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Dreams From The Ivory Gate

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 4

Part 5

 

**

 

Summary: Dreams, nightmares or truths?  Hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

 

**

 

Dreams From The Ivory Gate

 

 

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil...

 

She wakens suddenly, crossing from one state to the other in the shadow of a second.  She’s in suffocating darkness.  Something thin and sharp pricks her fingers.  She lets it go and tries to raise her hands, but she can’t.  She tries to move, and that, too, she cannot do.  Although she’s suffocating, she doesn’t realise that she hasn’t yet taken a breath.

 

She isn’t right.  She knows she isn’t right, but whatever is wrong seems to be mending itself, as her strength returns.  But she must move, and quickly.

 

She punches upwards as hard as she can from her cramped position, pulling her fist towards her face, and there’s a rotten, tearing sound above her.  Earth pours in through the hole that she’s created, falling into her eyes, and into her nose.  It fills her mouth, and she tastes her own corruption.

 

She keeps punching and clawing, ripping her way out of this cold womb, but as she struggles upwards, she’s enveloped, entangled from beneath, soft fingers wrapping around her to suffocate her once more.  At last, though, her fingertips find a smooth, hard surface above her, and she reaches for it, pulls herself up to it, tries to break through.  Again and again her fist hits the barrier, but it doesn’t so much as bend.

 

Now she realises that she needs air.  All she has in her lungs is soil and that won’t serve.  Frantically, she reaches around herself, feeling along the hard surface and at last she finds the edge of the thing.  She tunnels upwards, away from the dusty darkness that has birthed her, pulling those clutching fingers behind her.

 

And then her hand breaks out of the solid sea in which she’s swimming.  There’s cool air on her skin.  The rest of her follows, shouldering aside the constricting earth, yet she still cannot breathe.  When she’s emerged from the ground, emerged all but her feet, still caught in the grasp of whatever it is that holds her back, she’s on her knees in a darkness almost as great as the one she’s just left.  She can see nothing.

 

It’s then that she coughs, and vomits up the soil that’s lodged in her mouth and nose, in her belly and her lungs, dust that she has metamorphosed into mould with the essence of herself.  Bitter blood-stained bile spills onto the ground in front of her, full of the choking dirt.  More streams down her nose, clogging her nostrils.

 

Her eyes are full of it, abrading the sensitive membranes, blocking her sight.  She hopes.  Her eyes feel… flaccid, and she prays that she hasn’t been blinded.  Tears come now, although she doesn’t hold on to the thoughts that lie behind them.  Not now.  She’ll do that later, and then there will be many more tears.  For now, she just needs enough tears, enough to wash away the soil and her sins with it.

 

When she stops retching, she rolls over on to her side, like a dog.  She’s exhausted, but there’s no time.  She wipes her eyes with her sleeve, and then pushes herself to her feet, levering herself up against a thing that’s rough and hard and solid.  Now she has some sight, vague and watery, lines of interference wavering across the shadowy landscape.  It’s enough, though, that she can see the thing that lay on top of her.

 

It’s a large slab of stone, unworked except for something on the top.  She squints, trying to bring it into focus.

 

It’s a cross, roughly carved into the centre of the slab.

 

Her belly heaves again, and she stands still until the spasm passes.  Now she can see the ruin of her hands.  She’s torn the skin from her knuckles in her struggle to free herself, but even that can’t explain the scabrous state of her skin, or the areas of raw, yellowing flesh.  She doesn’t want to look at the rest.

 

As her eyesight improves, so does her flesh.  In a minute or two, she’s whole and unharmed, with just the taste of her own corruption still in her mouth.  She sees that something greyish-white is wrapped around her feet, and she bends down to free them.

 

It’s a linen cloth.  As she grasps it, she pricks her fingers.  Caught in the folds of the shroud is a single decayed rose.

 

The tears threaten again, as she remembers.  They’re all dead.  Her family.  Her friends.  Her lover.  Although, not her lover’s alter ego.  At least, she doesn’t remember him being dusted.  She was the one who died.  He killed her, with his own hands.  Perhaps it was always meant to be that way, that he would be the end of her.

 

She wonders who would have done this.  Who would have wrapped her body so carefully, and given her the rose?  Who would have expended the effort to place this slab over her, so that animals – of any kind – couldn’t dig her up?  There’s no one to give her an answer of course, and the answer, if there is one, won’t be found here.

 

She turns round to get her bearings.  On the floor behind her lie scattered earthenware shards.  They are drenched in blood.  From somewhere in the distance come the sounds of fighting, the bright white sound of swords, and voices shouting, followed by the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.

 

With an effort, she raises her head to see.  It wasn’t lightning.  A gaping wound in the midnight sky now bleeds dragons and flying demons.  The sounds of battle grow louder.

 

She takes her first real breath, a deep, burning lungful, and she starts to run towards the war.

 

Then she awakens.

 

Something is holding her.  She tries to free her arms, and can’t.  Other arms, strong arms, a man’s arms, hold her tightly.

 

“Get off me!” she screams to him.  “Let me go!”

 

He doesn’t.  Instead, he whispers to her, words that she can’t hear.  She manages to loosen his grip, just for a second, and then she’s facing him and beating her fists against his bare chest, raking her nails down the flesh, scoring him deeply.

 

“You killed me!  You killed me, you bastard!”

 

And then she really does wake up.

 

+++++

 

The moment Buffy awoke, she could still taste the rancid grave dirt on her tongue.  She was two people, one laid over the other and, for a finite period of time, she couldn’t fathom who was real and who was not.

 

She was still held tightly, but it was long seconds before she knew whose arms these were.  Oh, not the flesh.  She could never mistake this flesh for another.  But whose spirit?

 

Angel?  Or Angelus?

 

She shivered as she started to disentangle herself from her dream, and the dream began to thin and fade.  The man behind her nuzzled at her neck comfortingly.

 

“Is everything okay, kiddo?”

 

She gasped, and stiffened against him.

 

Kiddo.

 

Angel never – never – used that as a term of endearment.  They both remembered too well when he’d used it before.

 

She turned sharply.  He seemed unaware of what he’d said. His eyes, still soft with sleep, were full of worry, and… She gasped again.  His chest was purpling from where she’d punched him, and he bore deep scarlet furrows from nipple to navel, too fresh to have started to heal yet.  He followed her gaze down.

 

“You did it in your sleep, Buffy.  Don’t worry.  It’ll be gone soon.”

 

He lifted her chin with his finger, so that she was forced to look him in the face.

 

“Slayer dream?”

 

“I… I don’t know.”

 

“You don’t know whether it was real, or just a dream?”

 

“No… no… I…”

 

“You can always tell.”  His voice was coaxing, gentle.  This was Angel, she reminded herself.  Angel.

 

“I don’t know.  I really don’t know.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

What should she say?  She thought of the broken figure of the other Angel as he’d walked back into his own time and space.  Had he…?

 

“Buffy.”  Her own lover called back her wandering thoughts.

 

She put her hand up to his cheek, running her thumb over his lips.  He nibbled at the soft pad of flesh and then gently kissed it.  She would die for him.  And she would live for him.  She would give up heaven and live for him, if she had to choose.  She knew that cut both ways.  The thing was, did it cut the same way everywhere?  In every reality?

 

“I told him…”  She trailed off.  How fair was it to tell this Angel, her Angel, what she’d done for another Buffy’s Angel?  How fair was it not to?  He waited patiently.  He would wait for as long as it took, and he always got what he waited for.  Almost always…

 

“When I said goodbye to him, I told him…” She remembered how she had whispered into that other Angel’s ear, and she heard again the words of denial that had sprung to his lips.  The protestations of ‘Never’…  “I told him that if the fight was too much for one person to handle, to find Osiris’s pot.”

 

“The Urn of Osiris.”  The correction was automatic, but the words died even as Angel said them.  “You said what?”

 

She shrugged.

 

“Tell me about the dream.”  He was insistent now.  He would have this, she knew. 

 

She told him.

 

When she had finished, his face was closed and hard.

 

“You think he did it?” he asked, his voice harsh.  “You think that rattle-brained drivelling...  that, that lack-witted dizzard would actually do it?”  Angel was showing his age, but she got the drift.  He wasn’t pleased.

 

“I don’t know Angel.  I really don’t know.  I don’t know whether it was a dream of something that’s happening, a dream of something that might possibly happen, or a nightmare about what happened to me.  I have no idea!”

 

She was shouting now.  She was afraid, because she didn’t know.  He understood her, and put his arms more tightly around her, murmuring soothing nonsenses to her and pressing kisses onto her tear-wet face.  It was sometime before he spoke again.  She felt his soft exhalation cool against her cheek, and some of the tension left his body.  It seemed to her like resignation, and his words confirmed it.

 

“Perhaps there are some things that have to happen, if a world isn’t to break.”

 

She nodded in mute reply.

 

“Come on, my love,” he said.  “I think we should tell Giles.  Just in case.”

 

He led her in to the shower where, with absolute care, he attended to her every need, his very touch a solace to her soul.  By the time he’d finished, his own wounds were healed, and they set off to beard Giles in his den.  As it turned out, they bearded him in the kitchen.

 

+++++

 

Giles heard Buffy’s narration of her dream in silence.  He didn’t appear to be listening.  He sat at the table, a mug of coffee warming his hands as he stared out of the window at the bright yellow digger, excavating trenches.  Services were being laid on to the site for the new building, and the trenches were needed for drains, water pipes, electricity and gas.  They were making good progress, despite the mud.

 

Buffy wasn’t fooled, and neither was Angel.  Giles took in every word.  When she’d finished, she poured herself another cup of coffee.

 

“You’re sure this wasn’t a Slayer dream, Buffy?”  Giles had turned his full attention back to her, with his question.

 

“No, Giles.  Wash your ears out,” she said impatiently.  “I’ve no idea whether it was real or a nightmare, or wishful thinking.”

 

“Well, I suppose there’s nothing to be done.  You’re right, it could have been anything.  It is the first dream like this that you’ve had, yes?”

 

“Yes,” she told him, wearily.  “Definitely the first of its kind.  And the only.”

 

Angel laid his hand over hers and squeezed gently.  Giles smiled to see it.

 

“Yes, well,” he said, “we shall just have to wait and see whether you get any further dreams, or whether there are any other signs or portents.  But perhaps this was just a dream from the ivory gate.”

 

“No, Giles.  There was definitely no ivory gate there.  Or was that a movie?  Or a book?” she ended, plaintively.

 

Now it was Angel’s turn to smile.  “It’s Virgil,” he explained.  “In the Aeneid, he tells us that there are two Gates of Sleep.  The gate of horn allows true spirits to pass, but the gate of ivory allows only false visions and dreams.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Well, since you two are up now, shall we see what the postman has brought us?”

 

+++++

 

Mick the postman had delivered to Summerdown House for years, missing only holidays and an occasional day’s sickness.  And a fortnight, when a new dog in the village had almost taken his leg off.  He’d done his rounds with a walking stick for a good two months after that.  Mick was made of stern stuff. It was a good job, Giles reflected, because he’d brought some pretty strange things to Summerdown House.  Today was just another example.

 

There was a battered African mask inside a clear plastic bag that had been rolled over at the top and stapled.  A white sticky label was hand-printed with an address that only Mick could have interpreted, and another declared in red capital letters that the item was FRAGILE.  There wasn’t a shred of protective packaging.

