Ronon had wondered more than once in the hours since Helia's ultimatum what he would say if Sheppard asked him to come along when his people withdrew from Atlantis. His first, knee-jerk reaction had been to follow Teyla to New Athos; he knew she wouldn't leave her people, and there was no way he was leaving the galaxy behind him when there was even a single Wraith still alive.
The thing was, though. Sheppard's people would be back.
He knew they would be. Sooner or later, Helia had promised to let them back into the city... and even if she didn't, the Earthers had spent a lot of time and effort building a reputation in the Pegasus galaxy. They had alliances, treaties, and attendant responsibilities they would forfeit if they stayed too long away. That kind of thing mattered to them. To Elizabeth, at least, and Sheppard, and Beckett, and at least some of their commanders back home.
So maybe they'd have to set up a new base with a longer supply line; that didn't matter. What mattered was, they'd return. And when they did, they'd want a 'native' along to guide them. So it wasn't as though Ronon wouldn't ever have a chance to kill Wraith again.
And in the meantime... well. He liked Teyla and all, and her people were good people; but they weren't Satedans. They were farmers, not fighters. They'd shelter him, but they wouldn't fight at his back. It wouldn't be fair to expect that of them.
The Earthers were closer to his lost home's technology levels and power projection capabilities than any other people he'd met, even if they didn't truly get what it was like to have lived all your life under the shadow of the Hives. Trying to keep fighting without their strength alongside him wouldn't be as easy as it had been while he was a Runner. He had a reputation now, and he couldn't count on the tracker to draw Wraith to him anymore. Where would he go for intel and extra guns, the Genii? It would be a cold day on the planet where he'd found Sheppard's team before he trusted any of those vermin with his life.
He'd get as much action with the Earthers as he would with the Athosians; maybe more, if they let him fight their enemies in the Milky Way. Just for a few months, a few years at most. He could wait that long – it wouldn't be the first time he'd had to put his vengeance on hold.
Plus, there was Sheppard. There'd been a time when Ronon had never thought he'd have friends or a home ever again; it seemed wrong to abandon the man who'd given that back to him.
It was a big step, though. And who was to say Sheppard would even ask? What if they had no use for him after all, or he hated it there? He avoided making a final decision until the very last moment, when he went with Teyla to Sheppard's room and heard the man finally make the offer:
"You know you guys are welcome to come back with us, right?"
If he really meant it; if that wasn't just one of those polite things people said; if Ronon took him up on it... he would be leaving everything he knew in exchange for an uncertain future. But after listening to Sheppard, all stiff and awkward and already resigned to their answers, Ronon decided he'd never forgive himself if he didn't take the risk.
"Think I may take you up on that, actually," he replied with a shrug.
Sheppard's eyebrows flew up. "You mean – you want to?" he asked, voice rising with surprise as he straightened out of his slouch, balanced on the edge of his narrow mattress.
"Ronon?" Teyla seemed just as surprised, studying him intently from under a furrowed brow. "Are you certain? I thought you had decided you wished to help my people rebuild their settlement."
"Yeah," he answered them both, glancing between the two leaders of his team. Just one look at the expressions on each of their faces confirmed his decision and settled some of the nervous energy that had been burning in his gut. Teyla looked worried for him, maybe a little dismayed at the prospect of losing him as well as the Earthers; but Sheppard looked like Ronon had thrown him a lifeline.
"And I'd be glad to help," he added, quirking a rueful grin in her direction, "but who's going to keep Sheppard and McKay out of trouble if I don't go with them?"
She studied him a moment longer, expression cool and evaluating as though they were in the training room about to cross bantos rods, then sighed and nodded regretfully in acknowledgement of his choice. "You could of course stay with us as well, John," she suggested, turning her attention back to Sheppard. "You know you need not leave."
"Yeah, well," Sheppard said, the corners of his mouth turning down again as Teyla's question made it clear that unlike Ronon, she was definitely staying. "I think the Air Force has other plans for me."
"But like you, I felt it necessary to make the offer," she replied, gently. "I will miss you – and Ronon as well – but I understand your decisions. And I am certain this will not be the last time our paths cross."
"Good," Sheppard replied briskly, deliberately not meeting her gaze as he stood to return to his packing. "'Cause I'm no good at goodbyes. They suck."
"Yeah," Ronon added, bemused at Sheppard's avoidance but just as glad the man had expressed what they were both feeling so he didn't have to. "What he said."
There was something in Teyla's expression as he said that, in the way she held her hands, that suggested she was about to do her forehead touching thing again; Ronon decided to preempt her before she could reach for him, lifting her up off the ground in an awkward hug until she shouted with surprised laughter. Much better than tears, or that grave look she got every time she returned from a visit to her people. Then he caught Sheppard's arm, too, and ruffled a hand through the man's wild hair.
"Hey, hey, not the hair!" Sheppard objected, sputtering as he flailed the scuffing fingers away. Then he sobered again as Ronon let go, brushing at the disordered strands in a futile attempt to smooth them down. "So, uh. Before our paths uncross, then. You want to give me a hand?" he asked, glancing briefly toward Teyla with widened eyes like a pleading lupum. "I've still got some pizza and beer, I think."
"And popcorn?" She prompted him mildly, making him work for it as always.
"Of course popcorn," he replied, pressing a splayed hand to his chest as though she'd wounded him with the remark.
And they said that he acted young, sometimes. Ronon smiled absently at both of them, then bent to pick up the half-rolled poster of Johnny Cash that had been dropped on the bed, giving the image of the musician a skeptical glance.
Earth might be a lot like Sateda in some ways – but in others, it seemed like it really, really wasn't. He'd have to remember to take a lot of pictures for Teyla while he was gone, so they could laugh over them together when he got back.
Faith squinted up at the brilliant sky as she walked through the door into the prison exercise yard, trying to ignore the pounding sensation in her skull. She'd had another one of those dreams the night before, the kind she would've called nightmares if she hadn't suspected they were actually visions. She figured it was the frustrated Slayer energy she wasn't burning with her body bleeding over into her subconscious; had to be, 'cause she'd never been too good at the prophetic side of the job before. Just a dream or two shared with B, mostly. Now it seemed like they came every other week.
Of course, the prophetic dreams were still mostly shared with the other Slayer, not that the golden girl seemed to notice. Every time B got herself into a scrape that left a mark, Faith woke up from her sleep cycle itching to pound something into dust. Or someone. It didn't help that no one ever gave her a fight anymore; they'd all learned to leave her alone right quick, which left her trying to wear herself out on the yard equipment. As if that ever really worked.
She ran over the latest vision again as she headed for the pipes where she usually did chin-ups. It had been pretty bad; there had been some kind of really ugly badass vampire in it, and B had ended up pretty battered in the fight. Some other girl had died – there'd been a lot of teenage chicks around for some reason, even more than usual – and she could have sworn she'd seen that bleached blond hottie she'd teased in the Bronze that time. Or maybe he'd been in the dream before? Anyway, Buffy had been trying to take out the thing that hurt them, but it had almost killed her instead.
Some of the details had been a little on the vague side – like what exactly the cool, hip Slayer and her sidekicks were wearing these days – but the pain of being thrown through that wall had come right through, no problem. The last time she'd run up against anything that physically tough, Buffy had died, and the reminder weighed sourly in Faith's gut. It hadn't been so long since the first time she'd woken to the knowledge she'd become the Chosen Only; victory hadn't tasted as sweet as she'd once thought it might. It had been a bad five months until B's return.
She cracked her neck casually, loose dark hair sweeping over her bared shoulders, then lifted her hands and hopped up to get a firm grip. Up, down, repeat, dragging her body behind her: the motion didn't do much for her muscles, not with her natural Slayer strength and hyper metabolism, but any kind of action was better than sitting around brooding. The mild burn in her arms was a distraction from the headache, too, though it wasn't enough to overcome the worries churning in her gut.
Whatever was going on down in Sunnydale, it had to be bad. And it wasn't just the visions; she'd seen a glimpse of a freak meteor shower over L.A. on the news. Angel was probably in the thick of it, too. She'd had the Bible quoted at her enough over the years; if that 'rain of fire' shit wasn't apocalypse related, she'd eat her crappy prison shoes.
Something huge was stirring. Something the Slayer in her knew it was meant to fight, and she couldn't count on Angel paying her a visit to fill her in. Paying her dues was one thing – punishing herself for what she'd done – but none of it would matter much if the world went all to hell around her.
Faith eyed the fence at the peak of her next pull-up, hanging there with her chin resting on the pipe as she stared at the chain link lattice, the concertina wire coiled over the top, and the guards with guns watching over it from above. She could jump over it, no problem. And when she hit her stride, none of the badges would be able to aim fast enough to keep up with her. The question was, would the hassle be worth the results? She'd be a fugitive, and the Scoobies still might not want her. They were good at holding grudges. Not that she blamed them. She probably would in their place, too.
She dropped down again, then dusted her hands off and turned toward the weight benches. So if breaking out was such a bad idea, why was she still considering it? She shook her head, then picked up one of the heavier weighted bars, testing her grip. Because the same sense of guilt and damaged conscience that brought her to Stockton in the first place was nagging at her again, rasping along the ragged edge of her nerves. Or maybe that was her Slayer sense tugging at her again? Either way, Faith was sure she'd go crazy if she stayed there much longer.
One of the other prisoners was using a bench; Deb gave Faith a strange look as she hefted the weight. Faith tossed her hair back and gave the taller woman a cool eyebrow in response; maybe she wasn't quite on her game today, but Deb knew better than to mix in her business. The woman locked eyes with her a moment, then shook her head at Faith's challenge and deliberately turned her attention back to her own weights.
"That's more like it," Faith muttered under her breath. Maybe she was already going crazy.
Screw it. She shifted her grip on the bar and threw it as hard as she could toward the concertina wire at the top of the fence. It wasn't like the guards could ever stop her if she went murderous again, anyway; she was jailing herself, really, she was just letting them have the credit for it. She was Faith, the Vampire Slayer. And maybe it was time she took responsibility for her actions on her own shoulders.
She heard the shouts starting from the guard positions as the weighted bar tangled noisily in the wire, one end catching between strands and tugging a whole swath down out of the way as the other end dangled off the far side. It made for a wicked distraction. She grinned, then bolted toward an entirely different section, taking several strides to push herself up near top speed. One, two, three and she was airborne, vaulting fence, wire, and all while everyone stared in the opposite direction.
Faith cleared the fence with feet to spare, and hit the ground on the other side without so much as a stumble. "Sunnydale, here I come," she breathed, then sped up again as she approached the next fence.
Six days after arriving on Earth, Ronon was finally due to take his first breath of free air outside the underground base at the Earthside Ring. Not that he'd been feeling all that imprisoned. The SGC hadn't been much different from Atlantis so far, as far as he'd noticed: less homelike, all square corners and grey colors instead of soaring lines and living hues, but full of the same kinds of people, busy at the same kinds of tasks as they'd been in the city.
He had noticed that their uniforms didn't have quite so many different shoulder patches, though. McKay had told him it had to do with the different nations represented on the expedition, where the SGC was mostly staffed by just one: another Earther quirk that reminded him, just a little bit, of home.
Sateda was the only other world he'd ever visited with a population big enough to draw more than a handful of political and territorial lines. Not as many as Earth, nor as exclusionary, since they'd still had only a fraction of Earth's numbers and everyone had treaties granting access to the Ring of the Ancestors. But there'd been enough of them for the concept to feel familiar. He'd touched the tattoo at his neck – his rank, drawn differently for a Ring City-born soldier than it would've been if he were from elsewhere – and nodded thoughtfully at the explanation.
That style of partitioned government had made things more complicated than Ronon had expected, though, when he'd agreed to come. SG-1 had brought aliens home before, Vala and Teal'c and some other guy in the science department, so it wasn't that they weren't prepared to take him in. But it took a lot of paperwork to establish a valid identity that would pass with the legal authorities outside the base; apparently, offering 'not from around here' as an explanation would be cause for suspicion, not sympathy, on this planet. And they weren't inclined to grant it without a lot of tedious debriefings. If he'd been just a visitor, it would have been pretty simple. But a long term resident? Not so much.
He'd cleared enough hurdles, finally, that he was at least allowed to leave in Sheppard's company, if not drive one of their vehicles or legally carry his weapon yet. That was all right with Ronon, though. Sheppard was the pilot on their team anyway, and as long as they didn't ask him to stop carrying his knives, Ronon was willing to temporarily let Sheppard have charge of his weapon.
"You sure about this?" Sheppard asked him as he finished his packing, making a big production of tucking the Traveler-made blaster into an outside pocket of his duffel bag.
"About what?" Ronon replied, crossing his arms. "I trust you with my piece, so long as you don't let McKay take it apart. This road trip thing, though, I'm not so sure about."
"Oh, ha, ha," Sheppard said, rolling his eyes as he pulled the zipper closed on his duffel bag and slung the strap over his shoulder. "It'll just be like an extended mission through the gate. Only with a car instead of a jumper, and no McKay or Teyla along for the ride."
"I've heard about your world's vehicles," Ronon teased again, shrugging his backpack on. It was surprisingly heavy; Teal'c had given him a few things he swore were essential for any off base travel, and Vala had swiped Dr. Jackson's 'credit card' to order him some 'normal' clothes from some kind of electronic marketplace.
She'd sworn the scientist wouldn't mind, but Ronon would have to be sure to pay him back, just in case. He liked Vala, but he knew a dangerous woman when he saw one. Under the right circumstances... but these weren't those circumstances. She had 'her Daniel', and Ronon was only there for a little while.
"Whatever horror stories Teal'c and Vala have told you, just put them out of your mind," Sheppard snorted. "You know they're messing with you, right? Teal'c has his own driver's license, and Vala has a bad track record of getting herself kidnapped. The cars aren't the problem."
"Whatever," Ronon grinned. "I think the guys who gave me the 'Worst Case Scenario Survival Among the Tau'ri Handbook' might have a better idea what a stranger to your planet might need to know than you do."
"They what?" Sheppard spluttered, looking outraged – and maybe a little bit fascinated, too. "They did not."
Ronon swung his backpack around, reached into the front pocket, and waved a pocket-sized spiral notebook at Sheppard by way of reply. Several gold symbols on the cover – which supposedly spelled out the title in the Goa'uld language – were clearly visible above the Ring symbol for Earth.
"You're kidding, they actually wrote one? I thought that was just a joke they were playing on the poor backward Tau'ri! Let me see it," Sheppard chuckled, making a swipe for it.
Ronon lifted the notebook up out of his reach, then tucked it away again, still grinning. It was mostly full of jokes and anecdotes, Vala had told him, but he was still looking forward to reading it along the way. It would be good practice for sharpening his English literacy – he'd learned some from Weir in Atlantis, but not enough to really master it yet. He didn't mind people underestimating him, but he preferred it to be because he wanted them to, not because his reports read like they were written by a child.
