Just in the Neighborhood...


By Ralkana

Disclaimer - I dont own them; Joss and Mutant Enemy and all the various other Powers That Be do. If I owned them, Im pretty sure they'd be much, much happier.

Comments and feedback to Ralkana47@yahoo.com would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Timeline - Five years or so after Not Fade Away, somewhere in England.

 

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Buffy tossed her head back, raising her face to the skies. The sunlight was weak and watery, but it was better than nothing. This waterlogged country got so little sun that she appreciated every even slightly sunny day they got. She was grateful that she'd pulled the morning shift this week; the sun would most likely be gone by early afternoon, and she'd had nighttime patrol training shifts for so long that she'd almost forgotten what the sun looked like at all.

The girls ran past her again, some of them just starting to breathe hard. An objective observer might notice that they ran slightly faster than any group of high-school age girls probably should, but Buffy wasn't concerned with their speed today. This was a test of stamina, a fifteen mile run, and the girls hated it just as much as she once would have. She could hear some of the stragglers grumbling.

"Save your breath for running," she called. "And hey, be glad it's sunny!" The group yesterday -- Faith's group -- had had to run in the unrelenting rain.

Buffy smiled, remembering how Faith had come back to where the senior Slayers' were housed, resembling a drowned rat but sounding more like a sailor. Buffy wasn't fooled; no matter how much Faith whined and moaned and bitched, Buffy knew she loved this, loved passing on her knowledge and skills, loved being someone important to these girls. She knew because she felt the same way. The other senior Slayers, mostly girls -- women, now -- who'd been with them since Sunnydale, were still leery of Faith's apparent mood swings, even after all these years, and they'd simply stared, wide-eyed, as Faith threw her fit.

Buffy came back to the present to find three or four of her best runners -- the leaders of the pack -- slowing to a halt in front of her. She stared at them, her eyebrow raised. They weren't even half finished, and she knew they knew that.

"There's a guy over there," Karina said, slightly breathless. "He's just... staring. It's kinda creepy." The others nodded in agreement, bunching closer together.

Buffy blinked. "Where?" she asked, trying to peer across the field without being obvious about it. "Don't point," she added hastily.

Karina inclined her head, gesturing to the far side of the field. "Over there, on the other side of the fence, where it's really dark under the trees."

Buffy felt her anger rising, and she tamped it down but grinned wickedly. "I think he picked the wrong girls' school to perv on, what do you guys think?"

Their eyes widened. "Can we kick his ass?" Nichole asked excitedly.

Buffy shook her head, eliciting groans from all the girls. "I'll take care of him," she told them. "You guys need to get running. Finish up."

More groans. "We want to watch you kick his ass!" Monica begged.

"Get going," Buffy said, and her tone brooked no argument. There were a few more grumbles, but the girls obediently returned to their run.

Buffy jogged across the muddy track, peering into the deep shadows. Just as she began to make out a dark figure, a spark ignited deep within her, shifting into a warm tingle that intensified with each step she took. She chuckled and shook her head, and then, with a quick sprint, vaulted over the fence and across the street, coming to stand in the shadows before their observer.

"Angel," she said, her voice warm as she looked him up and down. She was well aware that despite her orders, the girls had all come to a stop on the track as close to the fence as they could get.

"Buffy," he replied, doing his own once over. He smiled, that little peculiar half-smile, half-smirk that had once been just hers, and she melted. "You look good," he said softly. "How are you?"

She grinned, and it suddenly grew into laughter, surprising them both. Angel stared at her, confusion clear on his face, a hurt look appearing in his eyes at her laughter.

"You have no idea what you look like, do you?" she asked.

His puzzlement grew, his brow furrowing, and she laughed again, gesturing at him. "Look at yourself, Angel! A guy in his late twenties, early thirties maybe, standing in the shadows outside a girl's school, wearing what might as well be a trenchcoat, with your hands in your pockets! You seriously creeped out my girls, Stealth Guy."

Angel's eyes widened with realization, and he ducked his head in embarrassment, taking a couple steps back, further into the shadows. Buffy laughed again, and when he raised his head, she could see a self-deprecating smirk curling his lips. It faded into seriousness as he caught her gaze with his again.

"I just wanted to see you," he said.

She felt the heat creeping into her cheeks. "You wanted to see me? That's why you're lurking outside a high school again? You sure about that?" she asked lightly. "Sure it's not your penchant for little blond Slayers rearing its ugly head?"

