PART TWELVE: 5th October 2004 - 25th November 2004
Chapter Three: At The Heart of It All
Giggling? Underwear? A pillow fight? Where the hell was she? Buffy dodged a swinging pillow, giggling louder at her triumph, but then she made the rookie mistake of taking a victory ogle. As her eyes ran down Faith's body like warm syrup down a particularly sexy syrup bottle, the pillow came back the other way and thwacked her in the face with full slayer strength.
"What?" Faith didn't look remotely innocent, but then it was probably hard to look anything but sinful when wearing only a couple of Victoria's Secrets and a wicked smile. "They call it a pillow fight, B, not a pillow tickle."
"Fine, I was hoping to make pillow-talk not pillow-war, but you asked for it!"
Buffy attacked, using the pillow like a fat, squishy club. She smacked Faith first on the left side of the head and then the right and then - as Faith stepped back to gain some room - right in the center of her face.
"Hey!" she spluttered, trying to get an opening to retaliate.
Buffy didn't give her one, instead grinning like a maniac and doubling her strikes.
"Hey!" Faith shouted, her voice high-pitched from her laughter. "Stop it. I said stop it!"
"No way. You always say you like it rough, well now you're getting it rough."
"You're telling me!" Faith had no choice but to turn and run away across the misty white ground.
"Aww, is Faith afraid of the pillow monster?" Giggling, Buffy got in one last good swipe at Faith's butt - making the other Slayer yelp in surprise - before giving chase.
They ran and ran in a straight line, Buffy constantly taking swings with her pillow that missed Faith by an inch. The scenery never changed; they passed the same golden harp, the same chocolate fountain and the same choir of singing angels... sorry, singing Angels - forty of them, all tall, gorgeous and brooding, caroling a heavenly version of something better suited to a lead singer covered in scary face paint and piercings. It was like being in a cartoon; a weird one.
"I can't keep chasing you forever, Faith!"
"Just a little longer."
Faith spun around. "Now!"
Despite it being in the blink of an eye, Buffy was ready for it and their pillows clashed in the air, splitting with the sound of tinkling music and showering them both in soft, pink feathers as they fell laughing to the white ground.
Buffy was surprised to find that she sank into it and prodded it curiously. Her finger disappeared to the middle knuckle. "Are we're laying on clouds?"
"What did you think Heaven would be like?"
She smiled, reaching across to brush a coral-colored feather from Faith's cheek. "I don't remember it being this nice."
"Only the best for my girl."
"Why are we in Heaven though? Did we both die without me realizing?"
"Maybe." Faith shrugged, not looking bothered. "Would that be so bad? Considering the alternative."
"The alternative being life? I don't know. It seems a little extreme."
"Extreme is my reality. If you don't want extreme you might as well let go of me now."
"I'm not letting go, you idiot! But can't we find a way to be together without dying."
"You tell me. You're the one holding all the cards."
Buffy sat up fast. "And you're the one holding the baby!"
"Huh?" Faith looked down at the newborn cradled in her arms. "Where did this come from?"
"I think the bigger question is where did they come from?" Buffy's eyes opened wide at the horde of monsters coming across the clouds. "Demons aren't allowed in Heaven."
"You mean I'm not allowed in Heaven."
"I never said that! Look, we have to fight them!"
"How? We trashed our pillows."
They were standing now and the demons were almost upon them, gnashing their teeth and holding aloft their own pillows of steel and barbed wire.
"We have to run," Buffy shouted, backing up and pulling on Faith's arm.
"I'll never out-run them, B. They'll just keep coming. There's only one way. You have to take the baby and go."
"What? No, I don't want a baby!"
"Too late, babe."
And it was, she was already holding the cooing bundle. She looked down helplessly but instead of it being the cute, tiny human that had been in Faith's arms, it was now a scaly red thing with horns and fangs. The cooing had turned to growling.
"Faith, I can't adopt a devil child!"
This didn't make any sense. The demons had Faith and she wasn't even struggling. They were about to jump through a gap in the clouds together.
"Fight them, Faith! You have to fight them!"
"There's no point, B. Gotta go back where I belong now. Just look after my kid," was the last thing Faith said before they leapt.
"No!" Buffy ran to the hole.
The little devil sank its fangs into her breast over her heart, and the pain was excruciating. She wrenched it off and dropped kicked it halfway across Heaven before jumping after Faith. She could see them below her, descending gracefully to the earth, but she was free-falling fast. She had forgotten a parachute and as if that wasn't humiliating enough, her sexy underwear was pulled off by the wind streaming around her.
"Wait! Don't go! Don't go!" Buffy chanted frantically as ahead of her Faith and her demon escorts sank through the earth.
It looked plenty solid to Buffy though and she was going to feel just how solid in five, four, three...
"Faith, don't go. Fight them! Please! You have to NOT..."
Buffy jerked awake as she hit her bedroom floor. "...GO!" It took her a second to figure out where the hell she was now. When she had, she muttered, "Shit."
Toni, curled up on the air mattress and now partially underneath Buffy's sprawled out body, mumbled something about never leaving her but didn't wake up. So that was one small mercy.
The next thing she did was check that she still had her pajamas on. The memory of dropping naked through the sky was still very vivid. If she could skydive off of her bed in her sleep then she could just as easily take off of her clothes too.
They were on, she was still decent, and also still laying over Toni. She extricated herself carefully so she wouldn't wake up - she couldn't deal with her yet - and sat on the edge of her bed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
Well, that had been a horrible dream; and it had started off so promising too. For a moment a corner of her mouth lifted as she remembered the pillow fight, and more keenly, how Faith had looked pillow-fighting in her underwear, but the end of the dream had been too disturbing to let the smile last.
Light was starting to peek through the crack in her curtains. She must have slept a couple of hours later than usual. Not that it mattered; the endless research...wasn't. Endless, that was. It was over. There was still prep-work to do, none of which she had any vital part in, but if there was something they didn't know about Hades and Tartarus already then it was probably so obscure it wasn't worth knowing.
Tomorrow was the big day. It had been a long two weeks coming since they'd settled on the plan - a plan Buffy was still barely fifty percent happy with - but in another twenty-four hours it would be underway.
Hopefully only a few more hours after that she would see Faith again and that horrible dream would be nothing but a, well, horrible dream.
