Temporarily unmindful of the world at large, the lovers dwelt at Bath in an idyll of sensual delight and joy. Some nights they didn’t leave the flat, content to bask in each other’s company and to indulge in the intimacies that had so long been denied them. Other nights, they walked hand in hand through Royal Victoria Park and the Botanical Gardens, or visited the Roman Baths. They made love at the replica of the Roman Temple one night when the moon was full, pagan-like, as though they were completely attuned to the rhythm of nature. Later, as they walked hand-in-hand back to the flat, they wondered if two people had ever been so happy.
On one particularly cool evening, Buffy stayed in to nap while Angel went out in search of food. She had felt strangely overtired all afternoon, and he insisted that she stay in and rest.
It was completely dark when she woke, but instead of getting up she lay among the pillows and drowsily contemplated the tufts of fog lazily drifting by outside the window. She missed Angel; his absences from her were rare in the last few days.
Snuggling deeper into the warmth of the bed, she wished he was back here beside her. Her lips curved up in a smile. Really close beside her she thought with dreamy self-indulgence. Her body, her skin, her nerves, and her every sense seemed to be on constant sensual alert, and she wondered briefly if such a single-minded focus on passion was normal. Some of it could no doubt be attributed to newness, of being able to finally have what they had desired for so long. The rest, she knew with certainty, was simply Angel himself. He moved her as no one else had or could. She had never felt so loved, so treasured as she did these last few days. It had been worth waiting for.
She stretched languidly, distinctly aware of the way the soft, cool cotton sheets felt rubbing against her warm skin. The clock on the side table read 11:22 pm. Angel had been gone almost three hours; surely he would be back soon. Fluffing the pillows, she closed her eyes and settled in to wait. Less than a minute had gone by when a fleeting sense of unease passed through her. Opening her eyes, Buffy frowned in consternation. Where had that come from?
For almost fifteen minutes more, she lay abed and watched the numbers on the clock sluggishly increase. She stirred restlessly. Maybe she should get up and take a shower. Angel could join her under the hot spray of water if he returned in time. Or perhaps she should go and look for her lover. He had been gone longer than she expected. Unable to stay in bed any longer, she threw back the covers and rose from the bed. Pulling on the first thing within reach – one of Angel’s heavy silk shirts – she paced over to the window.
Staring out in the dark night, her earlier feeling of unease returned. Reaching for the cord that held back the drapes, she twisted it in her fingers as she fidgeted nervously.
Walking alone along Queen Street, a bag containing roast chicken, potatoes, and ice cream for Buffy and blood for himself tucked securely under one arm, Angel skirted a parked car only to pass the entrance to a narrow alley. Deep from within the dark alley came the slitted yellow gleam of a pair of eyes.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck suddenly seemed to stand on end. Angel slowed his stride then retraced his steps to peer into the darkness. The yellow gleam stared back at him, the disappeared momentarily under a slow blink.
A cat. Unmoving, it seemed to regard him coolly from its position atop a stack of boxes.
Shaking away the odd feeling of apprehension, Angel continued on his way. He had already been gone longer than he had planned; it hadn’t been easy to find a store that had cookie dough fudge mint chip ice cream and was open this late at night. Buffy’s request touched a bittersweet memory for him, and he found himself wondering if he should tell her about the day that wasn’t.
Lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed that the street had grown oddly silent. Only the echo of his footsteps could be heard, and even those dropped away as he stopped yet again.
He tilted his head and lifted his chin slightly, as if sniffing the air. He glanced around, finally noticing the utter stillness of the night. The sounds of traffic on the nearby streets had diminished completely, as had the subtle sounds of the night creatures that normally provided near constant background noise. No wind stirred the trees, or moved the light tufts of fog that previously drifted over the ground. Instead, they hung still and motionless in the cool, dark air. The buildings along the street all appeared dark and shuttered, closed against the night. Even the street light seemed to dim.
He turned in a slow circle, searching the darkness with keen preternatural eyesight. There was something near him that had not been there before. he could sense it. He could hear it in the absolute quiet of the night, and he could feel it in his blood.
