A/N: *Please do not distribute or post this story anywhere without my permission.* Thanks to cookiesarefood for her betaing skills.

Flowers for a Ghost

By the time she stepped from the shower, Buffy knew what she had to do. She could try to convince herself that things would work, but ultimately Dawn was right. They were a family—albeit a strangely cobbled together one—and some risks were just too big. No matter how much she wanted it, she had to let Faith go.

Chapter 9

"So," Xander said conversationally, his voice muffled by the mask he wore over his mouth and nose, "the kitchen's really coming along."

"That tends to happen when you spend every free moment working," Oz remarked from behind his own mask.

After pulling the last of the cabinets free from the wall, Faith placed her hands on her hips and surveyed the wrecked kitchen triumphantly. Dust coated her clothes and hair, as well as her two assistants.

"Speaking of which," Xander said, as he walked to the displaced refrigerator, "not that I don't appreciate the help, but do you wanna tell me why you're spending every waking moment in my kitchen?" He unearthed three bottles of water and passed them out.

"Because you left this until two weeks before your wedding, and I don't want Anya to leave you at the altar," Faith suggested, uncapping her water and guzzling half of it quickly.

"Right," Oz said, nodding. "Valid point."

"No, it's not," Xander protested, slipping his mask up over his head. "Well, it is," he corrected, "but that's not what's really going on here."

"It's not?" Faith asked, her tone amused.

"No," Xander insisted, looking at Oz for agreement. The taciturn man merely gazed back, neither confirming nor denying the possibility. Seeing he would get no help from that direction, Xander decided to try another route. "Faith," he began, concern in his voice, "what's going on? Why don't you want to go home?"

She shrugged, pulling her mask over her face and breathing in the somewhat clear air that awaited her.

"Did you have a fight with Buffy?" Xander prodded gently.

"No," Faith answered, with a brittle laugh, "I definitely didn't have a fight with her."

"Then what," Xander started to ask, but cut himself off abruptly. His eyes grew big as saucers. "Oh my God," he exclaimed, turning to Oz, "they totally did it!"

"Still here," Faith cut in, pulling Xander's attention back to her.

"You did it," Xander cried again, his words tumbling out in a jumbled mess as he pictured this in his head, "you and Buffy, and you guys… with the… oh, my God."

"Do you need some sort of medication?" Faith asked.

Oz carefully maneuvered Xander through the open back door and sat him down on the deck. As they waited for Xander to gather his wits about him once more, Oz looked at Faith. "Not the magical experience you were hoping for?"

She sat beside Xander, the bottle of water dangling between her splayed knees. "No, that part was fine."

Apparently having gotten himself pulled together, Xander presented her with a more concerned face. "What's the issue then? The Buffster freaking out?"

Faith sighed, remembering the obvious hurt on Buffy's face as she'd all but fled from the house. "No," she admitted, "I am." Looking down at the bottle she was twisting in her fingers, Faith continued, "I just can't stop thinking about what B would think."

Xander's eyes were sad. "She's not coming back, Faith."

"I know that," the slayer muttered, annoyed.

"Don't you think she'd want you to be happy?" Xander prodded gently.

"Yes," Faith answered without hesitation.

"So, what's the problem?"

Faith shrugged, annoyed with herself, and annoyed with Xander. "She's gone," she said, after a moment, "and no one's even mourning her."

"We are," Xander replied. "We all are, in our own ways. We haven't forgotten about her."

"I'm mourning her?" Faith asked incredulously. "How, by sleeping with Buffy?"

Xander persisted, although it was clear Faith was unwilling to really listen, "I was there when Giles told you it was hopeless," he reminded her. "I saw your reaction. We all know you're grieving for her. Even Buffy does."

Oz tried a different tactic. "If there's a Faith where she is, what do you think Buffy's doing?"

Faith tried to dismiss the question. "If she swapped places with this Buffy, the Faith in that world is locked up."

"Let's say she wasn't," Oz argued.

Faith considered it for a moment. "I don't know."

Xander interjected, "Buffy was crazy about you—she thought you guys were soul mates."

"Such great soul mates that she would jump into bed with anyone who looked like me?"

"No," Xander said, beginning to lose patience. "The kind of soul mates that are meant to be together, no matter how many worlds there are, or what life throws at them. Buffy is Buffy," he said, almost confusing himself trying to explain. "I'm not saying you have to marry her. I'm just saying, don't push her away and say you're doing it for Buffy. She wouldn't want that."

Faith stood, tossing her empty bottle into the trashcan beside the door. "Alright, Dr. Phil, time to get back to work. The kitchen ain't gonna build itself."

Xander looked at Oz, who shook his head, as if telling him to let it go. Faith would come around in her own time, and there didn't seem to be anything they could do to convince her.

XXXXX

Buffy strolled from the student services building, Tara walking happily at her side. "So," she asked, "how does it feel to be once again matriculating at UC Sunnydale?"