She gazed longingly at her Faith shrine, now out of the drawer and proudly displayed on her bedside cabinet - although she was trying not to think of it as a shrine now.
Obviously she'd only put the photos out. Mr. Buzzy was still in the drawer. Toni probably knew it was there - she'd annoyingly helped herself to free reign of Buffy's bedroom after all - but she'd never mentioned it. It wasn't like they were really in a place where it was appropriate to talk about sex toys.
Buffy stroked a fingertip down photo-Faith's cheek and then left the room before she could get maudlin. There was no need with only one more day to go.
Buffy was stepping out of the shower when her bathroom was invaded. Her eyes went wide but Toni's went wider.
"You did not lock the door."
"I thought I had." There was a moment of awkward silence. "You can stop looking now."
"You could put a towel around you."
There was another moment of inaction before flustered compliance. Toni turned away as Buffy grabbed a bath towel from the rack.
"I still need to brush my teeth."
Toni nodded and, stripping off her nightdress, stepped into the shower cubicle.
Her ass caught Buffy's attention until the screen slid shut. What was wrong with her? Grabbing her toothbrush, she brushed harder than usual, making her gums tingle and trying to sweep away all thoughts of nakedness. It had only been three weeks, that really wasn't long enough to be craving sex this much, especially with...no, she wasn't even going to think it!
"It's just because of the dream. Dreaming about Faith in her underwear is bound to make me horny. I just need to channel it elsewhere."
"Are you aware you are speaking out loud?" Toni asked over the shower.
That made her cringe. "I was not."
This was the real nightmare. The last two weeks she had been stuck in a special kind of hell. Growling at the laughter coming from the shower, she thought about throwing Toni's toothbrush down the toilet. No, she was too mature for that. Stomping out of the bathroom, she slammed the door behind her instead.
"I can open the portal to Laconia. That's mostly white magic, minimal risk of going veiny. Marco and I will work together on a remote portal from the city to that special place between this world and the next." Willow had about thirty books, scrolls and maps out in front of her, spread on the table, the counters and the floor. "That's a little more dangerous because at that point we're starting to do things we shouldn't. It's not exactly in the realm of dark magic though so I should still stay all, you know," she grinned, "pure and stuff."
"Mmm, pure." Kennedy nuzzled the side of her neck from behind.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Not in front of the sex-deprived slayer, please."
"What? You don't like porn?" Kennedy smirked. "Figured it might help."
Buffy glared at her. "And...focusing!"
Grinning, Willow slapped Kennedy's arm. "From there it's really up to Toni. Marco says he can cloak her again on the way in and I'm working on an invisibility potion with Dawn that they can use on the way out but...well, I've never made one before and my last attempt...." Willow gestured at the purple banana on the table.
"Oh my God, is that Dawn?" Buffy asked, appalled.
Willow chuckled. "No, it was a yellow banana. Dawn's over there."
She was at the other end of the kitchen making toast. She looked up at Buffy, annoyed. "Not a banana, but still invisible apparently."
"Sorry, I panicked; sue me." Buffy sank down into a chair at the table. "Hey, you know who knows about turning people invisible? Andrew."
"I'll go find him." Dawn left the kitchen with her toast.
"He should be down here already," she grumbled. "We only have a day left to get this totally right, it's all hands on deck."
"Talking of hands that should be on deck," Kennedy began. "Where's Toni?"
Buffy blushed for absolutely no reason. "Showering." She held a carton of milk to her cheek to cool it down, but she was so worked up it would probably just curdle. "So, anything else?"
"That's pretty much it." Willow gave her an irritating sympathetic look. "So you and Toni are no closer to being friends?"
"We don't want to be friends."
"No, they want to get down and dirty together," Kennedy said, smirking as Buffy glared at her again. "But they can't." Her expression turned sympathetic too. "That must suck."
Toni came into the kitchen.
"And that's my cue to leave." Buffy stood up.
"For the love of the gods," Toni muttered as she went to the coffee pot.
"What?" Buffy demanded, glaring at her back. She was in a very glare-y mood today thanks to her bad dreams and rude awakenings.
Toni shrugged, not looking at her. "I have nothing to say."
"Good." Buffy gave her back the finger as she left the kitchen, ignoring Willow's disapproving look.
A few hours later, Buffy cornered Troy in Giles' tiny library at the back of the house.
"What is she going through?"
Troy didn't look up from his book. "I have never been to Tartarus."
"But doesn't your uncle run the place? Didn't he tell you stories when you were a little Godling or something?"
Troy barked a laugh. "I never sat on Hades knee for bedtime stories if that is what you are asking."
"But you must know more than me." It was hard admitting even this weakness in front of him.
Troy finally cast the book aside. "She will be suffering. The demons that dwell there, they are merciless. As a human she will be an irresistible target for their torture. As far as we know, she is still alive... that is good for us and bodes well for her rescue, but it will not be good for her. She is one of the strongest women, perhaps the strongest mortal woman, I have ever met but that strength will work against her down there. She will not break and they will not stop until she does."
"Her not breaking is a good thing."
Troy nodded but didn't look convinced. "If Toni can rescue her."
"What... what do you think Toni's chances are?"
"Better than yours. Better than mine. Better than an army of Slayers but..."
"She is not indestructible and she..." he sighed. "Let us just say that I hope she really does love you."
Buffy's eyes found the red-brown pattern of the carpet suddenly fascinating and examined it minutely. "I think she does."
"So do I. It wouldn't hurt to remind her of why though."
"Troy just had a word with me."
Andrew was hovering beside her chair. His arrival in the living room hadn't penetrated her deep brooding. She unfolded herself from the ball she was curled in and sluggishly offered her attention.
"Really? And you stood still long enough to listen?"
"I wasn't happy about it, but I talked to Willow afterwards and we think he's right."
"I've prepared you and Toni a picnic."
"Troy suggested we have a picnic?"
"Not exactly. The picnic was my idea. Toni's already waiting for you outside."
Buffy sat forward incredulously. "Toni agreed to you sending us on a picnic?"
"Not exactly," he said again. "I told her it was your idea."
One fluid motion and she was on her feet. "Oh, I'm going to kill you painfully, Andrew."
He increased the distance between them until he felt safe. "I get that, totally, but you should do it after your picnic. It could be really important. To keep the bond strong, I mean."
