Cuddly Predators by Entrenous

Chapter 1

"Now, then, off with you!"

Giles's voice was muffled, but Xander could hear the sounds of indignant shooing from all the way inside the Magic Box.

"What gives?" he asked Anya.

She shrugged and straightened the "May Mugwort Madness!" button on her blouse. "Giles is often testy in a way that discourages customers. But when he uses that testiness to frighten away disarmingly fuzzy interlopers who aim to make the Magic Shop environment a less shopping and spending friendly space, I can't think of a reason to complain."

"Right," Xander said, backing away. He and Anya had been broken up for four months now, and though things were basically amicable between them, he felt like he'd started to lose his Anya-lingo-translation skills the more time they spent apart.

As soon as he reached the hall next to the training room, he could see Giles, leaning out the doorway and swatting at something in the alley outside.

"Whatcha got there, Giles?" Xander asked.

"This -- this thing -- won't leave!"

Xander took a look and then cleared his throat. "I hate to break it to you, but that's not so much a thing as it is an eensy kitten barely bigger than your fist." 

The kitten, apparently having already developed the skill to duck just beyond Giles's swatting hand, gave a tiny mew and licked its paw delicately.

"Well, whatever it is, it's been sneaking inside the Magic Box at night and causing havoc."

"That little guy?" Xander asked, pointing. "He doesn't look like he could do anything bad."

"Yes, well -- you haven't seen how quickly he can scamper. Or how dangerously he romps. Last night alone he destroyed several valuable baubles by batting them about, and made hay of our collection of witches' wigs when he curled up in them to sleep." Giles regarded the kitten, who paused to let out a tiny hiss in his direction, and sighed. "Would you take a look at the walls and bookcases, see if you can discover how it is that he's making his way indoors when we've locked everything up tight?"

"Sure thing," Xander said. "But you probably want to work on this problem from both ends." At Giles's inquisitive look, he clarified. "Not just try to block him out, but try to get him a new place to hang out, so he won't want to mess with the magic supplies. Sounds like he's just trying to find a home." 

"I hardly think I'm responsible for finding it lodging," Giles argued.

"Look, you want it gone, right? Then find it another place to be."

"I can't imagine who would take in such a naughty creature."

Xander sighed and stepped out into the alley. "Hey, buddy. C'mere. I won't hurt you."

The kitten paused in his washing and took a sniff in Xander's direction. It glanced up at Giles with what almost seemed like a kittenish scowl, and cautiously treaded towards Xander.

Xander stood still and didn't look at the kitten directly -- he remembered his grandmother telling him that cats didn't like that, that it made them feel threatened.

A tiny paw was held in the air for a second as the kitten decided if Xander was a friend or a foe. It was sorted quickly, as the kitten moved to twine around Xander's ankles, purring rapturously all the while. 

"Aww!" Xander said to the kitten as the kitten pounced on the lace of his sneaker. "He's great! You can tell he's going to be a good mouser. He can be like the mascot for the Magic Box."

"I don't think so," Anya put in from where she peeked over Giles' shoulder. "I think I'm allergic to it."

"How do you know if you're allergic?" Xander asked. "I don't see your eyes watering, and you're not sneezing."

"Because it makes me feel itchy," Anya said, wrinkling her pretty nose.

"I can't condone taking it in here; not when it would do so much damage to the stock," Giles said. He and Anya nodded at one another, and Xander had a weird vision of the two of them lighting up a cigarette after finishing going over the store's accounting books.

Xander looked back at the kitten and couldn't help but grin as it meow-ed and rubbed against his shin. "Well, I have some time. I'll bring him by the animal shelter, see if they can take him until he gets adopted." 

"Yes, get it out of here, before it decides it wants to begin shedding its hair on my new skirt," Anya said brightly.

Xander rolled his eyes but said "Will do."

"You'll be back later for the meeting, I presume?" Giles asked.

