The throne was cold and smooth under her hand. Phoebe stroked it absently as she watched Willow pacing and chanting inside the circle. The movement and the smell of the incense burning somewhere tickled her nose and clogged her throat. It might have made her sick – if she wasn't already sick from the glamour Willow had cast on her. Phoebe's stomach roiled and cramped, and she locked her knees against a swell of dizziness.
"Phoebe!" Angel's hissed whisper penetrated the fog in her mind. Phoebe carefully turned her head to look at him. The flickering torchlight cast his face into shadows. All she could see were his bright yellow eyes and the white points of his fangs. "Get ready. Willow's about to…"
A loud bang echoed through the cavern and drowned out his words.
Willow stood in the center of raging flames. Phoebe watched, dazzled by the fire, as the waist-high blaze exploded toward the ceiling and then dropped to sizzle and pop right at floor level.
A hard hand grabbed her arm. "Let's go. Now, while no one's watching." Angel moved quickly, dragging Phoebe along in his wake.
The speed and the motion made her headache and heaving stomach worse. Phoebe stumbled after Angel and prayed she didn't ruin the plan by vomiting.
They hadn't reached their destination when a shrill voice rose above Willow's renewed chanting. Angel came to an abrupt halt, and Phoebe caromed helplessly into him. "What's wrong?" she managed to mumble. As sick as she was, Phoebe knew they had to get to the altar. The weapons were there.
"Dru. She's seen something. We may have trouble." Shoving her toward the stone table, he said, "Go. Get the athame. You know what to do. I'll take care of Dru." With a fierce smile, Angel took off.
Phoebe hesitated only a second before following his command. She ran toward the altar as quickly as she could.
Shouts and the sounds of combat broke out behind her.
The noise spurred her to more speed. Phoebe panted as she slid to a stop at her destination. An array of tools littered the stone surface. Only one mattered. Phoebe seized the onyx-handled athame.
The second her fingers closed around the hilt, Phoebe's world spun as the magic surrounding her was ripped away. The lights in the throne room seemed to dim and then lighten. The nausea disappeared. Straightening, she scanned the rapidly filling room.
Phoebe spotted Angel as he fought his way through a throng of vampire soldiers and girls (Slayers, Phoebe hoped) toward Dru..
Now that the cavern had become a battleground, Phoebe lost track of the job she'd agreed to do. She needed to find Faith. That single thought drove Cole from her mind. Where was she? Phoebe couldn't pick her out of the fighters at first.
Then light winked off a sword.
Phoebe relaxed slightly when she saw Faith was fine. Faith waded into battle with her spatha held in both hands. It was awe inspiring. Vampires turned to dust in droves.
Reassured, Phoebe got back to business. Cole. Athame heavy in her hand, Phoebe searched for him. He was no longer in the Circle. Growling in frustration, she climbed onto the altar for a better view. There he was, halfway across the large room and protected by a battle guard of four vampires.
Desperate for a way to reach Cole, Phoebe continued to scan the throne room, looking for answers. None came. Sword-swinging vampires and people blocked her access.
As she contemplated her limited options, Phoebe caught another glimpse of Angel. He'd finally reached Dru. The skinny vampire clutched at him, seeming to press against him with no awareness of the fighting or of the danger Angel posed.
Angel smiled tenderly and bent down.
Their lips hovered close.
Then Angel's muscles bunched, and Phoebe watched the sharpened piece of wood in his hand stab Dru's chest.
Dust drifted to the floor seconds later; Miss Edith landed in the pile, glass eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
"My Queen!" Phoebe's head snapped around at the call. Two uniformed vampires stood next to her perch, hands outstretched. "Come, my Lady. We will take you to safety."
That wasn't part of the plan, but it did give her an idea. "Not without Cole." She pointed over the battle. "We get him and then we get out of here." With their help, she should be able to reach Cole even through the throng of combatants.
Phoebe's orders didn't sit well. "My Lady…" one of the soldiers started to protest.
Taking the decision out of his hands, Phoebe leaped off the altar and swung her athame at the Slayer who immediately blocked her path. The short, narrow blade wasn't made for this type of warfare. It slid uselessly down the blade of the girl's saber before slamming into the bell guard with shoulder jarring force.
