PART TWELVE: 5th October 2004 - 25th November 2004
Chapter Five: The Ten Trials of Truth, Faith and Destiny (...and Toni!)
Part i : Do Not Disturb!
From the shallow depression where the cages were grouped the land they had to cross gave the impression that it was nice and flat. The impression was false, it was in fact very rocky and uneven. Ordinarily it would pose Toni no problem but she was exhausted and caught her booted feet regularly, nearly tripping. A few paces behind, Faith had eventually taken off her heeled wedding shoes finding it easier without, but Toni heard her quiet grunts of pain as she scraped her toes or the jagged edges dug into her bare soles.
"How much further?" Faith asked after a while.
"A long way," Toni said regretfully, although she was mostly just thinking of her own discomfort it was true.
"I need to pee."
"Yeah! Gotta a problem with it?"
"Si! You squatting every ten minutes is going to draw attention to us."
"I thought we were invisible."
"For the moment, but we've already used more of the potion than we should have."
"I need to go."
Toni stopped and looked around. There was nothing visibly threatening that she could see.
"Not here, there's nothing to go behind."
"No one can see you," Toni reminded her. "You're invisible."
"You can see me!"
Toni turned her back in exasperation. "I never knew you were so bashful."
"I've never been this fat and awkward before."
Toni impatiently listened to her pee. When the patter against the hard rock had stopped she turned back around.
"At least wait for me to get my underwear back up, perve," Faith griped.
Toni rolled her eyes. "Please, like I would ever wish to perve on you."
"Wouldn't put it past you."
Toni ignored her grumbling and started to walk again. Faith could catch up when she was ready. While they were invisible she wasn't too concerned with having to protect the Slayer. That would come after they had used the last of the potion, something that was going to happen a lot sooner than she wished.
Dawn had said they had enough to last the two of them for the journey out of Tartarus but when Willow was working out the dosage, they hadn't known exactly how long it would take Toni to reach Faith across the smoky pit. The constant darkness meant that she wasn't at all sure how long it had taken herself - two or three days, maybe even a little longer - but she knew that thanks to Faith's condition they were making the return journey more slowly.
On top of that they had obviously miscalculated Faith's weight. While her arms and legs looked half-emaciated, stringy muscle vividly defined under the bone-stretched skin and her face had lost its softness to become hard and angular, the plumpness of her belly belied the rest of her. The baby inside seemed to be growing healthily, greedily taking everything it needed from the rest of Faith's gaunt body.
"When did you last eat?"
"Dunno. Yesterday maybe. They threw meat in from the start but I figured it was probably human so I didn't touch it." Faith was quiet for a long moment while they picked their way over the rock. "Then I got too hungry not to," she murmured.
Toni thought about that. "The humans down here are already dead; their flesh wouldn't have sustained you. It must have been beast meat."
Faith gave a shaky laugh of relief behind her.
Toni hadn't meant to console her and added, "The meat of demon beasts."
"Gross as that is, still better, yunno."
Toni tried to work out how different Faith's body mass might be with the baby. Would it be a big difference or not? She cursed herself for not mentioning this possibility to Willow, but she had been too caught up in her own preparation - and Buffy - to think of such things. Ah, Buffy, how she longed to see her now! Even a glimpse in a dream would be something but she could not remember the last time she slept or imagine that the next time would be soon.
Troy should have been thinking of such things though. It was his child putting them all in greater danger. He should have been thinking of nothing else and working with Willow to ensure her sums were correct instead of moping over the loss of Faith every day.
Wasn't it enough that Buffy had already been doing that?
She shook that cruel thought away - it wouldn't help her here. She suspected they still had enough potion to see them all of the way across Tartarus providing they could keep at the pace she was setting and stopped for nothing but Faith's frequent bathroom breaks.
As if just to be difficult, Faith suddenly said, "I need to sleep." Her voice sounded distant.
Toni turned. Faith was distant. Twenty steps behind her and getting slower.
"We do not have time to rest."
"I'm not saying it's a good plan, I'm just saying I need to do it." Faith was fifteen paces behind now. "Just an hour of shut-eye and I'll be good to go again."
Toni took in her drooping form, the way her bare feet scuffed the uncompromising rock more and more and relented. It would do her no good if Faith collapsed.
"Okay." She spied a deeper crevice than most in the rocky terrain and made her way to it. "You can sleep down there and I will keep watch."
Faith was ten steps away now and changed her course to meet Toni. "'Preciate it."
Busy watching Faith, Toni startled so badly when the sky-rending screech came from directly behind her that she threw herself over the rocks in front of her without any coherent thought.)
She scrabbled further away, feeling her knees scrape and cut on the uneven surface as she turned and saw three long serpentine necks rising out of the crack in the ground. It was obviously a lot deeper than she had thought. Their heads were dizzyingly high, waving cobra-like as two out of the three screeched again, hurting her ears.
"Get down!" she yelled to Faith as, through her fear, she forced herself to half-crawl, half-jump further away over the rocks.
With the sound of a giant blow torch, one of the heads issued a long billow of flame and a boulder just a few feet away super-heated until it glowed pink-white in the darkness.
Under the high-pitched screeching she could hear the thud of Faith's feet beating rock as she ran closer.
"Get do..." she began again but Faith was beside her before she could finish.
"What the fuck is that?"
She couldn't tell if Faith recognized the name or was just too freaked to care. "Okay, well let's get the fuck away from it."
"We have to go around it."
"Yeah, well, I'm all for that." Faith tugged at her arm. "Come on!"
"Have you seen the length of its necks?" Toni demanded. "We will have to go a miles out of our way!"
"I thought we were invisible."
"We are, but it can sense us."
Faith thought for a moment, watching the beast's heads sway. "Can only shoot three flames at once. Long as it can't see us we can avoid them, right?" Even as she spoke another two heads reared up into the smoky darkness. "Shit!"
"It has four more," Toni said, curiously detached as she tried to think.
"Nine heads?" Faith asked incredulously. "Who the fuck needs nine heads?"
Toni chuckled darkly. "No one. I will go and teach it that." She gripped the broadsword in both hands and stood up.
"Are you fuckin' crazy? I'm not gonna let you get killed." Faith grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down. Surprised by her concern, Toni let herself be. "I don't know the fuckin' way out of here."
Toni rolled her eyes at her mistake. "Then how do you suggest we proceed?"
"How do you kill it?"
"You cut through all of its necks."
"All nine of them?" Faith checked.
Toni rolled her eyes again. "Si."
"Okay." Faith rolled her shoulders. "Then give me the sword."
"Do not be foolish."
"I'm the Slayer around here."
"I am stronger than you right now."
"Yeah, I seriously doubt..."
Without looking away from the Hydra, Toni gave Faith's chest a push. There was a tiny bit of resistance before she tipped onto her back.
"Be quiet! It can probably hear us."
Before Faith had righted herself, Toni picked up a rock and hurled it towards the head furthest away. She was up and running for the closest point as it reacted to the missile. With a double handed stroke she cut clean through one neck. The other four heads made a quick appearance and she only just missed being toasted. Being burned alive probably wouldn't kill her, but she didn't want to find out. Another head seared some rock just to the side of her. As it took a second to suck in more breath with which to ignite its flame ducts, she darted in and sliced through that neck.
As she did so she saw the first stump regrow before her eyes. It stunned her enough that another head had the chance to ram into her. That stunned her even more. She was thrown level with but ten feet away from Faith and lay on the stony ground, clutching at the pain in her chest.
She heard the sound of slapping feet again and then Faith crouched beside her. "You gonna live?"
"Probably," she groaned.
"Never thought I'd be happy about that," Faith said as she helped her sit up.
"I had forgotten it could regenerate in such a manner." Toni struggled to her feet. "I will not forget again."
Seeing the determination in her eyes, Faith picked her up. Toni struggled but was carried a dozen feet away before Faith had to put her down again. She fell over wheezing but kept one hand on Toni to stop her doing anything stupid while she recovered.
"I'm not gonna let you kill yourself. B would never forgive me."
"Buffy cares only for you," Toni did not even try to keep the bitter note out of her voice.
"Yeah?" Faith got to her own feet, brushing blood and debris from her hands and knees. "Then even more reason for me to stop you dying before you get me out of here."
Two sheets of flame came from opposite heads, scorching the ground in front of them and they both froze until the rock became so hot they had to backstep in time.
"We go around?" Faith asked.
"The invisibility potion will run out too soon."
"Not like it's doing us any favors now."
Faith was right. Waiting until the Hydra slept, if it ever did, could take as long as going around.
"Okay. That way," she said, pointing slightly behind and to the right of where they were standing.
Faith let go of her and started to make her way awkwardly over the uneven surface again.
"Do you still need to sleep?" Toni asked.
"Strangely, not so much now."
Part ii : Unnatural Nature
The detour, however unavoidable, was a bad idea. Toni realized that as soon as the scenery began to change. For hours after leaving the Hydra behind - the hiss and screech of its nine heads still audible in the distance - the terrain had remained rocky and lifeless. That had been familiar, it was what she had crossed on her way in and while it all looked the same she had been confident they could circle the monster and find their way back to the cliff face with veritable ease.
She had been mistaken. In the perpetual smoky darkness without the aid of moon or stars she had gone wrong somewhere, taken a left at the third geyser of scalding, yellow steam instead of the forth perhaps.
She had gazed around helplessly as the ground began to change from dry to damp, having no idea what to do for the best.
"You got us fuckin' lost, didn't you?" Faith sneered behind her.
"No," she said coldly, and pressed onwards with false confidence.
That had been perhaps thirty minutes ago. Toni sighed as she looked down at the rock she was standing on. Rock was a kind name for it, she supposed, large, uneven pebble would have been more accurate. The water, lapping around just a few inches below her feet, gurgled.
"We're in the middle of a swamp." Faith pointed out conversationally from the stepping stone behind her.
"I'd noticed," Toni muttered, judging the distance of the next stone.
"Are we supposed to be in the middle of a swamp?" Toni didn't answer. "I thought you said you'd seen a map of this place?"
Toni steadied herself and then made the three foot jump, landing on the next big pebble with easy grace. "I said I have seen a faded copy of a very imprecise map."
Faith waited a beat and then repeated slowly, "So you've seen a fuckin' map. How the hell did you manage to fuck up and get us lost?"
Toni twirled on the stone to face her. "I am sorry that my attempt at rescuing you isn't quite to your satisfaction. Would you like me to stop and ask directions of someone? Perhaps that tree can point us back on the right path. Or, seeing as you think you are obviously so much cleverer than me, why don't you tell me which way to go."
Faith shrugged lightly. "I wasn't the one who saw the map. If I had, damn straight I'd be doing a better job at going in the right direction."
"We were going in the right direction! You were the one who insisted on detouring to avoid the Hydra."
"You were the one who wanted me to sleep in the Hydra's bed!"
It was slightly off-topic but Toni had been waiting for it to come up. "I did not know it was down there!"
"Yeah, let's see how much water that holds when I tell B how her girlfriend tried to feed me to a monster."
Toni was about to make a retort when Faith finally made the leap to the stone she'd vacated. Its uneven face was coated with slimy green moss and Faith had to pinwheel her arms and then crouch to stay on it. Toni laughed and turned to pick the next stone out of the watery gloom.
"Yeah, just laugh why don'tcha," Faith grumbled. "Only feels like I'm jumping around with a fuckin' sandbag strapped to my gut. No big deal."
"Sorry, would you like me to hold your hand until the scary part is over?"
"Want me to hold your throat?"
Toni jumped nimbly to the next stone. "You can try but I would prefer it if you did not make me hit a pregnant woman."
That had the desired effect of shutting Faith up. The slayer followed: quiet, morose and clumsy. Despite her show of indifference Toni watched her make each jump in case she was needed to leap back and steady her balance. Faith managed alone but their progress was slow.
"How deep is this water anyway?"
Toni looked over her shoulder to see Faith peering curiously into the mire. It was as dark as before, as dark as it always was, but here in the humid swamp things glowed with a sickly green luminescence. Even the surface of the murky water seemed to have a shimmering lime skin. It flooded the area with an alien daylight, allowing them to pick out the stepping stones and make out solitary trees, thick with dripping vines, rising into the mist. So far there was no sign of dry land in the distance.
Toni focused on getting to a point where there was and jumped to the next stone. "I do not know."
"Then how do you know we can't just wade through it?" Faith asked. "Be quicker than this."
Toni smiled grimly. "If you think that is a better idea why don't you try it and see."
"No!" Toni spun to face her, for the first time nearly losing her balance. Faith was standing with one foot hanging in thin air, obviously about to dip it into the water. "That would be a very unwise thing to do."
Faith didn't retract her foot yet. "Why?"
"Faith, have you ever dipped your finger into sulfuric acid?"
"No. Licked a strip of LSD once though, does that count?"
"You sure? 'Cause the last couple of months have felt kinda like a bad trip."
Toni smiled; she could only too well imagine that. "The water here will likely strip your flesh to the bone."
Faith went quiet again and Toni jumped to the next stone. She was gauging the distance to the next when she realized that Faith still hadn't moved. She looked behind to see her balanced very carefully on her small rock, staring at the water.
"Are you coming?"
"You can not stay there."
"At least here I ain't dissolving!"
Toni watched her impatiently for a long moment but Faith really didn't seem prepared to move. "I am not waiting indefinitely!"
"You're gonna have to."
"No I do not. Buffy made me promise that if I could not help you then I was to make sure that I, at least, resurfaced." She leapt to the next stone and called back. "I will pass on your regrets that you were unable to join me. I am sure she will understand, better than I, why your fear of a little acidic water prevented you from seeing her again."
"A little acidic water?" Faith muttered.
A second later Toni heard the Slayer's breath hitch as she made the next leap between stones. She smiled because her ploy had worked but she would have been happier if Faith had stayed on her rock forever, leaving her to really go back to Buffy alone. It would hurt her deeply to see Buffy so distressed over Faith's failure to return but on the other hand, she knew exactly who Buffy would turn to for comfort and a lifetime of second best was better than being pushed out of Buffy's world entirely.
It would have left her with more of the invisibility potion for herself too.
"I can't believe you were gonna let me put my foot in that!" Faith fumed as she jumped again, bringing her back to just one stone behind.
It would also have been extremely pleasant to leave all of her complaining behind in the swamp once and for all. "I stopped you from doing that."
"You encouraged me first! What if I had been quicker? That's twice you've tried to kill me and don't think I ain't keeping a tally for B."
Ignoring her now, for her own sanity, Toni steadily made her way from stone to stone. Eventually the tall trees rising out of the bog grew closer together and the stones gave way to broader, tufty mounds of moss and weeds.
The last leap was a long one, eight feet at least. Luckily Toni was able to get a three step running start and landed squarely with both feet on the slimy slope of the bank. She slipped downwards but was able to catch her balance. The thick, stinking mud sucked at her boots as she staggered up to level ground.
She turned to see Faith still judging the jump she had to make. "You can do..."
"I know I can fuckin' do it." Faith's anger was still over-riding her fear and she threw herself in the direction of the bank with only a one-step run up.
She cleared the water but her bare feet were able to find less traction than Toni's boots and her heavy belly upset her usual centre of balance. She fell forwards onto thighs and forearms, slithering down the steep slope towards the dangerous water.
Toni moved so fast she surprised herself. Leaping back off of the bank she landed at the bottom of the slope, catching Faith's ankles an inch before her toes got wet. She gave a sigh of relief, taking the second Faith needed to get to her hands and knees to let the sudden flash of fear soaked adrenaline seep away.
"Scopata!" she cried out in pain as the water lapped higher with the disturbance, leaking through the eyelets of her boots and sloshing over one ankle.
She cursed and scrambled her way back up the bank, tears filling her eyes as the stinging grew more intense.
"What the hell happened?" Faith was already at the top, breathing hard from her own fright.
Toni didn't answer as she sat next to Faith and pulled off her boots and socks. There were small blisters on both feet but the ankle that had taken the drenching was the most horrible. It was red raw and just looking at it made the pain feel so much worse. Instead of screaming she forced herself to breathe through it.
Faith had a look. "Shit!" Toni nodded. "You gonna lose your foot?"
Toni shook her head but continued only to breathe for another minute before she answered. "My body will fight the acid faster than yours would have been able to. It will prevent the burn from becoming more severe. I will need a while to heal however."
