Cricket


by Saber ShadowKitten







Part One





I'm in love with Xander.

Spike hit the enter key and watched as his typed message appeared in the AOL Instant Messaging window. He leaned his head back against the rock wall in the cavern beneath his crypt and rubbed his eyes. The laptop he'd scavenged from the garbage dump and repaired was perched on his lap, an extension cord and telephone line leading from the back of the computer to the splices he'd made in the city lines that ran beneath Sunnydale's streets. It hadn't been hard to do. The UC Sunnydale library had books on practically everything.

The white-blond vampire lived half the time below ground, in the natural cavern beneath the crypt. He'd purchased an old army cot and blanket from a garage sale, and scavenged several tables, lamps, and a bookcase from the dump. He'd left his chair and television in the crypt. Better reception.

The computer beeped at him and he opened his eyes. His AIM 'Buddy' had answered his declaration.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: You're what?!!

Chuckling in self-depreciation, Spike typed in his reply.

cricket818: Don't make me say it again. Please.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Please? Wow, do you have it bad.

cricket818: Yes. Stake me?

angeldoesntpaymeenough: lol. What is it about Xander that makes normally sane people fall for him?

cricket818: His ass. And his smile. And the way his eyes sparkle with gold when he's being possessive...

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Do you want to be alone?

cricket818: lol.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: So, are you going to tell him?

cricket818: Not under penalty of Angel singing.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Why not?

cricket818: He's got a chit, remember?

angeldoesntpaymeenough: And?

cricket818: He's not gay. Not even slightly bent.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: And?

cricket818: He loathes me.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: And?

cricket818: And... I'm too scared.

Spike knew by admitting that he was scared -- terrified, actually -- completely ruined the tough guy, no holds barred image he projected. Then again, Cordelia had figured out it was an image ages ago. Not that he wasn't a badass; he most definitely was, but that's not all he was. He was also a romantic. A lover. A man who cared more than a vampire should. Someone who hated to be alone.

He was also a bloody coward.

cricket818: Damn it, Cordelia, I hate this.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Being in love with Xander, or being too scared to tell him?

cricket818: Either. Both. I've never been in love with a mortal before. Or another bloke.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: And you chose Xander as your guinea pig?

cricket818: *growls* No. I didn't choose Xander. It just sort of happened.

Spike remembered the day he realized he was in love with Xander clearly, even though it was over a month ago. Everyone had been gearing up to slay the Super-sized version of the demon-of-the-week, loading down with weapons and spell ingredients at the Magic Box. Spike had been in the back, retrieving his favorite axe which he'd left propped by the rear door. When he'd returned to the front, everyone had already left... without him.

It had hurt, worse than it should have. He'd been working with the Slayer and the other Misfits of Science off and on for years, helping them fight the bigger evils that descended on Sunnydale. Although they weren't all bosom buddies, he'd thought that he was somewhat part of the group. At least, enough of a part that they'd wait for him.

Spike had just swallowed back the hurt when the shop door had opened. Xander had appeared in the doorway and scanned the store until his gaze landed on Spike.

"There you are," he'd said. "I told them you went to find your favorite axe." He gestured irritatingly for Spike to join him. "Get your ass in gear, slowpoke. We've got an Oabert to kill."

Spike had fallen then, in a blink of impatient coffee-colored eyes. Xander had not only waited, but knew why he was waiting. For some reason, Xander's knowing that Spike had a favorite weapon hit the vampire squarely in the heart. And he'd been falling deeper and deeper in love with the other man every day since.

"Spike?"

Spike heard Dawn's call from up in the crypt, and he yelled back, "Down here, Dawn!"

cricket818: Got to go. Bite-sized is here.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Okay. When you tell Xander, I want to be first to know, understand?

cricket818: *big sigh* Yes, Cordelia.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Bye.

cricket818: Bye. Give the old man a wedgie for me.

Spike logged off as Dawn came down the ladder. She joined him on his cot, folding her long legs like a pretzel. The eighteen year old, recent high school graduate had grown out of her coltishness and into a lithesome beauty. She was a boy-magnet. She was also a bitch. Spike adored her.

"What's up, luv?" the peroxide-blond asked, leaning forward to slide the laptop under the cot.

"Giles's blood pressure," Dawn quipped. She pulled a battered pack of smokes from her back jeans pocket and offered him one before lighting up herself. "The Council of Assholes sent a 'missive,'" she sneered, complete with finger quotes. "And Buffy and Giles are now going to England like good little marionettes. Willow and Tara are going with them."

