Willow laughed at something Xander said as she got out of Xander's car, a present he had received for his eighteenth birthday, and walked over to the mailbox. She opened it up, smiling when she spotted the small pile of mail sitting there, waiting for her.
College acceptance letters were being sent out and Jack had made a habit of teasingly asking Willow how many colleges she'd been accepted into every day when he got back from the SGC. Willow would blush and tell him and he would laugh but behind the humor Willow could see how proud Jack was of her.
It had taken some time but Willow knew with some confidence now that Jack cared about her... that he loved her as if she was his own daughter. It might have had something to do with what had happened the day of homecoming. Willow had, much to her surprise, been asked out by one of the boys in her history class, a tall, musclebound boy known as Jimmy, and she had accepted, reminding herself about Buffy's words from the first day they met... "Seize the day." Willow did, after all, know for a fact that Jimmy was not a vampire. Willow hadn't twigged anything was going on until they'd been heading home from homecoming, having had a rather enjoyable evening, and instead of dropping her of at home, she'd been taken to a lookout. Willow had asked Jimmy to take her home and he had laughed, taking a swig from a flask, before he'd grabbed her face and roughly kissed her. Willow had tasted the alcohol on her breath and had panicked.
Things had progressed downhill from there until Willow had been pinned by Jimmy's weight, his pants undone. There was little doubt, in Willow's mind, what he wanted to do, so she'd used the self-defense knowledge she had built up from Jack, Sam, Teal'c and Xander, as well as her lessons. Finally free of Jimmy's hands, which were rather preoccupied with cupping his face, which Willow had punched rather hard, and his groin, which Willow had kicked with her heeled shoe, Willow had escaped from the car and run.
It had taken her a good hour to get home, by which point Jack had already raised the alarm (since Xander had already been home for a while and he had told Jack that Willow had left before him). Willow had burst through the door, her cheek already showing the hint of a bruise from when Jimmy had lashed out at her during their struggle.
Willow, physically and emotionally exhausted, had run to Jack and collapsed into his arms, sobbing, desperate to be held and to be protected. Jack, for his part, had done exactly what Willow wanted, holding her close, rubbing her back, and muttering reassurance to her under his breath while Xander, Cassie and the rest of SG1, including Janet, watched on, relieved that Willow was alright but at the same time horrified by what had almost happened.
Ultimately Jimmy had been expelled from school and the last any of them had heard, he and his family had moved away from Colorado Springs and were making a fresh start elsewhere but it had been that moment when Jack had proven himself to Willow that their relationship had been restored and strengthened.
Things between Xander and Jack too had improved with the passing of time. Jack had spent a lot of time with Xander, bonding over things they had in common and generally trying to find as much out about his son as he could without encroaching on the teenager's privacy. At least once a month, Xander and Jack went to watch ice hockey together and at least once a week, usually when Willow was studying with the coven members Giles had linked her up with, they would do something together, even if it was just watching TV or talking about their shared interests.
Willow couldn't have been happier with how things were going. She hated being the cause of tension between Xander and Jack. After so many years with Tony Harris as his father figure, she figured that Xander deserved to have someone like Jack in his life to talk to.
Xander approached the front door as Willow retrieved the stack of mail from the mailbox and lowered the lid before carrying the letters and her school bag into the house. Xander dropped his school bag beside the door and flopped down wearily on the couch so that he was stretched out on it. Xander had gotten up early for a run and he was feeling the strain. Willow snorted in amusement before she put down her own school bag and pushed Xander's feet off the couch, sitting down where Xander's feet had been. Xander looked at her and moaned pitifully. Willow rolled her eyes and grabbed the bottoms of Xander's pants, lifting Xander's feet back into her lap.
"Thank you, Willow," Xander smiled. Willow shook her head, unable to hide the smile that had spread across her features at Xander's antics, before she began to look through the mail they had received that day. An electricity bill and a telephone bill for Jack, a letter for her, and a letter for Xander. Willow put the bills to one side before she glanced at the logo on the envelope to see who was writing to her. Willow froze, her green eyes widening. At the opposite end of the couch, Xander frowned at the look on Willow's face before he called her name. Willow didn't respond, so he heaved himself upright and poked her in the arm. Willow jumped.
