Little Runaway


Part Four

"Oh crap. Dawn, hang on." Xander pressed his foot down on the brake - gritted his teeth as the DeSoto juddered and bounced its way over yet another truly horrific stretch of dirt road. Driving with the chains was awkward as hell, and fighting with the wheel over washboards and axle-breaking pot-holes was making it even more difficult. Dawn held grimly onto the back of the seat and the dash, trying to brace herself. She looked a little green, and Xander had a pounding headache. Spike had grudgingly allowed that if Xander were going to drive they had to scrape some of the paint off the windows, and now there were clear patches in the windshield and driver and passenger windows. The sun was just low enough to shine through them and right into his eyes - high enough yet that it wasn't time to stop. But they were going to stop, because Xander had had just about enough. He glanced in the rear-view mirror at the long hump that was Spike under a shiny silver camping blanket - thinner, lighter, and more sun-proof then the ratty woolen Army cast-offs he'd used in the past. My idea, Dawn had said proudly, and Xander had raised his eyebrows - shaken his head. He just didn't get it.

Why in hell does she like Spike so much? Why does she TRUST him? I mean, okay, she's been around him for years - he's always kind of BEEN there... She knows all about the Hellmouth and vampires and demons... Maybe it's 'cause she's the key? Maybe she just...trusts him because he's keeping her safe? An Army truck jounced by going the other way, the back filled with soldiers. Well, relatively safe. The Mexican military was very - visible - here. There didn't seem to be any immediate threat, or any kind of action going on. They were just - around. The vestiges of the soldier in Xander idly identified the weapons the soldiers were carrying as Xander navigated a hair-pin turn and another bone-cracking washboard. The DeSoto was a workhorse on these horrible roads - powerful and heavy enough to handle most of it. But it was by no stretch of the imagination a comfortable ride. Xander was amazed that Spike was actually able to sleep. As they came out of the turn, Xander could see a cluster of buildings up ahead and breathed a sigh of relief.

Take a small break - get out - stretch.... Oh FUCK. Fucking hell! Xander had, somehow, forgotten that Spike had the keys to the manacles - to the padlock that kept the chains anchored to another stainless bolt in the front of the car. He couldn't get out of the car - couldn't do anything.


"What?" Dawn looked nervous and Xander took a hard breath - tried to relax.

"I really need to take a break and Spike's got the damn key." Xander fumed, gripping the wheel tightly, and Dawn shifted a little in her seat, looking over the back at Spike's motionless form.

"Maybe I could -"

"No, no - no need for that. We'll be stopping soon anyway. It's ok, Dawn." No way was Xander letting Dawn fish around for the keys. Xander had watched Spike click the padlock shut, then watched him push the key down deep into his jeans-pocket. A pocket in jeans so tight that the outline of the key-ring had showed clearly against the denim. Along with...something else, and Xander had blinked and then looked away so fast he'd almost hurt himself. Spike had just chuckled, getting the blanket out of the trunk and getting comfortable in the back seat.

"You just take care of my babies, Harris," Spike had said, laughter in his voice.

They had taken one pit stop around noon - Dawn insisted - but Xander hadn't actually had to -do - anything. But he'd consumed another sandwich and two more water bottles since then, and now he really just wanted to stop - ease the ache out of his shoulders and back and find a bathroom.

"What're we coming up on, Dawn?" Dawn rooted around in her backpack - pulled out a series of print-outs that she'd stapled together.

"Hmmm. Ok - we're...about - no, wait, that was..." Dawn flipped pages back and forth - squinted at her watch and stared out the window for a minute. "I'm pretty sure this is La Primavera. There's a spa here - Rio Caliente? There should be a sign. We're about - an hour from Guadalajara. That's where we stop tonight."

"An hour? Fuck." Xander shifted uncomfortably. An hour. I can do an hour. Damn. They went around another corner and suddenly they were in deep shadow - the sun was gone behind the mountains and he hastily pulled the DeSoto over onto the verge.

"Spike. Hey, Spike! Wake up!"

"M'awake, Harris." There was a crinkling, and Xander watched in the mirror as the silvery blanket was slowly pushed back as Spike checked for sunlight. After a moment the blanket was pushed away more briskly and Xander felt Spike lean onto the back of the seat.

"This doesn't look like Guadalajara, Harris."

"That's 'cause it's not, Spike. But I really, really need to take a break." Spike snorted softly - his hand appeared and touched Dawn's shoulder.

"How're you doin', Niblet?" he asked, and Dawn smiled.

"I'm okay - just kinda stiff. And hungry."

"We'll get a fancy meal in the city, yeah?"

"Yeah." Dawn sighed, and Xander looked over at her.

"What's up, Dawnie? And Spike - could you get with the unlocking, please?" He rattled the chains a little and Spike patted him on the head.

