by Bat Morda
1999 Mar 16
Copyright © 1999
All rights reserved

Original Disclaimer


Xena, Gabrielle, and all their friends, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Buffy & Company are the copyright property of whoever it is that owns the show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Fox and Mutant Enemy I think. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. I'm just telling stories here, folks, not intending to rip any one off or tweak anyone's world view. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself are the sole property of the author. "Betsy Book's Designer House of Leather" is sole property of Betsy Book and is my way of making amends for killing her off in UberMadness before she got to speak any dialogue. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.


The big sex warning in this story is that there isn't any. No sex. Nada. None. Zip. If you've read any other stories by me, you might be a bit let down. But the fact of the matter, in spite of what you've heard, is that I don't put sex in my stories for gratuitous reasons only. Honestly, if sex doesn't fit in the story then it ain't going in and here is one such story. Granted, there may be a discussion of a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women that happened lifetimes ago, but you aren't getting any graphically described nookie. If that's what you're after, and if you're old enough, and if its legal in your state (trust me, it isn't in all of them)-- then by all means go read something else.


Do NOT open back panel; no user serviceable parts inside. Use in a well ventilated area. Pencils, scrap paper, and batteries not included. Cannot be read by magnetic strip readers. If surface dulls, dust with a damp cloth and allow to dry; do NOT use abrasive cleaners. If nausea persists blame it on Pestilence and consult your doctor or contact your local poison control center. Some assembly required. No dolphins were injured in the creation of this document and the contents are 100% biodegradable. Reader of this document assumes all property/personal damage inflicted upon themselves and/or other individuals/objects in the past/present/future. Please move completely across each row, filling in each and every available seat to make room for everyone. Do not look directly at the sun, as this may cause permanent retinal damage. FCC compliance is required before operating this unit, please consult the User's Manual for further instructions. Complies with TM-071074, and 18D-PMTRE-DR. The moving platform is traveling at the same speed as your vehicle. No smoking please...please stand clear of the doors...Life shouldn't be taken too seriously- you're not getting out alive. The Audience is Listening...

Author's Note:

This is my take on the episode "Between the Lines" and what might have happened if Xena got flung a bit farther into the future. To... oh, say Sunnydale, U.S.A. The question is... is this a Xena Uber story? Or is it a Buffy Uber Story? I suppose I could call it a Buffy Uber story just to get you people to read it, then come back and tell you all you were used and it's really a Xena Uber story, so nayh nayh on you. But it's just a story. Something small and insignificant in the greater scheme of things--and that's the way I like it.

This story is for anyone who's ever loved...and gotten their ass kicked...

"Chaos, panic & work here is done"

"Have courage, Xena. I'm sending you on a journey into your future. A journey to save your karmic soul."

Namia's words bombarded Xena's consciousness even as her corporeal body was shattered into a billion molecules of light. As she sped along passageways of light and energy, a few more faint words reached her streaming consciousness.

"There is a danger, Xena. You alone are chosen to fight it. You will know those who have traveled with you before. With their help you can send the evil back here where you can defeat it. Take care, Xena, your enemy is..." The voice faded.

With a silent thud, Xena's consciousness came to a halt. Dizzy and disoriented, she didn't know who or where she was. She scarcely had time to blink when she heard a voice to her right shout: "Duck, B!"

Without thinking, Xena ducked. Acting on warrior instinct, she spun, tripping her attacker. Two expertly placed sidekicks and her assailant was driven back. That was when she got a look at her attacker's face. A female, sort of. With blond hair, heavy brow ridges, yellow eyes and fangs, it was the ugliest Bacchae she'd ever seen. Inwardly she corrected herself. Vampire, was the proper term.

Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the woman who had warned her battling another fanged assailant. With a swift uppercut holding a wooden stake, the other woman impaled the creature and it exploded into ash, then vanished. At the momentary distraction, Xena's attacker swiftly calculated the odds and fled.

With a slight feeling of vertigo, Xena realized that she knew some things. Bits of information and memory that were scattered and vague, but nonetheless present.

"What's up with you, B?" the young woman who warned her asked.

"Nothing. Just distracted I guess," was Xena's reply. To her own ears her voice sounded high pitched and young. Somehow she knew the dark-haired woman's name was Faith.

"Thinking about your man, no doubt," Faith replied as the two of them started walking. In the companionable silence, Xena took in her surroundings. They were in an odd park with stone monuments. Cemetery, she corrected herself. Before long they were on a suburban sidewalk with houses, cars and shops, some closed for the night, others open and brightly lit. Before long the two paused in front of one of the houses.

"You up for a drink or something?" Faith offered, her black painted lips stretching into a playfully seductive smile. "Irish coffee maybe?"

"No," Xena shook her head. "I'm kinda tired. I think I'll just turn in."

"Suit yourself," the other woman replied. "I'll see you tomorrow. See if you can get your slaying-game back on track." With that, the other woman was gone.

Xena studied the house where they'd stopped. Obviously she lived here. Or at least she thought she did. Cautiously, she approached the front door and twisted the knob. It was locked. With hands moving on memory alone, they opened the book bag she carried and pulled out a set of keys. On the third try she got it, opened the door, and stepped inside.

The house was quiet. Her senses were sharp though, and she could detect signs of another occupant in the structure. A very familiar occupant. Slowly she crept up the stairs, and after glancing in on her sleeping mother, retired to her own room.

Acting again out of habit, she put down her book bag and light weight jacket and put them on the dresser, pausing as she did to gaze at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes widened in surprise-- she was young, blond and wore impractical clothes and garish make-up.

"Hey! Watch it!" an inner voice scolded her sharply.

Xena rolled her eyes and turned away from the mirror. Looking around the room, the odd sense of vertigo returned. Frequently her eyes landed on some unusual object she'd never seen before, but inwardly she knew what they were. An electric lamp, night light, hot curlers, curling iron, hair spray... all made her pause in recognition. Other items though were quite familiar. Stuffed animal, quilt, area rug, pillow. Her eyes were drawn again to the dresser, but this time they landed on a small drawer. She pulled it open, revealing several vials of holy water, a silver crucifix, and a wooden stake with the words "Mr. Pointy" carved along its length. A small book was also contained therein, with the word "Diary" printed across its cover festooned with rainbows and unicorns.

Putting the book aside to read later, she moved to the steamer trunk and opened its heavy lid. Immediately she saw dolls and scrap books and old Tiger Beat magazines. Removing the top level revealed the darker contents--a cross bow, several cross bow bolts, more stakes, some daggers, a mace, and more holy water. "Nice hardware," Xena mused.

Giving into habit, she reached for a pink satin teddy and dressed for bed. Settling herself between the soft sheets, the warrior princess opened the diary and began to read.

KROQ's Kevin and Bean assaulted her ears at 7 am sharp. Groggy and grumpy, Buffy fumbled for the snooze bar, musing to herself about the strange dream she'd had. She was about to settle back into sleep when she noticed the open diary on her lap. "Oh no," she groaned. She was still willing to accept it all as "just a dream" until she noticed that her teddy was on backwards. It had been no dream. She was an ancient reformed warlord.

"I plead contemporary insanity"

Rupert Giles enjoyed mornings. While certainly not a 'morning person' in his youth, and even now usually up well past midnight with Watcher duties, morning at Sunnydale High was quiet, serene, and a rare opportunity to get something productive done. In the quiet of the still library, he could clearly hear the door open and quiet footfalls enter. Turning from the bookcase he was restocking, he stared in open-mouthed amazement at the figure walking towards him.

"Buffy, what's wrong?" he exclaimed, stepping down off his book ladder.

"What?" the teenager demanded, defensive. "Who said anything was wrong?"

Giles took a deep calming breath, as much for him as it was for his charge. "Buffy, it's a quarter to 8. First period doesn't start until 8 am. In the whole time I've known you, I think you've only been to school on time on three occasions. And one of those was because you forgot to reset your clock for daylight savings."

"Oh, yeah...right." Buffy said, slightly mollified. "Well, I just thought I'd stop by and say 'hi'."

"Hello," Rupert replied, waiting for the real reason Buffy Summers was at school fifteen minutes early.

"Giles, I need that other book on advanced incantations--- oh my god, Buffy what's wrong?!" Willow Rosenberg stopped, nearly dropping her books when she saw Buffy, double and triple checking her watch. Xander Harris stopped just behind Willow, but for an entirely different reason.

"Interesting look, Buffster," Xander said, looking Buffy up and down. "Sort of Alanis Morisette meets The Indigo Girls."

Buffy glanced down, a voice saying "I told you so" primly echoing in her head. She was wearing a pair of purple Doc Martens, black leather pants, a grey top with a black and purple flannel shirt over it all. She'd brought a black leather jacket with her, but hadn't bothered to put it on since it was warm. She was beginning to feel warmer still.

Noticing his charge's outfit for the first time (Giles had become somewhat numb to Buffy's fashion choices), his eyebrows narrowed a bit. "A little overdressed for class don't you think?"

"Oh, I don't know." Willow replied. "You don't often wear your shirt tails out, Buffy, I think it's a nice look on you."

Xander smiled and couldn't help but pick on his friend. "But Wil, you know what they say about the Indigo Girls?"

Willow's eyes widened. Remembering herself as an evil vampire she panicked. "Forget I said anything," then muttered, "and I don't even like the Indigo Girls."

"If we're done with the fashion critique for now, guys, I kinda needed to talk to Giles about something."

"Spill it, Buffy," Xander said, genuine concern threading his voice. "If something's up, the whole Scooby Gang wants to be in on it."

Giles moved over to the big library table and pulled out a chair for Buffy. "Please, Buffy. If something is bothering you, I'd like to know about it. Privately if you'd prefer," he added with a pointed look to her friends.

Smiling, Buffy took the offered seat. "It's okay, guys, you can stay. I just had the strangest dream last night. I mean, I don't know if it was a dream, it felt real. But it was just too weird to be real, so it must have been a dream, right?" Pale hazel-green eyes searched those of her Watcher.

"That happened to me once," Willow blurted. "I thought I..." Willow's eyes met those of the librarian. "I'm sitting down now," she finished, quietly taking her seat.

Turning her attention back to Giles, Buffy continued. "I was in India, but I wasn't me, I was someone else. A warrior. It was a long time ago, lifetimes. Me and my...friend saved this woman from being burned alive. We hid in this house and when I turned around, the woman sent me here, saying that I'd find people to help me. That I needed to search out this big evil and send it back to where I was in India so it could be defeated. But I never got the name of the evil, and I don't know how to send it back. I didn't even want to wear this outfit today. I mean I had a nice yellow dress all picked out, but I just had this craving for leather."

Something in Giles' expression softened, and he smiled. "For those who believe in past lives, it is not uncommon for a group of people, or souls if you will, to reconnect lifetime after lifetime. Often they take very different roles in each other's lives, but they're present nonetheless. A parent can be a sibling or a lover, friend or even enemy. Its always changing. so the soul can work through all the different strands of karma."

"You know," Xander interjected. "I think I saw this episode of The X-Files!"

"Oh!" Willow added, excited. "Was that the one with the pictures of the guy from the war?" She glanced back to Buffy and Giles. "Oh, we were being quiet. Come on, Xander! Get with the program."

"So this doesn't sound crazy to you?" Buffy asked Giles hesitantly.

"Not at all," Giles reassured her. "I might add that it also isn't unusual for a Slayer to relive the experiences of a previous Slayer. Perhaps your dream was the remembrances of a Slayer who came before?"

Buffy shook her head. "This wasn't Slayeresque. We're talking total warrior."

"It pretty much explains the leather," Xander added.

"Before we start looking for evil however," Giles continued, ignoring Xander's remark, "perhaps we should research this warrior of yours."

Hours later, Rupert Giles stooped to pick a book up off the floor. He glanced at the spine and noting the decimal number sequence, put the volume back on the shelf where it belonged. Without pause, he continued his search.

"Vampires, hellhounds, anatomy of the undead, you'd think there would be a book here on simple warriors," Xander mused from the shelf he was checking.

Buffy shelved a book on Amazons. "I didn't find anything there," she reported.

