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Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of BtVS or Xena: Warrior Princess. I do, however, own the plot. Please contact me at if you wish to archive this fic.

Spoilers: Events in this story take place ten years after the season six finale. So spoilers go through season six. Season seven never happened.

Summary: Sequel to my earlier Xena/Buffy crossover called "Xena: Warrior Bacchae." Willow comes home after an extended absence to find the city in ruins. Vampire Xena has returned to Sunnydale.

* * *

The Summers's house looked a little different than she remembered it. It was still recognizable, being the spot where she'd briefly lived. She couldn't see the window of the bedroom she'd shared with Tara from the front yard, but the memory of that day still pierced her heart and made her wince with grief.

Willow Rosenberg paused on the narrow walkway leading up to the front porch. After taking several deep breaths, she was able to look at the house with a more focused gaze. The siding desperately needed to be replaced, and hung in tatters in several places. Shattered glass marred the window looking into the living room. A small hole had been stuffed with a rag and left unattended. The yard itself was a shambles. Willow doubted it had been mowed in months.

Frowning, Willow stepped up onto the rickety porch. The wood trembled weakly under her feet, nearly rotted out. When she reached the front door she paused again. Her hand was poised to knock, but her mind spun with the things she'd have to say when the door was opened to admit her. Would Buffy even listen to her explanation? She had to believe that her best friend would understand why she'd had to leave. Determined, Willow rapped her knuckles firmly on the door.

After several minutes passed with no answer and no hint of movement inside the house, Willow turned the doorknob only to find it locked. Confused, she crossed the porch to peer inside the left-hand window. It looked into the living room. Shading her eyes with one hand, she pressed her face close to the glass. Amazingly, the room inside appeared to be empty. Not simply empty of people, but completely devoid of furniture.

"Nobody's home," a gruff voice said behind her, forcing her to whip around in surprise.

An elderly woman peered up at her from the porch stairs. Glancing over Willow's suit jacket and skirt, she nodded shortly as though to give her approval. Something she saw had garnered her trust, for her features smoothed and she spoke normally.

"They moved out two years ago," she informed Willow. "After the accident. My son Willy's been taking care of the place as he can, but there's a lot of work to be done in this neighborhood. Nobody's staying around anymore. What was your name, dear?"

"Um, it's Willow. Do you know where they went? The people who used to live here, I mean?"

The old woman shrugged her shoulders, clearly unconcerned. "Where did everybody else go?" she asked. "Away from here, at any rate. The only people still leaving in Sunnydale are the ones who can't leave...or won't."

The dark tone her voice took as she finished speaking made Willow frown. "I thought things seemed quiet," she admitted. "But what would make everyone leave their homes like this?"

The woman looked at her as though she were crazy. "You aren't from around here, are you?" she asked. When Willow began sputtering a reply, she interrupted, "It's getting close to sunset. That's what I came over here to tell you. A little girl like you shouldn't be out on her own after dark."

Willow smiled in spite of herself. She'd celebrated her thirtieth birthday almost two years earlier, and hadn't felt like a "little girl" in several more. She'd also lived in Sunnydale for the majority of her life, and been friends with the Slayer for six years. Wandering about in the dark wasn't exactly a frightening prospect for her.

"I'll be careful," she promised. Glancing toward the house once more, she asked, "Are you sure you don't know where the Summers family went?"

Shaking her head, the old woman muttered, "The little gal didn't tell anybody she was leaving. Nobody takes the time to explain, they just get out while they can."

She left Willow with more questions than answers. The "little gal" the woman spoke of had to be Dawn. But she made it sound as though Dawn had been on her own. Where was Buffy? Willow felt another stab of guilt at her prolonged absence. If she'd been more careful to keep in contact with her friends, she wouldn't have lost track of them.

As she made her way back toward her car, she told herself not to dwell in such negative thoughts. They wouldn't help her solve the main problem at hand. She decided to head downtown and see how things were shaping up in that area. She hadn't passed that part of town on her way in.

The sky was dark by the time she'd gone as far as she could. Slamming on the brakes, Willow quickly pulled over to the curb and parked. She couldn't believe her eyes. She sat behind the wheel and stared through the windshield of her car in disbelief. Downtown Sunnydale was a war zone. She hadn't even been able to drive very far into it before being forced to stop and park. The street was completely blocked by the blackened hulks of burned vehicles.

The reason for the mass exodus from Sunnydale was becoming clearer, although she still had no idea who had caused so much damage. Whoever it was, they kept a low profile. Willow hadn't seen any sort of otherworldly nasty since arriving.

Opening her door, she eased out of the car. Willow heard the crunch of glass and glanced down at her feet. She definitely did not wear appropriate shoes for this. Shutting the car door firmly behind her, she took several steps down the street. There had to be some hint of what was going on here.

The streets were deserted. Most of the destruction had occurred some time ago. Although some of the fires were still burning, there wasn't much left. Buildings on either side of the street were gutted or razed, many of them still smoldering. As she walked, Willow searched signs of Sunnydale residents.

She stopped a short distance away, feeling numb. Its stucco façade was blackened by smoke, but she could still make out the two words that named the building before her. Inside was a dark void. The last time she'd seen the Magic Shop it was in nearly as poor of shape. But at that time, she had been the cause of the damage.

Willow shivered in spite of herself. She knew coming back here would bring up some painful memories. Of course, she had no idea that some of those memories would be staring her in the face. What had happened here?

A slight rustling to her right made her twist around warily. A young man stood behind her. He watched her fearfully, and appeared as though he might take off at the first hint of a threat.

"Don't worry," she assured him, "I'm just trying to find my friends."

Willow knew she didn't actually come across as being very dangerous, so it was no surprise when the man visibly relaxed at her words. She noticed he was wearing an old Sunnydale University sweatshirt.

"What happened here?" she asked.

The man glanced around himself. The beginnings of a smile curved his lips. Willow frowned at his outright amusement. As he turned to face her fully, his features shifted subtly. She found herself staring into gleaming yellow eyes.

"You should not be out on your own, Red," the vampire said.

Willow silently cursed her stupidity. She'd been in the regular world for too long. There'd been a time when she wouldn't have fallen for his act so easily.

"This territory belongs to the Warrior Princess," he said. "Any humans who enter are considered part of the menu."

Taking a step back, Willow wondered if she had a shot at reaching her car before he caught her. He made no move as she continued to inch away, which actually made her even more apprehensive. He was confident that he'd be able to grab her.

"Warrior Princess," she murmured. "Do I know that title?"

He grinned at her. "Doesn't matter," he answered. "You'll meet her soon enough. But not until I'm finished with you."

"So do all of you vamps use the same tired threats?" a new voice wondered. "Because I would think that after a few centuries a body could come up with some new schtick—you know, keep things fresh for the victims."

Willow turned toward the voice gratefully, fully expecting to find Buffy standing nearby. Instead, she faced a slender, brown haired girl wrapped up in a peacoat and wearing a woolen cap. For an instant she had no idea who it was…her features had matured so dramatically. The soft lines of her face had sharpened, and grown taut. The eyes staring back at them held none of the youthful vulnerability that she remembered.

"Dawn," Willow said, surprised.

The woman didn't spare her a glance. Her attention was devoted to the vampire. Clutching a stake in her gloved fist, she moved toward him purposefully. Willow stepped in her path, alarmed. Dawn shifted direction smoothly, taking a broad arc around her.

The vampire made an unpleasant sound of annoyance. "You stupid people never learn," he sneered. "This town belongs to Xena. You can't take it back from her, not without the Slayer."

"Less talking, more fighting," Dawn muttered, breaking into a sprint.

They met each other head on, Dawn easily blocking the vampire's first swing with one arm then using the other to jab a quick punch straight into his face. He reared back in surprise, and she twisted to send a sharp kick across his knee. When the vampire fell, she darted forward for the kill. She jabbed the stake deep into his chest, then stepped back to watch him burst into a cloud of dust.

Willow stood frozen in amazement. She'd never seen Dawn act so decisively, so professionally, so…much like Buffy. When they stood alone in the street, she took a deep breath and started, "Dawn…"

The young woman whipped around to face her. Dawn's expression was not welcoming. "Why did you come back here?" she demanded. "You want to get yourself killed?"