"Good, 'cause I need a breather after that." Faith flopped down onto her back, holding her swollen stomach with one hand.
"Your concern is overwhelming." Faith just grunted in reply. "And now we are two-one and be sure I am keeping a tally for Buffy also."
Her only answer was a loud snore. Toni turned to her companion to find Faith fast asleep, one hand still holding her stomach protectively. She rolled her eyes and then looked around. It was too open here for nap time but she could see nor feel no presence other than Faith's. It would do no harm to let her sleep for a while and at least Toni could have a moment's peace.
She looked down at her ankle again, biting back a whimper at the sight of it and wishing the pain was less so that perhaps she could take this opportunity to doze for a while too. Pulling her good foot in closer and bending her knee so that she might rest her arms there, she dropped her head to them. Closing her eyes she settled for picturing Buffy in a pink cowboy hat and green shirt, swaying drunkenly, with a smile meant only for her...
It was hard to tell unless you counted the seconds but they had probably been there a couple of hours when Faith suddenly snorted and sat upright in one brisk motion. Toni turned her head and Faith blinked at her stupidly.
"Did I fall asleep?"
"Unless you usually snore that loudly when you are awake."
Faith rose awkwardly to her feet. "How's your leg?"
Toni looked down at it. The redness had been replaced with the pinkness of new skin. "It is almost healed. I can walk now I think."
She stood too to find out and although it hurt to put weight on that foot it was nothing she could not endure. By the end of the day, whenever that might be, it would be fine. She would have to go barefoot from here though. Her socks were still wet and she imagined the insides of her boots must be too.
"I need to pee."
Faith looked around. There were plenty of trees to go behind. She didn't go too far though, just to the nearest one, which she used to lean against as she squatted with difficulty, the bump in front of her making everything she did inelegant.
Toni paced a few steps away to give her some privacy. When she turned back Faith was standing again, holding a thick dangling vine to keep herself steady, still looking exhausted despite her sleep.
"So you got any idea where we go from here?" she asked.
"No," Toni answered truthfully. "But Tartarus is a pit. I assume if we keep going in any direction we will eventually find the cliff face again."
"Fair enough. So straight on then?" Toni nodded. "Cliff face?"
"How high is this cliff face?"
Faith regarded her sceptically. When she realized it wasn't an exaggeration, she asked, "Is there rest stops on this cliff face? A motor inn maybe?"
Faith looked down at her stomach and then ran a weary hand over her face. "I don't mean to sound like a pussy, it's not like I'm scared of falling or anything, but how the fuck am I supposed to climb up a cliff like this for nine days straight?"
Toni only had one answer that might work. "Because you know Buffy will be waiting at the top."
That brought out a smile. "Really?"
"Well, not right at the top but you cannot get to where she is waiting if you do not climb."
Faith sighed but was still smiling. "How is she anyway?"
It was the first time Faith had mentioned Buffy except as ammunition. It had been almost as if she was scared to inquire after her, in case the news was unfavorable. Toni had been happy to let that continue, unwilling to divulge details that might make Faith more at ease. When asked outright she found she couldn't lie.
But she could be vague. "She is very worried for your safety."
"But she's good?"
"She is healthy." Toni noticed a slight movement in the tree Faith was leaning on. She scrutinized its vine strung branches but couldn't detect where it came from. "Are you not going to ask after Troy?"
"Troy's got that whole immortal thing goin' so I already figured he'd still be kicking." Her words, spoken lightly, sounded oddly evasive to Toni. Faith seemed to realize this. "But, uh, yeah, how's he doing?"
"He is worried for your well-being also." Something moved in the tree again. "Faith..."
"Gotta say I'm surprised he ain't the one here busting me out. Guess it's just as well though," she added with another look at her stomach.
"The rules for entering Hades are very specific." Toni had determined the source of the movement. "Faith, you must move."
"Yeah, just give me another minute."
Faith glared at her tone. "When I'm fuckin' ready!"
Her obstinacy left Toni with no choice but to throw herself at the tree. She caught the giant serpent around its throat just as its huge jaws opened up to swallow Faith's head.
Feeling the snake's body move under her hand, Faith jumped away from the tree, cursing, but its attention had already left her and was now firmly on Toni. She held its head at bay but its long body slithered out of the branches, trying to wrap around her. She danced about to avoid it, slipped, and landed on the ground, wrestling with the hellish anaconda.
"Use your sword!" Faith shouted over the hissing.
"I cannot reach my sword!" she yelled back. In fact right now it was digging painfully into her hip and thigh, making fighting the big reptile off even harder.
Faith started kicking at the snake's body; the way they were writhing around together meant that she kicked Toni as much as the snake but that didn't slow her down. Even with bare feet and half dead Faith retained enough of her slayer strength to make a difference and soon the serpent was more intent on attacking her again instead of Toni.
Taking a calculated risk, Toni let go of its throat so that it could lunge in Faith's direction. The second her hands were free she rolled to her feet and pulled the broad sword from its scabbard in one fluid motion. In the same instant that Faith punched its nose Toni brought the long blade around in a hard sweep and decapitated it.
As its head and body fell lifeless to the ground the Goddess and Slayer stared at each other in relief, both breathing hard.
When she had recovered enough, Toni picked her boots up from the ground and turned to go. "That is now two each."
Part iii: Through The Valley of Judgment
Toni led the way through the damp forest. The ground was a mix of mud and moss and felt disgusting on her bare feet but as Faith didn't complain neither did she. They didn't speak at all in fact and everything was very quiet until up ahead there came a creaking sound, like a bough waving wildly in the wind. It wasn't long before they found the source of the eerie noise.
Toni gasped as she realized where they had stumbled into. "We must go very quietly now."
Stopping to watch the naked man spin on his large wooden wheel, Faith whispered, "Who is that?"
The wheel's axis was suspended between two of the trees, allowing it to spin freely a few feet above the ground. The man's arms and legs were tied with rope to the circumference, spreading him out tortuously - although, in truth, he looked more green from dizziness than pain.
"Shouldn't we help him?"
"He is a murderer. Hurry up."
They had left the spinning man behind when Faith said, "You know where we are now."
"I wish I did not."
"This is the darkest realm of Hades. It is where the damned are imprisoned to endure their eternal fate. We must not linger here. If we are caught... Hurry as much as you can."
After a few minutes Faith said, "We got more company coming up."
Toni's ears had already picked out the wailing of several voices. "Oh no."
"What is it?"
"Just ignore them. They will not be able to see us."
Faith didn't look happy with her uninformative response but kept quiet as they left the cover of the trees for a shallow clearing. It was over-crowded making it impossible to see the wishing well in the centre, but Toni could hear the squeak of its rusty handle as the bucket made its relentless journey up and down.
Faith stopped in shock and although it was foolish Toni didn't blame her. In this place the sight of forty-nine beautiful women all wailing and clamoring for their turn with the single bucket was enough to give even her pause.
"Who are all these chicks?"
As one of the women broke free from the commotion around the well, Toni touched Faith's arm to get her to stand back out of the way. The woman was carefully cradling a baked clay jug between both hands and her face was lit up with gladness at her success. Before she was halfway to the trees, the jug started to spring leaks. Water poured from cracks unnoticeable a moment ago. In distress, the woman tried to plug the leaks with the quick and precise positioning of her hands but for every crack she covered another appeared. By the time she had reached the edge of the clearing her expression had fallen into one of misery and frustration, clearly visible as she turned back to her sisters carrying the now empty jug despondently.
"What the fuck?" Faith drawled under her breath. As they watched, several more of the women repeated the same journey, exactly. So happy walking away from the well, so sad walking back. "Are you sure I ain't trippin'?"
Toni touched her arm again to get her moving and they skirted the edge of the clearing to reach the opposite path. "Fairly sure."
Faith looked back over her shoulder. "So what are they in for?"
"They killed their husbands on their wedding night."
"What, all of them?"
"Si, and all on the same night."
Faith looked back again. "Wow, that's pretty impressive. Yunno, in a bad way."
Toni chuckled. "Si."
"One thing I'm not getting - they iced their honeys, in cold blood I'm guessing, and they just have to spend eternity singing 'There's a hole in my bucket'?"
Toni shrugged. "Gods cannot be whimsical?"
The mud and moss under her toes became hard and bristly, not enough to hurt but certainly making every step uncomfortable. Toni wished she had thought to wash her boots in the well but it would have led to detection, and then mayhem.
The trees were thinning again, a grassy meadow lay beyond them. Stepping from the border Toni took in their surroundings. If there had been sunlight, or even moonlight, it would have been pleasant but the never-ending night with its smoky, inexplicable glimmer made it monochrome and dull. It was a pale imitation of the place she had picnicked with Buffy the day before leaving the upperworld behind but still she felt a pang as the landscape brought the memory forth.
As they crossed the soft grass -- easier on her feet but Toni was waiting for the catch with every step -- the field began to slope upwards. It was barely noticeable at first and they continued to walk without mentioning it. As the incline grew sharper Faith's even breathing quickly turned to labored pants.
Toni checked for danger on all sides before offering, "Do you need to stop for a few minutes?"
"I need to stop for a lot longer than that." Before Toni could say anything Faith held up her hand. "I know, we don't have time. Just saying, could use some time off. A few beers, plate of ribs, maybe a pool to cool off in." They started trudging upwards again as Faith continued her list. "Some sunlight wouldn't hurt. A decent night's sleep. A change of underwear. A mystical morning after pill."
Toni looked at her sharply. Faith was holding her stomach again. "Why mystical?"
"Doubt the regular kind work on miracle babies."
So Faith had guessed the cause of her predicament, or Buffy had finally told her all sometime before the wedding... but no, that seemed unlikely. Surely Faith would have found a way to stop the ceremony herself if she had been aware of it. There had been a reason for Troy's insistence that the conception remain a secret after all. Faith was obviously just assuming, correctly, that any child of Troy's would be a miracle.
"You would wish to be rid of the child?" It was a dangerous question but Toni had asked it reflexively, a verbal continuation of her thoughts.
Faith was quiet for a while. Eventually she spoke her thoughts slowly. "Just gonna be awkward, is all."
Was she thinking about her future with Buffy? Toni was - both of their futures' with Buffy. How would this change things for her? Would it change anything at all?
Faith laughed uncomfortably. "Troy's gonna be pissed!"
What? Before she could ask Faith was shouting.
"What the f...?"
Toni saw the large object rolling towards them a split second later. It barreled out of the darkness, gaining speed all the while. She just had time to jump at Faith, knocking her clear from its path.
On her back, with eyes wide, Faith watched the boulder race downhill. It would have easily flattened them both with its bulk if Toni had not reacted so quickly. Still, Faith was angry.
"Get the hell off me!"
"Keep your mouth shut!" Toni hissed back.
Seeing Faith about to protest, she pressed her hand hard over Faith's lips, keeping her silent. Soon they could hear a man cursing the boulder and a short time after he ran past, his sandals slapping the grass, his toga flying up behind him. He didn't stop abusing the rock and shaking his fist until he was long out of sight.
Toni released Faith's mouth, rolled off of her and sat up.
Faith sat up faster. "Don't ever throw yourself on me like that again!"
"I saved your life!"
"Yeah, well next time do it without touching me."
"It was hardly a pleasure for me either."
"Don't give a fuck! Just keep your distance."
"Are you worried that Buffy will be jealous," Toni taunted.
Faith snorted. "If she is it won't be for the reasons you want."
The truth hurt and Toni got back to her feet silently.
Faith walked a few steps behind, straightening out her tattered wedding dress. "So that dude's condemned to chase a rock for the rest of his death?"
"He has to push it to the top of the hill, but it always rolls back down."
"I can see how that'd get annoying."
"Hence his swearing."
"So what did he do?"
"He pissed Zeus off."
"Well, at least he didn't kill anyone."
"He did that a lot too."
"Right. Of course."
Detecting something in her voice, Toni slowed down as they crested the hill, allowing Faith to catch up. "Is there something on your mind?"
"There's a lot of things on my mind. Right now it's that this place seems to be full of murderers."
"It is what you would call Hell. What did you expect?"
Faith shrugged, looking around to avoid eye contact. "Just wondering why you're bothering to rescue me if I'm only gonna end up back here anyway."
There were many answers Toni could give, she chose the curt, "It is not your time."
From the top of the hill there was nothing but hazy blackness in all directions. It made her uneasy, not being able to see the cliff face yet even from high up. She began the downward slope, the sharp gradient making her steps faster, jarring her.
"So how many other evildoers can we expect to find here?" Faith asked, her tone forced into lightness.
"There are many hundreds."
Faith looked around at all the empty space ahead of them. "So, what, they all made camp on the other side of the island?"
"This place is much vaster than the maps suggested. The punished are obviously spread out."
"Or we're doing the time warp here."
"Hell dimension. Time gets warped. Moves faster, slower, whatever. Maybe distance does too."
Toni watched her closely as they walked. "A thousand steps for you is only ten steps for me?"
Faith shook her head. "Ya lost me."
"That aside, I never realized you were remotely this intelligent."
"Thanks and fuck you."
Toni grinned. "The passage of time here is an illusion. Perpetual night gives the impression that no time passes but in fact it moves very quickly, far more quickly than in the upperworlds."
Faith shrugged, "I knew time was passing fast."
"And if you hadn't become five months pregnant in three weeks that would be impressive." Toni recaptured her train of thought. "What if distance were the same? What if it feels like we are walking for days but really it is only hours?"
"Then wouldn't we be there by now?"
Toni's voice fell flat. "It is just my first theory."
"You have others? Boy, can't wait to hear them."
Toni refused to rise to the bait as she mulled over the ideas in her head.
The ground was beginning to level out again. Ahead trees crowded the horizon once more. Faith seemed to be getting slower again, but aside from making sure she was never too far behind to reach in an emergency Toni didn't take much notice. They were hardly willing travel companions after all.
They were surrounded by the forest sooner than she expected. Did perception play a part in it? The closer you imagined the trees, the faster you arrived? She tested it by imagining the cliff face but it did not appear.
The first sign that they were not alone was a deep rumbling sound. Instinctively she waited for Faith to catch up.
"What is it?" Faith whispered when the sound came again.
Toni shook her head, not knowing. They walked on slowly, both ready for the unexpected. Except, when the unexpected came it was... unexpected.
They stopped in another clearing. The rumble was more of a gurgle close up.
"What is it?" Faith asked again, her voice even lower.
"His stomach," Toni murmured, smiling.
Tantalus was standing in a pool of clear water up to his neck. At the present moment he was straining his chin upwards, trying to catch with his lips some of the juicy berries hanging level with his eyes.
"He's that hungry?"
Faith's stomach gave a gurgle of its own at the sight of food and she rubbed it. "Know how he feels."
Toni's own stomach replied but she ignored the way her mouth watered at the sight of the plump fruits and concentrated instead on the pool. She knew from legend that it was the sweetest drinking water around but she had other designs for it. It wasn't as if Tantalus would be poisoned by the acid.
"Stay very quiet," she murmured. "I am going to wash my boots."
"Fuck your boots, I want a drink!"
Toni considered it - Faith probably desperately needed hydration, she couldn't take her back to Buffy a dried out husk - but it was too dangerous. To sip from the pool would be a crime against Hades whereas nobody would even notice if she dipped her boots in.
"We can't risk it," she hissed. "Please, just stay back. Do not draw unneeded attention to us."
Faith did stay back although she was obviously unhappy about it. Toni crept to the edge of the pool, careful not to snap a single twig on the way; she even held her breath in case it carried over the sound of the prisoner's rumbling stomach. Very carefully she bent over and slid both boots into the pool to wash the remains of the swamp acid from them.
She froze at the sound of Tantalus's voice, inhaled silently at the fright and then set about submerging the boots more thoroughly.
"I said: Hey! Stop that."
Toni turned to the sound of his voice this time, wondering what had startled him. He was staring straight back at her. She froze again. He must have heard the quiet splash of the water. She waited for him to think it was his imagination.
"What are you deficient or something? I can see you, you know? Get your bloody boots out of my drinking water!"
If Toni had thought she had frozen before...
Faith arrived soundlessly by her side. "What's he saying?" she mouthed.
In her shock Toni hadn't even registered that he was speaking in Greek, although that made sense. He had been standing here long before the English language had come into being.
"He can see us."
