Disclaimers: This story includes a whole bunch of characters that I do not own, for the Royal Academy of Bards Challenge #17: Criss Crossover.
Violence: There is angst, violence, hanky-panky (all mild).
Clone Warning: There are clones. Lots of clones. I know some people don’t like clones; however, there will also be cheesecake, and who doesn’t like cheesecake?
Spoilers: If you have not seen all of Buffy and all of Xena, there will be spoilers. Takes place after S7 of Buffy.
Winner - Bard's Challenge #17
“Gods, this is good,” Gabrielle said, groaning a little, her eyes drifting closed. “Xena, you have to try this,” she said, lifting her fork and offering a bite to the woman sitting across from her in the diner booth.
Eyes narrowed with suspicion, Xena leaned forward tentatively, her lips closing over the offering and the yummy confection sliding into her mouth as she sat back. “That is good. What is it?” Xena asked.
“Cheesecake,” Gabrielle said. “I wonder how they make it.” Gabrielle poked at her cheesecake with her fork, as if it could be prodded into vocalizing its secrets.
“I don’t think it’s going to answer you,” Xena said dryly.
“So, how’s your list coming?” Gabrielle asked around a mouthful of cheesecake, pointing at the paper in front of Xena with her fork.
Xena sighed, and pushed the piece of paper away from her with a scowl.
“That good, huh? Can I see?” Gabrielle asked, tentatively reaching for the piece of paper, even as she winced inwardly at her own hesitation.
Cheesecake was good. Newspapers were exciting. The idea that man had walked on the moon was awe-inspiring and humbling.
Still, the modern world wasn’t all cheesecake and moon-walking. There were quite a few horrible things humanity had done to itself, and the world around them, as well.
But of all the strange and horrible things they’d seen in their life before, and their new life now, it was the feeling of distance and isolation from each other that hurt the most.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, her expression pensive as she considered her reluctance to pry into Xena’s list. Before they were cloned, she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. She and Xena shared everything.
Was there something inherent in the cloning process that had changed them? They were both a little different, but were these differences because of a changed world, or a change in themselves?
After defeating Alti, they had escaped from the Xena fans. The episode about their creation as clones had surprised them both, partly because it existed at all, and partly because it had gotten so many things wrong.
It had skipped quite a lot, like the crash-course in modern events and technology, the Spanish and English language tapes, the months in what amounted to captivity, and the slow, subtle campaign of misinformation Alti had waged in an attempt to turn them both into tools for her use before revealing her true identity.
Even though they were out of place in this modern world, she and Xena weren’t stupid, and had conceived and carried out a plan that had exorcised Alti - who had spiritually possessed an innocent scientist and fan of the show in order to clone them - provided them with some cash, and gotten them away from the lab.
“Gabrielle?” Xena asked quietly, breaking Gabrielle out of her reverie.
“Here,” Xena said, handing over her list.
“Oh, right,” Gabrielle said with a sheepish look.
Things were strained and weird at first, but they’d gotten along, moving from motel to motel and picking up odd jobs here and there. They were able to earn enough cash to supplement what they’d taken from the lab, but they were starting to run short.
The money problems didn’t both Gabrielle nearly as much as the fact that their romantic connection just … wasn’t there. But it was when the series finale of the TV show had aired that their partnership and friendship had started to show signs of strain as well. Neither of them remembered anything after locking Ares up in his tomb, but Xena confessed that the part of her history which had been revealed in that episode, the story of Akemi, was pretty much accurate.
So was the rest of the story accurate as well? Is that how their journey ended? Did Xena really die and leave her alone with an urn full of ash?
Shaking her head, Gabrielle shied away from that train of thought. She’d worried it over and over in her mind, and was no closer to a solution that she had when it had first occurred to her, and she needed to focus on the mission: she and Xena needed jobs.
Gabrielle had already narrowed her list down to novelist, news reporter, attorney, teacher, or nurse. Though, she had also considered becoming a social worker or a psychiatrist.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said slowly, reading the three lines on the piece of paper and letting out an aggrieved puff of breath. “This is serious.”
“I am serious,” Xena insisted. “Those are the jobs I think I’d be good at.”
“Xena, ‘masked crime-fighter’ is not a real job. And neither is ‘starship captain,’” Gabrielle said shaking her head and chewing on her pen thoughtfully before starting to revise Xena’s list.
“What about the last one?” Xena asked, pointing out the line Gabrielle hadn’t mentioned.
“’NFL Quarterback?’” Gabrielle asked. “Xena, we’re trying to keep a low profile …”
“Fine,” Xena said tersely, crossing her arms over her chest. “What do you suggest?” she asked, carefully sneering to stop the pout she could feel coming on.
“How about a police officer?” Gabrielle asked reasonably.
“Too many rules, I hate the uniform, and I don’t take orders,” Xena said, ticking off her points on her fingers.
“So military is out, too. There’s got to be a modern job you’re suited for,” Gabrielle said, staring at the piece of paper in her lap intently. “Construction worker?"
Xena didn’t dignify that suggestion with an answer, and looked at Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow.
“Right. You’d probably have to break some guys hand or tear off some lips or something,” Gabrielle said, waving a hand and dismissing her own idea. “How about a doctor?”
Xena pursed her lips. “I’d have to go to school,” Xena said slowly.
“But you like the idea,” Gabrielle said, her eyes starting to twinkle.
