BtVS/Xena crossover story (Part 1 of the 3-part series "Not-So-Blithe Spirits")

Author's (Long-Winded) Note: This story was my first attempt at writing fanfic (so please be tolerant). It's the result of a plot bunny that hopped into my head during a Spring Break grading lull in 2007 and wouldn't let me sleep until I promised to do something with it.

This is one possible answer to the question, "What happened to Buffy while she was in Heaven?" and utilizes some of the theological assumptions of the last three seasons of Xena.

Many thanks are due to my fantastic betas Miss Murchison and Keswindhover for helping to make this much less like a pure exercise in 'talking heads'. All the mistakes and long-winded parts, however, are entirely my fault.

For the purposes of this story, the Xena episodes dealing with the late 20th-century reincarnations of Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer (e.g. "Soul Possession") never happened. Familiarity with the Xenaverse is not absolutely required, but this story may be more enjoyable if you've seen some later Xena episodes, such as "The Way," "Fallen Angel," "Seeds of Faith," "Heart of Darkness," "The God You Know" and "A Friend in Need."

This story may contain spoilers for all six seasons of Xena and the first five seasons of BtVS.

Disclaimer: I own neither Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor Xena: Warrior Princess, and I make no money from borrowing them for this story.

Second Disclaimer: The theological views represented here do not necessarily represent those of the author, much less those of Joss Whedon, Rob Tapert, or anyone else in the real world. No living world religions were harmed during the production of this work of fiction.

Summary: Not an action fic. This story recounts a conversation following Buffy's death at the end of "The Gift."


Somewhere in Eternity . . .

The entity known as the Archangel Michael sat by a small pool of water in the midst of a conventional representation of heaven.

Michael was an impressive figure, the very model of what you'd expect from a warrior angel. His features seemed to have been carved out of stone by an artist more concerned with strength than beauty, but they inspired a certain amount of trust, as well as awe, in most of the humans who encountered him. His gleaming breastplate, red kilt, and massive, greenish-black feathered wings gave him a "retro" appearance in the opinion of some of his colleagues, but Michael was nothing if not a traditionalist. Besides - though he would never be guilty of the sin of pride - he was aware that he carried the wings and the armor well. What could he say? His Creator did good work.

Michael's formidable attention was focused on the pool before him, which was reflecting images of a mighty battle currently being waged on earth, unnoticed by the rest of the mortal world.

Though Michael was a powerful and immortal being, he permitted himself a sigh and a brief feeling of anxiety, as he watched a small, blonde hero hurl herself from the top of a crazy-quilt tower in order to heal a rift in the fabric of reality - all realities. As expected, the wild energies of the rift drove the life from the girl's body, healing the hole in the world but leaving a hole in the hearts of those left standing around the small, broken corpse.

Michael's feeling of unease, however, was not due to the danger which the girl's death had averted, but rather to the fact that the girl's soul was now free to return to heaven once more.

SHE was coming back, and she'd probably be pissed.

Michael couldn't really blame her.

A shadow fell across the pool, and Michael looked up - and up still further - at the towering brunette in black leather who was glaring down at him, fists clenched and jaw tensed.

Michael chuckled. After more millennia than he bothered to count, this was one soul who still managed to surprise him on a regular basis.

"Hello, again," he said, maintaining his angelic cool. "I didn't expect you to appear in that form. It's not the one you were wearing during your most recent death." He gestured at the pool, which seemed to be frozen on an earlier image, of a tiny blonde in mid-jump.

The brunette allowed herself a smile that was, if anything, even more menacing than her glare.

"I know," she said, "but I've been through this enough times to remember that form bends to desire, here. With enough concentration, I can take any form I want, any of the numerous people I've been through the ages. And this was the form I had when I kicked your feathered butt. Twice. I thought I should remind you of that before this conversation goes any further. It might save some time and unnecessary dismemberment."

Michael pretended to take umbrage at the barely-veiled threat. She would be disappointed if he didn't, and they had danced this dance before, often enough for them both to remember and even enjoy the ritualized steps.

"You flatter yourself," he remarked, affecting the smirking arrogance that usually got under her non-corporeal skin. "I don't remember you ever kicking my butt, feathered or otherwise. This latest death must've scrambled what we laughingly call 'your mind.'"

