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Cabin Fever

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Summary: On a miserably cold and rainy day, Dean takes shelter in a cabin already occupied Spike. Spike/Dean slash

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Spike-Centered(Past Donor)CasFR18546,3912186,8587 Jun 1026 Jul 10Yes

Chapter 2

The stench was getting stronger now. Spike had identified it and was single-mindedly tracking it. The rains had washed a lot of the scent away, mostly in the areas where there had been flash flooding. It just meant Spike was slower in some areas, but he was certain he would find the goblin and Sean. Question was whether he'd bring Xander his son back alive. The goblin's carcass would mean nothing if the boy was already gone.

More determined than ever, Spike pushed back some foliage, sniffing the air, then side-stepping it and going in a different direction. He stepped over large roots and scented blood. Bending down, a frown marred his forehead as he looked for the source and started to lift up some fallen branches.

Sensing a presence, Spike suddenly stilled suddenly. "Don't they teach rangers to stay in safe cabins until daylight?" he asked, then, still squatting, turned around. "You could lose your way, freeze or drown." Or be eaten by goblins, but he wasn't about to say that out loud.

Dean had finally caught up with Spike but then he only had to track the man and the muddy ground made that easier even if it was dark. When Spike got off the path it had grown much more difficult but he was just relieved to find the man since the man was smack in the middle of where the goblin nest was probably located.

"I like the night," Dean said softly, surprised Spike had heard him approach and even more so that he knew it was him. "Civilians are the ones who shouldn't be tromping about in the dark with a maniac on the loose. I know you're trying to help, I know you're worried about your friend, but you can't help if you get yourself hurt or attacked by something out here. Lot of dangerous creatures out in the night. C'mon, let me get you back to the cabin where it's safe." He really didn't want to see the man come face to face with the supernatural. He liked the guy and the supernatural just tended to freak the general populace. Though he supposed the machete he was holding probably wasn't comforting to Spike.

"Maniac." Spike gave the weapon in Dean's hand a pointed look but didn't really consider him a source of danger. "Did you follow me to turn me into your personal love slave?" he asked, a teasing note in his voice. "Tell you what, I'll come back in the morning and we can play that game. But I've got a boy to find." Turning, he leaned further in and searched under the brush and branches he'd been inspecting. His fingers closed around something soft. It was hooked on some branches and it took some tugging before he was able to pull it free and stood up. "His jumper," Spike said, looking at the torn jacket. From the scent, he knew it was Sean's, and there was a bit of blood on it. The playful light was instantly gone from his eyes. "Go to the cabin, Dean."

"No way in hell. I'm here to find the kid too. Look, Spike, what's got the kid likes the night. It doesn't like the day. Let's at least wait until dawn. It's not gonna kill the kid, that's not why it took him. But in the dark, its got the advantage."

"Know what's got the kid, do you?" Spike really looked at Dean, his stance, the weapon in his hand, his being in the area, and his probable knowledge. "You said 'what' not 'who'," he added, in case Dean didn't pick up on the fact they were both on the same page. "The boy can't wait, he's got asthma. Cold weather, anything can set him off. I know what I'm doing, and 'what' I'm dealing with here. No need to worry about me, yeah?" Tilting his head to the side, he added, "and I'm not easy to kill."

This was the first he heard of asthma. Might have been fucking nice if the mother had mentioned that damned fact. Dean re-valuated Spike just as Spike did him. The man was obviously a good tracker but he had no pack, no apparent weapons. "You're a hunter, then?" Dean ventured. "So how are you gonna take it or them down? You got some magic hoodoo words to keep them at bay? 'Cause I sure would like to know them. Beheading is the only way I know of to take down goblins. And they're mean bastards."

He waited to see if Spike started laughing at him when he said 'goblins.' If he did, then he wasn't a hunter and would probably be a liability once they got to the nest. It looked like the guy could get them to the nest, though. And if Spike didn't laugh, then...then maybe he had some back-up. Still, Sam was going to kill him for going in with an unknown for back-up, if the goblin didn't kill him first.

'Hunter.' That was bloody better than a 'Scoob,' as the Buffy crew liked to call themselves, sometimes including him in the description. "Hunter, yeah. I've got weapons," he tugged the lapels of his trench coat slightly open, implying they were on him. "I'll have to make sure the nasty bugger doesn't bleed on me, didn't bring a change of clothes." He didn't give Dean a chance to argue and instinctively knew that an order to go home would be useless. So long as they found Sean while it was still night, Dean wouldn't find out what he was and the company might not be a bad thing. "You coming?"

Dean gave a sharp nod but really wished he knew what Spike was packing. His mind immediately flashed to exactly what Spike was packing under those pants and cursed himself. Mind on the job, dammit. He couldn't afford distractions. Once they got Sean and the goblin was dead, they could get the kid back home and then he could see if Spike might be interested in another go round. Until then, he had to be Dean the kick-ass hunter.

"You've got the lead," Dean said, waving his machete toward the direction Spike was headed. Although he was used to taking point, there was no doubt Spike was the better tracker and he'd be foolish not to use that skill.

"Want to keep my arse safe, do you?" Smirking, Spike turned around and stepped over the brush, heading for higher ground. As he trudged on, Spike made a show of looking for visual signs of the path taken by the goblin. He was mostly following their scent but it wouldn't do to let that on to the hunter. He had a feeling that if Dean found out he was a vampire, that ready smile would disappear and the heat in those eyes would turn ice cold. That was something he'd rather not see.

"I got no complaints on the view," Dean commented dryly, even if he couldn't see Spike's ass because of the man's long leather coat.

As they trudged on mostly in silence, Spike mentally cursed. The hours were passing and he'd need to secure shelter at dawn. He could make some sort of cover for himself here in the forest, but that would take an explanation. So would running from Dean and he didn't want to leave the man alone.

More determined than ever, Spike picked up speed. "This thing doesn't want to be found. It's gone in circles, like it knew it would be followed," he said. He'd almost lost the scent twice, but he'd played that trick on his own pursuers in the past, so he had an advantage.

More and more birds started to chirp, drowning out the sounds of frogs. Spike looked up at the sky, then took a few steps and came to a sudden stop, putting his arm out to stop Dean from passing him. He could hear someone sniffling and it bloody well wasn't the goblin. "Up there," he said, pointing to the hill, trying to see signs of the boy and the goblin... to pinpoint their location.

