Godless Provenance: Chapter 24
Legalese: See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.
Author's Notes: And here we come to it at last. Thank you so much for all of the support and encouragement that you have given me over the course of this story - it couldn't have been written without you. Whether you reviewed every chapter, or did your lurking with dedication, I thank you for taking the time to read this monster. At this point, as always, I also ask that you leave a review when you've finished. Whether this will be your twenty-fourth review, or your first, I'd love to hear your final thoughts on the story. This has been a project two years in the making, and reviews are the author's final and only rewards. Thank you in advance, and happy reading!
The night was unusually cold for a typical December evening in Southern California. The worn wooden planks of the back porch were like blocks of ice that pushed their frigid fingers through the thick cloth of her blue jeans, chilling her skin and causing small shivers to ripple up her slight frame. She sat hunched over, her legs angling down the three uneven steps with her boots planted in the frost-covered grass, and her bare hands tucked into the sleeves of her oversized white sweater. The soft cotton weave was covered by a heavy wool pea coat, the coarse material scratching her ears as she hunched her shoulders to duck down further into the deceptive warmth her body offered. Her breath became trapped within the thick cloth, creating a warm, moist atmosphere that she greedily inhaled before exhaling through her nose in a plume of frosty air.
For the first time in over three weeks, Buffy was alone with her thoughts. Behind her, the house was bursting with life - she could hear the soft murmurings of Dawn and Tara over the clinking of dishes as they worked together to clean up dinner mess; she could hear Willow happily typing away in the dining room while Giles flipped page after page of some dusty book or another, muttering quietly to himself at the other end of the table; she could hear the television blaring from the living room, and Xander and Anya enumerating the many things they had learned from watching 24, such as the idea that living in Los Angeles was tantamount to getting killed in one terrorist attack or another, because apparently all bad things only happened in Los Angeles.
Buffy snorted softly, the air misting before her as she snuggled deeper into the warmth of her jacket. If there was one thing that she had learned during her career, or calling, as a slayer, it was that bad things weren't restricted to one location, and could happen anywhere, at any time.
But so could the good.
As was commonplace from getting snaked, Buffy remembered very little following her showdown with Apophis. She remembered staying conscious long enough to see Jack hovering over her on some alien planet; she remembered being carried down the ramp into Stargate Command to find Xander waiting for her with General Hammond; and she remembered waking in the hospital infirmary to the feeling of her hand encased in the soft, gentle grip of another. It was here that the memories became more clear, because she remembered thinking that the other hand was larger than her own - strong - with calluses lining the skin in a familiar way that brought a soft smile to her lips. The smile had given her away, and she had felt the hand tighten around her own as another wonderful hand brushed against her forehead.
She had been lying on a bed with a thin mattress, encased in tightly folded sheets that scratched her skin and restricted her movements. Her hospital gown and thin blanket had done little to keep the chill of the subterranean room at bay, but when she opened her eyes to find Jack holding her hand and seated at her bedside, the chill had been forgotten. Xander had been with him, and Daniel as well. The others, she had been told - Giles and Dawn, Willow and Tara, and even Anya - were already in Colorado Springs, holed up in a motel and desperately waiting to see her.
Within moments of her awakening, Daniel had immediately launched into the story of when Jack met Xander - a tale that was already becoming legendary amongst the Scoobies, and though Buffy had been only somewhat coherent at the time, even she remembered it word for word.
Apparently Xander had been less than impressed to see her come through the stargate, barely conscious and covered in blood, and being held in the arms of a stranger. He had met Jack at the bottom of the ramp and had tried to take his best friend from the stranger, only to find that Jack wasn't willing to relinquish his burden.
Grinning unrepentantly in the face of Jack's scowl, Daniel adjusted his glasses and beamed at Buffy from where she watched from her infirmary bed with open amusement. "I believe Jack's exact words were, 'Who in the hell are you?'"
