Title: Still Running

Summary: AR Post Bargaining. Buffy never stops running. Lyrics by Lifehouse "Out of Breath"

Pairing: Mostly gen Buffy but mentions/implications of BA

A/N: thanks to Lisa for the idea and the beta! Written for Buffy Love Month

I feel lost inside my own name

Her lungs deprived of air too long, sound the alarm jerking her into half wakefulness. Her hands scrabble to dig out of a grave she will never emerge from. Her eyes shoot open and it takes a moment to consciously realize she isn't in a six by three coffin with white satin lining buried six feet under the earth. The white above her is only the ceiling; the barriers at her side, only pillows and blankets.

She swings her feet to the floor, only fully believing she's awake when she feels the cold wood floor beneath her bare feet. As she crosses to the open window, she scribbles a mental note to paint her ceiling blue, sky blue.

It's raining again, not an anomaly in Seattle the way it was in Sunnydale. Sometime she thinks she picked Seattle because of the rain and the bittersweet feelings it evokes.

Really it was because Seattle is a city she can get lost in. She needs to be able to stay lost, invisible so she can finally live her own life on her own terms.

The trill of her cell phone pulls her away from the window, the rain and the memories of innocence slaughtered. Her business, a private investigator specializing in the paranormal, scary and down right weird, operates at all hours. Demons, monsters and other things that go bump in the night don't keep office hours so she forwards all the calls to her cell phone at night and on weekends. It's not as if her nights have ever been spent any different. Somewhere in the back of her mind she can recall dates, cheerleading and school dances…even homework but then she remembers that was a different girl that lived more than two lifetimes ago.

"Second Chance Investigations, how can I help you?"

"I-I've got a problem. It's…kind of a weird problem," the girl on the other end of the line started.

"That's what we do. Why don't you tell me about it?" Buffy asked as she slipped on a pair of jeans, almost thankful for the nightmare. At least the phone call isn't interrupting a night of peaceful sleep.

"I don't know how to thank you," Jenny Mollen, the middle of the night caller, gushes. "He-how…I mean was that really Paul?" she asks with a glance to the pile of ash in her basement.

Buffy shrugs, never really knowing how to answer that question regardless of how many times it is asked. "It's…Paul is dead…was dead long before you ever called me. That," she says pointing to the pile of ash, "was a demon wearing his face. I'm sorry about your ex." It gets harder all the time to feign sympathy but she does because she remembers what it's like when people don't understand how feelings don't just go away because the other person becomes someone no one knows.

Jenny wraps her arms around herself and nods. "Yeah," she smiles a little tearfully. "Paul and I were a bad break up…but I never wanted…" she trails off.

Buffy rests a hand on the small brunette's forearm as she says "No…no one ever does." She has found her sympathy is more realistic if she touches a person. It's also easier to feign.

"How much do I owe you?" Jenny asks as she almost visibly collects herself. "I mean you're an investigating firm and what you did…it was amazing."

"Thank you," Buffy says. It took her a long time to become comfortable with charging people for her slaying services. A week with an empty fridge and no electricity helped her with that. She's always willing to make exceptions. "My standard fee is two hundred for a job like this. If you need to make it out in payments, you're welcome to."

"No, you earned it," Jenny says as she rummages in her bag and pulls out a check book. She makes it out for the right amount and signs it before handing it over to Buffy. "Thank you and I hope you understand when I say I never want to see you again."

"Most people don't," Buffy says as she tucks the check in her pocket, turning and walking out of the room before Jenny can say anything else to her. Leaving isn't her problem anymore. Staying might be.

The past has left its stain

Her stake finds its home in the vampire's heart and dust peppers the air. The alley is suddenly empty, peaceful and she finds contentment in that resolution. Slaying used to be something she struggled against, fought tooth and nail to keep it from becoming her life. Now it is her life done her way and she's more content and at peace with herself then she's ever been. Solitude is a comfortable state of being for her.

