Godless Provenance: Chapter 13
See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.O o O o O o O
"You're really here!"
"I can't believe it finally worked!"
Immediately Buffy was overwhelmed by too many arms pulling her close, only to be pushed in another direction for another set of arms that didn't seem to want to let her go. She was in her house - her living room, of all places - only the furniture had been pushed back and a space cleared in the middle of the floor. Her friends surrounded her, Willow and Tara now holding onto each other with tears streaming and huge smiles on their faces, Xander and Anya fighting to be heard, while Dawn jumped up and down and Spike lounged against a far wall, his scowl a distant memory to the grin he now sported - one that took years off of his weathered features. And then Giles was standing before her, tears unabashedly running down his weathered features as he pulled her close for yet another hug that did little to help her busted ribs.
"We just knew you had to be alive somehow," Willow stammered, and from the way she struggled to catch her breath, Buffy guessed that she was only now tuning into what had been a constant stream of words from her best friend. "We tried to do a resurrection spell a few weeks back, but it didn't work, and not just because we were interrupted by the demons on motorcycles!"
"What?" she murmured, her brain dazedly trying to make the jump from finally making hot and heavy and desperate something
with Jack in their prison-moon world to being thrust into her living room - a room that was so clean, cool, and normal
and everything that the last hellish part of her life hadn't been. She supposed that she should have been grateful that she and Jack hadn't had time to get to the part where clothing would have been optional.
"I came back as soon as I heard," Giles rambled as he pulled her back for another jostling hug - one that she both relished and at the same time had to fight not to pull away from. Everything that had happened to her was still too close - too raw - and months of having the only positive skin on skin contact come from Jack had limited her world view until instinct demanded that she strike out at those clamoring to hold her close. They weren't Jack, and experience had taught her that unless they were the colonel that she had come to depend upon so very much, then she needed to get away. "I am so, so very sorry. You had to have been dead for the portal to close-"
"Speaking of which, how are you not
dead?" Xander interrupted as Giles reluctantly released her.
"Yes, you should be dead," Anya added, of course somehow managing to say it in a way where it sounded as though Buffy had done something wrong by still being of the living. "Although, maybe if you were dead you'd be less smelly," the former vengeance demon added as she wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"I-" Buffy tried to explain, without really knowing how to explain, when Dawn interrupted with a bright squeal.
"I helped with the spell!" she exclaimed as she jumped over into another overly enthusiastic hug which this time had Buffy wincing in pain. "Well, Angel gave us some help, seeing as how they're pretty familiar with portals and other dimensions, what with Connor and all."
"Who?" Buffy tried as she pulled away and hugged her good arm protectively against her ribs. Not that her sister seemed to notice in her excitement.
"Willow used my keyness to get you back from... where have you been, anyway?" she asked as her overexcited hopping finally settled, a frown pulling at her pretty features as she seemed to really look at Buffy for the first time.
In that moment, a stillness settled over the room as everyone followed Dawn's gaze from the top of Buffy's blood-matted hair to her tattered, stained clothing. Confused, Buffy turned to the mirror that had always hung over the fireplace mantle and frowned at her reflection. It was the first time that she had seen herself since... well, probably since she had died jumping into the portal to save Dawn, and she looked different. She had lost a lot of weight, causing her skin to appear stretched over pointy edges and ridges. Her hair, once so beautiful and well-cared for, now hung in long, oily and tangled clumps that were matted with blood and other things better left unmentioned. Her skin had always had a healthy, vibrant shine - tan in the summer or winter, thanks to southern California living - but now it was so covered beneath grime that it appeared a disgusting gray that was disturbed in long lines from sweat tracks and Jack's fingers.
Suddenly the world came clear as that one thought had Buffy spinning desperately back to Willow. "Send me back!" she demanded, her eyes burning with an intensity that sparked a riot of utter mayhem in her friends.
"The bint's gone crazy!" Spike proclaimed, pushing off from the wall as though he had been expecting this very thing. Then again, judging from the way Dawn burst into tears and Xander turned regretfully away, maybe they all had been expecting that.
"How long has it been for her?" Dawn murmured around sniffles as Tara pulled her into a motherly hug. "What if it's been hundreds of years-"
"How long have
I been gone?" Buffy asked calmly, interrupting her sister's tirade as she turned questioning eyes back on her friends.
"One hundred seventy-nine days," Spike answered automatically before staring at her in surprise. Apparently calm and collected questions didn't mesh with the craziness from which she was supposed to be suffering.
