Project Paranormal
:: Cover page :: Intro story :: Season 1 :: 2 :: 3 :: 4 :: Lost Files :: Mailing List :: Links :: Contact



PROJECT PARANORMAL STORY TEMPLATE

Mustelidae

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 3

Part 18

 

**

 

Summary:  This is a real place, and a real mystery.  But is the answer quite as simple as it seems?

 

** 

 

Mustelidae

 

 

“Does that feel good?”

 

“Mm…”

 

Really good?”

 

“I… I guess.”

 

“Stop being Cryptic Guy.  Just like that?  That really feels nice?”

 

“Very nice.”

 

Buffy shuffled around to make herself more comfortable.

 

“So now you’re going to explain why it feels good?”

 

Angel sighed.

 

“There aren’t always the right words, you know.”

 

“There’d better be the right words for this.  You said you’d open up a bit more.  Talk a bit more about, you know, what you feel, as a... a va… Well, you know.”

 

She’d almost said the ‘v’ word and although they were talking about Angel’s ‘v’ feelings, she didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.  Especially not when he seemed so very comfortable.  She relapsed into silence, waiting for the space to be filled.  Angel lay on his back, his eyes closed, his head pillowed on his arms.  He really didn’t want to talk about things like this.  But he’d promised. 

 

“It feels… It gives me a nice glow inside.  And it makes my skin tingle.  I feel… strong and… and good…  Buffy, this is so hard!”

 

The last bit came out in what he felt was rather a whine, but it was too late to take it back.  She took hold of his hand and squeezed.

 

“Like sunbathing,” she encouraged, trying to get him to say more.

 

“No.”

 

He turned his face to the brightness of the full moon, and felt it wash over him, a cool tide of radiance.  It might only be second-hand sunlight, but whatever use it had had before reaching him had made a hell of a difference to it.

 

“No, not like sunbathing, not even like sunbathing for a human.  That’s hot and dangerous, and takes you back to your beginnings under the African sun.”  He squeezed her hand in apology.  He knew about the first slayer.  He wasn’t the only one who’d promised to talk a bit more.  “It reaffirms you as living humans, and feeds all the different hopes that humans have in the light of day.  As well as producing vitamin D, of course…”

 

A tiny gurgle of laughter escaped her at that but otherwise she stayed silent, as he tipped his face to the silver moon again, and then turned onto his side, to look at her.

 

“This is like bathing in a mountain stream, perhaps, cold and refreshing.  And… and it feeds the darkness in me, somehow.  It makes me want to hunt, to stalk, and to chase, the way the sun makes you want to play, and to picnic, and to shop…”

 

She smacked him in the ribs at that, and then she followed his lead and turned towards him, settling into the sheep-nibbled grass again, and putting her hand up to his cheek.

 

“Hunt… stalk… chase… Mmm…”

 

He rubbed his face against her hand, like a cat, and then he turned away, suddenly, and froze.

 

“Angel!”

 

“Shh!”  He paused again, and then jumped to his feet.  “Something’s happening - at the allotments, I think.”

 

She stood up more slowly.  Damned vampire hearing…  And then he was off and running, heading towards the Long River Road allotments.  Allotments, she thought.  Such strange and wonderful things you could find, in England.  She jogged off after him, heading towards the area of land given over to individuals so that they could grow things that couldn’t be squeezed into a garden.  Each of them with forty square rods, poles or perches to make a square rood allotment.  Weird.

 

As she reached the gate to the allotment plots, she heard the screeching squawk of terrified chickens, and picked up the pace.  The sounds of panicked poultry were louder now, coming from a small and dilapidated shed on one of the central allotments, and interspersed with definitely human oaths.  At the open doorway, she saw Angel’s dark bulk, with a bundle of white feathers at his feet.

 

“Foul play, huh?”

 

And then she saw what he held.

 

Between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand, he grasped a long streak of russet and white fur, about a foot long, nose to tail tip, as slender as a withy.  It writhed desperately, coiling around almost as bonelessly as a snake.  Its mouth was open, the gape enforced by his grip on the scruff of its neck, and its small, white teeth – very sharp white teeth – glinted in the moonlight.  The black shoe button eyes glittered with menace.

 

“It’s a stoat,” said Angel.  He took hold of the hind legs with his left hand, stretching the little beast out so that she could see it.

 

“It’s a chicken killer,” Buffy amended.

 

Angel looked down at the sad bundle of feathers that had once been a White Orpington.

 

“There’s another dead one inside.  If we hadn’t come, it would have had the lot.”

 

Buffy peered at the tiny killer.

 

“See?  Size doesn’t matter.  And we were here to save the day.”

 

She closed the distance between them and reached up to pluck a stray feather from Angel’s hair.  Then she brushed off the wood shavings clinging to his coat.

 

“So?  What are you waiting for?  Just kill the slaughterer of helpless chickens, and let’s be on our way.”

 

She scrutinised the dead body on the doorstep.

 

“Do you think Martha would like a freshly killed chicken?”

 

“Buffy!  Besides, she’s got babies.  They’ll starve without her.”

 

“Martha?  Oh, the stoat.  How do you know?  That’s not a ‘v’ thing as well, is it?”

 

“No, no ‘v’ thing needed.  She’s still feeding them.  Look.”

 

Buffy leaned over the captive stoat.  Her white belly fur was stained, in two rows of small pinky-brown patches, where the babies were suckling.  She scowled.

 

“Got any better ideas, oh mighty hunter?”

 

Now it was Angel’s turn to frown.  Then he held the stoat up until they were face to face, eye to eye.  And he put on his demon face.  The stoat squirmed frantically, trying to get away from the larger predator.  He hissed at her.  She hissed back.

 

Then he growled, deep in his chest.  Buffy felt the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.  With any other demon, she would have been reaching for her stake, but she loved it when her vampire made that sound.

 

The stoat didn’t.  Her bravado gone, she redoubled her attempts to escape.  He growled again, longer and louder, and at last she gave in, lying limp in his grasp, her eyes closed.  Buffy envied her.

 

“She won’t come here again,” said Angel.  “She understands this place isn’t allowed.”

 

Putting her own bravado in place, to hide the fact that her knees were still weak, Buffy snorted in laughter.

 

“You talk stoat, now, do you?”

 

“Buffy…!”

 

That was definitely a whine.

 

She crowed in delight as his lips pursed in disapproval.  The surviving chickens in the hen house clucked in alarm.

 

“Don’t be silly.”  He bent down to scoop up the dead Orpington.  “Shut the door, will you?”

 

“What about…” and she peered into the darkness,” this other dead hen?  Martha?  Or are we having the one you’ve got?”

 

Angel gave her a mock scowl, and she returned a mock glare.

 

“I know, I know.  I’m just teasing.  Giles is kind of getting me into this whole getting paid for what-we-do-naturally gig.  Do we just leave these here?  England doesn’t have coyotes…”

 

“No, but there are foxes.  The hens – and this plot – belong to Bert Stainby.  He’s not got much as it is.  This one will be a meal for him, if he can bear to eat it.” 

 

He found a spare onion net, and hung the bird on the henhouse door.  Even one-handed, still gripping the stoat, he moved with grace and purpose.  She saw him write STOAT on a scrap of paper and shove it into the net with the corpse.  Then he was done.  She latched the hen house door and ran after him.  He was already at the entrance gate.

 

“One for him, one for us, then?”

 

He gave a little snort of laughter – as if Buffy would ever bring herself to eat carrion – and put the second dead bird down.

 

“You’re in a giddy mood tonight.  Something wrong?”

 

“Why should there be?  The full moon, Mr Tall Dark and Handsome, the springing of, well, Spring. Oh, yes, and I could do with a change.  Something exciting.  Something to get our teeth into.  Literally, in your case, maybe, but not in a ‘v’ way, of course.  Or maybe a holiday.  What do you think?”

 

He smiled warmly.  Buffy had grown to love their new home here, but sometimes she definitely got fidgety.  So did he.

 

“Let’s see what we can come up with.”

 

He carefully placed the stoat on the ground next to it, stepping back quickly.  The stoat lay motionless for long moments, and then her eyes opened.  She looked up at him.  Quickly, before he could change his mind, she sank her teeth into the upper part of one wing, and made off towards her nest, laboriously dragging the chicken behind her.

 

Buffy smiled and slid her arm around Angel’s.

 

“You always know how to please a woman, don’t you?”

 

The smile that he returned was toothy, and she stroked his brow ridge.  His eyes were amber in the moonlight.

 

“Okay, oh mighty hunter.  You can put it away now.  Just for the moment, though, because later…”

 

She trailed off, suggestively.

 

He did put it away, and they started to walk back towards home.  Buffy frowned in thought, suddenly serious.

 

“I can take Bert some Meals on Wheels, if you like.  While I’m standing in.”

 

Violet Chapman was on holiday and Buffy had stepped into the gap, as she usually did when one of the Meals on Wheels ladies was unavailable.  Angel’s grin was a knowing one.

 

“Would he eat it if you did?”

 

Buffy drew herself to her full height.

 

“Just because Hetty Cowthorpe gives hers to the dog…”

 

“Why does she still have them if she says they aren’t fit for human consumption?”

 

“Domino enjoys it very much, might I say… In fact that dog could do with dropping a few pounds…”

 

Then she let go the mock indignation and became serious.

 

“And besides, it means that once a day someone checks that Hetty is still alive.  I think that probably goes for all of them…”  A thought struck her.  “Angel, we aren’t providing meals on wheels for stoats now, are we?”

 

He chuckled.

 

“No.  There are plenty of rabbits.  She was just… tempted.”

 

“Speaking of tempted, Giles seems to be tempted a lot of late, don’t you think?”

 

His grin was just as brilliant if less toothy than it had been before.

 

“You mean he’s putting it about a bit?”

 

“Well, yeah.”

 

They were back on the chalk lands, now, right on the top, with Summer Down spread out before them, sloping away in the distance to the forbidden village of Imber.  He pulled her back down to the short-cropped, springy turf.  She resisted only long enough to pick a piece of hay from his collar.

 

“You know, Buffy, Giles has had two terrible tragedies in love, and not so long ago at that.  He may never be ready to commit fully again.  Even if he does, it might take a while to find the right woman.  He’s doing the right thing…”

 

“Playing the field?” she interrupted.

 

“Well, yeah,” he echoed.  “He’s not ready yet for someone who wants to live in his pocket.  He needs some adult relationships.  If one of those is right, he’ll know.  But just now, it’s fun he’s after.  A… a change from the perils of life as a paranormal detective, and from playing gooseberry between the two of us.  He’s not deceiving anyone.  He’s not saying anyone is exclusive.”

 

Buffy sighed.

 

“I guess you’re right.  Where was he going to take Angela?”

 

“That new theatre, the Clog and Rhubarb.  They’re showing the Terry Pratchett play-of-the-book, The Fifth Elephant.  I don’t know whether he’s remembered it’s got vampires in it.  And werewolves.”

 

She laughed out loud, and nestled into his arms.

 

“Maybe he’s trying to give Angela a hint!”  She shook her head, bewildered.  The Clog and Rhubarb  Where the heck do the English get these names?”

 

“It’s from the two men who run it – friends of Walter Satterthwaite, I gather.  They’ve moved down here from Yorkshire.  One of them comes from a family of rhubarb growers, and the other from a family of shoemakers.”

 

“And they’ve come here to open a theatre?  Not a movie theatre, though?”

 

“No, a theatre for staging plays.  Nice isn’t it?  You know, Giles asked me if we wanted to go with them, tonight, but I said no.  I thought he’d do better on his own.”

 

“Good call.  I’d like to go, though, sometime, if Giles gives it a good press.”

 

He nuzzled at her neck.

 

“Good job I’ve got tickets for tomorrow then, isn’t it?”

 

+++++

 

It was mid afternoon when Buffy got back to Summerdown House.  As she put together a sandwich, definitely not assisted by Ari and Zillah, she heard, above the cajoling miaows of the cats, the sound of voices coming from the study.  Male voices.  Plate in one hand and coffee mug in the other, she made her way out of the kitchen, the cats weaving beneath her feet.

 

Angel and Giles were looking over some papers.  There had been more mail than usual, after the Spring Bank Holiday weekend.

 

“Why has everyone got oak branches hanging from their doors?”

 

Giles arched a brow.

 

“Everyone?”

 

“Well, some people.  A few of those I’ve just delivered to.”

 

“It’s 29th May.”

 

“Giles!  So what?”

 

“It’s the day the Byzantine Empire came to an end.”

 

Buffy didn’t even splutter.  She’d got a mouthful of Wiltshire ham, and it was too nice to splutter.  Angel grinned and Giles relented.

 

“It’s Oak Apple Day.”

 

“Okay, I think I understood the bit about the Byzantine Empire better.  Oak apples?

 

“Spherical galls produced by a wasp grub, look exactly like tiny apples.”

 

“I know,” she said, impatiently.  “We poor colonials have oaks, and we have apples, and surprisingly we have oak apples, too.  But you have a special day for them?”

 

Angel sniggered, earning a look that promised a painful time to come.  Giles sighed.

 

“No, Buffy.  People gather branches that have oak apples on, to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, and the day that he hid from Cromwell’s Roundheads in an oak tree.  It’s not done much, anymore.  People used to wear sprigs of oak, and if you didn’t you got whipped with nettles...”

 

Angel’s look was speculative.

 

“… usually around the legs.”

 

Buffy almost choked with laughter as her boyfriend allowed his face to fall.  Giles missed the exchange, and misunderstood.

 

“It’s true!  Wessex is always a bit more traditional than other places, and we carry those old things on…  Besides, I think it was really just a continuation of pagan tree worship…  Although I think the nettle thing has stopped, even amongst the young.”

 

“So why haven’t we got a branch on the door?  Alice has.”

 

“Alice is having Meals on Wheels?  That’s a good idea.”

 

“No, Giles, she definitely isn’t.  I gave her one the other day, and even the cats wouldn’t eat it.  It’s grocery day.  Oh, yes, she said she’d run out of adder’s tongue for her evening tisane.  Even the deli won’t have bits of reptile, will they?”

 

Giles snorted in amusement.  Even Alice, his old primary school teacher who had turned out to be a Silarri in a human guise, wouldn’t drink bits of venomous reptile.  He hoped.  She was housebound, just now, because her camouflage was failing, and they were helping out as best they could. 

 

“Adder’s tongue is a fern, Buffy, not an actual tongue.  It’s good for wound healing.  I’ll pick some up for her.  Is everything okay?”

 

“Just peachy.  She thinks that her normal washing powder is irritating her scales, so Martha’s going to get her some pure soap flakes, or non-allergenic stuff.  Something like that.  Everything else is fine.”

 

Giles frowned in thought, and then looked up at Buffy with a smile.

 

“Thanks.  And you, too, Angel.  Alice may be in seclusion, but at least she isn’t alone anymore.”

 

“She’s a lovely old lady… demon… whatever, Giles.  Explains a lot about you!  Anyway, about this oak bough…”

 

“Hah, hah.  Now, do you want to know about these new jobs we’ve got in, or not?”

 

Obediently, Buffy took a seat.  Within an hour, they’d divided up the requests for services between themselves.  As Angel went out to get more coffee, Buffy leaned back in her chair.

 

“How was the play last night, Giles?”

 

“Very good.  We both enjoyed it.”

 

Giles was frowning, though.

 

“So, what’s the puckered brow for?”

 

“Oh, sorry, no, nothing wrong…  I was just remembering that we talked to Stephen and Peter, the two men who got the theatre going.  I think they’re having problems with one of their sponsors.”

 

Buffy looked a question mark at him.

 

“They obviously didn’t have enough money to renovate the old Playhouse properly by themselves, so they had to tout around for grants and loans and gifts.  One of their backers is Walter Paveley, and I think he’s making things difficult for them.”

 

“Paveley?  The guy who lives in the Manor House?”

 

Buffy reached up to take the cup that Angel offered, as he waited for Giles to answer his question.

 

“The very same.”

 

“What?  The Lord of the Manor?” 

 

She thought that Giles was actually going to make Angel’s growling sound deep in his chest, when she asked that.

 

“It’s just a conceit, Buffy.  It’s an obsolete title.  It means nothing.  My father was going to buy the title, just to stop that little turd from getting it, but he couldn’t bring himself to sink so low.  Anyway, what are we going to do about these…?”

 

“You don’t like the man?”

 

“No, Angel, he’s an obnoxious bully.”

 

“How come we haven’t run into him, then?  Sounds like just the type we might run into?”

 

Giles smiled at the Slayer.

 

“He spends most of his time abroad.  I think he’s been in the Caribbean for some years.  Anyway, he seems to have blotted his copybook, wherever he was, and he’s come back here.  We can only hope he takes himself off again soon.”

 

“Well, if he doesn’t, I’m positive we’re going to run into him, and possibly not in a good way for him.  We can’t have people upsetting Giles.”

 

“Thank you for fighting my battles, Buffy, but let’s try and fight some others, shall we?  Now, what are we going to do about these things in the post?”

 

He looked pleased, though, as they responded to their clients, and made appointments to visit.  They’d just completed their list when the phone rang.  It was Nick Hunt.  Giles switched to the piece of technology that he had just grudgingly acquired: the speakerphone.

 

“Hello, Nick.  We’re all here.”

 

“Shiver me timbers, me old hearties!”

 

“I beg your pardon?  Have you been watching the Pirates of Penzance?”

 

Angel leaned over to Buffy and said, in a stage whisper, “Pirates of the Caribbean, more like.”  Buffy giggled.

 

“And is that our two young things?  Rupert, why don’t you get one of these video thingies?  Then we can all see each other.”

 

“Don’t know what you mean, Nick,” Giles muttered.  “This thing is modern enough for me.  Now, what’s with all the nautical talk?”

 

“Would you like to go on a nautical trip, Rupert?  I’ve only managed to get two tickets, and jolly lucky at that, but the Waverley is doing a special sailing, Bristol Channel to Loch Lomond.  Some celebration or another.  Just think, Rupert, the Waverley!  Going all the way up the Irish Sea!  England to Scotland via Ireland and Wales…”

 

The wistful look in Giles’ eyes exactly matched the excitement in Nick’s voice.  Buffy looked at her menfolk in confusion.

 

“The Waverley?”

 

“It’s the only sea-going paddle steamer in the world,” Giles replied.

 

Buffy’s brow cleared.

 

“Ah!  Boys’ toys…”

 

“That’s right, Buffy.”  Nick’s voice boomed over the speaker.  “Boys’ toys!  Even we have got to have some fun, you know.”

 

“When is it?”

 

“We leave on Friday morning, mon brave!  Ship ahoy!”

 

Giles’ chagrin was patently obvious.

 

“I can’t!  I’m booked to give a talk on Friday night.  To the Westbury Heritage Group.  The History of Celtic Myth.”

 

“Blow them off, Rupert!  Just give a jaunty wave of your hand and tell the old fogies you’ll talk to them some other time.”

 

“I can’t.  It’s been booked for a year.  Damn!”

 

“Well, then, no offence, Buffy, but perhaps I can persuade Angel to come instead?”

 

“Not if you don’t want to be speaking falsetto, Nick,” Buffy replied sweetly.  She wore a genuine smile, though.  Teasing about Nick’s attraction to Angel was part of every visit.

 

“Dash it all, have I got to go and suborn someone else?”

 

With genuine regret, Nick’s offer was turned down, and Giles brooded about it for hours.  Still, there was work to do and, over the next few days, the three of them evicted demonic squatters and ghosts, cleansed a couple of ramshackle buildings, and helped a slightly eccentric young woman to understand that the cat yowling outside her door was merely the local tom seeking access to her calling Siamese queen, and not a manifestation of Satan seeking access to a new Eve. 

 

And Buffy loved her visit to the Clog and Rhubarb, and the play that had vampires and werewolves in the cast.  Returning home that night, on a promise, Angel wandered over to the main house to restock his blood supply.  He wanted to be warm for her.  Well, there were lots of things he wanted to be, but warm came first.  Giles was in the kitchen, scrubbing at a stained mixing bowl.  Angel observed the bowl with a whimsical look on his face.