He shook his head, and his hand came up as if to reach for her, but he dropped it back to his side. "Only ever been interested in one," he murmured.

They gazed at each other, all levity gone, as memories and wants and wishes and dreams flickered between them. Buffy broke first, blinking and shaking her head to clear it. She studied him carefully. He looked somber -- her Angel was always somber -- but there was something... he was fairly bubbling with something. A smile flitted again and again at the corners of his lips, as if he couldn't quite banish it. It was definitely distracting.

"What are you doing here, Angel?" she asked, her voice rough with emotion. "I thought you were off... finding yourself."

He dropped his head again, flinching a little from the anger he thought he detected in her voice. Buffy wanted to apologize, to soothe him, but she didn't know how to tell him that it wasn't anger, or at least, not completely. It was everything she felt, all jumbled up, the angerlovesorrowache she felt whenever Angel was around.

"I was," he said quietly, not looking at her.

Buffy nodded, and then closed her eyes, remembering the last time she'd seen him. He'd come to her in Italy after some huge apocalyptic battle in LA, and he'd been badly injured, his beautiful flesh marred with terrifying wounds -- cuts and gashes, bruises, burns, every grisly thing she'd ever seen done to anyone, and it seemed like it had all happened to Angel, all at once. Horrified, she'd demanded that he let her get someone to help him, but he'd refused, pacing unevenly and talking in a constant stream, a babble, and that had scared her more than anything else, even more than the tears that came and went as he raved. Angel wasn't supposed to rave, and he definitely wasn't supposed to babble.

He'd told her his family was dead, all dead, but he was okay, they were all dead, but he'd survived, and he was sorry for coming to her but he couldn't help it, and he was sorry if she didn't want to hear it, but he had to tell her that he loved her, that he'd always loved her, that he'd always love her, but he had to go, there were things he had to do, it wasn't over, he'd be back, but it wasn't over, he'd just wanted her to know that he was okay.

Before she could even begin to make sense of anything he'd been saying, he'd grabbed her, pulled her into a kiss that had left her breathless and shaking, and then he'd disappeared into the shadows again.

She opened her eyes now to see that he'd taken a couple steps closer to her. Just like he had, she raised a hand toward him and then dropped it.

"I was so scared for you, Angel," she whispered, her voice shaking. Angel closed his eyes at the pain in her voice.

"I know," he said roughly. "I know, and I'm sorry I worried you. But it was something I had to do, even if I wasn't in the right state of mind to explain it to you or myself or anyone else."

Buffy nodded. "I know." They stared at each other for a heartbeat longer. "And?" she asked after a moment. "Find anything interesting?"

Angel hunched his shoulders, shoving his hands back in his pockets. "I've been... traveling," he said. "Killing every vampire I could find."

She nodded again. She'd tried desperately to find him after he'd disappeared, her worry fading into resignation after a few months when she'd realized that if Angel didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be. Then, she and the new Council had started receiving reports of a lone hunter -- a male, so they knew it wasn't a new Slayer -- cutting huge swathes through the vampire population, everywhere he went. He was always in a different place, and no one ever got a good enough or long enough glimpse of him to give a description. But Buffy had known, and as long as the reports had kept coming in, she'd been able to breathe easily.

All this flashed through her mind, and there was so much she wanted to say, so much she wanted to ask, but all she said was, "I heard."

He locked eyes with her. "I wiped out my line, Buffy." When she stared at him, unsure of what he meant -- though she had an idea -- he went on. "All the vampires I created, and all of those made by the ones I created. I killed every vamp I could find, but those were the ones I was searching for. And I found them. Everywhere." His eyes went unfocused, dwelling on some inner horror. "There were so many," he whispered, and his anguish squeezed her chest like a vise.

"Angel," she murmured, trying to comfort him, to bring him out of the painful memories, but he shook off her support.

"Some of them knew who I was, some of them didn't, but they all died." His voice was quiet, agonized, but steady.

Spike, she knew, was already dust; he'd been killed in the battle in LA, along with the rest of Angel's team. But a thought came to Buffy, and she swallowed harshly. "Angel," she said, and when his gaze drifted to her, his eyes slowly coming back into focus, she quietly asked, "Dru?"

He flinched and half-turned away from her, but when he turned back, his shoulders were straight, and there was fierce determination mingled with the sorrow and remorse in his eyes.

