Disclaimers: Please see "Clones Alone" Part 1
Clones Alone (Part 3)
"I only have eyes for you."
The group reassembled at Angel Investigation's rundown hotel before dusk. Gabrielle had ordered dim sum and Chinese chicken salad for all and had it delivered for dinner. Everyone agreed it was a thoughtful gesture. "It's the least I could do," Gabrielle informed them, "seeing as your allowing me to tag along tonight. Although I don't know why I should be considered 'the target' when Xena was the one who was actually the victim of an attack. That's why I'm glad you're coming with us, Angel! I have a feeling she needs protection, too."
"Gabrielle," Xena scolded, "you, of all people, know I can take care of myself!"
"I think you should go with my feeling on this, Xena. Besides, when it comes to you, I take no chances," she smiled a sweet, ironic smile. "As for the rest of you, I can't thank you enough for helping us!" She called each one by name. "Angel, Gunn, Wesley, Fred, Sunny, Jinn and," she smiled a special smile as she looked at Cordelia, "Cordy, thank you so much for helping us!"
"God, Gabby," Cordelia smiled back, "it's what we do! 'The Powers That Be' give us a message, we have no choice but to decipher it and just try to do some good, you know? You don't have to thank us."
"Yeah, I do."
"This 'Powers That Be' stuff," Sunny chimed in between bites of salad, "I'm really looking forward to learning more about them when this is all over!"
"I'll fill you in, as best I can, Sunny," Wesley replied. "They are rather mysterious. Tonight, however, we need to focus on our plan to attain information. Fred has unearthed some obscure interpretations concerning scrolls that were not included in the Bible, but are believed to be of the same progeny, on the internet. This could prove most helpful to us."
Cordy smiled broadly at Fred. "Way to go, Fred," she beamed approvingly.
Fred blushed and smiled. "It's one of the things I'm good at," she said in her soft Texas drawl.
"She has agreed to stay here and try to make sense of them for us," Wesley continued. "I will go with Sunny and Gunn with Jinn and try to discreetly infiltrate the two most suspicious covens of which we are aware."
"How DO we 'discreetly' infiltrate a coven?," Jinn questioned.
"Oh, don't worry," Gunn reassured, "I'm pretty expert at it. I'll clue you in."
"And, Gabrielle," Wes began again, "because you insist on being present tonight, with both Angel AND Xena, you three will go to Caritas. The Host might be able to shed some light on all this. At least that's my hope."
"Well, that's everyone but me," Cordelia said. "Got a plan for me, Wes?"
"Um, I thought you might stay here and help Fred."
Cordelia's face contorted into a pout. "As if Fred needed my help. C'mon, Wes, I'm going to Caritas with Gabrielle and Xena!"
"And me," Angel interjected in a hurt puppy kind of voice.
Gabrielle nudged Xena and motioned with her head to both Angel and Cordy. She then pursed her lips into a meaningful pucker and gave her partner a look as if to say, "Do you see the chemistry between these two people?" Xena elbowed her and gave her a disapproving look back.
"Duh, Angel," was Cordelia's only reply.
Fred began to pick up the remains of the meal as the group started to assemble to leave. "Fred," Cordy questioned, "what are you doing?"
"Oh, I'll just clean up here. Y'all go on about your business," she said.
"I won't have it!," Cordy was suddenly upset. "You are a brilliant physicist, not the maid service. Everyone, clean up before you leave! Angel, Wes, Gunn," she eyed them critically, "that means the 'men folk', too!" All three looked appropriately chastened and set about cleaning up as if their mother had just yelled at them. "That's better," Cordelia smiled.
"Gods, I like her!," Gabrielle thought as she joined in the clean-up. Just then, Jinn was at her side.
"May I have a word with you before we leave?," she whispered.
"Of course, Jinn!," Gabrielle replied with a smile.
They withdrew into a corner. "I just wanted to let you know," Jinn began with a sincere expression upon her face, "that I'll do anything I can to protect you. I can't explain it. But, somehow, I feel connected to you."
"Jinn, you're friendship and guidance has meant so much to me over these past few months. I can't even find words to express what you've come to mean to me! Thank you, so much, for all that you're doing for me and Xena!" She spontaneously threw her arms around her friend.
"I just want you to know that I'll be there for you," Jinn squeezed her tight, "always."
"Yeah, she knows," came Xena's sarcastic voice as she took a firm hold of Gabrielle's arm and withdrew her from the embrace. Neither of them had heard Xena's approach. The 'battling bard' and martial arts master exchanged sheepish grins.
Jinn and Gunn set out together. And, as he answered some of her questions about infiltrating covens, he had a few of his own.
"So how did you meet Gabrielle? I notice you two are a little close."
"She's been taking a martial arts class from me."
"But, you didn't know she was a clone?"
"No. I thought her name was Samantha and that she was an author who lived in Topanga with her partner."
"So you never watched the 'Xena' show on T.V.?"
"Nope, never watched it! It was just a poster on my wall."
"Wow, 'cause she looks dead on like Gabrielle from the show. I mean, how do you figure a thing like that?"
"I don't know, and I hate to bring up Aldous Huxley...,"
"No, no... it's cool, I'm down with Huxley."
"Well, then, this is a Brave New World!"
"Ain't that the truth!," Gunn agreed. "Say, it's none of my business, but you seem to have a 'special' relationship with Gabrielle. What's that all about?"
"Until last night... just run of the mill, garden variety, harmless attraction, I would've said. But last night changed everything! I really cannot explain it, but I want to," she hesitated, "well, to help bring her peace, I guess!"
"And you're a martial arts instructor, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But the martial arts do represent peace, Gunn. It's just that, since last night, I don't feel at peace. I feel bothered, like there's something still unrevealed to me, a piece of the puzzle missing. Like I said, I can't explain it."
"Damn," Gunn shook his head, "must be that love thing again."
"There IS something about her, Gunn. Something I love."
"Better not let Xena hear you say that, if you catch my drift."
"Yeah, I know. I just feel that I could offer her so much, that's all. I can't explain it, I feel connected to her: as if we had met before, I dunno'. But, I'm certainly no threat to Xena. I wouldn't do anything to interfere with their relationship. So," she changed the subject, "explain more about tonight. Do we wear black hoods and robes, I mean, what?"
"Nah, that's not necessary. We just pretty much... infiltrate!"
"So, Wes, you've told me so little," Sunny complained as she steered the car at Wesley's direction. "What happened to you after grad school?"
"Well, as I have said, I went in another direction. I became a 'Watcher'."
"What, exactly, is a 'Watcher'? I mean, we're not talking voyeur, 'peeping tom' stuff here, are we?"
Wesley was suddenly embarrassed. "I am quite at a loss for words," he stammered.
"Hey, Wes, it's o.k. Everybody's got their thing, ya know? I'm not here to judge you."
"Sunny, please! The 'Watchers' are a super secret organization who watch over and guide the vampire slayers."
"Excuse me," Sunny interrupted, "the 'vampire slayers'?"
"Yes, into each generation, a slayer is born. She is endowed with special talents and strengths. It is her destiny to fight evil, slay vampires and the like."
"I'm having a hard time with this whole vampire thing. I think it's fascinating from a purely scientific point of view, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around it. I mean, vampires are real? That still kind of creeps me out a little. Too many Dracula movies when I was young, I guess."
"Perhaps, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio!"
"Uh, no, they are definitely 'dreamed of' in my philosophy, it's just rather scary to realize they're true. It would be slightly less disconcerting to find out that you, as a 'Watcher', were just staring through other people's windows to get off. And stop calling me Horatio, by the way."
"Oh, you used to love to quote The Bard, as I recall!," Wesley reminisced.
"Which 'bard'? We've got Gabrielle around now, you know," Sunny smiled.
"I'm not familiar with her writing."
"Yeah, well, it's not exactly Sophocles, if you can judge from the show."
"Yes, but I did like the show, the action...," Wesley began.
"The adventure, the sets, the cyclops and centaurs... yeah, I liked it, too," Sunny agreed. "I like the genre."
"The Greek gods and goddesses," Wesley continued. A look of realization passed over both their faces as a thought dawned on them and they stared at each other incredulously. "If Xena and Gabrielle are real, does that mean the gods and goddesses are real, too?," he questioned out loud.
Sunny laughed, "Could be. Could be there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy! So now, who are YOU calling Horatio?"
They both laughed rather nervously and then fell silent
"Hey," Sunny finally said, "not that this conversation is over, or anything. I still want to know more about how you came to be in L.A. chasing demons with a vampire, but we do have a mission tonight. So, how do we infiltrate these covens? Do we wear black hoods and robes and everything?"
"Oh yes," Wes replied.
"Black hoods and robes are an absolute necessity."
Xena was still stewing over having caught Gabrielle in another embrace with Jinn as they got out of the car at Caritas. Gabrielle could tell she was mad, as she had given her the silent treatment on the whole ride over.
"Xena, you can't seriously begrudge me a hug from a friend."
Xena cocked her head with a quizzical expression upon her face. "All your girlfriends are blonde. You ever notice that, Gabrielle? Makes me wonder what you see in me."
"For the last time, they are NOT my girlfriends. Besides, you've got no call to be on me about past love interests considering your history in that department. I could 'do it' with half of Hollywood and still not have caught up with you!"
"Ah," Xena twisted one finger dramatically up into the cool evening air, "history would be the operative word there. Since I've been with you, there's been no other!"
"Oooh, I'm not really sure you want to go there, Xena," Gabrielle bristled. "But," she softened her tone, "listen, I'm not a jealous person and it really doesn't become you, either. Could we just drop it and try to get along tonight?"
Suddenly, she felt Xena's foot in front of her own. Before she could stop herself, she had tripped and was about to fall, if Xena hadn't reached out and caught her.
"You did that on purpose, Xena! Knock it off!," she barked out.
"Did not," Xena feigned innocence. "It's those shoes you're wearing. I told you those heels would get you. It's a high price to pay for making yourself appear taller."
"Was that a crack about my height?," Gabrielle responded indignantly.
"Hey!" Cordy had been walking with Angel a few paces ahead of them. "Don't make me come back there and have to separate you two!"
"You did that on purpose, Xena," Gabrielle grumbled under her breath.
"O.k., we're here," Angel said as he proceeded down the steps that led to the threshold of the nightclub. "I need to warn you two before you go in, that this is not your run-of-the-mill night spot. You will see a very unusual clientele here."