 

“Martha is definitely going to have words to say about that.”

 

Giles grunted.  ‘Tetchy’ was written through every nuance of that wordless sound.  Then he dropped the bowl and scouring pad back into the sink.

 

“I didn’t expect it to come out so… green.”

 

“What are you making?”

 

“I’m trying to get something for Alice, to help control her rescaling.  That last one is helping, but not enough.  And it’s no good in her hair.  Makes it look as though she needs an anti-dandruff shampoo.  This was comfrey, marigold, avocado, olive oil, royal jelly, St John’s wort, fumitory and wintergreen.  And a tiny bit of tincture of orris, to enable it.”

 

“Needs a bit more work, Giles, unless Alice is going green in more ways than one.  What about adding some peony root and lavender, and Fauchard’s blanching powder?”

 

“I’m out of Fauchard’s.  I’ve never done much in the way of cosmetic creams, and I let my last bag go.  If you’re doing a spell, generally it doesn’t matter what colour you anoint things with.”

 

“We’re off to Bath tomorrow.  We can go into Bristol and pick some up from the importer, if you like?”

 

“Thanks.  You know, Angel, I’ve been doing some more research on Silarri.  Alice is really too young to be showing such signs of ageing.  I don’t know whether she’s been stuck as an old lady too long, and it’s all in her mind, or whether something is triggering it.  But the source material is poor.  Maybe it varies, from individual to individual?”

 

“I don’t know, Giles.”

 

“Ella would have known what to do.”

 

“Have you found anything in her notes?”

 

“No.”

 

Giles went back to scrubbing at the bowl.  Angel got his blood in silence and started back to the flat.  On his way out of the kitchen, in the doorway, he hesitated, and turned, as though to say something.  Giles’ back was towards him though, a wall of silence, and so he left.

 

Angel had had lots of things in mind for making love to Buffy that night.  Playful things.  Instead, his lovemaking was intensely tender, possessive, and needy, and she followed his lead, unsure of what had changed since he’d gone for the blood, but determined to reaffirm what they were to each other.

 

+++++

 

And so, Friday came and went, together with Giles’ visit to the Westbury Heritage Group, and the sailing of the Waverley.  Giles consoled himself on Saturday by taking Angela to the new gastro-pub, the Leek and Lettuce.  Buffy and Angel went to the flat in Bath for the weekend. 

 

When they returned on Monday night, Giles was still railing against all things gastro-pubby, and about molecular gastronomy that definitely had the first part right, because it came with food portions the size of a molecule.  After a very expensive dinner, not that Giles minded the cost, he grumbled, it was just that he and Angela had come back here and had to raid Martha’s emergency rations for something to actually eat.  It had been either that or the fish and chip shop.  Buffy delicately refrained from asking what Giles and Angela had done next.  Angel didn’t need to ask.  He knew that Angela had been there all weekend.

 

“We’re going to have to be careful with names, Giles.  We could get easily confused.  Angel.  Angela.”

 

Angel tossed a cushion at the grinning Slayer.  He thought of Angela Brewster, great-niece of the postmistress, maker of beautiful jewellery from silver and seashells and corals and semi-precious stones.  A woman who looked for brains as well as pretty, and who, not long ago, had wielded a cudgel as if born to it.  The thought made him grin, too.

 

+++++

 

The next afternoon, they settled down in the study once more, to work through the post. Unable to lean her elbows on the desk because of the clutter, Buffy ruthlessly pushed the oldest pile of papers off the far side of the desk and onto the windowsill behind it.  One piece slipped down the tiny gap between the desk and the wall, and, tutting, Giles waved at the other two to give him some room, then scrambled down into the keyhole to retrieve the sheet from the floor.  As he did so, the phone rang, and he banged his head in his haste to get up.

 

Buffy’s greeting silenced his muttered protest.

 

“Lisa?  You’re where?  And you’re with who?  Are you having a good time?  Oh.  Oh, I’m sorry about that…”

 

She talked for several minutes, blithely ignoring the hand that Giles kept thrusting at her, demanding the phone, and his attempts to switch the thing to speaker.  She wrenched the stray piece of paper from Giles’ fingers, scribbled down a number on the back, and then hung up.  Angel pushed his chair back.

 

“I’ll go make some coffee.  I think we might need it.”

 

Buffy pouted.

 

“Don’t you want to hear what Lisa said?”

 

“Don’t need to.  I heard it all.”

 

He left for the kitchen to a muttered imprecation of ‘damned ‘v’ hearing’ and ‘why didn’t you let us all hear?’  By the time he got back, Giles was almost foaming with impatience.  He looked at Angel, in appeal, one man to another.

 

“I can’t get a word out of her.  She just sits there with a smug look on her face.  Make her tell!  Oh… wait!  You’re smug, too.”

 

Angel handed out the coffees.

 

“Stop teasing the human, Buffy.”

 

With a theatrical sigh, she settled down to her tale.

 

“Lisa’s in Scotland…”

 

“Really?  I didn’t know she was planning a holiday…”

 

“Giles!  She’s in Scotland, with…”  She paused for dramatic effect.  “Nick!”

 

Nick?  Really?  I wouldn’t have thought…  Still, they’ve got to know each other quite well, haven’t they?”

 

“People can just be friends, Giles.”

 

“Yes, of course, Buffy.  So, she rang to say she’s in Scotland?  Does she want anything doing at the stables?”

 

“No, she’s got plenty of help there, I imagine.  It’s nothing like that.  They’re staying in a B&B.  The farmer who owns it has just lost his champion sheepdog over the side of a bridge, and he’s in a real, now what did she say… puther, that was it.  He’s in a real puther about it.”

 

“Well, that’s terribly sad, Buffy, but accidents happen.”

 

“Yes, Giles, but apparently this place is noted for it.  And some people think it’s a thin place between the dimensions.”

 

Angel thought that Giles’ ears would prick up, like a dog’s, or like a Sapproth demon, although in the latter case, ears weren’t just for hearing.

 

“Where is this place?”

 

“Near Dumbarton, Lisa said.  Overtoun Bridge.”

 

“My goodness.”

 

+++++

 

They’d managed to get a late flight from Bristol to Glasgow, late enough to be safe for Angel.  Giles, concerned, had suggested that Angel stay in Westbury.  Conditions in Scotland were almost as bad is it was possible to be, for a vampire, with sunset at about 10.00pm, and sunrise before 4.30am.  After all, this was dogs leaping off a bridge, not earth-shaking stuff.  Angel had refused.

 

Now, they were ensconced in the Holiday Inn opposite Glasgow airport – handy for the M8, Loch Lomond, the Trossachs, the West and the Islands, and five minutes from some of Scotland’s finest shopping, as the brochure proudly informed them.  When he read about the shopping, Giles tried to hide the leaflet, unsuccessfully.  Angel merely looked resigned, as he dropped their luggage with a sigh of relief.  One very large bag contained books, and notes of all the information they’d gleaned about the Overtoun Bridge mystery in the few hours before their flight.  It had been almost as heavy as Buffy’s suitcase.

 

Giles extracted his own suitcase, and the book bag, from the pile on the floor, and Angel carried the rest through to the interconnecting room.  He left Buffy hunting out essentials for the overnight stay, to find Giles hunting in the refrigerator.

 

“I thought we could do with a nightcap, before turning in.”  He brandished two small bottles of Scotch.

 

“Good idea.”

 

So, when Buffy returned, her men were comfortably sprawled, one on the bed one in a chair, each nursing a generous glass of liquor.

 

She frowned at Angel as she settled into the remaining chair.  Calmly, he reached down to the floor beside him and lifted up a glass of something fizzy.

 

“Brandy and Babycham.  Medicinal purposes only.”

 

He passed it to her.  She wrinkled her nose, but took a sip.

 

“Nice,” she said, approvingly.  “Why’ve you deprived me of this up to now?”

 

“Don’t argue.”

 

“Children!” Giles exclaimed from the comfort of the bed.  “Less arguing, more reviewing of what we know.”

 

What they knew was that, since the 1950’s, dogs had been apparently committing suicide by leaping off Overtoun Bridge.  There had been over fifty of them.  Even worse, a man had thrown his baby off the bridge, declaring that it was the Anti-Christ.

 

And Overtoun was said to be a thin place, a place where the walls between dimensions were thin, where Earth and Heaven might touch.  It was that, more than anything, that had brought them here.

 

Buffy recalled her hours on the laptop that afternoon.

 

“All those stupid sites about the dog suicides said that the thin bit comes from Celtic mythology, but I couldn’t find any references to it on anywhere more reliable.”

 

Giles sniffed.

 

“No, I suspect that bit is made up, Buffy.  I can’t find it in the books, either, although if we’d had the Watchers’ library…”

 

He still lamented the lost library, and the knowledge it had contained.  Its loss in that past explosion cut him as deeply as the burning of the library at Alexandria.

 

She looked across at Angel, apparently engrossed in some obscure text.

 

“You don’t think it’s anything to do with, you know, what we did…”

 

“No, Buffy.  The reports that this is a thin place have been around for decades.  It isn’t anything we did when the other slayers…”

 

Giles’ voice trailed away.  He was reluctant to finish that thought, for the pain it would cause.  Angel didn’t turn a hair, or show by so much as a blink that he had heard.  That was how Buffy knew that the memory had cut deeply, the memory of how they’d had to rely on the ‘v’ part of his nature to save the day.  Not the soul part.  Only the ‘v’ part had been up to the job.  He hated what he’d had to do, and he hated the fact that his soul and his good intentions hadn’t been enough.  Only the part that made him Angelus had sufficed.

 

“Well,” she said, brightly, “do we think this is natural or supernatural, or do we think it’s time for bed?”

 

++++++

 

Their intention for the next morning had been that Giles and Buffy would go to Overtoun, to meet Lisa and Nick, while Angel stayed at the Holiday Inn and carried on with the research.  Lisa and Nick had long known that Angel had ‘a disorder’ that meant he must keep away from direct sunlight.  In addition, Lisa had seen… something… of Angel’s demon face when he’d been in the clutch of the Syriak, although it had never again been mentioned.  Nick knew that Angel in some way appeared to be dead.  That, too, had never again been mentioned.  After the last meeting of the Sophists, Angel had asked Giles whether Nick ever pressed for more information.

 

“Good Lord, no,” Giles had replied.  “Nick’s old-fashioned – like me, I suppose.  He would consider that to be extremely bad form, poking his nose in where information wasn’t offered.  Doesn’t mean I don’t see him looking at me sometimes as though he would like to ask, but he never does.”

 

Angel had been relieved, and Buffy too.  Lisa and Nick – and Collins, that dour chief inspector of police – were friends.  Or, for Angel and Buffy, acquaintances making the transition to friends.  Angel didn’t want them to know more than they already did.  He couldn’t bear to see the disgust in their eyes, as he’d seen it in other people’s.  Anything they might have seen could be a trick of the light.  Or a trick of the mind.  And so, the three of them were careful never to remind anyone of Angel’s differences.  Of Buffy’s, either, come to that.

 

And that was why they had planned to split up, in the light of day.  But, they had reckoned without Glasgow.  It lived up to its reputation of providing weather.  The next morning, it was bucketing down with rain.  Torrents of water sheeted down the outside of the windows, and even Angel could stand by the glass and watch, without risk of harm.

 

“They say it’s going to be like this all day, more or less.  Rain like stair rods.”  That was Giles, hanging up the phone from his call to the Met Office.

 

Angel grinned at Buffy.  “No chance of bursting into flames, then.  They’d just sizzle right out.”

 

And so, they all went to Overtoun together, the normality of it only belied by the fact that very few other idiots had braved the driving rain.  Huddled into mackintoshes and overcoats and equipped with umbrellas, they ran across the concrete and shrub frontage of the hotel.  Giles had parked the hire car as close as possible, but it was still a good distance away, especially for a soaked vampire out in the daylight.

 

They reached the hired Discovery just as the rain started to drip off the umbrella spokes and down the back of Buffy’s neck.

 

“I hope whatever we’ve come up here to see is aquatic, that’s all I can say.  I thought Wessex could be bad enough with the rain!”

 

“Atlantic Ocean plus Gulf Stream plus prevailing westerlies equals rain, I’m afraid,” said Giles.  “And a lot of it.  Scotland’s noted for it, on this western side.  About ten feet a year, I believe.”  He cast a morose glance outside as he fiddled with his seat belt.  “Although not usually all in one day.”

 

The journey to Overtoun was short, as they crossed over to the northern bank of the Clyde and then drove west towards Dumbarton, turning off at Milton after a couple of miles and then climbing north into the Kilpatrick Hills.  Another two miles of road-turned-to-river, and a narrow, overgrown road at that, eventually becoming no more than a track, and the granite bulk of Overtoun House loomed ahead.  Before they reached it, though, another right turn took them towards a reservoir nestling among the hills.  Buffy could have sworn that the low-flying clouds were skating over the surface of it, lending the water their own shades of grey.  And then they saw their destination, a single-storey white cottage that, even in the downpour, managed to look cheery and welcoming.

 

Buffy heaved a sigh of relief, looking meaningfully at the men’s woollen overcoats and muttering about the smell of wet sheep.  Clustered beneath their umbrellas, they ran to the door just as Lisa swept it open and stood aside.

 

“Did you remember to bring your wellies and waterproofs? Never mind, there’s something hot in the living room.  If you want to freshen up, or dry off, even, girls to my room on the left and boys to Nick’s room, on the right.”

 

‘Something hot’ proved to be hot chocolate, French style, and warm, buttery croissants.  Even Angel decided to partake, but only of the dark chocolate.

 

On his second croissant, and feeling much revived, Giles essayed, “I didn’t know you were up here on holiday, Lisa?”

 

The blonde woman twinkled at him.  “Oh, no.  Nick had a spare ticket, which I gather you all refused, and I’ve always wanted a ride on the Waverley.  Never managed it before.”

 

Giles looked like a small boy.  “What was it like?”

 

Lisa considered this, as Nick sat back to await her answer with the others.  “Like being on a sea-going steam train, although a lot slower.  But it was enormous fun!”

 

Giles looked as though he really wanted to ask more, but then he almost visibly shook himself, and got back to the matter in hand.

 

“Do you want to tell us more about what happened at the Bridge?”

 

“Oh, we thought Keith would do that.”

 

“Keith?”

 

“Keith McKechnie.  The farmer who lost his dog.  He’ll be here in a little while.”

 

++++++

 

Keith McKechnie arrived just as the downpour increased its intensity.  No one had thought that possible, but they opened the door to find that visibility was down to about ten yards, and beyond that was just water.

 

McKechnie was a dour man, with deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks over a long jaw.  He looked about fifty.  He had a dog with him, a black and white border collie, which clung timidly to the calves of his legs, its tail tucked low and its ears back.  Its eyes darted to and fro as though afraid of attack.  Angel took a few steps backwards, deliberately.  The dog was clearly terrified, and he thought that it could only be of him.

 

The farmer pointed the dog to a spot in the porch, where the worst of the rain couldn’t reach, but Lisa wouldn’t hear of it, and so they wrung as much water from its coat as they could, and then stood away from the inevitable shower as it shook itself, half-apologetically.

 

McKechnie slipped out of his waterproof on the threshold, giving it a couple of sharp shakes, and then he spread it on the floor.  The dog curled up on it, and lay trembling.

 

“Dinna mind Flag.  She’s been like this since Folly… went over the edge.  She’s a braw, bonny dog.  She’ll be fine in time.”

 

It was Buffy who made him a mug of strong tea, while Lisa brought a bowl of water and a couple of digestive biscuits for the dog, and it was the men who settled McKechnie into a chair.  And it was Giles who subtly coaxed Angel back into the group, from where he’d retreated, into a corner.

 

McKechnie was slow to start his story, his voice a slow burr, but not too accented to understand easily.  It was Angel and Nick who noticed, but didn’t remark on, the way man and dog continually cast the same anxious glances at each other.

 

McKechnie’s farm bordered the Overtoun estate.  This cottage was his, let to holidaymakers to help eke out the slim revenues of a sheep farmer.  The dogs were well known throughout Dunbartonshire and neighbouring counties, champions at the sheepdog trials.  He didn’t say any of that, but he didn’t have to.  They’d done their homework.

 

Flag and Folly were litter sisters, he said, five years old, and had never been separated.  They worked the sheep on his farm, and they lived with the family, himself, his daughter, and his grandson, still a baby in arms.  Yesterday morning, he’d walked into Milton with his dogs, as he often did, and when his errands were finished, he’d walked back home.  They’d got as far as the bridge, and Folly had stopped, ears pricked, nose searching, and then she’d simply leapt over the parapet, clearing it in one great bound.  On the other side was a fifty-foot drop to the Overtoun Burn.  He’d found her lying half in and half out of the water.  She’d snapped her spine.  She’d licked his hand before he broke her neck.

 

They asked him questions.

 

Ay, he kenned well some of the other dogs that had gone over.  Scent dogs, not gaze hounds, for the most part.  And the man who’d thrown his baby over?  Ay, a local man.  He’d known him a little, but a difficult man, often full of flights of fancy.  It had been a terrible business, near fifteen year gone, now.  Two-week old Eoghan dead, and young Kevin sent to a mental hospital.  Terrible.

 

McKechnie took a deep breath.

 

“Yon Nick and Lisa told me that ye might ken whatever is doing this, and ye might be able to stop it.  I know that might be a fond and foolish hope, but the Bridge has taken too many now.  Please.  Do what you can.”

 

Giles nodded, slowly. 

 

“We will.  I promise that we’ll do whatever we can.  As soon as this rain stops, that is…  Can’t see much when it’s pouring down.”

 

McKechnie stood, and his dog stood with him, wrapping herself around his ankles as he shrugged into his waterproof.

 

“Ay, that’s true.  Too dangerous to be scrambling down into the Burn now.  And the Burn will be overfull, with all the water come off the hills.  But it’ll be over by six o’clock.  The Burn will run high for a few hours after.”

 

Giles looked at the vista outside, where everything was consumed by a blanket of grey cloud and sheets of falling water.

 

“Are you sure?” he asked.

 

“You mark my words.  Over by six, clear by seven.”

 

And then McKechnie and Flag were gone, devoured in the never-ending rain.

 

++++++

 

At Nick’s suggestion, they went to Overtoun House for lunch.  It was occupied by a charity, giving shelter and counselling to young people, but they took in visitors for bed and breakfast, and had a tearoom, and the income from visitors supported their main work.

 

The Tea Room was closed, but another room had been temporarily pressed into service.  The Angel Room.  Nick was grinning broadly when he disclosed that, and led the group into a confection of plaster mouldings and painted cherubs.  Buffy sniggered, but only a little. 

 

When they enquired, there were two free guest rooms.  Buffy and Angel inspected them, and found them vampire-friendly, and so it was decided that Giles and Buffy and Angel would decamp from the Holiday Inn, and move up here.  Before they left to collect their bags, Angel took this unlooked-for opportunity of seeing the Bridge in daylight.  He wouldn’t hear of the others coming out in the rain and so, swathed in his wet coat, and with a large umbrella, he walked out of the House and onto the Bridge.

 

The Bridge ran directly to the House, the road – no more than a trackway, here – continuing on, but Bridge and House were built of the same pinkish granite, the House on one side of the deep valley in which the Overtoun Burn flowed, and the Bridge spanning that valley in a massive arch of turrets and parapets, the same architecture as the House.

 

He judged, from what McKechnie had told them, the rough whereabouts of the spot where Folly had jumped.  There was nothing obvious, just a vista of a two-horned reservoir of grey, cloud-wracked water, and dense conifer forest marching away in all directions, to be swallowed by the mists.  The falling rain carried away all trace of any scent there might be.

 

Surefooted as he was, the sodden slope down to the Burn was treacherous, and he left the umbrella hanging from a branch at the top, so that he could use both hands.  The surrounding trees and the Bridge’s bulk offered him enough shade from whatever light managed to penetrate the air-borne waterfall.  He made it down without mishap, but there was nothing to see.  The Burn, risen well above its normal level, had swept the banks clean.  To go under the Bridge would mean being waist deep in a raging torrent of peaty-brown water.  That could wait.  And yet… there was something.  Something that he couldn’t quite identify.  A trace of scent, perhaps.  A feeling…  He would come back in the cover of darkness, whenever it stopped raining.

