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Hope

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HOPE.

So little cause for carollings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy, (1840-1928)
English Novelist & Poet; The Darkling Thrush (1902).


"Let me give you the tour," Buffy began uncertainly. She walked the short space from the kitchen area into the main room which made up the rest of the apartment. Slowly she turned to face Lily. "This concludes our tour."

Lily leant against one of the four walls. "It's really nice," she commented nervously.

Buffy heard the nerves and tried to assure them. "All the rent's paid up for the next three weeks," she commented. Slowly she turned round, opened one of the dresser drawers, and took out her uniform. "I spoke to Mitch at the diner. He said you can start on Thursday. He's, uh... he's kind of... repulsive, but he won't give you a hard time." She laid the dress on the bed and watched as Lily sat down and fingered the item of clothing. "I'll call and check up on you," she added.

"I'm not... great at taking care of myself," Lily confessed.

"Gets easier," Buffy remarked, trying to hide the lie in her tone. "Takes practice," she added.

"Its the emotional trauma that can kill you," Lily added feelingly.

Buffy smiled wryly. "Gets you every time."

"Would you mind........" Lily trailed off and shyly indicated the name tag. "Can I be 'Anne?'"

"Sure," Buffy replied, producing the first full smile she had received from Lily since they had crawled out of that alternate dimension. The expression made her bold. "Listen, I have another proposal, instead of the diner job, if you're interested."

Lily, or rather Anne looked up. "What sort of proposal?" She asked.

"Well, its just an idea at present. Its to do with what we did today. If you're interested in helping me like you did, again."

"I could be," Anne said, making Buffy smile. "When does this 'idea' start?"

"In a few days. I need to talk with some people. See if its feasible. And if they'll allow me to do it."

Anne nodded. "I'll see you in a few days then."

"You too," Buffy replied. She grabbed her bag from the bed, then impulsively hugged her friend.

Anne returned the gesture, much to her relief. Buffy then turned and exited the apartment building.

 



She had been concerned about her reception. But then, as she stood at the door, facing the person who stood beside it, she realised all the concern had been needless.

"Welcome home, Buffy," Giles could not keep his emotions from the surface of his face. He was even more pleased when she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. Tears of relief glistened in his eyes as he hugged her back, and he blinked them away, not wanting her to see this vulnerability. He knew it had taken a lot for her to return, and that above all right now, she needed him to be strong.

To treat her how he always did.

"Come in, sit down," he uttered, when she withdrew her arms from his neck. With a hand on her back he guided her to the living area and gestured to the sofa. "Would you like some tea?" He asked.

"Yeah, thanks," Buffy replied, knowing instinctively that he had asked as much for himself as for her. She sank into the comfortable sofa and watched him prepare the kettle and china cups.

When he had switched the kettle to boil, Giles looked up to meet her gaze. Reading her expression, he returned to the living area and sat down across from her.

"Have you seen your mother?" He asked.

"No, not yet," Buffy replied, surprising him. "That reunion's gonna be hard enough without support. And I wanted to see you first."

"Buffy, as much as you are the slayer, you're also you," Giles said, not entirely comprehending her meaning. "I understand that your mother takes priority over me."

"No she doesn't," Buffy revealed, surprising him. "I know it sound cruel and unfeeling of me, but you've been far more of a parent to me than she has recently. And not just because of her lack of knowledge on the slayer front. She tries to mould me into being the daughter she always wanted. You just accept me for who I am."

"Buffy......." Giles murmured, touched and concerned at the same. True, there had always been a bond between then, but this level of honesty was something they had rarely touched upon. He wanted to say more, but the kettle boiled, forcing him to rise and finish the tea making.

Buffy watched him go and finish the drinks, then bring them in, along with a couple of pairs of sandwiches which she had somehow missed him preparing. As he placed one of them before her, she unconsciously smiled, touched by how he knew without even being told her favourite sandwich, and how he had known she would need something to eat. "Thank you," she remarked before taking a bite.

"My pleasure," Giles replied softly, before sitting down and taking a sip of tea. He leant back into the confines of the sofa, letting the calming taste of Earl Grey do its work. Silently he watched her eat her sandwich and take a sips of tea. There was something different about her. A part of her was missing still, but he had seen that go with the lifting of Angel's curse, and he didn't expect it to return anytime soon, particularly after her long absence from the hellmouth.

Yet she seemed a little more herself than when he had last seen her. Giles knew something had happened during the fight with Angelus and Acathla, something dreadful, which had made her distance herself from them. He had a theory which would need confirming, but he was reluctant to prompt her into it. He also had a feeling that this return of hers was by no means as permanent as he and everyone else had hoped.

"I was wondering," Buffy began when she had finished her sandwich, during her movement of taking the tea in her hand and leaning back into the sofa cushions, "if I need to be in close proximity to the hellmouth in order to protect it."

It was an odd beginning, but then Giles was used to that. "Depends on what you mean by distance," he replied, his concerning growing.

Buffy sipped her tea. "About two hours, give or take traffic levels," she said, with her eyes on him, waiting nervously for his reaction.

Giles did the math, then set down his empty cup. "Los Angeles," he sought to confirm, then, seeing her nod, continued. "What is it that you have in mind?"

"I can't stay here," Buffy revealed, her voice hollow with barely held back grief. "Snyder expelled me from school. Mom told me if I left the house to never come back. I bailed out on you and my friends for three months and all because I needed to deal with having to......" a sob escaped her, "kill Angel to save the world."

"Oh god, Buffy," Giles uttered as he rose up and walked round the coffee table to sit beside her. Without another word he took her into his arms. "I had no idea the spell had even worked," he added, stroking her back to comfort her.

"At least you knew," Buffy replied, her voice racked with sobs. "The only warning I had was 'kick his ass.' Why Willow sent Xander with his feelings for Angel I'll never know."

"You mean he never told you......" Giles trailed off as he received more tears from Buffy in reply. "I should have realised he wouldn't too." He rubbed her back again, then withdrew a little to look at her face. "Buffy, whatever anyone says on the subject, I want you to know that you'll never hear a word of reproach from me. I'm just glad you're back."

"Thank you," Buffy sniffed, and smiled as he handed her his crisp, white handkerchief. She wiped her tears away and smiled at him a little. "You do realise though that that won't convince me to stay."

"I know," Giles replied. "But I hope I have more ammunition than that."

"Well I have a pretty big gun on my side too, I'm afraid," Buffy revealed. She sat back so she could see him properly. "Angelus opened Acathla before I could I prevent him. Then, just as I was about to..... deal the final blow, he changed. He was Angel again. And he didn't remember anything. Nothing that had happened since my birthday.

"We hugged, and told each other how we still felt. But I saw that Acathla was awake...... so I kissed him, and stabbed him through the stomach, sending him to hell." She drew in a deep breath. "The look he gave me as he realised what was happening........" she trailed off, unable to finish the thought.

"I'm sure, when he does remember, that he won't blame you," Giles offered.

"If he's still alive," Buffy said sadly. "I know of no way to get him back."

"I'll do some research, see if I can find one. I don't know if its' possible, but I'll try."

Buffy looked at him, shocked and touched. "But,....... he tortured you. Killed Jenny. How can you be willing to help him?"

"Angelus tortured me. Angelus killed Jenny," Giles replied. "They're two different people. I know, I saw how much Angel cared for you. He helped us, saved our lives so many times. He deserves a better hand than what the demon dealt him. And I'm not just doing it for him. I'm doing it for you. Without him you're...... incomplete. Trust me, I know."

"Thank you," Buffy uttered again, words failing her. She was too touched by the depth of emotion that he felt for her to find them. "Anyway, after that, well, I couldn't stay. I couldn't deal with telling anyone, even you. I was too caught up in it. It was still raw. So I went to my house, packed what I could, and took the next bus to L.A. There I rented an apartment, well, what one would laughingly call an apartment, worked at a diner, and tried to survive. I knew my no communication was almost like I had died, but I wasn't ready to talk. I doubted if I ever could be ready. And as the days continued, the notion got even harder."

She finished her tea. "And then I ran into an old friend. You remember when we had to deal with Billy Fordham, my friend from Hemery? Well, one of the vampire wannabees to survive, was a girl called Chantarelle. She saw me at work, and then later, to ask me for her help." Slowly Buffy told him what had happened to her the day before. Giles listened quietly, offering no questions or comments, waiting for her to finish, his mind whirling at what she had in mind to do in the city of Angels.

"So, after I had saved them, I realised that I can't escape who I am. My destiny. I am the slayer, and the world needs saving. Boy, does it saving. Those homeless kids most of all. Giles, you should have seen them. It was horrifying to see what the world can do to you without demons and vampires coming into the mix. I want to help them. They need rescuing, and I have the skills to do it. And I want to start now."

"What did you have in mind?" Giles asked her curiously.

"An organisation of some sorts. Like a cross between a halfway house and a private investigative agency. I provide them with some place to sleep, the means to cope on their own, and I help save them from whatever they need saving from. I can slay on the side, and any other hellmouth trouble, well I'd be only two hours away." She stopped and looked at him nervously. "What do you think?"

Giles said nothing at first. He just stared at her. One brief glance made him realise that she was determined, and nothing was going to stop her. "I think its a marvellous idea," he remarked, making her smile.

"You do? Really?" She sought to confirm. "I was so worried you were gonna be too angry with me."

"Never, Buffy. I could never be angry with you. Certainly not at an idea like this. It could help so many people."

"But there are difficulties. I have almost no money, no base of operations, and only one possible employee. I don't even know where to begin."

"Well, I can help you with that, if you'll let me."

"Let? More than let. Beg even." Buffy smiled. "But I guess I have to finish my education first, huh?"

"Not necessarily," Giles remarked, making it her turn to be surprised. "I agree that your education is important, but there's no reason why you can't do correspondence courses while you set up this organisation. And I know you'll need some money, but I think you could apply to the bank for loans, or to the city council. And I have some savings I could give you to get you started."

"Giles, I can't ask you to give me money!" Buffy protested.

"You're not asking, I'm offering. This is a worthy cause, and I think you should definitely do it. You could even take psychology as a college course, which would help you in this even more."

"So I have your support in this?"

"Completely. Even though that means I won't see you every day."

"Giles......" Buffy sighed. "Its just too hard. Staying here, everyday being reminded of him. And I'm not sure what reception I'll get with my friends or my mother."

"Well, Willow and Xander were the most...... affected by your absence," Giles replied.

"You can say hurt. I don't mind."

"Angry might be a more apt description in Xander's case. Willow isn't there yet, I think. But your mother......" Giles trailed off, unsure if he should tell her what Joyce had said to him.

"What?" Buffy asked, looking at him. "Giles, what has she said to you?"

"She blames me," Giles confessed. "For being such a force on your life."

"Well, its unjustifiable. You have been there for me. She hasn't. I know she didn't know who I was, but that's still no excuse for some of her actions. And I know I didn't give her any time to adjust to my being a slayer, but I didn't have the time. I also know that's no excuse. But I think that she should have seen how serious I was, and told me that she could wait until I had the time to sit down and explain. She shouldn't have told me to leave and never come back."

"Is that what she told you?" Giles asked, surprised.

"I believe her exact words were 'you walk out of this house, don't even think about coming back.' I left her a note, but it didn't even explain half of it. She has a right to be angry, I know, but I also know what else will happen. She'll put me in another school, one as far away from Sunnydale High as possible, and she try to move me from everything she believes is a bad influence in my life.

"She wants the daughter I was before I was called. And all that has happened to me over these past two years tells me that she can't escape my destiny either. I'm willing to explain things to her, to tell her what my life is like, but I'm not going back."

"I understand," Giles replied. "I'd help you explain to her, if you want, but I'm not sure if she'll accept me there."

