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Chapter Twenty: Bridging the Gaps

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 11:15 AM PST (7:15 PM GMT)
LOS ANGELES

-JONATHAN-

They'd been on the road again for nearly two hours when the hair abruptly stood up on the back of Jonathan's neck. He looked up from Fred's laptop, which they'd perched half on his lap and half on hers while they tried to pick identifying information out of the video Willow had emailed to them, and stared blankly out the window for several long seconds as he tried to pin down whether it was just paranoia or if someone really was out to get them. Again.

"Jonathan?" Fred prompted him. "Something wrong?"

"I don't know," he mused. "I feel like maybe someone's walking over my grave?" He shuddered.

Outside, the late morning sun shone brightly down as the moving van entered the outskirts of Los Angeles. Gunn was driving, slowly merging over toward the rightmost lane of the freeway as the mile markers counted down toward their exit. There was a lot of Saturday morning traffic sharing the road with them, so it would probably still be a while before they reached the hotel, but a quick glance out the window at the nearest cars showed nothing out of the ordinary. Jonathan couldn't think of anything else that might have triggered his instincts-- unless someone was casting a spell at them from a distance?

But as quickly as the thought came to him, the anticipatory feeling in the air intensified: within the span of a couple of seconds his skin prickled all over, his stomach turned over-- and then a bunch of other bizarre things started happening all at once.

The laptop's keyboard made a sort of dying electronics fzzt sound, and the display went black without even the courtesy of a blue screen warning. The digital display on the clock radio went dark at the same time, and the van's engine made a series of unusual noises he could only call 'alarming' with no automotive experience to draw from. Fred sucked in a sharp breath and clapped a hand over the delicate necklace chain that had survived her undercover outfit change in Vegas. And a strangled roar like an animal in pain carried through the wall between the back of the van and Jonathan's seat.

Jonathan jerked his hands away from the laptop, fingertips tingling with the sudden discharge of energy. "I guess our curse just struck again."

"No shit," Gunn said, wrestling with the wheel as the van abruptly started to lose speed. "I think I'm gonna have to take the next exit, whether it's the right one or not!"

Jonathan grabbed for the laptop as it started to slide, closing up what he suspected had just become a very expensive paperweight, and shoved it into the foot well. Then he flailed for the passenger door and gripped the handle for dear life, wincing as Fred dug blunt fingernails into his thigh.

Couldn't the next disaster at least have waited until they got to the Hyperion? They were already behind on news from the rest of their friends since Giles had been arrested a couple of hours before, and now they'd be delayed even longer in reaching them. If it hadn't been for the fact that Ethan Rayne was already mixed up in events overseas, he would have suspected the man had cast some type of negative luck spell on them; that kind of ambivalent magic was right up his blood father's alley.

"Did we get hit by some kind of electromagnetic pulse?" Fred asked, glancing over her shoulder toward the back of the cab as the incoherent shouting behind them petered out into a spate of short, sharp words that-- considering who was back there-- were probably British curse words. She was absently rubbing her breastbone with her free hand under her necklace; it looked different somehow too, duller maybe, though he was no jewelry expert. "But that doesn't make any sense; there should have been more cars affected."

Startled horn blares sounded around them as Gunn cut in front of a passenger car trying to pass them in the right lane-- and then they were coasting down the exit ramp, still slowing rapidly. The ramp curved in a wide spiral with a lawn-like patch in the center, circling around to join another freeway headed off to the left of their route; they weren't going to make that freeway, but the grass looked promising.

"Where our luck's concerned?" Gunn snorted, his voice strained as aimed the van into the verge. He left the rest of the statement as a rhetorical exercise while the wheels jolted and they rumbled over loose pebbles and weeds. Jonathan's grip spasmed on the door handle; then they finally came to a halt just short of a sign informing drivers of an impending merge, and he let out a relieved breath.

Gunn slumped against the steering wheel as the van settled, engine ticking with the release of heat. "So," he continued. "What now? That shit ain't natural. But we got all the Slayer's stuff in the back; we can't just abandon it, and it's almost noon. How are we gonna get Angel and Spike to the hotel from here?"

"Call a tow truck?" Jonathan joked. Sure, they were cut off from the city around them and its handy sewer system by a sea of cars, but: cars. "Then call a cab?" Surely whoever had cursed them would at least wait until there were fewer potential witnesses around to come after them again. Right?