Dean looked toward where Spike pointed. The wind shifted a bit and Dean damned near gagged. Goblin stench. His eyes scanned the hillside. Something wasn't right. He looked around. Plenty of brush and fallen branches and logs but one section had brush that looked like the leaves were wilting though it was hard to tell in the dark with the moon giving them only dim lighting. The wind was coming from that direction though.

"There," he said, lightly tapping Spike's arm and indicating the brush. "Fresh branches. And the reek has to be the goblin." He looked at Spike. "You've been tracking it. Can you tell if we've got one or a nest of them?"

"Only one brought the boy in, I haven't seen signs of more." The scent of the one had been strong all the way to here, but this area had a stronger smell built up over time and was overpowering. Cracking his neck to the side, he looked at Dean's machete. "Time to slice and dice."

In unison, they closed in on the the area where the branches were covering some sort of shelter. The child's crying grew louder. They exchanged looks and started to run. Spike didn't hear any other sounds but that didn't mean the goblin wasn't in there with Sean. Grabbing the branches, he pulled them out of the way and tossed them aside, uncovering the entrance to a cave. "Smells worse than a bleeding sewer," he whispered. In the dark, in the depths of the cave, he could see the boy huddled against a wall, alone.

"I'll get him," Spike said as he walked in, making a beeline for Sean. Dean was on his heels and prepared with a flashlight. The cave was quite wide, room for them to walk shoulder to shoulder. Trash and slime lined the ground and might explain why the smell was so much worse here.

"Sean, it's Spike," the vampire said, reaching him. "Come to get... stay there, don't move!" He snapped suddenly. Turning to Dean, he said, "they're coming, must be another entrance. Two, maybe three." He could hear their gutteral sounds, and they were too close for them to run.

"Cover your eyes," Dean ordered the child and pulled out the flare gun. He shone the flashlight down the corridor and could make out the short, fat, green, hairy creatures with huge eyes and a set of teeth on each of them that rivaled about anything he had come across. Not to mention the long claws. The flashlight startled the creatures. Dean fired the flare gun at the center one and hit it square in the chest, a brilliant flash lighting up the cave briefly as the creature howled its pain. Dean took a couple steps towards them, protecting Spike and Sean.

"Get the kid out," he told Spike, then headed forward, his machete out, the fading light from the flare gun letting him mark his next target. He swung at the one on the right but the damned thing was fast and Dean only nailed its shoulder, though he buried the blade deep. He cursed and ripped the blade free, trying to keep his balance on the slippery, slimey floor. He swung again and hit his mark, but the one he'd flare gunned pounced him full on and knocked him onto his back, raking its claws over Dean's chest. Cursing Dean struggled to get the damned thing off of him, well aware the third and remaining goblin was headed straight for Spike and the kid and there wasn't a damned thing he could do.

Why was he cursed to live his life surrounded by humans who wanted to play hero? "Sean, close your ears too," Spike ordered, "I'll have you with your mum and dad soon, it's a promise, yeah?" Spike took off into the tunnel following Dean's footsteps. A goblin was sluggishly making it way toward him, but what really got the vampire's attention was the scent of blood. Dean's.

Snarling, he shifted into game face and plowed into the goblin, slamming it against the wall. It came at him with its sharp claws. Moving with preternatural speed, he avoided each swipe, grabbing the claws of one of its hands and breaking them off. The goblin gave an inhuman shout that reverberated against the walls. "Didn't like that? I think you'll like this less," Spike warned, grabbing it around its massive shoulders from behind and using his free hand to shove its face to one side until a sickening cracking sound told him he'd broken its neck. It wasn't dead, but it was out of commission for now.

Dropping the goblin to the ground, Spike ran to Dean who was shoving and kicking at a goblin that was trying to claw his face off. As Dean kicked the thing in the center of its body, pushing it half way off, Spike grabbed it and whipped it around. Facing away from Dean, he fought the goblin, his fists connecting with its face and body multiple times. When the goblin attacked, he avoided each of its sluggish moves, then slammed his booted foot into the center of its thick body, sending it flying. Shifting back from his game face, he turned to Dean who was already trying to rush past him. "You want to do the honors, I don't like blood." Smirking, he followed the hunter, and when they reached the downed goblin, he put his foot on its chest and held it in place.

With a grimace of pain, Dean swung the blade and hacked the creature's head off. He brought one arm over his shredded shirt and flesh, a pained expression briefly crossing his face. Son of a bitch those were probably going to need stitches. "The other one?" Dean asked and at Spike's gesture he walked back toward the creature in the dark cave where the only light was from Dean's dropped flashlight. Dean picked up the flashlight along the way.

Looking down at the creature he growled, "for all the kids you bastards stole and ultimately killed." Swinging the machete he took great pleasure severing the creature's head from its body. He wiped the black blood on the machete off on the goblin's arm. It wasn't perfect, but at least it wasn't dripping the dark ichor now.

"Get the kid," Dean said, his voice strained. He looked down at his blood coated chest and worried the claws had gone deep. He was damned lucky the thing hadn't eviscerated him. The wounds would quickly get infected if they didn't get cleaned out, and though he didn't figure he would bleed to death, he would lose a good bit more blood than was healthy if he didn't get bandaged up. At least he didn't notice his aching leg from his encounter with the tree when he was swimming anymore.

There was a first aid kit in his pack that he'd dropped by the kid, one that was water tight so it shouldn't have taken any damage from his swim. He didn't know what sort of condition the kid might be in so he'd stocked it up a bit. Unfortunately he knew he wasn't going to just be able to pour alcohol over these wounds. He was going to have to fucking clean them out and probably should stitch them closed. Fuck. It was going to hurt like a bitch. Spike might not like blood, but Dean was going to need help as much as he hated to admit it. Odds were good, better than he wanted to admit, he might pass out from the pain while in the middle of cleaning out the wounds or trying to stitch himself up. He really hoped it looked worse than it was but there was too much blood to tell at the moment. He just knew it hurt like a bitch.

He made his way slowly back to the kid. "I got lock picks if you need them," Dean said. "Might be a good idea to get me and the kid bandaged up before heading down the mountain."

"You all right, mate?" Spike caught up and put a hand on Dean's back, leaning in to look at him. The front of Dean's shredded shirts were completely stained with blood. They entered the part of the cave Sean was in and he helped Dean to one side of the cave, glancing to where the morning light was coming in from the entrance. "Get your jacket off, I'll be back," he said.