Xander picked up the kitten, who immediately curled up in his arms. "Yeah, I should be. Anything special, or the regular kind of update?"

"Nothing of grave urgency."

"Though that could change," Anya put in. "That's the fun part of living life as a single gal on the Hellmouth." She smiled at Giles, who appeared flustered and took off his glasses to wipe the lenses.

"Yes, well...good luck with that creature." Giles and Anya closed the door, and Xander sighed.

"Let's get you going, okay?" Xander said to the kitten.

The kitten reached out and gently tapped his nose with its paw. 

* * *

It was a short walk to the animal shelter downtown -- really, it was a short walk anywhere in Sunnydale. But it took longer to get to the shelter than Xander anticipated, because he kept getting stopped by people who wanted to coo at or pet the kitten.

"Isn't he the best kitten ever?" one eight year old boy asked his mother before she told him not to talk to strangers, even ones holding adorable kittens.

"He's so soft," a pair of women marvelled as they gave the squirming kitten some pets while Xander obligingly held him still.

"Is that a ferret?" one slightly crazy looking guy asked. At that point the kitten was perched on Xander's shoulder, peeking around.

"No, it's a cat," Xander said, trying to manuever around Mr. Crazy.

"That's a good cat," the man said solemnly. "Don't go giving it away now."

"Right," Xander said, and hurried along. 

* * *

"What do you mean, you don't have any space?" Xander asked the woman at the shelter reception area.

"I'm really sorry, but lots of cats are having litters right now. There's just no room for kittens in the no-kill segment of the shelter," the woman said.

"No-kill?" Xander asked. The kitten made a little distressed sound, and Xander realized that he'd squeezed him too hard.

"I mean, the part of the shelter where we have animals that we'll hold until they get adopted, without euthanizing them," the woman explained. "We can only take so many in those spaces." Her eyes flickered over the kitten. "But if you really just want to get rid of it, then--"

"What? No way," Xander said. "I'm not going to consign this kitten to an untimely death! He's better off being an alley cat than being killed."

"If you put it back on the streets, it's going to be prey to any number of illnesses, and even if it manages to stay relatively healthy, feral cats only have a life span of three to five years. Please, sir, putting the kitten to sleep would be better than turning it back onto the streets."

Xander knew he should think before speaking. One of these days, he was going to try it. "Well, that's -- I'm not going to put this kitten to sleep. Because I'm going to be the one to take care of it." 

Even though Xander wasn't feeling too friendly towards the woman at the shelter when she kept suggesting that they put the kitten to sleep, he relented after she volunteered to help with some of the medical attention the kitten would need.

So after waiting for two hours, the veterinarian was able to squeeze in the kitten for his first round of shots "on the house", and Jackie, the receptionist, assured Xander that she would put in a good word so that the kitten could get fixed for half the regular rate as soon as he was old enough.

"Harris, first name 'I don't know yet'?" the veterinary nurse called out with a glance at her clipboard.

"That'd be me. I mean, him. I mean, us," Xander said as he got to his feet clutching the now-sleeping kitten.

"Doctor Reynolds can see you now," she said. She waved towards the hallway, and Xander followed. 

* * *

The vet got the kitten to open his mouth, gave him a couple of shots while Xander held him, and petted him until the kitten gave him a wary "don't-stick-me-with-a-needle-again" type purr.

"Aren't you a handsome guy," the vet told the kitten, grinning as the kitten grabbed his hand with two paws and attempted to bite him.

"Why, thank you," Xander said jokingly.

The vet laughed and straightened before giving Xander an amused look. He was a young-ish guy, or at least he didn't look really old to Xander. Somewhere between Xander-age and Giles-age, with sandy brown hair and hazel eyes.

"Well, now that you mention it," the vet said with a wink. He scribbled something on the chart. "You'll be coming back in a week for the next set of shots, right?"

"Right," Xander said. "Whenever you all can fit us in."