"Xander," she chided, "don't do that."
"Well… you spaced out on me," Xander protested. Willow wordlessly showed him the envelope addressed to him and Xander's eyes widened... almost comically reflecting Willow's own shocked expression.
"Oh," Xander said in understanding.
Willow nodded. "Yeah... oh... exactly."
"Is that what I think it is?"
"Gee... I don't know, Xander... why else would the US Air Force be writing to us?" Willow rolled her eyes, her voice thick with sarcasm. Sarcasm was something she had learned to use quite well, thanks to living with Jack.
"Maybe they're doing a survey on military brats like us... or something?" Xander offered tentatively before catching the pointed look Willow was sending towards him.
"Yeah... it was a long shot," Xander admitted, taking the envelope from Willow. It had started off as a joke with Cassie... that they would apply to go to the Air Force Academy when they finished school and ultimately all end up working together at the SGC, but then time had passed and they had all found themselves filling out application forms for the Air Force Academy... suddenly serious about enlisting. Xander knew their chances of all ending up at the SGC were slim to none, but then the Air Force still seemed to be a great place to work for, in Xander's opinion. It certainly wouldn't have many boring moments, and would provide a far from ordinary life. Willow and Xander had both agreed at the time that after everything they had lived through and seen ever since they had discovered the truth about the supernatural, there was no way either of them would be able to have a normal nine-to-five job and not be involved in some way in protecting the lives of innocents... no matter how much Jack privately wished that they would... for his own peace of mind.
Shall... shall we do this?" Xander cleared his throat nervously. Willow nodded, sliding her thumb underneath the flap of the envelope as Xander did the same.
"One," Willow began.
"Two," Xander continued.
"Three," they said in unison, opening the envelopes together. Willow glanced up at Xander before they looked down at the letters in their laps, reading the information printed there as quickly as they could. Willow reached the end of the page first and took a few deep, steadying breaths before she looked up at Xander, who appeared to be doing the same.
"You?" Willow asked, her voice sounding oddly strained. Xander looked up at her and then gave a small nod.
"You?" His voice cracked at the single word. Willow too gave a single nod, a smile breaking out slowly on her face. Xander leaned forward and they hugged each other tightly.
"I... I can't believe it... we both got in," Willow said in a soft, choked-up voice. Xander nodded against his best friend's shoulder, not needing to look to know that there were tears of joy sliding down Willow's cheeks.
"We can't say anything to Jack... not until we know if Cassie got in or not," Xander decided and Willow nodded in agreement. She and Cassie were good friends, perhaps not quite as close and Willow and Buffy had been but still close. Willow's mouth went dry at the prospect of Cassie not getting into the Air Force. She certainly had the grades for it but Willow knew it would shatter her friend if she didn't get in. Cassie had once confided in her that her dream, ever since her arrival at the SGC, was to become a field medic in the Air Force and then later work at a base, like Janet had done throughout her career. Willow thought that Cassie would make an excellent field medic... and if she was ever hurt, she would want Cassie to be there helping to look after her... even though Willow conceded that it would be very selfish of her. Willow couldn't even begin to imagine how hard it would be to look after a close friend in a medical sense... especially if the wounds were severe.
"What about we wait until Jack's birthday... it's only next week and we can try and make sure that if she gets in, Cass makes sure Janet doesn't tell Jack or any of the others in SG1?" Willow suggested. Xander nodded in agreement to the idea.
"He'll get a kick out of it... the only potential problem is that he might not want us involved in the Air Force."
"Good point," Willow conceded. "I mean... we do know from experience that he doesn't cope so well if he thinks our lives are in danger, which I can understand, given what happened to Charlie and everything Jack has gone through since then. The Air Force isn't strictly speaking the safest careers we could have gone with."
"Especially since it doesn't take an brain like yours... or Daniel's to figure out that ultimately we're planning on joining the SGC and will therefore be going off-world and kicking alien butt... and potentially getting our butts kicked by aliens."