"That might work, if...." Fred leaned forward to reach for the cell phone Jonathan had tossed up on the dashboard, and turned it over to show him-- its display screen had gone black, too. "No; it looks like whatever it was got the phone, too," she frowned.

Jonathan stared at the phone, then at the laptop, then the dash of the van-- then turned his head toward the back of the cab as the muffled cursing tapered off. One of these things is not like the others: he could almost hear the Sesame Street jingle running through his thoughts. One of these things does not belong....

...But as quick as the suspicion formed, he dismissed it. If Spike's chip was vulnerable to a spell capable of taking out ordinary electronics, surely he'd have tried that a long time ago. No, whatever was going on, the weirdness was Fred's necklace, not the behavioral modification device in Spike's head. Maybe the British vampire had been wearing something that reacted to the spell, too.

He swallowed nervously, glancing at the back of the cab again, listening for more sounds of mayhem. Spike in a towering mood made his guts go all watery even on the best of days; that time when Spike had taken him from Sunnydale to L.A. on his bike so they could save Buffy and Dawn from Wolfram and Hart had been simultaneously one of the most exciting and terrifying days of his life. But even if he was in pain, even if-- and surely it wasn't possible-- the chip was dead, Angel had an eye on him. Right?

"There's, uh, that sunblock spell I was working on?" he offered. "It isn't perfect yet, it'll probably only last an hour or so, but it should be enough to get us to a phone." He'd stashed his duffel slash magic kit behind the seat; he was pretty sure he'd brought the right ingredients with him.

Gunn gave him a considering look, then nodded. "Do it, then. Then we better start hiking our way out of this mess. I don't like the idea of being stuck here while everyone else is in danger-- just our luck someone'll come for us, too."

"Maybe we won't have to," Fred offered optimistically. "Pop the hood for me; I'll go stand out there looking like I don't know my way around an engine while you take care of the others, and just you see how long it'll take for someone to stop and let me use their phone." She offered Gunn a wry smile, then followed her boyfriend as he did as she asked and then slid out. Gunn dropped an appreciative kiss on her lips, then stood aside so she could edge forward, tiptoeing carefully along the narrow space between that side of the van and traffic still flooding by them down the exit ramp.

Fred caught herself against the van as she nearly tripped, then disappeared around the hood. Then Gunn turned and looked back into the cab, raising an eyebrow at Jonathan.

He sighed, then rummaged in the glove box for the rental agreement; they'd need it when they called the tow truck, wherever they were. Then he jumped down to follow Gunn around the back, snagging his duffel bag as he went, walking carefully on the uneven ground.

Gunn was already knocking on the roll-up door at the back of the van when he got there, calling to the three inside. "Angel? Lorne? ...Spike? You guys okay in there?"

"A little nauseous, sweetcheeks, but then, green is hardly a new color for me," Lorne's voice carried back to them.

"I'm all right, but whatever just happened burned Spike-- what the hell is going on?"

Burned him? Jonathan raised his eyebrows as Gunn worked at the lock and raised the door a crack, just enough to see inside without exposing the vampires directly to sunlight before the spell was finished. He was relieved that he'd been right that something other than the chip was behind Spike's shouting, but puzzled at the same time. "Burned how?" he called, setting his duffel down in the weeds, and bent to rummage inside for ingredients.

"M'rings all flared up, like someone heated 'em over a forge," Spike replied, voice terse with pain and annoyance. "Bracelet and necklace, too. They're darker now, like they've been scorched-- what the bloody hell hit us?"

Spike did wear an awful lot of jewelry for a guy; more than Angel, or any of the other Scoobies. Jonathan frowned, picturing the rings Spike habitually wore as his fingers closed around the little tube of Coppertone he carried around; he didn't make a habit of staring at the vampire's hands, but he'd noticed the simple silver bands on Spike's right thumb and middle finger, and the braided one on his left index finger.

Silver. Which was... also an ingredient in car batteries, circuit boards, and a lot of other electronics. Duh.