But he couldn’t see it.
Buffy stared out the window, tense and wary, a crawling sensation on the back of her scalp. The night suddenly seemed graveyard still, void of even the faintest sounds. Even the breeze that had sent the fog drifting by the window earlier had died down leaving thick patches of vapor and mist suspended in air.
The minutes ticked by and she became aware of the feeling that she wasn’t alone. There was someone else in the building, and she knew it wasn’t Angel. A chill crept down her spine.
Clutching the oversized shirt she wore more tightly around her, she made her way carefully across the room toward the door. Opening it a crack, she peeked out into the dimly lit hallway, and listened, straining to make out any sounds. Instead, she was met with the same heavy silence that currently filled the flat. Her earlier chill intensified.
Easing the door open a bit more, she slowly stepped out into the hall. The board beneath her foot creaked, breaking the silence. Carefully she placed one foot in front of the other and eased forward again.
Without warning, a cat hissed and meowed loudly, then raced through her legs nearly tripping her. Almost immediately there was a loud pop and the lights in the building went out, plunging her into complete darkness.
Before Buffy could take another step, something seemed to launch itself at her, ramming into her with all its weight and sending her tumbling to the ground. She hit the floor hard, the breath knocked out of her lungs. The dark shadow seemed to sprawl atop her, its weight pressing her into the hard wood floor.
Her cry of surprise was cut short as a suffocating pressure covered her nose and mouth. She thrashed wildly, trying to free herself. She twisted violently, jamming her fists in the air, hoping to make contact with the unseen thing on top of her. Her hair tangled around her face as she flailed, trying to buck the heavy weight off without success.
Trapped, with darkness and shadows closing in around her, she cursed at her own stupidity of leaving the flat without a stake – or some sort of weapon – in hand.
Almost as quickly as it had come upon him, the feelings of apprehension dissipated and were gone, leaving Angel only with the sensation that he had encountered something decidedly unpleasant.
A quick search of the surrounding area revealed naught; there was no sign of any being, ghostly or otherwise, on the street. The night sounds had resumed, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Even the cat in the alley had disappeared.
Mystified and contemplative, Angel continued on his way back toward the flat. He had the feeling that ghosts were out tonight, and perhaps something more than the harmless specters that had been known to haunt the Roman baths.
As he drew close to the flat, he heard a rustling in front of him. Something near by was moving, and moving fast.
Hugging the shadows he moved quietly, an innate hunter.
When he rounded the corner, a flash of movement caught his eye and he looked up just in time to see Buffy racing toward him, his shirt billowing around her, her bare legs almost gleaming in the silvery moonlight. He stopped just in time to avoid colliding into her, only to have her plunge headlong into him instead.
He attempted to catch her with his free arm, but her momentum sent him staggering back. Hitting an uneven crack in the sidewalk with the heel of his boot, he stumbled. Unable to catch his footing, they tumbled to the ground. Instinctively, he clasped her in front of him, breaking her fall with his own body. He winced as they fell hard, her shoulder digging into his chest, her legs tangling with his.
Gasping, she leaned over him. They were literally nose to nose, eyes and lips inches apart.
“Angel?” she breathed, surprised.
“Miss me?” he murmured with a half-smile, his light tone hiding his concern as his arms closed around her. He could sense her tension, and her fury. He could also sense fear; subtle, but very real. Something had frightened her.
Buffy looked down at him with wide eyes, trying to collect her thoughts. Only moments before she had been pursing the shadowy figure that had pinned her to ground in the hallway. Now she was lying atop the very man she had been yearning for prior to the ghostly disturbance. One part of her mind wanted to know where he had come from, seeming to have appeared out of nowhere. The other part considered it irrelevant just now that he was here, back with her, where she wanted him to be.
“Did you see it?” she asked at almost the same time.
“See what?” His senses prickling again, he turned his head to gaze in the direction she was now looking.
“Something. Anything. A dark, invisible, shadowy… thing.”
