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Ought But Death

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 4

Part 15

 

**

 

Summary:  Is Angel really dead, or just dead to the world?  Is it one too many knocks on the head for Giles?  What can Buffy do?  Have Our Heroes reached the end of the road?  Are they to be parted by Fate or Death?

 

**

 

 

End of Days Part 2 : Ought But Death

 

 

Buffy stood in Giles’ Golden Acre Field, arms crossed tightly over her rib cage, as if to hold herself together.  That wasn’t too far from the truth.  Her grief and anger were tearing her apart, pieces of her being sliced away, sliver by sliver.  She wondered what would be left at the core of her, this time.   She was afraid that, without Angel, it would be less human than anything that had gone before.

 

Angel.

 

Only last night, they had all been together, happy, with the future ahead of them.  Now, John was dead, Giles was in a coma, Angel was... gone, and she was standing dry-eyed in a field, wanting something to kill.  Wanting Angel, and not knowing where to look.

 

She couldn’t believe that he was dead.  She wouldn’t believe that he was dead.  But she couldn’t know.  The destruction of Summerdown House had created a pile of wreckage and stone and dust.  Whether any of it was vampire dust, she could never know.  But she’d always known when he was there, always been able to feel his nearness in her soul.  Now, as the sun set, she opened her mind and her heart to him, and she was sure he was there, surrounding her with his unconditional love.

 

A traitorous part of her murmured, ‘Perhaps he’s only there like Ella’s there for Giles,’ and she was all too afraid that might be true.

 

Then she saw what she was waiting for, a figure approaching through the fading light, tracking through the wet grass of the fields, and over the stile onto Giles’ land.  The demon, looking so human that only another demon – or a Slayer – could tell, drew close, but he stopped about five feet away, as if nervous that she might attack him.  His nostrils were flaring, so perhaps he had picked up on her thoughts.

 

“Slayer.”  His voice was expressionless.

 

“Syroh.”  She wanted her voice to match his, but even she could hear the grating tension in it.

 

Silence fell between them, and she was in no hurry to break it.  She wanted to know what he knew.

 

“We heard what happened,” he said at last.  “I think you have suffered too many losses.”

 

She felt something break inside her, and she flew at him.  He staggered back from her assault, her fists beating against the cotton of his shirt, hammering on the flesh of his torso, as the sobs strangled her words, and the hot tears stung her cheeks.

 

“What do you know?  Tell me who killed them!  Who the hell was it?”

 

Reluctantly, he closed his arms around her, and held her tight against his chest, trapping her, until the shuddering breaths steadied, and she stopped trying to hit him.  Then he let her go.

 

“I am sorry for your loss,” he said, awkwardly, as he stepped backwards.  He pulled a large square of white cotton from his pocket and offered it to her.

 

She wiped away the tears and blew her nose defiantly.  She hadn’t meant to break down like that, to show such weakness, but it was done now, and she had to move past it.  She turned round, to face the devastation at the top of the field, the lack of a house where a house should be.

 

The lack of lover and friends, where lover and friends should be.

 

“You have to tell me everything you know.  I need to find whoever did this.”  Perhaps they’ll know where Angel is.  Dead doesn’t always mean dead, right?  Even to herself, her thoughts were pitiable.

 

Syroh dug his hands into his pockets and looked down at the ground, uncomfortable.  “We came last night, some of us, to help search,” he said softly, in an apparent non sequitur.

 

She swung round to face him, surprised.  It had seemed that half the old village had been there last night, word having spread by the mysterious means that applied in all small communities.  But she hadn’t seen any demons.  Still, she’d be hard put to name any of the people who’d been there, sweating alongside the emergency services, hunting for the body of Angel.  She would have been better off telling them that Angel had been away from home, because if he wasn’t dead, she would have found him, and if he was dead, no one would.  But, she hadn’t had two sensible thoughts in her head last night, other than Find him.

 

“I...  I... Thank you.”

 

“We came for our own reasons,” he told her, still uncomfortable, unable to look her in the eye.  “But, when it became clear that Angelus was... not to be found... We, we looked for something else.  We have all the Watcher’s books, all that survived, and other things.  We took his safe away, too, thinking there would be important items in there.  We... we thought it better that humans didn’t see such things.”

 

Surprise turned to astonishment and anger.  “You looted Giles’ house?”

 

He did look up, then.  “No!”  He was clearly appalled.  “No, Slayer.  We took them for safekeeping only.  They are his and yours.  Although,” he added, with touching honesty, “we may use some of them to try to find the assassins.”

 

“You’ll do nothing to the assassins, and you’ll not put yourselves in danger.”  Her voice carried the authority of the Slayer.  And then she became the vengeful woman again.  “I’m going to deal with them personally.”  She looked at him appraisingly.  “Why didn’t you come to me in the first place?  Why all that charade with Angel?”

 

He scuffed at the yellowing clumps of grass with his feet, water beading on his handmade shoes.  When he looked up, his gaze was as appraising as hers had been, and his nostrils flared again, scenting her.

 

“We spent many weeks talking about this, and trying to reach agreement.  Many of us wanted nothing to do with you...”

 

“Why?  I don’t kill innocent demons!  Are you hiding something?”

 

He held up his hand, and she subsided, but with a bad grace.

 

“We decided to go to Angelus, to see whether he had become a killer again, or whether he might be someone we could approach for help.  We knew that, if he was truly Angel, he would act for right, no matter how close to home, no matter how hard the task.”

 

He left her a few seconds of silence to absorb this.

 

“You thought I was killing your people, and that Angel would stop me?”  Her tone was dull.  They’d read Angel right.  If she had changed so much, if she had been doing that, killing innocent, harmless demons, Angel would have found a way to stop her, no matter the price.

 

Syroh’s level of discomfiture increased, giving her her answer.  She rounded on him again, her brain still unable to process all but the simplest, bloodiest pieces of information.

 

“Why?  Why would you think that?”

 

His reply was almost a whisper.  “Because my father had information that the Slayer was responsible.  They were the last words spoken by his greatest friend.”

 

“He was wrong!”

 

“I know.  I can tell...  So, Slayer, where should we go from here?”

 

“You can tell me if you recognise these.”

 

She led him up the field to the stable.  It was empty of horses – both of them were at Lisa’s – but it served as a store for hay and tack.  And dead demons.  The men had carried the bodies up here, safely out of sight of all those who had converged on Summerdown House last night.

 

Syroh looked down at the bodies.  They were about the height of a tall man...

 

Angel...

 

They were approximately humanoid, but only approximately.  The face was strikingly different.  Their skin was earth-coloured, with the texture of something that Buffy could only compare to rotting grave cloth.  The nose was nothing more than three pits where a nose ought to be – at least, Buffy assumed that it was a nose.  The mouth was small and delicate, and she remembered the high-pitched, bird-like keening sound they had made.  Strangest, though, were the eyes.  They were simply depressions where eyes ought to be, except...

 

As Buffy looked in the gathering darkness, she saw faint coruscations of light from those depressions, tiny pinpricks in every colour of the rainbow.  Most of the skin there, though, was a nondescript grey, and in a moment of insight, she understood that these colours were their receptors, and that the grey areas weren’t blind, but contained receptors for colours that the human eye could never see.

 

“I have never seen these before,” Syroh told her.  “Nor anything like them.”  He reached down to a pouch attached to the belt of the nearest corpse.

 

“There’s nothing in there.  We’ve checked.  That one...” She pointed to the next body, “had these.”  She reached into a pocket of her jacket and pulled out a small leather wallet, handing it over to him.  When he opened it, he saw that it contained three photographs.  They were of Angel, Buffy and Giles.

 

“It seems that they wanted all three of you, Slayer.”

 

“Looks like.”  She took the wallet back from him.

 

He bent down to examined their hands, fingers thin and grossly elongated, with that same dark cerecloth skin, but with perfectly white nails that curved downwards like a hawk’s talons.  He picked one up and turned it over.  The palm was thickened, like the pad of a dog.  The ball of the thumb, though, stretching round the heel of the hand, was hugely bloated, the skin taut and shiny.  The skin here was black, a black that was so deep that it seemed as though it sucked in every particle of light, a muscle-sized organic black hole.

 

Buffy blinked at such a fanciful thought, and then she saw that Syroh was reaching out to touch it.  She knocked his hand away.

 

“No!”

 

He looked at her, surprised.

 

“No,” she said, more calmly.  “Those are the parts that did all the damage.  They... they might still be dangerous.”

 

He nodded sharply, and stuffed his fist back into his pocket.  “There’s a hand missing.”  The right arm of one of the bodies ended in a torn and mangled stump.

 

“I know,” said Buffy.  “We’ve looked everywhere, and we can’t find it.”

 

“That could be bad.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

+++++

 

He stands by the shore of a burning, sluggish sea.  In the near distance, a red fountain marks the place where a new volcano is building.  The heat is a physical weight in this desolate landscape of black and bloody hell.  The slow waves of magma break heavily on the black basalt shore, each new wave bringing more heat and smoke until it darkens and crusts over, and gives way to the next.

 

The atmosphere is thick and toxic, laden with chemical clouds, the stench of sulphur and ammonia heavy and acrid.  It doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t need to breathe.  Overhead, there might be a sun, although it’s no more than a brighter patch among the dull yellow and grey, much fainter than a sun should be.

 

He looks down at where he stands, the greenish rock, like everything else in this Hell, glowing with the awful redness of this molten world.  It isn’t only the rock he’s looking at.  Two great, black cloven hooves stand on the slab of half-solidified basalt.  His weight is pressing them into the rock, making indentations that are getting deeper as he watches.

 

He swallows hard, and holds out a hand.  The skin is a leaden grey, old leather, hanging in loose folds from a muscular arm.  The fingers are long and skeletal, but very strong, tipped with deadly curving talons.

 

He swallows again, and the action feels wrong.  His tongue is longer, harder, split at the tip, another deadly weapon hidden behind ranks of shark-like fangs, longer, sharper, and oh so many more than he’s ever had before.

 

There’s no looking glass, not even a pool of water and, even if there were, he wouldn’t want to see himself.

 

He looks around this boiling, lifeless Hades in which he’s found himself, and he weeps.

 

Blink...

 

This is a different sort of hell.  Everything here is a cold and dead cinder.  When he looks up, there is nothing in the darkness.  Not the sun, nor moon, not a single star or even a cloud in the sky.  He’s not surprised about the clouds.  The atmosphere is too thin to carry clouds.  The rest of it shakes him, though.

 

He’s on a beach again, and the sea is still sluggish.  This time, it’s because there is no wind, no tide, nothing to stir the thick, black water.   He stalks down to the water’s edge, and bends to look at it.  To smell it.  It isn’t water.  It’s liquid methane.

 

As he stands, his hoof – his foot, he has to think of it as a foot – catches on something partly buried in the black sand.  He pulls it out, careful not to crush it with those terrible talons.  It’s a glass bottle, the glass thin and eroded and frosted.  It might have been here for thousands of years.  He can imagine someone tipping this up and taking a long swallow of beer from it.  Whoever that might have been, they’re long gone now.

 

He looks back at the traces that he has left behind him, the path of those hooves – feet – across the shifting sand, and his heart breaks.

 

Blink...

 

He’s in deepest darkness, the temperature a little above freezing, no breath of wind against that leathery skin.  When he moves, there’s the soft, muted clatter of hooves on rock.  His path takes him upwards.  There’s no light, but he can see well enough.  He doesn’t think it’s eyesight that he’s using.

 

As he climbs, there are tiny puffs of air coming from further up.  They carry down to him the acrid scent of wood smoke, the rancid odour of badly tanned skins and the rankness of unwashed humanity. 

 

He starts to move more quickly, anxious to see someone, anyone.  When he reaches the mouth of the cave, there’s nothing, just the trace of those scents, taunting him.  It’s as though their source left here only moments before, but they are now irrevocably gone. 

 

Then he sees something from the corner of his eye, movement, something small, running.  He turns towards it, his speed inhuman, but it’s gone.  And there it is again, in the corner of his eye.  And again he pivots round.  There’s nothing there.  But always there’s that movement, of something hiding in the dark.

 

He calls out to anyone who might be able to hear, and it emerges from his lungs as an eldritch roar, echoing around the rocky walls, and out into the night, resonating from unseen mountains and valleys.  He roars again, bellowing out his anger and his frustrations, beating his fist against the wall, carving out great blocks of rock.  Then all that’s left is the reek of fear.

 

He falls to his knees, still roaring.

 

Blink...

 

He’s somewhere else now.  It’s a cave of sorts, but a different sort of cave.  The occupants have built this one for themselves.  Once more, there’s the scent of wood smoke and sweat.  This time, the sweat is both human and animal.

 

It’s night again.  He shrinks into the deepest shadows, fading into corners, trying not to show himself.  He watches, and he waits.  And there’s something in the corner of his eye, movement, and yet he still can’t catch plain sight of it.  The next time it happens, he recoils further into his chosen corner, and calls out softly to whatever is moving.  These are the first words he’s spoken since arriving in hell, and it’s just a simple greeting, in his head. 

 

That’s not what comes out of his mouth, though.  It’s a whisper of seduction, an erotic temptation.  Come walk with me //  See what I have for you //  Take my hand // I could show you the world, things you've never seen, never even heard of.

 

It’s a sibilant whisper, wrapping around the subconscious, a tongue of lies and deceit.  The pheromones of fear spike through his consciousness.

 

Blink...

 

He’s back on that barren basalt shore.  He wonders whether, if he searched, he would find the footprints that he left before, in the soft rock.  He’s been many places since he was last here: icy, frozen wastes; red sand deserts stretching from horizon to horizon; plains smoking in the aftermath of fire, blackened tree stumps like rotting teeth; jungles where the vegetation is cavernous, obscuring the light with its giant, bosky fronds and odours of dung and decay.

 

Always it’s the same.  Movement which he cannot catch, except from the corner of his eye.  His words, turned into whispered enticements, or into terrifying screams and roars.  And then the all-pervading scent of fear, sweet in his nostrils but bitter to his mind.  Only here, where he is now, is there nothing but himself, no movement, no scent other than what he can identify.

 

He doesn’t know how long he’s travelled from one hell to another, but it seems like forever.  And now he’s back where he started.  He stamps in fury, terrifying himself by the way that action seems so natural, and by the way the rock shatters beneath his cloven foot.

 

And then there’s movement again, but this time, it doesn’t disappear when he turns towards it.  As he watches, he wonders whether he’s been lost so long that he’s lost his mind as well as his body.

 

A woman coalesces from the noxious clouds of gas over the molten sea.  She’s beautiful, pale skinned, red-haired, with a halo of fire around her.  She’s like a goddess.  He knows her.

 

“Ella.”  It comes out in that sibilant hiss.  Come to me // Lie with me

 

But she seems to hear what he’s tried to say.  Her name.  Her gaze focuses on him, and she smiles.

 

“Hello, Angel.”

 

+++++

 

Martha sat as still as stone in the chair.  They’d offered her a sedative, but she’d scorned to take such a thing.  She didn’t want any of her memories of John to be dulled or cushioned, especially his death.  She wanted them clear and bright.  Sharp enough to cut.  Dangerous.  For her, vengeance would be a dish best eaten hot.   And vengeance she would have, payment for the death of the man she loved more than all the world.  No matter that others might be the tool of that vengeance – if they made sure that whoever had ordered this paid with their lives, or worse, then she would be satisfied with that.  The demons who had killed John were dead, but they were no more than tools, she was sure.  Someone had used them, as surely as Martha would use someone else to avenge her loss.

 

Her tool would be Buffy.  Buffy would move heaven and earth, quite possibly literally, to discover who had murdered Angel, so her purpose was exactly the same as Martha’s.  And Buffy would tear the world apart to find who had put her Watcher into a coma.  Martha had always tried to be a good Christian woman, and she knew her Bible, both Old Testament and New.  Now, it was Old Testament time.  It was time for some smiting.

 

Martha looked down at the bed.  Giles was deathly still, surrounded by monitors and bags of fluid.  His face was waxen, but his eyes were restless.  She had to be satisfied with that.  Something was happening inside his head.  He’d been like this ever since he was lifted from the rubble of his home, in the dark of the night for which this was the following day.  She couldn’t think how else to enumerate time.

 

And because they knew that something was going on in Giles’ head, they – all the people that mattered in this conspiracy of vengeance – had decided that he should never be left alone.  They wouldn’t have left him alone in any case, but it was even more imperative, with those restless, dreaming eyes, in case there were words to catch, ideas to write down, identities to kill.

 

Her family would arrive soon, and she would be taken into their bosom, helpless to join in the hunt.  And so, she had said that she would sit with Giles until then, while the others caught up with sleep or caught up with evil.  They would need all their strength for this hunt, and she, Martha, would make sure they had it.  Once she found her own again, not even her family would stop her from joining it.

 

His hand twitched on the coverlet, and then clenched into a fist.  With the effort required of the mountain going to Mohammad, she reached out to him, placing her hand on his.  She loved this man now, like a brother, perhaps in place of the brother she’d lost when she was twelve.  She would not see him die.  There’d been too much death already.

 

She stroked his hand, and tried to ease the fingers back open again, to relax his grip on whatever he thought he was holding, but she couldn’t, and so she let him be.  Whatever he was doing, he would have to work it out for himself.

 

She looked at the clock, and wrote down what Giles had done on the notepad by the bed, and then she settled back into her chair.  John... John... why have you left me alone?

 

She picked up the book on the bedside table.  Virgil’s Aeneid.  It was important, the doctors had said, and more importantly, Nick had said, to talk to people in a coma, and so they would all talk to him, and read to him.  Alice had brought a few books that might remind him who he was.  Clearing her throat, Martha began.

 

          I sing of arms and the man...”

 

+++++

 

He’s wearing the Harris Tweed suit that his father bought for him.  It’s hot and heavy in the heat, more suited to northern lands and windswept islands, but it just never wears out.  He’s had it for decades now, for so long that it almost seems to define him.  That must be why he’s wearing it now.

 

Something elusive catches his attention, interrupts his train of non-thought.

 

“Ella?”

 

He doesn’t know where he is, and he’s thinking of Ella.  That’s not unusual, thinking of Ella.  He does that a lot.  It seems to him that he was thinking of Ella just before he came here, but he can’t remember where he is, and he can’t remember the journey.  Wherever this is, it certainly isn’t home.  And Ella isn’t here, although he almost thought that he heard her, smelled her perfume.

 

He’s standing in a place of dust and darkness and drought, and already the dust seems to be clogging his throat.  He seems to be standing between cliffs, tall faces of sand and rock, beetling over the path.  He knows they’re there because their invisible weight presses down on him.  He can feel, rather than see, dust devils of hot air swirling around his calves, rising up his body, stinging his face and his nostrils.  He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and holds it in front of his nose and mouth.  Which way to go?

 

He can’t see more than a few inches ahead, and as he looks to left and right, he realises that he has no clues as to the path he should take.  The only apparent difference is that to the left, the path lies uphill, and to the right, it’s downhill all the way.

 

He starts upwards.  If he can get to the top of a hill, perhaps he can make some sense of where he is.  Within a few paces, he’s sliding in deep sand, one step forward, two steps back.  The sand is in his shoes, and as he falls to his knees, the sharp grains of yellow silica scuff the heels of his hands.

 

A gust of wind raises a small dusty cloud, and he has to close his eyes.  He scrabbles back to his feet by clinging to the rough face of the cliff.  He takes a step forward, and his handhold on the cliff crumbles under his fingers.  Another step, and he’s slipped back to where he started. 

 

The ground seems firmer here.  Perhaps he should go the other way.  After all, downhill might lead to a valley, there might be water, and where there’s water there might be people.  He tries not to think that where there’s water, there are animals, and where there are animals, there are predators.

 

Keeping one hand on the cliff face, he starts downhill.  He’s right.  The ground is much firmer, the walking easier.

 

At last, he comes to ancient, crumbling stonework.  He can feel the weathered smoothness of the blocks under his fingers, the finely-jointed masonry that speaks of craftsmanship, the decaying edges that speak of abandonment.  He’s wrong in this.  Not everyone has gone from here.

 

He reaches a large covered space.  There’s a tenebrous light, full of dark shadows.  Then he sees that some of the shadows are moving.  He calls out to them, but they flit into the darkest corners, like ghosts.  He moves towards them, still calling.

 

“I say!  Where is this place?  Please?”

 

They move further away, panicked, trailing dark and dusty tattered vestments behind them.  A movement close by makes him start, and a single shadow glides forward.  As it passes him, it hisses, “Beware, Rupert Giles.  Easy is the way down to the Underworld: by night and by day dark Hades’ door stands open; but to retrace one’s steps and to make a way out to the upper air, that’s the task, that is the labour.”

 

What?”  He stands, confused, as the shadow slips away.  Almost, almost he recognises the voice, but any recognition has slipped away from him, like the shadow.  Who, here, would know him?  And who, here, would be quoting Virgil to him?

 

He follows the shadow as it flees away.  It half turns its head back towards him, its pale face luminous beneath the darkness of the hood.  It’s Roger Wyndham-Price, long dead and not at all lamented.

 

Is this what the Watchers have come to?  Feeble shadows in some place of outer darkness?  He doesn’t care about Roger Wyndham-Price, but he would care about some of the others.  And he would care very much if others of his friends, his loved ones, were here, in this desolate place.  Those who have died for the cause. 

 

Ella.

 

+++++

 

It was Monday, but it felt like an extension of Friday night.  Detective Chief Inspector Ian Collins sat at his desk, wondering when he’d be able to sleep.  Whether he’d ever be able to sleep again.  The door opened, and Gavin Lincoln came in, clutching a sheaf of daily papers.  He threw them down onto the cluttered desk.

 

“A few of them have tiny paragraphs tucked well away inside,” he said.  “The rest haven’t got anything.”

 

Collins let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. 

 

Gavin nodded in return.  “Bloody good luck, that.  It’s almost like there was a spell around the place.  You know... ‘See me not.  Take no notice of me.’  That sort of thing.”

 

“I think you might be right about that, although I don’t know who would have cast it.  But it’s a miracle everyone accepted the story, and didn’t see anything really newsworthy in it.”  He leafed through the first of the newspapers until he found a small paragraph with a red circle penned around it.

 

Man dies in freak accident

A man died and at least one other was injured in a freak accident in Westbury, when a house collapsed.  The collapse is under investigation.  Some sources have suggested a freak meteorite strike, but a spokesman from Avon and Somerset Constabulary pointed out that substantial building works were being carried out at the time.

 

“They’re all the same, sir, more or less.”

 

“Internet?”

 

“Nothing extra.  No chatter.”

 

Collins shook his head in disbelief.  “I just can’t credit that we’re going to get away with this.”

 

“Appreciate it while you can.”

 

Collins smiled.  “Yeah.  I guess.  Right.  You can hold the fort.  I’m going to get some sleep.”

 

Gavin called him back as he reached the door.  “It’s raining.  You’ve forgotten your coat.”

 

So he had.  He was just so damned tired.  He hadn’t slept in something like forty-eight hours.  He and Gavin would take it in turns now, making sure that a lid was kept on everything.  Neither of them wanted some flatfoot letting something out to the media.  And yet, he thought, as he sank gratefully into his car seat, all of them, including the villagers involved in the search and rescue, had been strangely incurious about events.  He’d worry about it later.  For now, he was just thankful. 

 

He was halfway home when he pulled over.  He leaned his forehead onto the steering wheel, as he thought of that cold, empty house.  He was still too full of what had happened on Friday, too torn between anger and sorrow to face loneliness as well.  Shaking his head in denial, he pulled his phone from his pocket.  His call was answered almost immediately.

 

“Hello, Alice.  It’s Ian.”

 

Thirty minutes later, he pulled up in the lane outside Alice’s cottage.  The scarlet geraniums were still flowering outside the front door, an unseasonal blaze of warmth in a cold and wet night.  The door opened, an invitation of light, as he walked up the path.

 

“Come in,” she said, her voice low and husky, as she held out her hand to him.  “Do you want something to eat?”

 

He shook his head as he slipped his arms round her.  “Not yet.  Later, maybe.”

 

He looked down at this miraculous woman, restored to vibrant youth and beauty, and he felt his throat tighten.  A sharp crack of laughter escaped him.

 

“What’s wrong?” she asked, searching his face for a clue, her eyes shadowed with worry.

 

“It isn’t many men who have the opportunity to see what their girl will be like when she’s old.”  His smile faded.  “Sorry.  It’s been that sort of a day.”

 

She punched him on the arm.  “I thought you were going to talk about scales.”

 

He frowned.  “I never thought about those.”

 

She was about to say something else, but he leaned down and kissed her.  The taste of her was... unique.  It was the bittersweetness of chocolate and cinnamon, mixed with something warm and musky.  It reminded him of Chypre perfume, a favourite of his sister’s, and yet it was entirely Alice’s.  Like her, he found it irresistible.

 

He was exhausted, but he needed warmth and companionship, and something he wasn’t prepared to name.  And she was just so damned enticing...

 

He traced her cheek with his finger, and decided to rush his fences.  “I want to make love to you.”

 

He heard her intake of breath.  He was going far too fast...

 

She saw the hollowness in his eyes, the raw need that was echoed in her own heart.  At first, she’d been too full of pain and anger, too numbed by the intensity of her emotions that she hadn’t been able to cry.  And then she hadn’t been able to stop. 

 

She’d been friends with John and Martha for years.  Not close friends, perhaps.  They didn’t go for nights out together or share the secrets of their lives, but she’d known them for a long time, and they’d helped each other often. She’d wept for the bloodied body and she’d wept for Martha’s grief.

 

And Angel.  Who could not weep for Angel?  And she had.

 

She’d wept tears, too, for Giles.  For the small and inquisitive boy, by turns young and adventurous, or old beyond his years.  He lay now in a hospital bed, and no one could say whether he would ever rise from it again.

 

But she suspected that most of her tears had been for the living, for that small band of survivors who were alive only because of the dead, and who all felt that they would have preferred to die so that the others might live.  Survivors’ guilt, perhaps, but nonetheless painful for all that.  They hadn’t had chance to mourn privately together.  They had taken turns with Giles, passing in the hushed silence of the dimly-lit room, and they had started to do the things that needed doing in the aftermath of such an appalling tragedy.  So far, though, they’d done those things separately.

 

And sometimes that wasn’t enough.  Sometimes, life needs to cling to life, to be comforted and to assert itself as an option better than death.  And to feel that renewal is possible.  That was what this man was looking for.  Renewal.  Comfort.  Hope.  So was she.  Perhaps they could find it together, just for a few hours in the quiet eye of the maelstrom of tragedy.

 

He was surprised when she kissed her fingers and laid them against his lips, and when she silently led him upstairs.  He was blind to everything around him, except for the inviting feminine flounces of the bed, for the warmth of her body, for the scent of her, the promise of something other than death, as he kissed her cheek, her neck, her lips, and as he slowly unzipped the grey wool dress that she wore.

 

He gave a tiny gasp as the falling dress revealed her body.  He wouldn’t have cared if she had been clothed in those pearlescent pink scales, but her skin was flawless, a pale coffee colour.  She was beautiful, and he wanted to learn about every part of her as thoroughly and intimately as possible, to lose himself entirely in her.

 

He couldn’t get out of his own clothes quickly enough, as she unhooked her bra and stepped out of her panties.  She pulled aside the lacy coverlet, and he tugged her down, holding her close to him as he made sure she was comfortable.