She didn't rise to the bait, this time. If anything, she seemed to appear more affable, as she calmly seated herself beside him at the pool. That self-control was a bad sign, Michael thought. It meant she wasn't going to be distracted by any of his usual tactics. She must REALLY be pissed off, this time.

"You're the one who must be getting senile, Michael," she commented, stretching out her long legs with every appearance of being completely at her ease. "When I was a demon leading the assault on heaven, I beat you and your army down. Hard. Only my timely resurrection saved your bacon, as I recall. I won't count the time you and Raphael failed to throw my mortal butt into hell, since you've insisted that you two were just putting on an act for Lucifer's benefit. I still think you're just trying to save face, but I'll let it go.

"But you can't deny that I totally kicked your tail in Rome, when you crossed the line and endangered my daughter in order to force me to kill Caligula. I'd have finished you off that time, if not for another bit of divine intervention at the last moment. Oh, well. Killing gods and other immortals was starting to get old by that time, anyway."

She frowned at a more recent memory, and added, "Not that the ability to slay gods wouldn't have come in handy over the past year."

Michael thought he saw a way to head off her complaints for a while, so he observed wryly, "Who needs the ability to slay hell-gods, when you can batter them into unconsciousness with a troll hammer? Watching you swing that hammer, over and over again . . . I have to say, that really warmed the cockles of my immortal heart. I almost felt like toasting marshmallows and, uh, singing an appropriate folk song."

She made a face. "Don't try to be funny, Michael. It just comes off as lame. And kind of creepy. Besides, right now the only things I feel like toasting are your tail-feathers. Are you starting to get the picture?"

Michael decided to get it over with, since she obviously wasn't going to be put off much longer. "Yes, you're a holy terror," he dead-panned, "and now that I'm properly intimidated, what is it you want to discuss?"

"How could you, Michael?" All appearance of ease suddenly vanished, and the woman's voice was colder than the space between the stars. "How could you and your GOD do that to me? After all the lifetimes I spent trying to walk the Way of Peace, after I sacrificed my life and risked my soul for the greater good more times than I care to remember, and after all the effort I'd put into trying to live down some of the consequences of my warrior past . . . .

"How could you send me back to another lifetime of following the Way of the Warrior? Another baptism of blood and horror, another lifetime of battling darkness within and without, and another early death? Does the phrase, 'been there, done that' mean nothing to you people? Do I actually have to wear the freaking T-shirt?"

In place of the towering brunette, Michael suddenly found himself seated next to a petite blonde college student in red leather jeans, ridiculously high-heeled boots, and a cream-colored top on which the words, "I died for the world, repeatedly, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt," appeared in flashing red letters.

Michael couldn't resist commenting, "Well, at least you acquired a unique way with words, this time around. Not to mention, a daring sense of fashion."

She didn't miss a beat. "Says the guy wearing green feathers with a poufy red skirt. And it's not as if I had much of a choice about the catchy teen-speak, is it? Looming over someone and growling 'Be nice!' is much less effective when you're tiny and blonde, and not dressed like a dominatrix."

Her voice relaxed into the lighter tones of Buffy Summers, as she stopped putting any effort at all into looking and sounding like her old Xena self. "I had to find other ways of making my presence felt, of throwing the bad guys off-balance. Besides, Michael, you know I pride myself on having many skills. None of which lets you off the hook, however," she concluded grimly.

"No," he agreed. "What would you have me say?"

"Tell me WHY," she demanded, hopping to her feet and striding around the grotto in which they were meeting, in an effort to work off some of her feelings of indignation. "Tell me why I have another lifetime of trauma and combat - all of it taking place before I was old enough to legally DRINK, this time around, and thank you SO much for that! - another lifetime of death and disaster and grief that I have to come to terms with? Why wasn't I enjoying eternal peace with my soul-mate, instead?"

She came back to the pool, but remained standing, using the slight height advantage that gave her over the large, seated archangel. "I thought I'd earned my stripes up here."

"You had," Michael murmured. "That was the problem."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Her mood was not improving, and Michael noted idly that even in her tiny blonde persona, she could still radiate menace.

"I see your memories of just before your most recent incarnation haven't returned yet," Michael observed, in an apparent non sequitur. "You're still focused on your life as Buffy Summers, and you've assimilated the memories of some of your earliest incarnations, but you haven't quite caught up with yourself, yet."