 

++++++

 

To everyone’s surprise, McKechnie was right.  By seven that evening, it had stopped raining, and the sky had become a washed-out blue.  It would be almost three hours until sunset, though, so Buffy and Giles met Lisa and Nick on the Bridge, leaving Angel ploughing through whatever original source material they had with them.

 

Like Angel before them, they could see nothing to explain the canine suicide leaps.  As they peered over the side of the Bridge, with the parapets at breast height, they saw only a rather pretty view.  It was still too slippery to safely negotiate the slope down to the Burn, to examine beneath the arch of the Bridge.  They’d almost made up their minds to simply go for a walk and enjoy the evening sun, when they saw McKechnie coming along the road towards them.  He had Flag with him, and a dark-haired young woman wheeling a pushchair holding a sleeping baby that could only be a few months old.

 

When he reached the group, he introduced his daughter, Morag, and his grandson, Bruce.  Giles noticed that Morag wore a wedding ring – as did McKechnie – and he wondered what tragedy had marked this family, because his instinct told him that this was so.  He had no intention of asking, though.  Not unless he had to.

 

The girl was in her early twenties, and quiet.  Placid, almost.  But, there was a sadness in her that Giles thought he recognised.

 

“You’re a man short.  No trouble, I hope?”

 

“No, Mr McKechnie,” Giles answered.  “No trouble at all.  He’s researching.  We brought some books and things up, and they might be able to tell us something.”

 

“Ah,” said McKechnie, nodding.  “He’s one for the book learning, is he?”

 

He said it as though it was something alien.

 

“Among other things, Mr McKechnie, among other things.”

 

While Giles was talking to Keith McKechnie, Buffy and Lisa were talking to his daughter, and Nick was crouched down cooing at the infant, who had woken up to find himself surrounded by a forest of strange legs.  Morag could tell them nothing that her father, or their other researches, hadn’t told them.  As long as she had lived, dogs had jumped off the side of the bridge, but never, never one of their own before. 

 

She half-remembered the tragedy of baby Eoghan, but the Bridge had always been just that – a bridge – to her.  Now, with the loss of Folly, she’d wondered whether there might be some ancient evil there, but she wasn’t a person taken to such fancies.  Generally, bad things could be seen and named.  Still, she had a chilly feeling on the back of her neck, and preferred not to stay here too long.  Besides, she had young Bruce to get to bed.  They’d just come down here for a walk in the evening sunshine, and to see whether there was anything more they could tell the investigators.

 

The McKechnies were just taking their leave when Lisa tugged at Giles’ sleeve.  She pointed to the other side of the bridge from the one that Folly had leaped over.  The slope was a little less steep, there.

 

“There’s something going on with those sheep…”

 

A tiny flock of sheep, no more than a dozen ewes with their lambs, were grazing the upper slopes of the Burn.  As they did, they kept shaking their ears, and there were blurs of colourful movement around their heads.  McKechnie leaned over and stared, narrowing his eyes against the setting sun.

 

“That’s Belle’s band…” Then he gave a genuine smile.  “Och, but those only be waspies.”

 

“Wasps?  They look a bit big for wasps.  I’ve got some binoculars not unpacked yet.  I should go and get those…”  Giles trailed off as he turned towards the House.

 

“Nay, not wasps.  I dinna ken what they’re properly called, but they’re some manner of dragonfly.  They’re black with yellow bands.  So, I’ve always called them waspies.  They like the Burn here, the water’s right for their young.”

 

Nick furrowed his brow.

 

“I didn’t think that dragonflies attacked sheep?”

 

McKechnie’s smile broadened.

 

“And that they don’t.  Yon waspies are eating those things that do.  They be longer than my thumb.  They’ll take anything that flies, except birds and bats.  I’ve seen them take hornets.  They patrol around livestock, to catch the biting insects that plague them.  They’re always welcome here.  We have to go now, with the bairn.  I’ll look in tomorrow.”

 

He nodded, and left the group to their own devices.  They decided to take a walk of their own, to weigh up the surroundings.  As the sun sank below the western hills, Nick and Lisa made their way back to the cottage, and Giles and Buffy went back to Overtoun House.  Angel was just shrugging into his coat.

 

“I thought I’d take a walk around the Bridge…”

 

“End of the day shift, start of the night shift, huh?”  Buffy grinned at him.  “Want some company, mister?”

 

He grinned at her.  “Sure, if you can stand double-shifting…”

 

Leaving Giles with his unpacking, they headed out again.  They scrambled down the slightly less steep slope upstream of the bridge, where Belle and the other sheep were still grazing.  Buffy related the tale of the dragonflies.  Angel stopped and moved a few grass blades aside.

 

“Like this one, you mean?”

 

Clinging to a stalk, positioned to catch the first rays of the morning sun, and to benefit from their warmth, was the long body and flat wings of a dragonfly.  It was over three inches long, black, with golden rings around its body.  Its head was black and yellow, like a wasp’s, but with fearsome jaws.  Clasped in those jaws were the remnants of its latest meal, something unrecognisable, but covered in small plates that looked almost like silver metal.

 

Angel frowned.

 

“I don’t recognise what it’s been eating…”

 

“Biting insects, Mr McKechnie said.”

 

“I suppose…”

 

Angel sounded unconvinced, but allowed himself to be moved on.

 

“We used to call them the Devil’s Darning Needles… The dragonflies.”

 

“You and … and… Darla?”

 

“No.  Before her.  When I was… human.”

 

“Why were they called that?” 

 

The words came out hastily as Buffy sought to cover over any pain caused to him by that recollection.  He simply shrugged.

 

After a pause, he said, “I think they must have been dragged in to a legend about their smaller relatives, the damselflies.  It was said that if you fell asleep on the bank of a stream, the damselflies would use their bodies to sew your eyes shut as a punishment for indolence.”

 

“Eeeeuw!”

 

Then Buffy thought about that for a moment.  “You never… I mean, him… he never…”

 

Angel barely hesitated before he replied.

 

“It gave me some ideas, yeah.”

 

They scrambled the rest of the way in silence.

 

The level of the stream had subsided a little, but it was still fast-flowing and swollen.  With his night-sharp eyes, Angel could see the tumbled rocks that made the burn foam and boil.  He took off his shoes and coat, and gave them to Buffy.  She objected.

 

“I’m not just here to hold your coat, you know!”

 

“No, but I remember how much those boots cost, and you definitely aren’t going paddling in them.  If you ruin them, I’ll never hear the end of it.  If there’s anything interesting, I promise to save some for you.”

 

And then he slid into the thigh-deep burn and melted away into the darkness beneath the bridge.

 

The streambed was a mixture of silt that squeezed coldly between his toes, and rocks that he seemed to find with bruising accuracy.  Always there was the pressure of water against his thighs, threatening to knock him over.  Strong as she was, Buffy was small and slight, and he was glad she hadn’t insisted on coming with him.

 

Beneath the bridge was a natural hiding place, an ambush point, if there had been any prey here for him.  Around the stone piers, the rocks were tumbled and heaped, large and small together.  Still, there was nothing pressing itself back against the stonework, hiding or waiting, or ready to pounce.  Nothing to see, at all.

 

But, there was something to smell.  The scent was pungent, musky, territorial.  He grinned as he remembered what it was.  If only all their cases would end as easily.  He thought about dealing with them, but the swollen burn was no place to be hunting such agile creatures.  He reconnoitred thoroughly though, and once he thought he saw the faint gleam of eyes, deep down in the boulders.  He started to shift the loose rocks, and a slim, brown animal darted out and bit his finger.  It dropped into the burn with barely a splash, and was gone.

 

Satisfied, he waded back to where Buffy waited, sucking at the wound.

 

“Got it,” was all he would say.

 

++++++

 

Mink?

 

Giles had been waiting up for them, and Angel had announced his findings with a great deal of satisfaction, then gone to get changed out of his wet clothes.

 

“What does he mean, mink?”

 

“I’ve no idea, Giles.  He’s said nothing, he just had that smug look on his face, all the way back.  And he was sucking his finger.”

 

Giles scowled, and then relented.

 

“Oh, well, I suppose we could start looking up mink while we’re waiting.”

 

When Angel returned, he brought with him a large glass of blood.

 

“Didn’t you eat before you went out?”

 

“Yeah.  I just felt really hungry again.  Must have been the cold water.”

 

“Snacking between meals goes to your hips, you know.”

 

“Buffy…”

 

He felt there was a definite whine to his part of the exchange, and he shut up.  She grinned, and looked back to the laptop.

 

“Okay, so what’s this about mink?  We’ve found that they’re a member of the weasel family…”

 

“Mustelidae,” Giles added.

 

“Yes, thank you, Giles, Musstellydee.  They generally live by the water, are very, very territorial, the territories of females might overlap with males, but two males won’t tolerate each other.  American mink were kept for fur farming, but a lot have escaped since the nineteen-fifties.  They’re vicious if cornered, and oh yes, were there enough for a nice fur coat?”

 

Angel almost choked on his blood.

 

“You said you wanted a holiday, not a fur coat!  Loch Lomond is just over the hill.  Now that we’ve cracked the case, we could go there, spend a few days, see if the boat trips on the Loch can be done at night…”

 

“Loch Lomond?  Does that have a Loch Ness monster, too?  Because we did that one…”

 

“No, Loch Lomond is very romantic.  No monsters.”  Angel thought of the T-shirt that Buffy had made him pack.  I’m the scariest thing at Loch Ness.  “Well, not until we get there, anyway.”

 

Giles listened to the banter between the two of them with an almost paternal smile.  For years, their relationship had been marked by intensity.  Intensity of love, intensity of grief… Now, they were secure enough to banter, like any normal young man and woman, and he was glad of it.  Their lives really had started anew.

 

Finally, though, he reminded them of his presence.  “Mink?”

 

Angel drained the last of his meal and sat down at the coffee table they were using.

 

“Yeah.  The Bridge is the meeting point for a number of territories, upstream and downstream from there.  There are a lot of old scents, but currently three different males have territories that come together there, as well as four females.”  He looked at Buffy.  “Definitely not enough for a coat, as if you would wear one…”

 

He pulled a piece of paper across the table, and started to sketch.

 

“This is how I think they join.  It’s just on the side of the Bridge where the dogs jump over.  There’s that big stone parapet, so they can’t see over it, but they can smell.  There’s a lot of musk down there when the males are fronting up to each other.  When’s the breeding season?”

 

Giles hunted through his notes.

 

“May and June.”

 

“So, that’s now.  And what have the weather conditions been like when the dogs went over?”

 

There was quite a lot more shuffling paper.

 

“Bright and clear, usually.”

 

“The best conditions for carrying scent.  Seven mink territories meeting is going to create a lot of scent.  I’m sure that’s it.  Mink, and a badly disturbed young man.”

 

Buffy looked disgruntled.

 

“You mean that’s all it was?  Something perfectly natural?  We came all this way and there’s nothing to stake?”

 

Angel took her hand to mollify her mock pout.

 

“Mink can put up quite a fight, you know, if you want to get wet.”  He held up his finger, on which barely a tooth mark remained.  “There was something else, another weaselly smell.  I couldn’t place it, but it was faded and weak.  Might have been an otter or a badger, I suppose.  But I’m sure the dogs were scenting the mink.  And if we don’t have to fight anything, we can start that holiday more quickly.”

 

They slept that night, self-satisfied, in the knowledge of a job well done.

 

++++++

 

The next morning they had coffee in the Angel Room with Nick and Lisa, and told them of their findings.  Part way through, Keith McKechnie walked in, and so they started again.  On this brighter day, the farmer had shed his waterproofs, and wore an old grey tweed jacket, and brown corduroy trousers.  Flag wasn’t with him.

 

“She’s outside, with Morag and young Bruce.  They dinna want dogs in here, ye ken?”

 

When he heard the team’s findings, he shook his head slowly.

 

“Mink, eh?  Well, they’ve been around here a while.  It didna sit verra well with me that it might be something unco bad under the bridge, but I could nae do nothing after Folly died, so I’m glad for what ye’ve found.”

 

“Is there someone can deal with the mink for you?”  Giles cast an anxious glance at Angel and Buffy.  If there wasn’t, they might have to get out into the water after all.

 

“Ay.  There’s a mink hunt over to Balloch.  The little beasts can create havoc around Loch Lomond, so they try to keep them down.  They’ll come.”

 

“Good.  Then our work is done!  Buffy and Angel were thinking of a holiday at Loch Lomond, so that’s all worked out very well.”

 

“So were we, Rupert, so were we.  Shall we all join forces?”

 

Nick beamed at all around him.  He was enjoying himself hugely.  McKechnie stood to go.

 

“Well, an you’re all welcome to use the cottage for as long as you wish, with my goodwill.  The Loch’s no so far away.”

 

There was a chorus of thanks, but it was Angel, mindful of the difficulties a group holiday might cause, who said, “Perhaps Buffy and I should stick around here until the hunt has been?  Make sure that there’s no further trouble this year?  They’ll have to check it every year, or it will just start up again.  The rest of you could go on to the Loch.”

 

“Well, the cottage is yours till you tell me you’ve finished.”

 

In a very few minutes, Angel was left to finish his coffee alone, as the others went outside to see Morag and the baby.  He felt the first pang of new hunger.  He was definitely going to run out of blood at this rate.  He did a quick internal inventory, just in case.  No, everything was fine.  The mink had been just a mink, and not even rabid.  Must be all this nearly-Highland air stimulating his appetite.  He thought about his options for restocking.

 

++++++

 

Back at the Long River Road allotments, the grass quivered slightly as a small, russet brown body slid through the lengthening stems.  She’d left the clucking things alone since That Night, but hunting had been difficult and her family was growing.  He had forbidden her this place, but, in the shadowy light of early dawn, she saw the hopping things eating the green things that had been claimed by him.  They would do, and he would surely be pleased.

 

She crept along the grassy path, her body flowing through the stiff stalks, until her prey looked up from its feeding.  Then she began her dance, writhing and twisting in graceful, sinuous motion.  The hopping thing stood, mesmerized.

 

The attack came as part of one shimmering blur of movement.  In the blink of an eye, a young rabbit lay dead, and the stoat started the long task of getting her kill back to her den.

 

++++++

 

Goodbyes had been said, and Lisa stood back to allow the pushchair room to get past.  As she glanced over the parapet, she saw Belle and the other sheep surrounded by a cloud of colourful insects, darting here and there.

 

“My goodness, but those waspies are busy,” she said, to no one in particular.

 

“Golden-ringed dragonfly,” Giles added, having looked them up, “but I prefer waspy.  Suits them.”

 

McKechnie looked over at the sheep.  “Ay, it’ll be the biting midges they’re after, but those’ll be a wee bit early this year, then.  I wouldn’t expect them for another two or three weeks.”  He frowned, as he watched the activity that had caught Lisa’s attention.

 

Then he and Morag and young Bruce set off back to their farm, leaving the friends to enjoy the sunshine.

 

++++++

 

Angel slipped out that night, after everyone else was asleep.  He took the hire car and drove into Glasgow.  He’d done his research, and his destination was the blood donor centre.  He felt ashamed of what he was about to do, but it wasn’t the first time, and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last.  And he needed it.

 

Pig’s blood or cow’s blood was all very well, but they weren’t quite good enough.  Every so often, he needed the real thing.  It was a bit like a vitamin deficiency.  His current diet lacked some of the nutrients that his body and his demon required.  He’d no idea whether they were mystical elements, or actual physical nutrients, he just knew that sometimes he had to have human blood.  It happened rarely, but the hunger was overwhelming when it did.

 

Bagged blood was better than the alternative.  He was almost sure that Giles and Buffy knew.  Almost sure.  Nothing had ever been discussed, though, and he recoiled from the thought that, for Buffy, this might now come under the heading of ‘v’ things that Angel ought to share.

 

He knew that the mink bite hadn’t harmed him, and so he could only think that the increasing hunger was a sign of his deficiency disease.

 

He got in easily enough, through a skylight, and it only took moments to find the store of blood, even through the miasma of intoxicating scent that permeated the building.  This was always a dangerous time, surrounded by so much long-denied nourishment.

 

Quickly, he searched through the fridges, the stacks of bags, sorted by type, gleaming seductively at him like outsized liquid rubies.  He found some that were almost out of date, and knew that he would feel less guilty if he took those.  But, if what he needed were the more transient elements, then the fresher the better.  Trying not to feel disgusted with himself, he filled his bag with an assortment of the freshest stocks.  He didn’t know how much he would need, this time, and he didn’t want to have to come here again.

 

Back at Overtoun House, he emptied one of the stolen bags into a glass, and then he pushed the rest into the fridge, behind the box of pig’s blood.  After he’d fed, he went out into the night, and sat on the banks of the Burn until dawn drove him back to the shelter of their room.

 

On the way, he saw the words carved into the walls of Overtoun House.  ‘Fear God and keep His commandments’.  It was far too late for that.

 

++++++

 

Nick and Lisa sat in companionable silence, enjoying a nightcap.  Nick, thought Lisa, was a man to feel safe with.  Large and physically imposing, almost white-blond hair, a round the year tan, and a face like a Greek god.  And not interested in women.

 

She’d wondered about this trip, but she’d needed a break, and Nick was a very good companion.

 

Nevertheless, she wondered why Nick was hiding away in Scotland, and why he seemed happy to stay for a while.  Eminent surgeons had plenty of surgeoning to keep them busy.  She rolled the brandy around her glass, and thought of her own reasons for being here.  One thought led to another… And they’d had more than one glass of brandy.

 

“Nick, did you have some reason for coming to the wilds of Scotland?”

 

“My dear girl, it’s hardly the wilds, yet.  Glasgow is only about twenty minutes away.  And that’s if a herd of sheep get in the way.”

 

“Flock.”

 

“Whatever you say.”

 

“It’s a flock of sheep.”

 

“And a parliament of owls, a theatre of surgeons, an unkindness of ravens, a… a treachery of deceivers, a thicket of idiots, a pinhead of angels…”

 

“Ha!  I’d like to see Angel dance on a pinhead… Wait, what did you say?  A treachery of deceivers?  And you didn’t answer my question.”

 

“Which one was that?”

 

“Why you’re hiding out up here.”

 

Nick took a sip of brandy, and then sat staring into his glass.  She thought he wouldn’t answer, and when he did, his voice was soft, and she almost missed it.”

 

“A treachery of deceivers.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“Nothing to talk about, my dear.”

 

“Yes, I think there is.”

 

“You never take no for an answer, do you?”

 

Lisa just looked at him sternly, and he wilted.

 

“I met a certain young man, and he looked a little like…”

 

“Like Angel?”

 

“Have you no pity?  You have to have it all spelled out?”  Nick sighed in mock surrender.  “Yes, not unlike our young friend.  One must look elsewhere if what one wants is truly unavailable.”

 

Lisa looked down at her hands, and her empty glass.  Then, ever practical, she stood up and refilled both glasses, rather more generously than she might normally have done.

 

“So, you met this man?  And were deceived?”

 

There was deep hurt now on Nick’s face.

 

“Yes.  And so here I am.”  He smiled at her suddenly, a bright, brittle smile.  “And to have a ride on the Waverley, of course!”

 

There was silence again, but it was Nick who broke it this time.

 

“He was a liar who only wanted my money.  He was a parasite, a leech.”

 

“Not like Angel, then.”

 

“No, not at all like Angel!”

 

Suddenly, Nick drained his glass and then walked into the kitchen.  When he returned he carried two cups of coffee.

 

“And what about you, my girl.  Why are you content to stay?”

 

She fussed around with her cup, taking a small sip and almost burning her mouth on the hot liquid.  He refused to break the pause.

 

“My… my husband…”

 

“You have a husband?  You’ve kept him secret, the lucky dog.”

 

“We split a long time ago, but we never divorced.  He’s Catholic, you see…  he wants to come back to me.  Or he’ll settle for half of what I have, the house, the business, and give me a divorce for it.”

