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Route 101, heading north
4th April 2009, after midnight


How is it that in thinking that he was saving her, Daniel felt as if he were the one dying inside?


~

Night-time again and Daniel drove, half-listening to Noah, feeling broken inside. The road ahead with its unbroken lines, moving into the darkness he could not see, seemed to fit his mood. A road he could not see, a destination which felt to him meaningless.

"Man, I tell you, that first time was simply amazing. Like a revelation," Noah continued with his story. "I still can't believe I spent near twenty-five years of my life not surfing. It's like there's nothing else... except maybe sometimes onstage." He paused, thinking about it for a second. "But being able to get away from everyone and everything when you're stressed, you know, where no one can get hold of you. And the slide... that feeling of slipping fluidly over the surface of the water..." He looked at Daniel. "Have you ever tried?"

Some would find Noah's chatter quite annoying but Daniel welcomed the distraction. The conversation kept him from thinking about his last encounter with Mia. How badly things had fractured between them. One minute he had been putting the necklace he bought her around her neck and the next he had been visited by an epiphany. At that moment he knew, whether or not he wished to admit it, he was very much in love with Mia Stevens. The thought terrified him because it seemed so inevitable and he knew at the core of everything he told her, all the excuses he tried to make or the rationale he used to justify his words to her, was nothing but his own fear talking.

"Uh, no." Daniel shook his head. "In my family, skiing was the sport of choice," he answered. "My father was a skiing coach for future Olympians."

"Really? Wow," Noah let out. "I ski too. You don't live in New York state without taking that up. Vermont too, great skiing," he commented. "Though I'm nowhere as good as you must be... but surfing, you should give it a try, Daniel." He wondered idly how the surf was in North California.

*
"Are you going to toss it or hand it back?" Mick asked, somewhat out of the blue. But the fact Stevie hadn't stopped playing with that heart-shaped pendant at her neck for the past two days, it wasn't really that out of left field a question.

"What?" She looked at Mick, dropping the chain and purposefully putting her hand in her lap.

"That little devil heart thing he gave you," Mick continued, not taking the hint she would rather play dumb and talk about something else. "The priest, he gave you that, didn't he?" He glanced at her, watching her watching the Jeep in front and guessing that was where she would much rather be but had chosen instead to give the bastard the cold shoulder since that fated stop in Pismo Beach. Mick wasn't really surprised. Stevie and a priest? That was insane, but that said, he could tell she was really into him. In fact, he'd never seen her like that for anyone else. Not in seven or eight years. And he had seen her with many.

"I meant to," Stevie finally answered, pulling her gaze away from the Jeep in front. She could no longer see the silhouettes of their heads as the weather had cooled down too much to ride without the top on. She missed him. A mere thirty or thirty-five feet away and it felt like he could have been across a whole ocean.

"I forgot." And that was the truth. That afternoon when she had left him in the motel room, she had meant to give the pendant back. But she hadn't and in the last thirty-six hours, she hadn't uttered more that a few words or been close enough to him even for it to happen. Now, she clung to it like it was the last thing she had of him. Hell, it was.

*
"I might." Daniel nodded, thinking he would never be able to ski again not without thinking about his father. It would be a long time before he could go skiing again and not feel the emptiness left by Vassily Ivanov. "My sister is an ice skater. She was in Geneva when the Pulse hit. She was competing."

Suddenly, up ahead, he saw something moving in the darkness fast. Turning off the lights of the jeep, he hoped that Mick knew enough to do the same. It didn't take Daniel long to realize that it was an approach trio of skyfighters. The three ships flew right over them, the air humming as they passed.

Daniel froze, watching the rear-view mirror to see if they had kept going.

"Fucking hell," Noah muttered, his question about how Daniel had managed to become a priest when his blood seemed to all be Olympic-calibre athletes forgotten.

*
"Mick," Stevie said as soon as she saw the lights of the Jeep go out.

