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Author's Note: Once more, thanks again for the tremedous amount of feedback I have received for this series. I had hoped to have the fourth and final written the week I posted this, but my muses went on strike. Anyway, this moves on in the world to the Christmas episode of the third season, where I do slightly different take on the First Evil's torment on Angel, including a lovely B/A scene for you to enjoy.

That perches on the soul.

'Hope' is the thing with feathers-
That perches on the soul-
And sings the tune without the words-
And never stops- at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chilliest land -
And on the strangest sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).

"So, angel's on top again?"

The slayer came out of her thoughts with a deep blush and glanced at the unknowing cause of the redness. "What?"

"Angel or star?" Anne asked her. Buffy followed her gesture and finally noticed the two ornaments in either hand. "Oh, uh... star. Star," she added.

Anne smiled as she climbed the ladder and carefully placed it on the Douglas fir. "You two really ought to try it, you know," she remarked after descending the ladder. "Might stop all this sudden daydreaming."

"Or it might bring more on," Buffy replied as they surveyed the tree. "We're waiting for the right moment."

"Whenever that may be." Anne turned from the seasonal festive feature to her boss and friend. "Is it always this hectic around the slayer?"

"Only since I was called," Buffy answered thoughtfully. "But then, I haven't heard of other ones before me holding down a full time job while saving the world. Still, at least I have help." She turned back to the tree. "Think we need anything more?"

"I don't know, it's a big place." Anne turned and called the attention of another member of Hope Investigations and Foundation. "Lindsey, what do you think?"

Lindsey McDonald, Hope's Legal Executive, looked up from the report he was reading to take in the decorations clustered around the lobby of the old hotel. "I think it carries the message without being blindly obvious," he replied. "Buffy, I need you for a minute."

"On my way," the slayer acknowledged, walking across from her previous position near the reception desk to his office.

Nine weeks had passed since her move from Sunnydale, and already things were progressing faster than Buffy had believed possible. Sixty-three days since she and Angel had arrived in Los Angeles to take care of the Thesulac demon that was feeding off the despair of the building she now ran Hope Investigations and Foundation from.

After electrocuting the demon, they contacted first Anne and then Lindsey, who arrived the next morning to help clean up the Hyperion and ready it to become their new offices. A reluctant Angel had departed when Hope was legally and publicly up and running, seven days later, returning to Sunnydale.

Since then they had kept in regular contact via telephone conversations almost everyday, and visits to each other during weekends, or when events called her to the Hellmouth; like the so called 'Slayerfest 98' and the glove of Myhnegon.

As for Hope, Buffy was pleased that it had been so well received by the city. The vampire and demon population whilst dwindling- albeit slowly -had learned to respect the new slayer in town, and cases of the more human variety had also come to realise the value of her little organisation.

Besides Anne and Lindsey, she had also gained another member to the project, one who could handle vampires and demons, but without any of the powers destiny had handed to her. She would also have a fifth member in the future, in the former of her new watcher, when Giles deemed him experienced enough to handle helping her out.

"What do you think?" Lindsey asked her, making her look up from the report he had given to her.

"That you may be right," Buffy replied slowly, placing the thin folder of paper on the desk so she could study the evidence on the nearby laptop. Their distance from the hellmouth allowed them the unique opportunity to study and track certain demonic activity when it decided to wind it's way to the dale, providing their teams almost with advance warning.

In this case however, the report was merely a confirmation of something that had already established itself at Boca del Inferno, thus tracking was the only option left open to them. "What's annoying, is that we didn't put the pieces together before."

"From what I could find out, forewarning wouldn't have given us much of an advantage," Lindsey replied. "According to these sources, the operation's been in place for nearly a hundred years."

"And that means whatever the end game is, it can't be good," Buffy uttered, "for any of us." She straightened up. "Thanks for finding this out, Lindsey. I better go and phone Giles." She walked out of his office and back into the lobby.

"Situation?" Anne asked as she caught sight of her friend's face. "Not yet," Buffy replied. "I need to make a call to Sunnydale. Get Gunn to handle any case which might come in while I'm in my office."

"Sure," Anne replied as Buffy walked across the lobby to her office which was located behind a door before the reception area.

Inside she sat down on the sofa she had furnished the room with and dialled the number to her watcher. "Giles, its me."