"I—I didn't know…" Willow stammered. "I went to your house, but your neighbor said—"

"You didn't know," Dawn hissed. Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Of course you didn't. How could you, when we haven't heard a thing from you in—"

She cut herself short and stared past Willow. "Great," she muttered.

Casting a glance over her shoulder, Willow was shocked to see several more vampires walking toward them. They weren't in much of a hurry. Likely they were as cocky as their dead friend had been.

"Come on," Dawn ordered, reaching forward to grab her by the elbow.

Just then there was a loud crash in the opposite direction. A white van fitted with a large snow plow pushed its way through a snag of wrecked cars and screeched to a halt beside them. The side door slid open, revealing a very familiar white-blonde head of hair. The man looked up at them then. His blue eyes widened at the sight of Willow.

"Look who's made a reappearance," he commented slyly.

"Get in," Dawn said, giving Willow a shove.

Willow turned to glance toward the vampires, who had picked up their pace. "But my car…" she began.

Dawn grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her none too gently. "It's toast," she said. "Get your ass in the van, now."

The younger woman jumped in just behind her, and the vehicle took off before she had a chance to close the door. Finally, it slammed shut firmly. The van whipped around and headed back the way it had come, tires squealing in protest. Willow took a look at the driver and nearly squealed herself.

"Xander," she cried, shuffling forward.

"Just sit still," Dawn commanded, poking her. "Let him drive."

Willow had reached her breaking point after this display. "That's enough of that," she snapped. "What the hell is going on here, anyway?"

Dawn scowled at her. She angrily pulled the hat from her head and brushed her long hair away from her face. Willow noticed then that she had an ugly scar running along her jaw. "Like you even care," Dawn answered. "You show up after ten years of silence. What did you expect, a party? Well, I'm sorry if none of us are really in the festive kind of mood."

Willow glanced at Spike, but the vampire wouldn't meet her eyes. Looking back toward Dawn, she asked, "Where is Buffy?"

The other woman winced visibly. "Buffy's dead!" she shouted. Lurching up to her feet, she shoved her way through the collection of weapons and supplies littering the back of the van and dropped into the passenger seat.

Willow sat back on her heels, stunned. "But, how…?"

Spike leaned over to whisper, "She's not dead, exactly." The pain on his face mirrored the strong sensation rolling around her middle.

"She may as well be," Dawn muttered resolutely, hearing him. "This wouldn't be news to you, if you hadn't abandoned her."

"All right, little bit, you've made your point," Spike cautioned.

Willow frowned at him. "What happened to you?" she asked. The emotion, the display of empathy…something was off.

"Oh, right," he replied. "In all the excitement before you skipped town, you missed that tidbit of information as well."

"Spike got the Angel whammy," Xander said, speaking for the first time. He hunched over the steering wheel and kept a firm eye on the road ahead.

"Your soul was returned?" Willow asked.

"Give the lady a cigar," Xander mumbled. He tapped the wheel impatiently. "This is cutting into our patrol time," he said.

"Well, we can't really take her with us," Dawn said. "She'll only slow us down. We'll head out as soon as she's stashed."

"Hey, sitting right here," Willow reminded them. "And since when have I ever slowed the group down?"

Dawn turned toward her with a glare. "Try the past decade," she retorted. "Don't worry, you can spend the night at headquarters and head back to your new life in the morning. We won't expect you to hang around or anything."

"That's not fair and you know it," Willow began.

Spike reached out to touch her arm, and she cringed away from him. His wounded expression was a surreal sight. This would take some getting used to, she thought. Offering him a wan smile by way of apology, she looked forward and through the windshield to see where they were going.

* * *

The modest hotel was one of the few buildings in the area that was not burned to cinders. It hadn't survived its occupation without some alterations, however. The windows on the fourth floor were boarded shut to keep out any wayward rays of sunlight. Below this topmost floor were two levels made uninhabitable by the garbage rotting in the halls and rooms. The hotel's human guests hadn't exactly checked out before the building fell into the hands of its new management. Those who did not meet the criteria necessary for membership were left where they fell…in pieces.

The Honeymoon Suite offered the largest collection of rooms in the building. It seemed an appropriate base of command, considering the couple that had taken up residence inside. The broad double doors opened up into a large living room decorated in shades of white, gray, and red. A wide window had overlooked the outdoor swimming pool before it was nailed shut with two by fours. Now dusky red curtains only emphasized the starkness of the unfinished wood. There'd been no electricity in the building for more than a year, but it certainly wasn't a necessity for any of the vampires living inside.

On the left side of the living room, beside the fully stocked wet bar, the door to the master bedroom gaped open. Inside, a dark haired woman carefully examined the edge of a long blade, looking for irregularities in the steel. She sat at the foot of the king sized bed, leaning against one of four posts supporting the heavy brocade canopy overhead. Behind her, a woman dozed lightly under the blankets.

"Are you going to sleep all night?" Xena asked, giving her sword a few practice swings. "We never go out anymore."

The rumpled pile of cloth shifted slightly as the woman rolled over. "Five more minutes," a sleepy voice mumbled.

Xena grunted, then rose to her feet. "You were never this lazy when you were alive," she mused.

A low chuckle preceded the appearance of a sleep-tousled head of blonde hair as the vampire tossed back the blankets and sat up. "You didn't know me when I was alive," the woman corrected her. "I may have been an annoying do-gooder, but I never skipped out on my beauty sleep."

Xena grinned slyly, staring at her partner appreciatively. "That is apparent," she agreed, crawling onto the bed.

The woman frowned when the Warrior Princess came to rest at her side. Her blue eyes twinkled mischievously before her head quickly darted toward her. The blonde twisted away before Xena's lips could capture her own.

"Don't," she said, getting out of the bed. "I told you it wasn't like that between us."

Xena glowered. Her sword was still clenched in her hand, but the blonde didn't seem fazed by the veiled threat. "I gave you immortality," she growled. She reeled back in surprise when the blonde started laughing.

"You sound like some pathetic guy at the end of a date," her partner taunted. She mimicked Xena's husky drawl, saying, "'I bought you dinner…you owe me!' The truth is, I gave you this city. And it's only the beginning for us. So don't tell me I still owe you, because that's a load of crap and you know it."

Xena's jaw tightened angrily. "I could have taken this city on my own," she hissed.

The blonde laughed again, making her dark-haired companion scowl furiously. "I was the Slayer," she said. "I would have bounced your ass out of town so fast you wouldn't have known what hit you. You need me, Xena. If you really want to take on a bigger piece of the pie, you need me."

At the determined expression on the smaller woman's face, Xena finally shrugged. "Well, a girl's got to try," she said. Putting her hands up, she added, "No more funny business."

Just then a young vampire scurried into the room. He turned immediately to Xena and bowed ridiculously. "Warrior Princess," he said as he stood straight. Glancing toward the blonde standing beside the bed, he added, "And Slayer."

Buffy grinned at this comment. "I still have clout in this town," she murmured, earning a dark glance from Xena. "What's the what…Tommy, is it?"

The vampire, wearing a ragged AC/DC t-shirt and black jeans, nodded vigorously at her question. "Yes," he replied. He had his game face on, and Buffy wondered where the excitement was. "Eric's dead," Tommy blurted, cringing.

He obviously thought this news would bring some punishment, but to be honest, Buffy had no recollection of anyone named Eric. "One of ours?" she asked.

Xena sighed and eased out of bed. "Yes, darling," she sneered. "You ate him just last week." She walked toward Tommy, her sword in hand. "Am I to assume that our old friends are involved with this?" she asked.

Tommy eyed the weapon with trepidation and nodded weakly. "It was the girl," he murmured. "And another. One we haven't seen before. She was dressed up…out of place. But they knew her."

Buffy stepped forward. "What did she look like?"

Xena glanced toward the blonde, her eyebrow raised in question. "Someone you know?"

"Maybe," Buffy responded. "I had a dream…did she have red hair?"