"Michael . . . !" she growled, trying to keep her voice from rising into a less threatening register.

"I'm not trying to be evasive," he said, putting up his hands in a gesture of placation, though in her current, as yet un-winged condition, she probably couldn't do him much real harm.


With this particular soul, you could never be too sure.

"The short answer to your question is, 'Because you volunteered for the job.'"

For a moment, she actually seemed to be speechless. Silently, she sat back down beside him, as if the effort of standing and coping with this news was too much.

Michael rushed to firm up his position, before she could ask some even more uncomfortable questions. "Your soul, like Gabrielle's soul, long ago reached enlightenment. We can't MAKE you accept any new rebirths. But sometimes, when there's a special need on earth, or when you simply want to accumulate some new experiences or take a little vacation, you have volunteered to go back into the mortal world."

Michael attempted an ingratiating smile, and added, "Even when you were still far short of full enlightenment, we tried to cut you a lot of slack, in appreciation for all the sacrifices you'd both made. Why else do you think we allowed your spirit to accompany Gabrielle on earth for the rest of her first mortal life, rather than forcing you to wait up here or be reborn in a new existence? Come on! Give us some credit!"

"I volunteered for this?" she asked, doubtfully, as if she hadn't heard anything beyond that point. "How? Why? Was I sane at the time?"

Michael smiled ruefully - a genuine smile, this time. "It's that pure, heavenly compassion thing, again. You know, the same grace and generosity that once moved you to take Callisto's place in hell? Yeah, that. You have to watch out for that 'state of grace' empathy, Xena . . . I mean, Buffy: it'll lead you to commit ridiculously unselfish acts, every time!"

"Hmmph," she grunted, in as noncommital a tone as she could manage, given her sinking feeling that Michael was telling the truth. "But I don't suppose you tried to talk me out of it, did you?"

He had the grace to look a bit uncomfortable as he admitted, "Well, not very hard." Before she could work up a good head of anger again, he sighed and made a gesture of surrender. "All right. You'll remember all of this on your own, soon enough. But what's the use of being immortal, if you can't waste a little time bringing a friend up to speed on her life?"

"'Friend' . . .?" She actually snorted, at that.

"Hey! If I had mortal feelings, I'd be hurt by your tone! What? You think I'm this nice to everybody? Not hardly." Michael essayed a snort of his own. It almost came off. And, for a moment, the soul most recently known as 'Buffy' was distracted.

"You've been watching Big Jake AGAIN, Michael? What is it with you warrior angels and the John Wayne movies, anyway?"

"See?" Michael grinned. "You'd only ask me that, if you'd started to remember your existence here, before your latest incarnation. Well, we HAD to have a John Wayne film festival to celebrate the Duke's arrival in the afterlife, didn't we? As I recall, even you became misty-eyed during Three Godfathers, for some reason."

"Okay, okay! So I could sort of identify with that storyline. You know it was my decision to protect an orphaned baby from my own troops that started me on the path to redemption. Without that, Hercules never would've gotten through to me. I've always had a weakness for kids in trouble," she muttered.

Then her eyes suddenly flashed in recognition, and she exclaimed, "Got it!"

"Pardon?" Michael was genuinely having trouble following her train of thought, this time. Her experience as Buffy had given rise to some surprisingly nonlinear thought patterns.

"I'm starting to remember something. That's how you tricked me, Michael! You showed me the trials and challenges this little girl was destined to face, the losses she'd probably have to cope with, and the consequences for the rest of humanity if she should falter. You played on my parental instincts and my sympathy for a kid asked to bear way more than her share of the world's suffering. So not fair, Michael!"

Michael dared to shrug. "I admit, we hoped you would volunteer. But what soul would you have had us put in this child of destiny, if not yours? A new and untried soul? The soul of some other warrior, who might be overcome by the temptations of having so much supernatural power? Of having so much darkness within her, as the root of her strength?"

Michael was warming to his theme, now, and she remembered again how convincing he could be when he really bothered to turn on the charisma and single-minded conviction of an archangel.

'The rat!' she thought. 'Stupid, winged rat, using logic and faith, and stuff. Way not fair!'