Buffy groaned helplessly and, mistaking it for something else, Andrew ran.
"I still do not understand the meaning of this."
"I'm supposed to be making sure you still love me." The grass felt cold and lumpy under Buffy's back, despite the blanket and her jacket. The sun was shining through scudding clouds but Cleveland was not enjoying an Indian summer this year and it was a stupid month to be having a picnic on the common. "So that the bonding magick will work properly."
"Our bond has nothing to do with magick and I understand the reason why we are here. I am just unsure how you ignoring me will achieve your goal."
"I'm not ignoring you." The sandwich she had just pulled apart dropped a mayo-soggy lettuce leaf. It landed across her nose like a limp green parachute.
"You have not looked at me since we sat down."
Plucking the leaf from her face, she pushed it into her mouth. 'Waste not, want not' had been a saying of her mom's. She'd never really got it, but it saved her from having to answer. The rest of the sandwich was devoured slice by slice. A sliver of tomato stuck to the roof of her mouth and the mayo was sweet and thick on her tongue.
Slow chewing, because it was more annoying.
"I will leave!"
Buffy tilted her head to the side, saw Toni's dark eyes flashing angrily, the down-turned curve of her mouth. "There, I'm looking at you." Moody silence. "Well if you're just going to frown at me I'm not gonna bother."
A plastic bowl of crisp apple slices were treated to Toni's glare instead. Buffy kept her eyes on her pedantically as she ate another sandwich the conventional way.
"You are frowning at me too."
"Not true. This is always how I look when I'm eating a salad sandwich. What's with the five-a-day anyway? Is Andrew hoarding all the meat for himself do you think?"
The veggie-based rant earned her a smirk and a large tinfoil package was nudged over the blanket. A suspicious peer into its depths revealed prime pork products.
"Bacon!" It bought an instant smile to her face, which she tempered to give Toni a mock-accusatory glance. "So you're the one hoarding the meat."
"If I have to resort to extreme measures to coax a smile from you, I will."
"Fair enough." The bacon sandwich was gone in four less than lady-like bites. "If you've got a drink other than water in there you can have another one."
Toni had a look through the basket Andrew had packed. Buffy hadn't bothered, just accepting what had been first laid out. She was hungry enough to eat, but this picnic wasn't about fun; she didn't intend to enjoy herself. Her presence here was under duress, the vast village common an open air prison. So the salad sandwiches had seemed fitting.
Was delicious, salty bacon really all it took to turn her head? Did she have no morals? Poor Faith, cast aside for a slice of pig between two pieces of soft bread. Toni produced a condensation-slick bottle of beer and Buffy sat up with eager eyes. Faith would understand.
They sat side by side in silence, sipping the beer, occasionally munching another sandwich or a piece of fruit. There were other people enjoying the breezy common with them, mostly walking dogs or little kids around its perimeter. Two boys were learning how to fly a stunt kite and Buffy watched the vivid splash of blue and orange zip around the sky in daring loop-the-loops before inevitably plummeting to the ground again and again. She laughed; talk about your metaphors for life.
"Something is funny?" Toni didn't look at her as she asked. Maybe she'd finally realized that eye contact just made everything harder.
"Those kids." She nodded at them. They were about eleven; too young to know giving up on the hard stuff was a viable option. "They don't get it. They keep sending that thing up there."
"They must know by now it's just going to crash right back down. I mean, it's done it like four times in the last ten minutes. What, do they think the next time is gonna be any different? There's this saying: The definition of insanity..."
"I am familiar with it."
"Figures." That got her a hard glance. "Jeez, I just meant you're really ancient, there's probably not many sayings you don't know."
Toni huffed out an annoyed laugh. "It is just as well you already have two women who would do anything for you, because you would never entice another with charm like that."
Unexpectedly, Buffy laughed, a strong giggle that made her bury her face in her knees. It aggravated Toni to the point that she shifted away on the blanket.
"Hey, chill." Her hand landed on the suede shoulder of Toni's jacket. It was the first physical contact they had shared in two weeks and almost caused to pull her hand back in surprise. She stopped herself. "You are ancient, but you don't look it. You're never going to look a day over twenty-one. I'm actually jealous. Ten years from now I'll be all thirty-three and crow's-feety and you'll still look exactly as hot as you do right now."
The brightening of Toni's countenance made Buffy wary. "Not that you look hot right now or anything."
The darkening of same made her feel even worse and she sighed inside. "I didn't mean... you are hot right now, gorgeous in fact. I just... can't let myself notice that."
Toni's finger traced the simple blue and white check pattern on the blanket. "Not even for...the greater good?"
"The greater good would probably frown upon it."
"Even if it would help the greater good get out alive?"
Buffy slid her hand off of Toni's shoulder to the blanket, tracing her own random square. How was she supposed to answer that? Not knowing, it was easier to just not.
"You will not have crow's feet when you are thirty-three, Buffy." Toni was smiling at her.
"How do you know?"
"I am ancient, remember? I know nearly everything."
Her own smile came naturally now. "Way to turn that around."
Toni nodded. "I have practice... because I am so ancient."
She rolled her eyes. "And now you're getting cocky. No one likes an ancient, cocky person."
"They can if they let themselves." When Buffy didn't answer, Toni gestured across the common. "Do you know what I see over there?"
Buffy watched the kite fly and then crash to the ground. "Two kids who don't know when to quit?"
"Two souls who refuse to give up, who have the strength and optimism to know they can succeed if they only put enough time and effort and... love... into their endeavor."
Buffy didn't look away fast enough to stop their eyes from catching and then she apparently wasn't strong enough to drag her gaze away. It would have been better if the look they shared was at least awkward. It wasn't, which was... well, awkward all on its own.
Buffy knew she should be getting up and walking away from this particular agony, but a weird sense of duty and the unnerving acceptance that she was obviously already sick enough to enjoy this kind of torment kept her butt rooted to the long wooden bench.
In the middle of the training room, Toni worked through her fourth cycle of push ups. Perspiration covered her, sheening her long legs from her blue gym shorts all the way down to her bare feet. The tank top she wore was soaked to the point of see-through and the firm muscles of her arms stood out all shiny as she pumped herself up and down.
Buffy made a gurgling noise deep in her throat, eyes closing tightly for the hundredth time since sitting down.