"Buffy," his voice answered through the connection at the end of the line. "How are you? How are things going?"

"Well," she answered, settling into the sofa. "And your end?"

"The usual," he replied. "Has Angel talked to you recently?"

The inquiry threw her previous reason to call out of her mind. "No," she answered, leaning forward in concern. "Why?"

"He came to me a night ago looking somewhat preoccupied," Giles began. "He said that he'd been having dreams about the past, and then he suddenly stared at something behind me, cried that he couldn't, then ran off. I called at the Mansion the next morning, but there was no reply."

"Have you done some research?" Buffy asked. Her concern level by now had gone from slight worry and up several levels, making her switch the phone to speaker while she collected her cell and car keys from her desk.

"I've checked the Black Chronicle, and the diary of Lucious Temple, an acolyte for approach might prove more useful. So far, we haven't found anything." He paused to take a breath. "Are you coming over?"

"As fast as I can, allowing for traffic laws," Buffy replied. "I just hope two hours is not too late. Why didn't he call me?"

"He probably didn't want to worry you."

"Well, that's certainly something I'll have to teach him about," Buffy remarked as she packed the final thing she needed. "After we help him. See you soon," she added before pressing the end button on the phone and heading out.

 


By the time she drove her car into the parking space outside 1902 Crawford Street, Buffy saw that Giles was waiting for her. The Mansion was lit by soft evening light, but the blinds were shut, making any warning on what she might see inside, impossible. She stepped out of her car and joined Giles on the pavement.

"I think it might be this one," he remarked, handing her some papers. "These letters contain references to an ancient power known as the First."

"First what?" Buffy asked.

"Evil. Absolute evil, older than man, than demon. He has the power to appear as someone who is dead, and torment his victims with their supposed suffering."

"Who are these guys?" Buffy asked, pointing to sketches below the words.

"There known as Bringers or Harbingers. They're high priests of the first. Unlike the First, they are corporeal. I've sent Faith to find them. If she can kill them, they'll stop the visions."

"Meanwhile, I need to convince Angel that he's not losing his mind," Buffy remarked before handing the old documents back to him. "Thanks Giles. I'm going inside. Let me know on my cell when Faith has stopped the Bringers. I might not be able to see this First."

"I'll let you know," Giles replied. "Take care. Both of you."

 


"I can't do it," Buffy heard Angel say as she entered the living area of the ground floor of the Mansion. Her beloved was lying on the table, clothed in a thin sweater and trousers, though neither seemed to be providing any comfort to him. "Get away from me!" He cried to the apparent nothingness before him.

Buffy turned her gaze from him in the direction of the nothingness. "First Evil, believe me when I say this; Nothing messes with my boyfriend."

The words were enough to bring Angel's eyes upon her. "Buffy," he uttered before sitting up and slipping off the table. "No, stay away from me. It wants me to hurt you."

"I won't let it," Buffy replied gently. "And neither will you. You're stronger than this, Angel. We're stronger than this."

Abruptly the nothingness became something, as one of his demon's victims appeared before them. "You're not Miss Calendar," Buffy uttered. "Show your true self to me. I am your opponent, I deserve that much respect."

"You think you can fight me?" The First replied mockingly in Jenny's voice. "I'm not a demon, little girl. I am something that you can't even conceive. The First Evil. Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You'll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate. I am....."

"Evil, yeah, I get that," Buffy interrupted. "And I hate to seem melodramatic here, but your overconfidence is your weakness. Good defeats evil. Always has, always will. The two opposing forces cannot exist without the other. And I'm the one who as to keep the balance in place. You think you can fight me?" she countered. "You have no idea who it is you're dealing with."

"And your arrival is too late," the First replied. "Look at him. Your love. I've driven him close to madness. When I go, nothing you can say will prevent him from losing his soul inside you, and becoming the creature of evil that he is. The only thing he was ever any good at in his miserable existence. The reason why I brought him back."

In her peripheral vision, Buffy could see Angel was now curled against the stone wall near the fire place, quietly mumbling to himself. She kept her stare on the First, knowing his last words were an attempt at distraction. "You're wrong. He's a good person now. He has earned his redemption a thousand times over.