He continued, apparently unaware of her unflattering reflections, "Even though you'd retain none of your memories on a conscious level as soon as you entered that infant, what other soul would've had the strength and compassion to allow this child to survive, to save the world over and over again and still live to adulthood? What other soul would've given her a better chance to beat the odds, to shatter the expectations of prophets and angels, as well as of demons and monsters? What other soul could've faced the Slayer's own darkness and gift of death, and still continued to love and give so unselfishly?

"You're ticked off that you died at the age of 20, this time? Do you remember what the probability was that you . . . that Buffy Summers would die, permanently, within a year of being Called? I know this isn't much comfort to you right now, with another painful mortal death so fresh in your mind, and Buffy's emotions and form over-riding all the other lives you've lived, but it could have been - and according to most heavenly predictions should have been - much, much worse. You did well," he concluded simply.

She tried to remember that she was actually an enlightened soul who'd been around for several thousand years, rather than a Southern California girl barely out of her teens, and that therefore she was categorically incapable of sulking. "Okay, I guess it didn't totally suck to fight the good fight again, and to know the satisfaction of using my strength to punch out the truly evil things that go bump in the night, rather than to batter other humans - even bad ones - into submission."

Michael heaved a silent sigh of relief. It looked as if this conversation wasn't going to be quite as painful as he'd feared. Even while immersed in Buffy's personality and mortal concerns, she was still a hero, a champion of the light.

Then he mentally kicked himself, for underestimating the courage and capacity for self-sacrifice and honesty of the Slayer. Archangels weren't supposed to make assumptions based on mere appearance or styles of speech. He'd have to guard himself against such mistakes, since it would never do to mishandle this soul.

As more and more of her non-corporeal memories fell into place, however, another urgent question came to her mind. "Dawn! Whose soul did Dawn get? And for your own sake, Michael, it had better not be the one I think it is!"

Realizing that he'd relaxed too soon, Michael tried to edge away slightly as he answered, "You know I don't have complete control over this! Some souls just naturally seek one another out through different incarnations, and your soul and Callisto's always seem to have some family issues left to resolve. Besides, she wasn't supposed to be down there for very long, this time. It was most likely that Dawn would be the one to jump from the tower. This time, it's really not my fault! I swear to you, Xena! Buffy! You, more than anyone, should know how free will messes with our best-laid plans, sometimes!"

She reached out and grabbed the wing nearest to her, a few inches from the place where it seemed to grow out of his back, and twisted it, applying just enough pressure to remind him of her old self. Even though she was no longer making the mental effort to appear as her earlier warrior princess incarnation, her soul easily recalled what it was like to have Slayer strength, and she thought she saw Michael actually wince as she focused that strength on his immortal self.

She ground the words out, her voice dropping dangerously low without any effort at all as she said, "Michael, are you telling me that you allowed them to put my daughter Eve's soul - the soul that once belonged to Callisto, of all people - into Dawn, my sister-daughter? Into the girl who was made from my blood and bone in this lifetime, and entrusted to me to protect? Why, in the name of all that's supposed to be holy, do you guys keep sticking me with the immaculate conceptions, huh? And then you don't even let me raise them, teach them how to walk and talk and tie their shoes! No, it's 'whoosh' and suddenly they're full-grown, or more than half-grown, in Dawn's case. Gotta tell you, Michael: I'm feeling less enlightened and peaceful by the second, and a lot more like my old, unredeemed 'Destroyer of Nations' self! Or at least like the girl for whom kicking ass is comfort food!"

"Once again, human free will!" Michael objected, openly wincing as the pressure on his wing increased. "You can't blame us for what those monks chose to do with the Key, anymore than you can blame us for that whole 'faked-death-and-getting-accidentally-frozen-for-over-twenty-years-by-Ares' thing that kept you from raising Eve. You know how it works: without free will, there is no genuine love, but free will misused still manages to trash our best intentions, sometimes."

"Oh, play me another one, Michael! That tune was old before I died the first time! And I thought your boss - THE Boss - was supposed to be all-knowing! How can you disclaim all responsibility like that, when surely SHE must've known what was going to happen, and could've taken steps to prevent it, somehow?"