 

A note inside asked whether this mask was the same as the one reported on in the attached.  ‘The attached’ turned out to be a barely legible photocopy of an article from one of the more lurid red-top tabloids, with a story about a ‘genuine’ African mask that had stuck to its owner’s face when he tried it on, and could only be removed with the help of a ‘genuine’ African witch doctor, whose services had generously been paid for by the newspaper.

 

The note asked that the mask be returned with Project Paranormal’s answer.  There was no return envelope or postage.

 

As Giles finished reading out the missive, there were chuckles around the table.  He handed the package to Buffy.  She would write to the sender and tell them that goods could only be returned with prepaid postage, and no, they wouldn’t be able to research this item.  Unless it actually stuck to someone’s face.  The mask would go into the cupboard full of things to be returned if ever the owner sends the wherewithal.

 

The next envelope was a small one, in a soft baby pink, the handwriting rounded and girly.

 

“It’s from a Joanna Theakston.  She’s on a sandwich course, and wants to know if she can spend her six months’ work placement here.”

 

“She makes sandwiches?  Is this to do with Martha maybe having to go away for a week or two when she becomes a Gran?”

 

Giles couldn’t contain his amusement.  Sometimes it was just so tempting to bait Buffy…

 

“No, no,” he said, soothingly.  “A sandwich course is one in which students have work placements in between periods at University.  Like the meat between the slices of bread.”

 

Buffy just shook her head, and held her hand out for the letter.  “That’ll be a no, then?”

 

Giles left the letter on the table.  “Well…  You know, there’s always so much work to do here.  They must be desperate for placements, because she says she’ll work for no pay, just expenses.”

 

Off the two astonished expressions, he hurried on.  “You know, there’s no one to answer the phone when we’re all on a case, and Buffy has to do all the secretarying because, let’s face it, Angel, you and I aren’t up to much in that department.  And we’ve got absolutely heaps of books and artefacts to catalogue…”

 

“Definitely dangerous artefacts,” Buffy muttered.

 

“Besides, if this girl is reasonable, it’s another female in the household for Buffy.”

 

The fierce look that he got almost made him quail.

 

“It might not be such a bad idea,” he finished, defensively.

 

“Secret identities, Giles, secret identities.”  Buffy’s scowl was still threatening.  “And besides, how can working here help a college student, even if she’s not learning to cut sandwiches?”

 

Giles looked back at the letter.

 

“She’s doing leisure and tourism.  Well, there are ghostly tourist attractions, I suppose…  We’ll talk about it later, shall we?”

 

He hurried on to the next letter, trying to deflect the scowl.  But there really was always so much to do.

 

All that was left were bills, and junk mail invitations to spend money on new window blinds, on a flashy new coat of cement rendering for the house, and on two-for-one offers from the most down-market of the local supermarkets, on food items that Martha would be hard pushed to give to the dogs’ home.  And there was a flyer for a car auction with some unbeatable prices on ex-showroom models.

 

Buffy looked at that one with interest.  “I need a new car,” she declared.  “Miss Mini is… what’s the word you used, Giles?  Clapped up?”

 

Angel smiled in real amusement.  “Clapped up means put in jail.  I think you mean clapped out?”

 

“Well, that too.  I need a new car.  A NEW car.  One that comes with a guarantee and stuff like that.  And that doesn’t need me to be a mechanic.”

 

Giles walked over to the telephone as it started to ring.  “We’ll start looking round,” he told her, knowing that she spoke the truth. 

 

“Giles here.”

 

“Oh, yes.  Hello, Sergeant Lincoln.”

 

There was a long pause as Giles listened to the policeman.

 

“How odd.”

 

“Right.  We’ll go and look now.”

 

He hung up.  “He says he’s sending us something interesting by e-mail.”

 

Angel and Buffy followed him into the study, and he stood back to let Angel switch the computer on.  Giles was better with the thing than he’d used to be, but he was happy to let other people do the work on it.

 

As the screen lit up, he told them what Lincoln had said. 

 

“He’s got something he’d like us to have a look at, something a police officer can’t tackle.  Oh, and when Ian gets back tomorrow, he’ll see whether there’s a fee in it, although quite how he’d enter it up in the books I really can’t imagine.

 

“He said that yesterday there was a photograph, an image, or whatever you call it, circulating through the police station.  They all think it’s a joke, one of those manipulated e-mail things.  Lincoln says that last night, he had particularly strange dreams about that image.”

 

Buffy shot a glance at Angel.  She hadn’t been the only one with dreams, last night, then.

 

“Gavin Lincoln doesn’t seem to be the imaginative type,” Angel observed mildly.  “I mean, not a man given to fanciful dreams.”

 

Buffy gave him an old-fashioned look, and Giles thought back to their discussion earlier.  He shook his head. 

 

“No, he’s much too feet-on-the-ground to lightly indulge in flights of fancy.  This morning,” Giles went on, “he asked a specialist colleague to take a look at it, and the upshot is that there’s no sign of tampering or image manipulation.  And it seems to show a dragon.”

 

Buffy groaned.  “Not another dragon.”

 

Angel just shrugged, stoical in the face of repetitive adversity.  “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

 

“I wonder how big this one is.”  Buffy thought about the dragon whose dead bulk had protected Angel’s ashes back in that Los Angeles alley.  And about that dragon woman down in Devon, where the female of the species had definitely been deadlier than the male.

 

“Probably not as big as the ones we’ve already seen off,” Angel told her.  “Ah.  Here it comes now.”

 

He seemed so matter of fact.  Buffy asked herself what he was really thinking, as he opened up the attachment.

 

There was silence as they viewed the image that Gavin Lincoln had sent them.  It showed a black figure against a pink and gold sky.  Unfortunately, what light there was came from behind the figure, which made it hard to see details in the dark bulk.  It had huge, outspread wings, and although the body showed few features, there was a long, forked tail, and a hint of talons on the feet.  The head was almost facing directly into the camera.  Almost, but not entirely.  What they could see suggested a snout and long, whiskery appendages.

 

“Looks real enough,” said Angel, laconically.  “How come this hasn’t been on all the news bulletins?

 

“Luck, I should think.” Giles sat against the edge of the desk.  “People thinking it’s a hoax.  I’d better call him back and ask where this was taken.”

 

“He’s told us,” Angel replied, reading the e-mail.  “Martin Mere.”

 

“Martin Mere?  Where’s that?”  Buffy was already psyching herself up for action.

 

“It’s a bird sanctuary, I think.”  Giles frowned in recollection.  “Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, I seem to remember.  We need to check it.  I think it’s on the northwest coast...  Lancashire?  Yes, Lancashire, near Southport.  Erm... It couldn’t actually be a bird, could it?”

 

Buffy let out the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.  If only.

 

Angel peered at the on-screen image.  “Lincoln was clear that there’s been no manipulation?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“Then it’s not a bird.”

 

Buffy made her mind up.  “It’s my turn for the dragon,” she said.

 

“No!”  Angel’s reply was forceful.  “We’ll go together.  I’m not leaving you to face that by yourself.”

 

“I need to set off now.  If this thing has just arrived, there’s no telling when it might start to feel peckish.”

 

Angel opened his mouth to remonstrate with her, but was interrupted by an imperious banging on the front door.

 

“What now?” Giles sighed, and went to answer the summons.

 

It was the aged Ivy Grittleton and her elderly beau, Walter Satterthwaite.  Ivy sat in a wheelchair, her walking stick raised, ready to rap on the door again.  Giles got the impression that he’d only just escaped a broken nose.

 

“Mrs Grittleton!  Are you alright?”  He’d never seen Ivy Grittleton in a wheelchair before.

 

“Of course I’m alright.”  Ivy was her usual testy self.  “It’s my ankle that isn’t particularly alright.  Now, Walter’s brought me all the way up here to see you, young Rupert, so perhaps you’d let us in?”

 

Between them, Giles and Walter got Ivy out of the wheelchair, helped her to hobble into the kitchen and settled her at the table.  Giles smiled inwardly as he realised that she’d called her companion Walter, instead of Mr Satterthwaite.  The relationship was definitely progressing.  They’d be naming the day, the next thing anyone knew.  She rapped the floor with her stick. 

 

“Where are the other two?  I want them here.” 

 

“They’re in the study. I’ll fetch them.”

 

“No need.  Walter’s nearer the door.  You’ll go, Walter, and get them here now.”  She noticeably softened.  “Won’t you?”

 

Walter turned for the door to the hall.  “On the left,” Giles called out to him.  In response to a pointed look from his irascible guest, he put the kettle on.

 

Walter knocked on the study door and went in.  He got the impression that he’d interrupted something.  A lovers’ tiff maybe.  His thin cheeks creased up into a smile.

 

“Me’n Ivy ‘ave come to visit,” he announced.  “Ivy says will you come and join us.”

 

It wasn’t a question, and Buffy felt a dart of irritation, but she followed Walter and Angel.

 

“Good.  You’re here,” Ivy began, before they’d even sat down.  Giles was still on his feet, setting out cups and saucers on the table.  Angel smiled to see that Giles had chosen to use the good china, rather than their everyday mugs.

 

“Now, we’d have been here earlier, except for this wretched ankle.  It was the dream that did it, do you see?”

 

They didn’t see at all.

 

“I had this dream last night,” she explained, her irritation levels rising.  “And I knew it was one of my special dreams.  I don’t get them often, but I know them when I do, and they can’t be ignored.  They have to be taken care of.  And I knew it was urgent, so I hurried to get out of bed, and I slipped and broke my ankle.

 

“That meant that Walter, here, had to get me to the hospital, and we came as soon as we could.  But there’s no time to waste.  You’ve got someone to save, Buffy.”

 

She stared at the three people she’d come to see, her gaze sweeping from one to the other.

 

“What?  Why are you all looking at each other like that?  You lot shouldn’t be surprised at strange dreams.  But they’re proper foretelling.  My mother had them, too.”

 

“No, we understand dreams,” Buffy assured her.  “Truly.  But I’m sorry, I’ve already got a job to rush off to.  Someone else will have to do it.”

 

“No!”  Ivy was emphatic, and punctuated the reply by banging the floor with her stick.  “No.  I saw it in my dream.  It has to be you.”

 

Buffy opened her mouth to refuse, but Giles interrupted.

 

“Why don’t you tell us a bit more, Ivy?”

 

“What is it, Rupert?  You don’t believe me, think I’m a foolish old woman who’s losing her marbles?”

 

“Certainly not, Mrs Grittleton, but we always need as much information as possible.”

 

She silently conceded the point as he filled her cup with tea.  “It’s on one of those country roads between Glastonbury and Street, I can’t say more than that, but there’s a lass being held there who’s going to die, or worse.  By something that don’t belong here.  You deal with those sorts of things.  I know that.  Tonight, tomorrow, I can’t say, but it’s happening at night and it’s happening soon, and you’re the one to stop it.  That is what you do, isn’t it?  Save people?”

 

Giles and Angel and Buffy looked at each other.  They couldn’t ignore this new omen from last night’s cluster of dreams.

 

“It’s close to home,” Angel said to Buffy.  “It can’t be more than twenty miles.  Even Miss Mini should manage that.  I’ll take Martin Mere.  That might be something and nothing.”

 

It was sensible, and Buffy knew it.  She nodded, unhappy, but with no option but to agree.

 

“I’ll go with Angel,” Giles told her, to make her feel better.

 

“No.” Angel was emphatic.  “I really get the feeling that someone should be here.  It was a strange night, last night.”

 

Now it was Giles who felt that he had no option but to agree.