She didn't have time for finesse or a drawn out fight. Springing into the air and spinning, Phoebe rotated her hips, sending her left heel into the temple of her opponent hard enough to stun the other girl. The Slayer dropped to the floor, shaking her head and struggling to stand.
By the time Phoebe landed, her bodyguards were at her side. Apparently, they'd decided Phoebe wasn't going to quit the field without a fight.
"Start clearing a path out," Phoebe ordered them. "I'll be back." The fight with the Slayer had been the final straw. She wasn't going to play by the rules. Concentrating, she jumped straight up – and levitated to within inches of the ceiling.
This time, no one got in her way.
Floating over the heads of Slayers and vampires alike, Phoebe reached Cole and his guard in seconds. She descended slowly, coming to rest inside the ragged horseshoe of safety created by the bodyguards. "Cole! I have a way out," she shouted to get his attention.
Cole jerked, nearly impaling himself on the sword of the Slayer in front of him. He recovered immediately, though. Reaching out with his left hand, Cole gripped the tunic of one of the soldiers keeping him alive.
He didn't alert the vampire to her presence the way Phoebe expected. Instead, Cole dragged the guard away from his own fight and left him to face the sword of the Slayer Cole, himself, had been fighting.
"I'm ready. Lead the way," Cole said tersely as her turned in her direction.
Phoebe smiled and held out her hand. "It won't take long. Willow was afraid this might happen, and we planned ahead."
Cole didn't care about that. He crushed her hand when he took it. "Then get me out of here before someone gets lucky."
"My pleasure." Yanking Cole closer via their linked fingers, Phoebe thrust the athame into his chest at the same time. The spelled blade fluoresced, illuminating Cole's body in pale blue.
Ignoring a niggling ache in her heart for the love they'd once had, Phoebe chanted a vanquishing spell,
Hell waits for you, bringer of death
Now fire shall take your every breath
The blue light expanded, and Cole looked at her in disbelief. "Phoebe?"
His fingers slid from hers as Phoebe stepped away.
The light brightened painfully as it enveloped Cole's body. His scream of agony and denial echoed through the large room. It lingered for a second even after he vanished amidst the blue fire.
Phoebe stared dazedly at the empty spot in front of her. It was over. Willow had promised her that this spell would finally vanquish Cole forever.
She remained motionless until blue sparkles swirled to her right. "Phoebe! Wake up. We don't have time for you to take a walk down memory lane," Paige snapped.
"I'm not…" Phoebe started to say.
Paige didn't wait for her to finish. She grabbed Phoebe's arm and the cavern disappeared.
It could have been seconds or minutes later when they returned to the throne room. Phoebe tried to reorient herself, looking for landmarks in the room.
She never made it past Faith's still, bleeding figure clutched in the arms of a kneeling vampire.
"Bastard!" Phoebe screamed at the soldier holding Faith. Grabbing a stake from one of the people clustered around the pair, she slammed it into the vampire's back.
The gritty feel of his ashes under her knees barely penetrated her awareness as she dropped to the floor and stroked Faith's pale face. "Faith? Sweetie?" She prayed for a response but one never came.
Faith's eyes were dull and fixed on a point above them. She was alive, though. Barely. Phoebe could feel the faint rise and fall of her chest, and soft, thready breaths puffed against her cheek as she bent low and brushed her lips over Faith's.
Where was Leo? Leo could fix this. Eyes blurred with tears, Phoebe looked frantically at the people hovering around them. He wasn't there. Why wasn't he there? Faith had just saved his life!
"Leo!" Anger, pain, fear…They thinned her voice to a shrill, strained sound that eked from her dry throat. "Leo!"
"He's gone, Phoebe." Piper stepped forward. Tears streaked her face as she held out a hand. "They took him. He…he tried to heal Faith, and the Elders took him."
No. The protest started with one, quiet word. It grew, though. It grew and grew and grew until Phoebe shook visibly from the force of her internal screaming. "No!" The scream broke out. "She's not going to die. She passed their test. She saved Leo. She saved all of us!"
"Yelling isn't going to help, you know," Willow's ragged voice commented.
Phoebe was in no mood for anger management lessons. She spun, ready to let Willow know how little she cared for her opinion.
She never got the words out, though. Willow didn't look up to a fight, not even a verbal one.