"No, its something I have to do alone. But your help with the organisation will be very welcome."

"What are you going to tell Willow, Cordelia, Xander, and Oz?"

"What happened to Angelus. That I'm not coming back. Then, providing they don't yell at me, my plans."

"Well, if you need me, or need a neutral base for that, just drop by. I'm not going anywhere. And I have a spare room, if you need a few days here."

"Thank you, Giles. I might take you up on that." Buffy smiled at him, then glanced at her wristwatch. "I suppose I ought to go and have that conversation with my mother."

She rose up from the sofa, making Giles follow suit. Impulsively, she hugged him once, and he just had time to return it before she pulled away and headed for the door.

He saw her to it, wished her good luck, then watched as she exited the apartment complex. He was relieved she was back, saddened that she would soon be going again, concerned for her well-being during the talk with her friends and her mother, but above all he was proud. Of who she was, what she had become. What she planned to do.

He just hoped her friends and her mother wouldn't destroy it all.

 


Buffy stood outside the front door of what was once her home, silently waiting for her mother to answer, mentally preparing herself for all possible scenarios. She knew how this meeting would end, no matter how it began, so she had to be ready for a fight.

The door opened, and her mother stared at her in shock. Buffy met her gaze, and waited. Suddenly Joyce stepped forward and took her into her arms.

Buffy hugged her mother back, keeping herself in check. Now was not the time to relish the welcome, especially as what she was going to say to her mother would soon change this touch-feely moment.

Joyce stepped back, and let her inside. Buffy advanced cautiously into the living room. She glanced at her mother, waiting.

Mrs Summers was surprised. Not only by her daughter's return, but by her whole behaviour. This was not the reunion she had imagined. She had pictured them hugging, crying, and then somehow the talking that needed to be done would follow more easily. This silence however, this calm demeanour of her daughter, was disconcerting.

"Buffy," she began, finding herself forced into speech, "I'm glad you're back. I was worried about you."

"I'm not back for good, Mom," Buffy replied, forcing away her flinch as she saw her mother's expression become one of disappointment. "I just came here to see you, to stop your worry. And to tell you all about my slaying, so you can understand it. But I'm not coming back home. I can't."

Her mother was incredulous. "What is this? Is this some sort of a joke? Buffy, you can't just up and leave any time you feel like it! You have responsibilities here!"

"Do I?" Buffy queried, her temper rising just a little. "Mom, you have no idea what my responsibilities are here!"

"I think I do! You are my daughter. You have a responsibility to me!"

"No I don't. You have one to me as my mother. And you failed when you threw me out." Buffy knew her argument had not meant to begin like this, but she couldn't stop.

"I threw you out? I was angry, and how did you expect me to react to your news?"

"With acceptance. With understanding. But no. You found out who I really was, and you couldn't deal. Don't you remember?"

"Buffy, you didn't give me time. You just dumped this thing on me and you expected me to get it. Well, guess what? Mom's not perfect, okay? I handled it badly. But that doesn't give you the right to punish me by running away."

"Punish you?" Buffy echoed incredulously. "I didn't do this to punish you!" She paused, and took a deep breath, calming herself. Seeing her mother was about to speak, she rapidly continued. "I ran away because I couldn't face this place without the one person in my freaky world who made sense to me. Because I had to send him to hell in order to save the world.

"Because there was nothing left for me here. I needed some time to grieve. To recover from what I done. To realise that I was still the slayer. And I couldn't do that here. Because you needed explanations. Because my friends would want to know what happened. So I ran away." She paused to gather breath, noticing that her mother had begun to listen.

"Remember that night I came back late from seeing Tyler, Mom? That night two years ago in L.A.? That was my first patrol. My first day as a vampire slayer. When, as I was sitting outside my school, waiting for a boy, I was accosted by a man called Merrick. My first watcher. He told me that I had to stop them. That I was the only one. In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

Buffy inwardly smiled as her voice acquired the tone of how Giles would say the words. "Those words were to become my mantra over the next two years. They were why I lost all my friends at Hemery. Why my grades suffered. Why I set fire to the gym. Why we had to come here. Not just because Sunnydale was the only school brave enough to accept me, but because this town sits on the hellmouth. A portal, out of which hell beasts could rise, and which attracts all sorts of evil to this town. Vampires, Demons, Zombies, you name it, it probably exists.

"So don't blame Giles, Mom, because he wasn't my first Watcher. This has been in me since I was born. If you need to blame anyone, blame the Powers That Be for deciding that there must be someone strong enough to defeat the vampires and demons that live in this world. Blame the vampire who killed the girl before me, the slayer whom I was called to take over from. But don't blame Giles. He has saved my life, your life, and the life of my friends more times than I can count. Without a Watcher's knowledge, the slayer is nothing."

She had run out of words, and fortunately, so had her mother. Joyce sank down on to the nearest sofa, overwhelmed by her daughter's passionate speech, that sounded so much older than her teenage years. She looked up at Buffy, and realised that before her was a young woman, not a immature girl who had no idea of the real world. Instead she had more idea than she, her mother, ever knew.

"I still want an explanation for why you ran away," Joyce eventually said, but in a much calmer tone than before. "But I understand some of it now, if not all."

Buffy sat down opposite her. "I have time now, Mom. Time to answer any questions you wish. But you have to promise me that you won't shout, or lose your temper. I don't mean to sound patronising or anything else, but this stuff is complicated, and it needs clear heads."

"Okay," Joyce replied with a small smile. "Why did you run away?"

Buffy inwardly breathed a sigh of relief and began to explain.

 


Dusk had settled over Sunnydale by the time Joyce had asked all the questions she needed to ask, and Buffy had answered them. The slayer could guess which ones had given her mother cause for concern, and had tried her best to resolve that emotion as much as was possible.

Now the slayer glanced around, and noticing the time of day, rose up from the sofa in search of a phone. "Mind if I call Giles, Mom? Only I promised I would check in with him if I was staying more than one day."

"Sure," Joyce replied, her concerns suddenly focused on her daughter's choice of words. She had forgotten what Buffy had said at the beginning of this talk. Silently she watched her on the phone, laughing and smiling with Giles, a mixture of emotions and thoughts swirling in her mind. Foremost was a sense of loss. Even though Buffy had yet to say a word, Joyce instinctively knew that she would soon lose her daughter. Just as she had finally begun to understand her.

Buffy finished the call and walked back to the sofa. Sitting down, she read her mother's look and next question. "No, I don't plan on staying. While I was rescuing those people from that alternate dimension, I realised how many need help in this world. And an idea came to me on how I could help them. I told Giles about it, and he helped me realise that I could do it and finish my education at the same time. Now I need to tell you about it." She paused and told her of the organisation she was hoping to begin.

Joyce was impressed. She had known that her daughter was clever, that she had potential for great things, just like every other parent who loved their children. But she had never imagined what those things would turn out to be. "Buffy, that sounds really good. If I can help, I would like to. But are you sure you can't do it in Sunnydale?"

"I'm sure. There's just not enough people here, and the hellmouth would take up most of my time. I need some distance from it, so I can do this. And L.A. is big enough. Plus, UCLA offers a great Psychology course, or so Giles tells me." She paused, before adding in a different, softer tone. "I also can't stay here. Too many things remind me of Angel. And I'm not ready to face them without him just yet." Privately she doubted if she would ever be ready, but she had to give her mother hope.

"Okay," Joyce replied, silently sad. "I understand that."

"Mom, you won't lose me," Buffy said, astutely guessing her mother's feelings. "You never will. I promise to telephone whenever possible, even visit whenever you want. I just need to do this now, before anything else comes along to try and stop me."

Joyce nodded, the comforting words managing to keep her emotions in check. "And Giles is okay with you being two hours away from the Hellmouth?" She asked, her mouth having a little difficulty with what was to her, a whole new word.

"He's not entirely pleased that I haven't given a thought to driving lessons when I came up with this, but other than that he's okay. Besides, if I'm lucky, another slayer will be on her way."

"Another?" Joyce frowned. "I thought you said that there could only be one?"

"Ah," Buffy smiled sheepishly at her mother. "I forgot to mention the little issue of my death, didn't I?"

"Little? I hardly call it little." Her mother looked at her, relief that she was still alive conquering any anger she felt.

"Cliff Notes version; I had to face a very old vampire when we first came here, during the time of the Spring Fling thing. He killed me, by drowning me in a lake. Fortunately, Xander and Angel followed me and saved my life. But I was dead for about five minutes, causing for another slayer to be called. Kendra."

"Kendra? That girl you were accused of killing?"

"Yeah, only Druscilla killed her. Anyway, now she's dead, perhaps another will be called, and that'll save me a world of trouble with the hellmouth."

"But it won't stop you from being the slayer," Joyce murmured.

Buffy shook her head. "'fraid not." She paused and looked at her. "So, are you angry?"

"Far from it," her mother smiled. "I'm proud of you." She stood up. "My daughter, the vampire slayer. The super hero."

For the second time Buffy found herself on the receiving end of another hug which she had never expected to happen. And she relished the moment, returning it, as she felt for the first time, that everything in her world was going to eventually make some sense.

 


In the end, Buffy spent the night in her old bedroom. Her dreams as usual were filled with the strange images of her and Angel- or was it Angelus? she still couldn't work it out -making her waking somewhat disorientating.

Her mother greeted her as soon as she entered the kitchen, with every kind of breakfast deli available.

"Mom, are you feeding the five thousand?" Buffy commented as she took a sip of welcome coffee.

"I just thought you might be hungry," Joyce replied, smiling.

"Fancy doing the catering for my organisation?" Buffy asked her.

"No, I couldn't do this everyday." Joyce looked at her carefully. "Are you okay?"

"What? Oh, yeah. Just didn't sleep well last night." Buffy took another sip of her coffee. "I told I get prophetic dreams, right? Well lately I keep dreaming about Angel. Or Angelus, I'm not really sure which. His words confuse me. Everything about them confuses me, actually."

"Such as?" Joyce asked curiously.

Buffy carefully described her first dream of him by the beach, followed by the one last night, at Sunnydale High. When she had finished there was a moment of comfortable silence as her mother attempted to ponder the meaning.

"It could be your own insecurity about him, you know," she eventually answered.

"My insecurity?" Buffy echoed.

"You blame yourself for sending him to hell, don't you?" Joyce sought to confirm.

"I do," Buffy agreed, surprised her mother could see that.

"Buffy, you're not to blame for that. Nor is he. The two of you were in love. You were acting on feelings which neither of you knew could lead to his soul being lost. If you had known, you would have stopped, wouldn't you?"

"Yes," Buffy replied.

"There you go, then. If anyone is responsible, its the gypsies for including such a clause in the first place. Don't worry about it. Now, what are doing about your friends?"

"I'm not sure," Buffy replied thoughtfully. "I was thinking calling them all and gathering them someplace. Preferably with controlled exits."

"Well, you can do it here, if you want."

"That might be better than Giles'. Here I know the weapons are locked away." Buffy smiled and went to make the phone calls.

Once more into the breach, she thought to herself.

 


As soon as she opened the door and took in the expressions of at least one person in the group, Buffy realised that breach was a purely inadequate word.

Saying nothing, she stepped back and aside, gesturing silently that they could come in and sit down. She waited for them to go into the living room, then glanced back at her support duo; Giles and her Mom, who had both volunteered to be within hearing distance if she needed them. Sending a grateful glance, she took a deep breath and followed her once best friends.

"Hey guy, I'm back," she uttered, sensing that they were waiting for her speak. "Sorry I didn't call or anything, but I needed some space."

"Is that all you can say?" Xander queried, his voice close to shouting. "You've been gone for three months, Buff! Three months without a word to anyone, including your Mom. Do you have any idea of the hell you put her through?"