 

“Is there any more tea in that pot?” Ivy asked, accepting victory with magnanimity.  “I’m that parched, I could really do with another.”

 

+++++

 

It had been a long journey up from Westbury to Martin Mere.  Even though the reserve closed to visitors – other than the feathered kind – at five-thirty on winter’s evenings, getting in presented no problem to Angel.  It was more of a problem to his beloved Porsche, though, which had to stay outside.  He glowered at the surrounding countryside, daring it to cough up some vandal or thief who might interfere with the car.

 

Once inside, he soon found an information map table.  He could have wished that one of the numbered landmarks was for ‘exotic dragon’, or similar, but no such luck.  There were a number of hides for visitors to use, and it seemed a good idea to find one of those.  Eventually, he settled on the intriguingly-named Harrier Hide.  It was on the opposite side of the reserve, as far away as possible from all the other buildings and attractions.  If there was a secretive dragon anywhere, that looked like a good place to start.

 

The reserve was a maze of ponds and pools, connecting streams, wetlands and made-up paths.  The Harrier Hide was a surprise, when he found it.  It faced onto reed beds, and the path to it led through a grassy, terraced bowl in the ground, presumably where people could picnic on sunny days.

 

The hide reared up at the back of the bowl, a far cry from the cramped little shed that he’d imagined.  It was certainly wooden, but the tall central tower was flanked by two huge outspread wings.  He smiled.  Hence the name, he imagined.  It looked like a raptor taking flight.  Frowning suddenly, he pulled out the print-off of the dragon.  No luck.  It definitely wasn’t a picture of this hide, manipulated or not. 

 

The door, at the base of the tower, was unlocked, and that surprised him.  In stealth mode, he started into the darkness.

 

+++++

 

Buffy had spent all afternoon checking out the roads between Street and Glastonbury, and now she was resigned to spending half the night, too.  There was only a mile or two between the two towns, at least on the main road.  Half a dozen country lanes took more circuitous routes.  She’d recently seen a poem about the rolling English drunkard building the rolling English road, and she could really identify with that, she thought, as she tramped around those lanes.

 

The lanes were too narrow, and a car too conspicuous, for stealthy slaying, and so she was on foot.  The February night was cold and dank, and she was well wrapped up in a thick fleece jacket, with several layers underneath that.  The tight-fitting jeans were nicely stretchy and, for a wonder, she’d found a really comfortable pair of boots at the Westbury market.

 

She was still cold, though, and tired of tramping around in the dark.  And she wished she knew what she was looking for.  Ivy had readily admitted that her dream hadn’t been detailed, just snatches and impressions.  So far, all she’d found had been fields and the odd farmhouse, and a bed and breakfast or two.

 

She reflected that Britain was a different slaying ground to Sunnydale.  In Sunnydale, it had often seemed impossible to move without tripping over a demon.  Her senses – her Slayer senses – had been on permanent active duty, and often on permanent overload.

 

Here in Britain, there were still demons, but they were thinner on the ground.  No Hellmouths here, no gatherings of the demon clans, or at least, none that they’d found.  That meant that her senses were alerted by a demon presence with much more accuracy.  Nothing so far.

 

She pulled the fleece a little tighter around herself, and decided that a fleece wasn’t sufficiently windproof on a night when there was a sharp north-easterly breeze.  And she was walking straight into it.

 

There were times in the English winters when she could wish herself back in California.  Or anywhere warmer than this.  An hour after sunrise, she admitted defeat for the day and set off back to her aging car, to find a local bed and breakfast, and to get some sleep.

 

+++++

 

There was a human in the tower, and a strong smell of whisky.  Angel turned to leave unnoticed, just as a second man emerged from a doorway, fastening up his flies.

 

“Hello,” the man said to him.  “Not seen you before.  You here for the beavers?”

 

“Um, no, not the beavers.  A foreign, er, bird.”

 

“Ah,” said the man.  “There’s a fair few of those here.  The migrants.  Some lovely pink-footed geese.  You here to see them fly off to feed at sunrise?”

 

“Yes.”  It seemed to be the safest answer, although Angel fervently hoped that he wouldn’t be asked too many questions.  His new companion nodded his understanding.

 

“There’s over four thousand just now.  They’re regrouping on the way from Norfolk, back to Iceland and Greenland.  Nice sight.”

 

He hitched his trousers up, making himself more comfortable.

 

“Yes,” said Angel, trying not to get lost in the conversation.  “Anything more, erm, exotic today?”

 

“Last week a hoopoe got blown up from the Mediterranean, but it was so knackering cold it upped sticks and buggered off again.  You’re not here for that, are you?”

 

Angel had no idea what a hoopoe was, and wondered whether it had been the thing in the photograph.  Perhaps he was here for that.  He should have thought to bring a bird book.  But how many birds looked like dragons?  And how many birds were the size of dragons?  None that weren’t extinct or mythological, he’d bet.

 

“Um... No.”

 

The man was moving further into the hide.

 

“I’m Rick, by the way.  Coming?”

 

“I’m Angel.”

 

“Ah.”  Rick nodded sagely.  “A twitcher’s handle, eh?”  Angel didn’t argue.  Rick stopped at a dark huddle in a corner.  “This is Dunlin.  He uses a twitcher’s handle, too.”

 

The huddle said, “Hi.  Come and sit.”

 

“He’s after vagrant sightings, Dun.”

 

“Missed out on the bloody hoopoe, then.  Still, no need to miss out on the hoopoe’s gift.”

 

There was a clink of glass and Dun held out a bottle to him.  It was a full bottle of whisky.

 

“I... er...”

 

“It’s okay,” Rick told him.  A guy called the Elder Twitcher, he comes here a lot.  He was here last week on his sixtieth birthday, hoping to see something really good to celebrate the occasion, and he saw the hoopoe.  He left a case of whisky hidden here for those of us that ignore opening hours to get some good sightings.  There aren’t many of us, so there’s a lot to go round.”

 

“Well, thanks.”  Angel slid down the wall until he, too, was a huddle on the floor.  A quick drink wouldn’t hurt, before he found a place to watch from.  Rick walked over to a table, and then he, too, sat down.

 

“Here’s a record of what’s been seen this winter.”

 

He handed a book over, and then lifted his own bottle up for a drink.  “Ah!  Keeps out the cold a treat...”

 

The book was a sort of photograph album.  Subscribed beneath each picture was the name and description of the bird and the date of sighting.  There was a note whether it was resident, a regular visitor, or just passing through.

 

He hunted through the book, checking for something that might resemble the image that had brought him here.  Rick nudged him.

 

“Here.  Borrow my torch.”

 

“Oh, right.  Thanks.”  Angel took the torch, to seem more like the humans.

 

There were flamingos and Hawaiian geese and the pink-footed geese and several different swans.  There were marsh harriers, surely the model for this building, and a whole other panoply of feathered life.  There were even pictures of the hoopoe, a striking pink bird with a tall crest in black and white and pink, and black and white wings.  It didn’t look at all like the dragon picture.  And there were the beavers, distinctly unlike either birds or dragons.  There was nothing that in any way resembled the image in his pocket.

 

Rick and Dun stood up.  “We’re off to watch the beavers again for a bit.  They’re only really active at night.  Push the case of booze back under there when you’ve finished,” – he pointed to a small hiding place behind a pile of boxes – “and good luck.”

 

Angel handed back the torch, and then he was alone.  It was just him and a bottle of whisky.  Grinning, he wandered around, checking out the viewing windows, watching for something strange in the sky.

 

By sunrise he’d seen nothing, except a few owls.  He’d planned for that, and he hadn’t expected to see anything.  The pink and yellow sky in the image had been a sunset, not a sunrise.

 

Somehow, the draining of the last of the day’s light from a sky that had been full of sun looked quite unlike the moment when those first rays broke the cold stellar darkness of night.  Even in a picture, vampires could always tell sunset from sunrise.  It was a life and death thing.  If the dragon came again, it would be at sunset, not sunrise.  He was certain of that.

 

He kept up his solitary watch until visitors started to trickle in, and then he made himself inconspicuous.  For the rest of the day, he was just another twitcher, albeit one without notebook, binoculars or camera.  And he wore his long wool coat instead of an anorak or other waterproof jacket.  One of those would never have covered up the three-and-a-half foot broadsword that was tucked inside his coat.

 

+++++

 

Buffy pulled up at a rather down-at-heel bed and breakfast, partly because it stood on a corner on the northern outskirts of the town of Street, the edge of her hunting territory, and partly because there were strange, graunching noises coming from the rear of her car, the sounds of tortured metal.  She was afraid that if she didn’t stop now voluntarily, Miss Mini might call it a day before much further.  As soon as she got back to Westbury, it was going to be new car time.  Either that, or she was commandeering someone else’s car.

 

Mrs Grayson, who ran the B&B, was nice and homely, but essentially an elderly lady who had been untouched by the changing world of the last thirty years, and whose clothes were showing signs of being mended and darned.  Her establishment looked exactly the same.  It was a three-storey, red brick Victorian house, with steeply-pointed gables and a grey slate roof.  Inside, woodchip wallpaper and magnolia paint predominated, but at least it was clean.

 

Her room was spacious, if draughty, and occupied a corner of the building so that from one window she could watch the traffic on the main road, the A39, and from the other, she could see the houses across the narrower side street.  Those, too, were large, red brick Victorian houses standing in substantial gardens.  She could also see Miss Mini, looking lonely in the tiny car park that covered what would otherwise have been the front garden.

 

She didn’t bother unpacking her small overnight bag, apart from a pair of warm pyjamas, hardly worn.  The bed was comfortable, the duvet a warm winter weight, and she was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the lacy pillow.  She tossed and turned enough to finish up with the duvet in a rumpled pile in the middle of the bed, but if she had dreams, she didn’t remember them afterwards.

 

+++++

 

Sometimes, Giles felt that there were a lot more than three people in Summerdown House.  Well, yes, there were definitely times when there were a lot more, but what he meant was normally resident.  Even though Buffy was so tiny, she was so very alive, and that meant that she occupied a space quite disproportionate to the size of her frame.  Likewise with Angel.  He was the master of self-effacement, and yet, once you got to see through that, he too occupied a space that was much larger than even he was.  Giles had been about to think much larger than life, but that, of course, was inappropriate.

 

And anyone who has lived with cats knows just how big their personal space can be.  Just now, Zillah was winding herself sinuously around his naked ankles, standing on his slippered feet, and whisking at the hem of his dressing gown with her tail.  It was only her way of saying good morning and isn’t it time I was fed, but she seemed to fill the entire room.  Aristotle looked on indulgently from the top of the fridge.

 

Sometimes, when Buffy and Angel were away, he was pleased to have the house back to himself.  This wasn’t one of those times.  He missed his companions.  He smiled to himself.  He’d started to think young companions, and he didn’t know whether Angel would have been flattered or insulted to know that.

 

He straightened up from putting down the dishes with the cats’ breakfast on – leftover salmon from last night – just as Mick the postman drew up on the gravelled courtyard.

 

Mick knocked on the door.  Another parcel of unmentionable things, Giles thought, wearily.  But it wasn’t.  Mick proffered just one slim letter.

 

“Recorded delivery...”

 

Giles took the pen that he was offered and scrawled a spidery signature on the computerised handset thingy, or whatever it was, and he wondered grumpily how on earth anyone would expect a recipient to be able to actually write on that.  With a wave of his hand, Mick was back into his red Royal Mail van and off to the rest of the village.