Relieved to be able to provide more information, Tommy nodded again. Buffy continued forward, her eyes regarding him kindly. As she passed Xena, she ran her fingers down the dark-haired woman's brawny arm, making her gasp. When they came to rest on the hilt of her sword, they coaxed the weapon from the other woman's grasp and curled around it. Tommy seemed a bit dazed by the vague groping, and Xena's reaction to Buffy's touch. He didn't even glance down at the sword in her hand.

"I told you what I wanted the next time Dawn made an appearance," Buffy crooned, lightly touching his face with her free hand. "But I don't see my gift anywhere."

"The others were there, too," Tommy said. His voice was hushed and frightened. He knew he'd be punished after all. "They escaped too quickly after killing Eric."

Buffy nodded in understanding, still stroking the protuberances on his face with gentle fingers. "That's too bad," she said. "But you can still do something for me."

A gleam of hope leapt into his yellow eyes. "What?" he asked.

Jerking her hand up, Buffy ran the edge of Xena's blade harshly across the vampire's middle. He merely whimpered at first, shocked by the fiery sensation. But when Buffy stepped back and he was able to look down at himself, he began to howl in fury and pain. He pressed his hands against his gut, trying desperately to hold in the slippery coils of intestines that pushed out of the gaping wound.

"Vampire blood strengthens the blade," Buffy replied. Turning toward Xena, she handed her partner the gore-covered sword.

Xena stared at the blood on her weapon, her tongue flicking out to moisten her lips hungrily. "You make me so proud," she announced. "Are you going to finish it for him?"

Glancing at Tommy again, Buffy shrugged. "No," she answered, then walked past him to leave the room.

Xena grinned at the injured vampire, who squeaked helplessly in response. "You know, I'm feeling so good right now, I think I'll help you out myself," she said. "You'd heal eventually, but do you really want to go through so much pain?"

Tommy didn't reply. His eyes had turned glassy, and seemed unable to focus on her. He was having difficulty remaining on his feet.

"No," Xena answered for him. Twisting the sword in her grasp, she swung her arm in a wide arc. The blade caught the vampire at the neck, decapitating him. He burst into a cloud of brown dust immediately after, showering cream-colored carpeting with the dry filth.

"Hmm," Xena mused, staring down at the floor. "I'll have to find somebody to clean that up."

Part Two

The building was set back from the street by an expansive yard that at one time was most likely well-tended and filled with flowers. Now the scorched earth lay like a slowly healing wound under the moonlight. Inside, a faint light flickered yellow-orange through the chapel windows.

She found she rather liked the city this way. Xena's renovations were rather uninspired—she'd been slashing and burning villages as a human back in Greece over two millennia ago—but they were as always quite effective. The humans, those who had stubbornly remained in this town, were running scared. It left a heady perfume in the air.

Gabrielle twisted her head and gazed up at the sky. Without the reflection of a thousand electric lights to mar the scenery, the stars were clearly visible. "This should be home," she whispered.

Xena had promised her absolute power for the two of them. Together they would rule the cattle as they were always meant to. She would overtake the Slayer and thereby gain the perfect tool with which to succeed. She would be the "Destroyer of Nations" once again…and in a world with a multitude of new possibilities.

But Xena had lied to her. Her love, her soulmate, had taken another into her bed and pushed Gabrielle out into the cold with the animals and the scum. This was not permissible. Buffy would pay for this betrayal.

Xena seemed blinded to the fact that the Slayer would never give her exactly what she wanted. Shortly before the fight that left Gabrielle without a home or a lover, Xena had confided to her that Buffy was a rather cold fish. The warrior woman just didn't understand that the blonde slut was taking advantage of her lust. She'd inflame Xena's senses, leave her completely addled, and use this as leverage to control the woman utterly. That wasn't love. When Gabrielle ripped the little bitch's heart out of her chest, then Xena would see what true love was.

As Gabrielle approached the church, she wrinkled her nose in disgust. The place had burned just like the rest of the buildings on this block, but it still smelled of sanctified sin and false modesty. The posturing of falsely religious humans was nauseating. The power their "faith" had to injure and harm her kind was nothing less than barbarism. She did not want to enter the facility, but knew she had but one weapon left to wield against her tiny replacement. Buffy's old friends should sufficiently distract her while Gabrielle committed her very first slaying.

* * *

"This place is so boring," Buffy pouted. "Why did it always seem so busy when I was human?" "You weren't on the top of the food chain," Xena reminded her.

"Baby, I've always been on top," Buffy purred. She moved away when Xena reached out to touch her shoulder. "Now don't get distracted. This is important."

Xena scoffed. "This is a game," she said, gesturing toward the crowd below.

Buffy shook her head. "How on earth did you conquer an anthill with that attitude?" she wondered. "This is a show of solidarity to our people. You want to be strong, you keep the little ones happy. Now, where did we get this evening's contestants?"

"Neighboring city," Xena said. "The pickings are getting slim."

"We'll have to move onto bigger and better things pretty soon," Buffy agreed. "How about LA? I have a friend there who will be blissfully happy to see me…" she giggled.

Smiling indulgently, Xena stood from her seat and leaned out over the railing of the viewer's box. Below, a crowd of vampires filled the bleachers of the football stadium. They began to scream and howl in approval when they saw their queen overhead.

"Bring out the first group," Xena called.

Buffy squealed in excitement when she saw the first contestants. The five humans stumbled out onto the field. In the dark, they could barely discern the crowd filling the stadium. But every detail of their fearful expressions was as clear as day to Buffy and the other vampires. They each held a stake, which had been pressed into their hands as they crawled out of their cages.

As the humans gaped in horrified wonder, a contingent of vampires sauntered onto the field. The weak eyesight of the humans was even a greater hindrance to them tonight, for they didn't see their enemies until they were upon them. The smallest of them fell quickly when a vampire wearing an old football jersey leapt onto his back and sank his fangs into his neck. The rest of them scurried away in terror, vampires close on their heels.

"How did this ever go out of fashion?" Buffy cried. "American Gladiators just wasn't a reasonable substitute."

"Well, you haven't lived if you've never seen this done by professionals," Xena murmured. "Caesar put on quite a show in the good old days."

The crowd gasped when the largest human man managed to throw off a vampire woman who was attacking him. He struck her with his weapon, sending her into a cloud of dust. Delighted, Buffy started clapping.

"Keep him," she said. "We don't want to lose that strength."

Xena leaned toward one of the men standing behind them and murmured a few words. He nodded and quickly left the box to hurry down to the field. She stifled a yawn soon after, her eyes straying from the activity below.

"You're not having any fun, are you?" Buffy clucked sympathetically.

"It's just not the same as the real thing," Xena complained.

"Well, we could steal some lions from a zoo," Buffy offered. "We can even give the humans swords. Wouldn't that be funny?"

Xena shook her head. "Something's just not right," she said. "Something's missing."

Buffy frowned. "You miss her, you mean," she said darkly.

Xena refused to meet her eyes. "I spent two thousand years with her, Slayer," she said. "You can't expect me to forget about her in a few months."

Leaning toward her new partner, Buffy grinned mischievously. "Well, the times, they are a'changing," she sang, reaching out to stroke the warrior woman's arm.

Angrily, Xena jerked away from her. "That's all I get from you," she growled. "Teasing…flirting. Nothing of substance."

"You want substance?" Buffy challenged. "I'm offering you more than that Gabrielle ever could. Sunnydale is only the beginning. We're going to take this world by the throat, you and I. We're going to rule these moronic humans. What was she going to give you? New Juicy jeans, half-price?"

At her earnest expression, Xena couldn't help but chuckle. "I've heard this song and dance before, you know," she said. "There was a god by the name of Ares who thought I was meant to helm the world's future. I was human then…just started out on my simpering quest for redemption. Sometimes I wish I'd taken him up on his offer."

Buffy shook her head. "Don't waste your time on gods, Xena," she said. "I speak from experience. We are far superior creatures. Now, be a good girl and watch the show. The minions will become restless if they think you're unsettled."

* * *

"There are a couple of beds in the back rooms," Xander said after giving Willow a brief tour. There wasn't much left to show; half the church had fallen to flames a few months before. "It's not much, but it's home."

