“Stay behind me,” Gabrielle said, pulling her sais from the satchel across her chest and putting herself between Willow and the vampires. Gabrielle saw Xena take up a similarly protective position with Tara, but that’s all the time Gabrielle had before the fight was on.
These things were fast, and very, very strong, and Gabrielle found herself pressed back again and again, her posture defensive while she struggled to keep the creature at bay.
Weakly, Willow’s voice rose up, once again declaring that this was a rehearsal, as curious onlookers from the lobby stepped outside to see what was going on.
Gabrielle delivered a fast series of strikes with the hilts of her sais to the vampire’s face, and it staggered back for a moment, before straightening, a cruel smile on its lips. A very, very familiar cruel smile.
“Gabrielle, Gabrielle,” the vampire said, speaking with Alti’s voice. “When are you going to learn you don’t have what it takes to play with the big girls?”
And then the vampire-Alti was just >there<, grabbing Gabrielle by her shirt and spinning her around, one arm pinning Gabrielle’s arms to her side, and the other reaching up to grab Gabrielle’s hair.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled, struggling against the unearthly strong grip, as her head was yanked roughly to one side, exposing her neck.
“Gabrielle!” Xena yelled back as she tried to clear a path to Gabrielle.
“Let me show you your future, Xena,” the vampire-Alti said. “The one where your little bitch is dead.”
“No,” Willow said, raising an unsteady hand towards Alti.
Alti jerked her head up and Willow flew back, crashing into the bushes behind her. Exposing her fangs, Alti moved to strike Gabrielle’s exposed neck before she froze, a look of utter surprise on her face. She disappeared in a shower of ash to show Buffy standing there, a wooden stake in her hand, poised where Alti’s heart used to be.
“I like the future where you spend it in a vacuum cleaner bag,” Buffy said.
Gabrielle took a deep, steadying breath as the vampires attacking Xena were joined by three more. That had been a close one. Not as close as some, like the ones where she had actually died, but close none the less.
Buffy and Gabrielle joined Xena in her fight, the three of them staying in front of Willow and Tara as Tara staggered over to where Willow had been thrown, kneeling next to her and checking for a pulse. Willow’s pulse was steady, and Tara breathed a sigh of relief before trying gently to wake her up.
Biting her lip, Tara looked behind her at the fight, and how hard-pressed Buffy and Xena and Gabrielle were. “Come on, baby,” Tara said, patting Willow’s cheek.
Buffy ducked a swing, then dusted one of the vamps, but took a hit to the arm that left it numb, and made her drop her stake. “We can’t keep this up,” Buffy said grimly, ducking under a high kick and picking up her stake with her other hand.
“No, we can’t,” Xena agreed with a grunt, whipping one fist around in a solid punch that knocked the closest vampire off its feet. “I’ll hold them off. You four get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Gabrielle said, not having an opening to even spare a glance in Xena’s direction.
“Me neither,” Buffy said. “The Slayer thing is my gig. If anyone’s holding off vampires, it’s me.”
“Come on, come on,” Tara said again, patting Willow’s cheek a little harder. “You gotta’ open your eyes, baby,” she said.
“Ow,” Willow said, raising one hand to her head and gingerly opening one eye, smiling when she saw Tara’s face. “Hey,” Willow said, opening the other eye. “We never did get away to a Xena Convention together.”
“Well, we’re here now,” Tara said.
“I was planning on fewer vampires,” Willow said, sitting up with Tara’s help, then clambering to her feet. “And more gay love,” Willow mumbled before her eyes widened. “Buffy! Behind you!” she yelled, as the ashes of the vampire-Alti swirled around and then reformed.
Buffy swiveled on one foot, and spun, bringing up her stake and striking straight at Alti’s heart. Alti caught her arm, and wrenched it back, making Buffy drop her stake again.
“How about the future where you spend it in a body bag?” Alti asked, as Buffy dropped to one knee.
“Vincere!” Willow yelled, leaning heavily against Tara, but managing to gesture at Alti and trap her in place. Willow knew from personal experience that this spell was very hard to get out of, as Giles had used it on her shortly after Tara had died, but she didn’t expect it to hold Alti for long.
Buffy wasted no time in retrieving her stake, again, and defending herself against the vampires who redoubled their attacks.
“Get down!” Willow yelled, and Buffy, Xena, and Gabrielle immediately dropped in their tracks. “Excudo!” Willow yelled, standing up on her own two feet and spreading her hands wide, magical power flying from her and slamming into the remaining vampires, dropping them.
“Now run!” Xena yelled, jumping up and helping Tara manage a shaky Willow. “This way,” Xena said. Gabrielle and Buffy sprang up as well, and sprinted after Xena. “There’s an employee entrance around the side,” Xena explained, hugging the wall of the hotel and circling around the building as a smattering of applause broke out as they stumbled away from the fallen vampire. “How much time do we have?” Xena asked Willow.