"Her hell?" Buffy echoed, her calmness stung by his words. "What about my hell? Don't you have any idea why I took off?"

"'Cause your boyfriend was a monster and you had to kill him? So what? I saw that coming long before you did. Can't blame me if I say I told you so."

"Angelus was the monster, Xander," Buffy countered. "Not Angel. But that was always your problem, wasn't it? You could never make that distinction."

"May be he couldn't, Buffy, but that doesn't justify your leaving." Willow had finally decided to speak.

Buffy took a deep breath. Their words were hurting more than she had thought they would. "You have no idea how much I missed you. Everyone. I wanted to call every day."

"That doesn't matter," Willow uttered. "It doesn't make it okay that you didn't."

"You know, maybe you don't want to hear it," Xander butted in again, "but taking off like you did was incredibly selfish and stupid."

"Selfish and stupid?" Buffy echoed. "You didn't think that maybe I had my reasons for leaving? That I didn't feel guilt and grief over Kendra's death, or your injuries, or Giles being kidnapped, or my being expelled? You have no idea what happened to me or what I was feeling!"

"Did you even try talking to anybody?" Xander countered, unfazed.

"There was nothing that anybody could do. I just had to deal with this on my own."

"Yeah, and you see how well that one worked out," Xander's voice was jeering as well as sarcastic. "You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you."

"As if I even could've gone to you, Xander," Buffy uttered harshly, all care for what they were feeling gone in the face of their constant verbal attacks. "You made your feelings about Angel and I perfectly clear."

"Look. I'm sorry that your honey was a demon, but most girls don't hop a Greyhound over boy troubles."

"Time out, Xander," his girlfriend remarked, surprising Buffy. "Put yourself in Buffy's shoes for just a minute. Okay? I'm Buffy, freak of nature, right? Naturally I pick a freak for a boyfriend, and then he turns into Mr. Killing Spree, which is pretty much my fault..."

"Cordy!" Buffy interrupted. "Get outta my shoes!"

"I'm just trying to help, Buffy," Cordelia replied.

"I know," Buffy uttered, smiling at her. "And I'm grateful for it, but this is something we need to get through. And with regards to your last comment, Xand, most girls don't have a souled vampire for a boyfriend. As far as I know, he's one of a kind. And with that Soul," she emphasised the word, "the demon is contained. Nobody however, bothered to inform us that his curse had a clause."

"Buffy, you never..."

"Willow, please," Buffy began. "Let me......."

Xander cut her off. "Let her finish! You at least owe her that."

"God, Xander! Do you think you could at least stick to annoying me on your own behalf?"

"Fine! You stop acting like an idiot, I'll stop annoying you!"

That was it. Buffy had had it. She stepped up to him. "Oh, you wanna talk acting like an idiot? Why don't we let Willow ask you where the following came from? 'Kick his ass.'" She glanced at her best friend. "Sound familiar to you, Will? 'Cause Xander said that was your message regarding Angel."

Willow gasped, while Xander looked away, down at the floor. "You didn't tell her?" She sought to confirm.

Buffy answered for him. "No, Will, he didn't tell me that you were gonna try the spell again. Believe me, if I'd had warning, things might have been different. But I didn't. Instead I had to kill the only guy I've loved in order to save the world."

She turned to Xander, who still couldn't look at her, or anyone. "That was really selfish of me, wasn't it? You have no idea, as I stood there, staring at the spot where Acathla was standing, whole, crying harder than I ever have in my life, how easy it would have been to grab the sword he had been fighting with and kill myself. So easy to let another slayer take my place.

"And do you know what stopped me? And this you'll make you laugh. You guys. I figured you couldn't cope with losing someone else so soon after Miss Calendar. So I did the only thing I could do. I left. And I meant to get in touch, I really did. But I was still grieving. Still trying to find out how I could live in this world, without him by my side.

"So the days dragged by. And each time I thought about calling you, I imagined this very scene." Buffy sniffed away her tears, a motion all of them could use with doing, but they were too stunned by her words to notice their own. "And I realised, that until I had found a way to start living in this world, I couldn't defend myself before you. That your anger and grief at my going would break me even further."

Silence settled over as Buffy finished her speech. Watching them, she took out Giles' handkerchief which she had kept from the day before, and carefully dabbed away the rest of her tears.

Willow cautiously stepped forward. "Could I borrow that?" She asked.

Buffy nodded and then the motion of transferring the white cloth caused a hug instead. Slayer and witch clutched at each other, bonds repaired.

Steadily, Oz, then Cordelia melded themselves into the hug as well, and Buffy clung to them, grateful they were willing to understand and forgive.

Eventually, they parted, causing her to glance around and realise someone was missing. Just then Giles and Joyce came into the room.

The former saw her concern and answered her unspoken question. "He's all right, Buffy. He's out back. I think he needed some time."

"I know," Buffy replied. "How much did you two hear?"

"Almost all," Joyce replied. "Giles had to stop me from rushing in here several times." She smiled at her daughter. "I keep forgetting you can take care of yourself."

"You can still help," Buffy offered, "just wait for my call." She turned to the others, who had noticed the new arrivals. "Yeah, I kind of sorted things with them first. Figured you guys would be the hardest. Can we get drinks, snacks, or anything?"

The trio nodded and rattled off some choices. Joyce went to get the food while Giles and Buffy sat down.

"So," Willow began nervously, "what are your plans?"

"I'm not staying," Buffy replied, seeing her best friend's face fall. "I wish I could, Willow, really. But its still too hard. Even if I hadn't lost Angel the way I did, I'm still expelled. And you know Snyder. There is no way he would take me back. Anyway, I have a thing. An idea of what I want to do with my life. And Sunnydale isn't big enough for it." She told them then, about her organisation, about what had happened to her in L.A.

And they understood, just like friends should.

 


"Xander?"

The man turned round, surprised that it was his girlfriend who had come to get him. "What is it, Cor? Come to rail at me more for yelling at Buffy?"

"No, though I should warn you, I'm not done yet." Cordelia touched his shoulder comfortingly. "You ought to come inside, you know. Buffy's had this amazing idea. Its about helping people, and not just rescuing them from vampires or demons, but from other things as well." She smiled at him. "It's a really great idea, and you should listen to her."

"Is she still angry with me?" Xander asked.

Cordelia looked at him, hard. "Do you think she should be?"

"Yes."

"Then why don't you come inside and find out for yourself?" She remarked, before showing him the way.

Willow was in the middle of asking a question when he entered, leaving the slayer to welcome him with only a smile as she waited for time to reply.

"So, have you come up with a name?"

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "Hope."

"Why 'Hope?'" Joyce asked.

"'That I could think there trembled through, his happy good-night air,'" Buffy softly quoted, "'some blessed Hope, whereof he knew, and I was unaware.' It from a favourite poem of mine. As I watched some of the happiness I saw in L.A. the line came to me, and it made me realise that I could give that hope to those that are hopeless. I could restore their faith in their beliefs and trust in others." She smiled. "So, what, do you think?"

"It sounds wonderful, Buff," Xander replied softly, making her look to him, and smile. She then directed her glance to the window behind him, and abruptly stood up. "Sorry, guys, but I'd better patrol. I didn't realise it was so late."

"Are you sure you don't want to rest?" Willow asked. "I mean, we've been doing patrols, and we're getting quite good."

"Six out of ten vamps staked," Oz informed Buffy.

"That's better than half," Willow uttered.

"Its great, Will, really," Buffy assured her. "But let me take over for a bit, okay? Give you guys a break. I'll just do a quick patrol and come back, okay?"

She rose up from the table and left the room.

"Buffy," Xander called, making her stop halfway down the drive, and turn to face him, standing just by the front door. "I'm so sorry," he began.

"I know," Buffy replied. "And I don't blame you, Xand. Not any more."

"You'd be completely right to still do so," Xander said. "I wish there was something I could do to restore him to you."

"May be there's a way," Buffy remarked. "But I don't know. Giles is the one to go to for that information. But I know that time, it passes differently in hell dimensions. One day here can seem like a lifetime there. And he'll have been tortured...... " she trailed off, physically shivering at the thought of what the hell might do to him. "It would take someone of extraordinary will and character to survive that and retain any semblance of self."

"If any one could survive that, Buffy, its Angel," Xander remarked, "I know he would never give up on you. So I don't think you should either."

"I haven't," Buffy replied. "Not yet."

 


It was partly, true, what she had said to Xander. She hadn't given up on Angel. But three months of nights spent dreaming about him, their relationship, sending him to hell, plus the unusual ones which she had told her mother about this morning, had made her decide something, as soon as she got a moment to herself.

The something led her patrol in the direction of Crawford Street. In to the mansion where they had fought, to the empty living room, otherwise know as the Acathla battlefield.

Buffy stood there, letting her mind remember one last time. Then silently her right hand went to left, and removed the one ring that was on her third finger. She held the claddagh for a moment, smiling as she remembered when he had given it to her, then carefully knelt and placed it on the floor.

She had chosen the spot where he had stood, before she had ran the sword through his stomach and sent him to hell. Part of her had no idea why she had felt compelled to do this, to place this momento mori here. She still had the first piece of jewellery he had given her, the silver cross which currently hung around her neck, and she wanted to keep this one too, as a sigh of her fidelity to him. Yet the compulsion was powerful, and had overwhelmed her, until she could not resist.

She would come and get it back tomorrow, she decided. Taking one more glance of the room, she uttered softly, one word.

"Goodbye."

Then she turned round and left building, to finish her patrol.

 


If she had chosen to look back, chosen to stay just one moment more, she would have witnessed something that would give her all the hope she planned to give those hopeless people in Los Angeles. She would have seen the ring glow as if made of gold not silver. She would have seen the ground shake beneath it, caused by momentous happenings above. She would have seen a portal open in the ceiling, a gateway to hell. She would have seen that her gesture of goodbye had acquired an entirely different meaning.

She would have seen him fall to the floor.

Instead, it was another who stood witness to these events, who had been forewarned to expect his arrival, and his appearance. He stood just before the fallen body, which was covered in healing scars, wounds of torture, and one hand clasped around the iconic symbol; the little band of silver which had brought him back.

The witness' reaction was also entirely different to hers, had she been there. She would have cried, at seeing the state her beloved was in. The other however, merely looked at the crumpled body at his feet and recited a phrase of Latin.

"Deus ex machina, redivivus. Vulneratus non victus, seipse curatus.1" Whistler intoned, casting his hands over the space his old friend occupied.

The body stilled as the scars clustered upon him abruptly healed. Then he raised his head, opened his eyes, and looked up at his saviour. "Whistler?"

"So you remember me then?" The demon returned rhetorically before producing a pair of trousers and handing them to the vampire. "Get dressed, we have a lot to discuss."

A little bewildered, Angel slipped on the black pants then carefully rose to his full height before sitting down the sofas which he didn't remember being there the last time he was in the Mansion on Crawford Street. "Who brought these?" He asked.

"Me," Whistler replied. "I thought you were taking minimalism a touch too far. Anyway, I'm not here to talk to you about your demon's idea of interior design." He chuckled. "Your slayer's so unpredictable."

"Buffy?" Angel sought to confirm.

"Who else? The Powers That Be, they had this whole plan worked out. After her summer vacation in L.A, She would return to her Mom, her home, her school, her hellmouth and save Sunnydale from the next big evil. But no, your girl had other ideas on that front. She chooses instead to take on your mission a year early."

Angel glanced around the room while his mind worked out the math. "Have I been gone longer than three months? 'Cause none of this is making sense."

"Forgive me, mate, I'm having to wing it here," Whistler paused and began again. "Your slayer was supposed to graduate from Sunnydale High and defeat the evil which is to come. But instead, during her running away, she came up with an idea, one which has gotten a lot of people up there," he gestured with his head to the heavens, "excited. And, let me tell you, it takes a lot to get them excited. So they sent me down here to accelerate matters concerning your..... evolution."