"Oh, all right, have it your way," Sheppard sighed, affecting resignation.
"Uh huh," Ronon said, not buying a word of it. Then he settled the backpack again, and gestured toward the corridor. "So, we ready to go, or what?"
The General had said he'd have a team ready for them in two weeks. Until then, Sheppard, McKay, and all the other official Atlantis personnel had been given mandatory vacation assignments. Weir was still in meetings, and McKay and Beckett had their families to visit; McKay and his sister had just started speaking again, and Beckett's mom was kind of frail, so their departures hadn't come as much of a surprise. But Sheppard didn't want to see his family, and Ronon didn't want to intrude on anyone else's, so the two of them had been left untethered until SG-23 was commissioned.
Naturally, Sheppard had decided that having nowhere in particular to go meant they should go everywhere instead. He'd quickly volunteered to take Ronon out to see his home country – or as much of it as they could fit in over the next fourteen days. They'd head for the West Coast first, then cross to the East if they had time, making a big zigzagging loop around the country.
"Ready," Sheppard assured him, then led the way out toward the elevator, first stage of the trip to the surface and from there out into America proper. Ronon wasn't sure this trip was so much for his sake as it was a long buried aspiration of Sheppard's, but he was more inclined to humor him than not. And it should be interesting, regardless, in a 'children's school trip to the Ring' kind of way.
They made the rest of the trip up in silence, signing out and then appropriating the flashiest car in the lot. It was all smooth lines, with a top that flipped back, painted a brilliant metallic red; Sheppard grinned to himself and stroked the finish a little before unlocking it. Ronon had previously thought that was something his team leader only did in the presence of Atlantean technology, and was bemused to find himself proven wrong.
"California, here we come," Sheppard said, sliding on his sunglasses before they were even out of the lot.
"That's the surfing place, right?" Ronon couldn't resist teasing him again.
"Yes, Chewie, that's the place where we'll surf." Sheppard grinned, then turned the radio on.
Faith stepped back from the window as it rolled up, then waved half-heartedly as the college kid put his car back in gear, spinning tires in the gravel in his haste to get back on the highway. He'd been the third one to do the same in the last forty minutes. It was easy enough to get guys to stop for her, throwing out a thumb and striking a pose, but not a one of them was willing to take her into Sunnydale.
She'd managed to get away from Stockton easily enough, and she'd hitchhiked part of the way south, but her ride had dumped her about three hours' walk away from her destination. It was strange, how most people reacted when she told them where she wanted to go: kind of puzzled, and kind of repulsed, with a little deliberate ignorance on the side. Like maybe the 'Sunnydale effect' that blinded the people living on the Hellmouth to the monsters in their bushes had spread out and started making everyone else forget the whole town even existed.
Yeah, something was definitely going on in old Sunnyhell.
She sighed, then shouldered the backpack she'd borrowed from a local college lost and found and kept striding south. She'd get there eventually. She'd just hoped to be a little less scraggly when she showed up on the Summers doorstep. It would have been a lot easier if she'd also 'found' enough money for the bus, but the whole point of the prison thing had been to put 'want, take, have' behind her. Just because her every move wasn't being watched anymore shouldn't give her a free pass on that.
Faith wondered how long those ideals would hold out if things went really sour on her again, and sighed. She'd never been all that great at self-control, before, not unless she'd had to be. And in some respects, she wasn't so sure that was a bad thing, even after all the counseling she'd been through; first chance she had to get a willing guy between her thighs, she was totally taking. But the might makes right thing? That, she'd just have to keep working on. And no cutesy shortcuts or mantras – they'd tried the 'what would Jesus do' thing out on her, and seriously, fuck that noise. The martyr thing really wasn't her style.
But while she was on the subject of 'holy'... Faith raised her eyebrows as another vehicle finally pulled up alongside her, a battered old farm-style truck with a man in a priest's collar behind the wheel. He was kind of toothsome, thirtyish and a little raggedy in the haircut, but with strong square features and a fit-looking bod under all the black. It would be a shame to let that go to waste – and a collar didn't always mean 'off limits', in her experience. She adjusted her stance a little, letting her curves say 'hello' for her, and strode casually up to the passenger side door.
"Where you headed, Father?" she asked, tilting her head a little as she gave him a long, slow smile. She definitely had his attention; his eyes traveled all the way down to the soles of her cheap borrowed boots and then back up to the cleavage of the one decent shirt she'd been able to find – a size too snug, but that wasn't exactly a problem under the circumstances.
"Call me Caleb," he said, swallowing visibly. "Never was nobody's daddy." Then he focused on her face again, something intent and hungry in his expression. "I'm on my way to Sunnydale. Never been, but I've heard it has its appeal. You headed in that direction?"
"What a coincidence," she drawled, sauntering closer until she was close enough to prop her elbows on the rim of the rolled-down window. "That's exactly where I'm headed. Mind giving me a ride?" She shifted her posture a little, making it clear she meant it in both senses of the term, and wasn't surprised to see the curl of lust in his return smile as he nodded toward the door.
"Girl like you? Don't believe it is a coincidence, us meeting like this. Hop on in."
Faith's smile grew a little more genuine in gratitude as she backed off a step to open the door of the old truck. Finally, finally something was going her way. Now if she could just make it to town without anything else going wrong, maybe with enough time to check out a motel shower and give the padre a little somethin' somethin' before looking up the Scoobs....
But Fate had other ideas in mind that day. Her eyes fell on the inner panel of the door as she lifted a foot to step up into the cab of the truck, and every instinct Faith possessed – those born of a childhood spent evading human predators at least as much as the hunting senses of a Slayer – brought her up short, sending up warning flags in the back of her mind. No handle on the inside; no way of getting back out, short of busting the door off with a solid kick. Something no ordinary girl could do. She froze, then looked sharply up at her would be benefactor, eyes widening in suspicion as she caught an ugly look of anticipation on his face.
He smirked at her, apparently not at all worried she'd figured him out. "Oh, Faith. Can I call you Faith? Was told you don't have much of that yourself, but I suppose there's always time for you to learn. Don't run now; ain't but no where you can hide, and I got a message for you to send to the other one."
Not only was he a predator – he knew who Faith was. No good ever came from that kind of look. She tensed every muscle, slowly lowering her raised foot back to the asphalt, and prepared to bolt the moment he made a move in her direction.
"'Course this is about B. You Council muscle? How the hell did you find me so fast?"
"Council?" He chuckled, a mad glint in his eyes as he shook his head at her, looking entirely too pleased with himself. "If you're expecting any kind of help from those old fossils, I'm sorry to say you're a few weeks behind the times."
He made a tsk'ing noise, clicking his tongue for all the world like somebody's grandma. "I wasn't intendin' to start my trip to the Hellmouth so soon – there's still a peck of dirty girls spread all across the country in need of a good cleansing – but when I heard tell you'd broken out of your box before my agent could get to you; well. Just had to come and pay you a visit myself."
She should have known it was too good to be true, someone actually volunteering to take her to Sunnydale after the way all the other drivers had behaved. Faith took another slow step backward, settling into a balanced stance, and brought her fists up in loose, ready curls. "If you're going to bring it, then bring it, Padre; this creeper routine isn't doing you any favors."
"Ah, I can see it now," he replied, turning off the ignition and sliding across the seat toward the door she'd left open in one swift, slick movement. "The wanted fugitive walks into the police station to report a creeper in a priest's collar on the road to a town where the positively spine chilling – or spine munching – regularly goes unnoticed. That's going to turn out well."
He paused briefly for effect, shaking his head at her. "No; you're good for just one thing, and if I didn't already have a full schedule this evening, I'd take pleasure in reminding you of it."
Faith was used to the male gaze, used to manipulating men's desires to get whatever she wanted, but the look in that priest's eyes as he stepped out of the truck made her want to cover up her chest and crawl back to her safe, cramped cell at Stockton. But she wouldn't let him get to her that easy. She tilted her chin up instead and took another step back, feeling behind her for firmer footing.
"I'd like to see you try," she sneered. "You got a name, or should I just tell them to put 'John Smallberries' on your tombstone?"
"Very funny," he smirked. And then he moved, a knife appearing in his hand as if by magic – and she realized with a sinking feeling that she was in deeper shit than she was prepared to handle.
Faith was good, but she was rusty, and someone must have slipped him some magical steroids because she barely blocked his first few moves. It was like fighting B on her top game – or better. She knew within ten seconds that she was going to have to put some distance between them if she didn't want to take on serious hurt; but just her luck, he was as quick as he was strong. Caleb caught her arm and spun her around as she tried to bolt, the vise grip of his fingers too crushing to escape.
She whacked him solidly upside the head with her free hand, unwilling to give up just like that, but he didn't even try to shield his head; he reached with the knife instead, grinning like he was having the best day ever. She saw it coming in time to try and jerk out the way, but she was still trapped at arm's length, and quick as lightning she found herself kneeling in shock on the asphalt.
Who the hell was this guy? How had he turned it around on her so fast? And what was it with people and stabbing her in the gut, anyway?
"Bastard," she hissed, blood-slick hand slipping on the hilt sticking out of her side.
He must have read the questions in her face, or maybe she'd said some of it out loud without meaning to, 'cause next thing she knew he was dropping to a crouch in front of her. "Call me Caleb," he said, flashing a satisfied smile. "And you can tell that mystical sister of yours–"
"Hey there," a third voice cut in at that very opportune moment, stepping into a pair of high beams suddenly lighting up Caleb's truck. "We don't mean to interrupt, but – we're a little lost. Mind giving us some directions?"
The dude who'd spoken was tall, spiky haired, and dressed in casual clothes that hung on his totally not casual stance like a poor attempt at camouflage. In any other company she'd have called him a cool drink of water, but another silhouette, even taller, better built and topped with a fine set of dreads, loomed beside him. The surprised look on Caleb's face when he saw them made Faith feel marginally better, but she was kind of horrified at the same time; if they didn't get right back in their car before he decided what to do with them, there was no way they were getting out of this any better than she was.
One day out. Less than a day, and this was her life already? Had she known freedom was going to come with this kind of price tag... oh, who was she kidding. Angel had rubbed off on her. This was what a Slayer was for. She had to get back on the horse sometime.
"Run," she rasped, trying to drag enough breath around the pain to put some volume in it. Then she took the opportunity of Caleb's distraction to draw one leg up under her, aiming to get back on her feet.
He wasn't that distracted, though... or maybe it was just that the guys from the red Jag didn't rate as much as even a wounded Slayer on his threat scale. It was almost like facing Kakistos again, the way Caleb just smirked in her face as he dropped a hand to her hair and shoved her toward the pavement.
It didn't feel any better against her face than it had against her knees. She gritted her teeth, trying to think past the shock; she was a Slayer, damn it. She'd been injured worse than this in the past.
"Hold on there, missy," he said, then chuckled a little. "'Course, you don't have much choice right now, do you? You just lay there and enjoy the fruits of your sinful ways while I take care of these poor misguided boys. It won't take long."
"Hey!" Spiky Hair objected again. "Put your hands up and step away from the girl!"
Faith turned her head as she planted a shaky hand against the rough asphalt for support. He'd drawn a gun from somewhere and was passing another to his hot friend; they'd come closer, too, enough for her to see their grim expressions. Who were they? Normal people didn't usually stick up for random strangers. Literally, even.
His gun was shaped like a standard cop or military pistol, but the other guy's looked like something off the SciFi channel, with a strange extra-long black barrel with little red lights on the end of it. Maybe they had something to do with that secret military base Angel had told her about? The ones all gung-ho about harnessing demon powers For Great Justice? That would kind of explain it.
Whether they were involved in shit-stupid experiments or not, though, she couldn't just let them volunteer for their own deaths. Not when she could do something about it.
She shifted her weight onto her off hip, waiting for Caleb to start walking towards them, then pulled the knife free from her side. It wasn't the generally recommended policy for a stab wound, but she didn't have time to fuck around – and she was a Slayer anyway. If the blood loss wasn't enough to kill her, she'd get over it. The time Buffy had stabbed her it had gone way deeper, and she'd walked away from that one. Months later, maybe, but it totally still counted.
She reversed her grip on the knife, then firmed her muscles and pushed herself upright via sheer willpower.
Caleb had managed to get his hand on the pistol of the one talking, and from the angle it was craned and the pained wince crossing the guy's face Faith knew the guy was in serious trouble. The other one still had his gun pointed at Caleb, though, and that looked more promising. He popped off a shot without so much as a warning, lighting up the space between them – definitely a ray gun –and Caleb actually staggered backward, clapping a hand to his chest as he let go of the first guy.
"That actually stung a bit," he said, sounding like an outraged kid whose favorite toy had been broken.
Dreadlocks-guy looked a little startled by that less than impressive reaction, but fired again anyway, sending two more livid red shots slamming into Caleb at shoulder and hip. His friend shook his torqued hand and shifted his gun to his off hand, preparing to fire, but tilted the barrel up again with a curse; Caleb's staggering retreat had taken him back in reach of Faith, and he'd snagged her by the arm to drag in front of him as a shield. Faith's immediate attempt to turn and fend him off with the knife fared even more poorly than their last go-round; he just blocked with his off hand, applied pressure to her wrist, and backed toward the driver's door of his truck with her back between him and her rescuers.
"I called 911 before we got out of the car," Spiky Hair barked, his tone full of menace. "Let go of the girl, and maybe they won't nail your ass to the wall for kidnapping on top of attempted murder."
"Now, that's just not on," Caleb said, shaking Faith a little, all forbidding and disappointed. She could barely hear him; she'd broken out in a cold sweat, and her vision was blurring a little. Not good times.
"They won't be able to help you in the end, you know," he added conversationally, in her ear. "But it ain't the time for that fight just yet. Tell your sister in arms I'm on my way to claim something of hers; and soon enough it'll be her turn to reap her just rewards."
Faith pursed her lips and twisted a little, just enough to spit her opinion of that on the toe of his boot.
He snarled and shoved her forward again in response, letting her fall as he wrenched open the door and jumped in. She barked her elbows against the asphalt trying to catch her weight, then the back of her head as she overbalanced, which only made the dizziness worse. A spate of gunfire followed him as the darkness finally swam up to claim her.
She was totally telling B the good guy thing sucked rocks the next time she saw her.
Ronon snarled as the rusty-looking old vehicle spun its tires, leaving the scent of burned rubber in the air as it roared out of view. They'd had to dodge out of the way to keep from being plowed down as the guy drove off the way they'd come; Sheppard had put out a couple of the red lights that burned on the back of the vehicle, but that hadn't slowed it any, and the bluff about the phone call was going to net them exactly nothing now that he was gone.
