Xander floated up to consciousness feeling more relaxed and happy than he had in months. His head was pillowed on Spike’s chest, and he was enjoying the feeling of firm, smooth skin under his cheek, warmed by his body heat to a highly agreeable temperature for napping.
Xander felt lighter inside, as well as satisfied and content. Spike had delivered the promised orgasms without ever resorting to actual sex. Xander had let him know he was willing, but Spike had insisted that the first time for that was not going to be while they were playing master and slave boy. He’d been prepared to do the full menu, but the delay made him feel valued, as if sex with him was an experience to be savored. Spike had taken such care with his body and his feelings, like he really was taking on the role of master and protector. They’d have to talk about the fact that Xander didn’t need that kind of protection, but later. Possibly much later. Spike’s words also boded well for repeat performances, which Xander was so there for.
Spike’s hand trailed lightly down Xander’s spine and he arched into the touch. He smiled into Spike’s chest and wriggled closer. By the time the collar and restraints came off the previous night Xander had been lax with relieved tension and satiation, and the only movement desired had been latching onto Spike and cuddling until he drifted off to sleep.
Spike’s fingers stroked through his hair, and Xander wished he knew how to purr. It would be so wonderful to lie there and soak up affection, but the social worker was coming over tomorrow and the house had to be in pristine condition for the inspection. With that in mind, he rolled away and stretched.
“You said something about breakfast?” Xander asked hopefully.
Spike gave him a pleased grin and waved him toward the ladder. “Mini-fridge is upstairs. Back corner.”
Xander climbed up the ladder, making sure to flex his back and ass as he did. He glanced back over his shoulder and was gratified to see Spike openly ogling. A box of Fruity Pebbles sat atop the mini-fridge in the corner. He pulled on his jeans before heading for it. A bowl and spoon were tightly wrapped in a plastic grocery bag behind the box of cereal. He knew he had a goofy grin on his face as he fixed his breakfast.
“Did the fridge keep it cold enough? Electricity is dicey in here,” Spike said as he emerged from the lower level.
“Perfect,” Xander said with his mouth full. He swallowed and added. “Where’s yours?”
“Couldn’t find a microwave on short notice and pig’s blood is even more disgusting cold,” Spike insisted. “I’ll have some back at the house.”
Mention of the house put Xander in mind of all the things he needed to do today. “What time is it?”
Spike peeked at his watch. “About ten.”
“You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long,” Xander said. He hadn’t realized he’d be spending the night and now he was running way behind schedule. He quickly wolfed down the rest of his cereal.
“Figured you could use it.”
“Slept like a very happy baby,” Xander allowed. “But I gotta head to Home Depot, right now.” He shrugged on his shirt and hurriedly pulled on socks and shoes. “Meet you back at the house?”
Spike snagged the bowl from where Xander had abandoned it. “Wouldn’t do to be seen coming in together. People might suspect,” he asserted.
Xander’s head shot up at Spike’s angry tone. He’d thought things were going well. Xander wondered if he’d done something wrong. “Well, we sure don’t want the social worker to suspect,” Xander joked, trying to recapture the good feelings of mere moments ago.
“Don’t worry, all tracks will be covered tomorrow.” The emphasis on ‘tomorrow’ confused Xander. Spike still seemed unhappy. “It’s going to be hard on the witches.”
The reason for the irritation seemed clearer now. They were all on edge waiting for the social worker’s inspection. “Yeah, it’s going to be rough.” Now that they were on the same page again Xander felt comfortable again. He thought of all the magic stuff they would need to hide, Tara’s shrines and Willow’s books. “All I have to do is shift my clothes and hold hands with my best friend. I’ve got it easy.”
What Xander expected was Spike to smile and say something about how he didn’t even have to move his clothes, since Tara would be joining him in the basement. Instead, he grimaced like he’d been struck and said in a near snarl, “See if you can’t handle that then.”
Xander wanted to stay and hash whatever had gone wrong out, but he was running too late, so he nodded and left. It had been such a spectacular night, but now he wondered if it would have been better to never show up at all.
Xander usually loved being in Home Depot. It made him feel competent knowing what all the various tools were for and how to use most of them. Just breathing in the smell of cut lumber could often sooth him. Not today.
Today he had neither time nor inclination to dally in his favorite spots. He grabbed the washers he needed for the leaky faucets upstairs, the paint he needed for touch up and was at the register fifteen minutes after he walked in the door. He barely managed to exchange pleasantries with the clerk, he was so consumed by the roiling cauldron of emotions this morning had inspired.
He was baffled as to what had brought on Spike’s bad humor this morning. Last night, he’d been sure they were both having a great time. Xander had been able to unwind and be pampered for a change, Spike had gotten to be all big, bad take charge guy. Exactly what they both had wanted out of the evening. Now he couldn’t help thinking he’d misjudge the whole event.