"My evolution?" Angel echoed.

"Yes. You were meant to return from hell, thanks to that ring you're holding there, thanks to her. She was meant to find you and help you back to health, although admittedly, that sequence of events might have been rougher on the both of you than this lot will turn out to be. Then you and she were meant to fight together and defeat the next big evil of this town, before parting, she to remain here as guardian of the hellmouth, you to Los Angeles to become a helper for the helpless."

"But she's changed all this?" Angel asked.

"Precisely. She's going to the city of Angels, and setting up an organisation. I'll let her tell you the details, because its a beautiful idea, really is. But it also entails us coming up with a whole bunch of new plans for everyone else, including you."

"Can I see her?" Angel asked him.

"In a while, I'm not done yet. Besides, she sent you to hell, remember?"

"She had to," Angel returned, fiercely. "To save the world. She had no choice." He looked away from his old mentor and down at the concrete floor. "If anyone's to blame for what happened, its me."

"Crap," Whistler replied, startling him. "If anyone's to blame, its whoever invented that curse. I mean, honestly, if you're gonna give a vampire eternal torment, you shouldn't include a get out clause. As I told her, Acathla was supposed to be your fight, not hers. That little moment of happiness thing really messed up matters. And no blame can be put on you two, except for the fact that neither of you were supposed to fall in love."

"Neither of us knew that," Angel pointed out. "And besides, can you blame us?"

"No," Whistler replied with a smile. He sat back and a comfortable silence settled over the room.

But only for a moment.

Angel was the first to break it. "She blames herself, doesn't she?"

"Yes, she does. And you need to see her. In fact, you too need to have a conversation. But first, so do we." He leaned forward, clasped his hands together, and began to explain.

To Be Continued In
Hebrews 11:1.

Note: Latin phrases for spell: All taken from Nil Desperandum by Eugene Ehrlich.
Deus ex machina: a god out of a machine; meaning an unlikely and providential intervention, rescuing someone from an apparently hopeless predicament. The stuff bad fiction or drama is made of without relying on improbable coincidence. Redivivus: brought back to life. Vulneratus non victus: wounded but not conquered. Seipse curatus: He is cured. Lastly, Thomas Hardy's poem The Darkling Thrush was something I studied as unprepared prep for my English Lit exams, and its actually about the prospect of the Industrial world overtaking the countryside, as well as the author's fear of this new technology, but I thought the lines were quite appropriate.

Chapter Text

Hebrews 11:1.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews ch. 11, v. 1; The Bible,
Oxford English Dictionary of Quotations,
Authorised Version from iFinger.

When Buffy returned to the Mansion on Crawford Street the next morning, she noticed nothing different from the deceptively normal exterior. Black blinds covered the front windows, but then they had done so ever since Angelus, Spike and Dru took residence. No, from the outside, the mansion still looked like the modern haunted house, a typical inclusion in every suburban neighbourhood.

She had spent the night at Giles' place. After her long patrol around the city, she had arrived at his apartment block on Oakpark Street to a scene of soft lights and hot soothing drinks. Her mother and Giles had returned there following the talk with her friends to wait for her, knowing instinctively that she wanted a change of scene from Revello Drive.

That astute understanding continued as they guided her to the guest room in the split level apartment, and told her to get as much sleep as she needed. Surprisingly, no dreams of Angel/Angelus, or indeed anyone else had bothered her during what was left of the night, causing her to wake to a late breakfast with her watcher, who had called in sick so he could make sure she was well, and inform her of what he and Joyce were sorting out regarding her wishes on education and Hope.

Now, almost twelve hours later, she was back at the house which she had felt compelled to enter the night before, intending to pick up the momento mori she had left in the living room.

But, as usual, other events interfered.

Buffy noticed the sofas first. The sudden sight of furniture covering the originally large and bare expanse of room caused her to halt. For a second she stood still, her eyes staring at the twelve hours old settees without really seeing them, wondering the reasoning for their arrival.

Then she noticed the two occupants sitting on them.

"Angel?" She uttered, her voice sounding hoarse and strange, as though her body had not used such a function of communication until now.

The souled vampire who owned that name was also at a similar loss for words, even though he had been forewarned of her return. It fell to the third person in the double height room to fill in the silence.

"Speak of her and she shall appear," Whistler remarked as he rose from his seat and walked towards her. "Don't say the Powers don't do anything nice for you, slayer," he added to her before heading out into the sunlight.

As for the chosen one herself, she had not even managed to acknowledge the words, gazing instead at the man she thought she had lost forever.

He was the one who first regained his equilibrium, rising from the sofa to stand before her. Seeing the plea in her eyes, softly, wordlessly, he took her into his arms.

The motion worked as effectively as pinching herself, and was far less painful. Buffy felt the reality of her love standing before her, the comfort of his embrace, the soft caresses caused by his fingers as his hands wove themselves into her hair.

Abruptly all the contradictions and confusing feelings caused by her dreams of him and yet not him withdrew their powerful effect on her mind and heart, as swift as the tide drawing out into the sea. Gratitude belatedly set in, as her body returned from its state of shock, to kiss the material of his top, inhale the scent that was him.

Eventually they drew back from each other, as both realised that neither of them were about to disappear, or a hell dimension was not about to open up and swallow them. Reluctant to part from the comfort of touch that the other was providing, they carefully guided each to a sofa.

Buffy looked up from her place just below his chin, to gaze into his dark brown eyes. "Where were you?" She asked cautiously.

"I'm not sure," Angel replied, one hand still weaving itself in her hair, the other gently rubbing her upper arm. "It was demonic, I think. They made me hallucinate, imagine what would happen to me. It was mental torture, not physical. And there was always something lurking in the shadows, watching me. Enjoying it."

He paused, feeling her flinch, and pulled her even more tightly to him. "Buffy, it wasn't your fault." His hand stopped rubbing her arm and placed itself under her chin so he could see her face once more. "That night,....... that moment, was the best of my entire life. You accepted me for all that I was, all that I am, and all that I ever could be. You gave the most precious gift in the universe. Your love. You made me happy."

He paused, making sure he had her whole attention, before adding, "if I could go back to that moment, I would tell you all of that. As well as making you tie me to the bed before finding a witch and an orb of Thesulah."

Buffy returned his wry smile, though Angel saw that it would take more than just words before she could heal. Like with him, he mused silently. "So, what was Whistler doing here?" She asked him.

"You've met him then?"

She nodded, slightly calmer, more able to deal with this part of their conversation. "He raided Giles' drinks cabinet one night. Felt I needed some advice." She lost herself in his eyes again.

"He brought me to you," Angel answered her unspoken question. "I wasn't in a good place back then. Living off rats, raiding hospital waste if I got really desperate. Anyway, he pulled me out of a hellhole of an alley and said there was something I had to see. Next thing I know I'm in a blacked out and battered old car outside a high school. As I wind down the window and stare into the blinding daylight, I see...... you."

He smiled at her. "You were sitting on the steps, sucking a lolly pop. Suddenly this bloke comes up to you...... You know the rest. I watched you as he told you who you were. Showed you your prey. As you came home to accusations and fights. I saw you staring at yourself, wondering if you could still see the girl that was within you, and I saw your heart. You wore it on your sleeve for all to see. And I worried that it might be bruised or torn. And, more than anything, I wanted to keep it safe, to warm it with my own."

"That's beautiful," Buffy uttered. "Or taken literally, incredibly gross."

He laughed and pulled her back into his embrace. "There, that's the girl I fell in love with." He brushed back a strand of red-blond hair from her face. "The girl I'm still in love with. The girl who I'll love forever. No matter where she goes or what she does."

"You heard then?" Buffy looked at him, surprised.

"Whistler told me that you weren't staying on the hellmouth. That you had some big plan which got all of them up there very excited. And it takes a lot, according to him. But he wasn't big on the details."

Seeing the acceptance in his expression, Buffy told him everything that had occurred from the moment she had left Sunnydale.

"What do you think?" She asked him when she had finished.

"I think you're amazing," Angel replied, smiling at her. "And I wish the Powers had planned for me to come with you now."

"Everyone wants to help," Buffy commented, but his words had not been lost on her. "What did Whistler say?"

"That I'm to stay here, and help the Scoobies defeat the next big evil. He hasn't told me who it is." He stroked her cheek. "I want to go with you."

"I want that too," Buffy replied softly. "But I need you here as well. Protecting the Scoobies. Ensuring that I can begin this organisation without having to dash back to the hellmouth all the time." She paused, then added hurriedly, "I want us, Angel. Above all else in this world. Is it possible?"

He knew what she meant. "He said my soul was permanent. Apparently your new mission made them feel generous enough to fix what the Romany should have done in the first place."

"I'm glad," Buffy replied, "but I know, even if they hadn't been that generous, I'd still want us to work." She reached out and stroked his cheek. "You give me hope."

"Then how shall we do this?" Angel asked her, smiling. "Alternate weekends?"

"Telephone calls every night," Buffy added.

"Emails whenever, if you can show me how to use a computer."

"As long as you teach me things too," Buffy replied, her smile turning giddy with joy.

"My pleasure," he remarked, making her blush.

Verbal agreement reached, they gazed at each other, before finally surrendering to the one need they had ignored until now.

The taste of each other's kiss.

 


A few blocks away, and some time later, another couple relished in their togetherness.

"I'm giddy."

Oz smiled at his redhead giddy girl. "Oh, I like you giddy. Always have."

"It's the freedom! As Seniors, we can go off-campus now for lunch. It's no longer cutting. It's legal! Heck, it's expected! Wow, it's, uh, also a big step forward, a Senior moment, one that has to be savoured."

Oz turned his head from his pez witch to the cavalry coming up behind them.

"You can't just rush into this, you know?" Willow added.

Xander met his stoic gaze and together they grabbed her arms, and unceremoniously lifted her off campus.

"Ohh! No, I can't!" Willow protested as panic set in.

"You can," Xander replied.

"See, you are," added Oz.

"Oh, but, no! What if they changed the rule without telling? What if they're lying in wait to arrest me a-and, and throw me in detention and mar my unblemished record?"

At that moment the four reached the other side of the street, causing the boys to set her back on the ground again.

"Breathe." Xander reminded her. "Breathe."

"Okay. Hmm..." Oz took her hand, while Xander took the hand of his girl, who smiled affectionately at Willow's outburst.

"This is good!" Willow uttered as reality set in. "This is... Hey, we're Seniors! Hey, I'm walkin' here!"

Their collective gaze went from the park surroundings to a sight which they had missed all summer.

"Ahh," Xander said, trying to act normally. "Buffy and food."

Willow smiled at him comfortingly. "Maybe we shouldn't be too couple-y around Buffy," she added, as the thought occurred to her.

"Oh, you mean 'cause of how the only guy that ever liked her turned into a vicious killer and had to be put down like a dog?" Cordelia asked aloud.

"Can she cram complex issues into a nutshell, or what?" Xander remarked.

"All right, prepare to uncouple..." Oz commanded. "Uncouple."

"Buffy, banned from campus, but not from our hearts," Xander intoned. "How are you and what's for lunch?"

"Oh, I just threw a few things together," the slayer smiled at him, letting Xander know everything was okay.

"When did you become Martha Stewart?" Cordelia asked her, impressed.

"First of all, Martha Stewart knows jack about hand-cut prosciutto," Buffy commented as she handed out bottles of mineral water.

"I don't believe she slays, either," Xander added.

"Oh, I hear she can, but she doesn't like to," Oz volunteered.

Buffy smiled at them as she finished laying out the picnic. "Guys, you don't have to act all single around me. I'm totally okay as a fifth wheel. Besides, I've met someone."