"What?" he snapped. She repeated it in Greek for him. "Of course I can bloody see you! You're standing right in front of me. Although I'm so thirsty I should be bloody blind. Speaking of which: your boots!"
"Sorry." Toni dragged them out of the water and let them drip onto the ground.
"Take it the potion's worn off," Faith muttered.
Toni nodded, reaching quickly for the canister at her belt. "We have a little more."
"Hey, before we do," Faith stopped her. "Now he can see us... any reason we can't..." she gestured at the fruit.
"It will be detected, draw attention to us."
"What are you talking about?" Tantalus demanded.
Toni quickly translated. "We're traveling through Tartarus, trying to reach the higher worlds. My companion is very hungry."
"She can't have any, they're mine!" He reached his head up again, fruitlessly. "Damn!"
"We know we can not partake," she tried to soothe him. "Hades would know of it at once and be alerted to our presence."
"That old bastard? He wouldn't know. He's forgotten I even exist."
"Really?" Toni found herself eying the berries too.
"But you still can't have them!" Chains made a subdued rattling sound beneath the surface of the water as he tried to reach them again. "Damn!"
Faith had apparently gathered the gist of the conversation. "Can't we just steal some? Not like he can stop us."
"But then he might tell someone of it. We cannot take the risk. There will be some sustenance when we reach Hades. Come now." Toni started to back away.
"Unless," Tantalus stopped her with his calculating tone. "If you feed me half I will let you share the rest. And if you lift a handful of water to my mouth I will let you drink."
Toni thought about the tempting offer but it really was too dangerous. "No thank you. We must leave. We have many miles ahead of us."
"I'll tell you the quickest way to the Gate," he wheedled.
That caught Toni's attention more than the offer of food. "The Gate?"
"There is only one way out of here, that's through the Gate."
"We were going to climb the cliff."
Tantalus shook his head. "You will just climb and climb. The darkness keeps you in, you see." He obviously decided he had shared enough without reward and nodded his head at the fruit just out of his reach. "Help me, woman, and I will help you."
Toni made her decision quickly. "Faith, pluck some berries for him."
She, herself, cupped her palms together, caught some water and raised it to his lips. He slurped it up, groaning in delight at the refreshment after thousands of years of having an unbearably dry mouth. She had to do it twenty times before he finally smacked his lips and nodded, satisfied. She began to pull water up to her own lips, drinking deeply of the cool, sweet liquid.
When she finally dried her mouth with the back of her wrist Faith was still pushing two berries into her mouth for every one he consumed.
"Do not over do it," she cautioned. "It has to all be expelled before we can cross the Styx."
"Huh?" Faith asked with her mouth full, red juice running down her chin.
"Have a drink," she instructed, taking her turn with the fruit.
When all three of them were sated, Tantalus tried to be elusive about the way to the Gate. Faith grabbed the long hair at the back of his head, twisted it painfully and convinced him to be more honest.
Toni waited until they had left the clearing behind before she stooped to put on her boots. Nothing burned, that was good.
"Uh, that water we both just drank a gallon of," Faith asked. "Wasn't contaminated by them was it?"
"I was too thirsty to consider," Toni admitted. "But I think the water in that pool is magical enough to combat the acid."
"Let's hope so."
"I feel better though."
They smiled at each other, realized they were, and looked sullenly away into the trees to make up for it.
They were ambushed only twenty feet away from Tantalus' pool. At first Toni thought he had sounded the alarm and then she thought that Faith had been discovered missing and this was the hunting party sent to retrieve her. However, mostly she was thinking that the tall, skeletal devils attacking them were a bugger to kill. Faith was trying to assist but her cumbersome body made hand to hand combat difficult and Toni, although it was probably the right thing to do, was loathe to give up her sword. Instead she took them all on herself, dancing between the five of them and Faith as she slashed and parried with all her strength.
Eventually four were dead and the fifth - armless thanks to two of Toni's sword swipes - Faith took down easily enough with a roundhouse kick. When it was on the ground Toni stabbed the point of the sword into its bare skull, smashing its forehead and killing it.
Overbalanced by her kick, Faith was also on the ground. Toni told herself it wouldn't help her situation with Buffy to repeat her skull smashing move no matter how tempting it was.
"Are you okay?" she asked instead, sheaving the sword.
"Dandy." Faith slowly got back to her feet. "Guess we forgot to drink some more of the invisibility potion, huh?"
It was an oversight on her part. She unhooked the canister from her belt. It felt far too light. Giving it a shake didn't reassure her. Unscrewing the top, she peered inside but it was designed such that it was impossible to tell just how much liquid remained.
She tried to remember how much they had already drank. A generous mouthful each at the cages, when the flask had been full. A more conservative amount when Toni had judged they'd been walking for roughly twenty-four hours, and again, after their battle with the giant snake. It had seemed prudent when there was no way for Toni to be sure whether the snake had been able to see them or had merely sensed Faith standing against its tree.
How long had those sips lasted? How long had it been between leaving the edge of the swamp and finding themselves at Tantalus' pool? It had felt like they had been walking for days but that was unlikely. Twelve hours? Thirty-six at most she would guess; and she was gauging that by how tired Faith was looking since her nap, which was no reliable judgment considering Faith had looked nothing but exhausted ever since Toni had found her.
She shook the canister again as if it would offer more insight this time. Faith was silent, watching, obviously guessing where her concern lay.
Reluctantly, Toni held it out to her. "We must sip only a little. It is better to risk traveling short distances without protection than to run out of the protection before we may need it the most."
"You brought it, you go first," Faith offered.
She shook her head. "Your safety is more important."
Faith worked up the energy to smirk. "Yeah, well, I know that and B knows that but..."
"Drink it!" Toni growled.
Still smirking, Faith took it and had the smallest of sips. Snatching it back, Toni did the same before screwing the cap back on and reattaching it to her belt.
"We will save the rest for when we approach the gate."
"Sounds like a plan."
They walked away from the piles of dry bones left by the dead devils.
"So this gate, how come you didn't mention it? Thought it'd be funny watching me climb a nine-day cliff like this?"
"I have never heard of the gate before." She still wasn't entirely sure Tantalus hadn't been misleading them for his own amusement.
"Thought you said you guys researched this place top and bottom before you came to get me?"
"We did, but as I said, details are sketchy. Nobody has ever escaped Tartarus before."
"So no Lonely Planet travel guide."
"Maybe we should write one," Faith said, grinning slightly. "Get rich off of our experiences."
"If we escape alive, maybe we should. Although I doubt there is much demand for a guidebook to a place that most do not believe exists."
"Take it you never played anything like Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, then."
"Only if you're referring to actual dungeons and dragons."
They walked in silence for a while. Toni kept her eyes on the sparse grass in front of her feet; after a while one tree was just as dull as the hundred before it. She had never expected Tartarus to be so green although it was a welcome substitute for the fire and brimstone landscape she had expected.
"So you were all researching this place?"
Toni looked over as Faith's question broke the silence. She nodded once. "The whole family."
Faith sneered at Toni daring to call herself one of the family, but as Toni had meant it to aggravate her she simply smiled.
"What about B?"
"Buffy researched too... when she had time."
Faith nodded like she was thankful, and then sharply asked, "What do you mean when she had time?"
"I cannot help it if my presence distracted her on occasion," Toni said smugly, even if it was only a half truth.
Faith was walking a few paces behind her again and Toni hissed as a fist unexpectedly smashed into her ribs.
"Ehi!" She spun around, her own fists raised. "Do you truly wish to fight me now? In your state? I had Buffy backed into a corner while sparring not three weeks ago and she was in perfect health. How do you think you will fare?"
She saw the anger rise in Faith's eyes and then saw it simmer down into something the slayer obviously found manageable for she chuckled, shaking her head a little.
"Was just a playful punch, Tone." She started walking again. "Gee, you can't even handle that, dunno how the fuck you managed to best Buffy."
Toni watched her walk away, trying to decide whether to let things go or to let her irritation force a confrontation between them. In the end, remembering where they were, she chose to follow Faith's lead.
"It was fairly easy considering how aroused she was."
She saw Faith's fists clench at her sides but the slayer kept her tone light. "Really? Good for you. Usually, the hornier I get her, the harder she hits."
Toni smiled automatically until the true nuances of the statement occurred to her. Whether Buffy cared to admit it or not she equated passion with violent reactions - both internal and external - their time in Greece had proved that much. So while she was able to feel exactly how turned on Buffy had been in the training room that afternoon, her mute response was perhaps not very encouraging.
"You were going to marry Troy."
"What of it?" Faith glanced up as Toni walked by her side.
"I was just wondering what you are going to do if we return home."
Faith looked down at her sizable bump. "Guess that depends."
"None of your fuckin' business is what."
"Scuzi, but if you intend to include my girlfriend in your future I think I have a right to know in advance."
Faith turned to her again. "Why, you think I got a shot?"
How Toni's fist didn't lash out to smack that evil grin away was a miracle.
When she didn't answer Faith seemed to take the question more seriously. "I think I'm screwed either way. B got all caught up in the romantic side of it but I know she don't really want a kid. So she ain't gonna be happy about this, is she? Not long term anyhow. And Troy probably ain't gonna wanna know me now, right? He didn't even know we were still screwing but I turn up carrying her brat it's gonna be a pretty big give-away. He's not gonna be happy either."
Toni had no idea what she was talking about - in fact she was starting to think there had been a little something extra in that pool water to make it so sweet. Before she could ask, Faith went on.
"And I ain't gonna apologize to you or nothing, but I get why you wanna beat the crap outta me. Seeing this," she pointed at her distended stomach, "must have been a hell of a shock. Fuckin' Easter Bunny, huh? Bitch screwed us all over."
"I am sorry, I think..." Toni began, but then Faith grabbed her arm and shushed her.
She pointed through the thinning trees and Toni could see what alarmed her. A rocky plain was once again before them, even from here she could see the yellowish steam gushing up from various fissures. Tantalus had said they would have to cross it to get to the gate but they had arrived sooner than Toni expected.
They crept to the final edge of the forest, their conversation forgotten. The gate itself could not be seen from here - if it even existed - but there did seem to be a clear sandy path stretching out between the jagged rocks.
"Coast looks clear," Faith muttered.
Toni watched the emptiness a moment longer before shaking her head. "No, see?" She pointed into the middle distance.
Faith looked. "What?"
"Between the steam you can see the sand spraying up." She pointed again. "There ...and there ...and there."
Faith nodded. "So what is it?"
"I do not know yet."
She bid Faith be quiet and once their ears attuned to the apparent silence they both heard the distant sound of something heavy meeting hard packed sand, over and over.
"But we still have to go down there, right?" Faith sounded less sure of herself now.
Toni nodded, "Unfortunately, I think we do."
They decided to sit and rest for a while before tackling it. Faith fell asleep again and Toni lay back against the trunk of a tree and closed her eyes. Perhaps she dozed for a while, she couldn't be sure, the thoughts of what lay ahead were plaguing her too greatly for relaxation.
Faith waking as abruptly as before stirred Toni from her perturbed rest and with no more ceremony than the slayer having to relieve herself again, they walked steadily out of the trees. Within minutes there was no cover at all. When the invisibility potion failed the next time they would be in plain sight of anyone around immediately.
The darkness was once again very smoky now that they were out of the forest but it was a shade or two lighter, as if the light of a bright orange moon was permeating a layer of dense cloud. The strange glow made the regular bursts of rising sand on the horizon more prominent.
As they walked on, the heavy thuds in the distance grew louder.
"Really not liking the sound of that," Faith said, agitated.
"It may be nothing," Toni said, reassuringly. "Thunder, a waterfall."
It sounded like neither, and Faith gave her the dubious look her comment deserved, but nodded anyway. "Let's hope you're right."
They had walked for roughly an hour through the open ground before ridges began to rise up on either side of the wide sandy pathway. The low ridges soon became steep banks and not long after that the source of the noise was revealed, along with the reason why the sand sprayed up.
They stopped, surveying the scene.
"Thunder?" Faith asked.
Toni pursed her lips and said nothing as her gaze moved from the giants standing on one high bank, to the giants standing on the other.
"A waterfall?" Faith said even more pointedly.
Toni chuckled at the tone in her voice and the boulders that were peppering the sand before them. Tiredness was obviously bringing on delirium.
The rocks were not that big - the size of soccer balls at most, they looked like marbles in the giants' hands - but to walk into a shower of them would probably prove fatal, for Faith anyway. It was unclear whether the giants were throwing them at each other or were deliberately aiming for the unoccupied sand, but either way they all rained down into the gorge.
Faith crossed her arms and nodded her head forwards. "So now what do we do?"
"I have no idea, but there is a bright side, I think."
"And that is?"
Toni pointed. Through the darkness, beyond the rocks and the spraying sand, fires burned furiously. It had taken her a moment to realize that the flames were not uncontrolled infernos but blazing lamps set to mark an important feature.
"I believe we have found the Gate."
"Cool." Faith uncrossed her arms, but then re-crossed them with a tired sigh. "Fat lot of good it does us though. There's no way I can run and dodge fast enough to avoid all these rocks like this."
She was right. Normally Faith, as a Slayer, would have stood a fair chance at making it through unscathed, but pregnant and exhausted - there was no chance.
Faith looked back the way they had come. "So we retrace our steps and find a way around?"
Toni thought about it but it was not a good option. They would probably get lost again, or find that this was the only way to the Gate. She could only assume that the giants were here for discouraging or killing any who tried to escape Tartarus, and that would be pointless if there was a safer route to take. Besides, with the Gate - and freedom - so close, she was loathe to lose sight of it again.
"I do not think that would be our wisest move."
"Then what do you suggest then, Tone? 'Cause I ain't keen on getting splattered down here, 'specially now there's more of me to splat!"
Toni spent another couple of minutes thinking about it, enough time that Faith started making impatient faces, and then she laughed.
"You're finding something about this funny?" Faith accused.
"Not particularly. It is just that I could walk through there and emerge on the other side with no more than a bad headache."
"So what? Because you're made of steel that makes you the better chick for Buffy?"
Toni chuckled again. "No, but it does mean I can get back to her."
"Fine, fuck off then. Go tell her how you abandoned me here." Faith sneered. "See how lucky you get then."
Toni watched the rocks fall for some time. Studying them, it soon became apparent that it wasn't completely random. The giants threw in a repeated sequence. The speed varied, meaning sometimes two hit the sand almost simultaneously while another time there might be as much as a ten second gap between drops, but if you had the kind of mind that could recognize and anticipate patterns it was possible to lower the probability of being hit on the head by one of the big balls of stone.
Toni's mind wasn't that adept at such things, but where pattern recognition failed her hopefully her lessened vulnerability and quick healing would pick up the slack.
"Have you ever heard the tale of the hare and tortoise, Faith?"
Faith was about to snap out a venomous retort, Toni could see it in her eyes, but decided she didn't have the energy. "Yeah, the Hare thought he was so fast he had time to piss around on the way, but the tortoise just kept plodding along and won - what's your point?"
"Tortoises are clever! They also have shells that would have seemed like steel to the idiot Hare."
"Are you calling me a hare...?" Faith paused, pulling a face. "Wait, what sort of insult is that? I think you've lost it, dude."
"You are probably right but this is still the only thing I think will keep you alive long enough to reach the other side. Get on your hands and knees."
Faith gave her a blank look. "Told you before I ain't fuckin' you; not even to save my life."
Toni laughed and gestured at the ground.
Slow and awkward and grumbling all the time, Faith did as she was asked. "You better have a good reason for this because it's already fuckin' killing my knees!"
"Pregnancy does not agree with you, Faith."
"Never in a million years thought it would. Not like I ever had any plans to get knocked up, just happened."
The reminder of her part in Faith's condition was enough to keep any further comments to herself. Instead Toni started to get into position behind her.
"You'll have to bend your arms so that you're lower to the ground," she said as she lowered herself over Faith.
"What did I just say about sex?" Faith snapped mildly, glaring over her shoulder.
"Can you not be quiet for one minute?" Toni kept her feet on the ground but now her palms were flat to the sand too, just in front of Faith's, so that she was tented over the slayer. "In fact, as a thank you for me doing this, I would be obliged if you did not speak again until we are out of Hades altogether."
"Yeah, don't see that happening," Faith muttered.