"You live here?" Willow asked in shock.

"Most of the young ones are still afraid to come into places like this," Spike explained. "And most of the vamps around here were sired within the last year. Keeps things cozy for us."

"This probably doesn't live up to your new standards," Dawn interjected, glaring at Willow's clothing.

"This is fine," Willow responded. "I—" she paused. "Can I see her?"

Xander stared at her blankly. "You want to see Buffy?" he asked. "None of us have seen her in months. They've got a hotel downtown that's about as tight as Fort Knox."

"I just…how did this happen?" she wondered. "The Warrior Princess. Why do I know that name?"

"Because she was here before," Dawn said. "Only Glory was a big enough distraction for her at the time."

"This time she came after Buffy directly," Spike said. "None of us…we're not sure how she managed to take her. But she's changed now. There's no going back from what she's become."

"Finally, someone in this damned town is talking sense." A female voice called out from the doorway. "Sign out front still welcomes anyone seeking respite from the cold, dark world. That's as good an invitation as any."

"Who is this?" Willow whispered to Xander. The petite blonde woman seemed to know them, but she was sure she'd never seen her before in her life.

"Gabrielle," he whispered back. "Xena's 'very special friend.' Well, until recently, if you listen to the word on the street."

A memory lifted up from the deep recesses of her mind. "The Scourge of Potedeia," Willow murmured.

The blonde turned toward her at her comment. "My reputation precedes me," she said. "You have a new friend, little Dawn…Xander. Spike," she finished, staring at him with amusement.

"That's enough of this crap," Dawn said.

Gabrielle laughed when Dawn rushed at her. With a dizzying speed, she twisted away and ran toward the corner of the room. Leaping grandly, she vaulted up onto a narrow ledge running across the wall. Standing nearly fifteen feet above their heads, she smirked down at them smugly.

"Do you think I have survived these centuries only to fall to a baby who pretends to be the Slayer?" she mocked.

Snarling, Dawn lifted her stake to throw it. Spike quickly grabbed her arm and shook his head. "Don't let the beastie rattle you, bird," he said. "She's not here to kill us. Not just yet, anyway. Isn't that right?"

Gabrielle smiled at him. "You stink of humanity," she responded. "The stench is overwhelming. Why do you ally yourself with these cows when your true love is one of us?"

Spike flushed scarlet at her words. Gabrielle laughed, pleased that she'd managed to sting him. "You think Buffy has kept your deepest, darkest secrets from us?" she asked. "She holds them out before her like badges of honor. It's a testament to her own willpower that she managed to live as long as she did with you at her side."

She aimed her last statement to the group as a whole. "Spike, the de-fanged vampire who devotes his love to his mortal enemy. Xander, who had but one saving grace in this world, only to leave her at the altar. Dawn, the perpetual child who was never meant to exist. And finally, we come to the witch, who inflated her own pain to apocalyptic proportions. Actually, Buffy rather liked you that way. But you seem to be back to normal. Pity," Gabrielle finished.

"Buffy didn't talk about us like that," Dawn whispered. Her fierce demeanor had crumbled a bit under the vampire's bitter attack.

"Oh, Buffy regrets the years she wasted on such sorry friends, she truly does," Gabrielle argued. "Even under the shackles of humanity, she had powers that could have propelled her to the highest realms of success and prosperity. Yet she merely suffered and stumbled through life in this small town--never to gain, eternally unfulfilled."

"What do you want?" Willow asked coldly. The vampire's motivations were painfully clear, and she refused to rise to the bait. If they lost control over their emotions, she'd have them right where she wanted them.

"A business woman," Gabrielle marveled, taking in Willow's suit jacket and skirt. "A bit worse for wear this evening, but I'll bet that you're a real go-getter back at the office. Marketing? Law, perhaps?"

Willow blinked, feeling herself blush. "Real estate, actually," she admitted, then said, "That's beside the point. Why don't you stop wasting our time and get to the point?"

Xander stepped forward to add, "Yeah, go ahead and lay your cards out on the table. What's the deal?"

Gabrielle scowled. She wanted to play. "Very well," she muttered. "The deal is, you want Buffy. I'm sure you've all realized by this point that the only way to help her now is to finish her. But none of you are powerful enough to get close to her with Xena in the picture. I can help you."

"And what do you get?" Dawn challenged.

Gabrielle raised her brows. "I get Xena," she said. "We leave this city and never set eyes on any of you ever again. Now, that's a deal we all can agree on, don't you think?"

"Seems to me your deal is more like a reward," Spike commented. "Why should we help you?"

Eyes flashing angrily, Gabrielle started pacing back and forth along the ledge. "Help!" she sneered. "I don't require your assistance. I am offering this to you as a gift of goodwill."

Willow couldn't help but laugh at this. "Let's just cut through the bullshit, shall we?" she asked. Xander glanced at her in surprise. He wasn't used to her making decisions, calling the shots. He hadn't seen how much she'd changed in the past few years. "You wouldn't be here if you could get rid of Buffy on your own. So what are we, bait? Hook the little fish first and hope the big fish comes swimming along after her?"

Dawn leaned toward Spike. "Who's the little fish?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Buffy, I think," he said. "Just let Red do her bit, she's got something here."

Gabrielle watched Willow carefully. "And what is your proposal?" she asked.

"We don't promise each other anything," Willow said. "If we get the chance to dust any one of you, we're going to take it. Because I sure as hell know you aren't going to vouch for our safety in this little venture. Now, how's that for an understanding?"

Gabrielle smiled, impressed. "Agreed," she nodded. "We are enemies more than allies."

"We just happen to be on the same side for the moment," Willow concurred.

"Then I shall visit you again soon," Gabrielle purred. "Once I've attended a few of my personal affairs."

"Sale at Burlington's Department Store," Dawn muttered to no one in particular.

When Gabrielle finally left them, Spike turned to the others and announced, "Time for a new headquarters, I think."

"I don't think I can do this," Dawn said. The others went silent at the emotional weight of her comment.

Hesitant, Xander offered, "We've been up against harder baddies than this. You'll do fine."

"That's not what she means," Willow countered. "You said yourself that Buffy is dead, Dawn. We'll just be setting her free."

"Who are you to make decisions here, anyway?" Dawn shouted. "You've already abandoned her once, I guess it won't be that hard to kill her this time."

"Hey," Spike said sharply. "No one's killing Buffy. Seems to be we've overlooked a right easy answer to our little problem here. Especially now that the big bad witch is back in town."

Realizing what he meant, Willow immediately began to shake her head. "No," she whispered. "I can't."

"You can stomach the thought of killing her, but you won't even try a spell to save her?" Dawn accused. "You gave Angelus his soul back. You can do that same for her."

"You don't understand," Willow cried. "It took years to recover from—you have no idea how messed up I was when I left."

"Well, since you were about to raise a demonic goddess to burn the world, I'd say we got the picture," Xander said. When he caught Willow's wounded expression, he defended himself. "Hey, I'm with Dawn on this. Why go for the kill before exhausting all other possibilities? Don't you think she'd do the same for any one of us?"

Willow shook her head. "Not anymore, she wouldn't."

Part Three

Willow picked her way through the rubble of the Magic Shop, stumbling a bit over a piece of flooring that jutted upward. It was much easier to recover from the loss in balance in the pair of sneakers Spike had brought her the night before. They were gray with ash, and part of the right sole was melted away. Willow didn't dare ask him where he found them. They actually matched the ratty sweatshirt and faded jeans he also offered. But at least she was more comfortable now.

She wasn't exactly sure what had brought her back to the Magic Shop after all this time. There was nothing of the past here, nothing that could possibly bring her up to date on everything she'd missed in her absence. And since Anya had left town long before the place was demolished by vamps, there was nothing left of Buffy, either.

As she took another step through the rubble, something crunched under her foot. Kneeling down, Willow picked up a quartz crystal that had somehow managed to survive the fire. Closing it in her fist, she felt an immediate surge of energy course through her. Quartz was a powerful tool for meditation and spellwork. If she were superstitious, she'd believe it was a positive sign that the stone had emerged from the flames unscathed and waited for her to find it. She closed her eyes, feeling a tingling warmth pass through her.