"And he can't lose his soul inside me. The Powers made it permanent." She stepped forward. "And as for bringing him back, you were wrong there too. This," she showed it her claddagh, "brought him back to me. Our love is more powerful than you. More powerful than any evil that tries to defeat us. Now go. There is nothing for you here."

The First looked for a moment as if it had another barrage of verbal weapons ready to throw at them, then suddenly changed before them, from Jenny Calendar into a monstrous beast with large mouth and teeth, before transforming into nothingness. A brief moment of silence followed its disappearance, before the sound of a cell phone beeping broke it.

Buffy took the device out of her pocket and put it to her ear, while her gaze turned to Angel's huddled form. "Who is it? Hey Faith, good work, by the way. Thanks for taking care of them for me. Tell Giles and everyone that I'll see them tomorrow late afternoon." She paused to listen to her 'sister's' reply. "Yeah, me and Angel have got some things to sort out. Bye." She shut the phone off and crouched next to her boyfriend. "Angel, you still here?"

"Why didn't you let it kill me?" He asked her hollowly. Buffy shook her head and carefully wrapped an arm around him, using her slayer strength to pull him close to her. "Because then it would have won," she replied. "And you should know me better by now. Like I told the First. No one messes with my boyfriend." She kissed his cheek, hope rising within her when he didn't pull away.

"It told me to kill you," Angel said after a moment. "It told me to lose my soul in you and become a monster again. And for a moment, a part of me didn't care that that would be the price. Its not the demon inside me that needs to be killed, its the man. I'm weak, Buffy. I always was."

"No you're not," she replied firmly. "Angel, your soul is permanent, remember? Just like my love for you. I fell in love with the man. A man who I know is more capable, more strong, than any I have ever known. Who is noble, and kind, and honest, and good." She smiled at him.

"A man who is worth more than he realises," she added, causing him to look at her. The glance told her that some part of the words were working, and to further their effects, she leaned in and kissed his lips. For a second he stilled, letting her gesture of love drink in, until it became impossible to ignore it's siren song any longer.

As soon as she felt him kiss her back, Buffy wrapped her arms more firmly around him, securing him in her embrace. Her fingers twirled themselves in his hair while her tongue playfully encouraged his to a duel. Only when she needed to breathe, did she break away from his mouth. wordlessly, she smiled at him, and rose to her feet, her hand held out for one of his. He glanced up at her face and understood her expression instantly.

"Buffy, I don't think this is the right time."

"Of course it is," Buffy countered softly, looking at him. "In fact, we should have done this a lot earlier. Now, are you coming, or do I have to drag you?"

He smiled at her, rose up from the floor, and took her hand. "Lead me where you will. I'm all yours. Forever."

"Damn straight," she replied, making him laugh.

 


"So, Anne was right," she uttered in the afterglow, "you do like it on top."

Angel shook his head and pulled her even more tightly to his chest. "I like it any way you want it," he revealed, stroking her back. "Just as long as you're involved."

"See, I told you," she remarked, pressing small kisses to the bare expanse of skin below her lips. "We needed this."

"We did," he agreed, trying to shift the sensitive parts of his chest away from her hair which, with all her movements, was making him suddenly ticklish. A moment later he surrendered to the torture, too tired to do anything else. The First had taken a lot out of him, but he had never known exhaustion until now.

He smiled as he recalled the last few hours since Buffy's victory over the Evil. He had thought their first time was amazing, but now that nearly paled to their second. And third, and fourth..... with difficulty, Angel dragged his mind back to the present. Not for the first time was he grateful to Giles for choosing to tell Buffy what he had feared to tell her himself.

The hallucinations and nightmares had launched themselves on him so suddenly and without warning, and, for a time, they had managed to convince him that his love was better off at two hours distance from him. If it hadn't been for Giles' call, if she hadn't got here in time,....... he dreaded now to contemplate what he might have done to himself.

Buffy looked up from her pleasurable torture she was performing on his chest, to see his thoughtful eyes staring back at hers. Reading their shift in direction, she moved forward to level her head with his, resting herself on her side beside him.

"What did the Bringers make you dream about?" She asked softly. Until now, their need for each other had prevented her from getting him to talk about the nightmares and other psychological torture which had kept him from calling her for two nights.