"Got it," he replied, turning his own off just in case even though he had yet to see why Daniel had done so. But in his next breath...

"Oh, fuck," Stevie let out next to him, both hands gripping the dashboard as the three skyfighters flew overhead, shaking Gladys in their wake.

"You can say that again," Mick said through clenched teeth. "Are they coming back?"

Stevie wound down her window, sticking her head out so she could get a better look.

*

There was nothing but darkness in the rear-view mirror and Daniel thought he saw Mia looking out the window when suddenly, the loud drone of the skyfighters' engines zoomed over them like a rush of wind. He counted at least two of them as they flew overhead, obviously having doubled back after sighting them.

"They've seen us," he declared, stating the obvious and wondered if it was worth turning on the headlight so see the road ahead when suddenly, one of the skyfighters had lowered itself directly in front of them, intending to force them into slowing down. Daniel stared at the vehicle as the distance between it and the jeep narrowed. "They want us to stop."

"Go around," Noah said without hesitation. "There's no freaking way Mick or Stevie will stop for that meeting."

"I plan on it but something tells me they're not going to let it go at that," Daniel replied and continued towards the skyfighter, making no attempt to stop as his eyes looked on either side of the road.

"We should take our chances." Noah palmed his weapon, giving Daniel a look, seeing the man next to him seemed as equally driven to not give in.

Surrounded on either side by national parkland, Daniel saw the ramp of the skyfighter beginning to extend to the ground when he turned sharply off the road and started driving down the sharp embankment into the tree line, burning tyre marks into the tar as he jammed his foot on the accelerator.

*
Mick couldn't make out what was happening up front until Daniel veered to the right side, bumping along the shoulder and down the embankment to go lose themselves in the trees. "Jesus," he growled when he saw the skyfighter ahead of them, shock troopers piling out. Stevie, bless her heart, was already grabbing the shotgun but he didn't think that would be of much use right now. At least not yet.

"Hold on."

And Stevie did. A lot slower than Daniel had done, Mick attempted a similar manoeuvre, knowing full well Gladys would behave differently. In fact, it felt so damn slow that Stevie thought they had nearly stopped by the time they drove down the incline and hit the dirt, sinking in, the tyres spinning freely in the soft soil for a time before they bit again and propelled the van forward.

"Duck!" she warned as they started to take on fire from the shock troopers they had just turned away from. The blows impacted the side of the van, rocking them sideways until they got out of reach. But the respite wasn't long. One of the skyfighters swooped in on their tail.

*
"Where are they?" Daniel asked, unable to look because he was too busy trying to keep the jeep from running into a tree. He could hear the blast from the skyfighters laser and the flashes of light behind them but he couldn't hear the van. Veering hard to avoid a tall redwood in front of them, he pushed on further into the trees, knowing that the skyfighters would have to break off pursuit if they could get themselves lost into the forest.

"I'm not... fuck." The Jeep took a dip, jarring its occupants hard on the left just as Noah was trying to look behind to see if he could spot the van. "I can't see them."

Moving down the sharp incline at almost 45 degrees, Daniel was too busy trying to keep the jeep from flipping over. One of the trees burst into flames past them as the stray bolt from a Visitor skyfighter ignited the tall tree like kindling. The falling embers scattered across the forest floor, igniting the drying leaves of the approaching summer. Suddenly, they didn't need any light, the forest was becoming alive with it.

*
Stevie guessed they were following a parallel path to Daniel and Noah, only maybe fifty feet or so beyond the way they had gone. Laser fire was now raining on them, making their surrounding burst into an eerie orange glow as the trees lit up, and she could see another skyfighter following another line. "That's probably them right there," she told Mick, having to yell to be heard over the blasts.

"Fuck!" Mick said, unable to look at what Stevie had seen, but instead fearing they were near the end of their trip.

"Oh, my God," Stevie gasped when she saw what had Mick on edge. The path they were tearing for themselves through the forest suddenly disappeared in front of them, the ground simply dipping down at such an angle the kombi had no chance to follow.