Toni checked that she was covering as much of Faith as possible. Her extra few inches in height meant that it was easy enough for her to shield Faith's head and all the way down the length of her spine without making it too difficult to move forward. If one of Faith's feet were hit they would have to deal with the consequences, but at least they would be unlikely to include death.
"Are you ready? We will have to take it very slowly."
"Not like I can go anything but slow with you riding me like a freakin' donkey!"
"I am putting no weight on you at all!"
"Yeah, keep it that way."
"I can still change my mind about this. It is not as if I am retaining any dignity in helping you this way."
"Sorry," Faith muttered. "Hormones are turning me into a bitch."
"I was not aware that you have been pregnant the whole time we have known each other."
Faith laughed. "Yeah, well I ain't apologizing for none of that; just for now."
Toni nodded. "Then I accept. Shall we begin?"
It was not easy to gain forward momentum in this position but slowly they edged towards the rain of rocks. They were both holding their breath and wincing occasionally, which made things harder, but the anticipation of the first strike was enough that they couldn't help it.
Toni kept repeating the patterns she had noticed in her mind, remembering to slow down here and try to speed up there. Occasionally she used her body to shunt Faith a little one way or the other. She couldn't look up to see where the boulders were falling from though, in fact she couldn't even really keep her eyes open because the sand spraying up as rocks fell soon had them watering constantly. It was only a matter of time before she was hit.
The first struck the left side of her lower back. It didn't give her pause but her grunt of pain alerted Faith.
The next bounced off of her right buttock and she hissed at the sting of it but kept going. For a while after their timing was perfect and they avoided every projectile, but her arms were beginning to ache from keeping herself propped up above Faith's head and shoulders, and beneath her Faith was getting slower as her knees were sanded raw and her general strength ebbed further.
They could see the end of the showering rocks, only fifteen feet away, when Toni's shoulder was struck. It felt as if the bone had shattered into pieces and her hand went out from under her, dropping her left side heavily onto Faith's back.
Toni grunted an apology and tried to put weight on her hand to push herself back up but couldn't. More rocks fell to the side and in front of them, and as she panted through the pain, sand coated her tongue and throat, making her cough.
"Shit!" Faith grunted, trying hard not to collapse herself under the added weight.
Toni grimaced and buried her face in the back of Faith's hair as she tried to force her hand to take the pressure. "I think my shoulder is broken. I cannot move!"
"You think you got problems," Faith said, trying to sound cheerful. "I need to fuckin' pee again!"
Toni grinned despite the tears stinging her eyes. "Please try and hold it in - you smell bad enough as it is."
"Like you're a freakin' bouquet of pine-scented kittens yourself," Faith replied amiably.
Toni began to chuckle but it ended with a gritting of teeth when even that caused strings of pain to flare up her neck and across her shoulder blade. The joint had taken the full impact of the heavy rock and her arm was still hanging loose and useless over Faith's shoulder.
"You're gonna have to lift yourself higher," Faith complained. "Unless you want my kid to come out looking like it got sandblasted."
She tried again but it was impossible. "I will have to rest my arm on your back and keep all of my weight on my right side."
"I can't crawl like this!"
"And I cannot crawl any other way!" She bit back a sob, pain and frustration weakening her mental strength as well as physical. "I do not understand, even a severe break should have knit enough by now to allow some mobility."
Faith lifted the hand she wasn't using to support Toni's injured side and pushed at the limp limb, making it swinging out at an unnatural angle. Toni yelled and cursed her, the pain enough to make her see black stars before her eyes.
"You dumbass!" Faith snapped impatiently. "It's just dislocated."
"Dislocated?" Toni asked when she could speak again. "But the pain is so severe?"
"Fuckin' pussy," Faith muttered, awkwardly rolling onto her right side before wriggling around onto her back. The action pushed her out from under Toni's protection and she had to throw an arm up quickly to deflect a crushing blow to the face. "Ow! Fuck! That hurt."
She pulled her arm into her chest, cradling it.
"Exactly," Toni snapped, feeling mildly better now that Faith had experienced some of the pain for herself. "And what in Hades are you doing? Get back up! Somehow we have to keep moving."
"I'm fixing your shoulder."
Faith squirmed down until her face was once again protected by Toni's head and then, more gently than she would have given her credit for, took hold of Toni's limp upper arm with one hand and placed her other hand palm-to-palm with Toni's.
Once she was in position Faith gave her a joyful grin.
Trying to ignore the rocks falling all around them, Toni stared down at her dubiously. "What are you smiling for?"
"This is gonna really fuckin' hurt."
"And that is a happy thing?"
"Hell yeah, for me, I'm not the one gonna be screaming in agony in five... four..."
Toni tensed, waiting for her to reach one, but Faith slammed the shoulder back into place before she reached three. She did not scream, but from behind her gritted teeth came a primal yell that echoed off the walls of the gorge. Luckily, the eardrum was a proportionate organ and, as compared to the giants high on the ridges, their size was the equivalent of a rat; their voices were equal to a rodent's squeak, making them nearly as audibly undetectable as they were invisible down there.
Once the ball of her shoulder was back in its socket the relief from pain was almost instant. Still kneeling, she slumped down onto her elbows, panting hard and trembling as she recovered from Faith's first aid.
Faith was still lying on her back, looking up at her. "Better?"
"Si, thank you."
She rested a few moments more, allowing her strength to return, but when the initial adrenaline crash had passed she became aware of Faith's stomach. Although they were touching no where else, her body had sunk low enough that the swell of Faith's belly was brushing her own flat stomach every time they breathed. It felt very strange.
Toni tucked some hair behind her ear before allowing her gaze to travel slowly over the compromising position they were in. When their eyes met again Faith was smirking, proving she was thinking the same thing.
"Guess you finally got me where you want me, huh Tone?"
Toni leaned closer, cocking one eyebrow as she reminded her, "You are the one who gave into Buffy's plea for a threesome, not I. Perhaps it is more accurate to say this is where you always wanted me."
Faith's grin grew bigger. "Maybe it is."
"And now is when you choose to succumb to my seduction," Toni groaned and, ignoring the lingering pain, pushed herself back up to the full length of her arms, putting space between them. "Buffy will be disappointed she was not here to take advantage of it."
It only took a few inches of distance for Faith's strength of will to reassert itself, and rather than be confused by the fading feelings of desire she took a practical view.
"Yeah, maybe we shouldn't tell B we ended up all cosy like this. It'll only give her ideas."
"I agree. Could you get up now?"
With difficulty Faith squirmed around until she was back on her hands and knees. "I swear this bump is getting bigger by the minute."
"It only feels like that because your human body is not used to the fast passage of time here," Toni said as she rearranged herself as comfortably as possible over Faith. "It is not much further now."
She was right; when they began their slow crawl forward again they cleared the gorge relatively quickly. On the other side was open rock once more but at least no one was throwing it at them.
They stopped for a while, Faith taking a breather and Toni reveling in the fact that she wasn't being pelted with large boulders, before standing up and surveying what lay ahead.
"Whoa!" Faith said.
Toni felt the same. The Gate was now no more than one hundred feet in front of them. Two pyres rose up on each side, the flames climbing high into the darkness. Between them the iron gates shone, the dull metal made bright by the blaze. Toni looked up but couldn't see the top of them, they were shrouded in smoke.
"This is it."
"What, exactly?" Faith asked.
"Our way back to Buffy."
"Then let's do it."
Toni's eyes never left the tall Gate. It wasn't going to be easy. They couldn't just walk up to them and expect to be let through. She didn't know what to expect but she knew it would never be that straightforward. This would be the hardest trial they had faced, she was sure of it.
But Buffy was on the other side.
Toni nodded. "Let's do it."
Part v: The Guardian of the Gate
Faith was still looking up at the Gate. "So how do you want to do this?"
So was Toni. "Very carefully."
She fumbled for the canister at her hip, unscrewed the lid and passed it to Faith.
Faith took it but didn't drink any. "You really think this is gonna help?"
"If the goal is to slip past unnoticed, then si, I imagine an invisibility potion will help."
"Really? Convicted murderer trying to get out of Hell. You think all it takes is a little spell? Don't ya think all the bad guys down here woulda thought of that already if it worked?"
That was a good point, and not one Toni had considered until now. Willow's potion had been to see them across Tartarus undetected; it was never intended as a get out of hell free card. She still did not see how it could hurt though, and she did not like the sound of Faith's defeated tone. She had to stay positive, they both did, if they were to make it through - there was still a long way to go and to show weakness at any step was an invitation to be preyed upon.
"There is a difference between you and them. They deserve to be here but it is not your time. That is the loophole we will exploit with the help of this potion."
"So what if it's not my time? If I deserve to be here, what difference does a few years make?"
This was dangerous theological territory. Troy had told Buffy only his divine permission could save Faith's soul from eternal torment, it was what he had used to keep Buffy in line when Toni's attention had not been enough, and it had worked to a point - the point where nothing could stand in the way of the slayers' feelings for one another any longer...
However, Toni was a goddess from another age and her philosophy was more liberal. People changed, the whole world changed - wasn't that what they were trying to do after all - and very few paths were set in stone. Perhaps someone once destined for Hell could never make it to Heaven but Toni believed wrongs could be righted, good deeds did cleanse a tarnished essence, and a balance could be found.
"A few years can make a difference to your soul, Faith" she said, knowing it was the right thing to say whether it was true or not. "Every noble accomplishment pushes you further from returning to this place. Is that not reason enough?"
Faith pointed at her chest with her thumbs. "You think I'm noble accomplishment gal? I can't even claim the redemption points from serving my full time in prison. Every day out there ties that anvil a little tighter around my ankle and..."
"Enough!" Toni snapped. "I cannot listen to your self-pity any more! You have my girlfriend pining for your safe return in the upperworlds and all you can do is whine about not being good enough to leave! Of course you are not good enough! You will never be good enough for her, but who cares? She clearly does not!" She threw her hands up and turned to stalk towards the Gate. "So stay here and sulk about not deserving a chance to escape if you wish, è stupido, fottuto idiota, but I am going to fight my way back to the surface of this planet no matter what it takes because that is what she deserves!"
Faith stayed where she was and held her hands out to the sides in confusion. "Tone, relax. I'm just saying that any penitentiary that has walls nine days high -- and, by the looks of it, gates nine days thick -- is gonna have some kind of motion sensors or radar too. Soon as I get close alarms are gonna be going off and guards are gonna come running whether I'm invisible or not."
Toni turned back. "If you are right, this will always be the case. You must risk it or be content to stay here for eternity."
"Oh, I'm all for risking it." Faith cracked the knuckles of her right hand. "But that don't mean we can't be smart about it. Thing about prison see, the TV becomes like a... portal, ya could say, to the outside. It's a connection with the real world, so those on a long stretch, you get to the point where you'll watch anything. My rec time was in the mornings, which was great; s'all kids TV, stuff I never got to watch properly on our fuzzy black and white set but used to hear the other kids talking 'bout at school. Didn't even know Big Bird was yellow 'til my second week in the joint."
"As fascinating as this trip into your past is... and I'm sure it will finally help me to understand much about your psychosis," Toni deadpanned. "If you are simply going to keep talking, do you mind if I sit down?"
Faith cracked the fingers of her left hand with an intimidating grin. "Point is, bitch, I learned my one-two-three's and my A-B-C's while on the inside. You won't get that, but Buffy would." She winked. "So there's no point me drinking some of that shit if I'm only gonna get revealed somehow anyway, 'specially when there's not much juice left."
Toni took the canister back as it was offered and started to put the lid back on. "So you suggest we save it for if we make it through the gate. That is probably wise," she conceded.
"Nah, I got something wiser. You drink it now. All of it."
"But if we are going to be detected anyway..."
"I'm gonna be detected! Unless Pool-Boy has ratted us out no one on the Gate is gonna know there's two of us. If they can't see you, and you've got the sword, while they're hassling me you can dance around like an invisible ninja and take the fuckers out!"
Toni shook her head. "I do not like the thought of being cloaked when you are not."
"Ya mean you don't like the thought of telling B you were cloaked and I wasn't if you're the only one of us that makes it out."
Toni could not deny the truth in that and smirked, unconcerned that her true motive had been recognized.
"Yeah, well, suck it up, Tone, 'cause you know this plan is better than any you've come up with."
In answer, Toni raised the flask of potion to her lips. There was only a mouthful of the bitter liquid left and she drank it all; let Faith deal with that if her wonderful plan failed. She recapped and reattached the canister to her belt.
"Shall we proceed?"
"Yeah." After a few steps towards the forbidding Gate, Faith stopped again. "No, wait. If I don't make it through, will you give something to Buffy for me?"
The swell of Faith's stomach pressed to her own again but this was no accidental contact. Toni's back remained straight, her posture stiff but Faith's hand found the back of her neck and pulled her forward, moulding her around the bump between them until their mouth's met. Toni shut down her mind, subdued her gift so as not to exacerbate the kiss and waited politely for it to be over. Her eyes widened in surprise as Faith's tongue swept dominantly between her lips and she pulled hers back deep into her mouth, refusing to reciprocate, but she could understand now why Buffy was always so breathless and giddy after kissing her. When a firm hand smacked her bottom before giving it a soothing squeeze she finally pushed Faith away.
"I think I get the message!"
Faith was laughing as she stepped back, straightening out her tattered wedding dress. "Just make sure you pass it on. All of it!"
"I may kill you myself, just for the opportunity," she muttered, doubting she would ever get to do such a thing again if she did return with Faith.
They were halfway to the Gate when Faith stopped again, spinning ungainly in a circle.
"What are you looking for?"
"You, as it happens."
"Ya just disappeared."
Confused at first, for she could see Faith clearly enough - well, as clearly as the smoky, eternal night would allow at least - but then it dawned on her.
"The potion is out of your system. You are no longer protected by the invisibility spell."
"Damn. Maybe not my best idea ever after all." With a shrug Faith walked on. "If we're gonna keep you a secret I guess that means we can't talk anymore either."
"You have no idea how happy I am to hear you say that."
Faith shot a smirk her way and Toni matched it even though hers couldn't be seen.
"Think this is gonna get hairy?" Faith whispered, eyes never leaving the giant gates they were approaching fast.
"Like a Yeti."
"Ya know, even though I hate your guts and all that, kinda feels like we should be having a moment here or something."
"I think we had more than enough of a moment a minute ago!"
Faith started laughing again but the pleasant sound was abruptly cut off by a voice like an amplified dentistry drill.
"I think I need to pee again," Faith muttered, her eyes big and her body tensed.
"Merde," Toni muttered. One way or another this was going to be unpleasant.
Buffy sat up on the narrow cot like Dracula rising from his coffin, but faster probably.
"Faith's in danger!"
Willow and Xander exchanged a startled glance and she didn't blame them, they'd been aimlessly discussing pizza toppings two seconds before. It had maybe even been a whole hour and a half since she'd last mentioned Faith's name.
Xander pulled himself up a little straighter against the wall on the other side of the basement. "Well, yeah, she's in Hades. Not exactly the safest of tourist spots."
"Tartarus," Willow corrected him absently while watching her with concern. "But Xander's right, we knew that."
"Okay, more danger then." Buffy stepped off of the cot and closer to the portal. Its size fluctuated constantly between a tennis ball and a tractor tire. Right now it was about as big as the window on the washing machine. "Bigger danger or... different danger. Something is worse. I can feel it, I think, and that's never a good sign."
Willow and Xander exchanged another glance.
"It might just be that the invisibility potion has all been used up," Willow said, keeping her cool. "We knew that might happen, remember, and now you can just feel the danger she's been in all along. Okay, that was supposed to sound more reassuring than it did."
"Plus, upside," Xander said. "It means she's still alive. Hard to be in much danger when you're dead."
"Or it means Toni's dead," her voice sounded flat and detached, despite the uproar that thought caused in her insides. "And Faith is in danger because her protection is gone."
Her fingers reached towards the shimmering green portal as if she was dipping her fingers into a rock pool.
"She can't get out of there with no guide, no help, no protection! She's as good as dead too if someone doesn't..."
Kennedy had been sitting halfway up the stairs playing her new Nintendo DS but now she was coming down them in a blur of motion, hurtling across the basement and straight into Buffy. They went to the hard floor together in a tangle of limbs and only the element of surprise gave Kennedy the chance to pin her before Buffy recovered enough to kick her ass.