A short blonde woman flanked Willow, clearly helping to support the pale witch, as they approached. Dawn held the other side. "Take my word for it, yelling at the PtBs is useless. If you want Faith back, you need to find another way to get your point across." Willow swiped at the blood trickling from her nose with the back of her hand.
"Like what?" Phoebe needed someone to tell her what to do. Faith's skin seemed to grow colder and colder under her palm, and Phoebe couldn't think beyond that.
"Do what I should have done instead of resurrecting Buffy on my own. Take the fight up there." Willow pointed at the ceiling.
There was no pain. That was new, but Faith wasn't going to complain. She didn't mind the lack of the burning, stabbing agony in her chest. She opened her eyes. Pausanias had looked stunned at what he'd done, and Faith wanted to let him know it was OK. If she had to die, better at his hands than one of his men.
She wasn't in the throne room, though. Faith didn't know where she was, but it definitely wasn't the throne room.
Muted light filtered in through tall columns. The entire space was shrouded in a fine mist.
Faith carefully turned her head. Robed figures moved smoothly and silently in the distance.
"Welcome, Faith." The deep voice startled her so badly, Faith cried out and scooted back automatically.
That's when she realized she wasn't injured. There was no blood, no knife sticking out of her chest, and still no pain. Hand pressed to the spot where Pausanias' spatha had stabbed, Faith scrambled to her feet. "Where the fuck am I? And who are you?" she demanded.
The golden-robed figure reared back. "I beg your pardon?"
"You can beg all the fuck you want. Just answer the questions." Widening her stance and setting her base, Faith crouched slightly.
A pained sigh emerged from the hood and then two hands lifted to grip the material hiding the man's face. "I am Odin, one of the Elders. The Powers That Be, as you call us."
"Oh." Faith straightened and peered around. "Thought you'd have better digs. What's with the creepy mist and all the quiet?" She tried to hide the sudden pounding of her heart. If she was here then… She was dead. Faith struggled to absorb that idea.
Her continued questions seemed to irritate Odin. He frowned, his lips pressing together in a disapproving line. "Perhaps we could focus on the reason we summoned you here."
They didn't need to do that. Faith already knew more than enough about the subject. "Nah. That's old news. I musta failed your test. Leo explained the fine print to me a few days ago." She was surprised to be here and not someplace a lot hotter. Maybe that was what they were supposed to talk about.
Rapid movement to her left distracted Faith. Mist swirled around three more robed figures running toward her and Odin.
"Faith!" Leo's hood slid back as he stopped at her side. "Sorry I'm late. I wanted to bring a few friends along to this meeting." He didn't sound like the blushing, quiet Whitelighter Faith remembered. His voice was clipped and angry, and he hadn't stopped glaring at Odin since his arrival.
Two more hoods came down, revealing a blonde woman and a dark-haired kid.
"Uh…hey. Nice to meet some friends of L's." The whole situation was getting too weird. Faith wanted to get this over with, wanted to hear the big pronouncement of her failure and get her one-way ticket to Hell.
"It is very good to meet you as well, Faith. I am Sandra." Faith shook the hand Sandra held out. "And this is Kevin." She tilted her head at the boy next to her.
"Hey, Kev." He grinned at her and brushed his hair away from his eyes. Faith waited for more, but no one spoke. They stood in uncomfortable silence.
Finally, Leo got the conversation restarted. "Faith, the Elders have some things to tell you."
Odin stiffened and opened his mouth.
"Listen to what they say," Leo rushed on. "It's important."
"We are wasting time." Faith had to agree with Odin's angry outburst. "The test is over. The outcome clear."
"Yes, clear, Odin." Kevin might have looked like a young boy, but his voice was firm and commanding. "Faith has earned the right to choose her fate."
Choose? Faith zeroed in on that one word. Maybe she wasn't going to be roasting in Hell after all. She took a deep breath, feeling a little more calm. "I passed?" she had to ask.
Sandra met her eyes. "You would not be here if you had failed."
The relief was so overwhelming, Faith swayed against Leo. "Wicked." She hoped they didn't notice the quiver in her voice or the tears in her eyes. "Then let's hear about the choices."
Sandra and Kevin looked at Odin. Faith followed suit.
"Your choices," he said, and Faith thought his teeth were probably clenched. "There are two, Faith. Each will allow you to continue atoning for your past."