"Are you nearly done?"
"Cento! No." Leaping to her feet, Toni switched to skipping. "You know I must be at my physical peak for the journey."
The skipping rope was a blur arching above Toni's head and her feet made soft thuds as they rapidly reconnected with the floor over and over. Oh, who was she kidding? It was the off-limit bits in the middle Buffy wanted to watch jumping up and down.
Time to close the eyes again and direct her thoughts somewhere less frustrating. "Is it really as dangerous as you say?"
She had spent a little time in Hell herself and the demons down there hadn't been that bad-ass, and Toni was as close to immortal as you could get without actually being immortal; that had to take some of the pressure off.
"Si." Well, that was stoic.
Maybe Buffy watching - or gawping, as some might call it - was making Toni uncomfortable. She should go, let Toni train in peace and save herself this torture at the same time. Standing up was the first and last move she made towards making that happen.
Toni was at the punching bag now, firing chaotic fists into its red leather skin. Even against an inanimate object her shots were wild and uncoordinated. Unless she got in a lucky first punch anything skilled in combat and with a thirst for her blood would defeat her easily.
"Why are you throwing your arm out like that every time you punch?" she asked before she could stop herself.
"What?" Toni snapped.
Over a year spent tutoring the newbies had obviously made teaching fighting techniques second nature to her now. A fact she cursed as she approached Toni instead of heading sensibly for the door.
"You treat your fist like a wrecking ball and you're only going to do any damage if your opponent stays where you want it to. FYI, usually they don't."
Toni stepped back from the bag with a sneer on her face. "You think you can do better?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Hell, yes." She gestured for Toni to take another step back and positioned herself in front of the bag. "Look, your wild swings will work fine on something big and stupid, but for everything else you've got to mix it up, use some finesse."
They were standing too close. Even from a foot away Buffy could feel the heat radiating off of Toni's body and the scent of her sweat-damp skin really shouldn't have been arousing. It was kinda gross...in a really, really hot way. She shook her head and concentrated. She'd walked into giving this lesson and at the end of the day if it helped Toni save Faith, and stay alive, well that was two good reasons right there.
"You're doing this." She swung her arm haphazardly at the bag, making it swing erratically on its solid chain. "Which, granted, will put most things off balance for a second, and make their ears ring, but not a lot else. But, if you follow it up with a..." Buffy jabbed her left hard straight into the center of the bag and it swung backwards and forwards in an even line. "You get a lot more power and more power means more hurt for the bad guy."
Buffy stepped back and gestured at the bag. "You try it."
Toni gave her a disdainful look, as if fighting tips were beneath her, but did as she was told. Buffy smiled when Toni's expression changed. All of the young slayers looked like that too when they first felt the difference between a sloppy shot and a focused punch.
"Feels good, huh? That'll take down your average sized vampire in one hit."
Toni hit the bag again, relishing it. "I will not be facing vampires; at least, not average ones."
"So let's try some other stuff."
They'd worked through upper-cuts, hooks, round house kicks, spinning back kicks and the nasty surprise of a cunning southpaw when Toni stepped back frustrated.
"It is not that I do not appreciate your help, but it is all meaningless when I am fighting a bag of sawdust!"
The idea that popped into Buffy's head should have been hated on principle. It was not a good idea and this sudden urge to be a martial arts instructor just didn't have 'happy ending' written all over it - or rather it did, and that was the problem.
She poked at the bag indifferently. "Do you want to, I don't know, spar or something?"
Silence made Buffy look around. Toni was doing a good impression of speechless. Obviously the suggestion was exactly as stupid as she had feared.
"Do you think it will help?"
"Your fighting skills, yes. My sanity, no."
"I have not done this before. How do we start?"
Buffy groaned, Toni was supposed to say no and cut her evil fantasy down before it could flower.
From the middle of the room she beckoned Toni over with a flirtatious curl of her fingers. No, that reminded her too much of Faith! Dropping her hand, she settled for tilting her head back and decided too late that it wasn't much better.
"We try and take each other." She winced at her choice of words but rallied. "Considering what you're going to be facing down there I don't think we should bother holding back. Just give me everything you've got and I'll do the same."
That was just as wince-worthy. Did all roads lead to flirtation? Perhaps it was better to duck out of this play fight, throw in the towel before things got nasty, or dirty, and it was too late to bow out gracefully. Toni's wild right hook knocked her on her ass and crushed any notion of bowing out, gracefully or otherwise, as she sat on the mat rubbing the side of her face.
"Damn, you've got some strength there." A lot of strength actually; it still felt like her jaw was rattling. She got back to her feet. "But try and remember at least some of the stuff I just taught you."
Toni's smirk was cocky and beautiful. "It does not look like I need it to fight you."
Buffy's returning smirk was mostly a warning. She'd been worried about the erotic potential of such a physical activity; it hadn't occurred to her that this was the perfect forum to finally dispose of some of the ceaseless, impotent anger she was holding on to.
"I wasn't ready. And I guarantee you won't be able to do that again."
"Are you so very sure?"
"Very, very sure." And she felt her spinning back hand punch was a pretty good backup argument.
Toni staggered to the side but didn't go down. That was good; it meant she could withstand hard blows as well as give them. Bonus factor: Buffy could hit her hard without feeling all guilty and wife-beatery about it. That upside was driven home at the same time Toni's next punch was; winding her momentarily with its power. Oh, this was gonna be good.
Buffy stepped in with a short jab to her chin, twisted and caught her again with an elbow. It took Toni no time at all to get up to speed and it wasn't long before they were dancing around each other, a whirlwind of frenetic strikes as they each tried to land the blow that counted.
It didn't stoke the same fire that sparring with Faith did, but she'd be a liar if she denied it wasn't having any effect on her libido. Every time they went from kick-boxing to grappling in close quarters - their slippery limbs sliding over one another or their bodies grinding together for the shortest of moments - she felt her arousal surge a little higher.
By the brightness of Toni's eyes, she was feeling it too. "How am I doing?"
"Your guard is weak, your stance is awful," Buffy grunted, "and..." Toni's next upper cut sent her flying and only by cart wheeling in mid-air was she able to keep her feet when she landed; even then it was precarious. "Okay, now you've pissed me off."