Not taking things all the way while they were doing role play had touched Xander at the time. Now, he was forced to look at it from a different angle. The whole tie me up, tie me down fantasy fulfillment meant that Xander had pretty much lain there soaking up all the wonderful attention. Not the stuff of unforgettable lovers. Maybe Spike hadn’t done more because he didn’t want to do more. Was it even possible Spike was selfless enough to do something this intimate because Xander needed it? Didn’t seem likely.
How likely was it that now Xander was conquered territory he just wanted him out of his space as quickly as possible. That he’d been used and tossed aside, the way Faith had used him. Maybe he should be grateful he’d been allowed to get dressed before he was tossed out this time.
It didn’t take a lot of thought to look at the other loves of Spike’s life and see a pattern. Drusilla was completely loony but beautiful and powerful as well with the prophetic visions and snazzy thrall she had going. Then there was Buffy, who was The Slayer, T definitely capitalized. Spike had taken down two slayers, and he never managed to come close with Buffy. Her appeal was something Xander completely understood. Harmony didn’t count. Spike treated her like shit, like a convenient blow up doll. Looking at that scale the used and tossed on his ass theory had much to recommend it.
Thoughts of finding Harmony and commiserating with her didn’t last more than a few seconds. Yes, Spike had treated her abysmally, but she was a vapid, evil vampire who would drain him dry before he could put a companionable arm around her shoulders. Also, he couldn’t stand her as a human which made it seriously unlikely he’d be able to tolerate her as a vampire.
Hurt as he was, Xander was certain that Spike had genuine affection for him. There was too much evidence that Spike considered him a friend. That meant that the only course of action available was to act as if last night never happened. He wanted Spike’s friendship much more than he wanted to confront him over this. Spike wouldn’t mention it, Xander wouldn’t mention it, and they could return to the buddy movie vibe they had going on before the kissing had clouded his brain. It sucked, like being given a sample of double fudge decadence cake and being told he could never have another piece, but he could do it.
He pulled into the driveway full of new found resolve. He just had to put the whole thing out of his mind. He had Doris Kroeger, CPS agent, to prepare for.
Willow was rooting around in the bot’s access panel when he came in.
“Did you work on that thing all night?”
“Not all of us have time for hot dates that keep us out all night,” Willow said with an indulgent smile.
Xander was undeterred. “You have a girlfriend, Wills. Your hot date is upstairs. Besides, the date didn’t turn out that hot,” he confessed.
“Oh Xander! But you were out all night, you even gave me the ‘don’t call me I’m getting laid’ text message,” she insisted.
“Yeah, well, in the early morning light the Xan-man wasn’t such a hot commodity anymore.” He wished he could confide in Willow, it hurt to lie to her. The fact that not all of it was a lie helped not at all. “I think I’m shelving the whole dating thing.”
“Oh no you don’t, Xander.” She stood and faced him like she planned to give him a motherly talking to. “You can’t give up just because one girl was too stupid to see how wonderful you are.”
He was far too tired and out of sorts to pull punches. Willow meant well, she really wanted him to be happy, even if she had to make him miserable to do it. Maybe he’d been wrong, maybe instead of giving up control he needed to take it. “Wills, I appreciate the fact you’re trying to help me, but back the hell off. Dating is a blood sport in this town, and I’m not doing it again for awhile, maybe a long while, maybe not ever. It’s not your job to fix me.” He waved a hand at the bot with its electronic guts exposed. “I’m not one of your science projects.”
Willow shrank into herself. She was clearly on the verge of tears as she said, “Fine.” She sat back down and turned her attention back to the bot.
This would be why he didn’t argue with Willow. Now he felt like a heel for making her upset. He knelt beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. “I’m not mad at you,” he assured.
“I’m trying to be your friend, not meddle,” she choked out.
As much as he wanted to reassure her he refused to back down. “I know, Wills, but sometimes you have a hard time seeing the difference. I’m okay, really. I’ve got my family around me. A girlfriend that wasn’t part of that would be one more complication, maybe a problem we couldn’t deal with. I think I realized that with my last date. Now isn’t the time.” The fact that his options within the group had reduced to zero didn’t need mentioning.
Willow nodded and wiped her eyes. “I just hate you being alone.”
“I won’t lie. I miss the smoochies but I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by people I love, I’m a pretty lucky guy.”
Willow hugged him back and Xander congratulated himself on holding firm. Not wanting to press his luck he asked a question to change the subject. “So, what’s the deal with the bot? More messed up than you thought?”
“No, I just want it to be perfect when Ms. Kroeger comes tomorrow. I’m scared it’s going to go off on one of its word salad rambles while she’s here.”
It was comforting to know Willow still knew the bot was an it. Although with its service panel open that was pretty undeniable. “Any idea what baddie got a piece of wonderbot?”
“Sounded like a regular vampire. I think he just got a lucky hit in. I really need to upgrade the combat programming.” She grabbed a computer printout full of lines of code he couldn’t read. He hoped she wasn’t about to try to explain the problem to him.
“Shouldn’t Giles be able to help with that? If he can train a slayer to fight, he should be able to help you program a robot to do the same thing, right?”
