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Here, Instead Of Other Theres

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It was really scrubby here. The big trees had ended within a few hundred yards of the cave. Buffy stumbled and the brush around her burst open. Melinda screamed, Buffy went all the way down, pummeled from behind. Rolling across the ground, her stake hit nothing but air. She bounced up, ready to fight. The last mule deer in the herd disappeared back into the scrub, but they'd opened a wide trail of battered grass and brush.

“Can we hide in their scent for a couple of minutes?”

Buffy nodded and ran in the deer's wake. Without the hounds to alert them, she felt deaf and blind, expecting the vamps to spring at any second. It'd be a relief.

 

††

Cordy drove in what she thought was a circle. One of these roads would be a road she knew. Beachwood, or maybe Fern Dell, was located somewhere in here and she could exit by way of Griffith Park and Los Feliz. She turned. The next stop sign brought her back to where she'd been at least twice before, so she turned back again and turned on Live Oak. Verde Oak, Spring Oak, Green Oak. How many Oaks could there be?

The road curved again. And then she was in the dark, literally, when the streetlights ended. She was in Griffith Park proper, she knew, and this road wasn't gated, so far. It should curve up and loop over to Fern Dell. Somewhere. Or maybe it was Brush Canyon Road and she could hit Mulholland Highway and go out one of the gates across it- unless they were locked.

The pavement grew rougher. Cordelia decided that if she hit dirt, she'd definitely turn around.

Something big hurtled out of the dark. Scrunching her eyes shut, Cordelia stomped on her brakes with both feet. A thudding crunch crumpled her door. She opened her eyes in time to see a deer's back feet clearing her hood. Two or three more crossed in front of the car and then they were gone. She remembered to breathe.

Just when she fingered the window toggle, the deer outside her door started scrambling, his hooves scraping on the metal. His head butted up, antlers clunking on the glass. She stared straight into his eye. His nostrils flared. He swayed and struggled up, turning away from her. Suddenly he shied back against the door, frantically bumped along her hood, and then leaped away, crossing the road and disappearing into the woods past the side glare of her lights.

Something tapped at her window. She screamed and jumped against her unyielding seatbelt, again. She floored the gas. Her Jeep died.

“Are you okay?”

A woman. Again.

“Hey, are you okay?” the woman yelled through the smeared window.

Cordelia couldn't make her out through whatever that gunk was, not going there. In the light thrown from her headlights and the little bit of moon, all Cordy could tell was that she was blonde. “Yes,” she said nodding.

“Yes?” the woman yelled.

Where was her car? “Where's your car?” Cordelia yelled.

“We were hiking, we got lost.”

Cordy weighed that for a moment. How many was 'we'? She pushed the toggle switch with one finger and lowered the window part way. The woman was young; they were probably about the same age. She had a duffel bag slung over her, the strap crossing between her small breasts. Someone stepped up from behind her, leaning down to see in. A bone thin teenager. A word leapt into her mind. Vampire.

Night, single woman alone in a deserted place....

They didn't look like vampires, just dirty and tired, but then Cordy had never actually been this close to one, so how would she know?

“Our car's over on a fire road off Mill's Stream.”

Cordy shrugged. “I don't know where that is.”

“Could you take...”

“Hurry,” the girl said urgently, looking over her shoulder.

Her intuitive hackles up around her ears, Cordy cranked the engine. It ticked and tsked and fell silent. She tried again to no answer at all. Far off, a dog began to bark in the canyon. Then another.

“Get out,” the woman said said, yanking on the door. It creaked, although it was both smashed and locked. “You're not safe in there.”

“Of course, I am,” Cordy retorted. But then she thought of the little bit she knew of the real LA. There were plenty of things out there that could rip that door right off or grab her right through the safety glass.

“We can't defend you here, get out.”

The authority in her voice gave Cordy pause. She tried the key again. Nothing. When she looked up, they both had their backs to her. The tense, tight lines of the woman's back and the set of her shoulders scared Cordelia into moving. She slid over the gear shift, snagged her purse, and climbed out the other side.

Without turning, the woman said, “Wait until I tell you, then run like hell a hundred yards into the woods straight ahead.”

“Here they come,” the girl said.