“Not much for the vampires. Minute or two for Alti,” she said weakly.
Gabrielle reached the employee entrance first, throwing it open and helping Tara and Willow through. She followed up, and then pulled open another door at Xena’s direction.
They headed down some stairs, then across another hall until they came to a room.
“Xena, there’s no exit,” Gabrielle yelled, even as she went in.
“We can barricade the door,” Xena said, entering the room last, then shutting the door and leaning back against it, looking around for something she could move.
They were in the hotel laundry room, a line of washers and dryers against one wall, but thankfully empty of any employees at this hour.
Willow and Tara staggered over to the washing machines, falling down against them and sitting on the floor before they looked at each other, and then looked at the door, and then at each other again before bursting out laughing.
There was even a soda machine in one corner.
Helplessly, they laughed, until Willow just started crying, the stress of the chase and the familiarity of their situation making her break into heaving sobs. Tara pulled her into her arms and stroked her hair.
“It’s okay,” Tara said soothingly, before jumping as something slammed against the door. “Baby, you recreated our first date,” Tara said, leaning her head back against the washing machine as Willow continued sobbing in her arms. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Buffy looked at Willow and Tara like they’d completely lost their minds before spotting the soda machine and using her Slayer strength to push it into position against the door.
“Well, that’s one way to do that,” Willow said, hiccupping through the words and laughing a little as she eased away.
“Um … I’m not sure this is going to hold them, or how much time we have,” Buffy said, looking at Willow uncertainly. “Wills, can you …?”
“Yeah,” Willow said, struggling to her feet. “I think I can …” she said, moving to the doorway and the soda machine and placing her hands on the wall of the room. “Enemies, fly and fall … circling arms, form a wall,” Willow said, her eyes flashing white as she used the spell that had held off a raging Hell God for awhile. “That should hold against Alti and give us time to come up with a plan,” she said, swaying on her feet.
“Whoa,” Buffy said, catching Willow as she almost toppled over and half-carrying her back to sit her down next to Tara.
“Are you okay?” Willow asked Tara quietly, as Xena, Gabrielle and Buffy moved to sit with them.
“No,” Tara said, shaking her head. “You?”
“Nope. What … um,” Willow said, pausing to take a deep breath and wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. “What do you remember?”
“I remember that we broke up,” Tara said, drawing her knees up and hugging them to her chest. “And then we made up,” she added, a little smile on her face, before it disappeared abruptly. “And then I died in your arms.”
“Yeah,” Willow said, her voice ragged as tears welled up in her eyes again. “That’s right,” she said, sniffling.
“And I know what happened next,” Tara said, looking at Willow with sad eyes. “I know that you turned to dark magic. That you killed Warren.”
“But she’s all better now,” Buffy interjected quickly. “You don’t know the rest of it.”
“Yes, I do,” Tara said, a sad smile on her face. “Alti kept an eye on all of you. She knows what happened to everyone up to the point you closed the Hellmouth. And since she was me, or I was her,” Tara said, her brow furrowing in confusion before she shrugged and went on. “I know what she knows.”
“Oh,” Willow said, frowning.
“Willow,” Tara said gently, laying a hand on her arm. “I saw you with the Coven. Umm … Alti saw you, so it’s like I saw you,” she corrected herself. “I saw you start all over again. I saw you struggling. I saw you activate all the Slayers. Willow, I’m proud of you.”
“Really?” Willow asked softly, her eyes widening.
“Really,” Tara said. “But I’m … there’s,” she started to say. “I have to tell you …” she said, shaking her head and taking a deep breath before switching subjects entirely.
“How’s, umm,” Tara said, visibly tensing. “How’s Kennedy?”
“We broke up,” Willow said slowly, a little spark of hope igniting in her chest when her words caused Tara to noticeably relax. “I know what it’s like to be really loved, and we didn’t love each other like that. I couldn’t … I couldn’t settle.”
“I can’t love you like that anymore,” Tara said, her words causing Willow to flinch.
“Because of the magic. Because of what I did,” Willow said, bowing her head in acceptance, a few silent tears escaping and running down her cheeks.
Gabrielle didn’t know the whole story there, but the pain radiating off of Willow was palpable, and she felt herself tearing up, too.
“No,” Tara said softly, reaching out and brushing away Willow’s tears with her thumbs. “No, not because of that,” Tara said, shaking her head. “In fact,” Tara went on with a humorless laugh, “I’m more pissed off about Warren killing me than anything else. I’m not saying what you did was right, or even okay, but I know enough to know that the person you are, right this minute, isn’t capable of doing that again.”
“Then why -?” Willow asked, her eyes confused as she looked up at Tara.
“The way I loved you was soul-deep,” Tara said sadly. “And I don’t have a soul.”
“What!?” Buffy blurted out as Willow gasped.