"But not you." Spike smirked knowingly.

"But not me," Dawn echoed. She took a long drag on her cigarette and exhaled as she spoke. "And get this: Buffy wants Xander to babysit me while they're gone."

Spike managed not to look to perky at the sound of Xander's name. "Really? How awful."

"Majorly," Dawn agreed. "I'm eighteen, for hell's sake. What does she think I'm going to do, have sex in her bed?" She snorted. "Too late."

"Dawn! For shame," Spike teased. "Having sex in your very own sister's bed. I hope he left come-stains."

"On the pillow." Dawn grinned evilly. "Buffy thought she'd spilled hand lotion."

Spike laughed. "You're all right, pet."

They sat in companionable silence for several minutes, enjoying their cigarettes.

"So, are you going to help me get rid of the Xander-sitter?" Dawn eventually asked.

"Don't think I can, Dawn. You know how much Buffy listens to me," Spike said, even though he'd be happy to tie Xander to his bed for however long Buffy was away. "Best you can do is think of him as the house-sitter."

Dawn slumped unhappily. "Hell." She crushed her smoke out on the bottom of her Converse and unfolded herself from the cot. "Want to come over and annoy Buffy while she packs?"

"Sure, ducks," Spike said, rising as well. He slung an arm over her shoulder as they headed for the ladder. "Maybe I can convince big sis you're too old for a sitter. If not, we can nick all her unmentionables from her suitcase."

*****

Spike couldn't convince Buffy that Dawn didn't need a sitter, but Dawn finagled permission to have whomever she wanted to stay over, too, while the Slayer was gone. The second Buffy had left the room, Dawn asked Spike. Crafty little chit, his Dawn was.

It was odd, having two girls like Dawn and Cordelia as his best mates. Hell, it was bloody odd having humans he classified as friends. But he had two: both female, both bitches, and both who didn't mind that he was a tasteless bastard with a teddy bear heart. Cordelia was the friend he could confide in, and Dawn he played with -- in the very non-sexual connotation of the word. Talking about sex with her was fine, but the thought of actually having intercourse with her gave him the creeps.

Things probably would've been different if Joyce hadn't died when Dawn was fifteen. Spike highly doubted that Joyce would allow her little girl to become the bint she was today. But Joyce had died and Buffy had done the best she could raising her sister. Dawn was a bit rough around the edges, but she didn't get in trouble with the law... at least, not with Spike watching her six. Buffy blamed Spike's friendship for a lot of Dawn's attitude. Spike was happy to agree with the Slayer on that count.

Xander arrived at the Summers' residence two nights later, shortly before Buffy was due to leave. Spike was already there, having squirreled away some of his clothing in Dawn's room for the 'sleepover party.' He and Dawn were sitting on the stairs, side by side, listening as Buffy instructed Xander's ear off in the front hall. Well, Dawn was listening, Spike was really looking at Xander's ass.

Finally, Buffy left with a last, "Don't burn the house down," and Xander turned to the two sitting on the steps and stared hard at the vampire. "Spike, why are you here?" he asked.

"Didn't you hear? Buffy said Dawn could have someone stay over." Spike laid his head on Dawn's shoulder and smiled innocently. "Guess who she invited."

"Oh, no," Xander shook his head. "No, no, no, no, no. Huh-uh. Not happening, pal."

Spike and Dawn exchanged looks, scrambled to their feet and up the stairs to her room. The bedroom door slamming was their response to Xander.

Laughing, Spike threw himself on Dawn's bed. Dawn sprawled on her chair, reached under her desk where the mini-fridge was hidden, pulled out two lemonades -- Mike's Hard Lemonade, to be precise -- and pitched one to him.

"Question: how do you know if you're in love with someone?" Dawn asked, twisting off the bottle cap and taking a draught of her vodka-heavy lemonade.

Spike twisted the cap on his bottle right across the room. He watched as it hit the postered bedroom door and bounce harmlessly on the carpet. "Erm... is there a particular reason, or are you just asking?"

She kicked off her shoes, leaned back on two legs of the chair, and plonked her feet on the desk. "There might be a guy," she replied mysteriously. "A tall, dark, handsome, funny guy."

"And this guy, do I know him?" Spike tilted the bottle of hard lemonade to his lips.

"He's babysitting us."

Oh, look: a spit-take.

Dawn practically fell off the chair, laughing. "Oh man, the look on your face! I wish I had a camera!"