“There!” Buffy pointed. The distant shrubbery rustled then parted as though someone was pushing it aside. Shoving against his chest, Buffy scrambled to her feet and took off running in that direction.
Angel rolled and fluidly came to his feet, just in time to see Buffy plunge through the thin gap between the thick hedge row and into the overgrown brush. He raced after her, diving through the narrow opening without slowing. The shrubs were thick, the slight path obscured by dark branches. Gnarled limbs grabbed at his coat as he pressed on, running as fast as the brush would allow.
Buffy was lithe and fast; the specter in front of her faster. Using every last bit of strength, she pushed harder and burst through the end of hedge at almost the same exact moment as the dark shadow. Diving forward, she attempted to grab it. Instead, she met only the mocking silence of the empty air.
Breathing hard, her hands braced on the ground in front of her, Buffy looked up at Angel as he surged through the thick hedge just seconds behind her.
Disappointed, she shrugged. “It just went poof.”
“So what do you think it was?” Buffy asked through a mouthful of ice cream as she rummaged through the damaged groceries, reaching for the torn foil bag containing the roast chicken. Wrinkling her nose at the now cold meal, she dumped it unceremoniously onto a plate.
“I don’t know,” Angel commented, leaning against the counter in the kitchen. “A revenant spirit, maybe.”
“Would it be that strong?” she asked, opening the carton of potatoes. She eyed the rosemary flavored morsels critically then pushed the container away. “And why would it be here anyway? I don’t think Giles ever mentioned anything about ghosts in the building.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure,” he reflected calmly, though it was far from how he felt. He was perplexed, and more than a little worried. Apparitions as strong as Buffy described from her encounter could be dangerous. And there was something about this one that didn’t seem quite like a typical paranormal phenomenon, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on just what it was…
“It felt creepy, but not evil. At least not totally evil,” Buffy mused, picking up her spoon and dipping into the ice cream again. The darkness that had surrounded her had been inscrutable, and certainly supernatural, but not. malicious. At least not entirely. “More like just… angry.”
“You should eat something besides ice cream.”
Buffy’s lip jutted out in a pout, but she put the ice cream aside. “Did you get evil?”
“No,” he paused, considering. What he had sensed briefly had been foreboding certainly, but not entirely maleficent. Still. it didn’t quite make sense. “Not completely. But it wasn’t good either.”
She pondered that for a moment then nodded. “Just quasi-evil then. So where does that leave us?”
Angel shrugged. “Probably with a spirit that’s trying to resolve whatever issue is keeping it here.”
“And growing angry that it can’t,” Buffy murmured thoughtfully. “Just like James.”
Buffy shot him a quick glance. “James and Grace. At Sunnydale High. He shot her.”
“I remember,” Angel interjected quietly, as the hazy memory of the possession of he and Buffy by their spirits resurfaced. Most of his memories from those days were less than clear, and fraught with guilt and anguish; they weren’t ones he tended to dwell on.
“So we just have to find out what happened, and what this spirit thingie is trying to resolve and resolve it,” Buffy continued, attuned to his mood. The bonds that held them together still seemed in many ways too fragile and tenuous to delve too deeply into discussion of the months when Angel lost his soul. She was content to leave the past behind them.
Frowning, Angel took a knife and fork and began to carve the chicken that Buffy was ineffectively picking at. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“We don’t know anything about it for one. And two, it could be dangerous. You said yourself that it was strong.”
“We can call Giles. He might be able to find something.”
Angel hesitated. “Maybe… though I’m not sure what help he can be from Westbury.” He met her gaze. “And we will have to go back soon.”
Though he left the rest unspoken, she understood. They only had a few more days to dwell in their blissful solitude before reality, and all of the difficulties and tension that accompanied it, would once again intrude. Why invite it in earlier, unless they absolutely had to?
She studied his face. “What do you want to do then?”
He raised one eyebrow deliberately.
Buffy felt her cheeks actually turn warm in a blush. Her lips curved up in a smile. “Besides that.”
