It was Gunn's turn to drive. It generally was in these parts of the country, where the highway was littered with small towns and on-ramps. Gunn looked over at Xander, dozing in the passenger seat, and thought longingly of the trips through the Southwest. The highway wound through long barren stretches of hills and desert. Xander took his turns then. He'd take the wheel, plant himself firmly in the left lane, and drive for as long as he could keep his eye open. The hot, dry days in New Mexico and Arizona ended in ridiculously beautiful sunsets, so vibrant they looked like paintings for the movies. Xander would drive through the twilight until the call of dinner overpowered the offer of chips and beef jerky in the car.
They were somewhere in Missouri at the moment, driving through farming country. Growing up in the city, Gunn had always pictured the country as one big cornfield, populated only by a few farmers, but there were towns strung along the highway like pearls on a string, spaced out by fields and pastures. He took a deep breath of the clean air. Even if Xander wouldn’t drive surrounded by commuter traffic to Saint Louis, Gunn liked it here. He enjoyed seeing green around him, and he still got a kick out of watching the cows and horses.
Gunn peeked over at Xander, verifying that he really was asleep. Well, then, there was no reason to keep listening to this God-awful radio station. He turned the dial, scrolling through a thirteen year-old girl mourning the love of her life in piercing tones, a young man rapping about sex using clichéd fruit metaphors, and a cowboy caterwauling about his boyhood home. Gunn glared threateningly at the radio, which seemed to work, because the next station was NPR, and they were playing HMS Pinafore. That was more like it. Long, dark fingers tapped the steering wheel in time to the music, and Gunn hummed along.
“Hardly ever sick at sea,” Xander chimed in. Gunn glanced at the passenger seat and saw Xander smiling at him sleepily.
“I had this put in my head by evil lawyers,” Gunn said with a smirk. “What’s your excuse?”
Xander rubbed at his eye and stretched the kinks out of his neck. “You know how Spike roomed with me a couple times? When he was feeling particularly Spike-like, he would sing musicals all night so I couldn’t sleep. The Gilbert and Sullivan nights were better than the Rogers and Hammerstein.”
“Sound of Music?”
“No kidding.” They listened to Captain Corcoran singing to Buttercup for a few minutes. Xander said, “But on the plus side, it helps out occasionally when the old school Watchers make a Mikado reference. They get all flustered when I laugh at the jokes they think are over my head.”
Gunn smirked. Then he winced and shifted in his seat. They’d been on the road for six months out of the last year, Xander recruiting Slayers while Gunn took care of the liability issues and guardianship papers. Sometimes it felt like he’d been driving for decades. Gunn angled his left leg, trying to find a comfortable position for it and failing. Maybe centuries.
“We need to stop soon,” he told Xander. “Let me know if you see a place.” Xander nodded, and Gunn went back to humming along with the radio.
The hand on his shoulder was rough and sudden and jarred him so badly he nearly swerved out of his lane. “There!” Xander shouted, pointing out the window. “Stop there!” Gunn followed his gesture.
“I meant a rest stop,” he sighed.
“This is so better than a rest stop,” Xander insisted. “It’s the perfect place to relax. We can eat, stretch our legs ... Come on. Please! With chocolate syrup on top?” he wheedled.
Gunn had always thought of himself as a strong man, but he could not resist that tone of voice. Especially when it said the words ‘chocolate syrup.’ A little shiver went through him and he gave in. “Fine. But you’re making it up to me,” he said.
Xander flashed him a brilliant smile. “Promise!” He bounced excitedly in his seat as Gunn pulled off the road and into the parking lot for the fairgrounds.
It was a county fair, which was apparently a bigger deal than a mere town fair, but not as important as the State Fair. Gunn picked up this information from a young girl with pig tails and a real live pig, who was greeting people near the entrance. She’d also encouraged him to support the local 4-H. Gunn turned down her pamphlets and followed Xander past the rodeo, around the talent show, and into the midway.
“Ah hah!” Xander said, with an air of great discovery. “You’re gonna love this.” He grabbed Gunn’s hand and pulled him toward the food booths at one end. Gunn eyed the other fairgoers warily. A white man and a black man holding hands at the fair were just asking for trouble. This didn’t seem to occur to Xander, though, as he didn’t release Gunn until they were firmly in line for fried Twinkies.
“What genius thought of frying the most nutrient-free food on the planet?” Gunn asked incredulously.
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” Xander said. His eye sparkled in anticipation. When he was finally served, he turned to Gunn triumphantly, brandishing a paper plate holding a golden brown lump on a stick. “Taste this,” he ordered.
Gunn was reluctant. Gunn was hesitant. Gunn was so very, very wrong. “Oh my Lord!” he breathed, reaching for another bite. The batter was crispy and sweet, and the cream had melted all through the cake. Frying it had made it transcend its mere Twinkie origins. “Whoever invented this was a genius.”