High heels clipped loudly on the linoleum floor of the library. "Oh God. You guys are looking for books, what hell-mouth creature is chasing us now?" Cordelia Chase asked as she set a small stack of books on the "return" counter.

"Not to worry, Cordelia," Xander shot back. "Our flavor of the month is psycho-bitches and you're still our favorite one."

"I'm sorry," Cordelia replied smoothly. "Was that an attempt at humor? Because if it was, you're sounding lamer than usual."

"How strange," the librarian muttered to himself as he turned to check another shelf. "I just put this book back and now it's on the floor again."

"Maybe it's trying to get noticed." Cordelia offered. "Xander's always falling on the floor to get noticed."

"Twice," Xander shot back tightly. "It was only twice and that was because there was goo on the floor and I slipped in it."

"Interesting" Giles muttered.

"Really?" Xander asked hopefully.

"No, Xander, I'm ignoring you," the librarian murmured absently. "I'm talking about this book. Cordelia may be right. This is Little Known Figures of Ancient Greece by one Dr. Janice Covington." Giles opened the hard bound book, its spine brittle with age. "Says here it was published in the late 40s, this copy is a first edition." Eyes skimming the aged and yellowed pages, he found the contents. "Each chapter is a biographical sketch of some overlooked historical figure from ancient Greece. We can't be sure that this is the right book though."

Buffy walked over to Giles and gently took the book from his hands. Carefully closing it, she put it back on the shelf, leaning it next to a larger book. The two of them stood and watched it. Moments later, it tipped over and fell off the shelf. Buffy looked at Willow. "Did you do that?"

"Not me," Willow replied, shaking her head.

Buffy stooped to pick up the book. "Then this must be the right one."

Giles adjusted his glasses and opened the book. Curious, Cordelia took a seat at the library table in between Xander and Willow as Buffy watched her Watcher. "Well, at first glance it appears you've had a dream involving someone called Xena, who was also known as The Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations and Butcher of Calami."

"So she went to the Cordelia Chase Charm School?" Xander asked.

"I'm sorry, Xander, don't you need to get to 'Special Ed' or something?" Cordelia replied smoothly.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Chill guys. You know that bickering leads to sexual tension."

"And we so don't want to go there," Willow added.

Giles flipped through a few more pages and shrugged. "I can go over this book tonight. In the meantime, I think some light hypnosis might help you remember some details from your dream. Some things that might fill in the blanks and help you find what you're looking for."

Silently Buffy nodded. While she trusted Giles implicitly, she still felt uneasy about hypnosis and the vulnerability that came from it. Before he could begin however, a new figure quietly sauntered into the library.

"Hey," Oz said in a neutral voice, heading straight for the book cage.

"You're early," Willow replied enthusiastically in greeting. She rushed over to her boyfriend and, heedless of the witnesses, hugged him fiercely.

"Yeah, but I was feelin' kinda growly, you know?" Oz replied. Willow instantly released him. "Figured I'd better settle in sooner rather than later."

After a nod in greeting to the rest of his friends, Oz stepped behind a curtained off area and stripped out of his clothes, wrapping himself in a towel and waiting until the onset of night changed him into a werewolf.

Giles stepped into his office and emerged with a crystal. Once Buffy had seated herself and gotten as comfortable as possible, he put the crystal in front of her, instructing her to focus. Lulled by his soothing voice Xander, Willow, Cordelia and Oz did the same.

"And which dwarf are you?"

In the warm stillness of the Sunnydale night, Buffy took the long way home. The hypnosis had been somewhat helpful. She knew more than she dared say, at least not until she'd determined who or what it was she was looking for. Some great evil. One thing Giles' talk on reincarnation had told her, the evil could be anything...or anyone. Well almost anyone.

Standing in the garden outside of Angel's stone mansion, Buffy could see the fire that burned brightly inside. She thought it a bit strange really that Angel had such a need for fires in the fireplace. It wasn't as if his skin could feel warmth. There must have been something in the cozy familiarity of a fire that soothed some small part of the vampire's pain.

He looked up from his book as soon as she entered. She knew that she hadn't made a sound, but he'd known she was there. He always knew. She also knew why. Vampires could smell the blood of the living. The tantalizing, sweet wine that flowed through her veins. It was only one of the many things about her that tempted Angel constantly.

"Hey," he said quietly in greeting.

"Hey," Buffy answered.

"No patrols tonight?"

Buffy sat down next to Angel. While he had no warmth to radiate, she always felt warmer close to him none the less. "I'll meet up with Faith later. Right now I'm trying to solve something more puzzling." At length, she told him about her dream, about the book they'd found in the library, and about the evil she needed to search for.

"How do you know it isn't me? That I'm not the evil you're looking for?" Angel asked plainly enough.

Buffy searched his eyes for long moments. It was an honest question and one she supposed she should spend time thinking about. But instantly she knew the answer. Angel knew evil. He'd walked in its footsteps, bathed in its heat. But that didn't make him evil, only dangerous.

"I just know," she whispered. "Angel," she continued in a hesitant voice, "it's like I've known you for lifetimes. You're the other half of me. Even a demon living in your body or being sent to hell couldn't make you evil. I just know."

As she continued to gaze into his eyes, something shifted and Buffy saw someone else she recognized. "Gabrielle," she breathed.

Angel blinked at the name then his face softened and a warm smile spread to his lips. "Xena?"

"Yeah," Buffy whispered.

Angel searched the slayer's face, seeing for the first time the woman he'd known and loved. "You came back as a slayer?"

"I seem to be sticking to what I know," Buffy replied.

Angel looked down. "And I come back as a demon. I went from giving birth to a demon to becoming one myself. I guess I haven't evolved very much."

Instinctively Buffy reached out, gently touching the vampire's face and turning it to look at her. Her vibrant green eyes burned with more love and heat than the fire. "You aren't the demon, Gabrielle. Who you were was changed two hundred years ago. Even now you burn with more genuine compassion than most non-vampires I know."

Angel searched Buffy's face, his memory of life as Gabrielle returning. "Namia said something before she sent me here. She said the mendi was the key to locking the evil and returning it to where you could fight it as Xena. Only there can you destroy it. Here, it can destroy you. She also said there would be others..."

Buffy nodded. "I know. Giles said that sometimes people re-encounter each other over lifetimes. I mean, here you and I are. Together again."

Angel smiled. "Always."

"Now we just need to find out what evil we're looking for and kick its ass." Buffy interlaced the fingers of her right hand with Angel as she spoke. The vampire looked down at their twined fingers then back into Buffy's eyes.

"Just like old times."

The following morning Buffy entered the library and was startled to see her friends sitting around the large wooden table, looking startled, stunned and depressed. Only Cordelia smiled, with a smug look of superiority at the others.

"Hey, guys," Buffy said in greeting, looking uncertainly from one face to the next.

"Let me see that book again," Xander demanded, taking the open book from Willow's grasp.

"You can look all you want Xander," Cordelia taunted. "But it won't change a thing. You're the reincarnated soul of the biggest moron ever to walk ancient Greece."

Willow looked up at Buffy, barely masking her discomfort. "Giles' hypnosis seemed to have worked a little too well," she explained. "We all had dreams and remembered who we were when you were Xena."

"At least I wasn't psychotic," Xander shot back with a pointed look at Cordelia.

Cordy laughed. "No, Xander. Just a dork, which I think we all agree is much worse."

Buffy looked in horror at Xander Harris. "Joxer?" she breathed.

Xander slammed the book closed and put it on the table. "Oh come on," he pleaded. "Can't we say I've evolved, just a little?"

Willow, Oz, Cordelia and Giles all exchanged glances. "A little, sure." Oz said amiably.

"And you were?" Buffy asked Willow who looked up like a deer caught in headlights.

"Well it kinda fits," Willow replied. "I mean I was a thief, and now I'm a cyber thief. But I was a boy and all that memory has me a little wigged out. But yeah, I was Autolycus."

"I know the feeling," Oz agreed. "I was Ephiny of the Amazons and had no idea living life with breasts could be so problematic." Oz looked up at Buffy. "I think the last time I saw you, you broke my arm. I want you to know that it took a couple of life times, but I got over it."

"Thanks, Oz," Buffy whispered.

"That's not the kicker, Buffster," Xander said. "One of us is still having a hard time getting over you. Go ahead, Cordy, tell Buffy who you were."

Cordelia Chase turned to look at Buffy with a gaze that made the Slayer's hair stand up on the back of her neck. There was knowing in that gaze. Hatred, knowledge, obsession-- it was all there. "Now, Xander, I'm not upset with the fact that our dear Buffy killed me. In fact, she did me a favor."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Callisto," she breathed.

"I win this time around, Xena," Cordelia beamed. "I have my family, a car, in fact I have everything I could possibly want while you're some misfit freak who hangs out in cemeteries and sees her father when he can work you into his schedule." Cordelia crossed her arms challenging the Slayer. "And I'm May Queen, yet again."

"Think we can add some ritual fires to the May pageant this year?" Xander asked.

Buffy shifted her stance somewhat, unsure if Cordelia was the evil she was sent to find. In her gut she didn't think so. Cordelia and Callisto were annoying as hell, but that didn't necessarily make them evil.

"Oh come now, Buffy," Cordy taunted. "Do you really think you waited lifetimes to deal with me now?"

"No," Buffy replied, relaxing a little. "You're a pain, but I don't think I need to send you back to ancient Greece to deal with you. I mean here you couldn't even pass your driving test the first time."

Cordelia ignored the jibe and loftily looked around the library. "Funny, is someone missing? Your little girlfriend perhaps?"

"Gabrielle!" Willow blurted. "I totally forgot." Slowly, everyone turned to look at Giles.

"Oh, that would be so kinky," Cordelia whispered.

"I think not," Giles replied primly. "Where Buffy or Xena is concerned, I'm fulfilling a familiar role."

"Lao Ma?" Buffy breathed reverently.

Giles smiled warmly. "Perhaps you'll listen to me now?"

"So where is the irritating blond?" Cordelia asked fingering a strand of her brunette hair.

Willow's eyes grew wide. "Angel," she gasped.

Buffy turned to her, impressed. "You're right, Wil, but how did you know?"

Willow Rosenberg blushed. "Well I knew how you and Gabrielle were, you know, in *that* way... From the time you inhabited my body and all...I mean back then my body, not now my body. And..."

"In what way?" Xander butted in.

"And we all know you're like that with Angel. Or I mean you were like that with Angel and would be like that with him again only it makes him all evil and..."

"In what way?" Xander repeated.

"Okay Wil, I can follow your reasoning." Buffy interjected, trying to forestall that train wreck. Unfortunately she was too late.

"IN WHAT WAY!" Xander nearly shouted.

"They're gay, alright!" Cordelia exclaimed, exasperated. "I mean were gay when Angel was a girl. Geez, Xander, buy a clue."

Xander's eyes grew wide. He stared at Buffy. "You?!" he accused. "And Gabrielle? When?"

"Every chance they got," Cordelia added under her breath with a light laugh.

"I was in love with her!" Xander shot back, standing up and sounding wounded. "Oh no," slowly he sat back down. "Gabrielle is Angel? I was in love with someone who's a vampire. Oh this is not good."

"Oh this is getting better by the minute," Cordy chortled.

Buffy looked around the library; she needed everyone back on track or they'd waste valuable time rehashing centuries old issues. "Okay, so we know who we all were. Thanks to Cordelia's valiant attempts at evolution, we can assume she isn't the big evil I'm sent here to fight. So who or what am I after?"

A bell rang, and everyone seated at the table began picking up their books, all but Cordelia with dejected looks on their faces. "Cheer up," Giles said in a comforting tone. "To truly know who you are, it's important to know who you've been." With a glance at his pocketwatch, Giles looked back at the library clock, then addressed Buffy. "You said that a vampire ran off the other night, and you and Faith didn't encounter any last night. I'll check my books and see if this missing vampire might fit a more sinister profile."

"Thanks, Giles," Buffy replied, then nodded to her friends. "Faith said she'd meet me here after school for some training before patrol. I'll catch up with you guys after class."

"If I throw a stick, will you leave?"