“They don’t either,” Tara said, nodding at Xena and Gabrielle, who just looked grim, but not terribly surprised, by the revelation. “We were brought back by purely scientific means. Nothing mystical in the cloning process, so …”
“Then why do they remember things? Why do you remember?” Buffy asked.
“I don’t … there’s some kind of … I don’t know. Genetic memory, I guess?” Tara said uncertainly. “I don’t really understand it, but it’s what Alti’s theory was. Something about our DNA holding our memories, or the physical makeup at the time, or something. So we remember everything up to that time.”
“The last thing we remember is locking Ares in his tomb,” Gabrielle said. “And that’s where Alti got our hair to clone us.”
“And she got my DNA from the morgue, so I remember everything,” Tara said.
“Wait … we just have to put your souls back, right?” Buffy asked, a smile starting to grow on her face as Willow’s eyes started to widen. “Good thing we’ve got someone with lots of soul-restoration experience right here.”
“What? No!” Willow said, shaking her head vehemently.
“Why not?” Xena asked, glaring at Willow. “If that’s what’s wrong with us …”
“It’s … it’s complicated,” Willow said, looking around and four sets of eyes that stared at her in bewilderment. “What if your souls are … in Heaven?” she said, looking at Buffy, who had an expression of sudden understanding on her face. “How traumatic would it be for your souls to get pulled out of perfect peace and contentment and put back here on Earth?”
“But I got over it,” Buffy said after a moment.
“No, no, no,” Willow said, shaking her head vehemently, crawling away backwards from Buffy until she ran into a wall, then curling in on herself. “I am not doing that spell. I’m not!”
“Willow,” Buffy started to say, only to be interrupted.
“No!” Willow yelled. “Bringing back dead souls is wrong! It’s wrong, and I can’t … I won’t!”
A booming noise echoed through the room, and Willow’s head snapped up. “She’s here,” she said, her eyes wide with panic. “I can’t … I can’t,” Willow said.
“We just ran out of time,” Buffy said, stepping to the soda machine, Xena and Gabrielle at her heels. “We need a plan, and we need it now.”
“Baby, you need to calm down,” Tara said softly, moving to sit with Willow and stroking her hair. “We’re going to need your help. You have to pull it together. You can do it.”
Xena looked around the room, Gabrielle next to her, and Buffy in front of her. The vampires were battering on Willow’s magical barrier, and she smiled.
“I think we should -” Buffy said, turning around, her words cut off by Xena’s fist in her face, which dropped Buffy to the floor immediately.
“Xena! What are you doing?” Gabrielle yelled, her eyes wide.
“Xena’s not home. Would you like to leave a message?” Xena asked, smiling Alti’s cruel smile.
“Uh, Willow,” Tara said, pulling Willow’s head up to look her in the face. “We have a big problem, and I can’t cast magic without a soul. Please. I need you.” But those were the magic words, at least for Willow. Tara needed her. And if Tara needed her, Willow wasn’t going to let her down again.
“Xena, don’t do this,” Gabrielle said, pulling her sais and backing up towards the young witches as Xena tried to edge around her.
“Don’t do what, Gabrielle? This?” Xena asked, flipping over Gabrielle’s head and landing in front of the witches.
“No you don’t,” Gabrielle said, executing a leg sweep and dropping Xena.
“I was going to kill Tara first, but I think I’ll start with you,” Xena said, turning her head to glare at Gabrielle.
“Vincire!” Willow said, throwing a hand out to gesture at Xena, making a mental note to thank Giles some time for teaching her that one. She crawled over to Xena prone forms, and put her hands on her head. “Hear me, Elders of the Upper Reaches! Elders of the Lower Reaches!” Willow called, her voice harsh. “Elders of the Dry Land! Elders of the River Flats! The soul that is falsely seated … this soul that inhabits … let it be cast out!”
“I’ll just come back,” Alti hissed. “You can’t stop me, little witch!”
“Let it be cast out!” Willow yelled, and Xena shuddered, as Alti’s soul was expelled.
“She’s right,” Tara said. “We don’t have souls. We’re like … a soul void. There’s nothing to stop Alti, or something else, from possessing any one of us again.”
“I need some time,” Willow said, looking around as if searching for inspiration. “Solutum,” she said as an afterthought, freeing Xena from the spell that held her immobile.
“Thanks,” Xena said dryly.
“The disinvite spell?” Tara suggested. “It’s not perfect, but it should stall her.”
“Help me?” Willow asked, holding out a hand.
“I can’t,” Tara said, her voice trembling. “Without my soul, I have no magic.”
Willow took in a sharp breath, wondering why she hadn’t thought of that. Of course not. Magic was a connection between the mind, the body, and the soul. If any of the three were missing, magic wouldn’t be possible, which is why Alti in Warren or that scientist who she had possessed to make the clones had been unable to cast spells.
