Put Yourself In My Place

 

I wait a full ten minutes in the car outside the Hyperion hotel because part of me wants her to come after me. That same part of me would enjoy her expression if I drove off leaving her standing on the sidewalk confused, angry and, hopefully, hurt. Occasionally, yes, I *am* that petty. Especially towards her. So I watch the illuminated digital clock on the dash as the minutes slide by, counting the seconds in my head.

When those ten minutes elapse, I blow out a long breath and turn the ignition key. Even as I pull away from the kerb, I glance in the rear-view mirror. Just in case.

I lied to her, about Dawn. My kid sister - because that's how I'll always see her, implanted memories or not - is safe with Giles in Sunnydale. It was too risky to bring her along, to make her an open target to any opportunistic demon in LA, and because I know that she would've asked awkward questions. For a fourteen year-old she's very perceptive. But mainly I don't trust Faith with the knowledge of who and what Dawn is. Who knows how long this good girl kick will last?

Maybe Faith is sincere this time but I'm not willing to invest everything in her like I did two years ago. I gave her every opportunity to change her mind; I gave her second chance after second chance. All she did was throw it back in my face. Despite that, I was so willing to forgive her when she woke from her coma. None of us were guilt-free when it came to Faith so I desperately wanted to believe that she'd changed. . . It was so easy to slip into hating her again. She *made* it so simple.

I think she wanted me to follow her to LA, to finish her off. Maybe I would have if Angel hadn't been there. And that would've made me just as bad as her. Except, I was already there wasn't I? Hadn't I stuck a knife into her? It was like a warm knife sinking into soft butter and I remember with clarity the astonished look on her face. She thought I wasn't capable of it but I was completely willing to trade her life for Angel's without a second thought. Even so, he left me - I knew there was a punchline in there somewhere. I'm still bitter about that, just as I am about Faith, so I guess my grievances tend to fester.

Now this news. well, not exactly news. about Faith loving me. Past and present. Did I know? Maybe I did, a little. I remember when she asked me to the Homecoming dance. Scott Hope had dumped me and she oh-so-casually suggested we go together, under the premise of picking of guys. That night I 'd spent longer in front of the mirror fixing my hair and make-up than I had before any date with Angel. When the limo pulled up, I'd been disappointed to find a sullen Cordelia waiting inside instead of Faith.

So many other instances come to mind as I turn onto the freeway, a myriad moments finally slotting into place. Christmas Eve and the smile she gave me when she showed up on my doorstep, when we both knew that the party she'd blown off didn't exist. The fact went unspoken, naturally, as did my observation that she'd dressed up for the occasion - in her own inimitable way. She even bought me a gift and I didn't get her anything. I didn't have the chance to be sorry about that because Angel was in trouble. There was always some crisis or other during these moments, until she became the crisis herself. Then it was too late.

She was always just out of reach but maybe I never tried hard enough. But how could I have known what would happen? I was barely an adult myself and it was such a difficult year for me - Angel, the repercussions of my running away, college looming, putting my life back together. How could I take on Faith's problems as well? It wasn't fair for her to expect me to do that.

******

A few weeks pass quickly. So many things to contend with: the sale of the house, Dawn and me moving into Giles' spare bedroom, my finals on the horizon, Glory and her minions. Everything prior to Mom's death seems like another life. I have to be something else, something more now but I just feel hollow.

I almost expect another letter from Faith, a scrawled note maybe, but there' s nothing and I begin to wonder if I misread the situation. Maybe what she felt was only in the past and she just needed closure. Briefly, I consider calling Angel and asking to speak to her but I don't know what I would say except that I'd like to hear her voice.

Dawn says I have nightmares sometimes but I try to reassure her that it's nothing. They aren't always nightmares, occasionally I dream that Faith and me are talking. The location changes, sometimes we're having a picnic, other times we sit at the breakfast bar in my mother's kitchen, or we're in the yard at the Hyperion. She tells me stories about her past, repeating the tall tales that she used to tell the Scoobies in the Bronze, or things that happened to her as a child in Boston. In some dreams I'm chasing her in a cemetery and she's laughing. She jumps out at me from behind a gnarled tree but instead of fighting me, like I expect, she holds me. It always seems so real, I can smell the scent of smoke lingering on her clothes and hair, feel the strength of fingers where they grip me, her breath disturbing my hair in short bursts.

When I wake, I find I'm close to tears. Often, after these dreams, I see the outline of Dawn peering at me in the dark and she asks if I'm okay. I just tell her to go back to sleep.

******

Another dream.

This time we're in my mom's car after we've taken it for a joyride. There's a huge dent in the hood where we crashed into a mail box. First I was driving and then later in the dream Faith was. But now we're sitting on the back seat and she's holding me again. Or maybe I'm holding her. She's crying. She shivers and juts and shudders against me but her cheek is burning hot against mine, her tears splashing warmly on my neck. My palm draws idle circles on her lower back.