A permanent smirk etched in her features, Faith sauntered up the steps of Sunnydale High. She'd had it with high school. Her education had been supplied by the streets...streets of anywhere. New York, Los Angeles, Middle America, it was all the same. Well, not quite. There was a blissful sense of anonymity in the big city that the small towns lacked. Here, in an LA suburb, it didn't matter much what happened to who. It was easy for her to get lost in a crowd. Easy not to care about what you did when no one else cared either.

"Watch it, loser!" she growled when a young man, clearly not paying attention to where he was going, bumped into her.

"Sorry," he muttered and continued on his way.

It sometimes didn't make sense to Faith why she risked her neck night after night to protect sheep like the one who bumped into her. What did she care about him, or his family or anyone else for that matter? None of them mattered. Faith was a Slayer by convenience only. It was an avenue for her rage, a way to vent her fury on prey deemed socially acceptable. Vampires. Hell, they were dead anyway. Slaying them just sent the demons back to where they belonged and let the bodies turn to ash. If every last vampire disappeared, Faith assumed, she'd just move on to slaying something else.

Her sensitive ears picked up a familiar sound. Xander Harris. Moving in that direction, she assumed that where Xander hung out, Willow and Buffy were sure to be present as well. Faith had nothing but contempt for Buffy and her friends, a bunch of squeaky-clean do-gooders. Xander was interesting in bed, but in time the over-eagerness and adolescent awkwardness had only served to bore her. Willow had possibilities, but was so dense Faith was convinced that any attempt to flirt would go completely unnoticed.

Buffy was another matter. Faith wanted to break her. Bend her to her sexual will and have that perky soul of goodness on her knees, begging to be violated. Faith laughed to herself. Buffy wasn't all that squeaky clean on second thought. She'd been violated alright, gotten it on with a demon. A little envious, Faith always wondered what that might be like. Idly, she wondered which of those two would beg the loudest.

Rounding the corner in the locker lined hallway, Faith honed in on the classroom where Willow Rosenberg taught computer science. The 'Scooby Gang', as they liked to call themselves, usually met up there or in the library. Leaning against the door frame, Faith looked in. All there but Buffy, who would show up soon enough.

"Okay, I've got my papers to grade and the lesson plan for tomorrow that I need to go over," Willow was saying to Xander as she gathered her things from her desk.

"Don't you feel like the enemy when you do that?" Xander asked, picking up some books for his friend. "Grading papers, I mean?"

"This isn't like the rest of school, Xander," Willow scolded playfully. "This is fun."

"Fun if you're an absolute geek," Cordelia griped as she turned in her paper.

Just then a new student pushed past Faith and entered the computer room. Seating herself at a workstation in the back row, she pulled a zip drive from her back pack and popped it into the computer's system.

"Writing late again, Shawn?" Willow asked the student. "That's every night this week?"

The student smiled bashfully and nodded. "I'm on a roll, ya know?"

Willow grinned. "That's fine by me. Just lock up when you're done, okay? And I don't want to see you in that same outfit tomorrow morning-- no all nighters!"

"Gotcha, boss," the student replied with a grin.

"What's the deal with the fat chick staying late?" Xander asked when they'd cleared the computer room.

"Xander!" Willow said, slapping Xander's arm, hard. "What a terrible thing to say!"

"But she is fat," Faith asserted.

Willow, who seemed to notice Faith for the first time, narrowed her gaze. It wasn't like Willow hated Faith. Willow didn't have it in her to hate. But if she did, Faith would be a prime candidate. "I don't expect manners from you, Faith. But Xander knows better. She's a creative writing student who uses the computer after school to work on her stories which she posts on the internet. I've read some and, they're... um," Willow blushed. "Kinda racy."

Faith thought about that. "Now that I can relate to. Using school property to publish smut. I like it."

"So what's she doing in the computer lab and not in the creative writing lab where her kind belong?" Xander asked with mock indignation. "Those creative writing types..."

Willow lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "She got in big trouble recently. Wrote a story for creative writing that had the Hindu god Krishna in it as some sort of fictitious character. Mr. Ravenji, the teacher came unglued and has made it pretty clear that she isn't welcome in the lab."

Xander snorted. "You'd think a religion that has a god with an elephant head and four arms could take some good natured ribbing. Religion should have a better sense of humor. Look at Judaism for example. Are we seriously to believe that everyone followed Moses in the desert for forty years and no one asked to see the map?"

Cordelia, who had been walking slightly ahead of the group, turned around and primly put her hands on her hips. "That's because Moses was a man and wouldn't stop to ask for directions. If Mrs. Moses had been in charge, they'd have pulled over to the nearest service station, gotten directions and been in the Holy Land in like a month."

Xander, Willow, and Faith all exchanged glances, each trying to determine for themselves if Cordelia Chase was indeed for real. Finally, Faith broke the silence.

"So, what are that chick's stories about?" she asked Willow.

"Well, the stories are kind of romantic," Willow replied. "Not just... hot stuff, but plot type things too."

"Too bad," Faith mused.

"Love sucks," Xander blurted.

Cordelia's eyes flashed with brutal fire. "Awww, pissed the love of your life is now a man? Face it, Xander, love is a trick nature plays on us to get us pregnant. Or, in your case, to give you AIDS," the Callisto part of Cordelia couldn't help but giggle.

"You're a laugh a minute, Cordelia," he muttered unhappily. "Love just makes you stupid," he continued, mostly to himself. "You let someone in and just watch your heart get trampled. Like some drug you can never get clean from. No one should have that kind of power over someone else."

Faith laughed. "Power is the only reason to get up in the morning Xander. Getting it, using it--watching someone else bend to your will. It's intoxicating. Forget love, power is a much better rush."

"Spoken by someone truly more frightening than Cordelia," Willow mumbled with a grimace.

Faith continued. "So, Xander, what's this about you being gay? You seemed pretty straight to me when I had you." This last was said with a pointed glare at Willow. The secret was out that she'd deflowered Xander Harris, certainly there wasn't any reason not to torture his best friend with that fact.

Xander blushed and wished Faith would just disappear. She was like a bad dream you never woke up from. It was hard for a seventeen-year-old boy to regret sex of any kind, but Xander did.

"Xander isn't gay!" Willow asserted, rushing to her friends defense. "Giles did some hypnosis on us so we'd remember who we were in a past life. Xander just found out that Gabrielle, the one he used to love, is now Angel..."

"The one he hates," Cordelia finished. "And that, my friends, is karmic justice."

Faith's eyes slid from Xander to Willow to Cordelia as pieces of a very powerful puzzle fell into place. "Gabrielle?" she said, nonchalantly. "That some sort of medieval name?"

"Try ancient Greece," Cordelia corrected. "The brat never did fit in, not even her name."

"Let me guess," Faith said smoothly. "Buffy was someone back then too?"

Xander shook his head. "She's pretty much stayed the same, she just wears less leather now. Slayer, warrior, what's the diff?"

"Xander!" Willow warned, attempting the feat between clenched teeth. "Keep it down. That's kinda personal info."

Faith chuckled. "Look guys, I've got to go check on some Slayer stuff. Tell Buffy I'll meet up with her for patrol. She can get her training in with Giles, okay?" Before anyone could object, Faith had turned and was moving off through the students to the back of the school.

"This isn't an office, it's Hell with fluorescent lighting"

"Are you sure that's what she said?" Mayor Wilkins asked Faith, pouring the young woman a glass of milk. "It makes perfect sense, you know. Nice to see life's little tapestry all wrapping up in one neat bundle. I don't think Xena will even slightly recognize me now."

Faith accepted the glass dubiously. The Mayor was one bad-ass weirdo. He said he'd been Ares once. A god. The God of War. Hard to believe, Faith told herself with an inward cringe. It was as if every rough edge, every wild, dangerous impulse had been honed away until all that remained was the danger. No fun, no thrill, just a twisted sense that this guy was smart and crazy and therefore deadly. The Bad Boy of Olympus had remade himself into an anal-retentive, clean cut politician. No, Xena wouldn't know him in a million years. Faith guessed that was the point.

"What was your sense of the others?" Wilkins asked, checking his nails for some speck of dirt that both he and Faith knew wasn't there.

"If Gabrielle is Angel, then Buffy's gotta be Xena. Who cares about the others?" Faith complained. "I want Xena, we've got the perfect bait in Gabrielle. You help me capture Angel and you can have the Warrior Princess when I've..."

"Sucked her dry?" Wilkins laughed. "Alti, my dear, you don't have a good track record of leaving much left over for anyone else. You know, I went through this once with Callisto-- and she wrecked everything. I don't want to see that happen with you." Wilkins paused, wondering, idly if Callisto was around. He stepped close to the teen, looking directly down at her. "There is only one way to do this, Alti. Don't, and I mean don't, try and take out Xena alone. If you do, you will fail like everyone else who's tried before you. It would be a great, big, bummer."

Faith tried to smile reassuringly. But it was always disturbing when the mayor tried to speak in slang. "No worries, boss," she said.

The phone on the mayor's desk buzzed, drawing his attention from the Slayer.

"Principal Snyder is here to see you," his receptionist said smoothly.

"Thank you, Karl," Wilkins replied. "Send him in."

"I came as soon as you called," Snyder said in way of greeting, then was taken aback a bit at the sight of Faith in the mayor's office.

"I'll bet you did." Faith muttered under her breath.

"Now, Faith, none of that," the mayor warned. Looking the principal directly in the eye, the mayor lowered his voice to a soothing whisper. "It's time for you to remember who you were, my friend. A long time ago when we had Xena to contend with." Snyder blinked once, then nodded. "It's time to put an end to her once and for all. Remember...?"

The mayor's voice trailed off and Snyder shook himself as if he were waking up from a deep sleep. He smiled, displaying an array of sinister looking teeth. "Of course, Ares," he said soothingly. "Xena taught me to hate after all. She taught me as a little boy. I learned my lessons well, until I ripped my mother's beating heart from her body. I never lived to be an old man, thanks to Xena. The least I can do is return the favor to Xena now. Please tell me she's Buffy. I hate that bitch."

Faith and the mayor looked at each other and smiled.

Giles looked up as Buffy entered the library. "Any luck?" she asked, looking around the book laden room for her partner in slayage, Faith.

"On finding this week's brand of evil?" Giles asked. "No. But I have uncovered some interesting theories on reincarnation and soul clustering."

"Soul clustering?" Buffy asked. "Sounds like a cooking experiment gone bad."

"It's when souls reconnect lifetime after lifetime. If karmic forces draw a lot of souls together, it's possible that something critical is going to happen in the karmic cycle that will affect all concerned. With your friends remembering who they were, I can only surmise..."

"That this is big," Buffy finished.

"Yes. Big."

It wasn't long before Xander, Willow, and Cordelia joined Buffy and Giles in the library.

"Faith said she'd meet you on patrol," Xander announced. "Said she had some slayer things to do."

"Odd," Giles commented looking up from his books.

"Probably just an excuse not to hang," Buffy surmised, trying to smooth things over. "Being the people person she is and all."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Whatever. If I had her hair I wouldn't want to be seen in the daylight either."

Taking her customary seat at the library's computer, Willow typed in her usual log in routines. "I think she just feels left out not having a past life and all." She glanced up to see both Giles and Buffy looking at her pointedly. Suddenly Willow Rosenberg felt like she'd said too much.

She would have said even more had an intruder not startled them all to silence. Principal Snyder sauntered into the library, looking every bit like a cat making his way down the rodent isle of a pet store.

"Principal Snyder," Giles said in way of greeting. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Of that I have no doubt," Snyder replied evenly. "Miss Summers, I'll see you in my office, now."

Buffy looked from Giles to Snyder and back. "What did I do?" she asked.

"Now there's a guilty conscience," Snyder replied evenly. "Consider this some pre-college counseling." His tone brokered no argument. Stepping aside, he waited for her to pass him then followed her out of the library.

"I wonder what that was all about?" Willow mused when the two of them had left.

"I have no idea," Giles murmured, watching them with concern. Unconsciously he took out his pocket watch and looked at the time. Approaching dusk. He didn't know why, but felt that the late hour was somehow important.