"Already?" Willow queried. "Who is he? Oh, is it Scott Hope? He likes you. He wanted to ask you out last year, but you weren't ready then. But I think you're ready now, or at least in the state of pre-readiness to make conversation, or-or to do that thing with your mouth that boys like."

"Willow!" Buffy uttered, shocked.

"Oh! I didn't mean the bad thing with your mouth, I meant that little half-smile thing that you....." she trailed off to glare at her silent boyfriend. "You're supposed to stop me when I do that."

"I like when you do that," Oz said unperturbed.

"No, its not anyone at the school. I can't exactly do that what with moving to L.A. and all. No, I met him this morning, on my way here."

"So, what's his 411?" Cordelia asked.

"Well, he's older, but that's a plus if anything. And he's kind, and intelligent, and gorgeous..... the perfect gentleman. Just one thing; he's allergic to sunlight. And garlic. Crosses too, they bother him a bit."

The four stared at her, speechless until comprehension dawned. "Angel?" Willow said cautiously. "You mean, he's back?"

"Returned last night." Buffy grinned.

"How?" Her best friend inquired.

"This," Buffy showed them the ring that was back on her finger. During their talk he managed to return it to her, along with some more sweet words and kisses that she was only happy to accept and return in kind. "And the Powers That Be. Apparently Hope has gotten them all very excited."

"Talk about a welcome back present," Cordelia commented.

"The best I've ever received. And with an unexpected bonus." She paused for dramatic emphasis. "A clause free soul."

"Wow," Willow remarked.

"The PTB really go all out in the gratitude stakes," Xander observed.

"Yeah," Buffy grinned.

"So are you two gonna ride off into the L.A. sunset?" Cordelia asked.

"No. Whistler, the guy who brought him back, says he has to stay here and help you guys find out and fight the next big evil."

"And he wasn't big on names," Oz guessed.

"Not even a hint," Buffy confirmed, "which makes me concerned. Angel said that the plan was that he would come back anyway, if I had chosen to stay here, but that it would have been rougher on us. So I think that means we'll need all the help we can get on this guy. Whatever they happen to be."

 


Hours later, after darkness had settled on the dale of Sunny, a long black stretched limousine pulled up outside the takeout port of Happy Burger.

"Welcome to Happy Burger," the voice of the takeout diner intoned. "May I take your order, please?"

The window of the limo slid down. "Diet soda. Medium," a voice requested.

"That'll be eighty-nine cents at the window, sir."

The black guy inclined his head in silent, unseen thanks, and slid the rear window back up. "Sunnydale," he uttered to the other passenger. "Town's got quaint. And the people? He called me 'sir.' Don't you just miss that? I mean, admittedly, it's not a haven for the brothers, you know, strictly the Caucasian Persuasion here in the Dale. But, you know, you just gotta stand up and salute their death rate. I ran a statistical analysis, and hello darkness. It makes... D.C. look... like Mayberry, and ain't nobody saying boo about it. We could fit right in here. Have us some fun."

"We're here for one thing," his companion growled out.

"Kill the Slayer, yeah," he brushed a piece of lint off his suit. "Still, big picture..." He trailed off here, to slide down the window again, dollar in hand for his drink.

"Have a nice night, sir," the student worker returned.

"Right back at ya," tailored suit responded before putting his drink in the cup-holder.

"The Slayer," his companion growled. "I'm going to rip her spine from her body, and I'm going to eat her heart and suck the marrow from her bones."

Tailored Suit stopped sipping his soda. "Now I'm hungry." Eyes turning yellow and fangs and ridges abruptly emerging, he stretched out the open window to grab the nightshift diner worker who was powerless to resist.

The last thing Tailored Suit's 'meal' saw, was that the other passenger of the limo had cloven hands.

 


Several blocks away, in the bad part of town, the chosen one brought drinks up to a secluded booth in the Bronze.

"Don't let me interrupt," she commented in the direction of the witch and werewolf of the group, who were kissing. Setting down the drinks, she settled into the waiting arms of her significant other, who was also present.

"Thanks," Oz remarked as he took a sip of the proffered soda nectar.

"Are you two..." Willow trailed off to consult her boy. "Are they all glowy?"

"Yeah, I suspect happiness," Oz agreed.

"Just in the kissing, courting sense," Buffy remarked blushing.

"We're working up to the other stuff," Angel added.

"Taking our time," the slayer agreed.

"Secure in the knowledge that you can," Willow finished.

"Hence the glowy. Its bliss," Buffy finished before smiling at the source of hers.

"Check out Slut-O-Rama and her Disco Dave," Cordelia remarked as she and Xander joined the group from the dance floor. "What was the last thing that guy danced to, K.C. and the Sunshine Band?"

Buffy followed the cheerleader's gaze and stared at the couple. Immediately her suspicions deepened. "I don't think that guy thrives on sunshine," she observed, putting down her drink and rising to follow the couple's exit from the nightclub.

As the Scoobies caught up with their leader, they found the alley entrance seemingly deserted.

"Where'd she go?" Buffy asked.

"I bet it's nothing," Cordelia hoped aloud. "They're probably just making out."

"Hey!" The girl said out of the darkness, as if in either agreement or contradiction. A loud noise backed up the latter hypothesis, and Xander handed his best friend a stake.

"That's not what making out sounds like," Willow commented. "Unless I'm doing it wrong."

"Stop struggling," the boy was heard to say as the group neared the chained fence and empty boxes where the couple were sheltered. "This won't hurt."

Suddenly the boy vamped out and moved in to bite the girl. Who, much to his surprise, grabbed him by the neck and pushed him away, before jabbing her elbow into his fangs.

The vampire staggered back to regain balance, while the girl jumped on to a nearby crate. Performing a roundhouse kick to his face, she knocked him to the asphalt.

At which point Buffy and her friends arrived. Their gaze went from the stunned vampire to the girl, who acknowledged them calmly as she jumped down to the ground before them. "It's okay, I got it. You're, Buffy, right?"

Experiencing the same emotion as the vampire, Buffy could only search for words as the creature of the undead came up behind the dark-haired girl in front of her.

"I'm Faith," the girl introduced herself as she grabbed the vamps arm, twisted it, and shoved him into the section of chain link fence.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say there's a new Slayer in town," Oz commented.

Faith kneed the vampire in the gut from behind, ducking his backhand recovering punch. She gutted him again before striking his face. After a few more hits she threw the vampire to the ground, before taking the stake in Buffy's hand. "Can I borrow that?"

The vamp was ready for the descent and rolled into the asphalt to regain his feet quickly. Running at Faith, he threw another useless punch. Faith hooked her hand on his shoulder and threw him back to the fence, before thrusting the wooden point in his chest.

"Thanks, B," Faith remarked as she handed back the weapon. "Couldn't have done it without you."

 


"The whole summer it was, like, the worst heat wave. So it's about a hundred and eighteen degrees and I'm sleeping without a stitch on. And all of a sudden, I hear this screaming from outside. So I go tearing out, stark nude, and this church bus has broke down, and there's these three vamps feasting on half the Baptists in South Boston. So I waste the vamps, and the preacher comes up, and he's hugging me like there's no tomorrow, when all of a sudden, the cops pull up and they arrested us both."

A stunned silence met the end of the story. It's star lead reached for a muffin, completely nonplussed.

"Wow. They should film that story and show it every Christmas," Xander declared, earning a glare from his girlfriend.

"God, I could eat a horse," Faith commented, oblivious. "Isn't it crazy how slayin' just always makes you hungry and horny?"

Another brief moment of silence ensued as the Scoobies turned their shocked stares from the new slayer to the other.

Buffy blushed as she shifted in the arms of her boyfriend. "Well... Sometimes I-I crave a non-fat yoghurt afterwards."

"I get it," Cordelia remarked suddenly, making Faith turned to her, confused. "Not the horny thing. Yuck! But the two Slayer thing. There was one, and then Buffy died for, like, two minutes, so then Kendra was called, and then when she died, Faith was called."

"But why were you called here?" Willow asked her.

"Well, I wasn't," Faith admitted. "My Watcher went off to some retreat thing in England, and so I skipped out. I figured this was my chance to meet the infamous Buff and compare notes. So, B, did you really use a rocket launcher one time?"

Pleased that her rep proceeded her, Buffy leaned forward to eagerly retell the tale. "Uh, yeah, actually, it's a funny story. There was this blue demon call the Judge and he could burn all the good out of you with a single touch. Literally. So he bands together with some vamps and they take the mall hostage, so we have to go after him. So I shoot my crossbow at him, and he's all like 'no weapon forged can kill me'. And I go, 'that was then. This is now.' And I fire the rocket launcher. Cue Judge bits, extra crispy."

"Cool," Faith remarked, clearly impressed.

"Something occurring," Oz uttered, causing Faith to look at him. "Uh, now, you both kill vamps, and who could blame you, but, I'm wondering about your position on werewolves."

Willow put a supporting hand on his shoulder. "Oz is a werewolf."

"It's a long story," Buffy remarked.

Oz shrugged. "I got bit."

"Apparently not that long," Buffy corrected.

"Hey, as long as you don't go scratchin' at me or humpin' my leg, we're five-by-five, you know?" Was Faith's call on the matter.

"Fair enough," Oz returned.

"The vamps, though, they better get their asses to Defcon 1," Faith added as she pointed to Buffy. "'cause you and I are gonna have fun, you know, Watcherless and fancy-free."

"Watcherless?" Buffy queried.

Faith looked at her, puzzled. "Didn't yours go to England, too?"

 


"There's a Watchers' retreat every year in the Cotswolds," Giles commented wistfully in the Library a half hour later to them all. "It's a lovely spot. It's very serene. There's horse riding and hiking and punting and lectures and discussions. It's... it's a great honour to be invited." He paused before adding a little bitterly, "or so I'm told."

"Oh, it's boring," Faith declared. "Way too stuffy for a guy like you."

"Um, maybe I should introduce you again," Buffy commented. "Faith, this is Giles."

"I see him. If I'd have known they came that young and cute, I would've requested a transfer."

"Raise your hand if 'ew," Cordelia muttered.

Giles chuckled. "Well, um, uh, leaving aside for a moment my, uh, youth and beauty," he grabbed the nearby newspaper, still stuttering. "I'd say it was, um, fortuitous that Faith arrived when she did. Two people have disappeared from the Sunset Ridge District."

He handed Buffy the newspaper. Blond and brunette slayers scanned it for the details.

"Well, I'm good for patrolling," the former commented. "Late-ish, though. We have that whole Hope committee meeting thing over dinner, remember?"

"Ah yes," Giles recalled. "Where are we holding that?"

"My Mom's," Buffy replied, before seeing Faith's expression of inquiry. "Oh, sorry. I'm moving on to fresh pastures. Got this idea for a help the hopeless organisation in the City of Angels." She paused before adding, "You're welcome to join us for eats, you know. If you fancy sticking around still."

"Totally," Faith answered with a grin. "Got nowhere else I need to be."

 


"Mr. Trick, talk to me."

Tailored Suit, turned from his laptop to his cloven companion from the limo. "Check this out. This town, this very street, wired for fiber optics. See, we jack in a T-3, twenty-five hundred megs per, we have the whole world at our fingertips." He paused, looking for comprehension. Finding none, he continued. "What I'm saying is, we stay local; where the humans are jumpin' and the cotton is high; but we live global. I mean, you know, you get the hankering for the blood of a fifteen-year-old Philippine, and I'm on the 'Net and she's here the next day, express air."

"I want the blood of the Slayer," Cloven growled angrily.

"On that note, there's good news and bad. Rumour has it that this town already has a Slayer, which makes two." Trick shook his head in puzzlement. "I'm not real sure how that happened."

"I don't care if there are a hundred Slayers! I'll kill them all!" Cloven gestured at his scarred eye. "She's going to pay for what she did to me."

