Damned If I Don't, Damned If I Do
Part Three of The Damned Series



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PART TWELVE: 5th October 2004 - 25th November 2004
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Chapter Two: Emotional String Theory

(One week after the wedding.)


Buffy was standing at the altar wearing Toni's tuxedo. It was a bit long in the...everywhere. The pants gathered at her bare feet and the jacket sleeves hung over her hands, the stalks of her bouquet staining the cuffs green.

The flowers had all died, she realized, but it didn't matter; this was still the happiest day of her life. Troy stood a little behind her to the side, a fake smile plastered on his beautiful, chiseled face as tears streamed down his cheeks. He was wearing a gorgeous blue bridesmaid dress and held his own bunch of dead African Marigolds.

Buffy looked to the woman next to her and melted inside at the smile Faith gave.

"Never thought we'd be able to do this in front of a crowd."

Buffy looked behind her at the hundreds of assembled guests that had come to witness their big day. They were all watching as they solemnly ate their popcorn.

Smirking, she looked Faith's short dress up and down, and then winked. "The way you look, the way you make me feel, I'd be happy to do a lot more than this in front of a crowd right now."

Faith blushed as she turned back to the altar. "I think we're supposed to say 'I do' before you get to fuck the bride."

Buffy sighed but she was grinning as she faced the altar too. "You always have to be such a rule-stickler these days, huh?"

"S'for the good of the many, B."

"But what about us?"

"We're here, aren't we?"

"Yeah," she breathed, looking down at her dry, brown flowers. They were just one hiccup from falling apart. She spoke to the priest, recapturing his short attention span. "We'd better carry on quick before she changes her mind again and disappears."

On the other side of the altar Mapanos nodded, the fancy red and gold ceremonial head-dress he wore wobbling on his small, kinda triangular goat head.

"There's just one more rite I have to..." His neck stretched out full until he could see the ancient religious text resting open on the podium. Ripping a page out with his front teeth, he chewed it up slowly while several of the guests quietly ooh-ed, ahh-ed and wiped single tears from their eyes at the beautiful...chewing.

Buffy's brow wrinkled, perplexed, but she waited patiently with everyone else as the goat swallowed loudly.

"Now you must simply make the sacrifice and I will be able to pronounce you woman and wife."

The wrinkles in Buffy's forehead deepened. This was the part she hadn't been looking forward to. Blood sacrifices were so last millennium. She took very little comfort in the knowledge that they would eat the poor lamb afterwards. The only reason she could do this with a jittery smile on her face was because she had to. This was the last thing she had to do before she and Faith could be together forever.

She looked to her Best Man to collect the ritual daggers and her frown deepened even more to see Willow standing there in her green ruffled bridesmaid dress. She'd expected... She shook her head, confused by her own confusion. Of course Willow would be her Best Man. Her dress didn't match Troy's, while still being vaguely familiar, but otherwise this was how it should be. Everything was. It was the perfect day that she and Faith had been planning for months.

Willow gave them a beaming smile as she handed over the ceremonial knives. "Aim for the heart," she whispered. "Love magick is always in the heart."

"Okay." Buffy nodded and raised her dagger high above her head so that she could get a good downwards swing on it.

Faith did the same and they shared a small smile. Any moment now they would be tied together for eternity. It was a good feeling.

Mapanos came back from stage-right, rope between his blunt teeth as he slowly led the sacrifice to the altar. Buffy only looked away from Faith's smiling eyes after it had jumped up onto the stone.

On hands and knees, Toni slowly turned her head to look at her. She didn't say anything, just stared, a blank look on her face like she had been drugged or duped into docility.

"No!" Buffy gasped.

"You must strike together," Mapanos told them. "For it to be binding."

"No," Buffy whispered again and her hand holding knife began to shake.

"Come on, B! We're nearly there. Do this with me." When Buffy just continued to stare at Toni, Faith insisted, "You have to do this if you want me!"

"But..."

Toni finally said, "Can you tell me what year Madonna released her first single?"

Buffy's eyes went wide. "Huh? Why?"

An arm slid across her breasts and she turned to snap at Faith about inappropriate touching...

*****

She awoke with a start in the dark room and lay there breathing heavily, heart pounding as her mind whirled.

"...the lucky caller who can answer this question will win two tickets to her upcoming US tour..."

Groaning, Buffy reached out her left arm and smacked the top of her radio alarm to cut off the annoying deejay. She couldn't move much more than that because there really was an arm over her breasts.

She prodded it. "Uh, Toni?"

Her bed-mate mumbled and snuggled her head deeper into the side of Buffy's neck.

She rubbed her forehead, wishing she had the strength to avoid ending up in situations like this every morning. She could blame it on the lack of sleeping space as much as she wanted, but really, there was a perfectly good floor just down there. One of them really should start using it.

"Toni!" she snapped, pushing the arm forcefully this time.

"Huh? Che?" Toni sleepily raised her head and noticed the position they were in. She smiled slightly until she saw Buffy's expression in the faint light. "Scuzi."

She withdrew her arm quickly but her head dropped back into its indentation on Buffy's pillow and after a few moments her breathing grew even again. Too even. Buffy could feel them warm against the side of her neck and they were too regulated to be natural. She knew when someone was faking sleep; it was roughly the same as when a vampire faked needing oxygen. They concentrated on it too much.

