bags onto the chairs.
"We're stocking up for an emergency?" Hammond asked.
"Oz said they go through one of these every three weeks."
"Oh." He shook his head. "One bag at a time. We'll store the rest here. Anything else?"
Jack shrugged. "We've got a large food order. Xander and Oz are both craving stuff." One eyebrow went up on his superior. "Nuts, chocolate, chips. Cheese."
"Cheese? I would have thought they had some local equivalent."
"There is but Xander's stomach doesn't like it. He spent the next day bringing it back up the one time he ate it. And apparently we're getting a refrigeration unit because Xander just got a commission."
General Hammond sighed. "All right. Store the pet food in the room we set aside for their stuff. Bring everything else across. Maybe we'll get them hooked on our cheese, that should export well."
"Before I forget, we ran into Ray in town, so that means his partner's not far behind."
"I'll think about it," the General said, going back to his paperwork. "Dismissed."
Jack heaved the bags back up and went to store most of them. Then he could go have a long soak. Maybe he'd have Steve help him through the portal, that wouldn't *really* be a breach of protocol.
In the White House, the President of the United States leaned back and considered going out to grab a cigarette, but then decided against it. It was almost time for him to deal with the upcoming visit he was going to be making, cleverly concealed by a trip to a few military bases. The briefs were about to be delivered in the daily interoffice mail.
"Sir?" Josh asked as he came up to the door. "I just got the most unusual brief and I wanted to make sure this wasn't a joke," he said from the doorway.
"It's real," President Bartlett said quietly. "It's also has the highest security classification." He looked at his Assistant Chief of Staff and waved him in.
"Sir," Josh said as he walked in and closed the door. "If this is real, then should we expect Jedis next?" That got a smile. "Really, sir, how are we sure this isn't a prank that made it through the system?"
"I talk to the General in charge of this program every two days, and he's been running this unit for over five years now." He sat up but the second door was knocked on. "You might as well come in," he yelled. "We're talking about my trip now."
"Leo, this is real," Josh said.
Leo nodded. "I've taken a few of the reports while the President was out of town. Are you sure you won't take at least one agent with you?" he asked his boss. "It could be dangerous. Are these civilian diplomats going to be able to protect you?"
"First, not all of the diplomats are civilian, some are military," Josh said, flipping through his brief. "Second, where do I know the name Xander Harris from?"
"He's an author. Wrote some horror novels a few years back?" Leo said, suggesting he should know that.
"How is a horror writer a diplomat?" Josh asked.
"Sir?" Charlie asked from the doorway. "The rest of the staff is here about your trip also, would you like to see them too?"
"Please, and come in too, Charlie," the President said, waving him in. "All right. Let's get this over with."
"Sir," the Press Secretary asked, "why are you going to visit military bases? It was asked if there was a specific reason, like a shifting of our military strategy."
"There's not, it's a cover for a short trip to visit a very special project," the President told her. "But they can't know that so I'm visiting to assess our present strengths and see if we need to shift our focus." She nodded. "Anything else from your end?"
"Do I want to know where you're going?" she asked.
"All right, thank you, sir." She left.
Josh waited until the door was closed. "You're going without your bodyguards?"
"He is," Leo said, getting comfortable. "This project has the highest security clearance. The Harris guy and his husband happened on it some other way that was never explained, and were included as they're the best at massaging egos. Also, Harris has written a sex manual, some pornography, and is an accomplished metal craftsman."
"He also routinely carries a sword," Sam Seabourne noted. "A few years back he got into a fight in a Miami club with some people trying to kidnap him and took them on with his sword, reported as a katana." He looked at his boss. "Sir, if this is real, what else is?"
"I don't know," the President said gently. "I plan on finding out though."
"Maybe one of us should go with you," Josh suggested.
"I'm going," Charlie told them. They looked at him. "I know I don't have the security clearance, but I am his assistant. We'll be meeting with a Queen, a few diplomats, and then be coming home."
"How are you getting there?" Sam asked. "We don't have a space program at that level yet."
"Gentlemen, there are projects within the military that none of you know about. It was told to me that the only reason I was told was because I was the President." They all looked surprised. "It is so top secret that none of us in this room qualify to know except because of our jobs." He looked at each of them. "I'm going to break that now to a slight degree. We have a portal to their world, some sort of gateway. We've been looking for friendly entities for the last five years." That got a small nod from Josh. "We've also managed to find an extreme enemy and have successfully defended ourselves against them twice." That got a nod from Leo. "In addition to this particular friendly species, there's a whole Empire that they're part of. They're highly advanced both socially and technologically."
"In my brief it did have something that wasn't so advanced," Josh said. "It said they have slavery as an alternative to the death penalty." He shot a glance at Charlie.
"It's a deterrent," Charlie said lightly. "It's not based on race, only on crime?"
"As far as any of our diplomats have been able to find out," the President assured him. "It is an alternative only and it's used about as often as the other two alternatives. They have a very low crime rate." He smiled at Sam. "They also have telepathic cats."
"Telepathic cats?" Leo asked, looking skeptical. "That's not average."
"No, but it's their genetic ancestor. They're a protected species and the Queen I'll be meeting with has a breeding place and safe haven for them in her palace."
"They have ferrets now too," Sam said. "Xander Harris is known for his animals, especially ferrets. I did a check on him when I saw the unfamiliar name." He got up to pace over to a window. "Sir, I'm worried. This is a totally new situation. What if they take offense at the fact that you're a man?"
"They know," Bartlett said.
"They do?" he asked.
"They do," Leo told them. "This has been in the planning for a few months now. We've been slowly moving up on the subject." He smiled at the President. "You'll be going over with a few of the new diplomats." The President nodded. "Have you figured out what you're going to talk about?"
"Well, the General said that he and Queen...what's her name, I don't remember at the moment, talk about the military, about how socially we're working towards the point where they are, and with the cats he talked about children." He smiled. "I'm sure we'll be able to find some neutral ground. All the reports said that she's very anxious for this to work out."
"Are you bringing a gift?" Josh asked.
"Definitely. Charlie, what am I bringing her?"
"Something not very delicate, sir," he said respectfully. "With cats and possibly ferrets, but definitely kittens, I would suggest something unbreakable or at least not fragile."
"Good idea," Leo said dryly. "A statue?"
"They do appreciate art," Josh said, flipping to another section of his brief. "Um, this sexual thing? Has that been a problem?"
"Only for the diplomats," Leo told him. "Mr. Harris, his husband, and the military part of the team have had no problem acclimating." He looked at his boss. "A music box? I doubt we have similar music styles."
"That's a good idea. Charlie, please get me a music box."
"What price range, sir?"
"Any, I don't care. Just don't make it cheap. Maybe wood?" Charlie nodded and stood up. "Is there any word on my official schedule?"
"Yes, sir. We depart and head to the Harris and Military's quarters to get up to speed on any local customs. Then Mr. Harris and his husband are taking us on a tour through the market, Mr. Harris' husband has dealt more on the diplomatic end for things like trade goods and monetary exchange and Mr. Harris works in the market doing his metal work. After that, you'll meet with Queen Nethisha, I think that's how it's pronounced, and we'll have a small meal as we'll be expected to nibble in the market." He handed over the fax. "Directly from General Hammond."
The President looked it over and nodded. "That sounds good and unstressful. Has Mr. Harris' husband picked out where I was going to go?"
"A grand tour, sir, each one showing you their own area. The only question was whether or not you'd like to go see the animals too, not the cats but their food animals."
"I wouldn't mind the comparison. It would be strange to find our own cows and pigs up there."
"No, sir, from what I hear it's a goat the size of a cow and it's a carnivore." Charlie nodded at the others. "Anything else you need from me?"
"No, thank you, Charlie." The President waited until he was gone. "Goat?"
Leo smiled. "General Hammond shared an anecdote the last time we talked. The Air Force Colonel that's over there said that the goats reminded him of a Marine grunt. They're calling them Marine Goats. Apparently one's tried to eat Mr. Harris' husband when they went down there to look at them."
Josh stared, his mouth open. "They eat a goat that would eat us?"
"Mr. Harris' husband suggested that they started out of self defense." Leo stood up. "I can't convince you to take a guard with you?"
"No, I'm sure I'll be fine with two members of the Air Force, and Mr. Harris." Leo shook his head and walked away. "Josh, did you have any other objections?"
"No, sir, just some disbelief."
"Then go back to work. The State department will have a full briefing for you later about the new diplomats and the problems that the old ones had. I hear we're sending over the professional ones now."
"Sir," Sam asked, "what do they know about Earth's political structure? Are they going to be upset that you don't speak for everyone?"
"No, the diplomats have been very good at filling in the Queen on our current political alliances. When we formally set up diplomatic missions with them, their first embassy will be here and they'll start working with the other world leaders at that time. We're creating a safe haven for them to work from for now."
He nodded. "All right. Do I need to have anything ready about this?"
"No, actually, Mr. Harris' primary job is to record some of their tales and put them into the popular media. We're going to soften the blow that way."
"They're coming soon?" Josh asked.
"We're thinking another year before they'll officially visit us here. This is more of an informal meeting. Mr. Harris is trying to get them interested in more of our goods for trade, while the list of their things keeps growing. Especially since they have a water additive that eats germs and bacteria."
"It does?" Sam said, looking a little surprised. "That would be a wonderful thing to have. Think of all the problems we have from bacterial infections. Is it potable?"
"It is, your system will clean itself out rather quickly when you do," President Bartlett said with a smile. "We're trading iron with them because the additive eats it or something." He looked at his two staff members. "Anything else?"
"Are we importing food?" Josh asked.
"There's a few food items on the list, most notably some treats. One's mildly addicting from what I understand, it was compared with a good brandy's taste addiction-wise in the reports. The other is some sort of sap that only grows three places but is sinful to the point of being willing to spend a week's salary on a single piece."