Mick tried to turn and stay along the edge but the skyfighter had other ideas, hitting a couple of trees in front of them, effectively blocking their way and forcing them to turn back on their earlier heading. "Shit, Stee, hold on," Mick said, unable to brake in time and forced to yank on the wheel to dodge one of the falling giant redwoods.

The kombi went down the hill, trees whooshing past them while they crashed into bushes and the underbrush. Mick tried to dodge the bigger stuff as best he could, until the front of the van seemed to dig into softer ground, lifting the back up and sideways until Gladys was sent rolling for the rest of the way.

*
Daniel's eyes widened in horror when he caught sight of the van in the mirror as he drove further into the trees. It was hard to miss the way it was tumbling down the hill. Mia! His heart almost stopped in his chest as the skyfighter continued its barrage, blasting the hell out of another tree and causing it to light like a roman candle. Smoke was starting to seep through the woods now and very soon, visibility would be poor.

Jamming the brakes, he spun the wheel around and went racing back the way they came.

"What..." But the rest died in Noah's throat as he saw the VW van roll a couple more times before coming to rest heavily against two trees. The skyfighter in pursuit broke left and he guessed it was just a matter of time before it came back for another pass.

"We'll get Mick and Mia," Daniel said as he sped towards the upturned van. "Then head to the woods. The way this fire is going, there's going to be a lot of smoke into the air. We might be able to lose them." His voice was tense, hiding the panic he felt about Mia. God, if the last thing between them was that ugly scene at the motel, he'd never forgive himself.

Noah couldn't even speak for a moment, the dread in him near paralysing. He couldn't lose them. He just couldn't. The Jeep got closer and he turned to Daniel, thinking on his plan. Fire could be a double-edge sword. "What about the fire? Can we outrun it?"

"We'll outrun it," Daniel said without hesitation. He refused to think otherwise as the jeep skidded to a halt near the base of the hill where the van had landed on its side. He could see the spider web pattern of shattered glass across the windscreen but not the faces behind it.

"Stevie! Mick!" Noah called out, jumping out of the Jeep and running for the kombi. It looked like a trashed tin can, he thought, looking at the tears and the crumpled body. "Stevie! Jesus Fucking Christ, Mick, don't you fucking be dead or I'll kill you," he yelled, trying to pry the backdoors open. If that failed, he was going to climb and get in via the passenger window.

"Daniel!" he let the priest know he needed his help. The fire was closing in and he could already smell the gasoline, probably from some jerry cans spilling inside.

The only reason that Daniel wasn't out of the jeep yet was because he was putting it in neutral with the handbrake on, wanting to leave the thing idling. He hurried to Noah and helped with the doors, helping him prise them open.

One finally gave and let itself be pulled open with a loud whine. "Mick, shit." Noah could see the man dangling like a rag doll, his body still strapped to his seat.

Daniel searched for Mia and found her pressed against the window of the passenger door, which now served as the floor. Hurrying to her, he saw that she was still strapped in. Leaving Mick to Noah, Daniel reached for her.

"Mia, Mia can you hear me?" he asked, unable to tell what state her injuries were in at this stage.

"Oh, man," Noah let out, approaching Mick. He checked for a pulse and let out a ragged breath. "He's still alive," he said, looking down to where Daniel was hunched over. They would have to move Stevie before they could pull Mick out. "Stevie?" he asked, wanting to know if she was still breathing.

"We have to get them out of here quickly," Daniel said, stating the obvious as he unbuckled Mia from her seat and picked her up in his arms, trying to carry her out of the van while his back was bent low. "I'll come back and help you with Mick."

Noah watched him go with his precious cargo and turned back to Mick, trying to see if he had sustained any serious injury. "Mick, come on, man," he tried to rouse him.