"Oh, I don't think we'll have a problem with that," the vet said. He took off his gloves and held out a hand; Xander shook it. "Tell Jackie to make sure that she schedules you and ... thought of a name yet?"

"Nope," Xander said. "I just decided I was keeping him, so I haven't come up with a good name." He cleared his throat. Apparently they were still shaking hands.

"Well, whatever you name him, tell Jackie to make sure I get to see you both when you come back."

"Well, thanks for all your help, Dr. Reynolds," Xander said when Dr. Reynolds didn't seem like he was going to let go.

Dr. Reynolds laughed and opened the door for Xander. "Please. Call me Mark." 

* * *

 By the time Xander was finished at the shelter, it was nearly time for the meeting. He hesitated as he left the building, wondering if he should drop the kitten off at home and be a little late to catch up with the others. But then he felt sort of bad leaving the little guy alone in a big apartment when he was so new and confused about what was going to happen to him.

So instead of heading homeward, he hefted the kitten in his cardboard carrier in the direction of the Magic Box. The evening sky was already darkening when he pushed open the door to the familiar chime of bells.

"Oh good, you're here," Giles said absently. Then he caught sight of the carrier in Xander's hand. "Good lord. You've brought it back."

"Brought what back?" Buffy asked.

"Oh my god, it's a cute little kitten!" Willow squealed when Xander put the box on the round meeting table. "You got a kitten!"

"He kind of got me," Xander said.

"Isn't she a sweetie," Tara exclaimed, gently putting her hand through the carrier's front opening and smiling as the kitten licked her finger.

"It's a he," Xander corrected her. "Not a girl. Very much the fluffy man-cat."

"What's his name?" Buffy asked. "Oh, you could call him 'Buster'."

"He doesn't look like a Buster," Willow said. Her forehead furrowed. "Oh! You could name him Captain McKitty!"

"Xander, what on earth are you thinking, bringing the creature back here?" Giles interrupted the naming process.

"It'll get loose, and try to crawl up our bodies!" Anya pointed out.

Xander held up a hand to forestall any more name suggestions or objections, and very quickly explained that he and the kitten were only making a stop here for the meeting. "After that, he'll be coming home with me," he concluded.

"You know, I never thought of you as a cat person," Buffy said, reaching in to pet the kitten.

"What kind of person did you think of me as?" Xander asked.

Buffy tilted her head to the side. "I don't know. Maybe more of an iguana-man." 

"All right then, children, let's get this over with," Spike announced as he banged into the shop.

"Well, we would get it over with! If you would, you know, show up on time," Willow said, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Here now, aren't I?" He pulled up a chair at the table, and flung himself into the seat.

"Yes, well. We need to switch our current scheduling of patrol in the various cemetaries in town," Giles said. "There has been a marked drop in slays lately, which is worrisome."

"Also, dull," Buffy put in. "If I'm going to be out there with my stake and crossbow, the least the vampires can do is show up."

"Indeed. So beginning tonight, we'll change the rotation--"

"Hello. What's this, then?" Spike asked with interest, poking at the cardboard carrier.

"Oh, no you don't," Buffy said. She turned to Xander. "Tell Spike to keep his mitts off your kitten, or it'll end up the dinner of any demon who can win it in a poker game."

"What?" Xander asked, horrified. He pulled the carrier towards him. 

"Hey," Spike objected. "I'm not going to lose it, because I happen to be on a lucky streak."

"No way," Xander said. "No kitten of mine is going to become your ticket to ill-gotten gains."

"Good use of 'ill-gotten gains'," Willow said, looking impressed.

"What, are you keeping it as a pet, then?" Spike asked.

"Yes," Xander said. "Today I saved him from certain death, and now he's mine."

Spike laughed helplessly.

"Make him leave," Xander said in a petulant voice to Giles.

"I'm going to make you all leave in a moment," Giles said with raised eyebrows. "We really should see if this new plan of patrolling in different spots reveals why there has been a dearth of vampires of late."