He tucked his sidearm away – like hell he was giving it back to Sheppard now, permit or not – and hustled forward to kneel at the fallen girl's side while Sheppard darted back to his car. Probably for the first-aid kit he'd tucked behind the driver's seat after the incident at that Six Flags place... which had been an accident, whatever Sheppard said; it wasn't his fault he'd been startled.
Good thing they had it, though. She was almost as pale as a Wraith drone's hair, a wide stain spreading over the front of her shirt. Ronon checked her swiftly for anything obviously broken, then started applying pressure over the wound. He didn't see any other damage right off, though that didn't mean there wasn't any; her top exposed more of her arms and chest than he usually saw on Earthers, but the rest of her was pretty well covered. She had a thick fall of wavy dark hair, a lot like Vala's, and deep shadows under her eyes that weren't cosmetically applied; whoever she was, it didn't look like she'd led an easy life. Her hand had looked much too comfortable on the grip of that knife.
Sheppard dropped down next to him, the medical box hitting the pavement with a clang. "Is she–" He didn't bother to finish the question.
"Still breathing," Ronon replied. "Heartbeat seems okay. She's lost a lot of blood, though." He could see where she'd been standing when she'd yanked out the knife from the tracks she'd left through it.
"Here." Sheppard ripped open a packet of sterile bandages and passed them over. "Another chapter to add to that Handbook of yours, huh."
Ronon rolled his eyes, ignoring the poor attempt at humor, and got to work.
They both knew what to do with piercing and cutting injuries from painful experience, and within a couple of minutes they had her as stable as she was going to get before they could find a doctor. There was no point staying and waiting for the authorities, not with a guy like her attacker running around; he couldn't possibly be human, which meant the SGC would be better equipped to handle him than the local cops. Beckett was thousands of miles away, though, so that meant driving to a local hospital; Ronon grimaced at the thought, but it had been a long time since Melena's death. He could handle it.
The narrow back seat of the car wasn't exactly made to be comfortable for someone lying down, but they rearranged their gear enough to provide some padding. Then they carefully lifted her in, hips higher than her head to help with the bleeding. She groaned a little as Ronon shoved another blanket under her, and he kept a hand on the dressing as he settled into the front seat.
"How far to the next town?" he asked.
Sheppard reached down to grab the map he'd dropped on the floorboards at Ronon's feet and unfolded it with a frown. "Next one with a good hospital? Not sure. There was supposed to be a college town somewhere around here that ought to have one, but we should have passed that mile marker around twenty minutes ago and I sure didn't see any exit for Sunnydale."
Ronon had; the green and white reflective signage they used on this planet was vivid enough to see easily, even in the dark. "I did," he grunted. "But that's the way he was headed."
"Huh. Guess I was distracted," Sheppard shrugged. "Sunnydale it is, then. I doubt he'll be hanging around to ambush us; sounded like whatever he's up to, he's not ready for a full-scale confrontation yet. Which reminds me; here." He fished his cell phone out of the driver's side cup holder. "Speed dial three; better let Landry know we've run into a little trouble."
Ronon frowned, but finally turned away from their passenger to deal with the finicky little buttons as Sheppard started the car and got it turned around on the road.
The report didn't take long: basically, all Ronon had to tell was that they'd run into an inhumanly strong guy who'd been able to shrug off energy weapon blasts like they were apis stings, busy attacking some random human girl. But since there weren't supposed to be any nonhumans on Earth...
"And you say he was wearing a black shirt with a white collar?" Landry commented, as he took the man's description. "That's not a good sign; that's the traditional garb of a priest. SG-1 took down a Goa'uld around seven years ago who liked to set himself up as a cult leader, draw in groups of people to enslave and kill. I'll get Dr. Jackson's department researching that immediately. In the meantime, I'll have that license plate number circulated to the local authorities, put out a BOLO for him. You get that young lady to the hospital, see if she can tell you anything more about him when she wakes up."
"Yes, sir," Ronon said, then glanced over at Sheppard to see if there was anything else he wanted to say.
Sheppard made a face, wearing what Teyla called his Smile of Wrongness; which probably meant he was more worried than he wanted to admit. "Ask him if we can add a few more days to our vacation after we leave here," he drawled. "We're not even to San Francisco yet; at this rate, we're going to need more time to finish the tour."
Landry snorted. "Tell him I heard that. And – we'll see. I'll have SG-3 stand ready; let me know what the girl says, and if necessary I'll have them sent in to back you up."
"SG-3. That's the Marines, right?" Ronon prompted. He'd been curious enough to check out the whole team list, after finding out he and Sheppard were going to be assigned the 23rd number; if he remembered right, the lead Marine team was primarily designated for combat. His kind of guys.
"That's right. Good luck; I hope you don't need them, and we can send you on your way in peace."
Ronon hung up, turning his attention back to the road – then blinked, as he saw the Sunnydale exit sign approaching at high speed, with one of those little blue H symbols attached that he'd learned meant 'hospital' on Earth. "Good, we're here."
"What?" Sheppard frowned – and glanced right past the sign like it wasn't even there, not bothering to slow down or hit the turn signal. The hair on the back of Ronon's neck prickled in alarm.
"The sign. Don't you see it? It's right – Sheppard!" He reached over and laid a hand on the wheel to drag it toward him, just enough to veer them off onto the ramp where Sheppard could take over again. Not seeing the sign once could have been distraction; twice smelled of enemy action. "Here!"
"Ronon, what the hell?" Sheppard yelped, then sucked in a ragged breath, straightening them out and hitting the brakes as they approached a traffic light at the end of the curving section of pavement. "Whoa. I didn't even see that. That is not a good sign. Maybe we shouldn't have stopped after all; if this is like that little town SG-1 found four years ago where the snakes took over...."
"You want to turn back?" Ronon frowned. He hadn't heard that story; but the girl in the back seat still needed treatment – and what if something was wrong here, and no one else could find it after they left?
"Hold on! Just let me think for a minute," Sheppard said, tapping his fingers against the wheel as he studied what they could see of the town from that crossroad. It looked normal to Ronon, maybe a little more built up than Sateda, a little higher tech, but not totally unfamiliar. But then again, he didn't know what he was supposed to be watching for. He turned to check up on their passenger instead – and was surprised to find her pushing herself upright, one hand pressed to her dressings and her face lined with pain.
"This Sunnydale?" she rasped, frowning intently at him.
"That's what the sign said," he said, impressed by her resilience. "What do you know about it?"
"Enough not to be surprised your friend couldn't see it," she chuckled weakly, then shrugged at him. "I'm kind of surprised you even saw it, the way everyone else has been acting. Sunnydale's always been kind of like the spooky shit capital of America, but this is worse than usual. Something big must be going down."
"Then I should probably call in backup," Sheppard frowned, glancing up at her reflection in the rearview mirror.
"No. No!" she objected, wincing. "We're here, and it's still daylight; it's safe enough for now. I got people here. You drop me off, then get the hell out of town. Got it?"
"As long as we're dropping you at a hospital," Ronon countered, raising his eyebrows at her. "That bandage isn't going to hold you for long." He scrounged up an unopened bottle of water from the bag of snacks in the foot well and handed it to her; they'd got a little in her when they were treating her, but she'd been unconscious awhile, and she'd lost a lot of fluid.
"I'll be fine," she said, tilting her chin up a little to take a long drink. "Buffy or one of her friends can take me. I don't want to put you guys out, and I don't want to deal with the paperwork."
She was stubborn, that was for sure; even more than with Vala, Ronon got the impression that he'd really enjoy getting to know this girl if he'd met her under different circumstances. But if the way she was hunched over in the seat was any clue, her definition of 'fine' wasn't much different from Sheppard's.
"It won't be an inconvenience," he insisted.
"Besides, we got questions," Sheppard added, irritably. "Like, who the hell was that guy? And what exactly do you mean by 'something big'?"
"Don't know, and you don't wan't to know. Trust me; this isn't your gig," she insisted.
Ronon sighed; this wasn't getting them anywhere. "What's your name, anyway?" he said, before Sheppard could get his hackles up any further.
She blinked, then gave him what probably would have been a sultry smile if it hadn't been for the blood smeared on her chin and rubbed a hand suggestively up the length of her water bottle. "They call me Faith. What's your name, big boy?"
"They call me Ronon," he replied, gruffly. "This is Sheppard. So. Your friend live far from here?"
"Not too far. The house is over on Revello Drive," she said. "Just take Fourth down to Hamilton, and turn right; it's down past the mall."
"Ronon..." Sheppard said warningly, giving him a cautionary look.
"Better than sitting here arguing about it forever," he shrugged. "And maybe her friend will talk."
Sheppard scowled at that, but couldn't find a better argument to shoot it down. Or didn't want to, maybe; Ronon suspected if they hadn't had a wounded civilian on their hands, it wouldn't even have been a question. "Fine. But I'm warning you; I'm not taking the blame if you die of internal bleeding."
"Suits me," she replied, a wry twist to her mouth; but she looked relieved to hear it.
Sheppard just shook his head and hit his turn signal. Not that he needed to; there weren't any cars behind them. No one else had followed them off the main road in the last few minutes, despite the heavy traffic. It was a little surreal, even to a guy whose first glimpse of that kind of chaos had been just a few days ago.
"So. Tell us where to go from here."
The trip through town to Buffy's house seemed to take both forever, and no time at all. That was the way pain worked: while you were feeling it, you could never really remember what life was like without it. Everything blurred together in an endless, aching moment... but at the same time, it was like Faith barely blinked between the freeway and 1630 Revello Drive.
"This the place?" the bigger guy – Ronon – said, turning in his seat to look at her again.
"That's the place," she said with a sigh.
Spiky hair – Sheppard – still wore that disapproving expression that had always driven her up the wall with Little Miss You Don't Get It. Maybe he wasn't with the demony soldier boys; if he had been, he should have known she really wouldn't need an ER for anything she could walk away from. Some other kind of special forces, maybe? His posture sure said soldier, and his clothes backed that up, all 'whatever I could find at the local BX.' God knew what his friend was, dressed all Cabela's meets GQ, but they probably worked together; used to the danger but not the ghoulies and ghosties. Not your average cops or feds, though, not with that laser gun. At least she wasn't getting an evil vibe from them.
"Just let me out here. They'll get me to a doc if I need it. But it's not like I have a job, or any insurance, or anything, so...." She let her voice trail off so they could come to their own conclusions.
Sheppard swallowed back whatever he'd wanted to say, his nose still wrinkled a little like he'd smelled something rank. "Let's make sure your friend's home first. I'm not just going to leave you on the sidewalk like that. Ronon?" He lifted his eyebrows at the passenger seat.
Ronon sighed, but unfolded himself from the convertible without any further prompting and leaned over the side to pluck her squawking from the seat.
"Dude, this is undignified. And totally unnecessary. Put me down already!"
Her shoves against his chest were about as weak as a child's, though, and he smirked down at her, all white teeth, tan skin, and dark, amused eyes. Up that close, she could see something else, too: the beard and the dreads made him look a lot older than he probably actually was. And the tattoo on his neck she'd thought was random line art before clearly meant something; might even be a rune. She wondered what his background was; she'd never seen anyone like him.
"You really want to walk? 'Cause I can drop you, if you really want me to," he shrugged.
Funny how much easier she found it to accept his help, given a little ribbing for seasoning, over Sheppard's sterner offers. Maybe that was why she'd always got along so much better with B's friends than the elder Slayer herself. All that time reflecting behind bars had convinced her B had a serious emotional constipation problem, but that didn't make her attitude – or Sheppard's – any easier to take.
"I guess I can deal, if you're going to be that way about it," Faith sighed, rolling her eyes like she was making a great concession, and turned her head so she could rest it against Ronon's shoulder while they approached the house. Up that close, he smelled good enough to eat: hints of leather and ozone and steel over warm, masculine flesh. If she hadn't been so focused on just breathing, she might have been tempted to climb him with a totally different goal in mind.
He chuckled, then shifted her weight a little, balancing her more evenly against his toned chest. Yeah, he was definitely a fighter, with those kinds of muscles and reflexes.
She could hear a door shutting as Sheppard got out of the car, too, then footsteps as they both walked up to the house. Ronon chose his steps pretty carefully, but she could still feel every jarring footfall in the tug of the knife wound in her side where the sensitive skin was just starting to knit together. She still felt kind of ridiculous letting him carry her, though, enough that she'd have blushed if she could at the look on Willow's face when the witch opened the door to Sheppard's precise, firm knocks.
"Hey, Willow," she rasped in greeting. "Buffy around?"
Willow's eyes darted to the two men, then back to Faith, nervous alarm in her expression. She was much the same as ever, then, despite everything Faith had heard about the last couple of years; that was kind of reassuring. She'd cut her hair and dressed to compliment her shape instead of hiding it, though, like she finally owned her body rather than just living in it. Good for her.
"Not right now; she and Xander are out at the Sun Spot Motel looking for, uh, a visitor. How are you–? I mean why did you–? Goddess, you're hurt! We heard you escaped; did someone shoot you?"
Faith winced at Willow's babble; she could tell the guys were exchanging a look over her head. Yeah, that would explain the other reason she really didn't want to go to a hospital. "Nice, Wills. You hear that on the news? Nevermind. I was on my way here to talk to B about some sisterly stuff, you know what I mean, and ran into a welcoming committee on the way. Said something about blowing up the Council and sending B a message before he stabbed me. So you got room for me, or what?"
"Blowing up the...?" Willow's eyes went wide and round as she stepped out of the way, nonverbally answering the question the way a long-term resident of Sunnydale always did. "He must have been an agent of the First! Giles told us they'd been killed, but we thought it was the Bringers who'd done it."
"First?" she heard Ronon ask as he sidled by the witch, Faith still in his arms. "Bringers?"
"Uh – Faith didn't tell you?" Willow asked slowly, seeming to suddenly realize these guys were strangers.
"All she's told us so far was where to take her," Sheppard replied. "Don't suppose you can explain who the guy in the priest's collar was, or how he could shrug off bullets like they were rock salt."
Faith patted Ronon's shoulder to get him to put her down for a better vantage point on the conversation. As she steadied herself she spotted two other people in the living room with them, B's little sister and a rabbity little blond guy she didn't recognize. Both of them looked alarmed at the line of conversation, but Dawn was the one who spoke, cutting in before Willow could answer.
"You want to explain why the hell you gave them this address? Because there's some nice hotels that welcome tried to kill your sister types," she snapped, staring at Faith.
Faith smirked at her; damn, the littlest Summers was taller than her sister now. "Check it out. Brat's all woman-sized."