"Cunt," Spike growled at her, grabbing a handful of tissues to mop up the mess.

"The sweetest," Dawn grinned unrepentantly.

After a moment, he ventured casually, "You, ah, were joking, right?"

"Of course I was kidding." She made a face. "C'mon, it's Xander. Once upon a time I thought he was delish, but now," she shuddered, "ick, eew, and blech. Who in their right mind would want him?"

"Who, indeed?" Spike murmured.

"Besides that cow Anya," she continued, not hearing him. She lit up a cigarette and stretched her feet out on the desk again. "Gods, I can't stand that bitch."

"She does leave a nasty taste in your mouth," he said. The wet tissues were pitched in the trash and he got comfortable again. He caught the magazine Dawn tossed to him, and they fell into their ususal companionable routine, when they weren't busy helping to save the world.

*****

Dawn had the stereo cranked. Metallica rattled the windows and made the knick-knacks dance. The shared ashtray was full of cigarette butts. Empty bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade filled the garbage can. Read and discarded magazines were in a sloppy pile at the end of the bed.

"Check it: the Louvre is adding Miguel Ancien's sculptures to their collection," Dawn read. She thumped the art magazine on her thighs. "What I wouldn't give to be able to go to Paris."

"What's stopping you?" Spike held his hand up in the light, critically studying his half-painted nails. Gary Glitter Gold and Blue. He couldn't decide if he liked.

"Uh, hello, there's a little thing called 'No Money'," Dawn replied. "Plus, Buffy would never let me go alone."

"You're eighteen, pet," he said. "Last I checked, in America that meant you could tell your sis to sod off."

"I could," she agreed, then sighed. "But then there'd be guilt, and guilt causes breakouts, and I'm so not going to spend my time in Paris looking like a walking zit."

"Hmm." Spike carefully brushed the nail polish across the thumbnail on his left hand. "Maybe she'd let you go if you went with someone."

Dawn chuckled. "Yeah. Do you think Xander'd take an overseas babysitting job?"

Spike managed not to get gold polish smeared across his finger when his hand twitched. Cor, he was pathetic. "Don't know, ducks. You'd have to ask him."

The bedroom door opened, and Speak Of The Devil popped his dark head inside. "Hey," Xander said over the music. "Do the band members want pizza?"

Dawn used her toe to turn down the volume on the stereo. "Nah, they don't want any. Which means more for me."

Xander gave Spike an amused look as he entered the bedroom, a large cardboard pizza box in hand. "Are you sure you want a boy crashing your Girls Night In party?"

Spike gestured rudely with his newly painted nails. Inside he quivered, a normal occurrence nowadays in Xander's presence.

Dawn joined Xander on the floor after passing out boring-old sodas. Careful of his wet nails, Spike popped the tab and took a sip.

"So what are you two ladies gabbing about?" Xander asked.

"Paris," Dawn said, passing a slice of pizza to Spike, "and how to get me there."

Xander was watching Spike intently, a suspicious smirk tugging one corner of his mouth. It made Spike none-too-comfortable. "What're you looking at?" the blond growled.

Xander lifted a shoulder in a shrug, and bit into his pizza. "Eat up, Spike, before it gets cold," he said around a mouthful.

"Hey, Xander, can we rent some movies tonight?" Dawn asked.

"Sure," Xander agreed. "Anything in particular?"

"A horror flick, so we can make fun of it," she replied.

"How 'bout Curse of Spider Island?" Spike suggested, biting into the slice of pizza. "Bad music, worse acting, and--"

"Spike, what's wrong?!" Dawn said in panic when Spike suddenly scrambled off the bed. The soda spilled on the floor. The pizza slice he'd held in his hand landed face down on the bed.

Spike found the garbage can and spit out the pizza. Heaving and hacking, he lost the contents of his stomach. Mike's Hard Lemonade tasted like piss on the way back up. It hurt coming out his nose and tears fell from his eyes, dripping into the disgusting, soupy mixture coating the liquor bottles and the sides of the garbage can.

He felt a hand on his back and he shook it off. Stumbling to his feet, he hurried out of the room, down the stairs and into the kitchen. His mouth felt like it was burning, and the back of his throat was raw and blistering. He quickly rushed to the sink, threw on the faucet, and stuck his face under the heavy stream. He gulped warm water and spit it out over and over again, until the burning had finally stopped.