"Toni."

There was no answer. Buffy rolled her eyes to the ceiling.

"Toni, stop it!"

"Stop what?" came the irate mumble from the depths of her neck. "Trying to sleep? It is still dark, Buffy!"

"Trying to snuggle!" Buffy finally moved her head and neck away from her.

"Fine!" Toni rolled over and wriggled to the other side of the bed, curling up in the covers.

Buffy missed the warmth of her immediately. It was too early for anyone to have turned the heat on yet and it was very cold. Even her thick pajamas weren't doing anything to combat the chill. Her body just wasn't used to it after the heat of Italy and Greece.

Toni looked so cozy.

Buffy slid her hand across the sheet towards the back of Toni's cartoon nightshirt but stopped just short of touching the thick jersey material. Her cartoon nightshirt actually. They'd only been back a few days and there had been no time for shopping trips to replace the clothes they'd all left in Europe.

"Toni?"

"Mmm?" She managed to make the simple sound sleepy and impatient.

Buffy hesitated. "Nothing."

She pulled her hand back. They'd have to talk properly at some point but right now she had more important things to think about than whether she still wanted Toni to be her girlfriend or not.

"I have to get up."

"Bueno. Perhaps then I can go back to sleep."

Buffy hesitated again but shook her head without saying anything. She didn't have time for arguments either, not with Toni anyway. She slid from beneath the covers, her shivering intensifying the moment her feet touched the cool carpet.

She wasn't showering until the house had warmed up so, grabbing her thick pink robe from the back of the door, she left her room; missing Toni half-sitting up contritely as she pulled the door closed.

She was the first in the kitchen. She cranked up the central heating and turned the stove on too to warm the room quicker. Glancing at the books piled around the room, all over the room, she bypassed them for the time being.

Opening the basement door, she yelled at the top of her voice, "Troy!" and then slammed it closed again.

He was staying with them. Buffy didn't like the arrangement one bit but she couldn't argue when she was the one insisting that he did. She wasn't letting him out of her sight any more than was strictly necessary for sleeping and hygiene purposes. It was a mystery why he was complying so readily, though. Why accepted sleeping in the damp basement on a mildewy cot when he had a state-of-the-art warehouse conversion less than hour away, no one quite understood.

She was making herself a cup of strong coffee when he emerged a minute later.

"Sleep well?" she asked sarcastically.

"No."

Despite his answer and his wrinkled clothes he looked perfectly well rested to her, but then he always looked that good. She could remember a time it had infuriated the hell out of her but now it barely registered - had it really only been a week ago?

He was a different person now to who he had been before the wedding. It unnerved Buffy when she let it. He was at once more like a higher being and so much more human. He didn't eat, didn't drink - except alcohol, a lot of alcohol, enough to even burn through a Slayer's liver - and he was cold, emotionless, focused to the point of not moving for five or six hours at a time once he started researching. He put the rest of them, even Buffy, to shame on that front. In quiet moments though, in the basement and the back yard, she had seen him crying far more times than she was comfortable with.

She would have expected his tears to bring some measure of satisfaction but maybe she was just spending too much time shedding her own to appreciate his.

He sat down and picked up the same book he had been scouring yesterday. It was six inches thick and full of tiny handwritten words in a language she had never heard of but he was already halfway through it.

"Anything so far?" His silence was getting to her; he was getting to her.

"There is no way of getting her back."

"There has to be some way!"

"And so I keep reading."

Buffy left him alone. She carried her coffee to the table, moved a pile of books from a chair to the floor and took the top one to read. It was English, but after half a page that was all she could say for its coherency.

Her mind drifted unhelpfully to what Faith might be doing right now. It was something she did at least a thousand times a day. Was she fighting for her life? Thirsty and hanging just an inch too high above a glass of water? Making a deal with the devil for an easy ride?

She actually hoped it was the last one; at least then she would be okay. Besides, after the way her deal with a god had worked out... Well, it was hard to tell who to trust at this point.

As she finally found something interesting, Buffy read aloud, "The Gemiacian ritual was performed to release souls from Hell in..."

Toni came down the back stairs, fully dressed. "It will not work."

She looked up. "How do you know?"

"I tried it."

"Oh."

Toni was wearing her clothes night and day. They were a pretty even match, size wise, but the Italian was a good few inches taller than her. It meant tops fit fine but pants looked ridiculous. So Toni was working her way through the skirts left in her wardrobe... and they were kinda shorter on Toni than Buffy had worn her skirts for a few years.

Buffy's eyes traveled up her legs as she walked down the steps, but dragged her eyes away as she realized what she was doing. Couldn't she help herself?

If Toni noticed her attention she didn't comment on it. She went to get herself a cup of coffee. "All of the Gemiacian texts are useless. Written by a fraud."

"Okay." Buffy discarded the book and picked another.

As Toni came to sit right beside her she straightened the lapels of robe prudishly, as if the pajamas beneath it weren't enough protection between her skin and Toni's eyes.

Andrew came into the kitchen and gave an abrupt good morning before starting breakfast. He was still very much anti-Troy, which made him awesome in Buffy's eyes. Especially as everyone else seemed to periodically fall under his spell again.