Josh smiled. "Let me guess, Mr. Harris got those on there?"
"The Air Force Captain had them both put on the possible list," the President told him with a smile. "It seems that she liked it enough to rename it and spend a day eating it. I'll be bringing back a few pieces to analyze and try out. That goat may not be on the list, I'm not sure yet."
"Sir, a goat that reminds a military man of the Marines may not be the thing that farmers are going to want to raise," Sam noted. "They're probably very hard to raise, not that I know that much about raising cows or even regular goats, but Marine-type goats would probably be harder."
"Maybe they'll march in the field," Josh suggested.
The President laughed. "True, but if it's a good source of meat, maybe they'd be good to be export. Even hard to raise would be put up with if it solved a few countries food shortages."
"Good point," Josh said, getting up and leading his coworker out.
President Bartlett got up and went out for his cigarette. He wouldn't say it but he was just as worried as his staff. A sword against people who had God-knows what sort of weapons?
Xander checked out his outfit, then nodded and went to stretch. Perfect, just like he had planned. His bells were perfect, just the right sort of soft tones. He stretched his arms first, up above his head, then outward. Next came his legs. He felt a small twinge, but nothing unusual.
Oz walked in and held him as he stretched out. "Ready? Everyone's here."
"Sure." Xander got a hug then bounced a few times. "I'm ready. Is the music ready?" Oz nodded and he went out to the stage. He nodded at Oz to start the music and got into his first position. He started off on a long, slow, stretching sweep of his arms, then they went around him. He felt the twinge again, but that was expected too. His leg had been twinging on him for weeks now. He moved along with the dance, his hips getting into it now. The twinge came again and he shifted his weight slightly, going into an improvised third move. He heard a snap and mentally frowned but went on. As he twirled, his hands running over his chest, he felt a bigger twinge, this time a ripping pain, and a louder snap. Then he felt himself be tackled. "Ow," he noted, his eyes closed.
"Did I hurt you?"
Xander shook his head. "My thigh," he whispered. "Bad pains as I spun."
Oz climbed off his husband, sparing a glance for the backdrop that had come down, going to check his leg. He frowned as he felt the tear. "Xander, you ripped a muscle."
"Is that why it hurts?" he said lightly. "How long?"
"Babe, you still have bruises from practice today," Oz said, looking at Xander's inner arms. "You're not healing." He stood up. "Um, M'lady, I believe we could use a physician."
"No, I'm fine," Xander grunted, forcing himself to stand up. "I'll be better in a while, it's just a cramp." He glared at his husband. "I'm fine."
Oz walked in front of Xander. "You haven't been healing at *our* rate," he whispered. "You can't go on."
"I will, I promised."
"You can do it later," Oz pointed out.
"No! You're not healing. If I nicked you right now, you would bleed just like every other human. I don't know why, but you're not healing right. If you continue tonight, you may be on crutches for *months*."
"I'm healing, Oz. These bruises aren't that old."
"When was your last practice?" Siblinth asked as she walked onto the stage.
"Earlier this afternoon," Oz told her, "and he normally heals much faster. This *twinge* in his thigh wouldn't usually give him any trouble but it is now."
She nodded. "We'll put it off until he's better. My mother has already said so because we need to find out who cut the backdrop." Both men looked at her so she pointed at the mass of fabric. "It was cut. Those noises were it being cut. The guards didn't manage to catch them though." She walked over to the fabric. "This would be so easy to trap you in," she told Xander.
Xander shuddered. "All right, I'll put it off until I'm better." He turned to look toward the audience. "I'm sorry, M'lady, but my mate feels that the twinge in my thigh is worse than I think and your daughter made a very good argument for me putting this off until we find out who cut the backdrop."
Queen Nethisha walked up to him. "I know that. Really, you don't have to justify yourself," she said, patting him on the thigh, making him wince. "Just a twinge?"
"I've had it for a few days now," he said lightly.
"M'lady, do you have the number of the doctor who looked at him last time? I forgot to write it down," Oz told her, sitting beside his husband. "He's stubborn."
She nodded. "You don't have to justify yourself either." She frowned at them both. "I thought we were becoming better friends."
"Yes, Nethisha," Xander said, nodding at the other diplomats, "but we don't want to give them the wrong idea. We don't want to seem impertinent or too forward."
"I thought forward was a direction," she said, looking at her daughter.
"They don't want the other ambassadors to think that they're currying favor with their bodies," her daughter said bluntly. "All their group go back to very formal any time that an impropriety might be seen." She patted Oz on the head. "Don't worry about it, mom likes you. She thinks you're...what's the human word.... neat."
"I'm sorry, Nethisha," Oz said, giving her a small frown. "I didn't want to get in trouble."
"It's all right," she sighed, patting them both on the leg. "I'll send over our doctor to look at him." She helped Xander down onto the floor, steadying him as he wasn't putting any weight on his left thigh. "You really are hurt," she said with a frown. She stared him in the eyes. "Did you know this was that bad?"
"It's been a twinge on and off," he admitted weakly. "It's never been this bad."
She kissed him on the forehead. "We don't want to see you hurt, Xander, we could have waited another night."
"I think this has another cause," Oz said, frowning at Xander. "When did you hurt yourself during training?"
"Not since last week, and then I turned my knee," Xander told him, frowning. "It's not hurting at all."
"Xander, you've been limping since last week," Siblinth said, sitting on the edge of the stage. Her mothers looked at her. "What? I watch him every few days. He's been limping for a while now." She kissed Xander on the cheek. "It was cut from above and the guards found a piece of jewelry."
"His?" Oz guessed. She nodded. "Gee, honey, you got a stalker," he said dryly, taking his husband into his arms. "Nethisha, may we please borrow one of your carts to get him home? He can't walk."
"Of course," she said, lightening up. "Will this inhibit your tour tomorrow?"
"Not at all," Xander told her. "We have a tradition of these things called crutches. We use them to help us walk when we hurt ourselves." He smiled at her. "I am sorry, but I will make it up to you." He gave her a hug. "Thank you." He let Oz help him out of the auditorium.
Siblinth looked at her mother. "It could be worse," she noted. "They could never have relaxed around you."
Nethisha sighed. "I know, but it hurts when they suddenly switch back to formal. Friends aren't supposed to do that to each other."
"Maybe you should have Mommy explain that to them," Siblinth suggested as she slid off the stage and hugged her mother. "They're much more uptight than some species, but much less formal than a few." She frowned at the ambassador still sitting his seat. "Um, Ambassador Thoren, the dancer has been badly injured between his tackle and a strange muscle problem. We'll be rescheduling it for when he's better."
The ambassador stood up, showing himself as one of the 'Conan' guard's race. "I will come back then. If you would show me where my son is?"
"Of course," Nethisha said, motioning for one of her husbands to lead him. "Thank you for your patience." Once they were alone, she smiled. "That was a nice save of my temper. Maybe I should send you to their planet when it's time."
"I would be honored," Siblinth said with a grin. Her mother groaned and nudged her. "Sorry." She ran off, going to check with the guards.
Nethisha shook her head as she went to call her doctor for the boys.
President Bartlett walked through the portal and smiled at the people waiting for him. He saw the crutches and shook his head. "Having problems?" he asked as he walked down the stairs.
"Small muscle rip," Xander explained. "I had a problem last night while I was dancing." Xander shook his hand. "Mr. President, I'm Xander Harris and this is my mate, Richard," he said, using Oz's last identity. He shook the assistant's hand. "Ready to go back to our house?"
"Sure," Charlie said, looking back at the gate. "Does that stay open?"
"Partially open," Oz told him, leading the way to the platform. "We could walk but Xander is just stubborn enough to do it." He got on, letting Xander brace against him. "Sorry there's no seats but it's only about sixteen blocks." He lifted off slowly.
The President yelped and grabbed on. "It flies?"
"It does," Xander said with a grin. "Some sort of floating air. Doctor Carter, who is a physicist, said it was some sort of air jets when she dumbed down the explanation for us."
The President nodded. "Handy skill to have." He looked at the houses. "This is a crowded city. How many to a building?"
"Each building in this section is for a family unit; the average family has two wives and one to two husbands, plus about three children," Oz explained as he landed in the lot beside the house. "Okay, we're here." He led the way off, letting Xander hop on ahead. He looked at the President. "He's very hyped about this, but he is stubborn. We'll be going slower so he can keep up."
The President nodded. "All right. I like to stroll anyway. My daughters marathon shop and I could never recover fast enough." He let Oz walk through the door first. "Oh, animals," he said, looking down at the dog staring up at him. "What's your name, sport?" he asked, reaching down to pet it.
"No offense, but the owner who gave him to us named it Asshole and we can't rename him," Xander said from the stairs. "He won't answer to anything else." The assistant looked at him. "Really, it's just how he's stuck. We usually call him Hole and he occasionally responds." He forced himself up. "Let me warn you before you sit down, these seats are meant for eating in and you'll get stuck."
"Everything else of a sitting or sleeping nature is hard," Sam said as she came down the stairs. "Sir, welcome to this planet, whose name we still can't pronounce. I'm Doctor Carter. Doctors Sandburg and Jackson will be right down, they're fussing with their ferret." She smiled at the assistant. "Is there anything technical I can help you with so far?"
"How did that cart fly?" Charlie asked.
"You flew them?" she said, hitting Oz on the arm. "Those things aren't safe, there aren't any seats or restraints." She looked at him again. "As far as we can tell, it's all due to magnetic lift and forced air jets that force liftoff. At least that's the short explanation. I can give you the technical one if you want, I've been *dying* to do it."
"No thanks," Charlie said. "I'm not that much of a technical person. Getting my VCR programmed is the highest I try to go." He looked at the stairs at the sound of little running feet. Xander got out of the way. "What's that?"