 

††

If nothing else, Griffith park was dark at night. And restless. Something at least his size stood frozen to Angel's right. The quiver of its attention whispered prey animal, but the slight, steady breeze in his face shouted zoo, so Angel crouched, undecided. He could see Spike up ahead, also to his right, caught in the act of mid-step. He eased his foot down. The curve of his ear seemed to grow into place as his head canted through the moonshine. Like Angel, he waited, listening.

Angel saw the owl coming, just as it lifted to clear Spike's head and everything exploded at once. Spike leaped, spinning, his legs kicking up leaf mold, his mouth open as his fangs descended and then Angel was hit, tumbling sideways.

He brought the quarterstaff up, but it twisted in his hands, tangled in the assailant's limbs as it pummeled his chest and belly. Angel curled up, covering his head. As the blood-hot, heavy bodies cleared him, a boot slammed into his forearm. Angel rose, grabbing at the leg he could reach and flipped the man right over, so he landed with a ground shaking thud onto his back. His coat settled over them.

Spike's coat.

"Thanks, Spike," Angel growled.

"Bugger off, Angel, I didn't know. Damn lions stink up the whole park. What was it?"

"An owl."

"That was no bloody owl runnin' you over," Spike said, spearing his finger through a ragged tear in Angel's shirt. He frowned. "Are you bleeding?"

Angel could smell it now, as the wind faltered, a bloom of odor, the scent redolent as a savory stew. His mouth watered. "Not me."

Spike lifted his head, reminding Angel of the hound he'd seen in front of the Hyperion. The wind gusted, bringing the scent again, just a taste, before it dropped again, but it had been enough. Spike faced the broken trail the deer had burst from when they blundered into Angel.

“She's in Kentucky, Angel. Maybe Atlanta by now.”

Angel scooped up his quarterstaff. “That's Buffy's blood on those deer.”

“Or something wants us to think it's hers.”

 

††

They numbered more than six, coming too fast for Buffy to count. She caught the first one square with a bolt and then dropped the bow, and spun, flipping over as she kicked one leg out. The vamp hit the ground on his back. She landed on the balls of her feet, struck out and dusted the third vamp rushing her and then knelt and dusted the one she'd laid out. The next landed on her.

She grappled with him, holding her head back. He wrapped his fingers around the strap of her duffle, which let her find his arm above the elbow. She flipped him over, leaning into it, and he dusted almost before he touched down. Two more had their hands on her, both tugging at the duffel. She snagged her second stake from her waistband and dusted them both with one outward swing of her arms.

A cruel jerk on the bag slung her off her feet. She grunted, dangling sideways from the duffle. The vamp stomped on her ribs and jerked again. The strap tore with an abrupt rip. Dropping one stake, she grabbed at the bag as it rose away from her, jerking the vamp down onto herself. She drove her fist up. Blood gouted out when she missed. The vamp screamed in her ear rather than biting her .

“Wuss,” she said. She snapped her hand out, snatched up her dropped stake and drove it into his back. She scissor kicked to her feet, spitting out dust.

Three vamps circled her. She risked a glance to Melinda, who had fought herself too far away for Buffy to help her. She was still on her feet. The first vamp got brave and darted in at Buffy. She spun and leaped, knocking him across the jaw with her foot. Landing on one foot, she stepped in and struck a hard right roundhouse blow to down the second. The first rushed back in low and she jumped, but he got one ankle in his icy hand and yanked her down on top of the bag. The third stomped on her wrist and then stood on it. Her fingers went numb. He bent over her. She kicked the first in the face and he let go of her long enough for her to punch both feet up at number three.

Smarter than the rest, he simply stood up out of her reach, twisting his foot so the bones in her wrist grated together. Curling up around his leg, she let go of the bag to stake him in the foot. He slapped at the stake as he stole the bag and taking them both with him, he bolted back into the scrub.

Buffy rolled her weight over onto her feet and crouched, looking for the next. She met the wide eyes and astonished face of the Jeep driver, still holding Buffy's stake in the air. Dust from the vamp she'd staked drifted in the headlights. Why did her arms look so green?

“I, uh...” she said and then sneezed.

“Melinda,” Buffy said, jumping up. Nothing. No sound, no movement. She raced past the Jeep. The dark shape crumpled on the road was unmistakeable. Buffy slid down on the broken pavement, seeing the stake buried in her chest, but still reaching for her throat. Her neck was broken.