"So not the issue right now, Dawnie," Willow said, frowning over at the girl, then back at Sheppard and Ronon, wringing her hands together as she spoke. "It's probably better if you don't know. Thank you for bringing her to us; but I recommend you leave town before dark. It's safer that way."
There was just a hint of compulsion in her voice as she spoke; but the words themselves were firm enough that if Faith hadn't been paying attention, she wouldn't have sensed the subtle use of power. Sheppard seemed almost about to agree for a moment – but then he blinked, looking irritated, and Ronon's concerned frown had never faded.
"Yeah, well, personal safety's never been my first concern," Sheppard said, firmly. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, US Air Force; this is Specialist Ronon Dex. There are enough red flags around Sunnydale that our boss asked us to stop and take a look, given what we saw and heard when we picked up your friend. You obviously know something." He smiled, stiffly, and this time Faith wasn't exempt from the suspicious glances. "A little cooperation would go a long way."
Willow still looked nervous, but she didn't back down. "Tell your boss to talk to his bosses; the last time the military interfered here it got really ugly. Riley said you'd stay away unless we called him, or a team tracked something here. But if you really want to wait around and hear it from Buffy–"
Mr. Air Force looked like he was working up for a good blow in response, but fortunately – for Willow, at least – that was exactly when B decided to make her entrance. She stormed through the front door in a tizzy, all scowly-faced and much less bruised than the last time Faith had dreamed her, acting like she was on some kind of mission. The X-Man was right behind her, looking even grimmer than she did.
"Uh, Buffy?" Willow said, reaching a hand out to draw the elder Slayer's attention.
Buffy stared around at all of them for a few seconds, especially at Faith and her companions, a puzzled frown wrinkling her brow. Then she shook off the obvious questions and pushed right past them. "Whatever this is, it can wait for later." She poked her head into the dining room as if looking for someone else, then stomped around to the door to the basement and threw it open.
Willow exchanged a look with Xander, then bit her lip and followed along, leaving Faith behind with a final worried glance. Dawn and the other kid were right on their heels. Obviously, Faith had been right: something big was going down.
Buffy clattered down the stairs, a growl in her voice as she yelled at someone down below.
"What's the problem, officer?" a strange girl snarked back, her sickly sweet Southern accent vaguely familiar from Faith's dreams.
"I said, get away from them now," B replied, as vicious as Faith had ever heard her.
Faith remembered that tone from past experience, and was just as glad to be out of the crossfire. She inched close enough to take a seat at the top of the steps, where she could just see a circle of girls seated on the floor like they were having story time. A baby-faced blonde was staring back at Buffy with an equally vicious glint in her eyes; she didn't look like much, but then, neither did B most of the time.
"Buffy, what did Eve do?" Little D put in, all confusion and alarm.
Xander answered her, though, not B, hands fisted down at his sides. "That's not Eve."
The soldier boys hadn't said anything since their intro had been interrupted, but they hadn't left, either, and they exchanged an uneasy glance behind Faith at the tone of Xander's voice. She didn't bother trying to stop them as they edged past her to join the group at the bottom of the stairs watching the confrontation; since Buffy hadn't dealt with them first, they were going to hear the whole thing regardless. There'd probably be less shouting later if they saw it go down with their own eyes.
"Eve's dead," Buffy explained – though that really didn't explain anything to Faith. If she was a vampire, she shouldn't have made it past the threshold, should she? And she obviously wasn't a zombie or a ghoul.
"I don't – I don't understand," one of the others echoed the same line of thought, as the rest of the girls got to their feet and backed away from the interloper.
Eve – or whatever was wearing Eve's body – looked arrogantly amused by the whole situation. "Oops! One more down. Oh, well, can't save 'em all, can ya, Buffy? Thanks for the slumber party, girls. It's been real fun the last couple of nights. I learned a whole lot...."
Buffy cut her off as she turned to address the other teenagers, probably trying to shut her down before she could freak them out too much. "Shut up and get out!"
The scene still didn't make sense to Faith, though; where was B's weapon? Why didn't she at least have a stake?
"Or you'll do what?" Eve taunted back, eying Buffy scornfully. "I'll be sending a guest over to visit y'all later on tonight, after the sun goes down of course. Try and make him feel welcome before he rips y'all to pieces. And don't count on your guests there being much help; I've got an account to settle with them, too. Bye bye, now!"
She waved a little at that last, then just – winked out, disappearing in a flash of light like a television turning off. What the fuck?
B's breath hitched a little, and the other girls all looked at each other, equally shaken.
"No wonder Annabelle ran," a little red-headed one said. "All that time they spent alone...?"
"She was really the First? In our house, all this time?" Dawn demanded, voice strung high with nerves.
"Never mind that," Buffy said, clearing her throat. "Girls, go on up to the dining room, all right? We'll order a pizza in a minute; but I have a few things to talk about with Faith and her friends, first."
"Fine by me," Sheppard shrugged, as everyone turned to see who she was talking about.
"Faith?" a dark-haired girl asked, wide-eyed with interest as she peered up the stairs. She was one of the older ones, maybe seventeen or eighteen. "I thought my Watcher told me there was another Slayer."
Watcher? Well, that explained who the girls were, at least. Potentials. Though why the hell a bunch of wannabes were in Buffy's house, she still didn't get. Faith's first Watcher had been perfectly happy keeping her away from the Hellmouth – at least, until Kakistos found them – and she had already bought the full meal deal.
"You heard her; story time later," she drawled, standing carefully and pressing a hand against her bandages. They were tacky to the touch already, but the dizziness was fading. And maybe the obvious sign of weakness would make Buffy go easier; a girl could always hope. No point in putting this off, regardless.
The girls all eyed her and the soldier boys with curiosity as they obeyed, chattering to each other in low voices as they went up the stairs past her. The blond boy tagged on their heels, rubbing his hands together as though they felt dirty; seemed like a sensitive kid, whatever the hell his story was. Buffy sent Dawn up after them, too, and asked her to bring the first aid kit down and shut the door behind her.
Then she, Xander and Willow made a line across from Faith and her companions. Sheppard had texted something on his phone while they waited, but he'd put it away again, staring Buffy down blatantly as though they were having some competition for who was more Alpha. Ronon had sidled up next to Faith, surreptitiously bracing his shoulder against her; she was a little disgruntled that he'd done it without even asking, but still shaky enough not to object to the support. Much.
"Didn't you catch the part upstairs where I'm a fugitive from justice?" she murmured to him. "Thought that would scare off a couple of law-abiding types like you."
"Depends on your definition of justice," he said, casually.
Faith eyed him for a moment in speculative appreciation, until the silence lagged a little too long and Buffy cleared her throat.
"Now that you've remembered there are more people here than just your latest boy toys," B said crisply, "mind telling me what the hell is going on? And for god's sake sit down; you look like a limp dishrag. A limp, bloody dishrag. What happened to you?"
She broke her confrontational stance long enough to storm over to the wall and grab a folding chair. Ronon took it from Buffy with a snort and snapped it open, holding Faith's elbow while she lowered herself to its seat.
"Nice to see you again too, B," she replied, huffing an anemic chuckle. "Sorry for the lack of warning, but, you know. Had a dream. Kinda thought you might need me."
"A dream? You mean–?" Buffy's eyes slowly widened, and some of the certainty ran out of her stance.
"Yeah, one of those," Faith confirmed. Then she took a deep breath, gesturing up at Ronon and Sheppard. "Before I get into it, though. These 'boy toys'? Kinda saved my life tonight. And kinda not in the know. Think maybe we ought to deal with that, first?"
The little blonde had an impressive vocabulary, though Ronon was sure some of what she was saying must not be translating right across the Gate language protocols. She also reminded him at least as much of Elizabeth as she did the girl that had claimed her as some kind of sister; strong, but brittle with it after years of strain, where Faith had a survivor's seasoned resilience.
He watched the girl Dawn – the one Faith had called a brat – come back down the stairs with a first aid kit at least twice the size of the one out in the car, carefully pulling up the edge of Faith's shirt to pick at the soaked bandages while Buffy turned her attention to Sheppard. There was a guarded wariness there, a lingering anger, but not active distrust; whatever Faith might or might not have done in the past, the people she'd come to counted her as a person of value. That was good; he'd have been disappointed to find out he was wrong about her. He'd done some things he wasn't proud of, too, in his years Running.
Sheppard, to his amusement, was busy giving a modified version of the 'innocent travelers, just happened to come across you, couldn't help but notice...' first contact speech. Buffy didn't seem to be buying it any more than the likes of the Genii would, though, and Ronon found he didn't blame her.
She battled non-human things. So did they. She and her people had dealt with secret military stuff before. Sheppard was secret military, on this planet. What was the point of trying to play dumb?
"Look," he interrupted, after Sheppard's third or fourth retreat behind the word 'Classified' and Buffy's return evasion of 'you don't need to know'. "You fight things that aren't human. So do we. Our general just wants to know if any of yours are the same as ours. And what we can do to help."
"Ronon..." Sheppard said, warningly.
"If they were, you'd know it already," Buffy snapped, "because you'd be part of the Initiative, and you'd know who I am. Since you don't; I repeat, it's none of your business. Trust me, you stay in this town? It's just going to get you dead. I know you heard the threat that thing just gave us. So take the hint and go. Thank you for helping Faith; but we can take it from here."
"So you know who he is, after all? The guy that stabbed her?" Ronon asked, ignoring Sheppard's glare.
Buffy paused a little at that, glancing at the newly, and neatly replaced bandages on Faith's stomach. "I don't see how the answer to that affects anything I just told you."
That was as good as a 'no'. Ronon had expected that, though, and crossed his arms in front of himself for emphasis. "Then you have access to the records you'll need to find him?"
She glanced at the red-haired woman who'd opened the door upstairs, then narrowed her eyes at him. "Probably better access than you have, anyway. Why do you even care?"
Ronon shrugged, nonchalantly, abandoning that line of persuasion: he was better with tactics than diplomacy anyway. "A guy like that? He's going to kill more people if someone doesn't stop him. Faith said he told her he blew up something called 'the Council', and he threatened us when we stopped to help her. That's enough to make it our business."
"Besides, correct me if I'm wrong," Sheppard added. "That thing that you were talking to? It was incorporeal. And if there's one thing I know about incorporeal beings? It's that they can go anywhere. Any place, any time. We leave here, maybe you defeat the minion on your own, maybe you don't; and maybe its master sends something else after us. It's too late to pretend we're not involved."
The lone adult guy in the group – though he was still a few years younger than Ronon – sighed at that. "You have to admit he does have a point there, Buff."
"I don't have to admit anything!" She rounded on her friend. "They're military, Xander. You remember as well as I do what happened the last time the military got mixed up in this."
"A bunch of people got eaten, I participated in a mystical foursome with my two best friends and our father figure–" he paused there to point vaguely toward Ronon and Sheppard, "–which was nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, so don't get the wrong idea; and oh yeah, let us not forget what they did to the Bleached Wonder. Yeah, I remember. But these guys weren't there. Would you want someone to judge you by Faith's reputation? Or, you know, vice versa; no offense, Faith."
"None taken," Faith drawled. "Though I gotta say, if your military visitors were anything like as fine as these boys? I'm surprised any of you had the energy left over for all that trouble."
As a guy who had spent seven years mostly communicating with other people through body language, trying to wall them away as much as possible, Ronon was sure she meant that as provocatively as it sounded. The whitening knuckles where she clenched a hand against her thigh told another story, though; one he also knew by heart. Yeah, she reminded him of Vala – and himself a little, too. Making them see her on her own terms. Never mind how they'd found her, she was a dangerous woman.
Xander spluttered, successfully driven off his game by her innuendo, and Ronon allowed himself a smirk.
Even Buffy rolled her eyes at that and sighed. "Okay, I get it. But this is no time for Hellmouth 101. You haven't seen this thing, Faith; it's – it's prehistoric levels of badness, and I was down for three days recovering from the last time it found me. Banter and a plucky attitude aren't going to cut it. My focus has to be on protecting those girls upstairs; they didn't ask for this, any more than we did, but it's the life destiny's given them. I need to make sure they get the chance to live it."
Faith's smirk faded in the face of Buffy's explanation, but her posture if anything got even more challenging. "Right. Because you're the one who should be making decisions for them."
Buffy threw up her hands in exasperation. "Who else? With, with the Council gone, and the Bringers killing every Watcher and Slayer they can find, even Giles says I'm the only one–"
"–with the strength and skill, yadda, yadda, I remember the drill," Faith interrupted her, narrowing her eyes. "See, the thing is, B? I thought we were supposed to be the Chosen Two. Why in the hell is today the first time I've heard about any of this?"
"Hey, that's not fair," the red-head – her name had sounded like salix to Ronon, though since that was a kind of tree he thought it might be a translation error – objected. "We just found out last week, when Giles turned up with a bunch of girls in tow. He and Anya are out trying to get information on how to defeat it, right now; we haven't exactly had time to get a message to you."
"Fair enough," Faith said, slowly. "But they aren't here yet, and the sun'll be going down soon."
"That's the second time someone's implied this town's more deadly after dark," Sheppard said. "Are any of you going to bother to explain that?"
Buffy shot them a glare, then thought for a long moment, hands crossed in front of her. "You want to stay? You'll see soon enough. So here's the deal. Stay behind everyone else; you do not want to try to attack this thing before you see what it can do, and you won't believe me when I tell you why. We survive this? Then we can play hide and seek. Wills? I'm sorry to ask, but...."
Her friend nodded, looking troubled. "I know. We'll need a barrier."
"A major one. Can you do it?" Buffy insisted.
"Whoa, whoa," Faith said, looking concerned. "Are you sure about the hocus pocus thing? Angel said–"
"We don't have a lot of choices," Buffy said, grimly. "Look; I'm going to go upstairs and talk to the girls. They're pretty demoralized, and we all need to be together on this. If the dino vamp gets through..."
"We fight. I got it," Faith sighed, impatiently.
"We fight. You just remember Rule Number One," Buffy insisted, then looked pointedly at him and Sheppard. "And if you two are serious about helping? Make sure she does." Then she turned and went up the stairs, her two friends following after. Each gave Faith a worried look as they left.
Finally, the three of them were alone again, standing around in a basement room lined with shelves and brown boxes with perplexing words written on them like 'X-Mas' and 'LA Décor'. Faith tipped her head back, listening to the tromp of heavy feet overhead, and Sheppard looked like he was itching to follow.
"I'm just gonna..." he said, gesturing up the stairs, one hand clutching at his cell phone.
"Go ahead," Ronon nodded. Checking in was probably a good idea. "I'll stay with her."
"Yell if you need me," Sheppard nodded back, then trotted up the stairs.
Ronon cleared his throat, walking around the chair so he could see Faith's face again. She had a little of her color back, but the lines were still there; she'd turned down the painkillers they'd offered. He wasn't sure what to think of the conversation they'd just had – but he knew playing interrogator was probably a bad idea. Start with something simple, then. "So. What's Rule Number One?"