Spike turned off the water, wiped his face with a dish towel, and threw it on the island counter. He went outside onto the small back stoop and sat on the top step. He lit up a cigarette with wildly shaking hands. Hell, he smeared his nail polish. He took an unsteady pull on his fag, then coughed and spit when the smoke irritated his throat.

The back door opened and Spike tensed as someone with footsteps too heavy to be Dawn's came outside. "Gods, Spike, I'm so sorry," Xander said immediately. He crossed to Spike's side, sat down, and put his hand on Spike's knee. "Are you okay?"

Spike looked at the hand on his leg. Five minutes ago, he would've given his kidney for Xander to touch him like this, but now... he'd still give his kidney. He didn't use the bloody organ anyway.

"I thought the garlic crust would just burn your tongue a little," Xander continued. "You know: ha-ha, practical joke on Spike the vampire. Everyone'd get a good laugh."

"Everyone, meaning you," Spike rasped.

Xander winced. "I'm sorry," he apologized again. "Really sorry. I didn't know it would hurt you that way."

Spike drew on the cigarette, coughed and spit again, then flicked the fag away. His hand still shook as he put it on top of Xander's, but for an entirely different reason: Xander was touching him! The vampire looked directly at the other man, and said, "Apology accepted."

Xander nibbled his lower lip, worry written across his face. "Are you okay?" he asked a second time.

"Yeah," Spike croaked, more because he wanted to be the nibbler of that pouty lip. "You, though, got quite the shiner."

The brunette used his free hand to touch his bright red right eye and surrounding cheek. He chuckled. "Dawn sure knows how to punch."

Spike grinned proudly. "That's my girl."

Xander studied the vampire for a moment. "You aren't , uh, you know... slipping beneath the sheets with Dawnie, are you?"

"Cor, no," Spike replied instantly. "The Slugger's just a mate, nothing more."

"Good," Xander said. "I'd hate to pull babysitter's rank and kick you out."

"I think trying to kill me was an effective enough deterrent, Harris," Spike said wryly.

Xander's hand tightened on Spike's knee, and he looked extremely upset again. Spike's insides melted faster than the garlic crust would've done. Bugger, he had it bad.

"It's okay," Spike said seriously, gently squeezing the large, strong hand beneath his. "I'm a tad more reactionary to garlic than most vampires. Trade off for being able to stay longer in the sun, I reckon."

"You sure?"

Spike nodded. "I'll be right as rain in a few hours. No worries."

"'Kay." Xander stood. "I'm going back inside and ice this eye. You coming?"

"In a minute."

Xander gave the blond a slightly pained smile, then went inside the house. The second the door closed, still sitting, Spike moved his sock-clad feet in an intricate dance step on the stair below him. Xander was concerned about his well-being! Yes, Xander was the cause of that concern, but what says 'I love you' more than trying to kill your intended? For a vampire, anyway. Which meant Spike actually had a chance with Xander!

A grin of unmitigated proportions stretched across Spike's face as he bounced to his feet. He danced Fred Astaire-style down and up the few steps a couple times before boogieing to the kitchen door. Then he squared his shoulders, lost the smile, and went inside.



Part Two



Dawn and Xander went to the video store, leaving the 'grievously injured' Spike at the Summers' residence. The vampire prepared a mug of blood, using the stash he kept in Dawn's mini-fridge, and logged onto her computer to kill time until they returned. AOL was nice in that he could use his own screen name and password at any computer that used the same Internet provider, such as Dawn.

cricket818: He touched me!

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Hello to you, too. And I take it you mean Xander.

cricket818: :-) He touched me!

angeldoesntpaymeenough: You're such a girl.

cricket818: Yes, I know. But he actually touched me. A good touch.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: A 'good' touch? Lol.

cricket818: I feel like I'm going to burst.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Don't you dare flog your pole while talking with me.

cricket818: Not *that* kind of bursting. Though I plan to do that later in the Slayer's bed. Bad me.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: *rolls eyes*

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Wait, you're at Buffy's?

cricket818: Yeah. Buffy's gone off to the mother-country, leaving Dawn here. I'm spending the night.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: You mean you're sleeping over. You're such a girl.

cricket818: Only you could call me that and live.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Now, details. Why did Xander Good Touch you?

cricket818: He was comforting me after he almost killed me.

cricket818:*sigh* It's so nice to be able to talk about this, after keeping mum for so long.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: I repeat. Again. You are *such* a girl.

cricket818: Cordelia.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: So tell: what did you do to make him try to kill you this time?

cricket818: Nothing. He fed me garlic-laced pizza on purpose.

cricket818: I'm in love.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Vampires are so weird.

cricket818: You're just realizing this now?

angeldoesntpaymeenough: No. I realized it when Angel came wandering through the lobby wearing floral Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. He was going 'moonbathing.' I called in sick the next day.