"Yeah, she is," Trick agreed.

There was a knock on the warehouse door.

"I'm running a computer check on every hotel, rooming house and youth hostel in town," Trick informed his boss, as he grabbed a thick, protective leather black glove. "Meanwhile, as soon as the sun goes down, we're out in force. Food's here, boys."

He yanked on the glove and opened the door.

"You guys order a piz..." It was all the delivery boy got out. Not the best choice of last words, but then none of the occupants of the warehouse cared for his voice.

Only his blood.

>>>>>>>>

"What you must realise, Buffy, is that you and Faith have very different temperaments."

It was the next day. The night before, the Hope committee had begun the search for a base of operations, while Buffy and Faith had gone patrolling. Not until the former had seen her sister in arms begin to the punch the living daylights out of one of the vampires they had to eventually stake, did she have doubts about the new chosen one.

"Yeah, and mine's the sane one," Buffy now declared to her watcher the next morning in the library, having used Angel's sewer access to gain entrance to their unofficial headquarters in the Library. "The girl's not playing with a full deck," she added. "I think she ran into some trauma before coming here. The girl needs help."

"I'll see if I can reach her Watcher at the retreat," Giles uttered before glancing at his watch and doing the math on the time zones. "They're eight hours ahead. I guess they're probably sitting down to a nightcap." His tone became wistful again. "I wonder if they still kayak. I used to love a good kayak. You see, they don't even consider..." meeting her look, he stopped. "Sorry. I digress. The vampires that attacked you, can you furnish me with some details that might help me trace their lineage? I mean, ancient or modern dress. Amulets, cultist tattoos?"

"Uh, no tats," Buffy added thoughtfully. "Crappy dressers. And, uh... Oh, the one that nearly bit me mentioned something about kissing toast. He lived for kissing toast."

"You mean Kakistos?" Giles sought to confirm.

"Maybe it was taquitos," Buffy uttered in rethought. "Maybe he lived for taquitos." Catching his grave look, she added, "what?"

"Kakistos," Giles corrected again grimly, before grabbing a volume from behind the counter. "It's Greek. It means the worst of the worst. It's also the name of a vampire so old that his hands and feet are cloven."

"Now, this guy shows up two days ago, right?" Buffy queried rhetorically. "Right around the same time my bestest new little sister makes the scene."

Giles looked up from the book. "You think he and Faith are connected?"

"Affirmative." Buffy slid down from her seat on the counter to the ground. "You get England on the phone. I'm gonna talk to Faith, see if Kakistos rings a bell. Or an alarm."

"Wait," Giles remarked, halting her walk to the door. "It'll only take a few minutes." He went into the back office and picked up the phone handset.

"What did her Watcher say?" Buffy asked him five minutes later.

"Her Watcher's dead," Giles informed her.

"Guess I have my first case," Buffy uttered.

>>>>>>>>

"The room's eighteen dollars a day. That's every day."

"Yeah, I know. I'll get it to you by tomorrow, I swear." Faith vowed.

The motel manager shrugged. "It's not like I own the place."

Faith turned on her charm. "But I bet you will someday."

"Not if I listen to broads like you." He turned as Buffy entered the doorway of the rundown room. "Roommates are extra."

"I'm just visiting," Buffy declared.

Faith watched the manager leave before turning to her 'sister.' "So, what brings you to the poor side of town?"

"Cloven Guy. Goes by the name Kakistos," Buffy answered.

The dark-haired slayer lost a little of her composure. "What do you know about Kakistos?"

"That he's here," Buffy paused to get her suspicions confirmed. She dropped her accusing tone as Faith's expression became one of panic. "We're not happy to see old friends, are we? What'd he do to you?"

Faith grabbed her bag and began packing, ready to head for the hills. "It's what I did to him, all right?!"

"And what was that? Faith, you came here for a reason. I can help."

"You can mind your own business. I'm the one that can handle this."

"Yeah. You're a real bad-ass when it comes to packing. What was that you said last night? That you know the vamps are gonna die and your gonna live?"

"Hey, you and I both know that some times it's not that simple. You don't know me. You don't know what I've been through. I'm not one of your Hopeless. I'll take care of this, all right?"

"Like you took care of your Watcher?" Buffy queried, making Faith still her movements. "He killed her, didn't he?"

"They don't have a word for what he did to her," Faith uttered in hollow anger.

In the brief silence which followed, a knock sounded on the door. Faith peered through the small peep hole to see the motel manager had returned. "Oh, what now?"

"Faith, you run, he runs after you," Buffy appealed.

"That's where the head start comes in handy." Faith opened the door, only to back away, as the manager was thrust into the room by another.

"Faith," Kakistos remarked, before grabbing her by the neck..

 


"No!"

Buffy rushed up between the combatants and shoved Faith from the vampire, before slamming the door on his arm. The resulting pain caused Kakistos to retreat, whereupon she locked the door and put the safety chain through its holder.

"I just bought us a little," Buffy uttered, as the vamp punched through the wooden barrier, trying to reach for her. "..time!"

Faith meanwhile was in panic mode. "NO! NOOOOO!"

"Scream later! Escape now!" Buffy commanded, grabbing her hand and running for the bathroom.

While Kakistos broke the door down, the slayers jumped out of the window and into the alley behind.

"Let's go!" Buffy declared as she took Faith's hand began to run.

Unseen, Trick and his minions followed behind.

 



In a seemingly deserted warehouse, the slayers stopped for a breather.

"We're okay.," Buffy declared, before turning to her companion. "What happened? Faith, what happened?"

"I..... I was there when he killed my Watcher, and I saw what he did to her... what he was gonna do to me. I tried to stop him, but I... I couldn't. And I ran."

"Faith, first rule of slaying: don't die. You did the right thing. Okay? You didn't die. Now you do the math. One of him, two of us."

Faith looked past her and shook her head. "No."

"Yes," Buffy countered.

"No," Faith uttered again, making her look around, to find the bodies of humans littered around the warehouse, teeth marks apparent on their necks. "This is his place."

"He drove us here," Buffy uttered in understanding.

A growl made them turn round to see that the nest had caught up with them. Summing what was left of their slayer strength, they ran through the warehouse, searching for weapons on their way.

Buffy grabbed a bucket and kicked it into the path of an oncoming vamp. Two others came from the opposite direction, trying to head their prey off. She spun a kick on one of them and a side one to the other, before seeking the height advantage of the table.

Faith just stood still and watched as Kakistos advanced towards her.

Buffy grabbed a crowbar. "Faith! Don't die!" She threw the weapon to her.

Faith reached to catch it, but before she could use it, Kakistos punched her hard, knocking her into a set of large wooden beams which were leaning against the wall. As she hit the floor, Trick walked in casually, observing the action.

Buffy used her hand as a knife on her attacker's neck before throwing him off the table.

As Faith scrambled to get off the floor, Kakistos grabbed her by the shirt and helped her into the air.

"NO!" Faith screamed out before receiving a punch to the face.

Her prey staked, Buffy waited for Kakistos to drop Faith back to the floor before leaping upon his back.

Recalculating the odds, Trick turned to the other witness minions. "If we don't do something, the Master could get killed." Shrugging he headed out. "Well, our prayers are with him. There's a reason these vengeance crusades are out of style. It's the modern vampire who sees the big picture."

Buffy managed to thrust her stake into Kakistos chest, but to no effect. He threw her off his back with a growl of pleasure. "I guess you need a bigger stake, Slayer!"

Faith regained her equilibrium and glanced around for just such a weapon. Seeing one of the fallen beams had a broken, jagged end, she lifted it over her should and shoved the beam through Kakistos chest.

The vampire only had time to glance at his killer before transforming into a pile of ash on the floor.

Buffy scrambled for enough breath to speak. "You hungry?"

"Starved," Faith confirmed.

Arm in arm, they headed out of the building.

>>>>>>>>

"The council has approved our request," Giles declared to both of them the next evening. "Faith is to stay here indefinitely, while you set up Hope in Los Angeles. I'm to look after you both until a new Watcher is assigned."

"Good," Buffy commented. "Just hope he compares, on some level to you. There's no way he'd be the equal, 'cause you're the best."

"Thank you," Giles replied, touched.

Buffy jumped off the table and readjusted the bag on her shoulder. She stared solemnly at the Scoobies. "Well guys, I guess this is it."

Willow rose from her seat and moved to hug her best friend. "Call us when you get there."

"I will," Buffy promised. "Just need to take care of the Thesulac that's haunting the place first."

"Angel sure gets around," Xander commented. He caught the slayer's look and held up his hands in surrender. "Oh, no flames, I'm completely in dead boy's club now."

"As completely he'll ever be," Cordelia added as she hit his arm for Buffy's sake.

"Yeah, well apparently there's at least sixty-eight rooms, and aside from the paranoia demon, it just needs fixing up." Buffy smiled. "It sounds perfect."

"And you got any crew there yet?"

"Just Anne, at the moment. But Giles says he knows a friend who knows a lawyer who's willing to help me with the legal stuff. He set up a practice there a year ago which is well connected." Buffy held out her arms for a group hug. "I'm gonna miss you guys," she added as they obliged.

"Well, come back as often as you can," Faith asked her. "And not just for additional help on the slayage front."

"I promise," Buffy replied before taking Angel's hand. He had agreed to see her safely there, as well as defeating the demon in her new headquarters.

With a final wave to them all, they headed out of the High School building and climbed into his car, before driving off into the night.

The End.
To Be Continued In.
That Perches on The Soul.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text


Struggle of the Soul.

Hope is the struggle of the soul,
breaking lose from what is perishable,
and attesting her eternity.

Herman Melville (1819–91),
Author of Moby Dick (1851).

"Here we are. Welcome to Sunnydale High. Centre of all evil, gateway to hell. Apocalyptic demons our speciality."

"Not exactly giving us hope here, boss."

Buffy grinned at her colleague's comment as she took her keys out of the ignition. "Don't worry, Charles. We've defeated them every time." She opened the driver's door. "So far, anyway," she added as she stepped outside.

"You see? 'So far.' That's what worries me," Gunn replied as he climbed out the other side of the car. The sound of his door closing was followed by those of the rear doors as the remaining passengers exited the vehicle.

"Where's all this pessimism coming from, Gunn?" Lindsey asked as they pushed open the double entrance doors of the High school. "The fact that Hope is shut down while we're here?"

"Its not helping," Gunn admitted. "What if someone needs help while we're away from the city?"

"Charles, if the Mayor succeeds in his plans, Hope and the rest of Los Angeles won't be in any condition to defend itself. Let alone the rest of the world," the slayer answered as they turned a corner, passing milling students, each clutching yearbooks and or maroon graduation gowns.

The day had finally arrived. After months spent in the city of angels, researching and helping the hopeless, the slayer and her group were now called back to the hellmouth to vanquish the big evil Whistler had spoken of. Never had all of them been back before. Gunn on the rare occasion, Lindsey more, although still sporadically, and Anne never. Only Buffy had returned to the hellmouth frequently, and that was either for weeks with her soulmate or when her friends needed her to help fight an imminent apocalypse. The foundation in Los Angeles kept them busy enough not to make the visits any more frequent, as the reputation of their investigative sanctuary grew with each successful case.

Now Buffy directed her gaze to the windows in the library doors, as she and her group turned the final corner before their destination. The sight which met her eyes caused her to hold out her arms and stop her friends and colleagues in their tracks. Silently with her fingers she directed them to reverse out of sight, back round the corner.

A moment later the doors of the Library opened, and from their position the four managed to hear the last words of their nemesis as he walked out of the room.

"I smell fear. That's smart. Some of your deaths will be quick, if that's worth anything. Well, see you all at graduation." There was a pause, followed by a swishing sound, the type associated with metal encountering air. "You don't want to miss my commencement address. It's going to be one heck of a speech."