Going to Sean, Spike dropped down next to him. Gripping the chain and padlock, he pulled them apart. "Rusty," he said for Dean's benefit, reaching out the same moment that Sean raised his arms to be helped up.

Smiling Spike stood up with him. "Always knew you were a brave boy. Show Dean how you do your breathing," he said, fishing the boy's medication out of his pocket.

"I... I cried."

"Not crying now, and you haven't turned into a shivering leaf... mean's you're brave."

Sean looked at his own body, then back at Spike. "You're silly."

"Right," Spike sighed and placed the inhaler over Sean's mouth.

The boy breathed in the medication, then pushed it away. "I wanna go home."

"Home, right. Let's fix up Dean first, yeah?"

Sean nodded and let Spike put him down.

"Bandages..." Spike looked toward the bag Dean had brought, and when the other man nodded, before Spike got to it, Sean brought it over to Dean's side.

"I'm not a fraidy cat," Sean announced, pulling the bandages out. "There's no yellow stuff in here to make it better."

Dean had to admit, the kid impressed him. Most anybody held by goblins a handful of days, held in this stench and chained up, would be whimpering and bawling and scared out of his mind if he had any mind left. It was obvious the kid loved Spike though, the way he wanted Spike to pick him up and be proud of him and that probably made all the difference in the world. The kid wasn't even flinching at the fact Dean's chest was red with blood.

"No you aren't," Dean agreed. "You're one brave kid. Your parents are gonna be real proud of you." He furrowed his brow at the kid's comment about yellow stuff as the kid peered into the first aid kit. Oh. Iodine. "On the right, under the four by fours, those 4 inch square bandages, but you need to wash your hands up 'fore you go digging in there. Why don't you wash your hands with that soap there, then there's a couple of protein bars and a bottle of gatorade and water in my pack for you. Uncle Spike," he smirked, "can look after me." The kid didn't need to see his torn up chest. Dean's eyes went up to Spike. "We need to get this kid and ourselves out of this stench. Get the kid cleaned up, me patched up, and you can take the kid down the mountain to his parents. My brother'll be up mid-morning to help me out.

Sean had cleaned his hands on his clothes and was tearing open a protein bar, when he looked up. "We can't go till night, unless daddy comes gets me. Do you have candy bars?"

Spike quickly got down to look in the pack. "No, none of those. But there'll be plenty for you later. Here, put your hands out." Pouring some of the water over first one hand, then the other, Spike washed Sean's hands, then used a rag that he wet to get his mouth and face clean. "Drink," he ordered, then went back to Dean.

"Does your phone have reception? Might want to call Xander and your brother, tell them where we are. At least they'll know they can stop worrying." And more importantly, Spike thought Xander would know to get his arse up here since it was daylight outside. "Let's see what we have."

Although Dean had shrugged out of his jacket and overshirt, his tee shirt was stuck to some parts of his chest. "Going to have to cut it off," Spike said, getting the dagger he'd seen in Dean's pack. As he palmed Dean's tee shirt up, revealing his abs, his gaze met Dean's. Last night was fresh in Spike's mind, and the intoxicating scent of this man's blood wasn't helping.

Even with the pain, Dean managed a smirk at seeing his look. "Get your mind out of the gutter. Minors present and all that. And this is going to put the kabosh on any extra-curricular activities for a few days at least, depending on how bad it is. Though we can probably get creative." He gave Spike a good once over. "Don't think I've ever had such a pretty nurse," he teased. "Wife and nurse. How lucky can a guy get. Wait, I know, damned lucky if things work out the way I want them to," he said with a leer. Then Dean let his head fall back against the cave wall and closed his eyes. God it stank to high heaven in here. "Phone's in my coat," Dean told him, his voice a little strained. "Don't know if we have reception. Definitely not in this cave, but maybe outside of it. Sam, that's my brother, is on speed dial one."

"Right." Step out of the cave and into the direct sunlight... only if he wanted to be a fire hazard. He could go though the tunnels, where they'd taken care of the goblins, and see if that exit had any shade on the outside, but somehow, Spike doubted it.

Carefully using the knife to cut the stretchy material of Dean's shirt, Spike wouldn't allow himself to enjoy the thrill from Dean's promise of extra-curricular activities. Only the night would tell and everything could change between now and then. When he got to the neckline, he reversed the direction of the knife, cut the last bit and slowly peeled the tee shirt off Dean's chest. "Still with the living?" he asked.

"Yeah," Dean said thickly. "It just burns like a mother-fu--it burn's bad," Dean said, cutting off his foul language with the kid not far away. He looked down at his bloodied chest, shocked to see his chest wasn't hamburger. It felt like it was. Instead of ragged flesh, the clawing looked like shallow incisions from a sharp knife. Even through the coating of blood he could see green and black slime in those incisions. That had to be the source of the burning and why it hurt so fucking bad. "Doesn't that just look awesome," Dean groaned. "You know if they're venomous? I know one entry in my Dad's journal said they might be able to temporarily paralyze their prey, keep them quiet while they took off with 'em, but if that was the case, I'd be out by now...unless it's geared for a kid," Dean mused. "Sean, they scratch you up? Did it make you not be able to move? Did it burn?" Dean asked, not giving Spike a chance to answer his initial question.

Sean lifted his face, eyes a little wide. He swallowed and looked at Spike, then back at Dean. "I was shouting for my daddy and Buffy and Aunt Willow and Spike... oh, and my mommy," he added, feeling a little guilty. He'd called for her once he was here, but she didn't fight bad things so he'd called to the others. "And then I was fighting and fighting, and something did scratch me," he nodded, "and I got away, but I fell and my jacket got caught."

Spike looked over. "You're all right now, yeah?"

Nodding, Sean continued. "And then..." he made a face. "It puked on me, right here." He pulled his shirt up to show them where he'd been scratched. "And then I was here."

"I'm tossing your arse straight into a tub, if your mum doesn't," Spike said, trying not to smile at the look of disgust that was still on Sean's face, and finding it reflected almost exactly on Dean's. He shook his head. "I think you're safe." He finished cleaning the wounds and applied some antibiotic cream instead of the iodine. Next he covered the wounds with some bandages and taped them in place, his thumbs skimming lightly over Dean's nipples when he was done. "Cold?" he asked, pointedly, tongue pressing behind his teeth as he smiled.