Michael actually seemed to be getting annoyed, now - though whether he was more annoyed at the limits of divine interference with free will or with Xena/Buffy continuing to take out her frustrations on a particularly sensitive part of his wing, it would be hard to say. "We've been over this before. Our God sees all the possible outcomes of all possible choices in this universe, and tries to work with humanity to bring about lasting Good -"

He was interrupted by a startled question: "THIS universe? How many are there, or how many others have there been? Is there really a universe without shrimp?"

Michael sighed, "Don't go there, literally or figuratively. It still blows my mind, and I'm eons older and wiser than you are, okay?"

She frowned, and shook her head, realizing that once again she'd been diverted from what she really wanted to discover from Michael and his versions of the Powers That Be. "So, let me get this straight: I'm now up here - presumably for good this time, yes? Nothing left to prove, or accomplish, or learn through future mortal incarnations? Time to rest and be at peace, at last? Good, then. And Eve still has a lifetime to live out on earth as Dawn Summers, but then she'll be back (barring some extreme and incredibly unlikely turn towards absolute evil and darkness). Meanwhile, I just have to deal with the fact that, once again, I was robbed of the opportunity to truly know her and love her through her childhood, since fake memories don't count. Fine. It sucks beyond the telling of it, but what else is new? We'll still have all of eternity to catch up in, so I can wait.

"That leaves only one, really important unanswered question, and - as I once told a chaos-worshiping Brit named Ethan Rayne - believe me, Michael, when I say that a wrong answer will cost you dearly. Where . . . is . . . Gabrielle? Shouldn't she be here to welcome me? Don't we usually manage to find each other, right away, when we're up here?"

Michael looked almost pained, as he replied, "Obviously, you still don't have ALL your memories back, then. Gabrielle isn't here, Xena . . . I mean, Buffy, or whatever name you prefer. Her soul hasn't been back here for well over a century. That was another reason why you volunteered to take on the Slayer's destiny. You hoped against hope that, somehow, you might be able to free up Gabrielle's soul from where it waits, in a perpetual 'holding pattern', I think you would say. You hoped that you might someday encounter the demon-infected body that last housed Gabrielle's soul, and dispatch it, so that her soul would finally be free to move on to Eternity, or to her next rebirth."

On some level, she must have known that, since all her other memories from that part of her existence seemed to have returned, but she still felt as though she'd been kicked in her non-corporeal gut when she heard Michael say the words. She felt out of breath, as she asked, "Gabrielle . . . became a VAMPIRE? No. No way. It couldn't be."

Michael nodded, "I'm afraid it could be, and is."

The archangel waved his hand over the pool, and it began showing images, once more - this time, images of herself and Michael, sitting before this very same pool, and somehow she knew that she was watching the events of nearly four decades ago, when she was newly returned from her latest 'volunteer' outing as a surprisingly long-lived German doctor, musician, and theologian. As she watched, Michael told her earlier self some bad news, and she appeared to berate him, morphing into her warrior princess persona instead of the kindly-looking old German man, and stalking off.

"Okay, I sort of remember this," she said, shaking her head to try to clear away some of those disturbingly emotional images. "Gabrielle had decided to spend a little while on earth in the Victorian era, exploring her literary aspirations again . . . ."

Michael snorted at that, and she bristled on behalf of her friend. "Watch it! Gabrielle was no slouch with a pen, at one time. And at least she didn't go 'walk-about' on earth for the sake of a silly game of Skee-ball!"

"Kevin Smith just made that up!" Michael objected. "Don't confuse Dogma with heavenly truth, if you please. You, of all people, should know better!"

"Whatever!" She waved her free hand, dismissively. "So, when you guys told me I could return to earth, while she was off doing her poet thing, and spend a relatively uneventful incarnation as a medical doctor who was also a talented musician, I thought 'why not?' Interesting, how you totally omitted the obsession with theology part of my prospective life, not to mention the living through two world wars!"

"Not our fault. We actually think that was your influence on the man's life - perhaps your unconscious memories of and mixed feelings about Eli, or some of your unhappy encounters with deities in past incarnations, that led him to write The Quest of the Historical Jesus. And that 'reverence for life' thing you - he - came up with seemed to have Eli's, or at least Gabrielle's, fingerprints all over it. With a different soul, he might've been content with his medical and musical studies, alone. But didn't you enjoy the Bach, at least?"