"I can't take the kitten on patrol," Xander said. "Is it okay if I head home, take a turn at patrol tomorrow night?"

"Oh!" Anya said. "Rupert, you and I could patrol since Xander is busy with that...thing."

"Oh, er...well..."

"Yeah, Giles," Buffy said. She struggled to keep the mischievous look off her face. "You probably need to keep your hand in. Patrolling!"

"So that leaves me with Buffy," Willow said. "And I guess Spike."

"No, I'll beg off this time." Spike got to his feet, still laughing. "I'll see droopy and his feline friend home instead."

Chapter 2

“You know, I am actually capable of getting myself home with a kitten in tow,” Xander grumbled to Spike for the third time.

“Oh, no. Not after you’ve just saved it from certain death. You’re probably all exhausted after such manly heroics. Wouldn’t do for both of you to get eaten on the way home.”

“Nothing has tried to eat me in at least a month,” Xander protested.

They walked in silence for a few more blocks.

“What’s it eat anyway?” Spike asked brusquely.

“For the last time, nothing is going to eat us, okay?” Xander exclaimed. He would have flung his hands up into the air, but instead he just settled for grasping the kitten’s carrier more carefully.

Spike snorted. “No. What are you planning on feeding your furry pal here?”

“Oh.” Xander shifted the carrier from one hand to the other. “I guess . . . cat food. Or . . . I think they eat tuna?”

Spike looked pointedly at Xander. “Have that all stocked up at home then?”

Xander gave a large sigh. Okay, so maybe he hadn’t thought all of this pet stuff through. He’d only had the kitten for a few hours, and Spike didn’t need to keep bugging him about it. But on the other hand, Spike was right in that kittens did need to eat, and something told him that two-day-old cold pizza in his fridge wasn’t going to do the job.

“Fine,” he said. “There’s a convenience store two blocks down. We’ll swing by there, I’ll pick up cat food, and then you can go bother someone else, okay?”

“Oh, no. You’ll need more than what they’ve got there. Litter box and such. I’ve got a better idea.” Spike grasped Xander’s arm and steered him in the opposite direction.

“Litter box? Well . . . but nothing else is going to be open now,” Xander pointed out as he tried to skid to a halt.

Spike didn’t bother waiting. “Just quit your whinging, will you? Follow me.”

Xander had to start going at a trot to keep up with Spike’s quick strides, and so he nearly jogged right past him when Spike stopped short. He looked around him and rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure, and the warehouse district is such a better place to pick up kitty treats.”

Spike ignored him, first looking left and then right down the stretch of deserted street. Then he tugged Xander down an alley, through a shadowed doorway, and along the path of a winding passageway. It all happened so quickly that Xander barely had a moment to say “Hey!” indignantly more than twice.

“What the --” he said aloud when they suddenly emerged in what looked like a fluorescent-lit and well-stocked mega pet store.

“Welcome!” A slight blue-skinned demon that sported both gills and a red polyester vest greeted them with a cheery wave. “Now, here’s a flier that shows all of this week’s specials. And if you need anything, or it looks like we’re out of stock on a certain item, be sure to ask one of the clerks for help.”

Xander took the flier dumbly, standing still as the demon bounded off to greet another customer.

“Not all demons who play kitten poker eat their earnings,” Spike observed to no one in particular. He took off down a food aisle, leaving Xander to catch up with him.

* * *

Xander did his best not to gawk at the female vampire he saw whistling to her cockatoo. He tried not to stare at the Fyral who methodically showed toy after toy to his curious black lab. And he attempted not to shy away when a squat brown demon making snorting sounds ran past them to grab his pet rat before it made a scampering getaway.