They clashed in the center of the room again, devastating long-range strikes with fists and feet soon giving way to up-close-and-personal body blows and vertical wrestling as they tried to force the other into submission.
"I'm a seasoned slayer," Buffy panted. "You're not going to win so just...give...up!"
"I am a GODDESS! I have been conquering mortals for centuries. You give up!"
"No you haven't!"
"But I am now!"
"No you're not!"
Toni stopped trying to crush her windpipe with her forearm and instead grabbed the back of Buffy's head. The next thing she knew her face was engulfed by boobs. Extracting herself, briefly dazed and distracted and grumbling about cheating, she stumbled backwards and was helped that way with the length of Toni's body. She was stopped after a few steps by the solid canvas bulk of the vaulting horse - trapped between Toni and a hard place.
"Uh oh?" Toni panted, smiling.
"Did I say that out loud too?"
"I should really go somewhere and work on that. Like, right now."
"Or you could stay here and speak what is on your mind some more."
"Ohhh." Her voice was shaky and she was mentally trying to melt through the horse and escape. "I think that would be kinda redundant considering."
"Considering I can feel what you are feeling? Especially when you are feeling it so strongly?" Toni tucked a strand of blonde behind Buffy's ear and shifted her feet. Buffy bit her tongue to keep the hiss behind her teeth as their bodies fitted together more closely. "How is my stance now?"
"Better." Had she turned into a rat again? And if not, why exactly was she squeaking?
She wasn't doing this. She wasn't giving in just because... she just wasn't doing this! Toni needed to move, so that she could move and put some space between them. Space was good, maybe not in the technical sense, but in the keeping all her marbles sense, space was very good. So why wasn't she saying any of this out loud?
"Toni." Squeak squeak. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Toni."
Oh God! The tip of Toni's nose slowly grazed along her jaw line and as the other woman inhaled the scent of her skin, Buffy drew in her own shaky breath.
"You want to."
"Not the point!"
Now the tips of their noses were brushing and Toni's lips were right there. Not coming any closer but right there all the same. Everything around them was very still, the only movement in the room the ragged rise and fall of their chests against each other. It would be so easy to step off of the fine line between conscience and desire and plummet into the depths of Toni's eyes. To give in, just give in and stop hurting for a while.
The door opened on the other side of the room. "Uh, Buffy?"
Her heart beat faster at the interruption but she gave no incriminating outward reaction. She knew the guy pretty well by now. If she acted like a spaz, pushing Toni away and possibly yelling at one or both of them, he would go and tell everyone about her wacky behavior, but if she acted like everything was perfectly normal...
"I came to tell Toni they're ready to do the next ritual."
"I will be there shortly," Toni promised, her eyes never leaving Buffy's.
"Ok." He closed the door behind him as he left.
...Andrew wouldn't even realize there was something to tell. As soon as he was gone she gave Toni a sharp shove, making her stumble backwards.
For a several seconds Toni watched her through lust-filled eyes and then she left the room without a word. Buffy sagged against the boxy horse, eyes closed as she tried to breathe through her own raging horniness.
Buffy hated watching these rituals. Again it wasn't something she had to do, but something she forced herself to do anyway. Unlike the hotness of Toni training though, this really was horrible.
Toni stood in the center of the basement, surrounded by their junk and Troy's smelly cot - that had gotten decidedly less smelly since he had started sleeping on it, go figure - with her legs spread and her arms outstretched. Her fingers were splayed wide apart in a frozen mimicry of jazz hands.
Willow and Marco's voices combined to create one mellifluous chant and every word made purple energy pulse under Toni's skin. Her face was racked with pain, jaw tightly clenched, words impossible - not that she was allowed to speak.
After the final invocation, Toni's body dropped to the basement floor and she lay there twitching. Buffy turned away, but unlike usual, wasn't the first to walk back up the steps to the house. She waited; and when everyone else took their time clearing up, she snapped at them.
"Go! Finish that later."
Giles, Troy and everyone else down there looked up in surprise.
"Go," she repeated softly. "We'll meet you upstairs." As they left she squatted down. "You okay? That looked even more painful than usual."
It took Toni another few seconds to come completely out of her trance. "Buffy?" She swallowed hard. "I am fine. I just need..." she blinked a few times.
Buffy helped her up. She shouldn't be doing this, getting close again. Right now especially. With Toni like this, though, she couldn't help herself. What kind of person would she be if she could see a loved one in pain and do nothing?
The kind of person she had been yesterday maybe, and every other day for the past three weeks.
"You good?" she wanted to let go now.
Toni nodded but went wobbly when left to her own two feet. Buffy took her arm and walked her across the basement to the cot.
Toni sank down on the blankets. "Every time is more intense. My essence is needed to open the gateways and strengthen the passages between this world and the other. Without the rituals I would not be able to pass through, or bring anyone back."
"So it's a good thing," Buffy muttered.
"Si, the pain, it is a very good thing. Without my misery this would all be for nothing."
Buffy stiffened at her tone. "Don't make this about us."
"Why, by Gaia, would I mistake that any of this is about us?"
Buffy was left sitting there as Toni pushed herself from the cot and left. She felt miserable without Toni's presence but awkward in it and the ambiance of the dank, dimly lit basement matched her mood. She could stay down here for an hour or two, be at one with the cockroaches and slugs - two creatures she felt she bared a certain amount of likeness to right now. Okay, maybe not a cockroach, because cockroaches - ack! - but a slug, definitely. A slippery, slimy, wily, disgusting slug. Really, she deserved to be trapped in a sudden downpour of salt; it was the only fitting end for someone as...
"She is feeling defeated."
Buffy jumped and grabbed handfuls of Troy's sheets to keep herself grounded after the shock of the unexpected voice.
"Have you been there this entire time?"
Marco bowed his head in a deep nod. "Yes, the wall and I are old friends. She lets me hide within when I need her cover."
Buffy stood up and walked menacingly towards him. "Firstly, let's gloss over how you only met that wall two weeks ago and I don't even want to think about why you're calling it 'her', and let's get to the good stuff. Were you spying on me?"
"Technically I was spying on Antonella."
"And that makes it better how?"
"Antonella's well-being is of vital importance to me. I can let no harm come to Miss Lehane and therefore it is imperative that Antonella is as prepared as possible for a successful mission."