 

And he was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

 

+++++

 

Lisa sat by Giles’ hospital bed, reading out loud from the book that was open on her knee, Dante’s Divine Comedy.  She’d been reading for a while, and now she fell silent.  Quietly, she got up to refill the water jug, and pour herself a glass.

 

When she sat back down, Giles’ fist opened and closed spasmodically, clutching at a coverlet that might once have been pink but had, over the years, been boiled within an inch of its life.  His jaw clenched, and his eyes tracked backwards and forwards beneath his eyelids.  Rapid eye movement, a clear component of dreaming.

 

She wondered what it was that preyed on his mind.  Was it memory, reliving Friday night?  Was it the present, trying to drag his mind back from wherever it was?  Or had Giles realised something about the attack, and was he trying to communicate what he knew?

 

Something moved her to put her hand over his, and his fingers closed around hers.  A tiny sob escaped her at this closeness, something he’d never offered when he was conscious.  Then his hand opened again, and he took tight hold of the coverlet, twisting it in his grasp.  She tried not to mind.

 

She’d stay here for another couple of hours, and then Buffy would come to take a turn.  Lisa would go back home, but at least she wouldn’t be alone.  There would be a Bentley in the drive, when Nick got back from his patients.  She was glad about that.

 

She laid her hand against Giles’ arm, so that he might feel some warmth, some nearness, and then she started to read.

 

“Through me is the way to the sorrowful city. Through me is the way...”

 

+++++

 

He starts downwards once more.  He’s back under the beetling cliffs, but even so, there’s a thin and grey light.  It’s strange, because he thinks it should be getting darker, the further down he goes, but it isn’t.  The way is steep now, and he hangs on to whatever handholds he can find in the side of the cliff.  He tries not to run, but it’s hard to control his legs.

 

As he moves ever downwards, he thinks that he can feel the touch of a hand, comforting him, guarding his safety.  The touch is familiar.

 

He seems to have been walking for days when he reaches another ruinous hall cut into the rock, at the place where the path ends.  He can’t see from one side of the hall to the other, and he doesn’t know whether that’s because of the dusty gloom, or whether it’s because of the size of it.  As he stands in the gaping doorway he sees something scrawled on the doorpost.

 

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

 

He remembers that.  It’s particularly personal, even if he was using it not exactly as Alfred Noyes intended.

 

When he and Buffy first brought an impaired Angel back from Los Angeles, Giles had kept Ella away from the house.  He would go to her house, or take her to the flat in Bath, or talk to her on the telephone.  He could never forget what Angel had done to Jenny.  He’d brought the vampire back to his home because Buffy had needed him to do that.

 

For the first few days, he’d been truly uncertain what they’d got back: Angel, Angelus, or something entirely different.  Several times, he’d been tempted to go into the room with a stake in his hand.  Because of Jenny.

 

Angelus had killed Jenny with a song in his heart, and Giles had not been able to forget that, when looking at the resurrected vampire.  He had hated him.  He’d wished him dead, for Buffy’s sake, if not for the memory of Jenny.  He’d truly thought him a demon sent back from Hell to ruin their lives.  Again.

 

And so, once, on a day when the damaged Angel had been particularly difficult to manage, and when Giles had phoned Ella, arranging to pick her up and take her to Bath, he’d said this to her. 

 

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

 

She’d been quiet, and he’d realised that she understood that by hell he meant Angel.  He’d never said it again, and gradually things had changed.  He’d come to accept Angel, and then to care for him.  Not at that time, though.  This had been a cruel thing, unthinkingly said.

 

Was he here to be reminded of all his petty cruelties?

 

A block of stone stood where the path ended, at a sheer drop downwards, into absolute darkness.  He could try to climb down, he could enter this chamber, or he could try the near-impossible climb back up the way he had come.  What to do?

 

Torn by indecision, he sat down on the stone bench.  He was a Watcher.  For a little time, he would watch.

 

It wasn’t long before he realised that there was movement in the chamber.  Wraith-like figures flitted around, not many, but they were seemingly panicked by each puff of air, each small swirl of dust.  They were all clothed as those in the other chamber had been – dark, dusty robes that hung in rags and tatters on their insubstantial forms.

 

He looked down at his own clothes.  The tweed was gone.  Now, he was wearing a comfortable pair of jeans, a blue T-shirt and a black leather jacket, all clothes that he owned and was familiar with.  Different to what he’d worn when he entered, but no sign of a ragged robe anywhere.  Would that come later?

 

These others, when he caught a glimpse of them, were pallid, their skin as pale as the moon, as pallid as corpse flesh.

 

He held out his hand.  It was solid flesh and blood and bone.  It was warm.  And, although it wasn’t exactly tanned – this was November in England, after all, and how could one get a tan in November, except by going to one of those poncy tanning salons – it was the hand of a man who spends at least some time outside.

 

So, was he a living man, here amongst the dead?  Or did they all see themselves as wearing normal clothes, and with ruddy, healthy flesh?  Why was he here, wherever here was?

 

His ears almost caught a whisper, and there was a moment again when he thought that a warm hand held his.

 

Ella?

 

Was that why he was here?  Had she called to him for help?  Was Ella here, in this terrible place, where everything faded into nothingness?  After all she had sacrificed?  Not if he had anything to say in the matter.

 

He looked up at the lintel of the cavernous doorway.

 

Through me is the way to the sorrowful city. Through me is the way to eternal suffering. Through me is the way to join the lost people.Abandon all hope, you who enter!

 

The inscription at the gateway to Dante’s Hell.  Great.  Just... great.

 

+++++

 

Buffy sat at the writing table in her room at the Cedars Hotel.  There had been arguments about her coming here.  Large, fat, arguments that were meant to mow her down, but that had simply passed her by.  Lisa had offered her a room.  So had Alice.  Even Ian Collins had.  Nick had offered them all the complete run of his house.  Martha had insisted that she go to stay with her.  That had been the hardest to resist, because Martha needed people around her.  But, the new widow had her family, and Buffy expected her to go and stay with one of her two daughters, or perhaps her son.

 

No, Buffy wanted to be on her own just now.  She had no time to languish or to mourn.  That would all come later, when she could lay down the armour that she had surrounded herself with.  The armour of The Slayer.

 

Her first priority was to deal with whoever was sending assassins.  Angel might be dead, but Giles still lived (please... let him live... please), and so did she.  Who knew when assassins would come again?  And who else they would come for?

 

No, this was the thing that she had to take care of first.  And she could do it better if she didn’t have someone who cared about her looking over her shoulder all the time.

 

As for Angel...  Well, she would find him.  If the sender of the assassins had him, that was another reason for finding out who that was, so that she could rescue the man who gave meaning to her whole life.  If he was dead...  Well, dead didn’t always mean dead, did it?  Not with him, anyway.  There were ways to retrieve a vampire, she knew that, just as there were ways to retrieve a Slayer.  Connor had done it.  So could she.  She couldn’t bear to think of a life without him.  She knew that was selfish, because someday he would have to think of a life without her, but they’d deal with that later.  Much later.  For now, she had to concentrate on how to find out what had happened to him.  And what to do about it.

 

She would follow him down to Hell if she had to, and bring him back out.  She wouldn’t leave him to suffer there.  Not again.  Once was more than enough.  (Not if he’s in Heaven, though.  Not if he’s earned his way there.  If that’s where he is, I’ll have to learn to live without him...)  Before that, though, she must find the sender of the assassins.

 

She glanced to the other corner of the table, where the demon, Syroh, sat leafing quickly through a thick book.  Syroh had brought over a carful of Giles’ more promising and less damaged books, and they were working their way through. 

 

The demon shut the book with a snap, and threw it onto a pile that covered the bed.

 

“I find nothing useful, Slayer,” he said testily.

 

She sat back with a sigh.  “No. Neither have I.  We need a different approach.”

 

“I will go for some refreshments, Slayer.  A short rest will help us to think better.”

 

He was right.  They’d been doing this for hours.  “I’ll come with you.  Let’s go somewhere outside.  Get some fresh air.”  He nodded his acquiescence.

 

She’d got a hire car, a Vauxhall Astra, and they used that, because Syroh didn’t seem to use cars at all.  It was mid-afternoon, and she drove towards a place that at least would offer some fresh air.  The garden centre.

 

Syroh looked askance as she pulled into the car park.

 

“This close to Christmas, they stay open late.  They have a good tea room, and it’s peaceful.”

 

Peaceful wasn’t perhaps the immediate word that came to mind when they’d pushed through the glass doors, as a throng of shoppers took advantage of discounted prices on Christmas gifts, but they found a table in the café, and the numbers started to thin.  After the first cup of hot chocolate, with twilight falling, they were almost alone.

 

They talked about the research they’d been doing, about any possible hint of a clue, about anything that Syroh might know, no matter how insignificant, that could shed light on who was orchestrating this, and why.  Buffy asked Syroh to explain his thoughts on why those members of the Commonwealth had been killed, and the reasons why they decided to approach Angel for help.

 

He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket.  “I prepared this for you, Slayer...”

 

“Secret identity, remember, Syroh.  Just call me Buffy.”

 

“Yes, Slayer.  This is a list of those who have been murdered.”

 

There were a dozen names on the list.  A cross had been written next to two of them.

 

“And these are..?”

 

He pointed to the two crosses.  “These may not be the same as all the others.  These two clans have a personal feud, and I have a strong feeling that these may be tit-for-tat killings.  Otherwise, all these have been killed in the last, oh, fifteen or sixteen months.”

 

“Do they have anything in common?”

 

“They are all people of influence in their clans.  Leaders.  Decision makers.  Although they don’t all hold the same views.”

 

“So, getting rid of them might make the clans less effective in the face of some sort of threat.  Make them weaker.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Your father was the leader of your clan.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Who leads it now?”

 

“I do.”

 

“What about these other clans?”

 

“The slain leaders have all been replaced, but often there isn’t much choice.  Our clans are quite small.  Some of the new heads are inexperienced, uncertain.”

 

Who would benefit from weakening the Commonwealth, she wondered.  A human?  Judging by the use of demon assassins, that seemed unlikely, although she couldn’t ignore it.  Was there a new equivalent to Wolfram and Hart?  She knew now how great an enemy they had been for Angel.

 

“Syroh, could there be a demon, or a demon organisation, that would try to take over the Commonwealth?  Or to replace it?”

 

He shook his head.  “I cannot think that, Slayer.  The Commonwealth lives within your society.  It has no power, no real wealth, no territory of its own.  Our history lessons tell us that it was conceived to prevent conflict between the clans within, and for mutual defence against more war-like clans outside.”

 

“Then it has to be that someone wants to weaken you, to cripple the purposes of the Commonwealth.  It’s what we call a pre-emptive strike.”

 

Syroh looked troubled.  “That is what I, too, fear.  But I cannot imagine who.”

 

“We’d better do some imagining,” Buffy asserted, “and we’d better do it now.”

 

They sat there for a long time, discussing and discarding ideas and possibilities, until a bell sounded closing time.  They were no further forward.

 

“Do you wish to dine, Slayer?”

 

Buffy smiled.  “Another night, Syroh.  It’s my turn to sit with Giles...”

 

She didn’t finish, as a hurrying shopper bumped into her, dropping a book onto the floor.

 

“I’m so sorry,” the elderly woman gasped, as she juggled the rest of her purchases.  As Syroh reached out to the woman to help her steady the pile of goods in her arms, Buffy bent down to pick up the book.  It was a white softback, with an orange tulip on the front.  RHS Plant Finder 2008-2009.

 

She stood unmoving, staring at the title.

 

“That’s a very good buy, my dear, if you want some specific plants.  It shows every plant and where you can buy it.  They have it at thirty percent off, you know.”

 

Still Buffy didn’t move.

 

“Is anything wrong...?”  At least Syroh didn’t call her ‘Slayer’ but his tone said that he almost had.  It was that that made her look up.

 

“I’m sorry.”  She handed the book back.  “Yes, it looks very useful.  Come on, we’ve got to go.”  That last was to Syroh.  She threaded her hand into his arm, to his astonishment, and pulled him after her towards the car park.

 

“I can’t believe I never thought about that,” she raged to him.  “I must be getting soft in the head!”

 

“A plant book?”  Syroh was bemused.

 

“That was a Plant Finder,” she said, as she unlocked the car.  When she’d scrambled into her seat, she pulled out her phone.  He remained standing by the open door, staring in at her.

 

Demon Finder, Syroh.  We’ve lost a demon finder, and I don’t think it was accidental.”

 

He slid into the car.  “I do not understand you.”

 

“Alice...”

 

“Yeorlialicia Taraskena Mallina, the Silarri?”

 

“Is that her name?  No wonder she uses Alice Yeo.  Yes, that Alice.  Someone broke into her house a little while ago, and stole a directory of demons that she was compiling for Giles.  We thought they might have taken it for the fancy cover – it looked like gold and jewels – and we haven’t been able to find it.  But it had details of clans, including where to find them.”

 

“By the heart of Ashorak the Black!” Syroh swore.  “Why were we not told?”

 

“Because, what with everything that’s happened since you summoned Angel to that hilltop, it sort of slipped my mind!” she snapped.

 

“Yes, of course.  But the clans will be in danger now, and I must do something to protect them.”

 

“We’ll do that...”

 

Her call was answered.  “Alice?  It’s Buffy.”

 

+++++

 

Alice didn’t know whether anything would come of this liaison with Ian Collins, but she had a very good feeling about it.  She’d probably have an even better feeling about it when he woke up.

 

She smiled to herself as she looked at the man next to her, the exhaustion apparent on his features, even in sleep.  She’d have to find a way to smooth that away.  She reached out gently and touched the skin on his chest.  There were two puckered scars, knife wounds, by the look of them.  She smiled again.  This man would always face danger, not turn his back on it.

 

Carefully, she slid out of the bed, tucking the covers around him, and pulled on a silky dressing gown.  It was elegant and old-fashioned, redolent of lavender from where it had been laid up in a chest for the last seventy years.  She hadn’t had much call for buying sexy lingerie in recent years, but she’d kept all her best things from the heydays of the fin de siècle, the belle époque.

 

As she tied the belt into a bow, the phone rang.  Its tone was soft, here in the bedroom, but she answered it quickly so as not to disturb him.

 

“Buffy.  Hello.”

 

“Yes, of course you can come over.”  She turned to look at her would-be lover.  He was leaning on his elbow, more attuned to the ringing of the telephone than she had anticipated.  She gave him a rueful smile.  “Ten minutes?  I’ll be here.”

 

He held out his hand to her and she took it.  “Ten minutes?” he said.  “Not even time for a quick one.  We’d be caught in flagrante delicto.  Shall I stay out of sight here?”

 

“Certainly not.  This sounds like business.  All hands to the deck, I think.”

 

“Later, then?”

 

“Later.  Definitely.”

 

+++++

 

Alice brought in coffee for Buffy and Syroh.  Ian had already been there when they arrived, and had a large mug in his hand.

 

“Alice, we need to know what was in the stolen demon directory.  You didn’t keep a copy, did you?”

 

“More or less, yes.  On the computer.  Do you want it now?”

 

Buffy nodded.  Within a few minutes, Alice had a series of documents open, and Buffy started to ask her questions.

 

“Which clans are first on the list?”

 

“Hmmm.  The Amocent, the Belgaza, and the Ellodina.”

 

Syroh cleared his throat.  “The Ellodina have already lost their Head of Clan.  That was about eight months ago.  He was killed in a house fire.”

 

“Suspicious?”

 

Syroh shrugged.  “Probably.”

 

“I don’t know any of those.  They aren’t from around here, are they?”

 

“No, Buffy.  Those three are mainly from the north.”

 

“Whose territories are closest?”

 

“My people,” Syroh answered.

 

“Maybe you’ve been dealt with already,” Buffy said quietly.  “Who else?”

 

Alice searched quickly through.  “What about the Poraxen?”

 

Syroh nodded.  “A small clan, not part of the Commonwealth, very well off.  Nothing’s happened to them so far.  Not that I know about.”

 

“It’s strange,” Alice told then, “that considering how close they are, they were one of the last clans I found.”

 

“Very secretive people.”  Syroh nodded.

 

Ian hadn’t yet spoken, but he put down his mug now, a thoughtful frown in his eyes.  “Buffy, you’re thinking that the directory was stolen by people wanting the information from it?”

 

Buffy nodded.

 

“But,” Ian pressed on, “according to Syroh, some of the assassinations took place before the book was stolen.”

 

“Someone using their own information, and then they run out and need to look elsewhere?”  Alice frowned as she said it.  She was beginning to feel very vulnerable.  Maybe she’d had a lucky escape.  There was more to worry about, though.

 

“Is anyone here good with computers?”  Ian looked around the room.

 

No one was.

 

“What if someone found out what Alice was doing, and put a thing... a Trojan thing on her computer?”

 

Buffy seemed to come to some sort of internal decision.

 

“That’s a good suggestion.  I’ll ask Kevin Langford to come and take a look.  He’s a friend.  I don’t want to involve more people than we have to, but we need to check this out.”

 

“I’m okay with it, Buffy.”  Alice smiled her reassurance.

 

“Syroh, you need to get word to the heads and whoever else might be targeted.  They need to get somewhere safe.  Ian, lock them up in your cells if you have to, please.  Can you find enough safe places, do you think?”

 

“If not,” said Ian, slowly, “I gather that the vacant houses for the Coven have... special properties.”

 

“Good idea.”  Alice was brisk.  “Who’s going to interrupt Ivy’s honeymoon to get the keys?”

 

The three who knew Ivy looked at each other.  “Gavin,” Ian said decisively.  “It’ll be good for him.  Character-building.”

 

Buffy stood up.  “I’m going to sit with Giles for a bit.  Syroh, we’ll meet tomorrow, when you’ve had chance to contact your people.”

 

+++++

 

“How do you know who I am?”  I know you. // I’ve always known you. // I know what you most want, the desires of your darkest heart.

 

He shifts, uncomfortably, and the shattered rock moves beneath his cloven hoof.

 

“I’m sorry,” he continues.  “I... I can’t seem to control what I say.  It’s not what I mean to say.”  Come with me, and you can rule the world...

 

“That’s because the demon is more manifest, Angel.  But I know you.  I can hear what you say, not what he says.”

 

He wonders whether she can hear what they both say, but he really doesn’t want to know.  And if she’s just a figment of his tortured imagination, he doesn’t want to know that, either.

 

“Where am I, Ella?  Is this Hell?”  If it is, it’s different to the last one, but that might not mean much.

 

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?  In a way, I suppose that’s as good a description as any.  But the question isn’t where are you.  Can’t you feel it?”

 

What can he feel?  He feels... strange.  Apart from the very unwelcome body plan, he feels... stretched.  He feels as though he could turn around and be somewhere else.  Is that what happened before?  He asks her that.

 

She walks over the molten sea, towards him, and he sees that her feet don’t touch the lava.  In terms of a reality check, that can’t be good.  Then she’s standing next to him.

 

“The question, Angel, is not where you are, but when you are.”

 

“Ella, please don’t be cryptic.  Don’t make me guess.”

 

She takes that terrible hand in hers and strokes it.  It’s part raptor, part skeleton and all demon.  The talons could disembowel her in one sweep.

 

“Angel, you’re standing at the beginning of the Earth.  You’ve been to the end of it, and you’ve been to various ages in between.  And you are still in all those places, permeating the entire lifespan of the Earth.  Because you are out of step with the rest of the world.”

 

She frowns in thought as she tries to explain, and he doesn’t interrupt.  After all, he remembers Illyria.  And he remembers the empty places he has just been, where humanity seemed to be no more than a scent on the air, a movement out of the corner of his eye.

 

“Look around you,” she tells him.

 

He does, and he sees Hades.  He sees a planet-sized volcano.

 

“No,” she says, patiently, “look around you.  Time is a dimension, just as the other three are.  Nothing that is real in the world comes in just one dimension, or two.  You see everything in solid, three dimensions.  Each dimension is present in the other two, and you can move around in them.  It’s the same with time.  You can move around in it, and all the other dimensions, length and breadth and height, they exist within it.  Reach out, and you touch the end of the world.  If your... reach... is long enough, you can touch the beginning as well.  And you exist in all the other times in between.”

 

She looks at him with something akin to pity, and fear strikes through him, fear that he’s marooned here forever.  It isn’t that that’s the cause of her tenderness, though.

 

“Angel, you are nowhen and everywhen.”  She picks his hand up and holds it in front of his face.  “You’re the monster in the cave, the reason why they huddled in the mouth of that cave, and why going deeper into the tunnels was a sacred act of bravery.  You’re every child’s nightmare, the creature under the bed in the darkness of the night, the unknown terror lurking in the shadows, seen only from the corner of their eye.  You’ve imprinted yourself on this world throughout every age, throughout the whole of time.”

 

“No!”  He can’t bear that thought.  It simply can’t be true.

 

She raises her fingers to his lips, silencing him.

 

“But there’s more to you than the monster.  You will leave something else threaded through time as well, before everything is done.  You will leave the idea of a hero, hidden and unseen, who can face down the dragons and the monsters when they come, and who gives us all courage, in those fearful hours when the sun has gone.”

 

He wants to pull away from her, because he can’t imagine how he feels to her, with that unnatural skin, and the bony plates, and the talons, but he’s afraid that if he does, she will prove to be just a figment of his imagination, and he’ll be left alone.  Her hand on his is warm, and he doesn’t want to let go.  And he needs to understand what she’s telling him.

 

But she looks around, as though something has caught her attention.

 

“I’m being called.  I have to go.  It’s time.”

 

“No, Ella!”  His fear is apparent as he calls out to her.  “I can’t stay here, like this!”

 

“Of course you can’t.  Angel, you have the answer in your own hands.”

 

She’s let go of his hand, now, but he still feels the warmth.  When he looks down, he sees that his hand isn’t empty.  He’s carrying another hand, but this one has been ripped from its owner’s wrist.  It’s vaguely humanoid, and a huge, bulbous swelling runs across the bottom of the palm, pulsing, and glowing darkly in that fiery red light.

 

He remembers something about time... about demons and time and summer.  He looks up at Ella, and sees that she’s fading back into the clouds of noxious smoke. 

 

“Before you go back, you might want to listen,” she tells him.  “Listen to the cries in the darkness, because some of them you might want to help.”

 

And then she’s gone.

 

+++++

 

Buffy sat at Giles’ bedside.  Perhaps she could think here.  Sometimes, though, thinking is easier aloud.  She picked up his hand, relaxed now in this unnatural sleep, and held it tightly.  His eyes moved rapidly to and fro.

 

“Giles, you have to come back to us.  Please.  I can’t do this by myself.  I need you to see if Angel can be... rescued.  I need you to help me find the murderers.  And I just need you to be well again.

 

“I don’t know what to do next.  I’ve got no idea who these people will target next, so how can I protect anyone?  I feel so alone, Giles.” 

 

She stopped to blow her nose defiantly.  “This is what we’ve got so far...”

 

+++++

 

He’s sitting at the entrance to Hell when he notices a dark figure standing inside the doorway, watching him.  It’s dressed like the others, in tattered remnants, with a deep hood.  Then pale hands reach up and throw back the hood.  He stares hard into the gloom, but there’s no mistake.  It’s Jenny.  She comes forward and, as he moves to meet her, she takes his hand.

 

“Rupert, what are you doing here?”

 

He rubs his hand over his brow.  “I... I don’t know how I got here, but there’s someone I have to find.”

 

“A friend?”

 

He puts a hand up to her cheek.  “More than a friend.”

 

“Ah!  You found someone else to love?”

 

“I still love you, Jenny.  You were very dear to me.  Will you come with me, out of here?  You shouldn’t be in a place like this.”

 

“We are all just where we should be,” she says cryptically.  “You know that.  Why are you looking here for your woman?”

 

“I... I don’t know.  I just know that I should.  She saved the world.  She never deserved this.  Where should I go to find her?  Who should I see?”

 

“I can take you to where you need to go.  Just follow me.”

 

“Jenny.  No.  I think I have to do this myself.  Alone.”  He’s no idea why he should be turning down her help.  He’s just going on instinct here.

 

She isn’t angry, though.  She smiles at him, instead, and it seems to him that some colour has returned to her cheeks.  “You always have good instincts, Rupert.  Go to the end of this hall, and then follow your instincts.  Perhaps you will find Ella.”

 

He’s trying to see into the darkness, where she’s pointing, and it takes him a moment to process that she knows about Ella.  He looks backwards at her.

 

“How did you...?”  But she’s outside, now, and the tattered clothes are gone.  So is the deathly pallor.  She’s dressed in the bright and feminine clothes and heeled sandals that she was wearing when last he saw her.  She waves to him and walks out of sight.  There’s only one way for her to go.  Up the hill.  She’ll never manage it in those shoes.

 

He recrosses the threshold, which is something of a relief, because he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to do that.  Still, there’s no sign of her.

 

He returns to that hall of winter souls, and for him, too, there’s only one way for him to go.  He strides out over the stone floor, towards the far end of the chamber, scattering the denizens of that place of eternal waiting, like dried leaves on the wind.

 

At the back of the hall is a series of long and winding corridors and staircases.  It’s dark, but not so much that he cannot see.  It’s just dark enough to create deep and foreboding shadows, and to give everything an ashen pall in that grey and dismal light.  Everywhere he sees rotted hangings, some as fine as ancient cobwebs, crumbling antique chests and cupboards, and broken weapons.

 

In one room, people huddle together in corners.  When they turn to stare at him, he sees that their faces are bloodied.  Their eyes have been put out and somehow he knows that, in life, there were none so blind as those who will not see.  This is their sin made literal.  They hold out their hands in silent supplication, perhaps aware of his passing by the stirring of the air.  In other rooms, it’s worse.

 

He pulls out a handkerchief and blows his nose.  It isn’t because of sorrow at his surroundings, he tells himself.  It’s the dust and the musty dankness of this place.

 

He turns round to look at the way he’s come.  It looks different, as though there has been a shift in time and space.  He knows that he’s lost here, that he has little hope of finding his way back out, at least not without a guide, and part of him wishes that he’d taken up Jenny’s offer.  Most of him knows that he really does have to do this alone.

 

He might have been here for days, months, lifetimes, when he reaches a pair of iron doors.  Or, doors that used to be iron.  This is the death of iron.  These are rotten, like everything he’s seen here, with plaques of dead metal shaling away.  He reaches out to touch one, and a cloud of red rust puffs up on a vagrant breath of stale air.  He grasps a handle, and with a tortured shriek of protest, the door opens.

 

It’s a throne room, of sorts.

 

Two... well, two of something... sit on what have to be thrones, at the far end of the chamber, ergo it must be a throne room.  But, it’s hard to tell where the creatures end and the thrones begin.  As he walks forward, he starts to see more detail.

 

The thrones are of bone, huge bones from some monster he’s probably only seen in a book.  He hopes never to see its like in the flesh.  He thinks it would be better if they were of gleaming white bone.  He could handle that.  Instead, they are of bone that still retains rags and tatters of skin, hanging down like funereal bunting.  There’s no blood, or if there is, it isn’t red.  There’s no colour at all in this place, just white and black and grey, and the thrones are that clammy, claggy, ashy grey.

 

So are the creatures sitting in them.  On them.  Surely, you sit in a chair, he thinks, and you sit on a throne.  In some way, that slight semantic difference seems to imply the precarious nature of thrones.  And, perhaps, the ambivalent nature of what he can see.