 

“The scoundrel!  What are you going to do about him?”

 

She shook her head.  “I… I don’t know.  Apart from murder him, that is…”

 

Nick grinned at her, and motioned slashing his throat from ear to ear, and then pushing a body from a great height.  She couldn’t help but laugh.

 

“Still, you’ve told Ian about it, yes?  Well, not the wanting to murder him part.  He’ll surely see the chap off?”

 

Lisa’s eyes were riveted to her lap, and her fingers juggled the cup round and round.

 

“No, I haven’t told him…”

 

Nick looked at her with sympathy and understanding.

 

“Because he’s not the one?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“My dear girl, the inhabitants of Summerdown House are cruel to us, are they not?  Veritable monsters, wouldn’t you say?  We don’t seem to stand a chance with either of them.  They hardly even notice us…”

 

She looked up at him, and couldn’t help smiling at the self-mockery in his voice.

 

“You don’t miss a trick, do you, Nick?  Well,” she said, gathering up the glasses, “we’ll simply have to carry on being the unnoticed and faithful occasional sidekicks, then, won’t we?”

 

“That we will, my dear, that we will!  You wouldn’t like me to give Giles a nudge for you?”

 

“Don’t you dare!”

 

She looked so fierce that he pretended to quail.  He stood to clear away the coffee cups.

 

“If you want my advice, my dear, you should tell our pet Detective Chief Inspector about your scoundrel of a husband.  It seems to me that our Ian is totally focused on dealing with bad men, which sounds to me like atoning for a guilty conscience on his part.  Just leave out the murdering part.  You’d get no fear or favour from him!”

 

She threw a cushion at him, on her way to the bathroom.

 

++++++

 

The Hunt arrived the next day, late in the morning, a throng of humans walking up the track from Milton, in heavy boots, breeches tucked into long socks, and tweed jackets, and all leaning on long staves.  They were accompanied by an assortment of strange-looking dogs.  

 

“Giles!  They’re walking hearthrugs.  Where are the horses?  And the red coats?”

 

Giles smiled wryly at Buffy.  Her face was unreadable.

 

“The big shaggy ones with the floppy ears are Otterhounds.  Hunting otters is illegal, so they’ve been retrained to hunt mink.  The little wiry ones are terriers.  The ones with the short legs and fluff all over their faces are Dandie Dinmonts, and the others are Border terriers.  There are no horses.  It’s all done on foot, and largely in water, too.  The red jackets, which I think you’ll find are called hunting pink, not red, are for foxhounds.”

 

“What do you think about it?”

 

Giles was silent for a moment.

 

“I think that you and Angel would do it much more efficiently, but there’s no reason why you should.  The American mink here are a real danger, and need to be got rid of.  And apart from tempting dogs off this Bridge, they’re exterminating some of our native animals.  The water vole – Ratty, from Wind in the Willows – has suffered badly, and I gather they’ll kill any other predator in their range, including our stoats and weasels.  The war is probably lost in most places, but this spot will have to be protected permanently now, by whatever means, or more dogs will be lost.  Let’s leave it at that.”

 

Buffy looked up at the House, and saw the pale shape of Angel’s face at an upstairs window.  She waved, and then she and Giles walked away, to join Nick and Lisa.  Lunch beckoned, and then a trip to the Burrell Collection – or had they decided on the Kelvingrove Museum?  She wasn’t sure and didn’t really care.  Their job was done, they were on holiday, and she was off to see some of the sights.  And possibly even to shop.

 

++++++

Angel watched the Hunt as they beat the banks of the stream, dogs and men wading through the water as well as scrambling around on the slopes.  He’d always preferred to stalk his quarry, sometimes in the shadows, sometimes in the crowd, and sometimes in plain view. 

 

There was something about the thrill of the unsuspecting prey as complacency turned to unease, and unease to wariness, and wariness to fear and panic.  He could prolong any of those stages, if he wished, for as long as he wished, or he could squeeze them together into a few heart-stopping moments.

 

But generally, he hadn’t been much attracted to this mass pursuit.  Maybe he’d missed a trick, there. Even from here, he could chart the heartbeats of hunters and hunted, follow the adrenaline rush in men and dogs, and almost touch the pheromones of fear and aggression as the mink tried to hide or flee, or to turn on their attackers.  That was when their strength became their weakness.  Even in flight, they stayed within their territories.

 

He tried to suppress the thoughts and longings, to cage them up so that he wouldn’t have to think them, but it didn’t work.  Nor could he seem to tear himself away from this window.  His nails dug into the palms of his hands as he fought through his self-disgust, and yet he continued to watch.

 

Half the pack hunted up stream and half downstream, and he could hear the halloas as the quarry was sighted, and the eager singing of the hounds and yapping of the terriers.  Within an hour, the two halves of the Hunt were wading and scrambling back towards each other, and the Bridge.  He counted the small bodies as they held up their prizes to show the others.  Seven, he had said, and they’d killed five.  Two more to go.  That would be right, he thought.  The two males beneath the Bridge.  Those would be the ones that tempted the dogs to jump unto the unknown, or he wasn’t a demon.

 

The Hunt began the backbreaking job of shifting the boulders around the piers of the bridge.  Once they’d done, they’d have to put them back again.  Those boulders acted as starlings, protecting the piers.  They also acted as perfect dens for mink.

 

Suddenly, a lithe brown body broke cover.  One of the terriers was on it in a heartbeat.  Six down.

 

The trouble came with the seventh. 

 

There was a small crowd of onlookers, peering over the parapets of the Bridge, and standing around the banks of the Burn.  He could just see Morag McKechnie close to the large ash tree that grew at one end of the Bridge.  She was holding Bruce carefully in her arms, the pushchair by her side.  Suddenly, the men and dogs under the Bridge scrambled out of the water and ran up the slope.  Those on the Bridge couldn’t see what had happened, but Angel could.  The last mink had climbed the ash tree, skittering up as though it were born to it, the ancient, craggy bark no obstacle at all. 

 

He frowned, as he tried to resolve the details more clearly, but his eyesight was adapted to night vision, not to broad daylight.  The day was largely overcast, but the light was still overwhelming, and he could see only a little better than a human. 

 

And then he saw the mink, paler than the others had been, longer in the leg, and altogether bigger, run along the top of the parapet.  With her free hand, Morag reached out for it, acting simply on instinct, he thought, but she simply wasn’t quick enough.  Or perhaps she was too quick.  The creature lunged at her, she jumped back, and then blood was dripping from her arm.

 

But the lunge had brought the animal down from the parapet and onto the roadway, straight into the jaws of the pack.  When the huntsmen got there, there was nothing left but shreds.

 

++++++

 

In the end, they went to none of Glasgow’s museums.  Nick whispered something to Giles as they got into the car, and Giles grimaced.  Obediently, though, he drove them to Princes Square.

 

From the first sight of the wrought iron entrance gates, almost fluid in form, Buffy and Lisa were entranced.

 

“Oh,” said Lisa, gazing in delight at a shopping mall that was five floors of liquid curves, flowing wrought iron and stained glass, “I’d heard they’d made a really good job of this, but I hadn’t thought it would be so beautiful.”

 

Nick beamed indulgently.  “It’s designed around Art Nouveau and the Tree of Life.  It’s meant to be the new Rialto.  You know?  The place in old Venice where everyone met to gossip and do business?  Something a bit different, eh?  Shall we try lunch first?  It’s on me.”

 

They did, and the Square’s boast that it only housed the very best was amply borne out.  Afterwards, the designer shops were too much of a temptation.  Even Angel got to benefit from some Calvin Klein underwear.  They’d split into two groups, Giles, and everyone else.  While Giles contented himself visiting the two art galleries, Nick escorted the ladies and carried their bags.

 

At a jewellers, Nick bought a lovely Rennie Mackintosh set, with earrings, a pendant and a bracelet, in silver with pink enamel roses, in the artist’s own Art Nouveau style.  Buffy wondered who it was for, until Nick fastened the pendant around her neck.  As she protested the extravagance, he brushed away her refusal.

 

“Giles told me that he certainly isn’t going to send Keith McKechnie a bill – he knows hill farmers have little enough cash as it is.  So, since Lisa and I called you in, take this as your fee.  And my pleasure, because it looks pretty on you.”

 

She couldn’t refuse, but she noticed with amusement that Nick bought a similar set, Rennie Mackintosh tulips this time, for Lisa.

 

Back in the car, a high outcrop of rock behind the cathedral caught her attention.

 

“Ah,” said Giles, “I think we have time to call in there.”

 

It was the Glasgow Necropolis.  Lisa and Nick seemed to think that it was normal to visit a cemetery, and when she saw it, she understood why there was even a tourist trail around it.  Sunnydale would have been proud of some of these monuments.  Her palm itched for a stake, but she felt the presence of nothing that needed her serious attention, giving Giles a small shake of her head in confirmation.

 

The views over Glasgow and the surrounding countryside were spectacular, and she thought that, if she squinted hard, she could see the mixture of land and water to the west that were the islands and sea lochs and other complicated bits of geography with romantic names like kyle and mull.  She wished Angel could be here to share it.  One day, perhaps.  No.  One day, definitely.

 

Back in the car again, with long hours to go until sunset, Nick suggested driving on to Balloch, on the southern shore of Loch Lomond, for dinner. 

 

To Buffy, he said, in a carefully neutral voice, “I don’t suppose that Angel would wish to join us?”

 

She shook her head, but with real regret, looking out of the window at the overcast sky.

 

“He couldn’t, Nick, although I know he’d love to.”

 

Nick, like Lisa and DCI Ian Collins, had been told that Angel had a rare skin condition that could prove fatal in direct sunlight, and so he simply nodded his acceptance.  She wondered whether he was totally fooled, because he was far from a fool.  Same applied to the other two.

 

On the way out of Glasgow, she saw a sign to Paisley.

 

“As in the pattern?” she asked.

 

“As in the pattern,” Lisa confirmed, “and as in the birthplace of Dr Who.”

 

“Never!” challenged Nick and Giles, almost in synchrony.  “That was Gallifrey,” Nick added.

 

“No, no,” Lisa protested.  “Not the real Dr Who, the man who plays him.  Born in Paisley.”

 

“Really?”

 

Buffy just shook her head.

 

++++++

 

McKechnie silently watched his daughter clear away the remnants of supper, the bandage crisp and white on her arm.  He’d offered to do it, but she’d snapped at him, and so he’d sat down again.  There was something about her.  Something different.  A sharpness, and not just in her voice.

 

Flag, curled by his side, began to growl, a sound that came from the ancient wolf in her.  Morag whirled round.

 

“Get that damned dog out of here, before she goes for the baby!”

 

Hurt, because Flag cherished young Bruce as though he were her own puppy, McKechnie grabbed his coat and flung out of the house without a word.  Morag went silently back to the dishes, but now she had a secret smile on her face.

 

++++++

 

Loch Lomond was everything that had been promised.  After a dinner in which Buffy had sampled clams wrapped in bacon, Loch Lomond duck, and the sweet sharpness of raspberry-laden cranachan, they sat on the terrace of the Kilted Skirlie, overlooking the water and the drowsing glen, and they watched the sun sink into the west.  The Maid of the Loch sparkled with her restored paintwork, in her berth at Balloch pier, and small sailing boats tacked back to their own moorings.  With a clear blue sky and a warm breeze, it was idyllic.

 

As they sipped their coffee, Buffy asked, “Why does everyone up here speak a foreign language?  This is England, isn’t it?”

 

Lisa almost choked on the mouthful she’d just taken, and Nick let out a loud shout of laughter.  Giles frowned.

 

Please don’t let anyone hear you say that!  The Scottish National Party would have to take you in for re-education!”  Then he stared at her innocent expression.

 

“You’re teasing!”

 

“They’re still speaking a foreign language.”

 

He laughed, then.  “English in England is derived from a lot of languages – Latin from the Romans, Germanic languages from the Angles and the Saxons and other assorted tribes, Norse languages from the Vikings, Norman French from William the Conqueror and his ragtag army.  Those are just examples.  Up here, in Scotland, not all those influences made it this far north, although the Vikings certainly did, but the dialects here include many Gaelic words instead.  It’s complicated.  But, these aren’t the hard core Scots speakers, you know.”

 

He pointed up the glen.

 

“See how, over there, you get much bigger hills?  That’s the start of the Highlands.  Here, and in Glasgow, we’re in the Scottish Lowlands.  To a Highlander, people who live here are almost as much Sassenachs as we are.  Up there, some of them speak much more Gaelic than English.”

 

She contemplated that.  Eventually, she said, “I liked Glasgow.  I didn’t expect to, but I did.  I thought it would be just a sort of grubby industrial city.”

 

It was Nick who answered her.  “A few years ago, it was the European City of Culture.  When Britain had an empire, Glasgow was the second city of empire, which arguably made it the second city in the world.  And yet it’s Glasgow that has given us the deep-fried Mars Bar…”

 

He trailed off mournfully amid the amusement, and eyed the westering sun.

 

“Time to head back, I think, or Angel will assume we’ve got lost.”

 

++++++

 

Belle, with her small flock of sisters and nieces and daughters, was at her favourite place for grazing, close to the bridge.  Here, the grass was mingled with tasty wild thyme, bird’s-foot trefoil and rock rose.  And there were great swathes of burnet saxifrage, which helped her to produce milk for her two growing lambs.

 

The dragonflies were using the last of the light to snap up the others.  She didn’t know what to call them, but there were usually some around the place-that-glittered.  Flying things, looking like a lizard might be if it was the size of a bumble bee, and covered in silver scales.  As she grazed, she often saw the glint of fallen scales, down in the grass.

 

There had been many of the flying things in the last few days, and the place under the bridge, the place-that-glittered, seemed to her to be getting bigger, to be smiling, like a fox.  To be dangerous, like a fox.  She understood, in her own sheeply way, that it could mean nothing but trouble for her small family.

 

With a definite ‘baa-aa’, she led her flock away, while there was still enough light to settle the lambs down for the night.

 

++++++

 

Angel knew they weren’t lost.  He knew from Buffy’s call that they were only half an hour away.  But he had missed them.  More often than not, he was content in his own company.  Sometimes, he was even relieved to be alone, away from the noise and the expectations and the rush of blood and the heartbeats.  Not now, though.  He needed humanity around him, friends and loved ones, to drive out the demonic thoughts that had been triggered by the hunt.  There might be a dishonesty in keeping the truth of himself from those who befriended him, but he needed their simple acceptance as a man, to reaffirm what he strove to be.

 

He was glad to hear the car drive up.  It was a quarter to ten, with only a few minutes to sunset, so he finished the glass of AB negative he’d been drinking – a very rare and desirable meal outside Japan and China – and strolled down to the door.  The long Northern twilit evenings were uncomfortable for him, but no more than that, once the sun had gone.

 

He met four happy but tired people.  Nick was laden with bags, but from the names and their general girliness, Angel guessed they were Buffy’s.  He could see more sticking up in the back of the car, presumably Lisa’s.  The retailers of Glasgow had done well.  Grinning, Giles took the bags and carried them up to their rooms, and Nick went with him, in need, he said, of a bathroom.  Lisa stared hard at him, but she could see no guile in his innocent demeanour.  Buffy ran after them, on the same errand.

 

And so it was just Angel and Lisa, strolling out to the Bridge, to enjoy the fading view, who saw Morag McKechnie running down the road, her baby clutched in her arms, the white of the bandage shining out in the gloaming.  Bruce was screaming.  Not the sporadic crying of a fretful infant, but the screams of terror or pain or absolute need.  There was something very wrong.  They both knew as much, instantly, and hurried towards her, Angel reluctantly slowing his pace to that of a normal man so that Lisa could keep up.

 

Morag was leaning over the parapet when they got there, staring down into the Burn.  Lisa stopped a few feet away and followed the girl’s stare.  The level of the stream had fallen, and the water now cascaded over and through naked rocks glassy black in the failing light.  When Morag turned to her, Lisa’s hand flew to her mouth, as she gasped in shock.  The softly waving dark hair and the gentle curves of her face were gone.  Her features were sharper, almost as though she were developing a not-yet pronounced muzzle, and her hair seemed straighter, coarser.  When she turned to Angel, behind her, her once-green eyes were hard and dark, shining like the eyes of a rat, Lisa thought.  Or the eyes of a mink.

 

“Go away,” Morag hissed.  “Go away.  This is no your business, you hear?”

 

Lisa started to talk to her, small inanities because she didn’t know what to say.  The water, the view, the gathering darkness.  Over on the far lawns of the House, she pointed out the indistinct figures of some of the residents, playing a game that she couldn’t quite make out.  She asked Morag what they might be doing.

 

“Get away, you hag!”

 

With that, Morag pulled herself up to straddle the parapet, with more agility than Angel would have expected, given that she had the baby in one arm.  Lisa moved towards her, making soothing nonsense sounds, as she would with a frightened horse.  Morag looked at her with pure malevolence, and then she threw the baby off the Bridge.

 

To Lisa, the world turned to slow motion for those few precious seconds.  She saw Bruce, his tiny arms waving as his shawl started to unwind, as his body followed a rising arc out over the Burn, as the inevitable descent followed.  She saw Angel leap up to the parapet from a standing start, the leap of a supreme athlete, his right foot landing firmly on the weatherworn stone and then pushing him off into a graceful arc that followed Bruce.  She saw him reach out and take the baby from mid-air as deftly as she would pluck an apple, and then she saw him twist like a cat, holding the child securely to his chest as he fell onto his back, hitting the tumbled and broken rocks of the Burn.  Where his head struck, she thought she saw blood fly.  And then she saw Morag pushing herself over the edge, screaming imprecations as she did so.  Lisa herself leapt, as time snapped into joint once more.

 

++++++

 

When Buffy and Giles and Nick left the House, they had only been separated from Lisa and Angel for a few minutes.  Now, they walked out into a world gone mad.  In the dying light, they saw Lisa struggling with a girl who clung to the parapet, as half a dozen of the residents ran up and pulled both women back onto the Bridge.  The girl – they could see now that it was Morag, albeit an altered Morag – shouted to the small crowd.

 

“Did you see her?  Did you see the hag?  She tried to push me off the Bridge.  She was pushing and shoving me… And the other one, he’s taken my baby…”

 

And her litany went on.  Close by, the Administrator of the House spoke urgently into her phone.  She’d called the police.  Of Angel, or the baby, there was no sign.

 

++++++

 

The police, in the burly forms of Sergeant Willie MacLachlan and Constable Malcolm Campbell, duly arrived and tried to understand the situation that confronted them.  One of their own, Morag McKechnie, said she had lost her baby to a southerner, a man, and that an Englishwoman had tried to push her off the Bridge.  The Englishwoman was hotly denying the accusations, and the man was missing.  Three more Sassenachs were butting in and arguing the toss. 

 

Willie gave up all hope of a quiet night and started to take statements.  With only a tiny twinge of guilt, he sent PC Campbell to look in the Burn.  He would have gone himself, if he’d had no other option, but he was relieved not to have to.  It was a benighted spot.  Privately, he thought it belonged to the Devil.

 

He’d barely got the statement forms from his car, and he certainly hadn’t settled all the strangers into sitting down and not aggravating him, when Malcolm came back, with a dripping, blood-streaked man who was as white as the shawl wrapped around the baby he held in his arms.  The bairn was safe, and dry, and quiet, though, looking around him with solemn eyes.

 

“He was under the Bridge, Sarge.  Unconscious.  Want me to call an ambulance?”

 

The man shook off the restraining hand on his arm, and refused the offer of medical help.  Morag ran up and snatched the baby from him.  The child started to scream, beating at her with his tiny hands.  Willie was already nursing a headache from earlier that day, from the identical screaming of his teething twins, and he couldn’t bear it. 

 

More brusquely than he intended, he started issuing orders.  No one could leave the House until he said that they could.  He would start with Miss McKechnie’s statement.  In the Angel Room.  Now.  Would someone look after the bairn until that had been done?  Constable Campbell would take statements from the Administrator and long-term residents, in the Administrator’s office.  Everyone else should consider themselves detained, and there would have to be a report to the procurator fiscal.  And could someone find a pot of tea, brewed strong.  Now.

