Buffy climbed the stairs that lead to the school entrance, grasping onto her bag as if it could give her some kind of comfort. It couldn't of course, it was just a bag; trendy, too small for the books she needed to put in there, and not practical at all. Her fingers gripped almost hard enough to rip the cheap material. Each step her affordably fashionable shoes made against the solid stone rang out loudly and made her wince. She was not in a good mood, but had good reason. The argument she'd had with her boyfriend the night before sat heavy on her chest, and she had nobody to blame but herself.
By the time she reached the library she felt thoroughly miserable. If her mom hadn't been home Buffy would have stayed in bed all day and wallowed in her self-pity, but she'd been forced to get up and trudge to school. The last thing she wanted to do was try to be cheerful for her friends, or be productive. Listening to Giles talk to her about slaying was also not high on her list of fun things to do right now. Maybe if she was lucky the Hellmouth would suddenly choose to open up and swallow her whole as soon as she pushed through the library doors.
It didn't, and she listened to the doors swish closed behind her as she shuffled inside, dropping her bag onto the table and slumping into a chair.
"Good morning, Buffy," Giles said cheerily as he manoeuvred out of his office, books shoved under both arms as he tried not to spill coffee from the cup he was cradling.
"Is it?" Buffy grumbled.
He paid no attention to the question and placed his coffee down on the counter, clumsily divesting himself of the large books he'd been carrying. They thudded on the wood of the counter, little plumes of dust shooting out from their pages.
"New books?" Buffy asked as she glanced towards the open office door, noticing a large cardboard box that appeared to have been delivered that morning.
"Old books," Giles corrected, turning towards Buffy and bringing his coffee and one of the books with him. "Very old in fact."
Buffy sat up at the business-like tone of his voice.
"Is there a problem I should know about that needs very old research-y books? Demon on the loose, cult about to try to end the world, big nasty monster hoping to make tasty treats of unsuspecting high school kids?"
Giles placed his cup and the book down on the table in front of Buffy and removed his spectacles. He held them up to the light to check for smudges, pulling out his handkerchief and giving it a shake to remove the lint it had gathered in his pocket.
"Not that I'm aware of," he eventually replied just as Buffy was about to ask again. "The books are actually related to the slayer."
"To me?" Buffy questioned, a little puzzled.
He took a seat opposite Buffy, pushing his glasses back on and opening the book.
"Not exactly," he replied. "The slayer line."
He didn't elaborate and Buffy was beginning to get irritated with him. She wasn't in the mood for his slow and steady approach to everything. If there was something she needed to know then she wanted to know it now, not when he decided when it was a good time to divulge something he'd been mulling over for hours.
"I ask again. . .is there a problem?"
She placed her palms on the table top, bracing herself for anything bad he might tell her. Taking in Buffy's agitated state, Giles pushed the book aside and gave her his full attention.
"No problem," he assured. "I'm just making sure there are no repercussions with having two slayers on one Hellmouth."
Buffy sat back again but didn't exactly relax. Not that she'd be doing a whole lot of relaxing anyway after the last few days in which she'd managed to go from one disaster to another.
"You're worried something bad might happen?" Buffy asked, not planning to mention the bad thing that had already happened. Bad for her anyway.
"Not bad, just. . ." he paused; searching for an explanation Buffy wouldn't panic at. "I want to make sure there are no complications we're not yet aware of."
Far from inhibiting Buffy's rising panic levels Giles was only managing to make her worry more.
"Complications like what?" Buffy pressed, furrowing her brow.
Things were already complicated enough; surely they couldn't get any worse.
"Well, with such powerful magics involved it's important we know as much as we can about the ramifications of two active slayers," he answered. "The complications could range from nothing more than the slayers being unable to work well together, to there being a power struggle and one turning on the other, to. . .well, that's what I hope to discover. If any problems present themselves it would be prudent to be ready for them."