 

They are more humanoid than he had at first realised, because what he’d first thought was skull architecture reveals instead that each is wearing a headdress.  The larger one, the male, has a crown of horns that curl down around his face.  He’s dressed in some sort of finery, but it’s so ancient and perished that it’s hard to see what it might have been like when it was... alive.  The smaller one, the female, has a crown of silver leaves, black with tarnish.  Her finery looks as if it hasn’t been in the grave for quite so long as her... husband’s.  Persephone, he wonders, spending six months of every year in the Underworld and six months on Earth?  And then he sees that she has a necklace of fist-sized spiders.  Perhaps this has nothing to do with any story told by Humankind, ever.  If that’s the case, even his learning won’t help him here.

 

But, they are humanoid, with human faces, and they watch him approach.  Even so, they are gaunt to the point of being skeletal.  They look as though someone might have started to skin them, and he understands with horror that that might indeed be the case, as it becomes clear that their skin is peeling away in long, grey skeins.

 

Suddenly, he’s angry.  Why does he still think he can feel Ella’s hand?  Why does he think he can hear Ella, calling to him?  What does that bright, brave, beautiful, magical woman have to do with any of this?  If she’s here, then he will do anything – anything – to get her out.  But she wasn’t dead as Jenny was dead.  As anyone else is ever dead.  Not even as the about-to-rise victim of a vampire is dead.  She was consumed by the power of the Earth, body and soul, made one with the mystery of the planet.  He doesn’t know whether that counts as dead, but it’s just as unreachable.  And it shouldn’t mean that she is trapped here.  He strides forward with more purpose.  These creatures will tell him whether she’s here, and if she is, they will give her up.  He doesn’t stop to think how ridiculous that sounds, from a man who’s lost here, alone, in their realm.

 

“STOP!”

 

The male’s voice, in that single word, resonates like the final closure of the tomb.  Giles stops, a few feet from them.  Now he can smell them, but it’s an earthy scent, like autumn leaf mould, and not unpleasant, although he wouldn’t want to breathe it for too long.

 

“Why do you breach our realm?”

 

That’s the woman.  Her voice has the chill of the winter wind in it, and the mournfulness of the lost souls that are carried on it.

 

“I just want to know where Ella is.  That she isn’t suffering here.  I need to know that she’s... alright.”

 

And he realises that that is the truth.  He’s wanted to know that for a long time.  It’s preyed on his mind.  His thoughts keep skating over the possibility that nothing of Ella has survived.  That there is neither body nor soul, and that she can never be happy or sad again.  That there can be no afterlife for her, except as that sigh on the wind that he sometimes hears, or the shadow of a face dancing in the new spring foliage, or the caress on his cheek when he steps into sunlight.  Those he could believe in, because they are always there, in some small way, every day.

 

But what if she’s here?

 

The woman turns to look at the man, and then turns back to face Giles.

 

“Ella is not here,” she tells him, and her voice now is laden with icy sleet, crackling like the badly-frozen pond that is about to swallow a child.

 

“Are you certain?” he persists.

 

“DO YOU DARE TO QUESTION US?”

 

There’s the voice of the sepulchre again, the grinding of marble on granite as the cover is slid into place.

 

“Well, not question as such, maybe, but I want to ascertain that I’d made it perfectly clear to whom I was referring.”  As a statement of authority and determination, Giles feels that it perhaps lacks a certain something.  “But if she is here, then I want to know, and I want her released!” he adds, defiantly.

 

“No one leaves here.  This is the last resting place of tormented souls.”  Her voice sings like a north-easterly wind through the power lines.

 

He thinks of Jenny, and holds his peace.  Then he thinks of himself, and decides not to argue, yet.  Not until he’s sure about Ella.  And then he sees, from the corner of his eye, a movement in one of the shadowy corners.  A hooded creature is chained to the wall.

 

The figures on the thrones sit unmoved, staring into nothingness, as though he’s of no importance.  He supposes that that is true.  It’s as though they see things that he doesn’t, and perhaps they do.  He turns towards the chained figure, and no one stops him.

 

He’s not sure why he’s drawn towards this creature, pulled towards it as if by an invisible thread.  For the first time, he wishes he had a weapon.  Something hard grazes his shoe, skittering across the polished stone.  He bends down to pick it up.  It’s a sword, rusted like every other piece of iron here.  A large sliver of metal has been sheared from the blade.  He recognises it.  It was his father’s favourite blade until it broke, and the breaking of it killed him.  Giles buried it with his father, and now it’s here.

 

He hefts it carefully as he walks towards the prisoner, who is curled on the floor, shackles on both wrists.  The face that turns to him is contorted in agony, and Giles’ lips tighten as he recognises what, if not who, this is.  He glances back to the figures on the throne, who are taking no notice of him at all, simply staring into that emptiness that has taken all their attention.   There’s no threat to him from them.  Not yet.

 

“They see the future, Watcher,” the creature on the ground hisses to him.  “They see the death of the Earth, and you can see what it is doing to them.”

 

“What?”

 

“I never thought that you were so slow.  They are trying to hold back the future.  They have no energy left for holding on to themselves, or to their realm.  All of you, you must act soon.  There’s not enough time.”

 

“What are you talking about?  What future?”

 

“Even I do not know that.  This iron tortures me, distorts my senses.  That is why they have chained me.  Or one of the reasons.  Set me free.  Please.”

 

Against all common sense, he raises the broken, rusty sword and brings it down hard onto the chains.  It shatters, splinters flying throughout the hall.  But the chains are as weak as the sword, and they, too, shatter into pieces.  The creature stands up, shedding the frayed and tattered robe as it does so.

 

It’s a thin, grey, humanoid figure, with no hint of the glamour that he knows it would normally wear.  The iron shackles prevent it from using its native magic.  The clothes that it wears are rags, like everyone else here, but perhaps these are deliberate, and if it had its magic, he thinks that he would see those differently.  More glamorously.  But now, they are scraps of silk and lace, and bits of fur and leather.  Round its neck, it wears a necklace of skulls.  They aren’t human skulls, nor do they belong to anything he can imagine would ever have been alive.  They are the shape of skulls from small animals, rats, cats, stoats, perhaps a young fox.  And they are made entirely of white quartz crystal.  He supposes they’re all of a piece with the reality of the elf.

 

He points to the shackles.  “I can’t take those off for you.  I haven’t a key here.”

 

“My people will do that.”

 

“My people?”

 

The elf looks at him strangely.  “Humans are so lacking in perception,” it says.  “The vampire would know me.  So would the Slayer.”

 

Now he knows.

 

“You’re the Queen.  What the hell are you doing here?”

 

It doesn’t answer straight away, surveying him from those strange, cat-like eyes.  “I came to meet you,” it says, at last.

 

“Why?”

 

The Queen shrugs.  “We seem to do services for each other, me and mine and you and yours.  This is for my granddaughter.”  She knows he won’t understand that, and he doesn’t.  “Now, you have freed me.  I will grant you a wish.”

 

“What sort of wish?  And don’t they normally come in threes?”  He’s suspicious, and he knows he’s right to be.

 

Her look is haughty.  “Don’t you think that you’ve all had more than your fair share of wishes?  Still, here’s one more.  Whatever your heart most desires.”

 

He’s even more suspicious now.  “Isn’t the price of your heart’s desire usually your heart?  Don’t think you can catch me like that.”

 

Her mouth splits into a needle-sharp smile.  “You’re right.  It normally would be.  But circumstances are not normal.  You may have this without fear.  Any consequences will be purely of your own making.  I swear it by the future of my people.”

 

He’s uncertain now.  “What should I wish for?”

 

“Do not waste this.  This is for you, and you alone.  Wish for your deepest desire, not for someone else’s.”

 

He doesn’t even need to think.  He nods.

 

“Very well,” the Queen tells him.  “Now, take a skull from my necklace.  Choose the one that seems to you to best represent your wish.  Hold it tightly in your hand, and make that wish.”

 

Tentatively, he reaches out to the cat skull, and tugs at it.  It comes away in his hand.  He sits it on his palm.  Even in the dim light it glitters.  It’s beautifully worked.  It looks so natural that it might, indeed be the skull of some exotic, alien cat, but he can’t believe that.  It’s solid, with no hollow in the braincase for the lump of matter that makes us all who we are, even a cat.

 

The mouth is closed, and he can’t see any teeth, but there are holes where the eyes should be, and the skull seems to stare at him through those sockets.  He can feel himself falling into their depths, can almost see what he wants to see.

 

His fist closes around the white quartz skull, and he makes his wish.

 

+++++

 

It was Martha’s turn to sit with Giles.  Her family hadn’t wanted her to come, had said that she ought to be in her bed, sleeping.  What they meant was that she ought to have accepted a sedative and retired to cry her eyes out.  There would be a time for tears, and it wasn’t now.  Now was a time for something different, and only by keeping things to their proper time would Martha be able to get through this.

 

When she reached the room, Buffy was with Giles, her head resting on the bed, her small hand wrapped around his larger one.  She was fast asleep, but she came to instant wakefulness at the sound of the older woman’s footfall.

 

“Martha.  You didn’t have to come.  I can stay longer.”

 

“No, Buffy.  I’d rather be here than anywhere else just now.  How is he?”

 

“He’s been even more restless than usual.  I think he’s dreaming a lot.”  She looked up at Martha, who was stripping off her heavy wool coat.  “I don’t know what’s in his head, but I don’t think it’s anything good.”

 

With a heavy sigh, Martha sat down beside her.  “What’s wrong with his hand?  Is he clutching at the coverlet again?”

 

Buffy shook her head.  “I don’t know.  But it looks as though he’s got something in it this time.” 

 

She reached out and turned Giles’ clenched fist over, so that the fingers were uppermost.  Suddenly, his hand opened.  A fistful of glittering white quartz sand slid out onto the once-pink coverlet.

 

+++++

 

Martha had wanted to wait for Giles, just a day or two more, but the family needed a funeral.  So did Martha, really.  None of it would be real, until the curtain closed around that coffin.  And so, they came to the day of the funeral.

 

Giles was still in his hospital bed and, for just this hour or two, he was in the sole care of the nursing staff.  Buffy felt in her pocket for the envelope of sand that she had carefully retrieved from where it had spilled onto the coverlet.  It might be important.  And it was a link to him.

 

The Reverend Templeman had read the eulogy, and then they’d sung Jesu, Lover of My Soul, which Martha had chosen because it was John’s favourite hymn, and Buffy could almost hear him singing it in his rich baritone voice.  Now, there was a moment for silent, individual remembrance.

 

Buffy’s remembrances of John were inevitably mixed with her remembrances of Angel, no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on John, and no matter how much she denied to herself that Angel was no more than dust.  How could he be truly dead, when she could feel his hand in hers, his touch on her cheek?  When she sensed him close to her all the time, just as she always did in life?  When she caught his scent around each corner, through each doorway, that unique scent that no one other than he could ever have.  It was like walking into a room that he had just left, and finding a trace of that scent hanging on the air, sensing that the room still retained an impression of him that was real enough to be tangible.  Once, she had pressed her palm flat against the mirror in their flat, and her skin had tingled as though his palm was only molecules away from hers.  So how could he be dead?

 

She sat with her head bowed, thinking of John, that quiet, brave man who would be so very missed, but suffused with the presence of Angel.  If she stopped to truly think about Angel, it would carve the heart out of her.  Again.

 

And now, Reverend Templeman’s voice broke the silence, with the reading that Martha had chosen.  Buffy hadn’t known what Martha had chosen for the service, and the thickening in her throat almost choked her.

 

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

 

Ought but death...

 

She could relate to that.  Nothing should have been able to stand between her and Angel.  Nothing should part them, except true death, and that, she hoped, wouldn’t part them for long, in the end.  The afterlife should be theirs, as well.  But not now.  It was too soon.  He wasn’t dead now.  He couldn’t be dead now.  She simply wouldn’t permit it.  Whatever had happened to him, she would find him.

 

Whither thou goest...

 

Yes.  She would follow him to the ends of the Earth, and beyond.  Anywhere.  And she would find him.  This time, she would not let him go alone into the unknown.  Someone knew where he was, and she would find them.  Oh Giles!  Come back to us!  I can’t do this without you!

 

And then the curtains were closing around the coffin, and Nick had his hand on her elbow.

 

“Come on, Buffy,” he said gently, knowing where her thoughts were.  He and Lisa led her outside, followed by Ian and Alice and Gavin.  They hugged Martha, standing by the door with her family to receive condolences, and then they walked out into the grey afternoon light. 

 

Her friends stood in a circle around Buffy, Lisa holding her hand, as the mourners left the crematorium chapel.  There were a lot of them, so many that the pews had been filled and people had been standing at the back.  John had been very well-liked.  When she looked up, she saw the sympathy in her friends’ faces.  They thought that she had been burying Angel.

 

Nick took her arm again.  “Let’s go.  It’s the ham sandwich tea now.”

 

The ham sandwich tea.  Buffy had come to understand that this seemed to be an essential British ritual after a funeral, their version of the funeral feast.  Everyone would stand around eating the sandwiches and looking mournful, and then the day would be over, and she could get back to trying to track down whoever had caused this to be done to John.  And to Angel.

 

A movement behind her made her turn sharply.  It was Syroh, in a dark and expensive suit.

 

“Sl... I came to pay my respects to the widow,” he said, in his formal, abrupt way.

 

Buffy nodded.  She looked from him to Alice, and wondered how many funerals of simple country carpenters had been attended by two demons.

 

“Coming to tea?” she asked him.  He looked undecided.  “We could talk afterwards,” she pointed out.  He nodded, and turned with them towards the car park.

 

The Fletcher house stood on a quiet street off the main road.  The door knocker had been tied up with black ribbon, in an old-fashioned gesture, and a mourning wreath hung from it.  Buffy wondered whether Martha had done that, or whether she’d brought her children up to remember the old observances.

 

The gathering was as sombre as she had expected, but it was clear that there were many people wanting to offer help and support for Martha.  Buffy was pleased about that, for Martha’s sake.

 

Buffy and Syroh were among the last to take their leave, following the rest of their friends out into the gathering darkness.  They left by the back door, walking down the side of the garage to where Buffy had left her car.  It was there that they were attacked.

 

There were three demons, three honest-to-goodness demons.  They were big, ugly brutes, and they were armed with big, ugly swords.  Buffy slammed shut the wooden gate, leaving her friends on the other side, safe for the moment, and then she and Syroh faced the demons.

 

“You haven’t got a sword under your jacket, by any chance?” she asked grimly.

 

Syroh shook his head silently, and then leapt nimbly out of the way as a blade slashed past him.  The gate behind Buffy rattled as she pulled the ever-present stake out of her pocket, and leapt into the fray, landing a high kick on the closest attacker, making him stumble backwards.

 

Syroh scooped up a brick from the edging of the flower border and caught the next sword slash on it, the ringing sound loud in the night.  Shards of metal and red brick flew around him.

 

There was a sharp warning cry from Buffy as Martha emerged from the house, and the Slayer leapt for the demon closest to the fleeing woman.  Her fist lashed out, throwing his head to one side, as her foot connected hard with his groin.  The demon fell backwards with a groan, cannoning against one of his fellows.  Buffy somersaulted over them as a sword flashed upwards, an inch from disembowelling her. 

 

Syroh strode towards the third demon, throwing the brick that he’d snatched up, catching it a glancing blow on the shoulder so that its sword arm dropped for a moment.  Then he closed with it, as Martha ran past, hurrying into the garage, her matronly figure all too close to danger.  When she re-emerged a moment later, she held weapons in her hands.  She threw a battleaxe to Buffy, the one that John had fitted with a new haft after Paris, and a long-handled felling axe to Syroh.  John, after all, had been a worker in wood.

 

Buffy and Syroh hefted their new weapons with grim determination, and the end was inevitable.  The Slayer moved around the outside of the three demons, trapping them between the wall of the house and the wooden gate.  Then she swung the axe, to the clang of metal on metal.  Syroh followed suit.  It was soon over, with a minimum of fuss and noise, and less blood than might have been expected.

 

Buffy leaned on the axe, breathing heavily.  “Thanks, Martha,” she managed.  “I thought we were in trouble there.”

 

“I heard the noise,” said Martha, in a whisper.  “I’d better get back to the children.  They were showing Sid and Jane out of the front door.  I’ll keep them occupied, if you get these out of here.  The blood won’t show until tomorrow morning, and I’ll have it cleaned up by then.”

 

As she hurried away, Buffy opened the gate.  “Sorry, guys.  It was a bit dangerous here.”  She ignored their protestations, and joined Syroh in gathering up the smaller pieces of demon.  Stray light from a window fell on a severed hand and arm, and she felt her chest constrict, her heart pounding.

 

There was a tattoo on the inner wrist.  It was an A inside an O, and she recognised it well.  She’d last seen it on the wrist of that other beloved vampire, the one who had come here as Angelus, and returned to his own dimension as Angel.  The one who had called Acathla to life in his own dimension.  Instead of being a king in his own realm, or even a free spirit living as he wished, Angelus had found himself enslaved to a master, to Acathla, and this tattoo was a symbol of that servitude.  It was perhaps more than that.  It perhaps had power over its wearer.  He’d almost hinted at that, but she didn’t know for sure.  And magic wasn’t her thing.  If only Willow was here...

 

And now that tattoo was here again, on three demons who had been sent to kill her, in her own dimension.  The only difference she could see was that this one was smaller than his had been.  Perhaps that argued some sort of hierarchy, some gradation of power, more to Angelus, less to these?

 

Her brain had seemed too full of pain to think clearly, but now, given something to work with, the fog of indecision lifted.  Why were these here?  Had that other Angel lost his soul again, gone over to the dark side, and sent these to finish off the people who had re-ensouled him?  Or was it Acathla, with some other purpose?

 

She looked up into the silence, and realised that everyone was staring at her, as she fixated on that hand.

 

“Check the others,” she said, once more the Slayer, in command of herself.  “See whether they carry this tattoo.”  She held the hand up.

 

Obediently, the others gathered up the necessary pieces, or lifted intact arms that were slack in death.  All three demons carried the tattoo.  Ian and Syroh knew that the other Angel had carried a tattoo that her Angel did not, but none of the others here had seen it before, or knew what it meant, only she and Giles.  And Angel.  They’d talked to no one about the details of what had happened all those months ago.  None of it had been anything to be proud of.  No one else knew.  Absolutely no one else.  At least, no one who wasn’t a servant of Acathla, perhaps.

 

“Let’s get them out of sight, before one of Martha’s family comes out to see what’s happening,” she decided.

 

Perhaps out of habit, the two policemen and Syroh, as they bent to the task, patted down pockets and pouches on the corpses.  It was Gavin who struck gold.  One of the demons had a large, stiff leather pouch on a broad strap from shoulder to hip, across his chest, rather like a messenger bag.  In the front pocket, Gavin found a large handful of gold coins.  They were sovereigns.

 

“Looks like blood money,” he observed, holding one up.

 

But it was the larger, back pocket that held the more interesting treasure.  He pulled it out.

 

“My book!” Alice exclaimed.  It was, indeed, the Demon Directory.  The Lesser Domesday Book, Volume I.

 

Alice snatched it up.  “They’ve been writing in it!  Look!”

 

“Yes, in a minute,” said Buffy hastily, as she heard voices from inside the house.  “I think Martha’s family are getting restless.  We’d better hurry.”

 

+++++

 

They sat around the table at Lisa’s. 

 

“So,” said Syroh, slowly, trying to sort through what he had just been told, “this Acathla is an Eater of Worlds?”

 

“I guess you could put it like that.”  Buffy looked up from her clasped hands.  “He was going to suck the Earth into Hell.  Or a hell dimension, I’m not sure there’s a difference.  And he’s actually done that in the other universe.”

 

“So, just what would that mean?  In a real sense?”  Lisa was having trouble getting to grips with the thought, and she was sure she wasn’t the only one.

 

Buffy remembered how Giles had described it once, and she used his words.  “If Hell comes to Earth, just think of the worst parts of the Bible, and then assume that the writer really hadn’t understood just how bad it was going to get.”

 

Everyone was quiet for a second or two.

 

Ian Collins cleared his throat.  “I have to say that this is a bit out of my bailiwick, but we have a situation where the bad guy is trying to get rid of the ones best able to stand against him, and that includes both good guys and other bad guys.  It sounds like he’s going to have another go here.  If you can have a go from an alternate universe, that is.”

 

“What do you mean, Detective Chief Inspector?”  Titles seemed important to Syroh, so they’d stopped trying to make him be less formal.  They just hoped informality would come with time, if they were given enough of that.

 

“I mean, if you’re a villain, and you’re going to move into a new territory, you either make a deal with the existing villains, or you get rid of them.  Isn’t that what happened in Paris, with Korbinian?”

 

Buffy nodded.  “Yes.  Yes, he got rid of the opposition.  They either worked for him or died.  It makes a lot of sense.  But we established a year ago that what he was doing in the other universe couldn’t spread to this universe.  We’re alternates, and that’s it.”  Her heart had sunk at the very idea that Acathla might be a threat to this universe.  How would she to face that alone?  But Ian couldn’t be right.  The outbreak of assassinations among leading demons couldn’t possibly point to that.  And the Acathla in this dimension?  They’d dealt with him, all those years ago.  He was no threat to anyone.  She was sure of that.  Almost sure...  If only Giles...

 

“Syroh,” she asked, “the assassinations we’ve talked about have been from clans that are members of the Commonwealth.  From peaceful clans.  Do you know what’s been happening in less peaceful species?”

 

“I have heard that there have been some deaths,” he replied cautiously.  “But there are always deaths among them.”

 

That was true enough.  And why would Acathla target peaceful clans?  It’s not like they had a prophecy that demonkind would rise up and oppose him.  Or did he?  What about Drusilla?  How had she felt about the ensouled Angel that had returned to her?  Whose side was she on now?

 

So many unknowns, so many unknowables...  It was good that at least Syroh had got over his suspicion of her...  A thought flashed across her mind, and she would have staked it at birth if she could have.

 

Syroh’s father had been told that the Slayer was involved.  Buffy knew that she wasn’t.  But, she wasn’t the only Slayer.  The fin of suspicion rippled through the waters of her conscious mind again.  No.  Never.  She wouldn’t.

 

She had, once...

 

Alice was saying something.

 

“...And look.  They’ve pencilled in the margins.  I think these notes are about extra species or clans that have been attacked.  The language isn’t one that I know, but it has a strong resemblance to Skoparian.  Lots of almost common words.”

 

Buffy shook her head, partly in denial of what she knew she had to do, and partly to clear more of the fog from her thinking.

 

“I need you all to make the best sense you can from that book.  It might hold information that we need.  Work together with Syroh.  I’ve got to go somewhere for a few days.”

 

Nick looked at her, consideringly.  “What’s in your mind, Buffy.”

 

“I can’t say, just yet.  But there’s someone I really need to talk to.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.  In the meantime, everyone on red alert.  Don’t take chances.  Syroh, make sure your people keep their heads down.  Look after Giles.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

With that, she was gone, heading back to her hotel room, making phone calls as she went.

 

+++++

 

Martha sat on the edge of the bed.  Their bed.  Hers and John’s.  There was precious little in this house that was just hers.  She couldn’t see that that would ever change.

 

She’d never been a woman who was subject to fits of the vapours, but that was the ploy that she had used to keep her children occupied and unaware that there had been a battle outside tonight.  Well, if she was ever going to have the vapours, today would have to be the day, but it had all been pretence.  Well, most of it.

 

Eventually, when she was certain the clear-up was over, she’d allowed herself to be brought up to her bedroom with a cup of tea, which sat cooling untouched on her dressing table.  Her children had forgotten how voices carried upstairs, especially if doors weren’t properly closed.

 

“While you’re hunting in those drawers, you might look to see if there’s a box of tissues.”

 

They’re in the kitchen, was Martha’s absent thought.

 

“What are you looking for, anyway?”

 

“Oh, Dad had a really good Swiss Army knife.  I wondered whether Mam would let me have it.”

 

“Wait till he’s cold, Katie.  You’re such a little vulture...”

 

“Oh?  What’s this?”  The sound of something heavy being dropped onto a flat surface.  Vampyre?  What’s Mam doing with a book called Vampyre?”

 

Oh, no.  She’d brought it home to see if there were funeral rites for vampires, and not yet taken it back.  Now the cat was out of the bag.  The kids knew nothing about vampires and ghouls and demons, beyond what they saw on TV, and she wanted it to stay that way.

 

“There’s a book plate inside.  Ex libris Rupert Giles, Summerdown House, Westbury.  That’s the strange old guy that she housekeeps for, isn’t it?”

 

“Housekeeps!” Katie’s sister, Marylyn, exclaimed in derision. 

 

Even from up here, Martha could hear the exclamation mark.  Housekeeps.  Yes.  Cleans up the blood, whatever its colour, and gets battle-torn clothing discreetly mended.  Reminds a reluctant vampire when to eat.  Makes sure that regular injections are available for a demon infant who would die without them.  Cleans up the residue of magical incantations.  Greets strange visitors when everyone else is out on a case.  And some of them are really strange.  Yes.  Housekeeps.  And he’s not old.

 

She smiled in recollection of some of the things she’d done, people she’d met, werewolves she’d fed.

 

“Housekeeps,” said Marylyn again.  “You mean Mam chars for him and does a bit of cooking...”

 

Upstairs, Martha bristled.

 

“She’s a very good cook...”

 

“Yes, but charring.  I mean...  And Dad was his handyman.  Working for a strange old goat like that.  From what I hear, he’s at death’s door.  Besides, his house has gone.  He’s not likely to need a housekeeper now, is he?  What’s she going to live on without that job?  They can’t have had much saved up.  She’s too old to find a full-time job.”

 

How chastening it is, thought Martha, to hear what our children think of us.  No matter how much we love them, or how much they love us, they simply don’t see what goes on under their noses.  And then they get their own nests, and they don’t see what you do at all.  They don’t even see you as a real person.  Just ‘Mam’.

 

“One of us has to take Mam in.  She can’t stay here on her own.”  That was Marylyn, ever the pushy one.  Marylyn’s husband, Richard, had stayed quiet, and grandson John was too young to have an opinion.

 

“You going to do it?  Or are you suggesting Mark?”  Typical Katie.  Always bolshie about anything that Marylyn suggested.

 

“Katie!  I’ve got Baby John to worry about now.  You’ve no idea how demanding a baby is.”

 

Right on both points, Martha conceded.  A baby was demanding and Katie had no idea how much.

 

“And Mark would be useless at looking after Mum.  He can barely look after himself.  He hangs his clothes up on the floor.”

 

Marylyn was right about that, Martha thought.  But he’d be the one that was easiest to live with.

 

“I suppose you think it would be just hunky-dory if Mam came to housekeep for me, in my student flat?”  Katie had logic on her side, but Marylyn wasn’t defeated.

 

“You could move somewhere bigger.  You’d be happier somewhere bigger.”

 

“I think Mam would be happier with a grandson to dote over.”

 

We’ve got one, Martha thought.  We can dote on him whenever we want.  And we can get on with our lives whenever we want. 

 

I. 

 

I can do those things.  I.  Not we.

 

The girls continued to argue.  Martha was beginning to think that perhaps Richard, her son-in-law, and her son, Mark, had gone out, because so far they’d contributed nothing to the conversation.  Just then, though, Mark spoke up.

 

“You know, Kitty, Mary, I really think you should leave decisions like that to Mum.  She definitely won’t appreciate you talking behind her back like this.  You know she’ll do just what she thinks is right.  And I think you’re wrong about what she does.  And Dad.”