"Get off me!"
"Sorry, Mama Bear," Kennedy's voice was evidence of how much effort she was using to keep her down. "But you're not going through that thing."
"She needs my help!" Buffy thrashed to get loose but got nowhere instead.
"Buff, don't make me chain you up, 'kay?" Kennedy grunted.
Toni had her sword out, held firmly in both hands as she tilted her head back, trying desperately to locate where the voice was coming from. Was it as invisible as she was or just hidden up there by the smoke - much denser here thanks to the dual fires flanking them.
Faith had walked to within feet of the Gates and was standing still, hands vaguely held out to her sides as if trying to show she was unarmed, and she was staring straight up too.
"You mean me?" There was no tremor in her voice, no tremble in her body, only her eyes gave away her unease.
There was nothing and that stretched on for a moment and then, "I see no other killer here!"
"You don't sound all that sure."
Faith dutifully obeyed. Toni wondered what her plan was now, if she had one; her own part in the original strategy was defunct, with no guards rushing them to be cut down by her invisible sword. It was Faith against the voice, at least until the voice showed itself. She was racking her brains trying to think who it might belong to, attempting to remember any details from the days of research that might enlighten her. Who guarded the path from Tartarus? But they hadn't even known of the Gate! The mysteries of this place had remained shrouded since the birth of night and, if they did not make it out, would always be so.
"Why are you at my Gateway? Explain yourself!"
"You want me to use sign language? Or am I allowed to speak now?"
Ah, that was Faith's plan. She was going to piss it off until it killed her. Wonderful!, she thought sarcastically, and then backtracked in her mind, Actually, the plan has some merit.
There was a screech from above; obviously Faith's own sarcasm had not pleased.
"Wow, someone's testy."
"Okay, chill. I'm here 'cause I wanna be let out."
"Never! You have been judged only worthy for the pit."
"Yeah, but that was a mistake. I wasn't the one who was supposed to be zapped. My almost-mother-in-law is just a lousy shot with the lightning bolts. It's just a misunderstanding and I don't really deserve to be here. So if you could just, I dunno, tap the exit code into the keypad, I'll be on my way."
"Faith Lehane, you have been destined to reach this place for four years."
"I really don't think so, Dude. I'm Catholic for starters."
"That is of no consequence. Be gone from my sight."
"Sure thing. Soon as you open the Gate."
"The Gates of Hades never open."
"Then why have gates in the first place?"
There was another angry screech from above and Toni smiled grimly.
"You think you will ever walk free?"
"I dunno, but if you open the gates I got a good shot."
"The soul of Lester Wirth will follow you forever! His fear, the torment and pain he felt in his last minutes on Earth will be with you for eternity!"
Faith's cockiness had left her, draining from her face as fast as water from an upturned cup. Toni's grip tightened on the sword's hilt.
"I know that." Now there was a tremor in her voice.
"He felt it all, you know? Each stab of the knife. Six of them. He felt them all!"
"I was there."
"You were very there. In the moment. Crowing as his hot blood gushed over your hands. Your blood was singing as he begged for his life!"
Faith gave a short nod, perhaps not trusting herself to speak.
"His existence meant nothing to you. Why should yours mean anything to me?" When Faith didn't answer the drilling voice yelled, "Be gone!"
Faith shook her head and said quietly, "No. I've changed. I'm trying to anyhow. I deserve the chance to make up for what I took. If I end up back here when I die, so be it, but I've earned the right to try and change my fate."
"You deserve nothing but damnation and that is what you have."
Toni could see Faith's muscles - what she had left of them - coiling, ready for action. Her hands went to her stomach for the briefest of moments and then she threw herself towards the Gates, yelling,
"Fuck you! I do get a second chance. Someone higher up than you thinks so. Buffy is proof of that! Our baby is proof of that!"
Her hands were clawing at the gap between the Gates, trying to push or pull them open but the heavy iron wasn't showing any signs of movement. Toni knew she should help but she was struck frozen by Faith's impassioned words. The Slayer had it so right and so wrong at the same time.
There was a screech from above, more fanatical than the previous, and then the soft sound of heated air catching vast wings. The thing was on the move and it spurred Toni back into action. She ran forward a few steps, sword once more held high in front of her. As soon as the voice showed itself she would strike.
The chance didn't arise. The voice did appear, swooping down, still screeching in anger, but before she could swing the sword it had picked Faith up in its huge talon-like fingers and was rising back up.
Toni had time to register the large leathery wings, the snakes writhing above its head like the world's baddest hair day and the thick black liquid pouring from its eyes. It dripped onto Toni's arm as it passed over head and she looked down. It was red closer up: blood!
It was one of the Erinyes, meaning she and Faith were as good as dead! Yet... Toni watched it soar higher still... Erinyes couldn't fly! At least, the one she'd met in her past couldn't despite her long, bat-like wings.
Thirty feet up the creature let go of Faith and the pregnant slayer dropped like a rock to the hard ground. Toni started to run under her but her reaction was a second too late - probably just as well considering she was still holding the sword point up - and Faith screamed on impact.
Her first thought was for the baby. Would it - could it - survive such a fall? Her second thought was for Faith and she bent down, hoping for a sign of life. She got one in the form of a groan. All her thoughts were consumed by the Erinys then as it coasted to the ground a few feet away and walked back to Faith's prone form. Toni had to move back out of the way so she wouldn't be detected but even as she did so she readied the sword for a good, clean swipe at the thing's head.
"You dare to offend Tisiphone!" The creature screeched. "You belong to me now, Mortal! And I will personally torture you for your crimes!"
As she screeched out her threats Tisiphone used her sharp, bony fingers to cruelly wrench Faith onto her back. Faith rolled easily and punched her fist up, catching the creature low on her belly.
She jumped back, screeching wordlessly again, giving Faith just enough time to get to her knees. As the Erinyes came in for another attack, Toni went to swing the sword but Faith lunged forward, putting herself in the way. She would never know how close she came to accidentally having her head chopped off! Faith punched Tisiphone again, sending her backwards once more.
Faith dragged herself to her feet - and did not make it look easy - but when she was up she advanced on the bat-serpent woman, her fists raised like she was in a boxing match rather than a no-holds-barred fight for her life.
"Come on then, bitch, you wanna play?"
"You will die! I will kill you myself!"
"Now who's the murderer?"
Toni watched, slightly awestruck, as Faith and the Erinys began to fight. The flickering flames turned Faith's sweat-slicked skin to bronze and sent the creature's shadow up high against the Gate, making the scene even more dramatically spectacular than it already was. It should have been over in seconds, with Faith a crumpled, dying heap on the ground, but despite her weakened state she did not give an inch.
"Come on then, gore-face! Kill me your fuckin' self! What, all squawk no peck? Been perched up there so long you forget how to rumble?"
"I will claw out your face! Your torturous death will be my amusing anecdote for eons to come!"
There was no way Toni could get a clean swing with her sword, they were fighting too close. Even stabbing would be dangerous as the two of them circled each other, Faith moving with much more energy than she'd shown in all the time they had been traveling through Tartarus together.
"Still just hearing white noise here. Is that you or your hair hissing? FYI, you wanna get yourself a new stylist, the whole serpent 'do went out about three thousand years ago."
"My hair will feed on your entrails!"
Faith got in a wild kick, shooting Tisiphone several feet in the air. She flapped her great wings but they did nothing to smooth out her landing and she flopped onto the ground awkwardly.
The kick had sent Faith to one knee too but she was up before the Erinys. "Thought you could fly? You look like a fuckin' chicken flapping around like that."
Tisiphone lurched up and ran at Faith, screeching death.
Toni realized she was doing no good just standing there and ran to the Gates to push and pull at them with as much force as Faith had. They didn't open for her either. She kept at it though, looking over her shoulder to watch the fight. If Faith showed any signs of weakening she would have to give up her unknown status and join the battle. How that would help in the long run... she was sure it wouldn't, but she could not stand by and see Faith killed without trying to help. It was her purpose for being there, to save Faith or die trying. It was why she had the invisibility potion in the first place, and the sword. The gifts had been given to her for this mission, by Willow and Buffy and... Troy! They'd all given her something to aid in Faith's rescue from Tartarus!
Toni sheaved the sword with fumbling hands and searched her pockets until the clammy metal touched her palm. She pulled out the black-gold key and looked at it.
The Key to Hades.
She'd always assumed it had been forged to open the gates on the outside - and it had done - but what if...? She looked up at the giant iron Gates, eyes scanning their solidness for any chink in their security.
It was above her head to the point where she had to stretch her arms painfully but with some more fumbling she pushed the key into the hole. It fit and she breathed a sigh of relief, because it could have easily just been a hole, and twisted the ancient artifact clockwise.
Nothing happened and she was scared for a second that it just wasn't the right key after all or that the lock had rusted shut in the humid air. Terrified of breaking it in her panic, Toni forced herself to stop, take a breath and then twist it back the other way.
Once the key had turned one and half revolutions anti-clockwise there was a click that she really hoped she had not imagined because she had to blow her cover now.
"What?" Faith was still fighting viciously with Tisiphone and didn't look back.
Toni had already pulled it free from the scabbard and thrown it. Faith caught it in her right hand, still without looking behind, and brought it around to slice deep into Tisiphone's side.
The Erinys fell back, gasping as her claw-like hands went to the gash just below her ribs.
"Maybe that'll teach ya the power of forgiveness!"
"What?" Faith snapped again, sounding even more impatient.
Faith finally turned her head and, despite not being able to see Toni pointing, noticed the Gates were slowly opening outwards.
"'Bout time!" Faith slashed at Tisiphone again, coming close to severing a wing, and then turned and ran. "Later, bitch!"
Toni half-thought Faith was talking to her as she ran past and through the Gates without slowing, but when she ran through too she found Faith waiting just the other side. Her ragged breathing and the thud of her boots alerted the slayer to her presence.
"Any way to close this fucker again?"
"I have no idea."
"So we keep running?"
Toni nodded, "We keep running."
Part vi: The Painful Truth
It was not dark on the other side of the Gate of Hades, which was not to say that it felt like daytime. The sky was a dull grey, on Earth it would have been depressing but to Toni after so long - had it been a week, it felt like longer - in eternal night it was as beautiful as a bright spring morning.
They sprinted for as long as they could, eager to put distance between themselves and what lay on the other side of the Gate, but Faith was already beginning to lag behind when the loud screeching came from above.
The shriek shot a line of ice through Toni. Had Tisiphone followed them? She slowed enough to tip back her head and look into the dull sky and initially her fear was confirmed - a winged woman was flying after them - but then she picked out the differences. Tisiphone had the body of a woman and the wings of a bat, this threat had the body of a bird and the face of a wizened hag, also, there were three of them.
These creatures Toni knew; she had encountered them on her last trip to the underworld. They had plagued her for miles, trying to snatch Helena's soul from her protection. Had Tisiphone or Hades or, even worse, Zeus sent them to retrieve Faith? Or were they just here for their own cruel amusement?
Whatever their reason they were already zeroing in on Faith, who, having heard them, ducked her head and tried to run faster.
As one of the Harpies gained height and then dove towards the slayer like a misshapen hawk, Toni cried out a warning.
"Faith, get down!"
"I get down I don't think I'm getting back up!" Faith yelled seriously.
That left Toni only one choice and she ran to reclaim the sword and defend her.
As she tried to take it, Faith refused to let go and hit out with her other hand. "What the fuck? No, fuck off! Tone, something's here!" she called for help with her unseen sword-grabber.
Toni would have laughed, or at least rolled her eyes, if the situation wasn't so dire. "It is I, Faith. I need the sword."
"Oh. Uh, yeah, I knew that. Here." Faith relinquished the sword. "I'm gonna keep going while I still can if ya don't mind."
Toni moved into the space behind her to stab upwards. The Harpy, unable to see her -- or the sword while she was holding it -- skewered herself. She kicked it off of the long blade while it was still shrieking in pain and then ran to keep up with Faith. It only took her a few strides.
"Get it?" Faith's breathing sounded even more labored than just a moment ago.
"Si." She looked up. The other two were circling, wary now, unsure of what had befallen their sister. "If we keep running I think the others will give up rather than risk the same fate."
She had barely finished speaking when Faith gave a yell of anger and pain and stumbled. She managed to keep her feet but then with another anguished shout, fell to her hands and knees.
So much for that idea, Toni thought. Faith was clearly in no state to go any further just now. She heard the Harpies calling to each other, making plans to attack as a pair.
"Hide under there."
There was only one place for her to hide under and Faith looked at the dense thorn bushes with trepidation. "Last time you suggested something like that it almost killed..."
"Get under there!" Toni ordered again and the natural authority in her tone combined with the slayer's state of near collapse convinced Faith to obey for once. "Now stay there until they are dead... or I am."
Faith dragged her feet under the shelter as the Harpies came down, hoping to carry her away. Toni's plan worked in a way she hadn't expected however. Unable to see Faith from the air now, and still unaware that Toni was even there, they landed close to the prickly undergrowth and in awful, wheedling voices called for the slayer to come out, making promises they wouldn't have been able to keep even if they had meant them.
They were not permitted to speak for long - two sword strikes later, their human head's were rolling away from their avian bodies. Feeling both proud and sick by her achievement, Toni went to the hollow under the bushes and squeezed in beside Faith.
"Are you okay?"
It took a moment for Faith to place the direction of her voice. "I dunno."
Now Toni could see just how much damage the fight with Tisiphone had caused. Faith's eyes were dangerously bloodshot, her face bruised and streaked with dried blood. The wedding dress was more torn than before and through the larger tears she could see the deep purple-red scratches in Faith's skin. Beneath the bruises she was pale and sweating and despite taking in deep lungfuls of air she did not seem to find any relief in them.
The thing that scared Toni the most however was the way Faith was holding her swollen stomach. She wasn't cradling it the way she had many other times on their journey but clutching it as if in great pain.
"Is it the baby?"
Faith tried shifting her position to something more comfortable without letting go of the death grip on her stomach. "I don't think it liked me landing on it"
"Here, lie down." Toni moved out of the way and put an arm around her back to help her to the ground.
"Feels weird you touching me when I can't see ya. . . don't go using that as an excuse to start groping me!" Faith tried to chuckle but didn't have enough energy.
Toni smiled. "I'll try not to. Where is the pain worse?"
Faith licked her dry lips. "My stomach. Feels like the brat's playing the drum solo from 'Air Tonight' on my insides." She swallowed hard and her voice went very quiet. "I'm not losing it am I?"
Toni didn't know what to say. She had no medical knowledge and no curative gifts outside of her own enhanced healing. That made her think. The baby was a demi-god like herself; he would be almost immortal after birth. Did that count while he was still in the womb? How far would she have to fall for her body to be broken beyond repair? Much further than Faith had fallen obviously, but the baby was smaller and not fully developed. Would that make a difference?
"What kind of pain is it?"
Faith's face screwed up, clearly thinking her question stupid. "The really bad kind! I'm a slayer! I can get the shit pounded out of me and still have a good day. Today is not a good day." She winced as another spasm of pain went through her. "Really not good."
Toni's hand hesitated, hovering in mid-air over Faith's stomach, eventually she was brave enough to bring it down and settle over the swell. "Can you direct me to the main point of pain?"
The kick that thudded against Toni's palm made her think the father was a Gigantes - the force of it had stung! - but she smiled.
"He feels alive and well."
When Faith could stop panting almost to the point of hyperventilating, she asked, "He?"
Toni shrugged indifferently and then remembered she was invisible. "Or she. Kicks like a boy however."
"Or a slayer. Considering who its Mom's are, a slayer baby ain't impossible, right?"
Toni felt that coldness again, this time squeezing her heart. How did she answer that? This shouldn't be hers to deal with. She had promised to do her best to get Faith out of Tartarus safely, but she had never agreed to break this news to her.
She avoided the question. "I thought slayers were only called when they reached a certain age?"
"Yeah, but who says miracle babies follow the rules? Owww!"
Toni startled at the howl. If the baby was still healthy why was it giving Faith so much pain? She couldn't have any broken bones because she had fought and run away after the fall. Another even more frightening thought occurred to her.
"Faith, are you having contractions?!"
"How the hell do I know?"
Toni had witnessed a few of the births her Grandmother had delivered but she had never participated beyond fetching hot water and towels. If the baby was coming now not only did she not know what to do, it would be very dangerous to make their way out of Hades with a newborn. She could not guarantee the protection of them both.