"I started with her," he said, and then his voice faltered. He tore his gaze from her, unable to look at her while he spoke of Drusilla. "I... Buffy... what I did to her, it was probably the worst evil I ever committed, and I reveled in it. It was my proudest moment, once."

"Angel," she broke in, unable to stand it, "That wasn't you!"

"I know," he said with a nod, ceding the point, and she subsided, confused. Angel had never reacted so calmly to the idea that he and the demon were separate; it was just one more thing off-kilter about him today.

"But it felt like me," he added. "What I did to Dru... I don't think even you, knowing everything you know about vampires... about me... I don't think even you can imagine it all, Buffy... I should have ended her existence -- not just hers, all of theirs -- long ago," he said, his voice laced with regret. "Dru and Spike, Penn, James and Elizabeth, all the rest... all of them. But especially Dru... she made so many, Buffy. She didn't understand, and she made so many. So much death..."

After a moment, he took a deep breath. "I don't know why I didn't -- I guess maybe it was a misplaced feeling of family; they were all I had at one point, even if they didn't want me and I didn't want them. But later... maybe it was guilt about what I'd done to her before she died, or remorse that I killed her or even the... affection for her that I just couldn't fight, whatever it was, I couldn't bring myself to -- as long as she was dancing and talking to the stars, that beautiful girl wasn't really dead, you know?"

Buffy was stunned into silence by his unexpected openness, and before she could reply, he went on, his voice hard. "But I knew that wasn't true. She was dead. And I killed her, and not killing the demon that took her body wasn't any kind of a tribute to her, it was just further desecration. So I started with her, and then, when I'd... recovered, I worked my way down."

A tear slid from the corner of his eye, and Buffy longed to brush it away. He got to it first, swiping angrily at his cheek. "It was rough, and sometimes I didn't think I'd make it through, but I'm here now."

Her laugh was shaky. "I think that's my motto. Maybe I'll come up with a coat of arms, have it engraved somewhere on there." She was relieved to see him smile, even if it was subdued and quickly vanished. "You okay?" she asked gently, and he nodded, still unable to look at her. She bit her lip, hesitating, not sure if she should encourage him to keep talking, or shut down the painful topic. He didn't seem not to want to talk about it, though, so she rushed on. "Did you... do you think you got them all, Angel?"

He shrugged, and then he smiled again, wider this time, finally lifting his eyes to her. This smile held more than a hint of the cryptic stranger she had once known, and it made her knees weak. "I don't know," he answered. "There might be more, somewhere. But somehow I doubt it." And just as if he hadn't spent a quarter of an hour pouring his heart out to her, nearly in tears, that small, evasive, half-hidden smile was back, playing around the corners of his mouth.

"So... are you done, do you think? Finding yourself?" she blurted out, and then she blushed at her own bluntness. "Oh God, I'm sorry, I said that out loud, didn't I? It's just that you're here, and you're talking, really talking to me, but you're... smiling, and all mysterious man in the shadows again, and it's throwing me, and God, you show up and all of a sudden I sound like I'm sixteen again."

The smile grew. "It's okay, Buffy, really -- you have no idea how much I missed your rambles. And yeah, actually, I do think I'm done. The Powers seem to think so, anyway," he said enigmatically.

She frowned, crossing her arms over her body in irritation. "Okay, Angel, I thought we were over the cryptic a decade ago."

He laughed, actually laughed, and she blinked in shock. "Well, I'm really here because I came to show you something. I'm -- I'm sorry for earlier, I didn't mean to brood at you. It's habit -- "

"Angel," she interrupted, "Don't apologize, you can always come -- " She blinked in shock again at the feeling of his finger on her lips. It was gone before she truly registered that it had been there.

"I know," he said. "I know I can, Buffy, and thank you for that. But that's not why I came this time. There's something you have to see."

He grabbed her hands in his, and quickly spun them around so that she was deeper in the shadows, facing the school. She briefly glimpsed her girls, half of them looking fascinated and half of them looking bored, and then Angel pulled her out into the weak sunlight.

"Angel!" she cried in alarm, tugging hard at his hands, trying to yank him back out of danger. He stumbled and dropped to his knees from the force of her pull, but he remained completely exposed to the sun's light, her hands still held tightly in his.