 

++++++

 

“Procurator fiscal?”

 

Angel was in their room, getting cleaned up.  Everyone else was in Giles’ room.  A flood of questions was welling silently up, threatening to overwhelm the dam of shock.  Until it did so, and until Angel joined them, Buffy asked about the small piece of flotsam that had bobbed to the surface.

 

“The local coroner and public prosecutor,” Giles replied.  “Unique to Scottish law.”

 

“Told you they didn’t speak English,” she said, disgruntled.

 

A phone rang, then, and they all looked at each other, thinking that one of them was being called to see the formidable police sergeant.  Angel opened the door onto that little scene.

 

“Lisa, your handbag’s ringing.”

 

“Oh.  Right.”

 

Lisa rummaged through her bag.  The police sergeant had had a few special words for her, unnerving words, before she followed her friends out of the lobby.  Attempted murder was viewed as seriously in Scotland as in England, he had said.

 

At last, she found it.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Yes, Ian, it’s me.”

 

“No, no, it’s not too late to ring at all.  I’m sorry, I… I haven’t been at home for a few days…”

 

“No… no, nothing’s wrong… Well, except, I think I might be under arrest.”

 

“Scotland.   What for?  Um, attempted murder, I think.”

 

They exchanged a few more words, and then she put the phone away.

 

“He said he’ll be up here on the first flight.”

 

++++++

 

For a wonder, Collins managed to catch the very last flight of the day, although he had to go on with the caterers.  The hour and a quarter flight time gave him more than enough opportunity for introspection.  He took that option rather than going to sleep.  He was afraid that if he went to sleep, it might be hours before he woke up.  He’d had no sleep the night before, and the last few days at work had run him ragged.  There’d doubtless be repercussions about him sloping off like this without a word to anyone, but he was the best detective in the Wessex force, and his superintendent, Dennis the Menace, knew that.  And so he drank coffee, and tried to think of this new problem, tried to stop circling the mental wagons around his existing ones.  He thought about Lisa.

 

He didn’t need his status and experience as Detective Chief Inspector to know that Lisa’s real interest lay elsewhere, although she’d never made him feel it.  At first, he’d worried that she was interested in Nick.  The man was moneyed, and an eminent surgeon and, after all, every time the guy came down, he went to Lisa’s for a riding lesson.  A proper one, with a horse, admittedly.  He’d even seen them doing it.  But he’d worried.  Until, that is, he’d understood about Nick.

 

He’d never had a friend who was, well, you know… But Nick was… unusual.  Still, everything about Summerdown House was unusual.  And he was certainly starting to think of Nick as perhaps something other than a mere acquaintance, even if the word ‘friend’ hadn’t quite made it yet.  The thought would have made him smile, if he hadn’t been feeling so grim.

 

And then he’d truly understood about Nick, and where the man’s heart lay.  With Angel.

 

He’d wondered about Angel, too.  After all, much as he hated to admit it, and even with the man’s rare disability of intolerance to sunlight, Angel was the sort to make women go weak at the knees.  Not that he seemed to know that, to be fair to him.  He was almost always quiet and reserved, and stayed in the background, except when he was with people in whose company he felt comfortable.  That didn’t seem to happen much.  And Angel had some very odd abilities, Collins had no doubt of that.  He was perhaps more open to odd abilities than most policemen might be, but these were seriously strange.  Still, in his experience, those who had lost out in some ways were often gifted in other areas, and he tried not to worry too much about it.

 

When he’d thought that Lisa might be infatuated with Angel, he’d felt sorry for her.  Angel was entirely focused on Buffy, in a way that seemed almost inhuman.  Saintly.  Verging on the obsessive.  There sometimes wasn’t a lot of obvious difference between saints and demons, he thought.  A saint could be just as scary as a demon.  Luckily for Angel, the obsession was returned.

 

But that hadn’t been it, he’d soon realised.  No.  Instead, Lisa had a thing for Giles, and Giles was supremely oblivious.  Giles treated Lisa as an old and valued friend, just as Lisa treated Collins.  Most of the time, anyway.  Those few times when she’d almost treated him as something more had made the rest of it sting, and lent him sympathy for her, and for Nick.

 

He knew all about eternal triangles, thank you so very much.  But this… this wasn’t any sort of eternal triangle, it was more a multi-faceted eternal polygon.

 

As for himself, it only made him angry, angry with himself for being such a fool.  He took a tighter hold on his temper, and hadn’t it been too many years now, that he’d had that iron grip on himself?  But, he’d met Lisa when he’d been more than vulnerable.  When, in the continual warfare with Sheila, he’d thought he’d never see his children again.  He’d thrown himself into his work, as he always did, but he’d found that he needed the human touch, too.  And Lisa brought him some peace.

 

He ripped his thoughts away from such self-pitying maunderings, and concentrated on the matter in hand.  He knew almost nothing, except that the inhabitants of Summerdown House were always neck deep in affairs that shouldn’t concern them.  They should leave police work to policemen, that’s what policemen were for.

 

And yet, said a small part of his psyche, did they really interfere in police work?  Or did they do work that Summerdown House was for?

 

He repressed that idea savagely.  Civilians were civilians, and should stay that way, and now they’d got Lisa dangerously involved in something that she should have been kept well away from.  He blamed Summerdown House.  He blamed Lisa.  But most of all, he blamed himself, although what he could possibly have done about it, he failed to examine.

 

The ping of the pre-landing announcements came just in time for his temper.

 

++++++

 

Buffy thought they’d never get some privacy, but now Nick was being interviewed, and Lisa had asked for some time alone.  Giles had taken her to Angel and Buffy’s room and, after a few minutes, had come back.

 

“What the hell happened, Angel?”

 

“That’s what I just asked, Giles, but he refused to answer until you got back!  Come on, Angel!  Why are we all sitting here being interrogated like criminals?  We’re the good guys.  We found the jumping-off-the-bridge thing, but now we’re the bad guys?”

 

Buffy, propped up against Giles’ pillows, put her arms around her knees and hugged them to her.  She glared at Angel, waiting for an answer to her question.

 

“No, we didn’t,” he said.  “We found part of the cause, but there’s something else.  I should have known.  There was another scent.  There’s something else under the bridge.”

 

He told them about Morag and the baby.

 

“So Lisa was trying to stop her?”

 

“I don’t know, Giles.  I’d cracked my head open on a rock by that time.  But I guess so.”

 

“Why do you say there’s something else under the bridge?” Buffy asked.

 

“There’s a scent that’s very like the scent of mink.  And stoat.  But different.  Paler, in comparison, more fleeting.  I can’t describe it.  And when I was knocked unconscious, I definitely saw stars, but I don’t think they were in my head.  I think there’s a rift under the bridge.  We have to get back down there.”

 

++++++

 

Willie’s headache wasn’t getting any better.  The initial statements were all taken, and now he’d have to report back.  As yet, he’d no idea what to make of it.

 

He knew Morag McKechnie, slightly.  He knew her father better, but he’d talked to Morag before.  There was something about her, now, and he couldn’t put his finger on it.  There was something he felt he should see, but every time he tried, his attention kept sliding away from her.

 

And the others had seemed so convincing.  Except, how could the man called Angel – and what sort of name was that for a man, anyway? – how could the man have fished the bairn, dry and unharmed, out of the water, which is what he said he’d done, and then slipped and cracked his head on a rock?  And why did the woman say he’d jumped, after Morag had thrown the baby?

 

He shook his head.  It was a pity the residents at the House hadn’t seen that.  All they’d seen was the two women struggling by the parapet.  As Willie gathered up his papers, Campbell stuck his head round the door.

 

“They’ve got McKechnie at the station, Sarge.  Drunk and disorderly.  Thought you’d want to know.  He’s sobered up a bit now.”

 

It was a long time since McKechnie had got drunk.  Not since… Well, no use thinking about that.

 

“Tell them to put him in a car and send him up here.”

 

“The dog’s there, too.”

 

“You’re not thinking of leaving it there?”

 

“No, Sarge.”

 

Campbell disappeared, to be replaced in the doorway a moment later by a tall middle-aged man with dark hair just touched by grey, and a sour expression.

 

“Sergeant MacLachlan.”

 

It was a statement, not a question.

 

“Aye, and who be you?”

 

The man held out a warrant card.  Detective Chief Inspector Collins.

 

“You’ve got nae jurisdiction here.  Sir.  The local plods can manage well enough.”

 

“No,” said the man, mildly.  “I know I haven’t.  I’ve just come to see if my friends need any help.”

 

Willie groaned, inwardly.

 

++++++

 

Collins was still talking to Sergeant MacLachlan when Keith McKechnie was decanted out of a police car.  He looked a bit green around the gills, but at least he could walk.  The dog didn’t look much better, thought Willie uncharitably, as the two were ushered into the small office.  In as few words as possible, Willie told McKechnie what Morag had said.

 

Instead of shock, or worry, McKechnie’s face showed derision.

 

“Aw, Wullie, ye used to hae a brain on top o’ them shoulders.  Those folk nae hae done anything to Morag.  The girl’s goin’ soft i’ the heid.  Hae ye seen her?  Did you look at her?  She’s obsessed wi’ that bridge.  They come up here to help, after Folly went over the edge.  They specialise in that manner of thing, haunted bridges and such like.

 

“Ah,” said Collins.  “Haunted bridges?  Now why didn’t I think of that?  I really should have known.”

 

The irony of the man’s tone wasn’t lost on Willie.

 

“You’ve seen them involved in this before, sir?”

 

“Not exactly like this, Sergeant, but close enough.  And they have been… helpful.”

 

Willie folded his papers and stuffed them into his pocket. 

 

“If that’s the way of it…  I’ll bid you goodnight.  Keith, look to your lass.” 

 

And, calling to Campbell, he was off, relieved to get away from the fou and the mad.

 

++++++

 

Collins was on his way to give a number of people a piece of his mind, when he met them all coming into the lobby.  There was the sound of a baby crying, and then another door opened, and Keith McKechnie came out with his daughter.  His dog hung behind, trying to keep her master between Morag and herself.  Morag’s shawl was over her head, and her face was in shadow so that he couldn’t see her, but the baby in her arms was screaming frantically.  When they got outside, McKechnie took hold of Giles’ arm.

 

“Ye’ll do what ye came here to do?  Ye’ll end this?”

 

“We’ll do our best, Mr McKechnie.”

 

McKechnie wasn’t satisfied, though.  He pushed back Morag’s shawl.  When he spoke, his accent had become a thick burr, hard to understand. 

 

“Luik at ma dochter.  What’s ta becam of her?  Jus’ luik.”

 

The others were shocked.  Collins swore savagely, but Lisa had seen the Syriak demons, and Nick had seen a coral statue where three living people had stood. 

 

The progress of the change was rapid, now.  Her teeth were slim, sharp daggers, set in a muzzle of sparse russet fur, her eyes dark and beady.  Even McKechnie seemed taken aback, as though she had changed in the last few minutes since he’d pulled up her shawl.  Suddenly, she made a dash for the Burn, where it flowed beneath the Bridge.

 

Buffy caught her, and willing hands helped to hold the girl back.  Collins lifted Bruce out of her arms, and the baby quieted, but Morag started to curse in words that they couldn’t understand.  Flag turned away from her, and fled.

 

“Take her to the cottage,” Angel said, “while we decide what to do.  I’m going to have a look under the Bridge.  Then we’ll talk.”

 

“Do any of you have any idea what time it is?”  Collins asked, grumpily, exhaustion taking its toll.  He wanted a few hours sleep before they tried to unravel this particular tangle, and before he had to consider the possibility of a woman turning into something weaselly.  More, he couldn’t seem to find any sensible question to ask.

 

“Forty minutes to sunrise,” Angel answered.  “And this won’t wait.”

 

Buffy moved to go with him.

 

“No, Buffy.  They’ll need help with her.  She won’t go quietly.  I don’t want her coming at me down there.”

 

Buffy wasn’t happy, but she saw the sense in it, and ran back to the group as they tried to get Morag into Giles’ car.  Angel ran down to the Burn.

 

The stream was no more than knee deep, now, but he balanced on the tumbled rocks of the starling, and kept out of the water.  Beneath the arch, shockingly out of place, a small square of dim red light hung over the water, like a surreal picture.  It was, in a very literal sense, a window onto another world, a world in which a giant red sun was sinking past the horizon.  He put out a hand and felt the familiar sting.  Snatching his hand back, he plunged it into the cold water, bending down to do so, and it was that motion that probably saved him.  From behind, a weight threw him forward, and he saw the gleam of metal over his head.

 

He and his assailant fell forward into the water.  He twisted around, and found that the other was no longer there.  And then, as he rose, steel glittered again in the darkness, and a line of red fire blossomed on his neck.  He ignored it, as he threw himself backwards, looking for the attacker.  Quick as he was, this thing was quicker, and he couldn’t locate it.  As he fell, his hand passed through the portal, and something on the other side clawed at it, catching and holding it.  He felt teeth sinking in, and then the pain of the fire, as his hand stayed too long in the sunlight, but it was that same, sudden fire that made the second beast let go.

 

And then his attacker was at his front, and a long, slim knife jabbed down towards his throat.  Suddenly, a black and white form lunged at the knife hand.  Flag.  The attacker hissed, but it was distracted.  Surging up from the water with a roar, Angel knocked its arms apart, and he hurled the beast bodily at the stone wall of the Bridge.  It hit, with a sickening thud, and slid down onto the starling.

 

There was movement behind him, and he whirled round.  Another one of the creatures was halfway through the window.  He flung himself through the water and grasped it around the neck.  With a twist of his hands, the slender spine snapped, and it fell limp.  He pushed it backwards, to its own world, to find a dozen or more staring at him from the other side of the rift.  He couldn’t go over there, into the sunlight, and he didn’t want them over here, in a pack.

 

And so he stood in the window, blocking it, ready to break anything that tried to come through.  Mink were about territories and aggression.  If there were any link between these beings and the mink, perhaps he could use that.  Displaying jagged fangs, he growled deep in his chest, as he had done to the stoat.  As he had done, once, to a werewolf.

 

Mine.

 

The creatures hesitated, looking at each other, and then hissed at him.  He growled again, louder.

 

MINE.

 

The pack chattered to each other, then turned and ran.

 

Relieved, he went back to the one he’d smashed against the wall.  It was quite dead, its skull cracked and bloody.  He picked up the knife, and thrust it into his belt, saying a word of praise to Flag.  Then he examined the body.  These creatures were nothing he’d seen before.  It looked as though a mink had decided to become human, and yet was still recognisably a mink.  It was human-sized, but much more slender, much more lithe, much more agile, and with a mouthful of predator’s teeth. 

 

He remembered the changes in Morag.  These must be poisonous teeth.  Or worse.  He looked at his hand where the one on the other side of the window had bitten him.  It was red and swollen around the site of the bite, over and above the burns from the otherworld sun, and there was an intolerable itch.  And then the swelling and the itching were gone.  The bite remained, but it was just a bite to him, no more than that, and would soon be healed.

 

Satisfied that his demon had the upper hand, in this at least, he lifted the creature onto his shoulder, and set off at a lope for the cottage, followed by the sheepdog.  He knew now what had to be done, but he really didn’t like it.

 

He left the body outside, discreetly hidden.  Flag refused to cross the threshold.  Inside, Morag was in a corner, snarling.  Another hour or two, and there might be nothing of her humanity to salvage.  Speed was going to be of the essence.

 

“Angel, what did you…?”

 

“Angel, your neck!”

 

He quieted both Giles and Buffy, and looked at Nick and at McKechnie.

 

“The problem with Morag is poisoned blood.  She was bitten, and whatever she was infected with is spreading through her body.  What she’s turning into… she’ll stay like that, I’m certain.  She’s becoming another type of being.”

 

He could see that they wanted to deny what he said, but the evidence of their own eyes forbade that.

 

“There’s an antidote?” Nick asked.

 

It was Giles who replied.  “We don’t even know what she’s becoming, or what the infective agent is.  She doesn’t have time for us to spend weeks finding out.”

 

Suddenly, Morag began to sniff the air, and with a howl, she ran for the door.  Angel caught her, and McKechnie went to help.

 

“I canna do naught and see ma dochter ta’en fra me.  What would ye say needs ta be done?”

 

“She needs a complete blood transfusion.  She needs the poisoned blood flushed out, and she needs it done now.”

 

Nick gaped at Angel, but McKechnie’s shoulders straightened in determination.

 

“Verra well.  Then that must be done.”

 

“You can’t just take her, like that, to any old outpatients!  We’ll all disappear into some government facility!”

 

“Nick!  I didn’t know you were a conspiracy theorist?”  Collins, still holding Bruce, and looking surprisingly competent at doing so, was trying to come to terms with events.  He was never at his best when he was exhausted.

 

“Dash it all, I’m not!  But will you look at her?  You think we can take her to a hospital and just ask for a total blood replacement?  Perhaps we can leave her outside, and just ask for one to go, while we’re at it?”

 

“That’s almost what we’re going to do, Nick,” Angel said, quietly.  “You’re a surgeon.  We’ll do it here.”

 

“You’re mad!  Stark raving mad!”

 

“No, Nick,” Angel soothed.  “It can be done.  It has to be done, or she’ll be lost to us.”

 

“If you can do it, then I’m beggin’ you to give my Morag back to me.  Please.”

 

McKechnie didn’t look like a man who would beg for very much at all.  And Nick knew there was no other choice, provided Angel was right.  Suddenly decisive, he turned to Giles.

 

“Rupert, my bag, in that bedroom, fetch it for me please.  Now, the one thing this cottage has a severe lack of is spare blood.  I suppose you have a plan?”

 

Angel smiled, a small and tight thing.

 

“There’s a blood bank in Glasgow.”

 

“Oh, and I suppose that we’re just going to go and knock on the door and ask for a bagful, are we?”

 

“No.  Buffy and Giles are going to steal some.”

 

Collins looked up from the baby with astonishment, but said nothing.  Nick, though, looked grim.

 

“And just what sort are we going to steal, might I ask?  Mr McKechnie, I don’t suppose you happen to know her blood type?”

 

McKechnie shook his head.  Nick frowned.

 

“The wrong guess would kill her, so we’ll have to take the safest choice.  O negative.”

 

Angel’s voice, quiet, but calm, cut through the silence.

 

“She’s AB negative.”

 

“How can you know?”  Collins sounded rattled.

 

“Just trust me on this.”

 

Giles nodded confirmation, and Buffy took Angel’s hand.

 

“But Angel,” Nick remonstrated, “AB is the rarest blood group.  Only one percent of people in this country are AB.”

 

“I know.  But she is.  And negative.”

 

The surgeon looked helplessly around.

 

“If that’s Angel’s opinion,” said Giles, “you should believe it.”

 

With a shrug, Nick started to rummage in his bag.

 

“Large bore cannulae… yes… tubing… Rupert, bring that coat stand and put it over by the couch… And what are you doing still here, if you have blood to steal?  We can’t start until you get back, you know.”

 

“Yes.  We can.  I’ve got three bags of AB negative.  Buffy, they’re behind the others.  Could you get them, please?  I seem to have my hands full with Morag.”

 

To say that Angel became the centre of attention was an understatement, and the look that Buffy gave him was particularly old-fashioned.  He knew she’d be asking questions later.  For now, he preferred not to think about later.

 

“They’ll need warming, Buffy, if we don’t want a cardiac arrest,” Nick called after her, “but not in a microwave, mind…”

 

Nick’s plan was to lay Morag on the couch, and work from there.  Morag had her own ideas, though, refusing to cooperate in any way.  When they tried to push her down, and hold her, she screamed and kicked, with surprising strength.

 

Angel turned to her father and saw the distress on his face.

 

“Keith.  There are… strange things happening under the Bridge.  We need to be sure that nothing comes here that we don’t know about.  Would you and Flag go and watch the road?  If you see anything, don’t try to stop it yourself, just come straight back here.  Can you do that?  We’ll make sure that Morag and the baby stay safe.”

 

McKechnie hesitated, and then nodded.  He left without a word.