Buffy just stared at him, blinking slowly. She wasn't sure why he suddenly thought there would be any such problems; Faith had been with them for months now, and though they'd fought over Angel after Faith's psycho watcher had popped into Sunnydale, they'd been mostly been ok with each other. Everybody knew that Faith had a knack for rubbing Buffy up the wrong way, but Buffy had never worried that they might turn on each other for real. It was surprising to her that Giles thought it a possibility.
"Why do you think we'd turn on each other?" she asked, somewhat despondently.
Giles looked up from the book he had begun reading once more, smiling reassuringly at Buffy.
"Don't worry, I'm sure I'm just being overly cautious, Buffy," Giles explained, failing to reassure her. "I'm actually more interested in how the slayer line copes with anomalies such as this, if there's much of a precedent, and if it will affect any future slayers."
Buffy slouched back into her chair, not wanting to think of future slayers. There would only be future slayers if either she or Faith died.
"Great, so you're planning for the time either me or Faith gets killed. That's reassuring," she complained.
He gave Buffy an apologetic look and then continued to read.
"You know I have complete faith in you, Buffy," he said softly, using a rather unsettling choice of words – though he wouldn't have any idea why they would be unsettling to Buffy.
"And what about Faith?" Buffy asked when she realised he wasn't going to continue.
She may have suddenly been on shaky ground again with Faith but that didn't mean she wouldn't stand by her, or ensure Giles knew she was just as good a slayer as Buffy was herself. Well, maybe not quite as good, but good enough.
"And Faith of course," he added, giving Buffy a nod.
For some reason she didn't quite believe him. It made her a little sad - not only for Faith, but for herself too. She didn't like that he thought less of Faith or had less confidence in her, and she didn't want to believe that her watcher, her Giles, would look down on a person just because she was a little difficult sometimes.
Buffy sighed and decided not to push the issue. She didn't want to get into an argument – she had enough on her plate already. Whatever it was he was researching, and whatever he found, she was sure he was just being his usual fastidious self. It made her feel a bit uncomfortable, but he was just doing his job.
Luckily Xander and Willow arrived, as early as usual, before Giles could fill her head with anything more to stress about. With a small wave Buffy greeted them, forcing a smile onto her face as Willow waved back.
"Are we researching?" Willow asked as she practically skipped towards the table.
"He is, we're not," Buffy answered, trying to contain her slight disappointment in Giles.
She got up from the table, grabbing her bag and giving Giles one last doubtful glance before telling him they were leaving for class.
"Oh, already?" Giles asked, barely pulling his gaze away from his musty old book.
"Yup," Buffy answered, already walking towards the door with her friends. "I'll tell you about last night's patrol later. Not that anything exciting happened."
He nodded and went back to his reading and Buffy grimaced; she wasn't sure she wanted to know if he found any possible future problems that could occur now that Faith was there. Things between her and Faith were a bit fraught and the last thing they needed was the watcher's council doing tests or. . .sending one of them away.
Buffy slowed her pace as she thought about the possibility of Faith leaving. She didn't want that. As much as it would solve her biggest problem right now she still wanted Faith around.
"You ok, Buff?" Xander asked as Buffy practically stopped in the middle of the hallway.
He put his hand on her shoulder and she looked at him sadly. She wasn't ok, but she couldn't really talk about it. How could she tell them what she'd done, and what was troubling her? She didn't even know where to begin.
"Yeah," she replied quietly, giving him an ineffective smile.
Willow and Xander looked at each other, frowning. They clearly didn't believe her.
"Why don't we go chill in the cafeteria before class; we've got a while to wait anyway," Xander suggested, giving an encouraging nod to Willow.
"Sounds like a plan," Willow agreed on cue.
Buffy just shrugged her shoulders. She was tired – exhausted in fact. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. Her argument with Angel kept playing on repeat in her head, amongst other things, and she felt so guilty it was like carrying around a dead weight on her shoulders.
They all shoved their bags into their lockers and then Buffy followed her friends towards the cafeteria, thankful that it was fairly empty as they flopped down into some seats. The few other people in the room were down at the other end and though she could smell the sickly aroma of badly cooked breakfast food, Buffy felt like she could – or should – just relax.