Buffy pulled her team back as Richard Wilkins the third strode out of the corridor and around the corner, heading out of the high school.

Only when he had disappeared from their view did she allow them to advance and enter the unofficial headquarters of the Slayerettes.

"Well, he who smelt it, dealt it," she uttered as she walked into the room. "Cavalry's here, people."

"Buffy," Giles began, before closing the gap between them to draw her into a hug. "I thought you guys weren't due until later." He kissed her hair then drew back to shake the hands of those behind her.

"Case finished earlier than we expected," Buffy replied before advancing further into the room. Instantly she was swooped upon by her best friends. Willow, Cordelia, Oz and Xander caught the slayer in a eager group embrace. "Hey guys, not denying I'm glad to see you and all, but needing to breathe here."

"Sorry," Willow answered for all as they drew back. Buffy smiled at them before darting aside to greet the next in line. "Hey, Faith."

"Hey, B," Faith replied, before surprising all witnesses and hugging her sister in arms. During the months of her reign as guardian of the hellmouth, the two slayers had become close friends, as the brunette grew into her heritage, taking charge of patrols in the dale. Self-sufficient, and street smart, Faith had found herself softening under the blonde's and Giles careful tutelage, coming to depend on the circle of friends the former had left behind for the big city, until she counted them as friends for herself.

Now she withdrew from the hug to fetch the newspaper she had rapidly hidden upon the Mayor's entrance and handed it to her companion. "If you're not too tired, there's something here I think we need to take a closer look at."

"'Brutally stabbed,'" Buffy read aloud. "'Mr. Worth, visiting professor of Geology.' There's nothing in here that bellows motive."

"It's his," Faith assured her.

"You're certain?"

Faith nodded. "Definitely one of his pieces. I recognise the brush work." She handed the paper to Giles. "I think it's homework."

"The Mayor wanted the good professor out of the way," Giles remarked skimming the article before returning it to her.

"Which leads to the question, how come?" Buffy addressed the room. "I'm gonna destroy the entire city, but I take the time to kill harmless Lester first?"

"Tying up loose ends?" Lindsey suggested. "Lester had something or knew something?"

"Then I say we wanna know too," Buffy decided. "The Mayor's trying to hide. I say we go seek."

"Ah," the newcomer to the slayerettes commented. "By attempting to keep a valuable clue from us, the Mayor may have inadvertently led us right to it."

"What page are you on, Wes? 'Cause we already got there," Faith returned.

"Yes, well," Wesley Wyndam-Pryce paused, searching to establish what authority he could, in this room full of leaders. "You will go tonight. Both of you. Look over his apartment. Anything of note, report back here."

"I just love it when you take charge, you man, you," Buffy mocked, but gently, not wanting to inhibit the man whom someday, would join her in Los Angeles as her watcher. Possibly after graduation. Providing they survived, that is. Seeking to push that sudden pessimism from her mind, she turned back to the newspaper. "Now, this is interesting. They've already arrested someone for the murder."

"Who?" Giles asked her.

"A Mr Finch," Buffy read off the morning issue of the broadsheet.

"As in the Deputy Mayor?" Giles paused, thinking. "A bit stupid, wouldn't you say?"

"Very," Buffy agreed before turning to her group. "Lindsey, think you can go and talk to him? In your official capacity?"

"Sure," Lindsey replied, taking the proffered car keys. "I'd have to persuade him to want to talk to us though, otherwise I'd be breaking attorney client privilege."

"I think he will," Faith said. "From what I've seen of him, murdering someone in cold blood isn't in him. I think the Mayor fit up for the crime in order to get him out of the way."

Lindsey nodded before turning round and heading out of the library. Buffy smiled at the gang. "I guess I'm walking then."

"See you at dusk," Faith remarked with a smile, which her sister in arms returned into a grin as she headed out.

>>>>>>>>

She found the object of her next reunion quietly reposed in the living room of the Mansion at 1902 Crawford Street, intently studying the leather-bound volume clasped in his hands. Inwardly blushing at the memory of what those hands had done to her the last time they saw each other, she entered the house.

He looked up at her entrance and instantly the book was forgotten, in favour of leaping gracefully from his seat to embrace his soulmate.

"I wasn't expecting you until later," he murmured while his hands caressed her through her clothes, driving her wild.

"Case finished early," Buffy managed to replied before her lips were swept up by his into a blinding kiss.

Need for breath was the only urge for which they withdrew, and even then he persisted in holding her still, close enough for the air she breathed to blow upon their skin. A silent moment of gazing passed between them, as they drank the sight of each other in, scouting for any alteration since the last time they set eyes on each other.

"Okay, I'm basked," Buffy announced, then taking his hand, she led him back to the sofa, where they sat down. "Anything go down since our last conversation?"

"There was a kidnap situation," Angel informed her, causing her to gasp. "Don't worried, it's sorted now. We thought we could get ahead of the Mayor. There was a package coming in, a box he needed, along with the books of Ascension. We tried to get both, me and Faith bypassing the magical security system, but one of his minions kidnapped Willow, and we had to exchange the box to get her back."

"She didn't mention a word of this to me," Buffy mused. "I'll have to rail for a bit at her tomorrow. Are you sure she's okay?"

"Yeah, she managed to stake a vamp with a floating pencil, and grab what pages she could from the Ascension books."

"Anything else happen?"

"Nope," he assured her.

"No evil illusions of past demonic crimes?"

"Nothing," Angel confirmed, gazing at her, his dark eyes drinking in every part of her. Buffy felt the heat of the gaze, and realised all conversation would soon be over.

"So," she drawled, "any plans for the rest of the day?"

"Just one springs to mind," he returned, before drawing her into another embrace.

 


"Ow."

Buffy looked up from her explorations, and grinned at the new arrival. "Stealthy," she uttered in greeting.

"Not my best entrance," Faith agreed as she shut the door, barring any prying eyes from witnessing their unofficial examination of the crime scene at the campus. "I think they were mopping in the halls." She gestured at the paper her sister in arms was studying. "What's that?"

"A report. Excavation of some old lava bed. Guy was a volcano-ologist or something."

"Anything in there that connects him to the Mayor?"

"I looked through it, but the only thing I understood were the commas. Gonna bring it to Giles, see if he can do better." She tossed in the box and turned back to the filing cabinet.

Faith moved to another part of the room and started examining. "So, what did you get up to after seeing us?"

"I never kiss and tell," Buffy returned with a grin. "All I will say is that long absence followed by reunion definitely makes the heart pump faster."

"And hear was me thinking you were the quiet one," Faith returned. "Or have we swapped genes, 'cause I haven't had the pleasure since Boston."

"That would be weird," Buffy mused as she tossed another paper in the 'takeout' box. "Though can't say I'm surprised. Sunnyhell is lacking in the good guy department."

"I'd take any guy at the moment," Faith confessed. "What about Lindsey, is he single?"

"Far as I know," Buffy replied. "Gunn ain't bad to look at either."

"Yeah, but I think he has eyes for Anne," Faith informed her.

"You do?"

"Haven't you seen them together?" Faith looked at 'sister' in surprise. "He's crazy about her. A girl can tell."

"I'll take your word for it," Buffy replied as she moved on to another set of drawers. "How come Willow got kidnapped, by the way?"

"You heard about that?"

"Me and Angel did have a brief conversation," Buffy confirmed, blushing.

"Well, she volunteered to come with Angel and me and defuse any magical security the Mayor might have. Just as well she did, because there was one over the box. Anyway, she did that and got out of there, but I think one of the minions must have spotted her, because we assumed she returned to the Library. Until we got back and realised she hadn't." She paused to close a cabinet. "We had to fight our way out of there anyway. Forgot about 21st century technology; he had a real alarm installed as well."

"So what did these creatures look like that were in the box?"

"Cross between scarabs and spiders," Faith replied. "Vicious little buggers. One pronounced on the Mayor's face, ripped it apart. Only thanks to his invincibility did he survived unscathed."

"Pity. Does he still have that, by the way?"

"Yeah, unfortunately. Giles threw a sword in him just before you arrived. He dealt with that easily enough. Gave us a lecture on adult behaviour as well."

"Hypocrite," Buffy remarked with feeling. "Way to go Giles." she closed the drawer. "Okay, I think we're about done here."

"I agree." Faith replaced the covers on the bed and opened the door. "Coast's clear," she announced after a moment, then stood back to let Buffy pass her with the box of hopefully useful information in her arms. She followed her out into the car park.

 


"Fascinating."

Giles looked up from the pile of papers he was studying to glance at his fellow watcher. "What?" He asked him.

"It seems our Mr. Worth headed an expedition in Hawaii, digging in old lava beds near a dormant volcano."

"I'm not fascinated yet.," Buffy commented.

"He found something underneath," Wesley continued. "A carcass, buried by an eruption."

"A carcass?" Giles echoed.

"A very large one. Mr. Worth posits that it might be some heretofore undiscovered dinosaur."

"A demon?" Angel sought to confirm.

"Yes, that would be something that the Mayor would want to keep a secret," Giles agreed. "If it's the same kind of demon he's turning into and it's dead, it means that he's only impervious to harm until the Ascension. In his demon form, he can be killed."

"Great. So all we need is a million tons of burning lava," Cordelia commented sarcastically. "We're saved."

The door swept open, and the slayerettes glanced up to see their attorney enter the Library, taking care to shut the doors before advancing any further into the room.

"Anything from Finch?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing much," Lindsey replied as he sat down. "He swears that Trick killed Worth, and confirmed that the Mayor plans to change after his commencement address. But aside from being terrified, he wasn't very helpful. He did have proof, and planned to present it to us some months ago, but the Mayor discovered his plans, destroyed the evidence, and held him hostage until he could safely get rid."

"So you're saying, basically, that we're screwed?" Faith sought to confirm.

Lindsey shrugged in agreement. "Pretty much."

"Hang on guys," Buffy remarked suddenly. "I think I have an idea."

 


"So, am I crazy?" She asked when she had finished.

"Well, 'crazy' is such a strong word," Willow replied evasively.

"Let's not rule it out though," Giles commented.

"You don't think it can be done?" Buffy queried.

Her watcher instantly shook his head. "I didn't say that. I might, but not yet."

"I personally don't think it's impossible to come up with a crazier plan," Cordelia remarked frankly.

"We attack the Mayor with humus," Oz suggested.

"I stand corrected," Cordelia muttered.

The guitarist was nonplussed. "Just trying to keep things in perspective."

"Thank you," Cordelia acknowledged before continuing. "My point however is, crazy or not, it's pretty much the only plan. Besides, it's Buffy's, and she's slay gal, you know, Ms little Likes-to-fight. So....."

Her boyfriend interrupted her. "I think there was a 'yea' vote buried in there somewhere."

"Well, I'm going to need every single one of you on board. Especially you Xander. You're sort of the key figure here."

"Key? Me? Okay, pride, humility, and here is the mind numbing fear." He sighed dramatically. "What do I have to do?"

"Do you remember any of your military training from when you became soldier guy?" Xander thought for a moment. "Uh, rocket launcher?"

His best friend shook her head. "Rocket launcher not going to get it done. I mean, it took a volcano to kill one of these things last time."

Giles rose from his seat to pace. "Um, Buffy, all of this is rather dependant on your being able to control the Mayor."

"Why don't you play on his human weakness?" Faith suggested.

"His human weakness." Giles echoed. "Which is?"

"Well, he's not crazy about germs," Angel volunteered.

"Of course, that's it. We attack him with germs!" Cordelia cried sarcastically. "We'll corner him and then you can sneeze on him."

"I'm starting to lean towards the humus offensive," Xander murmured.

"He'll never see it coming," Oz assured them.

