Story: Sophomore Slump (chapter 5)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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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.



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