"Nearly six months," Willow clarified as everyone shared a look that, while Buffy was pretty rusty, she still interpreted as 'maybe not crazy - reserving judgment.' But then Willow's and Spike's words were sinking in and Buffy shook her head in wonder. Six months. That was a lifetime to someone who was only twenty, yet at the same time it had felt so much longer. Years longer.
"We... we didn't know," Buffy murmured distractedly as she cradled her broken wrist against her body.
"We... we who?" Xander asked for everyone as Giles cautiously stepped forward, as though approaching a wounded animal.
"You're hurt," he observed, his gentle eyes taking in her damaged wrist and the way she cradled her arm against her ribs. "You should let me take a look at that," he offered as he held out his hand, but she could only shake her head in return.
"You don't understand," she murmured, feeling suddenly so very tired. She was home again, suddenly, unexpectedly, and while she knew that she was supposed to be feeling giddy with joy, or at least relief, instead she only felt a pulling dread at the fact that she was safe while Jack was still stuck there in that hell. She had disappeared right out of his arms, and she knew that he had to be going crazy this very moment trying to figure out what had happened. She needed to get back there, she needed to save him, and yet it took only one look at the furtive glances that her friends were sharing for Buffy to realize that some back story was needed before she could get the help that she truly needed. "I haven't been in another dimension, I was on another planet. Glory wasn't a hell god, but an alien... I think," she murmured before waving away the last statement. "To be honest, it doesn't really matter, and I can explain that all later. Right now I have to get back to Jack."
"Who is Jack?" Giles returned, and Buffy had to fight the urge to roll her eyes at the patience she heard in his voice that did little to disguise his disbelief. How could they face the supernatural on a daily basis, and yet still have a hard time swallowing aliens? Did she not mention the bug-eating craziness of their lives?
"Jack's a... he's a friend," Buffy finished, stumbling awkwardly over a word that didn't give their complex relationship the depth that it deserved. However, the truth was that she was incapable of finding a better one. Comrade? Too impersonal. Cohort? To Machiavellian. Lover? She snorted at that thought. If her friends hadn't of interrupted at the moment they had, then perhaps that word would have worked. "He's a colonel in the United States Air Force - he works for the SGC."
"He grades baseball cards?" Xander asked, the apparent non-sequiter throwing her just as much as the rest of her friends, judging by the strange looks they were now giving the tall Scooby. "What?" Xander demanded defensively. "SGC. Sportscard Guarantee Company. They grade baseball cards and put them into nifty hard plastic holders," he explained only to further the blank looks that were being leveled in his direction. "Hey, I was a little boy once-"
"Once?" Spike snickered, causing Xander to glower in the vampire's direction.
"Yes, and a lot more recent than some others that I could name," he said with a pointed look to Spike and then Giles. "And little boys collect baseball cards. Jesse and I were very manly with the baseball card collection."
"Overcompensation for when we'd play Barbies," Willow added helpfully, much to Xander's horror as Buffy merely shook her head - torn between amusement and gratefulness at the familiar twists and turns of their conversation.
"No, the SGC, as in Stargate Command," she explained with a brief, fond smile at everything that she had been missing for so long.
"Wait," Xander protested, obviously eager to move beyond the Barbie slip, "so all this time you've been trapped on another planet with some guy in the military?"
"No, not all of this time," Buffy quickly negated. "We were on a spaceship for a long time, too," she explained hastily. "We've only been on Netu for.... never mind," she ground out as the skeptical looks multiplied. "Listen, I have to go back," she repeated as she found her way back to the point that had gotten lost somewhere amongst baseball cards and Barbie dolls. Probably right about the same place as her sanity, if the incredulous looks were any judge.
"But we can't send you back," Willow said slowly and patiently, despite the fact that she obviously thought Buffy had gone crazy sometime during the six (six!
) months that she had been gone. "I wouldn't even know where to start! We were only able to retrieve you from... well, from wherever you were-"
"Netu," Buffy supplied helpfully.
"-because you and Dawn share the same blood. It was kind of like retrieving Dawn's other half," the redhead finished with an apologetic shrug.