She still has nightmares about leaving Dawn, the way Dawnie's face fell once she realized what Buffy intended. She still remembers how it felt to be complete, whole and finished.

She might be content with the life she's made but it's far from complete, miles from whole and an eternity away from finished.

"Dammit," she curses as the coffee sloshes all over her white sweater. Today has been one of those days. She woke up from a nightmare to find she was late for a meeting with a client, it'd been pouring rain on her way to work and her umbrella was broken, her Chinese was cold and now the coffee she was drinking to get ready for a night out slaying was all over her. She sighs as she dumps the rest of the coffee in the sink and walks into her office, closing the door behind her. She keeps several blouses and couple pairs of pants here for occasions that are generally bloodier, slimier, or in some way more gross than coffee splashed across her shirt. In keeping with the rest of her day, her only option is a pale blue top that she doesn't particularly care for.

"Not as if it matters. The vamps never take time to compliment me on my outfit," she grumbles as she changes, grabs her jacket, a couple of stakes and heads out for the evening.

She prowls the alleys and abandoned buildings, unable to identify the reason the hair on the back of her neck refuses to lie down. She is restless, twitchy and even after slaying four vamps the feeling won't go away. It is long after midnight when she throws in the towel and starts home. That's when she gets the creepy, crawly, being-stalked vibes.

She sighs, sticks her keys back in her pocket and crosses her arms over her chest.

"I'm tired. I've had a really bad day and I'm not in the mood for cat and mouse so either run away or come out and play."

She stands there a moment, her weight on one foot, hip thrust out and waits, when no one shows she mutters to herself, chalks it up to more side effect of a bad day and goes into her apartment.

No way that I am turning as long as the sun is burning

The 'bad day' along with the 'being stalked' vibes continues through the week. On Friday, she calls in sick, treats herself to chicken and stars soup and a Molly Ringwald Marathon. What is normally a cure all for her, has little effect on her recent condition. Night falls and brings with it heightened restlessness and claustrophobia. It's a problem she's dealt with on a regular basis since she's come back. Waking up in a coffin buried under six feet of dirt will do that to a girl. There are days and evenings she will spend outside from sunrise to sunset and back again. One of her favorite aspects of her apartment building is the roof garden. She sleeps out there when the walls close in too tightly.

Half a dozen vampires later, the hair on the back of her neck is still standing on end. She gives up, sliding down the wall to sit in the alley she's found herself in. She draws her knees up to her chest and bows her head, resting her forehead on her knees.

"Are you okay?"

She doesn't look up at the sound of his voice. She knows who it is. Years later, his voice haunts her dreams and dances through her nightmares. "I'm fine," she tells him, her voice flat and blank. . It's been so long since she's heard emotion in her own voice that she doesn't remember what it sounds like. She's not sure if he's really their or if it's all in her head. Sometimes she dreams him there.

The silence stretches between them, a taunt wire slicing through the air. As the tension climbs she knows it's not a dream. His presence is always cause for calm or pain in her dreams, never tension and awkwardness. She swallows hard as he moves toward her, kneels and then sits down next to her, his back against the wall. She knows why she's been restless, why her skin won't quit crawling and why the base of her spine tingles. She's just forgotten that he does this to her.

"How long have you been following me?" she asks, needing confirmation that this is what he does to her.

"A few days…but it didn't start out that way," he quickly reassures her. "I had a case…demon ran and I followed him. I watched you kill him the night he got here."

"So why did you stick around? Your case is taken care of." She keeps her head bowed, not certain she can speak and look at him.

"I've been to your grave. I've put flowers there…every year I put flowers on your grave. I can hear your heart beating, your breath as it goes in and out of your lungs…I can smell and see you…I can feel you inside…instincts scream…soul clamoring…but I'm not sure you're real." There is a long pause in which she imagines he is counting her heartbeats. "Can I-can I touch you?"