Willow nodded, and began the spell herself. “His verbes, consensus recissus est,” Willow chanted three times, touching Tara, Gabrielle, and Xena each in turn. “That might hold her for awhile, but …”
“Then we need our souls,” Gabrielle said, kneeling in front of Willow. “We can’t just be … waiting for Alti to possess us.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking me,” Willow said, her jaw clenching and tears welling up in her eyes.
“But I do,” Tara said, taking Willow’s hand and holding Willow’s gaze with her own. “Listen,” Tara said, holding up a hand and putting a pre-emptive finger against Willow’s lips. “Just let me say this, and then it’s up to you. I won’t push you, you know that.” Willow nodded and Tara continued. “I can’t see you anymore,” Tara said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t feel you anymore. I used to see your beautiful aura, and feel you here,” she said, putting her hand over her heart. “And now I don’t. I feel like I’m only half alive, Willow, and I don’t want to live like that. I’d rather be dead than go on like I am right now.”
Willow felt like she’d been punched in the gut. Nanoseconds seemed to stretch into eternity, emotions and thoughts swirling around until she didn’t know where to even begin in sorting through what any of them meant.
But that all receded as she looked into Tara’s eyes and saw the perfect and total sincerity there. Tara meant this. Tara meant that she would rather not be alive than live the half-life she had now. Tara meant, though she hadn’t said, that she’d take steps to make sure she didn’t live the half-life she had now. And, Tara meant that now that she had had her say, the decision was entirely Willow’s.
“Tara,” Willow said, her voice soft and pleading. “You don’t know what this will be like. You don’t know that this might not be … worse.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tara said. “This isn’t just unbearable. It’s also dangerous. We can’t afford for Alti to get back in here.”
Buffy groaned and sat up. “What’d I miss?” she asked in a daze. “What hit me?”
“I did,” Xena said with an apologetic look. “Alti possessed me.”
As if her name conjured up her presence, the booming noises of the vampires slamming against the magical barrier resumed.
“We’re out of time,” Buffy pointed out again, watching the room warily..
“I’d need an Orb of Thesulah, and –“
“Is that what this is?” Gabrielle asked, rummaging in her satchel and pulling out the sphere thingy she had found by following the tiny little green light.
“Where did you -?” Willow asked, automatically taking the Orb, the last of her practical objections crumbling, as she held in her hand everything she would need to cast this spell.
“Tell you what,” Xena said. “You can do me and Gabrielle first. See how we react to it,” she offered.
“Please,” Gabrielle added, taking Xena’s hand and looking at Willow. “I agree with Tara. I can’t go through the rest of this lifetime with Xena right next to me, but not a >part< of me anymore.”
“I …Are you sure?” a scared Willow asked, looking to Tara, who just nodded.
Willow wondered if >she< was sure. Willow needed time to think, and to plan. She did better with a plan. This was all so very … sudden. But the lack of time couldn’t be helped, and the decision was hers and hers alone. But was that right? These people were clones, but they were >people<. Shouldn’t the decision really be theirs?
She looked at Tara and asked herself the only question that really mattered: could she deny Tara possession of her own soul, when the lack of it made this new life not worth living?
“All right,” Willow said finally, her lips thinning as she pressed them together.
“Do you need anything… ?” Buffy asked.
“Really, I just need this,” Willow said. Screwing up her courage, she raised the Orb in her hands. “I think … I think I can restore you both at once, because your souls are intertwined. Is that okay? We’re almost out of time,” she said, turning to Xena and Gabrielle.
“Yes,” the both said, looking at each other.
“Okay. Here we go,” Willow said, closing her eyes and reciting these words from memory, and altering them slightly. The original spell was a curse, after all. “Quod perditum est, invenietur,” Willow said, her words soft. “Not dead … nor not wholly of the living. Spirits of the interregnum, I call.”
Willow’s voice grew stronger as she continued, the words pouring forth from her as the soda machine started to shake.
“These souls, I call. Xena! Gabrielle!” Willow said, her eyes flashing white for a moment as the Orb of Thesulah started to glow in her hands, two lights just visible within.
“Te emplor, Doamne, nu ignora ace asta rugaminte. Nici mort, nici al finite quamtotious,” she continued, the two lights glowing brighter and swirling in the depths of the orb as the soda machine blocking the door rocked wildly. “Lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-I va transporta, sufletul la lemma. Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie!”
A wind rose up from nowhere, blowing Willow’s hair back from her face as Buffy ran to the door, adding her strength to the barricade against the vampires.
“Acum! Acum!” Willow finished on a shout, the lights flying free of the orb and racing to Xena and Gabrielle. They staggered back a step, their eyes glowing orange and Gabrielle dropped to one knee, both women gasping.
The wind died down and Willow fell forward, cradling the Orb in her hands and breathing heavily, her eyes still closed as she rested. Tara went to her side, sitting next to her and placing one hand on her back, rubbing soothing circles.
“Gabrielle?” Xena asked, her expression one of pure joy as she fell to her knees at Gabrielle’s side and reached out a shaking hand to touch her bowed head. “Gabrielle?”