"Sure, Toto. Hang on." Xander scowled as Spike opened the door and slid out. He looked back over at Dawn. "Dawn?"

"Oh - I just - I want to get a hotel room. I want to take a really looong shower and I want to sleep in a bed." Xander's door opened and Spike crouched down, key dangling from his fingers. "Can we Spike, pleeease? Just one night?"

"Now Bit, we made our plans -"

"But we can change them, Spike, we're not on a - a schedule!" Dawn dug into her backpack again while Spike unlocked the padlock and cleared the chain from the bolt. He stood up and backed away a little, looking up and down the deserted road. Xander swung both feet out of the car - scooted forward and slowly stood up. His whole body protested, and he groaned as cramps started in his calves again.

"God damnit - oh, that hurts." Xander stretched gingerly - doubled up when a particularly nasty spasm caught him low across his back. "Ahhh! Oh, ouch -" He leaned on the edge of the door and tried to get his hand around to massage it out but he couldn't. Dawn scrambled over into his seat, looking out at him with wide eyes.

"Xander, what's wrong? Are you ok?"

"Just - just a stitch in the muscles, Dawnie; my back's all fu- messed up from sitting for so long. I kinda hurt it on a site a couple months ago; it's not all the way better yet." Xander twisted gingerly but that only made it worse and he leaned his head on the door-frame and gritted his teeth, unable to do anything but ride it out. He started in surprise when he felt a pair of cool, very strong hands on his back, pressing and kneading the muscles there.

"That the place, Harris?" Spike asked, and Xander straightened marginally, grimacing.

"Yeah, that's - oh, man...yeah." Xander couldn't help it - his eyes closed and he leaned his head back down, giving in. Spike's hands were so strong - much stronger then Anya's or Willow's - and the vampire was digging his thumbs in and working knotted muscle loose in practiced movements that were pleasurable agony. Or maybe just pleasure, since the chip didn't seem to be going off.

"Christ, Harris, it's like a sheet of iron down here." Spike leaned into him, kneading harder, and Xander stifled a groan.

"Are you hurting him? Xander?" Dawn's voice was anxious and Xander chuckled.

"No, he's not hurting me Dawn. It good. Ah! Yeah..." Xander was uncomfortably aware that his moaning and groaning sounded a was the only way to describe it. But it did feel that good. The 'burning rocks' feeling of knotted muscles gradually gave way to an overall warm glow and Xander finally lifted his head - straightened fully and then twisted a little, stretching as best he could. Spike's hands rested lightly on his hips, as if to start up again if he needed it.

"All better then?" the vampire asked, and Xander looked at him over his shoulder. He didn't really think about it, but he was smiling.

"Yeah - much better. Thanks." Spike was looking at him - a funny sort of look of surprise and wariness.

"C'mon - better take care of - everything else." Spike motioned vaguely towards the heavily overgrown verge and Xander abruptly remembered he needed to pee.

"Right." He held his wrist out, waiting for Spike to undo the manacle, and was stunned when Spike unlocked the right one and then the left one - and then crouched down and undid the ones on his ankles. He stood up and slung the chains over his shoulder.

"Go on then." Xander stared at him for a moment, blinking - then he grinned and shuffled around the open car-door, heading for a clump of jungle-looking foliage that he hoped would screen him from Dawn. Behind him, he heard the chains clink and then Dawn:

"Thanks, Spike."

"Sure Niblet. You tell him he'd better behave, though, or back they go."

"Right. Look, Spike, we're only - only six-hundred miles from..." Dawn's voice faded as Xander walked further away and he looked back over his shoulder. She was engrossed in showing something to Spike, not paying any attention to him - although Spike, Xander noticed, was keeping his eye on him. The vampire lit up a cigarette and blew smoke towards him - looked back at Dawn.

Weird. Wonder why he took them off? Not gonna question it 'cause, Thank god! But...I wonder... Fuck it. I'm just glad they're gone. And oh man, that was the best massage I have EVER had. Who'd have known? He should have gotten a job doing that in Sunnydale - he'd have had a line around the block. Xander stretched and twisted, reveling in the looseness of his back muscles, and reached down to undo the button and zipper on his jeans.

Feels too good to spend the whole night in the damn car. Talk him into stopping, Dawnie! I want a shower too - and a sit-down meal - and...another shower and maybe we can find a hotel with a laundry... Xander finished - jumped back a little, startled, as something rustled in the thick, green plants that rioted just a few feet away. There was a strange sort of noise - like a gear being ratcheted, and something rocketed away through the underbrush. Xander drew in a startled breath and hurried back to the car.

"Somethin' up?" Spike asked, his eyes glinting gold in the twilight as he looked over Xander's shoulder towards the dark jungle.

"Huh? Oh - uh, no, I don't - I guess not. Just a bird or something." Xander pushed his fingers back through his hair and grimaced at the lank, greasy feeling.