Even with the pain, his nipples perked up a bit at the attention. At least the burning had stopped for the most part. "Dammit Spike," he growled, glowering at the man. "And yeah I am cold, just for the damned record. My coat's half soaked in slime. Your coat, however, isn't. Would sure make a nice blanket over my chest." Damn there was nothing better than sex after a hunt but that would have to wait. Maybe tonight, if his chest was doing better he and Spike could hook up. Or he and Sam could stay in the area until his chest was well enough, if Spike was willing to hang. One look at the man watching him told Dean that would probably be a great big 'hell yes' if he asked Spike. He shifted a little as he felt more than just his nipples perking up at the thoughts running through his head. First order of business though was to get to the cabin then get the kid down the mountain.

Spike laughed at Dean's response, and started to take his coat off. "Your problem is you need to relax, unwind, some... stress release" he added, licking his lips as he covered Dean up with his coat.

"I'm all for that," Dean said, giving Spike a heated look. "But it's gotta wait."

Pulling away, Spike went and got Dean's phone and tried it. "No bloody signal." He walked toward the entrance, and tried again, then shook his head. "Sean, you know your father's number?" At the boys nod, he held the phone to him. Give him a try, don't wander," he said giving him a pointed look and standing just inside the entrance.

"Okay." The boy took the phone and stared at the screen. "It's not like my daddy's."

Spike took it back and dialed the number. "Push here, when you're outside."

Dean gave Spike a curious look. If it were him, he'd be glad to step out of the stench for awhile. In fact, in a few minutes he thought he would be ready to get his feet under him and get the hell out of here. Course he was sitting in the slime so until he got his clothes washed up he was going to be smelling like shit anyhow. Probably for days. His pack was probably all slimed up too. Damn. This sucked.

He listened to Sean talking excitedly to his Dad, telling him how Spike and another guy named Dean rescued him and killed the goblins and Dean was hurt and they were still at the cave. Dean called out to the kid, "Tell him we're moving to cabin 29, around K-17 on the park map." Dean looked at Spike. "C'mon, I'm okay. Grab my shit and let's get a move on," he said pushing himself to his feet. The burning was getting less and less and already his chest felt a lot less like ragged raw meat. Obviously the antibiotic cream was doing its job.

"They can come up here." Seeing the look of disagreement from Dean, he knew it made more sense to meet at a location that was known to everyone than to try to describe this one. "Right, cabin 29," he said, trying to appear casual, though every muscle in his body was tense. Assessing the hunter, he knew the man could make it back without assistance. "Leave your bag here, take the boy. I'll meet you there."

Sean came in, smiling brightly and excitedly telling them he'd spoken to both mommy and daddy.

Spike ruffled his brown hair. "Right, now you're going to take Dean to the cabin. Take good care of him, yeah? He's always tripping, can barely see. And he's afraid of the birds," he nodded gravely.

For an instant, Sean looked at Dean, then understanding dawned. "That's silly. He can too see well, but I'll protect him from the birds."

"I know you will. Off with you. Both of you." This time Spike's gaze locked with jade eyes, hoping to hell there wasn't going to be a fight.

Dean gave Spike a very plain 'What the Fuck' look. "Spike, come on. The bodies don't need burned, they're dead. There's no reason for you stay here. There's food and supplies at the cabin. And...I'm not really sure where the hell we are at the moment. Not until we get out and find a trail." Dean grew concerned. "Did one of them hurt you? What aren't you telling me? Why aren't you coming?"

"Not hurt, no, got something to d--"

"Spike can't come. Vampires can't go out in the sun, don't you know anything?" Sean asked.

Spike rubbed the back of his neck. "Sean, wait right outside. Take your water." He didn't smile, even when Sean did, as he went out again, but stayed within a few feet of the entrance.

The silence stretched until Spike couldn't take it. "Well, hunter? Will you go now?" He didn't ask the questions that were swimming in his mind. Would there be a next time? Was Dean so angry he couldn't see past that pretty nose... that nothing was really changed? No, he wasn't ready to hear the answers to those question.

Dean stared at Spike. A vampire? Spike was a vampire? But...but vamps could go out in the sun. All that Hollywood crap was just that, crap. That's what his dad had said, what he'd seen with his own eyes unless...maybe there was more than one type of vampire. If Spike was more demon than anything else, then maybe...maybe Hollywood wasn't so far off. Dean scowled and glanced out at the sunlit area before the cave, where the kid waited. The kid knew Spike was a vampire and trusted Spike one hundred percent.

Lenore, the vampire and her nest that Dean had met, they didn't feed on humans. That didn't mean Spike didn't though. But hell, Spike could have bit him a hundred times over, turned him with just a few drops of blood. No, wait, it didn't work that way with Hollywood vamps. Took a lot of blood for them to turn someone.

His chest had been covered in blood but Spike hadn't...hadn't done anything. He'd tended Dean, bandaged him.

Dean had fucked a demon. A vampire. Even knowing Spike was a thing, something he hunted, seeing Spike standing there in silence, no longer looking at him was like a knife in his gut. No...no he just couldn't deal with this right now. He handed Spike his coat back, picked up his bag, shouldering it, and walked out into the light. He couldn't even bring himself to thank Spike for patching him up. He couldn't bring himself to say anything. "C'mon Sean. Let's get you to the cabin. There's food there and we can wait on your dad and my brother."

He headed south, pretty certain that was the direction they needed to go. He couldn't even find it in him to look back at Spike. A vampire. A fucking vampire...

Spike looked down at the coat Dean had practically thrown into his hands, and then out after them for a while, until they disappeared behind a line of trees. Guess he had his answer. Silence qualified as one.

He was calm. He thought he was, until he turned suddenly and punched his fist into stone wall, biting his lip at the pain that instantly shot from his knuckles down his arm.

He'd wanted ... yeah, he'd admit it to himself, he'd wanted more time with the hunter. Wanted to know who he was and what he really was like. Whether this feeling that they could bond on a deeper level than sex was even real. The chemistry was there, but there was more. Spike liked the man's sense of humor. His strength and bravery. Even his line of business... a hunter, just like the rest of his friends from this decade.

Right, his own hunter friends didn't hate everything that wasn't human. This man though... well, he hadn't even looked at him again once he understood the truth. "Sodding hell..." Spike leaned his forehead against the stone wall. "I didn't know you were a bloody hunter." But if he had known... would that have changed a thing? Recalling how they'd practically mauled each other, he rolled his forehead against the cool stone, shaking his head 'no.'