“If the bot were human, sure.” Willow waved the printouts as if they could explain anything. “But the technology Warren used means that the bot duplicates the movements demonstrated for it. It can be programmed to do those movements harder or faster but they’re still limited by human capabilities. Ideally, I’d model off another slayer or—“ she bit her lip and ducked her head, unwilling to voice the obvious, so Xander did it for her.
“You need Spike.”
“I really do.” She nodded sheepishly. “The bot has strength and it never tires, but it’s capable of more than human movements that it can’t duplicate without them being programmed in. I’d probably need him for a pretty long session essentially plugged in to the bot.”
“Big ouch,” she agreed.
“Have you talked to him about it?”
Willow looked away again. “I started to this morning but he’s in a really pissy mood. I don’t think his night went any better than yours did.”
Xander suppressed a growl. Why was Spike still pissy? Xander wasn’t going to jump him in the halls, surely he knew that. “He’s probably just out of sorts about the social worker inspection. I think we’re all a little on edge. I’ll talk to him about it after she’s gone. One thing at a time, right?”
“You’re right. I should close her up, start getting ready. Need any help?”
Xander considered the request, he was running short on time. “Has Tara moved her stuff downstairs yet?”
“She’s all moved in with her new hubby,” Willow tittered.
Xander smiled. “Sure you’re not worried? Spike’s a pretty sexy guy,” he teased.
“My girl is totally immune to his devilish appeal,” she said haughtily. Then her eyes turned sad. “I wish we didn’t have to pretend like this.”
“I know Wills. But we can’t take any chances, not until Dawn is eighteen at least,” he commiserated. “If you could move my stuff into your room it would be a big help. Then I could concentrate on the touch up paint and the leaky faucet.”
“Sure. It’s weird isn’t it? Four years ago, having you as my boyfriend would have been my dream come true, now it’s an annoyance.”
Xander clutched his chest and staggered back in apparent pain. “Direct hit. You’ve mortally wounded my manly ego.”
“As if you didn’t deserve it.” A wolfish grin graced Willow’s face.
Xander grinned back. Looking back to the time when Willow had her monster crush on him, Xander could see all the times he’d unintentionally hurt her. There had always been an odd tension underlying everything they did together. Overall, he liked this relationship better. “Try to keep the traffic in the kitchen low. There’s going to be wet paint in there for a couple hours.”
Willow nodded as she worked to close the bot up.
He collected a brush and edge tool and set to work on the scuffed kitchen baseboards. A combination of Spike’s short temper, Dawn’s klutziness and occasional carelessness with weapons had left them in pretty sad shape. For the short visit last month they had shoved the weapons in the garage. This was going to be a full on inspection. Giles had taken in all the magic books and paraphernalia and declared his small apartment full to bursting. It might be a good idea to store the weapons back at the crypt, which would mean talking to Spike. Damn.
He decided he could put it off until he’d finished his painting. He was concentrating so hard on his task that he almost rammed the pair of Doc Martens that appeared next to him.
“Geez Spike!” Xander complained. “I could have dumped paint all over the floor.”
Spike stared down at him in unrepentant disdain. “Thought I’d move the weapons over to the crypt, and I don’t fancy making multiple trips. Where’s that big ax of yours?”
Xander turned his attention back to his task so he wouldn’t have to look at Spike. “It had some horrible goo on it I couldn’t get off, so I propped it in the garage. How do you get Kl’arth’narg blood off anyway?”
“Vinegar,” Spike responded automatically.
Xander took in the information. They really needed to buy industrial sizes of all potential cleaners. “Listen, I don’t have time to get to it today. Do you mind storing it dirty and I’ll take care of it after we’re out of panic mode?”
“Yeah, sure.” Spike lingered. There was an elephant tap dancing in the room, and neither of them knew how to bring it up.
Seeing Spike uncomfortable eased some of Xander’s ire. “Listen, there’s more weapons than you can carry. Once it gets dark I’ll take them over in the car.”
This seemed to ease Spike a bit. “I’ll tag along, your luck you’d be eaten halfway to the crypt.”
He wandered off downstairs and Xander breathed a sigh of relief. Normalcy achieved.
Xander rushed back to the house after dropping Dawn off at school. He’d taken the day off work to be there when Ms. Kroeger did her inspection.
Pulling into the driveway, he parked beside an unfamiliar car. It seemed Ms. Kroeger had arrived promptly on time. The house was still standing. That was a good sign.
Willow met him at the door with a quick gesture to hurry inside.
“One teenager safely delivered to the halls of academia,” he announced for the studio audience.
Willow pulled him close and whispered in his ear, “Spike’s done a makeover, don’t act shocked.”
Spike was a problem no one knew what to do with in this circumstance. Everything about him screamed bad influence even if you didn’t know he was a vampire. Spike had offered to hide out at his crypt for the duration but had been shouted down. Unless he planned to permanently relocate they might as well face the issue now as later. Xander wondered just what kind of makeover the girls had subjected Spike to. He nodded his understanding and they stepped into the kitchen.
The Buffybot brandished a plate of cookies at him as he walked through the door. “I made chocolate chip cookies with nuts and without because some people don’t like nuts in their cookies.”