Angel woke with a start. For a vampire that wasn't altogether unusual. Vampires usually woke with a ravenous hunger as soon as the sun slipped behind the horizon. After years of living with a hunger he would not feed, Angel's first impression upon waking was not the burning stab of hunger but a dull ache. Now with his memories as Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia, Angel was more repulsed than ever at what he'd become. Still, he consoled himself, at least now he remembered what tool Namia had sent with him. The rich pattern of tattoos would be instrumental in trapping what ever evil it was he and Xena were up against.

With a groan, Angel rolled over. It was hard enough dealing with Buffy Summers as a seventeen year old high school student. Now, remembering her as Xena and all that they'd shared, his desire proved more ravenous than his hunger. Sniffing the air, a new signal imprinted itself on Angel's mind. There was blood nearby. Young, human, female blood. It wasn't Buffy, or Xena for that matter. That scent had a crisp freshness to it, linen pressed with lavender. This was earthier, like a day old sweatshirt and a campfire. It was Faith.

Drawing from his bed, Angel dressed in some clothes, fully buttoning his shirt before leaving the bedroom. Faith was sitting in the corner, nearly hidden in shadow across the room from the now cold fireplace. One lamp was on, bathing the center of the room in light, but the chair where Faith sat was well out of it.

"What's going on, Faith?" Angel asked, unsure what to make of the slayer's visit.

"I'm worried about Buffy," she replied.

Unconsciously his step quickened and Angel moved fully into the room. Bathed in the pale light, Angel barely saw a glint of metal before he heard the sound. His body wasn't fast enough, but his eyes were sharp enough to detect the glint of silver from the bullet that sped toward him then plunged deep into his chest. A searing pain shot through him as he fell to his knees. Before his eyes fluttered closed, Angel could see Faith for what and who she really was.

Alti cackled diabolically. "Fear not sweet, Gabrielle. You're not going to die, no, not yet. A silver bullet can't kill a vampire, but it can sure slow you down. You're going to help me get Xena. Then the two of you can share a nice long death together."

His head swimming in pain and confusion, Angel passed out.

"I'm not your type, I'm not inflatable"

Buffy bolted upright in her chair. Something was wrong, terribly wrong although she had no idea what it was. Snyder was continuing to drone on, providing a detailed critique of every facet of her existence. She didn't see the point. Nothing Snyder was griping about was new, it was all the same old crap. Trying to focus on her unease and determine what it was that had startled her, she let her eyes wander. Then, there, when she was looking past Snyder to the bulletin board, she could almost see something in the periphery of her vision. It was Snyder all right, but it wasn't. Not pushing it, she let her eyes get accustomed to the new visage. Then when she turned to look at him, she could see the soul existing in the body of Principal Snyder. It was Ming T'ien.

Made sense, she thought. Snyder made Giles' life at school as difficult as possible and hecertainly had an axe to grind with the man who was once his mother. But Ming T'ien wasn't too bright and would more than likely be working for someone else. Someone who wanted her here, in his office. Snyder was stalling her and that alone was more than enough reason for her to leave. With a groan, Buffy grabbed her side.

"You'll have to excuse me, Principal Snyder. I need to use the restroom."

"You're not going anywhere, Miss Summers," Snyder disagreed.

Buffy looked up, eyes flaring in anger. "Look, my period just started. Unless you want a big mess and a lawsuit on your hands, you'll let me go to the bathroom to buy a damn tampon."

Snyder went white as a sheet. The words "period" and "tampon" weren't meant to be heard by middle aged men when uttered by seventeen year old girls.

"Okay," he said carefully. "Let's go."

With that he opened the door for her and ushered her down the main school hallway. Stopping at the women's restroom, he patiently waited outside the door for his charge. Buffy headed straight for the far window and opened it. In moments she was through the small opening and standing outside on the soft moist grass. Without looking back, she ran. Angel would know what to do.

Buffy's heart sank as soon as she crossed the threshold to the stone mansion. She knew Angel wasn't there. She could feel his absence like a vacant hole in her gut. The seventeen-year-old part of her wanted to cry, but the warrior in her took over. Like a detached observer she took in the surroundings. There was no evidence of a struggle. She crossed the room to the light and turned its switch on. A soft warm glow emanated from the antique lamp and illuminated the living room. Buffy knelt down. There on the Tibetan area rug was a small gray patch. Extending tentative fingers, she touched the powdery substance. It was ash. Searching through the rest of the house proved futile. Everything was as Angel always kept it. Several pint bags of blood in the refrigerator, clothes neatly folded in drawers or hung in the closet. Few personal belongings or effects, certainly none out of place.

Disappointed, and not knowing where else to go, Buffy headed home. It was early, just after nightfall and she still had some time before patrol. Every fiber in her being hoped that Faith would be there, but with an odd sense of unease, she feared the other slayer may have vanished like Angel, the other half of her soul.

Entering the house through the back door, Buffy was a bit surprised to see her mother at the island counter in the kitchen, leafing through a magazine, sipping tea.

"Hey," Buffy said in way of greeting, dropping her book bag to the floor.

"Why the sad face?" Joyce asked. "I didn't think you had a test today."

The warrior part of Buffy fought against the tears that began to well in her eyes. Through the moisture Buffy looked at her mother and saw another face she recognized. Then even the warrior in her began to cry. "Solon!" she said, rushing into her mother's arms.

Joyce didn't know what to make of her daughter's behavior until the meaning of the name sank in. Like remembering a dream you'd had the night before, but until now had forgotten, it all came back, and Joyce held her daughter tightly. The daughter that was once her mother.

"Shhh," she soothed. "It's alright. Tell me what's wrong?"

"Is it really you?" Buffy asked hopefully.

Joyce Summers smiled. "Of course it's me. I didn't get to see you enough way back then, so I made sure we were together this time around. Little did I know what teenage years would be like in this day and age and I hardly see you anyway." Joyce wiped the tears and smeared eyeliner from her daughter's face in that proprietary motherly fashion. "Now tell me what's wrong. If you've remembered who you were, it must be important."

"It's Angel...or Gabrielle," Buffy breathed. "Angel is missing. I was sent back to find some evil that threatens the karmic cycle. Snyder was detaining me after school for less reason than usual and I could feel that something was wrong. I went to Angel's and he's not there."

Joyce held Buffy close once more. Resting her chin on her daughter's head, she put aside her feelings about Angel for the time being. It made sense that the vampire was Gabrielle, knowing how he and Buffy felt about each other. But that didn't make it all right. Buffy was a seventeen year old girl and Angel was still a 240 year old demon. But her daughter was hurting, her heart still held by the soul that it had been given to millennia ago, and Joyce would help.

"Your friends have gone missing before," Joyce said softly. "Any number of dreadful things have happened to them. Spike kidnapped Willow and Xander, how did you find them then?"

Buffy sniffled. "Spike got bored and told us where they were. Wait a minute," she said to herself. "Someone is bound to have heard something. If a vampire is being held against its will, someone in the evil-know is bound to be involved in it."

"That's it, sweetheart," Joyce encouraged. "Isn't there some demon or someone you can rough up for information?"

Smiling, Buffy had to agree. "I don't think I can be effective with 'the pinch' on the undead. But there was a vampire who got away the other night. I think I'll take an extended patrol. Maybe someone has heard something."

"That's my girl!" Joyce said proudly. "Just be careful." With a quick kiss, Buffy was out the door once again and Joyce Summers returned to her tea. "I rock at this parenting thing," she murmured.

Patrol was futile. The undead seemed to have gone on a holiday and it frustrated Buffy to no end. All of the usual haunts were still and silent and, as Buffy feared, Faith was no where to be found. After taking an extra lap around the park, she decided to head to Willow's. It was possible the once King of Thieves, now Cyber Wiccan, might have some ideas. "Namia said to use those here with me for help," she muttered to herself.

She knocked at the door and was not surprised to see Willow answer. Mrs. Rosenberg was rarely home, her private practice taking most of her time, and Mr. Rosenberg was usually away on business. Xander stood at the door just behind Willow, and the color drained from his face when he saw Buffy.

"I swear nothing was going on," he stammered. "Wil and I were just hanging as friends are wont to do, playing some Diablo."

Willow smiled warmly, stepping aside for Buffy to enter. "Actually, Xander was playing computer games, I was grading papers. Oz has a gig up north and I didn't feel like eating pizza alone." Immediately her eyes widened. "I totally would have invited you, Buffy, but I thought you had patrol with Faith."

The Slayer sighed. "I was supposed to meet Faith on patrol. But she seems to have disappeared along with Angel."

"You don't think they're..." Xander said with a slight head nod.

"No!" Buffy and Willow replied in unison.

Buffy shook her head. "I think Angel's been captured, and probably Faith too. I'm hoping that the vampire who got away the other night might have some info. But so far I've had no luck finding her."

"Is this a job for G-man?" Xander asked.

"Giles is book guy," Buffy countered. "After I make origami out of Ms. Undead and have some info, I'm sure he can tell us what it means. But he hasn't had any leads in finding her." She shrugged. "I was hoping you guys could."

"Say no more," Willow replied proudly. Leading the way she lead the others to her room and the Power Book where Xander had been playing computer games. "I've modified a search engine on my computer that is pretty good for sorting through the morgue records and the sale of cemetery plots. It's like a 'who's who' of the recently departed."

"Cool," Buffy remarked, taking her seat next to Willow and looking at the pictures as they flashed up on the screen. "Wait, stop!" she exclaimed excitedly. "That's her," Buffy's face scrunched up. "Who is she anyway?"

"Why is it the cute ones become the vampires?" Xander mused sadly.

Willow read what information was provided in the file. "Amy Hicks. Says here she died in a car accident, fell asleep at the wheel. Last seen alive at the Chat House dance club."

"So Narcolepsy is the new euphimism for having your blood sucked out?" Xander considered. "Nice to know what they're calling it these days."

"Well, it looks like our first stop is the Chat House," Buffy said, starting to stand.

Willow's eyes grew wide. "Buffy! We can't go there. It's Tuesday night."

"So?" Xander asked. "Worried about being out late on a school night?"

Buffy looked over her shoulder at the file. "It says she died on a Tuesday. What gives?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Tuesday is women only. And I do mean those special kinds of women." She looked pointedly at Buffy. "You know what I'm talking about."

Buffy forced a smile. "Tuesdays, gay chicks. Got it."

"Besides," Willow continued. "We're not dressed appropriately for that place. I hear it's nice."

"Oh come on," Xander countered. "We're talking lesbians here. How dressed up can it be? I'd think the only trick would be finding some clothes slutty enough if you're trying to attract a female vampire on the prowl."

"Xander's right," Buffy said with a nod, which had the young man turn to her almost shocked. "You know, Xander," she added softly. "You have evolved. Quite a bit. Now we need to find someone with slutty clothes. Any ideas?"

After loosing at 'paper, scissors, rock' Xander deftly pushed the door bell to the stately two story home in the nicest section of Sunnydale. In moments the trio heard the distinctive clip of heels on a hardwood floor; then the door opened revealing Cordelia Chase in all her immaculate perfection. "I'm sorry," she said sarcastically, "I don't remember ordering pizza from Geeks Are Us. Why don't you take the bus back to whatever rock you three crawled out from under?"

"All jokes about public transportation and the commoners who use it aside," Xander deflected smoothly, "an emergency has come up serious enough to make us ask for your help."

"Angel is missing," Buffy continued. "That might be a big joke to you, but it isn't to me."

Cordelia considered a moment. "As much as I like the idea of Gabrielle being tortured horribly, I like it more if I get to watch. I'll help, as long as I get to go along with whatever you're doing." She saw Buffy's warning look. "And no, I won't get in your way. What is it you want?"

Xander grinned. "Slutty lesbian clothes."

Cordelia frowned. "I hate all of you, you know that don't you?"

Later, the foursome stood in Cordelia's bedroom. Looking into her spacious walk in closet, she sized each of them up and down.

Willow shrugged. "I know I'm leather girl," she resigned herself sadly. "Might as well bring it on."

Cordelia nodded and pulled a pair of pants and a tight jacket off a hanger, then handed them to Buffy who in turn passed the clothes to Willow. Glancing at the tag, Buffy whistled appreciatively. "Betsy Book, designer House of Leather," she said. "I'm impressed."

Giving her that 'you're such a commoner' glare, Cordelia put her hands on her hips. "What do you want? I'll see if I have anything that big in the hips."