 

When Giles looked down at the envelope, he saw that the writing was about as spidery as his signature had been.  He carried it back to the kitchen, and slit it open with the knife he was about to use on his toast.  The same spidery scrawl covered two pages of lined paper, pale blue to match the envelope, and slightly scented with lily-of-the-valley.  This was an elderly lady’s missive, laboured over with much care.

 

The address was in the Southbourne area of Bournemouth, a place much-favoured by the elderly.  The letter came from a Miss Eileen Jepson, and had been posted first class yesterday.

 

Dear Mr Giles

 

I am persuaded to write to you by my sister, with whom I am now staying, and we have your direction from friends at the Methodist church in Westbury.

 

I dare not go home.  I have been hounded from my house by a great evil that I feel sure has taken residence next door, and that has spread its vileness into my sitting room.  I have lived with it for months, with the growing terror, and the spectral chill whenever it walks abroad, but last night, I had a terrible dream that caused me to flee to Lilian’s by the first train.

 

I dreamed that if I stayed, I should finish up as a rotting and dismembered corpse, and that my soul would forever be denied eternal rest because I had done nothing to oppose this evil.

 

Please do not think me a fanciful old lady who starts at every shadow.  I am a retired nurse, and I have seen more than my fair share of horrors.

 

I need help, and I am assured that you are the one to provide that assistance.  Lilian and her son, Anthony, will bring me back to my own home tomorrow, to collect some of my belongings, and it would be my hope that you could attend me there at two o’clock in the afternoon.  The address is given above.

 

I thank you in anticipation

 

Eileen Jepson

 

Retired nurse?  From the old lady’s manner, she was a retired matron, at the very least.

 

And then the facts laid themselves out for consideration by a brain that hadn’t yet had its first cup of tea.

 

The letter had been posted yesterday.  Tomorrow was today.  There were certain sorts of elderly lady who were supremely confident that their instructions would be adhered to, that they merely had to say something for those around them to make it happen.  Miss Jepson seemed to be one of those elderly ladies.  She wanted to see him at two o’clock, and it would never occur to her that he might not come.

 

And he might not have gone, except for one thing that she had said.  ‘Last night, I had a terrible dream...’  That would now be the night before last.  The night of Buffy’s dream.  The night of Ivy Grittleton’s dream, and of Gavin Lincoln’s.  Angel hadn’t mentioned any dreams of his own, but Giles had had one.  He hadn’t mentioned that either.  It had been full of horror and hope, hope that had been all the more terrible for being entirely misplaced.  

 

He had dreamt that Ella was returned to him, as alive and beautiful as she had been before that never-to-be-forgotten day when she and the rest of the Coven had given their lives and their very souls for the Earth.  Ella was completely gone.  Even Orpheus couldn’t have brought her back.  It had been a dream from that beautiful and vicious ivory gate.

 

He looked down and saw his knuckles white, his fist gripping the handle of the knife hard enough that he might bend the metal.  He put the knife down.  That had been a night of dreams indeed, and so Giles would go to see Eileen Jepson, and see whether her dream had come from the beautiful but lying gate of ivory or the plain but honest gate of horn.  And to see whether there really was a dreadful evil to be expelled in sedate Bournemouth.

 

He checked his watch.  The journey from here was just over fifty miles.  An hour and a half, perhaps.  There was plenty of time for breakfast, and then for finding the things that he might need for an exorcism.

 

+++++

 

Giles knocked on the front door at one minute past two.  The house wasn’t on the sea front, but it was only one street back, and certainly had a sea view.  It was a typical seaside villa, next to the end house in the terrace, with three storeys, a ground floor, a first floor, and the second floor evident as dormer windows in the red tiled roof. The exterior was cement-rendered, and painted white.  It was pretty, and well cared for.  Miss Jepson might be elderly, but she was clearly not penniless, and he was pleased about that.

 

A middle-aged man, slightly portly and probably just under fifty, came to the door.  Unconsciously, Giles sucked in his stomach as he handed over his card.  The man, Anthony, Giles assumed, inspected the card, and then stood back to let him in.  So far, Anthony had given no indication of whether he approved of Giles or not.

 

The two ladies were in the conservatory, at the rear of the dining room, with a fresh tea tray on a glass and wrought iron table, apparently confident that he would be there, and on time.  They were as alike as two sisters could be, but the one who turned to face him, who had had her back to the door, wore a look of calm placidity, whereas the other looked harried and worn.

 

She stood up to greet him, and indeed proved to be Eileen Jepson.  She looked to be in her late seventies, and despite her careworn expression, she held herself very upright.  Stiff-backed.  Probably stiff upper-lipped, too.  She wore a pale violet-grey dress, of crepe de chine, he thought, a sort of old-fashioned half-mourning colour and fabric, but elegant nonetheless, and he wondered whether she had recently lost a loved one.  Her concession to modernity was a lavender pashmina wrapped around her thin shoulders.

 

“Please, Mr Giles, sit down.  Will you take tea?”

 

Her hand shook a little as she poured, and he couldn’t decide whether it was a nervous reaction at being back in the house, or something even more devastating, such as Parkinson’s disease.

 

When the tea was poured, and the biscuits offered, he asked her to tell him what had happened.

 

It had started about six months ago, she said.  It was her habit to sit on one side of the fireplace in the drawing room, with her television set on the other side.  Against the wall where she sat, a full-height bookcase occupied almost the whole of the fireside niche.

 

On that first night, last July, a chill had seeped out from the wall behind the bookcase and up from the floor.  The weather had certainly been cool, then, with so much rain last summer, but this draught had been icy.  And so it had remained.  It didn’t appear every night, but when it did, it was impossible to sit in that corner.

 

She’d lived in this house for twenty-seven years, and she had never known anything like it.

 

And there had been the smell.  Not a physical smell, she said.  At least, there was nothing she could relate the odour to.  It was the scent of evil, the coldness of the grave, and she couldn’t make any more sense of it than that.

 

Giles reflected that some of their cases had started from much less than this.  “Shall we have a look at the sitting room?” he asked.

 

Miss Jepson stood up, but her reluctance was clear.  Lilian took her sister’s hand.

 

“Come along, dear, I’ll come with you.”

 

Lilian pulled Eileen’s arm though her own, and they walked together through the dining room, across the hall and into the sitting room.  Like its owner, it was a spare and elegant room, in soft blues and creams.

 

The bookcase stood exactly as she had described it, but her heavy, upholstered armchair had been moved to stand on the Chinese rug, in the centre of the floor, giving the room an unbalanced look that must surely be alien to it.  The imprint of the chair’s feet still marked the thick carpet where it had once been.

 

Giles walked over to the bookcase, a substantial piece of furniture, in a blonde wood that might have been maple.  It was glazed, with glass doors on each shelf, each piece of glass carrying a spray of lilies etched into its substance.  Giles thought that it would be the very devil to move.  He reached out, and found that there was just enough space to slide his hand between the side of the bookcase and the wall.  He felt the chill in the air, before his fingertips touched the back wall.  It was icy.

 

Kneeling down, he sank his fingers into the deep pile of the powder blue carpet.  When he’d reached the jute backing cloth, the cold was penetrating despite the thick, springy underlay.  It was like putting a hand in the freezer.

 

He moved to the other side of the fireplace, and knelt behind the television set.  There he repeated his exploration.  There was nothing abnormal.

 

He went back to the bookcase.  As he did so, he saw the two sisters exchange meaningful glances.  The chill was real.  There were no apparent sources of entirely natural draughts, and in any event, the weather outside was mild and sunny, with a real feel of spring in the air.

 

“Did you buy this bookcase recently?” 

 

“No.  I’ve had it as long as I’ve lived here.”

 

“And you’ve never noticed anything odd about it?”

 

“You think the bookcase is haunted?”

 

Did he really think it was the bookcase?  He remembered the sensation as he’d slipped his hand down the side of the wood.  The chill hadn’t come from there.

 

“No.  Not really.  But it’s best to check everything out.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“Do you have a cellar, Miss Jepson?”

 

“No.  None of the houses here do.”

 

He knelt on the floor again, trying to test the air in that unpleasant chill.  He decided that the flavour of corruption came from his mind, and from what Miss Jepson had said.  But he wasn’t entirely certain of that.  This might perhaps have been a job better suited to Angel, with his nose for death and for whatever was tickling Giles’ flight or fight responses.  Still, he was the one here, so he’d better deal with it.  He looked around the room, at the placement of the windows.

 

“This is a party wall, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes.  The end terrace house is on that side.”

 

“Have you spoken to your neighbours?  Do they experience any of the same problems?”

 

Miss Jepson glanced at her sister again, a hopeless look of pleading.

 

“No, Mr Giles,” Lilian told him.  “Eileen hasn’t spoken to her neighbour.  He’s a single man, and when he first moved in, Eileen went to welcome him, to see whether he needed anything.  It’s always so chaotic on moving day, isn’t it?  You can never find the kettle, or a cup, or the sugar...”

 

She trailed off, but Giles didn’t hurry her.

 

“He called her an interfering old biddy, and told her to clear off and keep her nose out of his business.”

 

Just the sort you want as a neighbour, Giles thought.  Especially if you’re a lonely old lady.

 

“Perhaps I could go and make some enquiries of him?”

 

Miss Jepson’s eyes took on that haunted look again, and Lilian covered her hand with her own.  “You have to tell him, dear.  He can’t help if you don’t tell him.”

 

Miss Jepson hesitated before she spoke, as though she were trying to gather her thoughts into some semblance of order.  Or, perhaps, into some semblance of rationality.

 

“After... After that first day, there seemed to be no difficulty.  I never saw the young man, and he never made his presence known to me in any way.  And I do mean in any way.  There was no loud music, such as you expect from all young people nowadays, no visitors came to his door, no sounds of him arranging his furniture or putting up shelves, or any of the things that you expect when someone has just moved in.

 

“These houses... they’re very well built, and the walls are thick enough to prevent you living in your neighbour’s pocket, such as I’ve observed in more modern properties, but even so, you expect some sort of disturbance, no matter how small, when someone comes into a new home.

 

“There was nothing.  It was all as silent as the grave.”

 

Giles thought that she’d regretted using those words as soon as they were out of her mouth, but she was in some way defiant, too.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, that same defiance in her voice, now.  “I don’t wish to speak ill of anyone.  But it was all so morbidly unnatural.  And then, after a few months, this... this phenomenon began, and I truly came to believe that it was something to do with that unnatural young man.”

 

As she finished, she burst into tears.  She fumbled for her pocket, but Giles was faster, handing her his handkerchief.  She nodded her thanks, unable to speak, as she dabbed at her eyes.

 

“Is he normally out at this time of day?” he asked.  “At work, perhaps?”

 

It was Lilian who answered.  “Oh, no.  He only goes out at night.  He leaves at sunset, and he’s always back by dawn.  When he goes out at all, that is.” 

 

Her sister saw Giles’ expression, and blushed.  “I... Like most old people, I don’t sleep well,” Miss Jepson explained.

 

The chill from behind the bookcase seemed to be running down Giles’ spine.  A vampire?  A werewolf?  One of those uniquely rare demons that seemed to lie in wait for them round every corner?  Suddenly, the case took on an entirely different complexion, looking more like a case for the Slayer or for Angel than for a retired librarian.  Still, he was the one here, so he’d have to be the one to deal with it.  He couldn’t leave this old lady living in fear any longer.