 

“Why’re you putting that book away, Mark?  Shouldn’t we look at it?  Talk to her about it?”

 

“Why?  It’s a book.  And it’s none of your business, Mary.”

 

Martha smiled through what was left of her tears.  Thank God for the ever-sensible Mark.  She wondered whether he remembered anything of that terrifying moment when a vampire had attacked herself and John, in Westbury of all places.  They'd been going to pick Katie and Marylyn up from a friend's house, with Mark still in his pushchair.  Giles had descended on the demon like an avenging angel and, more importantly, with a heavy duty stake in his hand.   The girls never knew anything about it, but baby Mark had been there.

 

And Mark was right.  She had her own ideas.  She wasn't going to be passed around like a parcel.  The children would be welcome here whenever they wanted to come, as she hoped they would welcome her.  But only for visiting.    They’d flown the nest, and she wasn’t going to give up hers to fly to one of theirs and squat in it.  Her life would have a different course.

 

There were people who had a hard life in front of them, making the world safe in ways that almost nobody would ever know.  She couldn’t fight with them, but it was still her job – her duty – to support them to the best of her ability in all the things that she did well.  To take the weight of everyday life off their shoulders.  To give Buffy space to avenge John.  And Angel.  And Giles, if he didn’t come back to them.

 

She reached for the notebook and pen in the drawer of her bedside table, and began to make a list of things to do.  She’d covered several pages, before she’d finished.

 

+++++

 

Angel stands where Ella, or perhaps the illusion of Ella, left him, on that molten beach.  Listen, she’d said.  Help them.  He wonders what she meant.  But he’s always trusted Ella.  He can still feel the warmth of her touch on his face as she gave him that secret place inside himself, the place of peace and calm and brightness.  For the dark times, she’d said, after he’d drunk down the other Slayers.  There had been plenty of those dark times, even though Ella had told him that the Powers had brought him back as the road to life, not as a murderer.  That hadn’t helped, but Ella’s bright place had.  He searches for it now, on that terrible shore.

 

And as he slides into its peace, he can feel Buffy, on his skin and in his heart.  Her scent hangs in the air, that unique scent that belongs only to her.  Even those clouds of noxious gas that are his reality on this beach wrap their tendrils around him in  a delicate caress that he’s felt so many time before.

 

It feels real, as it always does when Buffy is near, but it has to be memory, because this vile and obscene body that he now has couldn’t possibly retain so much sensitivity.  Still, he’ll settle for memory if that’s all he can have.

 

And as he sinks further into that calm place, into the scent on the air and the caress on his skin that has always told him that Buffy is near, the taste of her spurting hot and strong in his mouth, he seems to slip beyond that place, and into somewhere that might be infinity.  He thinks he can touch the whole history of humanity, if he tries.  He can touch the Earth, from birth to death, and learn its secrets, and he does.  He’s stretched throughout time, and he’s penetrated into all the in-between times.

 

And he listens, as Ella told him to do.  He extends his senses, sharper even than he’s ever had before, and he really listens.

 

At first, all he can hear is a faint background hiss.  If he were human, he would think that it was the blood racing in his ears.  Even in this extremity, he doesn’t think there’s much blood doing that, and so it must be something else.  And then, very, very faint, there are notes in the hiss, like the pealing of tiny bells that aren’t yet incarnate, the plucking of golden strings that aren’t quite real.  Perhaps it’s the music of the spheres.  Or perhaps it really is blood in his ears.

 

And then he hears something fainter than even that.  Something is keening.  There can be no mistake about that.  What he can’t be sure about is who is doing the keening.  But it’s a long way away.  Or a long time away.  And as he continues to listen, he finds that there is directionality.  He turns, triangulates with ears that don’t belong on a humanoid form, turns again.  And then he has it.

 

Still conscious of the darkly throbbing severed hand in his own grasp, he fixes his attention on the cry of despair, and steps through into its whenever.

 

As soon as he arrives, he knows that there is no real time in this place.  It’s a grey nothingness.  He understands immediately the reference in Genesis.

 

And the earth was without form and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep.

 

It’s a pretty good description.  He sniffs, sampling the metallic odour of non-existence.  This is somewhere in-between, and his ancient Celtic heritage has a lot to say about the in-between places and times.  They’re magic.  Strange things happen there.

 

The first strangenesses are the things that he sees, clustered together.  If a spider and an octopus were to spawn young together, these might be the result.  Each of them is several times his size.

 

The keening is much louder now, coming from within the group.  There are words hidden in it somewhere, but he can’t quite make them out, because they seem as formless as this void.  And then the creatures shift, and the cluster opens up so that he can see what they are looking at.

 

 A human woman hangs in the air between them.  She’s shrouded in almost invisible sparkling lines of power which have her bound, tethered and confined.  She can’t move, and her eyes are closed.  She’s unconscious, he’s sure.  Moreover, he thinks they’re draining her life force.  He’s not sure how long she’s got left.

 

She looks more grown-up than he’s ever seen her before, her face is drawn in a way that speaks to the artist in him.  And to the demon.  She’s suffered a lot since last time they met.  It’s been years since anyone saw her, and the Coven spent long months searching desperately for her in the far reaches of other dimensions.  She looks graceful even this close to death.

 

It’s Willow.

 

One of the creatures, bigger than the others, reaches a tentacled leg out and spins a clear line of sparkling nothingness which attaches itself just above her left breast, over the heart.  Her eyelids flutter, but they remain shut, and then she throws her head back and she screams.  Not a scream of sound, but a soul scream, just like the keening that he’s heard.

 

He doesn’t even stop to think.  With a roar that’s strange in his own ears, full of more evil promise than ever Angelus could manage, he leaps at the beast, talons outstretched.

 

Everything has bowels, of a sort, even a creature that feeds on energy, on magic, on life force, whatever, and he finds that these great curving claws of his really are good for disembowelling.  With one great sweep of his arm, the creature’s abdomen is breached and emptied.  But it’s not defenceless.  One tentacled arm wraps around his throat, and the claw at the end stabs into his neck.  Fiery pain sweeps through him, but it doesn’t hold him back.  He slashes down, and the arm is severed.  He rips it free, and the suckers on it bring away pieces of his grey skin, the burning pain adding to the fire from its poison.  The suckers aren’t just suckers.  He’s found out the hard way that each one is ringed with sharp, incurved teeth.

 

He rakes the claws down one of its eight huge crystalline eyes and something that’s not really blood spurts out.  Now, it starts its own keening.  The other beasts move towards him.  There are five of them, and the battle is truly joined.

 

+++++

 

Buffy was tired from the long flight, but there was no time to rest.  She’d only made one stop since leaving LA airport, and that was to buy something that wasn’t allowed on the airplane.  A crossbow.

 

Her anger and her hurt had been building.  She had been betrayed by Andrew, and now she might be about to find out that she’d been betrayed by Faith.  She really didn’t want that to be the case, and not just because of the fact of betrayal.  If Faith had gone bad again, then no one on Earth was fit to deal with her, except the other Slayer.

 

She put that to the back of her mind.  She was almost there, and she couldn’t afford to be distracted.  Faith was good at what she did, especially if she’d gone to the devil.

 

When she reached Sunnydale, it was still an abandoned hole in the ground.  She’d chosen this rendezvous because she hadn’t forgotten that the two of them weren’t supposed to meet any more.  If they did, it might be the end of the world.  Well, that was pretty much what this place was.  It could take a bit more punishment and she didn’t intend to prolong the meeting.  She’d told Faith to come here.  She’d travelled all those thousands of miles when she could ill afford the time, because she needed to ask Faith some questions, and she needed to see her, in the flesh, to watch her face, when she gave her answers.

 

Buffy was the first to arrive.  She parked her hire car, and sat down on one of the many pieces of fallen stone, with the crossbow behind her.  Then she waited in the gathering darkness, and tried not to have too many thoughts.

 

Faith didn’t keep her waiting long, but the last of the light had gone by the time she arrived.  It didn’t matter.  Slayers were night hunters.  Buffy’s eyesight was good enough.  So was Faith’s, come to that.

 

“Hello, B.  What’s the desperate rush to see me?  Got your knickers in a twist?”

 

It occurred to Buffy that when she’d called Faith, she hadn’t told her about the carnage at Summerdown House.  Nor had she shared it with her before that.  She wondered why.  It should have been natural to talk to her sister slayer about losses on such a scale, and yet her mind hadn’t even brought it up for consideration.  Did her mind, her slayer sense, know something that she didn’t?

 

She stayed seated, but she twisted round on her rock and picked up the loaded crossbow, pointing it at Faith before she could come too close.

 

“Better stay there, Faith.  You know what they said about us not getting together.”

 

“What, not even for a quickie?  Thought that was why you were here.  Angel not cutting it any more?”

 

Pain lanced through Buffy, but she swallowed it back.  The fear and the anger took its place and boiled over.  She wanted to let fly with the crossbow, a Slayer’s weapon, but she kept enough control to let fly with words, a woman’s weapon, instead.

 

“You get tired of not having him, Faith?  You decided that Gregory or Gandalf or whatever his name just wasn’t up to it?  That little taste of him when you were running with the Mayor give you the hots for him?  You thought you’d prefer a demon lover, but you couldn’t have him?” 

 

Faith put her hands on her hips, and stood square, facing Buffy, arrogantly defiant.  “I never stood a chance with him, I’ve got to admit that.  He’s obsessed with you, B.  In fact, I don’t think you’ve begun yet to know what it’s like to be the object of his obsession.  Not even when he was bad.  I think you’ve got a lot to learn about his obsessions.”

 

Buffy’s finger tightened on the trigger, but she bit the inside of her cheek, and managed to get some sort of control again.

 

“Is that what happened, Faith?  Is that what made you do it?”

 

The look on Faith’s face was almost convincing.  “What the hell are you talking about, B?  Has something happened?”  If she’d left it there, Buffy might have believed, but she added, “Where’s Angel?”

 

The acid of anger bit deep.  Buffy levelled the crossbow meaningfully.  “Hold out your wrists.”

 

With a shrug, Faith did so.  On one wrist, the broad leather strap of her watch hid enough flesh to conceal a tattoo.

 

“Take the watch off.  Then show me.”

 

“B...”

 

Show me!

 

Slowly, Faith did as she was told, dropping the watch onto the sand, and then she held out the naked wrist.  There was no sign of the anarchy tattoo on either wrist.  It wasn’t enough for Buffy.  Angel had told her that Angelus had a second tattoo, and an associated piercing, somewhere much more intimate.  Perhaps it wasn’t only wrists.

 

“Strip.”

 

“What?”

 

“I said strip.  No questions.”

 

Faith just stood, her hands on her hips, staring in confusion.  She was wearing a short sleeved top, the Celtic thorn tattoo prominent around her upper arm.  She was too close to be able to move as the bolt from the crossbow seared along the outside of the black tattoo.  And she didn’t move afterwards because that crossbow wasn’t limited to a single shot.

 

“You heard me.  Don’t think I won’t do it.”

 

Quickly, Faith pulled off her top, and kept going until she stood naked in that moonlit desolation.  Then she did a twirl.

 

“Like what you see, B?  You didn’t need to go to all this trouble.  Always prepared to strip for you.”

 

Buffy hardly heard her bravado.  She stared as the moonlight played over Faith’s golden skin.  The tattoo around her biceps wasn’t the only one, but there was nothing like the one she was looking for.  She hardly dared to breathe.

 

There was one last test.

 

She pulled a dog-eared piece of card from her jacket pocket.  Gavin had taken pictures, after they’d got the bodies back from Martha’s.  “You’ve not got a tattoo like that, then?”  She skimmed the piece of card across the sand.

 

Faith scooped it up, and stared at the close up of the severed hand.  True to form, she noticed the axe work before she noticed the tattoo.  Her hand clenched, and her eyes hardened.  She didn’t have one like that.  But she knew someone who did.

 

She looked across the barren sand at Buffy, as still and hard as the stone she sat on.  “Tell me what’s happened,” she said, in a voice as hard as Buffy’s stone.  “Tell me everything.”

 

+++++

 

Angel’s on his hands and knees, or on the hands and knees that belong to this body.  He still doesn’t accept it as his, but for now he’s grateful for its resilience.  His skin is hanging in flayed strips, exposing raw flesh.  For some reason, he’s relieved to see that the colour of his blood is still red.

 

Still, he’s the one who has prevailed.  The others are lying in bloodied, mangled pieces.

 

The pain is excruciating from those flayed areas, and from the cuts and slashes and stabs, the bruises and the broken ribs, and the venoms that have been injected into him.  One eye is swollen shut and leaking blood, despite the protection of those prominent bony plates.  He suspects that his old body would have been torn to pieces.  Any one of those creatures was as strong as he used to be, even after his return from death, and his drinking-down of the slayers. 

 

He almost breaks down, now, when he thinks that this might be his form forever.  If so, he might truly learn the doom of eternity.

 

The voice in his head is faint, and far off.  Angel!  This isn’t all there is to you!  This is what happened to your demon in due time, after you drank down the power of the Slayers.  But it’s you that’s ruling his actions.  You’ve always had enough resolve on your own, but that’s another thing the power of the Slayers has done.  It’s given strength to your will to dominate him.  It was a two-edged sword.  In this place he’s manifest, but you are still there, and in control!

 

Ella.

 

He tries to call to her, but all she says is See to Willow.  She needs you.

 

If only he could.  He would stand up, if only he had the strength.  He tries to will himself to his feet, and as he does so, his body starts to repair itself.  By the time he’s upright, he’s healed.

 

Willow is still unconscious, suspended in that diamond-clear shroud.  He reaches up to her, and the shroud knocks his hands away with a jolt.  He doesn’t know whether it’s a protective mechanism set up by the beasts, or the leakage of witch power, but he has to get her down.  He tears at the invisible bonds, the power grounding itself through him.  She falls into his arms, sobbing.

 

He sinks to the ground, holding her from behind, shielding her with his own body from the fall and from the sight of the remnants of her captors.  He hopes that she doesn’t see him before he can make himself known to her.  And he’s not sure what’s going to come out of his mouth if he speaks.  And so he just holds her, resting his head against the back of hers.

 

As she starts to stir, he’s trying to understand how to get her back to Summerdown House.  He daren’t even think how to get Buffy not to stake him until he can explain.  Especially if the demon has his tongue and tells her everything he’d like to do to her.

 

And then Ella’s voice is in his head again, even fainter than before, and full of pain.

 

You mustn’t.  She can’t go with you.

 

When he asks why not, it seems to him that she has to gather her strength to give him the answer.  In the pause, he asks, “Is she not the Willow from our dimension?”

 

Yes, she is.  She was caught in a place where her magic didn’t work, but it saved her from the beast that tried to feed on the magic of the Earth.

 

It was that inter-dimensional beast that the Coven had given their lives to defeat.

 

“So, she’s trying to get home?”

 

She’s been trying to get home for years.  But it was you and Buffy who pulled her across...

 

“What?  We’ve done no magic like that.”

 

Not in this dimension.  You saw them, with the Urn of Osiris.

 

He remembers now, in the mirror at Clifford Hall, seeing himself and Buffy kneeling in sorrow over the shards of an Urn, comforting each other.

 

“I thought they’d failed.”

 

Yes, they did.  Their own Willow was too long dead to bring back.  But they managed to find your Willow, although they didn’t know it.  They didn’t have enough magical power to use the Urn properly.  It needs a strong witch, or absolute self-belief, and they’re a long way from that.  Willow came through here, and these creatures of the outer limits stopped her.  The spell couldn’t pull her away, couldn’t keep her safe.  But it still exists.  She must finish that journey, or the backlash will fall on both of you.  You have enough trouble without that.  The other you.

 

Magic always demands a price, Angel thinks.  Always.

 

“She can’t do it alone.  I’ll go with her.”

 

NO!  You must go back, or everything will be lost.

 

“But...”

 

Don’t be stubborn, Angel.  Use your senses.  You can find help for her.  And yourself.”

 

And then the emptiness in his head tells him that Ella is gone.  He calls, but there is no reply, and he knows with a certainty that she won’t be back.

 

Help for her...

 

Still cradling her on his bent knees, he turns around as far as he can in both directions, snuffing... not the air, that’s for sure, because there really isn’t any.  Perhaps it’s something mystic.  Whatever it is, he senses a familiarity.  He picks Willow up with ease, and...

 

Blink

 

A figure kneels over two others.  He recognises them all.  Gunn is dead.  Spike looks dead, and therefore must at least still be alive, although unconscious.  Illyria is the one still on her knees, strong enough for that, at least, but she’s bleeding heavily.  Slowly, she turns to stare at him in that insectile way that she has.  Her head tilts one way, then the other.

 

“Hello, vampire,” she greets him.

 

Can everyone see through this skin, Angel thinks.  Do they all believe this is what I look like, underneath the human face?  Is this what they see?  Even Buffy?  That’s a thought that makes him shudder.

 

He bends down to look at the two men.  Gunn is definitely dead.  Not will-rise-again dead.  Just plain dead.  Although he won’t die of it, Spike has lost so much blood that he isn’t going to wake up unless someone gives him some.  He starts to hold out his arm to do that, but then he pulls it back again. 

 

Spike, with this much power?  Spike with this much strength?  Spike with this much age, and with time supposedly his playground?

 

No.  Just... No.

 

“Why are you here, Illyria?” he asks, as he straightens up, clamping down on the things this body tries to say to her.

 

Join with me and we will have this world for our own. // We will have all the others, too. // No one will stand against us.

 

He looks at her, and sees for the first time the extent of her injuries.

 

“We fought on after your death.  That was a good death.  The dragon was the most dangerous beast on the field, and your sacrifice gave us hope.  And a chance.”

 

“Thanks,” he mutters.

 

“When we could fight on no more, we triggered your traps, and I took these two away.  Wesley left me just enough, when he took my powers.  But I had no strength to reach further than here.”  She rakes him with her glance.  “And you?”

 

“Don’t ask.”

 

But she keeps looking at him, and he’s still holding Willow, and he realises this must be what Ella meant.  Help.

 

“We came up against some demons that use time as a weapon.”  He realises he’s still got the hand, and he holds it out to her.  He lets her see it, but he doesn’t let her take it from him.

 

“The Chronoids,” she says, dismissively.  “I had thought them extinct in your universe.”

 

So, they were sent by someone with the ability to travel between universes...

 

“I want you to go to another reality.  I want you to take this girl there, and see her safe until she gets to her destination.”

 

“Which is...?”

 

He hesitates, then takes the plunge.  “Me and Buffy.” 

 

But Illyria understands these things, and doesn’t question it.  “Tell me.”

 

He explains how his alter ego succeeded in having the world sucked into Acathla’s Hell, and he tells her about the resurrection spell, and Willow’s broken journey.

 

“A new realm,” she muses, and he hopes she’s talking about Acathla’s.  “I can go,” she says, “but I must take some of your new power.  I have not enough.  And I won’t be able to return you to your dimension.  You will be trapped here, between times, if you do not find your own way out.”

 

Ella had said as much, but not as brutally.

 

“I know.”

 

“Then I shall take these three, and this one we will bury there.  Properly.  You have my word.”  She points at Gunn.  “You will not wish to be burdened with a body as you try to breach the walls back to your own space and time.

 

No.  He won’t.  He nods.  He’s grateful that she will see to Gunn, and not leave him here, in this god-forsaken place.  “Take Spike to me, if you can.  Let him drink from me.”

 

He lays Willow on the ground next to Spike, and Illyria moves towards him.  She places her hand over his heart, and he feels the discharge, a searing heat between them.  He closes his eyes in shock, and when he opens them again, she’s gone.  So has everyone else.

 

He doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to find somewhere to slip through the dimensional walls, to reconnect to his own time and space, but he opens every one of his senses, and searches for Buffy.  There are faint hints all around him, traces of many Buffys.  Some are living, some are dead, some are dying, some – the weaker ones – were never a Slayer.  But none of them are exact.  He strains every single nerve and fibre, his heart excluding all the false Buffys, one by one.

 

And then he has her.  She’s wreathed in sorrow, and he is once more the cause of it.  For a moment, he almost decides to stay where he is, to let her get over him, to cause her no more pain.  But these last years have been good ones, and he’d hoped for many more of them.  So had she.  What if he cannot recover his old form?  Will he allow her to stake him?

 

The taste of her fills his mouth again, not the taste of her all those years ago, when he was dying and she saved him, but an older Buffy, a Buffy with so much more power to her.  The taste fills his throat and warms his belly.  It’s a thread stretching in front of him, and he knows it’s the way home.  For a vampire, it’s always about blood.

 

He clenches one fist, and he places the severed hand, with its freight of time, over his heart.  That’s what the demon did, to send him here.  If this doesn’t work, he’s no idea what would.  He feels the surging, searing pain, just as he felt it in the dining room, yesterday, a millennium, an eternity ago.

 

Blink.

 

+++++

 

Buffy thought she wouldn’t sleep on the flight back, but she did, from sheer exhaustion.  Her dreams were dark, of betrayal and murder and Slayers gone bad.  When she woke, she was as exhausted as before.

 

She wasn’t sure whether she’d done the right thing in leaving Faith to follow up the tattoo, but she was as sure as she could be that Faith was telling the truth.  As they’d talked, she’d come to realise how much they hadn’t told Faith.  Oh, they’d told her the big stuff – that Angelus had come over from an alternate reality, things like that.  But they hadn’t shared all the details.

 

They hadn’t told her about the tattoo on Angelus’ wrist – it was just a tattoo, wasn’t it?  They’d told her about the Hundred Court, and the assassinations, but not about the inspection of Angel to see whether he had the intimate tattoo that the witness had seen.

 

In fact, as she looked back over the last two or three years, Buffy acknowledged that they’d all seemed to distance themselves from Faith.  It was as though she was a Slayer too many.  And, in her own case, a woman too many from Angel’s past.  Even though there’d never really been that past.

 

They might all be paying for that distance now.  Faith thought she knew who had the tattoos, although she hadn’t named him.  She’d promised to deal with it, the promise of a fellow-Slayer.  She’d be in touch.  If she wasn’t in touch, she’d be dead, but before that happened, she’d make sure that Buffy knew who to come for.  Buffy thought that she might already know, and if she was right, dealing with this betrayal was Faith’s job.

 

If they’d told her more, shared more, would the dead be alive now?

 

What ifs.  Buffy had learned to put aside what ifs, in her unusually long career as the Slayer, but this one was more troubling than most.  She’d always said she wanted to be a normal girl, but, with all the history they’d built up between them, she’d found it too difficult to share her uniqueness with Faith.  All sorts of things fed in to that, but Angel was at the heart of it.

 

Now she was going to have to trust Faith, while she came back home to do her job here, without Angel.

 

The captain’s intercom pinged.  “I’m sorry to tell you that Bristol International Airport is fogbound, and we won’t be able to land.  We’re being diverted to East Midlands Airport...”

 

She let the rest of the announcement drift away.  Another day, another disaster.  She was sure that East Midlands Airport, wherever that was, had hire cars.

 

+++++

 

Faith loved being on top.  She’d always preferred that.  She’d never been one for being weighted down, being caged by someone else’s flesh and bone.

 

She was on top now, riding the man who’d turned out to be the love of her life, and made her think of white picket fences and two point four children.  And still she preferred to be on top.  Was that a sign?  It was only a few weeks to their wedding, and everyone said that you didn’t really know a man until after you’d married him.  Well, she thought she knew him now.

 

She bent down to Greg, and she kissed him, taking the taste of him into herself, that mixture of sweat and smoke and bittersweet honey that was uniquely Greg.  For the first time, she wondered what she tasted like to him.

 

She pressed down, riding him harder, as his hands roamed her body, stroking and tugging, and digging his fingers in exactly as she liked it.  His lying, deceitful hands.  Her whole body clenched, in preparation for the spasming orgasm that he always gave to her, but she fought it back as she leaned down to allow her breasts to trail over his chest, just as her hand trailed onto the floor.

 

When she rose up again, she was holding a stake, and she pressed the point hard into his skin, right over his heart.

 

“Were you actually going to go through with it?  The wedding?  Or did you just think you’d do a runner?”

 

His look was lascivious.  “Hell, you know how to really turn a guy on...”

 

She pushed down on the stake until the point broke the skin, and a little blood seeped out.

 

“This is real, Greg.  Or whatever your name is.”

 

He stared up at her in silence.  Her free hand found his and she lifted it, turning it palm uppermost.  The damning tattoo showed, as dark as the gateway to hell on the white skin of his inner wrist.

 

“Acathla got your tongue, lover?”  She pushed the point a fraction further in.  He winced, but didn’t move.

 

She thought of what was inside her, with its tattoo that had so impressed her for his fortitude, and the piercing that... Just don’t go there, she told herself.

 

“Are you one of his main acolytes, then, with his mark on your dick to keep you under control?”

 

He blinked, and then shifted his gaze to the stake, and the trickles of blood running down his breast.  “There was only ever one main acolyte.  Angelus.  When he went to the other side, Acathla elevated a dozen of us.  He didn’t want to be betrayed by his only lieutenant again.”

 

Ice spun its crystals around her heart.

 

“So you came here to use me.  To find out things?”

 

His answer came as a whisper.  She had to bend forward to catch it.  “Yes.  He’s taken out most of the competition there, but Angel and Buffy are causing him too many problems.  He never explains why he’s doing things, but he wanted to take out certain people here.  I think he wanted to make sure that no one could go over there and help the rebels, before he could finish them off.  But that’s just a guess.  He’s got Drusilla helping him, telling him things that she sees, and who knows what goes on in that head?  I sometimes wonder which side she’s on.  She was... even more insane when Angelus came back with his shiny new soul.”

 

Buffy would want to know all of that.

 

“And me?”

 

His gaze moved back to her face.  “I was sent to you.  He’d have preferred me to get into a relationship with Buffy, but that was impossible, with Angel around.  So, he sent me to you.”

 

The ice closed around her heart.  She thought that her lungs might be frozen as well, because she couldn’t breathe.  Then his fingers closed around hers.

 

“But I really did fall in love with you.  I am in love with you.  I haven’t sent as much information as I could, but he’d kill me if I sent nothing.  You don’t know this demon, Faith.  I daren’t fail.  You should hear what he’s promised to do to Angelus for going renegade.  That vampire is going to wish for death, if Acathla ever gets hold of him.”

 

“But you didn’t love me enough to tell me all this.”

 

She said it flatly, not a question.  He looked embarrassed.

 

“I’m not a hero, not like you guys.  He scares the shit out of me.  I guess I was hoping that Angelus would finish the bastard off, and you wouldn’t be any the wiser.  We could get on with our lives.  I wanted that to be... together.”

 

She hadn’t moved the stake at all.

 

“What are you?”

 

“What?”

 

“Are you human?  Or a demon?”

 

“Don’t you know?”

 

“I thought I did.  Now, you tell me.”

 

“I’m mainly human, which is why you couldn’t tell.  I’m one quarter demon.  That quarter saved my ass with Acathla.  Is it going to get me killed here?  Or can we find a future for us?”

 

She so wanted to believe him.  He was still buried deep inside her, still filling her.  Was that a sign of his love?  Or of his capacity for treachery?  Angel, now...  Angel had been redeemed, or was at least a work in progress.  And Angel had held out hope of redemption to her.  Was there a chance of redemption for Greg, too?  She made her decision.