* * *

It didn't take Dean long to find a trail and figure out where he was. Guiding the young boy down several paths, Dean found the cabin he and Spike had slept in...had sex in... Sean was quiet along the way, which surprised Dean. Most kids didn't shut up. But Dean was a stranger and the kid probably realized Dean hadn't known Spike was a vampire.

Opening the door, Dean nudged Sean inside. "Go clean up. I'll get the fire restarted."

They both stank of goblin and while he was sort of getting used to the reek, he wanted it gone as fast as possible. He needed to call Sam too. It was early enough he could probably get Sam to bring him up some clean clothes. Dean set his pack on the counter, grabbed a can of soup out of the cupboard, stripped off its label, punched a couple holes in the lid with his pocketknife, then carried it over to the fire. Stirring up the ashes and putting more wood and newpaper on the couple hot embers he found, the fire quickly blazed back to life.

He stared at it a minute, remembering how the fire had burned while he and Spike had been in front of it, remembering the fire that had burned in his veins. Grinding his teeth at the thought, he used the tongs to set the soup can in the fire to heat up. He turned and nearly tripped over the cushions and drapes on the floor, where he and Spike had made love. He blinked. Sex. They'd had sex. He'd fucking had sex with a vampire.

Shaking his head as if he could deny it, he picked up one of the drapes and brought it over to Sean holding it out before him. "Take off your clothes and wrap up in this, then go sit by the fire and I'll get your clothes rinsed out. It'll be a couple hours before your dad gets here probably and maybe we can get your clothes all dried out by then. They won't smell great, but it'll be better than now. Be sure to wash those scratches out good. I'll bring over the first aid kit and we can get iodine and bandaids and cra--stuff on 'em for you." He kept his had turned away from the kid so the kid wouldn't be embarrassed. He finally couldn't stop the question he'd been wanting to ask since they left the cave. "You've known Spike long?"

Sean looked around and didn't know where he was supposed to wash up. Besides, his mommy washed him, and she would when she got here for him. Taking his shirt off, he dropped it on the ground. "Uh huh," he gave a firm nod. "He's really strong. He can throw me up up up in the air and catch me." Letting his pants slide to the floor, he sat down and tugged them until they pulled over his sneakers, and then got up again. He wasn't taking his shoes and sox off. "Done!"

Dean realized the kid was going to trip over the curtain if he could even hold it up, and he couldn't reach the sink. "Crap," Dean muttered. He hadn't dealt with a kid since Sammy and Sammy was his brother.

He sighed. "Good job, dude. Okay just stand there a minute. Dean grabbed the soap out of the first aid kit and couple of the bandages. He turned the water on after using the pump to prime it and soaped up one of the bandages. "Okay, Sean, I'm going to wash up your scrapes and stuff and then kinda wash you down a little. You okay with that? If you want to wait for your dad to do it, that's okay."

He shrugged. "You can do it." He made a face as the not too warm water touched him, but he held still until Dean was done scrubbing him. He did smell better, but he was a little cold now.

"Okay, over to the fire, Sean," Dean said and as soon as the kid sat down on one of the cushions, Dean wrapped him up in the curtain. At this point he called Sam.

"Yeah?" Sam answered, a yawn in his voice, "You okay? Get the guy back safe?"

"I got the kid, don't ask, long story. Bring me fresh clothes and a couple trash bags. The kid's already called his dad and they're on their way. I'm back at cabin 29. And Dude, I would so not be against you renting one of those four-wheelers. Bring me coffee and donuts and food and whatever. I want outta here as soon as they get the kid."

"Uh, okay, Dean," Sam said, disturbed that Dean hadn't answered his question about being okay and about the other guy. He could tell his brother was upset, even pissed about something. He hoped the guy hadn't gotten killed. "I'll get there as fast as I can."

"Good," was all Dean said before he ended the call. He went to the dialed out numbers, and found the one he didn't recognize that had to belong to Xander, the kid's dad.

He dialed it and waited for someone to pick up. A man's voice answered. "Yeah, this Sean's dad?" Dean asked.

"Hello? Who is this?" Xander asked, holding the phone to his ear as he looked at the map spread out on the passenger seat. "And yeah, I'm his dad." His hand tightened on the steering wheel.

"Dean Young. I helped Spike get Sean out." Dean paused a moment, "I'm going out on a limb here but I'm guessing if I tell you goblins had the kid, you're gonna believe me."

"He's fine, right? My kid is still okay?" Xander insisted. When he got confirmation, he let out a breath. "Yeah. Figured it could be something like that. Just my luck, my kid takes after me with the whole 'demon magnet' thing," he gave a self deprecating chuckle. That was part of the reason he'd called on Spike. "Why? I mean I'm on my way to the cabin right now, is there a problem?"

"I wanted to make sure Sean told you 29, not the cabin he was grabbed from, for one. If you can, bring the kid some fresh clothes. I cleaned him up, made sure his scrapes are okay and, yeah, everything's minor. Some bruises on his wrists, scraped elbows and knees and a place on his ribs one of the goblins scratched him to knock him out. I'm washing out his clothes, but I don't know if they'll be dry when you get here. I got some soup heating up in the fireplace for him and got him wrapped up in one of the curtains. No blankets in this place." Dean paused. "Spike had to stay back at the cave what with the sun coming up. I know he's a vamp and ...what's his story? You obviously trust the bloodsucker or he wouldn't be here helping."

Xander had looked at the huge bag on the floor of the passenger seat his wife had made him take for Sean, but had at the same time wondered why Dean was going into such detail as to what was going on with his son. Not that he didn't appreciate it, but he felt like it was all leading somewhere else. Then he'd gotten to the Spike thing. "Hey, no one gets to call him bloodsucker, or leech or anything else, but me." Shifting gears, Xander bent his head to the side to hold the phone with his shoulder for a moment. "What do you wanna know that you couldn't have asked him? Did you piss him off or something?"