“It doesn’t matter, Gabrielle,” Xena said, shaking her head. “We don’t have birth certificates, drivers’ licenses’, or all that much money left. We can’t get jobs, because, as far as this world is concerned, we don’t exist. We’re characters on a TV show!” she said, pounding her fist against the table and wishing she could break something. Anything.
She just felt so out of place here in this world. While she didn’t necessarily feel the same compulsion to go out and atone for the great and varied sins of her past, she still felt like she ought to be able to kick some ass for the greater good, but fighting wasn’t allowed. Xena sighed.
“So I guess we need help,” Gabrielle said slowly. “From people who’ll believe us, and understand who we are, and who know about the modern world.”
“Right,” Xena said, her expression going grim as her agile mind came up with only one possible solution. “We need to find those Xena fans.”
“It’s all connected,” Willow muttered to herself, crawling out from under the desk.
God, she missed her Mac. Unfortunately, it, and everything else she had ever owned had gotten sucked into the gaping chasm that used to be Sunnydale.
So if it was all connected, why wasn’t it … connecting?
“Wait, I’ve got it,” Xander yelled from the other room. “The cable line was unplugged. How about now?”
Willow waited a few moments, and then she had connectivity. With a smile, she brought up her inbox and checked her email. “Okay, we’re good.”
“Great,” Xander said with a smile, bounding into the room. “Have I mentioned how cool it is that you live here?”
“Today? No,” Willow said with a little smile.
“Well, it’s really cool. Really, really cool,” Xander said, giving Willow a big hug.
It was nice to be appreciated and understood, especially now. After the destruction of Sunnydale and the Hellmouth, the whole gang had packed up and gone off to Cleveland, which, apparently, had an unusually high demon population.
Giles had set about trying to rebuild the Watcher’s Council to find all the Slayers that Willow had activated in that final battle against the First Evil. Once found, Buffy was their trainer and mentor. Even Faith had a purpose as Buffy’s very able and snarky assistant. Everything was falling into place for everyone, with a new purpose and mission now that the Hellmouth was closed, and the latest danger had passed.
Or, rather, everything was falling into place for everyone except Willow and Xander.
Late one night, after yet another fight with Kennedy, Willow had stormed out and found herself on Xander’s doorstep, and after a bottle of rum, each had confessed something they wouldn’t have admitted to anyone else: they missed the Hellmouth.
They both felt at loose ends now that the Hellmouth was gone. Buffy had Slayers to train, and Giles had a Council to rebuild. Just where did Willow and Xander fit into this new world away from Sunnydale? While they were both called upon from time to time, Willow especially, they just didn’t feel like part of the ‘team’ anymore.
Especially, Willow considered with a rueful grin, now that she had broken up with Kennedy.
In retrospect, losing her patience with Kennedy during the course of breaking up and blurting out – loudly – that she deserved someone who loved her, not someone who just wanted to get into her pants, hadn’t been the most tactful thing she’d ever said.
But, judging from the loud cheering and smattering of applause from the other room, it just might have been the most popular.
Willow winced, recalling how Kennedy had flushed beet red and stormed out of the house. Breaking up with people, as it turned out, was a skill, and Willow didn’t have it.
It was shortly thereafter that Willow had moved in with Xander into his ‘bachelor pad’: close enough to the Slayer House to be available, but far enough away to avoid her ex-girlfriend.
“So what’s the word from the world wide web?” Xander asked.
“Oh, right,” Willow said, jumping a little in her seat and moving her mouse to stop the marquee screensaver that declared this computer the property of the Scooby Gang.
Willow browsed through her subject lines, efficiently and ruthlessly removing any spam, before finding an email from the Coven in England.
“Oh,” Willow said with a little frown, perking up to full alertness in her seat as she read the email. “There’s … something going on in LA.”
“Something? Gotta’ love those Coven Witches. They’re so specific and not-at-all-vague,” Xander said. “Is it a new Slayer?”
“No,” Willow said, shaking her head. And that made this email just a little unsettling. It didn’t say that someone needed to go, or that there was a new Slayer, but that Willow, specifically needed to go, though it didn’t say why. “Just that something’s happening, and I need to be there.”
It hadn’t just been the closure of the Hellmouth that had made Willow feel … extraneous after Sunnydale had collapsed, but the overwhelming feeling she had gotten after casting the spell that had activated all of the Slayers.
She had felt … done.
It was like, after casting that spell, the purpose for which she had been put on the earth had been fulfilled, and she honestly couldn’t imagine what the Coven could be contacting her, specifically, for.
“LA’s kind of big,” Xander said with a frown. “Any hints of the geographical variety?”
“Whatever’s going to happen is supposed to go down at the Xena Convention,” Willow said, pushing back from the desk and standing to pace a little.
“Well, that just leaves one question,” Xander said, watching Willow walk back and forth.
“What?” Willow asked.
“Can I go? ‘Cuz you’re the cutest lesbian ever,” he said, pinching her cheek. “You’re gonna’ have mad game, and I want to take notes,” he said with a grin. “And maybe pictures.”
“Game … ?” Willow asked, a befuddled expression on her face. “I … Xander!” she said, letting out an exasperated breath and blushing hotly. “I’m not going there to pick up women.”
“Oh, but I bet they’ll pick you up,” Xander said, his grin broadening.
“Xena, we’ve run around in some disguises that had me absolutely convinced that most of Greece was half-blind and all-stupid, but this has got to be the dumbest idea we’ve ever had,” Gabrielle said as they walked into the hotel lobby.