“Xena?” Gabrielle said, raising her head, tears falling down her face. “You … you left me,” Gabrielle said, her voice full of pain. “You died. You left me,” she said, as the memories of her life after locking Ares in his tomb returned to her. There had been a messenger, and they went to Japa …
“I’m sorry,” Xena said roughly, her own tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she went on, her voice a mere whisper as she pulled her lover into her arms, tucking Gabrielle’s head under her chin. “I’m so sorry,” she said, whispering it over and over.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said, turning her face into Xena’s neck and breathing her in. “Never again. Never again. I won’t go through that again.”
“I promise,” Xena said hoarsely. “Oh, Gabrielle, I promise. Thank you,” Xena said, turning to look at Willow, who nodded in response. “Thank you,” she repeated, before turning her attention solely back to Gabrielle and resting her cheek against her hair.
“Umm … vampires?” Buffy said, loathe to break the moment, but unable to do anything else given the practicality of the situation.
“We’ve got a job to do,” Gabrielle said, pulling away and wiping at her tears.
“I love you,” Xena said, kissing Gabrielle for one long, perfect moment.
“I love you, too,” Gabrielle said with a laugh and more tears when they parted. They moved to the soda machine to help Buffy hold it in place.
“You okay?” Tara asked softly, looking at Willow with concern.
“Yeah,” Willow said, her voice a croak. “That just … packs a wollop.”
“Maybe you should give it a rest before doing Tara’s,” Buffy suggested, her back against the soda machine, her legs braced.
“No, I can do this,” Willow said, shaking her hair out of her eyes and sitting up straight again. “I can do this,” she repeated to herself. “Are you sure …?” Willow asked, looking at Tara.
“I’m sure,” Tara said, nodding firmly. Willow looked at her searchingly for a moment, then nodded once.
“Quod perditum est, invenietur. Not dead, nor not wholly of the living. Spirits of the interregnum, I call,” Willow said, her voice strong and her head raised.
Tara looked to the door when the soda machine stopped moving, the hair raising on the back of her neck as something tickled the edges of her hearing. She moved away from Willow and went to the soda machine and listened.
“This soul, I call. Tara!” Willow said, her eyes flashing white again, and the Orb of Thesulah once starting to glow with the light of Tara’s returning soul.
Tara heard speaking on the other side of the door, but she couldn’t make it out. The rhythm, though, was familiar, and her eyes grew wide.
“Te emplor, Doamne, nu ignora ace asta rugaminte. Nici mort, nici al finite quamtotious,” she continued, Tara’s soul darting around as it finished its journey from the upper realms into the Orb.
The words on the other side of the door grew louder, and Tara finally recognized them. “Move!” she said, pushing Buffy one way and waving Xena and Gabrielle the other. “Move!”
“Lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-I va transporta, sufletul la illa,” Willow said, just as the soda machine went flying across the room, crashing into the washing machines across the way as the doors exploded inward, one half landing in the far corner of the room, and the other smashing into Xena and Gabrielle.
“Asa sa fie!” Willow went on, so consumed by the spell she was completely unaware of her surroundings. “Asa sa fie!”
“No, you don’t,” Alti said when she stepped into the room and Buffy rose to meet her. With a vicious backhand, Alti knocked Buffy out of her way.
“Acum! Acum!” Willow finished, her voice hoarse from shouting. Willow fell back, the Orb of Thesulah falling from her hand and rolling across the floor as Tara’s soul shot forth, heading straight for Tara.
“I’ll take that,” Alti said, stepping in the way and catching the soul in her hand as Xena muscled the door off of her and Buffy managed to get back on her feet. “And that’s my cue to leave,” she said, turning to blow a kiss at Tara before disappearing.
“Did she just …?” Buffy asked quietly, her eyes wide with shock.
“Steal my soul?” Tara asked with a mirthless laugh. “Yes, she did.”
“She’s going to turn half of the Xena Fans into vampires at the convention tomorrow, and steal the souls of the other half,” Tara was explaining to the assembled group back in the hotel room. Except for Willow who was, thankfully, still unconscious. Tara was not looking forward to telling Willow that Alti had stolen her soul. “During the Q&A with Claire Stansfield tomorrow at noon, she’s going to take the stage.”
“So that’s how we’ll find her. Then we stop her,” Buffy said firmly, going to the haphazard pile of luggage Gabrielle had searched through earlier. “Giles, where’s the Big Bag O’ Weapons?”
“It’s not that simple,” Xena said, shaking her head. “Alti seems to have her powers back.”
“Well, vampires are inherently mystical creatures, and tend to be able to cast magic,” Giles pointed out. “But I would’ve expected her to have more difficulty possessing a new body.”
“He doesn’t watch the show,” Dawn said as an aside to Xena and Gabrielle. “Alti’s a very powerful shamaness, and she has lots of practice doing this kind of thing.”