"Ferret stampede," Sam said, pulling him out of the way. All the ferrets went stomping past, running for the kitchen. "It's feeding time," she explained. She put a hand on his chest before he could move, waiting out the kittens and the dogs. And the one telepathic kitten. "Sacryn, when did you get here?"
"She decided to sneak in and play with the ferrets really early this morning," Xander explained, heaving himself up. "Let's sit down. BLAIR! THEY'RE HERE!" he yelled.
"The entire neighborhood heard you," Jack noted as he walked in. He watched as Xander flopped down onto one of the marshmallow chairs. "Sir, if you sit, we'll pull you back up." He handed a box to Oz. "Here, yours. It was downstairs." He headed toward the garden, he had left a book out there and it looked like rain.
"Thanks," Oz said, pulling a chair over to sit next to his husband. He called something out in the native tongue. "I told her to bring drinks and small sandwiches," he told them. "It'll tide you over until we can get into the food stalls."
Blair and Daniel ran in, chasing their ferret. "Come back, Dessie, you need the collar," Blair yelled. "We'll lose you otherwise."
"I can tell Dessie apart," Xander called after them. "Dessie," he said, taking a piece of meat from the tray the maid had brought in. "Feed them first," he said, pointing. A little furry body jumped up and tried to get the maid. Xander fed her the piece he had. "Here we are," he told Daniel.
Daniel leaned down and clipped on the collar. "Thanks." He picked up his ferret. "Sorry, sir, but with eighteen of them in the house now we have a problem telling ours apart. We wouldn't want her adopted out." He flopped down into one of the chairs on Oz's side. "With that, you use the bread to pick it up and eat it. There's no real eating customs, though you will find some people who talk with their mouth full."
"Oh, yeah," Blair said as he walked in, sitting on the edge of his boyfriend's chair. "Other than that, the only real thing you have to remember is not to smile."
"Not smile?" the President asked as he tried the meat. "It doesn't taste like goat," he said, looking at his assistant. "Try it, Charlie, you have to expand your horizons."
"Yes, sir," he said as he picked up some of the meat with the bread and ate it. "Not bad," he said once he had swallowed.
"We think it would be great with some Italian salad dressing," Xander told him, digging into his breakfast. "'Scuse us but I need to nibble or I'll pass out."
"He's been working on his dancing," Oz said, patting the edge of Xander's chair. "He's been wearing himself too thin." He picked up some of his own snack. "Eat, drink, the tea's not the stinky tea, it's really decent and Indian."
The President smiled and shook his head. "You've managed to make yourself at home and import things?" He sipped the tea, then grabbed some of the bread to eat.
Oz sipped his tea. "Hmm, left it in too long," he said as he put it down. "Sorry."
"That's okay, it was a shock after the meat."
"It can be," Daniel agreed, smiling at Charlie. "Don't worry, we don't violate norms. You might want to not look down certain aisles to the left side of the market, the Prostitution Temple is over there." Charlie choked. "It is legal here, they need sex to live, it's as much a need as we have for food. There's a whole temple devoted to it. The women and men also teach the young so they're knowledgeable when they're of age. Oh, and this society is polyamourus, they have spouses of each sex and many of them. Our direct sponsor is the Queen's first wife."
"How do you say her name?" Charlie asked.
"Nethisha," Xander said. "Oh, and she yelled at us last night because we became too formal again. Friendship means that they loosen their social restrictions." He put aside his plate and grabbed his tea, gulping it because he saw a royal messenger heading their way.
"It's strong," Oz warned.
"That's fine, it was salty." Xander gulped his tea then forced himself to get up by flipping onto the floor and grabbing his crutches. "I'll be back." He hopped off.
Oz shook his head. "He's having a hyper day."
"Am not," Xander called. He opened the door and accepted the message. "Thank you," he said, bowing and closing the door. He walked in, reading the note. "Nethisha wants to see them just after midday. That's in about three hours earth time." He handed Charlie the note. "Eat, you're going to need it. The food is on the other side of the market from here and it's nearly two miles long." Charlie started to eat again and he smiled at the President. "What can we fill in for you, sir?"
"This just seems very casual for a diplomatic mission."
"We're the backup diplomats," Blair said with a smile. "We're actually here to learn about the culture and to smooth the lay of the land between the official diplomats and the Queen." He looked down as one of the dogs walked up to him. "Yes? What is it?" he asked her. She sat and barked, going up on her back feet. "Very cute, but you know better than to beg from me."
Oz tossed her a piece of meat. "She's improved. She used to jump into Giles' lap when we ate."
The President smiled. "I had a dog that used to do that too, my daughter trained her that way."
"No I didn't," Xander said when Oz opened his mouth to blame him. "She used to jump into my lap when I nibbled while writing." He looked at the other couple, then checked his watch. "Sam, Jack's coming back."
She groaned and forced herself to get up. "Excuse me, sir, but I have to go help Jack intimidate the new diplomats."
"How are you doing that?" the President asked.
"We're going to start out with the 'congratulations, you're on a planet where the people before you got put under house arrest because they couldn't see the difference between a biological necessity that doesn't include humans and a sexual urge' speech," Jack said as he walked in. "Doctor Carter, don't you think you're a little underdressed?" he asked, taking in her breast cups and two-panel skirt.
"No, I thought I'd give them culture shock, this is the standard dress of the native culture. They're going to be seeing it every day."
"You'll be able to see who stares," Blair pointed out.
"See who's going to be trouble," Daniel added.
"Good point," Jack sighed. He looked down at his fatigues and t-shirt. "I feel overdressed, but let's go." He bowed to the President. "We'll be seeing you at the snack time," he said, then he followed Sam out of the door.
The President looked at the boys. "I didn't want to say anything, but that's really how the women dress?"
"Some dress more like Xander," Blair said, "but that's really more men's clothes and they're probably immigrants from what we can tell. From what we've seen in the current catalogs, Doctor Carter's outfit was standard for most of the Empire."
"This Empire, how far does it stretch?" Charlie asked.
"Well, there's a small issue there, but it won't be for at least a century," Blair told him. "Danny found something the other day, a treaty with a race that's on the other side of us."
"But Nethisha has said that the Empress is not going to make any comments yet. It seems we've got a ways to go before our full admission into the Empire is even offered as a first step."
"Can we refuse?" Charlie asked.
"You can," Xander told him. "There's six planets that have refused that are within the boundaries of the Empire. They tend to sit back and watch as emerging cultures develop, gauging who gets invited and who becomes a protectorate."
"In other words, if we refuse when it's given to us, we'll still be officially a part on their books, but we'll be protected from anything coming to us from the associations?" President Bartlett asked. Oz nodded. "What things do we need to change?"
"Massive social changes," Blair told him. "Equality issues, problems with some of the Middle Eastern countries over their treatment of women."
"This is a matrilineal society," Daniel added. "The men here are basically at the same level women were for us in the fifties and before."
"Except the men are supposed to be highly educated," Oz pointed out. "They're supposed to be knowledgeable and smart, able to converse. Like women from the top finishing schools are and were."
Bartlett nodded. "I can see that. Is there a change coming?"
"The Empress has stated that any man who wants it may work with full equality," Daniel said seriously. "She didn't force the issue, just stated that any man who wanted to could apply for things like the military, or even to work in the courts. It's a big step, there's still planets that haven't complied yet and it's going to have to be enforced by force."
"There are male dominated societies," Oz added, "one of them is represented here by a guard and has an ambassador here for a visit."
"They're at the level of Conan," Blair put in.
"They're also the men that were sent away from here so that the planet would know peace," Daniel added. He glanced at Xander.
"I'm fine," Xander sighed. "Not even a residual headache."
"If I may ask?" Charlie asked.
"To take nearly all the men out one night, they had these disks that made men quiescent," Blair told him. "A few were found and were looked at back at home. Unfortunately, when the doctor had gotten stumped, she put one on and the disk changed her personality to one closer to the women who managed to send away the men. She put disks on most of the men on the base, including Xander who was over there to get ferret litter."
"Oh." Charlie nodded. "Hard on you?"
"It was," Oz said, giving his husband a gentle look. "He had a horrible headache for days. Some minor aches, a major craving for chocolate."
"That hasn't gone away," Blair teased.
"And *who* was in my Hershey's stash last night?" Xander teased back, smiling.
The President smiled at them all. "It's easy to see you're friends."
"We were before this," Oz agreed, smiling at the other couple. "Daniel's taking sword fighting lessons under myself and Xander. Blair and Xander share an association through a group. We were pretty good friends for a few years before we got here."
"Is that why you were chosen?" Charlie asked.
"No, Xander was chosen because he can charm people into giving them the planet," Oz said dryly. "I'm here because I'm the money half of our family. They're here," he said, pointing at the other couple, "because they're social scientists and they're here to study and learn. The same as Sam is."
"Jack's just a slave driver and an alternate diplomat," Xander added.
The President laughed. "Good. It's good to know that all the roles are filled." He looked around the room. "If I can use the facilities, we could start the tour."
Xander hopped over and held out a hand. It wasn't taken. "Trust me, you can't get up without one. Not unless you roll onto the floor. These are their eating chairs and there are special waiters who are just there to help you up." The President took his hand and he tugged him up. "Bathrooms are back through the archway and to the right."
"I'll show him," Oz said, getting onto the floor and standing up. He helped Charlie up. "Come on." He led the way back.
Xander waited until they were alone. "Did we forget anything? It feels like we did."
"Remind him about the smiling thing," Blair suggested. He heaved himself up, the only one of them that could do it, and helped his boyfriend up. "We'll be up in the library at Park School." He led Danny out, heading back to work.
Charlie walked out first, handing over a cat. "He helped."