But although the magick she'd been unable to deny was still a powerful force deep within her, Willow had slowly moved away from the supernatural and the unexplained. It was easy when surrounded by the four white walls of her office, and the simple, unfettered emptiness of new homes. Making the sale had become her spellwork. Until she'd returned to Sunnydale, that was. Already, she could feel her powers building up inside, demanding to be released. It might become difficult to control them if she stayed here much longer.

"Hmm," a female voice interrupted her musings. "And here I'd assumed you'd gotten off the sauce, seeing as how you almost incinerated the planet last time I saw you."

Willow's eyes flew open at the familiar sound. Standing not twenty feet away, near the open frame of the doorway that had once lead to the training area, the Slayer smiled winningly at her. Her first instinct was to run into the other woman's arms. All she'd been able to think about as she drove down here two days ago was giving Buffy an enormous hug and begging her for forgiveness. But it was painfully apparent that the thing standing in front of her was not her best friend.

"How did you…" Willow stammered, glancing behind herself. The sun streamed into the ruins of the building. Rays of light sprawled across the rubble just beyond her feet. She took a quick step back into the protective warmth, knowing Buffy could not follow.

Chuckling, Buffy crossed her arms before her chest and leaned against the rickety doorframe. "Sewer entrance in the back. Remember?" she asked. "The time you did a bit of a mind screw on us to make good with your girlfriend?"

Willow winced. Buffy certainly knew exactly what to say to hurt them the most, she thought, recalling Gabrielle's earlier taunting.

"It's funny," Buffy continued, not bothering to savor the jab. "I had a dream that you'd be here, and here you are. I still have them, you know. The dreams. That hasn't changed."

"It's the only thing," Willow muttered.

"Tsk, tsk," Buffy said. "Why so bitter with me? I'm not the one who ran out on her friends, who never said a word in ten years to let them know she was even alive."

"No," Willow agreed, "You're just trying to kill them."

Buffy laughed. "You know," she said, gazing around herself. "This is exactly where we were the last time we saw each other. Only this time, I'm the big bad."

Willow shook her head. "I wouldn't be so smug. You know what happens when a new evil hits this town. They don't tend to have a long shelf life."

"Were you always this strident?" Buffy wondered. "I never realized just how damned obnoxious you really are. And as to the crime fighting, you and your little Scoobies should leave it to the experts. I'm the only one who ever accomplished a thing in this town. You don't have a prayer without me."

Willow glanced down at the crystal in her hand. "We always protected our friends, you and I," she said sadly. "Tried whatever we could to save them when anyone else would just let them be sacrificed to the greater good. I'm tired being the one who always compromises. The others think I should try to help you. But I really don't think you're worth saving."

A flurry of emotion crossed Buffy's features. Surprise, fear, and hurt all vied for supremacy in the instant she lost her composure. But then she grinned, and her mocking expression was back in full force. "Why don't you try to kill me, Will?" she asked. "You couldn't do it last time. And now that I'm no longer shackled with a soul, there's nothing holding me back."

With that, she turned and rushed into the back room. Willow took a few steps forward in spite of herself. Buffy would be long gone in a moment, and she really didn't have any way of fighting her now. She stopped and stared at the empty space in the doorway. It was a long time before she turned back and returned to the street.

* * *

"Here," Spike said, handing her a mug. "You look like you can use this."

Willow accepted the cup and took a swig without glancing inside to see what he'd offered. The fluid burned its way to her stomach, making her choke. When she was able to breathe properly once more, she gasped, "What is this?"

He smiled at her. "My own recipe," he said. "Not much by way of booze left in this town. We have to make due."

Willow put the mug down on the table before her. She sat on the patch-covered couch in what had once been the minister's office area. There were no windows here, making this the perfect place for Spike to move about in the day. For some reason, she'd been oddly compelled to visit with him after her chat with Buffy.

"I saw her," she said, shuddering at the thought. "She's changed."

Spike chuckled to himself. "That's a fine understatement," he responded. "She's just getting her wings. Right now, her human life is still all around her. Any little…she'll be attending to any little conflict left unresolved when she was alive."

"Basically that means destroying us in every inventive way she can imagine?" Willow asked.

Spike shrugged. "That's what I did," he said. "She's lost her soul, Will. She has no moral compass to point out the way. She's going to do whatever impulsive dark little desire she's ever harbored in her young life."

Willow sighed. "I guess you're the only one who really understands what she's going through now."

"I don't know about that," he said, patting her on the arm. "Seems to me someone else in this room lost her way once upon a time. Of course, I wasn't here, but there are a few reliable witnesses left."

Willow frowned. "Part of me thinks I owe her a chance to live," she said. "What I almost did—there should've been no turning back from that. And she fought me then, but she only wanted to stop me. To talk some sense into me. I think with the distance between us it was easy to jump to conclusions and think that killing her is the only answer."

"And now?" Spike asked, not unkindly.

"Now…I'm wondering how I possibly have the right to make that kind of a decision," Willow admitted.

"You can do it, you know," he told her. "The spell. The magicks involved are powerful, but they aren't dark. They should be easier to control."

Willow shook her head. "You know a lot about what Buffy is thinking and feeling right now," she said. "But you have no clue what it's like sitting where I am."

"Touche," Spike inclined his head.

Glancing around, Willow realized just how quiet the place was. "Where are Dawn and Xander?" she wondered.

"Out for some supplies," Spike responded. "Daylight's just about the only time a person can leave the city these days."

* * *

"There it is," Dawn said, pointing. "I told you this place would still be here."

Xander followed her toward the storage locker, a heavy bolt cutter in his hand. They were several miles outside of Sunnydale, in the 'burbs of a nearby city. The destruction that was centralized in Sunnydale had already begun to spread, and they weren't positive that this area had been untouched. Thankfully, Anya's Magic Box stash was still safe and sound.

"I thought she would have been back to collect her stuff," Xander mused, staring at the broad white door. He and Anya had been finished for years, but he still felt a twinge of remorse just at the sight of this place. Behind that door sat the remains of Anya's human self.

Dawn shook her head dismissively. "What does she want with some furniture and leftover magic tools?" she asked. "She's in full-on demon mode. She can take what she needs where she finds it." Glancing at Xander's reaction, she took a deep breath. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't think."

Approaching the door, she examined the large padlock securing it. "I don't suppose you have the combination?" she asked. When he shook his head, she held out her hand for the bolt cutter. "We'll do it fast, and get out of here," she promised him. The hangdog expression on his face was difficult to bear.

Inside, Dawn immediately began tearing through the stacked boxes while Xander lingered at some furniture from Anya's apartment. "It's amazing," he said. When Dawn turned to glance his way, he continued, "To think about how messed up everything is now. Just when--just when I'd started getting on the right track, you know? Start a business, buy a home…what's the point in Sunnydale?"

Dawn smiled sympathetically. "This is a temporary thing, Xander," she assured him. "We're getting Buffy back, and she'll put things right. I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner. Now help me look for the stuff we need."

As he moved to open a few cardboard boxes, Dawn added, "Sunnydale will bounce back from this. It always does. And just think of all the rebuilding that will have to be done. Your construction business will be the only game in town. Guess where everyone will go for bids on their projects?"

Xander chuckled at her optimism. "That's only if we can convince Willow to do this," he said.

Dawn scowled. "She can stay the hell out of it for all I care," she said with a toss of her head. Angrily, she ripped into another box. "I'm doing this myself. It's the least I can do for my own sister."

Xander stopped searching, surprised. "What?" he asked. "Are you sure you can handle something like this?"

"You really think I dragged you out here just 'in case' Willow got off her damned high horse and decided to do something good for a change?" Dawn sneered. "I can do this. When she got Angel's soul back, she was just a beginner, too. And it was successful…before Buffy had to kill him. But it worked. And it'll work this time, too. Buffy hasn't been without a soul as long as Angel had when he was cursed by the gypsies. It naturally wants to return to her. It'll be easy."

