Of all the places Buffy ever thought she'd go after leaving Sunnydale, Cleveland definitely wasn't on the list. That is, when she bothered to think about leaving Sunnydale at all, which wasn't often; it was the Hellmouth, and she was the Slayer, and she always kind of figured that paid vacation time wasn't one of the perks. But now Sunnydale is gone, and she's a Slayer, and it seems more than a little absurd that an entire town had to be sucked into a giant crater just so she could move out of home. It's not all it was cracked up to be, really.
Cleveland is definitely no Sunnydale. For one, it actually rains here, which Giles might be loving ("It's just unnatural," he says of California, and she wants to say, "Duh," but maybe she doesn't really have to), but which does nothing for her hair. Or for her suede boots - which, okay, tended towards bloodstains anyway, but that's so not the point. There are too many Starbucks, too few cemeteries, and it completely fails when it comes to having all possible demonic points of interest laid out in a convenient ten block radius. She really hates to admit it, because that way lies bad stuff and ironically timed demon uprisings, but she's bored. And if there's one thing living in Cleveland has taught her, it's that not all Hellmouths are created equal.
It's not like she has nothing to do; there's training, and recruiting, babysitting and dealing with teenage hormones and a bunch of other stuff she's pretty sure was never in the job description. (Dying she can handle. Making breakfast for a dozen teenage girls with super-fast metabolisms is something else entirely.) And maybe she used to dream about this kind of thing, about being able to sit back and let somebody else slay the vampires for a night or two. But she's been there, done that, and it didn't exactly turn out too well the first time she tried it; besides which, dreams are never really supposed to come true, and she's pretty sure no-one's dreams ever came true in Cleveland, anyway.
Jinxes aside, it's hard not to wish for a little excitement. Demon-worshipping frat parties, badly-dressed vampire gangs, government officials turning into giant snakes. At this point, she'd even take a trio of Star Trek geeks.
Ex-boyfriends suddenly turning up were not on the list.
Dusting two vampires isn't exactly a night's work, but it's pretty much the most action she's seen all week. She almost doesn't hear the third until it's right behind her, and her stake is poised at his chest when she looks up, and okay, so not a vampire.
"Nice to see you, too," he says, smiling in a way that's still too familiar, and it takes Buffy a second to drop her hand, forcing herself to relax.
"Riley," she says, and she almost moves to hug him, except she's still not quite sure what the proper etiquette is. So she settles for a lame sort of wave instead, and he laughs, which should make her feel stupid but is actually kind of comforting.
"Hey, Buffy," he says, and at least it's better than the last time. There are no illusions here now, and she doesn't think for just a second that maybe he's here for her, that maybe she really does get to be rescued.
So she gets to ask the obvious. "Where's Sam?"
"Back at your place. They told me you'd probably be here." He kind of shrugs, like he's got the casual thing down, but when his eyes flick past her shoulders she doesn't miss a beat before she turns, raising her stake a split second before the vampire turns to ash in front of her.
"Never a dull moment," Riley says behind her. She wants to contradict him, because actually there are a lot of dull moments, but that's kind of sad, so she shrugs instead as she turns back around.
"So is this a social call, or is there some big bad we don't know about?" At least this time, she probably isn't sleeping with it.
He starts to walk, and she falls into step beside him. "A little of both. Got a call that something might be going down. Thought I might as well stop by."
She doesn't really need to ask how he knew she was here, even if she thought his answer was going to be anything other than infuriatingly cryptic. "Well, it's nice to have the extra hands." That's kind of the opposite of the truth, but whatever. "And it's good to see you."
She doesn't need to turn her head to know he's smiling again. "Yeah. It's good to see you, too."
"So," Buffy says, after the requisite uncomfortable silence. "Bad guys."
Willow nods, still jumpy as she sits next to Sam - she'd practically sprang up from her seat when Buffy had walked in, and Buffy would have laughed if it hadn't kind of hurt - and Xander leans forward.
"Right." Riley's in commando mode now, and it's a nice change from ex-boyfriend mode. "We've been tracking a group of Varlek demons for the past couple of months."