Even Giles, who came through the door next, dressed incongruously in sweat pants and a t-shirt - obviously the strain was getting to all of them. He gave them an enthusiastic smile and patted Buffy on the shoulder as he went to put some tea on.

"How are we coming along?"

"I am still asleep," Toni's grumble was directed at the clock, the sun was still barely over the horizon, "but we have ruled out Gemiacian rituals."

When Buffy glared at her for stealing her material, Toni's gaze lingered on her face and she realized the Italian had done it just to get a rise out of her.

She turned away irritably. "Nothing else yet. Your help would be good."

"I'll be there in just a moment," Giles promised. "We'll find something for you today, Buffy, I'm sure of it."

"Don't find it for me, find it for Faith."

*****

It had been worth waiting for the hot shower. Physically, at least, she felt a lot better now. She went back downstairs dressed in loose jeans and a pale blue, baggy t-shirt - Toni's eyes still watched her all the way down.

It was getting ridiculous but Buffy didn't acknowledge the feel of Toni's eyes on her body. "Anything yet?"

"There is nothing, Buffy." Willow looked up guiltily. "I mean, we can keep looking and looking, obviously, but there just isn't anything!"

"There has to be."

"We've been looking for nearly a week, Buff," Xander sat back in his chair and shared a look with Willow and Giles.

"And?" she asked tetchily.

"Maybe it's time to try a different angle?" Kennedy spoke for them.

They all looked at Troy.

"Do you think if I could just walk in there and fetch her I would not have done so already? I have more invested in her return than any of you."

"No you don't!" Buffy snapped.

Troy just shot her a disdainful look and went back to reading.

"What about Magic?" Andrew asked. "Isn't there a magical way to get her out?"

All eyes swiveled to Willow this time. "I've looked into every spell I can think of..."

"Will, you're the most powerful witch on the planet!" Buffy implored. "Can't invent a spell to pull her out of there."

Willow was sat at the counter with her laptop. She looked over with obvious anguish but spoke calmly.

"I'm not the most powerful witch on the planet, Buffy. I mean, I'm up there... but, even at my most badass, black-eyed Wicca stage I didn't have the kind of power needed to steal a soul from the God of the Underworld."

"But you brought Buffy back to life," Dawn pointed out.

"That was totally different. For one, Buffy was already dead, we had her body. Two, she wasn't trapped anywhere, her soul was floating around free. Faith's soul is owned by Hades now. Three, that was a mistake." As Buffy's eyes widened, Willow hastily added. "No offense! I'm glad I did it but I broke laws I shouldn't have and the universe has paid us back big time. With The First, and now this."

Willow had a point. If she hadn't been brought back they never would have had to fight The First. If they hadn't had to fight The First they probably never would have found the Scythe, or Sagaris, whatever it was called. If they hadn't found that, Troy would never have been able to set his destiny in motion, at least not in their lifetime.

"Okay, so bad consequences, I get that, but we've beaten them before. And if you can bring Faith back we'll have beaten this one too. That's a good track record from where I'm sitting."

"It would be very dangerous for Willow," Giles said, giving Buffy a stern look.

"I get that too," she stressed. "And I don't want you to do anything that might hurt you, or the rest of us, but Faith is already hurting, she's already in the most dangerous place possible, and we need to get her out of there. We need more than books on myths! So, Will, without piling on the pressure, is there anything you can try?"

Willow looked even more stricken than before. "I have a couple of theories, but honestly, Buffy, even if any of them were doable I seriously don't have the power to try them. Imagine the difference between a bolt of lightning and an atomic bomb? Well, I'm the bolt of lightning and we need Hiroshima levels of power to pull Faith's soul from there."

"What about a bunch of witches working together?" Xander asked. "The Council had covens all over the world, right? How about we get the most powerful all together and try something then?"

"The Council-affiliated covens would never agree to raising a soul from the dead," Giles said. "No matter what the circumstances."

"But you're in charge now," Andrew said. "Couldn't you make them?"

"I'm not in charge. I simply oversee the American Slayers. Even if I was... the covens work with, not for, the Council. For the majority of them their own ethics would prevent them from helping us and, well, the ones less concerned with ethics are not necessarily the people we want on our side."

"I'll take anyone with power who can help us right now," Buffy said. "If they get too big for their boots, I'll take full responsibility for dealing with them afterwards."

"It's not that simple," Giles began and then he, Willow and Dawn started arguing about it.

Buffy would have joined in but she noticed a look pass between Toni and Troy and was more interested in that.

"What?" When their eyes remained locked on one another, she demanded louder. "What?"

"Marco," said Toni.

"Troy's little magician boy?" Buffy asked incredulously. "What's he going to do?"

"Possibly the two of them together will be enough," he muttered to himself, and then in a more casual tone, said, "Marco?"

There was a thirty second delay before the boy materialized in the kitchen. He was still shirtless and wearing baggy, shiny, orange pants. Buffy wondered if he had lots of pairs exactly the same in his closet or if he just never bothered to change the ones he was wearing.

Out loud she asked suspiciously, "Where were you?"

"Me? Rome." He turned to Troy. "How can I be of service, Master?"

