Story: Sophomore Slump (all chapters)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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Chapter 1

Title: One


Everyone returned to the house. Keith first, then Dawn and Tara, Xander and Anya, Giles, Mac and Willow, Wallace...with Veronica and Buffy the last ones inside. No one really wanted to talk.

What was there to say after a funeral for a woman who'd felt like a mother to, well, everyone in the group young enough to be her child? "Nothing," answered that question. Nothing at all. They stood in the foyer rather awkwardly, waiting for something to happen, so they'd at least have something to react to.

Dawn's eyes were puffy; she'd just finally run dry on tears. Each person watched as she took a couple steps toward the living room, but stopped short. Tara stayed close.

"I hate that couch," the teenager broke the silence with that quiet, angry declaration. "And I don't wanna be here. *Ever*."

It had been a tough year for the girl. Learning you weren't real, but instead, a mystical construct shaped by monks to escape a hell-god's detection, couldn't be easy. The very idea didn't even seem sane.

Other than Dawn herself, the person who took it hardest was Faith. Her friendship with Buffy's little sister meant a lot. Every time Faith thought she couldn't handle something, Dawn managed to take her from the dark place. But since finding out that she'd been turning to someone who'd never even been there...the brunette slayer wasn't around much. That was the second-to-last thing Dawn had needed.

The last being the death of her mother, real or not.

"Do you wanna come sleep over, sweetie?" Tara asked, as she and all who'd heard Dawn couldn't blame her. "If-if it's o-okay with Buffy."

Eyes focused on the slayer, who didn't actually seem to be there, despite the fact that they could see her. Veronica answered on her behalf--she'd gotten used to it over the past, few days.

"Yeah. Thanks, Tara."

No one probably would have known the blonde witch had Buffy and her now licensed P.I. girlfriend not transferred to UC Sunnydale for their sophomore year. Tara was in Buffy's "Greek Art" class last semester, and they got paired on a research project. Being un-shy about her relationship, Buffy quickly learned Tara their story, and learned in kind, that Tara too had a liking for the fairer sex.

Soon enough the slaying and witchcraft came out of the closet as well, fitting her right in. If there was a gentler soul in the world than Tara Maclay, they'd be hard-pressed to find it. Which was why Veronica had really, really, *really* wanted to Taser the girl's asshole father a while back. It made her count her blessings once again, that she had Keith Mars to thank for her conception.

Dawn was all the sudden hugging her, and, when did she get tall?

"Take care of my sister, okay?" She asked of Veronica in a whisper. "I'm gonna go get some stuff."

In a flash, footsteps were rushing up the stairs, snapping everyone else out of their mute funk.

"I'll, um, help her pack." Tara went up the stairs next, albeit more carefully.

Willow watched, slowly starting to nod. "Yeah, me too. I'm gonna help, too. I mean, Dawnie can sorta turn into a rat wh...but oh, not, you know, literally with whiskers'n'all...just when she's, uh, packing. Tara could definitely need reinforcements."

Veronica and Mac shared a knowing look at the redhead's explanation.

The hacking duo was roommates at Hearst this year, but then Willow came home at Fall Break and met Tara. She hadn't dated since Oz, getting kind of caught up in plans for world domination, but one eye-to-eye look across a room later, and the tractor beam of love sucked her in. To put it in geek verbiage.

Though the whole thing was moving slow as molasses. First, Tara was convinced Willow was with Mac, but Buffy and Veronica had to assure her that computer nerds simply moved in pairs to ensure that when telling a joke about track balls, at least someone was there to laugh and stave off social alienation. Them being members of such a fragile species and whatnot.

Second, both thought they'd be completely out of their depth with the other. Willow had dabbled in magick during high school, but had drifted from it once she befriended Mac. Tara had practiced her entire life, which intimidated. And Tara, worrying similarly, didn't quite get technology. She only knew she liked Willow.

With Mac leaving the single life to date Max--the nice, young man who prospered off the ethical deficiencies present in his fellow students, and their desire to achieve a degree having done as little learning as humanly possible--Willow felt a bit of pressure to have her own special someone.

The blondes had intended to speed the process up, when now happened.

"If everyone's so uncomfortable, then why're we standing here?" Anya asked her boyfriend bluntly and curiously. "I thought the ritual was over as soon as the priest got finished pretending that the words he forced us all to listen to would actually make anybody feel better."

"Ahn!" Xander reproached as hushed as he could.

Buffy started to laugh. It wasn't happy. It...was hard to tell what it was. Then it cut off sharply, and she was back for a second. Long enough to realize she wasn't alone. She retreated upstairs like the three before her, and hadn't said a word.

Wallace took that as a cue. "Hey, X...mind if I crash at your place tonight? Kinda don't feel like drivin' right now."

"Then prepare for more 'Scrabble Showdown' wackiness," Xander lightly joked before walking up to Veronica and giving her a quick hug. "We're skedaddling. If she needs anything..."

Veronica smiled at him, and then Wallace came up to her.

"You fellas play nice now. And remember, no matter how hard we wish it true...'Cheeky Monkey'? Still not in the Dictionary."

"I'll swing by tomorrow before I head back," said Wallace, glancing upstairs before stepping to the side. "She needs you, Veronica."

"I know," she told him.

The most difficult part of moving out of Neptune was not seeing him and Mac every day. But once her dad lost the election for sheriff to Vinnie Van Lowe (who'd given up his sleazy, private-dicking ways to become a sleazy, Fitzpatrick plant and run Neptune into the ground), the Marses felt like they'd overstayed their welcome. The town was going to hell, but they'd been spit on too many times to care.

Besides, Veronica had the feeling Vinnie and Liam Fitzpatrick may have made the evidence tampering charges against her father disappear in exchange for his leaving and never looking back. It was an evil, corrupt world. At least in Sunnydale, evil was upfront. So Veronica and Keith said adios to their apartment, shacked up with their women, and reopened Mars Investigations on the Hellmouth.

After that mess with the Castle and Jake Kane, she just hoped Wallace was watching his back. Like she should've been watching hers, because Anya tackled her in a very unsettling embrace. A few, long seconds later and it was done, nothing said by either of them. A few seconds after that, only Veronica, Mac, Keith and Giles remained.

The awkward silence returned with a vengeance.

"Yep," Mac uttered, rocking on the balls of her feet. "Uh, I think I'm gonna go...practice being a fourth wheel. Or something."

She bolted to where the others had gone. Then there were three, and when father smiled at daughter, daughter lost it. She crushed him in a hug.

"I'm so sorry, Dad."

Giles walked into the living room, giving the two their privacy.

"So am I, kiddo," he said back to her. More than she would ever know. "So am I."

He rubbed her back reassuringly. "But don't worry about your old man."

"Worry about my old lady, right?" She sniffed, a chuckle breaking as it left her throat. "I do."

"Then get up there," Keith advised. "Buffy needs someone to be angry at; she's all bottled up because she doesn't wanna take it out on the wrong people. But sometimes ya have to."

There was a safe way, and a dangerous way. He didn't want Buffy going for the latter.

"And who's better than my daughter at getting someone so--"

"Peeved?" Veronica supplied, innocently.

"--that they can't hold back even if they want to?"

Never had she heard her innate ability to piss off the masses, so...legitimized. She'd accept it as a compliment. They separated, Veronica wiping her eyes. A couple steps upwards, and she turned.

"Oh, so you know? You're only allowed to die metaphorically. Like, off the top of my head? While on the dance floor. Because your groove just isn't coming back."

As she picked up the pace, the smile he wore for her left. He went into the living room, seeing Giles looking at the photos on the fireplace's mantle. Keith breathed deep, rubbing the back of his head.

"Want a drink?"

Giles turned around, but not before placing the family picture of Joyce, Buffy and Dawn back in its place.

"At the moment? More than bloody anything."




"Buffy?" Veronica asked as she reached their bedroom door.

The basement was made up for Faith when the house welcomed its new occupants.

Hearing nothing except muffled words and movement coming from Dawn's room, she opened the door to discover Backup inside, and an open window. Veronica ran to it, noting the pulled out weapons chest.

Buffy had climbed down the tree. Why didn't she expect that? After everything? Shit.

‘You're off your game, Veronica. So get the hell on it. Fast.'



Chapter 2

Title: Two



~Christmas Eve Day, 2006~

"How is she?" Veronica immediately asked when Logan opened the door to his Neptune Grand suite and she pushed inside, briefly spotting the cuts on the right side of his face.

"What's black and blue and red all over?" He answered, butchering a classic joke to give his assessment. "Aaron would be shocked and awed."

"May he rest in hell," she commented distractedly, walking ahead of her ex into the bedroom.

Where Buffy was just coming out of the connected bathroom, limping and pressing a wet, paper towel to her arm. Veronica's face went from concern to anger in no time at all. She couldn't gauge how her girlfriend was reacting to her anger, because the slayer was too busy wincing.

"Spry, though." Logan commented, stepping up next to the healthy blonde.

The heavy silence continued as if he hadn't spoken, so he looked to his bed.

"Pillow's much for that minty-fresh afternoon I had planned," he sighed regretfully. "Speaking of the lack of good Help these days, Juanita clearly doesn't have her Hoover technique down."

His head shook in disappointment. "Frankly? I'm tired of it; my carpet oughta receive the same, ‘hands-on' attention hers does. Management *will* hear about this."

The girls didn't even hear him "storm out."

"Ribs're broken, aren't they?" Veronica could tell by the way Buffy had moved, and now kept quiet. "Turn yourself right ‘round, baby--‘round as a record might go. All the way back to that porcelain throne," she ordered, even as she came over to support.

"Y'do know what ‘recon' means, yes? Here's a hint--it doesn't mean, ‘get yourself eyeballed and whomped on like a redneck during Cops.'"

She sat Buffy on the lidded toilet, placed her bag on the expensive, oversized sink, and proceeded to empty out much gauze, disinfectant, and other First Aid-appropriate items. Next came the frantic rifling.

"Did you rob a hospital?" Buffy asked in surprise, but she was ignored. "I know I promised, but they smart-thinking kinda went away...and, ow."

This was all the fault of a dead, Father Christmas. Playing a hunch, Veronica called the local mall. It was indeed short one Santa. A Santa who'd left work alive and well the day before.

While she went to see what she could learn about the guy from co-workers, and about any suspicious "people" they may have noticed, Buffy tried to get on the trail of the vampires responsible by starting at the mall and letting her slayer senses lead.

They led her to children living in a perpetually for sale, ‘09er mansion. To children who hadn't been children in a long time. Those *had* been small bite marks on Chris Cringle's neck.

Before she did anything else, Veronica knelt down and took her girlfriend's hands into her own. There was something in her eye. Emotion replaced tried-and-true humor.

"Are you okay?"

"I froze. Even after figuring the ‘I got played' part. A slayer can't freeze--or this happens." Buffy and self-blame went together like P.B. & J. "But I couldn't...kill kids."

"Be glad this," Veronica stood back up, "didn't end worse. Jacket's comin' off."

She helped her patient do so, gingerly. "Can't exactly bounce back from that grim fandango we call ‘death.'"

There was one more layer in the way.

"Now then, let's check out those headlights..." Her brow waggled. "Schnell."

Buffy appeared disturbed, but quickly managed a smile prior to unbuttoning her blouse. "Least I got the hot nurse."

"If you're trying to butter me up..." Veronica wanted to pretend it didn't work, but she was weak. "...continue."

When the garment was discarded, she wasn't looking at bra-covered breasts; she was looking at ribs. "Broken" wasn't what they were. Her breath hitched.

"Oh hell." Her anger? Back. "So...the undead, ‘Brat Pack'...tell me they fried up nice, slow, and crispy."

Not that it mattered anymore, but after seeing them on the mall's security footage, creeps were given. The detective had been doing "Scooby"-esque research when Logan called. This hadn't been the first Santa they'd cacked. Matter of fact, they'd developed quite a complex about anything related to Christmas over the centuries. Being that's when they all got sired. By Zachary Kralik. After he ate their mothers.

Boo hoo. Evil, little bastards.

"Thanks to Logan," the slayer hated saying that. "When did he even...?"

It was bad enough she got beaten by vampires physically aged no older than ten, but to be saved by Logan Echolls and his rich was embarrassing. Especially because she was pretty sure his motive was half split between wanting to destroy evil in his neighborhood, and just wanting to be destructive under the guise of goodness. Why did boys like to watch stuff burn?

"Way I heard the tale? A lazy Saturday, ‘Lost Boys' on the box--TNT, I believe it was--and he says to himself, ‘If the Coreys can do it...'"  Veronica quipped, grabbing for the athletic tape. "Raise ‘em."

Buffy's arms complied.

"You shouldn'ta said anything." She gritted her teeth, hissing as the tape was wrapped tight around her body. "He'll...get...killed."

"Did his own legwork...I only confirmed certain facts," Veronica clarified her part. "And Logan's always gonna find the next cliff; unfortunately, that's who he is."

She stopped trying to reign him in a long time ago. "Since that's why you're still alive to bring the grrl power another day, gotta be honest, part of me's kinda glad he's comfy there."

"I am, too."

That sounded like autopilot to Buffy's girlfriend.

"I am, Veronica." This was where the hazel-eyed blonde had to communicate. "Today? Wasn't my best. Everywhere hurts, including that ‘pride' thing, it's my fault vamps are coming here, and...I should've been better. I need to be.

"But, don't wanna be dead right now. I don't ever wanna show my face around Giles, *or* a mirror again, but ‘no' on the dead-wanting."

"Well that's reassuring." Veronica didn't sound serious, but her eyes were.

Her next stop was the cuts on Buffy's forearm.

"Because I can't--nay, won't--lose you." That sounded serious, but then she immediately busied herself with bandaging. "It isn't your fault, either. With Keith Mars as sheriff, there'd be a significant drop in murder-rate, thus making Neptune less attractive to the demonic."

She smiled. "Now, um, that we've established what you *don't* want, given any consideration to--?"

"Whoa." Dick Casabalancas was in the doorway.

Buffy pressed her blouse against herself. "Uh, get out?"

"My bad--thought I ordered that Charlize Theron movie off Pay-Per-View for a sec."

He didn't think about things he said, he just said them.

"You know, the one where her and that chick from Casper get it on, but her face is all messed up and stuff? Put *major* breaks on the hottness that could've been. Seriously."

"Do you think if we close our eyes, click our heels, and wish hard enough, he'll shrivel down to a nub?" Veronica asked Buffy rhetorically, crooking her pinky. "I'll wager it isn't the first time, but you heard the lady--get out, Dick."

"Yeah, okay, but--"

The handiest thing Buffy could grab--a fresh bar of hotel soap--beaned him squarely on the noggin, causing him to meet floor.