"So, we're gonna stop and see the sights for a night, huh Spike? Get a hot shower, get some good food - big bed to stretch out on..." He grinned at Dawn, who grinned back. "A big city like that - they'll have cable. You could catch up on 'Passions' I bet." Dawn snickered, shoving her papers away and Spike narrowed his demon's eyes at Xander - pointedly blew a lungful of smoke at him.

"I already decided we needed to stop. I'm outta blood, anyway. Guadalajara's got some...places I can use."

"Oh. Great!" Xander bounced a little - put his arms up over his head and stretched hard, arching his back and twisting a little and then relaxing back to a normal posture. "Let's get going!" Spike was still staring at him but a moment later he flicked his cigarette away and slung the chains into the back seat.

"I'll drive the rest of the way - sun's down behind the mountains now."

"Okay. Dawn, you need to -" Xander made a gesture with his hand and Dawn flushed a little.

"Uh - yeah. There isn't anything - big in the trees, is there?" She looked over at the jungle, biting her lip.

"Nah. Just birds and things. I could tell if anything big was out there. You're safe, Niblet," Spike said. Dawn looked skeptical but she grabbed the roll of toilet paper from under the seat and walked towards the back of the car - kept walking a little further. Xander and Spike both watched her until she got part way behind a big, flowering bush.

"Don't look! Just turn around!" Dawn called, and they obediently turned.

"Hey - Spike." Xander said, and the vampire looked over at him. "Thanks for - taking those off. I appreciate it." Spike shrugged, looking away.

"Just be sure and behave, Toto, or the leash goes back on."

"Don't be such a jerk, Spike." Xander kicked at a rock in the road - glared up at the sky, which was streaked with clouds and dyed in vivid shades of scarlet and vermillion and lemon. A beautiful sky - breathtaking you might say - if you didn't have to share it with an undead demon from hell. Xander scowled over at Spike's profile. Jerk.

"Same to you, Harris," Spike snapped, and Xander had to look away to hide the twitching of his mouth. Despite the chains - and the crazed scheme - and the sleeping dust, Xander was actually rather...relaxed. He'd finally realized something. Spike really would do anything at all to keep Dawn safe, and even if this was part of some grander plan to worm his way closer to Buffy's heart, Xander at least respected his desire to make sure Glory got nowhere near Dawn. And Dawn... Xander sighed. She was just a kid - Sort of - but she liked Spike. And she trusted him. And Xander had decided, until proven otherwise, to trust her.

Might just be magic, like I thought - the monks programmed in something so she'd go to the person who was able to keep her safe no matter what. And even though Buffy wants to be that person...she just can't, not while she still has to deal with Glory. This - this could actually work.

Part Five

Guadalajara was big and Xander was glad it was Spike who was driving - Spike who threaded their way through crowded streets and shouted things at other drivers who passed on the right, didn't use brakes or signals and totally ignored traffic lights and signs. Xander had as much Spanish as any other self-respecting SoCal boy, but he hadn't been aware that Spike was fluent - and seemed to have as thorough a command of swears in Spanish as English.

Finally, they pulled up into a parking lot by a huge hotel, the Fenix. Spike and Xander hauled everything out of the trunk and lugged it inside, and Dawn trailed behind, staring around. The hotel was nice - colorful inside with plants and plushy furnishings. While Spike leaned on the counter and got them adjoining rooms Dawn wandered the lobby, looking at the things in the gift shop and watching the traffic and pedestrians going by outside. She picked up a couple of glossy brochures and a printed map that showed how many attractions were in walking distance of the hotel - a lot, apparently. Xander just slumped in a chair, feeling the stiffness and weariness of a long drive creep over him. He didn't care that it was only around seven o'clock - he wanted something hot to eat, a shower, and a bed, in that order. Finally Spike came over, sliding a little paper folder into his pocket.

"C'mon Niblet - we're on the fifth floor." He slung his duffle over his shoulder and hoisted the stacked coolers - Xander grabbed his own bag and Dawn's and they made their way upstairs. The rooms were nice - high ceilings and dark blue carpet, two double beds in each room and little balconies that showed a view of the street, Avenue Corona. Dawn stood on her balcony and breathed deeply, smiling. It was close to eighty degrees and Xander knew she was thinking of the pool in the hotel's inner courtyard. After a moment she turned and picked up her carry-all and slung it on the bed - unzipped it.

"I'll have to buy a swimsuit - I didn't bring one, I wasn't - wasn't really thinking about swimming. There was a clothing store down in the lobby -" Dawn turned to Spike, a hopeful look on her face, and Spike leaned in the doorway that connected the rooms, smiling at her.

"Sure, Bit. Tell you what - you run down and get what you need and me and Harris'll get something from the kitchen, right? What d'you want?" Dawn perused the room-service menu, asking Spike what different things were and Xander spent a little time on the other balcony, just watching the traffic and people go by below.