"Her best friend," Xander supplied with that dorky grin that Buffy loved, eagerly playing his part from where he stood beside Daniel. "And who in the hell are you?"
"Her boyfriend," Daniel returned, his eyes dancing.
Masking her grin, Buffy turned towards Jack and arched a brow at the older man, enjoying the way his face began to flush in embarrassment. "My boyfriend?"
"Okay, so maybe I was a little-"
"Presumptuous?" Daniel supplied with a cheeky grin.
"-with my wording," Jack finished as he redirected his glare towards his best friend, "but in my defense-"
"No," Buffy quickly interrupted with a soft smile. "I like it."
Hazel eyes met dark brown, but before things could become too serious, Xander broke the moment in his usual fashion. "Actually, you're a pretty good fit," he commented as he began to inspect Jack with a critical eye. "The Buffster has already proven that she's got a thing for guys in uniform, not to mention her penchant for older men."
Growling, Buffy aimed a punch for her scooby friend, only to have him jump out of reach. "Hey, at least he has a pulse!" she retorted.
"And a reflection," Jack added with a small grin.
"And to my knowledge, he doesn't suffer from any gypsy curses, nor does he have a thing for being a vampire slushee," Buffy concluded.
"All positives in my book," Xander agreed with a decisive nod, while beside him Daniel shook his head and mouthed 'vampire slushee' to Jack, his expression brimming with curiosity.
Three days later Buffy had been reluctantly released from the hands of the military and into the waiting arms of her friends. Most of those three days had been spent undergoing treatment and what seemed like endless medical exams, not to mention signing a mountain of paperwork that threatened all kinds of unfortunate things if she were to ever breathe a word of her experiences to anyone outside of the Stargate program.
Buffy had broken that promise within minutes of her release as between she and Xander, they managed to fill in the rest of the group on her most recent misadventures through the stargate. It was during this time, and the long car ride back to Sunnydale, that Buffy began to realize that her release may not have been as certain as she had believed. Jack had been quiet and reserved during her stay with the SGC, and Buffy knew him well enough to know that he had been worried about something. It was only on the return trip that Giles revealed that there were certain branches of the government who hadn't been so eager to let her just walk away from the program and back into civilian life. Buffy had seen things that were highly classified - things that caused many a person to be killed to keep the secret. More important, she now had a wealth of knowledge buried in her brain - perhaps so deep that no one could ever access it.
Not that it would stop them from trying.
It was times like this where it really helped to have 'friends' in high places. Giles had placed a few calls to the Watcher's Council, of all places, and they, in turn, had placed a few more calls to a few more people. The Council had reminded the right people of the importance of having the slayer free to do her sacred duty, and those people had reminded other important people until Buffy's release had been guaranteed. According to Willow, the moment of truth was when someone showed her files to the President of the United States who was apparently now a huge fan. Go figure.
Buffy wasn't naive enough to think that this freedom would last forever, that she wasn't being watched, and that someday, someone wouldn't go against the government's wishes and make a move against her in hopes of getting what was locked away in her head. She was a target, but again, this really wasn't anything new. She had become a target the moment that she became the slayer. The only difference was now she faced the threat from humans as well as demons.
"C'est la vie," Buffy murmured with a wry shake of her head.
Smiling through her shivers, Buffy withdrew from her coat's turtle shell and watched Jack ease from the shadows of the backyard. He was out of uniform, dressed in baggy jeans, hiking boots, and a black leather jacket that looked thick and warm. His silvered hair was tucked beneath a worn baseball cap, his hands buried in his pockets, but his eyes were bright and shining as he drew within the circle of bright porch light.
The wood groaned as he settled beside her, and Buffy instinctively leaned into his warmth as one of his hands slipped free so that he could wrap his arm around her, holding her close. "How did you know I was back here?" she asked, the unfamiliar scent of his cologne filling her nose. It was a pleasant scent - something that mixed astringent chemical with his own natural scent, the one that she had gotten used to during their six months of captivity, so that it weaved together to make her think of thick woods and cold nights.