Buffy looked down at what she was wearing. Running pants, tennis shoes and a baseball jersey from the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco. There wasn't much to be improved upon. "I think my slayage clothes should work fine," Buffy replied. "I don't think you have any tops big enough for me anyway."

Cordelia frowned, then leveled her gaze on Xander. "I know just what you need."

In moments she had returned from her parents' bedroom and given a stack of clothes to Xander. Each took turns using the bathroom and dressing and before long they were all ready to go.

"We look like the lesbian village people," Xander moaned. "No one is going to believe for a second I'm not a guy."

Buffy looked up at him. They'd re-combed his hair and he was wearing striped orange and white pants that belonged to Cordelia's mother with a brown and yellow flannel shirt that belonged to her father. Under the shirt he wore a bra stuffed with socks and a black turtleneck shirt that matched his black boots. "Well, you do kinda look like the missing link. But we're trying to blend into a lesbian crowd. You'll be fine. At best people will think you're a hard core Amy Ray fan and at worst, just say you're 'in transition'. Hopefully they'll be too scared to ask which direction you're going."

Willow looked hot. That was simply the only word for it. Tight leather pants, boots, leather sports bra and tight fitting jacket. She'd redone her makeup like she'd seen on her evil, skanky vampire twin and felt totally ridiculous. But if her twin was any indication, this was indeed how some dykes dressed.

Cordelia had changed into a smart suit with a crisp white button down shirt, sexy but sensible shoes, short skirt, and tailored jacket. She was positively Scullyesque. Her makeup was delicate and she looked incredibly feminine. Xander had a hard time keeping his eyes off her. "You're sure that this women picking up thing is new to you?" he teased.

"I think we're ready to go," Cordelia announced. "We've got a butch missing link, a goth, a jock, and a fem. Your vampire is bound to go for one of us."

"I'm trying to imagine you with a personality"

The Chat House was located in the same part of town as The Bronze, but unlike the warehouse turned teen hang out, the Chat House was a small, somewhat narrow building. The front opened into a bar and room filled with small tables. Further back was a small dance floor and further back still was an area with a pool table and dart boards. What was unusual about the club was that there were phones everywhere. Each table had a phone and spaced evenly around the walls on either side were phones as well. Above each phone was a large number identifying the phone. The point was to provide customers an intimate way to interact anonymously. You picked up a phone, punched in the number of the phone you wanted and let it ring. Instead of a ringing sound, the phone you called would simply light up. Who ever was standing near the phone could pick it up, thus beginning an anonymous conversation. The caller could then identify themselves, or remain a mystery depending on how the conversation went. It was sort of like an online chat room, with people.

"Now remember to spread out. We want to get picked up here, and that won't happen if we look like a pack." Buffy looked at each of her friends carefully. "Xander, you take the bar. You'll probably look the most appealing to the women propped up there. Cordelia, you mingle. I'm sure you'll set off phones all over the place. Wil, you take the dance floor. I'll handle the pool table and dartboards. Keep in visual contact with each other. If someone gets some unwanted attention, pass the signal to me and I'll handle it."

Cordelia giggled. "Care to place a side bet as to which one of us gets the most phone numbers?"

Willow snorted. "Is there anything you won't compete about?"

Cordelia grinned. "Why yes. Scholastics. I bow to the brain power of SuperGeek."

"Come on, guys," Xander muttered. "Let's get this over with. My breasts are chafing."

Once inside, each of them casually headed to their target area. Heads immediately turned, sizing each of the newcomers up and down. Immediately, the phone nearest Willow lighted up. She picked up the receiver and listened, slowly turning red. "I'm sorry, but I-I'm not convinced you've earned the right to-to taste the sting of my crop," she finally stammered, trying desperately to sound casual. Glaring at Buffy she whispered. "Next time you're wearing the leather."

By her second game of pool, Buffy was wondering if this was such a good idea. She'd spoken to five women on various phones, but none of them sounded like vampires. Three had given her their phone numbers and Buffy was fairly certain that vampires didn't have phones. It was hard for the undead to maintain municipal services. Finally Xander sauntered by, abject confusion on his face.

"How's it going?" Buffy asked, casually.

"Eight phone calls," Xander replied. "Four asking what sex I am, three asking about packing, and one wanting to know when the Indigo Girls are going to be going out on tour." Lowering his voice he asked, "does 'packing' have anything to do with tampons?" Smiling, Buffy slowly shook her head. Xander slapped himself in the forehead. "Then I just missed a chance to get lucky."

"I think it's just as well," Buffy replied with a grin. Noticing Cordelia on the far side of the club, standing alone, Buffy picked up the nearest phone and dialed ninety-nine to ring the phone nearest her.

Cordelia's face lit up as she answered. "Yes?" she said invitingly, looking around the room.

"Relax, Cordy, it's just me. Have you had any luck?" Instantly Cordelia's expression dropped.

"No. There is something wrong with these women. I've had one woman bitch to me about pumps being a tool of the patriarchy. These are Prada for chrissakes!"

Buffy smiled. "If it's any consolation, I love those shoes. But maybe you'd have more luck if you mingled?"

"Don't you know anything?" Cordelia snapped, annoyed. "They're supposed to come to me. I don't go to them."

Dismayed, the slayer shook her head. "Maybe you're dressed as more of a top than you think you are. I'm sure if you asked any of the women here to dance, they'd jump at the chance."

Smiling, Cordelia considered Buffy's logic. "You may have a point."

"Can you see Willow from where you are? How's she doing on the dance floor?"

Cordelia turned towards the dance area and her expression soured once again. There, on the dance floor, was Willow moving rhythmically and slow with another woman. They weren't touching but were quite close, the blond seemingly quite captivated by the former King of Thieves.

"What is it with you and slutty best friends?" Cordelia asked Buffy. "Willow looks like she's getting some action from some blond number."

"Thanks, Cordy," Buffy replied. "And better luck next time with the chicks. But don't feel too bad. Callisto couldn't get a date either." As Buffy hung up her phone, Cordelia stood there seething, the angry smolder in her eyes attracting the attention of the two women closest to her.

By force of will, Willow refused to let the embarrassment she was feeling show. She let her body move in time to the music, shifting her weight with a roll of her hips and moving her arms gracefully at her sides. Eyes partially closed, she looked to the world like a woman completely comfortable in her own skin. Not caring if anyone danced with her, she was moving to the music for the simple reason that she liked the way it felt. There was something very erotic about watching a woman enjoy her body. Keeping her mask of indifference, Willow did note several women turning their attention to her. One couple on the dance floor, a woman with short blond hair and her partner with long brown hair, looked at her appreciatively. With sly smiles the exchange of glances made it clear that Willow was welcome to join them for the evening. Possibly for more than that.

Another blond took interest as well, this one with long hair that reached down past the middle of her back. Wearing a short dress of black vinyl, she slowly moved across the dance floor until she was unmistakably dancing with Willow.

"I haven't seen you around here before," she commented.

Willow heard her words quite clearly even though the music was loud. Instead of panicking about what to say, Willow smiled a slow sexy smile. "No, you haven't."

The woman blinked then seemed to regroup. "You new to the area?" she asked.

Willow spun away from her for a moment, casually making eye contact with Buffy across the room and showing off her flat stomach and the supple curve of her hips at the same time. "You looking for a conversationalist?" she asked in reply.

Laughing, the blond slowly trailed her finger across the knuckles of Willow's hand. "No, I'm not looking for someone to talk to. I just thought that walking up to you and saying 'you're beautiful, wanna fuck?' might have been a bit abrupt."

Willow shrugged. "I'm into honesty. I'll think about it."

The blond woman couldn't believe her good fortune and continued to dance with Willow until the song eventually ended. After a final slow spin, Willow turned to her companion and said indifferently, "Sure, let's go." With that, she followed the woman out the back door of the club to the alley beyond.

At first, the silence of the alley was deafening in contrast to the din of the club. "I can't believe I scored so easily," the blond said, turning to face Willow.

Willow smiled. "You haven't scored yet."

With an evil grin, the woman's face changed. Gruesome brow ridges, sharp fangs and yellow eyes replaced the comely features of the woman Willow had danced with. Keeping her composure Willow looked at the demon. "I forgot to tell you," she said smoothly. "I already have a girlfriend."

"And she's the jealous type," a new voice said from behind the vampire.

Startled, the woman turned, only to have Buffy's tennis shoe connect solidly with her face. Staggering back, she was about to strike when she noticed the Super Soaker squirt gun in the Slayer's hand. Two more people appeared, one on each side of her, also holding squirt guns. She was surrounded.

"If you're thinking this isn't tap water, you're right." Buffy supplied, her finger twitching on the trigger. "It's been so nice since Sparklets started delivering Holy Water to the house. Point is, I want information. You give it to me or we see if that vinyl dress is 'wash and wear'."

Trapped, the vampire had little choice but to comply. "What do you want?" she seethed.

"Angel is missing," Buffy explained. "I want to know where to find him. I know what gossips you vampires are. I'm thinking you know where he is."

Color had a difficult time draining from the vampire's face, but it did. "I don't know what you're talking about," she replied.

Cordelia laughed in a particularly Callisto like manner and pulled the trigger of her squirt gun. A powerful stream of water moved closer and closer to the vampire until little droplets of spray splashed on her legs. Steam rose from the hissing sores that appeared on the woman's legs. "Oops," Cordelia said with a big grin.

"Aghhh," the blond vampire shrieked and tried to move away from the water.

"Talk now or I'm giving you a new hair-do," Buffy growled.

The vampire panicked. "Okay, okay, shit already. He's being held in the back room of Hot Topic."

Xander's mouth dropped open. "He's being held captive in a gothic chain store?"

The vampire turned on him hotly. "Look, I don't make this stuff up!"

Buffy nodded. "I think that's what we need to know."

The vampire relaxed, but only for a second. In the next instant she felt the burning sting of a stake entering through her back, piercing her heart. Before exploding she heard Willow's voice. "That's for thinking you could be abrupt with me."

With the vampire gone, the three friends and Cordelia worked on formulating a plan.

"Where exactly is the Hot Topic?" Buffy asked.

Cordelia smiled. "It's on the third floor near the food court, right next to the atrium area. I wouldn't be surprised if their storeroom gets lots of natural light if it's open to the skylights above. Looks like little Gabby will get cooked this time for good."

Xander shook his head sadly. "There is just something so wrong about a gothic shop on the third floor. They're supposed to be in the basement."

"Didn't that used to be a Footlocker?" Willow asked.

"Xander, go to Giles' place and let him know the scoop. Willow, you and Cordelia come with me."

"Why don't I get to go?" Xander whined.

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Which of us are more familiar with the layout of the mall?"

"Okay, that was a really stupid question," he replied with his head bowed.

They were nearly at the mall when Cordelia turned to Buffy. "I just want you to know I'm coming along to see Gabrielle fry. I'm not sticking my neck out for you. As far as I'm concerned I don't owe you a thing."

There was calm resignation in Buffy's eyes when she turned to face her one time nemesis. "I'm bringing you along to keep an eye on you, Callisto. I don't expect you to help me, but stay the fuck out of my way."

"And why am I coming along?" Willow asked, trying to break the tension.

With a smile Buffy replied. "We still need to break into the mall, Wil."

Xander Harris kicked the crumpled Diet Pepsi can that lay at his feet on the sidewalk. It clattered loudly in the still night air, echoing almost as it scraped along the cement. It wasn't far to the cluster of town houses where Giles lived. Walking would prove faster than waiting for a bus and contrary to Cordelia's biting comments, he rarely took the bus anyway.

Cordelia, Callisto. Xander shuddered. The thought that there was any correlation between them made his skin crawl. Bitchiness aside, Xander had strong feelings for Cordelia. To think that his love was for the reincarnated Callisto made him feel queasy. There was a specific kind of fear that Callisto evoked in him, a fear that started at the pit of his stomach and radiated through every molecule of his being. Here was the poster girl for ruthless, vicious and deadly. Cordelia might be ruthless and vicious but she wasn't deadly. At least he hoped not.