I've never been this far from home. I wonder what Anya's doing? Probably mad at me, no matter what Giles and Buffy tell her. Wish I could talk to her.

Spike had made it clear that the two phone calls a day were to be made to Giles and Buffy only, and then only Dawn would talk if possible. He didn't seem eager to talk to Buffy at all, which Xander thought was strange. Spike had also made it clear that if anybody wanted to talk to Xander, they'd just have to be around when Dawn made her calls. So far, Anya hadn't been around, but Xander couldn't really imagine anyone had told her much beyond the bare essentials. Neither Giles nor Buffy would want Anya at their house, waiting for a phone call.

I hope Tara is ok... Dawn said they might have a line on a spell to...get her back. Fuck, I hope it works. Tara doesn't deserve that...doesn't deserve to be pulled into all this crap... Hell, none of us do. He turned around and leaned on the railing, watching Spike pull some bills out of his pocket and hand them to Dawn - watching Dawn mooch a couple more in the time-honored teen tradition and then give Spike a quick kiss on the cheek. As she bounced out of the room, Spike looked after her with a look of fondness and longing that made Xander go still.

He looks a real boy, almost. When he's with her. What is it about Dawn that makes him the most human? Maybe it's because...she's the only one of us that TREATS him the most human. Xander shook his head - turned to look back out over the city and only jumped a little bit when Spike yelled his name, telling him to pick something from the menu and call room service.

Food, a long hot shower and couple of hours of Spanish-language TV put Xander and Dawn to sleep before eleven. Spike had gone out long since, for blood and to 'get the lay of the land', as he said. Xander hoped muzzily that he wouldn't get into any fights, or forget where they were staying, since he had taken all the money with him. Then Xander slept, heavy and dreamless, and woke with a start sometime later, disoriented. He lay in the bed for a moment, blinking up into the blackness, then rolled over to look at the clock. Five forty-five a.m. He wondered if Spike were back. He got up and maneuvered himself carefully to the bathroom, squinting in the light that flickered on over the sink. He used the toilet and got a drink - checked the other bed. No vampire. He pulled on a pair of jeans and went to the connecting door that they'd left partially ajar and looked in on Dawn. She'd left her curtains open and the distant glow of the city center lined her faintly in a silvery grey.

Xander turned his TV on for a few minutes - turned it off again. Early-morning programming in Mexico was no more exciting than it was in California. Feeling restless, he got up and lugged Spike's cooler into the bathroom and drained out the water and the last of the ice. One lone blood packet floated there, and he lay it on the tub rim while he dried the cooler out. Then he got Dawn's cooler and did the same thing, putting the depleted packages of cold-cuts, cheese, bread and fruit on the counter by the sink. He got the room key and took Dawn's cooler down the hall for ice, then repacked it back at the room and tossed Spike's blood on top. Then he sorted through the clothes in his bag and made a pile of laundry, and a pile of clean stuff, and re-packed the clean stuff.

Then he stood on the balcony and fretted, wondering when the sun would come up and when Spike would arrive. He'd been outside for about ten minutes - and seen the sky lighten perceptibly - when a platinum-haired figure appeared far up the street, walking with that distinctive, loose-hipped strut that Xander would know anywhere. He watched Spike walk along the avenue, passing in and out of streetlights, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a bottle. When he was directly below the hotel, Spike looked up and Xander was sure the vampire saw him. As Xander watched, he drained the bottle and tossed it towards a trash-bin and then sauntered on, disappearing into the building. Xander turned around and waited, watching the door, and after a few minutes it opened and Spike slipped inside. He ghosted over to Dawn's room and looked in for a moment, then joined Xander on the balcony.

"Harissss...." Spike said, and he stood there, swaying slightly. His eyes were absolutely black - pupils dilated as far as they would go. His hair was mussed out of its usual order and stood up in soft spikes. And there was a bruise on his jaw - on his throat. Most noticeable, though, was the smear of blood across his lower lip and chin. Xander felt a faint, unpleasant lurch in his belly.

"What'd you do tonight, Spike?"

"Me? Oh, I..." Spike smiled slowly, suddenly all fangs, and Xander tried to back away - felt the balcony rail behind him and froze. "I...glutted myself tonight, Harris...fed until I was almost sick. Fucked until I was sore." Spike reached up and wiped ineffectively at his mouth - lowered his hand, watching Xander closely. Xander knew Spike could hear his heart pounding - could smell the sweat.

"Yeah? How'd you - do that, Spike?"

"Oh, it was easy, Harris. Just had to find a few of 'em that were...willing. If the flesh is willing -" Spike's human face came back, and he tapped the side of his head. "If the flesh is willing, then the spirit - doesn't do sod all." He giggled softly - clumsily took off his duster and flung it at Xander's bed, where it hit the edge and slithered to the floor. He lifted his right foot and yanked his boot off - almost fell. Tossed the boot aside and took off the left. No socks. Then he lifted the hem of his t-shirt and took that off as well. Xander gasped. There were bruises over Spike's ribs and shoulders - bloody scratches. Spike looked down at himself and giggled again.