"Your help may be useful to us."

"Of course." The kid ran up a flight of imaginary steps until he was several feet above the stacks of books on the table and then he sat down cross-legged on the air.

"Teleportation, spatial distortion," Willow muttered, glancing at Giles. "What is he, fifteen? How can be know this stuff?"

"I am older than I look." Marco winked at her. "Miss Rosenberg, you are even more beautiful than your reputation would suggest."

He leant down from the thin air he was sitting on and offered his hand. Willow stepped forward to shake it and jumped back when a large bunch of red tulips materialized in his hand.

"For you."

Willow blushed and accepted them with an, "Um, thanks."

Kennedy cleared her throat pointedly.

"And of course," Marco turned to her, a bunch of yellow tulips appearing in his hand this time. "I could not forget the esteemed Miss Kennedy."

"It's just Kennedy," she growled, but took the flowers graciously enough. She didn't seem to know what to do with them afterwards.

"Perhaps the three of us could go for a latte once we have finished here?" he asked.

Kennedy and Willow shared a glance, neither knowing how to respond.

Troy's arm whipped out and he caught Marco by the wrist, pulling him from his imaginary seat and flinging him down on the table. There was a mud slide of ancient literature as he landed - sprawled out and momentarily dazed - and Buffy heard Giles gasp as so many priceless tomes hit the kitchen floor, pages creasing and antique spines breaking on impact.

She kept her eyes on Troy though, who was shouting. She had never heard him shout before. She had seen him angry plenty, usually with her, but she had never seen him really blow his top she realized.

"...so stop your inane games and think of a way or I will personally deliver your head to Hades myself and it will not necessarily be still attached to your scrawny neck!"

"My sincere apologies, Master." Marco, kneeling on the table amid the clutter of books, bowed low before him. Buffy could see he was shaking slightly. "I will think of a way at once."

The kitchen rang with silence after Troy's bellowing and Marco remained with his forehead touching the table until Willow nervously cleared her throat.

"I've been looking into extraction and teleportation spells, but I haven't found any I think will even stand a chance of working."

Marco straightened up and sat Indian-style facing her but remained humbly on the surface of the table."

"They will not."

"I know. I just don't have that kind of power."

"Even if you did, they would still not work. The laws that govern the underworld are different to the ones you are used to; the magic that binds you there follows those rules. It is very...dark and mysterious."

"I've dabbled with my share of dark magic," Willow said with guilty pride.

"But have you dabbled with mysterious magic?" Marco asked seriously.

Willow frowned. "I don't know. What makes it so mysterious?"

"The fact that it is a mystery."

"Okay, so what have we learned so far?" Buffy was picking up the scattered books and piling them back up on the edges of the table. "Hades is dark, and mysterious magic is a mystery. Come on, you guys, you have to step it up!"

Toni had come around to help her pick the books up. Buffy ignored her as much as possible, abandoning many of the books she was about to reach for as Toni seemed to deliberately go for them too.

"We thought perhaps that with your early magic and good knowledge of the underworld combined with Willow's immense power there would be a way to retrieve Faith," Toni said.

Marco turned to her and smiled softly, suddenly looking older if only around the eyes. "Have you not already asked me this question before? You of all people should know that there is no magic on earth that can pull a soul from the underworld without the express permission of Hades, or Zeus himself."

Toni hung her head, mumbling, "I just thought, with the two of you..."

"Magic can assist but it can not do the hard work. You know that. There are sacrifices to be made, prices to be paid."

"I'll pay the price." Buffy said at once. "I'll pay any price."

Marco spun on his butt to face her. His attitude was growing cocky again but he regarded her thoughtfully before he answered.

"Even if the price was your own life? Or mine? Or Ms Rosenberg's?"

"For Faith's safe return I am happy to pay with your life," Troy said.

"Thank you, Master." Marco bowed low again with no hint of sarcasm.

"But we're not paying with Willow's!" Xander said quickly. "I love Faith as much as the next person who tried to choke me to death but we can't start going all 'life for a life' to get her back."

"Of course we're not! Faith would never forgive us anyway. She doesn't want any more blood on her hands."

"It's okay, I have another way!" Dawn was the only one still with a book on her lap and she ran her finger over a page. "I just found this passage in ancient Sumerian, and if I'm translating it right, we can get a soul back from the underworld by reading out this incantation. We just have to go down to the bottom of these caves in Turkey at midnight." She smiled, pleased with herself.

"It doesn't work," Toni said quietly.

"Oh." Dawn deflated again and closed the book with a snap.

"Well, we'll find something soon," Giles said with meager optimism now. "We just have to keep..."

"Wait, go back a minute." From Kennedy's tone Buffy already knew she wasn't going to like what came next. "How do you know all this?"

Dawn shrugged. "Giles thinks I have an affinity for dead languages."

"Not you," Kennedy said impatiently and pointed at Toni. "Her."

"It's not relevant," Buffy muttered. "Can we move on please?"

"How do you know it's not relevant? Because it sounds to me as if Toni has had some experience with this. And, no offense, but she's kept some pretty big secrets from you before."

"This isn't a secret," Buffy said, glancing at Toni. "I already know about it."