Drawing on what little she could remember, she moved both hands to Faith's stomach and started to feel her way downwards, trying to gauge the position of the baby. Faith was in too much pain to make any wise comments about where her hands were wandering to. As far as she could tell, the baby was still high in Faith's belly, which was reassuring for the moment but there was no way to tell if the baby was settled there or just preparing himself to turn and face the exit. She rubbed the bump soothingly and received another palm-numbing kick.
"So is the baby coming?" Faith panted.
"I do not think so. At least not right now."
"I feel like I'm gonna throw up."
"Okay." She didn't know what else to say, or do. They should be moving but it was clear Faith wouldn't be able to for a while.
"I think maybe I need something to eat."
Toni smiled. "I could drag one of the Harpies body's in here. It probably tastes like..." Faith rolled to the side quickly and vomited. Toni wrinkled her nose as she looked down at the mess on her clothes. "...chicken. Could you not have tried to avoid me?"
"Huh?" Groggily wiping her mouth, Faith looked confused but then brightened a great deal. "Did I get ya?"
Still looking down in disgust, Toni nodded, "Si, considerably."
Faith chuckled, "Sorry, dude, didn't see you there."
"Very funny. Do you feel better?"
"Not really. Well, maybe a little. I think if I just... owww!" Faith had tried to sit up but the action made her clutch her stomach even tighter. Her groan of pain petered out as her eyes rolled back in her head and then she slumped back, unconscious.
"Scopata!" Alarmed, Toni went up on her knees, mindless of the thorns dragging her hair and the mess soaking into her clothes. Fearing the worse, she checked the pulse in Faith's neck. It was weak but constant. She was still breathing but Toni checked her airway anyway to make sure there was no residue from the sickness left in her throat.
"What is wrong with you?" she muttered.
There was no excess of blood on her face or dress to suggest that she had lost too much. With a slight grimace she lifted the wedding dress to make sure Faith wasn't bleeding from there. She wasn't. Another palm check proved the fetus was still active, albeit more languid now that Faith was inert.
There were no outward signs at all as to why Faith had passed out. If it wasn't for the lack of snoring she'd think that the slayer had simply fallen asleep mid-sentence again. At least she appeared more at peace now than she had conscious. Perhaps Faith just needed the rest so badly that this was her body's way of demanding it.
Toni rolled Faith onto her side, just to be cautious, and then because there really wasn't enough room for them both, crawled out from under the bush. When she was free of the pricking thorns she stood to survey the landscape. It was much the same as she remembered - a desert almost, with patches of scrub and small thickets dotted here and there. Strange rock formations sprouted up in the grey environment, the only sign that they had left Tartarus at a different place to which Toni had entered.
The city was probably still a day or more away, meaning they were as good as alone in the wilderness. Despite still being deep in Hades, she felt safer than she had in a while.
What to do now? She could not leave to fetch food or water - if she could even find any - because it would leave Faith unprotected. Looking back at the bush it was obvious she wasn't very protected anyway. She needed to find better shelter in case Faith was unconscious for a long time.
She found desirable accommodation quickly. Many of the large termite-mound-like rock structures had low caves in their bases. She found one large enough to walk into and stopped just inside the darkness, waiting for something malevolent to spring at her. When it didn't happen she took another step in and encountered the back of the hollowed out area. It was very shallow but better than the bush.
She went back to Faith, tried once to shake her awake with no success, and then pushed an arm under her knees and another behind her back to lift her. Thank Juno she had her strength back, or else with Faith's hugely swelled stomach she would never have been able to raise her from the ground.
Faith mumbled something incoherent as Toni carried her to the cave but showed no other signs of regaining consciousness. She placed her down on the coarse sand as gently as possible and then settled next to her, but sitting reminded Toni that the contents of Faith's stomach were still clinging to her clothes. She smelled disgusting! She felt too exhausted to leave the shelter of the cave, though. Hidden in here there was a chance she could get a few hours of real sleep herself and she needed it badly, having done nothing but doze since finding Faith.
If only she could take the soiled clothes off . . .
It occurred to her that she was still invisible and the opportunity was just too good to resist. Unbuckling the sword scabbard, she laid it between them and pulled her top off. It was probably unwise to just throw it through the cave's entrance - someone might see, or smell, it and come to investigate - and so she left the cave and stashed it back in the thorn bushes. She took off her pants too and pushed them as far beneath the prickly bush as she dared to go with so much bare skin. She could fetch them when they left the cave and wash them in one of the many rivers flowing through Hades as they traveled.
Back in the cave, she left the sword where it was - within easy reach of them both - and checked Faith's pulse again. It felt stronger, she hoped. She lay down with her head pressed to the far wall, not wanting to be too close to Faith, but it made her feet stick out into the open. Sighing, she shifted over diagonally until her feet were tucked into the cave and she could feel the brush of Faith's stomach against her back. Trying to ignore it, she closed her eyes and thought about Buffy, hoping it would help her drift off into a peaceful sleep.
She was just getting to a particularly nice and comforting part of her daydream, half-asleep already, when Faith shuffled closer.
"Move over, B; my bed too," she mumbled before an arm wrapped loosely around her waist.
Toni clenched her eyes shut and mouthed a few Italian obscenities, but otherwise kept still. Despite the uncomfortable situation at least it meant Faith was only sleeping now and not about to die.
She was just drifting off again when the baby, pressed snugly against her, kicked her hard in the back. "Maledetto!"
Toni awoke to darkness and for a fleeting moment she thought she was still in Tartarus. She jerked into a sitting position and then realized the absence of light was because she was facing the inside of the cave now. She turned her head and outside was still grey, although a darker grey, meaning that what passed for night here was coming.
Faith was sitting up against the back wall, still holding her stomach but not in the same intense way she had been earlier. "'Sup?"
"Seems that way... just. You?"
"Just." Toni twisted and pulled herself against the wall so that she was sitting next to Faith. "How long have you been awake?"
"Dunno. Not long."
"Do you feel better?"
"Than I did? Sure."
Toni took that to mean she still wasn't feeling very good. "The baby?"
"Still kicking the shit outta me."
"Not from where I am." Faith paused for a beat. "So, wanna tell me why I woke up with you snuggling me in your underwear?"
"Scuzi?" Toni looked down at herself and then remembered taking her clothes off - and why. "You threw up on my clothes... and you were the one snuggling!"
"Yeah, I seriously doubt that, Tone. I don't snuggle. Just ask B," she added teasingly.
Toni had a dozen argumentative responses to that but before she could utter one something else became more important. "You can see me?"
"In the flesh. Lots of flesh." Faith's expression was somewhere between a leer and repulsion.
"Merde! That means the potion has worn off."
"That a problem? Thought the dangerous part was behind us."
She shook her head. "The worst bit is behind us but there is still plenty of danger ahead."
"Well that bites."
"Until we are out of Hades realm you could be recaptured at any moment... and I could be caught and punished for aiding your escape."
"Like I said: bites."
"Si. So do you think you can start walking again?"
Faith pulled a face and Toni noticed the slight but unmistakable way she held her stomach tighter. "I guess so."
It made the decision for her. "Night will fall soon and it will be cold. Perhaps we should wait here until first light. Rest some more."
"If that's what you want, sure. Not bothered either way."
Despite her nonchalant nod Faith's face gave her away. She liked the idea of staying put and surely that would not be the case if she felt fit enough to travel.
For once Toni went easy on her. "Then I think we should stay. We may lose the path if we wander in the dark anyway."
"Okay." Faith's hands relaxed but didn't leave her stomach. "So you got anything to eat or drink?"
"I am afraid not." She was feeling the lack of the human necessities too. "But when we start walking again in the morning we will soon reach the asphodel fields."
"It is a fruit."
"Sounds great," Faith deadpanned. "Rather have a Medley burger."
"It is not unappetizing and will offer nutrition to you and the baby."
"Guess that's what counts." Faith rubbed her stomach again. "This feels weird as hell, yunno?"
"Having a kid... like inside me. My kid! I mean, who can get used to that?"
Toni just shrugged.
"Didn't even want kids! They're a nuisance, always screaming and sticky and shit!"
"But?" Toni asked, knowing there was one coming.
"But... the thought of this little thing not making it..." Faith paused for nearly a minute as she rubbed her swollen belly tenderly. "Can't let it happen."
"It won't," Toni promised. "You are both going to make it back to the upperworld."
"Thought I'd lost it earlier."
"So did I," Toni admitted. "But you did not, and that shows how strong your baby is. If he can survive Tartarus he can survive Hades."
"I guess. How do you think B's gonna react?" Toni was silent for long enough that Faith thought better of her question. "Sorry. That's probably the last thing you wanna talk about."
Toni swallowed down her bitterness. "Buffy loves you," she said with difficulty. "I think she will cope."
Faith gave a short laugh. "She'd better cope! And she better be prepared to take her share of the shitty diapers and sleepless nights too seeing as this sprog is half hers."
Toni buried her head in her knees.
"Look, I know this is rough on you," Faith began. "But you gotta be prepared, right? If Buff chooses you over me when we get topside this little dude is gonna be in your life whether you like it or not. You're gonna be like its step-mom or something. You better be okay with that!"
"Buffy will never choose me over you," Toni groaned, although for once that wasn't the source of her grief. "Faith..."
She hesitated, should she really be the one to tell Faith the truth? It should come from Buffy, or even better, from Troy. He was the one that had gotten them all into this mess after all. She couldn't let Faith go on thinking the baby was Buffy's though. That was just too cruel; and Buffy wouldn't thank her for it later.
"Still can't believe this is happening," Faith said again. "When B first told me what Eos... whatever she's called - the Easter Bunny - was trying to do I thought she was full of shit. Especially after she made me go for the scan and nothing showed up."
Buffy had made Faith go for an ultrasound? Not for the first time Toni wondered what side effects had occurred because of her deceitfulness. She hadn't realized Eostre was in contact with Buffy until months after the fact, when Buffy had told her over the phone. At the time she had given it very little concern - Eostre was inconsequential compared to Troy, and herself - now though she realized that the prophecy keeper was more entwined in their lives than she had thought.
"Guess she got us the second time though after all. Thing is, I wanna be mad at her but..." Faith rubbed her belly again. "Hard to be mad when I got a little Buffy inside me, ya know?"
"Faith, don't!" Toni snapped, rising so swiftly to her feet that she banged her head on the curved roof of the cave.
"What?" Faith asked, aggrieved.
The tone of her voice was a reminder that Faith was not in the wrong in here. It was a mystery to her how Faith had jumped to such wild conclusions but that did not mean she deserved anger in response. Faith was, ironically, the innocent party in this - manipulated by Troy, kept in the dark by Buffy and deliberately mislead by herself. It had been necessary, Toni still did not doubt that, but the time for deception was over.
"Faith," she began again, forcing the harsh edge from her voice. "There is something you should know."
"Okay, I'm listening." When Toni couldn't find the words, only able to stand there and look down upon her in distress, Faith panicked, lurching forward into a more upright position. "What? What is it? Is Buffy...? You told me she was okay! Did something happen to her? What the...?"
"Buffy is fine." The hard note was back in her voice; it hurt to hear such an honest declaration of Faith's love for her girlfriend. "This is... something else."
Faith relaxed back against the rocky wall, her hand briefly fluttering over her stomach as if to reassure herself the fetus was still there. "Okay, out with it."
Toni pressed her lips into an unhappy line. She did not want to have this conversation. She turned away from Faith to try and assemble her thoughts into the shortest sentences possible and then found it difficult to turn back. She stared out at the grey-black landscape and took a deep breath; the truth should not be so difficult to tell. It was not as if she was suddenly scared of hurting Faith's feelings.
Their journey across the hostile terrain had lulled the animosity between them; they had fallen into camaraderie, sharing snipes and barbs back and forth without the usual intent to hurt. Revealing the truth to Faith could destroy their truce completely, but why did she care? She did not want to be friends with this woman who could steal Buffy from her in a heartbeat - and would once they made it back home. She owed her nothing at all but the truth.
"The baby is not Buffy's."
"What?" Faith drew the word out in confused amusement.
Toni turned back to her. "Buffy has no connection to your baby."
"Of course she does," Faith scoffed, rubbing her stomach tenderly. "Who the hell else's is it gonna be?"
Toni dropped to one knee beside her. "Who do you think? It is Troy's!"
Faith shook her head. "You might wanna believe that but it's not true. It's B's, mine and B's. Only thing that makes sense."
"Think, Faith, how does you and Buffy conceiving a child together make the most sense? How do you imagine it is even possible?"
"Hey, I know it ain't normal. Not like I think B's got some kinda chick-sperm and can go around impregnating any girl she wants. We had a prophecy."
"You had a prophecy?"
"Yeah, from the Easter Bunny - I told you this earlier - we supplied the hot lovin', she supplied the magical turkey baster... bam... miracle baby."
Toni shook her head, "That was not your prophecy."
"Like hell it wasn't. Two Slayers, lots of sex, something to do with the Scythe - B never really gave me all the details but how could it not be about us?"
"The prophecy does not mention two slayers, only the bloodline of the Slayer."
"Yeah, well, whatever, that doesn't make any difference. Wait, how do you know exactly what it says? Did she tell you more about this than me?"
"No, I have read the original prophecy."
"Huh." Faith shrugged. "Then you know it's pretty clear. The kid's Buffy's."
"It is Troy's."
"How can it be his? We were always careful. He was more freakin' worried about it than me."
"Always? Think, Faith, was there not perhaps one time when passion overruled responsibility? When he did not think of protection? Did not give you time to think of it either? Maybe one occasion shortly before the wedding where your union was a little different to usual?"
Faith was lost in thought for several minutes and Toni could see exactly when the truth dawned on her. Her eyes went round with surprise and then narrowed.
"He never did tell me why there was a flock of fuckin' penguins under the castle." Her eyes hardening, she asked, "How do you know all this?"
Toni didn't answer.
Faith pointed at her stomach. "If this was an accident you wouldn't be in on all the details, so how do you know all this?"
Toni sighed. "It was very important that this prophecy came to pass, Faith; that you would bear Troy's child. I have been helping him make it so."
"You helped him get me pregnant?" Faith asked sceptically. "'Cause I don't remember you being in the room."
Toni gave a tight shake of her head. "My task was to keep Buffy from interfering."
"I was to seduce her and..."
"Wait, what?" Faith cut her off, shouting, "All this time you've been using her?"
"No, I..." Faith's fist struck her nose, cutting her words off more effectively than the shouting had.
"How could you do that to her?" Faith hit her nose again and Toni felt the bone break this time. She didn't think to retaliate, only tried to defend herself and explain as Faith threw another punch. "She fucking loves you... trusts you... and you..."
"If you would just listen..."
"No way, you bullshitting...!"
"Faith, please just... ?"
"Why won't you... just... shut...the fuck...up..." Faith went up on her knees, anger overriding her clumsy body, to deliver a final, devastating blow. "...bitch!"
Thankfully, Toni was already unconscious before the back of her head bounced off of the hard ground.
Part vii: Forget-Her-Not
As Toni came around, groaning at the soreness of her face, she knew something wasn't right. She blinked through the confusion and probed her short term memory loss until she understood what it was.
Holding a hand over her nose and one eye - in case the feeling that her face was about to fall off was not just a concussed delusion - she sat up and looked around the shallow cave.
Faith was gone.
So was the sword.
Even the short curse hurt her swollen mouth. This was good. Faith could not have departed long before or else her injuries would have begun to heal and, she winced as her tongue poked the inside of her cut cheek experimentally, they definitely had not.
The grey light outside the cave was dim now and Faith was nowhere to be seen. Toni hoped that the slayer had remembered the way they'd been traveling before the Harpy attack - and that she wasn't feeling so unreasonable right now that she'd deliberately walked in another direction. She would not put it past Faith in the mood she was in but there was only one direction Toni could try at a time, and with that thought she set off at a fast pace. She had to catch up to her before something else found her.
She'd gone a hundred yards before she remembered to go back and fetch her clothes from the bushes. Worry making her angry now, she held them bunched in one hand, and ran.
Faith must have been feeling better because she had made great ground. The speed with which she must have been traveling and the fact that she had veered off course meant that Toni was slightly winded when she finally caught up to her.