"It's a demon bar, okay?," Cordy said as she brushed by Angel and entered the club.
Angel, who was still holding the door smiled bashfully. "Yeah, it's a demon bar."
"A demon bar?" Gabrielle instinctively drew close to Xena and grasped her hand. She sensed Xena's body tense in a protective manner as the warrior linked her fingers with the bard's.
"Oh... no, it's o.k.!," Angel explained. "A special protection has been placed upon this place. No violence can happen here. You're safe. I'm sorry, I would've told you about it earlier, but our plans kind of changed last second."
Xena gave Gabrielle a reproachful look, then rolled her eyes. "Then, what are we doing here, Angel?," she asked.
"The proprietor has a special gift for seeing through to the truth of situations. We thought he might be helpful to us."
"Let's go," Xena shrugged as she led Gabrielle through the door.
They were greeted by a very solicitous fellow with green skin, small, red horns on his temples and (Xena thought, but she wasn't quite sure) eyeliner on. "So, you're Cordy and Angel's new friends!," he smiled brightly as he extended his hand to shake. "I'm Lorne, some call me 'The Host'," he continued as he shook both their hands. "I own this place," he gestured with a flip of his wrist. "Welcome to Caritas, such as it is. I'm remolding actually." He leaned in close to them. "Had a little accident here awhile ago," he whispered and rolled his eyes at Angel.
Xena quickly looked back at Angel. "I thought you said this place was safe?!"
"Oh, it is honey," Lorne reassured. "Nothing bad can happen here now. Violence of any kind, human or demon, is simply out of the question! I've made sure of that. And all are welcome!"
Xena was still suspicious. "Well let's get down to business then. You're the one with the 'special' gift, I presume. What can you tell us about this little situation we've got going on?"
"Oh, you have to sing for him, Xena," Cordelia informed. "This is a karaoke bar. Lorne can't see into your soul, your future, unless you sing!"
"Kara-whatie?," Xena looked confused.
"Karaoke," Cordy repeated. "You know, you sing real bad to pre-recorded music and feel like a pop star for three minutes while everyone lies about how good you sounded? Karoake!"
"We have to sing?," Gabrielle asked nervously.
"Oh, not you, sweetie," Lorne reassured. "I know all I need to know about you right now. It just shines through you! But tall, dark and dangerous here," he motioned towards Xena, "that's a different story."
"Oh, Xena has a great voice!," Gabrielle enthused.
"Gabrielle!," Xena gave her a stern look.
The bard was undeterred. "You do, Xena. You sing great!"
"Well, all in good time," The Host smiled. "But, I insist, sit down and have a drink first. Business has been slow lately. It's so good to have new customers!"
"I'm all for that!," Cordy smiled. "C'mon guys, let's grab a table!"
The quartet sat down at a table towards the back of the room. There were maybe twelve other people in the bar, mostly demons, a couple of humans. Some sat together, laughing and talking low. Others sat alone, looking pensive or just plain vacant.
"I don't know about this place, Gabrielle," Xena complained. "Kinda' gives me the creeps."
"Oh, I like it, Xena," her partner responded. "Look how different everyone is here. It's exciting!"
The Host had drinks delivered to their table. Just then, a demon took the stage. He was huge. He looked like an enormous, white banana slug with ridges. He picked up the microphone and, as the music started, began to sing, sweetly, "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Gershwin. When he got to the lines, "Although she may not be the girl, some men think of as pretty, to my heart she carries the key. Won't you tell her please to put on some speed, follow my lead, Oh, how I need... Someone to watch over me," Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "Yeah, different, I'll give you. But exciting?" She slugged down her drink in one shot. "Whoa!," her head jerked back slightly. "What was that?"
"Tequila, babe, with a beer and lime chaser, if you notice. Nice, huh?," Cordelia beamed.
"Tequila, Karaoke, a lot of new experiences tonight," Xena shook her head.
"Welcome to California," Cordy smiled. "Oh, by the way, Angel, do you think you could sing 'Mandy' for me tonight? I'm kinda' needing a Manilow fix, you know?"
"I think once was enough, Cordy. No one here needs to be put through that again."
"Oh c'mon, big guy! Loosen up a little. We're out on the town!"
"You want to hear me sing?," he asked in a confused tone of voice.
Cordelia was already engaged in another activity: teaching Gabrielle how to drink a shot of Tequila. "Look, Gabby, you do it like this: put the salt on your hand just above the thumb, lick it, then immediately squeeze the lime into your mouth and then hit the shot! It's great!"
Gabrielle followed Cordelia's instructions and gagged, spewing tequila all over the table. Xena smiled broadly in spite of herself. "I'm really not much of a drinker, Cordy," the bard coughed out.
"That's o.k., hon," Cordelia soothed. "That's what the beer's for."
"Xena," Angel leaned forward, "I think we should get this over with. Why don't you go sing?"
"Are you kidding me? I'm having too much fun watching Gabrielle drink!"
Gabrielle took a long swig off her beer, her eyes still watering from the tequila. "You are so mean sometimes, Xena!"
"Bin' trying to tell you that for years now," Xena smiled as she ruffled the bard's tousled hair. "Nah, I'll go sing when Gabrielle finishes that beer." Xena did not trust this whole process: singing so someone could see into your soul, predict your future, absurd! She had calculated that her partner would not make it through the drink and, therefor, she would not have to sing. "Besides," she said, "I want to try another one of those shots. That had a kick! Barkeep! Lorne!," she pounded her fist on the table, we need another round of," she looked at Cordelia, "what did you call it?"
"Tequila," Cordy whispered.
"Tequila!," Xena shouted.
"Tequila!!!," everyone in the bar shouted back. And with that, someone adjusted the karaoke machine and a song began to play. The patrons rose from their seats and began to dance. There were no lyrics, but at a certain break in the song, everyone stopped and shouted, "TEQUILA!"
"What a strange place," Xena thought.
Gabrielle's face grew light with joy. "I love it here, Xena!," she glowed. She drained her beer in one fell swoop and began to dance with the other patrons. As the song ended, she returned to the table. She leaned in close to her partner's ear. "Your turn now, Xena!," she grinned.
"Damn," was all Xena could mutter as she rose up to approach the stage.
Lorne handed her the microphone. "Do you know any songs, Xena?," he queried.
"I don't know, whadda' you got? I know some songs here, from the radio and such."
"Well, lets see what I have here that you can sing," he offered as he began to flip through titles for her.
Finally, she interrupted him. "There, stop, I think I know that one," she pointed.
"O.k., so now, Xena," he intoned gently, "the words are going to come up on the screen in front of you. So, if you forget, all you have to do is look down, o.k.?"
"No. I think I know this one."
The first haunting strains of a melody began to play... "Sha bop, sha bop"... Xena started to sing softly: "My love must be some kind of blind love." At first no one paid much attention to her. "Good," she thought, "no one's listening." She continued, "I can't see anyone but you." She began to feel the music and unconsciously sang a little bit louder. "Are the stars out tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright." A hush fell over the bar as the patrons turned to hear her voice. Xena looked down at first, feeling somewhat on display. But as the song continued, she looked to the table in the back of the room. "I only have eyes for you, dear," she continued as she met Gabrielle's gaze. "The moon may be high. But I can't see a thing in the sky. I only have eyes for you." Now her voice was strong and the patrons were enchanted, as it was clear she was singing to an audience of one.
"Oh, this is too good!," The Host sighed as he lowered the house lights. Xena didn't notice. Her whole attention was now fixated on two clear, blue-green orbs towards the back of the room. Her voice never sounded more beautiful and the whole club sat transfixed.
"I don't know if we're in a garden. Or on a crowded avenue," she continued singing, her head slightly tilted in an affectionate manner as tears welled in her eyes. "You are here and so am I. Maybe millions of people go by. But they all disappear from view. And I only have eyes...," the music built to a climax, "...for you." She closed her eyes, placed the microphone to the side of her face and swayed gently with the music as it faded out. The room was silent, spellbound. Then, as if coming out of some sort of hypnotic trance, everyone stood and applauded. Xena was suddenly jarred from her own trance and felt embarrassed, exposed. She dropped the mike and beat a hasty retreat from the stage. The Host turned the house lights back up, and took the microphone.
"Ladies and Gentleman," he announced, "we rarely get a treat like that here in Caritas. Let's hear it again for Xena!"
Xena was standing by the side of the stage with her hand rubbing her brow, wishing she could just disappear. "What in the hell was that?," she chastised herself. "What just happened to me?" But, before she had a chance to collect herself, Lorne was upon her.
"We need to talk now, Xena," he whispered into her ear.
Gabrielle sat in the back of the room with her lips slightly parted, still in shock. Xena never revealed her emotions in public this way! She barely did so in private, only in the most intimate of moments! She became aware of Cordy's voice.
"That was so beautiful, Gabby." There were tears welling in her eyes. "I wish someone would love me enough to sing to me that way! Angel, wasn't that beautiful?"
Angel was staring at Cordy in a daze. He didn't respond. Cordelia snapped her fingers in front of him. "Hey, Angel, snap out of it! Wake up... HELLO?"
"Oh yeah, yeah, I'm here. You were saying you wanted someone to sing to you. Um, 'Mandy' is the only song I really know, that I can sing. I can sing it, if you want."
Cordy smiled at him and then at Gabrielle and then back at Angel. "Sometimes, you are so sweet, Angel. But, no, I meant someone who has a romantic interest in me."
"Um, oh, hey look! Xena's talking to Lorne," Angel recovered quickly.
Gabrielle's lips were still slightly parted in shock. "Where's that tequila Xena ordered?," she finally managed to say. "I'd like to try that shot thingie again."
"That's the spirit!," Cordy encouraged.
Gabrielle looked at Angel and Cordy. "That was really special, huh? I want to go to her."
"Let her finish with Lorne first, Gabrielle," Angel cautioned.
The Host sat with Xena in a corner of the bar. "Wow, that was quite something," he smiled at her.
"I don't know where that came from," Xena said tersely.
"Don't you? Well I do. You love Gabrielle more than life itself."
"She's everything to me. I guess the whole bar knows that by now."
"And that's a BAD thing because...?"
"Look, Lorne, I have always walked a dangerous path. I don't want anything bad happening to her because of me. The less people who know the truth about us, the better!"
"O.k., I can accept that."
"Good. Are we through?"