She quietens as her tears stop. She sniffles softly into my ear and it tickles. I squirm away from it and because I'm suddenly conscious of my position - her thigh slotted snugly between my mine. When I try to move she reacts and pulls me tighter against her. Neither of us let go.

I pet her hair like I would a child except she's anything but. I feel every curve moulded to my own. She lays her cheek flat on my shoulder and her skin is sticky with tears. What have we done, I ask her half rhetorically. Closing my eyes, I let the musky scent of her wash over me. Cigarettes, leather and cheap imitation perfume. What I've come to think of as essence of Faith.

Finally, she lifts her head to look at me with glazed eyes. She's pretty, dark and pretty like the aftermath of a storm, with her smudged mascara and she wears blue eyeshadow although it's completely wrong for her complexion. I wet my thumb and wipe the dark stains from under her eyes. I want to kiss her and the thought comes to me calmly like a well-considered, rational decision. Her eyes are questioning and I know what she wants but she's too stubborn to ask.

The alarm clock sounds and I wake up. With a growl of frustration I roll over, pull the covers over my head, squeeze my eyes shut, and try to force myself back to sleep. Maybe I can will my brain to pick up where it left off. There's a knock on the door and Giles' voice muffled through two inches of wood telling me that I'll be late for my classes if I don't get up. I can 't seem to bring myself to care and I think I may be cracking up. Ironic, considering Faith was supposed to be the basket case.

******

The next day I give in to temptation and call Angel.

"Angel Investigations, we help the helpless." It's the new guy, I don't know his name, and so I'm thrown.

"Uh, can I speak to Angel? It's Buffy."

There's a rustle as he presumably holds the phone against his chest and I hear a muffled shout. "Yo, Angel, it's the Barbie for you."

I swallow my annoyance when Angel takes the receiver. "Buffy?" He sounds worried, he probably thinks I need his help with some impending apocalypse. Well, maybe that's not so far from the truth.

"Yeah, it's me."

"What's up?"

I take a breath, trying to order my thoughts. "How's Faith?"

I picture him blinking at the other end. "She's fine. Good." There's hesitation in his voice and it sets my teeth on edge.

"Can I speak to her?" I ask, trying and struggling to remain civil. Spike was right, as much as it pains me to admit that. Angel and I were never friends, and never will be. As Faith once so concisely put it: 'big love, big loss.' There is no middle ground with these things. No middle ground with us.

"She's gone shopping. With Cordelia."

"Oh." I'm at a loss for words.

Angel's voice disturbs my disquiet. "Can I take a message?"

Think, think, think. "No."

"Right." He pauses slightly. "Should I tell her you called?"

I shake my head purely for my own benefit. "No, it's okay," I respond, my reluctance clear to my own ears. "Thanks. Bye."

*click*

My gaze fixes on the blank, white wall facing me as I put the phone down. I feel so dispossessed all of a sudden in my own life. Staying with Giles, Riley gone, my friends with their solid, happy relationships, my mother. I can't even finish that thought without tears springing to my eyes and, damnit, I've had enough of crying. I can't take any more heartbreak, not if I'm expected to be the strong, reliable, unshakeable Buffy that everyone needs me to be.

So I can't, just cannot, allow myself to fall for Faith.

A couple of days later I call again. This time Cordelia picks up, her falsely bright tone jars me immediately. There's never been any love lost between Cordy and me but towards the end of school we developed a grudging respect for each other. She actually saved my life with a fish slice.

I try to remember that as I speak. "Hey, it's Buffy."

There's a short, uncomfortable silence. "Oh. Hi," she says, prior perkiness all but deflated, her voice even. "Angel's not around." Another brief silence. "How's things?"

"Okay, I guess. Glory's lying low for the moment. Training a lot. School's hectic."

"That's great."

Normally, Cordy would be pressuring me for gossip about Sunnydale and the gang. This subdued Cordelia is starting to freak me out.

"Is Faith still behaving herself?" I ask lightly, hoping that I just caught Cordy during a bad moment, like, mid-manicure.

"Look, Buffy, you know I'm not one to spare anyone's feelings so I'll just come out and say it. I think you should keep away from Faith."

When I open my mouth to respond, nothing seems to come out. "What?" I ask, more of an exhalation of breath than a fully-formed word.

"She really doesn't need you around complicating things for her. Unless you hadn't noticed, she tends to act crazy when you're around and Psycho!Faith is something we can live without."

"Since when did you join Team Faith?" I ask, finding my incredulous voice eventually.

Her response is as smooth as her hair was in high school. "Since she spilled her guts and you walked away. I always thought you were brave one, Buffy, and she was the spineless wimp. Was I *so* wrong."

"Cordelia," I begin angrily, "you don't know the first thing. . ."