 

But, what to do?  If some evil had been raised, it would be better if he didn’t try to face both it and its guardian together.  And if the occupant of the house was the only evil, then perhaps it would be best to reconnoitre while he was out.  Try to get a better understanding...

 

“Miss Jepson, how do you know when he’s gone out?”

 

+++++

 

Buffy hadn’t realised how tired she’d been when she finally got to bed that morning.  It didn’t help, of course, that her body clock had so adjusted itself to Angel’s nocturnal rhythms.  It was gone four o’clock when she woke up, and it was nearing sunset.  She was starving.

 

Once she was washed and tidied, she asked Mrs Grayson where she could get a decent meal.  Mrs Grayson sized up her slim frame, and pointed to the breakfast room.

 

“You’re my only guest today.  Shall we have something to eat together?”

 

It would save a lot of time.  Buffy nodded, and thanked her.  It seemed that the meal might have been cooking for a while, or perhaps Mrs Grayson had anticipated the offer, because it was only ten minutes or so before a steamingly-fragrant stew appeared. 

 

It had been served into plates that were more like large, shallow soup plates, and proved to be pork, with chunks of root vegetables in all the colours of the rainbow, pieces of sharp apple, and fluffy suet dumplings, all in a rich cider sauce.  Buffy wasn’t entirely certain about slaying on a diet of suet dumplings, even ones as light as these, but she was so hungry that she fell on the food like the wolf on the fold.

 

As they ate, she asked Mrs Grayson about the area, more for something to talk about than in real expectation of learning anything useful for the coming night.

 

It seemed that Mrs Grayson didn’t approve of half the newcomers to the town.  Upstarts, she called them, with no care for their neighbours.  Not like families in the old days, where you could leave your door unlocked, or where people looked out for each other.  Newcomers now, you never saw them from one day’s end to the next.  They rushed in from work, did nothing but watch TV and sleep, and then rushed out to work again, knowing nothing of what was going on around them.

 

She was warming to her theme now.  Take all these lovely old houses.  They’d mainly been converted into flats, and who knew how many people were living in one building?  It brought the area down, so it did.

 

And the building on the opposite corner?  Likely, that was the worst of the worst.  There were men coming and going at all hours, not in the day, admittedly, but all night long.  She was sure that whatever happened there, it was illegal, or ought to be.  It was this lap-dancing thing, in all probability.  Or worse.  She’d thought of reporting them because, as sure as eggs were eggs, they weren’t licensed for anything they were doing, but suppose it came out that she’d been the one making the complaint?  That sort of person could make her life a misery.

 

Buffy hadn’t been listening to the litany of complaint very closely.  She’d stopped listening somewhere around the 1970’s.  But now, she paid attention.  Could it be as simple as that?  The reason why Ivy Grittleton had seen her, and no one else, dealing with this was because of Miss Mini, and the need to stop somewhere, anywhere?  And because that particular somewhere was right across the street from where it was all happening?

 

No.  It couldn’t be that easy.  It never was.  But, when the sun went down, it would be a good idea to take a look around, just in case.  If not, she’d just have to continue the hunt.

 

When full darkness came, she strolled across the road and walked up the side street, checking out the access as she went.  The house she was interested in didn’t have a perimeter fence, or anything of that sort, just a low stone wall, blackened by age, and an assortment of mature shrubs.  But there were security cameras and lights on the house wall.

 

She hopped over the wall into the next door property and, under cover of the old Victorian laurels, scrambled over a rickety fence and back into the overgrown shrubbery.  It was no effort for the Slayer to reach the complex arrangement of annexes and extensions at the rear, but she was grateful for her nice stretchy jeans as she started to climb the drainpipes on her way up to the roof.

 

It was a matter of moments before she’d reached the nearest of the dormer windows, and it took her even less time to open it, catching the wrenched-off lock before it tumbled down over the roofs.  She climbed in to what looked like a store room, and pulled the window shut behind her.

 

As she looked around the room, she understood what sort of house this was.  It would have been so much more Giles’ thing – not that he got involved in this sort of thing, she thought hurriedly, although how did she really know? – but at least it would definitely have been easier for him to get in and have a look around, as part of the house’s normal business.  A man like Giles would probably be welcomed with open arms... And other limbs, she thought, grinning.

 

This was a cat house, or whatever Brits called them.  Somehow, conversation around the breakfast table had never got around to that particular topic.  Giles should have had this case.

+++++

 

Angel was once more alone in the Harrier Hide.  He hated to admit it, but he’d rather enjoyed the day.  Even though he hadn’t been able to get too close to the windows, that hadn’t mattered much.  On this cold weekday morning, visitor numbers had been limited, and for a good part of the time, he’d been on his own.  He’d been able to watch what was happening outside.

 

At sunrise, most of the geese had taken off in a spiralling explosion of wingpower that had shadowed the skies.  But, of the many types of bird left behind, most had decided that it was time to find a partner for the year, or to find partners not seen since last autumn.  Those that were already paired up were cementing their relationships.  Hundreds of them seemed to be having sex, either with their mates, or in secret, adulterous trysts.

 

When he came, he’d thought that being here for the day would be a waste of his time, but not a bit of it.  He smiled at some of the memories, of sharp-billed birds offering silvery little fish from the sea to prospective partners as proof of their hunting prowess, of long necks entwined in affection or in battle, of the incredibly raucous noise that accompanied every stage of the mating game.  It had been a pageant of colour and activity that was quite alien to his nocturnal habits.

 

Now, he was waiting for the last segment of the westering sun to sink below the horizon.  He didn’t have much longer to wait.  As the red line of fire finally winked out, leaving only the rose and gold afterglow that had been apparent in the image in his pocket, he looked out at the skies.  Now was the time.

 

Into the twilit stillness there came a great beating of wings, from the east.  Angel ran to another window and saw a black shadow in the watercolour sky, a cloud of uncountable individuals.  He recognised them, although they circled into the west, and their features became indistinguishable, even to his eyes.  They were the pink-footed geese.  Having them here had seemed to be a big deal to the visitors.  He didn’t know about that, but he liked watching them as they came into land, mates finding each other again after their separation in flight, touching beaks tenderly to reassure themselves.  Billing and cooing, he supposed, as much as a goose could.

 

The geese were spiralling down from the sky, more and more of them landing on their roosting grounds for the night, but something else caught his attention, something half hidden behind the flock, something dark in that rose and gold sunset.  He watched it soar in fast from the west, losing height as it came.  He stood in the shadow of the Harrier Hide and then he ran out to meet it, dropping his sword, but leaping high into the air as the creature veered away from him, until his hand gripped its scaly flesh.

 

+++++

 

It was difficult for Buffy to stay hidden, despite all the opulent hangings and nooks and recesses in this house of pleasure.  And she’d no idea what it was she was looking for.  Each room that she saw was tasteful and private, and would undoubtedly be fully occupied later on that night.  Judging by the equipment in the store rooms on the top floor, there weren’t many tastes that couldn’t be accommodated.  She’d have to ask Angel to identify some of the things that she’d seen up there.

 

A flurry of soft footsteps on the plush carpet sent her scurrying behind a black and gold velvet drape as a pretty young girl in an almost non-existent black and white maid’s outfit passed by.  Buffy had no idea which particular category of serving staff she might be a member of.

 

Down another flight of stairs, and she found herself surrounded by blue and silver.  The floor décor was clearly themed.  She wondered whether the activities were, too.  And then her slayer senses kicked in, briefly.  There was a demon, somewhere here.  As quickly as it had come, it was gone.  She only had a vague sense of its direction.

 

She’d never make it right into the heart of the house without being seen.  Sighing, she retraced her steps towards where she’d last seen the parlour maid.

 

+++++

 

There were scales, but it wasn’t a dragon.  There was no fire, for one thing, and for that, Angel was truly grateful.  There was also the matter of size.  It was strong, as he wrestled it to the ground, its wings flapping desperately, but it wasn’t what you’d expect in terms of dragon-size.  It was more, well, flamingo-sized, although its wings were very long, well-suited to travelling great distances.  As he tucked it underneath an arm, he felt like Alice’s Duchess.

 

There was also the matter of the expletives.

 

“Gerroff it, wilya!  Get the (bleep) off me!  Put me down, you (bleep) bastard.  Gerroff, I said!”

 

It was a demon, of that there could be no doubt, but a demon the like of which Angel had never seen before.  It did, indeed, have a similar body plan to a flamingo, except for those vast wings, with its long, sinuous neck, plump body, and long legs.  Its head, though, wasn’t that of a bird, but of a lizard, with an ornate crest, raised now in anger, and long, trailing plumes around the face that he’d mistaken for whiskery appendages in the image.  It had a forked tail, part of which was real flesh and blood and bone, painful as the two parts beat against Angel’s thigh, and part of which was long, stiffly-curling feathers.

 

And it had scales, but each scale covered the base of a down-fringed feather.  It was black, but not a black that could be got from any man-made dye.  Even in the fading light, it was a black that was shot through with dark pearlescence, every movement producing the glint of ruby or emerald or sapphire.

 

He tightened his grip around the body and wings of the demon, and grabbed the flailing neck below the head, just as the fanged jaws snapped at his cheek.  The mad yellow eyes glared at him.

 

When it lay quiescent on the cold and muddy ground, ground that was also making Angel muddy, he thought ruefully, he put on his best glower.

 

“What are you doing here?”  He looked at the bared fangs and thought of all those birds distracted by thoughts of a mate.  “Come to feed off the local wildlife?”

 

“Are you mad?  Do you think I get dressed up like this for feeding?” it lisped.  “This is breeding plumage, mate.”

 

Surprisingly, it sniffed, and an oily tear ran down its scaly cheek.

 

+++++

 

She didn’t have to go so far as to strip the maid’s outfit from the girl that she’d seen, although Buffy had mentally been sizing her up.  And there had been plenty of restraints in the store room on the top floor.  Instead, on her way to find the girl, she’d found the steel door, with the padlock on. 

 

A quick flick of the wrist, and the padlock’s shackle came free.  There was no other lock on the door.  As quietly as possible, Buffy pulled it open.  The light from the corridor did little to illuminate the windowless room, and it took her a few seconds to see what was in there.  An almost naked woman, chained to the wall.  No, she thought.  Strike that.  An almost naked demoness.  She had a shackle on her leg, and a chain that was fixed to the floor, and an iron ring around her neck, with another chain attached to the wall behind her. 

 

She must be in the right place after all.

 

+++++

 

Anthony, who had barely spoken a word since Giles’ arrival, sat in the kitchen, looking like a man who desperately wished that he were elsewhere.  Giles and Eileen and Lilian stood in the darkness of the sitting room, watching the street through the net curtains.  Giles would never have considered Miss Jepson to be one of those nosy old women whose net curtains were continually twitching, but he could quite understand why she would want to reassure herself that her sinister neighbour was out of the house.

 

And there he was, a man who might be the neighbour from Hell, pulling the door closed behind him.  So far as Giles could make out, in the false colours cast by the yellow sodium street lamps, he was pale skinned, with straggling black hair, and wearing dark blue denim jeans and jacket. 

 

He reviewed the options again.  Vampire?  Possibly.  Werewolf?  Maybe.  It wasn’t full moon tonight, so he didn’t have that for diagnosis.  Any one of a hundred other sorts of humanoid demon?  It was impossible to tell from here.

 

When they judged that her neighbour was out of sight, Miss Jepson let Giles out of the back door, and he pulled himself over the fence into the next-door garden.  Her soft whisper called him back.