“I think we should see what else we can find about this spirit while we’re here,” he said thoughtfully. “Where it may have come from, what sort of danger it may pose. Maybe it’ll even make another appearance.”
Just after dawn, when Buffy finally drifted off to sleep, she dreamt.
Her dreams were filled with distorted images from her past and indistinct visions for the future. Shadows continually seemed to ebb and swell around her, at times coming so close she thought they were going to suffocate her. She fought the darkness, struggling to escape the impending gloom. She woke abruptly, frightened. All she could remember was that she had been abandoned and was alone. Angel was. Shivering, she sat up and hugged her arms to her chest. She didn’t want to even consider the possibilities.
Startled, she jumped. She wasn’t alone, she reminded herself, and hadn’t been for some time. Things had changed. Angel was with her, and always would be. He had promised her, and this time she knew he meant it. This time, they would make things work together. Turning, she looked over at him. He lay on his side, his hair dark against the white pillow, his eyes open. He could sense her disquiet, of that she was certain.
“It’s nothing,” she whispered, swallowing uneasily. It was only because she had so recently been afraid of losing him, because of what had happened to him and Ella. It wasn’t a premonition. It wasn’t.
“Come here,” he murmured, his voice husky from sleep, as he reached for her.
She curled against him, her back to his chest, his arm around her waist. She could feel his chin against her hair, along with the smoothness of his skin and the ripple of his muscles as he adjusted her more securely against him. There was something so normally domestic about it, it made her throat close up with emotion.
She lay still and listened to the rhythmic beat of her heart, as Angel stroked her arm soothingly with his fingertips. Just having him near offered her a remarkable sense of security. Gradually the terrors of the night subsided and she closed her eyes.
She slept, this time without nightmares.
“Would you like some wine?”
Buffy’s eyes flew open as Angel opened the door to the small bathroom and stepped inside. The heat from the bathwater had fogged up the windows and warmed the air, making it muggy and warm.
Smiling, he hunkered down beside the tub and handed her the glass of merlot.
“Mmm…” she murmured, taking a few sips. Her head dropped back against the rim of the tub and her eyes closed. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” he replied, trailing a finger along her collarbone then up her neck to her jaw. Her hair was piled on her head in an untidy knot, several tendrils escaping to hang down in sexy disarray.
Turning her head, she opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Or mine, depending on which way you look at it.”
“I want you to be happy – always,” he said, his tone serious. His thumb moved over her cheek as he studied her face intently.
Setting the glass on the floor, she stretched out her wet arms and wrapped them around him. Leaning forward, she kissed him lightly on the lips. “I am. I’m happier now than I have been in years.”
He didn’t reply, only touched her cheek lingeringly with his fingertips.
“Did you want to join me in my bath in Bath?” she murmured playfully.
“Maybe.” His lips brushed the soft skin of her neck just below her ear. Buffy closed her eyes, astonished by the sensations that such a simple touch could create within her.
“Or maybe I should get out. I am getting all wrinkly,” she said without conviction. Her attention was focused instead on the spiraling warmth that was surging in her blood.
“You have been in here almost an hour.” There was a trace of amusement in his tone.
“You sound impatient. Were you waiting for me?”
His lips brushed hers lightly once, twice, before settling on hers. Her fingers crept up from his shoulders to slide into his hair. It was soft, and thick. She sank her fingers into the thick locks, holding tightly as he slowly, unhurriedly, kissed her. Without warning he lifted her up, wet and dripping, and held her close, mindless of the water sluicing off her body and wetting his clothes.
Opening her eyes, Buffy peeked up at him from under her lashes. “Did you have something in mind?” her smile was audacious.
“Maybe,” he replied noncommittally as he grabbed a fluffy towel off the nearby rack. He blotted the water from her skin quickly then carried her to the bed. He laid her on top of the blankets on her stomach, then proceeded to kiss the entire length of her back, her nape. each little bone of her vertebra, the small of her back, her rounded bottom, the backs of her knees, her thighs.