Xander reminded himself he would need to call it Buffy for the duration, even though the thought twisted his stomach. “Thanks, Buffy,” he said as he took a cookie with nuts. It seemed the only reasonable course of action.
Doris Kroeger was peering in their pantry. She was a matronly woman with dark hair and a tight mouth. She carried a clipboard, and she was making notes as she perused their shelves. He wondered what she was doing. Counting cans of ravioli? Would she tally up their lives in neat little columns that said whether or not they got to keep Dawn? Xander took Willow’s hand for reassurance. It was good for their cover, and it felt perfectly natural since they’d been pressing digits since they were five.
Xander set his cookie down and extended a hand to the CPS agent. “Hi, I’m Xander Harris.”
Ms. Kroeger turned from contemplating their canned goods to shake his hand. “I’m Doris Kroeger, pleased to meet you.” Her eyes flickered over him and at the hand clasped with Willow’s. Her expression remained neutral, and he couldn’t tell if he passed muster or not. “Now if I can meet your husband I’ll have the whole household, won’t I?” This was directed at Tara who stood to one side, darting nervous glances at the basement door.
“I’m s-sorry, ma’am,” Tara paused, trying to get her stutter under control. “W-william works nights, he’ll be right up.”
As if conjured by her words, the basement door swung open and there was Spike. Xander was glad he’d been warned, it kept his jaw from completely hitting the ground. Spike had restyled his hair into soft waves, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses softened his features even further. He wore Xander’s blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow to disguise the fact that they were too long. Where he’d found the sneakers to replace the battered Doc Martens he had no idea.
When Xander thought he couldn’t be more shocked, Spike made a courtly bow to Ms. Kroeger, took her hand and pressed his lips to her knuckles. “William Taylor, at your service. I apologize for being tardy,” Spike said in a Masterpiece Theatre voice.
He’d gone from punk badass to college boy chic in five easy steps. If Xander had any lingering doubts about how much Spike loved Dawn, this obliterated them. His devotion was as charming as the smile Spike leveled at Ms. Kroeger that had her blushing and utterly enthralled.
It wasn’t fair, Xander thought. It wasn’t enough that Spike was sex on two legs in his normal regalia. Decked out like this, he was adorable, setting off Xander’s libido in new and different ways. Looked like that chocolate cake he couldn’t have was being served a la mode.
Willow squeezed his hand, jerking his attention back to her. The look she shot him told him he’d been staring. He gave her a lop-sided grin and she rolled her eyes at him.
“Would you like to look over our room?” Spike asked Ms. Kroeger.
She nodded, and Spike put a hand lightly on Tara’s back, like they were dance partners and he was leading her to the stairs. Tara looked uncomfortable. Not overtly so, just as if there was an itch between her shoulder blades she couldn’t scratch. It confused him but Xander put it away for future consideration.
The Buffybot followed them downstairs, playing the role of the dutiful sister worried about the inspection. He had to admit, Willow had done a good job with it.
When the group was safely out of earshot he whispered in Willow’s ear, “Which one of you talked him into that outfit?”
“He came up with it himself,” she insisted. “We just collected what he told us to get. Hope you don’t mind about your shirt.”
“Hell, no,” Xander said emphatically. “We may just pull this off. Spike’s got enough sex appeal to distract her from anything she might notice. It’s brilliant. How long has she been here?”
“About ten minutes, we’d barely gotten through the meet and greet with me, Tara and Buffy when you got here.”
“Want me to do a quick sweep upstairs?”
“Do you think I forgot something? Never mind, it couldn’t hurt,” she chided herself before she got too offended at his suggestion she might have been sloppy.
“Be right back.”
He sprinted up the stairs headed for his bedroom. The room hadn’t been converted back to its previous girly state, but they were pretty sure the style was fairly unisex and would go unnoticed. A smattering of feminine hair products and cosmetics were scattered over the dresser. Even though he’d checked the previous night, he pulled out each drawer and then scanned the closet. Buffy’s clothes and doodads replaced his.
The bathroom was a communal affair so that was safe, instead he tore into Willow and Tara’s room, scanning for anything witchy that might have been left lying around. He felt a little weird pawing through the dresser drawers, even if his stuff occupied half of them. In a jewelry box he found a pentacle that had been overlooked and shoved it into his pocket. Hiding it seemed like a safer option than the lecture Willow was likely to give about it not being a satanic symbol.
He’d only managed to do a cursory sweep when he heard steps on the stairs. He sauntered out of the bedroom projecting, he hoped, an air of helpful innocence.
“Just making sure the more vicious dust bunnies were subdued,” he joked.
Ms. Kroeger smiled but didn’t speak. He chose to take that as lack of appreciation of his humor rather than suspicion. They followed her into the master bedroom. “That’s Xander and my room,” Willow offered.
The social worker did a quick scan of the room, didn’t look under the bed or even in the closet before turning and heading for the next room. Xander was oddly disappointed, after all the prep work they had put into the ruse she wasn’t appreciating the nuances properly.