"Why did you run off like that?" she asked breathlessly. "It was very dangerous!"
"Running off is what I do." Faith didn't turn to look at her or slow down as she trudged through the asphodel fields. "And it woulda been more dangerous for you if I'd stayed."
Toni ignored the implied threat. "Do you want to be recaptured?" Faith acted like she hadn't heard. "Do you not care for the baby's sake if not for your own?"
Faith gave a sharp, brutal laugh. "You wanna avoid your face looking any uglier than it does right now, you might wanna stay away from baby talk."
She bristled. "Do not make the mistake of thinking I am afraid of you, Faith. The only reason I have not broken you in half since the return of my powers is because I know it would upset Buffy."
Faith gave that curt laugh again. "Maybe you should steer clear of 'B' words altogether, 'cause I hear her name come out of your mouth one more time I'm gonna do more than break you in half. There won't be a piece of you left big enough for your girlfriend to identify."
"Drop your arrogance! No matter how much you wish it so you do not have sole claim on Buffy's heart. You gave that gift up."
"And you shit all over yours too!" Faith spun tightly as she yelled, catching Toni two-handed in the chest and shoving her backwards. She raised a fist as if she was going to follow through with a punch but backed up and spun around again. "At least I can say I really love her."
"You cannot know my true feelings for Buffy," Toni countered.
"You're right. See, I thought I knew you cared about her but that was obviously bullshit."
"I love her very deeply."
"You don't use people you love," Faith said flatly.
"You do not turn them away and make them miserable either."
"Sure ya do; trust me, I got experience."
Undeterred by Faith's flippant response Toni continued, "You do not hurt them by giving them false hope or by flaunting your relationship with someone else until they are on the edge of madness."
Faith turned abruptly on the narrow path again. "I never did that!"
"You asked her to be your Maid of Honor... and her wedding planner!" Toni snapped. "Do you have any idea how that made her feel?"
"Yeah, she was happy I asked."
It was Toni's turn to give into harsh laughter. "You are unbelievable! She was devastated."
"No, she wasn't."
"She could not tell you no because she was trying to be your friend, something that she has always put more faith in than it is worth, and so she struggled on in silence when every second with you was breaking her heart."
"Oh yeah, well if she was so silent how come you think you know all this?"
"Because all of the times you were oblivious I was busy listening."
"All the better to use her, huh?" Faith said with a cruel smirk.
Toni licked her lips as she toyed with conflicting urges to attack and make peace. Gathering all of her self-control she chose the latter.
"My duties were clear and unavoidable but my attraction to Buffy was real from the start."
"That doesn't mean squat. Who wouldn't be attracted to her?"
Toni could have pointed out that until recently she had been unable to feel such a thing for anyone and therefore her total attraction to Buffy was something of a marvel, but suspected it would just confuse matters.
"I told you the truth because you deserved to know but I owe you no explanations of my relationship with Buffy."
"Yeah, you think you're still gonna have a relationship when I tell her you've been lying to her all this time?"
"Do you think you will have one with her when she finds out you are carrying Troy's baby?"
She knew it was a low thing to say and Faith reacted by punching her already sore face. Incensed by the fresh burst of pain, Toni forgot herself and punched back hard, sending the weakened Faith reeling backwards.
"We can fight each other here, to the death if you wish, when we should be fighting together to get out of this place. . .but I will not be your punching bag again." Faith worked her jaw in circles silently and looked away. Toni, accepting that as her response, walked past her. "Follow me or make your own way," she called over her shoulder. "I care for your fate no longer."
"Never cared for yours in the first place," Faith said, but Toni could tell she was following.
The walked in silence for a long time and the fields of asphodel seemed endless. The further they walked the more evidence they saw that they were not alone. It should have been worrying because they were no longer invisible but Toni was more concerned with the discomfort she felt at walking around in her underwear. She was not generally bashful about nudity of any kind or degree - one of the side-effects of being a Goddess of Love - but here it felt wrong and in front of Faith it was rather uncomfortable.
As they walked by another group of ghostly humans she was broken from her thoughts.
"What are they?"
"The Shades of the Dead. Ignore them."
It was not that easy, though, when each figure turned to watch them pass. It would get worse, she knew. When the Shades were no longer occupied with mundane tasks in the fields, the piteous wailing would begin.
"If they're dead why are they working out here?"
"What did you think death would be like?"
That stumped Faith and it was a while before she said, "B said it was kinda warm and fluffy."
Toni smiled but there was no trace of it in her voice when she answered. "Buffy was in Heaven and you are a long way from Heaven."
"Are they picking the fruit off these bushes?"
"What do they need food for if they're dead?"
"The dead can eat, but it is a choice, not a necessity."
"Huh." There was a pause and then the sound of one of the round, green capsules being plucked from a plant followed by the noise of experimental chewing. "They're not so bad. Don't really taste like real olives though, yunno?"
"That is because they are not olives and, of course, they are poisonous to the living." A masticated pod hit and stuck to the bare skin between her shoulder blades, making her regret her lie. "I was joking; this is the asphodel plant I was telling you about. You may eat from it safely. In fact, it will do you more good than them," she added, nodding to another group of shades.
"Bitch," Faith muttered but without any real malice; her hunger was probably too extreme for her to care about anything else.
Toni could appreciate that, she was very hungry too. She reached behind her, flicking, with difficulty, the wet blob of fruit from her back and then began gathering fresh capsules to consume. Behind her she could hear Faith enthusiastically doing the same.
"Do not eat too many," she cautioned, before filling her mouth.
"Screw that, I'm starving!"
Toni thought about leaving it at that. A lie of omission would still keep Faith from Buffy but would not cause the same guilt. It only took her imagining the look on Buffy's face if she returned without Faith to change her mind.
"You cannot cross the river Styx if there is food consumed here still in your stomach."
How could she make it any simpler?! "You must expel everything you eat before we can leave Hades!"
Okay, Toni had said everything she could. If Faith could not pass through because she was stupid, that was not her fault.
"Oh, right!" Faith laughed. "Ya mean I gotta take a good crap first?"
"No problem, fruit goes right through me anyway."
Damn, Toni thought again, and walked on without a word.
They left the asphodel fields behind just as the dull grey turned to absolute darkness. Toni had hoped that because of the rest they'd had they wouldn't have to stop so soon but it was clear Faith was beginning to tire again.
They retraced their steps back to the edge of the field and camped, the tall plants offering some protection from malignant passers-by. They laid down several feet apart and exchanged no conversation, but as the temperature dropped and dropped and the wailing of the dead souls rose loud enough to chill them further they gradually wriggled closer until they were curled together - arms and ankles crossed so neither could be accused of snuggling but nevertheless sharing much needed body heat and comfort.
The tension between them was still there the next morning but greatly decreased. After yawning, stretching and getting their bearings they shared a silent breakfast of asphodel before continuing the march towards home.
Toni deliberately took them on a detour, trying to recall the sketchy maps she had seen of Hades recently and putting them with her remembered knowledge of the Underworld from over two thousand years ago.
She reached the riverbank a few steps ahead of Faith and went down on her knees to submerge both her shirt and top in the cool water.
"Looks clean," Faith observed, standing back from the edge. It did. With no pollution to despoil the water it was as clear and fresh as any mountain spring. "Do you have to go and foul it up like that with your gut-stink clothes?"
"It is your guts all over them," Toni said mildly, hooking her top on some reeds so that it still fell in the fast flow of the water while she scrubbed her pants.
"True. Guess I can drink upstream."
Faith was already kneeling by the edge, her cupped hands dipping into the water, when her intention registered.
Faith looked up, startled, "What?"
"Do not drink that!"
"I'm dying of thirst here!" She started to raise her hands to her mouth.
Toni lunged towards her and slapped them away.
"This is the River Lethe! If you drink from it you will forget everything!"
"Really?" Faith watched the water thoughtfully. "So how much memory would I lose from a sip?"
"Are you really that thirsty?"
"Nah, just got a few thing's I'd like to forget," she spoke casually but her expression was serious.
For the first time since being told the truth, that Toni had noticed, Faith touched her stomach. It wasn't a tender caress this time; more an investigational prod as if she was hoping it had disappeared while she wasn't thinking about it.
"If you drink from the waters you will still be pregnant. You will just forget why and by whom."
"Which is kinda what's I'm looking for," Faith said.
Toni kept her tongue while she twisted her pants to wring the water out.
"B would have to still love me if the kid was hers," Faith said quietly. "Now...?" she shrugged.
Toni started to slap her pants against a rough boulder to dry them quicker - perhaps a little more fiercely than necessary. "Buffy will still love you."
"Why would she?"
"You are asking me? I do not know why she loves you in the first place!"
Faith gave a chuckle, "Me neither, but she did. You got a point though. Can't see her sticking around once she finds out the kid is Troy's."
"She already knows Troy is the father."
"What?" Faith's anger rose and fell as she wondered, "What else have I fuckin' missed?" She watched the river again and pushed one hand in to get a palmful of the clear water. After a few seconds she let it run through her fingers but scooped up some more. "One mouthful and it would be like ending it all without the bad karma of suicide, right?"
"Why would you want to do that? She knows everything and she still loves you."
"You can't know that for sure."
"Do you think I would be here if I didn't? Do you not think I would be encouraging you to drink if I had any doubt? Do you honestly think I would not be drowning you in there right now if there was a chance Buffy could love me as much as you?"
"Don't feed me more bullshit, Tone. I already figured out why you're really here."
"Gotta protect Troy's interests, right? Make sure his brat gets home safe and sound."
"That is not true."
"Sure it is. You said yourself you've been working for him all along. Really expect me to believe you switched sides right when his kid goes missing?"
"Everyone is so concerned with sides." Toni spread her pants out on the ground, wishing there was sun to help them dry, and began to wash her top as she thought about her own situation.
"Troy thinks I have defected to Buffy's side, you believe I am only here to represent Troy's and Buffy. . .Buffy wants to think the best of me but I fear she cannot help thinking the worst."
"Yeah, I used to get that from her a lot too." Faith started to wash in the river water but was very careful not to get any too near her face.
"How did you get past it?"
Faith chuckled again. "Like I'd tell you."
Toni smiled despite herself. "I do not know why there has to be sides now that it is all out in the open - except for you against me, obviously."
Faith smirked. "You're fooling yourself. Buffy and Troy are never gonna get along either." She looked down at her stomach again. "And this is only gonna make it worse. So whether you want to or not, you better pick one before we get outta here."
Toni shook her head. "No. I am Troy's best friend and I am Buffy's girlfriend until she chooses otherwise. And I have devoted too much time to the conception of your son to not be invested in his life also. So if the three of you wish to squabble about your fates so be it, but from now on I remain neutral."
"Really think it'll be that easy?"
"Nothing important is ever easy. I thought you would have realized this by now."
Faith shrugged, "Guess I should have done."
Toni's clothes were still uncomfortably damp when they entered the City of Hades but at least they were clean. Not that her appearance would matter here but it was nice to know that when they passed through to the mortal world she would at least be more presentable than Faith.
If only that was all it would take to have Buffy choose her.
They did not stop to sleep that night. Even though Faith was probably in dire need of a rest after all of their walking, she did not ask for one and Toni did not suggest it. The city was as cold as the fields as they wearily marched on down roads bordered on both sides by dilapidated high-rise apartment blocks. It was a slum lord's paradise and the property value only plummeted further when you remembered that the slum lord in question was Hades himself.
"Grew up somewhere kinda like this," Faith muttered, and because it was the first time either of them had spoken for the better part of a day Toni turned automatically to the sound of her voice.
"Only with less dead people, I assume," she said. She was getting aggravated with the constant wailing and pleading of the Shades.
They knew they could not re-enter the world of the living so why did they insist on begging for her help in safe passage through the veil? She was not even sure if she would be able to pass back through safely yet.
"Not really, these ones here just don't stink up the sidewalk so much."
Toni frowned. "Where exactly did you grow up? Calcutta?"
Faith shrugged. "Bad side of South Boston."
Toni had never been to Boston so she didn't know its bad side from its good but she nodded anyway. "After that and prison, living with Troy must have been irresistible."
"I wasn't with him for his money!" Faith snapped.
Toni blinked in surprise. "I know."
Faith went on like she hadn't spoken. "I was with him because he's a good guy. Least I thought he was. . ." she glanced down at her stomach. "He gave me stuff you can't buy: self-respect, real confidence, a way to. . .to make up for my past."
Yes, that was exactly what Troy had given her because that was what he had known she craved. Toni knew that Troy had not begun his own seduction with gifts of expensive clothes and jewelery like some men might have. He had led with his mind, with his knowledge of women in general and Faith in particular, and despite his Lothario past he could be very sensitive for a God. She assumed it was because since the year of his birth he had been more interested in books than swords and therefore had been given far more attention by his mother than his father. Toni knew their first date had been in a shabby Cleveland bar at lunchtime and they had been dating over a month - by which time Faith had already committed herself to the relationship - before Troy took her to a restaurant whose specials didn't include chicken in a basket or a main dish so soaked in grease it did laps around the plate.
Faith did not fall for his money; she fell for him, because he had worked hard at making her feel special for being who she was. It was actually incredible that it had worked, considering, she decided unkindly, but still not as impressive as her sublime seduction of Buffy.
"So he was really just using me from the start?" The way Faith asked made it clear she was hoping Toni would say no.
"The prophecy concerning his son's birth is vitally important to the future of humanity. He had a choice of Slayers to be the child's mother but he was drawn to you - I still do not understand why - and decided that the honor should be yours."
Faith took a while to answer. "Fair enough."
"Really?" Toni asked, surprised. "You are okay with that?"
The city was a long way behind them. The tale of their passing through would be everywhere by now - it was not often the living walked through the city of the dead after all - and Toni was very aware that it was only a matter of time before Hades learned of their presence in his domain. Time was truly of the essence now and delays would almost certainly lead to their capture.
"I need to stop for a minute." Faith had been slowing down and holding her stomach more and more in the last few hours.
Toni had been deliberately ignoring it. "We do not have time to sleep now."
"I didn't say sleep. Just gotta sit."
"No, we must keep going. It is not far now."
They walked for another twenty minutes or so.
"How far's not far?"
Toni didn't know. It could be another hour or another six. "Not far."
"Getting sick of hearing you say that."
Toni shrugged, unbothered. They walked on. It turned out not to be only another hour.
"Seriously Tone, I gotta stop."
"Call me by my real name for once and I will consider it," she said without looking at her.
Toni didn't react and continued to walk. Some more time went by and she really needed a rest herself but it was too dangerous. The only chance they had was to get beyond the gates before Hades came looking for them.
"Okay, Toni, I need to sit the fuck down!"
"Toni is not my given name."
"Toni is a shortened version of my name, like B or Effie," she said with unnecessary derision.
"Well, how am I supposed to know your real name?" Faith griped.
"I have told you before."
"Yeah, well, I can't even remember Troy's real name so dunno how you expect me to remember yours."
"It is Antonella."
Faith frowned. "Doesn't sound all that Greek."
"I am not Greek, I am Roman." They were walking towards a grove of pomegranate trees and she directed Faith into their shaded cover. "We can rest five minutes."
"What changed your mind?"
"Once we get to the other side of the gates we may have to run very, very fast."
"More gates?" Faith groaned. "I dunno if I can fight off Batwoman again."
"There will be no Erinyes at this gate. In any case, if there is a fight, I will do so this time and you will run."
Faith was too spent to argue. She leaned against a tree staring up at the fruit but did not attempt to pluck one. "So what does Antonella stand for?"
"It means flower."
Faith sneered. "I'm getting rescued by the Goddess of Flowers? Jeez, that's gonna damage my rep to all hell and back. . .literally!"
Toni couldn't help but laugh. "No, I am not the Goddess of Flowers. I am a Goddess of Love."
Faith did not act awed by that, like Toni had hoped, she just said, "Huh."
The grove fell silent and Toni relaxed back against her own tree, trying to clear her mind before they faced going through the gate.
"So if you're a love goddess, how come you got named after a flower? I thought the naming process was a little more specific for you divine types."
Toni blushed and tried to answer without answering. "Not necessarily. We were named in respect to our gifts but the languages have shifted greatly over the centuries. Now it is difficult to remember why we were called what we were."
Having caught the redness in her cheeks, Faith turned her head, giving her a sly look. "You remember though, don'tcha."