 

Collins laid the baby down in one of the bedrooms, and even with all of them trying to restrain Morag, they made hard work of it.  Eventually, though, Nick had the cannulae in place, one for the new blood, and one to drain her poisoned blood. 

 

When Buffy returned with the three bags, Nick glanced at the label, and then looked hard at Angel.  He decided not to ask, though.  Not yet.  He hung a bag from the coat stand, to start the exchange.

 

“As much blood as you can get, Giles.  I may need to flush her out more than once.  Unless any of you know better?”

 

None of them did.  Nick set the process in motion. 

 

Buffy looked at the tableau in the centre of the room.  Angel and Collins holding Morag down, Lisa tending the bowl that held the flow of blood from Morag.  It looked just like ordinary blood.  Red.  Liquid.  Angelfood.  She nodded to Giles, and they started for the door.

 

“I can’t!”

 

Nick’s outburst was filled with frustration, as he turned off both cannulae.  Morag, grinning, renewed her struggles, knocking over the bowl of blood to spread accusingly over the carpet.  Her face was almost unrecognisable now, and there was a scent of musk in the room.

 

“What is it, Nick?  What can’t you do?”  Giles walked back over to the surgeon as he spoke.

 

Nick looked around the room in entreaty.

 

“We can’t do it this way!  I’m going on faith that Angel is right, although I don’t know why I should.  But even so, I need to keep the inward flow of blood as equal as possible to the outward flow, and I have no means of measuring that.  I have no equipment… It needs a hospital…”

 

Giles laid a hand on his arm.  “What are the consequences of getting it wrong Nick?”

 

Nick glowered.

 

“Oh, nothing much.  If I let her blood pressure get too high, just blindness and stroke.  If I let it get too low, organ failure and multiple clots.”

 

“And the risk of that is worse than this?”

 

Giles gestured to the stricken girl.  Nick shook his head, uncertain.  Ian Collins looked around the people in the room, all of them now silent in the face of the dilemma.

 

“If we ask McKechnie whether he’s prepared to take those risks for his daughter…?”

 

Lisa replied, hotly, “That’s still not fair to Nick!”

 

“No,” said Angel, his voice pitched to soothe.  “No, it isn’t fair to Nick.  Or to Morag.  We can do it differently.  Nick, take out the drain. You won’t need it.”

 

Giles turned to him, startled.  Buffy grabbed his hand.  She was afraid she knew what he had in mind. 

 

“Angel, are you sure about this?”

 

“Yes, Buffy.  Her life’s at stake.  It has to be done.”

 

“If it’s poisoned…?”  She didn’t want to say too much, but she didn’t want a weasel for a boyfriend.

 

He smiled reassuringly.

 

“I’ll be fine.”

 

“Do you want me to wait for a few minutes… before…?”

 

He just nodded, too grateful to have her with him to begrudge the small delay, and then he settled himself against the arm of the couch, behind Morag.  He pulled her back against his chest, and held her tightly as she struggled to be free.  He tried not to feel the thrill of the impending feed in the warmth of her body against his, in the movement of her ribcage beneath his arms, in the steady pounding of her heart as he held her in this position most favoured by the predator in him.  It had been such a long time… His very nature, denied to him… He felt the rush of saliva in his mouth, and swallowed hard against it.

 

“Nick, you can start the blood up again.  I’ll take care of everything else.”

 

“But… But if we don’t have a drain…”

 

“I’ll deal with that.”

 

Buffy moved to stand behind him, protectively.  She knew what was about to happen, but what she didn’t know was how these people would react.  These people, who they’d come to call friends.  She didn’t mind so much for herself, but for Angel…

 

Giles, too, understood, now, and he walked back from the doorway to stand next to Buffy.  He hoped it wouldn’t come to the three of them against the ordinary humans whom they otherwise protected.  But he was prepared for it, if it did. He was sure that Buffy was, too.

 

Nick’s whole body screamed of frustration.

 

“But how?  What do you think you can do?”

 

“This.”

 

++++++

 

Lisa leaped back as Morag’s struggles overturned the bowl that she’d found in which to catch the blood.  They had what looked like three pints of blood – and she definitely wanted to ask why those were part of Angel’s baggage – and so, thinking logically, she’d found a four-pint bowl in the kitchen.  The small coffee table had been perfect, but then Morag’s foot had lashed out, and both table and bowl had skittered across the room.  There couldn’t have been more than a few tablespoons of blood in it, but when it came to red, a little went a very long way.  Now, a scarlet patch was unfurling on the otherwise nondescript oatmeal carpet.  Ruby drops still slid down the inside of the transparent plastic tubing, clinging briefly to the end, and then surface tension yielded to gravity as they joined their fellows.  That was going to be a bitch to get out.

 

She ran to retrieve the bowl, but Nick had turned off the cannula, and when she got back to her place, the tubing showed only the odd globule still adhering to its inner walls, refusing to be birthed.

 

She’d missed the conversation, after Nick had declared that he couldn’t, but now Angel was sliding onto the settee, arranging his legs around Morag, and holding the girl in his lap.  Jealous desire spiked briefly through Lisa, a momentary feeling of pure lust, before she started to wonder what Angel thought he was doing. 

 

Lisa looked at Buffy.  How would she feel about her boyfriend in such an intimate embrace with another woman?  If Morag could still be called a woman, that is.  Buffy and Giles moved to stand behind Angel, and somehow Lisa understood that, with or without the sand, a line had been drawn in it.  What the line denoted quite escaped her, until Nick spoke.

 

“But how?  What do you think you can do?”

 

And Angel replied.

 

“This.”

 

His face changed.  There were other, more subtle changes that might not be noticed, except by someone used to sizing up the physical attributes of the animals she worked with, but the face was the only thing that she immediately registered.

 

She knew she’d seen it before.  Only once in reality, of course, when Angel had been almost lost in the embrace of what he had called a Syriak, and it had been dark then.  Dark, as in the darkness of the countryside, where there were no streetlights, and even the lights from her house and from the stableyard didn’t penetrate.  Dark, in the way that city people no longer understood.  They’d been down in the lower outdoor school, the one where horses were afraid to go, the one that was rarely used and so it had no lighting.  There had been only starlight and moonlight, but even so, she’d seen the horror that was sucking the life from Angel.  That scene had replayed over and over again in her waking mind, and then in ever more bizarre repetitions in her dreams.

 

And each time she replayed that scene, she’d see the gibbous winter moon sail out from behind a ragged cloud, its icy light shining down on the tableau before her, and Angel’s face had seemed… fiercer, in those harsh black and white shadows.  She thought she’d heard Buffy say, very quietly, ‘Angel, you’re doing demon…’

 

She hadn’t understood, and no explanation had ever been offered, but she’d understood enough to know that Angel was… different.

 

Over the months since then, she’d seen that picture in her head a thousand times.  More.  And each time, she’d thought that her own imaginings were making something of Angel’s face that had never existed, except in those darkest of sweat-dripping dreams.  And even if there had been something, it paled into insignificance beside the memory of the Syriak.

 

And it had certainly paled into insignificance when two men carrying one of the long-dead corpses from the field, long-dead but not long enough, had slipped in the mud, and the corpse had fallen free.  She’d seen the face of corruption there, and she didn’t think she’d ever stop seeing it.

 

She’d believed that nothing could shake her now, except her own memories, and then Angel had said, ‘This.’

 

What she saw had no darkness to hide it, or moonlight to make her think it was a trick of the shadows, no Syriak to upstage it.  There were only humans for comparison.

 

She looked at the fangs, and at the amber eyes, deep set under the swollen brow ridge, and protected by sharper, harsher cheekbones.  She didn’t know exactly what he was, but she knew a predator when she saw one, and a tiny part of her hindbrain, something that millions of years ago had belonged to a small furry animal, screamed at her to RUN.

 

She didn’t know what he was, and yet, and yet… she did.  Not exactly, but she carried in herself the species memories from a million moonless nights, and it hadn’t only been wolves and cave bears that were feared…

 

And so, as that small, primitive, insect-eating prey animal within her chattered at her to RUN, something only a little less ancient spoke to her in the velvet tones of seduction.  It was as though fingers of desire pressed against her, cool on her skin, but bringing a thrilling heat wherever they passed.  In response to the imperative summons, she started to bend her neck.

 

And then, as soon as it had come, the spell was broken when Buffy moved, putting her hand on Angel’s shoulder.  Lisa looked at Angel’s other face, and she was not afraid.  She remembered that he was still Angel.  Buffy clearly thought so.  Giles thought so.  Remembering what she knew of the things that Angel and the others had done, Lisa found that she thought so, too.

 

But someone was going to tell her what the hell was going on. When all this was over, she’d bloody well make sure of it.

 

++++++

 

Ian Collins was a strong man, but he thought he’d bitten off more than he could chew, trying to hold Morag down.  And that was with help from Angel.  The girl was as slippery as an eel, and much stronger than she looked to be.  Add to that the fact that her body seemed to twist where there shouldn’t be any joints capable of doing what she was doing, and the sheer awkwardness of the sofa, and he was beginning to think that he should go find a length of rope to tie her down with.  But that would leave Angel coping with her on his own, and he didn’t think that one man could do that.

 

He was thinking all these thoughts, he knew, because he was trying not to think about the patently obvious thing that was almost punching him on the nose.  Her face.

 

All of her, really, but her face was… It was something he’d never seen before, except perhaps on road kill, and he was pretty sure he never wanted to see it again on anyone.  It was half weasel and half human, and all nightmare.

 

And that’s what he thought he was in.  A nightmare.  An hallucination, perhaps.  This was his second night on the trot without any sleep at all, and he was definitely feeling light-headed.

 

He hadn’t covered himself with anything like glory tonight.  Bad enough that he’d been useless so far, but worse, he seemed to be trapped in some sort of surreal hell dimension.  Until they’d asked him to help hold Morag down, he’d done nothing useful except take care of the baby.

 

Once the local plods had gone, he’d thought that was it.  Job done.  But that had only been the start of it.  A man, a stranger, with an accent as thick as haggis, had pushed a shawl off a young woman’s head, and it hadn’t been a young woman at all.  It had been this… thing.

 

The people he’d come here to help all seemed to be part of the situation, part of the insanity, and what had he done?  He’d stood there making stupid remarks about what time it was.  And the madness had continued.  He’d taken charge of the only normal thing, the crying baby, so like young David…  No.  Don’t go there.  And they’d been talking about blood transfusions and government facilities, and he was already afraid he might finish up somewhere like that, and so he’d asked about conspiracies, and held the baby, and stood apart, not knowing whether he was simply asleep on the plane.  The warmth in his arms had suggested otherwise, though.

 

Nick and Angel had argued, and Angel had won.  Somehow, Collins thought that Angel might always win, if he put his mind to it.  And then Angel had talked of stealing blood, and what had he, the policeman, done?  Nothing.  He simply hadn’t believed what was happening, his sleep-deprived brain sluggish, useless, so much gelatinous waste matter.  Like him.

 

He hadn’t understood any of the rest.  Angel knew the girl’s blood group.  How?  Why?  Angel had human blood in his room.  Again, how?  Why?

 

Collins wasn’t a follower.  He’d never been a follower.  If he had, he might now be something more than a Detective Chief Inspector, and he was lucky to have that, when you thought about his clashes with authority.  That had been one of the things that fuelled the rows with Sheila.  But only one of the things.

 

So, he questioned, he made his own decisions, he didn’t follow.  And yet, he’d let go of his sheet anchor in all the lunacy, the baby, laying it on the bed to sleep, and he’d followed the rest in holding Morag down.  Then they’d all been given other surreal tasks.  Tend the bowl to catch the blood.  Steal more blood.  Only he and Angel were left holding the thing that a young woman had become, and then Nick had seemed to come back to reality.  He’d stopped what was happening and said ‘I can’t’.

 

Collins had come to wonder then, as one does in a surreal nightmare, whether the characters around him would now, one by one, revert to simple normality, and whether he’d then be able to take the necessary step back into everyday reality.  He’d looked around, waiting for that to happen, waiting for the things around him to shimmer and fade, and for something real to take their place.

 

Instead, Angel had positioned himself with the weasel woman in his lap, and Collins had thought, with sinking dread, that the unreality was going to get worse, and that he’d now start to imagine orgies where none existed.  Just because he wasn’t getting any right now…

 

But things had gone way beyond that type of nightmare.

 

Nick had said, “But how?  What do you think you can do?”

 

And Angel had replied.

 

“This.”

 

If Morag was a nightmare, what Angel became was the cause of the nightmare.  The thing under the bed.  The horror in the closet.  The creature in the shadows on the darkest nights, when you sense it at your back, feel the solidity of a presence, the reaching fingers, the carnivore’s breath, and you twist round as quickly as you can, and there’s nothing there.  But you can still feel it behind you, in the tiny, vestigial hairs on the nape of your neck.  In that unseen margin of personal space that we call our own.

 

The face that Angel showed was a thing of glistening fangs and harsh planes and angles, a parody of humanity, but with a terrible beauty.

 

Collins wanted to arm himself, to find a blunt instrument to lash out with, anything to defend against the thing on the sofa.  He tensed to rise from his crouched and vulnerable position, and found that he couldn’t.  Like a rabbit, he was watching the dance of the stoat, and he was paralysed.  He felt the rush of adrenalin, felt it scour through his body, as the instinct for self-preservation screamed at him to get up, to run, to do something, because here lay sure and certain death, but he remained frozen in place.  Even as his muscles refused to answer to him, though, the adrenalin cleared his mind, and everything around him gained pinpoint clarity.

 

He might be in a fantasy, but it was all real.  The woman was a monster.  The occupants of Summerdown House didn’t seem at all surprised.

 

Angel, the man he’d shaken hands with, often, was a monster, and Buffy and Giles seemed even less surprised about that.

 

He remembered walking down the cellar stairs at Corbett’s farm.  He remembered the ill-defined feeling he’d had then, of shadowy terror at his back.  Angel had been the one behind him, on the stairs.  Had he worn that face?  Those fangs?

 

And then Collins remembered other faces that Angel had worn during that terrible search for bodies.  Horror.  Infinite sadness.  And he remembered Angel, down in the old tunnels in Westbury, shielding Martha and John and Giles and Buffy with his own body.  He remembered the man he knew.

 

That small, ancient part of him was wrong.  Whatever he looked like now, Angel was a man, not a monster.

 

But, by God, he’d be damned and broken back to a constable if someone didn’t tell him exactly what was going on.  Exactly.  As soon as there was time.

 

++++++

 

Nick was angry.  And frightened.  As he turned off the cannulae, his ‘I can’t’ was a mixture of both those emotions.  And more.  He was a surgeon, and he’d seen some terrible things.  Even in a general way, with both surgeons and cooks, once you’ve seen a body from the inside out, pretty well nothing much can turn your stomach.

 

Pretty well nothing.  Not absolutely nothing.  There’s always a threshold.  One of his specialisms was a wicked and cruel disease called fibrodysplaysia ossificans progressiva, which turned a body to living, ossified bone, leaving its victims to die lingering and dreadful deaths.  Even that hadn’t prepared him for the sight of three people turned, in a very literal blink of the eye, into a dead coral statue.  At least, he’d been assured they were dead, which was something of a relief in the circumstances.  Sometimes, death can be a valued friend.

 

Giles had told him of the Gorgons.  Well, he’d already known about Gorgons, naturally.  He’d studied the classics as a boy.  There’d been no option on that, at his school, and he’d enjoyed all the rambunctious mythology.  What they’d never told him at school, though, was that the Gorgons were actually real.

 

And so Giles had explained, in very rough terms, what had happened, and Nick had nodded, and said the right things, and put it all to the back of his mind.  And he hadn’t asked questions afterwards.  Sometimes, he’d wanted to, but Nick was graced not only with the looks of a Greek god, but also with a formidable intelligence.  He knew that to ask questions would mean accepting that what had happened had truly been a Gorgon turning herself and two young lovers to stone.

 

He wasn’t ready for knowledge like that.  He didn’t think he’d ever be ready for that.  And so he hadn’t asked.

 

And then he’d discovered that Angel was, in some way, dead, which was probably a good thing, considering that, at the time, the back of the man’s head had been smashed in and his legs almost severed.

 

Again, Nick knew that he had sublimated the information, once the crisis was over.  He was a phlegmatic soul – after all, the British were noted for their stolid, unexcitable calm – and he thought that if he had really, really confronted what he knew, then he would have run screaming.  That would be bad for the image.  And probably for the sanity.

 

His work alone gave him bad dreams.  You can’t see the suffering that he saw without some of it sloshing into your unconscious, he thought.  Even so, those bad dreams now had a deeper, darker edge to them.  In some ways, it was a good job that Angel wasn’t free, or wasn’t attracted, because if the case were altered, Nick would have had to open his mind, and face the razor’s edge of knowledge that waited for him.  Knowledge that waited to slice him open and examine his very soul, and possibly even his innards.

 

So, he had never asked questions, never probed, never sought to know more than was freely offered, and there was very little of that, and occasionally he had marvelled that Angel was so full of life for a dead man, so perhaps death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  And he’d started to consign the terrifying supernatural to the sock drawer of memory.

 

Now, he was faced with a woman turning into a weasel, and memory’s sock drawer stood open and empty.

 

And he was expected to believe that a total blood transfusion would save Morag, and that Angel could possibly know what blood she would need.  To accept that Angel carried bags of human blood in his luggage.  Nick was used to responsibility, for pity’s sake, but he was flying on blind faith here, in the face of an horrific transmogrification from human to mustelid, and in the light of disturbing revelations about a man he admired.  The terrifying supernatural lay beneath his hands, daring him to disbelieve this.

 

It had all become too much.  ‘I can’t’ had been wrung out of him as anger and fear fought for control with sheer frustration that he had a patient whom none of his hard-won knowledge could begin to help.

 

Giles had tried to calm and reassure him, and Lisa had leapt to his defence, for which he was profoundly grateful.  But nothing had pierced the fear and the anger, because Morag was only the tip of the iceberg.  The horrors were out of the sock drawer, and, willhe nillhe, Nick would find out whether he could bear to know.

 

Nothing touched the fear and anger, that was, until Angel spoke.  It was the voice of the siren, enslaving men to its will, the voice of the abyss that seduced men to their deaths, the velvet voice of desire that so often meant tears in the morning, but that was impossible to resist now.

 

As he tried to fight his way out of its honeyed coils, he saw Angel settle himself on the couch, wrapping his long legs around Morag, and pulling her back towards him.  Some small part of Nick wanted to rip her throat out.

 

Angel told him to remove the drain and, as Nick fought the seduction of that voice, the imperative to simply obey, he found enough coherence to ask, ‘But how?  What do you think you can do?’

 

And Angel replied.

 

“This.”

 

A mental sock drawer could never contain this.  Even the darkness of an entire closet would never be enough.  Nick gazed into the face of the abyss, with its amber eyes and its glittering fangs, and, in the words of the philosopher, the abyss gazed into him.

 

And Nick found that he was not afraid.  He looked, really looked, at the creatures in front of him, and remembered the rest of the philosopher’s words.

 

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.

 

Perhaps that wasn’t the case here.  Perhaps it was the other way round.  Perhaps a monster had decided to fight monsters, for who else could hope to understand a woman turning into a weasel?  Who else could hope to remedy that?

 

Now that he had come out of the other side of fear, into that calm space where anything is possible, he saw the shocking beauty that was Angel’s monster, the perfection of a predator.  He wanted to know more.  To touch, to examine, to understand the changed anatomy.  To understand how.

 

Later.  There was time for that later.  Angel was waiting for him to do something now.  Angel had shared something with them, something kept secret and hidden, and Nick knew a thing or two about direful secrets, about the need for evasion and lies and concealment.  Knew about the consequences of discovery.  Oh, yes, indeed.  But Angel had trusted them with this, for Morag’s sake.

 

That was not the action of a monster.

 

And then Buffy moved her hand, and the spell that had kept them all frozen in time was shattered, in the blinking of an eye.

 

++++++

 

“This.”