"Whoops. Didn't mean to throw that hard," swore the slayer.

"But see that? Who's lost their touch? Not you," Veronica pointed out.




Veronica Mars and graveyards? Non-mix-y things, as her girlfriend might say. But it was because of her girlfriend that she was here. Luckily, Buffy's cell being on meant she didn't have to search many for her. Her who mixed quite well with these surroundings. That was kind of the concern at present, even more so than usual.

They each got lost in their work; they'd fought about it once. Since, each had done a nice job helping, and allowing themselves to be found. But it wasn't until last May that Veronica finally understood how much more literal "got lost" was in Buffy's case. Understood what Buffy had struggled to articulate. And what her fear was.

Of course, it had been an extreme, somewhat atypical situation--relative to the others in Sunnydale--but it sometimes took an extreme to truly illustrate. Or, a psychology professor's homage to/blatant rip-off of (depending who you asked), Frankenstein's monster. With Faith out of commission, Buffy had stepped up to take him down. Because that "Santa thing" went wrong, she felt she had something to prove.

Through a spell, she accepted the primal core of the Slayer's power, and ceased being who she was. Wasn't too much of a stretch to say she ceased being human. Veronica saw her right before the spell broke, and there was no recognition in what had been, glowing eyes.

She'd never get used to the supernatural.




~Third Week of May, 2007~

Veronica stood over her bed, on which rested a cardboard box she'd closed with masking tape. This was the last of her items for the move. One more night here, and in the morning, on the road to Sunnydale. She thought she'd be more upset about leaving, being chased off. Many a case got cracked in this room--Lilly's case. This was where she and Buffy first learned the joys of Sapphic loving. But then, she only had to remember a few, other things.

Like, the plumbing never worked. That they were surrounded by varying degrees of circus freaks. That she was getting what she always flee Neptune. Every day here she'd had to expose and/or confront the worst aspects of humanity. Just because she enjoyed punishing the guilty, didn't mean it didn't wear on her. At least in Sunnydale, horned evil outnumbered the evil of the horny.

If there was a way to make Liam and Vinnie pay, she'd find it. Though her focus was currently on how she'd get to share a bed with her girlfriend, because the inner-logistics of 1630 Revello Drive necessitated it. Grin plastered on her face, she now magic-markered the box, Buffy walking in as she was.

"Ver...on...ic...a's...Pixx," she spoke her writing aloud. "With *two* X's. Yes, yes, perfect." There was a low-key, "mad scientist" tone to her voice.

"Thank god we didn't hafta hire moving guys. They'd whistle, probably stare, and *definitely* have wrong thoughts." Buffy believed, wrapping arms around her waist. "Leading to angry thoughts. By me. Of vengefulness, ‘cause you're a bad influence."

Beat. "Are you sure you *don't* want people thinking you're trampy? This isn't helping with that."

"I'm a ‘Girl Gone Wild' now--time to lay these dukes to rest," Veronica balled her hands into fists, bringing them up, "let fate win."

She then lowered them with an exaggerated sigh. "My only question? Where're our T-shirts?"

Buffy pondered over the box a moment, concernedly. "The disc isn't it?"

The Castle, under orders from Jake Kane, had a camera in Buffy's dorm at Hearst long enough to film their bodies au natural as they followed the most enjoyable of human drives,  acting a whole heck of a lot more intimate than people knew them to be. That was probably the worst part. It wasn't just sex the student body saw.

"As if I'd be so doy." After all that hunting down Veronica did?

She turned in Buffy's arms. "My surveillance portfolio's inside. J. Edgar wants to see who's got the juice? Booyah--it's already squeezed. And, I always keep my blackmail options open."

The "pleased with herself" glint that should've been taking residence inside her eyes, wasn't.

"All great...but the disc issue?" Buffy pressed.

Next to the box was Veronica's bag. From it, the owner pulled out her CD holder. Unzipping, she flipped through, and finally tapped a CD-R over the plastic sleeve. Then she tapped her nose.

Buffy read the label. "'The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons'?"

"Who'd suspect? Crossovers are shunned. Universally. Why? Never work."

"True," admitted the slayer as they kissed. "Still wish you hadn't kept a copy."

"How else am I supposed to stay warm on those hot, Virginia nights?" Veronica spoke in a Southern drawl.

She got a slight pout, and jumped on the opening. "Landry had to lose cred as soon as he rubbed Mindy out. Him vouching, can't hold much water anymore. Bet the Feds won't--"

"They will," Buffy interrupted, looking disapproving. "And if you say you don't, when I know you wanna intern, it's not fair. Because then you're making me choose, and if I say ‘stay' and you stay, I'll feel...very je suck. You've been dying for this, you're going."

Veronica ended the closeness so she could put the box on the floor, as well as her bag, then she lay down wearily on her bed.

"Prepare to say hello to Perspective--it's just shy of the entire summer," she reminded.

"We're flying out for a week in July." Buffy joined her on the bed, lying beside. "I can survive, Marsipan."

That was just it. Veronica wasn't sure her girlfriend would. It'd been a week and a half since Adam, and after those dreams of cheese and the original Slayer, Buffy admitted that she feared becoming less human. That was Veronica's fear, too. How a day would come when no amount of witticisms, affection, or misty memories could prevent it. But Buffy had almost been pretending like the conversation didn't happen.

"Oh yeah?" She rolled her head to face Buffy's. "How confident? Enough to put your Hungry, Hungry Hippos record on the table?"

Buffy hesitated too long. "If you weren't you...this is where the lying."

The detective didn't feel vindicated as she usually did when she was right, though.

"I'll get to confident," Buffy went on. "Once we're moved, I'm asking Giles to start training me again; I'm gonna find out where my power comes from. Can't control me if I control it first."

"All great," Veronica acknowledged, parroting earlier words, "and all the more reason for telling Quantico ‘frak-it.' I find, I dig, I expose...why not take advantage while she's at her prime?"

Her hand found blond hair that wasn't hers, and ran fingers through it. "Or could be she's just workin' the support system, trying to be a girlfriend."

"No," objected Buffy, but it was nowhere near stern. "No giving up huge, ‘foot in the door' opportunities just because ‘Slayer-Buffy's' been extra wiggy lately."

"That attitude there? Why I gotta stick around. There's only one you," said Veronica, climbing atop her best friend. "Discovered recently that my foundations can still be rocked. By what? A truth so ugly and inconvenient, Al Gore would put it to film."

Dramatic silence.

"The FBI? The Man? Bedfellows," she revealed.

Fingers crossed as her face asked, ‘Can you believe it?'

"I don't need his rules or his ethics." She air-quoted both. While coughing. "I can keep tabs on my fellow American Idiots *without* a Patriot Act...I'm licensed. Besides, in the long run, we know where I'd rake in the most scratch.

"Them picking you-know-who gave that tricksy biotch, Ego, her longest stroking to date. And temporary insanity got my principles shafted like a cheap..." She tapered, stopping herself for once. "Anyway, they're everything this girl's against."

She looked Buffy in the eye. "Sound like an opportunity I'm dying for? Foot's in my own door, damn it. What I want is to help Dad get the new office running, and stand by my woman. So let me."

The slayer didn't want to be objecting; she didn't want Veronica to go. She was giving her one, last chance to change her mind, because Buffy was the type to sacrifice her own happiness for someone else's. Nor would she ask that of Veronica.

Buffy started saying, "What about bringing it down from the inside, and--?"

However, if Veronica was going to be happier here--as the deep, body-shivering kiss that shut her up suggested--okay then.

"You make it so not worth it to argue," she spoke when she had air.

"Blessed with a gift," said Veronica grinningly. "Veronica, 1, shucks, nobody's a loser here."

She tugged on her girlfriend's shirt, pulling her up. "From one lone wolf to another, I know the approach I'd take. But you'll do as the song says and lean on me. Or else."

Meant what she said. The FBI was the belly of the beast, and after breaking free of its spell, she would've felt trapped and disillusioned. But the other reason for turning it down? She wasn't abandoning Buffy for three months. Not now. No way.

In the search for their amateur pornographer, she weathered the storm like she had many times past, with Buffy's help. That's what they did for each other, and they couldn't during a collect call. There was no choice in high school, but it was hers to make in college, and sorry, her life-long friendship (two-year relationship), came first.

A number of people would be shocked to hear that, but she had her priorities.

Buffy said the only thing she could, despite her smile making it redundant.

"Does this mean you can't quit me? Because wow, I can't quit either. Uh, quit *you*."

Veronica rolled her eyes. Inappropriate joking like that was her own, humorous fault. She *was* a bad influence.

"Not very timely, but apt," she nodded. "Apt."

"Thanks, Veronica. I mean really." Buffy felt more confident already.

Maybe even enough to help Faith, who because of the three day coma courtesy of Adam, emerged with her own reasons for feeling shaky about the slaying gig. Part of the problem was that Faith gave new meaning to "lone wolf," and didn't have someone to force her to break habit. Dawn wasn't a miracle worker.

Buffy knew how lucky she was. She freed her shirt from Veronica's grip, pulled her back down so Veronica's face was right above her lips, and whispered,

"Know what we hafta do, don't you?" And a one, and a two... "MOM!"

That? Louder than a whisper. Veronica was rendered speechless.

Joyce appeared, having run in with much fear and concern.

"What's wrong? Are you girls o...?" She took in their positions, and turned away, embarrassed. "We asked you to lock the door."

"Is Hungry, Hungry Hippos packed yet?" Her daughter was ignorant to what it looked like.

Veronica turned to look at Joyce, and Joyce looked to her for sense, yet they both shared the same befuddlement.

The detective shrugged. "Hey, whose happy little accident was she?"




A girl ran past Veronica just then, and if she'd learned anything living in Sunnydale, it was that heading in the direction people seemed to be fleeing from, was bound to lead to Buffy. Seeing that girl gave her some hope; it meant Buffy hadn't just picked a random fight. It meant the Slayer hadn't completely won. She started to run.

For months she'd stood by her, just as she said, and she was the balance Buffy had needed.  But when Joyce got sick, then got worse, Buffy began to slip away. Bit by bit, each day. Which was why when Joyce's surgery was a success, other than her daughters, no one was more grateful than Veronica.

Unfortunately, it was a big, cosmic tease. With that shell-shock, she may have lost her best friend forever. Being unable to kill the tumor which for all intents and purposes ultimately killed her mother, could make today the day they'd been trying to avoid.

Why? Because there were plenty of other things to kill in its place. Not for any heroic reason, but out of anger. Though the Slayer probably didn't care the reason the Girl was suddenly so onboard. Motivation didn't really matter. It just wanted to cut loose, and Buffy would let it.

When Veronica's boots hit crypt floor, she stopped, surveying the carnage around her. There'd been a nest here, and its inhabitants were strewn everywhere. In pieces. The walls were splattered with...she didn't want to know. She tried to shield her nose from the smell.

And in the middle of, kneeling amongst the gore, was her girlfriend. At first glance, she looked like how she did at Logan's that time, but...the blood wasn't hers. She wasn't hurt at all. Physically.

Veronica walked up cautiously, her footsteps echoing. Buffy gave no indication that she'd heard. Not until Veronica was right behind.

"It didn't help," said Buffy, low.

Then she just broke into exhausted sobs.

At that moment, Veronica felt something in her gut. Buffy, even if she beat Glory and survived, wasn't coming back from it. Her response to her gut? Like fucking hell--not if she had anything to say about it.

Also at that moment, Veronica didn't see or smell a thing. She just scrambled to hold onto her, before the person she knew got anymore lost.



Chapter 3

Title: Three


"Fuck you doing?"

At the same time a detective was walking her girlfriend home from a monster mashing, Faith had been embroiled in one herself. But as she slurred those words, she was sprawled over fallen trashcans in the alley next to Weevil's Neptune home. And he stood over her, having bailed her very intoxicated ass out for the latest time.

"Neighborhood watch," he said, hand held out, offering to help her to her feet. "Thing I had people around here thinkin' you'd be good for?"

The ‘09ers covered their neighborhood, leaving he and his to their own. No, Neptune's classes didn't even join together when facing menace by vampires. It was reassuring in a way that pissed him off.

Faith drilled him with the most withering look she could manage and scrambled to her feet noisily, evidenced by the clanging and crunching underneath her. She ignored his offer, having to hold herself up by leaning against the wall. Binging on tequila and J.D. then going out to slay...she was lucky she was alive to be this pathetic.

"I look out for me."

"That what this is? ‘Cause me, I'da called it something different," commented Weevil, shaking his head at the drunken mess in front of him.

"S'funny...opening mi casa to a easy-ridin' white girl who packs away fifths like a camel, isn't the ‘Latino-Fantasy-Come-True' you'd think," he shrugged. "Who'da guessed she was bigger help in a coma?"

Her response was to lunge at him, but he sidestepped, and she grounded again. Though not before slamming her shoulder into the opposite wall.


"Some superhero."

"Ain't a hero. Nobody goddamn listens."

"How ‘bout a person?" He asked, annoyed, then looked around at their alley location. "Hey, this remind you a'your crime scene? Wanna finally get the hell over it, place is perfect."

If she could've kicked his ass right then, she would have.

"You got no idea what--"

"Go ahead, blame the kid. Because she deserves it."

That was his successful attempt at blatant sarcasm.

"I know she doesn't, all right?" She replied to him.

But finding out that Dawn never existed was the straw that broke the camel's back. Instead of just secluding and feeling sorry for herself in Sunnydale, hearing that, she fled to go on a near constant bender.

"I'm the asshole...that whatcha wanna hear?"

He squatted down so they were face-to-face.

"She owns up."

"Tryin' to earn a merit badge between pimping IDs, Navarro?" She spat back at him rather cruelly, doing her best to just sit straight. "Den musta needed a janitor wicked bad. When'd they let ex-cons Scout?"

"Wake up every day knowin' what I am. Got your break though, better believe I woulda paid attention to how good I had it. Least enough so I didn't screw over people who thought I was worth somethin'," Weevil threw back, her digs rolling off.

He'd accepted who he was a long time ago--problem was, Faith had yet to.

"Only reason I came off the bench to play backup? Buffy was outta town. But she's back with the Superfriends, and I'm a stringer who shouldn'ta made the cut," she believed.

"Not when ya get that body all kinds of fisted, goin' one-on-one with a Terminator," he agreed, though he had a different reason. "But once you're on the roster, only one way you're scratched off."

He paused while she held her head and groaned.

"Want proof? There. Don't give a damn if it's in your blood, girl...even clover-eaters can't sober this fast." Beat. "Well, bet Buffy could, ‘cept she won't hit the hard stuff."