It was a shrug that did little to solve her problem, and Buffy found herself floundering in the wake of apparent defeat. Here she was home, safe and sound, and yet Buffy couldn't even imagine beginning to enjoy being back - not when Jack was still stranded. They had been a team for so long now, the only person that the other could depend on, that alone she felt bereft. Even when surrounded by her friends and family, she felt strangely adrift. These were the Scoobies, the people for which she had made her sacrifice in the first place, and yet that connection hadn't been reestablished. Six months was a long time by anyone's standard, and though they were small, she could already see the changes that she had missed. Dawn looked a little bit older, everyone's hair a little bit different, and Giles a little more gray around the edges. They looked worn, yet they had been worn by grief, and not the hardships that she and Jack had shared and Jack was still back there!
With that thought clawing at her brain, Buffy pivoted on her heel and turned from her friends. She couldn't deal with them - not now, and not when Jack was still on Netu. She needed to get back to him, to get him free, she needed-
"Where are you going?"
The hand on her arm had been unexpected, and though Buffy managed to prevent lashing out, she couldn't help the defensive crouch that she had fallen into. Her body was tensed and coiled like a well-oiled spring, her stance guarded, and even though her mind was telling her that she was home now, had nothing to fear, six months of hell had created instincts that were going to take time to disband - not to mention the attack that- "I'm... I'm going to Colorado," Buffy explained, desperately pushing away the all-too-recent memories. Her mouth suddenly felt full of cotton - or maybe that was just the residual rush of adrenaline that she was tasting - and slowly she straightened.
Xander had been the one to reach out to her, and she saw the wariness with which he now watched her as he juggled himself from foot to foot. "What's in Colorado?" he asked, and Buffy looked past him to see that the excitement her friends had initially felt at having her returned was now marred with that same wariness. She wasn't the same person that she had been when she had died for them six months ago, and while they may have been expecting that, the reality was apparently something quite different. She
was different and it was going to take time to adjust to the changes - but it was time that she didn't have right now.
"To be honest, I'm not really sure," she admitted with a slow shrug, wary of upsetting them further but still feeling the pull to leave, to go, to just get
there. To get to Jack. To-
"What? Buffy, this is crazy!" Dawn protested as she tried to step closer, only to have Willow and Tara hold her back. To protect her, keep her safe. The 'you're crazy' seemed to go unspoken, but Buffy heard it nonetheless.
Instinctively she felt her hackles rise as she narrowed her gaze and straightened her back. "I'm going, with or without your help," she stated firmly, faltering when Dawn's confusion melted into tears. Only these tears weren't tears of joy for having her sister returned to her, miraculously from the dead. No, these were tears of confusion and hurt and fear
that maybe she hadn't gotten her sister back, after all. Instantly Buffy felt abashed as she pushed gently past Xander until she was standing before her sister.
Dawn had a growth spurt while she was gone, Buffy realized with a small, sad smile as she tilted her head ever so slightly to look up into her little sister's eyes. Reaching up, she meant to wipe Dawn's tears away, but she stopped as she was once more reminded about how dirty her skin was. It was contaminated with the grime, dirt, blood, and hate of Netu, and it somehow seemed that to touch Dawn's flawless skin would be to pollute it. Instead, Buffy lowered her hand and met Dawn's tear-stained gaze with another small, sad smile. "Jack and I, we... we were in a bad place. I know you guys are having a hard time with this, but you have to believe me when I say that it was some alien whack-job's version of hell, and it wasn't pretty," she explained as she expanded her view until she could look at all of her friends. "You guys have to understand that I left a very, very good friend behind and there are people in Colorado that may be able to help get him back. So I need to go. Now," she murmured as she smiled once more at her sister before turning and heading for the door.
For a moment, she was afraid that she was going to have to follow through with her threat of doing this on her own, but then she was reminded of why she had always counted on her friends for so long. They had never let her down before, and they certainly weren't going to now.
"I'll drive," Xander offered with a careless shrug as he reached over to kiss Anya soundly before grabbing his keys off the mantle and heading for the door. Smiling her thanks, Buffy paused on the threshold, turning back to smile once more at everyone that she loved, before following Xander out into the dark night beyond.O o O o O o O
The small chamber was a dark void - a home no longer. The scenery hadn't changed. There was the tattered rags that served as their bed. There was the corner that held their meager food supplies. There was the crudely crafted knife Buffy had stolen - blade of sharply fashioned bone, handle of jagged rock. There was the small fissure in the craggy rock that emitted the reddish hell light and the heat of liquid magma. The scenery hadn't changed, and yet everything
Time had passed since Buffy had disappeared - how long, Jack had no way to measure, and yet it was time enough for him to realize that he had no idea how to fix something that he had no way of understanding how it had become broken. He had been standing just there, against that wall, and Buffy had been so real, so alive. Her hazel eyes, usually so steady and sure, had been red and desperate, her lashes matted with tears. Her shoulders, generally so strong and capable, had been shaking - her body trembling against his own. She had looked at him and he had known - he'd known
that someone had somehow done some thing
to her. Some thing
that was irreparable. And Jack hadn't been there to stop it. He hadn't been there to protect her, and with that knowledge that same thing
within him had broken. After everything that they had been through, after everything she
had been through, she had been broken and that, more than anything else, had finally broken him.