"When I pulled up, it seemed as though every light in the house was on, and I could hear the tv from the street," he answered with a small shrug that pushed against her cheek. "But back here it's dark, it's quiet, and it's cold. It's where I would have been - though I'm surprised that you're alone. Without Dawn," he added pointedly.
"She's helping Tara with dinner mess," Buffy offered by way of explanation, even as she admitted that he had a point.
Strangely enough, her reintegration into life in Sunnydale wasn't as hard as she would have imagined. When she had sacrificed her life for Dawn's, Buffy had been at the lowest, darkest point of her life. The world had become too much - the death of her mother, the constant fighting, and the idea of facing a foe that seemed unstoppable. Buffy had chosen death at that point - but death hadn't wanted her, and as a result, she had endured physical torture, mental anguish, and hellish conditions from the moment that she had given her life for Dawn's.
In doing so, Buffy had found a new lease on life.
She had found love, strength, and a fierce desire to return to the life she had walked away from, from the family and friends that she had selfishly chosen to abandon. Buffy had found perspective.
Over three weeks ago Buffy returned to her old life and made her presence on the Hellmouth known, working hard to reestablish the equilibrium that came with having an active slayer guarding the supernatural hotspot. Whenever she wasn't fulfilling her slayer duties, she spent her time with her friends, and had even begun auditing a few classes at the college. Thanks to a nice check from the government for all of her 'consulting' work with the Stargate program, as well as the fact that she was finally, finally getting a paycheck from the Watcher's Council for her real job - and all thanks to some gentle persuasion for pursuing that paycheck - Buffy's world was open. She was free to spend her evenings slaying and preventing the end of the world, and her days making up for all of the damage that was done by her disappearance through Glory's portal. And that damage was more emotional than physical, for if Buffy thought that she had abandonment issues, that was nothing compared to what Dawn had going on.
In the course of one brutal year, Dawn had learned that she was a glowing ball of mystical energy that was capable of ending the world, and that up until the moment energy was made flesh, all of her memories were fake. Her mother had died and left her a virtual orphan, she had been kidnapped by a hell goddess, and then Buffy, her older sister and one remaining family member, disappeared into Glory's portal in Dawn's place, presumably dead, without even leaving a body to bury. Even worse, Dawn was never allowed to mourn the loss of her sister for she had been forced to live a lie. Each day she had to pretend that the Buffybot was her sister, and she had to look into a face that mirrored Buffy's own. Then Dawn had to face the day when the Buffybot was destroyed, and suddenly there was no way to pretend, in the darkest parts of the night, that Buffy was still alive and that she wasn't really alone. In the end, Dawn's issues had issues.
And so Dawn clung to Buffy. Wherever Buffy went, Dawn was close behind, touching her, talking to her, or else just watching, as though waiting for Buffy to disappear. Sometimes Buffy would wake up in the middle of the night to find Dawn standing in her open doorway, the hall light haloing her features and making her seem so very young and alone, just watching her. On those nights Buffy would scoot over, pull back the covers, and pat the empty mattress beside her in open invitation, and her sister would pad on silent feet, the mattress dipping under her slight weight, and lay her head on Buffy's pillow, blue eyes meeting green. Dawn would place her hand on Buffy's chest where she could feel her sister's steady heartbeat, and stare at Buffy until sleep caused her eyes to fall shut. Buffy, in turn, would gently stroke her little sister's face until the lines smoothed away.
Dawn's loud laughter suddenly echoed from within the house, breaking Buffy from her thoughts. "Dawn's getting better. We're getting better," she amended with a soft smile as she pulled away so that she could watch Jack as he watched the dark night. His cheeks were peppered with a day's accruement of stubble, and Buffy found that she liked the shadows that they created on his cheeks and along his jaw line. "I think this is one of those rare cases where I can attest to how much my time in hell helped clear things up. After mom died, I was so busy trying to fill her shoes when I should have realized that no one could have replaced her. Not for either of us. Dawn didn't need a new mom. She needed her sister."