"Thought you two were tight." She looked at him like he was crazy, and had just lost all his credibility. "She lives for the hard stuff."

"Was talkin' booze," he elaborated.

Maybe she hadn't quite sobered.

"But okay, I'll do metaphor." He'd gone to English once or twice. "Might have the experience, but the hard stuff still kicks her ass. She can be just as thick as you, Boston.

"Difference is, she loses? Learns from it. She didn't go after that thing by herself. And she ain't scared to pick herself back up after a knockdown, either. That's your problem--you're afraid."

"What're you, a Mexican Yoda now?" Faith verbally attacked. "Blow me."

A fire began to light in her eyes, but she made no move to deny his claim.

He was getting nowhere. Backed into a corner, his options had whittled. He'd had just about enough of her self-esteem issues, anyway.

"Nah. Seconds turn stale, I ain't interested," he replied, standing, and standing over her. "Casa's closed. Leaves two down the PCH, or...Hector? Couple blocks over? Famous for bragging how hard his stuff is. Low standards, too.

"My choice? Rather take a chance in Hell than destroy the legend."

"Longer stretch in Chino, that wouldn'ta come so easy," she smirked.

He didn't.

"They put Joyce under. Last I heard, it's only a matter of time ‘fore the big, puta de dios makes her move. Be a shame if the kid wasted her six months carryin' that pedestal around...‘cause she won't see fifteen."

He turned away, and left her there to pass out. Guilt was a low blow, but it was all he had left to use.

She asked his back, "Hell am I supposed t'do? Her big sis gets what? B's still the hero."

Here was the second thing Faith was owning up to, this time to herself. She'd never be as good as Buffy. She'd pretended a while, because she had Dawn there to treat her like she was, but she wasn't. Even if they were evenly matched as slayers (and she doubted that), as people, Buffy still edged her out. Buffy's hands were clean.

That's all the brunette slayer wanted--the blood off. But it remained.

"That's not me."

He hadn't stopped walking as he called, "Then who the fuck are you, huh?"




An hour later, on the back porch steps of the Summers' house, Giles sat nursing a glass of scotch. He wasn't a believer in any kind of traditional, rewarding afterlife, or traditional God for that matter, but with his stare directed to the night sky, he wanted that for Joyce. Because he did believe the universe owed her an apology.

"They went to bed," said Keith as he reappeared, sat down on the steps as well, and accepted the glass Giles returned to him.

This eased the Watcher's mind, because when the girls first arrived, Buffy's eyes seemed so empty.

"Hopefully Veronica will get her to rest."

He remembered his introduction to the other man's daughter, a couple days before Homecoming. She'd just showed up in the library, much to Buffy's delight. Her first words?

{"Is it true? Does Carrie actually go here? Because that'd be awesome. She's the last autograph I need to finally complete the can."}

Leading Buffy to reply that she needed to stop stealing plot points from Tom Hanks' movies. Then they kissed, and he cleaned his glasses.

Quite the pair, those two. At least in public, they hid the deepness of their partnership behind humor and whatnot, but as soon as Veronica took over the responsibility of patching Buffy after patrols, like tonight, Giles knew all he needed to know. Veronica gave off the illusion of not taking much seriously, until she wanted you to see just how serious she could be--an intentional tactic, to be sure.

But more than anything else, she got Buffy to smile. Even in the direst of circumstances. He'd be forever thankful for that skill.

"If you don't mind my saying, you've raised a remarkable young woman."

Keith had an appreciative smile. "Sometimes I think she's the only thing I've done right. But she still worries the hell outta me."

Then he swallowed half his drink in one gulp, grimacing as it made its way down his throat.

Giles nodded, knowing the feeling. "Even as proficient as Buffy's become, I'll continue to worry." To which he added, "In my, ah, role as her Watcher, of course."

The detective didn't need to be one to see past that. "You've been the father Hank should've been to her, Rupert. And that's Joyce talking."

The Englishman cleared his throat, and responded to the compliment in his reserved manner. "Well, she was...being very kind."

Emotion snuck in there anyway.

Each man succumbed to his thoughts for a couple minutes, and Keith? Couldn't help feeling like a thief.

"Already feels wrong...being here. Calling it home. This isn't mine."

A sigh shuddered out of him. "You know, if I'd won the election, Joyce and I were going to buy a bigger place in Neptune. Should've counted on it getting complicated."

Regret layered into his voice, and his next swallow was more conservative.

"So when Joyce offered, I thought of Veronica first. I wasn't putting her through all that again."

That was a decision he didn't regret, even if they'd moved to a Hellmouth. Yet however irrational, he wanted to ask Joyce's forgiveness and thank her at the same time.

"But now she's gone, and I don't know if I can protect her family."

"You don't believe she felt the same?" Giles asked, rhetorically. "We do the best we can, Keith--you understand that better than I. And, at the very least, it's within our power to see that Dawn is guided and supported. Though you're not obligated in any way to--"

"No, agreed," interrupted Keith, firmly onboard. "More than anything, she didn't want Buffy dropping out over Dawn. She was afraid Buffy would never go back."

He'd promised their mother before the surgery, though Joyce had been reluctant to ask it of him. But he would have helped raise Dawn whether she did or not. With someone adult in the house, the slayer would have no reason to quit college.

"I survived one teenager...I'll probably survive another," he prayed.

They finished their drinks in silence then, and with a strong, sympathetic hand on Keith's shoulder, Giles bade him good night. After a minute, Keith went inside to pour himself another. Except it sat on the counter, un-drunk, because in private, his tears streaked silently.

Every time he had someone...

As the phone jarringly rang, he quickly dried his face, like the person on the end might somehow be watching.

"Hi," came an unexpected voice. "Number was in the book."

Answering a call from his ex-wife was the last thing he'd expected; he couldn't talk.

So she did. "Adriana called me; if I'd known sooner...I promise, I would've been there, Keith. Tell the girls I'm sorry, and that I really do mean it. Please."

She sighed at his continued quiet. "Hope she made you happy."

"I can't do this. Not now, Lianne," he finally said.

Hearing him speak, she picked up on a quality she knew intimately.

"Are you drinking?" When he didn't answer, her next, surprisingly soft, sympathetic question was, "Helps, doesn't it?"




Morning. Veronica sat at the kitchen's island with her laptop when there was a knock at the back door. Then a double tap. Then three and a half more knocks, before it softly opened.

She smiled at the screen, not even turning. "Good to know some things are still held sacred. Has your timing improved?"

Wallace shut the door behind him and took the empty chair next to her, placing down the breakfast sandwiches he bore.

"She up yet? ‘Cause I brought--"

Veronica clamped her hand over his mouth instantly. "You might wanna check your membrane...before it goes completely, irrevocably insane. Like it will if you dare to ask that again--guaranteed with a stamp."

When his word hole was freed, he said quieter, taking that warning as a no, "Yeah, Xander heard the night went bad."

"Understated noun choice...Willow's?"

Veronica didn't need corroboration on her hunch. The redhead had stayed behind at the house until she and Buffy had returned last night.

"What keeps her glass half-full, I'll never know. Almost ready to claim it's the Judaism; well's *that* tapped," she continued.

"So it was worse than bad," Wallace said simply.

She wanted to find something large and devastating to compare it to, but couldn't even manage gallows humor. Not with this.

"Ever since last night became last night? Been forgetting about it." She still remained focused on her screen. "Where is everyone?"

"Xander had to get back to that job he was doin' five. How's the guy do it? Especially after I embarrassed him in front'a his demon like that?"

Oh yes, he was the Scrabble victor.

"But uh, she's working too," he further answered. "And Willow, Mac and Tara are takin' Dawn out for the day."

Good, that was good. It would make this easier.

"Where's your dad?" He asked.

"At the office, handling grief in the traditional, Mars way--by drowning himself in cases." And truth be told, she wondered if that would be enough this time. "Say, before you peel away on that long and winding road to nowhere, separating us alllll those miles..."

She finally turned her head toward him, flashing her most innocent, "please?" smile.

"...wanna do me a favor?"

As always, Wallace felt a chill go up his spine, but... "Never thought I'd miss hearin' you ask that question. Who's the...?"

She turned her laptop around so he could see the pictures she'd been pouring over, horrifying him instantly.

"Gah!" Wallace wasn't sure he wanted to know, yet he questioned, "What'd I need to see that for? And why're you snappin' shots of it?"

It was a dude. In some kind of locker room. Wearing a dress.

"Well I guess *you* haven't been experimenting in college," Veronica commented faux-judgmentally, beginning to cycle through her work. "That's Ben. That's Sunnydale General, where he supposedly has residency. That's his '98 model Taurus."

She came to a photo of a swanky, upscale nouveau riche mansion.

"And that's where he unwinds in his off hours. Fishy? Methinks so. Because what our young, Dr. Frankenfurter/McDreamy *doesn't* have?"

"Money. No trust fund, no rich uncles," her friend guessed.

She felt like a proud parent. "Excellent, Black Stallion. I see I've trained you well."

"Probably spend the rest of my life tryin' to figure out if that's a good thing," Wallace felt the need to say in reply, "but all me interested. Guy a case?"

"Soon as I laid eyes on'm. Officially, my machete-keen, investigative sense hacked clean through his charming veil of lies," she explained, puffing herself falsely up. "Unofficially, the bastard's eyes laid on Buffy every time we were at that hospital, and thought they'd get away with it. So, went troweling for dirt, started a mudslide."

Her friend grinned, as she had a habit of doing that.

"Just another day for Veronica Mars." His grin smirked, and then began to smile. "You love her."

She stared at him as if he was very, very, *very* slow.

"I take it training's failed. Hard," she said.

His smile just stayed in place. Made her uncomfortable. She felt exposed. When she could feel herself blushing, he laughed.

"Jerk," she name-called. "Don't do that."

"Do what?" He played the innocent.

Her fist showed itself, voice deadly serious. "I'm warning you, Fennel, I hit like a girl."

"Fine," he acquiesced, stretching his arms. "This ‘Wallace'? All business."

"Ooh, that's my second-favorite ‘Wallace,'' she beamed, pinching his cheek. "And if I know him like I think I do, he's wondering where the mudslide is."

He rubbed his cheek. "Before that he was."

She just clicked on another picture and blew it up full screen.

His eyes bugged. "Aw damn. What the hell?"

It was a photo taken at night, outside the same mansion. Through what looked to be a penthouse window, you could clearly make out Glory. Then another showed her minions scurrying like rats to the front door. They were all time-stamped, so Wallace could see that the photo of Ben leaving was taken the next morning. He was no hostage.

"To find out, I'm going planting," the detective outlined, short and to the point. "But it sure would be nice to have somebody watching the perimeter."

Not to mention someone at the ready with her girlfriend on speed dial should things go wrong.

"Please be kiddin'." He kept saying that hoping one of these times she would be. "You *do* know what she is, right? She catches you..."

"She's gonna drive me crazy?" Veronica realized that.

Life in a straight jacket had an odd appeal. Not enough of one, but it did.

She hated this plan. Yet after last night, she had to give their team some kind of edge. Give Buffy an edge.

Eyes and ears would do the trick. Maybe she'd get lucky, Ben would beat his roomie home, and spill until he couldn't spill no more. Or maybe she'd get super lucky, and not die.

"Boy, aren't I glad I'm bringing a failsafe along."

Her arm went around his shoulders, and she batted her eyelashes. As she waited for his answer, those breakfast sandwiches just got colder.



Chapter 4

Title: Four


Backup's tongue lathering her face is what Buffy woke to. Distracted by dog slobber, it meant that she didn't immediately think about how her mother was buried yesterday. That her mother wasn't here, at the gallery, or stopping by Keith's office to bring him breakfast. Joyce wasn't even in the ground. Not really. She was nowhere.

But it was hard to be depressed when drowning. To placate the canine, Buffy sat up and scratched his neck.

"She put you up to this, didn't she?"

He had been standing, using the bed as support, but when the question was asked, he slid his paws back down to the floor and retreated. Something was on the blanket. It was a photo.

The slayer picked it up. It was a photo...of the stairs? Written on back:

^Descend these^

Despite not wanting to, she had to crack a smile. From what little she could remember of last night, Veronica took care of her. The absence of demon-entrails on her body meant that that must've included bathing, showering, or some other form of cleansing ritual. And obviously re-dressing. How was she supposed to slay a god and do her part to hold the house together, when she couldn't upkeep personal hygiene...personally?

She wasn't ready to grow up, and she was going to let her mom down. Her sister. Giles.

Buffy forced herself to leave bed, and then in the hallway, she stopped at her mother's bedroom. It smelled like her still, even from here. But it was an illusion, and she wouldn't be tricked into believing otherwise. She turned away just as the crying would've begun.

Another smell drew her downstairs. Food. She didn't realize how hungry she was. In the kitchen, on the island, were four things. Two, lidded plates, a tall glass of juice from an orange, and far right, her own cell phone. The lidded plate on the left had a Post-It stuck to it.

^Eat me^

She shook her head at Veronica's mind. It was half-dirty, half-filled with too much of Disney's interpretation of Lewis Carroll. Assuming things were arranged this way on purpose, she ravenously ate the prepared, eggs, bacon and toast breakfast that waited underneath, thanking the universe for at least sparing her best friend. At least there was still some kind of sense in her life.

It'd been just starting to get better. After Adam, after that unsettling meeting with the First Slayer, she'd committed herself to training to prove the ancient spirit wrong. That she *was* human, she *had* a name, a life.

The Slayer was, and would be, under her control. Not the reverse. She took strength from Veronica, strength from her mother. Two people who knew and loved her only as "Buffy," before destiny ever entered the picture. With Joyce gone, Veronica was pulling double duty. Wasn't fair.

And what her hands did last night, that wasn't "Buffy." Because of the giant leap backwards, she was teetering over a proverbial edge. She didn't know if whatever was next would determine the winner, but it was looking that way. That's why she didn't want to leave the house. Some might call that delaying an inevitable.

Following a generous gulp of OJ, she moved onto lidded plate number two. Beneath, a pack of Morleys, with Post-It attached.

^Smoke me^

All right, that got a chuckle.  Last stop was the cell.

^Play me^

Dutifully and curiously, she checked her voicemail. Then listened:

"Mornin', you," greeted Veronica's voice softly. "Hope you liked breakfast, ‘cause it'll be a cold day in Mount Doom before that happens again. Oh, Wallace wants me to tell you how he spared no expense on conveniently-sized, bagel'd versions. They got eaten."

His voice could be heard in the background, to which she replied, "You say that now, but for the extra energy? ‘Silent but deadly' is an easily acceptable price. Kindly aim downwind, please."