"Okay, and now that we're on the same page, how does you spying on her achieve that and, oh God, were you in the training room walls earlier?"
"I was in the rafters."
"Oh God," she muttered again, rubbing her forehead. "The concept of privacy: look it up!"
"It was not what I witnessed in there that is the problem. It is how you have been treating her since."
"Actually, it is what you witnessed in there that's the problem. My problem anyway. How can I treat her any differently when Faith is lost?"
"Miss Summers, if Miss Lehane's safe return is really your only concern, how can you not do everything in your power to make it more probable. Antonella needs fire in her soul and hope in her heart to stand the trials that she will face down below, not indifference and melancholy."
Buffy watched him carefully. She'd learned to stop trusting these ancient beings when they started getting all poetical. Eostre, Mapanos, Quantiaro - they had all tried to twist her thoughts and wreck her reasoning with lyrical persuasion.
"I went on the damn picnic. I helped her train!"
"You pushed her away and you have ignored her, causing her faith in your love to diminish and the bond between you to weaken. You have to realize that the only way for this to work is if the connection between the three of you is as strong as it has ever been."
She shook her head helplessly. "Then what am I supposed to do? If telling her I love her isn't enough to... No! You can't seriously be suggesting that I sleep with Toni just because it might help Faith! What kind of horrible person do you think I am?"
"Based on this year alone?" Marco started ticking a list off on his fingers, making her groan. "You have taken personal documents, broken into and vandalized private property, killed His Lordship's demons..."
"I should get a free pass on that one."
"...and tried to stop the glorious coming of his son. You have collaborated with evil spirits, eavesdropped and misinformed, stolen a scooter..."
"That was all Faith; I was just along for the ride, and in a way that was a good deed, because if I had stuck around that castle I'd have had to kill more of His Asshole's demons."
"You have angered the Gods, lied to your family, cheated on those you love and betrayed the trust of..."
"Okay, okay, haven't you run out of fingers yet? People are allowed to make mistakes, you know, even long running soap operas of mistakes. It's human nature and, hello, human last time I checked."
Marco held his hands up for a reprieve. "I am merely suggesting you use your gifts to help Antonella."
"What gifts exactly? I have some brand new ice skates upstairs but unless Hell has frozen over I don't think they'll help. Or are we going metaphysical and Slayer-y with death being my gift? 'Cause really? Not helpful. Not when death is kinda the one thing we're trying to avoid here. Oh wait, you're talking about Mr. Buzzy, aren't you? It fits into the whole theme of your fantasy. You think if I whip out my little battery-operated friend and sex Toni to high heaven, it will fill her loins with enough fire to walk through hell and back for me?" Buffy was almost shouting now.
"I was referring to your ability to empathize and comfort, your capacity to love. You are pushing these traits deep down inside yourself, so convinced it would be a betrayal to indulge them, but the betrayal has already been made, Miss Summers, and by some quirk of fate, to indulge further is the only way to atonement."
Upstairs Toni was drinking a strong mug of tea with plenty of sugar and was back to her own self in no time. She barely seemed to notice Buffy was there for the rest of the evening as she busied herself in going over mythical maps of the underworld that may or may not have had any actual grounding in literal geography.
Buffy concentrated on reading Penguin versions of Homer and the Iliad. Not that any of the facts were staying with her. Her eyes traveled the narrow page like a typewriter and a secret glance at Toni was the ping before she started the next line.
Was Marco right or was it just more manipulation? And if it was the latter, what was the point of it? Was Marco just trying to get his old friend laid?
Speculating was annoying her, almost as much as Toni not looking at her once in the last hour. What was that about? Usually Toni could hardly keep her eyes away and don't tell her Toni couldn't sense her less-than-discreet attention. If there was one thing Toni could always sense, it was Buffy's attention.
It was better to focus her mind on Faith again - that's where her attention should be anyhow - and how far away she might be, how long it would take Toni to reach her and what she was going to do when Toni brought Faith out of there alive.
Ravish her on the spot maybe? Take Faith in her arms and never let her go was another option. One thing was for certain: when she got Faith back, they were going to be together forever, and nothing and no one was standing in their way again.
Even as she thought that she caught Toni's eye across the table. She looked away immediately but it didn't stop her faithless mind from going somewhere it shouldn't. It was just a mix of nerves and Marco's dire warnings. Of course Faith was her top priority, but Toni was putting her life and soul on the line for both of them tomorrow - wasn't it natural that Buffy's mind would wander to her more than usual tonight?
But what did she say to Toni when this was all over? Thanks for the ride, buh-bye now? To stay aloof would make it easier on them all when Faith came home again. Yet to stay aloof might mean Faith never came home.
'Hello, Buffy,' she thought, miserably glaring at the page. 'Welcome to the corner; mind the wet paint.'
Later, in the bedroom, they changed into their nightclothes in silence but Buffy figured her thoughts were loud and clear to Toni as she psyched herself up. She could do this, she could do this, she could...
She couldn't do this. Ultimately it wasn't fair to any of them and maybe it was okay to go through life making bad decisions when you didn't think too hard about how they were hurting those you loved, but she was thinking about it now, hard, and it made it impossible.
She couldn't, in good conscience, lay with Toni now, kiss her, touch her, slowly take her Scooby Doo nightshirt off to reveal her beautiful body... Oh God, she could, she really could!
Buffy turned away so that Toni couldn't read the desire on her face even if it was already pouring through her essence. Plausible deniability, that's all she needed.
She snatched her pillow from the bed. "It's my turn to take the floor."
"I was hoping tonight we could..."
Cutting her off, Buffy admitted, "I want to, but I just don't think it's a good..."
"...talk," Toni smiled as Buffy blushed.
"Oh." Her pillow was suddenly fascinating and very huggable; a comforting bolster. "Sure, we can talk."
"Tomorrow is going to be... il mia amore, I would find this conversation easier if you were not standing in the middle of the room staring at your feet."
"I'm staring at my pillow," she said in a small voice.
Toni slipped into her side of the bed. "The portal is due to open at eight-seventeen. The last rituals will take place for an hour before that and before them I have to make my own final preparations. I understand you may not wish to, but I thought I should offer us the chance to say goodbye tonight as we may not get time alone in the morning.
Buffy peeked over the top of her pillow. "Do you want to say goodbye with sex?"