Faith didn't bother to smile. "Don't die." She shook her head. "She's one to talk, though; she's done it twice. Sometimes it's the only way to win, and she'd rather it be her than anyone else."
Ronon remembered hearing about the way Sheppard had tried to fly a bomb down the gullet of a hive ship, not to mention half the man's antics since Ronon had met him. He nodded. "Sheppard does the same thing."
"And what about you? What did you mean when you said it depended on your definition of justice?" she asked doubtfully, turning his earlier reply back on him.
He sank into a crouch in front of her, bringing himself down to her level so they could look eye to eye. "You haven't asked about the things we fight," he said. "The worst ones are the Wraith. They murdered my people and made me their prisoner – and then let me go. With a tracker, here." He reached around to knuckle a hand along his spine. "I spent seven years on the run from their 'justice'."
Faith's eyes widened at that – surprised, but without the pity he got from too many of the Earthers. "Whoa. Seven years – that's longer than I've even been a Slayer. How did you–"
"Sheppard found me." He shrugged; that was enough of that topic. "What's an Interfectrix? That some kind of job description?"
"They call you a 'runner' while you were running?" She snorted. "It's what I am as much as what I do. I slay the things that slay people. And somewhere way up the line, someone decided there gets to be one girl in all the world with strength and speed to do that. Except there were two with me and B, and I got it wrong there for awhile. So I got myself locked up – until the shit started rolling down hill and I figured I might be more use out here."
She looked pained, even a little guilty as she spoke – but never pleading. "I know I was all damsel of distress out there tonight, but if that Caleb had been a normal guy, I could have rescued myself, easy. Just watch B, when the Turok-Han gets here. She might look like a stiff breeze could blow her down, but she could hand you your ass before you could draw that ray gun."
"I'd like to see that," Ronon said, tilting his head a little as he appraised her again. She was right; she didn't look like she could be that strong, even with all that slender muscle... but then again, neither did Teyla, and she could put both him and Sheppard on their asses with a few swift strikes from her bantos rods. Maybe Faith had some strange 'gift' from the Ancestors, like Teyla's Wraith sense, all dressed up with a fancy title. And maybe that meant she needed to be held more accountable than other people.
He wasn't going to ask, though. Kell's death wasn't all that far from his thoughts.
"Yeah, well, we both make it out of this, maybe I'll oblige you," Faith said, eyeing him back. "Even if you've been in the shit before – you seem pretty calm about all this. You get hijacked by the end of the world on a regular basis?"
"You'd be surprised," he snorted. Even when they weren't dealing with the Wraith, it seemed like every other mission AR-1 had turned into a crisis of some kind. He just hadn't thought it was that common on Earth, the way Sheppard and McKay made it sound. "Do you?"
"You'd be surprised." She glanced down, testing her bandages again, then grunted and started levering herself to her feet.
Ronon offered her a hand, sensing that she wouldn't take it well if he tried to just grab her elbow again; she glared at him for a moment, then sighed and wrapped her fingers around his forearm and leaned into the lift. Her grip was tight as he locked his hand around hers, tighter than even Sheppard's when he was pissed; Ronon was pretty sure he'd have a bruise there later.
Still trying to prove herself, even though he hadn't said he disbelieved her. He grinned at her, and decided to return a little measure for measure. "Extra strength, huh. That apply to all your muscles?"
She chuckled lowly as she let go of his arm again. "Scratch the surface of any dude, you've all got some kind of whack fantasy. You got a thing for strong women, Ronon?" She licked her bruised lips, then took a step closer, only a feather's breadth separating their bodies.
"Ah-hem," a voice called down the stairs to them: the guy, Xander, that she'd teased before. Ronon took a frustrated breath at the interruption, wondering if she'd ever fed him that line about strong women.
"Ask me again later," he replied, dropping his voice to a low, heavy-lidded rumble.
"Not to intrude," Xander called again, more loudly this time, "but the party's starting, guys. You might want to be up here for this, in case we have to, how shall I put this... stage a strategic retreat."
"I'll do that," Faith murmured back, then pulled away, eyes sparkling. Her spine was straighter than before as she looked up toward the opened door, as though the flirtation had sped her healing. "You mean run away, right, Xander? I can't tell you how much I'm not looking forward to that." Then she headed up the stairs, slowly but maneuvering under her own power.
Ronon watched her for a minute, strong slender legs wrapped in leather ascending right in front of his eyes; a little alarmed, a little curious, a little jealous of her trous, and a lot attracted. Okay, so maybe the tale he told Teyla about his adventures on Earth would have a few things cut out of it.
He sighed, then set a hand on the butt of his weapon and followed her up the stairs.
Faith had heard about the Bringers before, but she'd never seen one in person. The dudes that had started collecting around Buffy's house more than lived up to their reputation. They all dressed in the same dark robes, like an evil monkish uniform, and they had symbols carved where their eyes should be. Alphabet eyes, the girls called them. Some of them had obviously met the demons before; they nervously clutched the weapons Buffy handed them and stared out the windows at the silent, growing crowd with pale cheeks and whitened knuckles.
"So you said these things aren't human, right?" Sheppard said skeptically, nudging a draping curtain aside for a better look.
Buffy's lips were pressed into a thin line as she answered. "Let's see. They have no eyes, they don't talk, they run around killing defenseless girls on behalf of an enemy that doesn't even have its own body – whether their DNA says so or not, I think that's a big N-O on the human front."
Sheppard had the gall to throw her an affronted look at that. "I didn't say I doubted you. But if they aren't human, and they've killed people, and you can't negotiate with them – then what are you waiting around for? There aren't that many of them."
Buffy waved a dismissive hand as she paced over into the living room, checking another set of windows before pacing back. "You didn't have to say it. And they're not here to hurt us. They're here to make sure we stay here until dark, so it'll be easier for the Turok-Han to find us."
"Then Sheppard's right," Ronon spoke up, abandoning his quiet, brooding post at Faith's shoulder. "Why the hell are you waiting? If this beast nearly killed you, and you're not sure you can stop it, why wait around to let it find you?"
"Because, believe it or not, this is the most defensible place we have," Xander spoke up, frowning unhappily. "None of us exactly makes the big bucks, you know? And it's not like anyone else in this town is willing to admit to what goes on, not since we blew up the Mayor."
"Can we not talk about the Mayor?" Faith said, looking away from him. She knew the guy had been evil; she did, she just had a hard time feeling it, even now. He'd taken care of her; he'd been like the father she'd never really had. She shivered a little, then stilled when Ronon reached out to briefly cup the knob of her shoulder with one callused, reassuring palm.
"Right, forgot for a minute there you used to work for him," he snarked, then let it go. "Anyway, we're on our own; and houses, places where living people sleep, have protections on them that public spaces don't."
"You're talking... magic, aren't you," Sheppard said slowly, screwing his face up. "Not technology."
"Believe it, don't believe it; I don't care. Just don't get in our way," Buffy snorted, pacing past them again. "If it gets in, we deal with it. If it doesn't... look, you might have guns, but they've never done me any good. I don't keep any in the house. Are we supposed to wade out there with swords and crossbows and wear ourselves down before the Big Ugly ever gets here? No. We wait."
"Magic," Sheppard muttered to himself again, then shook his head and gave Buffy a piercing look. "Well, I guess it's not the strangest thing I've ever heard. So you... believe... you're protected from the robe-y little guys in here by some kind of mystical force. Does that mean they're protected by anything, out there?" He unholstered his gun at that, pointing it low and in the direction of the front door.
Buffy blinked at him, giving the gun an incredulous look. "You're not serious. Look, we don't even know how many of those things there are. We don't even know if guns will kill them."
"Well, we won't find out waiting inside, will we?" Sheppard replied, and turned to jerk his chin at his friend. "Ronon?"
"Right." Ronon pulled his own gun out from where he'd tucked it in the back of his pants and strode to join him. Faith fought the knee-jerk impulse to tell him to wait – because they were right that it was stupid to wait around for an attack when they were only going to get more out-numbered. Unless there was some kind of plan, and she sure hadn't heard one.
"This is exactly how things started the last time," Xander muttered with a frown – but Faith noticed he wasn't trying to argue them down, either.
"On three," Sheppard said, laying his hand on the knob and nodding to Ronon.
Ronon nodded back, lining up his blaster so it was aimed where the door opening would be. "Ready."
Sheppard counted down silently on his fingers, and then – they moved.
It was, much to just about everyone's surprise, a slaughter. And not of the soldiers. The bullets that hit, actually hit; they didn't bounce off or blow through the Bringers like mist like she'd been half-expecting. It did take more to put one down than it would have a human – but Sheppard and Ronon were both wicked accurate and kept shooting 'til they all went down. The first few collapsed almost without a fight, and when the rest tried to mob up all in a bunch the boys covered each other smoothly, killing them all before they got too close.
Buffy sent Andrew and Dawn back downstairs with the girls to keep them away from the carnage once it became clear the plan was working; and a few minutes later, the last of the Bringers stopped moving. The sun was still several fingers' width above the horizon when Sheppard walked over to his convertible to fetch more ammunition from the trunk, leaving the Scoobies staring in amazement at the corpses oozing thick, discolored blood onto the front lawn. Faith wanted to applaud, but figured it wouldn't be politic.
"So tell me again why you have to stay here?" Sheppard drawled as he opened the front door to walk back in.
Buffy bristled instantly at his tone. "There'll be more. And the Chaka Khan won't be that easy to kill."
"Not what I asked," he replied with a grimace – whether at her mangling of the thing's name, or the situation, Faith wouldn't guess. "Why not put these girls on a bus and get the hell out of town while there's time? Or if the buses aren't running – a van. There's got to be at least one rental place in this town."
"The buses will probably run only so long as the regular drivers remember they're supposed to stop here. No bets on how long that'll last, since tourism is already falling off. But that doesn't matter. I can't just abandon Sunnydale, and I can't send these girls out on their own without my protection, either. They're here because the Bringers have been tracking them down and killing them, all over the world – and the thing their master probably wants? The thing every Big Bad to come through here ever wants? Is buried under the high school."
"Under a school?" Ronon scowled. "Seems kind of dangerous. Why doesn't someone move it?"
"Because it's a big ol' honking well of power that sometimes opens a portal to a hell dimension, and there ain't any moving that," Faith told him, cutting short Buffy's attempt at a lecture. "It's convenient. Anything can get to it there; and the people that built this town were on Evil's payroll."
"A portal?" Sheppard's eyebrows flew up at that – though he sounded more alarmed than disbelieving, unless Faith missed her guess. "Like a gate to another world?"
"Yep," she told him, narrowing her eyes at him. "If we leave here, the First does whatever it wants; it opens that sucker and we get Hell on Earth. No one's safe. The longer we fight it, the more chances we have to find a way to shut it down."
"And it might not even be just the Hellmouth this time," Buffy added, with an apologetic glance at Faith. "I don't know if you've seen it in any of your visions, Faith... but there's this new thing in the basement. Or maybe an old thing, just uncovered when the school was rebuilt, we don't know which. It's called the Seal of Danzalthar, and the First got Andrew to sacrifice a friend of his on top of it a few days ago. We're not totally sure what it's for, but it can't be anything good."
Faith blinked, then widened her eyes as she remembered a little more about the blond hottie from her vision that hadn't made sense to her at the time. He'd looked more than a little out of it, cut all over with symbols and hanging from the ceiling over a carved metal disk set into the ground, with Bringers all around him and Buffy looking on. They'd made him bleed all over the thing – and it had opened, releasing the demon vamp that had beat on Buffy later.
"This First thing," she said cautiously. "It looked like a dead girl, earlier. Can it look like anyone?"
Buffy frowned. "Anyone who's died. Why? Have you seen it?"
"I think so," she swallowed. "In a Slayer dream. It – it looked like you, Buffy. They were torturing that blond vamp I ran into when I was driving your body a few years back; what's his name. Spike. Made him bleed on this metal circle with a pentagram and a goat's head carved into it."
"That's the Seal!" Dawn piped up. "We just found it and reburied it the other day. Principal Wood almost caught us; I think he knows about it. And I think he knows we know, too." She frowned. "Not sure whether that makes him a bad guy, or another good guy wondering if we're bad guys."
"They were torturing him?" Buffy's concern was a lot more focused.
"Yeah," Faith told her, grimly, glancing between the sisters. She didn't know what exactly was up with him and B, or the rest of the Scoobs, but if he was some kind of ally still – well, she wouldn't wish that on anyone friendly. "But that's not the important part. The thing is, when he bled on it, it folded up like it was one of those origami cranes or something. Then this ugly-looking demon climbed out."
"The Turok-Han," Willow breathed. "It came from the Hellmouth? Then – that's why the First wanted Andrew to kill Jonathan there." Her eyebrows made a little distressed vee between her brows, and she went all green around the edges. "Only he wasn't enough, I guess. It needed more blood."
"Makes sense, as much as anything about this does," Xander shrugged.
"I'm starting to think Faith was right when she said we didn't want to know," Sheppard frowned. "If that's where this thing that attacked you came from, do you think it's still living down there?"
"No." Buffy shook her head, firmly. "School's still in session during the week. Kids wander down into that basement all the time; we do; and even the principal does. But no one's seen it there except in Faith's vision. If the First raised it from the Seal? It's been keeping it somewhere else. Probably the cave where Giles and I found it the other night. That might even be where the Bringers were hiding; I didn't exactly get a chance to explore the whole thing." She swallowed, then continued, hesitantly: "It's probably where we'll find Spike."
"Wait, so it has a friend of yours, too?" Sheppard's frown deepened, and he poked at her again, like he was trying to find a hole in her story. "Then why haven't you gone and found this thing yourself, instead of waiting around for it to come find you?"
"Did you not hear the part where I said I went there once already?" Buffy glared at him, then broke away to stalk over to the weapons chest and lift out an old, notched sword. Then she bent the blade in front of them, slowly applying pressure until the hilt and the tip were only a few inches apart. "This is what Faith and I can do. And the last time I fought that thing, it beat me so hard I was in bed for days. What do you think you can do to it? Your gun won't help, even if it did work on the Bringers. Bullets don't kill vampires; they just make them angry." She dropped the ruined sword to the floor with an emphatic clang.
Sheppard swallowed, eyeing the bent blade. "I suppose that puts things in... a little more perspective."
"If bullets don't kill vampires, then what does?" Ronon asked.
"Sun, which won't be a factor in the caves," she said, ticking the points off on her fingers. "A wooden stake through the heart, except this kind has sternums like solid steel. Cutting off the head –though good luck getting that close to it without it killing you back. And fire, except I don't happen to have any flame-throwers handy."