 

“Do you have some means of defence, Mr Giles?  A cudgel?  Or a...a blackjack?”

 

“No, Miss Jepson.  There’s no need for anything like that.”  He made his voice sound confident, more confident than he actually felt.

 

“Wait there a moment,” she whispered.  He did, feeling stupidly exposed.

 

She was back almost immediately, and passed him a walking stick over the fence.

 

“It’s the best I can do,” she told him apologetically.  “I keep it by the bed, just in case.” 

 

He took it with a word of thanks and hooked it over his arm.  Then he surveyed the rear of the house.  A backwards jab with an elbow smashed a small pane of glass in the door, with only a muffled oath from Giles, at the pain.  As he’d hoped, there was a key on the inside of the lock.  In seconds, he was in the house.

 

In the kitchen, his first move was to check the refrigerator.  There was no blood.  If the man was a vampire, he seemed to be getting his blood fresh from the source.  But, vampire was extremely unlikely, looking at what was in the fridge.  A half-eaten piece of pizza, milk, butter, some cherry tomatoes, an open jar of mayonnaise, some cheese that was growing greeny-blue mould, and a pack of mixed green salad.

 

He moved further into the house.  The place could never be described as neat and well-kept, but there was nothing that was unusual for a young man living alone.  And there was no sign of anything occult, or even seriously strange.  Nothing, that was, until he got to the sitting room, the equivalent room to Miss Jepson’s, and the room that adjoined hers.

 

In the fireside niche that backed onto Miss Jepson’s bookcase, a large, walk-in freezer had been installed.  It was whirring away as he opened the door to the room, and it was the first thing he heard, even before he saw it.  Other furniture in the room was sparse, but the single armchair sat facing that freezer, as though it was the focal point of the room, or a television.

 

Giles felt the chill as soon as he approached the freezer.  He didn’t want to kneel on a nondescript carpet that looked as though it had only had a passing acquaintance with a vacuum cleaner, but he bent down to examine the lower part of the door.  The rubber seal was distorted on the lower corner of the door, and frozen air leaked out.  Could this possibly be the source of the chill in Miss Jepson’s sitting room?

 

Smiling at the simplicity of the solution, he straightened up again.  Even so, why would someone have a freezer – and such a large one – in their living room, especially when the refrigerator had so much space in it?  Out of curiosity, he tugged one of the doors open.  For a split second, he was unable to process what he saw, and then he fell back in horror.

 

+++++

 

Buffy stared at the demoness, and there was a lot to stare at.  She was wearing only two pieces of cloth that were hardly large enough between them to tie a bow with.  She was startlingly beautiful, with coffee-coloured skin, large almond-shaped eyes, and long pink quills instead of hair.  A sinuous, leonine tail waved over her lap.  A dish of fruit stood on the floor beside her.  Someone had just brought her a meal.

 

Her face certainly wasn’t welcoming of this new interruption.  “What do you want?”

 

“Erm... Do you need rescuing?”

 

The demoness turned to stare at her.  “And how do you think you’d be able to rescue me?”

 

Buffy crossed the room to her and took hold of her leg chain.  The demoness gave a short, bitter laugh.

 

“Yeah.  Watch the little girl pull out the great big chain.”

 

Buffy did exactly that.  Then she pulled the neck chain from its moorings.

 

“Want to follow the little girl out of here?”

 

The demoness was on her feet with the speed and agility of a dancer.  Buffy led her into the store room, and then down the sprawl of annex roofs and into the shrubbery.  Waiting until the street was clear, she pulled the demoness across the road and into the tiny car park of Mrs Grayson’s bed and breakfast.

 

“Get in the car, fast.”

 

She opened Miss Mini’s door and started to bundle her in.  The demoness was reluctant.

 

“That’s a car?  It’s a roller skate!”

 

“Maybe.  But it’s the only car we’ve got!  Now get in, before someone sees you.  And duck down,” she instructed, eyeing the quills.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

She ran into the house.  Mrs Grayson shouldn’t have to be out of pocket, and she needed the rest of her things, anyway.  She was back in ten minutes, in a welter of impatience.

 

“Stay down, and put this on.”  She tossed over a hooded jacket.

 

The Mini started first time, but, as she pulled out of the car park, the loud rumbling from the rear didn’t bode well for the journey.

 

“You are joking?”

 

Buffy didn’t bother to reply.  She just pulled out onto the street, heading for home, as her passenger struggled into a jacket that was a little too small for her.  As Buffy made the turn, another car came in the opposite direction, its headlights falling onto their faces.  A second one followed.  As the first one passed them, she saw that the demoness had frozen, looking at the other car through the side window.  And the passenger in the other car was staring in shock at the demoness.  He wasn’t human, either, and he looked extremely angry.

 

“We’ve got to get out of here,” the demoness said.  “As fast as you can.”

 

Buffy didn’t argue.

 

+++++

 

They sat on the grassy terrace outside the Harrier Hide, and were on their second bottle of whisky.

 

“’S not easy bein’ the only one of your kind ’s left in the world.  You wanna try it sometime.”

 

“Know what you mean,” Angel agreed.

 

“And getting all this breeding plumage every year, whether I want it or not...  It’s just plain cruel.  Do you think Fate’s cruel?”

 

“Sometimes.  ‘S hard to say.”

 

Angel took another drink of whisky and passed the bottle on.  His lips felt numb now, but there were still questions to ask.

 

“So why’d you come here?”

 

“It’s all the hormones, man.  I come to see whether, you know, it’s attracted one of my kind.  All these years, I’ve been everywhere.  Never stopped looking.  But if she’s anywhere, she’s going to be drawn to a place like this.  She’s never there.”

 

He stopped, but Angel didn’t fill the silence.

 

“I mean to say... I mean... ‘S been seventy years since I had any... you know...”

 

“I know.  Know about that, too.”

 

“And you need someone to cuddle up to on those cold winter nights...”

 

“Yes.”  Angel took another swig from the bottle, before handing it over.  Kezar followed suit.

 

“It’s damned parky up in the Arctic Circle, let me tell you.  You need a red-blooded woman...”

 

“And you haven’t found another one like you in seventy years?”

 

Kezar didn’t reply.  He simply shook his head and wiped the edge of a wing over one eye.

 

“Have you tried any other dimensions?” Angel ventured.  “Alternate universes?”

 

“You are joking,” the demon spluttered.  “You don’t go tinkering with space and time, do you?  Are you trying to annihilate us all?

 

“No,” Angel replied, although he’d have liked it to be a bit more forcibly.  “No.  It’s just that...”

 

+++++

 

The heavens opened at exactly the moment that Miss Mini’s back axle sheared into two pieces.  The rain bucketed down, an instant opaque glass curtain that even the Slayer couldn’t see through.  The car finished up slewed across the hard shoulder, her back wheels at rakish angles.  There was no going any further in her.  Two pairs of headlights veered out of the traffic towards the stricken car.

 

“Come on,” Buffy yelled to her passenger.  “Run!”

 

The demoness didn’t argue.  Her owner had turned the car round in a screech of burning rubber as soon as he saw her.  He, and more of his people, were only seconds behind.  They ran off the road, but they weren’t quick enough.  They could see by the headlights that the two cars had pulled off the road, and by the sounds of pursuit, the occupants knew which way to come.

 

The demoness was badly hampered by the weight of her chains.  Buffy urged her forward, lagging a little behind to protect her.  Four demons came out of the darkness at her.  They weren’t at all like the one she’d rescued.  These were all warriors, and ugly-looking sons of bitches, too.

 

Time for her to go to work.  She just wished she’d got a weapon.  A stake even...  She thought of her sword, hidden behind Miss Mini’s back seat.  Still...  She launched herself at the first.  As she did so, another grabbed at her, and she felt her jacket tear.  Damn.  Slaying was so damned hard on the wardrobe.

 

+++++

 

The freezer contained the bodies of young women, laid out on shelves as though they were sleeping.  Or as though they were dolls for sale.

 

Now Giles truly understood the chill that sometimes came through so strongly to Miss Jepson’s.  The man who had done this would open these doors, sit in that armchair, and look at his prizes.  Admire them.  Fantasize about them, and Giles really didn’t want to think any more about that.

 

There were five of them, all in their late teens or early twenties, all blonde, all very pretty.  All naked.  And all without an apparent mark on them.  Sleeping beauties, although not even a prince’s kiss would ever awaken them again.

 

He tightened his grip on the walking stick, wishing that he had something more deadly for the demon that had done this.  Reluctantly, as though by leaving he would leave them alone and defenceless, he closed the freezer and started back across the room.  The police would have to be notified.

 

Then, the front door slammed shut, and footsteps sounded in the hall.

 

+++++

 

Buffy had felled the four demons, but because she hadn’t got so much as a stake, they were only unconscious.  She dragged the demoness as far from the road as she could, into the swallowing darkness.  At last, she found shelter for them in some ruinous stonework.  It was no more than a niche, where they could both huddle, but it would keep off the worst of the driving rain, and be something solid against her back when the demons came again.  And the clanking of the damn chains wouldn’t give them away to their pursuers.

 

And now she knew where she was.  These were the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

 

“I’m going to phone for help,” she said.

 

The demoness stared at her as she reached for the phone in her pocket.  “You didn’t look as though you needed a lot of help back there.  You’re the Slayer, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes, but just now I’m rescuing you, so stop looking at me like that.”  The demoness was looking at her like a calf might look at a cougar.

 

Her hand found her pocket, and that told its own story.  The pocket had been ripped away, when the demon had grabbed for it.  Her phone was gone.  So was her money, and her car keys.  The car keys weren’t much good, although now she remembered that the house keys were there, too.  The phone and the money were a different matter.  She could neither call for help, nor get home without it.

 

She turned to the demoness, showing her the ripped pocket.  “I don’t suppose you’ve got a phone or any cash on you, have you?”

 

The demoness looked down at her two small strips of clothing.  “Does it look like it?”

 

Damn.

 

+++++

 

Giles hid behind the door, hoping against hope that whoever had come in – and he was reasonably sure just who that was – would go straight upstairs so that he could make his escape through the kitchen door.

 

No such luck.

 

Footsteps carried on to the kitchen, and there were the homely, and entirely horrific, sounds of crockery and pots and pans.  Gradually, Giles sidled around the door jamb, hoping to make it to the front door unnoticed.

 

The luck simply wasn’t with him.  The dark haired man walked out of the kitchen with a knife in his hand.  A large carving knife.  As soon as he saw his intruder, his expression turned ugly, and he advanced slowly, in a fighting stance.  Giles backed into the room, where there was more space to avoid that knife than he would have in the hall.

 

The man charged at him through the doorway, one hand reaching out to grab him, the knife gripped firmly in the other.  Giles found time to wonder whether he, too would end up stuffed into the freezer, and then he remembered the walking stick.  Quickly, he sidestepped and thrust out the crooked handle, neatly catching an ankle.  The man went down heavily, but he didn’t make a sound.

 

Before he could get up again, Giles was kneeling on the back of this entirely human predator, wrenching the knife from his hand.  He stayed there while he dialled 999, and he still stayed there until he could see the flashing blue lights outside the front window.

 

As the policemen forced the front door, he hoped that, what with five bodies in the freezer, he wouldn’t be charged with breaking and entering.

 

+++++

 

“My name’s Lina,” said the demoness softly, as they sat together in the darkness, waiting to see what would come.

 

“I’m Buffy.”

 

“Thanks for rescuing me.”