"'Ahhh . . .Bach!'" She quoted, then added helpfully, "I used to catch a lot of late-night MASH reruns while waiting to go out and patrol."

"'Whatever!'" Michael quoted her, in return.

"So," she continued, as if she hadn't heard him, "from 1875 to 1965, I was stuck on earth, apparently oblivious to what was happening to Gabrielle in the last quarter of the 19th century. She was a writer, a young poet, yes? How on earth could a soul like hers ever be 'misplaced' or 'bumped' from her mortal body by some mere demon? You care to fill in the blanks there, Michael?"

The archangel seemed to be at some pains to avoid making direct eye contact, just then, much less providing a direct answer to her questions. "Buffy, why don't you just wait until your memories of all our previous conversations come back? It's not like there's anything you can do to help Gabrielle, now that you're back here. Why not put the pieces together for yourself, once your soul is fully prepared to deal with it all?"

She gave his wing joint three more twists, punctuated with, "My last good nerve . . . . You . . . . Working it." She only let up the pressure slightly as she added, "Why don't you put those pieces together, Michael?"

Bowing to the inevitable, he submitted. "Alright! Have it your own way! So, apparently you do remember how that whole vampire thing works: when a vampire is sired, a demon displaces the soul in the living corpse, retaining all of the body's and soul's conscious and unconscious knowledge, but none of its divine gifts of genuine love, joy, or empathy."

"Hey! Exposition-guy! That all sounded more impressive with an English accent, and even then, I only listened half the time."

Ignoring the interruption, Michael continued in what she privately thought of as 'stuffy-lecture-mode': "Depending on the strength and age of the soul that was displaced and the strength of the demon that is born within the body, the vampire may be more or less vicious than the average, but it can never enter into a state of grace. Theoretically. Still, as long as the body walks the earth, there's the slightest chance that the soul might someday be restored, as it was with your . . . friend, Angel. That's why the vampire's soul remains lost, out of touch, until the vampire becomes dust. Usually."

She snorted. "I'm hearing a lot of waffling here, Michael. 'Theoretically'? 'Usually'? Don't you people - or angels, or whatever - actually KNOW anything for certain?" However, she finally let go of his wing.

Michael shrugged - partly to ease his cramped wing muscles, and partly because it seemed appropriate to what he had to say. "Free will, remember? It works its way into all sorts of cracks and corners of reality, and messes up our nice, neat plans and classifications in the most unexpected ways, sometimes."

"Meaning . . . ?"

Michael was back to looking smug again. He couldn't help it. He didn't know how she'd take the rest of what he had to say, but he was sure it would be interesting. After all those eons of dealing with humans, 'interesting' was something he'd learned to prize . . . even when it got a little painful. "Did you ever wonder how a vicious, soulless vampire could possibly fall so deeply in love with a human - with a Slayer, in fact - that he'd actually sacrifice himself to save her life, or even to save her happiness?"

"You don't - you can't mean . . .?" Somehow, she found this suggestion harder to deal with than the realization that she'd lived and died many times before, or any of the other mental and emotional adjustments she'd been forced to cope with since she'd awoken to find herself in heaven again. Some part of her desperately wanted to slam the door shut on this conversation, before it forced her to think and feel things that she could never again dismiss or ignore.

She needed Michael to be wrong about this, to take it back. "Spike told me he'd always been a bad guy! He's an idiot with an impulse-control problem and a serious addiction to mindless violence. No way could he have ever been a poet, much less a poet with a soul as bright as Gabrielle's!"

"Sorry to spoil your preconceptions, but that's exactly who and what he used to be. The Victorian poet who received Gabrielle's soul - a young man named William - was expected to catch tuberculosis from caring for his sick mother and die before he hit thirty, so it seemed a harmless way for Gabrielle to pass a few decades. What we didn't bargain for was that, without her soul-mate to provide inspiration, Gabrielle's literary genius would remain largely stifled during that lifetime, and she . . . he, rather, might end up looking for meaning and inspiration in some very dangerous places. William's encounter with the mad vampire Drusilla was deemed a very low probability, originally - almost nonexistent - but it happened. She sired him, and from there things seemed to literally go to hell. Gabrielle's soul was trapped, while William rapidly and unexpectedly tapped into some of his unconscious memories of Gabrielle's warrior days. You remember how fiercely and efficiently she fought to protect you, at times? Even Ares was impressed enough to try to recruit her. We surmise that it was some combination of the Amazon queen and the techniques Gabrielle learned during your travels in Asia that allowed him to defeat those two previous Slayers-"