"Oh, that's your choice, sweetheart. But there is more I could tell you, if you care to hear," he patted her hand solicitously.
"She is your salvation."
"I already KNOW that! She's been my salvation from the day I met her! That girl was so brave before she was ever with me. She credits me with so much of her growth. But it was all her. It was always all her. She would've done it anyway, with or without me. But, she caused me to grow and change in ways I never dreamed possible. She opened my heart again to love and hope and joy! A light shines through her. You saw that. She believes in me. I don't deserve such love. There are times when I actually believe in myself again because of her. Actually love myself," Xena smiled ironically. "Can you believe that?"
"And the other times?"
"Then I don't know. I still question, I doubt. Am I really good enough for her?"
"Those are the times I can tell you about. It's those questions, those doubts, that allow evil to creep back into your soul, that make it dangerous for Gabrielle to be with you," Lorne informed.
"Your saying evil is in my soul? That I'm a danger to Gabrielle?!," Xena asked in a very upset manner.
"I'm saying that it's your doubts that create opportunities for those who would harm her. You have to give yourself over completely to your love for her."
"But, I've already done that! I love her completely. There is no other!"
Lorne rolled his eyes. "Why is it that the tall, dark, gorgeous ones are always so thick headed?," he asked, exasperated. "Now listen closely, Wonder Woman." He took her hand in his own. "There is something inside you. It eats away at your dedication and devotion to the one you love. This is not a good thing. But it can only exist, so long as you let it, so long as you don't expel it. As long as you allow it to cause you to question, you are vulnerable and Gabrielle is in danger. There is something in your heart which you need to deal with. It's not a demon. This goes far deeper. It's a battle for your very soul."
"Lucifer," Xena spit out.
"Oh, let's not mention the Prince of Darkness in here!," he quickly shushed her. "The only Prince I want to hear about is the purple one from Minneapolis."
"So, let's be clear," Xena continued. "Satan's within me."
The Host made a face at her. "I said not to mention his name, didn't I? Am I talking to my self here? Look, one could say that 'he' is within us all. It's just a matter of how much we want to let him rule our lives!"
"Well this isn't helpful at all. This is all too vague. I need to know about tomorrow night. Will Gabrielle be safe? Is she in danger from me?"
"You are all in danger tomorrow night." He looked her straight in the eyes with a very serious expression on his face, "Xena, you are only dangerous to Gabrielle if you give into 'him'. If you let your doubts overwhelm you and they create a space for 'him' in your heart. It's up to you. Fight! Fight for your love! Be Don Quixote and dream that all things are possible through love! Give yourself over completely to Gabrielle."
"I thought I already did that."
"Let me know when you 'know' you already did that."
"I don't see how this is helping me at all. I need solid information for tomorrow night."
"Lord, what fools these mortals be! I just read you the contents of your soul, and this is not helpful?"
"Then know this one thing about tomorrow night: Gabrielle is your salvation."
"Yeah, thanks." Xena shook her head and made her way back to the table.
Gabrielle could see her coming, slowly sauntering across the room. She sat down beside her and leaned back in her chair, as was her way. Cordy, Angel and Gabrielle all eyed her expectantly. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared into space. Gabrielle placed a reassuring hand on her arm.
"SO?!," Cordy finally blurted out. "What did he say?"
"Aah, just a bunch of cryptic stuff about good and evil. No help at all in a practical sense."
"Sometimes," Angel ventured, "there are meanings within Lorne's words that only the one he's 'reading' can interpret. They speak to your soul. They might not make sense to anyone but you."
"Yeah, well," Xena answered, "it was kind of like that."
"Nothing concrete then?," Angel pressed. "Nothing that could help us tomorrow night?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle. Her face was slightly flushed from the alcohol and dancing. But, even so, she looked radiant and pure to the warrior. Joy just always shone through her. "Am I good enough for her?," she couldn't help but question.
"No, Angel, nothing
concrete," she replied.
"They always hang out at this weirdo club," Gunn was telling Jinn as they approached a hole-in-the-wall venue in downtown L.A. "We just go in and order a drink, start talking so we can be overheard, about demons and human sacrifice and stuff, and they start talking to you. Cordy's right, they are really stupid, giving their lives over to Satan and such. We'll get some information, once they drink enough. Just follow my lead."
"No problem," Jinn replied. "I've got your back."
As they walked into the bar, there was an almost imperceptible shift in the mood of the patrons. All eyes were on them momentarily, and then returned casually to their drinks and conversation.
"Well, that was weird," Jinn whispered.
"Just be cool," Gunn said.
Jinn was surprised by the eclectic group of people in the bar. There were old folks with thick lens glasses, young people wearing surfer attire or leather, men and women dressed in business suits.
"Hey, grab that table," Gunn gestured towards a small open table in the middle of the room. "I'll get us a couple of drinks. What do you want?"
"Oh, tomato juice would be nice," Jinn answered as she surveyed the room. Gunn gave her a "you have to do better than that to fit in" look and nudged her. "Oh, ah, Bloody Mary!," Jinn piped up.
"All right then," Gunn smiled. He walked up to the bar and ordered two drinks. The bartender eyed him suspiciously.
"I've seen you here before, right?," he asked.
"Yeah, I've been here once or twice. I'm from out of town. Heard through the old grapevine that this was the place to be for folks like us. Brought my lady with me tonight." He tilted his head towards Jinn. "She's down. She's one of us."
"I don't know what you're talking about," the bartender was still eyeing him. "But, I'll have your drinks sent over."
"God, oops, I mean good enough, my man," Gunn smiled broadly to try and cover his gaff.
As the drinks were delivered, Gunn and Jinn listened intently to the conversations around them. All they could hear were people talking about stock reports, rock bands and medications. They began a conversation of their own.
"Yeah," Gunn began, "remember that time we hung with the Bucon demon? That was so cool!" He smiled at Jinn as if to say, "play along!".
"That WAS a good time!," Jinn answered, following his lead.
"Yeah, he was a hater. He hated everything! That town we laid down, so cool!"
They could sense people listening in on their conversation.
"Or the time we spent with the Hisa-Me," Jinn began. Gunn looked at her in amazement. Where did she come up with that one? "There's nothing like a Japanese death demon!"
"And that is for sure, girl!," Gunn caught on. "There was some nastiness there! Damn, I miss those days!"
The din of the bar had grown considerably lower as they continued.
"My favorite, though," Gunn continued, "was when we got to spend time with Mastiphal! Nothing like royalty to really wreak havoc upon unsuspecting mortals!"
"All right, that's it!" A teenager clad in leather, tattoos and piercings approached them with a girlfriend, in similar attire, twisting her stringy purple hair, close at his heels. "No one has partied with Mastiphal! That's just a lie, because I've tried, so I should know!"
Gunn looked at Jinn. He gave her a wink as if to say, "This is it!" He jumped up from his seat and got right in the boy's face. "Who you calling a liar, fool?! 'Cause, I know you're not talking to me!" The teenager backed up. "Oh, is that your woman behind you? Because maybe she'd like to come party with us. Hey, baby," he winked at the purple haired girl, "how'd you like to meet Mastiphal?" The girl spat on her hand and rubbed it through her hair.
"Back off," the boy pushed him, "you don't know our Master's prince. No one does!"
"Then explain to me how I know what's going down tomorrow night, at what, midnight?," Gunn postured.
"You're so dumb," the girl said, "it's at 11:11 and it will be glorious!" Her eyes rolled back in her head as she seemed to go into some sort of trance and began to sway back and forth. "The knives, the blood-letting, the sacrifice of a pure soul!" She was whipping herself up into a frenzy. "Our Master has a new warrior!," she proclaimed. "She will open the portal and he will be loosed upon this world!," she screamed, "as we drink the blood of the loved one!" She danced in a crazed circle around the room.
"Oh now, you see, that aint the way I heard it," Gunn said. "Mastiphal told me, you don't really have the warrior, yet."
"Oh, we got her alright. We got more than that. We're going to let the blood of the one close to the heart of the hero flow. We will drink it and ravage her body, all of us, to welcome in His new reign! Our Master has told us so!," the boy informed.
"Knives, blood letting, ravaging the innocent, huh?," Gunn asked. "A traditional ceremony then?"
"Thought you talked to Mastiphal," a man in a business suit interrupted. "Why, then, do you not know the nature of our ceremony?"
"And what's with all the questions?," a woman said.
Suddenly, a crowd of people began to move in around them.
"Well, uh, hey," Gunn said, "I was just clarifying. Can't take my woman here to no ceremony that's half-baked!"
"Oh, we're fully baked!," an old woman said as she hit him with her cane. "Within the glorious fires of our Master!" She looked around the room. "He's not one of us! Let's get him!," she called out as she began to attack him viciously, "We can't let him escape!" The patrons descended upon him swinging walkers, organizers, portable CD players, whatever they had!
"Now wait just a minute!," Jinn yelled as she jumped up on the table. "There's only one thing I have to say here!" With that a blinding light flashed and Gunn heard the sound of feet and fists against body parts as furniture broke. The next thing he knew, he felt a hand in his own dragging him out of the bar. As the cool evening breeze touched his face, he was still blinded.
"What's going on?," he shouted.
"I've got you, Gunn!," Jinn cried out. "Just hold on and run!"
He ran with his hand clasped in hers, following blindly. As they approached the car, his vision began to clear.
"Get in," Jinn yelled as she opened the door.
"No arguments here!," he responded.
She jumped into the driver's seat, cranked the ignition and hit the accelerator. As they sped away, Gunn's vision fully returned.
"What, the hell, was that?," he questioned Jinn.
"That's a martial arts master who has your back," Jinn replied.
"Damn, you can have my back anytime! That was so radical! You have GOT to teach me that!"
"You're welcome at my classes, anytime. But, I think we have a bigger problem."
"Yeah, Xena. Apparently, they have her soul!"
"Man, that's so messed
up," was all Gunn could say.
"Now, Sunny," Wes was saying as they pulled long, black, hooded robes over their heads, "just remember, follow my lead and say nothing!"
"Uh, Wes," Sunny replied as she adjusted her hood, "you do remember that I am very expert with weapons? That I can wield a sword, shoot a crossbow, hit a target with a dagger from fifty paces?"
"Yes, I remember you're fascination for medieval weapons back at University. Tell me, has it gone any further than that since I've seen you? Guns for example?"