“That’s Dawn’s room,” Buffybot proclaimed unnecessarily. Who else would have boy band posters on their walls? Their inquisitor spent more time in there. The gravity of the situation had been impressed on Dawn, and her room was relatively clean. At least it had been cleared of stray dishes and dirty laundry. The bed was made, that was a major accomplishment. The clipboard was annotated again. That thing made Xander all kinds of nervous.
They trailed behind Ms. Kroeger like ducklings when she moved down the hall to the last bedroom. “That’s my room,” Buffybot declared happily.
This received an even more cursory inspection than the master bedroom had gotten. She barely stuck her head in the door. The bathroom got a much closer examination. She peered at the tile and tested the faucets. Xander was glad he’d taken the time to fix the leak. She reminded him of a building inspector all of a sudden. More marks on the omnipresent clipboard.
He and Willow exchanged worried glances. They had no idea how they were doing on Ms. Kroeger’s scale as suitable guardians. It was nerve wracking.
“I think I’ve seen everything I need to see,” she finally spoke. “I’d like to speak to all of you for a few minutes, if you don’t mind.”
“How about the living room?” Willow suggested.
“I can make coffee,” Buffybot offered. “Or do you prefer tea?”
“Coffee will be fine,” Ms. Kroeger responded.
Tara and Spike rejoined them at the base of the stairs, and they arranged themselves on the couch and chair, taking care to remain in their designated couples. Xander noticed that it took visible effort for Tara to relax, pressed up against Spike. Had they had some kind of fight? Buffybot went to make the coffee.
Ms. Kroeger looked as if she was about to deliver bad news. “There are two things I want to discuss with all of you. Firstly, are you four determined to continue this charade?”
“What charade? There is no charade,” Willow protested. She would never be a great poker player.
“W-what do you m-mean, Ms. Kroeger?” Tara tried to sound shocked.
Xander clasped Willow’s hand more firmly and kept silent, mind racing over how they could affect damage control if the jig was up. He noticed Spike giving Ms. Kroeger a speculative eye. He didn’t seem as worried as the rest of them.
“Very well,” Ms. Kroeger sounded completely unconvinced. “I’ll have to recommend that Dawn be removed.”
“What?” Xander, Willow and Tara exploded in unison.
“You can’t mean that,” Willow cried. Xander wondered if he would have to tackle her to keep her from putting a hex on the woman.
“Look, we’ll do anything you say,” Xander pleaded. “Just don’t take Dawnie away from us.”
Still in the drawing room accent Spike broke in very calmly. “Willow and Tara are together.” Spike pinned the CPS agent with a confident look. “And you don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“This is California, Mr. Taylor,” she responded with a small smile. “If the four of you had been telling the truth, you would have represented two extremely troubled couples. That wouldn’t be good for Dawn.”
“What gave us away?” Xander asked, teasing a little to ease his panic. “Were Wills and Tara giving each other coy looks?”
“No,” Ms. Kroeger clarified. “Ms. Maclay is obviously uncomfortable in close proximity to her ‘husband.’”
Xander had to agree and it worried him, but Ms. Kroeger wasn’t finished. “I might have bought the two of you, except you stared at Mr. Taylor as if he were an éclair.”
Xander could feel the intense heat of his blush.
“I won’t out you in my report,” she reassured. “The house is in good repair, there is healthy food in the kitchen that wasn’t bought yesterday for this inspection, and Dawn is obviously in the care of people who love her very much.”
“Of course she is,” Buffybot said as she brought in the coffee. “She’s my sister.”
Ms Kroeger took her cup and smiled indulgently at the bot. “Which brings me to the other matter I wanted to discuss.”
Xander was nervous, this woman was far too clever, and they were far too bad at lying. They would have to be very careful around her, or they would have to tell her everything. Revealing all had a good chance of getting Dawn taken out of their custody for her own safety.
“Mr. Harris, I understand you’re responsible for refinishing the basement,” Ms Kroeger said, her tone so neutral he couldn’t tell if she appreciated or condemned his efforts as she referred to her notes.
“It’s just Xander,” he corrected. Where the hell was she going with a question like that? “And William and I did most of the work ourselves. We called in specialists for the plumbing and the wiring.”
“Very sound,” she said. She paused and sipped her coffee. “You do most of the maintenance around here. You’re also the primary breadwinner.”
“I’m a construction foreman. It’s what I do,” he responded tentatively.
She turned her attention to Tara, “You do most of the cooking and household chores, am I right?”
Tara nodded cautiously. “We all help. William does the laundry.”
This answer seemed to amuse Ms. Kroeger. “Ms. Rosenberg, you help Dawn with her studies?”
Guarded nods seemed the only wise response to these questions. “I help her with the math and science. William takes most of the English and history.”
Xander was afraid if someone didn’t have a role they were about to be booted off the island. Spike seemed to sense the same thing. “I’m afraid my monetary contribution must remain casual. I have no green card as of yet.”
Damn, that mellow accent was getting to Xander in all kinds of inappropriate ways.
“Which leaves you, Ms. Summers. What do you contribute?”