Ronon considered that for a minute, then bared his teeth in a smile. "Well, it's a good thing my gun doesn't use bullets, then, isn't it?"
Willow sucked in a sharp breath. "It uses energy. Like fire. If you can hit it in the heart...."
"That's a pretty big if," Xander said dubiously, eyeing the weapon. "I'm still set on the construction site plan, myself. Lure it out into the open, give the kiddies box seats, and let Buffy play with the conveniently available tools until one of them manages to take its head off. The odds aren't much better, but there are fewer ifs involved."
"...What construction site plan?" Faith objected, blinking at him in surprise. Had she missed something?
Xander winced and shared a guilty look with Buffy and Willow. "Well...."
"You know what, never mind," she growled. Let them keep their damn secrets; she hadn't really expected them to trust her this quick, had she? "I'm on board with the soldier boys. Let's hunt this thing down, shoot it to ash, and get the day over with already. Hell of a welcome party you guys throw."
Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, turning her face away from Faith's gaze as she thought about it. Finally, she nodded. "Okay. Fine; Xand, could you–?"
He sighed. "Yeah, I figured. Get everyone out the back door if it shows up anyway; call Will for help on the Magic Channel; then go back to plan A. That about cover it?"
She nodded, smiling crookedly at him. "Thanks. Wills, you good?"
The witch nodded, and Buffy turned to Faith next. "Faith, are you up for this?"
Faith touched the bandage, checking pain and ooze levels, and was surprised to find it had already about dried up. "I'm not quite five by five, but I can at least keep up with these guys if we don't run, and I know one end of a stake from the other in case we run into any of the normal kind," she said. "What about you, B?"
Buffy laughed suddenly, flashing white teeth in a tired smile. "Me? God, we don't have time for my sob story. Let's just go; we don't have a lot of time before sunset."
It almost felt like a regular diplomatic mission, escorting Elizabeth somewhere off Atlantis for negotiations. Only there wasn't going to be any talking involved, the Elizabeth stand-in had bent a sword in front of his eyes with her bare hands, the McKay substitute was supposed to be able to do magic, and Ronon was having trouble keeping his eyes off the Teyla of the group.
Well, to be fair, he sometimes had trouble keeping his eyes off Teyla, too; but she wasn't for him. He'd known that since he'd met her.
Faith was... different. He didn't know quite what to make of her. He couldn't believe she was up and walking, carrying a heavy crossbow like it was a twig, with almost no indication of the pain she'd been in earlier. Did she have more energy than a normal human? Did that mean she'd be extra vulnerable to the Wraith? Not that it was any of his business; he'd been spending too much time around McKay and Beckett.
Sheppard had got word to Landry, and Landry had confirmed that there was some kind of interdiction over Sunnydale – he was going to send SG-3 to relieve them, but it would be morning before they got there, and in the meantime they were required by orders to cooperate with Buffy Summers in any altercation involving the 'unnatural wildlife'. Ronon didn't think the General realized what that meant, though, or he might not have told them to 'go along and keep an eye on things'.
He tightened his hand on his pistol grip, then checked the 'stakes' he'd taken from the weapons chest before leaving the house. They were shorter than bantos rods, but still familiar enough to use, as either a striking or a point impact weapon. Faith had seemed impressed, at least, when he'd run through a mock spar to prove he knew what he was doing. From what he could make out, 'vampires' sucked the life out of people just like Wraith did, only through their blood instead of their life energy; that made them more than worthy opponents. If they ran into any of the regular type while they were out, he wanted to give the traditional weapons a try.
Now that really would be worthy of a new chapter in Teal'c and Vala's Handbook. Come to Earth, see the sights, nearly get killed every vacation. It was a wonder the people here had survived to reach the stars at all.
He wondered if the vampires had originated with the Ancestors, too. They'd built the great city and the Rings, and created so many marvels – then abandoned all their descendants in both galaxies to the foes they didn't want to face. And here Ronon had thought the Ori army was going to be a challenge.
The sun was still shining, ruddy and sinking toward the horizon, when they reached the empty lot where the mouth of a cave gaped open in the ground. There were enough marks on the ground to support Buffy's story; the little blonde approached it first, then jumped into through the opening into the patch of sun it cast on the cavern floor and helped the red-head down after her. Then they did something out of view that sounded like a chant in the Ancestor's language, and Buffy called up to the other three to drop down after them.
Ronon knew Sheppard would want to go last, so he lowered himself next, then reached back up for Faith. She scowled, but let him take some of her weight as she dropped down, and Sheppard jumped down as soon as she was out of the way. He could see some kind of shimmering barrier in the air around them, surrounding a circular patch of dimly lit stone floor with Buffy and Willow standing in the center of it; it looked a lot like an Ancient forcefield. And on the other side of that insubstantial fence....
Sheppard swore, and Ronon drew his weapon without thinking, as they caught sight of the snarling creature pressed against the wall of energy. Its face was as inhuman as a Wraith's, with pale, discolored skin and prominent cheekbones, but its teeth were sharper and more protruding and it had no hair at all. It wore clothes, though, rough fabric that had to have been made by hand, so it wasn't a dumb animal. It triggered every last one of his Runner's instincts, the way it prowled and postured at them: he didn't hear a single word that anyone else said until Faith tugged on his ear, hard, and he snapped his head around to look at her.
"Shit, you have a one-track mind," she said, searching his face for something. "Red's about to drop the barrier. When she does, you ready to shoot the fucker? Me and B will back you up in case it doesn't work; between the two of us, we should have decent odds. But if that happens, you get the hell out of the way, all right?"
He bared his teeth at her, more than ready for the fight, whether the gun worked or not. He knew how to fight enemies many times stronger than a human, and it stung his pride to have her doubt him; but he wouldn't take offense until – if – she saw him in action. "Yeah," he said, nodding. "Do it."
The witch lowered her hands, and the barrier faded away like a curtain falling. The creature's snarls grew louder, and it crouched as if to leap – then staggered backward as Ronon fired, pouring several shots into its chest. The first shot didn't penetrate, or the second; its clothes charred away where he hit it, but the skin barely blackened, not damaged at all. The two Interfectrices moved into ready stances on either side of him, lifting stakes in their hands – and then the third, fourth and fifth shots struck home as Ronon continued to fire, backing away from it.
A bright glow lit in its chest cavity, where the heart would be on a human. The skin peeled back, catching flame, and it pawed at its chest, halting in its tracks; then it threw its head back, roaring in denial, and exploded. Not the kind of explosions Cadman would like, more like a burst of confetti – but it was gone, briefly turning into a man-shaped statue of gray particles before scattering itself all over the cavern.
Ronon gaped at it for a long moment. That had been both more... dramatic... and more anti-climactic than he'd been expecting. That was it? He coughed on the dust, then lowered his weapon, grinning. Pity the Wraith didn't clean themselves up like that when they died. Would make it a lot harder for them to play dead after you'd already shot them half a dozen times.
"Shit," Faith said, panting with adrenaline, eyes bright as she rose out of her crouch.
Buffy looked equally surprised beside her. "I really didn't expect that to work," she said. Then she grinned at the witch; the witch grinned back, wiping a hand over her brow in a gesture of relief.
Sheppard was pale, though, and his eyes were dark; he didn't seem as pleased as the others. "Why doesn't anybody know about these things," he said, voice rough with anger. "Why only this special group in the military, this Riley you know; if these vampires go around killing people all the time...."
Buffy gave him a sharp look. "People know; there've been stories for thousands of years. They just don't want to believe. You know what would happen if we proved vampires and magic and demons really existed?"
Sheppard turned his head away, grinding his jaw. "Probably the same thing that would happen if what my people do ever becomes public. That doesn't mean it's right to keep it a secret. At least everyone knows what they're dealing with in – where we work."
Ronon agreed with him. But he also knew what kind of chaos could grip a large population even when they knew exactly what was coming at them. "Yeah, but my people have been fighting the Wraith every day for ten thousand years," he reminded him. "And we still lose people to panic when they attack."
"I get you have hang-ups about secrets," Faith said, rolling her eyes at Sheppard. "But you know it's true. People, one on one? Can be pretty smart about things, especially if you have the time to explain. But some of them still forget the next day, or the next week, when it all starts to fade and they decide they were just imagining things. Some of 'em try to have you locked up."
She nodded to Buffy, who looked away. "Some of 'em decide superhuman equals opportunity, and try to use you. And some of 'em decide supernatural equals evil, and try to kill you because of hundreds of years of religious fuckups. Get a crowd of people all together? There's no telling what you'll get, but your best bet is, it's going to go straight to the bottom of the barrel. That's just the way people are. One day, maybe, when we have enough of an edge against the dark that people can just dismiss it as shit that doesn't affect them, like... oh, I don't know. Measles? Unpleasant, but preventable. Then it'll be safe to tell. We're just not there yet."
Sheppard still looked like he maybe wanted to disagree, and Ronon knew how stubborn he was; so he offered one more argument. "Wraith worshippers," he said, raising his eyebrows.
Sheppard actually blinked at that, then shuddered. He was fairly sensitive to that, after the thing with the Wraith that had sucked him dry and then brought him back with the life energy of several Genii. "Okay," he said, grudgingly. "I get it; I won't push. But I still think the military should be involved."
Buffy sighed. "Maybe if more of them were like Riley and Graham, or you guys," she conceded, then looked back up at the hole they'd fallen through. The light was almost gone.
"I'm going to go look for Spike," she said, absently rubbing at the small of her back. "I think if anything else evil was home, it would have heard the noise and found us by now."
"I'll stay with you," her red-headed friend added.
There was a brief battle of gazes: determined versus determined and pleading, and pleading won. Pleading also looked a lot more worried than sympathetic; there had to be more story there that they weren't getting. Whatever. That wasn't Ronon's business, either.
What was his business was Sheppard, who was starting to look kind of mulish, too. "Then how about I go over to that school for a look at the Seal thing you were talking about," he said, rubbing a hand over his face. "By the time you're done looking I'll probably be done looking, too."
"What? Are you nuts?" Faith objected first. "Sure, maybe we got the baddie of the week, but its boss is still in town, and there might be normal vamps on the streets by now. Plus, that crazy preacher's around here somewhere. He doesn't have to give a shit about whether it's sunny or he has an invitation or what. You want to go off alone, looking for trouble?"
Sheppard squinted in Ronon's direction. "Well, I was kind of hoping not alone."
Ronon narrowed his eyes back, studying Sheppard's expression. There was something more to this than just random curiosity; he looked pinched, like something was nagging at him that he didn't want to talk about until he'd taken care of it. "That depends on what's really going on," he said.
"Look, we told you...." Buffy started to say.
Sheppard held up a hand in her direction. "He didn't mean you. Okay, you got me; I'm pretty sure there's... something... else there. How far are we from the school, now?"
Buffy and her friend looked at each other; then they pointed in two different directions; then the red-head raised an eyebrow and Buffy shifted her finger to match the other's. "A few blocks over that way," Buffy said. "Why?"
"Is it about as far from here as it is from your house?" Sheppard asked next.
Ronon's frown grew more thunderous as he put two and two together. "You mean something's there as in the kind of thing you and Beckett and Miko look for back home, don't you," he said.
That wasn't a good sign. Before meeting the Earthers, he'd had a lot of respect for the Ancestors, even after spending seven years on the run from the Wraith. His mother had been right when she'd warned them about certain kinds of friends leading them off the path of their beliefs. She'd just been wrong about what kind of friends, and whether those beliefs were worth keeping.
Sheppard nodded reluctantly. "I was too distracted to pay much attention to it at the house, but it's been pulling at me at least since we turned off the freeway. Feels like a jumper needing maintenance. And it occurred to me, given this whole incorporeal enemy thing...." He waved a hand around in the air.
"We'd better check it out." If it was Ancient, it might be something they were better suited to face than Faith's people. Plus, McKay would never let them live it down if there was a ZPM down there and they left it behind – though he kind of doubted it, given Faith's description of the scene.
"Check what out?" Faith wanted to know.
"Something that falls under our jurisdiction," Sheppard said, promptly. "I've got... let's call it a sixth sense for these kinds of things. And the less I tell you, the less paperwork you'll have to sign if I'm right. Just because we have to cooperate with you doesn't mean you don't have to cooperate right back."
Buffy frowned at that, then gestured at Faith. "You go with them, then. I've got to – I can't just leave again without knowing if Spike is down here. But the three of you ought to be enough to at least get away if there's something there, and you can tell me about it later if I need to know. How's that?"
Faith frowned back, then glanced at Ronon again, a lingering, more assessing than appreciating look this time. Then she agreed. "Fine. Remember, Rule Number One applies to you guys too, all right? No way in hell I'm going to end up in charge of this three-ring circus."
The other two agreed, and turned toward one of the tunnels leading off the cavern. Faith moved in front of Ronon and braced her hands in a stirrup formation, then gestured with her chin up at the sky. "Alley-oop?" she offered, undoubtedly in retaliation for his helping her down earlier.
He glared pointedly at the place where the bandaging peeked out from under her torn shirt. "Won't that open your wound up again?"
She raised her eyebrows, then looked down, lifted the edge of the shirt and peeled back the bandage. Much to Ronon's surprise, only a swollen red line, crusted with blood, showed under the white material: there was no evidence she'd been cut open only hours before. The hasty field stitches had already melted into the toned skin. "Nope, I'm good," she said. "Nice; the older I get, it seems like, the quicker that happens."
A shiver went through him, left-over suspicion from those abandoned youthful stories: Ancestors-blessed, the kind of people you respected for being closer to joining those who had created them, no matter what else they were. No; she was just a person, like him. Or like Teyla. Kind of foul mouthed. Strong-willed. And he was starting to get really curious how that healing carried over to recovery times in certain... other... circumstances.
He shook off the thought, then raised an eyebrow at Sheppard and lifted a boot, placing it in the cradle of her hands. A second later, he was flying – and tumbling to a halt on the grass outside.
"Damn," he said, ending sprawled on his back, then rolled again as Sheppard flew up after him.
"Damn," Sheppard echoed, grinning kind of incredulously as he staggered to his feet.
Then Faith jumped up after them, oriented herself and pointed off down the street. "This way, guys. Let's get this over with before anything else comes hunting fresh meat."
The new high school was kind of elaborate for a town with something like thirty-three thousand residents that had happily existed without it for several years. Faith frowned as she easily jimmied one of the locked doors to get them in; she'd forgotten to ask B for the key she got as part of the counselor package, but it looked like they didn't even need it. There had to be someone evil still on the payroll even after the mayor's death, for this monstrosity to be rebuilt directly over the old school.