"Yeah... probably a good thing neither of us uses the O'Neill name. I mean... if we got caught by some Goa'uld and we had O'Neill written all over our uniforms… it wouldn't be good."
Xander shuddered at the prospect. After all, he and Willow had already been kidnapped by Goa'ulds once in an attempt to get to Jack and Xander had no desire to relive the experience.
"At least... at least by the time we've finished our training. Jack will be close to retiring... so he's not going to be hanging around the SGC... or even being off-world, worrying about what we're doing," Willow commented thoughtfully
"And if there is some big thing... you know, apocalypse bad, that we have to face, Jack isn't going to know about it until it's all over... if he finds out at all, and therefore he won't be there in the gate room ready to smother us with attention when we come back from dangerous stuff."
Willow nodded in agreement. While she was in no way averse to getting a little attention from Jack, the years of neglect her parents had subjected her to making excessive displays of open affection rather awkward... given that she never knew how to react. Situations like that would be even more awkward in a public space... such as the gate room.
The discussion between the two teenagers was broken by the sound of Willow's phone going off in her school bag. Glancing at Xander, Willow got up, letting Xander's feet drop back onto the floor, and hurried to retrieve the device. A glance at the screen told her that it was Cassie that was calling her.
"Hey, Cassie," Willow greeted.
"Willow... are you guys home yet?" Cassie asked. Willow could hear her friend's excitement in Cassie's voice and instinctively Willow had a pretty good idea about what Cassie was talking about. It was, after all, something that the three of them had spend hours talking about during study sessions and lunch breaks at school.
"Yeah... let me guess... you got something in the mail today?"
"You, too, huh?"
"Yep... and Xander as well."
"This is GREAT!" Cassie squealed. "Imagine if we all got into the SGC? I can't wait to go off-world... not that Earth isn't great, but... you know what I mean."
"I know, Cassie, trust me. Xander and I have a request, though."
"Shoot," Cassie replied.
"Well... Xander and I are going to surprise Jack on his birthday next week... so if you could refrain from telling Jack or any of the others on SG1... you know that they stink at keeping secrets from one another."
"What about Mom?" Cassie asked.
"You can tell her but it would be great if you asked if she didn't tell anyone else... at least, not until after Jack's birthday."
"Great. He is going to be so surprised. I mean, he knew we were all applying to get in... but the odd of us all getting accepted weren't great," Cassie gushed.
Willow nodded, even though Cassie couldn't see the gesture. "I overheard him talking to Sam about it. He said he thought Xander would get in... if his grades were good enough but he thought that even if I got in, I would end up taking what he called 'the Daniel path' and do something a little more academic. He and Sam agreed on that and they talked about you as well... Jack thinks that you'll go somewhere else for medical training and then join the Air Force and Sam thinks that you'll go straight into the Academy."
"I know... I was talking to Sam a few weeks ago about the whole college thing and she said she could picture me going straight into the Academy. What about you, though? I mean, you have offers from Ivy League schools. You got accepted into Oxford, for crying out loud. Are you sure that this is what you want to do?"
"Now you sound like Jack," Willow said, rolling her eyes.
"What? It's a valid question," Cassie defended. Willow let out a sigh. If she was honest with herself, she had been asking herself the same question for weeks... ever since the acceptance letters began to arrive. While the idea of going to a good college appealed to her academically, in her heart, and in some parts of her mind, Willow knew that she could do so much more for people if she went into the Air Force. Ever since she had met Buffy, two and a half years ago, Willow's existence had revolved around protecting those who couldn't protect themselves from those who were more powerful than themselves. While the Air Force itself had little to do with the supernatural, the same principle applied with the Goa'ulds... and even outside of the SGC, the Air force was fighting against terrorists and trying restore peace to areas of conflict.
While there was a part of her that wanted to enter into a academic environment that would challenge her mentally and would recognize Willow's intelligence, Willow knew that there was no way she could go back to standing in the sidelines while there were others out there risking their lives for the sake of humanity. She knew too much about both the supernatural and the alien threat to the inhabitants of earth to stand by and do nothing.