Two nights..... she shivered and sent a silent thank you the powers for anchoring his soul, as well as getting her here. She almost lost him. Again. How she would cope if that ever occurred she didn't even want to contemplate.

"The Bringers?" He asked her, puzzled.

"High priests of the First. They were the ones who sent the visions. What did they make you dream?"

"About my past," he answered slowly. "What I had done through out the ages. The torture I visited on my victims."

"You mean what your demon had done," Buffy corrected. "What torture Angelus visited on his victims."

He opened his mouth to object, then, catching her expression, changed his mind, surrendering the victory to her. The difference between himself and his demon was one of the few things which they still fought about, almost everything else that was considered an obstacle to their relationship having been resolved during the nine weeks since he had returned from hell.

"And then it made me dream of you," he continued. "Of visiting you, one night at your mother's house. I would wake you from your sleep, take your hand, and bring your body to mine. And then afterwards, the demon came out and drank you." He dropped into silence then, letting her digest that piece of information, while a part of him unconsciously prepared himself for her departure.

Instead, much to his surprise, she displayed her neck to his mouth. "But that didn't happen," she said, "see? Nothing there. Well," she added, glancing at herself, "except for one rather impressive hickey," she finished, causing him to gently chuckle. "There," she uttered, "there's the man I fell in love with," she added, using the words he had said to her during her discovery of his return.

The only reply he felt worthy enough to return was a deep fulfilling kiss to her lips. Buffy deftly adjusted her position above him, shivering as the silken sheets slipped from her skin in the movement. Shivering? Abruptly, she froze and broke away from his lips to gaze at the only window which adorned the walls of the master bedroom. By the passage of hours since her return, she should be seeing a square thin halo of light around the thick blackout blinds they had installed several weeks ago. Instead there was hardly any light.

"Buffy?" Angel uttered, as she suddenly got up, and, grabbing one of his shirts to wear, moved towards the window. Not caring about his equal lack of clothing, he cautiously followed her, taking care to stay out of the direct light of the sun as she pulled the blinds back a little to see outside. He was even further shocked when she unexpectedly pulled the material away from the window completely.

"Angel," she cried, her voice laced with wonder, as he relaxed in the brief second it took to realise that he had not burst into flames. "Come, look at this."

He joined her by the window, in time to see that the ground was covered in a sea of white. Looking across to the houses opposites, he suddenly realised what day it was. "The powers must have sent this," he uttered, making her turn to him. "As a Christmas present."

"Well, they're alittle late," she remarked, taking him into her arms. "'cause I've already had the one thing I wanted. Sixty-three days ago."

 


By the time his doorbell rang, it was nearly dusk. Giles had gone past worrying, and would have almost gone into full-blown panic, had it not been for a telephone call from Faith after she had finished talking to Buffy. Still, he wasn't fully relieved until he opened his door and met the couple that were the source of his concern, standing on the threshold.

"I did say this late afternoon to Faith," Buffy reminded him as he stepped aside to let them enter his apartment. "Angel and I had a lot of stuff to work through."

"So she told me," Giles replied as he closed the door. "I still worry though." He led them into the living area and gestured silently to the sofa. Briefly he walked over to the kitchen area before joining them, bringing a trio of cups and a steaming, freshly brewed pot of Earl Grey.

Angel gratefully took a sip of the soothing liquid. Ever since he had returned from Hell and Buffy had moved to L.A. he and Giles had often spent evenings such as this. Oft odd occasional visits had progressed into weekly nights of conversation and tea, as they discussed the latest evil come to wreak havoc on the hellmouth or how deeply they both missed its previous guardian.

He was still moved by how little the watcher held the death of Miss Calendar against him. Despite however Buffy and Giles tried to reason with him that it was his demon and not the soul who had committed that and other countless atrocities, Angel still had difficulty accepting that difference for himself.

And therein, he realised suddenly, lay the weakness which the First Evil chose to exploit.

The demon had manipulated him by using his own sense of worthless. And he had come so close to succeeding in his goal. Once more Angel found himself thanking the Powers That Be for letting such good people like Giles and Buffy into his life. Whistler's timely encounter with him nearly four years ago had been more of a saving grace to his existence than he had ever realised before now.