Spike laughed out loud. The image of his uptight pseudo-sire wearing floral anything was hilarious. And moonbathing??!

angeldoesntpaymeenough: jhn mhfas;

cricket818: What?

Cordelia didn't reply, and after two minutes of no response, Spike became worried. His hand itched to pick up the phone and call to see if she was okay. If she'd had a vision, it would explain her silence. But waiting had never been his strong suit.

"We're back," Xander announced unnecessarily as he walked into the bedroom. "Dawn wants to know if you want popcorn."

"No," Spike replied, tapping his finger nervously on the mouse. He didn't remove his eyes from the screen, not even when Xander came to look over his shoulder.

"You know how to use a computer?" Xander said, astonished.

"I'm not a moron, Harris." Spike silently sighed in relief when a message appeared in the AIM window.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Sorry. Vision. Mucho ow-o.

cricket818: Harris and the twerp are back and looking over my shoulder.

angeldoesntpaymeenough: Got it. I have to go anyway. Bye.

cricket818: Bye.

"Cricket?" Xander snickered in Spike's ear, sending shivers down his spine, as the vampire logged off. "Your screen name is 'cricket'?"

"It's Dawn's," Spike lied.

"Huh-uh. Hers is 'dead butterflies,'" Xander said. "And Buffy's is 'world saving fool,' so don't even try and lie again."

Spike spun on his seat and looked up at Xander. He was very close. Quiver, quiver. The vampire affected a bland expression, and explained, "You caught me. I'm 'cricket.'"

Xander laughed derisively. "How did you chose that name?"

"From a book," Spike said, sounding affronted. "'A Cricket in Times Square.' It's about a cricket who can play symphonies with his back legs, and everyone thinks he's the bloody shit. He lets his fame go to his head, then gets knocked down a peg or three and learns about what's really important. Kind of metaphorical, don't you think?"

Xander looked adorable when he was befuddled. "Are you serious?"

Spike shrugged. "Could also be because a cricket hopped on my bed while I was choosing my screen name."

Xander blinked several times as his brain caught on to what he'd heard. Then he started to laugh again, a deep, rich sound of genuine mirth. "Spike, you never cease to boggle my mind."

Spike's heart fluttered and he grinned dopily. Cordelia was right: he was such a girl.

*****

The phone rang partway through the movie that had been rented. Dawn purposely kicked Spike in the head as she went to answer it, calling a sickeningly sweet, "Sorry," over her shoulder.

"I can't believe how much you let her get away with," Xander commented from his seat on the couch. "If I did that, you'd try to rip my foot off before the chip zapped you."

Spike craned his neck to look back at Xander. "She's my friend. You're not. See the difference?"

The brunette's brows shot up to his hairline, but before he could say anything Dawn returned with the portable phone in her hand. "Spike, Angel wants to talk to you," she said.

Frowning, Spike rolled to his feet and took the proffered phone. "What's up, Pops?" he said into the receiver as he started out of the living room.

"Will you not call me that?" Angel said exasperatedly over the line.

Spike could picture Angel's irritated expression and the blond grinned. Getting under his sire's skin was one of the few simple pleasures in life. "Not a chance."

Angel sighed, then got right to the point. "Can you come up here and translate for us? Cordelia had a vision, and she wrote out something in Irushk."

"That the vision she had earlier this evening?" Spike inquired, already putting his battered Docs on. His sire only requested assistance if it was really needed, and Spike had made a silent promise to help when asked after Angel had tried to remove the behavior modification chip. The operation hadn't worked, but the fact that Angel had tried meant more to Spike than the older vampire would ever know.

"Yes." Angel sounded surprised. "How did you know?"

"I was on AIM with her when she had it," the blond replied. "I assumed that's why you knew I was here."

"No, but that answers a different question," Angel said.

"Right." Spike stood and walked into the kitchen. "I'll be there in a couple hours."

"Thanks," Angel said, then disconnected.

Spike put the phone in its cradle, then headed back to the living room. His opened his mouth to tell them he was leaving, and saw a flash of disappointment and sadness fly across Dawn's face before the mask of cool indifference returned. Mentally calling himself all sorts of synonyms for "soft," he said, "Anyone up for a trip to L.A.?"