Xander looked down at the cat. "What is it with you? You did that to me yesterday. Why the sudden interest?" He kissed the kitten on the head. "Okay, a quick question and not meant to be insulting. Did you wash your hands? Jack found out the hard way that they consider that a near- death-worthy occurrence."
"I did. I always do."
"Okay, didn't want to insult but I had to check." He looked around. "Any questions?"
"What's with the no-smiling issue?"
"Oh, it's a sign of a pick-up attempt. The brighter the smile, the more of a pick-up it is."
Charlie nodded. "Thank you. That would have been awkward."
"Ah, but a small smile can be a tease," Oz said as he walked in. "Xander has groupies that love his teasing."
"But they're probably young," the President said as he walked out to join them.
Xander nodded. "All young but of marriageable age. I've told them that my Richard won't let me take on a wife, but that if they *really* want to plead their case to come see him."
"Only one has," Oz said conversationally. "Come on, let's go." He stopped when he saw the young woman on the other side. "Hi," he said, bowing to her. "How may we help you?"
She smiled at him, a light, small smile. "I am here to make a proposition for Xander," she said boldly.
Oz pulled her aside. "Go on, we'll be having a discussion." He waited until the group had moved on. "Listen, I know he teases, but we're bonded soul-deep. There is no way that we're adding to our marriage."
She stood up straighter. "Unless Xander has a mother or an aunt to speak for him, he has no choice," she noted.
"Our sponsor is Nethisha's First Wife. She has said that she speaks for us and she likes our union the way it is."
"Still, the law says a mother or an aunt. An orphaned male may be married by any woman who asks and does not really have the right to say no until his first marriage trial is over."
Oz shook his head. "We're still married, there's no trial."
"But you don't count," she pointed out. "This is legal marriage to a wife, and only a woman can head a household."
"Listen, take it up with Nethisha's First Wife. We'll talk about this in front of her only." He closed the door and walked away. He found them a few stalls into the market. "We might have a problem," he said quietly, kissing Xander on the nose, he knew she was still watching. "She's going to force the issue. I told her to go to the First Wife."
"Does she have a name?" Charlie asked.
"Not that she's ever given us."
"Her people believe that giving names gives power," Xander told him. "The jeweler I work with is from the same culture. I still don't know his name but we serve in a business together." He smiled as one of his groupies squealed in shock. "I'm fine," he called. She ran over, giving him a hug. "I promise I'm fine, it's just a torn muscle. It'll heal soon enough."
"But how will you pound us out pretty things like that?"
"I'll manage, just not this week." He looked at the President. "Tastrian, this is my country's leader, President Bartlett. President Bartlett, may I introduce one of the women that come to watch me pound out jewelry, Tastrian, second daughter of the Queen."
He bowed slightly to her. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
She giggled. "You're a very handsome man. Are you useful?"
Xander shook his head. "He's married and has three daughters, plus runs our country. His wife is very fierce, not even someone I would want to fight." The girl pouted. "Besides, you're too young to be picking up men," he said, pinching her on the nose and giving her a teasing smile. "Go tell your mother that we've started our tour." She ran off, going to do just that. "She's the younger crown princess of the Queen, one of sixteen daughters and seven sons."
"Did she have them all herself?" the President asked.
"No, any issue that any of her spouses has she can claim," Oz explained. "That one is her secondary's wife's first daughter?" he asked Xander, who nodded. "She can't claim them as heirs unless it's their birth day, or on or after eighth birthday. She still has to claim the second daughter of that particular wife." He nodded at the shopkeeper. "Were you looking for a present for your wife or daughters?"
"Actually, I am," Bartlett said. "One's going to be a doctor. That one I need something very specific for. The others will accept anything pretty." He looked at the wares, picking up one small jug.
"Um, not that," Xander said, taking it and putting it back down. He said something in the native language. "Maybe we should move out of the personal care section," he suggested.
"What was that?" Bartlett asked quietly.
"A jar for sperm storage," Xander whispered.
"Oh. Thank you."
Xander nodded. "That's what we're here for." He pointed at a stall they were passing. "That's for perfume and scented oil."
The President shook his head. "I gave up on that years ago, I never get the right scent." He looked down the aisle. "Where do you work?"
"The next one of the left," Oz told him. He pointed down the first aisle. "This is more perfumes, body oils, and sexual aides."
"I don't think we need to go down there," Charlie said, and apparently he was having fun because he was smiling. "Will you be taking us to your jewelry stall?"
"We can go by there," Xander agreed. "It'd be cheating if I didn't at least try and get you buy something there."
The President smiled. "Of course it would. How much do you get of the profits you bring in?"
"Forty percent. I work part of one day a week. My women stand there and watch me, bringing more customers. I'm averaging about seventy bronze a week now."
"What's that on the exchange?"
"The usual coin in the market is in a silver-like coin," Oz said. "A bronze is a thousand of the silver. Xander's got quite a following, we've even gotten a refrigerator."
"How much is that costing you?" Charlie asked.
"About three bronze a year to keep up. It cost about thirty bronze to buy and have installed, but it was worth it. I wanted cheese."
"They don't have cheese?"
"They have one," Oz told him, "but he's allergic."
"Me too. It was very smooth," Xander said with a shrug as he hopped along beside them. "This is the jewelry aisle," he said, turning down it. He pointed at the second stall on the right. "That's the one that's started working in platinum. The first one up here." He went slower, letting them browse. When one of the merchants growled at him, he snarled something back.
"Problems?" Bartlett asked.
"Not really, he just accused me of stealing business from him. He used to make a lot of little jewelry for the young women."
Bartlett stopped to look at his wares, picking up a small bracelet. "My daughter Zoe would love this," he said. "How much?"
Oz translated, then began haggling, ending in an insult, which brought the price down to a reasonable level. "Eighteen silver." He paid the man, then accepted the bag for the bracelet. "Put it in your pocket," he advised. "They don't wear pockets so no one's really perfected the pick pocket yet." He watched as the bracelet was put away. "How about your's, Xan?" he asked, pointing at the closed awning. "Want to go in?"
Xander hopped up to the stall and tapped on the curtain covering the front.
"It's me, I've brought my country's leader to look at your wares."
The curtain was opened. "Your women were rabid this morning," he accused, showing the mess of his shirt.
"I'm sorry. I let Siblinth tell them that I was injured and I couldn't come." He looked around. "Did they tear anything but your shirt?"
The jeweler shook his head. "No," he sighed. "One thought you were dead and she ripped it up in her grief." He smiled at the President. "Give me a moment, please, to become presentable. His women have savaged me."
President Bartlett nodded. "Sure. I can understand how that happens." He looked at the jewelry under the show platform. "What is that?" he asked, pointing at a small cuff.
"It's to mark a child as having a natural gift for the bodily arts," Xander told him. The President looked very pissed. "No one told you, did they?" he guessed. He got a head shake. "Ah. See, these kids pick what they want to be when they're about two."
"The Wander, I've read a report on that," Bartlett said, relaxing some.
"Well, there are some children who naturally go towards the bodily arts. There's also some with a special hormone condition that mark them as special even among all the others. That's the sort of child who would wear that. They're marked and their non-practical education starts when they're eight."
"Are they sexually mature then?"
"They are," Oz told him, "but not physically. They become full adults when they're sixteen and physically adult when they're about twelve. Age eight is the first step on the road to adulthood. The child starts their formal education for their position. No matter which position they end up in."
"But their *practical* education?"
"Is held off until they're physically adults," Xander assured him. "I was worried about that myself, but here child molestation is a death penalty offense. Spousal abuse is another one."
"Murder, genocide, rape, and the intentional killing of someone's mind using any mental powers that you might have," Oz added.
Bartlett relaxed. "You certainly have studied this."
"I had to translate for the diplomat studying the legal issues. She refused to learn the local language. She also left within three months because she couldn't stand it up here." Oz looked over at the stall as the curtain reopened. "I was just explaining to him about the marking bracelets."
"Yes, your mate should be wearing one," he said, looking at Xander's wrist. "I could make him a beautiful one."
"No thanks," Oz told him. "Then I'd have to hurt the people who come up to him."
The jeweler laughed. "Yes, I can see that. What can I show you?" he asked the President.
"Can I see that little bronze looking piece?" Charlie asked, pointing it out.
It was taken out and put onto the show display. "This is not a very rare piece but it does mark one as being a protector." He let him pick it up to look at the design. "A very hard one, but many of our Space Marines wear one."
"Try that one," Xander said quietly, pointing at a small set of bracelets. "Third one on the right of that blue tray." It was pulled out. "This design means that you are wise and a student of people and things, that you help others learn." He handed it over.
Charlie smiled, resting it against his wrist. "I like the way it looks."
"So do I. How much?"
"I won't force you to haggle like some people, out of respect for my colleague of course. Seven silver."
"That's a really great price," Xander noted. "President Bartlett, the other wasn't for your doctor daughter, was it?" He got a head shake. "Then come look at this." He bent over, pointing at a small plate. "You can have it personalized at home, it's a bit harder than stainless steel, and she can put it on her bag or her stethoscope."
"I like that, it's a practical gift," he said, straightening up. "How much for that nametag?"
"Nametag?" the jeweler asked Xander, who pointed it out. "Oh, that." He pulled it up. "Technically this is a gift tag, you put it on top of the gift, giving them an extra one. It's usually for naming ceremonies among the people who do that." He held it in his hand. "One silver."
Oz handed it over, and the money for Charlie's present too. "Thank you." He walked on, letting them follow him. "Good thinking, Xan."
"Thanks, O...Richard." Xander looked down the rest of the aisle. "Is it a holiday? There's almost no one down here."
"It's that time of day," the jeweler sighed. "Most of us are probably cleaning our wares while the rest of the people go wander around the personal care section." He smiled slightly at the President. "Do you have more than one daughter?"