The name rings a bell, somewhere, and Buffy frowns. "I thought they didn't usually attack humans."
"They don't." Riley exchanges a look with Sam, and Buffy pushes down a twinge of half-remembered jealousy. "Which is why it had us concerned. We're pretty sure what we've been tracking is actually a few separate groups."
There's a pause, and Buffy thinks she's probably supposed to weigh in. "That's bad," she guesses.
"It's not good. At first it was just unusual, but a couple of weeks ago we started getting reports of casualties. A museum guard, some researchers. A couple more missing persons."
Great. Demons with an agenda. Didn't anyone kill for fun any more? "You think they're after something."
Riley nods. "Judging by their movements, we think it has something to do with the Hellmouth."
"They want to open it?" Been there, done that.
"We're not sure. But something's up, so we thought -"
"That you'd come give us a hand."
She nods, and tries to pretend she isn't just a little bit excited. Murder, Hellmouths, demon conspiracies. Maybe Cleveland isn't so bad, after all.
"So I guess you'll be in town for a while."
"Graham and some of the guys are coming down tomorrow."
You need a place to stay? The words rise in her throat unbidden, and she manages to close her mouth before they come out. If nothing else, they're pressed for space as it is; welcoming a group of military types is probably the last thing they need.
"We've got a place," Riley says, as if he read her mind. "It's not far from here."
She doesn't ask what kind of place; if the government decides it wants to start up again at another Hellmouth, she's staying out of it.
"So we'll come by tomorrow?" he asks, and she smiles a little too readily.
Varlek demons. Like dark, enclosed spaces. Usually non-aggressive. Slimy. Buffy tries to remember the rest of the intel Dawn and Xander had prepared, and keeps coming up blank. Okay, so maybe she'd been a little distracted when Sam had walked in, her hair perfect and shiny like she wasn't going to be hunting demons all day, Riley's hand lingering on her back as he stood behind her. But she tells herself she hadn't ever really been any good at the whole briefing thing, and anyway, how tough could these Varleks really be?
She shakes her head as if to clear it, still moving forward. If nothing else, she's missed this; hunting actuals demons, the threat of an actual apocalypse hanging over their heads. She's missed being alone; with so many extra Slayers, patrols are usually done in groups, and it makes sense, but there's just something about it that doesn't sit the right way.
Sneaking around in dank tunnels, she definitely hasn't missed. She slows down as she hears a noise ahead of her, a faint shuffling that could be footsteps. She raises her stake - where was their weak spot, again? - and takes a careful step forward.
The light this far in is dim at best, and at first, she thinks she's still alone. Then something moves - the shifting of a shadow, definitely not just a trick of the light - and it's a good thing she was already prepared, because the Varlek is closer than she thought, on top of her almost before she can move.
The stake hits what must be a breastplate, hard and unyielding, and she really wishes she'd listened more closely to the briefing as the weapon almost twists out of her hand. She grabs what she thinks is an arm - definitely slimy, and ew - as she rolls away, struggling to get back on her feet.
"What?" she manages, as she ducks a blow from the Varlek. "No witty banter?" It charges forward again, and she barely sidesteps, turning to push it forward against the wall. It's hard to see in the darkness, but seven years' worth of instincts draw her attention to the back of the Varlek's neck, and now she remembers. The stake slides in and up, and she loses her balance as the demon's weight falls back on her, pinning her to the ground for a second of not-quite-panic before she's sure that, yeah, it's dead.
She's just climbing to her feet again when more footsteps round the corner, and she raises her empty hands reflexively before she recognises the human outline.
"Buffy." Sam. She breathes out, resisting the urge to wipe dirty hands on even filthier pants; at least in the darkness, the fact that she's covered in slime and demon blood probably doesn't show.
Buffy starts forward, away from the now ex-Varlek, and nearly runs into Sam before she realises how close they are. So much for heightened senses.
"You okay?" Sam asks, and Buffy can feel Sam's breath on her cheek.