"No. I don't dig guns. No challenge there. No combat. Not the same level of skills you would need with the older weapons. Guns are just too impersonal. What's the point of killing someone if you never see their face?" She hesitated for a moment. "That was weird, huh?"
"Well, yes, a little disconcerting," Wesley grinned uncomfortably.
"I don't know, Wes. I've studied so many things. I'm good at so many things! Yet, life is unfulfilled for me. I need more. That's why I'm into unexplained phenomenon! I have an unending desire to know things beyond this reality. I need challenges: physical as well as mental!"
"And emotional, spiritual?," Wesley asked.
"Ooh, low blow, Wes! I am not fulfilled in either of those areas. Thanks for reminding me. I guess I'm searching."
"Well, tonight, just follow my lead."
"Yeah, o.k.," Sunny acquiesced. "But, if we get into a tight spot, don't forget... I'm fierce!," she grinned.
They walked into a community center building with a sign out front that read: "AA MEETING CANCELED TONIGHT!"
"Wow, how do you cancel an AA meeting?," Sunny queried. "I thought they were pretty much uncancelable!"
"That's the nature of the beast with which we are dealing," Wesley shook his head. "They get their way!"
Several hooded figures crossed in front of them. They followed behind discreetly and entered the meeting room. Coffee and donuts were available at the back of the room. Several people were smoking.
"Are you sure this isn't an AA meeting after all, Wes? I don't know, like a costume party or something?," Sunny queried.
"No 'Twelve Step Program' would ever play a joke like this, Sunny, I'm quite sure. The very nature of the program prohibits it. It must be a place of trust, non-threatening to all who enter. And all are accepted. No, I'm certain we're in the right place!"
With that, a slow, dreary bell was rung. Everyone bowed and stayed bowed. Wesley pulled Sunny, who was looking around, down into a bowed position with him.
"It is now, it is real, it is here," a somber voice intoned. "All praise to our Master!"
"All praise to our Master," the assembled chimed in chorus. Another bell was tolled. Everyone took a seat on the folding chairs which had been set out for the AA meeting.
"This reminds me of church," Sunny whispered to Wesley. He elbowed her to shut up. The hooded figure at the front of the room began to speak in another language.
"Oh, this is bad," Wesley whispered. "I don't understand this language."
Sunny elbowed him back and said in a hushed tone, "I do. It's an ancient Arabic dialect. Just be quite so I can hear!"
The hooded figure in front continued on for some time, only interrupted by sporadic applause and, at times, group chanting and bowing. After an hour or so of this, Wesley became impatient. He pulled back his hood slightly and looked at Sunny. She hardened her eyes back towards him as if to say, "Shut up, I'm still listening!" Finally the hooded figure sat down. All bowed in silence. The silence seemed to continue for some time. Wesley's hood, and the position of his bowed head, blocked his view as he heard a voice begin to speak. He did not recognize the language, but the pitch and intonation... it was Sunny! She had confronted the leader in the strange, ancient language! "Brave, foolish woman!," Wesley thought. He heard the leader respond and a murmur run through the crowd. Sunny said something else and then there was much discussion. Finally, the hooded figure up front quieted the crowd. He said something to Sunny and she replied in English.
"O.k., thanks! C'mon, Wes, we're outta' here!" She took Wesley's hand and dragged him out of the stuffy room. The fresh air felt wonderful!
"So, what happened in there?," Wesley asked.
Sunny breathed deep. "The night air feels so good!," she sighed as she removed the hood from her head. "Listen, Wes, they're not a part of this whole thing. But they did have some information."
Wesley watched as she continued to take in the evening air.
"And, so?," he finally sputtered out.
"They know what's going down tomorrow night, but their disgusted by it. It's not their way. They're more of a pervert, let's have depraved sex club, than actual Satanists."
"Oh, really?," Wesley said as he they started to move towards the car and he glanced back over his shoulder towards the Community Center.
"Yeah, really. That was a Chamber of Commerce guy I was talking to and he says that there's a downtown club that's trying to conjure the devil. I mean, these guys are dealing with a lesser evil, but some of their members know of a spell that was cast, a bargain made, to conjure the devil. They're looking for a portal to be opened between worlds. These others needed a warrior and to spill the blood of and defile an innocent."
"But, yes, we knew this," Wes said as they entered the car. "What information did they have that was new?"
"Because they're calling upon an ancient spell, they have to use a traditional ceremony. There can only be knives present. I think that gives us an advantage, don't you?"
"Well, anyway, this group here isn't sure that the other group has the warrior. But, all the same, I'm supposed to be with Xena and Gabrielle tonight, so we better make tracks to get back to the hotel and meet with everyone, right?!"
"Yes. I want to check on Fred's research, as well. There could be something there. Time is getting short, Sunny, and this is Satan we're talking about!"
"Am I the only one with confidence in Xena's ability to kick Lucifer's ass? She's done it before, you know. She is a warrior! I respect that."
"She's a warrior, that's what worries me."
"I just don't think she can be turned. Her love for Gabrielle is too strong, for one thing!"
"Well, I hope you're right, Sunny!"
"Yeah, me too."
"Xena?," Gabrielle searched her partner's face. "You know the song you performed tonight? It was so beautiful. Where did you learn it?"
"Let's give them some space," Cordy nudged Angel. They retreated to the bar.
"Well, you've seen me with those headphones on, right?," Xena finally looked up. "I listen to things, music, while I'm working. I've listened to a lot of things since I've been here... on the radio or on T.V. If I like it, I buy it."
"When? I've never seen you buy anything when we're shopping!"
"Well, that's just it: you're shopping! You don't notice what I do. No, Gabrielle, I have a lot of CD's. There have been many great musical pieces written over the last few centuries. That song was just one of them."
"That song was incredible."
"Yeah, well...," Xena actually blushed. She looked down again.
"No, Xena, when I heard you sing it, my heart took flight! It was so beautiful!"
"Gabrielle?" Xena looked up again. "The first time I heard that song, I thought of you. It describes," she hesitated momentarily, "our love."
"Oh, Xena, then that is 'our' song! I will never, ever forget it!," she exuded joyfully. "And that you allowed everyone to see it, your love for me, I mean, that was so special! I felt awed and proud! You never do that. It was so special!"
Xena remembered The Host's words: "Give yourself over completely to Gabrielle!". She smiled tenderly at her partner. "O.k., Gabrielle, it will be 'our' song."
"I think we should go." It was Angel's voice. "Busy day tomorrow."
"Angel, you can be such a kill-joy!," Cordelia complained. "We never go out anymore. Can't we have just one dance?"
Angel looked stunned.
"Lorne," Cordelia shouted, "put on that song Xena sang. I want to dance to it!"
The Host complied. Cordy took Angel's hands in her own and led him to the dance floor. "Sha bop, Sha bop," the music began. Cordy wrapped her arms around Angel and rested her head on his shoulder. "Um, you have to move, Angel, you know?," she prodded.
"Cordy, you know I can't dance."
"Can't sing, can't dance... are you sure you're from Ireland?," she smiled at him sweetly. "Well, you do drink a lot of weird stuff, pig's blood and all. That must be at least partly Irish."
"No, Cordy. That's wholly vampire. I wish you'd stop confusing the two."
She smiled her biggest smile at him; the one he could not resist. "I am so teasing you, Angel. So, if you're not going to even try to move with the music," she laid her head back down on his shoulder, "just shut up and hold me while I dance in your arms," she sighed.
Angel became very aware of his soul. Now he knew he was falling in love again. "What is it with these modern girls?," Angel thought. "After over 240 years, first Buffy, now Cordy?" He wrapped his arms around her and swayed back and forth to the music, holding her. He placed his head against hers and breathed in the sweet scent of her hair.
"I think that's our song, Xena," Gabrielle prompted as she drew her out to dance. Xena enfolded her partner in her arms and moved rhythmically with the music.
And as they passed on
the dance floor, Gabrielle and Cordy exchanged satisfied smiles. "I just hope
she knows how much he loves her," Gabrielle thought. "I hope she comes to know
the same feeling I have now!" The bard rested on Xena's shoulder and felt a
gentle kiss being placed upon her head.
"Hey, hey," Gunn called out, "stop the car! I've been looking for that fool. He's got information I need!"
Jinn hit the brakes and they both jumped out of the car. A very wan, wiry (and definitely human) man tried to run from them. Gunn caught him in an instant. He threw him against a back alley wall, rats scurrying as they were hit by the empty bottles displaced by the two men's feet.
"Now, you finish what you started last night!," he threatened. "Tell me what you found out today about the 'loved one'."
"I need money, I need...," Gunn shoved his forearm up against the vagrant's larynx.
"I gave you all the money I'm going to give you last night!," he warned. "Tell me what I need to know, or suffer!" Gunn's face twitched as he spoke.
"All right, all right!," the frazzled man gagged, "I'll tell you. Just lay off!"
Gunn relaxed the pressure slightly.
"O.k.," the man began, "word on the street is, they're going to take her tomorrow."
"Who?!," Gunn demanded.
"Like I already told you, the one closest to the heart of the hero!"
"That's not good enough," Gunn responded as he shoved the man back up against the wall. "What does she look like?"
"Pure of heart, that's all I know, I swear!," the haggard soul replied in a frightened manner.
"What time?," Gunn persisted. "What time are they going to take her?"
"In the afternoon, I think. Sometime in the afternoon. They have to prepare her, you see, before they can use her!"
"Um, Gunn," Jinn took his arm, "we have another problem."
Gunn turned around to find himself surrounded by vampires, faces contorted, and ready to bite. "Jeez!"
"Any suggestions?," Jinn questioned as she backed up against him.
"Yeah, this!," he said as he handed her a wooden stake. "Ready?"
"Always!," Jinn replied as she vaulted into the air, fists and feet flying.
"Damn," Gunn thought as he watched her soar, "I have GOT TO take her classes!"
Jinn kicked two vamps in the head at once and then turned in the air acrobatically to stake two more. Gunn staked one of the vamps still reeling from Jinn's kicks. Jinn caught another vampire with her legs and threw him head over heels into Gunn's waiting spike. Her movements were so fast, that she was able to catch two more of the undead unaware and thrust their heads together. As they stumbled around, she coiled, struck out and finished them both. But, just then, she was grabbed from behind. The superior strength of a vampire had her wrapped up in its arms. She could feel its cold lips upon her neck and smell its putrid breath.