"Be gone by morning. I can feel it, all the blood. Rushing through me - making me whole again. No worries, pet." He undid his belt and then his jeans - peeled them off and sent them flying after his t-shirt. There were more bruises - distinctly finger-shaped ones on his hips, and Xander stared at them - lifted his horrified gaze to Spike's face.

"Spike!" He tried to keep his voice low. "What in hell happened? What's going on?"

"Oh, Harris, don't be such a...wanker. Just a few bruises. You 'member what Captain Cardboard was doin', right before he left?" Spike turned and leaned on the railing next to Xander and Xander nervously crossed his arms over his bare chest, trying not to look down at Spike. The vampire seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was standing on a balcony next to another guy! totally nude.

"Yeah. That - that thing with the vampires - letting them...bite him."

"Right. That's right. Know why he did that?"

"'Cause he's a total fuckin' moron? You tell me, Spike." Spike stared at Xander for a moment, his eyes huge and rather hurt looking. Manga-look. Stop that, Spike, and tell me what the fuck is going on. You're freaking me out.

"He let them do that 'cause it felt good. Vamp bite - feels like - well, let's just say it feels almost as good as a nice, hard fuck. But -" Spike held up his hand, one finger raised, and Xander saw the ring of abraded flesh and more bruises around his wrist. "But, if you combine the two - bite and sex - you get...bloody Nirvana." Spike grinned and leaned back over the balcony rail, arching his back in a smooth, impossible curve, and Xander wanted to grab him by the shoulders and fling him inside before he fell.

"So - you're got bit and had sex? I don't get it."

"No, no, no, bloody hell, boy, aren't you listening? I didn't get bit, I did the biting. And some of the fucking, too." Spike laughed softly, straightening back up, and Xander recoiled slowly, glancing nervously at the doorway into the room.

"You - you got - is the chip -?" Spike sighed dramatically - put his hand on Xander's shoulder and leaned into him, his face inches away. He smelled of whiskey and cigarettes and blood underlying musk; sweet and thick and slightly rank. Xander froze, not daring to move.

"You're not listening, pet. I went to the place - whorehouse, you'd call it. Where humans, like you -" Spike poked Xander in the sternum. "And like Riley, come to get a bite - get the ride of a fuckin' lifetime. This bloody chip... Like I said...if the flesh is willing...I can feed." Spike's face shifted, and Xander stared at the demon's face that was inches from his own. He thought his heart might just pound right out of his chest.

"You - if they want it, you can bite them? Did you - you didn't kill -"

"Christ, Harris!" Spike threw his hands up in frustration, morphing back to human and catching himself on the rail, unsteady. "I was at a place of business. I was the business! I drank their wonderful, scalding-hot, full-of-life blood and I fucked them and I got paid for it! Made... I don't remember how much I made. 'Nough to last a while. And I can go back oh, anytime. Go back tomorrow night." Spike looked down at the balcony floor - scuffed at the polished concrete with his bare foot. His left hand absently circled his right wrist and rubbed gently, and Xander saw the matching abrasions there.

"Looks like you got fucked a bit too, Spike. That part of the package? Let them hurt you?" Spike shrugged, his face suddenly going blank.

"Pays extra, Harris. An'... he didn't hurt me much. He was on somethin', that last bloke. I feel..." Spike scrubbed his hands furiously back through his hair - looked at Xander with an expression that was mingled pain and bravado. "Ride of a fuckin' lifetime for that wanker." He lurched forward suddenly - stumbled into the room and flopped down on Xander's rumpled bed - pushed his face into the depression Xander's head had left in the pillow. "Tired, Harris. So tired." Xander stood for a moment longer against the rail - finally went inside and looked down at Spike - at the long sweep of back and buttock and thigh that was mottled with bruises and a few scratches. Bruises that were fading, sure, but that were there, all the same.

"What was he on, Spike? Spike?" Spike didn't answer - seemed asleep or unconscious, and Xander waited another minute then sighed and pulled the covers out from under the prone figure - pulled them up over Spike's shoulders and smoothed them. Then he turned and shut the curtains tightly, and walked gingerly around to Spike's bed, tripping a little over the discarded clothes. He pulled off his jeans and climbed in - tugged and twisted to get the chaotic covers under control. Then he lay down, surrounded by the sweet-musk-smoke smell that was Spike, and tried hard not to think. He'd think about this in the morning, maybe. Or maybe not at all. He wasn't sure why the thought of Spike selling himself for blood made him so uncomfortable.