Her friends were doing their best to distract her, making jokes and being their usual selves, and it was definitely helping. Though Xander and Willow had their own guilt at present, it was good to be in their company; she'd been spending far too much time away from them lately. That was another Faith related issue. In fact, everything seemed to come back to Faith these days.
It's why she'd been arguing with Angel.
"So are you gonna tell us what's wrong or do we have to tie you up and tickle it out of you?" Willow asked, giving Buffy her concerned face.
Buffy shook her head, trying to clear it so she could concentrate on what Willow was saying. Something about being tied up?
"What?" Buffy asked, a little shocked. "You. . .you're gonna. . .what?"
Her eyebrows rose up into her hairline and she wished she'd been paying attention.
"We're gonna tickle it out of you," Willow repeated.
"Oh," Buffy responded with a relieved sigh. "Tickle what out of me?"
Willow rolled her eyes and Xander chuckled. Buffy wasn't following whatever the hell was going on; she had been too busy thinking about Faith and the mess she was in because of her.
"The reason you're being all gloomy and not here," Willow informed her.
Xander shook his head no. "You're definitely somewhere else," he noted. "Which is cool if it's a good somewhere else with palm trees and long beaches, with hula girls in little skirts and. . .ok, maybe not hula girls for you, but sun and beaches is mostly of the good."
"But it's not cool if you're in a bad place, with depressing thoughts," Willow continued for him. "We don't wanna lose our Buffy again."
She gave Buffy a concerned look that clearly meant she was thinking of the time Buffy had just ran from her troubles instead of faced them. She couldn't blame them for worrying. That's not to say she didn't feel like poking them in the arm with a sharp stick for not allowing her to just bury it all inside, but she understood.
"I'm not going anywhere," Buffy reassured.
"But there is something wrong?" Willow pressed; her big, sympathetic eyes making Buffy crumble a little bit.
She'd been trying to keep control of herself since walking away from Angel's mansion last night after their fight. It had been heartbreaking, awful, and completely unavoidable. Buffy had done well not to just break down from self imposed misery, but she refused to slip into a state of sobbing and self pity. It was hard not slipping a little when her friends were being so concerned, however.
"I had. . ." a horrible argument. "It was. . ." all her own fault.
She took a steadying breath and tried to speak again, making more sense this time.
"Take your time, Buffy," Willow encouraged, laying her hand over Buffy's on the table. "But it's probably better getting it off your chest than keeping it all in."
Buffy let out a soft sob at that. She doubted talking about it would do anything but make everything worse. They didn't know the truth and probably shouldn't know it. Her eyes darted towards the other occupants of the room; they weren't paying attention, but her friends were and they were waiting for an explanation for the sudden tears.
Swiping at her cheeks to rid them of those tears, Buffy pulled her other hand away from Willow and shook her head. She couldn't do it. She couldn't tell them the truth.
"It's nothing," she lied badly. "We should go."
She got up to leave but the concern wasn't leaving her friend's faces. In fact they now looked more worried than ever.
"Is it Angel?" Willow asked, surprising Buffy.
"Why. . .why would it be Angel?" Buffy asked, trying to cover as she heard the quiver in her voice and fought back more tears.
"It's always Angel, Buffy," Xander pointed out a tad unkindly.
Buffy gave him an angry glare but she couldn't really say anything as he was right - kind of. It was about Angel, but it wasn't about Angel in the way they probably thought it was.
She sat down again, heavily, letting the weight on her shoulders drag her into the plastic seat. Everything was falling apart around her and she had no idea how to fix it. Any of it. She'd made a huge mistake. No, she'd made two huge mistakes and she was completely confused and didn't know which mistake she needed to try to fix most of all.
"I've really screwed up," Buffy let slip, tasting salty tears on her lips as she spoke.
"Oh, Buffy," Willow said; offering her hand again, which Buffy took. "What happened?"