“It’s like I keep telling ya’ Gabrielle,” Xena said with a little smirk. “People see what they expect to see. Or, in this case, they don’t see what they don’t expect to see.”
“I just can’t believe this is working,” Gabrielle muttered, adjusting her breastplate and wig.
“Why not? You’ve passed as me before,” Xena pointed out reasonably, tapping Gabrielle lightly on the nose with the tip of her staff. With a jaunty little hitch of her staff, Xena strutted proudly to the ticket window, tossing her long blonde hair behind her.
Scowling, Gabrielle followed, grateful that this version of Xena’s leathers, at least, didn’t weigh nearly the same.
The only logical place to find Xena fans was at a Xena convention, of course, but that meant being surrounded by people who would just love to meet the ‘real’ Xena and Gabrielle, just like the specific fans they were looking for. And that meant disguises, which had taken up a big chunk of their remaining money. If this convention thing didn’t pan out, they were pretty much broke, especially since Xena had insisted on dressing up as what the fans called ‘S3 Gabby’, complete with ‘Gabbywhacker’.
“So,” Xena said, looking around with a smug expression as her plan continued to work. “If you were our fans who were so obsessed with us, you cloned us, where would you go?”
“Tavern,” Gabrielle said immediately, with a decisive nod.
“Right,” Xena said, nodding her agreement. “Excuse me,” she said, walking up to a group of people with a hip-twitching walk. “I’m supposed to meet some friends in the tavern. Do you know where it is?” she asked with syrupy sweet voice and a winning smile.
The red-head looked at her, and then at Gabrielle who was scowling, and then at the lobby doors. “I think the bar is that way,” she said, pointing.
“Thanks,” Xena said with a wink, before strutting off, her staff thumping on the floor with each step.
“I do not sound like that,” Gabrielle insisted, in a low hissing voice after she’d caught up with Xena. “And I don’t walk like that!”
“Did I say you sounded like that?” Xena asked innocently. “I’m not disguised as you, you know. I’m disguised as a Gabrielle fan.”
“Fine,” Gabrielle said, scowling and swaggering ahead of Xena, her entire demeanor changing into one of slightly maniacal aggression. “And I’m a Xena fan,” she grunted.
Eyes narrowing, Xena followed, breaking into a slightly vacuous smile and adding a few extra twitches and a little shimmy to her hip-twitching walk when Gabrielle turned around to see if she was following. Gabrielle shook her head and turned around, storming into the bar.
“Barkeep! Ale!” she bellowed, belly up to the bar as she slapped a twenty dollar bill onto the shiny surface. Gabrielle looked around and scratched enthusiastically.
“Excuse me, barkeep,” Xena cooed, adding an outrageous eyelash-fluttering to her shimmy-hip-twitch. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, sometime when you’re not too busy, could I have a beer? My friend here is paying,” she said, laying her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder.
“Uh … what kind?” the bartender asked, gesturing to the beers on tap.
“Uhh … that one,” Xena said, pointing.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said, her voice low and dangerous when the bartender turned away. “Do you really think I’m a simpering idiot?”
“Do you really think I’m a thuggish, loutish, public-scratcher?” Xena shot back.
“Could you just …” Gabrielle began, her voice rising with frustration. “Stop with the hip-twitching! I don’t do that. You’re embarrassing me.”
“Nah,” Xena said, waving a hand dismissively. “If I wanted to embarrass you, I’d do this,” she announced, hopping up to sit on the bar and crossing her legs before grinning broadly and bursting into song.
“Well, listen to m’story ‘bout Gabrielle,” Xena sang, her grin broadening when smiling faces turned her way joined in.
“Cute little gal that’s lookin’ really swell,” the bar patrons sang together as Gabrielle’s jaw dropped open. She didn’t know Xena remembered that little song, and right now, she was kicking herself for including it in the scroll about the event. Really, she needed to learn to self-edit.
“Perfect hair, such a lovely lass,” they continued, as Xena flipped her long blond hair over one shoulder with a casual hand, her little shimmy returning for the next line.
“Nice round breasts and a firm young –“
The end of the song was interrupted by the sound of a scream that abruptly cut off, seeming to come from the back door. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other for a moment, before they headed out to investigate, noting with consternation that two people rushed out of the bar ahead of them.
Willow looked around the lobby and sighed, wondering why she hadn’t realized that Giles, Buffy and Dawn would all insist on coming along.
In one way, it was comforting to have Slayer support, but in another, Willow couldn't help but think that, just maybe, it wasn't the Hellmouth so much as having Giles, Xander, Buffy and herself all in one place that caused all kinds of cataclysmic events.
Or, she just had too much time on her hands to think of weird and paranoid things since Sunnydale imploded.
Still, there was a sense of ... something. Something was coming, or was about to happen, or ... just ... something.
Uneasily, she looked around the lobby, but nothing struck her as being particularly out of place. Or, rather, nothing seemed particularly out of place once she had gotten used to people running around dressed up as characters from Xena: Warrior Princess.
"I cannot believe I’m at a convention for this ... television show," Giles muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose with a pained expression.
"Why?" Dawn piped up. "It's a really good show. Xena's awesome."
"I could so kick Xena's ass," Buffy interjected, smiling.
"Could not," Dawn argued. "Gabrielle would beat you up," Dawn continued.
Their argument continued, but Willow tuned them out. There was a kind of ... tickling feeling in her brain, and she cocked her head to one side, trying to make sense of the sensation. She scanned the lobby again, her eyes landing on two women talking and laughing together.