 

††

They slunk through the trees. Although his post-vision urgency still rode him, Angel's sense memories kept wanting to feed him colder air, bigger trees. Plaited through Buffy's scant trace, there was Darla's spicy scent as she ran ahead, Dru's tight, low giggle when they came upon the hastily quenched fire, hot embers still glowing. The prey close enough they could pick out individual heartbeats.

“Angel,” Spike said sharply, and Angel stopped in mid-step. An irregular pulse resolved itself into sounds of flesh on flesh.

“Go,” Angel said, already running. They swerved around bushes, ducked under low-hanging limbs and leaped half-hidden logs and leaf filled holes that would shatter an ankle, their bodies working in ways they didn't even think about anymore. They broke into a shallow clearing above a black stretch of road.

A Jeep sat crooked in the middle of it. Like a black stain, something lay on the road just behind it. Buffy ran past the rear of the Jeep. Silvery green scales shone in the moonight, on the demon's neck and arms, as it chased her, just like in his vision.

Angel streaked downslope. Buffy slid feet first onto the pavement beside a body. Angel hit the running demon at full speed and they rolled end over end, into the crackling dry weeds and sage all around them. A huge, jagged rock stopped their free fall tumble, Angel taking the brunt of the impact in a wretched burst of pain and blood bloom.

Kicking hard, the demon squealed and raked at his chest with its claws. It scrambled up and away, screaming. He pushed himself up and launched his whole body into the air just as it turned back to see where he was. He went cold. He failed to get his hands up under her head before they hit the ground again, his weight crushing her against the unforgiving gravel-strewn dirt full-length.

Angel flattened his hands in either side of the demon's head and carefully raised himself, drawing his knees up beside her legs so that he was on all fours, trying not to hurt her any further. The demon, the part-demon, took an alarming amount of time to breathe in a shallow gasp of air while he stared at her. Her chest hitched again and then her eyes fluttered open.

“Cordy,” he breathed.

Her dark eyes widened, her pupils as big as marbles. “Angel.”

“Did you get it?” Spike yelled as he forged his way through the smashed weeds from the road. Two excited heartbeats followed him. Slayers, but not Buffy.

“She doesn't look dead,” Spike said from over Angel's shoulder. “Or even scary. Pretty looks good on evil.”

“Spike,” Angel growled.

Cordy closed her eyes. “I can't believe this dream,” she said. “This is just stupid.”

“What's your name, luv?”

Cordy, Angel started to say, but that couldn't be...

“Cordelia Chase,” she said.

“Cordelia, I'm Spike, Angel Investigations, and this big lug is...”

“Angel,” she said.

“You had time for introductions?”

“My dream. I could call him Barney and you Rover, if I wanted. But I never have.”

Spike's lips turned down as his brows went up. “Okay, sis,” he said carefully. “Let's get you back up on the road and checked out.”

No one moved.

“Angel,” Spike said. “Get up.”

Angel stood, and then offered his hand to help Cordy up. Her palm and the skin on the inside of her arm was normal, but overlapping silvery-green scales covered the back of her hand and climbed the outside her arm. They felt feathery and dry. He turned their clasped hands over and examined them. “Can you control it?”

“Can you?”

Spike snorted.

Angel concentrated a moment and felt the familiar change come over him, the return of his human features. Her eyes narrowed as she watched and her fingers tightened on his.

In response, her scales faded under his fingers. She raised her other hand and rubbed at the base of her skull, wincing. “This isn't a dream, is it?”

“Come on,” Spike said.

On the road, two more slayers waited for them, one of them on the phone. She handed it to Spike. Angel could hear Wesley saying, “Buffy?” as he took it.

Without stopping, Angel said, “Stay here,” to Cordelia, and “Watch her,” to a lithe brunette who might be either Maggie or Molly, and went to Buffy, who was standing with her back to all of them.

“Where are we?” Spike demanded.

One of the slayers said, “Brush Canyon Road, Sir.”

Angel stopped listening. Buffy was in his present Here, that's all that mattered.

“Los Angeles,” Buffy said.

“Yes,” he agreed.

She didn't turn until he had his arms around her, but then she buried her face in his chest and cried.