 

As he spoke that single word, Angel allowed the demon to surface, and the syllable lisped through the ragged, glittering fangs of the vampire.  Secure in the knowledge that Buffy and Giles were at his back, he looked at the people he’d come to call friends, waiting for the cries of horror, the repudiation, the calls for his destruction.  The taste of his expectation was as bitter as bile in his mouth.  Motionless, he tested the air, to see what that could tell him, but he was temporarily overwhelmed by the scent of musk from the woman in his lap, and the scent of blood from the scarlet patch on the carpet.  And by the scent of love from the woman behind him.

 

There was absolute and utter silence, even from Morag.  Everyone in the room remained frozen in place, as long seconds ticked by.  And then Buffy put her hand on his shoulder.  That one small movement seemed to break the spell of eternity, of paralysis, and Nick, with a shaky sigh, turned the cannula on.

 

“Ian,” he asked, his voice not quite steady, “could you help Angel hold her down, stop her struggling?”

 

“There’ll be no need of that,” Angel said, swallowing back the bitterness, hoping that the other two could do what Nick had just done, at least until Morag was saved.  “She’s still human enough.  There’ll be no struggling.”  He didn’t want anyone else too close, not now, not near enough to really see the perverted pleasure he would take in this.  And he most certainly didn’t want to see the expressions of disgust and horror that must surely follow, when they saw what went with this face.

 

Nick looked at him steadily, his hand hovering over the tiny tap that would stop the flow of blood again.

 

“Well, whatever you’re going to do, get on with it, man!  Get on with it!”

 

Angel moved her hair aside and pressed his mouth against her neck.  He was looking for the steady stream of the jugular vein, chosen so that he could interrupt the flow of exhausted blood returning from the brain to the heart before it was sent on its next journey around the body.  He would be able to tell when the blood from her brain ran pure.  And he hoped that by using venous, exhausted blood, he wouldn’t get such a taste for it.

 

He found the almost silent thrum of the returning blood, and bit down, gently.  The tender, virginal flesh parted for him, seeming to give way in willing surrender, allowing him access as his sharp fangs entered her, probing for their target. He hadn’t lost the knack.  He could never lose it.  His right incisor just nicked the vein, giving a wound he could control.  Saliva filled his mouth, for even vampires have conditioned reflexes, and he felt the hollow place in his belly where the hunger’s bite was as deep as his own.  He’d been doing this for a hundred and fifty years, after all, and that made for a lot of conditioning. 

 

Morag struggled a little, and whimpered at the sudden unaccustomed sting, but then the thrall of the feed overcame her and she nestled back against him.  Now, all his attention was turned to taking out the blood at a steady pace, matching the incoming flow, listening to her heartbeat, feeling for the pressure in her arteries, sampling the signs of distress that would prompt him to change the pace. 

 

He’d often thought that living on bagged blood must be like living on tinned food.  What came in bags was just blood.  What he swallowed now contained all the excitement of life. 

 

The taste of her, even in this used-up blood, was hot and exhilarating, coating his tongue, sliding thickly down his throat, rich and sensuous, the alien tang of the mustelid heavy and musky, and it was all oh so delicious, as he lost himself in it…

 

Heat, coursing through his shrunken veins, filling him with burning desires.  The prey, unresisting in his arms, like all those caught in the thrall of the feed, pressed back against him, silently begging for the ultimate ecstasies, and his body responded.  The demon, surging into the ascendant, pressed itself upwards, grinding against her, even as he fenced it round with images of blonde hair and tiny, wonderful hands.  He thought he might have groaned.

 

Strength, filling his domesticated flesh, returning coveted potency to his tamed muscles.  No matter how strong he was on his diet of dead animal blood, this vital lifeblood strode through his body, bringing him back to his true self, restoring his full demonic vigour.

 

Power, the real and mythic power of the vampire, roaring through him, invigorating and thrilling, every part of his body answering to its call.  It was an intoxicating, addictive power, a power that he kept caged and gentled, deep down, but never deep enough.  Never forgotten.  Always missed.  Always there, seductive, beckoning…  The thrall of the feed cut two ways.

 

A small part of his mind, fighting to keep control, reminded him that this was a ‘v’ thing that he could never share with Buffy, never explain, as Morag’s life slipped down his throat, and he craved more, yearned to do this every day, to steal life for himself, instead of subsisting on death.

 

Even now, he managed to pace himself to her heartbeat and her blood pressure.  It wasn’t hard.  He’d done this before.  Not often, but it had amused him occasionally to see how long he could keep feeding before his prey could no longer live.  Of course, the equipment had been clumsier in those days of rubber tubes and glass bottles…  And it hadn’t always been blood that he’d returned to the veins.  Wine had been good.  One redhead had gasped like a fish, the liquid in her veins so thinned and diluted, as he’d enjoyed the long draughts of claret-laden blood, and still she’d swooned in his arms, waiting, craving…

 

He felt Buffy’s hand tighten on his shoulder.

 

“Keep it professional, sweetie, or you’re a dead man.”

 

There was a hushed beat, in which he silently blessed his lover and pulled together the shreds of his self-control.  The blood was still hot and tangy, smooth on his tongue, feeding the darkness within him, but now he kept in his mind’s eye the image that he longed for.  Himself and Buffy, alive and in the sun.  The darkness gone.  The blood, gone.  Redemption and humanity.

 

And he was Angel once more, in a demon face.  Nick, even in his fear and shock, had been able to call him a man.  If he could, perhaps the others could, too.  That was what he strove to be to them, and he must earn that trust and so he thrust everything else down into the depths of his own private hell.

 

He heard the pragmatic Giles say, “Someone had better clean up that spilled blood, before anyone else gets infected… And close all the curtains, please.”

 

And then the room seemed to come back to life again.  Out in the cold light of dawn, something screamed, a high-pitched sound of anger and distress, coming from the direction of the Burn.  But nothing came up the road to the cottage.

 

++++++

 

Hundreds of miles further south, on her way back to her den, dragging her early morning prize of a half-grown moorhen chick from one of the local ponds, the mother stoat suddenly stopped and scented the air.  What she had sensed wasn’t in the air, though.  It was in her blood.

 

They were back, were they?  Knowledge of them, bred in the blood and passed down from mother to daughter, made her pick up the carcass and run faster, to the safety of the den.

 

++++++

 

“Thank goodness it’s Sunday, Giles.  Do they have a lot of churchgoers up here?”

 

Buffy peered up and down the empty street.

 

“I’m guessing we’re safe for an hour or two, Buffy.  I’m not aware of any early Kirk services.”

 

“Kirk?”

 

“Church of Scotland.  Just get in and out as quickly as you can.”

 

Buffy slipped the bag over her shoulder and ran to the rear of the building.  She’d have a harder time getting to the skylight than Angel had had, but not that much harder.  She hoped.

 

Inside, it was much as he had described, and she found what she wanted quickly enough.  She emptied the shelf of AB negative.  Who knew how much it would take?  She thought about moving some other blood across to cover the deficiency, but didn’t like the thought of the consequences, and so she left the accusing space on the shelf.

 

They were back inside the hour.  For a wonder, everyone was still alive, and no one had succumbed to hysterics, although there were no smiles or jokes.  She had no doubt that there would be some hard questions, but for now she simply blessed their friends.

 

She gave her bag to Lisa, who had taken charge of blood warming, and dropped a kiss onto Angel’s prominent cheekbone.  An amber eye glanced her way.  For now, she refused to think about how this would affect him.  There would be time for that, later.  In the present, she had something to do.

 

“I’m going down under the Bridge.”

 

He gestured frantically to her with one hand, and she heard a muffled ‘Buffy!’  She walked back to him and leant over.

 

“It’s not considered polite to talk with your mouth full!”

 

She could have sworn that Lisa smiled, although she didn’t think she’d said that loudly enough to be overheard.  He gestured again, and she gave him a handful of tissues, which he pressed against the wound.  Surprisingly little blood had escaped his feeding, but his lips were ringed with scarlet, all the more incongruous as he changed back to his beautiful human face.  Morag, languid in his embrace, for which Buffy was tempted to strangle her, started to stir, reaching out for her lost enchantment.

 

“Wait until tonight.  Until I can come with you.  Please.  They’re very fast.”

 

Shifting his grip, so that his left arm held Morag steady, and his left hand held the tissues against the wound, he reached down to his belt and pulled out the knife.  It was almost a short sword.

 

“And they’re armed with these.”

 

She took the knife from him.

 

“And now I’m armed with one.  I’m fast, too.”

 

“Buffy, these might be as fast as me.  It almost had me, more than once.  And their bite is poisonous.”

 

She looked down at Morag.

 

“So might mine be.  I’m going.”

 

“Giles!  Talk to her!”

 

He didn’t like the whiney sound of that, but he wasn’t in much of a position to argue.

 

“Are they day dwellers, or night dwellers?” Giles asked.

 

“Crepuscular, I think.  But definitely more night than day, I’d say.”

 

“Sun’s getting up.  I’ll go with her, and drag her back if we run into trouble.”

 

Unhappily, Angel yielded.  He described what he’d found, the window on another world, told Buffy about the fighting abilities of the mustelids, and told them where to find the stashed body, so that they could see what they faced.  He hoped she would be deterred.

 

He was very wrong.  So wrong that, as he sank back to Morag’s wounded neck, Collins carried a bucket of hot water in from the kitchen, to warm the blood bags, and said to Buffy, “I’m coming, too.”

 

“No!” echoed around the room, from Buffy, from Giles and from Angel.

 

“Sorry.  Yes.  You three clearly live in a world that I don’t understand, a world that I don’t even know about.  And yet it’s part of the world that I live in, too, in some strange way.  Ours is a world worth protecting, which is why I do what I do, and Nick does what he does.”

 

He looked over at Lisa, who was calmly putting some of the chilled bags into the bucket.

 

“And there are people worth protecting.  So, do we have any more weapons between us?”

 

The answer was no, apart from Buffy’s supply of stakes.  Giles was adamant.

 

“No one goes there without a weapon.”

 

Collins would not be deterred.  He strode into the kitchen, and came back with a large carving knife.

 

“A lot of people have been murdered with these,” he said.

 

“You’re going to be added to their number, are you, Ian?”  Lisa asked, sweetly.  Her tone sharpened.  “All of you, use your common sense, will you?  Do you want Angel to have to do this all again with each of you?”

 

“No,” said Buffy, grimly.  “And I don’t want him doing this with walkers, hikers, unsuspecting tourists, and half the population of Overtoun House, either.  We deal with it now.”

 

“Be careful.”  Angel said no more, but worry was written all over his face.  Buffy was touched to find that, as he brought out the demon, the worry could still be seen.  Apparently, it was evident to Collins, too.

 

“I’ll look after her, Angel.”

 

There was a snort of amusement, but no one owned up to it.

 

Nick called after them, his voice savage with fear.  “Just don’t come back in the same state as Morag!  Once a day is quite enough for me, thank you so very much.”

 

Lisa laid a hand on his arm, and they both looked down at Angel and Morag, a tableau of deadly eroticism become something else through the thin red line that snaked down into her arm, delivering life as Angel took it away.

 

“More blood, yet?” Lisa asked.

 

++++++

 

It was a couple of hours after sunrise, about 6.30, as they walked down towards the Bridge in silence.  The body of the mustelid had given them pause for thought.  There was no one else about, except for Keith McKechnie and Flag, positioned just out of sight of the cottage, guarding the road.

 

“How’s Morag?” he asked them.

 

“She’s comfortable,” said Giles.  “And she hasn’t got any worse.”

 

McKechnie looked down at the dog, and then back up at the three of them.

 

“I ken well why ye wanted me awa’ fra the hoose.  Ye thought ye would hae tae murther her.”

 

Buffy moved closer to him.

 

“Murder her?  No, Mr McKechnie.  We’re about saving people, and not just when it’s convenient.  If this doesn’t work – and I’m sure it will – we’ll keep looking for a way to return her to you.  You have our word on that.  We’ve faced worse.”

 

She thought she saw tears glisten in the shepherd’s eyes, and she deliberately turned away, so that he wouldn’t know that she had seen.

 

“You’re off tae the Bridge?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m coming with.”

 

“No, Mr McKechnie.  You need to take care of our people in the cottage.  Stay here, and watch for anything that gets away from us.  Please.  And Morag might need you.”

 

He nodded, but he was clearly torn.  As they walked away, he leaned over and spoke to the dog.  Flag got up, and hurried after them, her tail tucked between her legs.

 

++++++

 

Nick allowed the blood to flow more freely now that he had a real supply, and Angel feasted.  His every sense was alert to Morag’s condition.  For himself, he knew that the blood was poisonous, as a drug addict knows that he faces life or death with each fix.  Every mouthful coursed through him, trying to transform him.  He could feel the heat in his veins, the itch to be something different, but his demon held firm.  It didn’t even break a sweat, because this particular magic was no match for it.  He hoped he’d be able to say the same in another twelve or fourteen pints.

 

Pint after pint went in, and pint after pint came out, every drop feeding his addiction.  It was a virtuous circle for her, and a deliciously vicious cycle for him.  And then, the taste started to change.  She was sweeter, with less musk.  Less of the mink.  He clamped the handful of bloody tissue back onto her neck, and took a look at her, swooning in his lap.

 

The muzzle was smaller, the teeth receding and flattening.  He looked up at Nick, forgetting for the moment his altered face and his bloody mouth.  Nick was concentrating on his patient, and he was smiling.

 

“It’s working, Angel!  It’s really working!”

 

He looked at the vampire, then turned around.  Accepting the rebuff, Angel swallowed hard, and prepared to bite down again.  But Nick turned back.  He was clutching a handful of clean tissues.

 

“Erm, you’ve got a bit of a smudge… just here…”

 

He rubbed his finger down his cheek towards the corner of his mouth.

 

“It must be from when you were talking…”

 

With some diffidence, he handed over the tissue.  Angel scrubbed at his cheek.

 

“No… other side.”

 

Obediently, Angel scrubbed at the other side.

 

“That’s better.  How many more pints do you think?”

 

“Maybe three or four.”

 

“We’d better get on, then.  Um.  Did anyone ever tell you you’ve got a tiger’s eyes?”

 

Angel had rarely blushed in vampire face but, with the hot blood coursing through his veins, he did so now, as he bent towards Morag’s neck.  He fervently hoped that Nick hadn’t seen, but he allowed himself a tiny smile.

 

With each fresh pint of blood, the taste now changed, until at last all he could detect was sweet humanity.  He took a few more deep, unnecessary draughts, to be sure, he told himself.  To be absolutely sure.  And because it was going to be a cold day in Hell before this came his way again.  Then, he lifted his head.  Nick stood looking down at him.  He could see Lisa in the bedroom, feeding the hungry baby with a little warm milk from a spoon.

 

And Morag was human.  Absolutely and normally human.  He nodded at Nick.

 

“It’s done.” 

 

Nick turned off the cannula and walked away.  He was back in moments, carrying a wet towel, and young Bruce.  The towel he tossed to Angel, who sank his face into its cleansing folds.  He stayed like that, almost unwilling to show himself again.

 

“Let me see.  Please.”

 

He didn’t move.

 

“Please.”

 

Slowly, he lifted his face up, his vampire face.  Tentatively, Nick reached out and touched the demon, the ridges and angles of bone, and the changed texture of the skin.

 

“Fascinating.”

 

And then he placed the sleepy baby down into its mother’s arms, where Bruce was content to stay.  Lisa stood in the doorway, silently watching.

 

“Yes, I think you’re right, Angel.  It’s done.”

 

Nick held out a hand, helping Angel up from his cramped position.  His grip was strong and firm, but when Angel was on his feet, Nick snatched his hand back, as though he’d been scalded.  Somewhere, something howled.  Pressing a dressing onto Morag’s torn neck, Nick wondered whether that had been him.  But it hadn’t, of course.

 

++++++

 

They found the window beneath the Bridge.  Even from their position on the banks of the Burn, beyond the Bridge itself, it looked bigger than Angel had described.  It showed a sky that was a deep and lurid purple, thickly scattered with stars.  Three small moons sailed across it, in close formation.

 

Giles thought that Collins was holding up to this new world view remarkably well, and he wondered, with a pang of conscience, how things were going up at the cottage.  Perhaps they should have stayed with Angel…

 

And then there was no time for reflection, as they saw movement in the shadows.  Buffy hefted the knife in one hand and a stake in the other.  Collins and Giles hefted stout tree branches that they’d picked up on the way, and Collins reassured himself that the carving knife was still in his belt.  Flag sat by Buffy and whined, her tail thumping anxiously.

 

Buffy sent Giles to the far side of the Bridge.  In that direction lay the cottage, and she reckoned that if they were going to make a run for it, they would do so in that direction.  Giles was more used to this than the policeman.

 

She told Collins to guard this side of the Bridge, and not to let anything out.

 

“Now just a minute, Buffy…” Collins expostulated.  “You aren’t going under there…”

 

“Yes.  I am.  Don’t get in my way, or I’ll take that tree branch off you and club you with it.”

 

Then she skipped onto the stones of the starling and walked into the shadows.  The purple of the sky in the window seemed to be lightening.  Dawn, then, over there.  Wherever there was.  Crepuscular, Angel had said.  On the way down, Giles, without being asked, had explained that it meant twilight.  Dusk and dawn.  Deer.  Rabbits.  Ferrets.  The ones on the other side of the window would be getting active, now.  Would they come over here, where it was full daylight?  Or would she have to go to them?

 

She got the answer as something reared up in front of her.  It walked on two legs, but it was elongated and much more slender than a human could achieve.  Its face had the sharpness of a mink, fading into the softer lines of a human.  Its hand, a hand with a fully opposable thumb but also a fine pelt and definite claws, held a knife exactly like the one she had. 

 

When it came at her, she saw that Angel was right.  These things were fast.  And it could move in a way that a human being simply couldn’t achieve, not even a Slayer.  It wove past her, and a burning red line bloomed on her sleeve.

 

“Damn,” she said, conversationally, looking down at her jacket.  “Have you any idea how hard it was to get one of those in my size?”

 

The creature spoke back, a musical warble that might have come from a bird.

 

“Sorry,” she told it.  “No instant translators.”  And she delivered two hard kicks to the chest, as she pressed herself hard against the stone of the Bridge.  She’d prefer not to finish up in the water today.

 

The creature flew backwards, writhing as it did so, and landed in the Burn.  But it was upright, and ready for an attack.  Then it surged forward and was on her.  Mindful of the teeth, she punched it hard, knocking the head backwards.  There was a cracking sound, and it fell limply at her feet.

 

There was no respite, though, as another creature leaped from the window, straight onto the starling.  It didn’t attack her.  It turned and charged straight for Collins.  Flag, crouched at the policeman’s feet, barked and ran forward.  The creature hesitated, just long enough to allow Collins to swing his impromptu club in a wide sweep that caught it in the elongated midriff.

 

It landed at Buffy’s feet, and was up and on her before she could blink.  With no thought, she swung the over-long alien knife, and the head fell onto the starling and bounced, rolling into the water.  The body collapsed onto the rocks, blood still pumping.

 

In the ensuing silence, she turned to Giles.  He was fine.  Untouched.  Then she turned to Collins and Flag.  The dog was crouched, ready to spring, her tail wagging furiously.  Collins stood with his branch raised, a few green leaves still attached at one end.  He looked shocked at what he’d done.

 

Finally, she looked down at her second kill.  The blood had stopped spraying out from the neck, now, and the head had snagged between a pair of rocks on the edge of the Burn.  She picked the body up, surprisingly light for its size, and tossed it into the window, and then did the same with the first one to die.  She leaned down to retrieve the head, grasping it by one ear.  As she did so, she picked up something else from the water next to it.  It was an oak twig, with a few leaves and a small cluster of oak apples, broken from Collins’ branch.

 

“There,” she said.  “Beheaded kings in oak trees always get their revenge.”

 

“No, Buffy,” Giles called out, “the beheaded one was the one before.”

 

She tossed the head through the window.

 

“Not from where I’m standing.  Right, Giles, what are we going to do about this window?”

 

Giles made his way around to the other side of the Bridge, not trusting to the scant footing of the starling.  As he jogged down the bank, Buffy joined the two men, hopping and skipping over the tumbled rocks.  She held up the knives, the one that she had brought with her, and the two from her assailants.