"Ow," he said with a pained chuckle as he looked up at her, blinking owlishly at the sun's brightness. It gilded his hair in gold and red and gleamed off his marble skin. Her terror turned dizzyingly to wonder, and she fell gracelessly to her knees beside him as her head began to spin. His hands slid from hers and caught her around the waist, supporting her.

"Whoa, hey, are you okay?" he asked in concern as he stood and gently pulled her up beside him. She looked up into his face, and the dizziness grew as she detected the faintest hint of pink in his alabaster cheeks. His hands, she realized lightheadedly, were warm where they rested on her waist.

"Angel..." she breathed. She wanted to ask how and why and a million other questions, but all she could get out were a couple of indistinct vowel sounds.

Angel threw back his head and laughed, and the unadulterated joy in it unsteadied her all over again. She raised a trembling hand to his face, and he closed his eyes as she stroked his cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin beneath her fingertips.

Something dawned on her, in the midst of all her shock. The Angel tingle, the one she'd felt halfway across the field, it was still there, but it was... different. It was... there was... "Oh my God, there's no vamp tingle! Angel tingle, yes. Vamp tingle, no!"

He laughed again. "No vamp tingle because... no vamp."

"I don't... I don't understand what's going on," she said weakly.

Angel shrugged. "Not completely sure I do either. I don't know what it means, if it means the scales are balanced, or what... I mean, I can never take back the violence and death that happened at my hands, but I've done everything I can to make sure no more happens because of me. I've sacrificed my family, given up everything and everyone I've loved time and time again to the struggle against evil, and maybe somewhere, someone who matters decided that was enough."

Buffy stared deep into his eyes, studying his face, and he held her gaze, letting her see everything. She was still dazzled by the beauty of him in the sunlight, by the tiny flecks of gold she could see in the warm brown of his eyes -- entirely human flecks of gold, not the familiar amber glare of the demon within -- but she tried to look past that, into the pools of emotion she had grown to know so well. They swirled with the ever-present remorse, the old, old wisdom she was used to, but she could see joy, and laughter, and peace.

She smiled a tearful smile. "I'm so happy for you," she whispered, and he smiled and touched his forehead to hers.

"Thank you," he told her. "That means more than anything."

She stepped back, but kept hold of his hands, wanting to take in the sight of all of him. "When?"

"About a week ago. I was -- well, it doesn't matter where I was, but I'd tracked down another of my line. He was an older vamp, way older and wilier than most of the ones I'd tracked down, and it was a hell of a fight. After it was over, I was exhausted -- and he hurt me pretty good a couple different ways -- and I had just about a half hour to get back to the hotel. I barely made it, Buffy. I passed out, and was rudely awakened a little while later by pain -- a whole lot of pain. And then a heartbeat."

His hand drifted to his chest, and he laughed when he realized what he'd done. "Once I was thinking straight, I realized that he must have been the last one -- otherwise I'd still be out there, finding them. It can't be a coincidence that I... changed right after I killed him."

"So then you don't know for sure why it happened?"

Angel smiled wryly. "It's been a long time since the Powers saw fit to tell me anything directly, or even indirectly." He shrugged. "I'm not sure that I really want to know why. I'm tired of wondering why everything happens the way it happens. I just want to live now."

Buffy gazed at him, unable to take her eyes off him. He was adorable, squinting in the sunlight. "You're beautiful, Angel," she murmured, and then she laughed in delight to see the blush creeping up his cheeks. Without thinking about it, she threw her arms around him, squeezing him fiercely and gasping in astonishment at the warmth and the feeling of life thrumming within him.

Surprised, he stiffened and then folded his arms around her in return, holding her close as he rubbed his cheek in the softness of her hair. She basked in the embrace for a moment, opening her eyes to see the entire group of girls clinging to the fence, watching them with expressions ranging from sentimental to envious to nauseated. Embarrassed, she stepped back out of Angel's arms. They gazed at each other in comfortable silence, both of them enjoying the view of the other in the sunshine.

"So," she said eventually, "What happens now?"

He dropped his eyes, and she felt the first flutterings of fear.

"I... I don't know," he said. "I hadn't thought that far. I just wanted to... show you."

"Are you leaving again?" Panic sliced through her, and she struggled to keep her voice steady. It still came out much harsher than she'd intended.