But then she had looked at him.
Buffy had looked at him and she had asked him to touch her. There had been so much need in her eyes as she had asked him to help her forget what had happened to her. And so he had. He had held her. He had touched her. He had kissed her with all of the passion that had been building between them during all of their long weeks and months of captivity. His body had been pressed between hers and the hot, jagged rock, her skin sweat-streaked and pliant beneath his questing hands and everything had been so real, so right.
And then the world had changed.
It had happened so fast. She had said his name, and there had been fear in her voice - fear and desperation. She had squeezed him so tightly that his chest still ached from the force of her bruising grip. She had said his name a second time, had cried out that she had been burning and then.... and then she was gone.
His arms had folded around himself and Buffy was gone.
With a tired sigh, Jack ran a shaky hand over his whiskered chin. He was sitting in the same place where he had been standing, his knees having given out on him the moment that Buffy had simply ceased to exist. His back ached, his chest ached, and his butt had gone numb hours ago - and yet Jack just couldn't find the energy to move. For three years now he had lived in a world that defied explanation, and yet that fact did little to soothe the pain that had tightened like a fist over his heart.
Buffy was gone, and without her, this world, this prison, was suddenly much, much darker.O o O o O o O
"For the tenth time, just tell them that Buffy Summers is here and that I have information about the location of Colonel Jack O'Neill," Buffy stated, her tone far sharper than it had been ten minutes ago.
"From when you were held prisoner together on a spaceship," the young guard returned, his eyebrows hidden somewhere beneath the cap that was pulled tight over his closely cropped hair.
"Yes," Buffy returned indignantly from where she hung over the center console, simultaneously invading Xander's personal space while glaring out his driver's side window. It was an awkward position at best, stooped over as she was in an attempt to convince the two idiots that were guarding the outer gate with their big shiny guns that she wasn't completely crazy, and that yes, she really did have a valid reason to want to pass through their steel-barbed, wire-rimmed gate in order to enter the huge, cavernous entrance of Cheyenne Mountain.
She was tired, she was in pain, she was dirty, smelly, and gross, and she was desperately in need of seeing Jack - and to make matters worse, she was so cold that her breath was creating a frigid plume of air. Netu had been meltdown-hot. Sunnydale had been pleasantly warm. Colorado, however, was turning out to be bone-numbingly cold. There was snow, freaking snow
on the ground, even though it was only early November (November!)
; and despite the hot air that pumped out of the heating vents, Buffy's exposed skin (and to be fair, there was quite a bit) was covered in goose bumps. She was shivering, she was cold, and she was trying her best to ignore that as much as she was leaning towards Xander's open window, Xander was doing his best to lean as far from her as possible. Yeah, like she hadn't picked up on the fact that she was smelly when he had first cracked the windows just ten minutes into their road trip.
"Idiots," Buffy muttered, her eyes rolling towards Xander in time to catch him edge just a little bit closer to the open window, his mouth working overtime to prevent his nose from taking another whiff of Eau de Netu-Buffy. "They act like they don't really know what's going on here."
"Probably because they don't," Xander returned good-naturedly as the guards, cookie-cutter images from her Initiative days, conversed with each other before finally picking up the damn phone and making a call - most likely to another idiot at another stupid checkpoint somewhere in the darkened tunnel ahead.
"Channeling GI Xander?" Buffy sighed as she tipped back into her seat, thereby finally allowing Xander some cleaner breathing space.
"Well, that and common sense," Xander admitted with a quirky grin that caused Buffy's heart to flip with what was becoming a familiar twist.
In the fifteen hours that they had been on the road together, a slight crinkle of the corners of his eyes, the way his hands would dart from the steering wheel to make a point, or his Xander-like laugh would take her by surprise, making her feel like she had never been gone. Unfortunately, those times were tempered by something else - an off-hand comment, an unfamiliar turn phrase - anything that would drive in the fact that she had
been gone, and gone so long that things had happened while she had been away. Nothing dramatic, but enough, all the same.