Toni licked her lips and turned away.
"Come on. . .tell me or I'm just gonna keep asking. Or I'll ask Buffy."
Buffy did not know but Toni didn't want her asking too. She huffed a sigh. "It implies the shape of a woman's genitalia!"
Faith took a second to get it and then exploded into laughter. "You were named after pussy?" Still laughing, she slid down the tree, holding her swelled stomach. "Wow, your parents were real pervs, huh?"
"No! It had different, respectable connotations then."
"If you say so," Faith said, still chuckling.
Irritable, Toni pushed away from her tree. "Come now, we have rested enough."
"Five more minutes," Faith whined like a child.
"Please, Antonella!" Faith said with a smirk.
"You can not embarrass me with my name! It is not a direct translation." But she relented and sat down herself. "Why are you called Faith?"
"Dunno, you'd have to ask my dad. . ." Faith sat forward in a hurry. "Shit! What about my dad? Is he alright? What happened when I. . .?"
Toni cut in quickly to reassure her. "He seemed to convince himself that you had used the distraction of the smoke and everyone shouting to run away. Once that became apparent nobody tried to convince him otherwise."
"Sunnydale Syndrome," Faith said, relieved. Toni didn't know what it meant but she'd heard Buffy and her friends using similar terms at the time and so she nodded. "Good. So he's okay?"
"He stayed in Wendigo Hollow with us for a day, until Mr. Giles could arrange him a flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles. He requested that we have you call him when you resurfaced but he did not sound as if he expected that to be soon - probably because Troy was there too."
"So Troy's at the house?"
"Good." Faith clambered up with the help of the tree behind her. "Let's go."
"You are eager to see him?" Toni asked, hopeful. This gave her and Buffy a chance!
"Yeah." Faith patted her tummy once she was up. "I think me and the boy have some things to talk about, don't you?"
Toni nodded as she watched her chance dissipate like mist in morning sun.
"So this is the Gate?" Faith murmured stealthily.
"Only I'm seeing a distinct lack of monsters calling me names and trying to kill me."
Faith was keeping watch as Toni slipped the black-gold key out of her pocket once again. She was being so amiable and diligent right now that Toni did not like to tell her that all the danger was on the other side.
"I hope your luck continues." She slipped the key into the lock and it turned as easily as before.
"So once we're through here we're home free, right?"
"Not exactly." The gate swung open and she nodded Faith through before closing it softly again.
"What do you mean 'not exactly'?"
The growling saved Toni from having to answer and they both spun in the direction of it. The creature was fifty feet away but the ferocity of its growls carried easily. Its hackles were writhing and hissing fiercely too as it took an attacking stance.
"And that would be?"
"Cerberus," Toni whispered. "Try and make no sudden moves."
"Will that help?"
"Probably not," she admitted.
When he knew he had their attention he started to bark, all three heads at once making a tremendous racket, warning his master of their presence. Toni knew they had to act now and risk being torn apart by the monstrous dog, because believe it or not they stood a better chance that way than waiting for Hades to show up.
"We have to run."
Faith smiled grimly. "Okay, you first."
"Together," she insisted. "On three."
"Fuck three. If we're doing this, let's do it!" And Faith started to run straight towards Cerberus.
"Not that way!" Toni yelled, wanting to bash Faith's brains in for her foolishness. Who ran towards the monster? Stupido slayers! "Away from it!"
It was too late. Cerberus had started to run as Faith did and the only way to protect her now was to get between them. Luckily, right now she could run faster and did so, trying not to focus on the fact that this would lead to her being mauled to death in Faith's place!
Self-preservation kicked in as she passed the Slayer, sub-consciously engaging her special abilities. She felt the power tingle all through her, warming her, making her feel invincible, but she didn't think it would give her punch enough weight to see off the beast.
She cringed but kept going as Cerberus pounced, brought her fist forward with exactly the amount of no avail she had expected, heard Faith shout her name in panic and felt the mutt's drool hit her face as she landed on her back under his bulk.
Then there was a moment, while she waited for a bite or three to take chunks from her body, where she wasn't sure what was happening. The monster was on her, three muzzles were slobbering over her face and neck and above that his serpentine mane was hissing in ecstasy. Still no fatal bite came.
Then she got it. . .and wished she hadn't.
"Oh yeah, he looks real dangerous," Faith was laughing now.
He was humping her leg, or trying to, thankfully, due to his size, he was mostly humping empty air. Toni did not still want to be laying there when he tried to rectify that.
"Pull him off of me!"
"What, and spoil this romantic moment?"
"Faith!" Cerberus was licking her amorously now, three tongues at once. "Ack, that one went in my mouth! Faith, I was trying to save your life! Help me!"
Faith walked away, still laughing. "Just lay back and think of Italy, Tone."
Toni tried battering Cerberus about the head but it didn't make any difference to his affections. "Bad dog! Stop it! Faith!"
The big Mastiff-shaped heads were blocking her view of everything but pink-black tongues, sharp white teeth and cold, wet noses until a piercing whistle cut through the canine's excited whimpers. A head looked up with a curious woof while the other two continued to bestow Toni with 'kisses'; opening up just enough space to see the thick branch Faith was holding.
"Hey, mutt?" The slayer pulled her arm back and let fly. "Fetch!"
The motion and the whoosh of displaced air attracted the attention of another head and two heads over-ruled one. With several yips of exhilaration he bounced off of Toni and raced away after the stick.
Without giving her a second to recover from her ordeal, Faith yanked her up. "I am so looking forward to telling B how that mongrel totally made you his bitch," she said, laughing delightedly.
There was no point explaining that technically she had made Cerberus her bitch; Faith was too amused by her predicament to believe the truth and she was too disturbed by the timely yet alarming flare of her power to talk about it. And so she grit her teeth, ran for the river and tried to come up with a more embarrassing story to tell Buffy about Faith.
Part viii: Hard to Leave; Good to Go
They ran as fast as they could; the thud of heavy paws still audible. Faith's throw had been strong but it was only a matter of time before Cerberus came back the other way with his trophy stick and right now Toni didn't know which would be worse - to be torn apart by the savage three-headed dog or be humped to death by the love-struck mutt!
"Fuck! A river!" Faith yelled as they came upon the Styx, and digging her heels into the sticky mud was the only thing that saved her from running straight off of the bank.
Toni stopped beside her. "It is okay; we can build a raft."
"What out of? Grass and sand?"
Faith's concern was understandable. There were no trees or driftwood on this side of the river and they didn't have time to weave something out of the reeds.
Toni looked around for inspiration, "Um."
"Um? You're saying um right now? Do fuckin' better, Tone!"
"Shut up!" She was trying to think.
"You shut up. Is that a boat out there?"
"Hey, dude! Dude!" Faith started waving her arms.
"Stop it! What are you doing?"
"Getting us a ride out of here!"
"Faith, that is Charon!"
"He is not a dude; he is the Ferryman."
"Which sounds exactly like what we need. Hey, Charon! Sail over here!"
"You do not understand! He ferries the dead from the living world to Hades. He is not going to give us a ride!"
Faith was ducking down into the tall reeds. "You're one of them, right? All mythical and that. . .like him."
"What does that have to do with anything?" She could see that the boat was coming closer. It did not give her a good feeling.
"Well, he's gonna know you. Use that!"
"How?" she asked incredulously.
"I dunno, ask about his kids of something."
"He is Charon!" That obviously still meant nothing to Faith who was now out of sight of the river. "What is your part in this insane plan?"
"Keep him talking and we'll see."
"And you think that is better than 'Um'?" Toni shouted.
Faith didn't answer and Toni wasn't foolish enough to yell anymore. The boat was close enough now for her to hear the creak of its oars as Charon rowed. It was a big boat and she wondered how he sculled it so expertly to the bank - millennia of practice, she supposed.
The hull butted gently into the outermost reeds and Charon looked back over his shoulder. "It is you," he said in Greek. "I forget your name. There are so many names."
"Si, it is I, Antonella. It is a pleasure to see you again, Charon."
"The pleasure is all yours. How are you here and why did you hail me?"
Toni hesitated but she really couldn't think of anything better. "I was wondering how your children are?"
The Ferryman's face was covered by his deep cowl but Toni could sense his confused frown. "What is this nonsense?"
Faith made her move then; hurtling out of the reeds with a war cry and launching herself at the boat. Her large stomach hindered her, slowing her leap and making it awkward to climb over the side. She managed it but lost the element of surprise and by the time she'd boarded Charon was standing up with an oar held up between them.
It did not faze the slayer. She ducked the first swing of it and jumped over the second. The third struck her left arm and she grunted in pain but reacted swiftly, reaching out with her right hand to grab the middle of the oar. The boat rocked as they wrestled for control and Faith won when she yanked him forward and punched him in his hooded face. As the Ferryman flailed backwards Faith took advantage and beat him continuously with the paddle until she managed to knock him over the side. He landed with a big splash in the fetid water.
"Are you comin' or not?" Faith called down to her. "And for the record, I'm happy with not."
It had all happened so quickly - maybe ninety seconds had passed since Faith had jumped out of the reeds - that Toni was still standing on the bank with her mouth open.
She could hear paws thundering towards them as Cerberus brought back his stick and Charon was splashing around in the river, cursing them both to Tartarus, and the combination made Toni recover fast. She leapt onto the boat - much more gracefully than Faith had - and said, "Go!"
"Yeah, about that." Faith was looking at her oar now like it was a foreign object.
Toni sat down on the low bench and grabbed the other oar in both hands. "Just put the big end in the water and copy me."
Faith complied and they started to move - in circles!
"You are rowing too fast!"
"I figured fast was good!"
"Not if we cannot keep the same time! Follow my instruction: In the water. . .two. . .three. In the water. . .two. . .three. In the water. . .two. . .three."
They were soon zipping across the river like a speed boat, leaving foamy, white crested waves on the yellow-brown water.
"How did you overpower him?" she asked when they were more than halfway across the wide river. "The Ferryman is infallible."
"You want infallible you don't pick a dude with a girly name like Karen."
"His name is Charon."
"S'what I said."
They hit the opposite bank with the sound of splitting wood but neither of them cared. Toni leapt out easily and then leapt back in to help Faith jump over the side. When they were both on solid ground they looked back. Charon was swimming towards them, nearly as fast as they had rowed; he was only feet away from joining them on the shore. Cerberus had taken to the river too but one of his heads didn't seem to like the water as much as the other two and his snake-mane was siding with the disagreeable head. He was going around in circles more than the boat had before they'd figured out the rowing.
"He catches us, it's bad, right?" Faith asked, meaning Charon.
"Then let's split!"
They turned and ran together and behind them they heard the Ferryman come out of the river, his boots sucking at the mud and his clothes squelching as he walked.
"This sucks, man!" Faith yelled as they ran. "Are we ever gonna get out of this fuckin' nightmare?"
Toni laughed, exhilarated, "Si, Faith, we are. See those mountains?"
They were maybe a mile away. "Yeah."
"Run for them with every ounce of strength you have left!"
It turned out to be more like five miles but Charon gave up before they were halfway there. Both exhausted, they walked the last half mile and when they finally entered the shade of the tunnel, Toni stopped.
"We are here."
"Really?" Faith looked around the rocky passage. "Home doesn't look like I remember it."
Toni felt relieved enough to chuckle. "Be patient."
She led the way up the tunnel until they met the barrier between the planes. It didn't take her long to recite the incantation and they passed through with no problems.
"We are on the surface again," she said, her relief making her voice giggly.
She could not believe they had done it, she had done it. It was miraculous. When she had promised Buffy she would undertake this mission a big part of her had never thought she would survive it, let alone accomplish it.
"Not seeing a lot of surface around here," Faith said, refusing to share her jubilant moment.
Toni walked up the tunnel.
Faith followed. "Oh. Eww. Ow! Shit. What is that?"
"Bat shit," she said, grinning, wiping the stinging crap from her own arms as the squeaking rodents flew away.
They reached the sunlight soon enough and Toni held out her arms and threw her head back to soak it up. She had half-expected it to be an overcast day just to spite them but the sun burned down brilliantly. Even Faith smiled again when its natural warmth enveloped her.
"We're really back." She chuckled self-consciously, "Kinda got the urge to get down and kiss the earth, yunno?"
Toni smiled. "I will not think less of you if you do. Although it would be hard for me to think less of you anyway."
Faith nudged her shoulder, laughing. "Save it, Tone. We both know you love me."
"Not as much as you love me."
"Is what it is," Faith said, laughing again. "So where on Earth are we exactly?"
"Greece. Which means we have to leave very quickly because I am banished right now and I cannot imagine your presence will be welcomed either."
"Okay, so how do we leave?"
"We call for a portal."
"Sweet." Faith perched on one of the smaller rocks by the cave to rest, her hands going to her lower back. "I need either a hot bath or a massage like now. Preferably both. So go to it."
Smiling sympathetically, Toni reached into her pocket. Then she checked her other pocket. Not alarmed just yet she checked the back pockets of her pants. They were empty too. Now she was alarmed!
"Where is it?"
"Where's what?" Faith asked, not too concerned.
"The stone!" She checked all of her pockets again but she found nothing but the Key. "We cannot get home without the stone!"
"The stone! It is. . .a magick cell phone, you could say. I need to recite the words over it to let Marco know we are back. It must have fallen from my pocket."
She remembered taking off her pants and stuffing them carelessly into a bush, and then just as carelessly washing them in a fast flowing river.
"It is lost."
"Good going. Got an actual cell phone on you?"
"Of course not. Do you?
"Of course not," Faith echoed her. "So now what do we do?"
Toni sighed; the nearest village was miles away. The nearest city much further. Still, there was no other way.
So they did, a long way in the scorching heat, until Faith was fed up.
"Okay, that's it. Next car goes past I'm showing some leg."
"I think you'll be showing more stomach than leg."
"Screw you." They walked in silence until Faith said, "Okay, you show the leg."
"I'm wearing pants."
"So take them off."
"I do not think so."
"I'm starting to see why B likes you."
Toni smiled, "Why?"
"You're both prudes!"
"I am not a prude!"
"Well, either you get us a ride soon or I'm dying on the side of this road like a dog."
"I am okay with that."
But two miles later. . .
"You are getting very heavy!" Toni hoisted Faith further up her back.
"You shoulda thought twice about getting me pregnant then," Faith retaliated.
"I did not get you pregnant!"
"Yeah but Troy ain't here and you were all proud about having a hand in it."
"I did not say I was proud of it."
"Whatever. Giddy-up, horsey."
"I am not averse to throwing you over that fence, you know?"
"Go for it. I'll just climb back on and kick harder."
"So Buffy has told me." Faith kicked her hip but it just made Toni grin more.
Three miles later they were walking side by side again.
"Yunno, I thought escaping from the underworld was gonna be the hard part."
Toni sighed. "Maybe if you stopped talking for two minutes this would be easier."
"And why would I want to make it easier on you?"
"Why would you not?"
"I wouldn't be in this mess if it wasn't for you. I didn't forget. That lightning bolt had your name on it!"
"I did not ask you to jump in front of it."
"If I hadn't Buffy would have been the one stuck down there."
Toni nodded, "Thank you."
A mile later they reached the village. There was a tavern, there always was, and while Faith ordered a jug of water, she used the old-fashioned payphone beside the bar.
Despite having called it several dozen times before, the number for the house eluded her so she called Troy's cell. She spoke to him for less than a minute, giving her location and not much else regardless of his questions, before hanging up.
She walked to Faith's side and ordered a vodka for herself. "The portal will be ready in five minutes," she whispered.
"Good." Faith nodded slowly. She glanced down at her stomach. "What do I say?"
"Either of them."
Toni shrugged, "You should tell Buffy that you love her but can never be with her now because you are carrying Troy's son."
"Okay I'm confused. Are you saying that 'cause you want me away from B, or because you're looking out for Troy?"
Toni smiled, "Can it not be both?"
"Things are screwed right now, I know, but that don't mean I'm giving up on her."
"I never thought you would."
"If things get ugly, they get ugly."
"And they're probably gonna get ugly."
Toni nodded again, "I will not give her up without a fight either."
It was Faith's turn to nod, "Long as we're on the same page."
Toni downed her vodka. "We should go. Our portal is probably waiting."
Faith clambered down from her bar stool and together they walked outside.
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