Michael broke off, hearing a string of the most amazing curses and profanity suddenly cascading from her lips. He recognized several comments about his non-existent mother and some suggestions regarding highly improbable acts of attempted self-impregnation, delivered in an inspired combination of ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, late-Victorian German, and a couple of Central African dialects, concluding with a suggestion about where he could go and what he should do for the rest of his immortal life, uttered in pure Californian teen-speak.

Hoping that the worst of her reaction was over, Michael hastened to fill in the rest: "Of course, Spike's attempts to convince himself that Drusilla was his missing soul-mate could never be entirely successful, but he did manage to hold the illusion together - for himself, if not always for her - for a long time. Then, his wanderings brought him to Sunnydale, and into the orbit of one Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer.

"And the rest, you presumably know: from the first moment Spike saw you, something more of the spirit of Gabrielle seemed to awaken in him. Of course, he's still a soulless monster. Technically. But who knows? In time, he may manage to beat the odds, as you have always done -"

Michael broke off again, this time for a very different reason. He couldn't resist the urge to lay his hand on the deceptively young-looking blonde woman's shoulder, in a vain attempt to provide some sort of mortal comfort, as he drew her attention to the new, current images that had started appearing in the pool.

"Xena - or Buffy, I should say, do you remember our conversation about free will and the world-class foul-ups it sometimes produces? Well, brace yourself, because here comes another one: in the seemingly short time we've been having this discussion" - he chose to ignore her muttered comment that there was no such thing as a short conversation with him - "As I said, while we've been here, a much longer time has passed for your friends on earth. I'm truly sorry. We never dreamed they'd dare, or even think to attempt something this dark, this loaded with disastrous consequences, much less be able to pull it off. But it seems that your time on earth as Buffy Summers is not yet over, after all . . ."

She felt Michael's voice growing fainter, and the imaginary landscape around her becoming fuzzier, as something pulled her away. She remembered something like this happening once before, when Eli had resurrected Gabrielle and herself following their crucifixion. But this time, the power that drew her back felt much less benevolent, less like the call of a loved one and more like a giant hand slapping her away from some treat just within her reach.

"Nooooooooooo . . .!" She thought she was screaming, but perhaps it was just in her mind, because the faint impression of Michael that remained didn't seem to hear her.

Instead, the transparent outline of Michael reached out, in an attempt to grab her non-existent shoulders, and for a few seconds they inhabited the same plane, somewhere between heaven and earth.

"Remember, Buffy!" Michael's voice was almost harsh with the force of his compassion for her - a compassion she could actually feel and believe, for once, as though she was inside his mind at that moment. "Remember! You'll still have Eve - Dawn! You'll watch Dawn grow, help her discover the world! You can still find what's left of Gabrielle, or possibly even be reunited with your soul-mate on earth again. Remember! Remember!"

She was finally yanked beyond Michael's grasp, and her world became black and suffocating.

Back in heaven, Michael sank to his knees beside the pool again, almost winded by the effort of holding off so much black magic, even for so short a time. He looked in the pool, and saw Buffy's restored body begin to struggle to break through her coffin and dig her way to life-saving fresh air. "Thoughtless idiots!" he croaked, his throat still feeling raw from screaming into the void that Willow's resurrection spell had temporarily created.

He coughed, and then covertly looked around. Good. No one else had observed his momentary lapse of decorum, much less his . . . bending of the rules that were supposed to keep him from interfering with a soul being returned to mortal life, a soul whose memories of the eternal should have been completely repressed, once more.

He hoped he hadn't done more harm than good by trying to give her those few, hopeful thoughts to hold onto, considering what she would now have to face in the very near future. He scoffed, silently, at his own lapse in lofty, archangelic detachment. But honestly, that soul had already suffered more than enough for one existence, and he couldn't help feeling sorry for her.

"It's that pure, heavenly compassion thing," he repeated to himself, feeling somewhat embarrassed. "Gets me every time."

The End . . . of the beginning.