Glancing from Xander to Willow, then around the room to make sure nobody else was listening or looking, Buffy decided she wanted to tell them. They'd understand. They'd stand by her and tell her she was ok, and that everything was going to be ok. It's what they did. They were her support team.
"I did something really bad to Angel," Buffy admitted quietly. "We argued last night and I think. . .I think we're over."
She avoided looking at Xander, knowing there would be a hint of a smile on his lips with that little piece of info. Willow was all wounded and sad looking so Buffy knew she wasn't harbouring secret desires for Buffy to break up with Angel. Not obvious ones at least.
"Maybe you could talk to him today, Buffy," Willow suggested hopefully. "I'm sure you'd be able to patch things up. I mean, you're Buffy, and he's Angel. You're meant to be together."
Buffy let out a body-jerking sob, lifting a hand to her mouth to try to stop herself. There had been a time she would completely have agreed with that statement, but after what she'd done. . .she doubted its truth. She doubted everything about them and what they'd been, and about herself.
"I don't think this is fixable," Buffy said shakily, feeling Xander's gentle hand rubbing her back as her friends tried to comfort her. "I don't even know if I want it to be."
That little truth shocked her as much as it shocked her friends. Since Angel had disappeared all she'd wanted was him back. All she'd thought of and dreamt of was him. Her heart had ached for him and every day she'd wished he was there for her, with her. But now. . .it was different. She didn't know what she felt. Didn't know what she thought, wanted, or how to proceed. Everything had happened so quickly.
"So, what did you do that was so bad?" Xander asked, his voice tender and understanding, despite his dislike of Angel.
Closing her eyes momentarily and deciding whether or not she should just tell them, Buffy felt her guts twisting into a knot. Would they think any less of her? Would they understand, or at least try to? She didn't know, but she had to trust in the fact they had always been there for her in the past. Through thick and thin they'd stayed by her side.
"I. . ." she paused, letting tears slip from her eyelashes to the dull grey of the table. "I cheated on him."
There was a soft gasp from Willow, and Xander's hand stopped rubbing her back for a few brief seconds. She hoped they didn't think less of her, but how could they not?
"Wow," Willow finally said as Buffy opened her eyes and looked at her closest friend.
"Well I wasn't expecting that," Xander chipped in, his eyebrows high on his forehead in surprise.
"Yeah, me neither," Buffy mumbled, feeling truly awful about the whole thing for many different reasons.
"Was it Scott?" Willow asked after what seemed like forever sat in stunned silence.
Buffy shook her head, but then paused. Maybe it would be easier if they thought it was him. She could just say yes and then ask them never to talk about it again. But she couldn't do that. What she'd done would have further reaching repercussions than wrecking her already strained relationship with Angel. She had to be truthful, no matter the consequences.
"No, it wasn't Scott," Buffy responded, almost telling them exactly who it had been.
She stumbled on her words, failing to get them out as Willow gave her hand a squeeze. Hanging her head in shame and agonizing over whether or not she should say anything more, Buffy felt her heart pounding in her chest. She looked around; at her friends, at her hands, at the blue sky outside through the windows. It felt like she couldn't catch her breath, and she was beginning to feel dizzy. This was what fear felt like. This was panic. This was knowing what she had to say would change everything. Well maybe not everything, but it would change a lot of things, and she didn't want to lose her friends. She didn't want to be judged or condemned.
"You can tell us," Willow encouraged. "If you want to."
Buffy took a deep breath, the air stinging her lungs and making her shudder. How had she managed to get herself into such a predicament? Why couldn't she have been stronger, better, straighter?
"I cheated on him with. . ." Buffy flicked her gaze between Xander and Willow, scared of what their reaction would be but desperate to get it off her chest, "with Faith."
She exhaled shakily and looked down at the crumb strewn table to avoid the probable judgment in their eyes that she felt she deserved. Her head shot back up again as Xander winced in pain as his elbow slid off the table, scraping his forearm. His mouth was hanging open and eyes wide, though not as wide as Willow's.