"I was thinking more on the need to survive, the desire for revenge, or endless power instincts," Faith informed them. "You know, the feelings which made him want to become a demon in the first place."

"Good," Buffy agreed. "Now that I can use."

"So there is something I can do besides scream like a woman?" Wesley asked.

"There is plenty. There is chores for everyone. Okay, this is how it's going to lay out. The transformation should begin after his speech. He's likely to have the exits covered, but I don't know how he's gonna manage that, what with vampires being out of the picture."

Wesley shook his head. "Won't be a problem," he informed them, holding up a open ancient leather-bound volume. "'Darkness will follow and day becomes night.'"

"An eclipse," Buffy murmured.

"Standard procedure for an ascension," Wesley added.

"That puts me back into the game," Angel said as he resumed his stance by Buffy around the main reading table over the hellmouth.

"I think he'll want the vamps to kill rather than feed," Faith decided as she looked at the plans spread out beneath them on the table. "We really need an army," she added thoughtfully. "Eleven is not going to cut it."

"I have an idea about that," Buffy replied. She turned to Cordelia. "I'm gonna need you to help with that."

"Me?" Cordelia queried. "Why me?"

"I need your connections here. And the rest of you, actually. If we do this right, visitors and students won't just be mayor fodder, but our surprise army. Now, any suggestions on volcano detail?"

"I think we can work it out," Oz replied.

"Fun with chemistry," his girlfriend agreed.

"I should be able to get the materials," Xander informed them.

"Who's going to stoke it up?" Gunn asked.

Buffy turned to Giles. "You feel up to it?"

"I suppose it should be I. It's strangely fitting in a grotesque fashion."

"Okay guys, start reaching out. Giles; weapons, weapons, weapons. Remember; fast and brutal. Whoever wins this battle, it's going to be a whole new world come nightfall, and I want us to be ready for it."

 


Several hours later, and everything was in hand. Assembled below the scholastic pulpit, the students, parents, and teaching staff watched Principal Snyder open proceedings on what he expected to be an ordinary graduation ceremony.

And it would be. Until the sun 'went down,' anyway.

"Congratulations to the class of 1999," Snyder started. "You all proved more or less adequate," he added grudgingly. "This is a time of celebration, so: sit still and be quiet."

His watchful eyes turned to a random student. "Spit out that gum. Please welcome our distinguished guest speaker: Richard Wilkins the 3rd."

He led everyone in applause, his eyes still on the unrepentant student. "I saw that gesture. You see me after graduation."

The Mayor shook Principal Snyder's hands, acknowledged the applause, then stepped to the podium. "Well. What a day this is! Special day. Today is our centennial; the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Sunnydale, and I know what that means to all you kids: not a darn thing.

"Because today something much more important happens: today you all graduate from high school. Today all the pain, all the work, all the excitement, is finally over. And what's a hundred years of history compared to that? You know what kids?"

"Oh my God," Buffy murmured to Faith from their stance at the back, out of the way from prying Principal eyes. "He's going to do the entire speech."

"Man, just ascend already," Faith commanded softly.

"Evolve!" Buffy added in the same tone.

"For all of you, it may be that there is a place in Sunnydale's history, whether you like it or not. It's been a long road getting here. For you, for Sunnydale. There has been achievement, joy, good times, and there has been grief. There's been loss. Some people who should be here today aren't.

"But we are. Journey's end. And what is a journey? Is it just distance travelled? Time spent? No. It's what happens on the way, the things that happen to you. At the end of the journey you're not the same. Today is about change. Graduation doesn't just mean your circumstances change, it means you do.

"You ascend to a higher level. Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing. And so as we look back on the events that brought us to this day......" he groaned as a wave of pain hit him.

"Come on," Buffy murmured.

Above her the moon began to conquer the sun.

"We must all.............." Wilkins trailed off in a sudden, agonising scream. "It has begun," he uttered when he had recovered. "My destiny. It's a little sooner than I expected. I had this whole section on civic pride.... But I guess we'll just skip to the big finish!"

He laid down his cue cards, stepped back and began to evolve into the demon he had planned and waited for one hundred years ago. Below him the slayerettes tossed aside their graduation caps, while the adults of the group stepped stealthily backwards towards the high school building.

Demonic Mayor noticed this 'fear' and roared with confidence of his future victory. He had completely forgotten that pride cometh before a fall.

Buffy advanced forward. "Now!" She cried. Around her the students en masse rose from their seats, and took off their maroon gowns, revealing combat gear and weaponry festooned beneath that cover of clothing.

"Flame units," Faith commanded, and a group armed with fire lit crossbows advanced forward into range.

Buffy nodded to Xander.

"First wave! Fire!" He ordered.

The Demonic form which was once the Mayor was unharmed by the first offensive. He roared, turning the flames back on those who had fired. The students backed away before they could inflict mortal damage.

Horrified by the scene he was witnessing, Snyder advanced forward from the place he had been standing when the Mayor evolved. "This is simply unacceptable!" he cried.

Those on the battlefield ignored him, continuing with their offensive.

"Arm bow men," Angel ordered as the vampires came into view. A row of students with ordinary longbows and crossbolts aimed in the required direction. "Fire!"

"Fall back!" Buffy commanded those students fresh out of flame crossbows.

"Fire!" Faith directed the new wave.

"This is not orderly. This is not discipline!" Snyder cried out, confidently addressing what was the Mayor. "You're on my campus buddy! And when I say I want quiet, I want...."

He was cut off as with one swoop the Mayor opened his mouth and swallowed the principal whole.

Buffy watched the death in horror. "Fall Back! Get back!" She turned to her best friend. "Go!"

"Good luck!" Willow offered before exiting.

"Xander take 'em down," Faith directed.

"Everyone: hand to hand!" Xander commanded as he retrieved a stake from his pocket. "Lets go! Move! Move!"

"Right flank close in," Angel ordered. "Close!"

Buffy advanced towards the Mayor. "Hey, you, dino guy. You think you've faced the only slayer all this time? Well, you were wrong. I'm the slayer; first. The one whose foiled a lot of your earlier campaign promises, I'd imagine. Care to prove me wrong, Dick?"

She waited for him to stretch his neck forward. "Come and get me!" she added, then turned round and ran. Behind her, Faith directed the battling students to move, clearing a path so the chase was not impeded.

Buffy led the demon through the school corridors, relying on all her strength as she led her prey to its final destination. Just before the doors she dodged aside, leaving him to burst through, only to be confronted with the largest collection of dynamite one could carry unobserved out of an army base in a morning.

"Well, gosh," he was heard to say before everything went to an explosive hell.

 


"Are you all right?"

It was a few hours later. The eclipse had faded away into an afternoon light of smoke from the still inferno remains of the high school. Paramedics, ambulances, fire fighters, and fire engines cluttered the car park and what had been the graduation area, tending to the injured or, tragically, fatalities at the scene. No one had made it through unscathed. Even the Scooby gang supported bruises and cuts.

Now the blond slayer turned to her watcher, shifting slightly in her soulmate's arms, which were clasped around her waist. "I'm tired," she replied.

Giles smiled as he finished cleaning his smoke stained glasses. "I should imagine so. It's been quite a couple of days."

"I haven't processed everything yet. My brain isn't really functioning on the higher levels. It's pretty much: fire bad; tree pretty."

"Understandable. Well, when it's working again congratulate it on a good campaign. You did very well."

"Thank you. I will."

"There is a certain dramatic irony that's attached to all this. A Synchronicity that borders on predestination, one might say."

"Fire bad; tree pretty," Buffy insisted.

"Yes, sorry. I'm going to see to Wesley, see if he's is still whimpering. After he's cleaned up, I think he might be ready for the big city."

The couple exchanged smiles as they watched their friend walk away in the direction of the paramedics. Buffy looked up at her soulmate. "How are you?" She asked him.

"Exhausted," Angel replied. "Relieved that it's all over. Hopeful."

"Hopeful?" Buffy echoed.

"Remember what Whistler said to me? After this big evil I would free to do whatever I please. I'm hoping that means I can come with you to L.A."

"Well, you don't need to ask, I'm all for it." Buffy smiled, and exchanged a small kiss as he bent his head so his lips could meet hers.

A moment later he regretfully broke away. "It's no good, I'm too tired even for that."

Buffy looked at him in mild surprise. "I thought vampires had an endless resource of demonic strength to draw on."

"So did I. But then I have been at this for over two hundred years. Could be getting old." He paused before adding, "it's weird though; during the battle, the strangest thing happened. I was fighting this vamp, when suddenly a bout of pain lanced itself right through me. Felt like I was having a heart attack. Then everything was fine again."

"You're lucky I'm exhausted, otherwise, I'd be really panicky right now," Buffy informed him as she digested this new information.

"Hey, I feel fine now. Just bone tired."

"Odd," Buffy murmured.

"Hey, you two," Faith called out. "You gonna get over here any time soon?"

"On our way," Angel replied and reluctantly they separated to walk hand in hand to where the slayerettes; Los Angeles and Sunnydale, had assembled to recover, around one of the few undamaged benches on the campus.

"Well, that's the most fun you can have without having any fun," Cordelia commented as the couple came to rest beside them, assuming their previous pose.

"How about the part where we kicked some demon ass," Willow pointed out. "I didn't hate that."

"Hear, hear!" Xander commented.

"You guys want to take off?" Faith suggested from her place by Lindsey to the two contrasting soulmates. "I think we've done pretty much all we can."

Cordelia nodded. "I'm for it, " she agreed. "Could sleep for a week."

Buffy yawned. "Me too," she uttered.

"Are you okay?" Willow asked her best friend.

"Yeah I'm okay." She yawned. "I could use a little sleep though."

"Yeah," the wiccan agreed.

Buffy rested her head against Angel's chest. "If someone could just wake me when it's time to go back to L.A, that'd be great."

"Guys, take a moment to deal with this: - we survived," Oz commented.

"It was a hell of a battle!" Angel agreed feelingly.

"Not the battle. High school." The guitarist paused before uttering his next words. "We're taking a moment."

The nine observed a moment of silence.

For a fraction of a second.

"And we're done," Oz murmured as they began rise and walk away.

Buffy remained behind with her soulmate, observing the quiet undisturbed scene before them, unblemished by smoke or fire, or paramedics or emergency vehicles.

"Buffy," Lindsey remarked as he and Faith lingered for a moment.

"Yeah?" she answered absently.

"Think we could delay our departure a few days? You know, to recuperate and all."

Buffy opened her sleepy eyes to observe the couple before her. "Sure, we could all use the break. You two go and recuperate." She grinned knowingly.

"Thanks B," Faith acknowledged, returning the motion. "See ya sometime."

"Mhmm," Buffy replied. Angel pressed a kiss to her hair as they were left to themselves. Silently they revelled in the little heaven of peace now around them. Compared to the rest of the campus, their surroundings were completely unharmed by the explosion, save for the smoking mist that served to hide what was left of the summer daylight hours.

Aside from a slight thumping noise, nothing disturbed them.

Buffy sighed, and her soulmate echoed the motion, thinking nothing of the echoing exhale but the fact that they had survived. Then suddenly he was deprived of his beloved as she rapidly withdrew from his arms to face him.

"Honey, what's wrong?" He asked her.

She said nothing, just shakily put a hand to his chest. It stayed there for a minute, then she put her ear to the spot for another three. Only then did she draw back to present a deliriously blissful face to him.

"Angel, I can hear your heartbeat," she uttered.

It was only six words, but to them, they had conveyed the most important news.

Stunned, her boyfriend could only stare at her. Smilingly, she took his hand and put it to her neck, making it touch the silver cross, the same one he had given her three years ago.

As his fingers caressed the now non-harming metal, his shock evolved into gratified acceptance, and then finally to joy, before sweeping his love in a wondrous kiss.

The End.