Shuddering, Xander pulled his jacket around him tighter, but it did no good. The cold he was experiencing radiated from the inside out. He knew what it was like to kill, having inadvertently taken a life once himself. Granted, it was as Joxer and not as Xander, but that made little difference at the moment. Sighing, he remembered. Joxer. Joxer the Mighty. Xander shook his head. "Joxer the Jokeworthy more likely," he muttered.

He wanted to throw up. It was easy to remember now what a total jerk he'd been. Puppydog affections for Gabrielle aside, he'd been an annoying hindrance to his friends, his well-meaning intentions not withstanding. Still Xena and Gabrielle put up with him. Well, Gabrielle did. He suspected that Xena did only in deference to her companion.

Gabrielle. Xander's stomach did another flip flop. Why couldn't she come back as Cordelia, he wondered. For someone so good, and compassionate to come back as a blood thirsty demon-it sucked rocks. Never mind that once again would he be left out in the cold where the Bard was concerned. But now her soul resided in a creature he detested. Thankfully, Xander approached the door to Giles' house. Xander knocked loudly. He needed to hear the sound of another voice to keep him from thinking. Adolescence was hard enough without having to deal with karmic justice as well.

"I have a computer, a vibrator & pizza delivery. Why should I leave the house?"

The Sunnydale night was crisp and clear. With the moon long gone from the night sky, the silence of approaching dawn descended. Buffy breathed in the still, quiet air, holding it for a moment in her lungs then releasing it slowly. Cordelia stood across from her, arms folded, watching her intently, looking for some small sign of weakness. Willow Rosenberg sat between the two adversaries, hunched over her laptop computer which was plugged into a phone line running from a service box just outside the mall.

Glancing up, Willow could nearly see the sparks fly between Buffy and Cordelia. She couldn't blame them, either of them. They had both been responsible for a great deal of pain in each other's lives. Wounds may heal, but it takes a long time for scars to fade. Smiling to herself, Willow worked her way through various security protocols and idly thought about when she'd first met Xena and Gabrielle. Her thoughts drifted to who she had been then and how different, yet similar it was to who she was now. The King of Thieves. The thief part wasn't such a trip since a lot of the hacking she did now was stealing, or at least breaking and entering. But King? It was the 'man' part that was a mind bender. Distant memories tickled at her consciousness like an itch you just couldn't quite reach.

Uncontrollably, she blushed. From the recesses of Autolycus' mind, a memory surfaced. Sharing Xena's consciousness when the warrior, desperate to reassure the bard, leaned in for a kiss. There was more love and passion and kindness in that simple act, Willow mused, than most people experience in a lifetime. And now here was that woman, the warrior who could be as deadly as she could be gentle, in the body of her best friend. It made perfect sense in an odd sort of way. It was easy to see Buffy wearing Xena's skin. It was easy for all of them to sink into minds and thoughts of who they'd once been. And what of Cordelia? Willow wondered. How much of Callisto, that twisted, wounded, animal had always been lying just below the surface?

A blinking on her screen interrupted her thoughts. "I've got it," she said triumphantly. "I've turned off the alarm system. Once we pick the lock on the door, we're in. Hot Topic is up on the third floor, near the food court. Hot Dog On A Stick butts up against its back room. I've accessed the city plans, and the skylight does extend into the store room, so there is natural lighting."

Buffy nodded. "Wil, you stay here and work on finding a way out, keeping out of the sun if it comes up before I get Angel out. You know what I need. See if you can find it and get it to me at Hot Topic."

"Roger," Willow replied with a wide grin.

Next, Buffy leveled her eyes at Cordelia. Her tone was civil, calm, the threat radiating from the directness of her words. "If you've got an old score to settle with me, let's do it now, Callisto. I don't want you taking any pot shots at me from behind."

Cordelia smiled, one that was almost laced with genuine affection. "Those days are behind me, Xena. I'm here as a casual observer. I won't lie and say I wouldn't get a kick out of seeing Gabrielle fry, but I'm not going to help or hinder it."

It wasn't the best thing Buffy could have heard, but it wasn't the worst either. She nodded once and turned, moving deeper into the mall at a quick pace. The Galleria was massive, taking up a large block of prime Sunnydale real estate. Over a hundred shops and five department stores huddled together in the three-story monolith. At its center, a huge glass ceiling flooded the interior with natural light and a park-like atrium where shoppers could rest for a moment in a natural setting. Natural except for the lack of bugs, or birds or even weather. Even with the mall closed, it wasn't bathed entirely in darkness. Stores illuminated minimally by night watch lights cast an eerie glow across Italian marble floors and brushed aluminum railings. Buffy's tennis shoes were nearly silent on the polished marble as she quickly and cautiously moved. She stayed near the shadows, but didn't try to hide. Slaying had greatly enhanced her senses and she doubted anyone would be able to sneak up on her without her hearing them first.

Buffy had entered at a service entrance next to Nordstrom's and made her way past Banana Republic, Lerner New York and Pacific Sunwear of California to the deactivated escalator. Smoothly, she proceeded to the second level. Once there she turned right and headed past Victoria's Secret, The Body Shop, and dozens of other stores, each closed off by their protective steel grates, lowered at closing like a string of retail portcullises. Nearing the hub of the mall, she heard footfalls walking towards her, from the wing off to her left. Melting into shadows, she waited.

Moments later a lone security guard passed her and made his way down the direction she'd come until he rounded the corner and passed out of sight. A few moments later, she could hear him descending the escalator, the sound of hard heeled boots echoing in the mall. Silently, Buffy continued on her way. Eyes carefully scanning the level above, she could see the trees of the park above and skylight beyond. The huge glass dome hung open like a gaping maw ready to swallow her whole. Farther still she could make out the dark indigo of sky and the stars beyond. Without hesitation, Buffy moved upward.

Reaching the top of the escalator, she quickly looked to her left then right, scanning for movement. With no one in sight, she made her way to the atrium, knowing that Hot Topic was on the other side. Even with the mall closed, the lingering odor of the food court couldn't be missed. The scents of La Salsa dueled with those from Cinnabon and Panda Express. Buffy remembered then that she'd skipped dinner. Two more steps forward and her eyes focused on a park bench that came into view behind the now deactivated fountain. Faith was waiting for her.

"'Bout time you got here, B," she said in greeting. "I was afraid I was going to have to draw you a map."

"Faith," Buffy answered cautiously. "What's going on here?"

"Sweetheart, you're about to get your ass kicked." Faith had her arms crossed, head tilted and was the picture of cocky self-confidence.

"Where is Angel?" Buffy asked carefully, moving closer. It was clear now that the other Slayer had something to do with it. Faith tossed her head back and laughed, a laugh that was edgy and familiar.

"Oh, your little Gabrielle is going to get quite the view come sunrise."

That was all Buffy needed. The laugh and those words were enough of a clue. Her perception shifted ever so slightly and she could see Faith for who she really was: Alti, her old nemesis with her crone-like features and sinister smile; it all made sense. This was the evil she'd been sent to defeat.

"You know, I've nearly had you a dozen times over the years," Faith continued. "There was that time in England where I arrived just as they were burning you at the stake. I think you were called Joan then. And I nearly convinced Bloody Mary to have her younger half-sister put to the block but the damn plague got me first. You did a hell of a job as Elizabeth. Did you know that Gabrielle was Lady Jane Gray then? I made sure she was out of way as soon as I found her. Convinced her dad to try and put her on the throne."

"I'm surprised you didn't bring on the plague all yourself, Alti," Buffy replied. "You probably gave it to the rats."

"Charming to the last, Xena," Faith sneered. "But you see, I know something you don't, my sweet. Ares had the ability to help me out this time around. The thing that makes me different in this life than in all the others is that I have my power back."

"What power?"

Faith winked. "This one."

Without warning Buffy's mind reeled and she felt the intense blow of a side kick to her chest. It was one of the hits she'd received fighting a particularly nasty vampire. It all came back in a rush. What made Alti powerful was her ability to use past hurts on her opponents. She didn't just fight with her fists, but with her mind too. In quick succession, blows rained down on Buffy, forcing the air from her lungs. She took the hits, making her way towards Faith when the Slayer nailed her with an axe kick. It was like fighting two expert opponents--her past and the present at once.

"See, the thing is," Faith continued with a malevolent grin. "I can only hit you with junk from this life. I have to give up a certain sacrifice and then I get the ability to pull out anything from your past lives. I always loved hitting you with that tree. Do you remember, Xena? The one the size of the Partridge Family bus?"

"I know the one," Buffy growled, landing a round house kick of her own.

It didn't faze Faith who came back with blows from Buffy's swordfight with Angel. "Ares wants you alive. You really shouldn't have pissed off the Mayor you know. Anyway, he'll take Gabrielle and since she's currently residing in the body of a vampire, so much the better."

Buffy staggered backwards. Hit with a memory of her fight with the Master, she could feel herself fall backwards into water and slowly drown. Gasping for air, her lungs clenched closed and she fell unconscious. "Don't worry, hon," Faith purred, kneeling over the fallen body. She brushed an errant strand of hair from Buffy's face. "When Gabrielle goes up in flames, I'll see to it you get a front row seat."

Quietly, Willow made her way into the mall. Curious, Cordelia followed, saying nothing but watching her companion intently. On the first floor, next to a Scribner's book store, Willow stopped.

"What are you doing?" Cordelia asked.

Looking around cautiously, Willow moved to an access panel and flipped open the cover. She spoke quietly, not bothering to look at Cordelia, her eyes focused on her work. "I'm breaking into this shop. It's been closed for a couple of months now and I'm pretty sure they've shut off all their alarm systems except for the outer gate. Buffy needs something. I think we can get it here."

Cordelia looked at the store exterior. The windows had been papered over with black and an "out of business" banner was glued to the outside. A placard was posted near by which read "Coming Soon, Mrs. Field's Cookies." Neon lighting still hung over the store, reading "97 Star Castle" in unilluminated script.

"What kind of a shop is this?" Cordy asked.

Willow shrugged as she closed the access panel. "It was a really cool shop. The inside was decorated like a castle. You could get smudge sticks, incense, other wiccan type items. Totem stuff. They also carried CDs and cards and the cutest little alien Christmas lights. There were 49 little glow in the dark stars stuck to the walls and if you could find all of them you got a free magnet." Willow moved to the gate and grabbing it firmly, tugged. Silently it moved upwards, receding into the ceiling on well-oiled tracks. The front door was covered with black paper, like the rest of the windows. Willow moved over to the lock and peered at it intently.

"Do you have a hair pin?"

"Don't tell me you think you've got his memories," Cordy replied, annoyance and suspicion creeping into her voice.

Willow just smiled. "Come on, you must have some of Callisto's memories?" she asked. "But I guess Callisto's mind state is pretty close to your normal state of being. Please, Cordelia, just give me a pin. We don't have all night."

Cordelia sighed and rolled her eyes, but handed over a hair pin none the less. In moments they were inside the shop. No alarms sounded, and reaching into her pocket for a flashlight, Willow smiled. She handed an extra flashlight to Cordy and stepped inside.

The shop was a mess. The remnants of a huge going out of business sale clearly in evidence, only the most unpopular and overstocked of items remained. A bin of smudge sticks two thirds full filled the store with the scent of sage. In one corner several pieces of orange blow up furniture sat sad and lonely, covered with dust. There were books, a few CDs by bands no one had ever hear of and stacks of temporary tattoos. Quickly scanning the aisles, Willow studied the merchandise, looking for something very specific.

Cordelia looked around, unimpressed. Sure enough, the shelves were painted like stones and the general castle motif did carry through. She scanned the walls with her flashlight. Several glow in the dark stars continued to glow dimly when her flashlight moved on. This wasn't like a 'normal' mall shop, that was for sure. This was no Laura Ashley. Bored, Cordy picked up a package of soft plush bats for juggling. Two of them were missing from the opened package. "How lame," she muttered

"Here it is," Willow said triumphantly, getting on her knees and reaching back into a recessed niche. Cordelia approached and peered over her shoulder.

"A henna tattoo kit?" she asked disbelieving.

"Don't ask me why. Buffy just said she needed it. Angel told her to get one." Dusting off the box, she checked to make sure everything was there. Then, straightening up, she leveled her gaze at Cordelia. "You can come with me if you promise not to make any trouble, okay?"