"Gunn!," she cried out.
She was showered in a fine gray dust as the arms which had grabbed her disappeared. She turned to see Gunn behind her, holding a stake.
"Got your back, girl!," Gunn smiled. Then he looked around. "Damn," he said, perturbed.
"What?," Jinn asked, "All the vampires are gone! That's a good thing!"
"Yeah, and so is my source. I wanted to get so much more information out of him. I know I could've turned the screws on that little weasel!"
"Yeah... well he's gone. And the good thing is, we fought off a bunch of vampires! Something I've never done before in my whole, entire life and we're still alive! Wow, I feel great! Let's just get back to the hotel. We need to share information, right?"
"Yeah, right," Gunn
Sunny and Wes parked the car in the back parking lot and started towards the hotel. As they approached the rear entrance, their path was suddenly blocked by three vampires.
"Stay behind me!," Wes called out gallantly as he jumped in front of Sunny. "I'll handle this!"
The vampires laughed.
"Lame, thy name is Angel!"
"How do I lame thee?," another began. "Let me count the ways! Well, number one, a fraud named Wesley for my point man!," he laughed.
"Now we know Angel is neutered," the third continued. "He's working with this?!" He pointed at Wes and laughed.
Wesley smirked smugly. "Well, maybe this is lame, or maybe it's not!" He pulled a vial of holy water out of his coat and doused them with it. As the vampires' flesh began to burn and smoke, Wesley yelled, "Come, Sunny, run!," as he grabbed her hand. One of the vamps had recovered significantly enough to grab Sunny's hair. She immediately spun around and staked him. And from her jacket pocket, produced another stake, which she hurled through the night air with her other hand and straight into a vampire "heart". That left one. Wesley grabbed him and held a cross to his face.
"It burns! It burns! Stop!," he cried out.
"Not until you tell me why the vampire world is all of a sudden so interested in our business!" He held the cross tight to the vamp's face as it burned. Sunny approached with a stake in hand and held it over his "heart".
"It's the Master! Just stop! This is torture!"
"Tell us now!," Sunny leaned on the stake.
"It's the Master! He wants Angel back! O.k.?"
"O.k.," Sunny said as she staked him and he turned to dust.
"Sunny!," Wesley yelled incredulously. "Why did you do that? There was so much more information to be tortured out of him?!"
"Oh, sorry, Wes. I guess I just had that 'blood lust' thing on, you know? Kill the enemy and all that?"
"It was ill advised. There was so much more information we could've gleaned from him!"
Sunny looked down. "Sorry, Wes."
Wesley adjusted his glasses. "I would think, with Gabrielle and Xena being in such danger and all, that you would be more thoughtful. You do claim to like them. One might think, that you had no intention of protecting them. That you were solely out for your own purposes."
"I said I was sorry."
"Well, no matter now." He shook his head. "Where DID you get those stakes, by the way?"
"I told you I was a little creeped out by the vampire thing. I just took it upon myself to carry extra protection... just in case."
"Yes, well, that was
thinking ahead, I suppose," he replied.
Angel, Cordy, Gabrielle and Xena were the first ones to return to the hotel. Cordy checked in with Fred, while Angel made himself look busy around the office. Gabrielle and Xena sat together on the divan. All were still touched by the enchantment they had felt that evening and moved as if within a cloud of light and music. Cordelia returned from where Fred was still analyzing information on the internet and placed her hand on Angel's back, between his shoulders. He turned to her and smiled. Xena dipped her head to catch Gabrielle's lips and was about to kiss her when...
"You CANNOT believe this woman!," Gunn shouted as he entered the hotel lobby. "She, like, took out about four vamps by herself, plus saved us from a vicious crew of old folks and young people at the 'Bewitched' bar! Awesome!"
"And you saved my life tonight!," Jinn added, continuing with their newly formed mutual admiration society.
They both stopped suddenly as they surveyed the situation and felt, unexpectedly, awkward.
"Are we interrupting something here?," Gunn asked cautiously.
"Um, no!," Angel managed to stumble with his response.
"Of course not!," Cordelia dissembled as she removed her hand from Angel's back.
"Yeah!," Xena stated bluntly. "But that's nothing new for you, is it Jinn?"
Gabrielle elbowed her in the ribs.
"What did you find out?," Angel asked.
"That this is a vampire thing and it involves you!," Wesley called out as he entered the room with Sunny.
"What are you talking about?," Angel demanded.
"Just that Lucifer has a hard-on for you," Sunny explained indelicately.
"Damn," Xena smiled wryly. "And just when I thought I was 'special' to him!," she added in mock dismay.
"We were confronted by three vampires as we approached the hotel. One of them informed us that Satan was after you!," Wesley continued.
"Yeah, the vamps attacked us tonight, too!," Gunn interjected. "But they didn't know who they were dealing with. My martial arts master here, wiped 'em all out!" He smiled at Jinn.
"They were delivering a message," Wesley said. "The devil wants you back!"
"That's nothing new," Angel stated matter of factly. "I don't see how that's helpful."
"It's just that I'm afraid his minions might do something horrible to try and turn you. You've turned before, Angel, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility."
"You're afraid I'm going to turn evil again?"
"Jeez," Xena interrupted, "can't a person live down their past around here? Give the guy a break."
"Yeah," Gabrielle chimed in, "I believe in you, Angel!"
"Xena, Gabrielle, you don't understand," Wesley stated emphatically. "It puts us all in extreme danger. Anything, anyone Angel cares about, is in danger from the forces that would have him turn."
Cordelia shook her head. "Angelus is one mean, heartless mother. I sure as hell don't want to see him again!"
"Well, what are we going to do about it?," Gunn asked.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence guys," Angel said dejectedly.
"Look, Angel, you don't have to be around yourself when your Angelus. We do. And you really hurt us last time," Cordelia explained.
"I would never do anything to hurt you, Cordy!," Angel protested.
"Angel, I know that YOU would never hurt me. But Angelus, that's a different story," she reminded.
"Damn straight!," Gunn agreed.
"I have a firm grip on my soul now," Angel argued. "I love and I am loved." He stopped suddenly and gazed at his friends. "I am loved, aren't I?"
Cordelia relaxed her body stance a little. "Of course we love you, Angel," she relented.
"I love you a lot," Fred blurted out.
"It's just that you've been known, from time to time, to go all evil-weird on us and we don't want to see that again, that's all," Cordelia finished.
This whole exchange was having an unsettling effect on Xena. It hit too close to home. Gabrielle could sense her partner's anxiety. She reached over with her left hand and touched Xena's arm. She used her other hand to stroke her hair. "It's alright, Xena," she whispered in her ear. "I've got you." She could feel Xena's body relax a little, comforted by the sound of her voice.
"I won't be turned," Angel insisted. "I've got too much to lose." He unwittingly glanced at Cordelia.
"All the same," Wesley said, "we need to take precautions. Fortunately, we have a couple of wild cards to play."
"What would that be, Wes?," Sunny asked.
"You and Jinn," came the reply.
"Huh?," both women stared at him questioningly.
"Satan's minions know of Angel's relationship with Gunn, Cordelia and me. They most likely know about Fred by now. But, you two are unknown to them. They won't be prepared for you. And, as evidenced by tonight's vampire attacks, you are both excellent fighters."
"So where do we fit in?," Jinn asked.
"I think we should all stay here together at the hotel tonight. If any evil were to accost us, you would be our first line of defense."
"But, evil can't get in here, can it?," Fred asked tentatively.
"He's not afraid of evil getting in from outside," Xena spoke up. "He's afraid of the evil that may already be here. In other words: me and Angel."
"The notion that there is safety in numbers, had occurred to me," Wesley informed.
"Now wait a minute," Cordelia objected. "I didn't bring anything to change into tomorrow. And if you're afraid of seeing evil emerge, wait until you see what happens if I have to wear the same outfit two days in a row!"
"Yeah, and I'm not so sure it's such a good idea to have Xena and Angel together, in the same place, anymore," Gunn observed.
"I'm NOT turning evil!," Angel renewed his objections to this line of thinking.
"And neither is Xena!," Gabrielle spoke up.
"None of us should be alone," Wesley insisted. "Not tonight or tomorrow, until this whole thing is over."
"Look, what about tomorrow?," Jinn questioned. "We need to sit down and put our heads together and come up with a plan, right? Could we just do that?"
"Good point," Wesley nodded.
"Well, I found out that they're going to try and snag Gabrielle tomorrow afternoon," Gunn said. "They have to prepare her for the sacrifice. They're pretty sure they have Xena's soul in their back pocket. And that their ritual will begin at 11:11 and it's supposed to be a traditional ceremony, whatever that means."
"It means knives only," Sunny added.
"It means sharp, double edged weapons only," Fred clarified.
"Uh, you guys are starting to really creep me out," Gabrielle mentioned. Xena draped a protective arm around her.
"Any help from Lorne?," Wesley asked.
"No, not really," Xena said. "Just that we're all in danger tomorrow night."
"Oh, but he has insights. He must've said more than that," Wesley prompted.
"Well, o.k., if you must know, he said that Gabrielle was my salvation tomorrow night," Xena stated.
"Hmmm," Wesley seemed to be thinking out loud, "very interesting. Fred," he inquired, "what did your research turn up?"
"I was able to find out that this ceremony has very specific rules. They must wear the hoods and robes of Tenebrion, the spirit of darkness. Things must be done in a preordained manner. There are specific words that must be said, chants at certain times, even the defilement of the pure one must be done in a systematic fashion. They make specified cuts in a specified order, drain your blood into chalices and ravage you as you bleed to death."
"Enough, already!," Gabrielle complained.
"Lucifer can't come through until the blood begins to flow. Then he'll use a warrior, who has been turned, as his portal into this world. He'll be followed by an army of devils, who will disperse across the globe and create an everlasting hell on earth," Fred continued in her soft southern accent. "Oh yeah, and he will have dominion over all the creatures," she hesitated, "well, this part was unclear, over all the creatures or beasts, one or the other, in this realm."
Everyone sat speechless for a moment.
"And just how do we go about stopping this?," Wesley mused out loud.
"It won't do any good to keep Gabrielle away from them. That won't stop the ceremony," Fred informed. "Apparently anyone who is pure of heart will do. This whole thing about one 'close to the heart of the hero' must have to do with Lucifer's preoccupation with you, Xena. Maybe he has a grudge against you or Gabrielle or something? But that's not in any of the texts I interpreted. The one sure way to prevent his passage into this world is to close the portal."