"Anyway," Buffy continued, having finished a brief recap of what her watcher had missed since she met him outside the Mansion, missing out the bits that would have made them both blush. "That's not the only reason why I came to Sunnydale. I did plan to tell you this over the phone, so I could give you the links to the evidence we've found, but I guess Lindsey will have to do that later."

"What is it?" Angel asked, coming out of his thoughts.

"I, well, that is to say Lindsey, actually, has confirmed who the big evil is that Whistler mentioned was coming," his love replied.

"Who is it?" Giles asked. "And when is he arriving?"

"He's already arrived," Buffy replied. "He's been here, in this town for a while now. At least a hundred years. Its the Mayor."

Stunned silence met this revelation. Then, slowly, Giles echoed her last words with utter shock and horror. "The Mayor?"

"Yeah. As far as Lindsey's been able to trace, Wilkins has been here for as long as Sunnydale was established by the colonists. Lindsey can find no records of his death or that of his alleged heirs that weren't cleverly faked."

"He must have made a pact with a powerful demon to live that long," Angel mused contemplatively.

"Or several," Buffy remarked. "And made certain 'campaign' pledges which he had to deliver upon to ensure his end game." She turned to her watcher. "Like making all the town's adults act like teenagers so he could give that Lurconis guy his food."

Giles blushed slightly as his mind instantly recalled certain, embarrassing moments of that night. "That would make sense," he said aloud.

"The one thing we couldn't find out, is what he plans to do," Buffy added. "You know, barring the usual apocalyptic want to cause havoc on the hellmouth desires that big evils seem to possess these days."

"Maybe that's something we can find out," Angel wondered, turning to Giles. "There has to be something in your books on this."

"Yes, certainly a research session is in order," Giles agreed, setting down his cup. "Can you stay, or do you need to get back?" He asked his slayer.

"I'm good for a few days," Buffy replied. "I just need to call the Hyperion and let them know that I wasn't swallowed up by the hellmouth. Seasonal days are pretty quiet in L.A. Compared to things here, that is."

 


Several days of careful thorough research later, and Buffy was walking back to her car parked on the campus of the High School. The Library had become their place of nightly literary hunting since she had told them about what Lindsey had found out on the Mayor; Richard Wilkins III. Or first, as they had discovered now. Nocturnal hours were used instead of daylight ones, because she was still banned from the campus, and Angel wasn't able to join them until nightfall either.

Now, close to midnight, she was leaving the hellmouth and returning the Hyperion. Her love walked her to the car, his hand in hers and his mind and body a lot happier since the battle with the First. While the nights were spent in research over the Mayor, the days had been spent at the Mansion together, sleeping and deepening their relationship by crossing the one boundary both of them were afraid to break before now.

Angel took her into his arms as they reached her car. "Call me the minute you get there," he requested softly as he gazed into her eyes, savouring the love contained therein.

"I will," she promised. "And you, will call me the next time you start having nightmares about the past or something else starts hunting you."

"Yes, ma'am," he vowed, making her laugh. Wanting to prolong her departure he kissed her smiling lips, his arms drawing her deeper into their embrace.

Buffy indulged in the motion, her mind recalling with bliss the events of the past few days. She had been nervous about their union, even when she had taken his hand and led him up the stairs of the Mansion to his bed. But somehow he had sensed her uncertainty and gently, lovingly, put her fears to rest, despite his own conflicted feelings concerning whether that night was the right time for them to deepen their relationship.

The look in his eyes after their passions were sated was enough to make her realise that it was the right moment, as well as restoring her confidence in their first night spent together thus. Now the memories served to make her want him to take her back to Crawford Street, and spend more hours in such a state.

Reluctantly, realising their responsibilities, the couple parted. The slayer looked at her souled vampire one last time, then let go of his arms to open her car door and climb inside. Engine started, she lowered the glass to take his hand one final time.

"I love you," she uttered softly, her tone conveying the depth that such emotion ran within her.

"I love you too," he replied, crouching down to press a kiss to her hand. Then he summoned the strength to let go, and stood up to wave farewell.

Buffy drove her car out of the campus and on the road to the highway, drawing on her slayer strength to not turn and look back. At least this time they had a definite date as to when they would see each other again.

It was, barring any apocalypses before then, graduation day.

The End.
To Be Continued In.

Struggle of the Soul.