‘Why? Energy for what?' Buffy thought, the beginnings of dread stirring. ‘Where are you? Is it Dawn?'

"Stay mellow, hip-chick. Dawn's having a girl's day out, and I'm...doing what I do."

‘Means trouble.'

"Fly on the wall. Not like I haven't run this a million times. Half-an-hour, tops." Veronica had almost anticipated Buffy's thoughts, but Buffy could hear the uncertainty.

Setting a camera was normally in-and-out.

"You know the drill, and what's golden. But, Wallace is ‘eyes'n'ears.' Should something feel hinky..."

Code for, "Be at the ready, but not yet."

"Meantime, if you're up to it, Backup's been *real* needy lately."

Backup padded into the kitchen, leash in mouth, and sat.

"What'd you do, rehearse?" Buffy asked him.

Veronica had paused. "Make them, and things get better...they will, Buffy. Believe it. Joyce did--Lianne Mars stopped trying." Beat. "Even wherever your mom is, it's paying off. Has to, or else I wouldn't have this steel nerve. So wish me luck."

‘Luck wished.'

"Hang in. You can."

The message ended.

Buffy would wait. She didn't like it, hated it, went against every bone in her body, but because her girlfriend asked, she would wait. Buffy would, not the Slayer. Her plan to develop agoraphobia was shot to hell.

Maybe walking Backup, she'd become as inspired by the memory of her mother as Veronica was. Then through that inspiration, find the courage to grin-and-bear. Or maybe she'd only want her mother alive more, so there'd be new memories to have and remember.

Yeah, that sounded about right.




"You really wanna do this?" Wallace asked a final time, sitting in the trusty LeBaron as the Saturn felt inappropriate.

"'Wanna' is such a strong bastardization of the English language. I'm choosing a reserved ‘hafta,'" Veronica told him, truthfully.

"How you gonna go at that?"

They were both staring out the windshield at the mansion.

"Using one of two plays, I reckon--bag?" She requested, and he reached into the back to grab it off the seat and hand it over.

"'Doctor Evil's' car is in the driveway; he knows who I am. He answers the door, I drop Buffy's name, maybe work a few, coquettish wiles, get myself invited in, then improvise till an opportunity presents itself.

"If a toady answers," she produced boxes of Girl Scout cookies from her bag, "I'm selling these for my shut-in, homeschooled younger sister, Eunice. Our mother runs the Den in-house," she said with faux-graveness. "It's tragic. Not even bootlicks from out-of-dimension can resist."

Wallace appeared excitedly hopeful. "Tell me you did."

She grinned. "Dig a little, somebody might just find his name on a box of Do-Si-Dos."

He didn't need to be told twice. So easy to please.

"It's too bad you asked for a trade, ‘cause the way to a dude's heart? Found it." He patted his stomach.

"That's the way?" Veronica asked in startled disbelief. "Interesting. I thought it started someplace else."

The mic was already strategically placed behind her shirt, which she adjusted to make sure you couldn't see any outline.


"Wouldn't suspect a thing," Wallace gave his opinion.


He touched his lobe, right around where the earpiece was nestled. "Like you're sittin' right next to me."

"Oh Wallace, what a card you are," she said in an amused fashion that served only to temper sarcasm. "We've been friends too long. Or not long enough, because I've heard wittier, smart ass comments from, well, me."

"S'why it'd be nice if you stuck around a while. You know, until they meet those high standards," he responded, trying to express concern without expressing it. "But plan on me takin' my time; hafta get it just right."

"Practice, practice, practice," she said with a smile.

Then she tried to reassure her friend through emotive, very chatty eye contact. Her specialty. But he deserved more, so she gave it to him.

"All right...let's hug it out, bitch."

He chuckled, but they did indeed. "Be right here when you get done. Watch your back."

"Always do. Can't not." The detective opened her car door, and strapped the bag over her shoulder. "Too much practice."

She stepped out.

"Hold up, what's the code?" Wallace couldn't believe they'd forgotten. "If things...?"

"Probably a word, or word combo, off George Carlin's list. Wouldn't you rather be surprised?"

Her head turned towards him. "Keep that ear sharp."




Occasionally, low tech investigating proved useful. Doorbell rung, Veronica crouched and hurried to a curtained window to see what she could see. They were partly see-through, and she could make out scrambling minions and what looked like Ben coming down a staircase, yelling at them. Getting them to stay out of sight, no doubt.

She scrambled herself. Back to the doors before he opened them. When he did, he was shirtless, but trying to not to be.

‘Four and a half-pack abs? There's the clincher--he's definitely an evildoer.'

"Hi, Ben! Kathy at the nurses' station told me where you lived...hope that's cool."

He didn't want her there; she could tell, even as hard as he tried not to give himself away.

"Hey. It's uh, ‘Veronica,' right? How's...Buffy holding up? With her mom and everything."

"I'm here and she isn't--take a stab," Veronica answered, pushing past him and inviting herself in.

If this was going to work, "pushy" would have to be her tactic.

"*Whoa*. I can't believe you can like, afford to live here. Sorry, I just *had* to see for myself. This is amazing."

"It's not mine; it's my sister's place," he said.


"No way." She whistled an impressed whistle, taking in the space while heading towards the stairs. "She must be beaucoup important somewhere."

He followed, attempting to get ahead of her. "She likes to think she is."

‘Ah, sibling rivalry extends across dimensions. Has to be the only family where doctor doesn't impress. Does brother resent sister? Hate how she makes her living? Or is he biding his time in order to commit sororicide and ascend to power? Dunno, but I smell sitcom.'

"Did you want something?" The boy was nervous.

"Just to thank you. On Buffy's behalf. For taking extra care of Joyce, watching out for Dawn that night...she really appreciates it."

She stopped at the stairs, and reached into her bag.

"As a small token of that appreciation, emphasis on small..." Out the token came, held up for him to see. "‘Buddy Christ.'" Beat. "It's not that we're cheap. It's just, the funeral and medical bills left pretty hefty dents. Besides, you struck us as a Silent Bob fan."

The "Buddy Christ" figurine depicted a grinning, winking, finger-gun-toting Jesus for a new generation. It was from the movie "Dogma." But thinking about it residing in Glory's home created a brand-new level of funny.

"Tell her I said ‘thanks,'" Ben replied. "But I have to get ready for my shift. You should really--"

She took off upstairs. "Hey, you know, I bet I could find the *perfect* spot for him in your room. I'm minoring in feng shui; my professor says I'm a natural. Which one's yours?"

Speed-walking down a hall she went, reached an elevator, and turned down another hall. Then ahead, she heard a door click shut. She followed the sound around a less distant corner--‘Freaking mansions...I hate the rich'--and there were two doors on opposite sides of this new hall. One closest to her on the right, one a couple feet down on the left.

Deducing that the closest door belonged to Glory (not really, she just blindly guessed due to time constraints), she turned the knob and entered the room. Aside from the odd, Asian-inspired painting on a section of wall, and how spacious, it was disappointingly normal. At least she deduced right, though. The other door must have been minions' quarters.

She surveyed a little more. There was a plush, red couch and chairs, a glass table, some lamps, bedroom on the far end, an unused fireplace with a mirror above...above it's mantle.


"Buddy Christ" found himself on that mantle with an excellent view beside a thin vase, as Ben came into the room.

"Who's your decorator?" She asked him.

"You hafta go. This is my sister's room. She doesn't like it when people are in here." He grabbed her forearm, panicked even more than downstairs. "I told Dawn."

‘Watch the mitts, pal.'

Her hand went to Taser. "Told Dawn what?"

"How she always" He let her go, backing away. "No, no, no, no..."

"" Glory picked up where Ben left off, standing where he'd been.

She seemed to be getting her bearings. "Don't I know you?"

Veronica now had the panicked look. ‘What the...?'

Hell god, and her with a Taser. There was only one thing to say.




She kissed her pops with that mouth?

"Help's comin', V. Even if I gotta come in there myself," promised Wallace, even though he knew she couldn't hear him.

He dialed Buffy's cell again. It just rang.

"*Pick up*, Buffy. What're you doin'? There's no time."

"Figured that might be an issue," Buffy said in person, jogging over with Backup from the park.

To him, it was wrong that someone so evil lived a property line away from a place so not evil.

"Kinda why we've been following your signal," she went on, pocketing the tracer.

Then she choked up on the staff she'd been using as a walking stick to avoid stares, and joined him by the car. His eyebrows were up. She became defensive.

"What? Veronica wanted me to wait for a call, I waited. But she didn't say head starts were a no."

"You know how...?" He trailed off.

"Number two rule for relationship maintaining: get interested in your partner's hobbies. Or at least get great at pretending to be," Buffy enlightened him, taking in the mansion. "‘Pretending' was never a thing I did much."

"What's number one?" He asked, and then with a grin, worked it out on his own. "Never mind, think I know."

"Who lives there?" Easy as that, she was all business.

"Uh, that's Glory's...hideout," Wallace answered.

It wasn't doing a great job living up to the "hide."

"Veronica was talking with that guy, Ben, then all the sudden--could hear her inside. Swear I didn't see her go in anywhere, though."

Of course it was the hell god's hideout, and of course Veronica wouldn't want her to know until it was absolutely necessary. Because Buffy would've hogtied and caged her in one of those puppy carriers for airplanes, to prevent such an impulsive, life-ending idea from being carried out. And she was too busy thinking how she was either going to yell at or kiss the face off such a crazy person, to wonder what the hell Ben had to do with any of this.

Veronica wouldn't die. Through sheer force of will, Veronica would keep alive, and then just through sheer force, Buffy would guarantee she stay that way. Her mind was clear. Unmotivated and lethargic? Least for now she wasn't. "The Girl" was here, and "The Slayer" would be nothing more than a tool used to mount a rescue. Veronica couldn't die. Mother and then very significant, necessary other within a two-week period?

No. Just no. She refused to contemplate that scenario.

"Get the car running, okay?"

He didn't want to rev and wait. "She's my best friend. I'm going with you."

"I know, Wallace. Feeling's sorta of the familiar," the blonde smiled at him. "And you're hers--would she want you going?"

A subtle twitch in facial expression gave her the resigned answer. "Uh huh. Exactly. If I cave and let you, know what that means? I'm never getting ‘Rule One' again; I *really* like that rule."

She unleashed Backup.

"Better bring her out, then," Wallace told her.

Arguing would've wasted time.

"That's ‘Option Only.'" Fire burned behind Buffy's words.

It was a fire he recognized, because Veronica had it, too. You didn't want to mess with fire. Certainly not one that sparked so quickly--wasn't even anything smoldering last night.

He shook his head. "Hard being a sidekick to a couple of wonder women, sometimes."

"If that was a ‘height' joke, I'm telling," she swore.

Because weren't Amazons vertically blessed?

Buffy whistled and Backup ran with her towards the mansion. "You and Xander should compare notes!"

"Oh, we do!" Wallace called after her. "Count on that."

They did. Over Tuesday meets on XBOX Live. Along with Piz, who went back East, they got their testosterone pumping in Gears of War. Surrounded constantly as they were by girl power, they took "man" time wherever they could get it.

Didn't even matter that he and Veronica lived in separate towns these days. She was always calling him, emailing him...once you were part of her life, there was no getting out unless she threw you out. What hurt Wallace's very male pride most, was her having a girlfriend like Buffy, while he, a college basketball phenom, was single. That was just wrong.




‘That worked?' Veronica thought, staring at her Taser in awe. ‘*How* did that work? Or, wait--who cares? I just discovered Kryptonite for gods from that place spelled with hockey sticks. So here's the deal, Gift Horse--you did me a solid, I won't look you in the mouth.'

It was logical to question the logic, though. Because not only did she incapacitate Glory, she apparently made her vanish, too. She'd shocked a god, but now, gazing down, Ben was the one out cold on the floor...who had previously vanished before Glory arrived. What the hell was going on here?

Later. Thank god for expensive, pinhole cameras that her father could never know she borrowed.

"No lesser being has ever dared harm the mighty Glorificus!" A voice shouted angrily from behind.

"It's been said I'm not your average, lesser being," she spoke, then slowly, carefully turned to face the voice.

‘One, two, three, four, five...five toadies with leprosy. Mwa-ah-ah.'

"I heard about these clinics, in Hawaii? For..." Her fingers wiggled in front of her face. "Should Google it. You'll be glad you did."

She made a fist. "Go after that cure. I'll let myself out."

They decided to advance on her, she decided to backpedal. She'd hit wall soon enough.

‘Nice hole you've dug yourself, Veronica. What now? Dig up?'

With her future looking less bright every second, the snarl was music to her ears. Her would-be attackers' attentions shifted off her and onto Backup moments prior to her dog leaping and knocking the middle one over. Backup's mouth firmly attached to jugular, and was ready to bite down if commanded to. How quickly they cowered.

It *was* their natural state.

She loved her dog. "I almost feel like Timmy when he fell down the well."

Loved her special, lady friend too, to use her father's terminology. Buffy was in the room.

"Slayer!" Another minion declared in fear, for which he was immediately juiced.

"Anybody else wanna get the name wrong?" Sensing the tide had turned, she felt safe to threaten, and made sure they saw the pretty sparks.

Then she leisurely walked to her perspiring girlfriend's side.

"Hurt?" Buffy asked, seeing her but still giving the "Bring It On" stare to the demons.

"Nah," Veronica shook her head with a smile, as if it were nothing, "just trying to see past the blinding glint coming off your armor."

Buffy's lips quirked, cracking the "badass" façade. "Tell me we're going."

Veronica eyed "J.C." on the mantle. "Yeah. We are." She looked at her dog, who looked like he could've stayed there forever. "Backup, chill."

Then the three were on their way.

"The reason...scale how good." Buffy wasted no time being direct about it.

Neither did the person to whom it was directed. "A ‘Spinal Tap' eleven."

"Kay then."

Veronica detected something in Buffy's hand as they walked quickly towards downstairs. Pieces of something. "Your favorite's in half."

And were those groans below? Groans of agony?

"You'll see," promised her rescuer grinningly, before she remembered what she didn't see in that room. "Um, where's Glory?"




"We must rouse him! Quickly! Quickly!" Murk urged his fellow doormats as two others hurriedly brought a bowl of water into the room. "Her Most Shiny Splendid-ness will be quite displeased with us."

That realization caused them all to consider for a moment. Whenever Glory was displeased, one or more of them ended up being dead or worse.

Gronx was holding a side of the bowl. "Perhaps we should...let her rest."

"She *is* terribly overworked. The stress cannot be good for her wonderfully flawless and well-moisturized skin," Jinx agreed readily, holding the other. "And with the alignment so close at hand--"

"No," Murk had given it serious thought right then, "no, we must."