 

“You’re going to tell me everything that you’ve told Acathla.  And I do mean everything, or Acathla’s threats will have nothing on my reality.  Then, you’re going to go back there, and you’re going to prove yourself.  You’re going to find Angel and you’re going to help him get rid of Acathla.  If you make it, you can come back to me.”

 

He closed his eyes, his face pale.  “Sort of with my shield or upon it, huh?”

 

“Just like that.”

 

“Faith, I don’t know whether I’ve got the courage to do it.”

 

“Then I’ll kill you myself.  Never doubt it.  Now, are you going to finish what we started?”

 

The next morning, he was gone.  She hadn’t cried yet, but she would, when she’d talked to Buffy.

 

For these few precious minutes, though, with his warmth still lingering on the sheet next to her, she wondered whether she’d been foolish, whether she’d ever see him again.  Whether she should have killed him.  Whether the ice around her heart would ever crack again.

 

She’d talk to Buffy as soon as she got up.  Buffy.  If she’d talked more to Buffy...  But she’d welcomed her freedom here, without some uptight Watcher cramping her style, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do.  She’d long ago admitted to herself that she’d always resented being second best to Buffy, and that would never change.  Having the whole continent to herself had been just about enough distance from the other Slayer.  And so they had divided themselves from each other, as much as any enemy had divided them.  They ought to learn to talk more, even if it was only on the phone.

 

She stretched, and then headed for the shower.  She would wash all trace of Greg off her, until she found out whether he was ever coming back to her.  Whether she’d ever get her own demon lover back.

 

+++++

 

Buffy had done some thinking while waiting to land.  She’d also checked out a map.  When she got to the hire car company, she made sure she got one with a satnav.  It wasn’t too far out of her way to go to Nottingham, since she’d been dumped at an airport that served Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

 

She only got lost once on the way to Clifford Hall. 

 

She’d got to thinking about the mirror at Clifford Hall that had shown Angel an image of what appeared to be their alter egos in Acathla’s domain.  Perhaps there was something to be gained by going to have a look.

 

The Hall was even more imposing than she had expected, and when she pulled up outside the front door, the housekeeper was already on the doorstep, as though she’d known Buffy was coming.

 

“Mrs Horridge?  I work with Rupert Giles...”

 

“You must be Miss Summers.  Please.  Come in.”

 

She was settled into a dining room that was decorated in a very striking shade of yellow, while Mrs Horridge brought sandwiches and afternoon tea.  The housekeeper was about to leave the room when Buffy said to her, “Please.  Stay and talk to me.”

 

The woman hesitated, then nodded.  “I’ll just go and get another cup.”  When she returned, she seemed to have unbent a little from her very correct demeanour.

 

“I was very sorry to hear what happened, Miss Summers.  Very sorry indeed.”

 

Buffy was instantly suspicious, in view of the almost total lack of publicity about that night of destruction.  “How did you know about it?”  It came out more as a challenge than a question, but Mrs Horridge didn’t stiffen.

 

“From Mr D’Eath.  He’s... very well connected.”

 

Buffy had heard about the banker from Giles, who’d had some idea that D’Eath knew a great deal more about their business than anyone should.  But he hadn’t seemed to be a threat.

 

“Please accept my condolences.”

 

Buffy nodded.  She didn’t want to argue that Angel wasn’t dead, not just now, and after all, John was.

 

“Have there been any more... disturbances, Mrs Horridge?” she asked, moving on to safer topics.

 

“Well... not disturbances, as such.  It’s just the staircase.  The one with the mirror.  I keep thinking that I see things out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to look, there’s nothing.  This is such an old house, you know.  The Tower is almost a thousand years old.  I’m sure it must have gathered the odd kick in its gait, so to speak.”

 

“I... I thought I’d take a look while I was in the area.  My plane was diverted because of fog.”

 

“Yes, of course.  Shall I make up a bed for you?”

 

“I... I don’t think so.  Thanks.”

 

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you look exhausted.  I could make you a herbal tea, and you could get a good night’s sleep.”

 

“I’ll see how I feel when I’ve taken a look.”  Buffy didn’t feel up to arguing, and for some reason, the mirror that had shown Angel such images was growing in importance to her.

 

“Will you take me there now?”

 

The housekeeper led her to a grand staircase, with a large mirror on the galleried landing.  A pier glass, Giles had called it.  A mirror meant to hang between two windows.

 

She nodded her thanks to Mrs Horridge, who went to wait for her in the dining room.  Then she surveyed the mirror.  Her attention was immediately caught by the pair of griffins on the top.  She knew that Angel’s tattoo wasn’t actually a griffin, but in the language of coincidence it was uncomfortably close.

 

She drew a little nearer, yearning for her lost lover with all her soul.  She closed her eyes, and she could see him, in the mirror of her mind.  Unbearable.  She opened her eyes again, and instead of her reflection, a monster gazed back at her.  Only her years of experience kept her steady on the spot.

 

This monster was the essence of horror.  Up until now, the most dreadful things that she had seen were the Turok-Han, the primordial vampires that even vampires fear.  This might be a vampire that had evolved to be the Turok-Han’s worst nightmare.  She’d seen many pictures of medieval representations of the devil, in Giles’ musty old books.  In this monster, the very worst parts of all those images had been put together to make something truly terrifying.  It even had the cloven hooves.

 

It was perfectly still, with its eyes closed, its open hand resting on its naked breast.  Mesmerised by the appalling sight, she stepped close to the mirror, and put her palm flat against the glass.  She wanted to reach through, to know whether this thing was real, and something that she could kill, or whether it was something conjured up out of her own most dreadful fears.

 

Angel tingled on her palm, and the feeling of nearness flowed through her.  For a selfish moment, she wanted to take the Angel who was somewhere on the other side of the mirror, take him for herself.  But she pushed the thought away.  Her Angel could be found.  He could.

 

And then the monster’s eyes opened.  They were black, windows to the darkest depths of the universe, depths that invited her to Fall, to her utmost ruin. 

 

And then it was gone.

 

She turned away quickly, and...

 

And Angel was behind her, on his knees, naked.  She fell to the floor, sobbing, as she held him.  He put his arms around her, real, solid arms, exactly as they should be, and they wept together, on that landing, weeping for joy and relief, and from sheer excess of feeling, until there were no more tears left to shed.

 

+++++

 

Martha stood in Golden Acre Field, waiting.  This had been top of her list, after telling the family just what she had planned for her own future, thank you so very much.  They’d been acting as though she were a decrepit pensioner.  That time may well come, and she was inexpressibly grateful for their concern.  At the same time, the sight of the girls’ faces, with their expressions of mingled shock and relief in equal measure, had been... satisfying.  She was rather disturbed at how appropriate that word sounded in her head, in this new, harder Martha.  There would be time for the softer, more yielding woman to return later, when her husband’s ultimate killer was laid in the dust.  She’d quite like to be there, to spit on his corpse, but somehow she doubted that she’d have that chance.  She’d already been to look at the assassins, laid out in the hay store, and she’d called down vengeance on their souls, or spirits, or whatever these demons had.  She hoped they roasted in their version of Hell.

 

The sound of a throaty, labouring engine cut though the enveloping fog.  This was what she was waiting for.  A pair of headlights and then a large flatbed emerged slowly from the wreathing mist.  It was carrying a static caravan that had clearly pruned the hedgerows on either side during the journey down the lane.  Some of the evidence of that was still lying on the flat roof.

 

The gate into the Golden Acre stood wide open, and she moved back as the driver started to edge through.  He wound down the window.

 

“Afternoon, Mrs Fletcher.  Where do you want this first one?”

 

She pointed out a nice flat area where the land was well-drained, and gave him a stern warning not to churn the ground up.

 

“Yes, Mrs Fletcher,” he said with a grin.

 

When he’d craned the caravan off, he handed her the keys.  “Two more, right?  Show me where you want them.  Then you’d better go home before you get your death out here.  I’ll bring you the keys and paperwork.  It’ll be a couple of hours.”

 

She was grateful for his offer.  It really was wintry today. 

 

As she drove home – very carefully, because John had always done most of the driving, and she wasn’t used to it, especially in poor conditions – she experienced a small moment of doubt that she’d done the right thing, but she pushed it back into the recesses of her mind.  She’d looked all over the local area for property to rent, but nothing was suitable.  And so, she’d ordered three large caravans as temporary accommodation.  One for Buffy and... well, for Buffy.  One for Giles, because he was coming out of his coma, if she had to shake him out of it.  And one for what had been salvaged from Summerdown House.  Not the ordinary things.  If there were enough of those, furniture and things – although when she’d seen Giles’ dining room table, that solid piece of English oak had crumbled like frass – they could go into store.  But the extraordinary things?  Oh, no.  They needed to be here on the property, under her eye.

 

No, it was the right thing to do.  If Buffy or Giles wanted something different, they would say so.  She started to plan out details in her head, to call to mind details of armourers, because Buffy couldn’t face the forces of evil with just a stake, no matter how much she thought she could, and suppliers, because Giles had regular customers who couldn’t easily find help anywhere else.

 

So much to do...

 

+++++

 

Faith’s phone call broke up the reunion on the landing.  The other Slayer was uncharacteristically brief and to the point. 

 

When she ended the call, Buffy looked up at her lover, wrapped in a bedspread that he had taken from the nearest bedroom.  Unfortunately, from his point of view, it was white lace, but she was so ecstatic that she didn’t even find it amusing.

 

“Angel, that was...”

 

“Faith.”

 

“Are you going to finish all my sentences?”

 

He smiled at her, that particularly tender smile he sometimes got when he looked at her, and which never failed to grip her heart.  “If you want me to.”

 

She gripped his arm through the lacy frills.  “Just as long as you’re around to do it.  Angel, I wouldn’t have left you this time.  I was ready to do anything to bring you back...”

 

“I know.”  He kissed her forehead.  “I know.”

 

“Where were you?”  Her voice sounded plaintive, even to herself.

 

“It’s... complicated.  I’ll tell you later.  What did Faith...?” 

 

He turned to the staircase before finishing the sentence.  Mrs Horridge stood at the foot of the stairs.  She had a faintly satisfied smile on her face as she ducked her head in acknowledgement.

 

“You’ll be wanting me to find you some clothes, I expect,” she said, without turning a hair.  “Can I say, I’m very relieved to see you back again?”

 

“And so say all of us,” Buffy murmured.

 

Angel grabbed Buffy’s hand, and then let go, as his makeshift toga threatened to come apart.  “Thank you, Mrs Horridge.  If you have something lying around, I’d be grateful.”

 

“There are still some of Mr Carter’s clothes here.”  She appraised Angel, as well as she could.  “I think I can find something, although I think his tailor would shudder at the fit.  Will you both be staying overnight?”

 

Buffy wanted nothing more than to celebrate Angel’s restoration, but things were happening, things that were urgent and demanding.  More importantly, she blenched at the prospect of driving him home in daylight.  She shook her head.

 

“No.   Wish we could, but we need to get back.”

 

“I’ll see what I can find.”

 

As she walked out of sight, Angel opened his arms to Buffy, gathering her into the shelter of the lacy bedspread.

 

“There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to get back to you,” he whispered.

 

“I’d have done anything, absolutely anything, to bring you back.  I wasn’t going to lose you again.  I’m not the girl I was then.”

 

He just held her, until Mrs Horridge reappeared with a pair of dark combat pants, and a dark sweater.

 

“I haven’t got any shoes, I’m afraid.” 

 

“I’ll manage,” he told her with a smile.  “I’m just grateful for what you have.”

 

She gave them a basket of provisions for the journey back, sandwiches and tiny cakes, and a flask of hot coffee.  As soon as they’d gone, she called Mr D’Eath.

 

“Angel’s back, sir.”

 

“Yes.  Yes, sir, it’s a big relief.”

 

“I believe they know the source of the problem now.  I think they’ll be in a position to take action soon.   Yes, I’ll keep an eye on everything here.”

 

In the car, Angel had a resigned expression.  “Acathla?  Acathla is sending assassins over here?  Can’t he stay on his side of the divide?”

 

“I think it must mean that you and me over there are maybe succeeding, do you think?  And he wants to make sure that there are no reinforcements to finish the job?”

 

“It might just mean we’re going down fighting really hard and he doesn’t want us to call for help.”

 

“Glass half empty, Angel?”

 

He chuckled and squeezed her hand.  “I’m still going to enjoy drinking it.”

 

As he drove, Buffy told him of John’s death, Giles’ coma, and her efforts with Syroh.  And how everyone thought that he was dead.   When he heard the worst of the news, his mouth hardened, and she knew these were debts to be repaid in full.

 

“I’ll call Martha,” she said.  “She’ll tell us how Giles is.  And she’ll want to know that you’re back.”

 

“Are you sure you should disturb her?  She’ll be pretty cut up about John.”

 

Buffy considered this, then shook her head.  “She is cut up, of course.  But she seems to have found some sort of inner strength.  It’ll probably be pastry-based, but you’ll be surprised.”

 

“No,” he smiled.  “No, I don’t think I will be.”

 

When she made the call, Angel didn’t need demonic hearing to hear Martha on the other end of the phone.  The small womanly shriek when she was told that Angel was alive came over loud and clear.  At one point, Buffy laughed, and said “Good idea!”  And then she put the phone away.

 

“To the hospital, Angel.  Martha says that according to the doctors, Giles seems to be coming out of it.  And she’s arranged some temporary accommodation for us.  She says it’s very comfy and cosy, and she’ll give us the key.”

 

“I bet I still need to go out and buy some clothes,” Angel grumped.

 

Buffy grinned.  “No.  I’ll do that.”

 

Angel grimaced.  “Um...”

 

+++++

 

Neve Brookes sat at her kitchen table, turning a cup of tea around and around in her fingers.   She’d had another vision.  This one had taken her through landscapes of desolation, each full of the dead or dying.  She’d been borne up on the wings of a dragon.  She’d understood the silent message.  This is what is, was, will be, somewhere, everywhere.  If...

 

What she didn’t understand was the If.  If what?  If dragons flew again?  If she didn’t do something?  If someone else did something?  Any of these?  All of these?

 

At the very end of the vision, she’d been back in that alley, facing the dying golden eye.  There must have been a battle all around her, because she could hear the din of swords, and smell the stench of death, but she couldn’t see anything except the dragon, as though she and the dragon were slightly out of phase with the battle, experiencing only its echo.

 

This was the third vision, and the most detailed.  What was she to do?  She’d tried to telephone Rupert Giles, but the telephone was out of service.  She had no other contact in the area.  She’d almost decided to go there, but it seemed so foolish.  And yet...

 

She had a friend, Harry.  Harry’s Henhouse supplied many of the locals with free-range rare breed eggs.  He would take her two hens, Lola and Lulu if she was away for a day or two.  Her cat, Macavity, was shared with Jane Bredon, a little further up the lane.  There was nothing else to stop her.

 

The tea was cold now, but she kept turning it round and round in her fingers.

 

+++++

 

The occasional querying glance was cast at Angel as he padded barefoot down the hospital corridor, in trousers and top that were slightly too small, but he greeted them all with a smile.  When they got to Giles’ room, Martha was there, with a white-coated doctor. 

 

To Angel’s enquiring look, the doctor said, “It’s as I was explaining to Mrs Fletcher.  He seems to be gradually coming up to the normal levels of consciousness.  It’s as though he had a very steep hill to climb, and he’s almost at the top.  He could come round at any time.  Or he might not.  Brain injuries are tricky to predict.”

 

No sooner had the doctor closed the door than Martha folded Angel into her ample bosom.  “We thought you were dead,” she said, between smiles and tears, slightly muffled by his chest.

 

He wrapped his arms around her.  “I’m sorry to hear about John.  He was a good man.  The three who did it are dead, but I promise it won’t stop there.  We’ll deal with the one who sent them.  You’ll have vengeance.”

 

“I know,” she said simply, as she let him go, to embrace Buffy.  “I’m glad you’re back safely,” she said, as she kissed Buffy’s cheek.

 

A sound behind them, over the ever-present beeping of monitors, made them all turn.  “Will someone help me up?  I can’t seem to...”

 

Buffy gave a squeal of joy and hugged Giles, then remembered to be careful.  “We were so worried about you...”

 

“What was that about John?”

 

“Later.  We’ll catch up with everything later.”  Martha was firm.

 

Giles lay back, exhausted with the effort of trying to get up.  “I had such strange dreams last night,” he muttered.

 

“More than last night,” Martha told him gently.  “You’ve been here for nearly a fortnight.  That’s why you feel so weak.”

 

Without waiting for a reply, she stepped into the corridor to call a nurse.  Buffy sat down by the bed, holding Giles’ hand.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out the crumpled little packet.

 

“More than just dreams, I think.”  She put the packet into his hand.  “That appeared in your hand a few days ago.”

 

He tipped the contents into his hand.  The white quartz sand glittered as he stared at it, open-mouthed.  Slowly, he poured it back into the envelope.  Then, he tried to get out of bed with even more determination.  Buffy pressed him back down.

 

“Not yet, Giles.  Give yourself time.”

 

“By the sound of it, I’ve had entirely too much time!”  But he lay back, breathless.  By the time a doctor arrived, he was sinking back into the ocean of dreams.

 

Buffy bit her lip in worry, but Angel whispered to her, “It’s a normal sleep.  It will do him good.”  Buffy nodded.  Who should know more about the difference between sleep and those other states of unconsciousness than Angel?

 

They were arguing about who should stay with Giles, all three convinced that the other two needed more rest than they did, when Nick and Lisa arrived.  They both had to touch Angel, to make sure that he was real, and Lisa fought back tears when she was told that Giles has woken from his coma.  And Nick lit up the room with his smile.  And so Martha handed a key to Buffy, and they left Nick and Lisa in charge.

 

Buffy giggled when she saw the three green caravans, each a discreet distance from the others, but when she opened the end one, the one that had cute little shutters fitted, she saw that it was, indeed, comfortable.  The bed had been made up, and the fridge stocked with a few staples.

 

“What was that thing with the sand?” Angel asked, as she closed the fridge door.

 

She put her hand up to his face, and then wrapped it around the back of his neck, pulling his head down for a kiss.  “Talk tomorrow,” she said.  “No talking now.  Making love now.”

 

He gladly settled for that.

 

+++++

 

Early next morning, the door opened the merest crack, and Martha’s voice said, “Are you two decent?”

 

Buffy and Angel quickly rearranged themselves and dragged the rumpled bedclothes up.  “Yes, Martha,” they chimed in unison.

 

She climbed in, carrying a large bag.  “There’s a tarpaulin outside, because you won’t want to be trapped in here all day, Angel, and I’ve got some bits and pieces of clothing for you.  Things that were at the dry cleaners, or out for mending.  Only one pair of shoes, I’m afraid.  I made some phone calls before I got here, and there’re some new things coming for you.  Jones can deliver this afternoon, so you should have a reasonable wardrobe by then.

 

“Buffy, your laundry’s in here, too.  You’ve found the rest of your things in the wardrobe?”

 

They hadn’t got round to investigating the contents of the wardrobe.

 

“You’re a positive marvel, Martha,” Angel told her with a grin.  “I’d give you a hug if...”  His gesture indicated his state beneath the bedding.

 

“If I were thirty years younger, I might let you...” 

 

She stopped and pulled out her handkerchief to blow her nose, as the image of John, thirty years ago, rose into her mind.  She stuffed the handkerchief back into her pocket and said, abruptly, “And that young man, Syroh, is putting whatever’s been recovered of Giles’ books and papers into the caravan next door.  Jones is bringing some things for Giles, too.  I’ll take an outfit up to the hospital later, after I’ve seen the family off.”

 

“No,” said Buffy.  “I’ll come and pick them up from you.  You take the last few hours with your family.”  She paused, and then added, “How are they taking the fact that you’re doing all this?”

 

“They’ll get over it,” Martha replied, a little too brightly. 

 

A knock at the door heralded Syroh.  He took one look around him, and gave a little bow.  “I am sorry Slayer, Angelus.  When Mrs Fletcher came in, I thought...”

 

“Don’t worry, Syroh, it’s obviously Paddington Station here this morning,” Angel observed.  “Now, if you’d like to go away for a few minutes, we can get up...”

 

+++++

 

When she got to the hospital, Buffy found Giles insisting on checking himself out.  The doctor threw up her hands when her last objection was overcome with the clothes that Buffy held on her arm.  With his promise to come back if there was any dizziness or nausea, she gave up and left him to it.

 

Back at the caravans, Giles insisted on being brought completely up to date, listening and asking questions until his head hurt.  Angel made him tea, and silently rejoiced that he could once more do such a simple task, in homely surroundings.  When Giles asked what had happened to him, he gave the same answer that he had given to Buffy. 

 

“As near as I can tell, I seemed to be somewhere between times.  It was all very confusing.  Somehow, I... I found my way back.  I get really muddled when I think about it.”  He didn’t – the memories were crystal clear and dagger sharp – but it was better this way.

 

“Well, do try to straighten it out so that we can put it into the diary.”

 

Giles still kept a Watcher’s Diary, even though there were no more Watchers.  Somehow, it seemed to legitimise all the things that they did.  But he’d said it now automatically, as though he hadn’t heard what he was saying, as though he were completely abstracted, his mind elsewhere.

 

Angel had toyed with the idea of telling Giles about Ella – he hadn’t even mentioned that to Buffy – but what good would it do?  Her appearance was more than likely his own imagination.  Really? asked a tiny voice in his mind.  You really think so?  But he held his peace.

 

Giles continued to stare at the table.  He didn’t look up until Buffy said, “Giles, what’s the what with the sand?”

 

Giles picked up his mug of tea, welcoming the warmth against his fingers, as he wondered what, if anything, to say.  But, no matter how much you trust people, a wish told is a wish that can’t come true.

 

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I... I had some very strange dreams.  I... need to do some research before I can...  Did you say that Syroh was bringing the books?”

 

Giles couldn’t be budged.  He wanted to research, and research he did.  Syroh had brought all the books and papers that had been salvaged.  And Giles’ safe.  The study at Summerdown House had escaped the full force of the attack, and he could only be grateful for that.  Angel and Buffy watched their friend’s frenzied sifting through the battered texts with concern.  To Buffy’s unspoken question, Angel reassured her that Giles was fine, in health at least.  “I think he just has something he needs to work out for himself,” he said.  Angel could relate to that.  If Giles’ experience had been as strange as his own, then he would have a lot to work through.

 

Gavin Lincoln stopped by, expressing his feelings with manly handshakes, and he and Buffy went to meet Syroh and see the clan leaders who had elected to use the houses that had belonged to the Coven.  Perhaps they’d done that because it meant they were within reach of the Slayer.  The attack on Summerdown House, and the apparent death of Angelus, who they had expected to save them from the assassins, had shocked the clans to the core.

 

And Alice came over, full of news.

 

“Kevin says that someone put a Trojan on my computer.  He’s just found it.”

 

“Trojan?”  Giles was between books, and looked up in confusion.

 

“Not something from Homer.  A bit of software that feeds information back to a remote computer.”

 

Angel grinned at Alice’s newfound knowledge.  “Does he know who did it?”

 

Alice shook her head.  “He’s going to try and follow it back to the source, but he doubts he can do it.  He’s suggested leaving it on there and feeding false information through it.”

 

“Good idea!” 

 

Giles nodded, in agreement with Angel’s approval.  “Perhaps you could start a diary that they can tap into?”

 

“Will do.  We’ll cook up some suitable entries.  And look, this is my directory.”  She pulled the book from her basket, carefully wrapped in a piece of creamy linen.  “They’ve been writing in it!”

 

There were notes in the margins and on the endpapers.  Dates.  Locations.  Number of kills.  Where to find Angel and the Slayer, living with the Watcher.  All were in different scripts, and different languages, mostly demonic.

 

“I think this book has been passed around.  Which definitely means co-ordination and planning.”  She looked anxiously across the table.

 

“And it also means,” Angel began, meditatively...

 

“That someone else was there on that Friday night, holding that book, probably directing operations,” Giles finished for him, as he put down the bundle of loose pages he was leafing through and picked up a scroll.  Thunder growled in the distance.

 

“Do we have any idea who?” Alice asked. 

 

Angel shook his head.  “Acathla can’t come over here, and if he is behind this, he could be using anyone.  From... sources... we’re told that Acathla was using the vampire Korbinian, who probably hired at least some of the assassins.”  Giles looked up sharply, but Angel avoided his eye.  Even for a friend, they weren’t going to give away how Faith had been betrayed.

 

“But wasn’t Korbinian the one you killed in Paris?  The one who brought out the bad in Andrew?”

 

“Yeah.  Sometimes that’s how it goes.  But there has to be someone else now.  That was weeks ago.”

 

The first fat drops of rain started to fall as lightning danced along the horizon. Thunder sounded again, like the ripping of the cosmos.  Angel shook his head with a remonstration to himself not to be so fanciful.

 

Alice paged through her dictionary again.  “The Poraxen,” she said.  “A small clan.  I hadn’t got to them... I was doing it alphabetically, you see.  But look...”  She pointed to an elaborate, cursive script on the endpaper.  “They’ve written the Poraxen in.  I can understand that word, because it’s one they’ve borrowed from the lingua franca, but I don’t know the script itself.  If there are instructions here, I can’t read them.”

 

“Giles.”

 

Giles looked up again at Angel’s question. 

 

“Giles, can you read this?”  Angel passed across the open book.

 

“No.  No, I’m not familiar with this at all.”

 

Alice took it back.  “Well, then,” she said decisively, “I’d better catch up with Buffy and Syroh.  One of the clans may know.”

 

As she got up, a sudden gust of wind hurled raindrops like pebbles against the glass.  “You’d better hurry,” Angel urged, “or you’ll be soaked.”  He stayed where he was, out of range of the light when she opened the door.  The day was getting late, and the skies were heavy with cloud, but he wasn’t going to risk getting dusted just yet.

 

As she tugged on the door, a small black shape hurtled in and ran over the table, leaving little wet paw prints.  It was Zillah, looking even leaner than usual.  She miaowed as she ran, a harsh, demanding cry aimed at Giles.  When she reached him, she pawed at his face, still vocalising.

 

Giles tried to put her to one side, but she came back and sat down on the book, burying the claws of one front paw in his shirt.

 

“I think you’d better work out what she wants,” Alice said with a smile, and left as another roll of thunder, nearer this time, split the air.

 

“Perhaps she needs feeding,” Giles suggested, with a faintly helpless look.  “After all, where’s she been for the last couple of weeks?”

 

Obediently, Angel searched through the cupboards while the cat continued to harass Giles, tugging at him.  If there was cat food, it wasn’t in this caravan.  There were prawns in the freezer, though.  He defrosted a few in the microwave, and offered them to Zillah on a saucer.  He knew she loved prawns.

 

She stared at the saucer with a mixture of longing and contempt, much as Angel thought he probably stared at spilled human blood.  Then she renewed her efforts to get Giles to move.  Angel and Giles looked at each other, baffled, as the rain set in with earnest, beating a loud tattoo on the flat roof.  A louder tattoo beat on the door.

 

Giles got up to answer it, and Zillah let him go, running to the door beside him, still miaowing loudly.  It was Ricky Whitelaw.  He stood on the grass, his hair plastered to his head, his hands stuffed into his pockets.

 

“Ricky!  What are you doing here?  Come in out of the rain.”

 

But Ricky stayed where he was.

 

“Mr Rupert Giles!” he blurted out suddenly.  “You’ve got to come, Mr Rupert Giles.”