Sold himself to US, didn't he? Only we didn't ask him to fuck us...we just ask him to bleed for us. And then didn't pay him, half the time. And let Buffy beat on him... Why should this feel wrong when that didn't? That...SHOULD have - we're supposed to be the white hats. At least this is his choice...except, with that chip, he really doesn't HAVE a choice, does he? Sell something or starve. At least these people WANT him...when did we ever do more than tolerate him? Xander didn't like that voice - the practical voice, the voice that said things he wouldn't dare admit out loud.

"I don't like this at all," he murmured to himself, curling over on his side and burrowing down under the covers. Maybe in the morning it would all seem...different. Eventually, he fell asleep.

Part Six

They stayed two weeks in Guadalajara. It was just too good. Spike hadn't felt this sated - this content - in over a year. The fresh blood - human blood - revitalized him, made him feel as he had before, and he didn't want to give it up. Finally, he asked the owner if there were any blood houses in Veracruz and the vampire gave him two names, and a promise of a recommendation if he needed it. Spike chose to ignore the looks Xander gave him - the looks of mingled disgust and curiosity and...was that worry? that made Spike want to just slap him - or give him a demonstration. But he doubted that flesh would ever be willing, and so he restrained himself.

Dawn was having a blast - swimming half the day, walking the few blocks down to the market and shopping to her heart's content - practicing her Spanish with a phrase-book and an atrocious accent on any victim in sight. Xander spent his days mostly with Dawn; shadowing her on her shopping trips and lazing in the sun around the pool. His skin tanned a few shades darker, and his hair took on reddish highlights. Spike liked to watch them from inside the hotel - Dawn as brown and sleek as an otter, diving off the side and knifing through the water, or lounging on a chaise, reading a magazine. Xander would stretch out on his back or stomach and read a book - some pulp mystery from the hotel lobby - and occasionally do a cannonball or equally splashy, disruptive thing in the pool, wetting Dawn or chasing her down and ducking her.

That's how she should be. Laughing and glowing - not all scared, not all...beaten. How's she's gonna be every minute she's here.

News from Sunnydale was good and bad. Willow had found and successfully performed a spell to take Tara's self back from Glory, and the loss had weakened the Hellgod enough that Buffy was able to beat her into submission with the Troll hammer they'd kept from an earlier, less successful Willow spell. But Glory had been put into a human boy's body in an effort to contain her, and when she was beaten she reverted to him. To Ben, for fuck's sake, the nurse who'd helped Buffy and Dawn so much when Joyce was sick. So of course, the Slayer couldn't kill him - wouldn't let the Watcher do it, either - and when Glory recovered she came bursting right back out. Missing the ritual had weakened her a little - or the Dagon Sphere had - but she was still tough, and ruthless, and surrounded by sycophants who would do anything to please her. Still a threat, since she still lusted for 'her' key. Spike had heard the defeat in Buffy's voice the last time Dawn had talked to her. She had finally admitted that Dawn was safer far away, and that she'd have to stay away until they figured out what to do, since the easiest option - killing mortal Ben - was forever out of their reach.

However good Guadalajara was, Spike was anxious to get to Veracruz. To find a place and settle down - to nest. He didn't like the impermanence of the hotel, and the proximity of strangers who were too close and too curious. He wanted a little villa, like he and Dru had had in Brazil - or a private house off the main streets. He had almost eighty thousand pesos in a lockbox in his cooler - not a lot, but enough to get a few months rent somewhere. Maybe, if the blood house in Veracruz was as busy, he'd make enough to buy a place. He had connections here still; he just had to revive them - work them a little. His reputation was untarnished here, and that made things easier.

The longer he spent in the hotel, the more the feeling came over him that he didn't really want there to be a solution to the 'Glory Problem'. He was...enjoying himself. Blood, and sex, and companionship; almost what he'd had with Dru - with the Family - so long ago. Harris might not approve of him, but disapproval was nothing compared to the constant threats and physical beatings that the Slayer had handed out. And he was more than happy to live without being endlessly dragooned into stultifying 'research parties' where he would be alternately reviled, ignored, or called down by the Watcher. And Buffy's utter disgust - he could go forever without experiencing that again. Dawn... Dawn liked him - Dawn trusted him, and it made him feel... No point going into that. Just... Just get them safely to Veracruz, get a place... He hadn't let himself dwell on it too much, but in Sunnydale, rumors had hinted that down here, there was someone who might be able to do something permanent about the chip. And that right there put him on edge every day they weren't going east.

On the fourteenth day he'd chivvied Dawn and Xander into going over a couple blocks to do laundry and buy supplies, and then they'd left, heading east and south, Xander driving them carefully over one of the last decrepit roads they'd have to take to get them to the Gulf coast.