Dean grit his teeth. "I'm a hunter. I didn't know the guy was a vamp when I went out with him looking for your kid in the middle of the night. I've toasted my share of vamps, but the vamps I've come across they can walk in the light, wear fucking crosses, and pretty much everything in the lore is wrong. I met one nest, they don't feed on humans. I let them walk. Stopped the hunter who was torturing the chick and made sure her and her buddies got away. Spike can't walk in the sun. I'm figuring he's got more demon in him or something and I'm guessing the lore is more accurate for his type of vamp." Dean knew he was sort of babbling which wasn't like him at all, and he knew exactly why he was babbling. But what was he going to say to this guy? "Hey I fucked your friend, it was awesome, but now I'm freaked he's what I hunt and that I still want to fuck him again." Yeah. Not happening. Dean ran his hand through ihs hair. "Yeah, look, nevermind. So long as he doesn't feed on humans, I don't give a shit. I just wanted to be sure you knew which cabin to come to, and I didn't want you freaking out on me cause your kid's only got a curtain wrapped around him. You wanna talk with him again?" Better to end the call before it went places he didn't want it to go.

"Hey... look, I think I get it. He's an annoying prick, but you can't help liking him and then you feel like you need to hate him because of what he is. Been there, done that. Trust me, when a close friend of mine broke up with him, no one could have been happier. I was happy, just because he is a vampire. Now I know how wrong I was," he turned onto a dirt road and avoided a large puddle. "He's saved a lot of people. A lot." Xander remembered Spike's sacrifice. "Anyway, all I'm saying is if you're thinking of going after him to kill him, don't. A - he isn't that kind of vampire, B - he will kick your ass, I don't care how good you think you are. And C - touch him, and the Slayer will come after you, and she, for sure will kick your ass. And if you don't know team Slayer, look us up... or her up. It's under 'Slayer, The,' in all the usual books." He looked at his watch. "I should be there in fourty five minutes. We can talk more if you want, but I think you should let it go."

Let it go. Yeah. He should, but he couldn't get the man's face out of his head. The Slayer. Huh. He thought she was just a legend. So the great vampire slayer was friends with Spike the vampire. There was just something so wrong with that on so many levels. "Like I said, if he doesn't kill people to survive, I don't give a shit." Even though a voice in the back of his head said he did which was just fucking nuts. "Forty five minutes. Fine. We'll be here. My brother's headed up this way too, so you might run into him. Dark hair, tall, his name's Sam. Just so you know." Dean walked over to Sean and handed him the phone. "I called your dad to let him know you're okay."

After giving the kid the phone he walked back over to the sink to rinse out the kid's clothes and clean off any goblin slime from his weapons.

Dammit, why'd the guy have to be a fucking vampire?

* * *

First thing Dean did when he got back to the motel was shower. He scrubbed and scrubbed until he was practically raw. Peeling off the bandages he found the deep claw marks he was still sure he would find weren't much worse than getting scratched by a cat or thorns or something. One area still kinda hurt and burned and it looked maybe a little infected. He squeezed and nearly puked as green goblin slime and all its stench seeped out. He washed and squeezed and pried at it until he was certain it was clean and made sure all his other scratches weren't inflamed. No more goblins, ever, he vowed silently.

When he finally couldn't smell goblin on himself he stepped out and dried off. Sam had taken his clothes and jacket to the laundromat. He slid into his last pair of jeans and looked around. Where the fuck were his boots? He groaned. Sam must have taken them too. They were leather. If that stench got into the leather, he might as well write them off. Well, he had his old pair of boots that he usually wore when they went grave digging.

When his cell phone rang he picked it up off the table, glancing at the caller ID. It was Sam.

"Yeah?"

"Dude, I've washed everything twice in hot water and they still stink. I think it's hopeless. Your boots too. At least you weren't in your leather jacket. Hope they don't check out the Jeep when I return it. It reeks too."

"Pitch 'em," Dean said. Crap that meant a run to the local salvation army or something. Sam had the Jeep for the rest of the day so Dean's Impala was still sitting outside the room. "Guess I'm going shopping. I'll be back in a few hours."

"Okay. We gotta drop off the Jeep by six and it's about twenty minutes from the motel."

"Right. I'll be back in time."

After ending the call Dean returned to the bathroom and smeared antibiotic cream over his chest, his fingers lingering over his nipples, remembering the vampire's touch. He shook his head with disgust and finished bandaging himself up. Dressing in about three layers of shirts and his father's hand me down coat, he headed out for the closest Salvation Army store in the phone book. Okay, the only Salvation Army store. He paused when he saw the old beat up GTO sitting at the end of the parking lot. The windows were black as night. Could it be Spike's? This one horse town only had two motels and this was the cheap one. Even if it was, Spike was still stuck at that stench ridden cave until the sun went down. He saw the do not disturb sign hanging on the door and wondered if the small fridge in the room, instead of being filled with beer, had neat little rows of bottled blood...

Clenching his jaw, he peeled out of the parking lot. Damn him. God damn him.

Dean found a couple pair of ratty jeans that were his size, a green coat kinda like the one he just lost and frankly was in better shape than the goblin slimed one, and a pair of boots that looked practically new and fit perfectly. Somebody probably got them for hiking and discovered they didn't like hiking or gave 'em blisters or something. He found a pair of jeans that he knew would fit Sam, and picked up a couple shirts to replace the ones he'd lost. He looked over at the boots again. One pair, they were in pretty good shape and they looked like they might fit Spike. It was a sure bet Spike's boots would be as ruined as his. After a moment of hesitation he grabbed them. He owed the guy something for saving his life, right? Not guy, vampire he reminded himself. Still, he owed him. He couldn't help but remember the way Spike looked after the kid and the look of adoration in the munchkin's eyes for the man. Shaking himself out of his memories he paid for everything and headed back to the motel.

Did he really want to know? Did he really want to be sure it was Spike's room? Hell no. That's why he stopped in the office and asked the clerk if it belonged to a Brit with a long leather coat and bleached blond hair.

It was Spike's room. He picked the lock with practiced ease and stepped into the dimly lit room. There wasn't much in the room except for an empty ice chest and a duffel. Unzipping the duffel he looked inside. A change of clothes, some wooden stakes, a half empty bottle of whiskey--the good stuff that was surely what was in the flask Spike had let him drink from, and a long wicked daggar. Opening the fridge...blood. A milk jug almost completely full of it. He opened it and took a whiff. Dean knew what human blood looked and smelled like. He had seen and smelled a lot of it through the years. This wasn't human. He didn't know what it was, but it wasn't human.