“Mmmm,” Xander moaned his agreement around his own mouthful. His expression was rapturous, his eye closed as he ate. Gunn hadn’t known food could make him look that way. These things were like deep fried sex. Xander opened his eye and saw Gunn watching him. He smiled uncertainly. “If I have food all over my face and you don’t tell me, you know you’re sleeping alone tonight, right?” he asked.
Gunn glared at him. “Have you ever heard of discretion?” he demanded.
“What?” Xander asked in surprise.
“You’re going to get us beat up,” Gunn said.
Xander scoffed. “Dude, look at us. Who’s that stupid?”
He had a point. Gunn could exude the violence he’d learned on the street one minute and threaten a lawsuit the next. Xander could be kind of scary himself, and a surprising number of people assumed the single eye meant he was dangerous. Still, there was no use courting trouble.
“Just tone it down,” Gunn cautioned. Xander rolled his eye and shoved another bite of Twinkie at Gunn. “You want to ride some rides?” Gunn asked in a conciliatory tone.
Xander ate the last bite of Twinkie. “Why don’t you go?” he said. “I get a little motion sick.”
Gunn looked from Xander’s face to the rides in the distance and back to Xander. “You sure?” he asked.
“Go,” Xander said, making a shooing motion.
Gunn weighed the possibility that this was some kind of test against the pleasure of riding the Tilt-a-Whirl until he puked. “I’ll find you in about a half an hour,” he promised.
Xander nodded and tossed the plate in a trash can. Gunn wove his way through the crowd, dodging crying children and clusters of teenagers, and bought a sheet of overpriced ride tickets from a woman in a booth. When he craned his neck, he could see Xander loitering in front of the midway games. Satisfied that the other man would have enough to keep him occupied, Gunn made his way to the rides.
One time on the Scrambler, two on the Rock-o-Planes, and three on the Tilt-a-Whirl used up half of his tickets. Gunn was a little wobbly when he wandered back to the midway. He found Xander right where he’d left him, at the games. He was standing in front of a bank of Skeeball games, stooping slightly as he rolled ball after ball up the ramp. It was almost hypnotic. Thud as the ball hit the slope, the swishing sound as it rolled, clatter as the ball went in. Thud, swish, clatter.
“How’s it going?” Gunn asked.
Xander yelped and dropped his ball. “Better before I had that heart attack,” he complained. He took a deep breath. “I think I’m getting better at this,” he said. “It’s a lot like bowling. As long as I look at the target and not right in front of me, I can aim pretty well.”
He rolled his last ball and looked at his score, then turned to Gunn with a big grin. “I get one of the big prizes. Which one do you want?”
Gunn blinked at him. “Huh?” he asked intelligently.
“I always wanted to win one of the great big stuffed animals for my ...” he looked at Gunn, “completely platonic friend. Which one do you want?”
Gunn felt the grin growing on his face. That was so damned cute. “That one.” He pointed to an enormous stuffed bulldog. The operator pulled it down for him, and the two men walked away. “I have some tickets left,” Gunn said, wrapping his arms around the toy. “You want to ride the Ferris Wheel? It’s guaranteed not to make you sick.” He could do the wheedling voice, too.
“Okay,” Xander nodded.
They let a skinny man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt lock them into a Ferris Wheel car, the dog squished between them. There was something magical about a ride this slow and steady still being able to make his stomach flip, and Gunn smiled as they went up and around.
Xander gave him a rueful grin. “I always wanted to kiss a girl on the Ferris Wheel,” he said. “Like in the movies. But Cordy wouldn’t be seen in public with me half the time we were together, and Anya didn’t believe in wasting money on something this pointless.” His gesture took in the whole fair.
“Had to be a girl?” Gunn asked.
“Hey, I was repressing,” Xander said defensively. His expression grew wistful. “It’s too bad I’m only here with my platonic friend.”
Gunn shook his head. “That’s not working,” he claimed.
“’Cause if I was here with my boyfriend I could fulfill one of the dreams of my youth,” Xander continued.
“It’s still not working,” Gunn said in a singsong.
Xander didn’t say anything, but he sniffed and fixed Gunn with a look. It was a mixture of innocence and desire, with just a hint of a pout. It just melted him. “You are so evil,” Gunn accused. But even as he said it, he was leaning across the bench, meeting Xander halfway. Their car rocked gently as the rose through the air, kissing over the head of the stuffed dog. When they came down, Gunn wasn’t sure if the twist in his stomach was from gravity or Xander.
When he pulled away, Xander’s smile was blinding. Gunn managed to keep from smiling back. “You owe me,” he said grumpily.
“I know,” Xander replied.
“I expect a reward,” Gunn said. The smile was breaking through the grumpiness now. “With chocolate syrup on top.” There was no stopping the smile now. Xander reached over and pulled him closer for another kiss. Gunn let himself be pulled. There at the fair, Gunn just relaxed and let Xander drive.