"You've been researching this," Xander commented.

Dawn snorted. "Where do you think I was all day yesterday?" she asked. "Plus…I called Giles."

"What!?" Xander demanded. "I thought we all agreed on this. No Council involvement in this. You know what their response is going to be. Stake her and move on. How could you do that without telling us?"

Frowning, Dawn said, "Because I knew this would be your reaction," she said. "Giles was her Watcher. He would die before putting her in danger. He was pretty pissed about being left in the dark for nearly two years, too."

"Great," Xander muttered. "He's going to jump on the first plane over here and end up getting himself killed. The Watcher's Council will wonder what's up and come sniffing around themselves."

"Not if we do this tonight," Dawn said. "Not if we fix things before Giles has a chance to get here." Pausing, she peered into the box in front of her before triumphantly pulling out a heavy crystal sphere. "Here it is!" she said. "I told you she had one before she left."

* * *

When Dawn had gone out for a quick patrol early after sunset that evening, Xander filled Spike and Willow in on her plan.

"That's ridiculous," Willow argued. "She can't do this herself. I won't let her get involved in magick."

Spike gazed at her a moment before saying, "I'm not sure she's likely to listen to what you have to say, Red."

Willow shook her head. "I know she's pissed at me right now, and I can understand her anger. But she can't open herself to this kind of power."

"Well, if it's going to be done, it has to be done tonight," Xander said. "Giles knows what happened to Buffy."

"You mean you didn't tell him?" Willow exclaimed.

"We thought it best, under the circumstances," Spike said. "You really think bringing the Council into this situation would be the best thing for Buffy?"

Willow pondered a moment. "Giles can just as easily do the spell once he gets here," she said.

"Oh, so now you're for this?" Xander asked.

"I wasn't necessarily against it," she countered. "We had to consider whether or not Buffy was willing to be saved."

Xander shook his head at her flimsy excuse. "Look, just because you're afraid to step in on this, don't—"

Willow interrupted him, "It isn't a matter of being afraid. I seem to be the only one here who recognizes the danger in fooling around with magick."

"You told her?!" a voice shouted from the doorway. Xander groaned when Dawn hurried into the chapel. "I said Willow is out of this one. She'll only be a hindrance."

"Dawn, you can't expect to just waltz in there and have this spell go right for you," Willow tried to reason. "You may end up doing more harm than good. You should let someone who knows what they're doing handle this."

"Well, you certainly don't mean you," Dawn retorted. "I'm through waiting around. This is killing her, don't you see that?"

"Please, Dawn," Willow said. "Just wait for Giles, that's all I'm asking. Sleep on it, at the very least. It can wait until morning."

"I thought you were on my side," Dawn accused Xander. When he merely stammered a reply, she turned on her heel and went back into the hallway. A nearby door slammed shut. She'd closed herself into one of the makeshift bedrooms.

Willow sighed. "Maybe someone should keep an eye on her tonight," she said. "We can just as easily take care of things tomorrow."

The two men shifted uncomfortably, and she knew she was alone in her opinion on the matter. Shaking her head, she headed back toward the small room where she'd slept the past two mornings. "You watch her, Xander," she warned. "I know she listens to you." She closed the door to the chapel behind her, wanting to block them from her sight.

* * *

Willow tossed and turned that evening, unable to sleep soundly. Whenever she fell under, her dreams would fling her back into wakefulness. The images were terrifying, and far too real. Most of them involved Buffy in her new form, goading her into a fight. Dream Willow was always much too quick to respond with magick, descending back into the pit which nearly devoured her the first time.

She had finally drifted off to a more soothing sleep when someone started shaking her by the shoulder. "Willow," a voice urged. "Wake up."

Willow realized it was Xander. He was still dressed in the same clothes, and looked as though he hadn't slept a bit. "What is it?" she asked, alarmed.

"Dawn's not here," he said. "And neither are the spell components."

Part Four

Dawn spread out her tools on the floor in front of her. She took a deep breath to center herself, then cringed when she caught a lungful of the foul smell across the street. This close to the hotel where Xena and her sister were now living, the stench of death was suffocating. She knew vampires were dead and all, but they had to notice how disgusting decomposing bodies were.

She sat on the floor of a looted gas station. Technically, she did not need a physical proximity to her chosen target, but she wanted to be close to Buffy to make sure the spell worked. Careful not to be seen, she entered the facility through a small window in the back, just so no one would notice her from the street. The spell had to go just right, without interruption.

Her hands shook a bit when she reached into her bag for the final component, the Orb of Thesulah. She'd kept it wrapped in a bit of cloth to make sure it was safe as she ran through the shattered streets of Sunnydale. As she pulled the heavy bundle out of her bag, she marveled at the power contained in such an otherwise unremarkable object. She recalled that they'd often been sold as New Age paperweights to the clueless shoppers of the Magic Shop. But here it was, the sole answer to all of their problems.

When Dawn unwrapped the object, her breath caught in her throat. In her palm lay not the orb, but a white cue ball. She stared at it in shock for several seconds, her heart pounding viciously in her chest. When she realized what must have happened, she threw the ball across the room and swore.

"That bitch!" she exclaimed as the cue ball crashed through what was left of the front window. When had Willow been in her room that day?

"You should learn to control that temper," someone said from the shadows.

Dawn jumped to her feet, immediately readied for battle. When the woman stepped forward into the moonlight streaming through the front windows, Dawn wavered momentarily. It was Gabrielle.

"I've been waiting for something to get me back inside," she purred. "And here you are."

* * *

"I can't believe you let her go," Willow snapped at Xander once more. "I told you she'd do something impulsive."

"Maybe she's doing something constructive instead of just sitting around on her ass like some people I know," he retorted, circling the front of the van to jump into the driver's side.

"That is so not fair," Willow muttered. She hefted the bag of supplies against her side, lifting the strap to a more comfortable position on her shoulder. It was heavy enough to slow her down. "Give me one good reason why the spell couldn't have waited a few hours."

"Do you want me to get that?" he asked when she unsuccessfully tried to climb up into the back of the van.

She frowned at him. "I've got it," she answered. She managed to toss the bag inside and jumped up nimbly behind it. Avoiding the passenger seat, she remained in the back with her weapons. "Now where's Spike?"

"He went ahead," Xander said. "Probably already over there, actually."

"I had to get a few things," Willow said irritably. "Why don't you go ahead and get your ass moving now?"

He faced the front of the van, shoving the key into the ignition and twisting it savagely. "Dawn is very self-sufficient," he said. He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself more than Willow. "You'd be surprised at what she's accomplished since you've been gone."

"I'm well aware of what an accomplishment staying alive is in this town," Willow countered. She paused as he pulled out of the small garage behind the church. "I need you to let me off on Elm Street. It's better if we go in from different positions."

He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "You really think we should split up?" he asked in surprise.

"It'll do us no good to get caught together and both die at the same time," she explained.

Xander was quiet for many long moments. "I'm glad you're back," he finally admitted, his voice sheepish. "You might not think it, but we all are."

Willow smiled. "You know, I think I'm glad to be back," she said. She laughed when she realized the absolute truth of her words. "It's really a shock, let me tell you."

"So let's do this," he said.

Nodding, Willow added, "Elm Street, okay?"

* * *

Dawn bucked under the vampire's grasp, feeling her arms groan in their sockets. Gabrielle clicked her tongue in chastisement, then tightened her grip. "Easy now, girl," she told her captive. "You don't me to break your arms, do you?"

Her wrists were lashed together with some electrical wiring ripped from the wall of the gas station. Gabrielle pushed her forward as they crossed the street. For being so small, the woman was amazingly strong. Dawn knew that no matter how well she'd trained these past few years, her normal mortal strength was no match for a two thousand year old vampire. As she dragged her feet when they approached the hotel, Gabrielle forced her to move even faster.

Several vampires milled about the front of the building, where an overhang once allowed some shelter to people unloading their cars in the rain. The broad glass doors were surrounded by windows that clearly revealed the lobby inside. Even from her vantage point, Dawn could see that the place was trashed. The largest two of the guards stepped forward to stop them as they came closer.