They sighed as a group, and splash went the water down onto Ben's unconscious face. Instantly, he sputtered to life, coughing on the liquid. And before you could say, "False Idol," Glory submerged him and came to the surface. Her hair got wet. They tried to lift the bowl up in time, but--

--her fist was all the way through Jinx's chest before the bowl smashed to the floor. Her arm viscously retracted with a "schluoosh." Then the body fell like a ragdoll.

"Okay," she addressed them, and it was clear Veronica's stunt had gotten on her last, sane nerve, "best guess. And make it snappy."



Chapter 5

Title: Five


"They promised not to come home till Dawn crashes. Takes at least an hour," said Buffy from the bed, after hanging up with Willow that evening. "What're you looking for?"

The room was dark besides the glow of the television and Veronica's laptop, which Veronica sat in front of. You couldn't tear her away from the live, wireless feed the hidden camera had been supplying since they'd returned from Glory's. Other than wishing Wallace happy trails back to Neptune and barely stopping to eat, Veronica was rooted there.

"I'll know it when I...zoinks," Veronica breathed out, becoming distracted.

She switched off the feed, and rewound.

"And ‘Smurf' me."

Seeing the video, it all made sense. It stuck. So *that's* what happened to Ben. The freakiest thing? This kind of stuff wasn't as freaky to her anymore.

"You cross-decaded cartoon references--‘five sentence' rule. We had a pact," Buffy frowned while watching the TV, semi-distracted herself.

"No Jerry for you," declared Veronica in her best, subdued, "Soup Nazi" accent, once she made the decision to start obsessing tomorrow and close her laptop.

"Did you find?" The slayer asked when her girlfriend settled under the covers. "Was it worth the almost getting killed?"

The detective stole the remote, turned off the millionth, syndicated, "Seinfeld" episode showing that day, and lied.

"Work in progress. But I could make a pretty haypenny going on the Internet and telling Glory to fug herself." That part was true.

"You know what's quirky?" She was being rhetorical. "An Eighties action hero, and a mass murdering, teenage, Wile E. almost did me in..."

"That's quirky?" Buffy asked dubiously, not considering Aaron Echolls' and Cassidy Casabalancas' attempts to murder her bed buddy as such, and arranged herself so that she could be accused of snuggling.

Sleeping'd she ever do that? She couldn't picture going back. Not these days.

"...but a god from a hell dimension? Up and amscrays," Veronica was careful to not give away what she'd just learned, "over a half-sec spike in voltage. Tazers--is there anything they can't do?"

"It's bad math." But Buffy couldn't think about that.

All she'd thought about was Glory, and her mother, and she just couldn't pile on a new wrinkle. Coming to Veronica's aid today gave her mind a break, and she wasn't ready to punch back in.

"Hidden Temple," she said when her digital channel surfing had landed on Nickelodeon GAS.

Veronica recognized the physical and educational game show from their pre-preteen years, with the giant, talking, Aztec, stone head. "I'd let Olmec spin me a legend any day. Woof."

Team "Blue Barracudas" was trying to beat the clock and navigate the temple obstacle course. The kid got nabbed by a temple guard in the throne room. That was his partner's cue to take off after Napoleon's Hat.

"There's always a guard in the throne room--and isn't a barracuda fish-like? Shouldn't they be someplace more watery?" It never made sense to Buffy. Even at the age of seven.

"It's also a song by Heart, and the Seventies, muscle car favored by Liam Fitzpatrick," supplied her girlfriend, with the quickest of scowls. "But unless ‘Finding Nemo' has me grossly misinformed, their gilled namesake is a home-wrecking, egg-eating jackass."

"I hate them." Buffy's eyes narrowed. "I'm okay with them liking land, now. Land's where flopping happens."

"A pox on all their dorsals," Veronica agreed. "Bet you a sawbuck those kids are in rehab right now. For an addiction to ‘Little Yellows' and bathtub gin."

"Or they're just *really* lazy." Buffy was exhausted simply watching them, and she had enhanced stamina. "Did you ever think how it was weird that they wanted us to stay home to watch kids-not-us exercise?"

"Am now," Veronica told her, contemplating. "Long as we're on the subject of Nickelodeon, or Nick, for we who know ‘cool'...Alex Mack and the power to puddle? One suck with a wet-dry vac; all I'm sayin'."

"Worse, what if...during her first time?"

"She'd save a bundle on Astroglide."

They started giggling madly, Veronica into the room, while Buffy's were muffled by her neck.

"Our thoughts might could run too deep about this," said the detective as soon as she had herself under control.

"I like that mine can, still. Even if temporary," the slayer's mouth spoke into Veronica's ear. "That was the plan, wasn't it?"

"It became a goal of the plan," Veronica fessed, feeling that mouth fluttering around neck a second later. "Originally, you weren't gonna get forewarning. It was just gonna be Wallace. Didn't want you on-scene too soon. But then I saw the possibilities--you're outta the house, doing some combat exercises, we spend a little, Super Happy Fun Time...and mayhaps I'd see you for a while.

"So I went and spilled them beans everywhere, foiling ‘Impulsive Veronica.' Not to mention gave up my dream of ever owning a cow named ‘Charlie Udder.'" Her breathing was no longer calm and even. "I more often."

They trusted each other. Veronica trusted Buffy to hear the message but still give her time. Buffy trusted in Veronica's ability to handle herself, but then swallow pride after a point and get word to Wallace. It went against every instinct, except, wasn't that the point? It was encouraging, that regardless of doom and gloom, their relationship was this healthy.

Buffy rolled and raised herself over Veronica. "I'll be all broody again tomorrow, you know that right?" She didn't want to spoil the mood, but she didn't want Veronica to be surprised in the morning. "I feel so old."

"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage," Veronica smiled understandingly. "I'm no hypocrite--you're entitled. Brooding has to peter out naturally; I won't take it personal."

She tapped the higher girl's nose. "Be here when you need a break. Can't let ya drown again."

Buffy supported herself on one hand so she could brush some hair away from her girlfriend's face, and then leaned down to give a kiss. "Next break, can we skip to Super Happy Fun Time?"

"I could be swayed," grinned Veronica agreeably, then snapped her fingers. "ASAP. Double Dare's coming on."

"It is?" Buffy's attention was immediately divided.

Veronica pulled on the shirt above her. "I was kidding."


Here was hoping the stakeout ahead, however long, continued to produce results so nights like these didn't stay temporary.




"Probably shouldn't tempt fate. The MPEG on my phone would be too low res for Tom Bergeron, anyway," Mac said when they all exited the mall, and Dawn was near passed out--a step away from falling--leaning against Tara. "I'll pull my car up."

The hacker cleared her throat, and pulled an unsuspecting Willow along with her.

"I'll, uh, come with. Totally want to. ‘Cause I'm a free willin' Willow." The redhead held tight to the bag she carried and off they went to brave the parking lot.

Tara was the only one who didn't have a bag filled with things for Dawn. She'd gone through a mother's death, having lost hers at seventeen. She knew that all the clothes and food and milkshakes in the world couldn't fill that hole. Any other time Dawn would've loved it, just not now. The girl needed people around who loved her, nothing more.

But Mac and Willow were trying their best, considering they didn't know what to do, which the teenager appreciated back when she was more awake. Tara saw that.

"You should," Dawn yawned, eyes closed, "take her to the Renaissance Fair. It's in a couple weeks."

The witch went for ignorance. "Take who, Dawnie?"

"Willow. You guys'd be so cute together." The strength of Dawn's belief was lost in tired delivery. "A lot more than Buffy and Veronica. Mom even said."

Tara didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Joyce was always kind to her; it was like having a mother again. Then losing her all over. She did a little of both, while inside, letting her heart break.

"Seeing you two hap..." Dawn said during another yawn. " made her happy. And me."

‘And me,' thought the blonde, brushing through brunette hair with her fingers.




"I thought we, you know. Already decided."

As they loaded bags into the trunk following their journey deep into the lot, Willow did a bad impression of someone trying to be secretive.

" know."

"Huh?" Mac closed the trunk, and got what she was driving at. "We did. As soon as somebody stops them from remaking ‘Apocalypse Now' in Sunnydale, we throw the kill-switch."

At her door, she dropped her forehead against it. "Crap. I just joked about how the world's gonna end."

Willow grinned and nodded at her from across the car. "You're officially a Scooby!"

"Thanks?" The brunette took the edge off with a wry smile.

Parker hadn't thought highly of the honor. Though maybe being Logan's personal Scooby wasn't the same thing. They were dating, then he started going suicidal, trying to take out vampires. So far, his attempts at suicide weren't getting the job done, but Parker couldn't handle it. Couldn't handle him. She escaped Neptune for her parents bubble in Denver.

And speaking of fleeing friends, after Piz got that Pitchfork Media internship in New York, he was so wooed that he transferred to a school in the Big Apple. He'd departed before the vampire situation back home got too intense, but something told Mac he couldn't have handled it any better than Parker did.

What did it say about Mac that she could? That she was weird. Wasn't news.

"Then why?" The redhead opened her door and got in.

Mac did the same. "Oh, uh, nothing. Just, ask her out or everybody's kicking your ass."

She smiled encouragingly as the seatbelt slipped out of Willow's grasp and snapped back into place.

"I can't. Timing's important, big important, and now is all...askew. It is. ‘Cause, Joyce. And Glory." The redhead just admitted she wanted to--oops. "I mean, uh...ask who out?"

Mac rolled her eyes, starting up the engine, while she tried the seatbelt again.

"Grumble...when apocalypse now is a then apocalypse, kay?" Willow tried to compromise.

"Willow, we could literally all be ‘Planet X'd.' I thought I was still too young to say this, but, life's too short," responded Mac, to which Willow opened her mouth, intending to use "The Project's" long-delayed timetable as a retort.

"The Project" was what they had been talking about earlier, the thing Willow thought they'd decided on. And yes, it was the same project that none of their friends still knew anything about, and doubted would ever come to fruition. But oh, it was.

Mac anticipated the retort, not allowing her friend to speak. "There's gotta be a point to doing blackmail. And uh, people to do it to. Once the switch is thrown, it's thrown. Kinda don't want to when the Earth might still blow up."

"No more people, no more points," agreed Willow. "Wa-wait, how's asking Tara out pointy?"

"Hey, you wanna spend your last moments *knowing* you like each other, and never--"

"You knew Bronson liked you, but you didn't ask right away."

There. Willow finally got in a valid, "Ha!"

"Yeah, ‘cause I was afraid that once he found out about my last date," Mac replied, "he'd warn every other guy within a twenty-mile radius of wherever I'm standing, Scarlet-Lettering me for life."

Again, she left Willow open-mouthed yet silent, with a quick, anticipatory follow-up. Her friend was going to mention that she broke up with Bronson, that he turned out to be a rebound.

"Dude, blind, helper monkeys can see Tara isn't your rebound."

She was about to pull out of the space when her passenger sighed.

Willow then asked, "What if I stink at being gay?"



"This is nice. Just hanging out. Just us girls."

Back in front of the mall, Glory was suddenly standing at Tara's Dawn-less side.

"Any good sales?" She went on.

Tara's eyes widened in fear not for herself, but for the girl who hadn't yet stirred. The god didn't know it, but her goal, the Key, was right here. But what she lacked in smarts, she made up for by being terrifying. The witch's hand was in Glory''d it get there?

"You like this sort of thing, don't you?" Glory asked conversationally before breaking every bone in her victim's hand with one squeeze. "Don't make a sound. You'll wake up Baby Bear."

Tara swallowed back her pain. A couple, a group of teenagers on cell phones, and the cops watching the teenagers on cell phones...nobody paid them any mind. She was glad, but then, she wasn't. She might as well have been all alone.

Glory saw her looking. "I'd kill them. You know that. Well, maybe I'd just kill her." ‘

With another squeeze, Tara's mouth opened in a silent scream as her blood seeped between their interlocked fingers. It dripped onto the ground.

"I like the detail work those monks did," complimented the god. "Quirks, foibles, passions. It's all so cute, so human, ya know? Pretty convincing really. But not convincing enough."

She took the hand she'd caused to bleed, brought it to her lips, and got herself a savoring lick of crimson. Then spit it out, none-too-happy about what she just tasted. Or didn't.

"You lying, little tramp! You're not the Key. You're nothing. Just another worthless human being!"

The rise in Glory's volume forced Dawn awake, and so pumped the girl's adrenaline.

She knew that voice. "No, stop!"

"Aw, were we being too loud?" Glory actually sounded apologetic. "Blame the witch. She lied to me, Dawnie! Do you know how much I *hate* that?"

"She didn't!" Dawn insisted, seeing Tara's pain and spilling tears.

It was her fault.

"Didn't mommy teach you to shut up when the adults are talking?" Glory then returned her attention to the person she'd come here for. "I liked our private time; we were bonding. Really. But guess what happens if we don't get it back."

"D-d-d-d-dawn, go. Run to the car," Tara tried to insist, when the grip became even more impossibly tighter. "AH! Hurry!"

"No." Dawn adamantly stood her ground. "I'm not leaving you. Willow'll be right back, and--"

"And I'll swat her aside like a two-year-old. Then if she's lucky, she'll die," Glory interrupted threateningly, very unperturbed.

Out of nowhere then, she smiled. "Hey, wait! Stay. Hang out. We can play ‘Glory Says.'" She stomped down on Tara's foot so the blue-eyed blonde fell to her knees and she could look straight at Dawn. "Glory a big girl and tell me who the Key is, or I suck her dry."

"She doesn't...know..." Tara managed to get out.

Glory, now with leverage, twisted her arm. "Did I say you could play?" She sighed, shaking her head. "Rude!"

She watched Dawn's face watch Tara, trying to comprehend the choice put before her. "C'mon, kid. Trebek gives you less time than this. I'm being pretty damn generous, here."

Ever since Tara fell, people started paying attention. Enough to flee.

The god ignored them. "It won't kill her. She'll feel like she's in a noisy, little, dark room. Naked, and ashamed.

"And there are things in the dark that need to hurt her 'cause she's bad. Little pinching things that go in your ears and crawl on the inside of your skull. And she'll know that if the noise and the crawling would stop, she could remember how to get out. But she never ever will," she spoke quietly, unhappily, from firsthand experience.

She let Dawn imagine for a moment, and then with deadly seriousness asked, "Who is the Key?"

"I am." In that moment, Dawn grew up.

God and Key stared at one another. The teen's sacrifice? Didn't mean a thing.

"I bet you think it's funny, don't you? Toying with my emotions like this? *That's*," Glory skeptically scanned the still, undeveloped, uncoordinated, disgustingly hormonal, teenage body, "the best they could do? It's frickin' holy!" Her eyes were dark. "Remember lying? Hate it! Mommy didn't teach you jack."