"Then shouldn't we all know?" Willow asked. "I mean, if it will help Faith."

"It won't help Faith," Buffy said.

"It might," said Marco, looking thoughtful again.

"It is a different situation," Toni said to him. "She is in Tartarus."

"I think that we should still be in possession of all of the facts," Giles said to her and Kennedy backed him up with some firm nodding.

"It's up to Toni," Buffy said, only half-looking at her.

Toni was looking back at her though, and despite her initial hesitation, she seemed set on a decision. She faced Kennedy instead of Giles and stared her down before she started speaking.

"When my ex died I went to Hades to retrieve her soul. I was successful in bringing her back to life."

Well, it was the really abridged version but Buffy could see from everyone's expressions that they were still shocked. She wasn't surprised. They all hardly knew Toni; they didn't even know she was a Goddess or that she was older than she looked.

"You went to Hades?" Dawn began. "Wasn't that really scary?"

"Very much so." Toni nodded solemnly. "And Faith is not in Hades, but Tartarus. It is much more dangerous."

"So, useless information," Buffy summed up. "Wouldn't you say, Troy? I mean you're the expert on that, right?"

He sneered at her. "Perhaps not. Toni was able to travel there to rescue her one true love..."

He said those three little words as if he was trying to imply that Toni didn't love her as much as she had loved Helena. Maybe she didn't, but it was still too much. If she really believed Toni didn't feel so strongly about her it would have made the growing distance between them easier.

"...you could always do the same," he continued.

"No!" Toni shouted, so abruptly several people in the kitchen jumped. "Do not put such ideas into her head!"

Buffy stood up silently, as stunned as everyone else at Toni's sudden anger with her best friend. The two of them had been tight since arriving in Cleveland, partly because of their dual responsibility in Faith's fate, but mostly, Buffy felt, because she was spending so little time with Toni; except at night.

"Is that possible?"

Troy was watching Toni carefully. "In theory."

She turned to Marco next. "Is it or not?"

"Buffy, no!" Toni said, angry with her now.

"Stay out of it," she snapped.

Marco grinned and stood up on the table. "The saying 'Love can conquer all', where do you think it came from?"

She'd never thought about it before so she shrugged.

"Love is the strongest of all conditions. It can survive time, distance, illness and disease, war, even death! If you believe in it enough. If you have...faith!"

"If I had Faith we wouldn't be having this discussion. Now tell me what I have to do to get her."

"There is only one way to win a soul from the underworld. You must pass the trials."

"What trials?"

"The trials begin the moment you decide to enter the realm of Hades," Troy explained.

"And what do these trials involve?" Giles asked.

Troy shrugged. "Whatever Hades decides they will be."

"You can not do this, Buffy. You will die. It was dangerous enough for me! A human will not survive. Even if you are a Slayer," Toni added, preempting her argument. "And the trials never end! I did not know this before I began my quest, but it is true. Rescuing Faith will not be the end. You will face ordeal after ordeal forever."

Buffy finally turned to her. "But how can I not try? If it's the only way, I have to."

"Is it the only way?" Willow asked Marco. "I mean, are you sure there isn't some kind of spell that will...?"

"This is the only way. There are very strict rules governing entry into Hades. Magical means will be detected at once and repelled in one unpleasant way or another."

"Okay, so we go in on foot," said Kennedy, gearing herself up for some slayage. "We take a dozen squads, fully armed. Fight our way through these trials to Faith and back."

"You will all be slaughtered painfully!" Toni obviously thought the time for subtlety was passed.

"We're trained, we know what we're doing," Kennedy shot back.

"Slaughtered, painfully," Toni reiterated. "Half of you will be cut down as soon as you walk through the gate, the other half...you will be teased and taunted, led in circles and confused, until you forget you are even looking for Faith - you will be too busy trying to survive yourselves!"

"Is it really that bad?" Dawn asked, a fearful note to her voice.

Toni looked at her sympathetically. The two of them had never really bonded but right now Toni was gazing at her sister with at least as much compassion as Riley had ever shown her.

"That is my experience from Hades. I imagine the quest to find Faith in Tartarus will be far worse."

"Sorry, totally not knocking your Underworld experience here." Xander sat forward over a pile of books. "But if it's so bad, how did you make it out alive?"

"She's a Goddess," Buffy muttered.

Xander's eye - and several others - went wide. He grinned, leeringly. "Well, that explains the out-of-this-world hotness. Buffy...kudos."

Buffy threw a pink leather bookmark at him irritably.

Toni smirked but dealt with the question seriously. "I survived because I went in alone and I knew what pitfalls to avoid. Troy had Marco cloak me as far as he could, which helped initially and when I found Helena's soul I just had to come back the other way. I knew what to expect then, of course."

"You make it sound simple enough," Kennedy said.

Toni shook her head. "Nothing about it was simple. Even cloaked I had to dodge dangers constantly to not call attention to myself. On the way back I was not cloaked and I had Helena's soul to protect; it was even more perilous."

"I can do it."

Buffy took a step back as Toni turned to her alarmingly fast.

"You will not!"

"You don't get a say in this anymore."

"I get every say in this when you are about to throw you life away for her!"

Buffy stepped forward threateningly. "If it wasn't for you I wouldn't have to!"