"I have three, and they're all very demanding," he said. "My wife taught them that lesson very well."
The jeweler laughed. "My wife is much the same, as our my daughters."
"You have daughters?" Oz asked.
"I do, but I fear for their sanity so they're not allowed down here when Xander's working. I wouldn't want to lose them to him, he's leaving soon and my daughters would go insane with grief."
Oz nodded. "I know that feeling very well." He took Xander's hand. "Where to next? Would you like to see the textiles section, the banking section, or the animals?"
"Which is next in line?" the President asked.
"Textiles," Xander said, giving Oz a bright smile. "He's been working with some weavers." He waved at his coworker. "I'll be in next week, tell any of them that happen by that I'll miss making them pretty things this week but I needed the rest." The jeweler nodded and waved them on. "Come on, let's go wander that way. I'm still hungry."
"We could hit the food stalls," the President offered.
"That's on the other side of the market," Oz told him. "There's some snack shops on the other side of the money changers though." He led the way, still holding Xander's hand.
Charlie put on his bracelet, smiling at the look of it. "I like this."
"And it suits you," the President told him, following the couple. "This is much quieter than the one I visited in Istanbul."
"It always is," Oz agreed. "When we first came up here, I was very uneasy because it was so quiet here. As time goes on, you grow to appreciate the quiet. Most everyone that makes anything does it during these times so it's like a good meditation." He turned back into the main aisle. "This way," he said, pointing.
"What's down that one?" Charlie asked, pointing to one off to the right and a little ways away.
"That's the paranormal section," Oz told him. "We're not really fond of that area as our other husband was warped by a book."
"The feeling's mutual," Xander finished. "They hate me because I wasn't impressed with a few things and I found something very wrong and reported it my first day in the market." He hopped on. "Oh, Oz, your weaving buddy is in."
"Cool." Oz nodded that way and started to walk.
President Bartlett looked at the stalls they passed, impressed by the array of things that could be found. He smiled at the fabric Oz was holding up to the light. "A good weave?"
"A very delicate one," Oz explained. "We've been working on this piece of fabric for the last week." He held it out for the President's approval. "It's not very long but it's the finest I've ever done."
Charlie pointed at a small row. "It looks uneven there."
"There's always some slipped spots in any fabric," Oz said philosophically. "Otherwise, it's done by a machine." He picked up a longer piece of fabric and held it out. "This is the normal fabric that they wear."
"I noticed how thin Xander's clothing seemed to be," Bartlett said as he held it up to the light. "A very fine weave. Is it hard to work with?"
Xander nodded. "Very. You almost have to weave the ends together. Even a serger didn't help that much."
"They have special sewing machines for this stuff," Oz explained. "It knots the ends together and weaves what it can to make it seamless." He took back that piece and held up a small dress. "We've recently given them some of the Earth fashions."
"That looks native Polynesian," Charlie said, taking it to hold up. "My sister would love something like this, not to wear, but to look at." He handed it to the President. "Sir, that would fit one of your daughters."
"It would," the President agreed. "But how about in a blue?"
Oz said something to the weaver and he walked into the back of the stall, coming out with a box of folded pieces of cloth. "He's going to look for you." He took back the original dress, letting them look through the box together. He laughed when he saw one, holding it up. "A mu-mu," he said in appreciation.
"Blair," Xander sighed. "He brought your friend a book of native fashions a few weeks back. I've seen a few women wearing them." He pointed at one piece of dark blue fabric. "Three?" he suggested.
The weaver laughed. "Sixteen, you know that."
"Hey, I can try," Xander said happily, handing over a large bronze coin. "So that I can come and find more later," he told him.
The weaver shook his head but he looked happy. "Fine. I'll expect you. Are you buying for your woman again?"
"You bought clothes for Sam?" Oz asked.
"I bought her the outfit she was wearing today," Xander said happily. "She wanted to get something more matronly but I talked her into it."
"Good job. She looked native, except for her hair." Oz pulled out a dress and held it up. "This is nice," he noted. "Good decorations. We should get prezzies for the ladies."
"We should," Xander agreed.
"Has anyone told you anything about importing items?" Charlie asked.
"Just to be circumspect and to not import the whole market. Little things for the house or personal use but not to be shown off yet," Xander told her. "Any food has to be not used at a dinner and stuff like that."
"That's sensible," Bartlett agreed. He picked up three of the dresses and the one Oz was holding. "How much for all of them?"
"Ah," the weaver said, nodding at him. "Is this your leader?"
Oz nodded. "Sorry, forgot. President Bartlett, this is Datharen, second husband to the woman who owns the stall and a weaver. This is our President, Jeb Bartlett. He's buying special things for his wife and daughters."
The weaver bowed to him. "Wives are often hard to buy for. Even my own can be picky about my presents to her."
Bartlett nodded. "She definitely can be difficult to buy for but I believe she'll love these."
"Those aren't in the same size."
"No, but two of them will fit one of my daughters. She's tragically underweight in my opinion." The weaver nodded. "How much?"
"I give Oz a special discount of sixteen silvers, but for a leader, I give a better one. Eight?"
Bartlett looked at Oz. "Do I haggle with him?"
"If you'd like," Oz said happily. "He hardly ever gets to haggle."
"Five," Bartlett said. "Each."
The weaver laughed. "Six?"
"Sounds good." He let Oz pay for it and accepted a bag for his purchases. "Are we paying you back?"
"This is only part of a day's wage for us, sir, don't worry about it. I spend more than this in one day looking for interesting things to treat Xander with." Oz moved on. "There's a few more stalls, and it would look bad if you didn't at least look," he advised. "Favoritism."
Bartlett nodded and moved on, looking at some of the other stalls, buying a long scarf for his wife at another one, the woven design was magnificent and a very subtle shift of colors. They moved to the money changers stalls, letting Oz talk to them about the exchange program they're setting up, and then to a snack stall, where Xander had something like a sandwich.
President Bartlett looked out over the goats, frowning at the one coming up to him. He was pulled away from the gate just in time to save him from being bitten. "Those things are mean," he noted.
"They don't really like people, they know we eat them," Oz told him, glaring at the goat. "You will be dinner," he told it.
A nearby merchant laughed.
Xander squealed when he saw a familiar little form sitting in his booth. "She sold her!"
"No, she lets the ferret stay here so she stays out of trouble while she works," the merchant corrected. "Otherwise she would ride around in her mother's uniform shirt all day and that makes it hard for her to catch thieves. I generously offered a shady resting spot for this little darling while her mother works."
"She brings people to your stall?" Oz said dryly.
The merchant nodded. "Definitely. People come to look at my goats more often because she is here." He petted the small ferret, who was on a long leash attached to the stall. "She had a small run-in with one of the more hostile riding beasts," he explained at the look to his leash.
Xander picked up his former baby and cuddled it, cooing at her as he scratched her under the chin. "It's all right, I know you were just trying to be friendly. All the other animals you know are nice and play with you, you just didn't understand."
A female voice coughed behind them. "She did, she did it yesterday too." She smiled down at her baby. "You're just mad that I won't let you take off and go down to the food stalls again." The ferret squeaked at her. "Yes, I know." She looked at Xander. "I wish I had listened to you more when you mentioned that she was fascinated by insignia."
"It's shiny?" Oz suggested.
"Yes, and I had to make up a good excuse when my Strolan's breast cups disappeared," she said dryly.
"They all seem to like playing in things like that," Xander agreed, handing her back. "Yeah, you're happy with her," he said, smiling at the ferret. "I'm glad you chose a good mommy." His smile came down some. "Whenever you're ready, we have more wood shavings for litter and some food for them at the house. Stop by and get some."
She nodded. "I will, I had planned on it tonight." She unclipped the leash and her ferret climbed into her tunic, then she walked away.
"She had to stop someone from charging a ferret with biting," Oz explained to Charlie. "The little one refused to let her go."
"It doesn't cause problems, living with others?"
"Only her finding thing," Xander said, going back over to look at the animals. "They are interesting," he said quietly.
"They're not exactly docile," the President remarked, "but raising them might be enjoyable because of that." He patted the one in front of him, moving his hand fast enough to avoid being bitten. "Yup, just like a camel." He walked away, heading back toward the food stalls. "You're right, I am hungry. What would you suggest?"
"It depends, do you want spicy, meaty, vegetables, or pasta as they've recently imported some and started making some of their own," Oz asked.
"Anyplace I can sample a lot of things?"
"Yeah, there is," Xander said happily, hopping along on his crutches. "That first place we ate, Richard?"
"Sure. That's got a good amount of local cuisine and is clean." They led the way, getting them a seat at the small restaurant. "The things in blue are spicy," Oz warned. "And there's no such thing as light spices."
Charlie smiled. "I'd like to try something like that, and maybe something more subtle? Like a curry?"
"Order number six," Xander told him. "And add anything in blue, a half order."
"Or order number eight and ask for the blue tea," Oz suggested. "That's got both spicy and not in the same dish."
"What's this?" the President asked, pointing at one of the things on the menu, which was in English, apparently the diplomats and this couple ate there often.
"It's the goat, which is the standard meat, with a tomato-like vegetable sauce, flat bread, and a spicy dressing on the side," Oz told him. "It's good but you *really* will never eat it all. The plate's almost as big as the table. Even leftovers never got fully eaten."
"Can we bring it back across with us?" Charlie asked.
"We can," Xander agreed. "I've brought General Hammond lunch a few times when I went to make a report. We've lost track of earth time so it was an apology for getting him up in the middle of the night." He looked up at the waiter, giving him a little smile. "I want this one," he said, pointing at number four, "and the blue tea. And bring bread and the dipping sauces."
"Good idea," Oz agreed. He pointed at number ten. "That one and please ask him to take out the green things?" The waiter nodded, writing it down. "And bring some of those little finger dishes for us to nibble on while we wait."