"Yeah." She'd be better if she had another weapon, but this was supposed to have been a reconnaissance mission. "Just peachy."
"I ran into a little bit of trouble back there," Sam says as they walk. The rest - but I kicked its ass - is unspoken. Buffy nods; closer to the exit, the light's a little better, and she realises with something she chooses not to call satisfaction that Sam is probably as filthy as she is.
"You've got something in your hair."
"Oh." Sam reaches up in what is probably an unconscious gesture, and grimaces. "Phlegm, I think. It spat something at me."
Buffy winces. "I'm pretty sure they didn't brief us on that." They've almost hit daylight, now, and she can just imagine the picture they make.
"That's because Varleks don't." Sam wipes her hand on her shirt, and her skin brushes against Buffy's for a moment. "This was something else."
"Oh," is all Buffy says, but she's thinking, not good.
"This isn't good," Willow says, and Buffy leans forward in her chair. She's showered twice already, but she still doesn't feel entirely clean; her clothes, at least, are probably a write-off.
She shrugs. "Not to state the obvious, but, duh?"
"No, I mean really not good." Willow's hunched over a pile of texts Dawn had brought out (muttering all the while that with a dozen Slayers living under the same roof, you'd think someone else could do the heavy lifting), and she flips over a couple of pages, her frown deepening. "Uh-oh."
"Uh-oh?" That much gets Buffy's attention; ominous portents of doom and archaic references to the end of the world are one thing, but people rarely say uh-oh without a damn good reason.
Willow's still poring over the text, and Buffy stifles the urge to snap her fingers.
"Oh. Right." Willow looks up, and Buffy doesn't like her expression; it's the one that starts I have some slightly bad news and usually ends with everyone nearly being killed. "According to this, the Gordach demon - that's the one Sam saw - usually acts as a sort of henchman. For these guys."
She flips the book over, and Buffy looks down at the picture. "Yikes."
"So, what do these guys want?"
Willow frowns. "According to this, they have some sort of ancient prophecy ..."
"The Rite of Kel'tak'na," Dawn supplies, looking altogether too pleased with herself. "They want to open the Hellmouth."
Of course they do. "So, what? They want to destroy the world?"
"Actually, according to this, it's some kind of energy ritual," Willow says, still glancing over the text. "They think that by opening the Hellmouth, they'll acquire some sort of -"
"Magical abilities," Dawn says. Buffy looks at Willow, who shrugs.
"Right. And I suppose this is going down ..."
Of course it is. "So what do these Varlek thingies have to do with it?"
Dawn hands Willow another book, and she flips to the right page. "The Varlek demon ... is unusually susceptible to magical influence."
"Which the ..."
"Which the Kel'ash demons use to control others."
"Great. Magical and horny." Willow looks up, and Buffy immediately regrets the choice of phrase. "I mean ... like it's going to be some sort of demon bazaar down there?"
"Looks like it. These guys don't usually operate in small numbers."
"Okay." Buffy stands up, putting on her best "we can do this" smile. "You guys get whatever information you can on these ..."
"Right." She runs a hand through her hair, and winces. "I'm going to take another shower."
Buffy wakes to the smell of pancakes, and braces herself for the inevitable smoke alarm.
But it isn't Dawn who greets her as she makes her way into the kitchen. Riley looks up, smiling as he flips another batch of pancakes onto a waiting plate, and she fights to suppress the sudden feeling of deja vu.
"Riley," she says, at the same time that he says, "Pancake?"
"You didn't have to do this," she says, but takes a plate anyway. The pancakes smell good, and it's been a long time since she's had anything but cereal for breakfast. When you've got a horde of Slayers to feed, "delicious and fluffy" tends to rank somewhere below "available in bulk" in terms of dietary requirements.
"These are good," she says around a mouthful of pancake, glancing up at him.
"Thanks. It's Sam's recipe."
"Oh." She pours on an extra layer of maple syrup just in case, but manages a smile. "Where is Sam?"