The air and the sheets beneath her felt cool, yet Buffy felt as though she was on fire. Each touch of his lips sent the blood racing through her veins. She was drowning in sensation.
Rolling, she pushed him back on the bed and helped him remove his clothes. He stroked her cheek, her collarbone, the valley of her breasts as she straddled his hips.
“I’ll have to interrupt your bath more often,” he whispered, his eyes ablaze.
She smiled. His fingers threaded through her hair at her nape, and she leaned down to meet his lips in a kiss.
And the afternoon passed in an abundance of extraordinary sensation.
Buffy sighed disgustedly. They’d covered practically every inch of Bath over the last three nights, and had found nothing even remotely supernatural, much less any sign of the specter she had encountered. “Do you think it’s gone?”
Angel shrugged without saying anything for a moment then he said, “I’m not sure.”
Buffy frowned. “What do you mean? Do you sense something?”
“Not exactly, but…”
“But?” she prompted as she wound her way along the side of a mausoleum. Haycombe cemetery was still and quiet, just as it had been every other night that they had been there.
“Something seems not quite right.”
Sighing, Buffy glanced back at him. “Angel, there’s a lot of things that aren’t right.”
“Beyond the obvious,” he replied, giving her a wry smile and reaching for her hand. “But then again, there are a lot of things that are.”
“Are what?” she asked as he pulled her to a stop. She looked up at him expectantly.
He was silent for a minute, studying her face. “That are perfect.”
She smiled. “Perfect, huh?”
“Yes,” he murmured, his hands settling on her waist. The night was peaceful, the cemetery they were in quiet. They had made love earlier. Wildly, passionately. He should have been satisfied, but instead the slightest touch from her seemed to stir him. The simple scent of her, the smallest taste of her, aroused him anew. The smallest brush of her hair against his skin.
“It is,” she agreed softly. She rose up on her tiptoes, captured his face between her palms, and kissed him.
He tightened his hold, pulling her closer. Every little touch seemed magnified. He hungered for her, and she seemed to sense his every need, his every desire.
She touched him, moved against him, exploring each ripple and crease of his muscles, feeling a heady power in the shudders rippling through him; shudders she alone stirred.
They slipped into the shadows, the night’s patrol taking a back seat to the more pressing need they had for each other.
The next night they parted ways at Barton Street, Buffy headed toward the café for a hot cup of tea to stave off the evening chill, and Angel to the butcher shop for blood. They agreed to meet near the park for their usual midnight trek through the grounds and the city streets.
Reaching the gates first, Buffy paused to wait. The night was cool, but beautiful, and she could see why thousands traveled to Bath for more than just historical interest or the mineral baths. The gardens at night were amazing, the sprinkling of flowers a colorful palette in the dim light. A cat was curled up contentedly in the low grass, its golden eyes bright against the dark backdrop of the low shrubs.
She had only been waiting a few minutes, when a feeling of unease settled over her. She felt as though someone was watching her.
Calmly, she scrutinized the surrounding area. It was uncannily quiet.
The cat, which had been lying down peacefully, was now sitting up, tensed. Its gaze was focused intently on something to the far left. It gave a low growl, then a hiss before bolting away through the brush.
She didn’t see anything, and yet she knew something was out there. Sensing a movement behind her, Buffy whirled around.
Without sound or warning, the trees behind her seemed to come alive. A shadow swept toward her. It swirled around her, circling her until it enveloped her in a thick miasma of darkness and shadow.
Buffy slammed her fist forward striking out at whatever it was that surrounded her. At the same time, she kicked out hard with her foot. For an instant, it seemed to release its hold on her, and she flew backward. Turning, she raised her fists and prepared to defend herself when she was suddenly grabbed from behind. She was yanked back, unable to breathe as a hand closed around her throat.
Her struggles were ineffective, the darkness growing stronger, until it was nearly suffocating. As though from a great distance she heard her name being called, and she redoubled her efforts to free herself.