Veracruz was much like he remembered - tall palms and banana trees, wide roads; the stately Colonial architecture made much less formal by adobe and soft pastel colors. Cafes and coffee shops and dozens of markets. The smell of the sea, and vanilla, and the mingled scents of exotic spices, crowded humanity; a different, richer earth. Dawn liked it right away, and even Xander seemed to be pleased with it, and Spike felt something that had been drawn tight and hard in him relax. It was going to be okay.

Dear Witchy Woman -
You're right - it's hard to believe it's been three months. It's been a WEIRD three months... But also good. Dawn is just fine. She's really... This has all changed her so much. But in a good way! Let me hasten to add, in a good way! It's like she's...grown up a little. It's hard to explain. She's just not so whiney anymore. Not so much with the teen angst thing. I don't know if it's just that there's less stress on her here, or something else

Xander paused in his letter-writing and picked up his cup of tejate. It was cool, creamy, and chocolaty, and Xander had become addicted. It looked a bit odd: sort of greyish, sort of chunky, with foam on top. Once Spike had assured him it had no demon components, he'd given it a try. And it went down like a dream. He took a long sip and sighed in pleasure, then looked back at the email he was slowly pecking out. Who'd have thought they'd have cybercafés in Mexico? And who'd have ever thought that he would be sitting in one? Xander grinned to himself, and adjusted the keyboard a little. Spike had said 'no' to regular mail - it took too long, and there were those tell-tale postmarks that could give them away. So Dawn had suggested email, and gotten Willow's address during the next phone call and a little tutorial on the best place to get a web-based account. So now he and Dawn both had an email address. Dawn used hers every day to download lesson plans from Sunnydale Jr. High - it was that or be held back a grade. Willow and Buffy had concocted a story about her father; illness, and a long visit, and the school had bought it. Dawn had grumbled, but Xander knew that little bit of home made her happy.

Xander only did mail once a week - he couldn't type very fast and was still a little leery of doing something that would mess up his account. That and...he just didn't have too much to say. He couldn't talk in detail about where they were - some of the really neat things they'd seen. He didn't want to talk in detail about Spike or what the vampire was doing to finance them. And Dawn emailed plenty about herself, so there wasn't anything to say there. Willow asked him every email how he was doing, and Xander just didn't know what to tell her. So he told her nothing but the sort of 'I'm fine' platitudes that didn't satisfy either of them. But he wasn't going to admit that he was enjoying himself. That he liked it here, and that he liked being with Dawn...and with Spike. Xander shook his head and turned his attention back to the screen.

The people who live next door have become real friends - Dawn goes over every day to hang out with the daughter. They're 'Spike approved', whatever that means. Basically they're nice people who don't pry into the oddity of a very young 'sister and brother' living alone with this weird, nocturnal English guy. Thank god. Not so good with convincing explanations, I'm thinking, no matter what I could come up with.

Tomorrow is some sort of big dance-thing here, something Dawn and her friend have been planning for for weeks. Spike is even teaching her some dance steps and what he calls 'party manners'. And you haven't seen surreal until you've seen a vampire get down and dirty about which fork to use. Dawn really

There Xander paused. Dawn really...what? Loves Spike? Looks up to him? Trusts him? All of those things, and more, Xander was sure. And Xander knew why. It wasn't an infatuation thing - she didn't have a crush on him, or - not much of one, anymore. It was because...

Because of how Spike treated her. He deferred to her. Not in any kind of creepy way, but... Take the kitchen. Dawn had, apparently, gotten very excited about decorating it. But Dawn got excited about a lot of stuff, and Xander hadn't really paid attention. But Spike had spent half the day talking to her about it, and pacing around the kitchen and jotting notes in his thin, upright hand-writing. Then he told Xander to take Dawn shopping, and be sure to get exactly what they'd decided. Xander had done it with a shrug and a frown, but when they'd staggered back home, weighted down under a couple gallons of paint, dishware, some lumber for shelves and other things, Dawn had been hyper - bouncing around and insisting they finish it now, tonight. Spike had just smiled at her and helped open paint - basically told Xander they'd be up all night if need be. And they had, but it had been fun, and the kitchen was pretty; all greens and golds and browns, with green-glass dishes and paper blinds that made the brilliant morning sunlight a warm golden glow. Spike had hugged Dawn and told her they should have company over - show off her talents, and Dawn had preened. Xander had just watched them, feeling...jealous.

After that, Dawn went to Spike with ideas - with plans. Schemes to go here or there, ideas to make their house nicer, or the yard prettier, or to plot some activity that Spike could join in on - something in the evening or inside. And Spike listened - listened to her with a seriousness and a grave attention that wasn't patronizing - that wasn't the 'listen and then she'll go away' kind of dismissiveness that Xander knew even he was guilty of. He didn't just give in to her, though - oh no. They'd had a few screaming arguments where Xander had simply sat and stared, utterly dumbfounded by Dawn's ability to goad Spike into a snarling fury, and Spike's knack for reducing Dawn to quivering hysteria.