"Slayer training." He grins, sitting across from her with the last of the pancakes. "I think it was Graham's idea."
"See how undisciplined they are?" she asks. If she's really being honest, the assessment wouldn't be far off.
"Actually, I think he's trying to recruit them." He looks up at her, and after a moment, when he doesn't look away, she starts to choke on her breakfast.
"So," he says, glancing down, and Buffy struggles to regain her composure. "Willow tells me we've got a bit of problem."
"Something like that." When she finally looks up at him again, he's smiling, and she tells herself it's the pancakes making her stomach feel funny. "Anyway, I think Andrew has a presentation for you. There may be slides."
He looks considerably unimpressed, and she smiles. This might be fun, after all.
"A-Team. Come in A-Team."
Buffy rolls her eyes as Andrew's voice comes over the radio, and she catches Riley's gaze for a second as he reaches for it.
"Okay. Just checking."
Riley clenches his jaw in a way that makes her glad Andrew is safely far away, and she reaches for the radio. "Andrew, I told you we don't need code names."
"But the A-Team is cool," she can hear him mumble, and she'd like to believe that he and Xander aren't now arguing over the relative merit of various teams in television history. She hands the radio back to Riley just as Andrew says, "Anyway, we have to call you something."
"The A-Team is fine," Riley says, sounding a lot calmer than he looks. "Just try to maintain radio silence unless you need to contact us, okay?"
She can almost hear him roll his eyes as he puts the radio away, and concentrates on the beam of the flashlight as they proceed further into the tunnels. According to Willow, the centre of the Hellmouth here is underground, which she supposes makes a nice change from a high school library. Not quite as nice, but she'll live.
They stop when they come to an intersection, and Sam and Graham step forward. "See you on the other side," Sam says, and Buffy's not quite sure if it's a joke; before she can ask, they're gone, and she and Riley are turning the other way.
"So," he says, and she glances over. He has a look on his face that she recognises, the "trapped with my ex-girlfriend in a dark tunnel hunting demons" look, and she braces herself for the inevitable.
He seems to settle for, "Sorry if this is weird," and she smiles.
"Why would this be weird?"
"You know ..." He trails off, and she almost takes pity on him. Almost. "I just mean, it would be nice to see you sometime when it's not all about demons."
She almost laughs at that, because when has her love life not been all about demons? "It's fine. I'm glad you came."
"You are?" He sounds genuinely surprised, and she wonders just how awkward their last meeting had been.
"Sure." She shrugs, though she doubts whether he can see it in the dim light. "I mean, it's not exactly like we're short-staffed, but most of the girls don't have much combat training."
She can almost hear the smile in his voice. "From what I remember, Slayers tend to learn fast."
She's not quite sure she likes all the possible meanings of that sentence, and she's glad of the darkness keeping her expression hidden. After a second, he seems to realise it, too, and she can hear him stop.
"I mean -"
"It's okay," she say hastily, and keeps moving. He catches up, and they walk in silence.
"You did the right thing," she says finally, carefully not slowing her pace. "When you left." After a minute, she glances over, and now she's glad that it's his expression she can't see.
"I know." His voice isn't cruel, but she'd expected the words to make her feel something - guilt, anger, jealousy. Instead, she thinks it's mostly relief.
She's about to say something else when Andrew's voice comes in over the radio again, and Riley hands it to her wordlessly.
"Goldilocks. Come in, Goldilocks. Red Witch says sparks are coming in at four o'clock."
She takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes. "Andrew," she says, her voice thick with warning.
"Fine," he says, and she can hear him sigh. "Willow says there's magic coming from the tunnel on your right."
She shares a look with Riley even in the dark, and hands the radio back. They turn down the tunnel, and it's less than a minute before he switches off the flashlight, and they come to a halt.
There's light coming from what looks like some sort of chamber ahead, and she pauses a minute to take stock.
"That's a lot of demons," Riley says, breaking the silence, and she nods. With a look, they split up, and she edges carefully around to the left, trying to avoid bits of fallen debris.