Daniel carried Mia out of the van, trying to see if she had any wounds. The flames in the forest were worse now, bad enough that the Daniel spied the Visitor skyfighter lifting into the air in the distance. Undoubtedly after they had collected their ground troops. Whether or not they resumed searching for their human prey was a chance Daniel couldn't take. Placing Mia gently in the back of the jeep, he hurried back to the ruined van to help Noah with Mick.

"How is he?"

"Can't wake him up but I haven't found any gaping wound. Yet," Noah answered, shifting himself under Mick so when they released the belt, he would be able to catch him. Or at least that was the plan. Mick was a bigger guy than him and as dead weight, chances were Noah was going to fall on his ass. "Help me land him in a fireman's carry," he asked Daniel.

*
Stevie woke up to smoke and the cracking of bark, the telltale sound of a few logs in a nice warm fireplace. Only she could see stars and the night sky. She blinked. Treetops cutting out that very sky, lit up in orange. What the hell? Had she banged her head? She sat up and the world tilted, making her feel dizzy and nauseous. "Oh, my god..." she grumbled, struggling out of the Jeep. Where were the others? Turning into a circle, all she saw was forest and flames.

"MICK! NOAH!" God, who's yelling like that, she thought, her hands going to her temples, fingers sinking in sticky stuff. "DANIEL!" There she went again, making her feel like her head would explode. "Oh, god..." she let out again, coughing on the smoke, before falling to her knees to throw up.

*
"Could be a concussion," Daniel commented and did as Noah instructed, taking the unconscious Mick out of the back of the van and into the night. The air was becoming thick with smoke and the sky emblazoned with amber. If they didn't leave soon, they'd be trapped in the conflagration.

"Come on, Mick. Hold on," Noah spoke, the only way he knew to keep his head, as he headed towards the Jeep with Daniel.

Daniel stiffened when he heard Mia shout, wanting to go to her and allay that raw edge of panic in her voice but Mick's condition demanded attention first. With Noah's help, they moved him away from the van and towards the jeep where they saw Mia, throwing up on the dirt.

"Mia," he said quickly. "Get back into the jeep," he ordered before he and Noah placed Mick in the back of the vehicle. Once the unconscious man was settled, he looked at Noah.

"We should get what we can from the van," he said. "I'll go see to Stevie." They didn't have a lot of time but supplies were precious and they didn't want to waste anything if they could avoid it.

"Right," Noah said, making himself let go of his friend to glance to where he had seen Stevie on the ground. Pulling away from Mick, a slickly wetness on his hand caught his attention and he looked down. His hand was covered in blood. Fuck, Mick was bleeding.

"The med kit..." he muttered to himself, and that spurred him on to go grab what he could as Daniel suggested. His hand lifting his t-shirt to mask his mouth as best he could from the smoke, he ran back to the van.

He started throwing things out the back because the fire was eating at the front of Gladys already, licking what was left of the windshield. He ventured front to grab the shotgun he knew Stevie would have had with her and then retreated, only to stop when he recognised the shapes of their guitar cases.

*
Daniel went over to Mia, leaning over her and sighting the slickness against her hair. Dropping to his knees beside her, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Mia, you're bleeding. We need to get you into the jeep." He saw the noxious fluid in front of her and knew she had thrown up. While he wasn't certain about Mick's concussion, the gash that had to be the source of the blood might well mean she had one. "Can you move into jeep?" he said tenderly, glancing up to survey the progress of the fire. "We have to leave."

"Daniel." Stevie glanced up and was graced with a face she wasn't sure she'd see again. The Jeep, he wanted her to the Jeep. "Help me up."

She didn't have to repeat herself and he was already helping her to her feet. "Can you walk? Do you need me to carry you?" He looked at her with concern. The blood panicking him more than anything else.

"I'm good," she replied even as she swayed a little, glancing around. They were in hell and it was all because she'd kissed him. "Mick, you got Mick?" she suddenly asked, remembering the VW van toppling over.