Angel had walked up just in time to see Buffy struggling desperately with some invisible force. He didn’t stop to think. Shouting her name, he darted forward intending to free her. Instead of assisting, however, he found himself flying across the ground, flung easily aside.
He rolled and leapt to his feet as Buffy was wrenched around, her hands clutching at whatever was holding her by the throat. She struggled wildly, kicking, and flailing. She could barely breathe the pressure on her neck so strong. Nevertheless, she was dragged backward toward the park.
Then quite suddenly, she saw a dark flash out of the corner of her eye. She heard a snarl then her attacker was wrenched away from her. Dropping to her knees, she coughed and gasped for air.
For a moment, Angel seemed to face off with the unseen entity. He lunged forward, only to catch nothing but air. He threw a left jab and thought he connected with something, but it danced quickly away. He waited only seconds before he leapt a short distance, landing on the unseen attacker. Snarling angrily, he attempted to plunge his hand through the chest of the entity. There was a scream that sounded like one of pain, followed by a blinding flash of light.
Angel staggered forward as a faint, iridescent dust filled the air and then fluttered away in the wind. He ran his tongue over his fangs, unaware of exactly when he had changed to his demonic visage, as his eyes searched the darkness intently. Whatever it had been, it was gone now. Shifting back to his human countenance, he hurried over to Buffy and knelt down.
“Are you all right?”
Buffy gulped in air, and struggled to find her voice. Her throat felt hoarse from the pressure on her neck and her knee felt scraped from where she skinned it on the stone underfoot. Nodding, she croaked out a reply, “Yes.”
“Are you sure?” He could smell blood. It was faint, but it was definitely there. And it was Buffy’s.
Grimacing, she looked down at her bloodied knee. It was cut and bleeding, but wasn’t serious. “I am,” she said as she rose to her feet, Angel’s arm around her waist helping to support her. “Is it gone?”
They both glanced over at the find misting of ash covering the nearby trees. It seemed to shimmer in the pale moonlight, twinkling mysteriously. As they watched, it began to fade and drift away.
“I think so,” Angel said slowly.
“Did you. could you tell what it was? You touched it, didn’t you?” Buffy asked. Turning back to Angel, she scrutinized him carefully for any sign of injury.
“I suppose it was a ghost.”
Buffy raised a brow. “You’re not sure?”
“Not exactly,” he said simply.
“Oh-kay, what does that mean?” she asked, walking over to examine the bits of dust that were still remaining on the leaves of the nearby shrubs.
“It felt like some sort of mystical force, strong… focused.”
“You don’t have to tell me the strong part,” Buffy mused, rubbing her throat. “Or the focused part either. It seemed pretty focused, at least on choking me.”
“But not really a ghost, in the traditional sense.”
“Ghosts are traditional?”
“There’s normally a cold sensation before they appear, yet this… thing had none of that. They can’t all affect the physical world, and certainly not to the extent of the power and strength of this one.”
Buffy nodded. “But still you made it go…” Pausing, she searched for the right word. She gestured with her hands, “You turned it into dust.”
Angel shrugged. He wasn’t entirely certain what the thing had been, or might even still be. It certainly seemed as though he had somehow gotten lucky and managed to destroy it. Or at least stop it. “Maybe.”
“It was almost like it was a vampire ghost, with the dust and all.” Reaching out, she tentatively made to touch the smattering of ash on a nearby leaf. Angel grabbed her arm, halting her progress. Buffy looked up at him questioningly.
“We don’t know what it is.”
“Maybe we should take a sample back to Giles, you know, for analysis.” As though the apparition, or perhaps its creator, heard them, the wind suddenly kicked up. The remainder of the shimmering dust that hadn’t faded away blew away with in the forceful gust.
“Or not,” Buffy said with a sardonic lift of her brows. She looked around, half expecting to see some sort of magic sorcerer conjuring a spell. The timing was entirely too coincidental.
Angel, too, looked around suspiciously.
They’d go home soon. Back to Westbury.
He wondered why he had the feeling that whatever it was that was out there just might follow them.