“Ah. I see,” Giles said, his expression confused, belying his statement as he took off his glasses and cleaned them vigorously. “But I don’t see why she didn’t just possess a vampire in the first place. Why clone Tara?”
“To stop me,” Willow said, walking into the room, her gait unsteady.
“You should still be in bed,” Tara said, getting over to Willow’s side in a hurry and putting a supporting arm around her waist.
“Don’t coddle me,” Willow said with a frown, leaning into Tara, which took any sting out of her words. “I’m a big girl. And I need to help. She stole your soul. I knew I shouldn’t have -”
“Willow, that wasn’t your fault,” Tara insisted.
“How can it not be my fault? I cast the spell. I called your soul from Heaven. I gave Alti the opportunity to steal it,” Willow countered.
“It was my choice,” Tara said. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d rather be dead than walking around without a soul. But we still have a chance. Don’t give up now.”
“I’m not giving up,” Willow snapped. “I just - ”
“Want to waste time blaming yourself and hating yourself for something that Alti did?” Tara asked bluntly, making Willow suck in a sharp breath.
“That’s not what I’m –“ Willow protested, but Tara cut her off.
“That is what you’re doing,” Tara said, taking Willow’s hand and stroking it with her thumb. “And I need you to knock it off. I need you.”
“All right,” Willow said, bowing her head.
“So what’s the plan?” Gabrielle asked, trying to get everyone back on track now that Willow and Tara had settled their issue for the moment.
Xena raised an eyebrow, but Tara is the one who answered her.
“I know what to do,” Tara said. “But I’ll need a mirror, and some henna.”
“Henna shouldn’t be hard to find in a hotel full of lesbians,” Buffy said with a shrug. “Someone’s gotta’ be doing henna tattoos somewhere. I’m on it.”
“And I’ll get one of these mirrors pulled off the wall,” Xander said. “Sorry about the deposit, Giles,” he added with a shrug and a little grin.
“I’ll need something smaller,” Tara said.
“We’ll find something,” Xander assured her.
“Umm … I have a question?” Dawn asked. “How do we stop her on stage during the convention without ending up on the six o’clock news?”
“Now for that,” Xander said with a broad smile, “>I< know what to do.”
“God, doesn’t this remind you of graduation,” Xander asked, nudging Buffy with her elbow where they sat in their convention seats, watching Timothy Omundson fielding questions from the audience.
“Yeah, it does,” Buffy agreed, shooting Xander a grin. “Maybe we should have just armed all the Xena fans and let them take care of it.”
“That could’ve been messy,” Xander said. “But kind of fun,” he added wistfully.
“Come on, let’s move … we’re almost up,” Buffy said.
Ignoring the glares of the crowd, Xander, Buffy, Giles, Dawn and Gabrielle got out of their seats, sneaking over to the left side aisle, and then making their way stealthily and casually up to the stage, as Timothy Omundson walked off to applause. On the right side aisle, they saw three forms doing the same thing, and knew that was Xena, Willow and Tara.
In the darkened auditorium, the four of them could just make out shadowy forms slipping behind the curtains on either side of the stage that separated the actors and the crew from the audience. The lights on the stage went down, and the audience started cheering and applauding.
“Ladies and gentleman,” a voice came over the speakers. “We’ve had a change in schedule. Claire Stansfield won’t be joining us today …” the voice said, to the groans of disappointment in the crowd. “But allow me to introduce … Alti!” the voice said, and the groans turned into cheers.
“Hurry,” Giles said, leading the way as they rushed into the ‘backstage’ area to see that it had been overrun with vampires. Leading with a cross and a vial of holy water, Xander, Giles and Dawn stepped in, moving the vampires back and clearing the space around the sound board and the lighting board.
“Good morning, everyone!” Alti said, taking the microphone, three vampires spread out in a semi-circle behind her. “Today, I’d like to do something very, very special. I’d like to share something with you all that I’ve learned only recently.”
“God, is she going to talk everyone to death?” Xander asked, taking control of the sound board and putting a wireless microphone set on Gabrielle with quick, efficient movements. “There you go,” Xander said with a smile. “Who says A/V club doesn’t give you important life skills?”
“Back!” Giles said, splashing some holy water at the vampires and brandishing his cross, Dawn at his side, and Buffy on the other side of her, a cross in one hand and a stake in the other.
“What I’ve learned is this,” Alti said, smiling broadly. “The things you speak of, only in stories and whispers – the things you fear in the dark – these things are real. Vampires,” she said, her face going bumpy and her eyes turning yellow as her fangs grew into place. “Vampires are real. Who wants to join me in immortality? Who wants to join me in everlasting darkness?”
The audience went wild, cheering at Alti’s stunning transformation, clearly impressed with the special effects, especially for a live show.
Alti stepped to the front of the stage, making eye-contact with the fans in the front row, who were waving their hands wildly.
“That’s our cue,” Xander said, nodding at Buffy and Gabrielle. Gabrielle picked up two wooden stakes from the Big Bag O’ Weapons, grateful to find that her sais fighting style translated pretty well to these things.