Sitting down heavily on the bed, he looked around. He ran his hand absently over the pilled, worn bedspread of the still made bed. Damn that had been good sex, hellagood sex. There was a fire, a connection between them. Maybe because they were both predators and either could be prey for the other. Maybe because...shit. Who the hell knew. Who cared. Now that he knew what Spike was... wisest to just forget him. Yeah. He'd find himself something young and pretty and busty as hell and fuck her all night long. After getting dinner he would head to the bar. Spike would probably take to the road as soon as he got back and showered anyhow and that would be the best for both of them.

Taking a final look around, he left, leaving the boots right inside the door so Spike would practically fall over them when he returned.

* * *

The music drifted from the small dance floor all the way to the bar where Spike was trying to avoid it. Not only was it Country music, it was sad, everything is wrong with my life, broken hearts and lives type of music. Not that he was sad. He didn't even know the bloke that well. One night of sex and adventure was all they'd had. Then there was the look in those jade eyes, right before they'd turned away and stopped looking directly at him. Same eyes that only a short time before constantly followed him, or locked gazes with his own, warming his blood.

"Sodding hell..." He was wasting his time thinking about Dean. Taking the glass of whiskey, he swirled the amber liquid around, staring into it. Telling himself Dean had been clear, he didn't want anything to do with vampires. Even Xander had told him to watch out for the hunter who'd been asking questions, probably trying to learn what powers a vampire from the hellmouth had, and more importantly, what weaknesses. "Good luck with that, mate," he raised the glass to his lips and knocked it back.

What about the boots?

He firmly tapped his hand on the bar and asked for another drink. He had trouble explaining the boots. Maybe they were a parting gift. Maybe it was a way to repay him for... for whatever, and that way Dean wouldn't feel beholden to anyone. Spike knew first hand that was one way of cutting all strings. Not that there had been any strings.

What were the odds of them being at the same motel? Okay, so there were only two motels but still. It was a bloody good thing his car had already been parked at the motel and that he'd been stuck up in the mountains at the time Dean figured out he was staying at the same place. Otherwise, the hunter would probably have thought Spike had followed him to the motel and was stalking him.

Not that Spike never did that sort of thing.

His mouth flattened as he once again looked into his glass. The first thing he'd asked Xander once he'd taken a shower at Xander's cabin was whether he knew where Dean was staying. So yeah... the stalking had been a possibility. Still was.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been at the bar when he felt a pull and knew by his scent, it was Dean. He was somewhere in the bar. Slowly, he turned just his head and easily found him. Dean was in a brown leather jacket and had layers of clothes on, like the man that walked in with him. Watching the other man steadily, Spike concluded there was nothing between them. Maybe that was the brother.

When he shifted his gaze back to Dean's face, the hunter looked at him at the same time. Spike's laser blue gaze drilled into him, before the vampire raised his glass slightly in salute.

At seeing Spike, Dean froze and Sam had to bump his shoulder to get to him to move further into the bar.

"C'mon Dean, what's..." Sam's gaze followed Dean's and he saw the guy at the bar staring at them. He saw Dean give a jerk of a nod in acknowledgement to the guy then led Sam to one of the booths by the dance floor, about as far as they could get from the guy at the bar. He noted that Dean took the seat that let him watch the guy though.

Dean had been been acting weird ever since he picked him up at the cabin. The kid was gone by the time he got there and Dean had been pacing around outside like a caged tiger, never mind that he was shirtless with bandages on his chest and it was pretty chilly out still. Dean hardly grunted a hello as he grabbed the stuff Sam handed him, went inside, and changed. Sam had followed him in, saw the cozy nest by the fire that Dean must have put the terrified kid in. Sam had put the cleaned weapons into a fresh duffel and decided to get out of the cabin and decided his father was wrong. Goblins stunk worse than ten skunks in a small room. More like a hundred dead skunks in a small room. He had been really glad the Jeep's top was down and the rain hadn't materialized because even with Dean's clothes and duffel in the trash bag, god, they still reeked and so did Dean. When he pressed Dean for details about how bad he was hurt, why he went off to find the kid on his own and didn't wait for Sam, how many goblins there were, Dean gave him pissy curt answers. "I'm fine, ran into a damned good tracker that wouldn't wait until morning, three, they're dead, kid's fine, tracker went their own way. Anything else?"

Dean hadn't snapped at him like that since...well since Dad had died and Sam had been pushing him to open up. The ride down from the cabin had been pretty much silent, and Dean went right in to get a shower, hardly acknowledging Sam when Sam told him he was headed to wash the clothes. He'd been only mildly less pissy when Sam called and told him the clothes just weren't losing that eau de goblin aroma.

When he heard the Impala pull into the parking lot a few hours after he got back, Dean didn't come in right away. He finally stepped out to see what was taking Dean so long and saw Dean walking out of a room further up the way and still looking annoyed. Sam immediately went back inside and didn't think Dean had seen him.

When they went out for dinner at a nearby mom and pop diner after dropping off the Jeep, Sam finally asked him if the motel room belonged to the tracker. Dean had given him a glare to melt steel, bit into his burger and muttered "yeah." When Dean didn't order any pie, or hell even finish his entire meal, Sam knew something was eating his brother big-time.

Dean was still crank city when they got back to the motel, but he'd seen Dean's eyes drift down to the motel room he'd broken into and the car that was still parked in front of it's door.

"So was this tracker of yours good looking?" Sam ventured.

"Yeah."

Sam was getting tired of Dean's attitude but was also a little worried. "She made it out of the goblin cave okay, right?"

Dean tossed the TV schedule he was looking at back on the small table. "The tracker was fine, okay? What's with the fucking tenth degree?"

Sam let it drop. When he suggested a possible case in Arkansas, Dean blew it off. Said he needed a couple days to chill and here was as good a place as any. Plain as day, Sam saw it in Dean's eyes, he'd liked this tracker. Alot. He didn't get tied up in knots like this when a case went well. They should be celebrating and Dean should be chomping at the bit to see what else was down the road, what the next case was. Hell, Sam couldn't recall ever seeing Dean get this tied up in knots over anyone except maybe Cassie.

"Dean..." Sam had started and Dean gave him that look that warned him to shut the fuck up about it. Raising his hands in surrender Sam suggested the bar and now here they were. They both got whiskey though Dean ordered two for himself and downed the first one as soon as it arrived. His brother's gaze kept drifting to the blonde guy at the bar, hardly glancing at the couple of good looking women dancing nearby.