Bam! The trap sprang closed, and from a direction none of them had anticipated.
“I contribute,” Buffybot insisted, turning to Willow. “Tell her I contribute. I help in the kitchen, and I do the windows because Tara hates doing them and--”
Most of the color had drained from Willow’s face. Nothing was expected of the bot except a little patrolling. She reassured the bot, “Ms. Kroeger just wants to know what each of us does, don’t worry.”
The bot responded with a bright, plastic smile that had Xander looking away.
Willow addressed Ms. Kroeger. “It’s been hard for Buffy, all the responsibility since her mom died. We’ve all tried to take a little of the load off.”
“Ms. Rosenberg, it’s been almost a year, and the only member of this household not carrying a load is Ms. Summers,” Ms. Kroeger reproved. “As much as you all love Dawn, none of you are directly related to her. She isn’t your responsibility. Ms. Summers is her legal guardian. She is the one who must demonstrate a capability to care for her sister, financially as well as emotionally.”
“I don’t have any money,” Buffybot declared.
“That, my dear, is the problem,” Ms. Kroeger reiterated.
“How long do we have?” Xander interrupted. A protracted dialogue between the all too savvy Ms. Kroeger and the bot wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.
“I’ll talk with Dawn this afternoon,” she replied. “Assuming she doesn’t tell me anything surprising, I’ll file a report putting Ms. Summers on probation. I’ll expect the situation to improve by my next visit in two months.”
Ms. Kroeger gathered her things and rose to go. “I’m sorry to be harsh, but I’m thinking of Dawn’s best interests. Thank you for the coffee.”
They were still sitting in stunned silence after the door closed behind her.
“I don’t understand,” Buffybot sounded perplexed. “What is the situation? Is there something for me to slay?”
“No, it’s worse than that,” Willow said, her eyes wide with the horror and helplessness of their predicament. “You have to get a job.”
The tools for finding employment were sadly lacking when it came to robots, especially one whose primary functions were fighting and sex. Xander thought it was a shame they couldn’t employ the bot using the sex programming: they’d clean up. Then again, he could hear Buffy spinning like a drill bit in her grave even as he thought it.
“Oh, I know,” Willow bounced. “She can teach self-defense down at the college.”
“I don’t think it can handle that much human interaction,” Xander said without looking up from the want ads.
Willow pouted and Tara snuggled against her to comfort her. Now that they had rearranged themselves into a more natural configuration, Tara seemed much more at ease. She and Willow were both peering at the screen of the laptop hunting for inspiration. Spike had divested himself of his glasses but kept the rest of the ensemble as he paced and waited for inspiration to strike from above.
Xander had eliminated all the skilled labor jobs fairly quickly. The bot could probably be trained to file, type and answer the phone very serviceably. Problem was, first time they asked it to do something outside its programming it would say, “I don’t understand that command,” smile pleasantly and be unable to progress further. It wasn’t even suited to grunt labor at the construction site.
What they really needed was some highly repetitive, brainless job that had no variation and would be easy to program. His head shot up as revelation hit.
Three heads swiveled to face him.
Xander leaped up in his excitement. “It’s perfect! Mindless, repetitive tasks, no variation to account for, it’s perfect.”
Willow was the first to recover. “It could work. One of us would have to do the job for a week or so to learn all the routines, then we could program in the tasks.” She looked around the room as if she expected volunteers.
“Remember my role around here,” Xander insisted, backing away from her imploring stare. “Primary breadwinner. Can’t quit the construction job to work minimum wage. It would throw our budget all out of whack.”
“No green card, luv,” Spike headed her off before she could even turn puppy dog eyes on him. “Not to mention my little sun allergy.”
“Really, Sweetie,” Tara said in a devastatingly reasonable voice. “You’re the one who’ll have to program it. It makes sense for you to know what to put in.”
Willow didn’t look happy at the division of labor but was unable to come up with a convincing argument.
Christmas break was rapidly approaching. It would be the most natural thing in the world for a college student to start working at a fast food joint for the break. Eventually, Willow had to bow in the face of unassailable logic. Once finals were over, Willow would enter the workforce.
The rest of the day was spent putting the house back to its previous order. Xander took the job of packing Buffy’s clothes away. It didn’t hurt as much this time.
Willow appeared in the doorway. “Need some help?”
“Nah, I’m almost done,” he replied, piling clothes into the last box. “I’ll move my stuff back next. I think we’re safe for the time being.”
“I guess it could have been worse,” Willow conceded.
It was clear Willow was not looking forward to her new employed state. He wanted to distract her, to wipe that despondent look off her face. He was even more anxious to avoid any new pressure to get him to take the job for her. He fished her necklace out of his pocket and held it up for her. “Don’t know if this is yours or Tara’s, but I thought I’d get it out of the line of fire.”
She grabbed it out of his hand and fastened the silver chain around her neck. “Xander Harris, you’ve been going through my drawers,” she teased.
He shrugged as he packed away the last of the items. “Guess I didn’t need to bother, did I?”
“Hey, we couldn’t take any chances,” Willow assured.
“Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect from a home inspection,” Xander said, his thoughts far away. “My case worker never took it that far.”
“Sweetie,” Willow began, running a hand over his shoulder.
Xander shook off the mood. It was long ago, and it didn’t really matter anymore. “Shall we divest your room of its manly items so your blonde snugglebunny can move back in?”
Willow looked like she might argue for a moment, but then she let it drop. It didn’t take long to shift his things back to their proper places.
“Think I’ll call Giles. Grab all the magic stuff from his place and fill him in on the latest developments,” Xander said as he passed Willow with an armload of socks.
“How about the weapons?” Willow asked innocently.
Xander contemplated the mounting topics of discussion he had with Spike and decided he really couldn’t face any of them at the moment. “Later.”
Once Willow and Tara’s room was free of his influence, he called the Magic Box. Giles was anxious to hear how the visit had gone, eager enough to volunteer to help Xander load up the magic items, and so, half an hour later, Xander was walking into Giles’s flat. He swore the place didn’t look any flatter than his old apartment, no matter what the Brit insisted on calling it.
“Thank God you’ve come to relieve me of this clutter,” Giles sighed in the voice of the perpetually put upon.
The pile of magical paraphernalia wasn’t really that big, and no more cluttery than the musty books and papers Giles had strewn about. Then again, that was Giles’s clutter and if a man’s home was his castle then you couldn’t have other people’s clutter cluttering it. He smiled to himself as he started carrying things to his car. “We aim to please,” Xander chuckled. “We’ll have you back to comfortable bachelor digs in a jiffy.”
Giles helped to load the car as he asked, “What happened with the case worker’s visit?”
“Well, she saw through our little charade,” Xander couldn’t help tormenting the man just a bit.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed.
“She was cool with the whole gay thing,” Xander relented. “Isn’t going to put it in her report or anything. All she was worried about was the fact that Buffy didn’t have a job.” He headed signs of fresh panic off at the pass. “So we’re going to introduce the bot to the joys to be found in the fast food industry.”
Giles stared at him in confusion. “Do you think it wise to place her in a job with such a high level of human interaction?”
“Giles,” Xander assured. “I had half a dozen of those jobs. I know I did several of them in my sleep. It’ll be fine.”
“As I recall your employment at those establishments was not long lived,” Giles commented dryly.
“Hey,” Xander complained indignantly, “that was because of slaying-related absences, and a distinct lack of caring.”
Giles let the comment pass. “So, Ms. Kroeger is satisfied that Dawn is in an appropriate household?”
“Soon as we prove employment of the legal guardian.” Xander nodded. “She’s coming back in a couple months to check the ‘situation’ and I expect clear sailing from there.”
Giles shifted some books into the space the girl’s stuff had occupied. “I imagine the next visit will entail less rearranging. You’ll only have to shift your clothing to the basement.”
Xander froze. “Why would I do that?”
“Clearly Ms. Kroeger thinks you are a couple,” Giles declared with infuriating calm. “She assumes Buffy occupies your room, Willow and Tara clearly reside in the master bedroom. That only leaves the basement for you and Spike to share. It’s a perfectly logical supposition.”
Xander could feel the blood drain from his face. Would Spike think he planned this? There had been enough panic at the CPS worker’s pronouncement that the bot had to get a job that he’d forgotten she’d commented on seeing him looking at Spike. The whole thing went beyond awkward and into farce.
He was still picturing just how pathetic the whole situation made him when Giles’s irritated voice broke into his thoughts. “For Heaven’s sake, Xander, no one is suggesting that you sleep with the little cretin.”
Xander winced. “No, of course not.”
The next week passed in a blur of activity. Willow, Tara and Dawn were deep in the grips of exams. Xander threw himself into work at the site, ostensibly to make up the time he’d taken off, which was true, but had the side benefit of keeping him from having to speak to Spike.
The Buffybot was activated to do patrol in half the town while Spike patrolled with Giles or alone in the other half. For once, the Hellmouth was giving them a break and activity was light. Spike complained he barely found enough nasties to break a sweat.
Xander watched Spike and Tara for signs of some kind of blow up. What he discovered was that nothing had changed. Tara and Spike engaged in a complex dance where they seldom intersected and never touched. He’d just never noticed how little the two of them had to do with one another. Neither appeared angry at the other, they were just uncomfortable in close proximity.
When the weekend arrived Xander decided he’d avoided the issue long enough. He’d promised Willow he would talk to Spike about training the bot, while he was at it he might as well ask him about this thing with Tara.
Saturday afternoon turned out to be a perfect time for the dreaded conversation. The girls were sequestered upstairs preparing for their last exams, he and Spike were idly flipping through the channels in the living room.
“How do you think the bot is coming along on patrolling?” Xander asked.
Spike tensed, then found the television intensely interesting, “It’s no slayer.”
“Willow thinks she could program some better fighting moves into it,” Xander baited the hook.
“Is this about me showing the sodding piece of tin how to fight?”