 

“Come where, Ricky?  Is your mother hurt?”

 

“My mother’s fine, thank you, Mr Rupert Giles.”  Ricky hopped from one foot to another, in an agony of indecision.  “The lady says to come.  She says to get your head out of a book and remember the tree.  Sorry, Mr Rupert Giles.”

 

Angel could almost see the wheels of thought grinding slow but sure in Giles’ head.  And then he saw the dawning of hope.  With no more than a backward glance, and in his shirt sleeves, Giles set off at a run.  Despite the rain, Zillah followed after him.

 

+++++

 

As Giles ran, the rain stung his face, sharp needles of near-ice that he barely felt.  He slithered across the lumpy pasture of Golden Acre Field towards Summer Down, the expanse of chalk hill for which his home had been named.  His heart thumped in his chest, and his throat was tight with fear that he had misunderstood.  And with excitement that he might have understood well enough.

 

The winter air rasped in his lungs, the rawness of it robbing him of breath as he tried to run faster in the last of the fading daylight.  His soaked jeans clung to his legs, wet fingers holding him back, and the thunder rumbled warningly, as sheet lightning played across the western horizon, a sunset of cold blue fire. With the pounding of his footsteps, he prayed, whether to the god of today or the gods of yesterday, the gods of earth and air, of fire and water, he didn’t know.  Or perhaps to the Queen, with her necklace of shiny crystal skulls.

 

Let this be true.  Let it be real.  Please....

 

And then the High Oak stood before him, the sacred tree of the ancient Druids.  When he’d last seen it, only a fistful of days ago, it had stood in its winter form, a stag-headed giant that might be a thousand years old.  Its bole was huge, wide enough to need three or four men to encircle it, with their arms outstretched.  Its branches were heavy, and had been starkly naked against the thin winter sky, except for the load of mistletoe, the golden bough, carried on a few of them.  He remembered gathering that mistletoe, in different times.

 

Now, as he stood panting in front of the tree, even in the gathering dusk he could tell that it was thickly clad in unseasonal new leaves, a small miracle of renaissance in this brumal solstice, the dead days of winter between Christmas and New Year.  Christmas had been entirely missing from their lives this year.  Except, a long package had mysteriously arrived for Buffy.  It had proved to be the ornate Damascus steel bow that Buffy had so admired in the home of Korbinian.  Laroche had sent it to her, as a Christmas gift.

 

He felt a small body brush against his leg.  It was Zillah, who started to claw frantically at the tree, and then pull herself up the trunk.

 

“Zillah!  Come down from there!”  Giles had climbed this tree often when he was a boy, but he wasn’t a boy any longer, and gravity seemed to have more power these days.  The cat ignored him, perching in the crown, as the wind gusted savagely, howling through the new foliage.

 

And then the lightning struck, a hissing, sizzling bolt that speared down into the forked branches, as thunder filled the universe, a giant hand crushing everything beneath.  It blinded and deafened him.  He threw his arm across his face, and fell back.  Crackling sparks showered down around him, and his hair rose, bristling like a defensive dog. 

 

Zillah screamed, and fell.  Giles scooped up her limp body as he scrabbled backwards, crabwise, sheltering the cat beneath him as he steeled himself for the explosion of burning sap that would sear everything around and fire the stricken tree.  The explosion didn’t come.  Instead, as Giles cradled Zillah, the lowest bough of the tree, a huge timber itself the size of many full grown trees, groaned and shuddered and slowly fell with the tortured sound of splintering wood, peeling away the left side of the oak’s bole.

 

And then the universe paused for breath.

 

The wind died away, the rain slackened, and the thunder ceased.  A thin bar of blood-red light showed through on the western horizon.  Slowly, he stood up, and moved cautiously forward to the tree.  His blood burned with a knowledge that it hadn’t shared with his brain.  His heart sounded as loud as the thunder.

 

He was still holding Zillah close as he reached the fallen limb.  It revealed that the bole of the oak had been hollowed out by time and rasping teeth.  All the heartwood was gone, leaving only a thin shell of living wood.  Where this had been torn away by the falling bough, a dark doorway loomed, partially concealed by leafy branches that were thick with mistletoe.

 

Giles pushed his way through into the hollow trunk.  Crouched on the far side was a woman, clad only in the dry litter of old, russet leaves that clung to her titian hair and fair skin.  At the sound of the leaves crackling beneath his feet, she slowly turned towards him.  Even though he’d hoped and prayed, the name was forced from him in shock.

 

“Ella!” 

 

He stood, robbed of the power of movement as he drank in the sight of her.

 

“Rupert, please stop staring and do something.  I don’t seem to have the strength to stand up...”

 

She held a hand out to him, and he clasped it, pulling her up and into the embrace of his free arm.  She lifted her mouth to his, in invitation, and he bent down to kiss her, gently at first, and then with the desperation with which he had mourned her.  She shivered in his arms, and he fell back.

 

“Ella... Is it really... I mean, you were gone.  How is this possible?”   Suddenly, he was afraid that this was no more than a hallucination, a leftover from his coma. Or a faery trick, as insubstantial as faery gold, glittering in the moonlight, but gone by the light of day.  After all, he had a faery to thank for this.

 

“Silly old fool,” she said lovingly, as she’d said so many times in life before.  “Trust yourself.”  She’d said that, often, too.

 

She shivered again, wrapping her arms around herself.

 

“I don’t suppose you brought a coat with you?” she asked.  “It’s very cold here.”

 

“Um...  ‘Fraid not.”

 

She put a hand up to his face.  “I might have guessed...” 

 

Then she saw Zillah.  She took the limp little body into her arms, and pressed her forehead to Zillah’s for a moment.

 

“She’ll be fine,” she said, her smile once more lightening Giles’ heart.  “Come on then, my love, you’d better get me out of the cold.  Let’s go home.”

 

He cast away all his doubts.  If this was an hallucination, he’d rather be deluded than sane.  He wrapped her in the transient warmth of his arms again, and wished he’d come out in something other than shirt sleeves.

 

“Um.  We’ve got a family of demons living in your house.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll tell me about it later.  Your house, then.”

 

“Ah.  It’s, ah, rubble, I’m afraid.  Some time weapon thingy.”

 

“Oh, yes, I seem to remember...  Well, if you can find me a coat, we could always stay here.”

 

He smiled lovingly down at her as he pulled her closer into him.  “Martha’s organised a lovely set of caravans for the homeless.”  He let her go, but only to unbutton his shirt.  “Here, take this.  It’ll be better than nothing.”  But she’d turned away from him, looking towards the shadowy opening.  A voice called out.

 

“Giles!  Giles, are you there?”

 

“In here, Angel.”

 

There was silence, and Giles could almost see Angel scenting the air.  When the vampire spoke again, it was with doubt.  And some wonder.  “...Ella?”

 

Pushing through the foliage, Angel took in the situation with one glance, and turned his head away as he shrugged out of his coat and held it out to her.  “Unless,” he remarked blandly, surveying Giles’ state of semi-undress, “you’d prefer me to go away for a bit?”

 

+++++

 

There were tears and laughter, and a lot of hugging, in the reunions that evening.  Everyone was gathered in the library caravan, making it something of a tight squeeze.  Zillah presided, rather drowsily, from a basket tucked into a corner.

 

Almost everyone went to bed that night with a lighter heart.

 

*

 

Giles reached out tentatively to Ella, almost afraid that she might vanish as quickly as she had reappeared.

 

“Did it really happen?  I’m... I’m not still in some coma, am I?  Imagining this?”

 

“Imagine this, Ripper.”  Her hand crept down until she was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath.”

 

“Are you here to stay?” he managed.  He didn’t want to be so badly hurt again.

 

“For as long as any of us are given,” she whispered, and then gently bit his shoulder.  He gave himself over to her, absolutely.

 

*

 

Ian and Alice lay together in the afterglow.  She was wrapped in his arms, her head on his chest.  He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head.

 

“You know,” he observed conversationally, “not so long ago, I was an innocent country copper.  Now, I’ve just been making love to the most beautiful demon – the most beautiful woman – I could imagine, I’m friends with a Slayer, a Watcher, and a vampire who’s just come back from a stroll through time, and the Watcher’s witchy girlfriend has just come back from the dead.”

 

“You’re taking it remarkably well, love,” she told him, kissing the stretch of skin nearest to her lips.

 

“I am, aren’t I?”  He rolled onto his side, towards her, and pulled her close.  “Are you absolutely certain that you want to spend your time with a middle-aged flatfoot who spends too much time at work?”

 

Her voice was loving.  “You’d have to beat me away with a stick.”

 

“There’ll be problems...”

 

“Do you think we can get over them?”

 

He traced a chain of tiny kisses down her temple.  “If we do it together...”

 

He found his passion rising again, and rolled her over.  “Like now...”

 

*

 

Gavin slept alone.  Or rather, he tossed and turned, trying to sleep.  He hadn’t been in love with Lina, but he’d been touched by her deeply enough to miss her still.  She’d gone back to her home dimension, and he wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t gone with her, so hard was it to believe the world in which he now found himself.  He also wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about it.  Excited, for one thing, like a kid in the middle of something far better than a computer game.  Incredulous, for another thing, because who could really believe the things he’d seen.  And incredibly alone, because who could he talk to about any of this, except the people themselves?

 

Now, he looked at other members of the force – and of the public – with a mixture of pity and envy.  Pity, because they had no idea of the rich and wonderful, oh yes, and dangerous world in which they lived.  And envy, for exactly the same reason.

 

Who would have thought that the old man would hook up with some sort of shape-shifting demon?  And a bloody attractive one at that.  And who would have thought that Mr Tall, Dark and Broody was a vampire (who could, incidentally, get lost in time and then get unlost), and that Miss Small, Blonde and Beautiful was not only the Vampire Slayer, but also said vampire’s lover.  Still, there were ways and ways of being slain.

 

And a witch was definitely the icing on the cake, even if she did simply reincarnate out of thin air.  Or a lightning-struck tree.  The old girl on honeymoon in Yorkshire had been one thing, but this was a whole other bag of marbles.

 

You wouldn’t believe it if you read about it in a book, he thought.  And then he thought that maybe he should do that.  Write a book, that is.  It would have to be a best seller.

 

And then he wondered where he could find a girlfriend who could hold a candle to any of this.  Maybe they could magic one up for him?  He fell asleep on that thought, smiling faintly through his dreams.

 

*

 

Martha, too, slept alone, although even in dreams she reached out towards the vacant pillow next to her.  Her dreams were of the joys and happinesses of the past, but they all ended in the horrors of nearer days.

 

Her tears dampened her pillow as they did every night.

 

*

 

Angel held Buffy tightly after they’d made love.  She rested comfortably, with her head on his breastbone.  Both of them knew that they had work to do, but they were too newly reunited to be comfortable out of touching distance.  Hours like this were still precious beyond price.

 

“I’m really pleased for Giles and Ella,” Buffy murmured, from somewhere near the cusp of sleep.  “You know, I wondered for a while if it really was Ella, or something in her shape...”

 

“Like the First?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What changed your mind?”

 

“You did.  You knew who she was.”

 

He dropped a kiss onto her hair.  “Sometimes I wonder...”

 

She stretched like a cat, not losing contact with him, so that the effect was her skin pressed invitingly against an even greater length of his body, with the inevitable result.

 

“Wonder what?”

 

He turned to her, more intent on pursuing other interests than in talking, but she laughingly held him at arm’s length.  “Wonder what?” she repeated.

 

“I don’t know, it’s stupid.  It’s just... it seems that some power keeps bringing us back until we do what it wants.  Or maybe we’re simply being forged into our own version of the Sacred Band of Thebes...  Or probably I’ve done too much reading lately.”

 

“Sacred Band of Thebes?”

 

“Mmm.”  He tried to reach her ear lobe, but she pushed him away with a tiny giggle.

 

“Thebes?”

 

He settled back, ruefully aware that he wasn’t going to get his wicked way until she’d explored what he’d unintentionally voiced aloud.

 

“The Thebans of the time...”

 

“Egyptians?  Like on the Nile?”

 

“No, these were the ones in Greece.  Oedipus came from there, I think.  Anyway, they were the real military power of their day, and their elite force was the Sacred Band.  They were a band of paired lovers.  The thinking was that each of them would fight harder to keep their lover alive.  It worked, too, until Alexander the Great outfought them.  They all died and were buried together.”

 

“Cheery.”  She frowned a little, apparently digesting what he’d said.  “I suppose Mohra said that we were strong together.  Is that what he meant?”

 

“Partly.  But we’re strong in other ways, too, even if...”  He was going to say even if I can’t marry you but he let it drop.  What was the point?

 

Buffy’s thinking had moved on.  Or back.  “And they had women fighting then?”

 

“No, well, not the Thebans.  The Band were all men, a young man paired with an older man.”

 

She grinned.  “You should be telling this to Nick.”

 

Angel smiled in recollection.  “You know, Nick does a good job in protective colouration, doesn’t he?”

 

She frowned again.  “You mean he isn’t gay at all?”  Her voice was heavy with incredulity.

 

“No, no, I don’t mean that.  He’d have me in his bed as soon as look at me.  But I know he’d have you, too.  He has much broader tastes than he lets on.  He’s just as attracted to women as he is to men.  He just doesn’t respond.  Or,” he amended conscientiously, “not often.”

 

“Why would he hide like that?”

 

Angel wondered how much to say.  In the end, it was half truths, as it so often was for him.  “He’s got a lot to offer a wife.  Money, position, estate, reputation.  Breeding.  And he’s the sort of man, eminent surgeon, major player in charitable works, and so on, who inevitably ends up with some sort of title.  Most women would try to elbow out their rivals if they thought they might finish up being called Lady whateveritis.  And you know, Buffy, in the circles he moves in, some of the women can be pretty damned predatory.”

 

Buffy allowed him to pull her close.  She knew that this came from personal knowledge, and, after all, not much changed in that respect over the ages.  Every last TV soap proved that.

 

“I suspect,” he continued, “that he had experience of one or more predatory women early on, and decided to opt for a different path.  But, judging by his recent behaviour, I think he’s been given The Talk.”

 

“The Talk?”  She suddenly felt entirely ignorant in the affairs of men and women.  “His behaviour?”

 

His arm reached around her, and his fingers started doing wonderful things to her spine.

 

“He’s been forcefully cheerful, even for Nick.  I think someone’s given him The Talk about what’s owed to his name.”

 

“Is that something you recognise?”

 

His lips had found the very sensitive spot just behind her ear, so it was several seconds before he responded.  She’d almost given up the expectation that he would.

 

“I was twenty-six when Darla turned me.  My father thought that getting married would settle me down, make me more responsible.  The Talk was one of the things he and I argued about.  But only one of the things.”

 

He continued his magic, and her head fell backwards as he bent her body like a bow.  “And Nick?” she asked, as her last shot at a sensible sentence.

 

His answer was slightly muffled by what he was doing.  “Oh, I think if he’s got the sense he was born with, he’s got a solution in hand.”  That was his last sensible sentence, too.

 

*

 

Nick and Lisa were in her kitchen, finishing off a bottle of wine.  At least, Nick, holding a half-full wine glass, was watching Lisa carefully, and Lisa, at the other side of the table, was staring moodily into her full one.    He’d been staying here since the night of the attack.  He was going to have to go back to the real world soon.

 

But, things here were complicated.

 

He and Lisa had become friends long before that dreadful night.  Staying here had helped them get to know each other a little better.  In any case, Nick didn’t need to get to know Lisa better to know that she’d been eating her heart out over Giles for years.

 

When Giles had first come back from the States, he’d already known Lisa, although not well.  She was twenty-nine now, nineteen when she first came to the village, a lot younger than Giles was, and they’d moved in different circles then.  Besides, he didn’t live in the village in those early days.  But, when he’d come back here to live, after his time as a Watcher – if that time had ever ended – Lisa had truly fallen in love with him, and he’d fallen in love with Ella.   

 

Nick understood that well.  After all, he’d fallen in love with Angel, and Angel only had eyes for Buffy.

 

When Angel was presumed dead, Nick had mourned as well as Buffy, although very circumspectly, and he’d found it impossible to tear himself away and go back to work.  When Angel had returned, Nick had rejoiced.  But there had been pain in equal measure.  Angel still had eyes only for Buffy.  And nothing would ever change that.  Nor should it, Nick was fair-minded enough to admit.

 

Lisa’s case was different.  When Ella was with Giles, Lisa had been no more than a friend to him.  When Ella died, Lisa had genuinely mourned a woman she called friend.  And she was still only a friend to Giles, but she had waited, quietly, patiently, and hoped for things to change.

 

She was a practical woman, and she had clearly decided, consciously or subconsciously, that she would rather have Giles as a friend than alienate him by an unwanted pursuit.

 

Still, that way lay heartbreak.  Giles obstinately remained only a friend, apparently blissfully unaware of Lisa’s warmer feelings, and now Ella was back.  And Lisa, rejoicing in her friend, Ella’s, new lease of life, was heartbroken once more.

 

Both of them, Nick and Lisa, must watch the people they loved be happy with someone else.  And they must watch at close quarters, because neither of them was willing to give up these friendships.  Masochists, thought Nick, wryly.  We must both be masochists.

 

Cautiously, Nick got up and moved around the table, pulling up a chair so that he could sit next to Lisa.  She looked up as he placed a hand on hers.

 

“What are we going to do, eh?”  His voice was full of warmth and sympathy, his question required no reply.

 

Lisa looked back down at her glass, as a tear slid into it, creating a quiet pattern of tiny ripples.  Nick shifted his position to put his arm around her shoulders.

 

“Now, now, old girl, bad enough watering the wine, but don’t put salt in it!”

 

She gave a watery chuckle.  “Less of the old, if you please.” 

 

And then she could hold back the tears no longer.  Nick shuffled his chair closer, and pulled her in to him, her head against his shoulder, while he made soft, comforting noises.  Nick was unfazed by a damsel in distress.  He was accustomed to women treating him as a brother, a position he was always at pains to present.  Being a brother, even a pseudo-brother, often meant offering a brotherly shoulder.

 

He genuinely cared, though, that Lisa should be so hurt, and left without hope.  There were few knives so sharp as unrequited love.  And so, he let her cry while he held her, and patted her back, and stroked her blonde hair, and whispered words of comfort to her, and wished there were someone to do the same for him.

 

When the crying abated to a few soft sniffles, he still held her, but he put one finger under her chin and raised her head, to look into her face.  “Come on upstairs,” he said gently.  “Let’s work a little magic for each other.”

 

She nodded, with a tremulous smile, and he led her up the stairs.  They’d slept together once or twice, for the same reason as now, a little sexual healing, but no one else knew.  Well, he thought, no one else except probably Angel.  After the last time, Angel had greeted them with a faintly knowing smile.

 

Once, Rupert had told Nick about one of the diary entries from Wesley Wyndham-Price that showed Angel’s uncanny sense of smell.  According to the entry, Wesley had doubted how good that sense of smell might be, so Angel had taken one sniff and identified that Wesley had spent the previous evening having sex with a bleached blonde.  Nick was pretty sure that secrets were impossible to keep from a vampire, but he didn’t mind.

 

He led Lisa towards the bed, and then he stopped, to pull her close, and to kiss her tenderly.  She threaded her fingers through his hair, and pulled him towards her as the kiss deepened.  He pushed his hand under the bottom of her blouse, his palm sliding over her warm skin.  It was softer, more yielding, than the skin he was more accustomed to, the scent different, lighter, less musky, the lips gentler against his.  As it had before with her, it brought out a different instinct in him as he laid her beneath him...

 

Later, he lay holding her tightly, still.  He knew what he wanted to do, but he didn’t know whether this was the right moment.  Whether Lisa needed more time.  But something told him that time was something they might not have.  He turned towards her as they lay close, and he smoothed her hair back from her face.

 

“Lisa,” he began, softly.  “Just occasionally, some of us get our heart’s desire.  There may be a huge cost, but we pay it willingly to be with a soul mate.  Those are the lucky ones.  The rest of us, we ordinary mortals, have to find the best happiness we can.”

 

She made to speak, but he put a finger to her lips.  “No,” he said.  “No.  Let me finish.  We’re friends.  We’re good friends, and I think that’s important, perhaps more important than anything else.  Perhaps I haven’t got a lot to offer, because I know that the material things I’ve got wouldn’t really weigh with you, but I would do my best to make you happy.  Do you think we might make a go of it?”

 

She traced his face with her thumb.  “Why are you saying this, Nick?”

 

“Well, I have to warn you that I’m expected to provide the next family heir,” he said candidly, but then he smiled that warm and winning smile at her.  “And I really can’t think of a woman I’d rather have as a mother for Hunt junior.”  His face took a more serious cast as he ran his fingers through her hair.  “And I think we might make a damned good go of it.”

 

“Is this the wine speaking, Nick?”

 

“Quite possibly.  But you know what they say, my dear.  In vino veritas.  Besides,” he said sternly, “it’s either you or some shark-toothed baronet’s daughter.  You wouldn’t wish that on me, would you?”

 

She gave him a wan smile.  “And what about me?  I might want to wait for some swashbuckling pirate to spirit me away?”

 

“So you might, my dear, and if you met one who took your fancy, I should hand you over so that you could buckle his swash.”  He appeared to give this further consideration.  “On reflection, I think I’d probably have to fight him, you know.  So, if you don’t want the father of your children to be run through, maybe giving the pirate a miss would be best.”

 

“Nick...  Nick, are you offering me marriage, or do you have a more... flexible... arrangement in mind...  A... a carte blanche?”

 

He pulled back a little, to see her face more clearly.  He looked genuinely surprised.  “Marriage, Lisa.  Nothing less.”  He kissed her brow.  “Many successful marriages have started with a lot less than we have.  I will make you happy.  I promise.”  He looked down, almost shyly, finding it hard to meet her eye.  “And if it isn’t the high romance you might once have hoped for, I swear to you it will be better than being alone.  That much, we can do for each other.”

 

“Nick...”

 

He could see the words of refusal rising to her lips, and put his fingers there to stop them.

 

“I could have wooed you with only fair words, dear lady, but I thought the truth would sit better with you.  And the truth is that there is love between us.  I think it can keep us warm on the cold nights of the soul.  You don’t have to give me your answer now.”

 

He didn’t get an answer that night, but they made love again, and fell asleep together.

 

+++++

 

The next few days passed in a kind of hiatus.  The cosmos held its breath, waiting to see what would occur.  But even in a hiatus, some things happen.

 

The next morning dawned cold and clear.  Angel and Buffy had left their shutters open, to make love by the light of the moon.  Buffy got up before sunrise and went outside to close the shutters, to keep Angel safe.  As she stood on the threshold, she saw a dark figure sitting on the hoary grass, a few yards from their door.  It got to its feet when it saw her, silhouetted against the inner light, and stood waiting for her to acknowledge it.

 

She hadn’t even got a stake on her, she thought, as she trod down the steps.  The figure, tall and lanky, leaning on a staff, waited quietly for her.  There was movement behind her, the familiar feel of unintended stealth, and her lover’s voice said, “Hello, Matthew.  What are you doing here?”

 

*

 

Matthew was the gangly boy who had found the fire demons, and who they had left for training with the Queen.  Now he was a gangly young man, with a prominent Adam’s apple and lanky limbs, and he still seemed to be made entirely of knees.   He had a long, gnarly staff of the sort associated with Hollywood wizards.  He sat drinking coffee with Angel and Buffy, and Giles and Ella.

 

“So,” said Giles, “are you a fully fledged wizard now?”

 

“No,” Matthew replied with a gulp.  “That takes a really long time.  But the Queen sent me back.  She sent me to you, because she said it was time.”

 

“Time what for?”  Angel’s instincts ran to red alert.

 

“That, she didn’t tell me.  You know the Queen.”

 

Oh, yes, they knew the Queen.  Buffy moved the conversation away.  “You’ve got a staff,” she said, brightly, “an honest to goodness wizard’s staff.  Does it do magic?”

 

“Oh, no,” Matthew said, his head ducking apologetically.  “I wrenched my knee just before I came.  That one’s just the right height for me until I’m completely back on my feet again.”

 

Somehow, Buffy considered that to be a let-down.

 

*

 

Alice had brought some clothes for Ella, clothes that had been packed up in a trunk in the attic of Ella’s house.  Buffy found herself watching Alice walk across the field, back to the road, with a feeling of jealousy.  She’d liked the old Alice, the elderly lady, and she loved the new Alice, but she had to admit to herself that she couldn’t help being jealous of her.  Or, rather, jealous of her Silarri ability.  If only it was possible for her to share it with a non-Silarri.  Buffy didn’t worry too much about the future, except in one respect – the fact that she would age, and Angel wouldn’t.

 

There was movement behind her, and she turned to meet it.  It was Ella, in a smart trouser suit and shirt that had been part of Alice’s bundle.

 

“I know what you’re thinking, Buffy.”

 

“What?  You came back a mind reader?”

 

Ella smiled.  “No.  It’s written on your face for anyone to see.  They’ll have similar problems, you know.  He’ll age, and so will she, but much more slowly.  When he’s an old man, she’ll look about thirty-five or forty.  She can’t do anything about him, either.”

 

Buffy looked down at her ankle boots.  “Yeah.”

 

Ella took hold of her hand.  “What I can say, Buffy, is that I think, in the future, you’ll find your own solution.”

 

“You aren’t saying I’ll become a vampire?  Because if you are...”

 

Ella shook her head.  “No.  I can’t say that you’ll never be turned, because that must be an occupational hazard for you, but that isn’t what I meant.  Just... keep an open mind about what might happen.  And remember what I’ve said.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I don’t know anything, Buffy.  I feel it, like the wind on my face, or the rain in an old man’s bones.  I don’t know it, but I am sure that the chance will be there, whatever shape it takes.”

 

“What was it like, being, you know, part of the planet?”

 

“Part of the spirit of the planet, Buffy.  It was... wonderful.  Probably different to your experience of heaven, but it was indescribably wonderful.”

 

“And yet you’re back here and looking happy?”

 

“I am happy.  How could I not be?  I have another chance of a life here, and I know what’s waiting for me at the end of that life, whenever that should be.”

 

Buffy digested that.  Ella was dealing with it better than she had.  She wished that she’d been able to find that level of acceptance at the time.

 

“And Giles knows you’ll leave him again?”

 

“Who says I’ll leave him?”

 

Buffy digested that, too.

 

“You could see the future, Ella?  You could see that I won’t just turn into a crumbling old woman for Angel?”

 

Ella laughed, a bright and crystalline sound of genuine amusement.  “A crumbling old woman indeed!  As if you would ever be that!  It isn’t as simple as seeing the future, but the chance will be there.  The Earth knows it, and so I do.”

 

Buffy nodded, puzzled, but with a small flare of hope.  She’d keep that to herself.  Angel couldn’t do with any more things to worry about just yet.

 

*

 

The loss adjustors from the insurance company had been on site, and agreed, perhaps reluctantly, that the policy did seem to cover the situation, and then they had gone away to count their losses.  There was a gathering of friends in Giles’ caravan for the evening meal.  It was rather a squeeze, but a comfortable, companionable one.  Martha had done the majority of the cooking, but everyone insisted that she sit down as part of the group.

 

Overt curiosity to learn more about Alice’s rejuvenation and Ella’s renaissance was kept on a tight rein.  Alice and Ella would speak of these things when they wanted to.  And so, inevitably, with dessert, the conversation circled around to the progress on tracking down the source of the assassins, and any news on what their next target might be.