Cordy smiled. "No problemo. Lead the way, oh King of Thieves. I don't think I'd even remember how to stab anyone in the back these days."

Willow swallowed and headed from the store. Hoping against hope that what Cordelia was telling her was the truth.

By the time they got to the escalator heading from the second level to the third, they could hear the sounds of fighting and muffled conversation. Ducking down on the escalator, they inched forward until they could see without being seen. Cordelia peered over Willow's head and saw Faith landing a series of blows on Buffy, then Buffy reeling back as if struck when Faith hadn't moved further.

"I knew she'd be involved in something bad," Willow hissed. "She's such a slut."

Cordelia smiled and patted Willow on the head. Something was coming back to her. A buzz, a rush she'd get from fighting. That unmistakable feeling power that ebbed and flowed from battle. She'd still retained those qualities as Cordelia, but they'd manifested in winning a spot on the cheerleading squad, taking the title of Homecoming Queen and becoming class president. She listened to Buffy refer to Faith as Alti, and her interest increased. A controversy had emerged over the years as to who was Xena's greater foe, Alti or Callisto. Cordelia smiled. Perhaps now was the time to decide that once and for all.

The fight continued, and Willow gasped as Buffy fell backwards and lay there unconscious. Faith kneeled by her for a moment, then picked up the inert form, and after hoisting her over her shoulders, carried her through the trees of the atrium, most likely to the Hot Topic shop beyond.

The color drained from Willow's face. "What are we gonna do?"

Cordelia shrugged. "As much as I hate the thought of helping Buffy, I so totally want to annihilate Alti. Tell you what, brat. I'll distract Faith so you can get that tattoo stuff to Buffy."

"I hope this isn't one of those times where you switch sides at the last minute?" Willow asked warily.

Cordelia sighed. "Do you know how much karmic repentance it took for me to get a stable homelife? You think I'm going to throw all that away? Spare me." Quickly she opened her purse and took out her car keys, putting them in the pocket of her jacket. "Get off the escalator and hide near the atrium until you see Faith come down after me. When the coast is clear, you can sneak into the store, okay?"

Willow nodded once as Cordelia crept down the stationary escalator stairs. Moving back the way she'd come, she looked around for the security guard. Happy that he was nowhere in sight, she made her way across the marble, not trying to hide the sounds of her approach.

"Buffy," she whispered loudly. "Come on, this isn't funny. I told you I'd call the cops if you didn't check in."

From the corner of her eye she could see Faith on the level above watching her intently. She made a move for her purse and as she expected, the Slayer fully moved into her line of sight.

"Hey Cordy, what's up?"

Inwardly Cordelia grinned, but kept it off her features. "Faith, thank God you're here. Buffy went looking for Angel. Have you seen her?"

Casually Faith descended the escalator stairs. Keeping her eyes on the approaching figure, Cordelia still saw the slight bob of red hair that told her Willow had moved from her hiding space and was heading towards Hot Topic. She moved forward away from the brushed aluminum railing. She was on the second floor; since the time she'd fallen through rotted floorboards onto a spike of rebar below, Cordelia Chase had developed quite a fear of falling.

Reaching the second floor, Faith neared Cordelia, studying her suspiciously. "I gotta ask ya," she said. "Why the hell would you be helping Buffy?"

Cordelia sighed and rolled her eyes. "It's a favor for Xander, okay? He asked me to check on her."

Faith grinned and pulled out a knife. "Big mistake." She lunged and was surprised to find her knife hand tangled in the straps of Cordelia's purse. With a twist, the knife was pulled from her grasp and with Cordelia's purse, fell to the floor below.

Glaring at her in surprise, Faith's features changed to one of acknowledgement. "Callisto," she finally said. "We meet at last."

"Too bad we didn't meet lifetimes ago," Cordelia allowed. "I'm sure we could have been great friends. As it is this time around, I don't hang with losers."

Faith laughed and uttered two words. "Xander Harris."

Cordelia frowned and the Slayer crossed her arms. "This is really too easy," Faith continued. "I pull up a memory from your past and hit you with it and you crumble. I *so* love being me." A moment more and Faith glared at Cordelia, frustration clearly evident on her face.

"Yeah," Cordelia replied. "I guess it's a little tough to kick my ass when the most painful incident you have to draw from is me taking my driving test twice." Balling up her fist, she slugged Faith with a solid right cross.

Faith staggered back then grinned in triumph. "It seems that there is one little incident I can use after all."

Just then Cordelia was falling once again. Down, down through the floorboards to the instant the rebar pierced her back, ripping through her to the other side. Falling backwards, Cordelia could hardly move.

"Too easy," Faith chuckled and moved to kneel by her victim. A quick snap of Cordelia's neck and a toss of the body to the floor below would make the whole thing look like an accident. "I guess your reputation was as inflated as your bra," Faith joked, looking at Cordelia with pure menace. It seemed odd that the fallen woman didn't look too terribly worried.

"I've got news for you Faith, these are real." Before the Slayer could react, Cordelia had lifted her hand and holding her car keys, with the small container of Mace attached, hit the release button with her thumb, giving Faith a solid squirt of the potent fluid.

Yelping in pain, Faith stood and staggered back, trying to wipe the mace off her face. Cordelia was on her feet as well and as the Slayer moved backwards towards the aluminum railing, Cordelia was there to give her an added shove. Faith's scream was brief and immediately silenced when she hit the marble of the Mall floor fifteen feet below. Admiring her handiwork, Cordelia peered over the railing, regretting for a moment she wasn't Xander the Lougie Champion, or she surely would have spit on her.

"Stress is when you wake up screaming and realize you haven't fallen asleep yet."

Buffy groaned and lifted her head. She realized then that she was in a warm comfortable embrace. Pale hazel eyes fluttered open and Angel filled her view. He looked worried. The loving, adorable way his eyebrows scrunched together made Buffy absolutely melt. "Are you okay?" he whispered.

"I am now," Buffy replied with a smile. "I figured that if Alti got the upper hand, she'd bring me to you. I'm glad she did."

Angel nodded. "But you weren't able to get the mendi stuff?"

"I've got Wil working on it. If there's a henna tattoo kit in this mall, she'll find it. I just hope there will be enough time to put it to use before Faith gets back."

The vampire looked somber. He wanted to get out of this mess, but more for Buffy's sake than for his. Sunlight would put and end to him and his suffering. And while it would intensify Buffy's suffering in the short term, eventually she'd recover and they'd both get a chance to reunite in another life, hopefully when the circumstances were better for them.

Buffy watched him for a moment and then gently cupped his chin. Turning his head so he'd make eye contact, she spoke softly but with conviction. "Don't go there," she said. "Whatever dark place it was you just retreated to-- leave it. You're still Gabrielle in there and we will get out of this."

"Buffy," Angel replied gently. "If I don't make it, I can still catch up with you the next time around. Only then I'd be able to stroll in the sun with you."

"Having a tan is bad for you," Buffy replied curtly. "I didn't wait this long to discover who you and I once were only to see you go up like a Roman Torch on the Fourth of July."

Almost as if to give credibility to her words, the two looked over as the door handle to the store room began to rattle with the unmistakable sound of a lock being picked.

A moment more and Willow opened the door poking her head inside. "I've got it," she announced, handing Buffy the henna tattoo kit.

"Good work," the Slayer replied. "I take it Faith isn't out there?"

Willow grinned. "Cordelia kicked her ass. I couldn't believe it. Faith had her down it seemed, then she pulls up her Mace and the bitch, excuse my French, gets an eyeful." In her enthusiasm, Willow didn't quite realize she was beginning to act out the scene with wild arm movements making both Angel and Buffy dodge out of the way. "So she's up and flailing around, moving backward to the railing and, 'poof'--Cordy shoves her and she takes a dive down from the second to the first floor."

"That's not enough to kill a Slayer," Angel said neutrally.

"No," Buffy countered, "but it's enough to slow her down. Thanks, Wil. You try and map out a way for us to escape after we've dealt with Faith. I'm sure she'll be back."

Willow looked confused. "But I thought the point was to leave? Aren't we escaping now? I think now would be a good time for escaping."

Buffy smiled. "Angel and I need to send the Alti part of Faith back to where she came from or she's going to wreak some serious havoc here. Lock the door on your way out, make it look like you were never here. We'll be ready when she shows, and then you can help us all get out."

"Sure," Willow said, confused. "I guess. I'll check around and see if I can find some stuff in other stores to help. Then I'll keep an eye on the exit. Xander and Giles should be hear any minute, I'll keep an eye out for them too. When you're ready to leave I'll be ready to get you out." After a brief hug, the cyber wiccan departed, leaving Buffy and Angel alone with the kit.

"We haven't much time," Angel announced, beginning to unbutton his shirt.

"What are you doing?" Buffy replied, a little stunned and unsettled.

He looked over at her, confusion on his face, then bashfully began to button his shirt again. "Buffy, I know this is hard," he said gently. "But we've got to be more Xena and Gabrielle right now than Buffy and Angel. I remember the mendi pattern that we need. I have to teach it to you. If we can't focus on that, I'm afraid I might make a mistake and we won't be able to trap Alti."

"I can focus," Buffy shot back a bit defensively, turning her back on Angel and fighting to get her stampeding emotions under control. She could feel his presence as he walked up behind her. Gently, large hands rested on her shoulders, making her feel whole and tearing her to pieces all at the same time.

"I know you can," he whispered. "Please, Xena, let me show you the pattern."

Buffy let her consciousness shift, letting the professional warrior rise to the surface. She gave Angel a warm hug before following him to a spot under the skylight. It was still night, and they needed the light that shone in from the signs outside to see what they were doing. With hands moving under a control that wasn't entirely her own, she watched her fingers move over Angel's shirt. One after another, her fingers undid the buttons as if she'd undressed Angel a thousand times--when in reality, she'd only done it once. On his bare, cold skin Angel held Buffy's hands and traced the patterns that would be applied in ink.

Then with his hands on her arms, he traced more patterns. Up and down his fingers slowly and softly moved across her flesh. The need to focus didn't keep this gentle attention from feeling like torture. It was one thing to know complete bliss and quite another to know you could never have it.

He stopped and pulled his hands back a bit uncertainly. "I...I need to show you what goes on my back," he said.

Buffy nodded once and feigning a calmness she didn't feel, unbuttoned her baseball jersey. Letting it fall from her shoulders, she turned her back to Angel and unhooked her bra. "So show me," she said.

She could hear a long, slow, exhalation of breath, unusual as Angel didn't need to breathe. Some habits die hard though. Then, with soft gentle movements she felt Angel's fingers on her back, tracing the intricate patterns she would need to draw on him.

He'd gone over each section several times when Buffy decided she was ready. She put her shirt back on and picked up the pen. They decided to switch off, her drawing a section on him then passing the mendi pen back so it could being to set, while the next section was being drawn. Buffy had fought her share of tough battles, as had Xena, but neither of them faced a foe like keeping one's mind on the task at hand when all other impulses demanded to get carried away. Angel's muscles bunched and flexed under her ministrations. The part of her that was Xena could clearly remember touching Gabrielle and how much that physical connection meant to her. The part of her that was Buffy was pissed as hell that she'd only been allowed to feel it that one time with Angel. It was hard enough to maintain her friendship with him, knowing what wonderful things they could never feel again, but to be reminded of that by Xena's memories was most unfair.

Still, if Buffy wasn't going to let Alti beat her, then she sure as hell wasn't going to let her own hormones do it. With smooth, fluid strokes she drew on Angel's skin, the mendi pattern blending with the tattoo he already wore on his shoulder. When his back was finished, he turned to face her. The expression his eyes betrayed that he was battling his own feelings as much as she.

After unbuttoning the bottom of her jersey, she tied the tails in a knot, exposing part of her muscled midriff in the process. She lay back and endured Angel's gentle touch, fighting like mad to keep her arousal off her features. Next she did his left arm and then he returned the favor, the right arms coming next. After a brief discussion, Buffy removed her tennis shoes, socks then pulled her tight running pants up to her knees. The patterns Angel traced on her lower legs were intricate and tight. Inwardly, Buffy was relieved she'd recently shaved. Finally he did her face and neck, leaving only the front of his own body and face. Sheer will alone kept Buffy's hand from shaking. A couple of tears born of frustration appeared, but she blinked them away, not willing to give into her heart any more than she'd submit to Alti. When she finished, Angel began to shake a little.

