Story: Sophomore Slump (chapter 1)

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.'



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