 

“No problem.  Were you in danger?  Or just in the middle of some serious S&M?”

 

Lina hesitated before answering, then she shrugged as though it didn’t matter anymore.  “They were going to kill me.”

 

“Why?”

 

Lina looked at her rescuer, her eyes perhaps seeing more than Buffy would have wanted, assessing how much of her world this young woman could understand.  She shook her head, more to herself than to Buffy.  “Well,” she said, slowly, thinking through what she was about to say, “I suppose since we’re going to be here for a little while, I might as well tell you.”  She spoke in a whisper.  They were both still listening for sounds of pursuit.

 

“In my dimension, we hear secret stories about this land of milk and honey and American dollars.  Like some others before me, I decided to come and make my fortune, then go back home and live better than the dirt-poor life I lived before.  You understand?”

 

Buffy nodded.

 

“It started in LA – Los Angeles...”

 

“I know Los Angeles.”

 

“Right.  I was owned by Madam Dorion...”

 

“Owned?”  Buffy almost spat the word out.

 

“Listen, Blondie,” Lina said, pityingly, “it isn’t all milk and honey when you first get here.  The passage is expensive – very expensive – and you have to work it off.  Until the debt is paid, you are owned.  Understand?”

 

Buffy nodded.

 

“It was good at Madam Dorion’s.  I made a lot of money.  But, I was greedy.  I made some mistakes.”

 

She fell silent, but Buffy didn’t fill the hollow space between her words.  Then she spoke again.

 

“One of my regulars was a very rich man, a man with quite a lot to lose.  I let someone I knew take some pictures, and we blackmailed him.  Madam Dorion found out...”  Her next words were still low, but savage.  “If it hadn’t been for that damned vampire...”

 

“Vampire?”

 

“Angel!”

 

Buffy said nothing, but she was hard pressed to keep quiet.

 

“He was hired by the client to get the pictures back.  So, when he told Madam Dorion, she sold me on.  The place I went to wasn’t nearly as nice.  It’s been downhill from there.  The money I had saved is all gone.  Bribes... redemption money... I’ve had a few close shaves.”

 

“But tonight they were going to kill you?”  Buffy’s voice had hardened at the thought of Angel and Lina, and she so wasn’t going to sink to asking him about whether anything had happened between the two of them.

 

Lina nodded silently.

 

“Why?”

 

“For amusement.  Entertainment.  They told me that some people called the ancient Romans had some games, and they used to promise freedom to female slaves who would agree to be humped by an ass.  I don’t know what an ass is, because I don’t think it’s just a damned fool, but I don’t think I need to see a picture.  They took a lot of pleasure in describing what a two or three foot long dick can do inside a female body.  Mine’s not so very different to yours.  Not inside.

 

“They weren’t going to use an ass.  They were going to use some demon that was even bigger.  They were going to film it all, too.  Make a lot of money from it.”

 

“They won’t be doing that now, will they?”

 

“If they catch us, they might have two subjects for the snuff movie.”

 

Buffy shuddered.  Not if she could help it.  A high-pitched whistle cut through the beating of the rain.  Buffy clenched her fist in readiness, but she could only wait.

 

“Have you got somewhere you can go?”

 

“Yes.  I’ve got friends who’ve got their freedom.  But I’d need money to get there.”

 

“And clothes.  You can’t run around England looking like that.”

 

“Fifty pounds and some jeans would do it.”

 

“I’ve got some jeans in the car you can try, if we live through this, but not so much of the money.”  She decided there and then she’d rather beg for some cash than take Lina back to Summerdown House.  Or than ask Angel to come and help.

 

Just then, the rain slackened off, and Buffy could see a solitary light at the far end of the ruins.  She was about to urge Lina away from their hiding place when a voice called out.

 

“Buffy!  Are you there?”

 

She breathed a sigh of relief.  “Here, Gavin.”  Then she looked at Lina with concern.  Detective Sergeant Gavin Lincoln was about to have his education severely broadened.

 

Lincoln trotted over the grass to find her.

 

“Are you alright?  We got the report of the abandoned vehicle, and I recognised your registration number, so I came myself.  Are you hurt...?”

 

He trailed off as he got close enough to see Lina.

 

Buffy let him look for a minute, before she intervened.

 

“Gavin, didn’t your Mom tell you it was rude to stare?  This is Lina, and we’re kinda stuck.”

 

Gavin pulled himself together with a visible effort.  He answered Buffy, but he couldn’t stop looking at Lina.

 

“Um...  Is Lina... I mean...”

 

“Gavin!  Stop stammering.”

 

He couldn’t take his eyes off the demoness.

 

 “What are you doing out here, Buffy?  Why didn’t you stay with your car?”

 

“There were... people,” she put heavy emphasis on the ‘people’, “chasing us.  Are they still there?”

 

“There’s no one.  Well, except a couple of uniforms.”

 

The arrival of the police must have driven them off.  Gavin was still staring at Lina.

 

“I...um...I erm... called your place, and no one’s there.  Um...  Do you need a lift back?  We can get your garage to come and pick the Mini up.”

 

“Thanks, Gavin.  I really need to borrow fifty pounds for Lina to get to her friends in...?”  She looked the question at the demoness.

 

“Chelsea.  I have friends in Chelsea.”

 

“You can’t go running round looking like that,” he said, forcibly.

 

“That’s what I said!”

 

Lina got up and walked over to him.  She brought her tail forward around her hip and suddenly Gavin gasped, and his eyes widened.

 

“He’s a pretty one, isn’t he?”

 

“Lina, leave the policeman alone, or he’ll arrest you – I’m sure he can find a reason.”

 

Gavin looked shocked, and Buffy knew that he was imagining taking Lina into the local police station.  Right.

 

“Um.  Buffy, I can get the uniforms to take you home if you’re okay with that.  I’ll take Lina to Chelsea.  And I can lend her fifty pounds.”

 

“If you take her to Chelsea, she won’t need the fifty pounds,” Buffy grumbled, but one look at his face told her that she was wasting her breath.  “Just bring my jacket and jeans back with you!  And you’ll need to find a blacksmith for those chains!”  She looked at his wonder-struck expression.  “And a portal would be good, too,” she muttered.

 

+++++

 

“’M a monster.  Whichever way you look at it, ‘m a monster.  In all the dimensions.”

 

“There, there.”  Kezar made an effort to put a comforting wing around the shoulders of the stricken man, but he’d drunk so much whisky he finished up almost falling into his companion’s lap.  “Just because you’re a vampire...  You don’ seem like a monster to me.”

 

“Am, too.  Worst vampire ever.”

 

“No, no.  I bet you can be a really good vampire, you know, all those fangs and lurking in dark places, and the running and screaming.”

 

“Know all about that.  Not what I meant.  Worst.  Baddest.  Evilest ever.  Blood everywhere.  ‘Member them all.  Never enough to make up for it.  Can never be forgiven.”

 

Kezar tucked his legs up and cuddled into the vampire’s lap, mainly because he wasn’t steady enough to get off again.  He kept his wing around Angel, and then folded the other one around him, too.

 

“Seems to me,” he observed sagely, “seems to me that forgiveness is given regardless of the size of the sin.  You’re either forgiven or not.  Once and for all thing.  Nothing to do with how much you’ve done.  Don’t get forgiven a bit at a time.”

 

Unthinkingly, Angel stroked the sleek plumage on Kezar’s breast.  The demon shivered.

 

“Besides,” Kezar said, to stop thinking about that finger running down his breastbone, “even if your alit... alty... eggo... that other one in the other universe, even if he’s as bad as you say, he’s not anymore, is he?  Going to do the right thing now.”

 

“But he killed my girlfriend!  I mean, his girlfriend, but it’s all the same thing.”

 

“No!  It’s not!  You’re you and he’s he and she’s she.  And the other she’s another she. Did you kill your girlfriend, here?”

 

Angel shook his head.  “No.  She killed me.  Sent me to Hell.”

 

“Well, there you are, then.  Different altogether.  What did I tell you?”  Kezar seemed quite pleased with his rather fuzzy logic. 

 

“Maybe not so diff’rent.  I told him... told him...”

 

“Yes?  Told him what?” Kezar encouraged.

 

“Told him that everything was a balance.  That he’d done things like I had, and if he was to keep the balance, he would prob’ly finish up in Hell.  Not just Hell on Earth.  An actual Hell.  Like I did.  Not sure I could have gone back, like he did, with that to look forward to.”

 

Kezar looked at him shrewdly.  “You don’ think he might have realised that if Fate had him slated for Hell, he was goin’ to go there whether he was here, or in his own reality?”

 

Angel just looked down in silence.

 

Something struck Kezar.

 

“You mean he really came over here?  To this Universe?  And... and... we didn’t imp...imploy...”  He stumbled over the words again.  “Implode, or anything like that?”

 

“No implosion.  That’s only if the two Slayers meet again.  Mustn’t forget that one.”

 

“Damned right.  Implosions not good.  But, he was here for weeks, right?”

 

“Yeah.  Looking like me, stealing me.”

 

But Kezar was on a different tack now.

 

“The Old Ones always taught us that we couldn’t go from universe to universe or reality to reality, or terrible things would happen.  Do you think it might be safe if I just popped over there?  Just for a look?  Just in case there’s anyone there who’d come back with me?”

 

“Not safe.  Never safe.  Big war going on.  Or I’m dead and it’s still Hell on Earth.”

 

“Yes,” Kezar whispered, his voice full of hope, “but no one cares about a little demon like me.  And I can soar very high...”

 

“Can’t get there.  ‘S closed.”

 

“Oh, I can get there, no trouble.  Don’t even need to click the Ruby Slippers to get back.  All up here.”  Kezar tapped his forehead with a wing joint.  He shivered again as the stroking finger now caused his chest to inflate, just as his mate’s loving caresses would have done.

 

“Get where?”

 

Both demons jumped, but had had far too much whisky to stand up and face the human who’d spoken behind them.  Angel didn’t need to.

 

“Hello, Ian.  Want a drink?”

 

“No, thanks.  I’m driving.  Can I sit down here?”

 

“’S pretty muddy.”

 

“I’ll wash.”

 

Detective Chief Inspector Collins sat down by the two.  The bird thing still had its wings around Angel, and Angel now had his arms around the bird thing, as though protecting it from possible harm.  Ian shook his head at the unexpected sight.

 

“Am I disturbing anything?”

 

“Only a good drinking session, if you don’t join us.  What are you doing here?”

 

Collins didn’t answer immediately.  Instead, he asked a question of his own.  “This is the dragon, is it?”

 

Kezar hissed at him.  It sounded like one of the geese they’d had at home when Angel had still been Liam.

 

“Stop it,” he admonished the demon.  “He’s a good friend.  No, Ian, as you can see, Kezar isn’t exactly a dragon.  He’s a demon.  And he causes no trouble at all.  He lives up in the north, in the arctic lands.  Mainly eats fish and carrion.”

 

The welcome cushion of the whisky was falling away now, as Angel had known it would, as soon as he started to concentrate.

 

Collins nodded, as though he was listening to David Attenborough talking about some perfectly normal wildlife wonder.

 

“I’m glad,” he said.  “When I got back from holiday and Gavin told me he’d sent you after a dragon, I was rather more afraid you might find one than he was.  I thought I’d better come and help out, if I could.”

 

He looked at the two.