Like several other of the convention-goers, they were dressed as Xena and Gabrielle, though Willow couldn't figure out why they were wearing the wrong costumes. Gabrielle looked just like Xena, and Xena looked just like Gabrielle.
As Willow observed them, the Xena-look-alike 'Gabrielle' looked up and headed towards her, with an odd walk, like 'Gabrielle' had pokey pins in her skirt that were jabbing her in the hips every time she moved and she kept automatically jerking away from them. The Gabrielle-look-alike 'Xena' followed, scowling.
"I'm supposed to meet some friends in the tavern," the Xena-Gabrielle said with a smile. "Do you know where it is?"
Willow looked at the Xena-Gabrielle, then the Gabrielle-Xena. Something was off about these women, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what.
Reflexively, she looked out the doors to make sure she wasn’t sending vampires into a room full of innocent victims. The sun was setting, but she had seen them walk in a few minutes before, so unless they were wearing the super-deluxe sunscreen, they were not vampires.
"I think the bar is that way," Willow said, pointing down a hallway, above which was a sign that said 'BAR', with an arrow pointing down the hall.
The Xena-Gabrielle and the Gabrielle-Xena left, and Willow's brow furrowed.
"Come on, Buffy," Willow said, tapping on Buffy's shoulder and interrupting her argument with Dawn. "Where are we going?" Buffy asked, letting herself be led along.
"We'll just, uhh ... take the luggage up to the suite then, shall we?" Giles said, as Buffy and Willow walked away.
"Uh, Wills?" Buffy said, tugging on Willow's sleeve. "Where are we going?" she repeated her earlier question.
"Oh. We're following Xena and Gabrielle into the bar. Or Gabrielle and Xena. No, Xena and Gabrielle," Willow said.
"Uh, Willow," Buffy said, her arms crossed over her chest. "Isn't that, y'know, kind of stalker-y?"
"Huh? Oh. Oh!" Willow said, taking a few moments to process Buffy's reference to illegal and creepy activities. "No, no - no stalking here. We're not stalking at all. We're just following and observing without them knowing about it." Willow paused and thought for a moment, realizing that she had, in fact, just defined 'stalking'. "I mean, we're doing recon!"
"Recon?" Buffy asked, her expression dubious. "Are you sure you aren't just looking to make some time with some lesbian hotties?"
"No!" Willow said vehemently, even as she blushed impressively. "I'm not - well, I mean, I am, but they're not ... no, they probably are, too, but that's not ..."
"I'm just teasing you, Will," Buffy said, pulling Willow into a one-armed hug and leading her gaping and embarrassed friend into the bar. "They give you a wiggins?"
"Yes," Willow said, with a great sense of relief.
"They set off your witch-y sense, that's good enough for me," Buffy said decisively. "Let's start looking for them," she said as they stepped into the bar.
"Shouldn't be too hard," Willow said when she saw the Xena-Gabrielle sitting on the bar and leading the convention-goers in a song.
The song - some kind of tribute to Gabrielle that, disturbingly, Buffy knew all the words to - was cut short by a scream from the alley out the back door.
The Scooby Reflex kicked in, and Willow and Buffy found themselves running towards danger once again.
"I knew something was about to happen," Willow muttered as Buffy burst through the back door, Willow right on her heels.
"Oh, no you don't," Buffy said immediately springing into action.
There were four vampires in the alley, surrounding a fifth who had a young woman in his arms, his hand clamped over her mouth as he leaned his face in towards her neck.
Buffy kicked one vampire out of her way, sending him flying into a brick wall as she rushed to the center to face the vampire who tossed his hostage aside to meet Buffy's charge.
Willow felt something slam into her back, and turned to see the Xena-Gabrielle and the Gabrielle-Xena pushing their way into the alley. Glancing behind them, Willow saw curious fans crowding the doorway and trying to push their way through.
"Nothing to see here! Nothing to see!" Willow said, waving her arms wildly and standing in their way, as the Xena-Gabrielle and the Gabrielle-Xena slipped by.
The unmistakable sound of Xena's war cry sounded, and Willow risked a glance behind her to see the Gabrielle-Xena darting into the fray to get the hostage to safety while Buffy and Xena-Gabrielle were fighting back to back in the middle of the circle of vampires.
"Come on, boys! My mother punches harder than that!" Xena yelled, egging them on.
"It's just ... ummm ... a rehearsal. For a skit!" Willow said, trying to close the door that led back into the bar.
"Right. Like a play," the Gabrielle-Xena said, helping Willow to close the door once the young woman had run. Gabrielle turned towards the fight and shouted out directions, waving a fist dramatically. "More drama. More anger! Remember, these women have humiliated you time and again! Let's see some fury!"
"So, ummm ... really, y'see, you can't see this now, because it's a skit for later," Willow said in a rush, finally getting the door closed with Gabrielle’s help.
She leaned back against it, and turned her attention towards the fight.
Buffy had a stake in one hand but was having a hard time getting the opening she needed. The Xena-Gabrielle had been fighting with her Gabbywhacker, but it had broken in her hands, and she was now using it like a pair of chobos.
Willow and the Gabrielle-Xena both winced when one of the vampires got in a lucky shot, knocking Xena back a step.
"What's with the bumpy faces?" Gabrielle asked. She didn't realize she had spoken in Ancient Greek.