"It's true!"

Glory held her free hand to her forehead. "Game's over." She let go of Tara. "Let's get crazy."




The damage had already been done when the Beetle drove up to the curb. At first, its passengers didn't realize what was going on. Because all those people who didn't care to notice, and then fled, were now gathered around. Mac and Willow pushed through them to see Dawn hugging Tara tightly, sobbing.

"Why?" Mac said it so quiet, she could barely hear it.

Every time she wanted to believe it wasn't real, she got proof otherwise. She didn't need any more. Not if this was the proof being offered. Seeing Tara, she saw herself naked on that hotel room floor three years ago, and this didn't make any sense, either. Just hurt.

Tearing her eyes away, she turned them on Willow, who'd taken just enough steps to go comfort Dawn. Her redheaded friend was a lot stronger, braver, than she gave herself credit for. How she wasn't a mess, Mac didn't know.

Mac did know she personally felt like shit, however. What was a worse jinx than "life's short?" She called 911.




Her next call had been to the Summers' home. That night? "Just the beginning" was overused, but fitting.

Veronica wished she could've had the feed up in time to hear Glory name Tara as her target, but there would've been no way. No matter how much, like Mac, irrational guilt she felt. The stakeout didn't even have a chance to pay off any further. Things spiraled much too Speedy Gonzales. Nothing was better. Everything was worse.

At the spiral's bottom presently, outside Sunnydale General, she took a wild guess, telling her phone:

"It's Dawn. So get back here, McGee."

Then she went back in to hear Giles' prognosis, and remain in the dark about Buffy's, who'd taken brooding to dangerous, new heights.

Glory may have left the mall sated and without a fight, but in the morning, she'd showed at Buffy's front door, presenting one, last opportunity to fork over the Key, or else she'd sap all her friends' brains until she discovered who it was. The good news? That didn't happen. The bad news? It didn't happen because Tara, in her condition, saw Dawn for what she was, and the truth just came out.

They managed to escape as far as an abandoned, gas station miles outside Sunnydale. Because they invited Ben there, it became the site of their demoralizing defeat. Yes, if the watcher lived, it'd be due to his doctoring, yet even so, Veronica had attempted to get across why inviting him to be under medieval siege was a mistake. With a capital M.

Only, they forgot before she finished. Stupid spell. If she'd let Buffy see the video...but she'd been so worried about how Buffy would, this wasn't helping.

Reflecting on the revelatory tale told by the now-dead, siege-leading general they'd briefly captured--who had vowed to stop the Beast (a.k.a. Glory) through the Key's destruction--her worry quadrupled. Just because the Knights of Byzantium had been single-minded, religious fanatics didn't mean their intel sucked. She had to do something.




", McGee."

Weevil's houseguest had already cleared out by the time he got in from work to hear the message. Least she was sober, and had shaken some of the rust off. Yeah, he'd rescinded his previous ultimatum upon seeing the binge drinker from Southie training that next morning in the alleyway where he'd left her. She'd go back, but needed to be ready.

He guessed whether she was or not, it was "sink or swim" time.



Chapter 6

Title: Six


Faith was regretting this. Regretting that it'd taken her this long, anyway. How long had it been?

Well, the looks on Xander and Willow's faces as she'd returned through the kitchen door and entered the living room told her, "too long"--maybe she should've called first. Everything had managed to go to hell in her absence. Metaphorically. That was the sole, silver lining.

"It's a big day!"

The breaks in Tara's crazy-talk made their anger seem louder. The blonde witch sat in a chair, head jerking nervously when she wasn't pulling at and stretching the sleeves of the oversized sweatshirt she wore. What she was going through...Glory sucked. In more than one meaning of the word.

Willow stood behind the chair, wanting to comfort the girl, but still unsure if it was her place. They didn't even get to set a first date. She'd never know if she stunk.

"You just left! We needed your help! *Buffy* needed it! Now she's..."

Faith took her lashes. "I know I screwed you guys. I was messed up."

{"Then who the fuck are you, huh?"}

Weevil's question gnawed at her ever since she'd dried out that morning. It still did, because she hadn't found the answer yet. She knew it wasn't in Neptune.

"So you're all better?" Xander asked in a little, sarcastic voice, standing by the open, sliding door that led into the foyer, with his girlfriend. "Hey, she's all better now, Will! Bet Giles'll be glad to hear that, y'know, soon as the doctors let him out. Those rascally torsos."

He clapped his hands. "Somebody should tell Dawn...wait, she's been kidnapped. Damn."

Thinking of Dawn in the god's hands got Faith's ire up. Then she started to read into Xander's anger, and was about to unleash hers.

"Are you sayin' ‘cause I wasn't there--?"

"Probably still woulda happened," he acknowledged. "But when there's a hell bitca after your friends and you're skipped outta town, caring little much..."

"We cared about you, Faith," said Willow, giving the brunette no chance to respond. She stepped away from the chair, up to her. "We wanted to help with whatever bad stuff, but you never let us. You just left," she repeated. "It hurt."

The slayer looked down at her feet.

The redhead began, "You whooshing back's--"

"--good for Dawn," Keith interjected from the couch, being the authority figure. "Let's focus on keeping her alive." ‘I'm so sorry, Joyce.'

Keith had been out of town himself, on one of the cases he'd drowned himself in, and came home to exactly what Faith had, so he empathized. He'd missed the RV and the knights on horseback and the gas station and Giles getting speared. His daughter had been in the middle of all that, and he hadn't known. Not that it would've made a difference if he had. The man was entirely out of his depth.

"Baldy's right," agreed Anya. "I mean, Buffy's acting like one of those wax dolls they turn funny racists and alcoholic, army doctors into..."

"...from TV. Funny racists and alcoholic, army doctors from *TV*." At least, her boyfriend hoped that's what she meant. "Gonna guess Archie and Hawkeye."

She'd learned to just keep going when he subtitled her. "And Tara's..." Her eyes moved to where the girl should've been. "Where'd she go?"

Realization that the chair was empty came to them all, then.

"Tara? Tara!" Willow called, frantic.

They searched downstairs, joining the redhead in calling her name. In the kitchen, they saw the back door wide open. Willow whipped her head around to stare accusingly at Faith.

The Bostonian flinched. "I closed it, Red."

In between receiving a silent apology and stomping back, pissed off, into the living room, she arrived at the closest thing to a plan she could think of.

"I'm sorry," she announced to the room once everyone had followed her, adding in her head, ‘Sorry I'm not Buffy,' "but here's what's gonna go down."

Time to find that answer.




While they were arguing the plan, Veronica walked back from where she'd spied, and went into the bedroom, bag strapped about her shoulder. She made sure the flap was shut, then the door. Leaning back against it, eyes closed, she breathed deep. This had to happen, and thanks to dropping eaves out in the hallway, she knew she had her window now.

She either was prepared to do this or she wasn't. One, two, three...

...and her lids opened on a catatonic Buffy, sitting back against the headboard, blank stare going nowhere. She'd put her there with Willow's help. Unable to protect her sister at the gas station, Buffy shut down. Like she wasn't even inside, you couldn't get through to her.

Okay, Veronica was prepared. Just one, last check on the camera--

"Yeah?" Veronica answered her cell on autopilot as she checked the laptop's video feed.

Glory's room was still. No one was going back there.

"It's me. What's going on?" Mac asked on the other end, anxiously.

"Don't expect it to hold up in court, but, comic book-esque twists and turns," answered the detective.

"Uh, okay. Why wouldn't it?"

"Has no legs to stand on. My grasp of the funny pages comes all secondhand. From the ‘Jeff Albertsons' of the world," the blonde enlightened the brunette with her admittedly diehard, "Simpsons" reference, checking the tracker next. "This is just what I've imagined them reading like. Trust me, you got out while the gettin' was wise."

Nope, Taurus hadn't moved. She shut down her computer and closed the screen.

The hacker wished she was glad she'd left. At the hospital, while the doctors were with Tara after the mall attack, Willow told her to go back to Neptune, because it'd be safer. Now that she was home, she didn't know about that.

"I feel like I should, I dunno, be there. Shouldn't I?"

"If you were, who'd Willow get all her notes from? She's counting on you to use that neon marker well," Veronica said. "Listen, Mac, there's somewhere I hafta be."

"Be careful, Veronica."

"You too. And if Wallace asks, tell him it's in the bag. His ‘fro wilts when he's worried."

Cell phone off--didn't want ringing at an inopportune moment--Veronica went to peer out an actual window. Willow and Faith were on the move, tailing something resembling a green firefly. She'd heard Willow telling the room downstairs that it was a tracking spell which would, fingers crossed, lead to Tara. And if Veronica had to bet, Tara would lead to Glory, which Faith had to be banking on.

For everyone else, where Glory was, so was Dawn. That's all they were focused on--getting Dawn (and Tara) in the clear. Veronica's focus was somewhat wider.

She stepped to the bed.

"Won't lose you...that's a promise." She placed a tender kiss on her girlfriend's forehead. "See ya soon. She hopes."

She escaped out the window to the roof, then to the tree, then to the ground, as Buffy had countless times before. Handy. Now she just had to tail Faith and Willow without magickal guidance, and wait.




Trapped inside her head, Buffy kept looping. Through the same memories, the same nightmare. One had her putting this book on a shelf at the Magic Box, and thinking Glory would win. That it would just be easier if Dawn were dead; it was selfish, horrible. Certainly un-heroic.

The other was of the day her parents brought Dawn home from the hospital, and how protective she'd felt of her sister, even then. Could the two memories conflict more? They were making her nuts, while the nightmare...she acted that out. Actively. Like now.

She was in Dawn's room, smothering Dawn's face with a bed pillow until her sister stopped flailing. Stopped breathing. Except, when she removed the pillow for this, the fiftieth time, it wasn't her sister's, lifeless body lying on the mattress. Nor was the body quite lifeless. Its eyes opened.

"Uh, already died, dingus. Way cooler than this. ‘Network Prime Time' cooler--remember how Stone Phillips perved over me?" Lilly Kane sat up, making the blonde jump back. "*You* qualified for superchickness? Wow, it's like standards don't even exist."

She swung her legs over the side. "Or they're just, really low or something," she smirked. "So hey, Elizabeth Anne! What's up?"

Suddenly, Buffy was too angry to be caught up in herself. "God, that was *never* my name! Ask my birth certificate!"

She hated when the dead girl used to...gah.

"Whoa. Almost sound defensive," said the dead girl's ghost, standing up and walking up to the other girl who flirted with wanting to be. "Why? Don't wanna be her anyway."

"Shut up, Lilly." Buffy never thought she'd get to exercise that reflex again. "And get outta my coma."

Lilly fired back, "You first."

She'd leave the "slayer" thing alone for the moment, but she was already exasperated.

"Can't seriously think you're the only girl who's wished Daddy and Mommy Dearest stopped having sex before their ‘Do-Over Kid.'" Beat. "If there'd been no butt-kissing little bro around for them to compare, Jake and Celeste would've never..." Lilly trailed off.

If Buffy was imagining Lilly (and why would she?), her imagination was complex.

"But, past, whatever. Doesn't mean I wanted him..." For a second, Lilly appeared as she had when murdered--pep squad outfit and fatal, head wound. " know? Loved the Donut."

"Wishing's not exactly harmless. Ask Anya. She'll tell you *all* you wanna know about consequences," the blonde felt the need to clarify, trying to shake the "freshly-murdered" image. "Plus more than. It gets gross."

She turned to walk out, right back into the past memory of baby Dawn.

Lilly shook her head at the bizarre. "She's not even your sister...she's like, you. What the hell?"

"Complicated," shrugged Buffy. "She is...even though she isn't, and...I love her too."

"Then go help save the damsel who's in stress. Geez. I shouldn't hafta come here," said Lilly, annoyed, going to lay on the dream version of Buffy's living room couch in Neptune after the scene played itself out.

"Just ‘cause you decided to turn your superchickness into this insanely over-the-top ‘hero complex,' Life's supposed to feed it by working out all the time?" She asked the blonde. "Um, okay, breaking news--that so isn't what Life is. It's messy. No rules, anything can happen...s'what made it fun."

Her grin was somehow wistful, and then her eyes rolled. "Now you're gonna quit before she's *actually* suffocated? Kinda lame."

Well, if the eternally seventeen-year-old was here to piss Buffy off, it was working. Other than hating how Veronica worshipped her, Buffy also hated how much sense Lilly could make.

"I let her down, and I don't know what to do. But this isn't quitting; this is...guilt-tripping." Buffy let her own words sink in. "I *wouldn't* quit on her. I can't. Physically can't."

"Aw. You two really are a match."

You couldn't tell whether Lilly was sincere or not.

"'Cause Veronica can't either. My fault, I guess." Her death had kind of made it impossible for Veronica to ever give up on anything, since--except an alcoholic mother. "Problem? To her, ‘not-quitting' means like, *doing something*. Maybe the radioactive spider shoulda bit her instead."

Buffy's attention was grabbed. "What something?"

Lilly stared like she had at those in high school she deemed unworthy. "Do I look like your narrator, Summers?"

Then she was sitting and leaning forward. "What matters, is it's always for you. Forgetting how she would've taken an ashtray to someone's head for that internship, risking her hotness in the Perminator's lair of fashion disasters, and finding spare time out of nowhere, to keep herself available. In case you *must* get emotional. She's damn close to being as awesome as I am, huh?"

"I never even asked." For the first time during this acid trip down faux-memory lane with old rivals, Buffy smiled. "Everything she...she knows how much I love her for it. Especially since my mom."

"Yeah. Sweet." Lilly's eyes rolled for a different reason this time, as she gagged. She minded the daggers none. "Now try showing how all that effort she's put in has paid off. She deserves it.

"Your, I dunno, warped, ‘John Malkovich' psycho drama," She gestured broadly, referring to being trapped and wandering Buffy's brain, "oughta prove who's in charge. I don't see a Rasta chick--with her freakish, application skills and ancient, *reeking* B.O.--anywhere, do you?"

Buffy scanned their surroundings, and when she walked through the front door, they changed to the Magic Box. No, she couldn't say she did. Not once during the looping.

Lilly spoke impatiently, several, long moments later, now sitting on the research table in the shop. "Oh my god, like you haven't spaced enough today. Grow up."

The blonde seemingly didn't notice. "You're right."

"Yes! I can rest." Lilly laid back, quickly placated. "Though you could've admitted it when I was alive and saved me from limbo."

When she was sure Buffy had just about bought it, she started laughing.