President Bartlett looked at his menu. "Which one should I get?"
"Get number two," Xander suggested. "I had it my first night and I loved it. You can get the cheese on the side."
"All right," the President said, pointing at his menu. "And the cheese." Oz said the local word. "On the side."
The waiter nodded and bowed, then gave Charlie a fearful and expectant look.
"I want number eight," he said, pointing, "and some of the same tea. For both of us." The waiter nodded and ran off, taking their menus with him. "I've never gotten that response before."
"There's a race of dark skinned people in the Empire," Blair said as he sat down at the next table. "His people were at war with them a few centuries ago, but they were nearly wiped out by them. The dark skinned people, who's name is never said in front of the waiter's race because it's a curse, had ruled the planet for millennia but the native culture wanted to rule itself, starting off the war. They paid heavily but in the end, the master race did give in to their demands, though they hadn't been hurting at all from the war."
Charlie nodded. "Were they good?"
"Part of the time. The planet was heavy in minerals, but it was all in the top soil. The natives worked about two days a week for a living wage, but they wanted more." He shrugged. "It wasn't slavery but a milder form of colonialism. The master race moved on happily, leaving them to fall apart in peace. Now they're welcomed back through local agents to start buying the minerals again, but they're not allowed to step foot on the planet."
"Ah," the President said. "A good compromise?"
"It seems to please everyone," Blair agreed. He smiled at Xander. "We're getting takeout for a long study session. Want to come help us input notes later?"
"Sure. I can't write in my room right now, the couch hurts my leg." He looked over at the table. "You're getting that big thing of meat, aren't you?"
"Yup. We've got three students helping us and we offered to buy dinner." He said something to the waiter coming back with the teas for the table, then added something else at the end.
"That doesn't go," Oz reminded him.
"That's why I got it on the side. Sam likes them together." He helped the waiter grab the snacks to put them on the table. "Here we go. The green bread is more flavorful with a spicy undertone, the paler bread is like our flour, and the blue bread is the same stuff that's in the tea. Definitely do not use the red sauce on the green bread, it'll burn your mouth." He smiled and accepted the tray the cook brought out to him, flipping a coin at him. "Later, guys." He walked out, carrying the food back to his workplace.
Oz picked up some of the bread and dipped it into the green sauce. "This one is more like a salad dressing consistency. The red one is very hot, and the other three are really good."
"This one," Xander said as he dipped his into a bowl of light green sauce, "is the texture of an alfredo. This is one of our favorite sauces because it stays on the bread."
"The red soaks in," Oz pointed out.
The President picked up some of the pale bread and tore it into pieces, dipping it into the sauce closest to him, the red one. "I'm usually game for new things," he said, then he bit into it. And reached for his glass of tea. And Xander's glass of tea, and the rest of his piece of bread. "You weren't kidding," he said finally, able to speak again. "That's hotter than anything I've ever tasted."
"Put some on the blue bread," Oz suggested. "The tea kills the afterburn." He watched as the President ate some of it that way and nodded. "The green bread is very suited to anything Xander eats. The pale bread goes well with anything but the red and the dark blue sauce," he said, pointing at the small bowl. "Almost no one likes that though. The cook knows us well enough to arrange all of Xander's sauces on his side and all mine on this one."
Charlie dipped some of the bread into the dark blue sauce, making a face. "Bitter."
"Much better on pears," Xander agreed.
"That's because that is a pear," Oz pointed out. "They would be complimentary."
"How much of your income goes to basic necessities?" Charlie asked Xander.
"None. The basics are provided free for everyone each morning," he told him. "It's the more expensive stuff that needs refrigeration or the treats that cost you extra."
"So, everyone gets some goat, some water, and some bread every day?"
"And some fruit, some lube, some oils, some veggies, and some of the milk we have," Oz agreed. "Everyone has a family card for their family. The basics are all given to you based on the number of people in your family. They eat two real meals and nibble the rest of the time." He picked up something that looked like a breaded finger. "These are fried vegetables, a new item using the flour that they use for the pale bread." He held it out. "Try it, it should be crunchy but very soft in the center."
Charlie took a bite, nodding. "I like this. It's got the texture of stuffed celery."
The President picked one up and nibbled on it. "This is good. What sort of vegetable is this?"
"It's some sort of green," Xander told him. "There's not really an earth equivalent for some of these." He looked at the plate. "Any I can eat?"
"Nope." Oz grinned. "You know better. You have cheese waiting at home."
"This is the local cheese?" Charlie asked, picking apart one of the finger-looking things.
"The gray stuff is," Xander said, looking glum. "I'm allergic to it."
"It's very good. Is it from the goat?"
"No it was from the furry footstool looking thing," Oz told him. "They produce about a quart of milk every three hours. It's nutritious but not for Xander."
"Can't drink the milk either?" Bartlett asked as he ate another.
"Very little. I eat a lot of fish instead." Xander picked up some more of the bread and dunked it into his pale green sauce. "Here, taste this," he said, holding it out for Charlie. "It's a type of pepper."
The other man ate it, then slumped a little. "That is good," he announced. He got himself some more.
Xander nodded. "I've made a meal of just bread and this." He sipped at his new glass of tea, and nodded the waiter over. "How much longer on our orders?" he asked politely. The waiter smiled and said something, heading back into the kitchen. "It's customary at *this* place to ask. It makes the cook feel good and she personally brings the food."
A large woman, easily close to eight feet tall and probably five around, all in muscle, came out carrying a tray and put it down, taking the bread and putting it on the side of the plate. She smiled at the two extra men. "The new diplomats?"
"No, this is the President of our country," Oz told her. "He's here to talk with Nethisha."
Xander groaned as a furry blur ran past. Then another ran past. "Sacryn and Skip are in town," he said lightly. He laughed as an adult trudged along behind them. "Beautiful one, would you like Sacryn and Skip to come back to the palace with us? We're going there after dinner." The cat looked over at him, then howled. The kitten and the ferret came back, mostly because the kitten was carrying the ferret by the back of the neck.
//Thank you. I know our leader trusts you. They tire me.// She laid down in some shade, snorting at the kitten.
"Sacryn," Xander called, putting down a piece of meat.
//Xander,// she said happily, trotting over. She let Skip eat the meat for her. //Thank you. We were looking for you. Nethisha said that anytime you're ready she is.// She sat down and released the ferret, licking over it's back. She looked up at Charlie. //You seem nice. What's your name? I'm Sacryn.//
"My name is Charlie," he said, bowing to her. "I'd pet you but I'm eating and I don't want to insult our cook." He picked up some of the meat on his plate and slowly tasted it, grabbing some of the bread to eat with it.
"Put it on the bread," Oz suggested. "It works best that way."
"And mix in the peppers," Xander added, reaching down to pet her. "You're very well groomed today. Is Lethshan taking good care of you?"
//She's a good mommy,// Sacryn said solemnly. //Thank you for talking to her for me. I'm happier now.// She went back to grooming her friend.
The cook looked down and said something.
//Yes, please.// She held up Skip. //He likes the blue vegetables too.// She put Skip back down, holding him with one of her paws so he couldn't get away. Xander smiled down at her. //Skip likes to run off and investigate but one of the cooks down the street screamed and tried to catch Skip to cook. I bit him,// she said proudly.
"I'm sure your mommy will be very proud of you," President Bartlett said, smiling down at her. "You are very pretty."
//Thank you. I'll lead you to Nethisha when you're done.// She looked back at the adult, then handed Skip to Xander to go check on her. //Grandmother?// she asked, nudging her. //Grandmother?//
Xander grabbed his crutches and stood up, going over to help check on her. He felt her breathing, but it was very shallow. "Call for the pack," he told her, giving her a very serious look. "We need your mommy and we need a healer for her I think."
Sacryn sat down and lifted her head, howling as loud as she could. Then she laid down next to the grandmother and nuzzled her, hoping to make her feel better. //I promise not to run if you'll get better,// she promised.
"Shh, it wasn't your fault," Xander soothed, giving her a hug. "This has nothing to do with you running after Skip." He looked over as he felt eyes on him. Standing there was a very rare male. "She's sick," he told him. "She was watching Sacryn, who came to give us a message."
The male howled and nudged the grandmother a few times, then he nudged Sacryn, who shrunk into Xander's lap.
"It wasn't her fault," Xander told him. "She was trying to keep the ferret out of trouble. She rescued the ferret from a cook that wanted to eat it."
A human female came running, falling to her knees beside the grandmother. "What happened?"
"Sacryn had to chase down Skip, who managed to not get captured and cooked," Xander told her. "They were searching for us. I told her I'd get Sacryn and Skip back to the palace and she laid down to rest."
The woman nodded. "She is very old, this was the first time she was out of the palace in over sixteen months." She patted Sacryn on the head. "It's not your fault, little one. She has a mass growing in her stomach, that's what's wrong with her." Sacryn's nose appeared. "Really, I'm sure your mommy will tell you that."
"Her mommy's Lethshan," Xander told her quietly. "Is this Lethshan's mother?" She nodded. "Cancer?"
"The growing lump?" She thought. "It would be analogous, but it's something that happens to all the older ones. An organ starts to swell as they grow very old. Usually they're content to lay around in the sun until they die in their sleep." She smiled at the kitten. "You must have been very favored by her to bring her out of her rest. Only the most favorite cub could do that." Sacryn uncurled a little more, soothed by the reassurance.
Lethshan came running, stopping when she saw the scene. //It is time?// she asked them.
"Soon," the healer soothed, running a hand down the head cat's back. "The outing tired her."