Willow turned her head sharply, looking at the Gabrielle-Xena speculatively. Could she be ... ?
"Umm ... They're bacchae. Sort of," Willow said, quickly translating her reply.
"There's no such thing as bacchae," Gabrielle said, shooting Willow a look.
"Didn't you write a scroll about bacchae... ?" Willow asked slowly. Ancient Greek was by no means her best language.
"Not everything I wrote was a true story," Gabrielle said, shaking her head.
"Hey! Less non-English chatter! More with the helping!" Buffy yelled, ducking a swing and finally slamming her stake home into one of the vampire's chests.
"Kinda' holding back the spectators here," Willow called back.
The fight stopped as the vampire disappeared in an impressive explosion of ash.
"What was that?" Xena asked, narrowing her eyes and eyeing the pile of dust that had been someone whose ass needed some kicking just moments before.
"Vampires. Wood to the heart kills them," Buffy said, turning slowly to keep the warily circling vampires in front of her.
"You're the Slayer, aren't you?" one of the vampires asked, his face smoothing out as he took a large step back and out of Buffy's range.
"What's a vampire?" Xena asked, confusion evident on her face.
"They're the bad guys," Buffy said, answering Xena's question first. "And I'm the Vampire Slayer, so that makes me the good guy."
When Buffy announced that she was the Slayer, the leader did the only sensible thing he could. He ran.
"Our Queen will want news of the Slayer," the leader said, turning to run away.
"She won't get it from you," Xena said, her eyes narrowing dangerously. She bounded over to Gabrielle to pull her chakram off of Gabrielle’s belt and let fly, the rebounds across the narrow alley throwing sparks before cracking the fleeing vampire in the skull and dropping him to the ground.
The other vampires, who were clearly not so smart, jumped in, and Xena adjusted her hold on the two pieces of her broken staff and started fighting pointy-end first.
Willow and Gabrielle shared a look when Xena and Buffy both laughed, happily kicking vampires around before dispatching them handily.
Once the vampire dust had settled, Xena and Buffy stood next to each other, grinning widely at each other.
"Next time, you hold the door, and I slay the vampires, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle said, wagging a finger at Xena. "Oomph," she said, when the door took another hit from people trying to see the 'rehearsal'.
Xena gently pushed Gabrielle and Willow out of the way, then threw the door open, looking into startled faces.
"Rehearsal’s over. Scram," Xena said, slamming the door again. Grinning, she wiped her hands together and waggled her eyebrows at Gabrielle. "You okay?" she asked, clasping Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Okay? All I did was hold the door. You're the one who faced down five screaming bacchae," Gabrielle said, shaking her head.
"There's no such thing as bacchae," Xena said, confusion on her face.
"What are they saying?" Buffy asked Willow quietly. Willow, for her part, was watching the conversation with rapt attention.
"They're talking about bacchae," Willow said.
"Those aren't ... actually ..." Buffy started to say, then stopped, laughing self-consciously. "Nah, that's impos-"
"No, I think they really are," Willow said. "But there's something not quite ..."
The vampire leader groaned and shifted, drawing the attention of the four women in the alley who had actually forgotten he was there.
Buffy and Xena raced over, and hauled him to his feet.
"So ... you're really Xena? The Warrior Princess?" Buffy asked, looking up at Xena.
"Some call me that," Xena said, raising an eyebrow.
"So you can do that pinch thingy," Buffy said, her eyes lighting up.
With a little grin, Xena's fingers darted forward, pushing into the two pressure points on the vampire's neck.
Neither Buffy, who was holding the vampire, nor Xena, who was standing very close to the vampire, expected the vampire to explode in a shower of dust the second Xena completed putting the pinch on him.
"Phbt!" Xena said, blinking rapidly and jerking away, trying to expel, rather than swallow, the mouthful of vampire ash she'd just received. "That's just ..."
"Foul," Buffy supplied, finding herself in a similar predicament.
"Watch out," Willow said, looking around warily. Throughout the fight, her feelings of anticipation and something-about-to-happen had ramped up and up, but now that the fight was over, that feeling was just ramping up faster.
Buffy spun around, looking behind her, then shot Willow a look. "Try to reserve 'watch out' for when you mean 'watch out because something big and mean is about to hit you on the head'."
"No, something's gonna' ... it's ..." Willow said, before shaking her head helplessly, unable to come up with the words to describe what this felt like. She could feel her heart rate pick up, and the hair on the back of her neck raise, as she continued looking around.
"So what did that thing mean about a Queen?" Xena asked, kicking at the pile of ash she hadn't gotten to interrogate. She missed interrogations.
"He meant me," a voice said, before a figure stepped out of the shadows, applauding slowly and sardonically.
A high-pitched buzzing sound in Willow's head switched on immediately, and she knew that this was it. Time seemed to slow as she turned to see the reason she had been sent here in the first place.
Her eyes went wide, and the alley seemed to spin around her.
"Tara?" she asked weakly, her voice cracking on the name.
Willow inhaled sharply, her eyes snapping open, but the bright lights and the spinning room made her shut them again almost immediately.
She lifted a hand and gingerly felt the top of her head to make sure it was still there, and found herself very thankful that it was. The shrill ringing in her ears had lessened to a soothing ‘swoosh,’and Willow let herself drift for a moment before the sound of voices in the other room started pulling her towards full consciousness.
“So, you’re the one girl in all the world who can stop the vampires?” a voice was asking. Willow thought it was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.