The slayer exhaled, sitting on the small set of steps that led down into the center of the shop. "Such a--"

"Without me, you and Veronica wouldn't have learned from the best." Lilly hopped off the table, strolled to the counter, and picked up a jar before putting it right back again. "Uch. You live here?"

Its contents were...unpleasant.

"You just called your best friend..." Buffy said with disbelief. "Not, um, in a word-saying sense, did."

She jabbed her finger at Lilly, while the accompanying glare was a pale imitation of one.

"Affectionately, so what?" Lilly defended. "I told you, Meredith Brooks taught me to love myself. Everybody's gotta love who they are, or what's the point of like, living?"

She approached Buffy now, that personal philosophy meant for her. "So you're leaving, right? ‘Baby sis,'" she air-quoted, "is out there. Our girlfriend, too."

Buffy got to her feet, red and open-mouthed at the use of plural.

"Platonic-saying sense," continued Lilly, mocking the blonde's use of language. "If there's any left? When you snap out of it, pop one of Joyce's sedatives."

Suddenly there was a golden glow coming from under the crack of the basement door, where Giles kept storage. It caught Buffy's eye, and she got to her feet, saying with renewed purpose,

"I'm gone."

"We totally shouldn't do this more often." Lilly saluted a goodbye off her forehead with her middle finger. "Live like I would've. And you better do it in a laundry room once, then thank me."

"I'm sorry you died, Lilly," Buffy said, going to the door.

If this was Lilly's ghost, and as long as she was dropping guilt, she wanted that known. The bell dinged above as she opened her exit, but she turned--this would eat at her.

"Were you here?"

Lilly's enigmatic smile was the last thing she saw before her bedroom.





"Hell she get so far?" Faith asked Willow, jogging after the green whatchathing. "Are we catchin' up?"

They just turned off Main.

"I-I think so." Willow's attempt at confidence sounded rather unconfident. "Yeah."

If they could afford to stop, Faith would have. Dead in her tracks.

"Whaddaya mean, *‘think so'*? If it's just headin' home to the Hundred Acre Wood, how were you gonna...?" She shook her head. "Picked the wrong time to go big league if you can't play, Willow."

It was too late now. But who was she kidding? "We both did."

"Tara's who was working on it. She wanted to help the people that Glory she is," frowned the redhead, sadly. "But she told me she didn't have enough power to do it herself, and that it'd only work for one person at time, ‘cause you have to map out their essences individually, and...and you read Pooh?"

Faith ignored the question, and winked. "You mapped her essence?"

Willow flushed, but ignored the innuendo just as the slayer had ignored her question.

"Right," Faith thought that fair enough, "she thought you had the mojo to pull it off."

Willow couldn't fathom it. "But, *so* don't. I mean, the last spell I did before Tinkerbell, was after I put Angel's soul back. In high school! And I just closed my bedroom door...or it coulda been windy."

The brunette's brows rose. "You put Hair Gel back in the box? *Cold*? And you dunno why Glinda thinks you got juice?" She nearly felt a chill at this impressive fact, but moved past it. "Tell ya what I don't get. Hardly know her, and you're riskin' this."

"I'm a good guy! It's what we do. Save people. However we can," reacted Willow kind of defensively. "Tara's a good guy, too. A really nice, ‘good guy' girl, who likes m...who-who we like. Everybody's we." Beat. "I hafta try. Riskiness be damned."

"Speaking of *damn*...way her set fills out those dresses?" Faith made her patented grunting noise. "People say I like it tight."

She may have been MIA a while, but her sixth sense for horniness couldn't be beat. Following her suggestive comment, the hacker slowed, but didn't say anything.

The slayer assumed her humor was taken wrong again. "Hey, I'm jus--"

"No, Faith, look."

Willow pointed at the sky ahead them. Not far in the distance, they could see the top of what had to be a large tower.

"Xander said they were finally building another Starbucks there...but a few months ago, somebody bought out their lease. It's been totally abandoned since. Or it's supposed to be."

Faith focused like a laser. "Wanna guess what made *that joint* step down?"

Willow's eyes grew large with realization. "Why didn't you let him and Anya come? There're probably gonna be minions everywhere. We're two people, and, uh, not everywhere."

"Why we're goin' in stealth," Faith said, walking again, still fast, but more cautiously as they knew where Tara was headed now. "Scope the layout, get your honey, get Dawn. No way there's anybody else standin' guard...she's wherever the bitch is. You do your thing, then till she's out, I do mine.

"Buffy wakes up? She's gonna see her fam still kickin'. Won't fuck that up." She almost convinced herself there. "Five by five?"

"Uh huh," said Willow, feeling her anger toward the slayer begin to drain.

She hadn't meant to hurt them, had she?

Just as the redhead thought that, Faith pulled her down behind a bench on the sidewalk. "Ow."

Faith had, because of what she saw on the other side of the street. That dude from the hospital running and looking paranoid--Dawn in tow. "Lucky day."

Willow gasped, and then became perplexed. "But how did he...?"

The Bostonian watched as he turned down an alleyway, trying to figure why Dawn didn't seem altogether happy about being with the guy. She also finally saw Tara up ahead, who'd cowered as he passed, and presently was trying to grab at the green whatchathing.

"Better grab her. Doc's gotta squeeze us in."




Keith stepped out onto the front porch to make a call. Inside, Xander was pissed about being left behind, and Anya didn't quite get it, because if they were here they couldn't die. But while they worried about the world-ending if Dawn bled at the wrong time, something Keith couldn't wrap his head around (he could be a parent to her, help with homework, but that?), he was unable to stop worrying about Neptune.

He'd asked Faith how it was. Her answer?

{"Devil's playground, Mr. M."}

She didn't just mean at night, either.

He knew why it was so bad. In his bones, he knew. There were only two reasons his town could be described worse than one with a Hellmouth--Vinnie Van Lowe and Liam Fitzpatrick. Made his blood boil. Neptune had been nothing but unkind to the Marses in general, but it was still where he felt most at home. He'd left it in those men's hands and it had gotten...

"Hey, Leo, it's Keith Mars." He got his former deputy's voicemail. "Listen, when you get this, give me a buzz? There's just something I'd like by you. About this guy I'm tracking. Thanks." He ended the call, and took a deep breath.

Never knew who might be listening.

Then he walked back into the house, again having missed apparently a lot, because entering the living room, he heard and saw a very mobile Buffy speaking to the couple.

"...then we're hitting the Magic Box first. Not like it isn't probably on the way. This is Sunnydale--everywhere's on the way. Anya, you're sure you know...?"

"Yeah. It glows at random and inconvenient times," complained the once-demon. "Temporary blindness in a basement filled with extremely fragile, high cost items--"

"Great," Buffy cut her off, and then noticed Keith there. "Xander can you, um, start your car? Be right there."

"C'mon, Ahn," Xander said, and both of them left by the front door.

He didn't look so pissed anymore.

"How you feeling?" Keith asked with a small smile as his daughter's girlfriend came over to him.

"Won't be doing the ‘catatonic' thing again," she assured him.

For many reasons. One started with an "L."

He glanced back toward the stairs expectantly then, and she knew who he was waiting to see.

"Veronica's not up there. Looks like she stole my brilliant idea and used the window."

As with whenever Veronica went off on her own to do something dangerous, he felt that first rush of anger, and then felt his stomach drop as the fear and protectiveness took over.

He closed his eyes, and opened them again. "She can't have any idea what she's getting into."

"Veronica's the adaptable type," Buffy gently disagreed. "Think she knows *exactly* what she's getting into. Which relaxes. Most of the time."

Now was the exception. Her first stop after getting off that bed, was Veronica's laptop left purposely un-passworded. She saw all the spy-cam footage of Glory's loft. How the god fed on her victims, and just who that human vessel was the general had talked about at the gas station.

Veronica had known. Just not what to do about it.

When the recorded truth was watched, the truth of what Glory wanted to keep unknown, the magick whammy was overridden. Veronica must've loved that a camera could see through even mystically-deceiving lies. And she'd left a sticky-note on Mr. Gordo's nose:

^Ask Dad to do his voodoo^

"Where is she?" He asked.

"I'm not gonna say don't come. The Slayer might, but I'm Buffy, and she has no right to tell her girlfriend's dad to not be one. But I'm asking--stay here."

She could tell his knee-jerk reaction was going to be, "Not a chance," but she put a hand on his arm, silently also asking him to wait.

"Xander told me Faith's plan. Mine's just as non-guaranteed. We don't know what we're walking into, but then again, we sorta do. Isn't our first, maybe-apocalypse."

"But it's mine," conceded Keith.

"You're cop-skilled. You know people; you know predicting them...even when they're trying to be Un. You also have dad skills, the best ever. ‘Cept, if they kick in at the wrong time...

"Mix in Glory, who to an nth infinity degree, is so far from a person--"

"I get the point." He spared her from having to continue.

He was a variable they couldn't afford. Everyone else knew how to keep their cool in these situations. With Veronica there, he couldn't make that promise. And he didn't want to endanger their chances because all he'd be able to see would be his daughter.

But Buffy couldn't stop continuing. "Plus, if something happened to you, and Veronica..."

"You always watched out for her. Still do," he told her gratefully, hands on her shoulders, trust in his eyes. "I won't make you promise anything, just...keep it up."

She hugged the man. That trust meant everything. "She's walking back through that door, Mr. Mars. Everybody is. Haven't worked all the details, but my friends, and my sister, are living through this."

And the Slayer, that loner, solitary part of her and Faith, was going to help, whether it liked it or not. She was Buffy, goddamn it, and...oh yeah. Voodoo.

"Oh, uh," Her hug reached its natural endpoint, "Veronica has her cell turned off, and we need to find her. Then we find the rest of the gang. You know how to, right?"

She remembered that day at Hearst. He'd showed up out of the blue looking for Weevil, and Veronica's cell had been off then, too. It just served as a constant reminder to her girlfriend, that Keith would always be one step ahead.

He nodded, staring down at her, solemnly. "If I show you, this is a secret you must swear to protect at all costs. Until you're of a very old age, and are so senile, that even if it did happen to *accidentally* spill out, no one would believe it.

"But most importantly, Veronica never knows. It's the only card I have left to hold over her. The only thing I can still brag about. Don't take that away from me, Buffy."

No, no, no, no. He wasn't putting her in this position.

"Me, hide something? From *Veronica*?" She swallowed. "Have you *met* her?"




"I didn't ask for any of this!" Ben insisted to Willow--who'd run in with Tara by the hand--and Faith, now that they'd caught up to him and Dawn in the one-way alley. "I just wanted a normal life."

"Yeah, got it tough, ‘Casey,'" Faith said in sarcastic response. Like he knew *anything* about a shitty life? "See how it could suck, few years out, sittin' on all that green. Me, I like red."

Her eyes moved from the doctor-in-training to the teenager. "Back off the kid. Slow."

"Fine," he said, releasing Dawn's arm and holding his up. "Take her away from here. Fast as you can. I barely got us out; Glory could come back any second."

Dawn ran to her friends and hugged the slayer like a vice, crying. "Faith! Oh my god! You're here!"

"She doesn't have to come back," said Veronica to the young doctor, surprising everybody present. "You must've thought about it."

The girls turned around to see her walking deeper into the alley, looking all the way past them, directly at Ben. If this were any other situation, she would've made a crack about him being cross-dressed in a ceremonial gown. This wasn't any other situation.

"Veronica?" Willow had no idea where she'd come from.

But the detective walked directly past them too, until only a few feet separated her and her mark. An alarm went off for Faith, but the slayer didn't quite know what it was warning her about, so she just shut up and watched.

"What're you talking...?" Ben trailed off.

It didn't take long for the "What's next?" tension to ratchet up to, "Holy f...!" tension. Supplied by the gun Veronica pulled from her bag.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "Sorry destiny came knocking when a Dodge Dart was probably rocking, making your entire life *blow* from the Big Bang on. Nobody so pretty deserves that. Or this."

Her hands didn't shake as she pointed her father's spare that she'd freed from the master bedroom's safe, at the young, almost M.D.

"But you need to die."



Chapter 7

Title: Seven


‘Are Mexican stand-offs supposed to be this crowded?' Veronica thought, her dad's gun still trained on Ben/Glory, as Willow objected out of uninformed, moral principle.

"He's the human vessel, Willow," the blonde finally enlightened everyone else, hoping it would stem other interruptions before her hands *did* shake. "Glory's jail cell for the past, twenty-five years? Bells ringing yet?"

To paint the scene, Willow, Faith and Dawn, going from left to right, had formed a half-circle behind Veronica, a mini-border around the action. Ben had backed up as far as he could go, without literally having his back against the wall. One shot, that's all it would take. No portals opening, no big battle, no chance of anyone else dying but him.

"Ooh. Ding dong." The redhead got it--kill the mortal, kill the immortal--but believing was another story. "Wait, *Ben* is Glory? Him ‘Ben'? You're sure? Sure ‘sure'?"

"I'd show you the evidence, but, so much time, so little to do," Veronica told her, confidently sarcastic. "And even if I hadn't collected any...his choice of evening wear? Clue."

Ben's shoulders just slumped. "If you're going to, just do it."

Hearing it said aloud--twenty-five-years--made him feel so tired. How could he keep pretending?

Faith was still trying to catch up. "What, he's the bottle, she's the genie?"

Veronica looked apologetically at Ben again, the multitude of Christina jokes that she would've usually had, unavailable.

"Woulda been nice to know," slayer glared at hacker.

"I didn't know! Not that it was Ben!" Willow reacted guiltily, though she knew she had no reason to. "But if he's her and she's her too, only, uh, when-when he isn't him, then you *really* can't. Super really."

She told Veronica this quickly, not having time to be confused by her sentence's logic. Or lack thereof.

Veronica bit her lip to contain the frustration that wanted to escape. "It's not like I'm doing cartwheels over it--"

"We need Glory. For Tara."

Frak. Veronica looked over at the lost witch, and felt her arm start to lower. She could mention the greater good, sacrifice, but it would be a lie. She was only doing this for a girl. Same as Willow.

"She's...she's..." Ben's eyes were panicked.

Before he could get anything else out, and before they could react, he'd morphed into his feminine side. It was happening quicker now. There was barely any warning.

There was absolutely *no* warning before Glory grabbed Veronica's wrist and broke it, sending the gun clattering to the ground. Veronica's cry of pain couldn't be stopped.

"A girl loves to hear she's needed," spoke the god.




Meanwhile, in Xander's car, they'd retrieved what they'd set out to at the Magic Box, and so tires burned rubber. There were butterflies, anvils of nervousness, fear of the uncertain, of what the night might bring, but he knew something that wasn't uncertain. At least, at that particular moment, he thought he did.

"Marry me," he blurted.