"And how do we do that?," Gunn asked her.
"Well, um," Fred looked down, embarrassed, "you would have to do away with his chosen warrior, I guess."
"Ya know," Xena rolled her eyes, "that's just great. This whole thing is just starting to irritate the hell out of me. Either I get it or Gabrielle does. There's just something about this world that I don't like."
"The other option would be to disrupt the order of the ceremony," Fred revealed.
"That's easy!," Gunn jumped up as he spoke. "I could do that all by myself!"
"Ah, well you would have to get close enough first," Fred cautioned. "The sight will be protected by a very strong black magic. It could be some sort of spell which creates a field that prevents entry around the perimeter, it could be that the very animals of the night, themselves, are enchanted and would guard the unholy ground or, heck, it could be poison darts!"
Once again, there was silence in the room.
"But if you dip your weapons in holy water and speak some sacred words I learned tonight over them, you should be able to pass through any old barrier. Otherwise, only the ones that Satan wants there can get in," Fred informed.
"Am I the only one here who wants to strangle her?," Xena asked in disgust.
"Ya know Fred, Xena has a point," Cordelia said softly. "Maybe you could just concentrate on giving us our options all at once."
"Oh, well that's simple enough. Find the hood and robes of Tenebrion, disguise yourselves as coven members, anoint your weapons in holy water, say the sacred words over them, arrive by 11:11 p.m., penetrate the barriers, disrupt the ceremony and hope to hell the warrior doesn't kill all of you," Fred summarized. "Oh yeah, and if they don't get you by sundown, Gabrielle, your safe. They have to do all this body anointing and chanting over you before they can sacrifice you. So they have to have someone hours ahead of time."
"Finally... some good news," Gabrielle sighed.
"Wow, I don't know why any of us even bothered to go out tonight," Gunn ventured. "Fred got all the information we need just sitting at home. Good job, Fred. You are so awesome!" He smiled at her sweetly.
"Yes, I quite agree," Wes interjected. "Wonderful work as usual, Fred!" He smiled warmly as he looked at her. "Does anyone know where we could find the hood and robes of Tenebrion?," he then asked.
"Oh yeah, I do!," Sunny volunteered. Everyone looked at her skeptically.
"Don't look at me like that!," Sunny complained. "I told you that unexplained phenomenon and the occult were my avocation. I just happen to know a guy down in Venice who specializes in this sort of thing."
"Like a magic store?," Cordelia questioned.
"No. It's a candy store, actually. He deals occult items out of his back room."
Again, the others eyed her incredulously. Sunny rolled her eyes in exasperation. She held up two fingers. "Swear to God, scout's honor, it's true. Just leave the costume thing up to me. I'll come through."
"All right then," Wes agreed. "And we certainly have enough double edged weapons here for everyone, I believe. So, I guess the only question is, who's staying where for this evening?"
"Well, I don't want to offend anybody," Gunn said, "but I really don't think it's such a good idea to keep Angel and Xena in close proximity. I mean, their submerged evil parts could be subconsciously communicating with each other right now, for all we know!"
"Not very likely," Xena and Angel said at once, then looked at each other with surprise.
"See what I mean?," Gunn voiced.
"Eww, you know what? That was kinda' eerie," Cordy agreed.
"For all we know, Xena could be the trigger that brings out Angelus," Gunn continued.
"O.k., so then we split Angel and Xena up," Wes said. "Fred, Gunn and I will stay here at the hotel with Angel."
"And I'll go with Xena and Gabrielle, seeing as I have to stop in Venice tomorrow and it's kind of on the way back here," Sunny volunteered.
"Good," Wes continued. "Jinn, could you stay with us then?," he asked.
"Well, I did promise Gabrielle I would protect her." She smiled at the bard as Gabrielle smiled back sweetly. Xena cleared her throat loudly. Jinn glanced at her. "But, I guess I could stay here with you guys tonight. If you need me."
"I think it would be for the best," Wes intoned.
"And that leaves little old me again, Wes!," Cordelia complained. "That's the second time you forgot about me tonight! Boy, let a couple of other women start hanging around and I'm just old news, huh?"
"Oh, yes, your choice then, Cordelia. With whom would you like to stay?"
"Well, no offense to you boys, but I'm up for a slumber party with the girls! Xena, Gabby, is that o.k. with you?"
"Um, slumber party, Cordy?," Gabrielle smiled a confused smile.
"Yeah, you know, girl sleep over thing?," Cordy explained.
"Oh, well Xena and I sleep together every night!," Gabrielle beamed. Xena shook her head and rolled her eyes at her partner's naiveté.
"Whatever's in your head, you just say it... right out loud, don't ya?," she smirked at her, "jeez, Gabrielle!"
"It's not like it's a secret, anymore, Xena. I don't think there's a person in this room who hasn't figured it out."
"Um, yes, well that's true. But it's not THAT kind of sleep over," Sunny explained. "A slumber party is an American tradition, usually practiced by adolescent or preadolescent girls. It involves a lot of giggling, talking about sex, popcorn, ice cream and, sometimes, undies in the freezer."
"Ooh, thanks for remembering the ice cream part," Cordy enthused. "We need to stop by my apartment so I can pick up some clothes. I've got 'Almond Mocha Ripple Fudge' in the freezer!"
"Um, that sounds like fun, (except for maybe the undies part). I'd love to have you over, Cordy," Gabrielle replied.
"Then it's all settled," Wes nodded his head.
"We can try that undies in the freezer thing later, when we're alone," Gabrielle whispered in Xena's ear. "Sounds like it might be exhilarating!" Xena's face flushed a little.
"Gods, Gabrielle," she
said under her breath as she smiled broadly. "You never cease to amaze me."
Cordy stopped at her apartment for clothes and ice cream. She wanted to take her own car. There was some discussion about this. It was only resolved when Cordy promised to drive right in front of Xena. Gabrielle went with Cordelia to show her the way. That left Sunny and Xena alone in Xena and Gabrielle's car.
"Don't like me much, do you, Xena?," Sunny, not one for mincing words, stated flatly.
"Nope. You remind me of someone," Xena stated just as bluntly.
"Can I ask who?'
Xena glanced over at her suspiciously. There was a silence. "Yeah, all right," she relented after awhile. "You remind me of someone from our past. Someone who was in love with Gabrielle and tried to come between us. THAT is just not a good idea!"
"Brunnhilda?," Sunny asked.
Xena was stunned. "How did you know?," she questioned.
When you were knocked out and I forced those herbs down your throat, you came to a little and called me Brunnhilda."
"Hmmm," is all Xena would say.
"So what did Brunnhilda do that was so bad? Was it like on the show?"
"I dunno'. I haven't seen that much of the show. Gabrielle can't take it. She thinks they screwed with her scrolls too much."
"Well," Sunny said, "on the show, Brunnhilda fell in love with Gabrielle and tried to steal her from you. But then she turned herself into an eternal flame for Gabrielle and surrounded her as she fell into an enchanted sleep, until you could come and wake her with a kiss."
"Yeah, well, that's kinda' what happened," Xena responded.
"So then, in the end, Brunnhilda wasn't that bad, right?," Sunny queried.
"I really admire you. I want you to know that. I can sense your fearless heart, your warrior soul! I have confidence in your ability to kick Lucifer's butt tomorrow night!," Sunny continued.
"Your not one for conversation much, are you, Xena?"
"Do I really look like her," Sunny continued, undeterred, "like Brunnhilda?"
"I think you do."
"I wonder if I could be related to her. My ancestors are Vikings, hence the name."
"Sunflower?," Xena shook her head questioningly.
"No, Swenson. It's Nordic. Hey," Sunny became suddenly animated, "what if her soul is reincarnated into me?! That would be so cool!"
"And just when I was starting to like you a little," Xena smirked.
Sunny laughed. "Well, I don't believe in reincarnation anyway. I think we all just get one shot at this thing. So we better learn as much as we can and make the best of it!"
"To each her own," Xena shrugged.
"You know, Gabrielle is pretty cute," Sunny said absently.
"O.k., so now you're living dangerously," Xena intoned slowly.
Sunny seemed unfazed by Xena's threat. "No. I was just wondering what it's like for a woman like you to be around someone so, well, adorable and charmingly perky all the time. Doesn't it get on your nerves some?"
"She's not perky all the time, believe me," Xena grinned sarcastically.
"So, she never gets on your nerves?"
Xena shook her head in consternation. "What kind of question is that? Of course someone you live with is going to get on your nerves from time to time. But, the good with her, far outweighs any of the negatives! We compliment each other. So, what? You've got a problem with Gabrielle?"
"Oh, no, quite the contrary. I think she's wonderful, fabulous, smashing! I just was wondering what it was like to live with her."
"Well, you're a brave one, I'll give you that!," Xena glared at her menacingly.
"Whoa, down girl! I'm not looking to make the moves on your sweetheart."
"You couldn't anyway. She's the best thing that ever happened to me. No one's taking her away. She's mine and I'm hers."
"O.k., I get that," Sunny replied casually.
"Mmmm," Xena growled under breath. "I do not understand you."
"Join the club," Sunny smiled vaguely. "I'm just looking for clues. Trying to figure my own self out, I guess. You know: love, life, knowledge, the pursuit of happiness, enlightenment. The basics."
"O.k., and just because I'm new to this century, fill me in: is this an L.A. thing or a 'slumber party' thing?"
"Could be both," Sunny laughed. "But, just so you know, I like you. I really do have faith in your ability to kick ass tomorrow!"
"Yeah, well that's a
real confidence builder," Xena said sardonically. "Just stay away from Gabrielle
and we'll be fine."
Cordelia had indeed brought her ice cream over as well as microwave popcorn and a couple videos.
"Oh, guys, I can't tell you how long it's been since I've spent a normal evening with girlfriends!," she smiled earnestly. "And, I know this isn't exactly 'normal' normal, but could we just all sleep out here in the living room and watch videos and tell stories and munch? I'm kinda' craving ordinariness!"
Gabrielle was infected by her enthusiasm and brought down blankets and pillows for all. Xena gave her a crooked grin, shook her head and decided not to object. They all snuggled up in front of the television as Cordy popped in a video.
"Pocahontas?!," Sunny guffawed. "You brought over Pocahontas for us to watch?"