Toni laughed as she wriggled down beneath the covers. "Si, per favore."
"That wasn't an offer!"
"It sounded like an offer."
With a sigh, Buffy dropped her pillow onto the air mattress and checked it was fully inflated before rearranging the sheets neatly. It squeaked as she tried to get settled and the fuzzy blanket smelled of Toni, like it did every other night.
"Do you really think that's the best way to say goodbye?"
"So you think the best way to summarize our relationship is to screw, not talk?"
Toni was silent and Buffy congratulated herself on finding a winning argument. She decided to change the subject before Toni could find a suitable comeback, because if they were going to talk she had something important and of the moment to discuss.
"Did you know Marco has been following you around for the past two weeks?"
"I was not aware; Marco always wears a cloak of protection to ward off malignant magic. It shields his essence. Not that his desires are of any interest to me anyway."
"You don't sound upset that he's been watching you," Buffy said reproachfully. If she was bothered on Toni's behalf, the least Toni could do was be bothered too.
"Why would I be? I have not done anything that I would not wish him to see."
"What about earlier! In the training barn, when we had a, uh, private moment?"
"A private moment with my girlfriend where nothing at all happened. Hmm, yes, I can see why I should be embarrassed by that."
Buffy re-fluffed her pillow huffily. "You sound like Troy when you're being all sarcastic."
"Nonsense, our accents are nothing alike."
"Are you trying to piss me off?"
"Si." Buffy could hear the grin in her voice.
"We're not having angry sex!"
With an exasperated laugh, Toni sat up in the bed. Buffy strained her neck back to look up at her.
"I would not have sex with you now, my love, if you paid me." Seeing the incredulous upwards twitch of Buffy's eyebrows, she grinned wickedly and back-tracked. "Va bene, I would have sex with you now, for free, I would even pay you. I have a very nice apartment block in Roma if you would like it..."
She trailed off when Buffy started laughing, wondering why both her girlfriends seemed to think real estate was the way into her pants - she wasn't even a big fan of Monopoly.
"...but I feel the need to remind you that you were the one who brought sex up tonight, not I."
Buffy turned on her side. "It does seem to be hanging in the air between us, especially since..." she toyed with a loose thread dangling from the pillow case. "Marco kind of hinted that the only way to make sure the mission was successful was to make love to you before you left."
"I see." It was so softly spoken Buffy was compelled to look up. Toni's face was carefully giving nothing away. "He should not have done that."
"He's only thinking of the mission, I get that, and it's a good thing." Buffy sighed and buried her face in her pillow. Her next words came out thickly muffled. "But it just made me realize I haven't been."
Toni's voice was tight as she said, "That is stupido. You have thought of nothing but Faith since her banishment. I can attest to that."
Buffy pushed herself up until she was leaning on one hand. "Yeah, I've been thinking about Faith, non-stop. I can't even... even when I'm asleep she's all I think about. But ever since you offered to... ever since the rescue plans were finalized, I haven't been thinking about them. I haven't been able to and that was fine, because I didn't want to. It was easier to focus on the moment I'm going to see her again than on the stuff that happens first."
"That is understandable, Buffy."
"Understandable maybe, but stupid and ...and selfish!"
"Marco spelled it out," she said impatiently. "If the only way this rescue is going to work is through our three-way bond then I should have spent the last two weeks boning you senseless, not ignoring you! I haven't been thinking about what's best for the mission, what's best for Faith, at all."
"So you wish to now bone me..." Toni smirked, bemused by the term. "...just to save your precious Faith?" She gave a hard done by sigh and started to pull off her nightshirt. "I suppose if I must..."
"No!" Buffy scrambled off of the side of the airbed to grab Toni's nightshirt and pull it down again. There was only so much her fragile restraint could handle. "You didn't let me finish. And, by the way," she prodded Toni's tummy with her finger. "You don't seem all that broken up at the idea!"
Toni smiled, "Why would I be? I am the one getting to have sex with you tonight. She is not."
As she leaned over the side of the bed for a kiss, Buffy moved her head out of range.
"Actually, neither are you."
"I'm sorry? I thought you said..."
"I know, and Marco had it right - I have been ignoring or abusing these feelings between us because, well, obviously I'm mad at you - but he also managed to totally miss the point."
"Yes! I mean, screwing you just to get Faith back? Yeah, I could do that, I could do that right now, but it doesn't prove I love you, it just proves that I love Faith." Buffy smiled, and took Toni's hand as she delivered the good news. "But I must love you, because I can't do that to you. I can't use you, knowing that's it wrong and how much it would hurt you. Not even to get Faith back."
"So what you are saying is: You love me too much to sleep with me."
"Maledetto! Even when I win I lose!"
Buffy laughed, squeezing the hand in hers a little harder than necessary. "This is a big moment, Toni, don't ruin it."
Toni pulled her hand higher to kiss the back of it. "You should not let Marco fill you with fear, because my love for you alone is a strong enough motivation for my success."
"Thank you," she said sincerely.
Buffy moved back onto the airbed, straightening out the covers again before lying down and pulling them to her chin. It was colder down here than in the bed - an icy, arctic wind seemed to blow through the half inch gap under the door - but the inflated mattress was comfortable enough, if squeaky at times.
After Toni had turned off the light, Buffy wriggled around, trying to find the comfy spot she was knew was there somewhere. Even when she found it she doubted she'd fall asleep. She tried to lay as still as possible though - difficult when she was feeling more fidgety than ever in her life - because it was important that Toni had a good night's sleep. She had a monumentally big day ahead of her tomorrow. The last thing she wanted was to face hell with bags under her eyes. Buffy tried to roll over again as slowly as possible, taking great pains not to make the mattress squeak. She thought she had done a pretty good job too and was almost annoyed when she realized Toni wasn't asleep yet anyway.
It was a wistful sigh that gave her away.
"This could be my very last night on Earth." Her words were as wistful as her sigh.
Okay, that wasn't helping with the guilt. Buffy laughed anyway. "Would you like a last supper?"
"What would you like?" The sentence was barely out before Buffy realized what she was walking into. "I'm not on the menu."
"You are very full of yourself tonight," Toni had a chuckle in her voice.
"I'm also not an idiot."
