Story: Sophomore Slump (chapter 6)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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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."



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