"Yeah," Cordy sounded hurt, "what's wrong with that? She's so pretty, for a cartoon character, I mean. I just love her hair! And the music's so good. Plus the ending, you know, the hero can't be with his princess because of circumstances beyond their control, it's so sad. It makes me cry sometimes!"
"Ooh animation!," Gabrielle cooed. "I just LOVE animation!"
"That she does," Xena smiled knowingly.
"Thank you, Gabrielle," Cordy said smugly as she and the bard cuddled up together between the two fiercer women on either side of them. Xena and Sunny looked at each other over the innocently pleased faces beneath them. They exchanged ironic smiles.
"Damn," Xena thought, "there it goes again. I'm starting to like her." She reclined back into the pillows they had propped up against the bottom of the couch. She folded her arms behind her, rested her head against her hands and proceeded to watch the video.
Eighty minutes later, a tear trickled down Xena's cheek as the credits ran. "That movie was sad," she thought. She had become so engrossed in the video, that she had forgotten that she wasn't alone. She quickly surveyed the others. Cordy and Gabrielle were both sleeping peacefully on their backs with their mouths slightly open. Sunny was turned on her side and mumbling something incomprehensible in her sleep. "Thank the gods they're all asleep," Xena thought. "If they had seen me crying over a cartoon, I would've never lived it down. Not exactly the image a warrior wants to present!"
Then she noticed the empty ice cream dishes and half eaten bag of popcorn between Cordy and Gabrielle. "Better take care of that," she thought. She carried the bowls into the kitchen and dropped them into the sink. She ran water over them and threw the popcorn in the trash. She proceeded back into the living room, popped the video out of the VCR and turned off the T.V. "Well, so much for slumber parties," she mused as she gazed out the window.
She touched the bites on her neck, which felt painful again. She opened the sliding glass door and walked out onto the deck. She very quietly slid the door shut behind her. She glanced up at the heavens. "So what's next?," she questioned out loud. Xena pulled a chaise lounge out so she could relax and gaze at the stars, what there were of them. She pulled the blanket, which they always left out there to sunbathe on, over herself.
It was then that she heard the glass door slide open again. She looked over and saw Gabrielle approaching her. "Gabrielle, I thought you were asleep," she said. "I didn't wake you did I? Did I make too much noise?"
"No. I guess I just felt the lack of your presence."
"Are the others awake?"
"No," Gabrielle whispered as she made her way over to Xena. "It's kinda' chilly out here. Mind if I join you?"
"C'mer," Xena smiled as Gabrielle laid down and she enfolded her in the blanket.
They snuggled up together and gazed upon the stars. Xena placed one hand behind her head. A far away look was in her eyes.
"Thinking back, Xena?," Gabrielle asked.
"To all those nights sleeping under the stars?"
"Although, I do seem to remember, we could see so many more stars. Not like here," Gabrielle chatted on.
"Well, I'll get my bike together," Xena finally responded. "Then we'll just go. We'll find a place where you can see all the stars you want, Gabrielle." She kissed the bard's head.
"Hey, you want to know what I really miss, Xena?"
The warrior smiled. "What?"
A baffled look crossed Xena's brow. She stared down at her friend questioningly. "MY mother?," she finally said, "Not your mother, your family?"
"Yeah, of course, I miss them too... so much," Gabrielle drifted off a bit. "But, I miss Cyrene."
"Why?," Xena asked.
"Because she loved me. Because she accepted me, for who I was, what I was, what we were."
"Mom did all that , huh?"
They were both silent for a space.
"I miss her, Xena."
A tear ran down Xena's cheek. "I miss her too, Gabrielle."
The bard held her partner tight and sighed, "You and me, we have a home here now, Xena. We are each other's family. Nothing can ever split us up."
"Nope, nothing...," Xena closed her eyes and experienced the warmth of Gabrielle's body surrounding her as she allowed another tear to flow.
"Xena?," Gabrielle looked up at her, wondering.
"It's o.k., Gabrielle. Just seems to be my night for tears, is all."
"It's not important," Xena kissed her again. "It's probably not safe out here, Gabrielle. This IS the witching hour. We should go back inside."
"Yeah, I know. I just like being under the stars, like this, with you again."
"Me too," Xena sighed. "I remember our first night under the stars. You were so brave. You had left your home, your family, your fiancé, your security; to follow me blindly into an unknown world."
"I was hiding in the bushes, Xena."
"Yeah," the warrior smiled at the memory, "but you came out of the bushes to my campfire. You were so wide-eyed and innocent back then, Gabrielle. You said you wanted to be like me. Do you still feel that way?"
"If you mean brave, honest, noble and independent, yeah. If you mean grumpy and short tempered, no."
Xena laughed. "I suppose I deserve that, seeing as I tripped you tonight."
"Aah," Gabrielle beamed up at her, "so you finally admit it! You did trip me!"
"Yeah, but I caught you. I was just trying to get your attention, is all."
"You were jealous. But, Xena, there's no need to be. You always have my attention."
"I still don't like people pawing at you. I just don't think you have any idea how really cute you are. Gabrielle, you're darling. And your personality is so outgoing and attractive, sweet and endearing. People are just naturally drawn to you. Then you go and top it all off with breasts that just stand right up and say, 'howdy!'. You are a very touchable person. Can you blame me for not wanting to share?!"
"You know what, Xena? Except for the talking breasts part, that was so sweet. Why don't you let people see this side of you?"
"Because it's for you, Gabrielle, only for you."
"Hmm," she pondered for a moment. "Come to think of it, I don't want to share you either. And as far as wanting to be like you is concerned, I think I have become like you, in all the good ways, in all the ways that matter. And I think that you've become more like me, too. I think we've been a positive influence on each other." She paused to gaze at the heavens.
"You helped me to grow," she began again with a sigh. "You saw me. When no one else did, you saw me. You allowed me to shine."
"Was that a good 'Mmm' or a bad 'Mmm', Xena?"
"That was a good 'Mmm'," she chuckled. "Seeing you was the best thing I ever did, Gabrielle." She ran her fingers through the bard's soft golden locks. "C'mon, time to go inside. I'm afraid Cordelia might miss you."
"Xena?," Gabrielle looked up again. "How come you dislike Jinn so much and don't resent Cordelia at all?"
"Well, for one thing, she's not blonde. You really have an eye for your fellow fair-hairs!"
"And for another thing," Xena continued, "I know that Cordelia has no ulterior motives. She just needs a friend. Plus, I think you may be right. I think she might love Angel. Although, she doesn't seem to want to admit it to herself."
"You know, Xena, it's so sad. I didn't tell you what Cordy and I talked about at lunch, but Angel has a gypsy curse placed upon him. If he ever experiences a moment of true bliss, happiness, with the woman he loves, his soul is ripped from him."
Xena was silent for a moment. Then she shook her head. "No wonder Cordelia likes that Pocahontas movie so much," she finally said.
"Why, Xena, what happens in the end? I fell asleep."
"Actually, it was kind of about choosing the 'Greater Good'. You would've liked it. But, it was just an impossible love, is all. A love that couldn't be. We're so lucky!"
"I think I told you that earlier," Gabrielle smiled.
"Well, now I understand why you were clinging to me so tightly," Xena smiled back. "C'mon, lets get back inside."
They entered the house
silently, locked the door and snuggled up together under the blankets beside
Cordelia and Sunny.
Cordelia woke up in the morning with a start. A hand was quickly placed across her mouth and she felt a sense of panic! She looked up to see Sunny staring down at her and motioning with a finger in front of her lips for her to be quite.
"Look how cute they are together, when they're sleeping," she whispered and motioned towards Gabrielle and Xena.
Cordy glanced over at the two women wrapped up in each other's arms and then quickly looked back at Sunny. "Yeah, that's real sweet," she whispered loudly, "but don't ever do that to me again! I just about had apoplexy! And I am way too young to burst a blood vessel and have a stroke! Do you have any idea what it would do to my looks if one half of my face were paralyzed?!"
"I just didn't want you to wake them up, is all," Sunny whispered.
"I've been awake," Xena's voice surprised them both. "But, I don't want either of you to wake up Gabrielle. So keep it down. She likes her beauty sleep!"
"O.k.," Cordy was still whispering. "I'll just go take a shower."
As she got up and headed off towards the bathroom, Gabrielle stirred. "Xena?," she said groggily. "Mmmm, make love to me," she continued half asleep. "Do me in the morning. I want you." Her hands began to move over Xena's body.
"Gabrielle, we're not alone, remember?," Xena prodded. Sunny smiled at her shamelessly. "You know what, Sunny?," Xena started in an irritated voice. "There are times when I find myself almost starting to like you. This is not one of those times!," she continued harshly.
"O.k., whatever," Sunny replied nonchalantly. "I just thought it was cute, that's all. You are so defensive, really," she said as she gathered her belongings and headed for the other bathroom.
Gabrielle's eyes blinked open. She rolled over. "Hey, where did everybody go?"
"You scared them off with all your talk about 'doing it' in the morning." Xena had an amused look on her face.
"I did NOT say that, did I Xena?" Gabrielle looked mortified.
"Yeah, you did."
"Gabrielle!," Xena's eyes opened wide. "Such language! You never cuss!" Xena pretended to be shocked. "I may have to spank you!"
Gabrielle's face turned three different shades of red. "I am so embarrassed," she said. "I guess I've gotten out of the habit of traveling with people. I mean, you remember when Joxer or Amarice or someone always seemed to be with us? I guess I just got out of the habit of being guarded. I've gotten so used to being with you alone! I'm so embarrassed." She pulled the covers up over her head.
Xena slowly pulled the blankets back down. "Hey, Gabrielle, it's not that bad. Cordelia had already taken off for the shower. It was only Sunny who heard."
"Oh great, that's much better, someone who's almost a total stranger!"
"Well, they're both taking showers now," Xena eyed her amorously. "We could, you know, um...,"
"Uh huh, no way, Xena. Jinn walked in on us yesterday. I'm not taking the chance of anyone catching us today! I'm getting up to make some breakfast." As Gabrielle headed for the kitchen, she turned her head and called over her shoulder. "The spanking thing," she smiled seductively, "we could still do that later, right?"
"I've created a monster,"
Xena smiled back.