She made a note to ask B if she'd checked the new principal out for demony connections yet as she hunted around for the stairs to the basement. And didn't that place give her even more of a wiggins, once they found it; the walls were a maze of sudden dead ends and blind turns, the kind of thing you really wouldn't expect to find in a frequently used public building. She wished she'd asked for more directions, or at least brought more weapons along. Sheppard cocked his head intently at every turn, bracing a little penlight against his gun as he checked out each possible path before deciding which way to go.
Faith was starting to think he'd been pretty literal about the sixth sense part of things, especially as close as Ronon was keeping an eye on him. It was pretty unnerving – and kind of frustrating too. She was feeling the lack of attention, which was so many kinds of dumb she didn't have words; it wasn't just the boss thing, it was hormones, too. She didn't need anyone to tell her how unlikely that was to go anywhere.
Especially since – reading between the lines of what Sheppard hadn't said, and the weirdness of some of the questions Ronon had asked – these guys worked with aliens. And might even be aliens themselves. Ronon, definitely; she wasn't sure about Sheppard yet. He had an American rank, and American flavored fuck-me good looks, but if he could feel the Hellmouth he definitely wasn't a norm.
Whatever his knack was, though, it worked; Sheppard finally led them to a square room without a floor, just a lot of brown, smooth dirt with a disturbed patch in the center. He stared down at the ground for a long moment, then looked up at Faith, his eyes almost glowing a kind of pretty teal color that seemed a lot more vivid than she'd noticed before.
"You okay, man?" she asked him, cautiously. "Why don't you hang back a little while I check it out?"
He ignored her, cocking his head a little and squinting at nothing. Then he stepped further into the room, walking right over the top of where the Seal had been buried. "Do you hear that?"
Faith latched on to Ronon's arm, sure of nothing except that whatever was pulling Shep probably wasn't friendly, even less so to people who couldn't hear it, and they were better off staying in position to rescue him. "No, I don't," she replied, coaxingly. "C'mon, Shep, don't you know you're not supposed to trust anything whose brain you can't see?" She had read a few things in prison.
Sheppard didn't reply; Ronon did, cursing as he struggled, but he couldn't break her grip. Faith winced, then pulled him back a few more steps a second later when her instinct was proven right: a huge, round shaft of light suddenly burned up through the dirt beneath the wayward colonel. It glowed all around him, lighting him up like he was in a spotlight – but he didn't look hurt at all, which was better than he deserved after that stupid stunt.
"Imagine where you are in the solar system," he muttered, then laughed like someone had just told him a really lame joke.
Wonder of wonders, Ronon actually relaxed a little at the words; Faith guessed it must mean something to somebody, then. She eyed the glowing disk he was standing on with discomfort, trying to make out details through the incandescent light, and wondered what aliens had to do with the Hellmouth. It sure looked like the beast-carved thing she'd seen before, but she couldn't be sure.
"Sheppard? What the hell is going on?" she asked him, sharply.
"It's – kind of hard to describe," he replied, his voice a little strained. "I can – I have this inheritance from a culture that built a lot of really dangerous artifacts, a long time ago. So I can talk to the things they left behind, sometimes. And this one's... yeah, it really is meant to be a seal, for some kind of vast, hungry energy being." He shuddered.
Definitely aliens. Definitely. Xand was so going to flip his shit over this.
"I think – something, someone, that kind of felt like a guardian died nearby pretty recently," he continued, grimacing. "They're connected, somehow; it gave some of its energy to help her – her? – go back to her duty. But there'd been too much damage after so much time, and after that drain, the Seal started failing. The blood didn't help; there was some kind of negative energy in it. And now... damn it. This was a bad idea."
"Wait. Wait!" Faith held up a hand as Sheppard made like he was going to move away. "You're saying – shit. You're saying when Buffy was drowned in the old church that used to be under the Hellmouth, this thing is why she kept her Slayer powers afterward? And that's what's giving this First thing room to move?"
He squinted against the glow, focusing slowly on her face, then nodded in comprehension. "If she was the guardian? Then, yes. That's what started it."
"Is there any way we can charge it back up?"
Because otherwise, they would be able to do fuck-all to stop it, and the yearly apocalypse might get more apocalyptic than usual. Faith already knew how bad things could potentially get, from the little she'd heard from the Scoobs, and from what had happened to the Council. No matter how badass Caleb was, the Watchers should have been prepared for some kind of enemy to eventually attack them; no matter how arrogant they were, the fact that that explosion had actually taken them out was major bad news.
Sheppard's expression went even blanker as he thought about that, and Ronon stirred again in her grip. "There's – ah. I think some kind of huge network of monitoring systems? I can't really – I think that's what was calling me. Something's broken, somewhere; it's causing a massive drain of energy. If I can shut that down... it'll plug the leak, divert more energy to the main seal. No telling how much longer it'll last, but... it could be decades. At least."
Monitoring systems? Faith briefly imagined what it would be like to have a system that would show her exactly where the demons were rising and what they were doing, and it made her wonder a little about the origins of the earliest, surprisingly detailed demonology books and prophecies Diana had talked about, copied and recopied throughout the ages. Or – maybe this was where the visions came from? It might suck to lose those... but, fuck it. Maybe she wasn't the one that should be making this decision, but she was the one right here with the guy who could save or doom the planet.
"Shut it the fuck down," she told him. "Then get off the Seal, you're making Ronon nervous."
Ronon gave her a dirty look, but didn't comment as Sheppard fell back into that glow, nodding in agreement. It brightened a little as he closed his eyes; he looked almost like a piece of stained glass shaped like a person, and she found herself holding her breath as much as Ronon was. They'd better not lose Sheppard to this.
Then she was really holding her breath, staring into the eyes of the Mayor, who'd appeared between her and Shep and was giving her the most disapproving look she'd ever seen.
"Now, now, Faith," he/it said. "I thought I told you these boys would be no good to you. Do you really think your friend Sheppard knows what he's doing? He could destroy this whole town fiddling around with that thing, and all of you with it. Everyone gone in a flash, fallen into the earth with no warning."
She'd never really been able to stand unmoved under that tone. While she was still gaping at the First's chosen form, though, trying to process the sudden stab of doubt she felt and tell herself she knew it was misleading her, it turned into a sweet-faced woman with brown hair somewhere around Faith's age, wearing what looked like a strange nurse's outfit. She/it turned her wide eyes on Ronon and held her/its hands toward him; he flinched backward at the gesture, almost tripping over Faith in his haste.
"Ronon, you can't let him do this," the First pleaded, all sweet-faced and convincing. "Have you forgotten so quickly that he's the one who woke the Wraith? Do you know how many people die every day, like I died, because of what he did? How can you trust his judgment? Stop him, now, before it's too late!"
Ronon's expression changed violently several times during her short speech; then he pulled his blaster and aimed it straight at the strange woman. And at Sheppard right behind it; but Faith wasn't sure whether or not he was actually registering that at this point. He was already pulling the trigger by the time she swatted at his hand, but she knocked it out of line enough to leave a smoking hole in one of the walls a few degrees away from Sheppard's head rather than through it.
Figured the thing would have multiple plans at work all at once. "Get the fuck away from him," she growled at it, furiously, then turned her head abruptly away as it shifted into Diana.
She was not going to listen to whatever the hell it had to say now; even if anything it said was the truth, partial truths were even worse than full-out lies, 'cause they let you justify yourself in doing horrible things. She knew that. She remembered that feeling, and she was never, ever, going there again.
"You're not her." Ronon choked out. Then he wrapped his arms abruptly around Faith, burying his hairy head against her shoulder. She figured that was the smartest thing they'd done since walking into the basement, pressing her head against his as they clung tight; a long moment passed while the incandescent glow from Shep grew brighter and brighter, building almost to the point of pain – until it just stopped, fading away again to nothing.
She carefully unclenched her fingers from Ronon's arms as the room grew quiet and dark, pulling back enough for a look at him. He was going to have some serious marks where she'd grabbed him, and not the fun kind. He still looked kind of dazed, though, and really fucking young; probably as raw as she was, all that years-old damage dragged back to the surface. Whoever the woman had been, if she meant as much to him as the Mayor and Di had meant to her, he had to be hurting. She reached a hand up to touch his face, meeting his eyes; he held them for a long second before shaking his head and slowly releasing his own grip.
Sheppard seemed to have slumped to a kneeling position on the pewter-colored, dulled surface of the Seal, but he looked up as Ronon moved. "Did I...." he rasped, then seemed to kind of lose track of the thought.
"Yeah," Ronon said, carefully. "You did." Then stepped down to the Seal's surface to haul Sheppard carefully back to his feet.
"Not the vacation I had in mind," Sheppard huffed a laugh, steadying himself against Ronon's tall, solid body.
"Imagine all the stories you'll have for McKay," Ronon replied with a wan smile.
Sheppard nodded tiredly, then slung his arm around Ronon's shoulders. "Back to the car, Chewie. I think I need... damn, I need a nap before the cavalry gets here, I'm too damned tired to think."
"Cavalry?" Faith frowned.
Neither of them answered with more than a cautious glance as they started staggering back out into the maze. She rubbed a hand over her face, then followed, figuring at least one of them ought to be alert in case of cannon fodder on the way back to Buffy's. Well, kind of alert; she was still processing everything that had happened.
There wasn't anything waiting for them, thank fuck; they even made it back before the lady of the house did, which meant they could put off the explanations 'til morning. Faith made sure everyone else was still okay with the few responsible brain cells she had left – Dawn had apparently decided to play slumber party for real, with Xander watching over the girls, armed to the teeth; they were all relieved enough to hear the Turok-Han was dead that they settled down without any other questions.
That done, she helped Ronon dump Shep on the couch and bring his bag in so he could make himself feel human – or whatever the hell else he was – again in the morning. He looked kind of pained, all those extra inches of hair crunched up against the cushion at one end and feet draping off the other, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
The only thing she cared about at the moment was the big man she was finally alone with again.
She still wanted to climb him, even after getting chewed out by the ghosts of her father figure, and, she was guessing, his Death By Origin Story ex, which made this probably the least appropriate time ever to flirt with him. She held her tongue, then led him to the one bedroom she was sure wouldn't be occupied that night, the one decorated like a high school kid slept there: Dawnie's room, the least sexy place her strained nerves could think of to stow him.
"So," she said, pointing at the bed. "Kinda girly, I know; but it's the best on offer."
He hesitated for a long moment, looking at it, then back at her, then nodded awkwardly. "Thanks," he said, then started to step in and pull the door shut behind him.
Oh fuck it. "Wait," Faith rasped a little, stepping forward just enough to lift a hand and rest it on his chest. She could feel his heartbeat there, steady under his skin, just like any other human's. How alien could he be, really? It wasn't like Slayers had never crossed that line before. Just look at B.
"Been awhile for me," she said, searching his face for a sign. "Am I out of line, here?"
Ronon lifted his hand and raised it to her cheek; she couldn't tell if the dark look he was giving her was hunger or regret. "Been awhile for me, too. But this is your friend's house...?"
"Yeah." She swallowed, trying to convince herself to step back again through the tangled surge of raised hope and quashing disappointment. "Okay, I get it."
"...So you'll have to be very, very quiet," he continued, a smile creeping over his face as he raised his eyebrows in challenge.
"I can do quiet," she replied huskily, as her heartrate sped up and she stepped forward instead.
Ronon chuckled, slid his hands down her back to cup her butt and pull her tight against the hot, hard length of him. He took one long step back, then another, muscles shifting deliciously where they were pressed together, then paused long enough to reach up and shut the door behind her. "Been wanting to do that since the first time I saw you walk away from me," he murmured.
"You're pretty much human, right?" she panted back, tugging at the hem of his shirt as she stretched up to fit her mouth against his in a searing kiss. He sure tasted like any other guy, and hell, it wouldn't be an automatic no even if he did have something a little more exotic in his shorts, but the fewer surprises the better. "I mean, where it matters," she added a long moment later, wagging her eyebrows suggestively.
"Never had any complaints," he grinned, then began working her shirt off over his head. "Nice," he added a second later, covering her lace-clad breasts with his warm, callused hands.
She shivered at the appreciation in his gaze; she still felt a little bit of an ache where she'd been wounded that day, but it was nothing compared to the tide of lust searing through her from the contact between their bodies. She pulled away just long enough to shove him at the bed, then stripped her pants off and climbed on after, framing him with her thighs. It had been too long since she'd had a chance to ride anything but her own fingers, and it always felt all the sweeter after a brush with death.
She wanted to see him in action against real vampires; she wanted to help him kill his Wraith, and hit the sack with him again after. Something about him just pushed all her buttons – and not just the one he was stroking through the thin material of her panties, coaxing a shuddering moan out of her. It was too bad he'd be gone the next day, and she'd be – well, who knew where; prison again, maybe. Definitely not anywhere the military would have to vet her presence. She'd just have to wring as much out of him, right now, as she could.
He pulled his fingers back and fumbled at the buckle of his belt, and she lifted up enough to give him room, stretching forward to claim his mouth again as he worked at it.
Good thing he seemed intent on returning the favor in kind.
Ronon woke slowly the morning after the surreal fight under the school, sticky with dried sweat and satisfaction. He hadn't slept with anyone since Melena; hadn't dared to, not when any night spent sharing a mattress might draw the Wraith down on an unsuspecting village, or foul his new situation after he'd been freed from Running. He'd only been with Sheppard's people a little more than a year, and they had far too many rules about this kind of thing, especially the ones who caught his interest. He still didn't really get Earther dating practices.
He'd probably broken several of those rules sleeping with a woman he'd barely met, but he already knew he wasn't going to regret it. Faith had wanted it as much as he did; she'd made her interest clear and accepted his in return, and she'd stood at his back and let him stand at hers. That was more than enough for any warrior's courtship, whether it lasted for only one night or not.
The creak of the door caught his attention, and he looked up to see the blushing face of the girl, Dawn, as she hastily closed it again. Probably wanted something in the room; he was pretty sure, from the glancing introductions the night before, that she and her sister were the ones the house belonged to.
"Shit," Faith murmured against his chest at the sound of the latch clicking shut. "What time is it?"
He stroked a hand over her naked back, and felt other parts of himself awaken as she stretched toned limbs against him. "Morning," he said, glancing up toward the window to check the light levels. "Still early."
"Buffy's probably back by now. G, too," Faith sighed. Then she opened her eyes and tilted her chin up, taking him in with dark, appreciative eyes. "We should probably get up before they wake your friend."
He snorted at that thought. McKay, he might have needed to rescue from a house full of teenagers – or vice versa. Sheppard, though? "He can take care of himself."
"Still." She yawned a little and stretched again, sitting up. "They'll have questions, and besides, I'm hungry."
He stopped her before she got more than a few inches away from him, palming her firm backside and rolling over, grinning down at her. "I'm hungry, too. There a shower in this house?"