Spike huffed in exasperation. “A few new moves isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s a robot, it has no creativity. That was Buffy’s greatest strength. She’d use her surroundings, thought outside the bloody box. The bot is a box.”
Xander thought about pressing the issue, but he had to concede that Spike was right. The bot was predictable. It was a fatal flaw in a guardian of the Hellmouth. He was about to concede the point when Spike spoke again, weary resignation ringing in his voice. “Still, got to try everything don’t we? I’ll talk to Will after she’s got this whole fast food worker thing ironed out. Don’t want her to get things mixed up and have it trying to flip the latest nasty with a spatula, do we?”
Xander returned Spike’s faint smile. “Not to mention the dangers of being fired if it stakes the boss.”
“As you say.”
There is was again. Ever since Ms. Kroeger’s visit Xander had found himself paying close attention to Spike’s speech. Every now and again the street tough accent would be tempered by a hint of the more refined tones he’d used that day. He was formulating a hypothesis, but it wasn’t ready just yet. There were more pressing matters to be discussed.
“So, what did you do to Tara?”
“She’s jittery around you,” Xander explained. “Tara is the calm, gentle center of this house, she’s got the patience of a saint and does nothing but giggle when I hug her. I’m guessing you had to do something pretty bad to her to make her that creeped out about you touching her.”
“Oh, that,” Spike replied offhandedly, as if it was no big deal. “It’s nothing I did, Harris. It’s what I am.”
“It’s true you’re a pain in the neck, but she’s dealt with the rest of us.”
“She’s a natural witch. All in tune with the Earth and such like. I’m an unnatural creature. I throw her off,” Spike said while directing his attention back to the television.
Xander pondered this for a moment. The fact that Spike was a vampire made Tara’s flesh crawl? Didn’t sound good for either of them. “Is there something we can do about it?”
Spike turned back to him with one eyebrow raised. “If you’re going to suggest Will can turn me into something more natural you can forget it.”
“No,” Xander assured, smiling a little at the suggestion. If they were teasing each other things always felt more comfortable. “Although I bet you’d make a very cute kitten.”
Spike growled at him, and it was all Xander could do not to chortle at the face he pulled. “No more of that,” Spike ground out. “Listen, Tara and I aren’t going to fly off the handle at each other. We both love Dawn too much for that.”
Xander recognized a final word when he heard it. For a time they sat back and watched the game with no more conversation than that necessary to argue about the referee’s calls.
After the game had turned into some old movie neither of them were that interested in, Spike fished the collar out of his pocket and turned to face Xander, dangling it in front of him. “Been a stressful few days, care to blow off a little steam?” Spike asked with a lecherous grin.
Xander was stunned. He thought this subject was thoroughly buried. Did he look so stressed that Spike thought he had to take pity on him again? This was not going to become a pattern, and Xander drew his line in the sand right here. “Oh no, I appreciate the offer, Spike, but I don’t accept pity fucks,” he said, striving to sound blasé.
“Are you barking?” Spike looked like Xander had just spouted off in Swahili.
Xander glowered at Spike. If Spike wanted things stated plainly he could do that. He stood because he sure wasn’t hanging around after this conversation. “It’s not like you got anything out of last time.”
Spike rose to stand an inch in front of Xander. Xander held his ground and stared him straight in the eyes.
Spike’s voice was a combination of tenderness and anger as he said, “Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t do charity work. I’ve never had anyone so responsive, someone who gave that much pure trust! Do you have any idea how damn sexy that is? I get hard just thinking about it.”
Xander wasn’t sure why Spike was pursuing this so vehemently, but he had no intention of being made a fool of again. “So damned sexy that you just about took my head off when you came upstairs. Sorry, Spike, not convincing.”
Spike broke the stare as if he was embarrassed. “Yeah, I lost my head a bit. Won’t happen again. I know the score.”
This was getting weirder by the minute, Xander had to ask, “The score?”
“That I could never be anything but a dirty little secret to you,” Spike bit out.
Xander was livid. “You think I’d do that to you?”
“Course you would, couldn’t sully your white hat hands with the likes of me now, could you?” Spike sounded resigned now. He wasn’t even listening.
Revelation hit Xander so hard he nearly staggered back. “You don’t trust me.”
“What?” That penetrated Spike’s thick vampiric skull. Xander saw the truth of his assumption in the eyes that snapped up to meet his.
A malicious anger twisted through Xander’s thoughts at that realization. He leaned over and whispered into Spike’s ear. “You’ve really missed out, Spike.” He ran one hand up Spike’s spine to tease at the nape of his neck. “You should see what I can do with my hands free to roam.” He ghosted hot breath along Spike’s neck with his words, then nibbled Spike’s earlobe just a bit. “All the wicked things I can do with my mouth.”
Spike’s eyes had fallen shut and a tremor ran through his body, fists clenched at his sides. Xander found himself very satisfied with the reaction he’d elicited. He threw his arms wide and stepped back to deliver his parting shot. “But I don’t sleep with people who don’t trust me.”
Xander walked away without looking back.
|Feed the Author|
|Home||Categories||New Stories||Non Spander|