Toni held her ground and seemed to forget everyone else was in the room. "I wish you would just hit me and get this over with. Just hit me! Do whatever you need to do to get this anger out of you so that we can..."

Buffy growled as she pushed Toni's away. Willow, Xander and Giles all stood up but Toni only had to take couple of steps back.

"You can't get this anger out of me. You can't... You're..." Buffy took another step closer, even raised her fist, but with another barely human growl turned away and stepped into Troy's face. "Tell me how to get there!"

Troy stared her down, and while it made her insides quail in a way she wasn't all that used to, she held her stance.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes!"

"Troy, don't!" Toni tried to get between them and Buffy pushed her away again. "You know she will not survive."

Troy looked to Marco. "Can you get her in?"

"Yes, but it would be suicide. As a human she would be recognized immediately. You, my sire, would stand more chance."

"That's settled then," Kennedy said. "Troy can go. Why wasn't this our first choice?"

Buffy had to admit she had a hell of a point.

Marco soon quashed that hope. "A soul can only be saved from Hades by love."

"So Troy's perfect," Xander said. "He loves Faith." When silence met his words, he added. "Right? I mean, you were marrying her. You must love her."

Troy looked at him. "I care for her but..."

"You don't love her!" Willow accused. "It was all about the miracle baby!"

Buffy rolled her eyes, amazed that it had taken them this long to catch up, but then, to be fair she had never really been completely sure of his feelings either.

"So that just leaves me," she said. "I'm the only one who can go and get her."

"You will die," Toni said wearily. She was sat back at the table now, not looking at anyone and especially not Buffy. "You will die the second you set foot in there."

"And what if I don't!"

"Then you will die the moment you set foot in Tartarus. You cannot believe the torment you will face there, Buffy. Love alone will not be enough."

"Buffy, I understand your urgency," Giles said, coming to her side. "But perhaps we should wait. See if our research comes up with a better solution."

"Yeah." Dawn and Xander both backed him up.

Buffy looked to Willow. Instead of answering, Willow looked to Marco. They started discussing a bunch of magical terms that went straight over her head. She kept her eyes on them though, better than looking at anyone who might actually be looking back, but her focus was inward - on Faith and what she might be going through at exactly that moment.

It was Marco who eventually addressed her. "We can get you in. It will take a lot of dark power but between us we can do it."

"Good." Then she felt guilty. "Dark power, Will? I don't want to..."

"It's okay," Willow assured her. "It's kinda dangerous, but Marco will take the dark side. I should be okay."

Buffy knew she should have said a flat no at that. 'Should be okay' wasn't enough, if Willow wasn't positively going to be okay then she shouldn't even have entertained the idea of going ahead, but... Faith was in hell! And she couldn't think straight beyond that.

Toni could though. She stood up fast, her chair falling over and hitting the floor with a loud bang that made people jump again.

"This is insane! You send Buffy to hell and she dies! How is that helpful?"

"What do you suggest?" Troy shouted, so loud it made things rattle. "Do you have a better idea, Antonella?"

"Si, I will go!"

Troy took a step back, his whole body seeming to sag in surprise. "You do not want to do that."

"Of course I do not! But it is the only way."

Buffy didn't even know what to say. Her mouth kept opening - and she was sure there were words behind her lips - and closing again without saying anything.

"Why?" she finally whispered.

"How?" Kennedy asked, louder. "I thought it had to be someone who loved her. Last time I tuned in you hated Faith with a fiery passion."

When Toni didn't answer, Marco did. "The retrieval can only be done for love."

Buffy didn't fail to notice he was looking at Toni with a great deal of respect.

"But...but...Troy loves his...you know, unborn son," Willow said. "Shouldn't that count?"

Troy turned to Willow with heartbroken resignation in his eyes. "It is the wrong kind. It has to be the passionate bond of two intertwining souls. A parent's love for their child is not deemed enough to surpass such boundaries as life and death."

"Then how can Toni do it?" asked Dawn. "Color me confused but I didn't know Toni felt that way about Faith."

"I don't." Toni's eyes locked on Buffy's.

Buffy stared back. "But she loves me."

"Si."

"I can't let you do it."

"And I can't let you do it; and I have better reasons."

"I'm still confused," Xander held up his hand. "How does Toni loving Buffy make her an ideal candidate?"

Toni finally tore her eyes from Buffy to look at him. "Technically, my love will act as a conduit between Buffy's soul and Faith's. It should work because I am still bringing Faith back for my lover. The passionate bond will be intact through the chain."

"Heh," Kennedy had the audacity to chuckle. "Bet you never thought your sordid little love triangle would lead to this, huh Buff?"

"Of course, this is providing I do not die," Toni added flippantly.

That spurred Buffy's vocal chords back into action. "You can't put yourself in that danger."

"Do you really care?" Toni glared at her. "If it gets Faith back?"

"Yes I care!"

Buffy turned on her heel and left the kitchen. She knew storming out was less than mature, not to mention unhelpful. They still had so much to sort out, other ways to look for in case this one didn't work either, but she just needed to get away from the kitchen for five minutes. Actually that wasn't true; she needed to get away from Toni before she did... something!

