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:
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.
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.
All right, that got a chuckle. Last stop was the cell.
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."
"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."
"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 kn...no." He let her go, backing away. "No, 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."
Veronica detected something in Buffy's hand as they walked quickly towards downstairs. Pieces of something. "Your favorite staff...it'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."