"No!" she answers gun shot quick. "No, you can't touch me." She pushes herself to her feet and runs back to her apartment as fast as her slayer speed will allow.

I'll seize the day if you take away the chains of yesterday

He's down there hiding somewhere in the shadows, she can feel him and sleep is elusive. She tries to tell herself it is just because he is there and her spine is tingling, her skin is twitching and all she wants is for him to go away.

She opens the window, leaning out into the night and she can't see him but the way her soul stretches and strains, she knows he's somewhere near. "Go away!" she yells out the window.

For a moment there is no answer except the shadows themselves, eventually he steps into the pool of amber light cast by the streetlight. He watches her with eyes that tell her more then she wants to know and never enough then nods slightly, turns on his heel and disappears into the shadows.

Almost a week later and she knows he's still lurking, not because she's seen him but because she's spilled four cups of coffee on herself in as many days. The fifth cup is the straw that breaks the camel's back. She slams down the empty cup and storms out into the alley still dripping coffee. The sun is almost down and the alley is cloaked in deep shadows.

"Can you just go the hell away?" she screams into the narrow space, the sound echoing off the walls. "Look what you do to me! This is the fifth cup in five days! I stumble over door ledges, fall down stairs and screw up round house kicks that are like breathing to me!"

He materializes as if he were a part of the shadows that hide him, stepping towards her with his hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders hunched, shuffling slightly in the way that tells her he's unsure of himself and his actions.

"They don't know, do they?" he asks as he stops several feet away from her.

"They don't care. I crawled out of six feet of dirt and no one cared," she responds, bitterness and pain creeping into her voice for the first time in longer than she can remember.

"How? Do you know?" he asks.

"What do you think happened, Angel?" You got thrown out of Hell once. I'd think you'd recognize the signs. "

She looks at him from beneath her lashes, watching as he winces then as pity fills up his eyes.

"You were in Hell." He says it as a statement.

"No, Angel. I got thrown out of Heaven," she half whispers then turns and disappears into the building.

Now I feel the shame

He has been gone a week and even though she is no longer spilling coffee or tumbling over thresholds, she isn't grateful the way she thought she'd be. She misses his presence, the safety that tingle in her spine brought. She is like a small child who has built a tower too tall out of blocks, hovering around with her hands held up just in case the tower falls. She misses knowing that he is there to help her catch the blocks. It never occurs to her that he might have let them fall. He's Angel, he puts things back together but he also destroys them, she reminds herself.

When her spine starts tingling again she is afraid to hope, afraid to even name the emotion. Emotions are heavy things and block towers aren't at all stable. Hers is perching on an edge anyway. It has been since she ran away from Sunnydale in the middle of the night, newly resurrected, half wild and trying to escape from a grave that whispered to her an enticing temptation.

He doesn't lurk or hide this time, even though she wants to beg him to retreat. The pain he brings is duller from a distance. He buzzes her apartment, asking to come up and she refuses but she does go down to him. They walk in silence for a little while, her arms clenched around herself, little boy with his finger in the dam and his hands shoved into his pockets, Atlas balancing the world on his shoulders.

"You weren't thrown out of Heaven," he finally says.

She doesn't answer, choosing to keep her gaze on the ground, watching as her feet lead the way. Their roles are reversed now. She is the taciturn one and he feels the need to speak.

"I saw Willow. She did a spell. 147 days after you died, she did a spell. She said the urn broke. She didn't think it had worked and there was some sort of riot in the town. It took them weeks to get things sorted out. When they found your grave desecrated and no sign of you, they assumed the demons had done it. She assumed you would have turned to your friends if the spell had worked."

"You know what they say about assumptions," she finally responds. "I remember. I remember crawling out of my grave, gasping for air. My chest burned…there were demons everywhere, burning and pillaging. At first, I thought I'd been sent to Hell. I ran and ran…eventually-eventually I realized it wasn't Hell…just life and I had to make one for myself. I built my blocks so high, careful to square them all up. This makes the tower wobble."