Neither of them said anything and Buffy shrank back, waiting for it to sink in. They stared and she waited. They blinked and she bit her lower lip. They clearly hadn't been expecting that.
After what felt like several minutes of stunned silence in which both of Buffy's friends just stared blankly at her, she decided somebody needed to speak.
"I'm guessing that was a bit of a shock," she ventured, looking back and forth between them both.
"It. . .um, I think. . .yeah," Willow stuttered.
Xander continued to stare, though he was staring off into the distance now with glazed eyes and a weird expression.
"Xander," Buffy said firmly, "stop thinking about me and Faith having. . ." She couldn't say the word, finding herself as lost in the thought as Xander seemed to be. "Just stop."
Xander shook his head and pulled his eyes back to Buffy, a small smile drifting over his lips.
"Sorry," he mumbled, shuffling uncomfortably in his seat and rubbing at his elbow. "I didn't even know she was. . .yunno. Or that you were."
Buffy rubbed at her brow, feeling a migraine starting to form at the prospect of having to explain. She didn't even know how to explain; it had crept up on her subtly, unexpectedly. There was no way she could make them understand when she didn't even fully understand it herself.
"Was this. . .recently?" Willow asked, her eyes beginning to return to their normal size and eyebrows slowly edging back down from her red hair.
She sounded a little shaken, her voice quiet. Her hand was still holding Buffy's but now it felt a little awkward so Buffy pulled away.
"A few days ago," Buffy confessed, feeling her heart rate slowly decreasing and her lungs relaxing.
The worst confession was out now, and nobody had fainted or ran screaming from the building - yet.
"And I didn't know that she was either, Xander," Buffy said, responding to his veiled question. "Or that I. . .liked her like that. I mean, I knew something, but it's all so confusing."
Buffy buried her face in her hands, resting her elbows on the table and wishing that she could turn back time. No, that wasn't quite right; she didn't want it to not have happened, but she did wish things had happened differently, and maybe not so fast. And she definitely wished that Angel hadn't found out in the way he had.
"So how did Angel find out?" Willow asked, as if reading her mind.
Buffy sighed and rubbed at her face before removing her hands.
"He saw us," she told them.
Xander's mouth once again hung open, making his next words somewhat garbled.
"He saw you? As in. . .saw you? When you were. . ."
His eyes glazed over once again and Buffy couldn't help but chuckle. He was such a guy.
"Yeah," Buffy replied, her stomach twisting with butterflies as she recalled that night.
No matter how guilty she felt and how upset about Angel she was, there was no denying that she'd loved being with Faith. She'd loved every second of it. It hadn't been until the following morning that things went horribly wrong; once again all Buffy's own fault. She'd panicked and escaped in a hurry, leaving Faith not knowing what the hell came next, or if there even was a next.
They hadn't spoken since.
"Everything's such a mess," Buffy muttered mostly to herself, slumping even further into her seat.
"I'm sorry, Buffy," Willow offered, patting her arm as if it was her fault and she had something to apologise for.
With a sigh, Buffy gave Willow a grateful smile and made herself force back any further tears. Her eyes were red enough and she didn't want people looking at her any weirder than they already did.
"So are you with Faith now?" Willow asked tentatively, sounding like she wasn't quite sure if she wanted to know the answer.
Buffy shook her head and peered out of the window, recalling the look on Faith's face as she'd rushed out of the door barely dressed. She'd told Faith it had been a mistake and it had clearly hurt. And Buffy knew now that had been a lie - or at least a half truth. It had been a mistake to give in when they had, but it had been brewing for a while. The inevitable would have jumped out at them eventually, and there was no escaping that fact.
"No," Buffy said sadly. "I screwed that up too."
Tears pricked at her eyes again and she felt like there was no way out of the chaos she'd created. She'd lost Angel, and she'd treated Faith in a way she felt ghastly about. There was probably no way of fixing either calamity, and she doubted she deserved either Angel's or Faith's forgiveness.
"This is probably a dumb question," Xander began, "but do you want to be with her? I mean, for more than sexy shenanigans – and can I just say. . .with what's in my head right now I totally vote yes to you being with her."