"Sounds like someone pulled off some pretty advanced alchemy," he shook his head. "It turned all the silver in the van into something else. Though I can't imagine why-- it's a lot of effort for not much reward." Unless they were trying for an untraceable attack, like a car wreck, because what cop would test the van's battery looking for its cause? And yeah, that didn't make him feel any better.

"Reward definitely isn't the word I would use," Spike scoffed.

"We can figure it out when we get to the hotel. Brace yourself; I'm gonna try that sunscreen spell," he said.

The main ingredient was a blob of sunscreen, for obvious reasons: ever since some smart guy in World War II had used a byproduct of crude oil refinement called red veterinary petrolatum to block UV absorption, various iterations of greasy, lotiony substances had been a symbol of holding back the sun's rays. He smeared the sunscreen on a lens from a broken pair of sunglasses, to strengthen the association, then started to hum under his breath. The graduation essay turned song was a much newer link than the physical parts of the spell, but it was well-known, and it came to Jonathan's mind quicker than any other sunscreen related song; that made it a strong enough sonic element to use.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future....

"Baz Lurhman? Really?" Gunn snorted at his side, catching the tune.

"Just-- shut up. I'm concentrating here." Jonathan flushed, throwing him a narrow-eyed glare, then finally muttered the keyword of the spell in Latin. A flare of energy left him, rushing out in all directions, and he stumbled, bracing himself against the van's rear bumper. Crap; he'd forgotten that casting without specifically daubing the vampires with the sunscreen first would mean it affected everyone in the group. Oh well; it wasn't like it would hurt the rest of them.

He heard someone sniff inside, and then Lorne made a gagging sound. "I love the smell of coconut as much as the next demon, but not that much," the Pylean said. "I hope it worked, because I'm really not looking forward to spending any more time in an enclosed space with that scent."

"Let's see." Footfalls sounded inside; then pale hands, ringless, thrust out under the door. "You know, I'll never really get tired of being able to do that," Angel said, wiggling his fingers. "And this time, without even having to go to another dimension first," the older vampire continued, grinning as he shoved the door up and then tipped his face up to the sun. "You know, you're turning out to be a pretty handy guy. Never would have expected that when you turned up in L.A. wearing Riley Finn's face."

Jonathan blushed harder at that; he still wasn't really used to being considered a White Hat, but it did have its benefits. If Warren and Andrew had ever been half as complimentary as his new friends, he might never have been discontented enough to leave the Trio in the first place, and while his new life had plenty of complications of its own, he felt a lot better about who he was now.

"You can make the J-man blush later; let's get around the side of the van so Fred can do her thing," Gunn said. "I don't want to be here any longer than we have to, either."

Spike squinted as he followed Angel out; he looked even paler than usual, and wore a pained expression as he glanced up at the sun. Lorne came next, already wearing his hat, though he didn't usually attract much more notice than a regular guy in costume in Los Angeles. The three of them were already muttering between themselves as they trailed Gunn into the grassy area... which left Jonathan as the last one standing there to pull the door back down.

Well, that just figured, didn't it? Jonathan sighed to himself; so much for the ego boost. He carefully climbed up on the bumper, reaching for the handles, and turned his face to the side as he tugged, trying to get enough leverage for his lesser strength and weight to perform the same task Angel had managed with no effort at all.

He was right in the middle of that task when a cab zoomed down the on ramp past them, slowing slightly as it passed them by. Jonathan was in just the right position to get a really good look at the woman seated in the back, holding a little folder in one hand as she chatted on her own phone... the kind that travel documents came in. He nearly choked on his own breath as he recognized her. What were the odds?

"And I can't even tell you how much I don't like the sound of that," Gunn snarked, walking back around the corner of the van. "What rates an 'oh shit' now when the van dying didn't? Do I need to get my axe out from behind the seat?"

Had he said that out loud? Jonathan winced. "I just saw Lilah Morgan. In a cab. Dressed like she was on her way to the airport," he managed to reply, then swore again as the door finally rattled down, smashing into his toes before he could jump down.

"You're sure?" Fred commented, turning to look after the cab from her pose at the front of the van. "I didn't get a good look, but I did notice there was a dark-haired woman...."

"I'm sure," Jonathan said, grimly.

"Then clearly, this isn't working quickly enough; we need to get to the airport now," Fred decided.

And without any further ado, she stepped right out into the flow of traffic.


Index | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE >>
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