“Right.” That voice sounded like Buffy. But who was Buffy talking to? Was that the “One Girl In All The World” speech? Had they found a new Slayer?
“And you live in Cleveland and train the other Slayers so they can go off and fight demons?”
“Exactly!” Xander, this time. She should probably get up. At least, she seemed to remember there was something she was supposed to do.
“And your friend with the super magical powers fainted because … her dead girlfriend is the new Queen of the Vampires?”
“Yes. That’s precisely right.” That one was Giles.
Willow’s brow furrowed, and she frowned. But what was this about a new Queen of the Vampires? That didn’t sound good …
“Oh, God!” Willow said, sitting upright abruptly, memories of the fight in the alley washing over her. “Tara,” she breathed the word, scrambling to get out of bed.
“Tara,” she said again, rushing into the other room, her eyes wild and her hair in fantastic disarray. Willow’s heart was pounding so hard she thought she might be in trouble, but she didn’t care, because the only thing she really remembered was that Tara had been standing right in front of her before she had abruptly passed out. “Where’s Tara?” she asked, looking from one friend to another, her heart clenching as she saw their eyes skitter away from making contact with hers as they averted their faces. “What? Where … I saw … who?” Willow said, her breath shallow and fast.
“Breathe, Will,” Xander said, his eyes widening as he jumped up and gently pushed Willow into a seat. “Come on, slow and easy. In… out…,” he said, demonstrating for his friend who looked like she was about to take a header again.
“I saw,” Willow started to say again, spots dotting her vision as she attempted to follow Xander’s breathing advice and failing miserably.
“Here,” Xander said, pushing Willow’s head between her knees and rubbing her back while she got her breathing under control.
“We know,” Buffy said gently, coming to kneel next to Willow and laying a hand on her shoulder. “We saw her, too.”
“Then where is she?” Willow asked, taking slow and deliberate breaths as her mind raced. “How?”
“This is a sensitive chat, isn’t it?” Gabrielle asked Xena softly, looking at the young redhead with concern. Xena nodded, and Gabrielle approached the silent trio who were just sitting there, looking at each other wordlessly.
“She got away,” Gabrielle said simply, knowing that sometimes just saying things flat out was the best way to get the ball rolling. “She announced herself, you fainted, she gloated about how she was going to destroy all of us, and then she left.”
“Tara is not a vampire, let alone Queen of the Vampires,” Willow insisted intently. “She can’t be. She just can’t be. She died right …” Willow trailed off, biting her lip and looking away from her friends. She stared at the wall, instead, trying to make sense of things.
Tara couldn’t be a vampire. Tara had actually died in her arms, from a gunshot, not a vampire, so there was just no way possible that she could have been transformed into the undead.
But Tara was dead. Tara was capital ‘D’ Dead. Someone who died of natural causes could not be brought back by magical means.
So how could Tara possibly be …
“Umm … how did you get here?” Willow asked, looking up at Gabrielle.
“We … took the elevator?” Gabrielle said, her voice uncertain.
“No, no, not here, here,” Willow said, gesturing to the room. “Here,” she said again, emphasizing the word and waving one arm in a wide all-encompassing gesture. “Modern day America,” she elaborated further off of Gabrielle’s puzzled look.
“Oh, here,” Gabrielle said, nodding. “Xena and I were cloned by Alti.” “You were what by whom?” Giles asked, taking off his glasses and cleaning them. Again. So far, it had just been that kind of day.
“Alti possessed a scientist who cloned us from hair found in the tomb of Ares. She wanted to make us her pawns in her newest plan for world domination, but Gabrielle and I got away. We started running out of cash and decided we needed to find those fans if we were going to have a chance at joining modern society,” Xena summed up.
“What she said,” Gabrielle said with a little shrug, shooting a smile at Xena over her shoulder.
Willow looked from Xena to Gabrielle, then back again. “So you weren’t brought back from magic? Not raised from the dead or transported through time, or anything?”
“Alti said she used science,” Gabrielle said. “In fact,” she said slowly, looking over to Xena for confirmation of what she was saying, “she didn’t use any magic at all.”
“No, she didn’t,” Xena agreed, nodding slowly, her eyes narrowed in thought. “And that’s not like Alti.”
“Willow,” Giles said. “I believe you asked that question for a reason?”
“Tara couldn’t be brought back by magical means, Giles. She died a natural death,” Willow said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Xena and Gabrielle are here, basically brought back from the dead through scientific means, and that Tara is here, too.”
“So you think this Tara is … a clone?” Giles said, making a face that indicated he couldn’t believe he’d just asked that question.
“Don’t you see it?” Willow asked, honestly wondering how anyone could miss it. “It’s all connected. It’s >all< connected. Except that it’s not, and it needs to be connected again.”
“I’m sorry?” Giles asked.
“It’s …” Willow said, trailing off and taking a moment to gather her thoughts. “How many coincidences in our lives are really a coincidence? Buffy saved me and Xander when she first arrived in Sunnydale. Xander performed CPR on her and saved her from the Master. I found Tara, and lost her, and went a little crazy – well, a lot crazy – and ended up with a much deeper understanding of my power, which let me activate all the Slayers.
“Is that just how things worked out, or were we placed in the right place at the right time for a reason? It’s … I don’t want to get into a free will versus destiny argument,” Willow said, raising a hand to forestall just that comment from Giles. “I’m not saying that we’re all acting out some big divine plan, but that something out there stacks the deck by putting the right people in the right place, like … like stacking dominos so that they fall down in neat little arrangements.”