"Yes," he nodded, keeping a firm grip around her waist as he steered her in the direction of the jeep. "Noah is with him now." Once they got to the jeep, he didn't waste time watching her attempt to climb into the thing. Sweeping her off her feet, Daniel placed her in the back seat. Mick had taken up the back so he could be laid out a bit. Setting her down on the seat, he went to Mick and saw what had sent Noah scrambling for the van. The man was bleeding.

Like she wasn't all there, Stevie was eerily calm now and her movements sluggish. She turned and found Mick sort of half reclined against the gear Daniel had stashed at the back, some of it moved to the side or around so it cushioned the unconscious drummer. She reached out to him, her hand settling on his face before she spotted where Daniel was staring. "Oh, god..." She moved to her knees, her hands ripping Mick's shirt open and moving the tee underneath out of the way.

"Daniel!" Noah called out as he started lugging their packs and supplies from the van to the Jeep. The thick smoke was making it difficult to breathe and they really needed to move out. "Some help, please..." he huffed and puffed as he opened the door opposite Stevie to pile stuff on the seat next to her.

"Go," Stevie said, meeting Daniel's gaze. "I've got this." Already she was shrugging out of her jean coat to take her top off to press it to the wound. It made her flash to all those nights ago when they had come across the boy Jeremy and his sister Caroline.

Daniel held her gaze for a fraction of a second before he was running towards the van. He stopped short as he saw the wall of flames encroaching on the nose of the vehicle before turning to the pile that Noah had hastily created emptying the van.

Not needing to be asked twice, he grabbed what he could and started throwing it into the jeep, careful to avoid hitting Mick as he did so before heading for more.

"Noah," Stevie tried to get his attention as he appeared again to try and squeeze in some blankets and other odd items.

"Yeah?" He stuck his head in, face black from the smoke and ash in the air.

"The med kit?" Stevie was light-headed but she bit down on the feeling.

Didn't she already have it? Noah blinked, thinking. Oh. Pulling back out of the jeep, he checked on the roof. He knew he'd put it somewhere where it wouldn't get buried by everything else. "Here," he said and thrust the thing into her hands before going back to Daniel and whatever was left. The food and clothes had been moved, ammo and weapons too, blankets and some tools, but there were their musical instruments left, not to mention amplifiers and some jerry cans. It wouldn't all fit.

"We should take the fuel." He glanced at Daniel. "We'll leave the amps... dunno about the guitars." It broke his heart to have to leave his and Stevie's but where were they going to go? Maybe the acoustic ones at least...

"Take them," Daniel replied as he grabbed the jerry cans. For some reason it felt important that the band have them. Maybe it was because he had come to care about these three people he was travelling with, not just Mia but Mick and Noah too. "I've got alligator clips in the Jeep. Once we get far enough away, we can strap them to the roof or something."

"I... okay." Noah grabbed his electric guitar, his very first and a gift from his father, and one of his acoustics before coming back for Stevie's. Seeing as how full the jeep was getting he decided to leave his other electric ones behind as well as his synthesisers.

By the time they had crammed in all they could, Stevie had managed a semblance of patch-up job on Mick. One that would have to do until they could stop somewhere. But for now, all she wanted was for them to go. Already feeling groggy, the heat and smoke weren't helping her to clear her head and even though she had put her coat back on, she couldn't stop the shakes, recognising them as shock settling in. Sat back down in her seat, she was leaning heavily against the door, her head slumped to the side, trying to rest.

The flames had almost consumed the van by now and Daniel knew if they waited any longer, they would not be able to escape the circling ring of fire.

"Get in!" he hollered to Noah as he slid into the driver's seat. Once he knew everything was secure, Daniel jammed his foot on the accelerator, surging forward as they raced away from the inferno. Even as they delved deeper into the tree line, he could see the smoke obscuring the sky above and there was one consolation in that the skyfighters could not spot them. Searching for another track out of the parkland, Daniel weaved and ducked, risking the headlights to see through the smoke.



To be continued in Morning Glory

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