Toni's chuckle was outright this time. "If we were to have sex tonight it would, for the good of the mission, be mandatory for you to think of Faith as much as me of course."
"Really?" It wasn't the mattress squeaking that time. She cleared her throat. "That's a trick."
"Indeed, and a trick I thought you would take advantage of," Toni sounded disgruntled but amused.
Why wasn't she? She had just been offered a great opportunity and she was turning it down. Maybe she was an idiot.
"Try and go to sleep."
"I cannot sleep. I am too tense."
"Are you scared?" she whispered.
"Si," Toni whispered back.
Buffy wanted to tell her she didn't have to go through with it, that it wasn't too late to back out; but it was, and Buffy didn't want her to back out, so she kept her mouth shut until the urge had passed. She could do something though. Not that drastic but maybe helpful... for both of them.
"Toni, come down here."
Buffy smiled at Toni's own squeaky surprise. "Really."
She moved over on the airbed. It was bigger than a single but not quite a double. Still, when Toni slid excitedly onto it beside her there was plenty of room for them both.
Buffy stopped the imminent kiss with gentle fingertips over Toni's lips. "We're not having sex."
"We are not?" Toni sounded suitably confused.
"Nope, we're doing the other thing couples do in bed when they're in love."
Even in the faint moonlight coming through the thin curtain she could see the dark shape of one of Toni's perfect eyebrows tilting towards her hairline.
"You asked me down here to argue?" she asked tentatively.
"No doofus!" Buffy slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. "We're going to snuggle."
"Ah." Toni pulled the covers up over the both of them before sliding her arm around Buffy. "That is even better than sex."
Buffy laughed. "Liar."
"I mean it!" Toni kissed her forehead before pulling her close.
They both wriggled a little as they settled; finding positions wrapped around each other that wouldn't make their limbs go dead after half an hour. Buffy melted with the heat and comfort, relaxing more that she'd thought possible tonight but still not feeling sleep coming any closer.
After ten minutes Toni whispered softly, "Do you think there is any harm in snuggling naked?"
Buffy contemplated the question for way too long.
For once Buffy didn't jerk awake out of a nightmare. She drifted into consciousness like she was floating on the surface of a warm pool, gradually drawing closer to the edge. When finally she reached it she sighed happily and lazily blinked her eyes open. It wasn't quite the serene tropical backdrop she had been expecting.
Her head was half hanging off of the air mattress and the carpet was less than an inch from her nose. Scooby-Doo's laughing face was bunched up just inside her peripheral vision and Toni was behind her, soooo she obviously hadn't dreamt the getting naked part then.
A quick peek under the sheets reminded her they weren't completely nude. They had underwear on, but boy was she was feeling the semi-nakedness a lot more now than she had at midnight. Nothing had happened, the snuggling had remained pure, but the skin on skin had been nice and... soothing. They had talked long into the night. First about the mission and then about anything they could think of to take their minds off of the mission.
Now here they were, in the cold light of the big day, pressed together mostly bare and with...extra touching!
"Toni," Buffy tried to wake her softly. "Hands."
"Mmm." Toni sleepily kissed the back of her neck. "Hands?"
Buffy waited for the sensation of warm lips on her already hyper-aware skin to pass. "Yeah, your hands, in, uh, places."
Buffy gasped as her breasts were squeezed. She should have been angry and ripped the hands away but the increasingly pleasant tingles between her legs forced her to settle for an unconvincingly snapped, "Hey!" and biting her lip against smiling.
Toni chuckled in her ear as her hands slipped away. "My apologies, cara, but I am sure you understand why I could not pass up such an opportunity."
"Uh huh, I'm a firm believer in grabbing every opportunity with both hands," Buffy said innocently.
Apparently too innocently because Toni didn't get the hint and shifted onto her back, chuckling again. Buffy rolled her eyes and mouthed a disbelieving 'Come on!' at the universe before turning over to face her.
"You probably should be up already."
Toni craned her neck to check the alarm clock. "I have some time." She pushed some of Buffy's pillow-crazy hair behind her ear. "I just want to look at you for a while if you will indulge me."
Buffy grinned, "Consider me indulgent."
She was vaguely conscious, over the next couple of minutes, of Toni edging ever-so-slowly closer yet she was still taken by surprise when Toni closed the final distance between them and kissed her.
"That's not looking," she pointed out, her words muffled by lips of Toni.
"That is not pulling away," Toni replied, her words equally stifled by Buffy's mouth covering her own.
Buffy let herself go for a minute or two; forgot about her anger, her fear and her hopelessness and concentrated instead on feeling good, and more importantly, on making Toni feel good. Maybe it would help, maybe it wouldn't; either way it wasn't as uncomfortable to try as she had expected it to be.
When they were about to cross the line from just kissing to something more, Buffy found the will from somewhere to roll away. She pulled the covers up to her nose to hide her illicit smile.
Sitting up, Toni pulled a face and rolled her shoulders. "I wish I could take a shower before I get ready."
Buffy sat up too, holding the covers to her chest demurely but having no qualms about checking out Toni's semi-nudity for once. "Why can't you?"
Toni was on her feet now. "It would not do to smell too fresh in Hades. It would make me too trackable."
"Oh." Buffy's nose wrinkled. "Ew." Toni nodded as she dressed in the same dirty gym clothes she had worn yesterday. "Well, just concentrate on the shower we can... you can take when you get out of there later. It will give you another incentive to get back."
Toni smiled at her slip. "I already have all the incentive I need. I must go and prepare. Will you be at the portal's edge?"
Buffy nodded. "Of course I'm coming to see you off."
After she had gone, Buffy closed her eyes tight and groaned. So much for staying aloof! Now she had given Toni false hope, betrayed Faith's memory, confused herself all over again...
"You know what?" she said aloud, arms stretching above her head. "I don't care. I really, really don't. Kisses equal good. The world would be a happier place if there were more kisses in it. Kisses and little birdies singing and -" she pulled open the bedroom curtains and refused to be quelled by the miserably grey day outside. "- accidentally flashing the gardener. Oops!"
She covered herself with one arm and gave the grinning old man a wave with her other. Not even that was going to faze her. There was only room for positive thoughts today. This was a beautiful day. An auspicious day.
It was the day Faith was breaking out of hell and coming back to her.
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Part Twelve Quick-Jump:
Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven Chapter Eight
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