“Uh … where are you going with this?” Xander asked, automatically raising his hand before asking his question.
“Tara can’t be a vampire, and she couldn’t have been brought back by magical means. Xena and Gabrielle are here, and they >weren’t< brought back by magical means. ” Willow said, walking through her reasoning. “For Xena, Gabrielle, and Tara to all be here this weekend, there has to be a connection, and there’s only one possible connection. Well, other than the lesbian thing, and I doubt it’s ‘Dead Lesbian Weekend’.”
“That seems like quite the leap in logic,” Giles said.
“Makes sense to me,” Buffy said with a little shrug.
“Me too,” Dawn agreed.
“But that would mean that Tara was brought back by –“ Giles said.
“Alti,” Xena finished for him, practically hissing the name.
“But that’s not all,” Willow said, nodding approvingly that everyone was now following her reasoning. “I passed out when I saw Tara, because, well, seeing your dead girlfriend walking around, kinda’ cognitively dissonant, but it’s … I passed out when what I felt >for< her bumped up against what I felt >from< her.”
“Like you were expecting to feel her, like she was a part of you,” Gabrielle said softly. “But you looked at her, and that part of you that’s her was still empty.”
“Exactly,” Willow said, and she and Gabrielle shared a look of sad understanding and shared commiseration. “You feel that?”
“That’s a little personal, don’t you think?” Xena asked, scowling.
“Maybe she can help,” Gabrielle said, laying a hand on Xena’s arm. Xena look at Gabrielle searchingly, then gave a slow, grudging nod.
“Xena and I haven’t felt like ourselves,” Gabrielle said. “Well, we’ve felt like ourselves, but we haven’t felt like ‘us’.”
“I can sense that,” Willow said slowly. “There’s something disconnected, but I can’t … I don’t read people very well. Tara could always read people, but I –“ Willow trailed off and gave an apologetic shrug.
“But what about Tara?” Dawn asked, her voice uncertain. “If she’s Tara, how come she’s suddenly kind of … evil?”
“Because,” Xena said, looking over at Willow for a moment before continuing. “She’s not Tara. She’s –“
“A Tara-Bot!” Xander interrupted, snapping his fingers.
“She’s Alti,” Xena finished.
“I miss the stars,” Gabrielle said softly, one arm under her head as she stared up at the ceiling, her tone and her expression pensive. “Maybe when this is all over, we can go camping. Just the two of us.”
“I’d like that,” Xena said, turning over on her side to look at Gabrielle. “But we still need to find those Xena fans.”
“Do we?” Gabrielle asked, turning on her side as well, and mirroring Xena’s pose, her head propped up on her hand. “We wanted to find people who understood what we are, and knew about the modern world. I think we did.”
“I don’t like …” Xena started to say, only to be interrupted.
“Asking for help? We were going to ask those Xena fans. Well, you were going to put the pinch on those Xena fans,” Gabrielle said. “What’s the difference?”
“They owe us,” Xena said simply.
“If we help Willow defeat Alti and get Tara back, they’ll owe us, too,” Gabrielle pointed out. “They fight … they fight some really bad things,” Gabrielle went on. “I think we could help them as much as they could help us.”
“That … wouldn’t be so bad …” Xena allowed after a long moment, turning the thought over in her mind and finding she kind of liked the idea of fighting vampires. ‘Vampire Slayer’ sounded just as cool as ‘masked crime-fighter.’
A bumping noise and a quiet curse from the outer room interrupted her musings.
“What’s that?” Gabrielle asked, sitting up.
“Shhh,” Xena said softly. “It’s Willow going off to find Alti,” she said quietly.
“How do you do that?” Gabrielle asked, her eyes wide.
“Wouldn’t you? If it were me?” Xena asked, her heart clenching at the look on Gabrielle’s face at her question. “Before?” she tacked on.
“I still would,” Gabrielle said, shaking her head sadly. “You’re still my best friend. You’re still my partner. Xena, what’s wrong with us? I miss you.”
“I don’t know, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to fix it. Whatever it takes.”
“So we’re staying with Buffy and Willow and all of them? They seem to have the best chance of helping us figure this one out,” Gabrielle said.
“Yes,” Xena said. “But we’re going to help them out, too. And we’re going to start by following Willow and watching her back.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Gabrielle said, slipping out of bed as Xena did the same. Xena had borrowed some sweats from Xander, so she just slipped on her boots was ready to go. Gabrielle, similarly, had a pair of shorts and a Xena t-shirt from Buffy.
While Gabrielle put on her shoes, Xena cracked the door quietly, and looked into the outer room, to see Willow standing there, whispering words to a floating ball of green light.
“That’s a neat trick,” Xena muttered when she saw the floating light. The tiny floating light started to move forward, and then stopped, swirling around Willow’s head once, then twice.
“What’s that?” Gabrielle asked, peeking around Xena, her sais in her hands.
“Probably a tiny magic light that will lead us to Alti,” Xena said with a shrug. “But that’s just a guess.”
“Good guess,” Gabrielle said as the light made one final revolution around Willow’s head, splitting into two lights when it was behind Willow where she couldn’t see it. One light headed forwards towards the door out into the hallway of the hotel, and the other, which Willow didn’t know was there, stayed where it was for a moment before heading towards a pile of luggage stacked up next to the couch.