The first patrol takes her by surprise; not Varleks, but a couple of whatever it was Sam encountered. She has just enough warning to duck before one of the demons strikes out, and she rolls to the side before scrambling quickly to her feet. The demons are tough, but not particularly agile, and it doesn't take much to take them down; a few well-placed blows, a sharp axe, and she's alone again. Just as she's about to start forward again, a high, piercing cry fills her ears - demon security alarm - and she figures they've been spotted.
The first group comes at her in waves; most of them aren't natural warriors, which she'll be thankful for later, but it's still all she can do to keep her grip on her weapon steady and keep moving. She could swear she can start to feel the chamber walls beginning to shake, which she takes as a bad sign; she can only hope that Willow gets to finish working her magic before the whole place comes crashing down on them.
At least they aren't without reinforcements; she can hear distinctly human shouts across the chamber, and the demons seem to be spreading out. She can hear something coming up behind her, and glances around a second before she feels something dull and heavy hit her shoulder. She winces, kicking out, and steps up to attack again when the demon collapses.
"Thanks," she says, and recognises Sam a moment later. She smiles, and when Sam steps forward she whirls around to take down the demon poised to attack.
With a glance, they move forward almost in in unison. In any other situation, she'd admire Sam's technique, but as it is, she's just grateful for the extra body. Sam pushes a demon away as Buffy raises her axe, and they both turn to take on a second when it falls.
The chamber is as loud as ever, but it's definitely less crowded; as yet another demon falls at her feet, Buffy recognises one of the Kel'ash in front of her, and smiles. She has no idea if Willow's finished yet, but it's now or never, and she takes a breath as she steps forward.
When the demon glances at her, waving an arm, and nothing happens, she guesses that whatever magic Willow was working has set in. She steps forward, and winces as a blow from the Kel'ash hits her injured shoulder; not missing a beat, she strikes out, and grins as it goes stumbling backwards. She's about to move again when the demon reaches out; not towards her, but towards a glowing box she guesses is some sort of demon device. Taking advantage of the moment, she lunges forward to wedge the axe into the demon's spine, and takes a breath as it tumbles forwards.
She barely hears Sam as she's thrown backwards, closes her eyes against the sudden burst of light. Something heavy is lying on top of her, her head aching where it hit the ground, and she reaches up just as her hand connects with something soft.
"You okay?" Sam's staring down at her, and Buffy nods, wincing at the pain in her head.
"Yeah." Nothing broken, at least as far as she can tell, but she's probably going to have some angry bruises tomorrow.
"Good." There's still enough light left for Buffy to see that Sam's smiling, and it's a minute before she registers that they're still lying face to face, Buffy's hand resting on Sam's waist.
Sam seems to notice at the same time, because she stands up quickly, helping Buffy to her feet. "We should ..." she starts, and Buffy nods; she's already moving.
"Get out of here?" she suggest, and Sam smiles again. Buffy spares a quick glance back at the crater they were very nearly lying in - long enough to check that there are no Hell demons clawing their way out - before she starts to run.
"So," Riley says, and the accompanying silence isn't quite uncomfortable. Buffy glances from him to Sam, ignoring the tension lying between them, and breathes out.
"I guess I'll see you around," she says, and she doesn't really doubt it; these things seem to have a way of coming up. Riley smiles as if he knows, too, and after a moment, he steps back.
"It was nice to see you again," Sam says, and Buffy's pretty sure the sentiment is genuine. Demon hordes and open Hellmouths aside, she supposes the encounter didn't entirely suck. They don't hug, and she can still remember the way Sam felt lying on top of her; she doesn't look at Riley, and after a minute, Graham fills the silence.
"If you ever want us to take some of those girls off your hands ..."
Buffy smiles, and doesn't say that she's seriously considering the offer. Not when they're right behind her, anyway.
She offers a wave as they leave, trying not to wince at the soreness in her muscles. After she's had a shower, and maybe slept for a week, she thinks it might be time to seriously consider moving on. Europe sounds nice, she's decided. No Hellmouths. And no ex-boyfriends.