So it really didn't help her mood any when Toni followed her up the stairs. She bit her tongue, growing more furious, walking faster and faster until she was jogging down the hallways to her bedroom. Toni's longer legs gave her no trouble in keeping up.

She slammed the door open, caught it and threw it closed again.

"Fuck!" Toni yelled as the door slammed against her face.

Buffy turned, startled by the loud curse. When there was nothing but wounded silence to follow she smirked. Maybe that would teach her to back... She stumbled back as the door was violently kicked open.

Toni loomed there - her extra few inches really working for her today - looking every bit the vengeful Goddess. The only thing about her that didn't scream 'Die, feeble mortal, die!" was her nose, bright red from being smacked with the solid wooden door, and the way she was trying to rub the sting out of it kind of ruined the rest of the effect.

"Get out!" Buffy demanded.

"What in Jupiter's name is your problem now?"

Buffy clenched her jaw, not even listening to her. "Get out of my room!"

Toni swept further in. "It is our room. You invited me to live with you, if you remember?"

"That was before..." Buffy stopped. She was not getting pulled into an argument she wasn't ready to have. "Just give me some time alone then."

"You do not have time to mope, Buffy."

"I'm not moping, I'm... fuming! What right do you have to just assume that I would ever want you to...Haven't you made things bad enough without having to try and make them even worse?"

Toni shook her head. "I am trying to make things better. You descending into the realm of Hades is not an option. I am your only chance. Why can you not accept that?"

"So I have two girlfriends in hell instead of one! How can that be an option? How is that better?"

"Do not do that!" Toni pointed a threatening finger. "Do not pretend we still have something."

"I'm not pretending." Buffy smacked the finger out of her face; and dammit, she was getting sucked into this. She needed to step away, calm herself, throw Toni out of the window, anything to stop herself from saying something she would regret. "Just because we have problems the size of Heaven and Hell combined doesn't mean I don't still..."

Toni abruptly interrupted her. "We should not be having this conversation at this time."

Buffy couldn't agree more but she was emotionally invested now; something she had been desperately trying to avoid; hence the cold-shoulder she'd had turned to Toni ever since the flight home.

"Why not?"

Toni's voice was shaky. "You have made it quite clear that I am no longer your girlfriend."

"I have not!" Clear wasn't a word she would use to describe any of her thoughts; except the persistent need to get Faith back. "How could I when I don't even know what we are now?"

"Explain to me how we can be anything when you cannot forgive me for being a part of Troy's quest."

Buffy shook her head, stepping closer, her voice softening. "I can forgive you for that. I already have. I can't hold against you the decisions you made centuries before we met. You made a mistake and when you realized the damage you were causing you tried to make things right. I...I love you for that."

"Then why is there this distance?" Toni reached between them to stroke her cheek with the backs of her knuckles and Buffy moved her head to the side, away. "Why will you not let me touch you?"

Buffy held her eyes for the longest time. This was better kept to herself. Saying it would just hurt them both and it would be out there, impossible to take back. It needed to come out though; she couldn't take Toni looking at her like that any more. Not when it caused such a hectic mix of guilt, anger, lust and loss to swirl inside of her. It was taking up too much energy. Energy that Faith, who really was lost and alone, deserved to have spent on her.

So she blurted, "I love you but I will never forgive you for stopping the wedding."

Toni stared at her blankly for a moment. "I did that for you. So that you could be happy."

"I know."

"If I had not done so, Troy and Faith would now be tied together in eternal matrimony."

"And Faith would be honeymooning in paradise right now instead of laboring in the darkest recesses of hell."

Toni slowly nodded. "I understand. Goodbye, Buffy."

Buffy stood there with her arms held out incredulously as Toni turned and walked out of the room.

"That's it? I finally inject some truth into our relationship and you storm out all dramatically!"

Not that she was particularly stormy, Toni's steps were steady, nearly dragging, and she was barely out of the door yet.

"Hey!" Buffy caught her up in the hallway and slipped around her, forcing her to stop. "We were not done talking."

"There is nothing else to say at this time. Excuse me."

"No! I still have stuff to s..."

Toni grasped her upper arms and pushed her back against the wall. Her mouth, open to protest, was suddenly aware of the presence of a tongue other than her own and although she was objecting very loudly in her head, her lips didn't seem to mind the unexpected assault so much, not if their eager compliance had anything to do with it. With her arms held as they were and Toni's chest soft and firm against her own, the best resistance she could manage was a feeble pushing at Toni's stomach with her awkwardly trapped hands. As Toni slowly licked along her tongue and pressed a thigh high between her legs, the pushing instinctively became gripping Toni's top and pulling.

When Toni tore her mouth away they were both breathless and wanting more.

"Do you still want me to stay and talk?" Toni sneered.

Finally able to bring her hands up, Buffy pushed her back hard. "Get the hell away from me!"

"I intend to do exactly that at once."

"Good."

Toni continued her way down the corridor and Buffy followed a few steps behind.

"Troy was correct, you are an insufferable woman."

"And Faith was right, you're a...a..." she was too angry to think of any long words right now. "...bitch."

Toni turned around to laugh sarcastically in her face. "And Faith is an ignorant, boorish, pathetically stupid, selfish whore."

"Don't you dare..."