As they traveled down towards Venice in two separate cars, Xena had again cautioned Cordelia to remain directly in front of her. They had agreed to park in the municipal parking lot, despite the outrageous cost, instead of trying to find parking on the street. Xena had to park a few spaces down from Cordelia, even though they were there early. It was a Saturday, and all of L.A. flocked to the beach on the weekends, even in September. Xena had managed to avoid conversation with Sunny on the trip down, for which she was grateful. "I'm just not a morning person," Sunny had yawned as she pulled her sunglasses down over eyes and napped. As they approached Cordelia's car, Xena was surprised to see her and Gabrielle perched upon the open trunk, changing shoes.
"What's going on here?," Xena demanded.
"I told Gabrielle that I'd teach her how to skate today, and that's just exactly what I'm going to do!," Cordelia replied as she and the bard laced up their in-line skates.
"Aaw, we don't have time for this," Xena protested. "We've got important business to take care of!"
"That's just it, Xena!," Cordelia answered back. "We've got no time. I haven't had any time since I got to L.A.! This could be the last day of our lives. We have to live every moment to the fullest! I want to skate, dammit!"
"Uh, Xena," Gabrielle smiled up weakly, "she is right, you know. Tomorrow is not a given and this is something I've wanted to do since I first saw it!"
"Ga-bri-elle," Xena drew out her name in that chastising manner.
"Lighten up, Xena," Cordy continued. "We're here already, might as well skate. Sometimes you can be just as big a drag as Angel! Really, it's o.k. Ready, Gabby?"
"I guess so, what do I do?"
"Stand up. Then you move your feet and legs like this," Cordelia said as she skated around the parking lot. Gabrielle stood up and tried to move. She immediately felt her feet roll out from under her and hit the ground.
"You could've caught me, you know, Xena," she said in a perturbed manner as she sat splayed on the asphalt.
"Oh no," Xena said, "this is all on you!"
"Oh c'mon, Xena, give me a hand with her," Cordy smiled as she skated back up to them. With that, they both reached down and picked Gabrielle up. "We'll just go slow to start," Cordelia promised. "Hold on to me, I'm a good teacher." They began to roll away together.
"Now, wait just a doggon' minute!," Xena called after them.
"Hey, I'm going to go score our costumes," Sunny shrugged.
"You can't leave me here to chase after these two nuts by myself!," Xena complained.
"Here's my cell phone number," Sunny handed Xena her card. "Call me if there's any trouble. I'll meet you guys back at the car in an hour or so, o.k.?," She flipped her sunglasses down, smiled an impossibly bright smile and then headed out towards the street, her long blonde hair flowing behind her.
"Gods, I hate California," Xena sighed as she took off after Cordy and Gabrielle.
"Just remember to get her distracted so I can find my vendor, o.k., Cordy?"
"No problem, Gabby."
"What are you two whispering about?," Xena inquired as she caught up to them.
"Chill, girlfriend, o.k.?," came Cordelia's reply. "No one's getting kidnapped until this afternoon. Relax and enjoy the morning."
They began to roll away from her again as they hit the boardwalk. "I'm not going to run after you all morning! Gabrielle, you're really pissing me off, now!" Xena started to say something else but, suddenly, her throat felt constricted. There was a searing pain in her neck and she placed her hand over the vampire bites. Her head began to spin and she watched helplessly as Gabrielle and Cordy skated off in front of her. She doubled over in pain. It was as if someone had just sunk their teeth into her all over again. She fell to her knees. Her head bent down and she steadied herself against a growing nausea by placing both hands on the ground.
"Hey, lady," a little girl said as she let her cotton candy drift down into Xena's face, "are you o.k.?"
A crowd began to gather
"Hey, Gabby," Cordelia smiled. "I think we lost her!"
"Good. Let's find my vendor!" They skated over to Antwan's table. Neither of them noticed the strange eyes that followed them.
"Little one!," he greeted Gabrielle brightly, "you have returned!"
"I said I would," she smiled at him. "Do you have it? Can I see it?"
"Ah, yes, it is right here!" He reached into his bag and pulled out a bracelet. He placed it in Gabrielle's hand. She stared at it intensely. A silver heart was surrounded by two tiny seashells, each of which had a stone inlaid, stones which resembled the stars. The bracelet was strung together on a braided leather cord.
"This is perfect!," Gabrielle smiled enthusiastically.
"I have blessed it with a special magic, just as I have promised!," Antwan said in his heavy accent. "It will work for you and all those you love! But, please, Gabrielle," he looked at her sincerely, "cash only, as we agreed."
"Of course, Antwan," Gabrielle smiled as she reached for her backpack. It wasn't there. "Darn," she said, "I left my backpack in the trunk when we put on the skates. I am so mad at myself!"
"Don't even trip!," Cordy reassured. "I've got brass in pocket today. It's covered."
"I'll pay you back as soon as we get to the car!," Gabrielle promised. It was then that Gabrielle noticed a commotion behind her. "Cordy, it's strange that Xena hasn't caught up to us yet, don't you think? And that woman is trouble with a capital 'T'," she glanced in the direction of the disturbance.
"Go look for your gal pal, warrior-babe," she curled her lip up like Elvis, "your 'hunka, hunka burnin' love'. I'll pay for the bracelet and wait right here for you, o.k.?"
Gabrielle smiled and laughed. "Thanks, Cordy," she hugged her. "I'll be right back." She shoved the bracelet into her pocket absently and, suddenly feeling more confident on her skates, rolled over to where the commotion was.
"You're going to have to get up now, ma'am," a police officer said as his boot nudged Xena. "C'mon, time to go," another poked her with his night stick. "The merchants don't like it when you street people litter the boardwalk!"
Xena was just starting to come back around. Her head had been spinning and felt strangely heavy. Her face was flush with the pavement and drool was running from the side of her mouth. She realized she was being kicked and prodded and struck out at a black boot as it came down upon her. She easily flipped the man into the air.
"That's it!," the other police officer shouted and struck her with his night stick.
"Stop! Stop!," a voice cried out from the back of the crowd. "Let me through!"
It was Gabrielle. She threw herself on top of Xena to prevent any further pummeling by L.A.'s finest. "You don't understand," she pleaded. "She's my friend! She's been sick! Just let me take her. She's sick!"
The police officer looked around. The crowd that had gathered looked angry... at him. "You better get her out of here now! I can haul the both of you off and hold you for 24 hours for no reason at all, and believe me, I've got reason."
"Twenty four hours?," Gabrielle questioned. "That would be just about perfect! No harm could come to us then! Do it," she smiled at him sweetly.
The other officer was back on his feet by this time. "Let me at her!," he called out.
"No," he was held back by his partner who was taking the temperature of the angry mob gathered around them. "Let them go." He looked back down at Gabrielle. "You just get her out of here, now! Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." If Gabrielle had learned anything from Xena's erratic driving, it was how to handle the LAPD in a surly mood. She removed her skates, stuffed her socks inside and tied the laces together. She draped them over one shoulder and slipped the other under Xena. "Can you stand, Xena?," she whispered in her ear.
"Is that you, Gabrielle?" Her voice sounded so plaintive that it almost broke the bard's heart. "Just help me up." Gabrielle helped her partner to stand and, as the crowd parted, walked barefoot over to a bench with Xena leaning on her.
"Xena, what happened?," Gabrielle held her as they sat down.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I was following you and Cordelia and then, all of a sudden, I got dizzy. The last thing I remember is cotton candy in my face and then I wake up with some jerk kicking me."
"The police," Gabrielle informed.
"Oh, them again," Xena squeezed out a smile. "Look, I'm feeling better now. My head's clearing. It was just like a spell or something. I'm feeling much better, except for where they kicked and beat me," she winced.
"Well, if I know your recuperative powers, and I do, you'll be bossing me around again in 15 minutes!" Gabrielle placed her arms around her and kissed her on the head. She unconsciously rocked back and forth with Xena in her arms. People continued to walk by on the boardwalk. If they were tourists, they eyed them with interest. If they were natives, they just passed on by without giving any notice. Finally a man stopped in front of them.
"Hey, do you two need some water or something?," he asked.
"Oh, that would be wonderful!," Gabrielle answered back guilelessly.
The man returned almost immediately with a bottle of Calistoga. "Thank you," the bard smiled at him. "You are most kind." Gabrielle poured some into her hand and patted it upon Xena's face. Then she put the bottle up to Xena's lips and gave her a sip. Xena seemed to perk up right away. This didn't surprise Gabrielle. She was so used to Xena's special magic.
"So Gabrielle, where's Cordelia?"
"Oh gods, Cordy! I forgot all about her. I left her over there with my vendor!"
"You have a vendor down here, Gabrielle?!"
"Just a guy I buy jewelry from, Xena, that's all. I like his work."
"We need to collect her and get on back over to the hotel, right?," Xena asked.
"Right, Xena, come with me. I'm not leaving you here on this bench by yourself."
"I'm really feeling better now, Gabrielle, refreshed a little. Let's go!"
As they crossed over to where Antwan should be, Gabrielle was amazed. The vendor's table was gone: as if it had vanished into thin air!
"Now wait a minute, he was here just a few minutes ago," she stated. "There's no way he could've packed up and got out that fast. Besides, he's here every day, all day, each time I come -- he's here!"
"Where's Cordelia?," Xena asked the more pertinent question.
Gabrielle looked around. "I don't know, she said she'd wait right here! Oh, Xena, where is she?!" She felt a sudden sense of panic.
"I don't know, but this is not good," Xena intoned. "Hey, what's this?," she asked as she bent down and picked up a nylon bag.
"That's Cordy's fanny pack!," Gabrielle cried out. "Xena, you don't think...,"
"That they took her instead of you? Yeah, that's exactly what I'm thinking."
"Oh no, please, no!"
"Well, they were talking about the one who is 'close to the heart of the hero'! Who's to say that the hero isn't Angel? If they want to turn him, taking Cordelia is a pretty good way to start, wouldn't you say?"
"Nothing was supposed to happen until this afternoon."
"Yeah, well, so much for back alley informants."
"This is so wrong, Xena!"
"Think about it, Gabrielle! Why was I struck down? To distract us from Cordelia maybe?"
Gabrielle pulled the
skates still dangling from her shoulder to her face and gently rubbed her cheek
against the leather. "This is so wrong, Xena," she sniffled. "She just wanted
to teach me how to skate!" She buried her head between Xena's neck and shoulder
as tears streamed down her face.
END PART 3
(Conclusion in CLONES ALONE Part 4)