 

“Matching set.  One each.  Want me to see whether I can get one for you, Ian?”

 

“I’d rather you didn’t have to,” said the policeman, fervently.  “And what are you going to do about that… that window?”

 

The purple sky, almost a lilac colour now, was heavily streaked with red.  Collins said he could see a giant red sun.  Buffy had to stand on tiptoe to see it labouring over the horizon.

 

“Where is that place?”  Collins stood rapt, and Buffy had to remind herself that this was all very new to him.  She let Giles answer.

 

“No idea.  An alternate Earth, maybe, where, the mustelidae rule?  I’ll do some research, but if it’s not in any extant records…”

 

She knew that he was thinking of the lost Watchers’ Council library.

 

“I’d really like that window closed, Giles.  I definitely don’t want to have to go in there and take them all on.  Angel’s right.  They’re very fast.”

 

She tugged at the bloody slash on her sleeve, to stop it sticking to the wound.

 

“And I need to get this sorted.”

 

Collins pulled off his tie, and made to wrap it around her arm, as a tourniquet.  She smiled at him, touched.

 

“It’s okay, Ian.  Keep your tie.  It’s not much more than a scratch.  If only Giles could rustle up a spell to mend the jacket…  Angel’s not going to be happy, you know.  It took him hours of hunting round shops to find this, and you know how he loves shopping.”

 

Giles smiled.  “Ah, yes, part of your Christmas box, as I recall.  But Martha says she’s found a woman in the next village who does invisible mending, and it’s the closest thing she’s seen to magic.”

 

“Um.  The window?” Collins asked, bringing them back to what he thought was the most important topic just now.

 

Giles sighed.

 

“I really don’t know.  Shutting off these dimensional rifts takes a lot of power, and we haven’t had that since…”

 

He’d been going to say ‘Ella’, but he didn’t.  He thought that perhaps Collins didn’t notice, although he knew that Buffy would.

 

These rifts?  There’s been more than one?”

 

“Lots of them,” said Buffy, dismissively.  “Maybe we should ask the Queen?”

 

“The Queen?”  Collins almost choked on the question.  “What the hell has the Queen got to do with it?  Don’t tell me that you’re By Royal Appointment!”

 

Buffy cocked her head, interested.  “We could be royally appointed?  That would be a change, instead of being royally screwed…”

 

Giles laughed out loud.  “Not our Queen, Ian.  This is a very different one indeed…

 

Just then, there was a flurry of movement on the other side of the window.  A gang – that was the only word that Giles could come up with – a gang of armed warriors marched over the otherworldly hillside.  No, not marched.  Flowed.  Their sinuous bodies simply flowed over the landscape, heading for the window.

 

“Speaking of being royally screwed…” he muttered.

 

Buffy handed out the knives.

 

“I’m going to the window.  Only one at a time can get through.  If they get by me, it’s up to you two.”  She looked down at the eager Flag.  “Three,” she amended.

 

She leapt lightly down onto the rocks, as the two men scrambled after her, more clumsy on the treacherous footing.  Flag stood on the edge of the Burn, almost as though she had appointed herself the last line of defence.

 

Suddenly, the gang stopped.  She heard that warbling speech again, frantic overtones clear even to her.  And then the whole pack let out a frenzied, screaming howl, and the window snapped shut.

 

She looked back to Giles and Collins.

 

“Might that be something to do with Morag?”

 

Giles nodded.  “I think it’s done, Buffy.  Let’s go and find out.”

 

As they walked back, it started to rain.  Hard.

 

++++++

 

The six of them had gathered around a table in the corner of the Lower Bar, on the paddle steamer Waverley.  Everywhere else on this boat made for spectators had entirely too much glass.  So far, they had the Bar to themselves.  It had turned out that Keith McKechnie’s nephew worked on the Waverley, and had access to tickets.  Tickets had been provided, in gratitude.  Giles and Nick thought it a fair trade for services rendered.

 

They hadn’t known quite how to get Angel on board, but the rain had pounded down, just as it had on that first day, and so he had simply walked on in the shelter of a large, black umbrella, like most of the other passengers.  And then, miraculously, a few miles south of the Clyde, the sky had cleared, and the sun had shone, and now they had the Lower Bar to themselves as the other passengers occupied the upper levels to see the sights.

 

“So,” said Nick, leaning back against the polished wood, “a vampire, then?  I thought that Bram Stoker invented those?”

 

Buffy made a moue of distaste, which made Angel smile.

 

“Let’s just say he invented a lot of things, and that gave certain parties ideas above their station,” he replied.

 

Nick took a taste of his single malt whisky.

 

“And Buffy, you’re not a… a… vampiress, then?”

 

Buffy almost choked on her latte.  Angel answered for her.  He couldn’t keep a note of pride out of voice, and he really didn’t try.

 

“No.  She’s the Slayer.”

 

Three of the company turned that around in their heads.

 

“Buffy’s a slayer?” asked Collins, anxious to confirm what he thought he’d heard.

 

Giles shook his head.

 

“Not ‘a’.  The.  The Slayer.  The Vampire Slayer.  There’s only one.  ‘Once in every generation’.”  His brow furrowed, as he sought to be truthful.  “Well, apart from Faith, that is…”

 

“Faith?”  Now it was Lisa’s turn to wrinkle her brow.

 

“We picked up an extra one along the way.  That time when Buffy died. And brought another Slayer into being.”

 

Nick turned to Giles.

 

“Buffy died?”

 

Buffy put her beaker down.

 

“Only once or twice!” she said, indignantly.  “Well, not often.”

 

Collins scratched his ear.

 

“Let me get this straight,” he said.  “Angel’s a vampire, and Buffy’s a Vampire Slayer? I bet that’s made for an interesting time.”

 

Giles sighed.

 

“You have absolutely no idea.”

 

“But you never slayed him?  Or only in the knock-him-dead-with-look way?”  A silence followed Lisa’s teasing question, and it was Angel who broke it.

 

“Only the once.”

 

“You’ve been dead, too?” Nick asked, all too aware of something unsaid that he didn’t understand.

 

“I’m dead all the time, Nick.  But yeah, once or twice.  But who’s counting?”

 

Lisa looked at Giles.

 

“And you?  What are you?”  She smiled as she asked, but she nervously fingered the Rennie Mackintosh necklace that Nick had bought her.

 

And Giles explained that he was just an ordinary human, the research end of the gig.

 

When he had done that, he looked at their three friends.

 

“Are you all alright with this?” he asked.  “It’s a lot to take in, and it’s not something you can ever share with other people.”

 

Lisa glanced at Ian and at Nick, and then she smiled impishly.

 

“I think we might say ‘Better the devil you know’…”

 

Everyone groaned, but their camaraderie was established.

 

As the boat beat steadily southwards, large confidences were shared, although larger secrets were held back.  By the time they arrived in Bristol, three people understood that there were more things in Heaven and Earth than they had dreamed of.  They didn’t know the half of it.

 

The sun had disappeared into the west by the time the boat docked, and it was Angel who hefted the heavy bag in which was stowed, securely wrapped in black plastic, the body of a being from another dimension.  He also carried the book bag.  And Buffy’s suitcase.  And his own more modest bag.  Buffy had charge of the knives.

 

++++++

 

Aftermath

 

Angel finished drawing the mustelid in Giles’ journal.  That was what they had decided to call it.  A mustelid.  They’d found no record of it anywhere, and once more, Giles bemoaned the loss of the Watchers’ Council library.

 

“Is it a demon?” Buffy asked.

 

Angel shook his head.

 

“No.  Maybe it’s parallel evolution.  On their world, perhaps the mustelids evolved to take the place occupied by humans here.”

 

Giles looked up from the book he was ploughing through.  Phantasmagorical Beings Revealed in Dreams, by Lemuel Sparks.  Leave no stone unturned, that was his motto, but this was just the ravings of a madman.

 

“Do you think they helped that evolution along?” he asked.

 

Angel shifted uncomfortably.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Mink and human hybrid?”  Buffy wrinkled her nose at the thought.

 

“Angel,” Giles asked, “you said that you saw Morag bitten by a mink, but it was different from the others?  It wasn’t one of these mustelids, though?”

 

“That’s right,” Angel confirmed.

 

Giles sat silently for a moment, before continuing his thought aloud.

 

“You know, I’m wondering whether they’re a social species, like bees or wasps, or ants.  Whether they have different castes, perhaps.  Warriors.  Workers.  Queens.  Just a thought.”

 

“You think they were looking for a new queen?  A queen to bring more human blood to their line?”

 

Giles shrugged in the face of Angel’s question.

 

“I don’t expect we’ll ever know.”

 

Among all the rest, one thing definitely worried Buffy.  This was something close to home.

 

“Why… why did it make you hungry?  You never stopped eating!  And why did it make you want human blood?”

 

It was Angel’s turn to shrug.

 

“Perhaps it was just coincidence, Buffy.”  He girded his ‘v’ loins.  “Occasionally, I just need something extra that I only get out of human blood.  When that happens, I’m always hungry.  Or maybe it was pheromones.  If it was all about a new queen, maybe I just picked up on something in the air.”

 

They all remembered the Grand Rut of a couple of years ago.  It made sense.

 

“What if the window opens again, Giles?  I know Keith is looking after it, and he’ll tell us if anything odd happens, but that might be too late.  There’s a whole world of them over there.”

 

“I know, Buffy.  We don’t even understand the reason why it opened in the first place.  Did they deliberately open it, and then close it again when they lost Morag?  Is it really just a thin place that opens at random?  We’ve no idea.”

 

“I don’t like not knowing.”

 

Angel smiled at her.  “We’ll go check it out from time to time, if you like.  It was nice going out in the rain.  You don’t get rain like that very often.”

 

Buffy grinned, and then went back to chewing her lip.

 

“What about Lisa and Nick and Ian?  Are you… okay?”

 

“I think we can rely on them.”

 

And he really did.

 

+++++

 

The next morning, a young rabbit was found on the doorstep of Summerdown House, cleanly killed by a bite to the back of the neck.

 

It was fresh and unmarked, and so Martha made it into a rather nice fricassee.

 

+++++

 

In the not so small hours of the morning, Angel lay wakeful, holding Buffy loosely in his arms.  He watched over her sleeping form, knowing that there would be no rest for him tonight.  No healing sleep.  The remembered taste of hot, living human blood was in his mouth, and the sound of it was in his ears, sliding easily through his woman’s veins to the gentle throb of her heart.  If he slept now, who knew what dreams would come?

 

It was nowhere he hadn’t been before, he told himself, like a mantra.  Nowhere he hadn’t been before.  He leaned forward and kissed her temple, gently so as not to wake her.  Still sleeping, she turned into the kiss, stretching out her neck for him.  So pale.  So inviting.

 

Nowhere he hadn’t been before.  Nowhere he hadn’t been before…

 

+++++

 

Hundreds of miles further north, Belle led her small flock back to their favourite grazing.  There was no hint of danger, now.

 

All about her, the golden-banded dragonflies hawked around, picking off the strange flying things, as they always had.  Not one of the oddities escaped their attentions, as they patrolled that small place where the fabric of the Universe had apparently dropped a stitch.  There was good eating to be had here.

 

 

The End

April 2007

 

Author’s Notes

 

1        Allotments

The Small Holding & Allotments Act 1908 requires local councils to provide allotment gardens where there is demand, and gives the council the power to compulsorily purchase land for that purpose if necessary.  Unfortunately, the fall off in demand for allotments in the last two decades meant that many fertile plots of land were sold off to developers.  It’s an old story.  However, there is a real increase in demand now, as people move to a greener, more home-grown lifestyle.

 

The Allotments Act 1922 defines 'allotment gardens' as 'an allotment not exceeding forty poles in extent which is mainly cultivated by the occupier for the production of vegetables and fruit crops for consumption by himself or his family'.  Most current allotments are 10 poles, but Westbury is old-fashioned, and has kept 40 pole plots.  And all for about £20 a year, even in the real world.  Amazing.

 

1 Rod/ pole / perch = 5½ yards

40 sq poles = 1 rood

4 roods = 1 acre

 

Is it just the mad Brits who have this arrangement of allotment gardens?  Write and let me know.

 

2        Meals on Wheels

The WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) has a lot of services to help older people stay independent at home.  Meals on Wheels is one of these.  I have shamelessly insulted the quality of their meals, and for that I apologise.  But the story of the woman who always gave hers to the dog is entirely real.

 

3        The Clog and Rhubarb

One of my gardening students, aged about 85, told me of a cinema in Wakefield that she used to frequent as a young woman.  It was the Clog and Rhubarb, and owned exactly as I have shown in the story.  How could I resist?  I’m just about 60 years too late.  I don’t think we make clogs in Yorkshire anymore, but Wakefield is still at the heart of the Rhubarb Triangle, the best place in the world for growing rhubarb.  They have an annual festival for it.

 

Wakefield and Rhubarb

 

4        Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant

Regular readers will know that I am a huge Terry Pratchett fan.  It’s quite clear from his books that Terry Pratchett is a huge Angel fan.  That’s alright, then.  Read The Fifth Elephant.

 

5        Oak Apple Day

29th May.  Customs are just as I’ve shown them, except that, in this heathen day and age, no one seems to observe them any more.  Except in Westbury, of course.

 

6        Lord of The Manor

This title dates from mediaeval times, and is quite defunct, although a lot of people seem to be able to con gullible foreigners and nouveaux riches into paying money for a ‘vacant’ one.

 

Lord of the Manor

 

The Lord of the Manor used to be able to exact taxes and fines from their peasants.  Anyone trying that today would have their tyres slashed.  There are, however, some real remaining elements.  For example, in some places, the holders of the title are still required to contribute towards repair of the local church, or of roads.  Caveat emptor.

 

7        The Waverley

The last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.  I’ve taken a bit of a liberty with the actual excursion, but the Waverley does travel in all the areas I’ve used, and more.

 

The Waverley

 

8        Molecular gastronomy

Apparently the latest thing.  It includes such delights as snail porridge.  I rest my case.

 

Molecular Gastronomy

 

9        Overtoun Bridge

This story is based on a real place, and real events, and a real possible solution.  There are many websites about it, and this is just one.  As for the proffered solution for why dogs jump off the bridge, we all know, do we not, that in this ‘verse, things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

 

Overtoun Bridge

 

10      Flights

There are regular flights from Bristol to Glasgow.  I’ve just tinkered with the timings.  At the time of writing, the last flight appears to leave at 7.30pm.  What use is that to a vampire, I ask you?

 

11      Brandy and Babycham

Babycham, a champagne perry, was the original girlie drink.  Confession time.  When I was a teenager, I cut my alcoholic teeth on brandy and Babycham.

 

Babycham

 

12      Library at Alexandria

Founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, and once the largest library in the world.

 

Library at Alexandria

 

13      Glasgow weather

The west of Scotland gets the full force of the Atlantic weather.  That usually involves rain.  This first site gives an overview of Scottish weather, including the fact that, on the west coast of Scotland, only 5 to 10% of days can be classified as sunny.  The rest are overcast, or appallingly wet.

 

http://www.albawest.com/weather.html

 

Here are some facts and figures for Glasgow.  None of them mention the deep-fried Mars bar.  Be afraid.

 

http://www.glasgowguide.co.uk/info-facts2.html

 

Loch Lomond lies about half an hour north of Glasgow, at its southern end.  There, those few miles from Glasgow, the rainfall is 5 ft a year, rising to 12 ft a year at the northern end of the loch.  Now you know why to take wellies.

 

14      Overtoun Cottage

If there were any justice in the world, this would be close to Overtoun Bridge.  It’s actually about twenty miles south and west, in Rabbie Burns country, but it was pretty, so this is the cottage that I used where there isn’t one.

 

Overtoun Cottage

 

15      Scots words for Sassenachs

          Dinna – don’t

          Braw - brave

Ken - know

Burn - stream

Unco – strange and bad

Sassenach – from Saxon

Fou – stupidly, leglessly drunk

 

16      Overtoun House and The Angel Room

Overtoun House, a 150 year old Scottish Baronial house is now run as a Christian Centre of healing and hope.  They do offer B&B to tourists.

 

http://www.overtounhouse.com/index.php

 

There is an Angel Room, and at the time of writing, it was being used as the tea room, during the restoration of the real Tea Room.

 

http://www.overtounhouse.com/angels.html

 

Carved into the walls of the House, at the time it was built, are the words ‘Fear God and keep His commandments’.

 

17      Golden ringed dragonfly

It really exists, and it really can take insects as large as a bee.

 

http://www.arkive.org

 

18      Mink + Mustelidae

The Mustelidae is the family that contains stoats, weasels, ferrets, otters, martens, minks, badgers, wolverines, etc.

 

The American Mink has made itself at home here.

 

Mink

 

19      Loch Lomond

One of the most romantic of the lochs, and very beautiful when it isn’t very wet, Loch Lomond marks the boundary between the Scottish Lowlands and the Highlands. 

 

Loch Lomond

 

20      Mink Hunt

Nowadays, it’s illegal to hunt mammals with dogs.  However, in Scotland, where laws are different, there seems to be a provision to stalk and flush from cover using a dog.  Whilst the prey ought to be shot when flushed, it isn’t an offence if the dog kills it in the process of flushing.  I’ve walked a fine line here, but I didn’t want to introduce guns to PP.  At all.  Not even for pest control.

 

Scottish Law on Hunting

 

21      Rabies

The UK is free of rabies.

 

22      Highland midges

The Highland Midge is a frightful thing.  The females need blood for each brood of eggs.  Strangely, the first blood meal comes from draining their own wing muscles, but after that, they have to look elsewhere.

 

http://www.albawest.com/midges.html

 

23      Blood banks

Apparently, blood banks find it more useful to centrifuge almost all their blood down to its component parts.  That is no help at all to a vampire, so I’ve allowed a little licence here.

 

24      Wind in the Willows

The much loved book by Kenneth Grahame.  Ratty, in Wind in the Willows, is really a water vole.  Water voles have been almost exterminated in many parts of the UK by the invasion of American mink.

 

The real wild wood of Wind in the Willows

 

25      Glasgow’s Museums

Glasgow has thirteen museums, some of them very good indeed.

 

http://www.glasgowmuseums.com/

 

26      Princes Square

Princes Street has always been famous for shopping, but now there is Princes Square.

 

http://www.archimage.co.uk/princes.htm

 

Princes Square

 

27      Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Art Nouveau designer from Glasgow.  He was an architect, he designed furniture and fabrics, he painted and drew.

 

28      Glasgow Necropolis

A most unexpected place.  One of these sites actually mentions how appropriate this would be for Buffy.  There’s a tourist walk through it.

 

Glasgow Necropolis

 

Glasgow Necropolis 2

 

Glasgow Necropolis 3

 

29      Paisley and Dr Who

The current, and wonderful, Dr Who is David Tennant.  He comes from Paisley.

 

30      The Kilted Skirlie

This is really a restaurant in Balloch.  I’ve treated it rather more generously than the reviews of its food have done. 

 

31      Procurator fiscal

In Scotland, a local coroner and public prosecutor.

 

32      Blood Groups in the UK

 

http://www.blood.co.uk/pages/all_about.html

 

33      The philosopher

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

 

34      By Royal Appointment

Royal Warrants are handed out to suppliers of goods and services to the crown (Her Majesty The Queen, HRH The Prince of Wales, HRH The Duke or Edinburgh and the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother).  Warrant holders are allowed to display the Royal Arms together with the words ‘By Appointment’ on their stationery, buildings, vehicles, advertising and packaging.

 



:: E-mail the author of this story
:: Feedback at the Project LiveJournal site
:: NEXT: "THE SEVEN DWARFS"





BtVS and Angel are the property of Joss Whedon and Fox/ME/WB. This website is unofficial, non-profit, and not affiliated with them in any way. All stories carry an age rating of 15, and are original works created for this site. Counter by Digits.com. Grateful thanks to our writers for producing these stories, and to Mike, because without his graphics and php codes, Project Paranormal just wouldn't exist.
~ Dark Star.