“Or maybe not,” Xena said with a shrug, slipping out into the main room as Willow crept out the front door. “I’ll follow Willow. You see what that other light is doing. Catch up with me when you can,” Xena said, heading out as Gabrielle nodded.
Gabrielle went to the suitcases as Xena snuck after Willow. The little light bobbled and bounced in the air, swirling around the suitcases, but not giving Gabrielle any idea of what she was looking for.
“I guess I’ll know it when I see it,” Gabrielle muttered to herself, softly. She started pulling suitcases off the pile, holding them up to the little light, until finally, the light swirled around one of the suitcases.
“And we have a winner,” Gabrielle said, rummaging through it. She felt something spherical and smooth, and when she picked it up, the light disappeared.
It was a sphere, and translucent, with strange mystical-looking swirls inside. Gabrielle frowned at it, wondering what it did.
“Guess I’ll find out,” she said to herself. Quickly, she dumped out a little satchel from the stack and put the orb and her sais inside before leaving the room to go find Xena.
Finding Xena was easier than Gabrielle expected. She had planned on starting in the lobby, then working her way up, but she spotted Xena slipping out the front doors of the hotel.
Dodging around the drunken, singing Xena fans in the lobby, Gabrielle went outside, immediately ducking down when she immediate saw Willow, with Tara pacing around her.
“Psst!” Gabrielle heard, turning her head and seeing some branches on a bush part and Xena’s head poke out.
“What did I miss?” Gabrielle asked, joining Xena behind the bush.
“Alti talking. Lot of ‘feel the darkness’, ‘I’ll make you the Destroyer of Nations’, ‘I can open vistas you never dreamed of’ stuff. You know the drill,” Xena summed up.
“What did Willow say to that?” Gabrielle asked.
“She hasn’t said anything to that,” Xena said with a little shrug.
“Alti,” Willow said, when Tara came to a stop in front of her. “I’m going to warn you once, and then I’m going to hurt you. Let Tara go.”
“Nice,” Xena commented.
“Simple. To the point,” Gabrielle agreed.
“You think I’m afraid of you, little witch? I know you won’t hurt this body. I know you won’t risk hurting Tara. Do you know what I can do to her from here? The things I can make her feel? The things you made me feel?” Tara said.
“What are you talking about?” Willow asked, her eyes narrowing.
“Would you like your sweet, wonderful Tara to know what it’s like to be flayed alive?” Tara said, lifting a hand and brushing her fingertips across Willow’s cheek. Willow flinched at the touch, and Tara smiled, easing closer to Willow. “Would you like Tara to know what it feels like to be stalked, terrified, and hunted down … by you?”
“Warren. You were Warren,” Willow said, a sick expression on her face.
“Didn’t Buffy say that was the name of the guy who …” Gabrielle whispered to Xena.
“Killed Tara. Yeah,” Xena answered softly. “That explains how Alti knew about the Slayer and her friends.”
“The karmic cycle is a funny thing,” Tara said with a laugh, but the laugh was pure Alti, and Willow flinched again upon hearing it. “Even someone like me who gets born into a body and a mind with no mystic abilities at all, well, I don’t remember who I really am when that happens. It wasn’t until you killed me that I remembered,” she said, circling Willow again.
“And that’s when you possessed that scientist,” Willow said, turning to keep Alti in her sight. “That’s when you cloned Xena and Gabrielle.”
“And Tara. It’s surprisingly easy to get a DNA sample from the Sunnydale morgue,” Tara said with a smile. “I liked the … symmetry of it,” she added. “I get a backup body that keeps you from interfering, and has a body and mind just full of mystical energy.”
“But you’re not Tara,” Willow pointed out.
“Oh, no,” Tara said, making a tsk-ing noise. “I >am< Tara. I have her body, and her memories. I’m her. She’s me.”
“Tara,” Willow said, stepping even closer to Tara, their bodies brushing. Willow raised a hand and cupped Tara’s chin, looking searchingly into her eyes. “Tara,” Willow said again, brushing her thumb against her cheek.
“You really think that’s going to work? You’re going to call your dead girlfriend, and I’ll just … what? Fade into the background?” Tara mocked with a cruel smile.
“She’s not in there,” Willow breathed a sigh of relief, her own smile growing. “You might have her memories, and her body, but you don’t have her soul,” Willow said confidently.
“I –“ Tara said, trying to jerk back when Willow increased her grip.
“Which means I can do this,” Willow said, her eyes flashing white. “Hear me, Elders of the Upper Reaches,” Willow intoned, hand gripping Tara’s face as Tara’s eyes widened. “Elders of the Lower Reaches, Elders of the Dry Land, Elders of the River Flats,” Willow continued.
“Release!” Tara said, the energy of the spell knocking Willow’s head back like she’d been punched, but having no effect on Willow’s chant.
“The soul that is falsely seated … this soul that inhabits …”
“Darkness, come to me,” Tara said, her eyes flashing black, but Willow held on.
“Let it be cast out!” Willow said, her voice rising. “Let it be cast out!” A bright light flashed, and Willow and Tara were knocked back as the purpose of Alti’s last spell became known.
Tara recovered first, sitting up and groaning, a puzzled expression on her face as a group of vampires approached.
“That’s our cue,” Xena said, doing a flip over the bush and rushing to the fallen witches.
“We didn’t bring any wooden stakes, did we?” Gabrielle asked, following Xena.
“Nope,” Xena said as the vampires closed in. “We’ll have to improvise.”
Continued, part 2
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