“Into each generation, a slayer is born,” Gabrielle said into the microphone, her voice filling the auditorium as she and Buffy fought their way to the stage, dusting the three vampires in their way in fairly short order. Xander played with the stage lighting, randomly moving dimmers and managing to achieve a fairly impressive effect, with flashing multi-colored lights.
Alti hissed, and turned, the randomly flashing lights making her unable to focus on any one thing. She didn’t see Buffy until Xander found the light that would highlight his friend.
Buffy stood out in stark relief, a small blonde woman standing alone against Alti and three vampires, ready to face the forces of darkness by herself.
The audience cheered and clapped, many of the fans recognizing Buffy from the ‘skit rehearsals’ they had seen around the hotel.
“It’s time,” Tara said, looking at Willow and Xena where the three of them stood ready on their side of the stage.
“I’ll see you soon, baby,” Willow said softly, before sneaking onto the stage behind Xena. They were covered in the symbols of the Taglarin mythic rites done in henna tattoos at Tara’s direction. Those rites, which Tara had studied extensively with her mother, having to do with the karmic cycle, bore a striking resemblance to the Mehndi that Xena and Gabrielle had used to defeat Alti once before. There were definite differences in the designs, though, as these symbols were meant to allow Xena and Willow to pull Alti outside of the karmic cycle briefly, and into the spirit world, where, hopefully, they could recover Tara’s soul.
Tara was similarly arrayed, but her part would come later.
If only the showy distraction worked well enough that Xena and Willow could get close.
“One girl in all the world. A Chosen One,” Gabrielle said, as Buffy stood ready for the vampires who rushed her. “She alone can stop the vampires. Let’s hear it for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer!” Gabrielle said, and Buffy sprang into action, knocking all three vampires back as each one rushed her.
“She can’t stop me,” Alti said, starting to move towards Buffy and her vampires when Xena and Willow stepped in front of her.
“She doesn’t have to,” Willow said, as both she and Xena grabbed Alti, one hand on a wrist, and the other pressed to Alti’s chest. The Taglarin designs glowed white in the dimly lit stage.
“But Alti’s another matter,” Gabrielle said into the microphone. “So we’ve brought Xena to take care of that one, and Buffy’s friend, Willow the Wonder Wiccan …” Gabrielle smiled, shooting a look at Xander who smiled and nodded. Xander owed her five bucks for referring to Willow that way. “… who needs to defeat Alti to win back the soul of her girlfriend, Tara!” Gabrielle said, stepping onto the stage as a huge flash of light went off around Xena, Willow and Alti.
It seemed impossible, but the noise from the crowd increased at Gabrielle’s words.
“And any fight Xena’s in, well … I’ll be there, too,” Gabrielle said, stepping onto the stage and joining the fray as the bodies of Xena, Willow and Alti slumped to the ground.
Gabrielle sent a prayer to anyone or anything that was listening that this would work.
“The spirit realm, Xena?” Alti said, rolling her eyes when she saw where they were. “You can’t defeat me here.”
“Wanna’ bet?” Xena said, raising an eyebrow at Alti, darting forward and punching her in the face three times in rapid succession.
Alti shook it off quickly, then laughed, before launching into her own vicious attack. Xena just couldn’t move as fast as Alti did in the spirit realm, and only managed to block the first blow, the rest landing with ease.
Xena doubled over at the last hit, which landed squarely in her gut, knocking the wind out of her. The previous hits had all been in the head, and Xena wondered, not for the first time, why she stubbornly insisted on not wearing a helmet, as blood dripped down her face and into her eye.
Still, Xena laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Alti asked, grabbing Xena by the hair and lifting her head.
“You forgot …” Xena said, trailing off to wheeze a little.
“Forgot what? That you can die in the spirit realm? I remember that very well,” Alti said, laughing.
“You forgot me,” Willow said, appearing suddenly at Alti’s side, out of nowhere. “Vincire!” Willow yelled, freezing Alti in place.
“You think this will hold me this time?” Alti asked, but in the time it took her to ask, Willow’s hand darted out, pushing into her chest.
“I don’t need much time,” Willow said, pulling her hand back out, Tara’s soul glowing there. Because, really, Alti was right. It was nearly impossible to defeat Alti in the spirit realm, and so that had never been the plan.
They just needed to get close enough, and distract Alti enough, to grab Tara’s soul and get out.
“Solutum!” Alti screamed, freeing herself.
But it was too late, because in the moment she needed to undo the binding, Willow had grabbed Xena, and then they were gone.
Xena and Willow sat up with a gasp, and Gabrielle and Tara breathed twin sighs of relief when they started moving. Immediately upon their return, Tara’s soul flew from Willow’s hand, still affected by the soul restoration spell, even though the soul’s flight to Tara’s body had been rudely interrupted by Alti.