"The sun's coming up," he whispered. "I can feel it."

"Do I look like a fucking people person?"

Faith awoke slowly, her brain edging away from a miasma of chaos and disorder. "What the fuck?" she mumbled. Then her eyes shot open, still stinging. "Callisto!" she spat. She jumped to her feet then cringed, the fifteen foot fall had most certainly thrown her back out. She twisted to one side and then the other, feeling the release of joints and loud pops as everything realigned itself. Sprinting, she raced up the stairs. "If she let them go..." She didn't need to finish her sentence.

Arriving at Hot Topic, everything appeared just as she left it. She checked her watch and noted that all was right on schedule. "Bitch probably went to go get the cops." Taking the key from her pocket, she opened the door, entering the room with a triumphant swagger. Two steps inside and she froze. Buffy stood there, her body a web of delicate line work with Angel standing behind her, shirt off, with a similar set of markings. Only at first she saw Angel's back. Their hands were up. Then as Angel turned, they lowered them in a precise snap. Faith felt a sharp tug.

"Not so fast kids," Faith warned, bringing up something nasty from Buffy's past to hit her. Both Angel and Buffy put their hands up in the universal sign for 'stop'. The pattern from one hand was continued on the next. As if the memory couldn't get past the barrier, it bounced back, hitting an unprepared Faith in the gut. She fell to her knees, but was quickly on her feet again. Then stepping behind Buffy, Angel moved his arms, positioning them over the open star painted on Buffy's exposed chest. Faith screamed as she could feel the Alti part of her tearing away.

At first little flicks of light appeared as hovering fire flies, then began to bob in unison and swirl in a mesmerizing pattern creating a vortex of light in the middle of the room. Alti was the first to fall victim to this vortex with the essences of Xena and Gabrielle willingly following after. With a blinding flash, the light imploded on itself, knocking all three people to the ground, then it was gone.

Faith recovered first and didn't bother to say anything. Taking off at a run, she left the shop, sprinting out into the dawning day as fast as she could. Buffy woke to the subtle scent of something burning. She didn't have to look at Angel to know it was him.

Cordelia and Willow rushed in as soon as Faith ran out, carrying in their arms black satin sheets. "Angel! Wake up," Buffy screamed, to which the only reply was a groan. Grabbing a corner of one of the sheets she covered the vampire and together the three of them helped him to his feet.

Willow lead the way as they headed for the service walkways in the mall. In the dark corridors behind the various shops, Willow quickly lead them to a door that lead outside. "There is a short run, this part of the building is still in shadow," she explained. There is a hatch that goes to the sewer that we can take to an outlet right by Angel's place."

Buffy nodded and let Cordelia and Willow go first, so they could open the hatch. Xander and Giles came running to catch up with them as quietly, she spoke to Angel. "I fought too hard to keep you," she said. "I don't know what you're thinking, but you're not leaving me so easily. When I say run, you run or so help me I'll kick your sorry ass from here to Pasadena."

"Buffy," Angel croaked. "You're cute when you're tough."

Difficult as it was, the five of them managed to get Angel to his place and in his own bed. Almost instantly the lines of his face relaxed and he seemed to melt into the sheets. Buffy thanked Willow and Cordelia, then Xander and Giles knowing that they would need to talk about all this at some point, especially Cordelia, but that time wasn't now. Right now her whole world was Angel.

Letting him sleep, she used his shower and washed off the mendi paint. Faint henna shadows remained, but she didn't mind. Maybe they'd help Angel remember that it all really happened when the vampire next woke. Careful not to jostle him too much, she washed the dye from his face arms and chest. She could get the rest when he woke. Pulling a quilt over him she left him alone and took a seat on the floor next to his bed.

The day passed slowly, almost like a dream. She could remember her memories as Xena but they weren't solid. Not like her own memories. She remembered Gabrielle and Callisto and all the others. It made her think.

How many other times had she connected with her friends? How many different roles had they played in each other's lives? Buffy gazed over at Angel. It made sense in a way. She knew that the love she felt for the vampire was too powerful to have come from this life time alone. Those emotions were much larger than her seventeen years of existence would allow. It was a comfort. No matter what happened it was nice to know that hundred of years from now she and her friends would still be together. Hundreds of years from now, she would still know Angel.

"Well, this day was a total waste of makeup."

With the approach of dusk, Angel stirred. His sleep became restless and then with the setting of the sun he woke.

"Rough day?" Buffy asked gently, as the vampire rubbed his eyes and tried to wake up.

"I think I got a tan," Angel replied with a smile. "Have you been here all day?" he asked worried.

"It wasn't like I had anything to do. And I was worried."

Awake, it was impossible for Buffy to tear her eyes off Angel. He seemed fine, no residual after effects from his near scorching. But something had changed too. She carried enough of Xena's memory around to see him as not only Angel but as Gabrielle too. She wondered if that might be what tripping on acid was like. Remembering stuff from a past life as if it was yours.

Angel glanced away from the Slayer, then coming to a decision turned back to face her. "Buffy," he began somberly. "I have to leave. I can't stay in Sunnydale. I can't stay with you."

Hurt and shock fought for dominance in Buffy's mind as she felt the pieces of her reality begin to crumble around her. "What are you saying?" she demanded, convinced she must have heard him wrong.

"Don't tell me you don't feel it," the vampire pressed. "I remember too much of Gabrielle and I know you're feeling Xena. We can't..."

"You're breaking up with me because you don't think we can control memories of our past lives?" Buffy asked incredulously.

Angel glanced away. "It isn't a break up," he countered. "It wasn't like we were really dating and..."

Tears started to fall, but Buffy was too hurt to care. "We wern't really dating? The fact that I'm in love with you loses out to your usage of syntax?"

"Buffy, please," Angel tried again. "You know you and I can't work, especially now. I'm not that strong. You have to move on, Buffy," he insisted. "And I'm sorry, but you have to do it on your own. I can't help you. I wish it were otherwise..."

Buffy turned her back to Angel, letting the heaviness and sadness sink in. "That doesn't make this hurt any less," she whispered.

If Angel tried to move towards her, to comfort or console her in any way, Buffy didn't know it. She didn't feel his hand on her shoulder telling her it was all a mistake and he wanted her to stay. She didn't hear his voice, reassuring her that he'd be there, telling her that he'd miss her. Instead, there was cold silence as she walked out the door of his mansion into the new night outside.

Buffy knew the way home, having walked it from Angel's so many times before. It was a good thing, because her eyes were too clouded to see. Angel, the man who made her feel happier than she ever had before, just said goodbye.

There are moments in your life, that even as you're living them, stands out in their perfection. For Buffy, the feel of Angel's lips against hers was one such example. A mouth that knew exactly how to kiss hers. Slamming her eyes shut against the tears she knew she couldn't stop, Buffy hoped she'd never feel that kind of perfection again. Sure, intellectually she knew she'd recover. Yes, the pain now was so intense, hurt so deep she could scarcely breathe. But in time as days turned into weeks, then into months and eventually into years, the searing pain would lessen. Eventually she would be able to think of Angel, or Gabrielle, and simply recall the other half of her soul whose company she only got to keep for a short time in this life-- but that those were good times none the less. That in its own twisted way was perfection. Nothing would ever feel like that again and she didn't want it to. Perhaps not climbing so high would make the eventual fall more survivable.

There was something to be said for "very good". Who needed perfect anyway? Maybe she'd meet someone who would remind her of the good things to be experienced out there. Maybe she'd have it all except for that distinctive rush that was Angel. That would be fine. Hell, that would be better she told herself. "Very good" could be survived. You could lose "very good" and not lose part of your soul in the process. But perfection, when it was gone, left only frayed, torn and tattered edges of a spot in a heart that had once been complete-- full beyond brimming, flying on an emotional high so wonderful that anything seemed possible. Even the impossible.

Deep down, in the deepest part of Buffy's awareness, she knew Angel was right. The fact was, they didn't have a future. Not any real future. She'd given herself freely to him and in return he'd given what he could. Buffy had convinced herself it was enough, but honestly it was selling both of them short. As much as he enjoyed her openness, perhaps even envied it, there were places in his heart that she just couldn't go. He'd seen too much, had lived for so long, and well... Gabrielle though he had been, now his body did house the soul of a demon. He could never love her the way she loved him. Not that it mattered to Buffy-- but then again, people will do crazy things for perfection.

Some might argue that this sort of hurt was ultimately a good thing. The kind of misery that led to an outpouring of creativity to build some kind of refuge from the fucking pain. Songs, stories, paintings...history was full of examples of beauty and wonder that grew from such desperate agony. Lord knew that plenty of shrinks were kept in business by it. But what was the point? Buffy could still feel Xena's memories. Faded perhaps, waiting just at the edges of her awareness. But when she tried, she could recall the feeling of being crucified. Beaten, battered, tortured, it was all a cakewalk compared to Angel...Gabrielle saying that he didn't want her anymore. So fucking what if he was doing it for her own good, saving her from a life that could lead nowhere. She didn't want to be saved from him. Not when he was her salvation.

Shaking, Buffy stopped walking. A park bench was nearby and she needed to sit down. She owed Angel so much. Countless times he'd been there at her back, saving her from his own kind. He'd been her partner, fighting the bad guys side by side. And he'd taught her to love. Let her know that there were experiences to be had that simply defied language or explanation. And then he'd left, and she would never be the same. She would wear his fingerprints until the day she died.

That thought cheered Buffy a little. At some point she would die. The danger of slaying aside, there was a good chance that the end was still seventy something years away. That part was unfortunate, but the mere idea that she and Angel might get another chance. A chance to connect as she and Gabrielle had all those lifetimes ago. It wasn't much, but it was something to hold on to.

Sunday morning came with little fanfare. Buffy awoke with eyes swollen and sinuses sore from crying herself to sleep. "Breathe in, breathe out," she told herself. "I may crack, but I'll never shatter." The words to the Meridth Brooks song felt empty and foolish; she was shattered already. "Blind, stupid, vampire," she grumbled in an attempt at anger. It didn't work. "I'm so lame," she groaned falling back to her pillow.

"Buffy, you've got company," she heard her mother's voice call from downstairs.

"Tell them I died," she shouted back, pulling the covers over her head.

Just then the door to her room opened. Willow and Xander raced inside and jumped onto Buffy's bed.

"Rise and shine sleepyhead," Xander said cheerfully.

Buffy sniffled. "What are you guys doing here?"

Willow smiled gently. "I don't know why," she began. "But I woke up this morning with the strangest urge to go to the beach. Maybe to Sin City on the pier?"

"You know," Xander added, "ride a couple of rickety roller coasters that haven't been inspected in 3 years. Risk death in a fun way for a change. We were going to go shopping, but figured that the mall might not be on your list of things to do. Besides, Cordelia will be there crowing."

Willow slapped Xander's arm. "Shhh, I told you not to mention the mall."

"Okay," Buffy said, sitting up. "How did you guys find out?"

Willow glanced down, "I was out picking some herbs for spells...and saw Angel at the bus stop."

"And he told you he dumped me?"

"Well... he didn't exactly put it that way," Willow explained. "I think he used the word 'transition'."

"Will you tell me when we get to the stage where we can trash him," Xander added. "Because I'm so ready to do that."

"Xander," Willow shot back, a little annoyed. "Angel is still a factor. You know he's still going to be there if Buffy really needs him."

"Sure," Buffy replied, her eyes tearing up once again. "I just can't love him."

"Smooth move Wil," Xander mumbled. "Hey," he added with a laugh, "I just realized something." Buffy lifted her head from Willow's shoulder and both women turned to look at him. "I've got it worse than both of you. I was once Joxer."

It took a moment but both Willow and Buffy began to smile then giggle. After a moment the giggles turned to laughter. "I can't believe I'm saying this," Buffy said, wiping the tears of laughter from her face. "But you're absolutely right, you do have it worse than me."

Xander stopped laughing and tried to look indignant but started laughing again anyway. Once in a while...once in a very great while... It wasn't so bad to be Joxer.


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