Angel's eyes widened at her words. "What? Leaving? No! I mean, I don't know, like I said, I've been -- traveling, and I don't really have... what I mean is, there isn't -- I'm sure I'll figure something out, but right now -- "

"You should stay," she broke in, and his eyes widened even more. Unsure of his reaction, she added, "For lunch, I mean," and then, when his smile, which had just been starting to grow, began to fade, she hastily tacked on, "Or longer. Much longer. We have a lot to catch up on, and lunch is a good start, don't you think?"

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think lunch is an excellent idea. I'm a bit... new at it, though, you'll have to give me some pointers." Buffy laughed, and his answering smile eclipsed the feeble British sunshine. "I've spent the whole week imagining what might happen next, Buffy, I'll admit that, but everything depended on your reaction."

She stared at him. "Did you really think I wouldn't care, Angel?" she asked, incredulous, and when he answered with nothing but a bleak smile, Buffy sighed. "Angel."

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter now, Buffy -- "

"Angel -- "

"Really, Buffy. It doesn't matter now." He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it gently, sending a shiver down her spine. "Now. When shall we do lunch?"

Buffy did her best to push away the suddenly melancholy mood. "Today works for me." She glanced back toward the fence full of girls. "But give me a couple of hours. I gotta get them all finished and back to classes. I'm running a little bit late, and my schedule for today is now way out of whack."

Angel looked chagrined. "I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to interrupt. I just... wanted to see you, and I couldn't wait."

"God, no, Angel, don't apologize, not for this! Waiting is... passé among us mortals. Besides, they could have kept up their run, like they were supposed to. It's not your fault they're nosy." She raised her voice without looking back at the girls. "For stopping, however, they'll be doing an extra five miles." When she heard the gasps and groans, she said, "And five more for anyone complaining."

She watched Angel watch the girls as, grumbling, they began stretching and resumed their run. He smiled and shook his head, and she grinned back.

"You're a hardass, Miss Summers," he said affectionately.

"Damn straight!" she laughed. "Okay, I do have to get back to them. Mostly, you understand, for rumor and damage control. You have no idea what teenage girls can be like."

His smile grew nostalgic. "Oh, I think I might remember something about it."

She stepped closer, meaning to embrace him again, and his hands grasped her waist and pulled her in, cradling her against his body as he dipped his head toward her. His lips found hers, and she moaned into the kiss. His body, his hands, his lips were warm against her, but there was still that indefinable, intoxicating scent that was all Angel, only Angel, and he tasted like chocolate and brandy and everything forbidden, and it was sweet Angel kisses, and she'd missed it all so much. She rocked up onto her tiptoes as one hand rested on his back, keeping him close, her other hand sliding around his neck to tangle in the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. Angel groaned against her lips, pulling her harder against him as he roughly claimed her mouth.

Angel was the first to pull away, breathless, and his eyes were dark and dazed.

"Wow," she murmured, and he laughed weakly.

"'Wow' is one way of putting it."

When her breathing returned to a semblance of normal, Buffy looked back up to find him smiling down at her. "I don't want to leave... I don't want you to leave," she told him, feeling her bottom lip tremble with the impending loss. It was the same pout she'd once had every night when he walked her home after patrol.

He smiled, running his fingertips gently over her lips to smooth away her sudden sadness. "I know. Me either. But your class is getting restless again. And we can continue where we left off when we meet for lunch."

The promise in his eyes and in his words made desire spiral slow and hot, deep within her. She grabbed his hands, crushing them in hers, suddenly terrified that if she let him go now, she'd never see him again. "Angel, promise -- promise me that you'll be there."

His smile faded, and he slipped one hand from hers to tilt her chin up with his finger, looking earnestly into her eyes. "I promise, Buffy. I'll be there. Things are different now."

Buffy shook her head. "No, Angel, they aren't. Not the things that matter. Those will always be the same."

He brushed his fingers over her cheek, and then he sighed. "They're watching us again," he murmured. "I'll let you get back to them."

She grasped his hands in hers once more. "Okay. Two hours, then," she repeated firmly.

Angel nodded and released her hands, stepping back into the shadows. "I'll see you then."

She turned from him and with a quick run, vaulted back over the fence and onto the muddy track. She was instantly surrounded by girls, their voices raised in curious cacophony.

"Who was that?" Karina asked, naked appreciation in her voice and gaze.

Buffy glanced back into the shadows, but he was already gone. She pushed down the inevitable panic. He'd promised. She laughed at the girls and their teenage enthusiasm.

"Just an old friend," was all she said.

 

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