"*What*?!" Anya in the passenger seat, and Buffy in the backseat, exclaimed in tandem.

When they realized who he'd been looking at as he'd said it, for different reasons, the tandem-ness continued.





"You've probably been braggin' it around, haven't you? Letting everyone know how you got off Glory's hook with all your pieces not in bloody, yummy, bite-size bits." Glory pulled Veronica eye-to-eye with her, so she could see the fear. "Baby, you don't get away from me--I'm a god. Who has time to kill. But that's no fun...hey, can I kill you?"

As fast as she'd grabbed her, she let Veronica go so her hand could hold her head, instead. She shouted, "No! You're not..."

And Glory became Ben again. "...killing any more people!"

Faith pulled Veronica over next to the rest of them, and out of the way of the "multiple-personality-on-steroids" freak show. Or, Dr. Jeckyll and Ms. Hyde, as it were.

"Take Dawn, and frigging haul ass," whispered the slayer, as Veronica cradled her wrist. "It was a smart call, but the wrist puts you outta the game. You wanna keep B in? Get the girl movin', Tink. Go."

Crap. Faith was right. Even though Veronica wasn't one to take orders, there wasn't time to argue. Buffy's sister and girlfriend started to run to the alley's exit.

"She wanted to put a bullet in your squishy, little brain! Moron!" Glory was back.

But not for long.

"You get what you want, I'm dead anyway. And if I'd had the guts to do it myself..." Ben saw the gun and picked it up, pointing it under his chin. "I still can."

He struggled to keep his own arm right where it was, but like it'd been forcefully yanked, it flung away in a wide arc.

Glory kept hold of the gun as she regained form and control. "No! *No*. Little late in the game to start growing a backbone, Benjamin. Now be good and stay quiet."

Faith and Willow could see her physically fighting to prevent him from emerging.

"'t! Get over yourself, Ben! This is the way things are! I'm strong, you're weak, this is reality. Stop trying to infect me with your..."

Ben returned. "Do you ever stop talking? I don't know which is worse, waking up in a dress not knowing where I've been, or having to hear all your self-involved ranting."

Then Glory. "Animal..."

"Wrong, Glory." Her host again. "I'm no animal. This is humanity you're feeling. Welcome to the world."

"Stupid, pointless *meatworm*!" She yelled in anger, and then her unstable emotions went turning on a dime. "You're the one who's got it wrong, Benji. But if somebody up there likes you, you might just ascend beyond pointless. I get home, I could like you like a lot. So shut up and give big sister room to work. Nothing's ruining her day."

Raising the gun in the air, she fired a shot over her head that seemed to echo everywhere. Then she turned it on Tara, figuring she had the most leverage by threatening the helpless one.

"Bring back my Key or the witch gets a hole in the head."




Forget tracking. Everyone in the car could hear the sound of a bullet being fired. They were close, and possibly too late.

"Xander..." That was all Buffy had to say.

"There already."

He made a sharp turn.




In the alley, Veronica and Dawn had frozen at the shot.

"Come get it yourself!" That challenge came from the Key, impressing her blonde companion.

It also impressed the crazy one enough to allow Willow to grab a heavy, metal chain undetected, from atop the dumpster to her left. Letting go of Tara, she used both hands and all her strength to whip it down on Glory's gun-hand, making the weapon fall again. Nobody saw it land.

They were too busy watching the slayer use momentary advantage to tackle Glory to the ground. Then the escapees used Faith's buying of precious seconds to continue their retreat, when a car appeared where freedom was, cutting it off. The rear door could open just enough, to let somebody out.

That somebody being Buffy, who effortlessly wielded troll hammer in one hand, and Dagon--Beast-repelling doohickey--Sphere, in the other.

"Get in," she urged her sister.


" gonna hurt you if she finds out you had a chance to get away and didn't."

Buffy didn't plan this. Wished she could say she had, however. She was simply seizing the moment as her philosophy advised. Hearing the shot, she'd just wanted to put another obstacle in Glory's path in case the god was walking down it. Which yes, would've been bad for Xander's car.

"In," ordered Buffy, and as soon as Dawn listened for once, she shut the door behind her. "Drive!"

Its wheelman didn't hesitate. She knew Xander wanted to be here, but he had to know she was trusting him with the most important person in her life. Well, next to the one who was trying for a relieved smile through the pain of a broken wrist.

"Forget it," Veronica said before her girlfriend could rewind and repeat.

While elated inside to see Buffy live and animate, she kind of didn't want to see her. Not here.

Sister gaining distance, hazel eyes could and did zero in on her damaged appendage. Veronica wondered whose livid features she was seeing, when she heard,

"That's it...Glory's done. There's only one tiny, blonde woman who isn't me I can put up with--nobody touches my McFartsy." Buffy's tone betrayed no humor. "Unless *I'm* doing, and naked."

That was your basic "given." But the wondering stopped right there.




"Shouldn't there only be one of you Mighty Mouses?" Glory asked, having gotten the upper hand and held Faith off the ground by her tank top. "Who the hell are you?"

"Her name's Faith," supplied Buffy, announcing her presence to the god, having joined the action.

"Who cares." Glory casually slammed Faith into the dumpster lid, hard enough for the slayer's body to leave an indentation before rolling off.

"Us," Willow answered the question that hadn't really been asked.

The god didn't spare her a glance. "Where've you been, Buffy? If I'd noticed you weren't here, I could've missed you."

She couldn't see her ticket home anymore. "Wouldn't know where Miss Muffet scampered her sassy self to, wouldja?"

"Really not your biggest problem right now," Buffy advised, throwing something in Glory's direction. "Catch."

Glory did on reflex, not realizing what it was. She figured it was some human weapon they still stupidly thought would have an effect on her. In her hands, she felt what it was before seeing it.

The Dagon Sphere caused a full body migraine from the inside out, and kept causing it even as she let the doohickey drop to the ground. Didn't break. Until she smashed it with her foot.

Willow had seen her window as Buffy threw the Sphere. It was almost good that she didn't have time to think, or she might not have done it. She got Tara next to Glory, and then got herself between them.

When Glory's foot came down, the redhead's fingers jammed into the blondes' heads. White light emanated from Glory's, and Willow, acting as a conduit, passed it through into Tara's. Both human women succumbed to unconsciousness.

Not Glory though, who looked woozy, feverish. How could she have noticed the troll hammer in time for her face to dodge it? She couldn't have.

Buffy channeled pent up anger and aggression, all her grief, into every swing. Again and again and again. Wasn't a slayer doing this; an emotionally and physically exhausted older sister and girlfriend had been waiting for this moment.  No quips, no taunting, no hero-like declarations.

Just THOMP. And THOMP. And THOMP. An immortal head being thwacked back and forth.

"Stop." Was that a beg from the all powerful bitch?

"You're a god," Buffy reminded, "make it stop."

Fine. *One* taunt.


Letting up, it was to catch her breath, which was heavy. She didn't think she'd ever seen Glory bleed. Amazingly her enemy hadn't collap...ah, there went those godly knees.

As they began to buckle, Ben morphed back. He looked as thrashed as his evil half; the veil separating them had completely broken down. Before he could fall, and before Buffy had time to decide whether she could take his life (because a beat down wasn't ending anything)--


After he crumbled lifelessly to the alley floor, Faith was standing there, her arms still positioned like they'd been around his neck. When she snapped it.




Alley. Lifeless eyes. Staring at nothing. Again.

Faith was white as a sheet as she stared at Ben, taking her back to that other night. Returning to the dumpster with those images in her head, she threw open the lid and emptied her stomach. She closed it a few seconds later, placed her hands there for support, and just stared. Had her answer. Didn't she?

Veronica walked up next to Buffy and looked down at the dead body. The last person's she saw was Lilly's (unless she counted the iced hand of Abel Koontz's daughter), and this was different. She hadn't almost been the one to make it dead. She told herself she would've, but she never thought about what it would be like afterwards.

She turned her gaze to Faith and couldn't imagine. "I'll...get Willow and Tara. Talk to her."

"Your wrist," Buffy pointed out.

"Pain's all mental--it'll wait," said Veronica, holding back a grimace that wanted to sell her out, and again cradling her arm. "Go."

While she bent down to try to rouse the witches, doing her best to avoid contact with Ben, Buffy went to the brunette.

"You came back."

"You too," Faith said after it seemed she wouldn't.

"Know Dawn's glad. So am I," Buffy told her, and then got to what she really wanted to say. "Thank you."

Faith met her eyes. "Couldn't let ya, B."

"Why, ‘cause I'm the hero, and you're not?" The blonde's sarcasm had a dark edge to it. "I don't even know what that means."

"Means it ain't in you. Shouldn't be." Faith tossed her thumb backwards in the direction of Ben. "Came close to findin' out about Veronica, though."

"Or it means doing what nobody else has the guts to," offered Buffy alternatively, trying to keep her reaction to the part about Veronica internalized. "You saved the world tonight, Faith; you saved my sister."

"Don't feel like I did," responded the brunette with a small shake of the head.

Felt like she'd broke a guy's neck.

"Can't pretend this is anywhere *close* to the same situation, but," Buffy was walking on sympathetic eggshells, "never does. Feels like just surviving. It isn't about the world. Ever. The world stinks. But it has people who matter to us, so, s'personal. Also selfish. Superman's the only one that saves the world for reasons unselfish.

"Might have super-strength, but not a building-leaper. I'm Buffy. I live in Sunnydale. I have friends. And I help make sure they'll keep living here too, ‘cause I can. Like you did." Beat. "Besides, costumes would be itchy."

The corner of Faith's mouth twitched, but it was brief. "He had to die." Her voice pleaded for reassurance.

Buffy nodded. "And I wouldn't have been able. Then what happens? Glory rehabs, and wraths the town to death. Did I mention ‘thank you'?" She could see a storm brewing behind those brown eyes. "Was it easy?"

Faith slumped down, back against the dumpster. "Hell no."

Buffy crouched, because she wouldn't let her sister slayer be lower than her. "I'm thinking no vomit if it had been. You're a good person. A good person that had to do a sad, necessary thing."

"Yeah? That what I am?"

{"Then who the fuck are you, huh?"}

"Says me," smiled Buffy. "You need to start believing, and stop comparing. I'm barely recouped from my sister's kidnapping, and an army massacre. See? I lose. Not saintly, not better. Sometimes we're responsible for ‘heroic,' but majority? I'm just Buffy, you're just Faith. Pedestal-free people with flaws."

Being herself was what Faith was afraid of. She liked Buffy's answer better, but it still meant she was a good guy operating in the gray. What happened in the event gray went black?

The expression on the blonde's face said it wouldn't.

"We're here." She stood, and offered the brunette her hand. "Don't forget okay? You don't hafta disappear."

She pulled Faith up when her offer was accepted. "Unless it's to Boston for the summer. To make out with an old best friend. *That* I'd totally understand."




The gun--there it was. Veronica reached for it with her good hand, and on the way back up, she saw an awake Tara leaning against an awake, bloody-nosed Willow. Head resting on shoulder, hands clasped at their sides, they walked slowly from the scene. It was nice that something sweet could emerge out of this alley.

"That's your dad's," Buffy said behind her, catching Veronica unaware, who slowly turned around.

What was she going to say now? Nothing. She simply held her girlfriend's bag open so the gun could be dropped in. Then both she and Veronica watched Faith close Ben's eyes, running her hand over his face. Like a soldier in war.

"Giles made a call," Veronica now answered the question that was in Buffy's eyes after viewing that.

She knew not to plan a murder without a "clean up" plan. She didn't get an A on that paper for nothing.

"Once we aren't here, he won't be either, was the gist."

The slayer was shocked to learn that her hospital-confined Watcher knew. "The Council?"

"Didn't ask." This was killing Veronica; she was waiting for a reaction.

"C'mon, you need a doctor." Buffy carefully slipped an arm around the detective's waist, and they went the way of Willow and Tara.

"Hey, there's an idea. Because, and sorry if this blows your mind...whatever the hell I said before? About that pain I'm in? All a lie. One of my more subtle and underplayed, but still."

Buffy turned her head back. "Faith, can you call Xander? He can take us...if he's not in Mexico already."

"Yeah..." Faith agreed distractedly, her own head turned back to look at her victim. "Yeah. No problem."




The doctor who'd seen to Veronica's wrist and outfitted it with a splint, left to make the rest of his rounds in the ER as Buffy came past the curtain. They knew her here; she'd brought in many a vamp victim. They didn't deny her access.

"Hey," greeted Veronica softly, sitting over the side of the hospital table. "How's Giles?"

"Signing himself out. He's almost as grouchy a patient as me. Wouldn't believe how hard he cleaned his glasses," Buffy smirked. "How're you?"

Veronica showed off the splint. "I wanted something...more in a bionic, but our insurance isn't as comprehensive as Dad likes to think."

"Oh, I stopped to get the camera back. Whole lair is uber-tacky. Scooch," requested Buffy, and hopped up next to the injured.

Sanitary paper crinkled under her butt.

"Were you actually...?"

"To keep you from dying? In any and all senses of the word? Yes," Veronica told her, not shying from it. "I thought there'd be more surprise, how much I n--"

Buffy's lips cut her off. Tenderly, for a fully-realized, uninterrupted minute. There wasn't a thing to tell, that showing couldn't get more effectively across. What Veronica sacrificed, what she was willing to...score one for Lilly again. Bitch.

"I'm back. For good now."

Veronica saw and felt as much. She was just counting her lucky stars that she hadn't scared her girlfriend away. When she smiled, it was teeth and all.

"Had me worried."

"*I* had me worried," admitted Buffy. "But I'm gonna show Mom I can deal, and be her daughter, and not go anywhere. Gonna show you, too."

The detective's free arm went under the slayer's. "What brought you out of it?"

"Uh, know how you were haunted? Dream-wise?"

Veronica couldn't be called "slow." Her jaw slacked. "*Lilly*?"

Unfortunately for her vice-like curiosity, Keith Mars made his appearance through the curtain. He *couldn't* be denied access.

"Who's your daddy?"

Somehow she managed to tear her attention away, and looked at him, penitent. "Depends. Still wanna claim me as your own?"

"From age ten on, your resale value's only been decreasing. I'd have to pay someone to take you now. That ship has sailed, honey."

Buffy pushed off the table as father enveloped daughter, and quietly let them have their enviable moment. Yet she had a family too, still. Dawn was probably going crazy back in the waiting room. She was going to head there, but as she breached the curtain, Veronica's voice rooted feet to their spot.

"So you'll never guess what was left just, lying around in the back of Xander's car. It *looked* like some sort of device used to track."

Buffy Summers loved Veronica Mars, but, *beep*.

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