"Great," Tara answered quickly. "I can't wait for school to start!"

"Whoa there," Buffy said sarcastically. "Some of us are enjoying vacation."

"Right," Tara said, reigning in her enthusiasm. A moment later, she turned to Buffy, her face serious. "Thank you so much. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't shown up."

"Tara," Buffy said, obviously not for the first time, "stop thanking me!"

Nodding quickly, Tara assured her, "I will! It just hasn't fully sunk in yet."

"Well," Buffy said kindly, "it will." Gazing up the hill beside them to one of the less attractive buildings on campus, she asked, "Are you sure you want to move back into the dorms? You're welcome to stay with us, you know?"

"I don't want to wear out my welcome," Tara protested. "Besides, when Faith gets back—"

"If Faith comes back," Buffy corrected, "we'll figure it out."

Watching Buffy's dejected expression from the corner of her eye, Tara asked, "She's still at Xander's?"

"That's the word on the Scooby grapevine," the slayer answered. Her tone filled with annoyance. "The Faith I knew wasn't exactly big on dealing, but I thought the Faith here was less into the avoiding thing. Guess I was wrong." Tara frowned sympathetically as Buffy continued, "Does she think she's going to live at Xander's now? Because I don't think that's really the honeymoon he was envisioning. And what about us? I'm mopey, and Dawn's moping is in another league. I just want her to come home. We can pretend it never happened if she wants. She just needs to come home, and…" Buffy trailed off, smiling sheepishly. "And I'm totally rambling. I'm sorry."

"No," Tara said, "it's okay. Just… why don't you tell her?"

"That I want her to come back?" Buffy asked uncertainly. "She can't deal with us sleeping together. I don't know how she's going to take the 'move back in and be platonic life partners with me' speech."

Tara smiled. "I wasn't going to put it quite like that."

"Then how would you put it?" Buffy asked, as they entered the quad. The area was set up with a variety of tables geared toward the touring students wandering the campus. "Cupcakes!"

Allowing herself to be steered toward the cupcakes, Tara shook her head. "I'm not really good at speeches. Just talk to her, you'll think of something."

The women manning the table frowned as Buffy picked up three cupcakes, in spite of the sign encouraging them to take one. "Maybe I should bring her cupcakes," Buffy suggested, before biting into the first of hers. "I'll get her in to a sugar coma, and it won't matter what I say."

Picking up her own cupcake, Tara quickly led the way away from the table. "Good idea," she said, half seriously. Baked goods did tend to improve things.

Buffy bit into her second cupcake dejectedly. She wasn't sure there were enough cupcakes in Sunnydale to really make her talk with Faith any easier.

XXXXX

Another three days went by before Buffy had absolutely had enough of Faith's stubbornness. She finished washing the dinner dishes and picked up her car keys.

"Where are you going?" Dawn asked. "I thought we were doing movie night. Lost and Delirious is out!" She held the DVD aloft as if to convince her sister.

"I'll be back soon," Buffy promised. "I'm just gonna run to Xander's."

Realizing what that meant, Dawn dropped her protest. "Okay."

During the drive over, Buffy practiced all the very calm and convincing things she would say to Faith. She planned to confidently inform her that there would be no weirdness between them. They would be friends who were co-parenting a teenage girl by day, and slaying demons by night, and that was all. No feelings. No aggressive yet sexy wrestling during sparring. Nada.

Xander opened the door to her knock, immediately ushering her in. "An," he addressed his fiancé, "let's go to the store and get that stuff we need."

Anya frowned. "We don't need anything."

"Did I say store?" Xander asked, slapping himself lightly on the forehead. "I meant ATM! I have money to deposit."

"Money?" Anya immediately perked up. "How much money?"

Xander lifted his car keys from the table by the door. "I'll show you! Just get in the car."

If Anya was suspicious at all, it didn't show. She gladly followed Xander outside, leaving Buffy standing alone in their living room. There was a clear sight line to the still under construction kitchen. It looked almost complete. Faith had been busy. Just as Buffy began to walk toward the back of the house, Faith emerged from the small hallway off the kitchen, which Buffy knew led to the spare bedroom. She lingered in the doorway, arms crossed over her stomach. "Hey."

"Hey," Buffy said back, reaching the kitchen. "You've gotten a lot done back here. It looks good."

"Thanks."

All of her well planned thoughts seemed to be fleeing her mind. Buffy ran her fingertips awkwardly over the island's countertop. "Dawn'll be happy when you're done," she suggested. So will I. "She misses you at home."

Faith looked a little stricken at that. "I miss her, too."

Trying not to sound like a desperate girlfriend, Buffy asked, "You are coming home, right?"

"I don't—"

Buffy rushed on, not wanting to give Faith the opportunity to say no. "If you're worried about what happened between us being an issue, you don't have to be."

Faith paused, surprised. Things between them were a jumbled mess, but the one thing they were not was a non-issue. If Buffy's nervous demeanor was any indication, she definitely didn't believe her own words. "Why not?"