Both Willow and Buffy rolled their eyes, small smiles breaking some of the tension and easing a little stress from Buffy's shoulders.
Buffy thought about it for a second and chose to take the easy way out for now. "I don't know what I want," she answered.
It wasn't exactly a lie as she really didn't know for sure, but telling them that she had more reason to try to fix things with Faith than she did with her boyfriend would probably be one confession too far.
"I'm confused, and feeling stupid and ashamed, and. . .I don't know what to do for the best."
Willow gave her a sympathetic sigh and nodded in understanding.
"Well we're here for you no matter what, but you should do what feels right," Xander told her, sounding unusually mature and sensible for once. "You should do what makes you happy."
It sounded simple, but things were never simple. She thought she had been happy – or as happy as she could be under the strange and unusual circumstances of her boyfriend coming back from hell and wanting to be with her again. It should have been wonderful, and it had been. . .but Faith had been on Buffy's mind since she first arrived, and that hadn't stopped with Angel's reappearance.
She'd tried to ignore the niggling feeling she got around Faith in order to concentrate on making things work again with Angel, but it had all fallen apart. There was no ignoring how Faith had made her feel, piqued her curiosity, and generally sent her into a spin she had no control over.
If she was being totally honest with herself, Buffy had to concede that she would like to be with Faith again, not just for the naughty stuff. . .but properly. In a way Faith probably wasn't even interested in.
"Xander's right," Willow chipped in as they stood in unison and started making their way to class. "We just want you to be happy."
Happy sounded nice, but it also sounded far away, out of reach.
"I don't know if she'd want more than. . .yunno," Buffy said with a slight blush creeping over her cheeks. "I don't think she's the relationship type."
They strolled slowly down the corridor, squeezing past the other students that hardly paid them any attention at all. Buffy tried not to wonder if people could tell there was something different about her now. She felt different. Being with Faith had made her not only feel differently but also think differently. The experience had been. . .well, it had been perfect, amazing, incredible; at least until she'd messed it up in the morning.
"Haven't you spoken to Faith about it?" Willow asked.
Buffy looked at her sadly as they entered their classroom, finding their seats quickly and waiting for the teacher to arrive.
"I haven't spoken to her at all, not since. . ."
"Wait, has she left town?" Xander questioned, puffing up his chest as if he wanted to defend Buffy's honor.
Shaking her head no, Buffy looked down at her hands.
"I've kinda been avoiding her," she admitted.
"Oh, Buffy," Willow murmured, sounding caught between disappointment and understanding.
"Like I said, I've made a mess of everything and I don't know how to fix it."
Xander patted her back and Willow didn't seem to have any idea what to say next, but they were saved by the arrival of the teacher. Buffy would have to spend most of the rest of the day putting her dilemma to the back of her mind until she had the chance to dwell and agonize again. Of course, trying to concentrate on lessons didn't automatically mean she'd be able to stop thinking about Faith. She'd done a lot of thinking about Faith in the past few months when meant to be concentrating on other things.
The day idled by slowly and Buffy grew more depressed by the hour. Not even her friend's attempts at cheering her up helped. They just made it worse as they were being far too understanding. She would have coped with their admonishment better than their sympathy. She didn't think she deserved to be felt sorry for.
As the clock ticked down to the end of the school day it became more and more obvious to Buffy that she needed to choose what she wanted to do. And she needed to act on her decision sooner rather than later. She would either have to take the easy route and attempt to put things right with Angel so they could carry on as they had been, or she would have to face Faith and apologise for being cruel and hurtful the morning after their unexpected night of passion. Both options would require her to do some major damage control, but only one option truly appealed.
Buffy had to decide if choosing that option was really worth all the hassle it would bring. Not only hassle, but everything that went along with being different, being ripe for judgment. It would mean having to tell her mother, and Giles. It would mean she'd have to accept that part of herself that she'd tried to suppress since Faith had burst into her life.
She wasn't sure if she was strong enough.
TBC. . .