Epilogue: The Serpent and the Hunter

September 2000

"Teal'c's going to be okay," O'Neill said over his beer. "Dr. Frazier said that whatever they were doing to him on that mothership, it may have hurt like all holy hell, but it didn't do any permanent damage."

"He should be cleared to go back to duty in a couple of days," General Hammond said as he tended the grill. "He's a tough kid, Jacob."

"I know," Jacob Carter said softly, opening a beer bottle and perusing the meats and vegetables on the platter on Hammond's porch. "I'm glad he's doing well, but ... you know that's not why I'm here."

"What else could there be?" O'Neill asked.

"The Tok'ra saw the report of the mystery Goa'uld that popped up in California last month. Couldn't help but notice that the report was ... well, kind of sparse."

O'Neill shrugged. "What's to tell? We heard that a snake-head popped his head above ground. We came, we saw, we greased it. No big deal."

Hammond sighed. "The Pentagon's been on my case about that report, too, Jack. They expect a little more detail than that, especially when it happens in United States territory, and some eyebrows got raised with your requisitions."

"Look, he was dug in deep and we had to blast him out. What's the big deal?"

"We still don't know what he was doing," Jacob said. "We found some old records on Kheper, and everything says he was an ambitious, dangerous character. Anise said that whatever he had planned, it was probably going to be spectacular."

"It was," O'Neill said sharply. "Which is why we can't afford to let her, or the Pentagon, or anybody who doesn't already know, find out just what was happening."

"What if it's something that can be used against the Goa'uld?" Jacob asked, only his voice had gone deep and reverberating.

"The only people it can be used against are us," O'Neill answered sharply. "Kheper found some sort of dimensional rift that could have wiped out the human race, and he was maybe a day away from opening it up."

"And this could happen at any time?"

"I don't think so. The people who were watching it there said that some pretty specific things had to happen for that to come about."

"How often does that happen?" Hammond asked darkly.

"The local expert said that the conditions for opening the rift wouldn't line up again for another three hundred years."

"And you believed him?" Hammond said.

"Of course not. He was lying through his teeth, I knew it, and I'm pretty sure he knew I knew it. He probably doesn't trust the government to keep that information close, and I can't say I blame him."

"But if the Tok'ra could figure out how to open up a rift like that on one of the Goa'uld worlds-"

"Jacob, didn't you hear me? If you head to Los Angeles, turn north on the Pacific Coast Highway, and head up the road a couple of hours, you will find the planet Earth's damned self-destruct switch."

"And you think the Tok'ra would let that kind of a secret out?"

"Like you guys have never been compromised? Jake, if I could get this hypnotized out of my head, I would, but I can't."

"Come on, Jack. We can protect that."

"Does that come with an ironclad, money-back, un-destroy-the-planet guarantee if it gets leaked to Apophis?"

No answer.

"I didn't think so. Look, I'm not doubting your intentions, but you've got to admit that if Anise had bothered to check your guys instead of assuming that no Tok'ra could have been compromised, we wouldn't have ended up with Martouf dead on the Gate ramp - and let's not forget how well that plan of yours to get Apophis and Heru'ur at each other's throats turned out."

"Now that's not fair, Jack."

"No, it's not. War never is." O'Neill took a sip of his beer. "Look, there's no way it can help us in the war out there; all it can do is cause us trouble. Ergo, nobody else needs to know. I'm not saying anything to anyone else, I know General Hammond's not about to ... you're not, are you, sir?"

"No, Jack. I can just imagine what the NID would do with it."

"And I've got to trust that you won't leak it out to the Tok'ra. That goes double for Selmak."

Jacob stood still for a moment, and then slowly nodded. "All right."

"What about Selmak?"

Jacob took a breath, and when he let it out, his eyes flashed a moment. "Agreed," he said in the deep voice of the symbiote.

Jack nodded and lifted his beer. "Here's hoping that's the last we ever hear of that godforsaken town, okay?"

The two generals lifted their beer bottles, touched the necks together solemnly to Jack's, and then all three drank to it.

Buffy opened her eyes with a nearly audible click. Riley moved in his sleep next to her.

She reluctantly left the warmth of her bed, slipped on her clothes, and then quietly opened up her weapons chest, drawing out stakes, cross, and holy water.

Her hand came upon the ornate gauntlet next to one of her holy water vials, and she pondered for a moment why she'd kept it in the first place. It hadn't been a conscious thought, just a momentary impulse that had led her to pocket the glove she'd ripped from the hand of the creature that was tearing her mind apart. The government had swept through the area in the days afterwards, carting away blackened artifacts and bits of rubble, looking for anything out of the ordinary that had survived in the crater.

They probably had been looking for things like the glove.

Why had she kept it? Was it so she'd know what to look for if she ever encountered one again?

Or was it a hunter's instinct, like one of those men who'd shoot a deer and mount its antlers over a fireplace?

It bothered her that she didn't have the answer, but the question faded as she quietly made her way out of the bedroom.

She looked at the storage room next to her bedroom, and unbidden, the words Faith had spoken to her once in a dream came back. "Little Miss Muffet, counting down from seven-three-oh..."

What did that mean?

Buffy shook her head as she tiptoed down the stairs, out the door, and onto Revello Drive. There was too much she didn't understand, she thought as she flitted from shadow to shadow, approaching the first cemetery. She'd have to ask Giles about it. Ask about some of the other lost truths about the Slayer.

Then she saw the ground in front of a tombstone shift, and conscious thought was forgotten.

The hunt was on.

In the weapons chest by Buffy's bed, the unearthly gauntlet lay forgotten in a dark corner next to a vial of holy water, quiet, dormant.