"It was just a mistake," Buffy said, trying to sound calm.

"A mistake," Faith repeated hollowly. That stung. Yes, she'd been thinking it was a mistake too, but a few days away from the house had started to shift her thinking. She didn't know for sure what she wanted now. Plus she'd thought that Buffy had real feelings for her. She wasn't expecting the other slayer to say it had been a mistake.

"Yes," Buffy said, "a mistake. You're obviously really uncomfortable around me now." Buffy blinked her suddenly wet eyes, unable to look Faith fully in the face.

Thinking she'd really better start explaining herself to Buffy, Faith dropped her crossed arms and stepped forward. "I was, yeah, but—"

"Okay," Buffy cut in, her voice laced with hurt. "So let's just pretend this never happened." She swallowed hard, willing herself not to get more upset. Faith would never want to come home if she could tell how sad this was making her.

Faith flinched. "Is that really what you want?"

She wanted to say no, of course not, but hadn't Faith shown that she couldn't handle any kind of relationship between them? She'd practically run away as soon as she could. "I just think it's for the best."

Faith nodded, her jaw tight. She knew she could have handled the situation better, but Buffy's method of unilaterally deciding where they'd go from here was rubbing her the wrong way. "Look," she said, finally being allowed to speak freely, "I just needed a little space to… process. I get that you told me something pretty serious, and I was a total dick to disappear like that. I'm not saying," she paused when Buffy shook her head, "what?"

"It's not about—I'm not upset. I'm just thinking about the bigger picture."

"Bigger picture?" Faith asked, increasingly annoyed by Buffy's monopolizing of the conversation.

"We're a family," Buffy answered, "a really, really weird family. I don't want to jeopardize that—not when we don't know what this is, if it's anything at all." She finally managed to meet Faith's eyes again. "I'm just trying to do what's best for Dawn."

Faith felt her face flush. "And what, I'm not thinking about Dawn?"

"I didn't say that, I—"

The words were out before she could stop them. "You're not even really her sister!"

Buffy froze, looking stunned.

"Buffy, I didn't mean that," Faith said immediately, reaching for the blonde's arm.

Buffy's fist met Faith's jaw with painful accuracy, sending her stumbling backward. Buffy's throat was thick with the tirade about to spill forth, but she hesitated a moment, seeing that Faith wasn't turning back toward her. Had she really hurt her? The thought cooled the anger coiling in her stomach.

After a moment, Faith's shoulders began to shake, her breathing loud and uneven.

"Faith?" Buffy asked cautiously.

Faith whirled to face her, while simultaneously stepping further away. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" She hissed, cupping her red face.

Buffy gazed back, surprised by the tears leaking from Faith's eyes. "I wasn't thinking; I just reacted."

"You reacted by punching me in the face," Faith replied incredulously. "So again, what the fuck is wrong with you? You can't just hit people if they say shit you don't like."

"I don't," Buffy protested, kind of mystified by Faith's clear agitation.

"Just me?"

"I," Buffy began, then seemed to change her mind, "I'm sorry." She tried to close the distance between them, but Faith quickly stepped away.

"Don't you touch me," she said through gritted teeth.

Buffy dropped her hand.

"We're not in your fucked up fucking world. You do not hit me. Ever."

"I'm sorry," Buffy said again, her voice sincere. "I just—"

"You just what?" Faith demanded shrilly.

"I got angry and I… I just reacted. I'm sorry."

Faith shook her head, dropping her hand from her rapidly bruising face. "You know I was actually thinking that I was freaking out over nothing. That maybe me and you together wasn't that crazy. Well, joke's on me, right? You look at me, and you see her."

"That's not what I said," Buffy immediately protested, then the rest of Faith's words sunk in. "Wait, you were thinking maybe this isn't crazy?"

Disgusted, Faith shook her head again.

"Faith," Buffy pleaded, "I'm sorry."

Faith turned away from her. "Just go." Without waiting for a response, she disappeared back down the hall to the spare bedroom. The door closed behind her with a quiet click.

Buffy stood in the kitchen for a moment, replaying the scene that had just happened in her mind. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes throbbing painfully. She turned, quickly heading for the exit. She managed to close the front door behind her before she started to cry.

Xander's car turned the corner, headed for home. Buffy quickly wiped her face, darting for the Jeep and climbing in. She pulled haphazardly from the curb before Xander made it to the driveway. She couldn't stand to answer his questions or see his concern, knowing how badly she'd just screwed up. Another block up, she stopped at a stop sign. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks. She leaned forward against her steering wheel, trying to get herself under control. A moment later, there was a honk behind her. Another car was waiting. Buffy sucked in a deep breath and blinked to clear her eyes. Then she drove forward, toward home.

XXXXX

Thank you so much for reading. :) I will be out of town next Friday, but I will post the next chapter as quickly as I can.