//She insisted,// Lethshan said wryly. //Said she wanted to have one last walk in the market and picked her favorite cub to go with her.// She looked at her daughter. //It is nothing you did. Or the ferret,// she said, looking back at where Oz was trying to hold the ferret still. //Let it go. It will only come over here.// She purred and nuzzled Sacryn. //You were highly favored by her, little one. Don't be sad, it is her time. We were expecting this.// She picked her off Xander's lap and plopped her down in front of her, grooming her. //Are you coming up soon?//
"We're halfway through our meal," Xander told her. "Not too much longer. Do you need help carrying her back?"
"No, I've got it," the healer told him, picking up the grandmother and standing up. "Come, let us let them eat."
Oz got up and brought over the ferret, handing him to Sacryn. "Here, you take very good care of him. We're very impressed how well you take care of him." She sent him a weak mental purr and followed her mother out of the restaurant.
"That's rough," Xander said, accepting Oz's help up and back to his chair. "As they age, they have a gland that grows. They usually die in their sleep but that one wanted to walk through the marketplace one last time, so she picked her favorite granddaughter."
"Is she dead?" Charlie asked.
"No, not yet. More unconscious and worn out." He looked over at the kitchen. "They went home," he called out. The cook came out of the kitchen. "The grandmother cat collapsed and they all went home. I'll take the food to them when we leave." She nodded, disappearing again.
"Many people seem to understand English," Bartlett noted. "Don't they speak it?"
"They understand a few words. It's more like they learn useful words in every language. Food words, takeout words. Anything more complicated needs to be in their language."
"So she probably understood collapsed, went to palace, and takeout?" Charlie asked.
"Or a few more words, yeah," Oz said, nodding as he nibbled on his dinner. "Was that Lethshan's mother?" Xander nodded. "Hmm, I heard she's the oldest living one of them."
"Recorded anyway," Oz told him, patting him on the hand. "Finish up. Nethisha must be getting impatient."
Xander smiled. "No, she's ready but she's probably really busy now. We've got a few minutes. I told them we were halfway through our meal." He looked at the other two men. "On the way out, we'll take you by the Treat stall so you can take some back if you'd like. General Hammond hinted that you might want to."
"I need a box," Charlie said, putting down his last piece of bread. "I'm stuffed."
"That's kinda normal," Oz agreed. He stood up and went to stick his head into the kitchen, coming back with four boxes. "Here we go. You can eat it while you grill General Hammond about his project."
President Bartlett smiled at that. "I would like to know what else is out there, especially after seeing this place." He boxed up his meal and they all walked on, going up to the palace.
Nethisha smoothed her hair as she walked into the throne room. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said, bowing to President Bartlett. "Xander, why was she worried?"
"Sacryn worried that she had caused her grandmother to collapse. We all assured her that it wasn't the reason. Is she feeling better?"
"No. She's still somewhat convinced of the fact."
"She has very low self esteem," Oz told her. "She didn't want to talk to any of the older cats about really needing some mommy attention either," he pointed out when she looked at him.
"Good point," she agreed, relaxing. "Her mother died when she was very young and it's harmed her...self esteem you called it?"
"It means how you see yourself in your mind, how confident you are in yourself and the like," Oz explained.
"Ah, yes, just so!" she exclaimed happily. "Yes, that is where she is lacking. Lethshan is working on getting her better, but there is still a lot of work to do." She bowed to Charlie. "And you are?"
"I'm Charlie, his assistant," he said, shaking her hand and bowing slightly. "I was very interested in your market. It's fascinating, all the different things that have no comparison to anything on our world."
"Sit, please," she said, waving at the marshmallow chairs. "You two, are you busy?"
"I should go help the new diplomats acclimate," Oz told her. "Xander promised to help the doctors studying up at Park School, but we do have some time if you need it."
She shook her head. "I'm sure we'll be fine. Did you two eat?" she asked, smiling as the couple walked out. "Those two are my favorites," she said. "A little too formal still but very entertaining and easy to get along with. I hope our new diplomats are like that."
"I think they will be by the time Oz gets done with them," Charlie told her.
She laughed. "Yes, just so. He will ...wrangle I believe the word is?" Bartlett nodded. "He will wrangle their cooperation. General Hammond made sure that they knew that Oz was in charge of them this time." She smiled as a little furry body jumped into her lap. "Hello, Dorthensan."
"If I may ask, what does that name mean?" President Bartlett asked.
"It means 'bringer of more trouble than six kittens'," she said with a teasing smile. "We love the ferrets and have dedicated ours to our Goddess of Trouble, Lissa. I believe Xander has met her once or twice."
"He never mentioned it but I'm sure he's told everyone else," Bartlett said diplomatically.
"Yes, I've head that your main faith is a singular God."
President Bartlett smiled. "Yes, M'lady, it is. I would be happy to speak of you about our religion, but most people find it somewhat boring. I was actually educated by a religious school."
"Your religions run schools?" she asked with as nose wrinkle. "How do they keep from influencing the students?"
Charlie laughed as the President thought that over. "Most of the time, the children are put in there because their parents are of that religion and wanted their children in a private school," he explained. "We even have some colleges that are run by religions, they do better at not influencing the students than the lower grades."
"Very good explanation," Bartlett said, smiling at his assistant. He looked up at her. "Actually, our religion is still split into factions, different forms of the same belief. None of the groups can really agree on any form of doctrine outside of our God's name."
She nodded. "I've seen such fissioning off before. Usually it destroys."
"It still happens among our people, but we're working on peace. There's still some countries being pulled apart by religion after centuries," he said honestly, "but the nearby countries have stepped in to set up barriers and to help solve the problem through diplomacy."
"Would it not be easier for the Churches to get together?"
"It might but neither church is willing to give up it's version of doctrine yet for peace."
"Is one that Catholic Church I heard about from the two doctors? They said that they had ruled most of the known world at one time."
"They wielded hidden power," President Bartlett agreed. "Sometimes, not so hidden power. They crowned heads of countries for a while. Now they're starting to have to pull back some and it's causing problems within their doctrine. As is technology."
She nodded. "We had that problem. Our Goddess of War was not originally allowed on our military ships because she represented the old ways. Then her Priests and Priestesses found documents telling of future times and changed their ways, now they're very welcome on any ship."
"It will be like that for the next century. The present Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, names the people who choose his successor. It's a slow process of change."
"I would appreciate someone to come up and tell the ambassador who will be going down to your planet about your religions."
"I can arrange that," the President agreed. "I know a few teachers of theology who also see the reality of the world and the ways that religion is used by people. Would that be acceptable?"
"It would," she agreed. "Would this one mind?"
"I don't know, I'd have to ask. He shouldn't. If he does, there's plenty more where they came from." She smiled lightly at that. "If I may say so, you do have a beautiful city. You've managed to turn necessary housing into some very decorative buildings."
"Ours are fairly square and uninspiring," Charlie added.
She smiled. "I would like to see that. I have heard many things about tall buildings. Are your cities that crowded?"
"The city where we'd like to set up the embassy, in New York, presently has about ten million people." She gasped. "Yes, it is quite a lot."
"There's not that many people on this planet," she told him. "Xander had said you were having an overcrowding problem with the animals, but he didn't mention the problem with the people."
"It's not gotten horrible yet," he assured her. "We've got some time before it becomes critical. Maybe by then something can be figured out to ease the population crunch." He looked at the statues around the room. "Charlie? Where did you put it?" he asked quietly.
"Oh." He pulled a box out of his pocket and handed it over. "Sorry, sir."
"Not a problem." President Bartlett accepted a hand up and walked up to the Queen. "As a token of appreciation for seeing us today and agreeing to let us kick those diplomats in the ass." He held the box out.
She took it with a smile, opening it, and nearly dropped it when it started to play music. "Oh, my. What is this called?"
"A music box. That one is just for music; some are also to keep jewelry in." He smiled at her. "That particular piece is called 'Feelings'."
She laughed and closed and opened the lid a few times. "This is very neat," she said, putting it on the table beside her throne. "I like that. It amuses me. You are interesting people too. Will you be able to stay for dinner?"
"Xander said our schedule included a few hours up here if you wished it," Charlie said. "I'm not sure which time he was speaking of though."
She waved a hand. "Don't worry, if someone worries that you're late, they'll send Oz." She walked down the stairs to take the President's arm. "Tell me of your wife and your family." She led him away, going slowly so his assistant could catch up. It was always important to have a secondary husband around to take notes and help you when you were lost.
Oz walked up to the diplomat's house and stopped when he saw Sam holding one man by the hair on his head. "Problems already?" he asked the women standing around.
"He smiled at me and said that my outfit showed off my attributes very well," one woman told him.
Oz nodded and grabbed the man, taking him into the house and slamming the door. Then there was yelling.
Sam smiled at the women. "We will keep a stronger leash on them this time. If they cause a problem, we'd like to know as soon as possible."
The women nodded and walked away.
A man who had been standing off to the side moved forward. "Webb. State Department." He looked over her outfit, then at the retreating women. "Going native?"
Sam looked him over, then nodded. "Shock therapy. Captain Samantha Carter, Air Force." She said as she shook his hand. "General Hammond said we were to ride you new guys."
He shrugged. "Fine. Just as long as you realize I'm in charge."
Oz walked out and looked the man over. "You're not in charge," he told him. "Technically, Colonel Jack O'Neill is in charge of this whole delegation, even your part. Jack, Sam, and I are your go-betweens with the locals. Blair and Daniel are your social scientists. Xander has made extremely helpful contacts in the marketplace. Trust me, if you come up here with a cowboy attitude, you'll be going home real quick because they're not going to tolerate more crap from you guys. The last ones ended up under house arrest their last day here." He looked at Sam. "He understands now. Apparently he got here late and missed part of your 'don't smile and they consider humans interesting but not for more than flirting' lecture."
She shrugged. "As long as he understands now." She looked at Webb. "Did you want to get up to speed on the native customs now or later?"
"Later please. I'd like to meet with my staff as I only got this assignment this morning." He looked between them. "How far have we gotten?"