I pause, hearing a voice other than Cordelia's at the other end, realising that she isn't listening to a single word. "Sorry, paying client. Gotta go," the actress says curtly and I'm left with the dial tone humming into my ear.

******

I call again, and, yes, I realise how pathetic I am. If anyone other than Faith answers, I'll hang up.

Three rings and a smoky voice speaks in that familiar Boston drawl. "Hello? Uh, Angel Investigations. What?" There's a whisper in the background; she's not alone. "Oh, yeah, we help the helpless."

God, just the sound of her voice makes me grin like an idiot. "Hey."

"B. Buffy?"

She's spun, I can tell, so I press this advantage. "I've missed you."

Silence at the other end before a quiet "me too."

"Can I come down and see you? Next weekend maybe?" Forward, yes, but I have no inclination to play it cool after all this time. Things going unsaid was always our problem.

She hesitates. "Uh, sure. Yeah." I can practically *hear* her furrowed brow.

Quickly, I change the subject before she changes her mind. "So, Angel tells me you and Cordelia have been spending quality fun time together."

"What?" she chokes out.

"She took you shopping," I explain in a droll voice. "In some circles that's considered an honour. Although, personally, I think being stuck in a mall with Cordy has gotta be one of the dimensions of hell."

Faith doesn't laugh. "She's been really good to me, Buffy." Again with this using my full name and there's something about this whole conversation that bothers me.

"What's going on there?"

"What d'ya mean?" Faith asks.

"It's just Cordelia has never had a nice word to say about you and all of a sudden. . ." I pause. "Well, it just seems strange, that's all."

"People change," Faith says quietly.

I smile at that. "Yeah, they do."

******

I just can't wait an entire week to see her so that weekend I decide to drive down to LA as a surprise. This time I won't hold back because I'm ready now. I'm prepared to accept Faith and whatever emotional baggage that she has. I want her to come back to Sunnydale, I want her back with me. Angel won't stop her, even if he needs her in LA. What else is keeping her there anyway?

The logistics of it all, I haven't really considered. I have no idea what I' m going to say to her. In my mind, I walk into the Hyperion, kiss her, tell her that I love her, and drive off into the sunset with Faith in the passenger seat. Evidently, my mind only seems to operate on a Danielle Steele level when it comes to Faith.

When I park the car outside the Hyperion, I check my hair one last time in the mirror.

There's no one at the desk but as I walk in, Cordelia and Faith emerge from the room adjacent. They're laughing, sharing a private joke, and they seem so comfortable together. My eyes fall to Faith's hands resting lightly on Cordy's hips and cold realisation slips over me. Oh. My. God. They break apart almost as soon as they see me. They even have the good grace to look embarrassed.

All of a sudden I feel like I can't breathe, like it's a huge effort to draw air into my lungs. "How long has this been going on?" The words slip out somewhere between a whisper and a choke but inside I'm screaming.

They share a silent look and I want to claw at them both. Angel appears, drifting down the stairs, stopping at the bottom step. I turn to him. "You knew and you didn't tell me?"

I don't wait for his sheepish answer. Instead, I approach Faith. She's never looked so guilty or so beautiful. I love her and I hate her for it. Conflicted, much?

Cordelia steps between us and I almost laugh. I could knock her out the way like the ragdoll she is. What does Faith see in her, I wonder? All I see is a manipulative high school beauty queen slumming it. And I *hate* her blonde highlights.

"Get out my way," I say, biting out each syllable but Cordelia continues to stare me out.

She folds her arms across her chest. "No, someone has to stand up to you and your Slayer-sized ego. When will you ever get over yourself, Buffy? Did you expect her to wait forever while you made up your mind? Some things *don't* revolve around you."

I clench my jaw. I'm *this* far away from belting her across the room. "She' ll be over you pretty soon too. She can only get so much mileage out of fucking a cheerleader. Novelty wears off quickly with her."

Cordelia's palm connects with my cheek before I can react. And, God, does it sting. Body tensed, Faith drags Cordelia out the way and gives me a desperate look. "I don't wanna fight you, B. I didn't plan this, it just happened."

I could lose myself in punches and kicks and maybe I wouldn't even feel it when those blows were returned. Instead I press fingers to my cheek, testing the swollen skin and think about the excuse I'll have to give Giles and the others. No way am I going to admit that Cordelia bitch-slapped me. I may have humiliated myself but I still have my pride.

"I hope you're happy together," I murmur, malice dancing behind my eyes as I walk away.

Outside I sit in the car, my forehead pressed to the wheel. The tears won't come any more, not for Faith. I feel like I've been knifed in the gut and I' m not beyond smiling bitterly at the irony. No, the tears will come later, in my bed, in my dreams. And Dawn will ask me about them and I'll lie. Because denying Faith's existence is the nearest I can get to being over her.

The End