"You know the rules, Gabrielle," the first said. "You're no longer welcome here."

"Oh, you're not still angry about that little fight we had, are you, Gregory?" Gabrielle pouted. "I see your leg has healed."

The vampire scowled at her. It was a mean feat, making that face look even angrier. "Don't make us force you to leave," he warned.

"Are you blind?" she snarled, shaking her prey in front of her. Dawn winced when her arms strained with the assault. "I have a gift for the dynamic duo. Now let me inside so I can offer it to them properly."

Squinting at Dawn, the vampire shrugged then returned his attention to Gabrielle. "So?" he said. "Xena's got enough women."

"I'll just bet," Gabrielle growled lightly. When he continued to stare at them stupidly, she sighed. "However have you morons managed to gain positions of trust in this venture? This is the Slayer's sister. The one she's been looking for."

The expression of astonishment on Gregory's face made Dawn laugh out loud. He glared at her, and her amusement subsided. "What are you going to do?" she challenged. "Kill me before Buffy gets to me? You're headed straight for a quick dusting, Mister."

Gabrielle chuckled behind her. "I love the straightforwardness of children, don't you? Now let us pass."

They were made to wait in the lobby, which set Gabrielle off into another childish outburst. Stalking back and forth across the tile floor, she kicked broken pieces of furniture out of her way and sent splinters flying through the air. Dawn would've guessed that a vampire would have more care around wooden projectiles. Gabrielle didn't seem to be dealing a full deck. She probably would've gotten along well with Spike, if she wasn't so into chicks.

"Gabrielle," a strong female voice called from above them. At the head of the large staircase leading up to the second floor, a tall dark-haired woman leaned over the railing to peer down at them. It had been awhile since Dawn had seen her, but she was still wearing the same leather gear she'd always favored.

The look of longing that crossed Gabrielle's face was painful to watch. For an instant, Dawn almost felt sorry for her. She couldn't imagine being tossed aside by someone she'd spent centuries alongside. It was just another example of how destructive Buffy was like this. And Willow had ruined their one chance with her stupid posturing. Where had she put the Orb of Thesula? Had she destroyed it?

"Who let her in here?" another voice demanded. Glancing up at the top of the stairs, Dawn spotted her sister standing there, hands on hips, surveying the lobby area with haughty disdain.

"Now, now," Xena crooned. Her eyes hadn't left Gabrielle for a moment. "She's brought you something."

When Buffy's dead eyes lit on her, Dawn could hardly suppress a shudder. Her hands were still tied behind her back, but it didn't mean she was completely helpless. Gabrielle's attention was fully diverted by her undead lover, and Buffy was just far enough away…not stopping to check the locations of the minions around them, Dawn twisted around and sprinted toward the doors.

The vampires nearby were too stunned by the action to move right away. It was only when Buffy screamed at them from the top of the stairs that they sluggishly turned to grab her just as Dawn reached the glass doors. She soon had two vampires pressed up against her sides, each taking one arm and hauling her back toward the foot of the stairs. Dawn struggled, and managed to kick the one at her right with the heel of her sneaker, but it barely slowed them down.

Hurrying down the stairs, Buffy first slapped one of the vampires across the face. He hissed in pain, and Dawn knew she'd used her nails to claw his flesh as well. "I shouldn't have to tell you to stop her," Buffy growled at him. "Now keep her still."

She smiled when she turned her attention to Dawn. "Sister," she murmured. "I haven't seen you in some time. However did you let that irritating blonde take you off your game? Didn't I teach you anything?"

Dawn scowled. Gabrielle's reaction was more to the point. She rushed toward Buffy, enraged by the implied insult. The Slayer ignored the approaching attack until Gabrielle was upon her, then merely twisted at the waist and used the other vampire's forward momentum to throw her over her shoulder and send her sailing through the air. A human, or even a weaker vampire, would have crumpled to the floor upon landing. Gabrielle landed neatly on her feet, then whirled to make another attempt.

"I thought we discussed this, Xena," Buffy called up the stairs, her voice cold. "You were to keep your bitch on a leash where she belongs."

Gabrielle paused to hear what Xena had to say to this. She hissed at Buffy warningly.

"Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice weary. "Not now."

Shocked, Gabrielle glanced up at the warrior woman, a wounded expression on her face. She shifted out of vamp face, revealing her emotional vulnerability. But even without the mask to mar her features, she'd never look human. She was far too old of a vampire for that. Dawn lost any sympathy for her when she realized that. Demons didn't need humans to feel sorry for them.

"Xena," Gabrielle implored. "I've brought this gift for you. I know that the Slayer's desires are your own."

Xena looked pained at her words. "If you two could only work together, this wouldn't be an issue," she said.

"Oh, cut the melodramatic bullshit," Buffy snapped. "With the two of you mooning over each other every day, we'd never get anything done. Gabrielle, we thank you for the gift, but you can be going now."

Gabrielle stood firm. "I'm not leaving," she said.

"You—" Buffy started, then stopped herself. "Fine, I have more important things to deal with right now. We'll have a go later on."

Turning to face her sister once more, she reached out to touch Dawn's cheek. Buffy's cold fingers left icy trails down her skin. Dawn shivered in revulsion.

"Now," Buffy whispered, "where were we?"

* * *

Xander found Spike watching the front of the hotel from behind a collection of dumpsters in an alley across the street. The vampire's white blond hair stood out like a beacon in the moonlight. Thankfully it could only be seen from this side of the street. The dumpsters effectively blocked any visibility to those in the hotel.

"You're not inside yet?" Xander asked.

"Thought I'd wait for you and Will," Spike answered. He glanced behind Xander. "Where is she?"

"She said we should go in from different points. It sounded like a good idea the way she explained it," Xander defended when Spike looked at him like he was crazy.

"A good way for her to get killed," Spike responded evenly. "She's been out of the game for awhile, Xander. She's not exactly the one who should be making battle plans right now."

"Have you seen Dawn?" Xander asked.

"No, but there's been some commotion over there," Spike answered. "A good number of vampires have collected around the front doors over the past twenty minutes or so. They usually only have around five or so guarding at one time. Look over there now."

Xander counted at least twenty-five vamps milling about the front doors. Many of them were cautiously eyeing their surroundings, but most of them were unabashedly watching something that was going on inside the lobby. "Something big is up. Think Dawn did the spell?"

"If she did, Buffy could be in danger," Spike answered. "She'll be confused for a bit. It's a bad place for her to be when she comes to her senses."

"Okay, so we find a way inside. I'd say the front doors are out."

Spike gestured toward some broken windows on the opposite end of the hotel. "We head back through this alley and go down the back street a ways before coming out down there, we can cross the street without being noticed. I don't think that area of the hotel is being used anymore."

Xander nodded. "It's the best we can do, I suppose. Are we armed?"

Spike opened his leather jacket to reveal a row of wooden stakes strapped inside the lining. Xander glanced at them skeptically. "Well, they're as good as any," he said. "I really wish I hadn't lost my axe inside that Chaos demon last month."

* * *

"Buffy, this isn't you," Dawn whispered. It was her first attempt at reaching the human woman lost inside the monster.

Buffy paused, smiling. She leaned forward until Dawn could smell the scent of death on her breath. "Then who am I?" she whispered back. "Who am I really? A pathetic whiner who thinks she can save the world with a wooden stake and some holy water? A mortal who can't seem to die because her own friends would rip her out of heaven rather then let her go like any other normal people?" She shook her head. "You're wrong, little sister. I'm finally the person I was always meant to be. I can finally use my strength and my abilities to the best of my advantage. No more sulking about how terrible life is. I can finally revel in the Slayer's stock and trade. Death."

"That's quite a speech," Dawn answered. "Too bad you can't see how full of shit you are."

Buffy pulled back, a little surprised. "Why, Dawnie," she said. "I taught you better than that. Don't make me wash your mouth out with soap, little girl."

"How did you find her?" Xena asked, coming halfway down the stairs.

Gabrielle gazed at her a moment before answering. "She was holed up in the gas station across the street. I think she was going to try to cast a spell on you two."