"A secret this big isn't likely to be shared with the door grunts," Xander continued with a small shrug - this one familiar.
It took a beat - most likely a beat too long, judging by Xander's concerned gaze - but Buffy nodded her agreement. Over the course of their many miles together, the concerned gaze was another thing that was becoming familiar. Too many pauses, too many moments lost to her thoughts - some good, most bad. She didn't even notice them, and yet judging by the concern that she could still read in Xander's gaze, she knew that he had
noticed them. He had noticed them and had added them to his tally of 'Ways That Buffy Was Not Buffy
She couldn't help but think that the list had to be getting pretty long by now.
"You've been cleared to the next check point."
Buffy didn't even bother to acknowledge the guard's words as Xander rolled up his window, waited for the gate to swing open, and then eased the car forward. As has had often been the case during the fifteen hours they had been on the road, her mind proceeded down its own path.
In hindsight, there had probably been a better way to go about this rescue mission. At the time, she hadn't been able to look past her urgent need to get to Jack. In her mind, that meant motion. It meant motion to the point that standing there for even a moment longer would have been impossible. Jack was in Netu, alone, and she knew
how much that tipped the scales of bad. She couldn't even imagine what she would have done if Jack had just up and disappeared out of her hands. Putting herself in Jack's place, in his own dark and somewhat twisted mindset was even more difficult. She just needed to get to him, and any movement seemed like movement in the right direction. Then again, yeah, there probably would have been a quicker, if not better way to get to Jack.
It took fifteen minutes for them to call Willow and ask for directions to Colorado - which led to Buffy realizing that writing was like riding a bike. She hadn't used a pen, nor paper, nor even scribbled words in the dirt or ash during all of her captivity - and yet here she was writing like she hadn't just spent six months going without the written word.
It took four hours more for Willow to call back with detailed directions to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, otherwise known as the home of NORAD. According to Willow, it was the place where one Colonel Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill had been stationed up until he was listed as KIA. Willow had been thrown by that one, because not only did this apparently prove that Buffy wasn't as crazy as they had all believed, but according to what she had managed to hack, Jack had been listed as the second-in-command, 2IC, of a project studying deep space radar telemetry. Her brainy friend had then asked how in the heck someone studying deep space radar telemetry managed to get themselves killed in action. It was a good question, and one that prompted Buffy to explain (to everyone back home, via speakerphone, and to Xander, who was listening with barely contained excitement beside her) all about the realities of space travel and stupid, nasty, demonic aliens that inhabited people's bodies via wiggly snakes. It had brought back a lot of just-under-the-surface-and-never-going-to-heal memories, but Xander had been intrigued, and it had helped to pass a good majority of the next three hours.
By that point they were now well past Nevada and nearing the end of Utah, and Buffy had finally noticed that Xander practically had his head hanging out the window as he drove, falling temperature be damned. The strangest thing was that after all of her time in Netu, Buffy had really and truly stopped realizing how bad she smelled. It wasn't as though there was anything down in their corner of hell that smelled any sweeter. Still, Buffy could take the hint, and at the next gas stop she had barricaded herself in the woman's bathroom and somehow managed to clean the majority of the dirt, grime, and assorted nastiness from her face, neck, and arms. By that point Xander had been knocking at the door, and with his help she had then secured an ace wrap around her healing ribs, and another around her badly set wrist. He had again tried to insist on swinging through a hospital, but there hadn't been time, nor explanations enough for her current condition.
Yeah, she still stunk - as evidenced by Xander's noisy mouth-breathing - but a girl could only do so much when the need to go, go, go
was imprinted so heavily on everything that she did. Worse, however, was the nagging feeling that even if she was given a hot shower, ample soap, and brillo pad, she would still feel dirty. There were some things that could never wash out, no matter how many layers of skin you scrubbed away. You couldn't just scrub away the feeling of unwanted hands touching unwanted places, of Evil slithering, sliding and winding itself inside your body, of another's mind touching your own, invading
your own.... taking over.
No, there wasn't enough soap in the world to fix that one. Then again, Buffy mused as they pulled up to yet another gated checkpoint, with all of the waiting that they were now forced to endure at their current destination, maybe she could have taken the time to at least try and scrub it away.