That was one of the things he'd really enjoyed about Atlantis: rediscovering hot running water, courtesy of the city's desalination plants and endlessly running generators. He could count the times he'd been thoroughly clean during his Running years on both hands. And showering with someone else; that was a luxury he hadn't had in even longer.
"Thinking about conserving some water together?" Faith smiled as she squirmed under him. "Sounds like a plan to me. We should probably hurry, though, before the rest of B's crowd gets the same idea."
The knowledge that she could have thrown him off if she really wanted to was just added fuel for the morning lust tingling through him. It felt good to be the stronger one, sometimes... but sometimes it felt good to submit to someone else's strength, too. Ronon leaned in for a long kiss, stroking a hand up her inner thigh in counter-argument.
"...or, we could wait a few minutes to catch our breaths," she panted, laughing. "Good thing for you Slayers have so much stamina. Damn. Just how much you got left in the tank, Conan?"
The only possible answer to that was, of course, a thorough hands-on demonstration... followed by a laughing trip up the hall and a reenactment under a cascade of warm water. They didn't see anyone else until they emerged again, fully clothed, to the scents of hot tea and sweet pastries drifting up the stairs.
Most of the younger girls were still below, though a couple were scattered in chairs around the kitchen and the adjacent room, bleary-eyed with sleep and wearing whatever they'd worn to bed. Ronon caught more than one dirty glance from kids he figured must have wanted an early shower, too; but theirs weren't the eyes he was watching for. Sheppard was up, leaning against a wall exchanging glares with an older guy wearing glasses: the patriarch of the group, finally back from whatever he'd been doing the night before. A blond man was sprawled where Sheppard had been on the couch, with Buffy clucking over him; probably the guy she'd wanted to rescue so badly. All of them turned their attention to Faith and Ronon the minute they came into view, eyeing them with varying degrees of suspicion.
"Morning," Ronon said gruffly, nodding to Sheppard first, then the patriarch, whose name or designation as far as Ronon knew was just Giles. He was dressed kind of soft, but there was no mistaking the dangerous spark in his eyes; fitting, considering the young warriors who looked to him.
"Ah, yes; hello," Giles said, narrowing his eyes first at Ronon and then at Faith, walking at his side. "Mr. Dex? I understand you and Faith were with Colonel Sheppard, here, when he... had a strange experience with the Hellmouth last night."
"When he shut it down, you mean? Yeah," Ronon shrugged, then walked right on past the guy, heading for the box of pastries. They had the dark-frosted kind with the sweet filling that Atlantis only had when the mess got fresh supplies in on the Daedalus; he snagged a couple, then a napkin for courtesy's sake, and strode back to lean against a patch of wall next to Sheppard.
"Shut it down? Then you concur with his – his story about the apparent technological basis of the Seal?"
"More than just a story, G," Faith agreed, dropping into a chair halfway between Ronon and the table where the older group of kids were congregated with another pastry in hand. "The First showed up while we were there, tried to get us to stop him. After the light went out, though – no more ghost. I think he got it."
"But – but – this is the First Evil," the man said, pulling his glasses off and polishing them absently with a handkerchief. "The source of all lesser evils that have plagued us since the beginning. It can't be simply – simply shut off, as though it were a spigot. For heaven's sake, it just blew up the Council; its agents are spread worldwide! I don't pretend to know what actually happened last night, but...."
"Then how about you let the people who were actually there tell the story," Sheppard said, in that flat tone that usually meant a firefight was imminent.
Buffy looked at him sharply, as though she wanted to dress him down for that, but her words were for her mentor: "Giles, I know it doesn't make any sense, but his friend was the one who killed the VampZilla, and they did help Faith. I'm sure something happened, and if no one's seen the First since...."
Giles opened his mouth again, and Ronon chose that moment to stick his foot in. He could guess the man was upset that this huge thing had been dealt with while he was off doing something else, and that he didn't trust what he hadn't seen any more than Sheppard would. Still, that was no excuse for his attitude.
"So I get that you don't like Faith much. And you don't know us. But that doesn't make us liars. So maybe it doesn't make sense... and maybe it pisses you off a little that we could do what you didn't. But you don't have the bloodline Sheppard does, either. He could hear the thing, and he could turn it off, so he did." He shrugged.
Giles looked even more stung at that. "You do realize that the very fact that he could hear and interact with a device that previously disgorged a nearly indestructible vampire – a Seal that at least one man's life was sacrificed to open – does not make me particularly inclined to trust you."
"Geez, they can't win with you, can they?" Faith said, licking the last of her pastry off her fingertips. "But then, I never could, either. Guess they're in good company, then."
"Faith..." the boy, Xander said, looking uncomfortable at the table.
Faith flapped a hand in his direction. "Yeah, I get it. Trust has to be earned. Doesn't mean it doesn't still burn. So let's just start this whole conversation over. You pretend you believe us until you can go and check it out yourselves. And in the meantime, you fill us in on what you found out. I kind of have a stake in that, after the whole meet-and-stab with Caleb."
Buffy stood, glancing over at another blonde-haired woman Ronon didn't recognize. "That's fair. Anya was just telling us about that before you came down. This whole thing... the First working its way free? It's because there's more than one Slayer. Because I came back. And for the record, I kind of hope your friend is right. If this thing has been slowly opening since the Master drowned me and Xander brought me back... well, let's just say I'm a lot more okay with this whole thing being a side effect of that death." She waved a hand through the air in lieu of finishing the thought.
Several of the others in the room exchanged disturbed glances at that; grimaces of worry with a side note of guilt. Ronon had seen that before, not just the night before but in Pegasus, and it always made him want to check for knives at his back. Though it wasn't directed at him, here. These people had serious problems.
Then again, it sounded like they suffered the same kind of pressures a lot of Pegasus villagers did. Small wonder the same kinds of destructive survival habits cropped up under the thumb of these vampires and other predatory beings as he'd seen in people under the heel of the Wraith. He moved a little closer to Faith at that thought under the guise of snagging a couple more pastries, leaning a hip against her chair as she took another chocolate-frosted one from his fingers. He preferred straightforward fighters any day to double-talking and denial, no matter what kind of people they were.
Buffy shook herself in the sudden, fraught silence. "Anyway. If you're right," she nodded to Sheppard, "then – that's fixed, for now. It can't reach out any more. No more Bringers. No more Chaka Khans."
Sheppard gave her a grudging nod, unbending a little. "That doesn't mean the minions still out there aren't still dangerous, though. We won't be leaving until that Caleb guy we met is under wraps – a team of Marines will be here in a couple of hours to track him down. My boss ran a search on violence at religious institutions cross-referenced with his vehicle and description, and we think we know where he might have headed. If you know where there might be any more of these Bringers, I can have them search there, too."
He held up a finger as she started to object. "Remember, bullets do work on them. We have... alternate means that will probably work on Caleb, too, if he's still as tough without an energy being backing him up."
"I still don't like that part of it," Buffy said, crossing her arms nervously in front of her. "You realize this is my turf? And the last time the military got mixy around here, they lost like sixty percent of their people and nearly killed a bunch of my friends."
"The last time the military got 'mixy' around here," Sheppard echoed her, crooking his fingers in the air between them, "they didn't have any idea what they were getting into. You know I saw that thing last night. And I've seen worse, too. I know you have no reason to trust that, but believe me, we know what we're doing. And we're not looking to set up shop here: just clean out the bad guys and get back to our lives. This is a weekend job for the Marines. And hell, Ronon and I are technically still on vacation." He shrugged, expansively.
Ronon snorted at that: if McKay had been there, he would have accused Sheppard of 'Kirking'. Buffy had visibly softened in the face of his mundane indignation, though he didn't really think she wanted in his pants; she kept glancing over her shoulder at the pale figure on the couch every few minutes. But something in Sheppard's attitude or body language was definitely lowering her hackles. Sometimes Sheppard's brand of diplomacy got them in trouble – but sometimes, it worked out better than any official negotiation could have.
"You realize McKay is never going to let you hear the end of this," he said, contributing his own moment of flippancy to the conversation. "He offered to let me go to Canada with him instead."
"Aw, c'mon. Like you would have enjoyed Canada," Sheppard rolled his eyes at him.
"One word: hockey," Ronon replied, grinning.
"Aw, yeah. I bet you'd be murder on the ice," Faith said, nudging him with an elbow.
"Pardon me!" Giles broke in over the conversation, slipping his glasses back on with an indignant expression. "I do believe we were discussing what Anya and I discovered about the First Evil. And I am not simply being paranoid when I say I do not believe you, Colonel; we have clear information that the First is as old as the universe. It could not have been created by these beings you call Ancients."
"I never said they created it," Sheppard sighed, "I said they trapped it there. Whatever it started out as, after all this time it's basically just a hungry void of energy with a mind. And what I did barely crammed it back into its box. There's just not that much power left in the containment system. You're still going to have to deal with it again. Maybe not this year; maybe not this decade, but soon. And – I hate to tell you this, but I got the impression it'll be even sooner if you keep two guardians on top of it long-term. Something about the interaction of the energy you generate resonates with the Seal and drains it faster."
Faith stilled next to Ronon as Sheppard turned his attention to her. "Damn," she muttered. "I mean, I knew it wasn't going to last. But you've gotta make a destiny thing out of it? I guess it's back to Stockton for me, then. Or, hell. Di said there was another Hellmouth up near the Lakes. That right, G?"
Sheppard winced. "The further, the better. There was a reason there's only ever supposed to be one of you at a time."
"Then why did it return Buffy's power to her in the first place?" Giles objected.
"I'd guess because the other one actually was too far away to protect it when that happened," he shrugged. "I can't tell you much more; except that there were failsafes planted somewhere in this town. I don't think old Numero Uno was lying when it said I could have brought the whole town down accidentally. But there's something else here that could have been used to cork the thing if it had got out."
"And you're really not going to leave anyone here to, I don't know, find out what the thing is and see if it has military applications?" Xander asked, skeptically.
"I think the general is hoping your friends in the Initiative might be willing to communicate with you on that topic," Sheppard shrugged. "But us? Not so much. No offense, but we've got bigger fish to fry."
"Well... I guess that's good to know, then," Buffy frowned. "Way with the vague, but good to know." She threw Giles a look. "I guess we have a research project for after. But, Faith...." She turned large, limpid green eyes on her sister Slayer, and swallowed visibly. "I mean, I know I wasn't too happy to see you, but...."
Faith shrugged, folding her arms around herself. "It's cool, B. I'll think of something."
Ronon raised an eyebrow at Sheppard; Sheppard shook his head a little, but he already had that calculating look going on in his eyes.
That conversation was going to have to wait for later, though; partly because the kids at the table had started talking loudly amongst themselves, partly because it would probably be rude to discuss it with Sheppard before he mentioned it to Faith herself, and partly because the Marines chose that moment to arrive. A firm knock at the front door announced Colonel Reynolds' arrival.
"You know you're welcome to come with us," Ronon said, leaning over to murmur in Faith's ear while everyone else was distracted greeting their visitors.
She gave him a startled look, as though she'd temporarily forgotten he was there, and then a longer one, more thoughtful and a little skeptical. "I think you might even mean that," she said, shaking her head. "But look, just because we got bouncy...."
"Got nothing to do with that," he said, shrugging casually. Though of course it did; he wouldn't mind continuing as they'd begun. But he knew better than to try to corner a skittish felis. "Wouldn't mind having you at my back in a fight."
"And your colonel? I got a record, yo. The military is not going to just sweep that under the rug."
He bared his teeth at her in a wide grin. "I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not exactly a regular citizen of your country, either. If they want you, Sheppard's people have ways of dealing with that kind of thing. And I think, from what we've seen, you're the kind of person they'll want. Just think about it."
"Yeah?" She frowned, though she still seemed at least a little open to the idea. "And what makes you the kind of person they want? Or maybe I should ask, what makes them the kind of people you want to work with? Those Wraith you told me about, that killed your people, have something to do with it?"
"Something," Ronon agreed. "It's a long story. But part of it is – I can't go home, either. And even when I had a chance for a new home, a few weeks ago, when Sheppard told me his people were moving on...." He glanced away, toward the light streaming in through the kitchen windows. He'd known this woman barely more than twenty-four hours; but then, he'd known Sheppard less than that when the man had first asked him to stay on Atlantis. He figured this was the kind of thing Elizabeth had been talking about, that time she'd tried to explain the concept of 'paying it forward.'
He sighed, and tried to explain. "I could have settled down. Reclaimed some part of my people, or my culture; or built a new one, with people who'd at least known Sateda when it was a living world. I left that behind. I left the goal I've been pursuing for the last eight years behind – for the freedom to keep fighting, with people who have my back. I figure we'll go back, sooner or later. But either way... with them, I'm free to be who I am, too. I'm not the guy I was before I started Running, but I don't have to be the guy I was while I was Running, either."
Faith swallowed, and he could see that he'd gotten to her. "Yeah?" she said, kind of wistfully, staring through him into the middle distance. Then she shook her head. "Well, we'll see, I suppose. Ought to at least check out Cleveland first. Shep said you were on vacation; where from?"
"Place called Colorado Springs?" he shrugged. "That far from Cleveland?"
"Colorado to Ohio? You really aren't from around here, are you?" She laughed. "About as far as it is from Colorado Springs to here, I think. Maybe a little farther."
"Maybe we can meet in the middle, then?" he suggested.
"Huh. Maybe," she said, eyeing him up and down again.
Buffy chose that moment to interrupt, sticking her head back into the kitchen. "Faith, you coming? Sheppard's guys tracked Caleb to a mission in Gilroy, and the priest guys who live there have him cornered in a storeroom."
"Awesome." Faith stood, pushing her chair over toward the table. "After we bag him, it's a Bringer hunt, right? Man, if you've been having the same dreams I have about them hunting those girls...."
Buffy nodded. "I'm bringing a bunch of knives; give them a taste of their own medicine. You want anything out of the weapons chest?" She frowned at Ronon. "I know you have stakes, but...."
He reached up and pulled a knife out of a hidden sheath. "I've got enough."
Faith whistled lowly. "Damn, I have got to take you patrolling for real. If you use those like you use your other blade...."
"Back for less than a day and already there's a world of TMI," Buffy shuddered, and pulled back out of the room. "We're leaving in five!"
"Well, then. You up for bagging a preacher?" Faith smirked.
"Among other things," Ronon replied, amused.
"Then let's rock and roll." She took a step closer, leaning up; he threaded a hand in her hair and lingered for a moment, leaving the imprint of his teeth in her lower lip.
"Thought rock and roll was music," he murmured as he pulled back.
Faith rolled her eyes and headed for the door, all lean lines and lithe muscle. "Something you can dance to, either way, right?"
He followed her with a grin. Now that was a definition of 'rock and roll' he could get behind.