 

“I wish we knew what was happening in the other world,” Giles complained.  “From... our sources... it certainly seems clear that Acathla is behind something like a dozen deaths even before they got started here at Summerdown, and yet, we don’t know his purpose.  We simply have no way of knowing how the fight is going over there, and what’s motivating his current behaviour.”

 

He dug his spoon savagely into his bread and butter pudding, which was extremely good and had done nothing to deserve such behaviour.  “It might be something like a prophecy that simply doesn’t occur on this world.  It might be one of the things that makes the difference between them and us, and we would never know about it.”

 

He dropped his spoon, still full of pudding, back into his bowl as he warmed to his theme.

 

“I hate just fighting a defensive action.”  He glanced further down the table, at Angel and Buffy.

 

Angel, with no meal in front of him, but with a glass of red wine nestled in his long fingers, nodded his agreement.  “We need to find a way of taking the action to him, I think.  Otherwise, we’re always on the defensive, always waiting for his attack, always on edge.”

 

“Taking the offensive works for me,” Buffy acknowledged, with a shrug.

 

Giles, having polished off his first mouthful of pudding, treated the second one with more respect.  “I don’t suppose you can open a portal for us, Ella?” he asked, with a wave of his empty spoon.

 

“No, Rupert, I’m sorry.  I never had any talent for portals.  I don’t even have Angel’s ability.”

 

What?  Angel almost choked on his burgundy.

 

“Not making them, Angel,” she reassured him.  “But you can find them, and use them.  You’ve done that more than once before.  Remember finding your way back from Hell?”

 

She didn’t think that he was going to answer, but eventually he said, “Yeah.  But I always thought I had help there.”

 

“So you might have done, in opening a way back.  But you found it because you needed it.  The insect world, too.  And your friend’s dimension.  And now, finding your way back from the interstices of Time?  There was no more than a potential portal, and you found it.  Remember your first year here?  If you hadn’t had some innate talent, the Coven could never have given you the temporary power to open a portal as you did then.  We just built on what was already there.  Connor got that talent from you, but much stronger.”

 

Giles saw his friend’s face harden, and Buffy’s hand creep into Angel’s, and he leapt into the breach, heedless of personal safety.  “Well, if we can’t go over there, it’s a really good job that he can’t come over here, or change what happens in this world, except through what hirelings can achieve.  We can deal with hirelings.”

 

“You’re wrong, Rupert,” Ella replied, calmly.

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“You’re wrong about what he can affect.”  She turned to the ledge behind her, reaching for a thick block of a message pad.  A carving knife lay in the middle of the table.  She snatched it up, and in one smooth, surprising movement, she brought the knife down onto the pad.  It speared through the pages, seeming to meet no resistance at all.  When she let go, the hilt quivered a little. 

 

Everyone stared in silence as Ella returned her attention to her pudding.  “Each alternate version of Earth is like a sheet of that pad.  There are countless numbers of them, lying just a breath away from each other.  A breath, or an instant of time.  But they aren’t completely separate.  What happens on one Earth ripples throughout the whole of reality.  Sometimes it’s too small a thing to override the reality that exists in other worlds, and the worst you might get is an echo, sensitive people getting dreams and visions.  But other things can make a cataclysmic difference.  If one version of Earth is sucked down to Hell, that’s a thing that will leave ripples though every other reality.  On some Earths, the nearer ones, the ripples will be tidal waves.  The effect will be as bad as on the one that’s in Hell.”

 

She nodded towards the pad.  Ian pulled the knife out, and then flicked through all the sheets. 

 

“Better make them all short messages,” he observed, dryly.  Each page had a cut through the centre, the cut becoming smaller and smaller towards the lower layers, until, on the last few sheets there was only a dimpled impression of the point.

 

“So, a few do escape relatively unscathed,” he asked, with a quizzical look.

 

Ella nodded, her mouth full of pudding.  The others waited.  “Yes,” she said eventually.  “But they are still changed forever.  Try to straighten out that dent.”

 

It wouldn’t of course, because the fibres were too stretched.  There was more to the lesson, though.

 

“Where are we, in relation to the Acathla Earth?” Nick asked.

 

“Next door.  We’ll be pulled towards that Hell; our walls will be down and we will be defenceless.”

 

There was a sober silence, broken by Giles.  “Ella, how do you know this?  I... I mean, could you... um... see this when you were... um, part of the Earth?”

 

He sat back and picked up his glass.  He wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t committed some solecism with Ella.  She might not want to talk to strangers about that.  But, she was unfazed.

 

“It’s hard to describe,” she said meditatively.  “You know those documentary programmes where they try to show you how other creatures use senses we don’t have?  Like the ones that follow the lines of magnetic force?  And it looks like some shadowy image of the landscape, made up of dots and lines?  It’s a bit like that.  Only not.  You have a... a sensory map, I suppose, of potential.  I can’t explain it any better.”

 

Gavin asked the question that most of them were thinking.  “Can’t you just do some magic to stop it all?”

 

“Ah.  Magic.  You think it’s the answer to everything?”  She looked askance at Matthew, who cleared his throat self-consciously before answering.

 

“Magic must be focussed, must be clearly targeted, otherwise it dissipates in unexpected ways, and there are unintended consequences.  The greater the magic, the greater the unintended consequences.  And besides, even when you focus the spell properly, there’s the question of balance.  A life is saved, somewhere, but that means that someone else has to die who would otherwise have lived.  A love spell for one means that another will never know love.”

 

“Well done, Matthew,” Ella approved.  “I can see that you’re well on with your training.”  Matthew flushed a rosy pink.  She frowned a little, as though deciding whether to say more.  “I’ve been allowed a second life here, by magic, but a price has to be paid for that.”

 

Giles, shocked, started to say something, but she shushed him.

 

“It isn’t a debt to be collected.  The price has been paid, by the Earth herself.  The Earth is a little diminished by that.  Magic never comes free.”

 

Everyone was silent, as she gazed at them, one by one, to be sure that the lesson was learned.

 

“So,” she asked those gathered round the table, “do we save our Earth at the expense of another?  Or do we use magic to defeat an enemy and perhaps finish up with something even worse?”

 

Lisa frowned.  “So, what you’re saying is that magic can’t be any help at all?  Ever?”

 

“No, but you have to be careful.  Powerful workings should only be a last resort, when all else fails.  Of course, there’s a difference for people like Alice...” Ella gave the Silarri a small smile, “and Angel and Buffy.  They have their own self-contained magic, which impacts only on themselves.”  She paused for a moment.  “Well, largely.  But it doesn’t carry the need for balance, or invoke the law of unintended consequences.”

 

She paused, holding her glass up for a refill.  No one spoke, because they all knew that she hadn’t finished.

 

“And there’s the small complication of where the magic comes from.  I work through power that I draw from this Earth.  Acathla’s Earth is different.  It’s like your cellular sunburn, Buffy.  Remember?”

 

Buffy sat up straight.  How did Ella know about that?  But Ella carried on with no more than a smile.

 

“It’s only a little bit different, but I may not be able to use magic there at all.  Or if I can, I might be no better than a beginner, and make a terrible hash of it, until I can adjust to the difference.  We can’t afford that.  So, we need to not rely on magic.”

 

“Then we need to find a way through,” Angel said.

 

“To do what?” asked Buffy. 

 

“To take Acathla out.  Save the Universe.  Usual thing.”

 

  Buffy’s nose crinkled.  “Before we go through, we need a really good plan.”

 

“I’m working on it,” Giles offered, morosely.  “If only we knew more.  All those little pieces of paper that Oz brought, for a start.  I’m sure they’re something to do with it...”

 

“Um...”  Every head swivelled towards Matthew.  “The Queen was troubled by those, too.”

 

“They came from your dimension?”  Giles was incredulous.

 

“Oh, no,” said Matthew, shaking his head for emphasis.  “They came from the other Earth.  The one we’re talking about.  It took her a while to work that out.  Then she sent me to find out what they were.  I... um... I was taken there by a band of her Hunters.”

 

“You’ve been there?  You know what’s happening?”  Angel leaned forward, eagerly.  Here was information that he needed.

 

“We were only there briefly, but I’ll tell you anything I can.  We followed the trail of the pieces.”

 

He stopped, awkward as the centre of attention.

 

“Well, go on, man, go on,” said Giles, testily.

 

Matthew’s Adam’s apple bobbed, as he swallowed hard.  “Um... There was a Watchers’ Council on that Earth, too.  They held out for a while, but Acathla got the last of them.  And then he sent some of his demons to raid their resources, to see what they’d got.  Apparently, they tried to get into the Most Secret Library.  It was protected by a spell that destroyed the contents, and scattered them throughout time and space.  The pieces are everywhere.”

 

“The First blew it up here, so we should have expected it to be blown up there, I guess.”  Buffy folded her arms with a definite snap.

 

“The Most Secret Library...”  Giles frowned.  “I wonder...”

 

“Wonder what, Giles?  Come on, don’t keep us in suspense.”  Angel recognised Buffy’s impatience, and decided to step in if necessary.

 

“Oh... ah... yes, well...  Angel, you remember telling us how many filing cabinets Wolfram and Hart had on you?  I once learned, from an old contact who died in that blast, the Council’s Librarian, that the Council was as keen to get information on you as Wolfram and Hart were.  They had an entire section devoted to you, and to the prophecies that surrounded you.  Cabinets full of exegeses of those prophecies.  Perhaps they also existed on the other Earth, and that was what Acathla was after?”

 

Martha reached into the drawer behind her and handed the envelope to Giles.  He tipped out some of the pieces and started to slide them around on the table.  At last, he had three tiny pieces that fitted together roughly, and read ‘Most Secret’.

 

“Well, well.  You really must be getting under his skin over there.”

 

Ella smoothed away the lines of worry on her face.  There really wasn’t much time left, and all the pieces weren’t yet in place, but there was no point worrying the others with that thought.  It was Nick who put another piece on the board.

 

He picked up his glass.  “You must put us all to work, Rupert.  ‘All for one and one for all,’ you know.”

 

Giles shook his head.  “It’s far too dangerous.  You all really shouldn’t be around here until we’ve sorted this out.”

 

Angel and Buffy echoed his decree, even more emphatically.

 

Nick looked genuinely hurt.  “I say, old man, that’s a bit hard, isn’t it?”  There were general noises of agreement.  “I don’t think you realise that we’re sort of committed to helping here.”

 

All the friends, Giles thought.  Ricky said that it would need all the friends.  Is this what he meant?  He glanced across at Ella, who had a secretive look on her face.

 

“No,” Nick continued.  “No, I don’t think you can shut us out like that.”  He gave Martha a small, apologetic smile.  “Dear lady, I must borrow from you, I think.”  He stood up, although with some difficulty in the cramped quarters.  “Martha chose a reading for brave John’s funeral.

 

“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

 

“The others must speak for themselves, but for my part I’m with you all the way....”  He raised his glass in toast.  “Ought but death, Buffy, Angel, Rupert.  Ought but death.”

 

The others did speak for themselves.  “Ought but death!” and drank to it.

 

Angel’s mouth was thin and hard, as he tried to prevent what he saw as a lemming-like rush to cast themselves over a cliff, but Buffy was troubled by other things.

 

“Yes,” she said, moved by her Slayer train of thought.  “But we still need a plan.”

 

*

 

“Hello?  Hello, is anyone home?”

 

The voice repeated the question several times before someone came out of one of the caravans, the one with the closed shutters.

 

“Neve?  Neve Brookes?  My goodness, it’s good to see you again.”

 

“Hello, Rupert.”  Neve looked around her.  “You, erm, seem to have had a bit of trouble.  I tried telephoning, but the line’s out of order...”

 

“Sorry,” said Giles, cheerfully, “but we’re still waiting for BT to rig up a temporary line.”  He glanced over to the mounds of rubble that used to be a house.  One and three-quarter houses.  “The mills of BT grind exceeding slow, you know.”  He saw her look of dismay at the stone carnage.  “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.  The surveyors will be here tomorrow to make sure the ground is safe to rebuild on.”

 

“You’re going to rebuild on the same spot?”  Neve looked at the wreckage with misgiving.

 

“Oh, yes,” said Giles.  “There’s been a house here since 1602.  The first one was burned down in the Civil War, and the second was burned down after a particularly riotous party in 1762.  But it’s a good place for a house.  It’s got all the right... erm... vibes, I believe the word is.”

 

Neve nodded.  “Yes.  Yes, I think it has.”  She smiled up at this attractive man who sometimes inhabited her dreams.

 

“It’s a very good land,” a voice said, from behind Giles.  Neve saw the beautiful red-haired witch who had just come from the caravan, and when she saw the look that passed between them, she put her dreams away.

 

“I’ve come to talk to you about dragons,” she said.

 

*

 

Everyone needed time to think.  After they talked it all through, Giles had taken Neve to The Cedars Hotel.  They were running out of caravan bed space.  As he snuggled down next to Ella, she reached out to smooth the worried frown from his forehead.  If everything didn’t fall into place in the next day or so, she would have to do something to move them along.  But Matthew had been entirely right about the law of unintended consequences, and the need for balance.  She could wait for a little longer. 

 

“It’s a warning,” she said.  “It doesn’t have to happen.  We’ll stop it.”

 

“I wish I could see how,” Giles sighed, as he turned towards her.  “Why did the dragon try to talk to Neve in this universe?  Why not the other?”

 

“Perhaps there is no Neve in the other, or perhaps there was, and she’s dead.  Or perhaps this is the pivotal universe for these events, around which the others depend.  The one next door would be almost as important, and the two together...  well, I truly don’t know, but that’s my feeling.”

 

Giles was prepared to take Ella’s feelings as a given.

 

“Something will turn up,” she reassured him.  “I know it will.  And I’m glad Neve decided to come.”

 

“You knew she would?”

 

“I felt someone talking to dragons.”

 

In the other caravan, Angel lay with Buffy in his arms, and with a lot to think about.  Neve had come asking whether he’d killed a dragon.  More than one, he’d told her.  This had been in an alley, in the middle of the stink of battle, she’d said.  There could only be one such dragon.

 

She’d had trouble understanding its message, because she had only ever been able to hear it when it was on the point of death.  Few creatures made much sense when they were on the point of death.  Eventually, though, she thought that she had pieced it together.

 

The dragon had sent her with a message for Angel.  If you do not stop it, we will be fighting this battle throughout time and space, over and over and over again.  And eventually either my dimension will be destroyed, or yours will.  You must make sure that Acathla cannot spread his reach to the other dimensions.  You must change the future.’

 

Neve hadn’t known the name of Acathla, but her description of a stone demon with the power of the maelstrom had seemed clear enough.  He didn’t know what the connection might be between what had happened with Acathla, and what had happened with Wolfram and Hart, and the battle in the alley, but the dragon seemed to know more than he did, and Ella hadn’t disbelieved it.

 

He settled down for a cat nap.  He’d go out later, he thought, see what was moving, but just now, he didn’t want to let go of the sleeping woman in his arms.  He rested his head against hers, filled with the scent of her.  Despite himself, he sank into a troubled sleep.

 

*

 

The world has changed, and demons rule almost everywhere.  Humans are slaves, cattle, playthings.  The Four Horsemen of this particular Apocalypse stalk every street, every city, every village and hamlet.  Famine, although not for the demons.  Pestilence, Destruction and Death.  Again, none of them for the demons.  And Death comes in so many inventive forms that even Angelus has never imagined.

 

Except, there is still resistance, and it centres around Angel and Buffy.  They bring Death and Destruction to Acathla’s minions.  Everyone else they used to know is dead, but they have gathered new allies, new warriors, but never enough.  They are trying to fight their way towards the real Acathla, the flesh and blood Acathla of whom that stone statue was merely a manifestation, a mirror into the world of humanity.  If they can kill him, it might give the others hope.  Buffy has the blessed sword that they are relying on to kill the demon.  But they’re only too well aware that some other demon will try to take his place.  There are more than enough to choose from.  Simply killing him might not be enough.

 

The two are resting for the moment, taking the chance to be together and, later, to make love for what might be the last time.  It’s a desperate venture, after all.  And then there’s a shimmer in the air and Illyria steps through holding a dead man in her arms, and with two people leaning heavily on her.  She isn’t known to the Angel and Buffy of that world, nor is the dead body, Charles Gunn.  But they know the other two.  Spike.  Willow.

 

“Your other self sent us here,” she says.  “This one,” she indicates Gunn with a nod of her head, “must be properly buried.  I have given the vampire my word on that.  And this one,” she nods to Spike, who hasn’t the strength to keep his feet, “must be allowed to drink from you, vampire, to renew his strength.  This other one was trapped in time, and does not belong in this universe.  She needs time to recover and then she may be of value to you until it is time for her to return to her own.  The vampire said that she is here in answer to your summons when you used the Urn of Osiris.”

 

They have new allies now.  They must wait a little before making their move, allow them to regain their strength, so that they can help get them through Acathla’s defences.  But they dare not stay in one place too long.  If the demon’s forces find them before they’re ready...

 

*

 

Buffy came awake with a jerk, to find that Angel was awake before her.  It took only moments to understand that they had both had the same dream.  Angel rested his forehead against hers.

 

“It’s not fair,” she raged.  “I won’t let it happen!”

 

He felt the same rage, but there was acceptance, too.  He pulled her in to him so that they were skin to skin, as though that acceptance could seep from him to her, and he held her until he felt the resistance drain from her.

 

“You know what has to be done?”

 

“Yes,” she whispered.  “Yes.  I do now.”

 

His heart seemed to have frozen over, and he knew that she felt the same.  She held onto him tightly.

 

“They’ve got the sword, but they don’t understand, do they?” he asked.  “They don’t understand what to do.  Whistler wasn’t there to tell her.”  He hoped his courage wouldn’t fail him. 

 

Buffy knew exactly what he was thinking.  She took his face between both her hands.  “We’re the fall back position,” she said earnestly.  “Our job is to make sure they understand.  Only if they can’t do it... or they’re dead... or...”  She couldn’t go on.

 

“Don’t worry,” he said gently, trying to keep the pain of loss from his voice, for her sake.  “I’ve died on that sword before.  I know how it’s done.  If I have to, I can do it again.”  He could, but he fervently hoped he wouldn’t have to.  Those centuries in Hell had been... unbearable.

 

She wanted to hit him for his acceptance of something that she would fight against, kicking and screaming, but she didn’t.  Besides, the dragon had said that the future had to change.  Angel hadn’t mentioned that, but she hadn’t forgotten.  If he had to be the sacrifice, this time, he wouldn’t do it alone.

 

He ran his hands over the smooth curves of her back.  “I love you,” he said softly.  “I love you beyond life and death, beyond Hell and Earth.  And what you love you want to protect, even if all you can do to protect it is give it up.  I... I need to ask you to stay here, to...”

 

She put her fingers over his lips.  “Not another word, Angel.  Although, you can say that first sentence as many times as you like.  And I love you, too, beyond all things, and you aren’t leaving me behind.  Apart from everything else, I need to talk to that other Buffy, if she hasn’t figured it out for herself.  She won’t listen to you.”

 

He tried to speak, but she shut him up again.  “And we do this together.  Remember Mohra?  Together, we’re strong.”  She kissed him.  “I love you, Angel, and I want to protect you too, but I’ll be damned if I give you up.”  She might well be damned, she thought, before they were much older, if that was the way things went.

 

They held each other in silence, and the silence was broken by Angel.

 

“We have to work on finding some way of making that portal,” he said, unexpectedly capitulating.  “If necessary, I’ll go to the Queen tomorrow night.  I’m almost sure she could do it.”

 

“Only if all else fails,” she told him tartly.

 

They lay together in silence for a while, just feeling the nearness of each other.  And then Buffy reached for him.  He was ready for her, had always been ready for her.  As he tucked a hand beneath her, to pull her up towards him, she leaned her head up.

 

“I want you to bite me,” she whispered.

 

“No!”  Oh, but he wanted to.  The scent of her, the taste of her on his tongue...He always wanted it.  Tonight, especially, he wanted more than just the imagining of it.

 

Please!

 

“No, Buffy.  Don’t ask that.”  It was almost ripped from him, denying what, here and now, he wanted most of all.  She seemed to understand that, too, because she kissed him hard, and then she looked him in the eyes, holding his gaze with her own.

 

“You know the difference, Angel.  You know when to be a vampire, and you know when to be human.  You’ve tasted my blood when I’m wounded, to make sure there’s nothing wrong.  I... I...”

 

She didn’t seem to know how to go on, how to explain herself, but he gave her time, as he remembered the terrible hunger after he’d drunk her and almost drained her, all those years ago.  And again, after he’d drunk down the other slayers.

 

“Angel, we might not come back from this.  You are always with me.  I know when you’re near...”

 

“It’s the same with me.”

 

“But there was something else, something different, when you fed from me, and I don’t have that any more, not since I was brought back.  I want it again, if we’re going to...  I want part of me in you, and part of you in me.  And I want us to be us, together, and not be them...”

 

He shut her up with a kiss, and the heat of it drove out all thought of whether she would be asking him this if he’d ever been able to marry her.  If they’d been joined by that particular ritual.  He started to make love to her, as a man makes love to a woman, but she wasn’t satisfied with that, and so he made love to her as a vampire makes love to a Slayer, although he kept his human face.

 

And then she dug her fingers into the back of his neck and pulled his face towards her neck.

 

“Do it,” she commanded.  “Bite!”

 

He could taste her in his mouth, hot and strong and full of power, and suddenly he was that grey monster again, his mouth full of this same taste, using it to lead him back safely to her.  And he understood that he had already done this, that he had already bitten her, here in this bed, savoured everything that she was, incorporating her into himself, and leaving something of himself in her.  He had already done this in his future, and he had used it to save himself.  If he didn’t do it now, then everything might change, and he might be lost again in the interstices of time.

 

He allowed his face to change, the bones to shift, the fangs to reappear, and then, when he felt her start to fly, he bit down.  As his own completion burned through him, he took a mouthful, and then another and another...

 

*

 

He’d left her almost sleeping.  How he’d managed to pull back after three mouthfuls he didn’t know, but perhaps she was right.  Perhaps, at last, he knew when to be a vampire and when to be a human.  Perhaps that was a step forward.

 

He’d said that he wanted to talk to Syroh, and she’d said that she would come with him, but then she’d understood that perhaps he needed a little while alone. 

 

He found Syroh standing guard at Ella’s house, where the Poraxen had found refuge.  He came to the point straight away.

 

“Syroh, does anyone of your acquaintance, or even anyone you’ve ever heard of, have the power to create portals?  And to control where they come out?”

 

Syroh shook his head slowly.  “No, Angelus.  I’m sorry.”  His scrutiny was razor sharp.  “You intend to take the war to the enemy.”  It wasn’t a question.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then perhaps we should make some effort to, ah, lay a trap?  These assassins are, on the whole, not from our world.  There must be a way.”

 

Angel’s smile was thin.  “Yeah.  If we can’t find someone here, we’ll do that.  Come up with a plan, will you?  We’ll talk tomorrow.  We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow, hunting out a portal maker.”

 

“Everything is quiet,” Syroh assured him, as he left.  “You need have no concerns here.”

 

Angel walked around Westbury for a bit, committing everything to memory.  The adventures they’d had here, the people they’d met, the friends they’d made.  Those memories might have to last him a long time, if push came to shove, and if shove was that blessed sword in his gut, sending him to Hell.  It was the middling-early hours of the morning when he got back to Golden Acre Field.

 

As he neared the field, a sizzling, crackling sound alerted him to the fact that something out of the ordinary was happening.  It was followed by an eerie, swirling blue-white light, familiar to anyone who’d been troubled by an attack of portals.

 

As he crested the hill leading to the Summer Down, he saw the opening of the portal, and he started to run.  So much, Angel thought, for all quiet on the western front.  If this was an assassin sent by Acathla...  He thought of Buffy, of Giles and Ella, and now Matthew, and he ran faster, turning on the vampire speed. 

 

He cleared the hawthorn hedge into Golden Acre Field in one bounding leap, just as the portal winked out of existence.  Something loomed large where the portal had been.  He was aware that the doors of all the caravans had opened, and the people he was supposed to protect were out in the field.  And then he’d reached the alien, with Buffy hard on his heels.

 

It was best described as a bird, but like no bird he’d ever seen before.  If pushed to describe it, he’d have hazarded giant cassowary, but that was a paltry description.  It stood about ten feet tall, with a long neck, a plump, rounded body and thick legs that were comparatively short, but very muscular.  Its body plumage was a cascade of narrow quills in shades of something dark.  The same quills formed a topknot, looking inescapably like the hat of a very elderly lady.  In front of that, it had an elaborate crest that reminded him of something.

 

That reminiscence clarified itself a moment later when another, much smaller creature with huge wings soared down from the night sky.

 

“Angel!” it screamed.

 

He grabbed hold of Buffy’s arm, to stop her staking it.  “Kezar?”

 

*

 

The little demon that Angel had got drunk with at Martinmere was big with excitement as he introduced his mate, who went by the unlikely name of Lola.  Giles wiped his spectacle lenses ferociously.

 

“But... but she’s an elephant bird!  They’re extinct!”

 

“Yes,” said Kezar, patiently.  “That’s why I had to go and find her.  She wasn’t in the next world, Angel, she was in a different dimension, where all the females had run to, to get away from people killing them.  It was the next one after the dragons.”

 

Giles hadn’t kept up with the conversation.  “But... but, she’s different to you.  She’s huger than you!”  Kezar was about the size of a flamingo.

 

“Dimorphic species, mate, if that’s all right with you.”

 

“Oh, yes, yes, of course...”

 

“Kezar...”  Angel was feeling his way carefully as he put his thoughts together.  “You can travel between worlds and dimensions.  Could you make a portal big enough for us to go through?”

 

“Sorry, mate.  Portals for one, and little ones at that, that’s me.”  Angel’s face fell.  Kezar grinned, or as much as a creature with his features could.  “But she can.”

 

The universe breathed again.

 

+++++

 

Angel and Buffy had decided to go at nightfall.  Kezar had assured them that it would be nightfall in the other world, too.  Giles and Ella said that they would go with Angel and Buffy, and they would brook no argument.  Matthew had flushed and then added his voice, but Ella had said no to that.

 

“You aren’t here to come with us, Matthew,” she said.  “Tell me, what’s your main strength still?  Benign coercion?”

 

He nodded.

 

“We don’t need that.  There won’t be any need for... coercion.”  She looked pointedly at Angel and Buffy, and neither of them could escape the conclusion that she knew exactly what they intended to do there, even though they hadn’t told anyone.  They’d have to, some time, but not yet.  It was their hidden purpose, the pain of it theirs alone.

 

Ella had turned back to Matthew.  “But we might need that power here, until we’ve done what we need to do.  And you haven’t finished your training yet, have you?”

 

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he shook his head.

 

“Well, we have a sorcerer here who can help you learn a bit more.”

 

Giles looked askance, and Ella patted his hand.  “Walter Satterthwaite, dear.”  She turned back to Matthew.  “Martha will introduce you to Walter and Ivy, Matthew.  There are few enough magic users left here.  You’ll be here to protect people.  I’m sure you’ll do that very well.  Faith will be around if you need a Slayer.  You’ll just need to give her a call.”

 

“Um...  I think my training might have to wait.  The Queen said that if you decided to go through, she would send a party of Hunters to help you.  She’ll be looking for me to go with you.”