"No," Buffy said. "Only me. Isn't that right, Dawn? I wondered if you would remember what happened with Angelus. Although technically, you weren't actually there at the time. Isn't memory a funny thing when it's been manufactured by some monk bastards too weak to protect their own mystical energy?"

"It doesn't matter if I wasn't really there," Dawn said. "I still have the memory. I'll find another way to make it work."

"You assume you'll be leaving this place alive," Xena countered. She glanced at Buffy. "You know what you have to do."

Buffy stared at her sister, her eyes unwavering. Gazing into the murky depths, Dawn desperately wished she'd be able to see some sign of the person her sister had once been. If she could only see that little spark of humanity before leaving this world, she could die without regret. She would have hope that there was some bit of Buffy left, that it may someday rise to the surface and put things right again. Otherwise, Dawn had accomplished nothing in these past two years.

As they stared at one another, a strange glow flared from the center of Buffy's irises. It shined brightly enough to make Dawn squint, then was gone in an instant. As she watched, her sister shook her head in confusion and closed her eyes a moment. What had just happened?

"Buffy?" Xena questioned, her voice sharp. She wasn't in the mood to be ignored.

"Yes," Buffy murmured. "I know what I have to do."

Dawn realized in that instant that her sister's voice had changed subtly. The mocking tone had vanished. It was weary for the first time since she'd been changed. When Buffy looked up again and met her gaze, Dawn saw what she'd been looking for. There was compassion in those eyes once more. Her heart surged with excitement.

Buffy reached out and grabbed one of the vampires by the neck. In his surprise, he loosened his grip on Dawn's arm, and she was able to wrench herself away before he was thrown across the room. The second vampire stepped back in surprise, but was caught by Buffy's powerful fist. The punch landed in his chest, imbedding itself within him and destroying the heart. He burst into a flurry of black dust.

"Buffy?" Dawn asked.

"Get over there," Buffy ordered her, pointing toward the edge of the room. "Stay down."

She was forced to turn away an instant later to avoid another attack. Ducking, she quickly punched the third vampire in the stomach, then dropped down to reach for a broken piece of a chair leg on the floor nearby. Arching up, she caught the vampire square in the chest with the makeshift stake. He backed away, his mouth dropped open in surprise, before he disappeared in a flurry of darkness.

Dawn backed away from the melee, twisting her wrists against the wire that bound them. She could feel it cutting into her skin, but the injury was secondary to getting her full motion back. Dawn saw Xena still standing on the staircase, a strange expression on her face. She seemed frozen, unable to move. She leaned on the railing for support.

When Dawn backed into a firm body, she jumped forward and grunted in surprise. "Easy, now," a familiar voice murmured softly in her ear. She relaxed instantly and felt Spike's hands carefully untying her.

"The spell," she gasped. "You did it?"

"No," he answered in confusion. "You left with all the supplies."

Untied, Dawn turned to face him. "But I didn't," she said. "The orb was gone. Buffy is—she's back. Look." She pointed toward her sister, who was busy dispatching two more vampires.

They were distracted then by a howl of outrage. Gabrielle, forgotten at the bottom of the stairs, launched herself toward Buffy, an expression of murderous intent stamped across her features. Buffy was heavily involved with a group of minions, and didn't notice the vampire's approach.

"No," Spike said, running after her. He reached into his jacket as he went, pulling out a wooden stake. Sprinting, he overtook Gabrielle just as she was about to grab Buffy from behind. He thrust the weapon into her back.

Gabrielle's howl turned into one of agony. She managed to turn and see the face of her killer before falling into a cloud of dust. Buffy twisted around just as the vampire's final scream faded away. Seeing Spike standing there, her eyes widened in surprise.

"Gabrielle!" Xena cried. She'd risen from her stupor long enough to realize what had happened to her companion. Hurrying down the stairs, she raced toward them before the dust of Gabrielle's body had completely fallen to the floor. Spike grabbed Buffy by the arm and pushed her out of the way, moving after her.

But Xena didn't go after them. She stopped at the spot where her lover had vanished, staring at the dust on the floor with a mixture of horror and amazement. "Gabrielle," she repeated softly.

Someone touched Dawn's arm. She quickly threw a punch to defend herself, only to recognize Xander as he caught her wrist in his hand to avoid the blow. Spike and Buffy glanced around themselves quickly. The rest of the vampires had disappeared, likely taking off as soon as they realized they didn't stand a chance against the Slayer and her friends.

When Xena looked up again, she faced a crowd of enemies staring back at her. After glancing about to see that she was now alone, she shook her head and frowned. She seemed groggy, only half-aware of her surroundings. But she was still able to recognize the danger she was in. Before any of them had a chance to say a word or make a move toward her, she raced toward the front doors and vanished in the darkness beyond.

"Buffy," Spike said, reaching out to touch the woman's arm. Buffy pulled away. She stared at him as though she had no idea who he was. Taking several steps back, she shook her head.

Dawn understood that some confusion was natural after this sort of thing. Giles had warned her that Buffy might not be able to even fight or defend herself. At least that point had been incorrect. Buffy's soul was accustomed to being in her body, it wanted to return to her. She hadn't gone very long without one, not like Angel or Spike. Her memories and her mind should return to normal much more quickly. But she needed time.

When Buffy turned to start walking away, Spike moved to follow. "Don't," Dawn called. "Let her be."

He stopped, turning to glance at her. "Were you ready to face all of us afterwards?" she asked him.

He sighed, then nodded. Then his eyes widened as she saw something behind them. Xander and Dawn twisted around, expecting another one of Xena's minions to emerge from the hallway. But it was Willow, standing hesitantly in the doorway to the east wing of the hotel. She obviously wasn't sure that she'd be welcome.

"Had to get some stuff, huh?" Xander said.

Willow shrugged, then looked at Dawn. "Did it work?" she asked.

In response, Dawn ran into her arms, enveloping her in a firm embrace.

* * *

Buffy didn't return to the church until the following night. None of them had the nerve to ask her where she'd been. She seemed to be recovering well, but there was more for her to deal with now that her soul had been returned to her. Spike understood the guilt she was feeling intimately. He knew at some point she'd need someone with whom to talk about it, but that she also needed to come to him on her own. She had to make the choice, not him.

Spike and Willow sat in one of the pews just before sunrise. Buffy had already retired into the chapel office, obviously exhausted from her ordeal. A duffel bag of random items sat at Willow's feet. She wore her business suit.

"You'll be back next week then?" Spike asked.

Willow nodded. "I have to take care of a few things back home…well, back where I was," she amended. "But Sunnydale is where I belong. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

"Xander's bringing the van around," Spike told her. "He'll take you to the nearest airport."

"Spike," Willow started, then paused. "Did you notice…did Xena seem different to you before she left?"

Spike shook his head. "I don't understand, Red. Different how?"

"When I did the spell, I felt this huge surge in energy pass through me. More than the time with Angel. It was as though the magick inside of me was so intent on spilling out that it just forced its way through this channel I was offering it. It was more than I could control. I felt—" Willow paused.

"What?" he asked.

"I felt two souls returning to their bodies."

Spike stared at her, stunned.

"You said that Gabrielle tried to murder Buffy," Willow commented. "That wouldn't lead me to believe that the soul had been hers."

"Do you think Xena has her soul back?" Spike asked.

"I don't know. I guess it could have been any of the vampires there that night. A lot of them ran off before Buffy could get to them. I just don't know, Spike," Willow sighed. "But I'd really like to. Either way, I'm guessing we'll be seeing her again in the future, after all that happened."

"Willow," Xander called from the doorway. "You ready to go?"

Standing, Willow nodded. "Dawn's still out patrolling?" she asked.

Xander looked sheepish. "I think…I think she's a little embarrassed about the way she treated you," he said. "She'll come around by the time you get back."

Willow smiled. "I can't say I entirely blame her for her reactions," she said. She glanced at Spike. "Say goodbye to Buffy for me?" she asked. When he nodded, she added, "And tell her this time she can expect to see me again really soon."

Willow followed Xander outside to the van. It was time to close another chapter of her life, and finally move forward again.

The End