Dawn bounced to her feet before he'd finished the sentence. "I'll get our stuff."

Spike shook his head as he watched her disappear up the stairs. He turned back to Xander, and a stupidly brilliant idea formed in his mind. "Well, Mr. Babysitter, would you like to come, too?"

Surprise lit Xander's features. "To L.A.?"

"No, to Mars."

"Right. Stupid me." Xander rubbed his palms on his thighs. "I have no problems with going, but Anya has to stay and run The Magick Box."

"I didn't invite Anya, Xander," Spike said pointedly. "I invited you."

"I don't know," Xander hemmed. "I'll have to call An--"

Spike held up his hand, interrupting, "Forget it, Harris. I should've known the leash only went so far."

It was nice to know humans could be so predictable. Xander shot to his feet, scowl on his boyishly handsome face. "I am not on a leash," he stated. "I can go where I want, when I want, and I'm coming with to L.A."

With an emphatic nod, he stomped past Spike and up the stairs. Spike waited until the boy was out of sight, then smiled gleefully. This was perfect. He'd have Xander away from Sunnydale and its trappings, including the ex-demon cow, for at least an entire night and day, during which time he'd do... absolutely nothing, because he was a big chicken with bleached feathers. But, Xander would witness him performing Good Deeds, which might make the brunette start to think differently about him, eventually resulting in great sex. Spike was all for anything that resulted in great sex with Xander.

Xander and Dawn came downstairs one right after the other. Spike took his duffle from Dawn and grabbed his duster from the coatrack. "Everyone set?" Nods all around. "Then we're off."



Part Three





Spike and Dawn were friends. Real friends. The type of friends Xander used to be with Willow and Buffy before adulthood and significant others intruded.

Xander was both amazed and confounded by their friendship. Buffy complained about Spike hanging around, but not often enough to connect the vampire, friendship, and Dawn. Xander was probably the only one who didn't ignore Spike at Scooby meetings, but since Dawn rarely helped with Slayer business, Xander also didn't have an opportunity to observe Spike and her together and see how strong their relationship really was.

Xander lightly touched his black eye. Their relationship was definitely strong.

"We're here," Spike announced, parking the musty-smelling DeSoto in the lot outside the Hyperion.

Xander heard gossip from Willow about Angel's hotel, but he'd never visited before. Trying not to gape, he followed Dawn and Spike through a side entrance, past a courtyard fountain, and into the hotel.

The lobby was huge, fancy, and made Xander feel grungy in his wrinkled tan Dockers and faded green bowling shirt. His gym shoes squeaked on the black and white checked tile floor. Everything looked expensive and shiny, and he was immediately afraid to touch anything. He clutched his duffle to his chest as he continued to stare goggle-eyed at the hotel's magnificence.

"Spike, you're here!" There was a high-pitched girl-squeal, which made Xander's ears pop, and he watched as Spike dropped his bag to the ground before catching a tall, brunette beauty in a hug.

"Hello, gorgeous," Spike drawled, releasing Cordelia. He looked her up and down. "You look smashing, as always."

"I do, don't I." Cordelia smiled widely, leaned in, and pecked him on the lips. "Missed you."

"Same here." Spike smiled softly in return, then gestured behind him. "Look who I brought."

"Dawn!" Cordelia bounced past Spike and gave Dawn a hug, too. "Hey, slut."

"Hey, whore," Dawn said, returning the hug. "What's the what?"

"The usual: visions, big demons, never-ending games of Monopoly." Cordelia turned to Xander, who was staring at her like she'd grown a second head, and gave him a mysterious smile. "Hi, Xander. Nice eye."

"Uh, yeah." Xander warily half-smiled in return. "Hi."

Cordelia looked good. Her hair was cut in a flattering bob, streaked blond. She was dressed causally in navy capri pants and a navy buttoned vest which showed off quite a bit of tanned flesh. If Xander hadn't dated her in the past, he'd be slobbering. As it was, Little Xander was stirring in his Dockers, and he changed his hold on his duffle to cover his reaction.

"Where's this thing I'm supposed to translate?" Spike asked, tossing his duster onto the curved registration counter.

"Over here." Cordelia walked to Spike, took his hand, and examined it as she led him around the counter to where two desks sat. "Your nails are smudged," she tisked. "We'll have to fix that. I have a Berry Blue that'll look great." She stopped him before he spoke. "I know. Later. It's always work first with you, killjoy."

"I'm going to take our bags to our rooms," Dawn said, picking up Spike's duffle from the floor and heading for the red-carpeted stairs.