 

“Although you don’t actually seem to need any help.  You’ve been busy, the three of you.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Gavin’s seen his first demon – knowingly, I mean – courtesy of Buffy, and Giles has found a serial killer.  Oh, Buffy’s fine, but her car has a broken axle, and I think you and Giles are going to be in such trouble if you don’t get her a new car pdq.  A couple of uniforms are taking her home now.”

 

“Is Buffy alright?”  That was Angel’s main concern.

 

“Absolutely fine.  Some men were sent to check out the address she’d, er, raided, but it’s shut up and empty.  Buffy was cross about that.”

 

“If it’s a case for us, we’ll get them, don’t worry, Ian.”

 

The policeman smiled.  “Wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.” 

 

“Tell me about the demon?”

 

“Some long-legged, half-naked prostitute with a tail, and quills for hair, called Lina.  Buffy rescued her.  Gavin is taking her to find some friends in Chelsea.  I imagine he’ll be a new man when he gets back, from the sound of it.”

 

“Lina?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

Angel reached out for the Scotch and took another swallow.  It might be more than the car that he’d be in trouble for later.  He disentangled himself from Kezar.

 

“Time to go home, I think.  It was nice meeting you, Kezar.  If I see anyone, you know, like you, I’ll tell them about you.  Perhaps they’ll come looking.”

 

Kezar nodded.  “Thanks.  I might pop over there, you know?  Just for a bit of a look?”

 

“Be careful if you do.  Stay high.”

 

“You bet!”

 

“I suppose my car’s still there, is it?”

 

Collins grinned.  He knew how much Angel loved that car.  “It certainly is.  I’ll come and visit.  I want to know more about what’s been going on.”

 

“So do I!”

 

They walked down the path, watched by Kezar, who had roosted, none too steadily, on the wing of the Harrier Hide.

 

+++++

 

It was late in the day before they all met in the kitchen at Summerdown House.  There was Buffy, who’d been sleeping the sleep of the just; Angel, who’d been sleeping the sleep of the dead; Giles, who thought he might never sleep again; and Ian Collins, who thought he’d probably laughed out loud during his dreams of Gavin’s predicament.

 

Giles had been the last one in, because of the statements he’d had to give to the police, and because afterwards, he’d taken the time to go back to Miss Jepson, and let her know that the evil she’d felt had been an entirely human thing.  It was safe for her to go back home whenever she wanted.

 

Collins had had a word with the local force, and Giles could be reassured there would be no breaking and entering charges laid against him.

 

Buffy had been sparing with details of the demoness she’d rescued, and Angel had glowered at Collins when he’d opened his mouth to ask the wrong questions.  Collins had closed his mouth again.  But Gavin Lincoln was now back from his jaunt to Chelsea, Collins told them, with a silly smile on his face and a puzzled look in his eye.  He’d found a whole new world that he never knew existed, and now he was going to have to learn that it could bite him.

 

By sunset, they’d remembered that they should let Ivy Grittleton know that all was well, and Buffy did that.  They would certainly be hunting down the brothel’s demonic owners.  They shouldn’t be too hard to find.  Collins and his sergeant would keep an eye out for gossip.  The team would use their other sources.

 

They talked on into the evening, until it was time for dinner.  Collins stayed for that.  Who would willingly miss a Martha meal?  When he was gone, they talked about things that they hadn’t felt able to talk about with him there. 

 

Lina’s identity was never mentioned, although Angel caught Buffy glancing at him from the corner of her eye when the demoness was mentioned.  She knew something, then.  At least he had nothing to blush for there, but he’d have to talk to her when it was just the two of them.

 

And then there was Miss Mini.  She’d been transported to Darryl’s.  Darryl, or his sidekick, Martin, did all the work on the cars from Summerdown House.  Miss Mini was only fit for the breaker’s yard, Darryl had said.

 

Before they all went to bed, Buffy waved a flyer at them.  It was for the car auction.

 

“We’re going here, or to a new car showroom.  Tomorrow.  Angel, your car is mine until I’ve got a new one.”

 

Giles could have sworn Angel whimpered.  “Tomorrow, Buffy,” he reassured her, and got a grateful smile from Angel.  “You and I will go hunting tomorrow, and we’ll take my car.”

 

Her smile brightened both their hearts.

 

+++++

 

She’s running towards the din of battle, her legs strengthening with every step she takes.  A flight of demons circles overhead and a solitary crossbow bolt takes one in the chest.  It plummets to earth behind her.  She runs faster…

 

And then it’s all gone, the sound, the scent of fire and blood, the weeping wound in the heavens, and she sinks into normal sleep.

 

+++++

 

Despite the dank cold of February, it was warm in their room.  The very first winter they’d been there as a couple, Angel had taken his pride in both hands and spoken to Giles.  Privately.  The central heating tradesmen had been called in to make the necessary adjustments.  After that, despite the added household cost, the heating stayed on in their flat twenty-four hours a day in the cold months.  True, Buffy had difficulty adjusting to English winters, but that hadn’t been the major problem.  The major problem had been Angel.

 

For most couples, the arguments in bed might be about what one party should do with their cold feet.  He was just cold.  Maintaining ambient temperature was fine, when the ambient temperature wasn’t two degrees away from an icicle.  He took a hot shower and fed before they went to bed each night, but it was dead blood, heated up in a microwave.  It warmed his flesh, but not for long.  Not like the real thing.

 

He could revel in the heat of her body, but if she woke up for any reason, she was in bed with a man who was no warmer than a corpse.  It was a humiliating reminder to him of how unnatural he was.  The practical answer had been to change the ambient temperature in winter, at least in their room.  As for the rest of it, well, he’d have to learn to live with it, like so much else.

 

He gazed down at her, her skin still flushed from lovemaking.  She was asleep, but the uneven rhythm of her heart told him that she had been dreaming.  He didn’t know whether it was a continuation of the dream he thought it was, but he’d have been willing to take a bet on it.  His jaw clenched, as he remembered that night.  Like her, he had no idea whether her dream had been a slayer dream, linking time and space, or a horror story straight from her subconscious, or something conjured out of pity for that most pitiable of creatures.  There’d been a rash of dreams that night, and maybe it was all part and parcel of the same thing.

 

He leaned forward, watching the way her eyelashes moved as she dreamed.

 

“I love you more than I can ever tell you,” he whispered, knowing she wouldn’t hear, but she snuggled back against him, and her face relaxed into a more peaceful sleep.  Her dream, it seemed, had passed.  Perhaps she had heard him after all.  Wherever, and however, they knew that their future lay together.  They were bound together, somehow.  He would follow her and love her through eternity, and she him, or at least so she had told him, and he believed her.  Did matters lie so very differently between them, in other planes of existence?

 

What he hadn’t told her – or Giles – was about the dream he’d had, on that night of dreams.  They didn’t need to hear about the pain and despair, about the struggle to turn a losing war around. The battle-weariness.  The grief.  The self-despite.  The sheer soul-destroying need.  They’d seen it all before.  So, he’d kept his own counsel.

 

He hadn’t told Giles or Buffy of how, in that dream, he’d hated that alien Angel whose Buffy was still alive and beautiful and inspiring, and how much he’d hated them all for what they’d done.  Not to him, because he’d deserved everything that happened to him, but for what they’d done to his world.  They’d sent him back a soul-broken monster, when they should have sent back the warrior best suited for saving the world.

 

In that dream, he’d lain in the shelter of broken buildings, resting while his wounds healed in the final hours of daylight, trying to draw on the strength he’d had as Angelus.  Like that other Angel he might have had a hundred years to come to terms with himself, but after what he’d done this second time as Angelus, he might just as well have been back in Romania, in 1898.  He was as broken and desperate as that.  He hadn’t had an hour of preparation, once back through the portal, before the first attack had come, and so he’d tried to remember the plans he’d had, when he’d had the mental strength of the vampire.  To be Angelus, just for a little while.  And to pray for help.

 

And then he’d woken from the nightmare, and Buffy was in his arms, surrounding him with her scent, and she’d beaten him and scratched him as she tried to make him let go, and she’d cried out “You killed me!  You killed me, you bastard!”

 

Which he had, in oh so many ways.

 

And then he’d woken up again, really woken up, and, for an instant in time, he didn’t know whether he was the broken Angel from the broken world, or the Angel he remembered from before the dream.  Or Angelus.  Three people overlaid into one.  It had taken all the strength of his soul to find himself.

 

Like Buffy, he hadn’t understood what had happened, hadn’t known the meaning of the dreams, and so he’d said nothing.

 

And after all, none of it might be anything more than dreams from the Ivory Gate.

 

The End

February 2008

 

 

Author’s Notes

 

1        The Ivory Gate

 

From Virgil’s Aeneid.

 

‘There are two gates of Sleep, one of which it is held is made of horn and by it easy egress is given to real ghosts; the other shining, fashioned of gleaming white ivory, but the shades send deceptive visions that way to the light.’

Virgil (70 – 19 BC)

Aeneid bk. 6, l. 893

 

2        For in that sleep of death...

From Hamlet, Act 3, sc 1, William Shakespeare.

 

3        Urn of Osiris

 

Used in Season 6 of BtVS to resurrect Buffy.

 

4        Dragons

 

The previous dragons quoted are from ‘Consequences’ and ‘Nemesis’.  We’ve had others, though.

 

5        The rolling English road       

 

From a lovely poem by GK Chesterton.  Here’s an extract.

 

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,

And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;

A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

GK Chesterton

The Rolling English Road (1914)

 

There’s quite a bit more to it, and all worth a read.

 

6        Martin Mere and the Harrier Hide 

 

Martin Mere is a reserve under the management of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.  Here’s the address for Martin Mere:

 

Martin Mere

 

And here’s a picture of the very real Harrier Hide at Martin Mere:

 

Harrier Hide

 

Good, isn’t it?  For namby-pamby bird watchers, is what the real twitchers say.  I haven’t been inside it, nor could I find a description of the interior, so I made that up.  But such a posh hide is bound to have a proper toilet, isn’t it?  And other amenities?

 

7        Bird Watching

 

I crave pardon from bird watchers (affectionately known as ‘twitchers’)  everywhere.   I hope I’ve been kind to you in this story, or, at the very least, accurate about the birds.

 

8        Hoopoe

 

The hoopoe is an occasional summer visitor to Britain, especially on the south and east coasts, which are on the opposite side of the country from Martin Mere.

 

Here’s the hoopoe, on the RSPB website, and a pretty thing it is.

 

Hoopoe

 

9        Bournemouth

 

Bournemouth, on the south coast, is certainly very much favoured as a place to retire to.  Occasionally referred to, unkindly, as the geriatric capital of Britain.

 

http://www.bournemouth.co.uk/

 

 

10      Alice’s Duchess

         

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  I know that in the book, we actually see the Queen and Alice, rather than the Duchess, playing croquet with the flamingos, but it’s a while since Angel read it...

 

Here’s an 1865 picture:

 

Alice and the Duchess

 

11      Parky

 

British colloquial word for ‘chilly’, and especially ‘teeth-chatteringly chilly’, when it might be called, with typical British understatement, ‘a bit parky’.

 

12      Glastonbury Abbey

 

Once one of the most powerful abbeys in England, it fell victim, like so many others, to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid 1500’s.  Before that, though, in 1191, the monks found two skeletons, which they said were of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.  Oddly enough, at the time, they were in financial difficulties, and in need of a few tourist, sorry, pilgrim, groats.  Nothing changes...

 

http://www.glastonburyabbey.com/

 

13      Lina

 

From Angel Season 1, War Zone

 

 

 



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