"Yeah," Jack agreed as he finally turned towards her, his thin lips lifting in a wry grin. "Hellfire makes everything more clear... kind of red, even."
"Cute," Buffy retorted with a dry shake of her head. But her mirth was short-lived as she forced herself to finally ask the question that had her tilting her head back to look at the spattering of stars so high above. "How did the mission go?"
Buffy had been released from the depths of Cheyenne Mountain over three weeks ago, and two of those weeks had been spent with Jack O'Neill as a guest of the Summers household. She had returned to her life in Sunnydale with her friends at her side, but Jack had followed only a few days later. General Hammond had ordered that his second-in-command take some well-deserved leave before returning to active duty, and Jack had stayed in Colorado Springs just long enough to complete all of the paperwork that would revoke his KIA status, to reclaim his house which had, thankfully, not yet been sold, and return all of his possessions to their proper place - all with his team's help. Daniel had even volunteered (insisted) on making the trip with Jack, and for a few days the house on Revello Drive had been all the more full.
But Buffy had given Jack's team a gift before she left Colorado Springs, and that gift had warranted her return to the depths of Cheyenne Mountain with both men, only two weeks after she had left it.
While imprisoned in her own body, Buffy had slowly, painfully peeled back the layers of Apophis' mind like the burning layers of an onion. She had been looking for something particular, and by doing so, she had delayed the moment in which she had retaken control of her own body until it was almost too late. But Buffy had found what she had been looking for, and before she left for Sunnydale Buffy told the SGC of Apophis' protocols for reuniting with his wife and son.
Buffy had given them Amonet and Klorel.
She had given them Sha're and Skaara.
With the help of the brains at the SGC, as well as some Hollywood-esque special effects that made her eyes flash with golden light, and which lowered her voice until it grated like a goa'uld's, Buffy had returned to the mountain in order to create a message for the godling and his mother that revealed to them the temporary host of their father and husband, and told them of a rendezvous point and time. An unknown number of their loyal Jaffa had been compromised by the shol'va, and they were to trust no one with this information, and come alone to be reunited.
The message had been hard to make, as for the first time since she had been sent home, Buffy was once more forced to open herself to the memories that lingered from Apophis, as well as all of the other goa'uld symbiotes that she had hosted. Unfortunately, there was no one else who could have made the video. Buffy now knew things that only Apophis would know, and she was the only one who could deliver the message as Apophis would have done. There were new shadows in her eyes when the taping had concluded, and while Carter and her fellow geeks put on the finishing touches, Buffy had spent an hour beneath the scalding spray of a shower, trying in vain to wash away the darkness that stubbornly clung to her skin, with Jack's arms wrapped tight around her.
The mission had been given a green light, and Jack had gone with his team to retrieve Daniel's wife and their young friend, but the foresight of her friends guaranteed that Buffy hadn't had to make the return trip alone. Giles had been waiting for his slayer to emerge from the stark depths of the mountain, and with her watcher at her side, they had flown back to Sunnydale and into the familiar comfort of her friends.
That had been five days ago.
One moment Buffy was sitting on the back porch step, Jack's arm around her shoulder as she leaned into his warmth. The next she found herself pulled to her feet on the spongy lawn, the older man towering over her as he crushed her against his lean frame. His tight embrace would have been suffocating to anyone who wasn't the slayer, and it took only a moment for Buffy to return the hug with as much strength as she dared. Her earlier chill was quickly doused by the heat that radiated from Jack's body like a soothing furnace, and she almost found herself purring in delight when just as quickly she was pushed away by two strong hands that were wrapped around her biceps.
"That was from Daniel," Jack offered with a cheeky grin before he tightened his hold on her arms and pulled her roughly forward, his head dipping at the same time so that his lips could capture hers in a kiss that caused her brain to short-circuit.
There was heat.
There was passion.
There was even some tongue.