"I can't stand in the sidelines while there are people I know who are risking their lives every day preventing the end of the world when there is the chance that I can help," Willow told Cassie, her eyes locking with Xander's, who was nodding encouragingly at her choice of words.
"So... instead of taking 'the Daniel path', you're going to take 'the Sam path?'" Cassie confirmed. Willow considered it.
"Yeah... I'm going to take the Sam path."
"Are we good?" Xander asked Cassie in an undertone as they walked out onto Jack's rear deck, each of them carrying bowls of food. Cassie nodded.
"Mom hasn't said anything to anyone. She thinks what we're doing is sweet... but she said that she was glad she was going to be here for a couple of reasons."
"Yeah, what reasons?" Xander asked as Willow joined them, depositing another bowl, this one containing salad, onto the table.
"Well... for one, she's going to be recording it... she's going to show Hammond. She reckons Jack's going to be speechless when he finds out."
"Either that or he'll blow his head off," Xander added.
"Well... that's a possibility too," Cassie admitted, "and the second reason is, well, Jack isn't exactly young these days... and Mom thought it would be a good idea to have a trained medic here if he, you know, has a heart attack."
"Great... we could kill him... any chance we can pull out now?" Willow whispered "We should have thought this through more."
Xander shook his head. "He's got to find out at some point... we've just got to be very careful with how we do this."
"Yeah... I've been thinking about that... and Mom has too... and we've got a pretty cool idea. Follow me," Cassie whispered. Willow and Xander exchanged curious looks before they followed Cassie back inside Jack's house and went upstairs.
"What do you think that was about?" Daniel asked Sam and Jack as they watched the three teenagers trying to go unnoticed.
"Trust me, Danny, they're teenagers... we're never going to understand anything they do," Jack said with a roll of his eyes. Sam and Daniel both laughed, even though Jack's eyes lingered on the stairs.
Xander and Willow had been acting weird for a week now...band Jack's gut told him that things were going to come to a head very soon.
He only hoped that it had nothing to do with vampires or anything like that.
Xander, Willow and Cassie volunteered to clear the plates away at the end of the meal, while the rest of those present, being Jack, Sam, Daniel, Teal'c and Janet, sat at the table out on the deck chatting amongst themselves casually. When the three teenagers returned from the kitchen, it was Xander who nervously cleared his throat. Janet, from where she sat, began to record the teenagers on her camera.
"Um... yeah... thanks, everybody, for coming tonight. I'm sure... I'm sure Dad appreciates it... I know Wills and I do."
Jack looked up at Xander. It was rare for either of the teenagers to call him Dad... most of the time it was just Jack, which was something Jack was fine with. The fact that Xander had called him Dad, however, meant that something was up. The nervousness in Xander's voice, the way Willow kept ducking her head and hiding behind her hair, and the way Cassie was shifting her weight... they were all indications that the three teenagers were definitely up to something.
"Having you all together like this... our family, if you like... it's really important for us. Ever since our parents died, you've taken us in as part of your family... and Willow and I are always going to appreciate it. You opened our eyes and broadened our horizons. You opened up new worlds to us... literally." There was a smattering of laughter from the assembled adults at Xander's little jest.
"Anyway... Cassie, Willow and I... we're just glad that you guys are here for us and of course, for Dad... um, is there anything you guys want to add?"
Cassie and Willow shook their heads and Willow crouched down and recovered a wrapped parcel from where she had hidden it that afternoon behind a potted plant.
"Okay... that being said... we kind of want to make an announcement... and would really would prefer it if people refrained from... having heart attacks or whatever." Xander looked over at Willow and Cassie, who nodded. Willow stepped forward, handing the package to Jack, before stepping back in line in between Xander and Cassie. Xander let out a breath he hadn't even realized that he was holding before carefully beginning to take off the jacket he was wearing. Beside him, Willow and Cassie were doing the same thing with their own jackets. Beneath the jackets all three teens were wearing black t shirts... very much like the ones the members of SG1 wore on a daily basis. On the sleeves of the shirts, however, they had safety-pinned air force badges, supplied by Janet. Xander couldn't bring himself to look at Jack, so instead he focused on Daniel and Teal'c. Daniel's brow was furrowed in confusion and Teal'c's expression was stoic... although Xander could tell that the Jaffa was very quickly working out what was going on.