Even in the afterlife that wasn't over. Angel hadn't mentioned that. Wishing she could pass the information along, Faith swallowed hard. "What's behind Door Number One?"
"You may stay here." Odin waved a hand at wherever they were. "As a Whitelighter. We will pair you with a charge. Someone who needs guidance to avoid making mistakes similar to your own."
"Like Leo?" No way. They wanted her to be a guardian angel? Faith chuckled. "No, thanks. That orbing shit makes me want to puke, and I ain't exactly a role model for the kiddies."
Blonde hair waving, Sandra shook her head. "You would do well as a Whitelighter, Faith. Please don't turn us down so quickly."
"Tell her the other option, Odin." Leo's hands gripped Faith's shoulders in a comforting squeeze.
This must be his pick, then. Faith rocked on her heels and waited.
"If you decide you cannot handle the role of a Whitelighter," Odin said condescendingly, "then you may elect to return to your mortal existence."
That was it? Believing she'd missed something important, Faith asked, "What else? You ain't just going to send me back with an 'Atta Girl.'"
"Correct." Odin stuffed his hands inside his robe's sleeves. "As a mortal, you would need to continue your duties as a Slayer and remain in San Francisco to assist the Charmed Ones battle the forces of evil."
Odin wasn't up to date on his Faith lore. He didn't seem to know she loved her job. "Sign me up," Faith told him.
"So be it." Odin raised his hands, and Faith felt her skin tingle…
…Blinking, she stared up at a black expanse. "Fuck, who turned off the lights?" she asked as she sat up.
Phoebe stood a few feet away, mouth hanging open.
The wound in her chest was gone as if it never happened, but Faith still felt a tearing pain. Phoebe. Phoebe the vampire.
"You're dead," Phoebe said.
"Not anymore." Faith couldn't believe this conversation. She climbed to her feet and brushed off the dust that covered her legs. "It was temporary." Keeping her eyes down, she looked for a stake. No one else was going to take care of Phoebe. Faith knew she had to do it.
She didn't have time to dodge when Phoebe launched herself across the space separating them. "You're not dead!" Gripping Faith tightly, she kissed her over and over again.
Even knowing Phoebe's undead status didn't stop Faith from responding to Phoebe's kisses. She groaned and pressed up into Phoebe's warmth.
Yanking Phoebe away by her hair, she mumbled, "Moonbeam?" Faith reached down with her thumbs and pried Phoebe's lips up so she could peer at her teeth. No fangs. Abandoning her hold, she checked for a pulse.
Phoebe's heartbeat pounded against the fingers Faith wrapped around Phoebe's wrist. "How? I saw you. I felt you. You were a vampire, Moonbeam."
"A spell, sweetie. I promise. Just a spell," Phoebe assured her.
Now it was Faith's turn to dole out celebratory kisses. She lost awareness of the throne room and their audience.
"I fly all the way from Rome for this?" It couldn't be…
Faith reluctantly pulled away from Phoebe and looked up. It was. "Fuck, B. I just died already. I think a few kisses are normal."
"Don't even get her started, Faith." Angel grunted when Buffy jabbed him in the stomach. He persevered, though. "Pretty soon, she'll be keeping score. 'I've died twice, Faith. You've only done it once. I'm still the best Slayer,'" he mocked in a falsetto voice.
"She can claim anything she wants." Faith wasn't interested in picking at Buffy. "She might even be right." Wrapping an arm around Phoebe, she glanced around the throne room. There were Junior Slayers and Watchers everywhere. "Where's the General and the army?"
"Moonbeam?" Faith looked down, but Phoebe avoided her gaze.
"You're standing on Pausanias," Phoebe whispered.
Faith hopped to one side. "Fuck!" She'd expected it. Pausanias had been a vampire. She still regretted it. He'd been different than most.
"At least you didn't sleep with him, unlike some people we know," Dawn chimed in, breaking the mood.
Like the mature older sister she was, Buffy stuck her tongue out. "Thanks, Dawn. On that note, I think it's time we got out of here. I've got serious jetlag, and I'm starving."
As Buffy wandered away, followed by the rest of the gang, Faith leaned down and kissed Phoebe again. "The Elders wanted me to be like Leo."
Phoebe's eyes widened.
"They must be pretty fucking stupid if they thought I was going to trade you for some blue sparkles." Holding Phoebe close to her side, Faith led them toward the exit.