But the funny thing about that was - Xander took another sip of his drink - the funny thing was, afterwards they were fine with each other. It wasn't like his family, where arguments smoldered and seethed for days, for weeks - Hell, years. Just waiting to break out in some new and ugly way. Another reason Xander had spent Christmases on the lawn: to escape the furious battles that would inevitably happen after one too many cups of high-octane eggnog had been consumed.

I AM jealous. Of...their friendship. I feel alone out here. I wish... But Xander stopped that thought dead in its tracks, because wishing... Well, it wasn't a good idea, even if you weren't on the Hellmouth. He went back to his email.

Dawn really took to all the 'lessons'... She said it made her feel like a real lady.
I'm fine. I'm working now - part time. Doing carpenter work - finishing stuff. Not what I'm used to, but I'm learning some neat new skills and it's money in my pocket, which is definitely of the good. Tell everyone that I said hello, and that I miss them. But especially you, Wills. Take care of yourself, okay?
Love and special hugs -

Xander hit 'send' - watched as the mail program did its thing and confirmed the mail was gone. There wasn't anybody else - Giles refused to have a computer, and Buffy didn't have time for more than short notes to Dawn. And Anya... Xander sighed and shut the computer down. Anya had been confused about his leaving. Then a little angry. Then indifferent as she'd decided to experience life as a single girl. Xander hadn't actually heard from her in...two months. It had hurt, that so-fast switch from what had been nearly love to - nothing at all.

But...kind of expected. When your relationship starts with one person stripping down and handing over a condom so they can get you 'out of their system', you can't really expect...true love. And let's just be honest here and say it wouldn't have ever been true love. Not when...

He chugged the last half-inch of his drink and got up, tossing the cup into the trash on his way out. Not finishing that thought. He needed to get some food, get home. His night to cook. He and Dawn were taking turns, learning how to make palatable meals with the dizzying array of fresh food from the markets. Here, processed food was more expensive and Xander had quickly realized that buying the food he was used to was a waste of money. Besides, he'd discovered he liked cooking. It made him feel - like he was contributing something. Doing something useful, making the place more - homey.

It IS home. More than the basement ever was - or that damn expensive apartment Anya talked me into. It's... Something else Xander didn't let himself dwell on for too long. That he felt more at home with the evil undead and a girl who wasn't really a girl - was disturbing, on some level. And it felt a little disloyal. He was sure if Buffy had been in this situation that she would never be happy with it - never settle into a routine, or relax. But he couldn't help himself. Even though he sometimes felt left out when Dawn and Spike bonded over the insane intricacies of Mexican soap operas or early-morning pancake feasts, he was...

Happy. Isn't that nuts? Happier than I've been in a long time. Happy without Anya, which...which makes me feel the guilt in a whole new way. Who'd have thought ten minutes innocent conversation with Larry could make things weird two years later? Xander stood on the curb, staring at the traffic, thinking.

I'm happy because...I'm not hiding, here. I'm being more...myself...than I have been in a long time. Being a big brother makes me...forget I'm not the Slayer. Being around Spike... Xander stumbled as the crowd behind him moved and he stepped off the curb and crossed the street. Another thought he wasn't going to follow to its conclusion, even though he found himself thinking about it more and more. He turned right and headed down to the market to get some fresh tomatoes and the sweet, dark-purple peppers Dawn liked to have in her salad. They'd adopted the local custom of the 'big' meal in the middle of the day - and usually a nap afterwards. Even Spike sometimes roused himself and came out to eat, but not often. Xander paused, his hand hovering over a plump mango. Lately Spike had not looked good at all. Even with his near-nightly infusions of human blood, there were dark circles under his eyes, and his skin seemed nearly translucent it was so pale. He seemed - out of it, a lot. Not drunk, like he had been in Sunnydale from time to time; drunk and furious and sarcastic. Now he seemed - dazed. He barely spoke, some days, and stumbled around the house as if he were half asleep. It made Xander uneasy.

He chose a few more things and headed home, thinking in a distracted way about what to make for lunch, what was wrong with Spike, what it was he felt for Spike, and if he should do something about it. But he didn't come to any satisfactory conclusions by the time he walked through their little gate and up to the front door. He found a note from Dawn, telling him she was next door - she'd have lunch there - and he trotted over for a minute to make sure everything was all right. Following a Spike-rule, but he didn't mind. Dawn just rolled her eyes at him, and her friend Serafina giggled, looking at him from under her lashes. Xander shrugged and smiled - went home again to put the food away and put some leftover fish in the oven to re-heat. He cut up a few vegetables on a plate - put a little bowl of flavored oil with them to dip, and put the kettle on to boil. Shed his short-sleeved shirt, feeling overheated in the kitchen, leaving a white wife-beater. Then he went warily to see if Spike wanted to get up.

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