"One week ago, we all got a letter, not so unusual at the moment for Willow and Cassie... but this one was different... this one was the one that we've all been waiting for... well, for a while at least. It was the one that officially offered us all places at the Air Force Academy. We've all thought about it and discussed it... and we have all decided to accept the offer... so... who knows. Give us a few years and we might be up there, kicking Goa'uld butt... just like you guys."
Xander went quiet and there was a stunned silence. Almost painfully, Xander looked at Jack, who was holding the package in shaking hands. He slowly began to unwrap it, revealing an ordinary folder, which he opened to reveal the acceptance letters addressed to all three teenagers. Giving Jack solid proof in the form of the letters had been Willow's idea. Sam reached out and put a comforting, steadying arm on Jack's shoulder, and Xander could faintly hear Willow constantly whispering 'please don't be mad' under her breath, her eyes fixed on Jack. Xander took Willow's hand in his own and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Willow didn't take her eyes off Jack but she sidled a little closer to Xander. Cassie's eyes weren't fixed only on Jack, unlike the other teenagers, but instead roved over the rest of the assembled adults. Teal'c's expression, had the situation been less serious, would have been comical and Daniel looked like he was going to burst into tears. Cassie caught her mother's eye and Janet nodded approvingly. Nobody, however, said anything, all waiting for Jack to break the silence.
Finally Jack drew his gaze form the three letters in his lap, to the three teenagers lined up in front of him; Cassie, smiling, Xander, putting on a brave face, and Willow, her eyes wide and almost fearful as she begged him not to be angry. He set aside the letters and got to his feet, letting Sam's hand slide from his shoulder and down his back as he approached the teenagers. First, he affectionately ruffled Cassie's hair before turning to face his kids.
"Come here," he ordered softly before engulfing both of them in a bear hug, holding them close. Willow buried her head into his chest and Xander rested his head on Jack's shoulder.
"I am so proud of you guys. Those Goa'ulds aren't going to know what hit them."
Willow let out a nervous giggle and Xander laughed as Jack kissed the top of Willow's head and affectionately ruffled Xander's hair.
"Just promise me that you'll be careful... that you'll use your heads and that you'll limit the amount of stupid things you do. I've had enough gray hairs from scares with Danny for you two to be adding to them."
Xander looked over his shoulder at Sam, who was wiping tears from her eyes, at Daniel, who was nodding proudly, at Teal'c who was actually smiling, at Janet, who was hugging Cassie, and at Cassie, who was laughing. His gaze dropped to Willow, who was looking up at him and Jack, tears rolling down her cheeks, a happy smile on her face.
Then Xander looked at Jack and saw the proud smile on his father's face as he looked at the two teenagers he had taken in just under a year ago. A lot of things had happened since then, both good and bad, but Xander wouldn't have it any other way. Jack and Willow were his family now... and they all loved one another. It was how a family was really supposed to be.
Xander felt Willow take his hand and give it a squeeze and Xander smiled as he and Willow spoke in unison to the man that had become their father in every way.
A.N. Firstly, massive apologies for the delay in posting this chapter. I plead a nasty case of writers block...I had this chapter half written, and then couldn't get anywhere with it for months, and then suddenly I could finish it off, which was great. Huzzuh!
This chapter finishes off this story. I would like to thank everyone who has been reviewing this story. I found your feedback to be instructive, helpful, and encouraging.
In terms of continuing this story line, I do have a couple of ideas featuring Xander and Willow, and their further adventures, floating around in my head, but a sequel is still awhile off, as I have other writing projects i would like to focus on.
Hope you enjoyed this story. Thank you again to my beta reader Darkened Shadows for her work in editing my rambling Aussie slang into proper English.
Keep an eye out for my next piece of work, to be posted soon.