"We're in currency negotiations. There's a tentative plan for an embassy in New York starting next year so they can branch out to other governments," Sam told him.
"President Bartlett's talking with the Queen right now. I'm sure the Empress will be hearing about it by tonight," Oz added. "We're both at the 'making a list' stage."
Webb nodded. "All right. I can deal with that. What's up on the monetary front?"
"Iron, emeralds, and silver, with platinum making a debut here last week for decoration purposes only," Oz told him. "I worked on the currency, legal, and market parts of the negotiations. I'm also the lead interpreter."
Sam smiled at him. "I'm one of the main cultural and sciences people. I'm working with both this team and the two social scientists to see what they have to offer us to learn. We're looking at sending already trained professionals up to train under them. Their educational system is phenomenal and the kids are college level when they enter formal education at eight."
He sighed. "Do they see themselves as much higher up the chain?"
"They've been here for millennia. There's a few barbarian comments sometimes, but putting it into perspective they're being generous." Oz leaned against the building. "When you came across, did anyone show you where we are?" Webb nodded. "Good. Then you should come over tonight and catch up with the rest of us. We'll work on getting everyone placed tomorrow."
Webb smiled. "Good, I can handle that. What's the time change?
"One month earth to a week and a half here," Sam told him. "About three and a half days at home to here. They expect us to not be adjusted though. Xander's been very good at showing people that we're normal."
"That too," Oz said dryly, moving so the man could get in the door to his house. "Your protocol manager is the same as ours. He'll be here for the next two days. Trust him. He reports directly to our sponsor, who's the First Wife."
"The brief did mention polygimous marriages," Webb noted.
"Oh," Sam said with a head shake. "That understated it. They have spouses of each gender, and multiples thereof. You're in a matrilineal society, the first husband takes care of the household and helps the main wife and the First Wife to deal with the family business."
"And does any PR for the family," Oz added on.
Webb shuddered. "Are we going to be separated like that?"
"I am technically the head of the household over the diplomats," Sam told them. "Jack is looked on as being under my protection but having the same status as my First Husband. So will you. Xander and Oz are their own family grouping and Oz heads his."
"And we've got to talk to the First Wife about that," Oz muttered, looking up at the palace. "She's going to be pushy."
"She?" Webb asked.
"One of Xander's groupies down at the jewelry stall wants to marry him but he and Oz are married."
"Drop it even if you are uncomfy with the subject," Oz told him quietly. "Deal with it and move on, man, it's common up here." He looked at Sam. "One of the women not only made an issue of it, but made an issue that she could force Xander to marry her because he doesn't belong to a wife already."
"Would that really be that bad?" Webb asked. He suddenly had a blade at his throat and a growling man in front of him. "Never mind," he said, stepping back and swallowing. "I didn't realize."
"Xander is keeping me alive," Oz told him. "Never doubt that nothing will come between us." He slid his sword back into its sheath. "With that said, take this lesson to heart. The women and men find us amusing, like we find precocious children amusing, but we're not good for more than flirting. The last diplomats got their assess kicked because they couldn't take hints, obvious or implicit. Nethisha won't appreciate having more bad diplomats in her city."
Webb nodded. "Good. I hope I don't have to whip anybody." He nodded at the house. "Let me go in and deal with my staff. I'll be at your house after dark falls?"
"That's two sleep cycles from now," Sam told him.
"Oh. Okay, after our first sleep cycle?"
Oz nodded. "Fine with us. By the way, the jumpiness you'll all be feeling will go away, there's something like chocolate and caffeine in the air." He took Sam's arm and walked back toward the palace with her. "Did you actually get the magnets put in?"
She smiled. "Double sided tape."
He laughed. "Good idea. Probably a lot less embarrassing. Think about the problems with metal detectors back at home."
Xander smiled as President Bartlett was led out by Oz, holding out a bag. "I got you treats to take home and analyze. Watch out for the brown stuff if it's warm, it can give gas pains."
"Did the diplomats arrive and get their first lecture?" Bartlett asked them.
Oz nodded. "And one got his ass kicked already. He got here late and didn't hear the 'they don't want to do more than flirt' part of the lecture. I went off on him." The President looked at him. "They'll expect us to be firmer with this new group."
Bartlett nodded. "Good idea." He put his food into the bag and handed it to Charlie. "Where to now?"
"Unless you wanted to see more of the market, we were going to take you back," Xander told him.
Charlie looked around. "I feel really hyped here."
"The atmosphere contains something that mimics the effects of chocolate and caffeine on your system," Oz told him. "The first three nights here, you don't really sleep, you shake." He started walking. "Should we get you some more food for the trip home?"
"Please," the President said. "Maybe that big plate so we can go back and feed the base. We're staying there tonight."
"Covering up the time change effects," Oz said wisely. "Sure." He turned down one of the side aisles, a big one. "I know the back way to get there."
"Let's go," Bartlett said. "Josh will love some of this."
"Sir, he probably won't eat it if you told him about it."
"I wonder if we could get one of those goats back at home."
Xander smiled. "Yes, you can," he said. "As a matter of fact, there's one waiting on you." Oz stopped to look at him. "She gave him a breeding set," he said with a grin. "She was that impressed with him."
Oz shuddered. "I hope you have a very strong pen at home, sir." He started walking again.
Jack moved away from the goat's mouth, again, and sighed. "How much longer before they get back?" he asked his boss.
"Not long. They're probably getting loaded up on treats."
Xander looked up as he heard a whistling noise, and moved his hand to his sword, dropping his crutches to be able to fight. There was a flash and then everything went blank for him.
Oz looked over as he heard the whine, getting the President out of the way, and away from Xander for some reason he wasn't sure of. By the time he looked back, someone had Xander and was running with him. "Fuck," he growled. "Jack!" he yelled, they were close enough to the portal to nearly see it. Jack came running. "Get them home, someone just stole Xander." He took off running, going to rescue his mate.
Jack smiled at the President. "Don't worry, sir, they have a lot of experience with that." He made sure they had all their bags, retrieving one from a stall keeper who had picked it up for them, and led them back to the gate, one hand on his sidearm.
Charlie looked at him. "That's normal?"
"Xander's got a hormone condition that makes people want him," Jack told him. "He's been taken before. That's why he knows how to fight." He smiled at his boss as he came into view. "Someone got Xander."
"Holy Hannah," the General sighed. "That boy and trouble are first cousins."
"Are not," a voice drifted out, and a little girl appeared, smiling up at him. "Are they going with you?" He nodded. "Have fun, I made them nicer." She looked at Jack. "He come back sometime soon." She giggled and disappeared.
Jack sighed. "Sir, would you remind me why you got me out of retirement again?" he asked his boss.
The President took the reins for his goats and led them up to the portal. "I think we'll go back through now. We brought dinner."
Charlie dodged a set of sharp teeth. "I agree, they ate you first in self defense," he told the goat.
The President smiled, then started to laugh. "I'm sure they probably did," he agreed, walking through the portal.
General Hammond clapped Jack on the back. "Think of what you'll learn now," he suggested, then jogged up to walk through the portal too. "Men, stand down, they're only goats."
"They're Marines in a costume," one of the soldiers, who was backed up in a corner trying to defend himself, called. "Sir, can I please shoot it?"
"No, it was a diplomatic gift," Hammond said, coming over to pull the goat away from his men. "Put them in the gate room and tether them really well." His soldier looked at him, disbelief showing on his face. "Would you want to blindly walk into them if you were going to invade?"
"Think about the G'ouald running into them," Jack said happily. "They would never try it again."
The soldier shook his head and led the goats away, going to do as he was told, like the good little soldier he was. "This is what happens when you let gays in," he muttered, "they bring strange shit with them."
"I heard that!" General Hammond yelled after him. "You're on KP for the next *month*, son, and you will report to my office in two hours time, after you secure those goats!"
"Yes, sir," the soldier said, slumping some as he continued to lead the goats.
President Bartlett held out a large box. "Like I said, we brought dinner."
"Good, some of your staff members are upstairs, they have something that needed your attention."
"I'll go get them," Charlie said, heading out.
The President smiled. "Nice handling. Those two boys were quite fun. Both sets actually."
"Sandburg and Jackson are our pride and joy," Hammond said with a smile. "Let's go up to the meeting room. It'll give us the most privacy with the biggest amount of space." He led the way, carrying the food. "Is this the big tray of goat?"
"It is," the President said. "Xander was quiet enthusiastic as he picked out side dishes. He did suggest that you find some American cheese for some of the little rolled things." He frowned. "I hope he'll be fine."
"He will. The boy's been kidnaped at least six times that I know of. This is just a serious time instead of a playful one. They actually practice for these times, sir." He opened the door of the meeting room, sliding the tray onto the table with a little help. "It's perfectly healthy, but do watch out for anything a deep red color, it's hotter than most volcanos." He took his seat at the top of the table, then got up and started to move, but the President motioned him to stay. "Sir, would you like to debrief now?"
"Sure," he said, sitting down and opening the tray. "Didn't even get mixed up," he said happily. "We need American cheese too." Charlie got up and went to talk to the soldiers guarding the door. He came back a few minutes later with some slices. "Thanks." He smiled. "Queen Nethisha is quite a card."
General Hammond smiled and nodded. "I know. We've had a few dinner discussions."
The staff members looked back and forth, then Josh cleared his throat. "Um, sir? Was it a good meeting?"
"A very good one. I even managed to get presents for my wife and children." Josh just nodded wisely. "That should take away some of the sting about not coming with me." He ate a piece of meat, then dipped some bread into a sauce and handed it to Josh. "Eat. It's perfectly good."
Everyone dug in, not even bothering to ask what they were eating. They'd been around diplomatic circles long enough to know better than to ever ask what they were eating.
TO BE CONTINUED... SOON.