 

He looked fearful but determined, which was pretty much how everyone felt.  And a party of Hunters was not to be sniffed at.

 

The day was spent in preparation.  Giles arranged for Martha to have power of attorney while they were gone.  Apart from everything else, she would get the house rebuilding started.

 

Buffy did a circuit of the armourers, and came back with a selection of handy weapons, and some suitable clothes for going to war.  Or going to Hell.

 

Martha found the severed hands of the Chronoids in Giles’ freezer, still big with time.  Carefully, she boxed them up and pushed them safely to the back.  They might be needed later.

 

Kezar came to see Angel, in the safety of the caravan.  He and Lola would stay here, and make a portal each day for the four to return.  Or for however many of them should live to return.  Angel would have to find it.  Angel said nothing, but prayed that, if his sacrifice was necessary, Ella would be able to find it.  Then he cautioned Kezar about staying out of sight, unless he and Lola were to finish up as stuffed specimens in some museum.  The piece of scrubby woodland around the sink hole, and the stables that currently served as a hay store, would do well enough.  Martha would make sure they were fed.

 

And then it was time.

 

Their friends were there.  Nick and Ian, unusually, were wearing jeans.  More appropriate for the middle of a field than a suit would be, Giles thought with a grin.

 

He was to be disabused, as they tried to say their farewells.

 

“What?” said Nick, incredulous.  “You think you’re going over there on your own?”

 

“We won’t be alone.  There are our doppelgangers, and Faith says that she’s as sure as she can be that Greg went, although we won’t know whose side he’s on until we get there.  I just wish that she’d talked to us first.  We could have used his portal... But now there’s Willow, and Spike and Illyria.  And the Queen’s Hunters – they’re pretty deadly.  It’s too dangerous for civilians, Nick.  You have no idea.”

 

“Angel, you wound me!  What was it that Ricky said, Giles?  All the friends must go, as I remember.”

 

“Yes, yes,” said Giles, testily, “but he didn’t know what he was talking about!”

 

“Didn’t he?” Nick asked, with a glance at Ella.  Ella merely smiled enigmatically.

 

Nick drew himself to his full height.  “Remember what we said.  ‘Ought but death’.  I meant it.”  He turned to Lisa, and held out his hand.  “Do you really wish to venture into danger with me, dear lady?”

 

She stared at Nick for a moment, and then, with a brief smile, she stepped forward and took his hand.  “Yes.  The answer’s yes.  To both questions.”

 

Nick’s smile lit up the darkness.

 

“Now look,” Giles remonstrated.  “What purpose would you both serve there?  It might be a place for witches or warriors, but...”

 

Ella interrupted.  “I don’t know, Rupert, but Ricky’s message was from me.  I only know that everyone has their purpose, if we are all to succeed.”

 

Giles tried to muster an argument that didn’t simply rely on his friends getting themselves killed, but while he was doing so, Ian and Alice shared a silent glance, and stepped up to stand by Nick and Lisa.

 

“Looks like we’re all going,” Ian said, conversationally.  “I’m sure Martha will make sure squatters don’t move into our houses, or anything inconvenient like that?”

 

Martha was busy with her handkerchief, but she nodded.

 

“Can I help there..?”  Neve began.

 

“No,” said Ella.  “No, Neve, your place is here.  Use our caravan, if you like, until we get back.  And talk to Ivy Grittleton.  We need to get a new Coven started here.  I’d like to see you as part of that.  Think about it.”

 

Angel argued.  So did Giles.  Buffy wasn’t at all happy, but somehow she was more reconciled to ordinary people with extraordinary courage – or foolhardiness – bearing their share of the fight.  Even when Nick and Ian walked to Lisa’s car, at the side of the field, and came back with four backpacks, which he laid next to those of Angel and Buffy and Giles, the argument raged on.  Angel eyed the broadswords strapped to each of those back packs as Nick passed one to Lisa, and Ian handed the fourth to Alice.  Someone else had been visiting the armourer.  They each shrugged into the harnesses, and stared defiantly.

 

It was Matthew who really brought the argument to an end, but quite accidentally, and in a way that turned the unwelcome glowering expressions onto him.

 

“Um... You should listen to the Lady Ella.  The Queen said that we should be guided by her.”

 

Giles swivelled round to him.

 

“Lady Ella?”

 

The lady in question put a hand on his arm and made a gesture of warning to Matthew, but he didn’t notice.

 

“Oh, um, well, the honorific is appropriate for the Queen’s granddaughter.”

 

Giles pulled away from Ella’s grasp, stunned.  Matthew suddenly understood that he’d opened what could only be called a can of dragons.

 

“Excuse us,” said Ella, and dragged Giles out of earshot of the others – or of all but Angel.  He watched with interest what passed between them, Giles white-faced and tight-lipped, Ella in earnest speech.  Around him, the silence gave way to a hushed hubbub, with Matthew dejected in the centre.  Next to him, Buffy was caught between surprise and amusement.  Angel tucked her hand into his arm and strolled over to the stricken young man.

 

“I might have chosen a different way of breaking the news to Giles,” he said gently, “but it had to come out, sooner or later.  If we’re all...” he gave Buffy’s hand a squeeze to show that he’d given in, “going to go over there, then it’s good that Giles now knows why the Queen is helping.  It means he’ll trust more, rather than looking at everything the Hunters do with suspicion.  Don’t worry.  He’ll get over it.”

 

And it seemed that he did.  The two stood silently looking at each other until Ella laid her hand against his cheek.  Giles’ own hand came up to cover hers, and he bent towards her and kissed her.  Then they were wrapped in each other’s arms, much to the satisfaction of the spectators.  As they walked back to the waiting group, there was a new interruption.

 

From the roadway, beyond the rubble of Summerdown House, came a series of solid thunks, the sound of car doors slamming.  Out of the darkness came a line of men, with Syroh at the front.  All of them were heavily armed.

 

“You will not go alone, Angelus.  The Commonwealth has sent all the warriors that can be spared.”  There were about fifty of them, with enough weapons to wage a small war.

 

Angel held out his hand to Syroh, who clasped it.  “Just one favour, Syroh.  If you call me Angelus over there, it might have unexpected results.  It’s Angel.”

 

The demon nodded, with a fierce grin.

 

“Like the warrior angel, then.”

 

“Maybe not that...”  Angel trailed off as he saw movement back in the darkness, from where Syroh’s men had come.  “One of yours?” 

 

Syroh shook his head, and they waited until the blur of white had resolved into Reverend Templeman, wearing a white surplice over his cassock, and with his black cloak billowing out behind him.

 

“Good evening.”  The reverend nodded genially to everyone, adjusting his spectacles to survey the array of armoury around him.  “Off to save the world, I see.  Oh, I almost forgot...”  He hunted among the folds of his cloak and pulled out a steel flask, which he handed to Giles.  “Holy water.  Just in case it comes in useful.”

 

Not sure what to say, Giles settled for, “Um, thank you, James.  Ah, what made you think we might need it?”

 

“Hilda was a good friend of mine.  I, ah, used to help her quite a lot wherever I could.  Quite informally, of course.”  Giles wondered how he’d never come across that little snippet before, and wondered whether Hilda, head of Westbury’s Coven, had shared it with Ella.  The reverend continued, “And I, ah, had a dream last night.”

 

“A dream?”

 

“Yes.  And a visit just now from Ivy Grittleton.  Most persuasive.”

 

Everyone who knew Ivy tried to hide a grin.

 

“Um...  We, ah, we are aware of the dangerous nature of this emprise.  If I could come with you, then I would, but I’m too old, and I should only get in your way.  But, there may be other ways in which I can be of service.  In many old traditions, we read of battlefield blessings for the warriors, and I would be honoured to perform that ritual...”  He looked around at the mixed assembly with a small smile.  “Strictly non-denominational, of course.  But before that, I am instructed to ask whether there is another service that you might have in mind?”  He looked abashed in the confused silence.  “Mrs Grittleton, you know.  She says there are thoughts of marriage.”

 

He hunted in his pockets again and pulled out his stole, draping it over his neck.  “I am ready, if you wish it.”

 

Giles couldn’t help himself.  “I beg your pardon?”

 

Reverend Templeman adjusted his spectacles once more.  He stared at Buffy and Angel, looking from one to the other.  Both avoided each other’s eye, a simple action that told its own story.

 

Not for the first time, Angel felt like a leaf in a stream, carried along by the tide of events.  Damn that interfering Ivy Grittleton.  Why was she always right?  Buffy’s hand crept into his own.

 

“But the banns,” he managed to get out.  “The licence?”

 

“Pooh,” said the reverend.  “The early church managed without any such trappings.  And we can always make those things right, afterwards.”

 

In confusion, Angel tucked Buffy’s hand into his arm, and drew her apart from the others.  He kept hold of her hand.

 

“Buffy, much as I might want to be, I’m not a man.  You know that.  I still can’t give you children, or a real future.  All I can offer you is a way of life that ends in the prospect of a violent death.  If you’re to marry, it should be to a proper man.”

 

There was a hiatus, the length of an indrawn breath, and then she slapped him.  It wasn’t the punch of a Slayer, it was the open-handed slap of a wounded woman.  Through the ringing in his ears, he heard the separate intakes of breath further up the field, and wished he’d taken her out of sight.

 

“Don’t you want this, Angel?  Do you want to be free to leave me someday, when I get too old for you?”

 

“Never!”  He was shocked, and tried to take hold of her hand again, but she slapped his arm out of the way.

 

“Then stop trying to protect me against my will!  Do you think that marriage vows are going to make you disappear into a cloud of dust?”

 

“No, of course not!”

 

“Would you mean to keep them?”

 

This time he succeeded in pulling her into the circle of his arms.  “And thereto I plight thee my troth,” he said, softly.

 

“Then you’re the proper man for me, you idiot.”

 

“Are you sure you want this, my love?  Forever, with me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m not like humans.  I... I don’t change.  I can’t.  I am what I am, and can’t be anything more.”

 

“That’s utter rubbish.  Whoever told you that?” she asked in astonishment.  If ever there was a man who learned and grew, it was Angel.

 

He looked down at the grass.  “Cordelia once said that.  But she was right.”

 

She snorted.  “Cordelia could never see further than her shoes.”

 

He smiled sadly, and pulled her towards him.  “She changed in LA.  She really did.”

 

Buffy reached up to him.  She repeated his long-past dream words to him.  “Forever, that’s the whole point.  Right?”

 

This time, he did pull her between the caravans, and kissed her, a kiss filled with passion and the prospect of terrible loss.  Her kiss matched his own, and she clung to him in that ephemeral moment of privacy.

 

“I want a proper wedding, Angel.  White dress, friends and family.  You know the sort of thing.”

 

“If we live through this, then we’ll do the thing right, my love,” he told her, whispering the words into her ear as she stood with her head against his shoulder.  “I promise.”

 

“There’s no ‘if’, Angel.  And that’s a promise, too.”

 

“Do you think we’ll be joined by three other couples?  Economy of scale?” he asked, as he stroked her hair.

 

Her answer was slow in coming, because he kissed her again, until she was out of breath.

 

“Three?”

 

“Sure.  Giles and Ella...”

 

“If he’s forgiven her for not telling him about the faery blood.”

 

“He’ll forgive her.  Even now he’ll be blaming himself for not having worked it out.  Ian and Alice...”

 

“Do you think they’ll make a go of it?”

 

“I think they’re looking to us as role models, so we’d better shape up.”

 

That made her giggle.  “And the third?”

 

“Nick and Lisa, of course.”

 

“But...”

 

“Believe me, Buffy, it’ll be good for them both.  And it will work.”  He twisted his fingers around hers.  “What about you?  Are you ready to go back to them?”

 

She nodded, and they returned to the knot of people standing around the priest.

 

“The answer’s yes, but when we get back.  Still, a blessing now would be nice.  We’ll probably need all the help we can get.”

 

As they knelt facing the priest, he seemed to bethink himself, and he pulled his cross over his head.  “A small courtesy,” he said to Angel with a smile, and held it out to Syroh, who stood close by.  “Oh, I’m sorry, are you able to hold this for me?”  Syroh nodded shortly, and took the cross.  “Well, then,” said the reverend, “I shall expect to see you all at St Cyprian’s for a thanksgiving service when you get back.  A quite private one, needless to say.”

 

Syroh gave him a short little bow.  “I fear that we do not share a deity, priest.”

 

The reverend adjusted his spectacles again.  “You know, the Saviour that I believe in harrowed Hell to free the righteous unbelievers.  As I understand it, their future belief was not a prerequisite.  I think we might all be flexible enough to share a thanksgiving.  And a battlefield blessing now, from any benevolently-inclined deity whose attention we can attract.”

 

Syroh gave him a thin smile of genuine amusement.  “Then we will be pleased, priest,” and the tiny army followed him in kneeling behind their leaders.

 

The Reverend Templeman held his arms up to the skies, “For all those gathered here,” he began, “who are about to hazard their lives for the sake of others, we seek blessing and absolution...”

 

As the priest drew to a close, Giles offered up a small prayer of his own, and he remembered, with a knowing smile, the scan that Nick had taken of the unconscious Angel’s heart, an organ that was just sitting there, silently waiting.  You never know, he thought, you just never know.  If Angel does this, perhaps he’ll have done enough.  The next thought was more cynical.  Or maybe the challenges will just keep getting bigger.  After all, there aren’t enough Champions to go round.  He bent to give his own lover a kiss.

 

“Your doing?” he whispered.

 

“Would I do a thing like this?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

When the brief ceremony concluded, there was a subdued murmur of voices, and a general ripple of hugs and handshakes as the gathering prepared themselves for war.

 

Ian had a hurried word with Gavin.  “Find a story to cover for me, will you?”

 

“They won’t know you’re gone for the first week.”

 

“Thanks.  I’m not sure how to take that.  And keep an eye on everyone who’s left, will you?  I know I’m asking a lot...  And Neve’s come straight into the frying pan.  She knows nothing.  You and Martha will need to help her.”

 

“Don’t worry.  We’ll all work together here.”

 

Angel turned to Kezar, and nodded his head.  The little demon sang to his mate, the gigantic Lola, his song a surprisingly sweet arpeggio.  Lola strode a few yards away from the gathering, before she answered that arpeggio with a cadenza of her own.  As she sang, she flapped her stubby little wings.

 

Vortices, almost invisible in the night air, started to form around each wing.  Her wings fluttered more and more quickly, throwing the vortices in front of her, where they merged into one, and began to sparkle in dark reflection of the starlight.

 

And then, with a muted roar, a portal opened.  Lola continued to sing, and the portal steadied.  The gathering formed up by twos, with Angel and Buffy, hand in hand, at their head.  Hanging over one shoulder, Buffy carried the steel bow sent to her by the French detective.

 

Ella tucked her hand into Giles’ arm.  “First stop, Drusilla and her crystal skull,” she whispered.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“We don’t need Drusilla, although she’d be handy.  But the crystal skull...  Remember the power of the one the Queen gave you?”

 

Giles could never forget that.  If one tiny skull in the hand of an ordinary human could bring his lover back from the dead, then what could a human-sized skull do in the hands of a powerful witch?  Still, he had to ask.

 

“What are we going to do with it?”

 

“Giles, we must hope that this other Earth is still travelling through the throat of Hell, and that we can pull it back into the here and now, and close the portal behind it.  At worst, we must close the portal behind it anyway, and isolate that Earth, cut it off from the ranks of its sisters.  Whichever way, we’d better be able to work some magic that makes sure the humans, and Acathla and his demons, are on opposite sides of the portal.  I can’t do that without something like the skull.”

 

“But... what about good demons?  Won’t they be on the wrong side of the portal and stuck in Acathla’s Hell?”

 

Ella’s green eyes stared serenely into his.  “If that happens, we’ll have a rescue job to do, won’t we?  No one said this was going to be a quick in and out, and no one gets hurt.”

 

Behind them, Nick held Lisa’s hand.  “Are you sure?” he asked.

 

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”  She raised her voice, to be heard by those around her.  “Ought but death, guys!”

 

The answer from the company of friends came back loud and clear.  “Ought but death!”

 

“Oh, very good,” approved Reverend Templeman.  “Ruth 1:6.  Very good indeed.”

 

Then, with the barest pause, Angel and Buffy stepped through the portal, followed by Giles and Ella, Nick and Lisa, Ian and Alice, and Syroh and his warriors, with Matthew in their centre. 

 

Reverend Templeman looked across to the small group left to watch the portal close behind their friends.  Martha, Gavin, and Neve stood in isolated silence, while Kezar cooed at Lola.

 

“Would you all like to come back to the rectory for a stiff drink?  That would seem to be in order, I think.”

 

“Yes,” said Martha.  “Yes, I think it would.  And then there’s a lot of work to do.  This world will still need them when they come back, and we have to get everything ready for them.  Ready for their return.  Because their story isn’t finished.”

 

+++++

 

Afterword

 

On a day in early spring, Oz waited in Dieppe for a ferry.  No one seeing the relaxed young man sprawled on a bench in the pale sunlight would have known that he was impatient to be gone.  Already he was long overdue.  Martha’s son, the unknown Mark, would be at Southampton, waiting for him.

 

A lift from Southampton at least would mean he’d make good time to Westbury.  He’d hitched up to the French coast.  It was coming via Zambia that had slowed him down.  After his last phone call to Summerdown House, he’d thought that perhaps it would be useful to bring Xander along.  He’d found Xander working on a charitable project to build a hospital and a school.  Their friend seemed to have found a real peace, and the seeds of a new relationship with a pretty and vivacious  - and entirely human – relief worker, and so Oz the werewolf had moved on and left Xander to that peace.  He hoped they’d all concur that he’d done the right thing.

 

He’d stay in Westbury just long enough to deliver his latest satchel-load of fragments, and then it would be full moon.  He would go through the portal, and see what was what, and what he could do to help.

 

He stretched, and stood up, as passengers started to board the ferry.

 

*

 

On that same bright and peaceful day in early spring, Martha sat in the caravan that housed all the books.  All the little pieces of paper that Oz had brought on his last visit were carefully arranged on the table.

 

If these included prophecies about Angel, she thought, can we make any sense of them now?  Or are they too fragmented, too mixed up with other secret books?

 

But now that she knew what they were, that at least was a start.  A tall man with strange and beautiful eyes had knocked on the door of the caravan a week ago, and delivered a leather bag full of fragments.  He’d left with only the words that the Queen would send more if they could be found.  And Oz was coming, with a much larger collection.

 

Could she find someone who could make these into a signpost to the future?  Perhaps Oz, when he arrived would know someone.

 

She moved the tiny charred fragments around a little to see whether any might fit together.  They never had done, no matter how many times she’d tried, but maybe this time... One read 'lump' and another 'ill'. Some kind of illness? Symptoms of an illness, perhaps?  A plague?

 

Another had a name on it. 'Henry Willis.'   There was a 19th Century artist called John Henry Willis. Had he painted a meaningful picture, hanging unremarked in a gallery somewhere?  Was there an art gallery near Harbledown?  She made a mental note to ask Neve, or maybe Gavin, to have a look at that.  Giles had had a vague idea that a Henry Willis had been something to do with music.  Was there some meaningful piece of music?  Maybe someone should look at that.

 

But there was a deep comfort in these fragments.  Ella had said little, but she’d seemed to be certain that these remnants of the Watchers’ Most Secret Library would have information crucial to the future of the people she loved.  She must, therefore, have known, somewhere in her heart, that they would be back to take on that future.

 

That brought another fear that was never far away.  Would her loved ones find Lola’s portal, or would they need to search for another?  Were there clues in these fragments, clues that they ought to know?

 

And, when they did get back – when, not if – perhaps Ella would have time to draw on the power of this ancient land, would reconnect with her magic, and would be able to find all the rest of the wretched missing pieces.  Better be careful about that, though, Martha thought wryly.  It wouldn’t do to weigh down the Earth with the waste paper of several Universes...

 

Maybe if Giles hadn’t been hurt...  Maybe if the assassins hadn’t come just yet... Maybe these will tell me whether the people I love will come back safe and sound.  There are a million maybes, she thought, and someone has to start looking at some of them.

 

Sighing, she swept the fragments back into their envelope and tucked them back into a drawer.  As she did so, Zillah got to her feet and stepped out of her basket, her kitten hanging onto the teat with iron determination.  Now, there was a mystery, and no mistake.

 

Ella had had Zillah spayed years ago.  And yet, sixty-three days after she’d been thrown from the lightning-struck High Oak, sixty-three days after the Oak had disgorged Ella, Zillah had given birth to a single kitten, a ginger tabby boy, just like Aristotle.

 

As she watched, the kitten let go its hold, and started to totter around the floor.  It couldn’t get into any mischief, and so Martha let it roam, under the watchful eye of its mother.  It disappeared under the bench-cum-bed for a few minutes too long, and Martha got down on her knees to see what it was up to.

 

A pair of battered slippers had been pushed into a corner, and the kitten was clawing at the inside of one, exactly as though it was making a nice depression in a litter tray.  She couldn’t help laughing when the kitten squatted and urinated, with a blissful expression on its face.

 

As she pulled out both slippers and kitten, she couldn’t help remembering how Aristotle had taken to spraying on Giles’ boots just before his... just before that terrible night when John and Aristotle had died.  She picked up the kitten, and stared at its face, and at the young-old eyes that stared back.

 

“If this is you, Aristotle, back from the dead, we are never going to hear the end of this.  You are going to be impossible to live with!”

 

The kitten blinked and mewed.  Fair enough, she thought, and put him back into the basket.  I wonder if John...  But there was no point thinking like that.  A rap on the door stopped her from going down that mental road, and she took the Summerdown House post from David, the postman, just in time to see Ivy Grittleton stumping across the field.

 

“Got time for a cup of tea, Martha?”

 

The two matrons sat in the caravan over tea and toasted teacakes.  Ivy glanced out of the window.  “They’re making good progress on the rebuild.”

 

“Yes, the work’s going well.”  Martha’s response was abstracted.

 

“You’re worried about them, aren’t you?”

 

“Of course I’m worried about them,” she snapped.

 

“Ah, but you’ve got some special worries.”

 

Martha didn’t answer.

 

“You think that Angel will allow himself to be sacrificed, to spill his blood and be sent to Hell, so that the portal can be closed.  Again.  And that Buffy will do it.  Again.  Don’t you?”

 

Martha didn’t ask how Ivy knew all this.  Ivy would have been a powerful witch, if she had wanted that.  The answer was wrung from her.  “Yes!”

 

Ivy blew on her tea to cool it a little and then took a sip.  “Do you think, if it was all happening over here, that our Angel and Buffy would allow the other Angel and Buffy to become the sacrifice, to save the world in their place?”

 

Martha looked up at her in surprise.  “No!  Never.”

 

“And the Angel and Buffy over there are also our Angel and Buffy.  They’ve done some different things this last year or two, but they’re the same, yes?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Stands to reason, then.  Plain as a pikestaff.  They ain’t going to let our Angel and Buffy do anything like that, to save their world.  They’ll do it themselves.  Our two will only have to make that decision if the others are dead.”

 

“And they aren’t?  You know that?”

 

For the first time, Ivy sagged a little.  “I’ve got the sight, Martha, but not for over there.”  She straightened herself again.  “And do you think that either Buffy is going to let either Angel go to Hell alone?”

 

“She did last time.”

 

“Our one will never do that again.  And the other Buffy?  Ain’t they been fighting together in Hell for about a year?  Why would she leave him now?  Especially if our two, and Giles and Ella are there to help get them out.  And if she sticks by him, then that will change the future, just like Neve’s dragon wanted.”

 

“Can you see it, Ivy?  Can you see them all come back safe and sound?”

 

Ivy covered Martha’s hand with her own wrinkled one.  “Not that far ahead, no.  But I feel it.  I feel it in my bones.  You were right.  Their work here isn’t done yet.  This Earth knows what she needs to stay safe.  That’s why she let Ella go.  You mark my words.”

 

Martha watched her visitor leave with a slightly lighter heart.  Ivy greeted someone in the lane.  It was Ricky, heading towards the High Oak.  She hadn’t seen him go there since Ella’s rebirth.  The new foliage that had sprouted on the Oak that night had withered and died, but she’d noticed this morning that it was once more covered in fresh young leaves.  Oak before ash, in for a splash, she thought automatically, as a farmer’s daughter.  It was definitely before the ash.  In fact, it was several weeks too early.  And now Ricky was going there.  Was he going to listen to someone?

 

Zillah stood on the doorstep and mewed, but then she looked back at her kitten and stayed.  A rustling in the bushes at the bottom of the field told Martha that Lola and Kezar were ready for a good meal.  They deserved it.  Every night, Lola would open a portal, and keep it open for as long as she dared, for as long as she could detect nothing hostile on the other side.  Martha prayed she wouldn’t have to do that for much longer.

 

There was something in the spring air, something stirring.  She could smell it in her soul, and she made a sudden resolve to restock the larder.  They’d be hungry when they got back...

 

Unsettled, she turned to the pile of letters on the table.  Bills, circulars, cases for Project Paranormal to look at, applications for student placement opportunities.  Life certainly went on.

 

The last one made her stare before she slipped the letter opener into it.  It was addressed to Angel personally.  He almost never had post, and she didn’t recognise the handwriting.  But, he’d told her to open everything, and so she did.

 

She fumbled for her handkerchief as she read the opening of the letter, and tears welled up in her eyes.

 

“Oh, my goodness...”  This was one letter that must certainly get a reply.

 

‘Dear Dad,’ it began.

 

 

THE END

January 2009

 

 

It has been my pleasure and my privilege to be allowed to contribute stories to this wonderful series.

 

Thank you, Dark Star.  We’ll all miss Project Paranormal.

 

 

 

Author’s Notes

 

1          I sing of arms and the man

I sing of arms and the man who first from the shores of Troy came destined an exile to Italy and the Lavinian beaches, a man much buffeted on land and on the deep by force of the gods because of fierce Juno’s never-forgetting anger.

Virgil

Aeneid bk. 1, l. 1

 

2          Easy is the way

Easy is the way down to the Underworld: by night and by day dark Hades’ door stands open; but to retrace one’s steps and to make a way out to the upper air, that’s the task, that is the labour.

Virgil

Aeneid bk. 6, l. 126

 

 

3          Through me is the way

Through me is the way to the sorrowful city. Through me is the way to eternal suffering. Through me is the way to join the lost people. Abandon all hope, you who enter!

Dante

Divina Commedia Inferno canto 3, l. 1 (inscription at the entrance to Hell)

 

4          I’ll come to thee by moonlight

Look for me by moonlight;

Watch for me by moonlight;

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

The Highwayman (1907)

Alfred Noyes

 

 

5          Fin de siècle

The end of the 19th Century, and the cultural age that prevailed, particularly in Paris.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fin_de_si%C3%A8cle

 

6          Belle Époch

The Golden Age, from the late 19th Century to the beginning of World War 1.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_%C3%89poque

 

7          Ought but death

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

Ruth ch. 1, v. 16

The Bible

King James Version

 

8          Mistletoe and the Underworld

Mistletoe is intimately associated with the Underworld.

 

http://www.circuitblue.com/mistletoe/

 

9          Sacred Band of Thebes

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Band_of_Thebes

 

10        Oak before ash

Oak before ash, in for a splash; ash before oak, in for a soak.  Refers to which of the two trees comes into leaf first, and how that predicts the weather (or not).

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/england/midlandstoday/weather_wisdom.shtml

 

 

 



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