Buffy got in her face and it was infuriating the way Toni pushed her back with so much ease.

"I am a Goddess, Buffy, there is very little that I dare not do."

"Actually, you're just a demi-goddess," Buffy shot back.

Surprisingly, Toni laughed and turned to walk down the stairs. "It will be such a pleasure to finally walk away from you."

"Not as much pleasure as I'll get from watching you go."

Toni chuckled. "I imagine so."

"That was not a reference to your ass!" Her eyes automatically dropped to the area in question.

"You are staring at it right now!"

"You're right in front of me!" She winced; it really would have been better to just lie.

"Admit it; you are only angry because despite the fact that you can never forgive me, despite the fact that all of your attention should be on Faith, the only thing you can think of right now is having sex with me."

There were three reasons why Buffy told the truth this time. They were nearly in the kitchen and even though the majority of their argument had probably carried downstairs, she wanted to wrap this up now rather than continue it in plain sight of her family. She was flustered and angry from the kiss on the landing and felt like her attention was already being pulled in too many directions at once; she could barely concentrate on what was right in front of her - still Toni's ass, by the way! - let alone start another bundle of lies she would have to keep track of. Mostly though, she knew on some level it would hurt Toni far more than denying it would and right now, when she was doing her best not to take out her fury out on Toni physically, she would welcomingly accept any emotional or verbal barb into her arsenal.

She caught her shoulder, spun her around, pressed her up against the wall by the kitchen door and brought their lips within an inch of each others.

"I do want you," she whispered. "I want you so bad it hurts. I want to walk with you and laugh with you, watch crappy TV with you and snuggle on the couch with you. I want to hide under the covers with you and hold you and break down in front of you and spill all of this crap that is ripping apart my heart. I want to kiss you and fuck you and love you and... I can't."

Letting go, Buffy stepped back, but she still spoke quietly. "I can't do any of that. Not when Faith's..." her voice broke a little, "...where she is. I can't let myself think about you, I can't concentrate on you and you don't have the right to expect me to. So yes, right now I'm thinking about having sex with you - and that's why I want you gone as far away as humanly... as Goddessly possible from me - so that I don't have to think about you any more."

Toni's eyes were heavy with sadness by the time she had finished her speech and Buffy would not look at that tear rolling slowly down her cheek; she would not! Toni wiped it away with the back of her hand and moved out from between her and the wall.

"This is the first time I have wished I had never met you."

"Really?" Buffy kept her voice as steady as possible. "Because I've wished that a lot."

"You will not have to suffer my tempting presence any longer," Toni spat sarcastically. "I will be gone at once."

"Good."

Toni pushed her way through the swing door to the kitchen. Everyone looked up, smiling, as if they hadn't just been listening discreetly to their argument.

"I will be the one to go to Hades," Toni announced.

"No way, that wasn't what we agreed. You're getting gone," Buffy gestured at the back door. "I'm going to rescue Faith."

"We can not agree on anything any more and if you wish to see your precious Faith again you will let me do this."

"And what if you fail? I lose both of you? No!"

"You have already lost both of us."

"Then why... why?"

Toni chuckled humorlessly at her honest confusion. "I am doing this because I would rather face the beasts of hell than spend another second in your company. You think this is so hard for you? I have no one else to concentrate on. I only have you, Buffy, I only want you." Her gaze trailed lingeringly down Buffy's body before their eyes met again. "And I can't stop thinking about having sex with you either."

Buffy went mildly red. Not really red, it wasn't like she blushed the color of a damn fire truck or anything, or okay, maybe a little. So much for having this conversation behind closed doors. Now everyone knew how screwed up she was.

"This should be my fight," she said quietly. "I should be the one to go down there and save Faith."

"This is not a fairytale." Toni scoffed. "But if it makes you feel better... If you tell me again not to go, I won't."

"Toni," Troy began softly, his voice was urgent but he seemed to be trying hard not to come across as pushy. "You are Faith's only hope."

"I know that. Buffy knows that deep down." Their intense staring match never wavered. "But if she tells me she would rather I stay safe here with her than go and save Faith, I will do so."

"You..." Buffy's voice was so low it was practically a growl and she couldn't finish the sentence because there wasn't a word bad enough to do it justice - not one that she would use in front of Giles and her little sister anyway.

"So, my love, do you wish for me to stay out of harm or would you prefer Faith's safe return?"

"Fine, go," she choked out, seeing her dream-self standing beside the altar, slamming that sacred dagger down into Toni's heart. "I don't care where anymore. I just need you not near me."

"Please," Toni sniffed back the threat of more tears and turned to Marco, "open the portals so that I may be rid of this torture once and for all."

"I will begin right away, but..." The ancient boy shrugged apologetically. "Even with Ms Rosenberg and myself working together, it will be a week or more before all of the gateways are fully open; and we'll need your essence to remain here while we do it."

"She has to stay here for another week?" Buffy asked, horrified.

"I cannot do that!" Toni insisted at the same time.

As they glared at each other, Buffy cringed inside, thinking of the things they had said and the torment that was likely to come.

"Shit!" she muttered.

"Merda!" Toni agreed.


Chapter Three

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Part Twelve Quick-Jump:

Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven Chapter Eight


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