He studies her for a moment. She watches out of the corner of her eye as his brow furrows, trying to sort out her words, maybe trying to decide if she's gone crazy in his absence.

"Did you see Dawnie?" she asks partially to divert him from thinking too hard about her words and partially because she's burning to know.

"She's beautiful and content. She wants to be an artist and study in Paris. Willow and Xander are trying to figure out how to make it happen," he answers.

Buffy smiles for a moment, just a whisper across her face that is gone before it can be fully realized. "She was always drawing something, scribbling or writing."

"They still miss you, Buffy. You could go back," he tells her. She realizes it is the first time he has used her name.

She shakes her head in answer. "You didn't tell them?"

"It's not my place. I know a few things about running from your demons, which is why you should listen to me when I tell you they will catch up with you."

"They already have," she whispers and finally looks at him. Her eyes are haunted with shame she has concocted for herself, shame based on the idea that she was expelled from Heaven.

"Buffy…" he breathes, reaching out to touch her. She shies away like a hummingbird and shakes her head.

"Don't," she warns her body taunt and defensive. "Haven't you been listening? You'll topple it all. I've spent too long building it. I refuse to let you or anyone else ruin it."

"Buffy, you haven't built anything except a wall. You don't have friends, you don't go out anywhere-"

"If this is going to be a conversation about how I should go out into the light, get a normal boyfriend and live a normal life…fuck you, Angel." Disgust coats her voice with a thick slime and she wishes she'd never stepped out of her apartment.

He is gone before she can apologize for the insult.

But I keep running

She stares out her window at the shadows nudging at the apartment building and the sidewalks. He's not out there and she hates that she's waiting for him to show up. This was exactly what she was trying to avoid. Her tower has been toppled even though she refuses to see the debris it has become.

"Add a few friends, a load of guilt and I'm back in Sunnyhell," she whispers to the empty black, closes the window and goes back to her bed. She lays down, unable to close her eyes against the white ceiling. A few moments later she's up again, opening cans of sky blue paint purchased a couple of weeks ago. By the time the sun comes up, her ceiling is the color of a summer day. Sky blue paint streaks her hair and splotches her skin.

She spends the next several weeks looking over her shoulder, waiting to see a splash of red hair or to hear a snippet of an English accent reprimanding her for abandoning her duty. She doesn't dare hope to feel the zip up her spine that only one person has ever been responsible for.

Yet there he is one evening. It starts with the stalking, the way it always has. She finally confronts him in front of her apartment building.

"It'd be nice if we didn't always start with lurking and end with tears," she says to the shadowy night.

"Sometimes there's only one way things can go," he says as approaches her. "Willow has been calling. She wants to know why the sudden interest in the spell she did."

Buffy closes her eyes, pain ratcheting through her body. She swallows hard. "How long have I got?"

"They don't know where you are. I wouldn't even confirm their suspicions that you were alive. Willow is smart and persistent. You didn't change your name. A few weeks…" he trails off.

She nods, her mind is made up. She steps toward him, her eyes still closed. Her body finds his by instinct, her hands go to his shoulders and she goes up on her toes to whisper in his ear.

"Always. In Heaven and in Hell…Always."

Her lips find his and she takes a deep breath then pulls away. He doesn't stop her from running, even though they both know he could. She only stops running when she is locked safely in her apartment and even then, she never stops running.

Two days later, she's running again, this time with a couple of suitcases and a train ticket. She stops by her landlord's office as she leaves to get her security deposit.

"Here you go, Sugar. We're gonna miss you. You goin' home to family?" she asks.

"Something like that," Buffy gives her a plastic smile and an envelope. "When a tall, dark, handsome guy comes lurking and asking for me, give this to him."

He lurks for a week before he finally asks the landlord what happened to the pretty blonde in 307. He's handed an envelope for his trouble. He's not surprised to find the note inside because she's right.

We'll find each other. We always do.