Xander just stood there uncomfortably, wondering when he became the odd-man-out. Spike wasn't supposed to be welcomed with kisses from Cordelia, or be hugged, or told he was missed. They weren't supposed to be chattering like close friends. Spike was the enemy, wasn't he? Neutered, but still the bad guy, who occasionally helped for money.

Xander crept closer to the counter in order to eavesdrop better. Cordelia had her hand on Spike's back, and they were both leaning over the desk, looking at a yellow and spotted brown legal pad. They seemed very comfy-cozy with each other, and Xander felt a spark of jealousy. Though, jealous of what? Cordelia? Spike? Their obvious closeness?

"Is this coffee?" Spike picked up the pad and angled it to the desk light.

"My bad," Cordelia admitted, "but Angel's fault."

"Where is the froofy one, anyway?" Spike frowned as he studied the writing on the paper.

"He and Wes are changing." Cordelia turned and leaned against the desk. "When I spewed my coffee, it was right at Gloom and Doom, after I read Angel's translation."

Spike looked at her, one brow climbing up, but said nothing. Cordelia smirked, turned the page on the legal pad in his hand, then folded her arms and waited.

Xander wasn't sure if he liked the whole silent communication thing they had going. Or that they were ignoring him. He opened his mouth to whine like a puppy, but Spike's sudden laughter caused him to gape instead. He'd never heard such a genuine sound of amusement coming from Spike, nor had he ever seen the vampire cry tears of laughter.

Spike was bent over, clutching his stomach, his guffaws echoing in the lobby. Cordelia had the giggles, too, though not as bad. Apparently, whatever was written on the legal pad was something damn funny.

"Hey, um, can I see, too?" Xander asked awkwardly. "Or is it one of those private, inside jokes that I'm very much outside of?"

Spike sputtered and made grand, meaningless gestures as he tried to speak. "Angel... *snicker*... transheee... *snort*..."

Cordelia grabbed the legal pad, cleared her throat, and read over Spike's squeaky noises.

"Poor old Robinson Crusoe!
He had no woman to screw, so
He'd sit on a rock
And play with his cock
(Or he'd get his man Friday to do so.)"

Xander blinked several times. Oookay. "Aside from the obvious, why is this so funny?"

"That's what Angel said the passage translated to."

"Right." Angel made a joke. Ha-ha. Guess he had to be there, or know Angel better to get it. Apparently, Spike knew Angel very well.

"I take it you showed Spike my translation."

Xander turned to see Angel coming down the stairs, with Wesley beside him. They looked the same as Xander remembered, though the smile on Angel's face was new. Since when did Angel smile? No one else thought that Angel's smile was ususal, though, it seemed. Nor did anyone but Xander freak when Angel embraced Giggly Spike and dropped a kiss on the blond's forehead.

"Thanks for coming," Angel said, releasing Spike. He looked over at Xander. "Harris. Good to see you again."

"Dea... Angel," Xander corrected. He was a guest in the man's home, the least he could do was call Angel by name. "Hi, Wesley."

"Mr. Harris," Wesley greeted, offering Xander his hand. "Dawn said you had accompanied them. I'm glad to see you survived the trip." He shook Xander's hand, leaned closer, and whispered conspiratorially, "It's hard enough traveling with Spike alone, but with the two of them..."

"I heard that, Wes," Spike commented.

Wesley winked at Xander, released his hand, and walked over to join Angel and Spike at the desk. The coffee-stained yellow legal pad was positioned between them so they could all see. They began speaking to one another with an easy comradery, one that the Scooby Gang barely had anymore, and no one laughed when Spike took out a pair of gold wire-rim glasses, with small square lenses and curved ear pieces, and hooked them over his ears.

It hit Xander then, the reason everything seemed so odd: Spike belonged here. His presence wasn't just tolerated. He wasn't just being used for his fighting ability. He wasn't just being pumped for his knowledge, even though that's why he'd been called. Xander had a feeling Spike would've been welcome if he was as dumb as a box of rocks -- something Xander had erroneously assumed until now. If Spike hadn't been arguing in another language with Wesley, the glasses would've proved how wrong Xander was.

"Work, work, work. Spike is such a bore when there's research to be done." Cordelia sighed and leaned on her elbows on the registration counter next to Xander. "But he's quite the hottie with those glasses, isn't he?"

"I was thinking more like dorky," Xander said, wondering what she meant by her first comment. He set his duffle bag on the floor near his feet and leaned on the counter like Cordelia. "I didn't even know he wore glasses."