Time passed, of that she was sure, but when Jack finally pulled away, she was surprised to find that her arms were wrapped around his neck, her fingers twined in his silvered hair, and that she was now standing a few steps up so that she could look directly into brown eyes that smoldered in a way she had come to know over the past few weeks of their relationship. "Was... was that from Daniel as well?" Buffy stammered as one hand slid down to tenderly cup his cheek, smiling as he leaned his head into her touch.
"No, that was from Teal'c," Jack deadpanned, surprising a laugh out of Buffy as he leaned forward and kissed her again. His large hands were at the small of her back, and then they were cupping her face and pulling her closer so that she was pressed up against him, feeling loved and cherished and... safe. Protected.
This time Buffy was the one to pull away as she really looked at Jack for the first time, her hands mirroring his own as she tenderly held his face and looked into his eyes. They were standing directly beneath the yellow-orange glow of the porch light, and his skin was infused with a flush of health, warmth, and happiness. There were no shadows in his eyes, the chocolate-brown orbs both deep and clear, and in them Buffy found the answer that she had been looking for.
"You found Sha're and Skaara," Buffy murmured, his lips, slightly bruised and swollen from their kisses, lifting in answering smile. "You found them and... they're okay? You were able to get rid of Amonet and Klorel?" she guessed as the last vestiges of darkness slowly seeped from her body, fleeing from the bright porch light and the love and happiness that left Jack's shoulders strong and unbent.
"The Tok'ra actually did the removing," Jack admitted with a negligent shrug - so obviously, completely happy that not even the mention of their 'allies' was enough to dim his smile, "but yes. The snakes are gone and Sha're and Skaara are back on Abydos."
"Abydos?" Buffy questioned, her smile faltering. "But-"
"Danny's with them," Jack interrupted. "Skaara belongs with his father and his people, but General Hammond is working on getting permission for Sha're, at least, to return with Danny to make this her home."
Shaking her head in wonder, Buffy wrapped her arms around his neck. She pulled him close and rested her head against his shoulder, reveling in the feeling of his arms around her. "You did it."
"We did it," Jack corrected, his words muffled against her hair. "You said yourself that you could have kicked Apophis out much sooner, but you stuck around in order to find the information. I know that it couldn't have been easy, and I can't imagine-"
"You're the one who gave me the opportunity to find it in the first place," Buffy argued as she once more pulled away, her eyes shining. The night was quiet - nothing but the soft shush of the wind through the trees, the echo of warmth, love and merriment carrying from the house behind her, and the steady thrum of Jack's heart from beneath her wind-chapped hand. "If you hadn't believed in me, if you hadn't allowed Apophis to snake me, then I'd be dead," Buffy gently reminded him. "But you... Jack, you gave me the chance to save myself," Buffy murmured as she once more shook her head. "I love you."
There it was. Three little words that Buffy had whispered when she had been dying, but which she had been holding back ever since. She loved Jack, she did, but those three words were words of weight, and of consequence. They were not words to be tossed around lightly, especially after the disasters that had been her past relationships. And so Buffy had jealously guarded those words, always waiting for the one moment - the perfect moment to make them real.
They were words that didn't come easy to either of them, and Buffy remembered this as she watched Jack hear the words, absorb them, and fully process their every meaning. This moment was about them, but it was also about everything that defined them - about everyone that they had ever loved. In this moment, in his eyes, Buffy felt the weight of her words, of her love for Jack, but she also felt the weight of Angel, and Riley, and Sarah, and Charlie.
It was a moment that stretched, but one that was all the more perfect for the gravity with which Jack smiled his return. "I love you, too."
Three simple words, and suddenly Buffy knew that everything was going to be alright, and at the same time, nothing would ever be the same again. She loved a colonel in the United States Air Force, leader of the premiere gate team of Stargate Command, and he loved a slayer, the Chosen One and guardian of an active Hellmouth. Their duties, their callings, would keep them from enjoying these moments day in and day out, but at the same time, now they would never be alone again.