Tara stepped forward to meet the light, and when it hit her chest, her eyes glowed orange, and the Taglarin symbols on her body glowed white.
A cheer went up as Gabrielle staked the last vampire before rushing to Xena’s side. The cheers faded to a murmur as the symbols on Tara’s body began to glow brighter and she walked slowly across the stage, approaching Alti, her hand clasped around something.
“What we sow in life,” Tara said, her mystic incantation needing no amplification, easily heard in the entire auditorium. “We reap in our future lives,” Tara continued as Willow and Xena stood up, their own symbols glowing.
Alti began to stir, and then rise, her expression one of pure fury.
“This is our karma,” Tara, Willow and Xena intoned together, along with a few members of the audience.
“Look Alti,” Tara commanded, raising her hand and opening Buffy’s compact, showing Alti the mirror. “Look, and see your karma,” she said, standing between Willow and Xena now, her back to the audience, with Alti facing her.
“No,” Alti said, caught in the mirror, and unable to look away.
“What we sow in life, we reap in future lives,” Willow and Xena repeated. “This is our karma.”
“You who have thought yourself outside the karmic cycle,” Tara said, stepping closer with the mirror, displaying for Alti her insect reflection. “See what your place in that cycle is. Your inescapable place.”
“What we sow in life, we reap in future lives,” Willow and Xena repeated again, this time the audience joining in on the last line. “This is our karma.”
“Look, Alti, and know that your fate is to always be the creator of the thing that ultimately destroys you,” Tara said.
“No!” Alti yelled, trembling in place, her eyes locked on the mirror. “No!”
“What we sow in life, we reap in future lives,” Willow and Xena repeated. “This is our karma.”
“This turn of your wheel is done, Alti,” Tara said, closing the compact with a quiet ‘snick’ that still managed to echo throughout the auditorium. “Rejoin the wheel,” Tara commanded.
Alti burst into a shower of dust, an inky black cloud being released, before imploding back into a single point of darkness that simply disappeared.
“Tara?” Willow said uncertainly, turning to Tara the instant the spell was completed and taking a single hesitant step in her direction.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Gabrielle said into the microphone, pulling Buffy up to the front of the stage.
“Willow,” Tara said, her voice filled with relief and warmth.
“Do you … are you …?” Willow asked, unable to finish the question. What if Tara’s easy acceptance of the things she had done was due to her lack of a soul? What if this Tara, the fully restored Tara, couldn’t get past the violent reaction Willow had to her loss?
“Finally,” Tara said, falling into Willow’s arms. “I missed you. I missed you so much. I can see you now. I can feel you now.”
“Tara,” Willow said, laying her head on Tara’s shoulder and holding on like she would never let go.
“This show’s going to rock,” one of the audience members in the front row said to the person next to them, yelling to be heard over the cheers of the crowd, their words carrying onto the stage.
“So, can we come back next year?” Dawn asked, folding her new Xena t-shirt and putting it in her bag.
“Yeah, can we?” Xander asked. “Can we, Buffy? Please, please?”
“I don’t know. What if Xena Conventions are like my birthday? A big ol’ magnet for some kind of evil?” Buffy asked.
“Nothing could be as bad as your birthday,” Xander said, shaking his head. “So where’s everyone else?” he asked, looking around the main room of their suite where they packed away the goodies they had gotten during the much more restful portions of the Xena Convention.
“Xena, Gabrielle and Giles got up early and went out for coffee,” Buffy said.
“What about Willow and Tara?” Dawn asked, as giggles erupted from the room Willow and Tara shared.
The door burst open and Willow and Tara stumbled out, dressed and ready to go, if a bit breathless.
“Hi, guys,” Tara said, giving the assembled Scoobies a little wave.
“Hey. Long time no see,” Xander said casually. “Did you catch up on all your spells?” he asked, wincing when Buffy backhanded him in the stomach.
“No, we didn’t,” Tara said, a slow, sultry smile spreading across her face. “We have lots more … catching up … to do.”
Xander blushed hotly and covered his ears with his hands. “La la la,” he said, shaking his head from side to side. “I can’t hear you.”
“So, really,” Giles was saying as he opened the front door of their hotel suite, gesturing for Xena and Gabrielle to precede him inside. “You’d really be acting in a teaching capacity in Cleveland, not as field Watchers. We could really use you both to help train Slayers.”
“I’ve had worse offers,” Xena said, shrugging, though Gabrielle recognized the glint in Xena’s eye that meant she was intrigued.
“Like everything Ares ever said to you?” Gabrielle teased.
“Which reminds me,” Buffy said. “How did you lock Ares in that tomb?” Buffy asked, turning to Xena and Gabrielle. “>Why< did you lock Ares in that tomb? And why was the dark chakram there? And if that happened before the whole Japa thing, why wasn’t it on the show?”
“Well, we were traveling through Thrace,” Gabrielle said, launching into story mode as Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulders and smiled.
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