"Like he'd wear them around Buffy and company." Cordelia snorted. "Can you tell me you or the others wouldn't have made fun of him every time he put them on?"

Xander was chagrined, because he knew he would've made fun of Spike in a second. The only thing preventing him now was, he was the outsider and Spike was most definitely not. Time to change the subject. "What did you mean, Spike's a bore when there's research? He usually helps out fine for a little while before he gets annoyed and impatient, then leaves."

"He probably gets annoyed and impatient because his eyes and head hurts from not wearing his glasses," Cordelia said, studying Xander with a curious expression on her face. "When he's here helping us, he refuses to take a break until we kill or stop whatever Evil Ugly we're after. Which is no fun for me, because sometimes he has to turn around and head back to Sunnydale immediately post-victory, and I don't get a chance to really visit with him."

"You guys are close, huh?" Xander said, frowning when he saw Angel put his arm around Spike's waist.

"Extremely," Cordelia replied. "I'd snatch him up in a second if I could. But Spike's in love with you, you know."

Xander's gaze whipped to Cordelia. "What?"

A small smile played and her lips and her eyes were twinkling. Xander slumped in relief. She was joking. "Not funny, Cordelia."

"You look like someone killed your dog." Cordelia propped her chin on her fist. "Would it be that awful if Spike was in love with you?"

"Yes," Xander stated firmly.

"Why?"

"Why?" Xander frowned at her. "Because he's Spike. Isn't that a good enough reason?"

"Isn't that the best reason to love him?" Cordelia said softly.

Xander's frown deepened and he looked back at Spike. The blond was leaning over the desk, reading the page of legal paper while being poked by Angel.

"Angel, stop poking... ach!" Spike glared at Angel, with his hands on his hips and his glasses askew. His hair was sticking out every which way, because Angel had unceremoniously stripped off the blond's tee. "What the fuck did you do that for?"

"Look at you, you're too skinny." Angel dropped Spike's shirt on the desk and started to poke at the other vampire's ribs. "Have you been feeding?"

"Angel, I'm trying to translate this for you." Spike hugged his arms around himself self-consciously. "Stop being a father hen."

"Spike," Angel said patiently. "Have you been feeding properly?"

Spike's eyes flicked to Xander's before he turned to face the desk, grabbing his shirt. "I'm fine, Dad," he replied exasperatedly. "Money's been tight since I last saw you, s'all."

"Spike, that was months ago!" Angel exclaimed, worriedly reaching out to touch the blond again.

Spike flinched away and lowered his voice, but not enough that Xander couldn't hear. "Quit it. Not now, okay?"

"Why not now?" Angel swung his arm, encompassing the room. "We're all fami-- oh," he stopped abruptly, staring point blank at Xander. Then he turned on his heel and stalked from the lobby. "I'll go get you something to eat."

"There's a, ah, book I need," Wesley said, hurrying out of the room.

"I'm going to go check on Dawn," Cordelia announced. She shot Xander a blinding smile, then headed up the stairs, leaving Xander and Spike alone.

After too long of an uncomfortable silence where the only sounds came from Spike putting his shirt back on, Xander couldn't take anymore. "Angel's not wrong, you know. You're an anorexic's dream."

"Well, you lot haven't been needing my assistance much of late, so...," Spike trailed off with a shrug.

"You could've said something," Xander said, coming around the counter.

"Why? So you could get your jollies poking fun at me?" Spike said, not with malice, but as if it were fact and he accepted it. "Poor ol' impotent Spike, can't even feed himself. Serves me right, eh, Harris?"

"You're right," Xander said, stopping in front of the blond. "I would've given you a hard time." He caught Spike's arm when the vampire turned away. "But I would have made sure you were fed, Spike."

Spike was quiet for a long time, his penetrating blue eyes focused squarely on Xander. Finally, he said, "Yeah, sure, Harris, thanks for the lie. Makes me feel all tingly."

Xander dropped Spike's arm and lifted his chin in anger. "It's not a lie."

Spike snorted. "Get off it, whelp. Until tonight, you haven't cared one whit for my welfare."

"I have to ca--" Xander automatically began to protest, then cut himself off short. What Spike said was the truth, Xander couldn't deny it.

Spike chuckled, but again it was with acceptance, not bitterness or resentment. "Don't worry about it, mate. I don't expect you to care about me like you do your chums."

For some reason, Spike's statement bothered Xander. A lot.


Continued