No, that couldn't be the tracker. His brother didn't sleep with guys...did he? Sam thought long and hard about it. He had seen Dean give the occasional discreet once over to a good looking guy. Seen Dean take an awful long time in the bathroom now and again and looked pretty damned pleased with himself when he came out. Dean was a slut, they both knew it. He'd sleep with damned near anyone, Sam had just always figured it was girls but it didn't take much of a stretch for Sam to believe Dean might swing either way. Huh. What if the tracker and the guy at the cabin were one and hte same?

Sam looked over his shoulder at the object of Dean's gaze. The guy was good looking, no doubt.

"That your tracker?" Sam finally asked.

Dean's gaze shot to his brother, practically nailing Sam to his seat with that gaze. "I don't swing that way," he snapped.

"Nothing wrong with it if you did," Sam said. "Might explain how come everyone is always mistaking us for a couple."

Dean snorted but his eyes became veiled as he stared down into his glass of whiskey. "You know I only hit on girls, Sammy," Dean said.

"No, I know that's all I see you hit on when I'm with you."

Dean looked up at his brother, surprised at how well Sam was taking the possibility he did swing both ways. Dean finally gave a shrug his eyes almost challenging. "Yeah."

"Yeah, what? He's your tracker friend? You swing both ways?"

Dean gave a long sigh. He hadn't ever wanted Sam to know that about him, but since his brother had more or less finally caught on, he didn't see the sense in denying it. At this point, if he did, Sam would be watching his every move like a hawk. "Yeah to both."

Sam sat back, surprised Dean had owned up to it. Equally surprised Dean did swing both ways, but really, it wasn't a big deal to him. Not something he wanted to picture, Dean doing it with a guy, but Dean humping a girl wasn't something he really wanted to think about either. "Then what are you doing sitting here? Go talk to him."

Dean shook his head. He gave a smirk, but Sam saw the sadness in his eyes. "That would be a real bad idea, Sammy."

Sometimes Sam just wanted to smack Dean upside the head.

Spike openly watched Dean, trying not to show any reaction each time the hunter pulled his gaze away as if to dismiss him. Only he kept looking back, and then his brother turned to look as well. They were talking about him, he could tell that much. They were near the music, so even with his sharp hearing, he didn't pick up a lot of what they said. He had half a mind to walk up to them and ask if they were plotting his demise. Maybe that would get a reaction out of Mr. strong, stubborn and determined. Lifting his glass, Spike knocked back the lot of it, never taking his gaze off his... his what? Obsession, he decided. It was as good a word as any for Dean.

Dean saw the glare Sam returned to him, then saw the determined set to his chin. Oh crap was the first thing that came to mind. He had a feeling a little brotherly revenge was on the way. After all, how many times had Dean tried to push Sam into sleeping with a girl, or hell, just going out on a date with one.

"Going to go order us a couple more drinks," Sam said, pushing himself out of hte booth and heading toward the bar.

"God dammit Sam," Dean muttered.

Sam walked over to the bar, right next to the guy who had been the focus of Dean's attention since they arrived. He gave the guy a once over then turned to the bartender. "Two whiskeys."

When the bartender got him the two Sam pushed across the money. He cocked an eyebrow at the guy who's eyes hadn't left him and was definitly a little leery of him.

"My brother and you," Sam said, "obviously need to talk." He pushed the drinks over to the blond guy. "So go talk. I'm tired of getting my head bit off."

Spike regarded Sam for a long moment, then gave a nod. Taking the the two drinks, he gracefully slid off the stool and strolled toward Dean. Though he was smirking slightly, he told himself there were no guaranties that their talk wouldn't end the same way it had in the goblin cave.

Dean was cursing Sam the whole time he was up at the bar. When he saw Spike headed in his direction, his gaze slid to the dance floor. A slow dance song had just started. He so did not dance, but if the choice was between dealing with the vampire and slow dancing, he'd dance. Pushing himself out of the booth, he approached a dark-haired chick who had been dancing with her girlfriends and asked for the dance. The girl readily agreed, and Dean pulled her into his arms, turning his back to Spike.

Standing a few feet away from the table Dean had abandoned, Spike turned his head and watched him draw the woman into his arms. Didn't take long for the hunter's hands to start to rove over her body. Right, Spike had first hand experience there. He looked at the ground for a moment, stuffing his disappointment down and telling himself it didn't matter. It was what he'd half expected anyway.

Turning on his heels, he headed back to the bar and set the drinks down in front of the taller brother. As he pulled a few bills out of his pocket, he felt the bloke's questioning look. "With some people, it comes down to what you are, not what you do, doesn't it?" Dropping the money onto the bar, he walked out, never looking at the dance floor again.

Dean danced with the girl for the next handful of dances. When he finally looked around the bar he saw that both Spike and his brother were gone. Pulling the girl into a kiss. he tried to enjoy it, enjoy her cinnamony taste, her sweet lips, but all could think about was he could be kissing Spike right now. Vampire, he reminded himself and kissed the girl a little more intensely. She smiled at him when he ended the kiss.

Looking into her brown eyes he started to see if she wanted to bail, go back to her place, but the words caught in his throat. He gave her a charming smile.

"I enjoyed it," he said. "I...I gotta go now. Thanks for the dance."

The girl's smile turned into a pout. "I thought maybe you might like to see my place. Big king sized bed, beautiful view of the mountains," she said looking coyly down at her large breasts. She ran her fingers down his chest until she reached the button to his jeans and rubbed her fingers across it promisingly. "You sure?"

Dean ran his hand down her silky dark hair. "If I did, I know I'd be one helluva lucky guy but...I just can't. Not tonight. It's my loss." Turning, Dean returned to his booth and tossed back what was left of his whiskey. He went up to the bar, ordered a double which he downed in one fell swoop then headed out of the bar and back toward the motel half a block up the road.

* * *

Spike stood in the parking lot, leaning against his car. He'd gotten most of his gear packed away and was having a smoke. He couldn't help it if his eyes kept going to Dean's motel room. He knew it was Dean's room because he could smell Dean's scent...and the barest hint of goblin stench. He'd walked by it, listened and heard only one person's heartbeat. It wasn't Dean's... he'd know that beat anywhere.

It wasn't his bloody business if Dean was happily in the arms of that brunette he'd been with, good on him if he was. He forced the images out of his head, and took a long drag on his cigarette. The smart thing to do would be to walk to reception and check out. Leave this whole business behind him.

Only something inside him kept him rooted and waiting. Waiting for the impossible.

(A/N: apologies for the slow postage - RL is interfering again)
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