When they’d found themselves in front of shelves and shelves of economy sized bags of kibble, Spike disappeared for a moment and came back with a huge cart. At this point it held an enormous bag of kitten food, a scratching pad, a covered cat box (“Needs his privacy, doesn’t he?” Spike had explained), two bags of litter, a battery-operated gurgling fountain of a water dish (“He’ll want fresh while you’re off laying bricks or some such all day,” Spike noted), three packets of plastic balls with jingle bells inside, and a book entitled You and Your New Kitten.

At some point amid all the rushing down the aisles, the kitten had scratched so furiously at the cardboard carrier that Xander had scooped him out. After he had gotten him cradled in his arms, the kitten watched everything around him with great interest, occasionally yawning or nosing at Xander’s skin affectionately.

On the whole it had been a normal shopping trip pet supplies. Well, other than the tall demon with the Cousin It style hair going on who had come over with his equally hairy pet so the pet could snarl at the kitten. The kitten quickly dug its claws into Xander’s arm, prompting him to yelp while it hissed and puffed out its tail. Xander was in the process of making a quick escape that involved backing up into a rack of gerbil balls when to his surprise Spike swaggered over to the demon and struck up a conversation. That is, if you could call it a conversation when most of the words seemed to be growls and guttural hacking. At the end of it, though, the demon and Spike had clapped one another on the shoulder, and Spike had come back to Xander shaking his head and laughing.

“What the hell was that all about?” Xander asked.

“Friend of a friend,” Spike said obliquely.

They made it to the registers without anything else weird happening.

“Hold up,” Spike said. He left Xander on line, returning a few minutes later with a plastic carrying case. It had metal gates on both ends, and was sized for an adult cat. “He’ll grow,” Spike said. “And you’ll need something better than what you’ve got there for when you need to tote him about again.”

“Thanks,” Xander said in surprise, taking the carrier from Spike and examining it. “Um, though I guess I shouldn’t be thanking you when I’m the one paying for all of this stuff.”

Spike gave him a look that clearly said Xander was an idiot. “Your kitten, innit?”

Xander felt like less of a dork for complaining about paying when the cashier (who seemed human, though at this point Xander was making no assumptions) rang up the purchases.

“Well, damn. Good thing the shelter is cutting me a break on all the medical stuff the kitten needs doing,” he muttered as he forked over the cash.

“How’d you manage that?” Spike asked.

“Long story.”

They stopped just before they got back to the alley so that Xander could transfer the kitten to his new container along with a small stuffed tiger that Spike had gotten for it. Xander didn’t ask when Spike had had the time to buy it, because he was pretty sure Spike had stolen it. Still. It was kind of . . . nice of Spike to do that. Sort of like the whole night had been. Which was just stranger than strange, and far more unexpected than suddenly becoming the proud owner of a fluffy kitten.

So Xander was more quiet than he would have been as he walked home, not really noticing that Spike was still tagging along after him once they were inside the apartment building.

“Um. You can probably go now,” he said at last. The bags had been loaded onto the counter, the litter box had been filled, and Xander had found bowls for the kitten’s food and water.

“Just wanted to make sure you set it all up right,” Spike said. He backed towards the door, glancing as the kitten poked its nose out of the now-open carrier. “Don’t forget, you’ll want to get him one of those toys -- the stick thing with the feather on the end -- because we forgot that. And what’s that thing they like to nibble on? Oh yeah, catnip. Buy him some of that too. And should probably buy him his own bed, because he might not want--”

“Spike.” Xander held up both hands. “That’s . . . okay, I’m thinking he’ll probably do just fine for one night without the entire line of imaginable cat products.”

“Yeah. All right.” Spike shoved his hands in his coat pockets and trudged out the door.

Xander stood at the counter for a moment before he rushed into the hall. He gasped and clutched at his chest over his heart when he almost ran into Spike standing right outside the door.

“What?” Spike asked. He held an unlit cigarette, so Xander guessed he was still in the hallway because he had been searching for his lighter.

“Just -- thanks,” Xander said. “For helping with everything, for taking me to the Demonic Pet Co. for all the supplies. You’ve been really . . . uh . . .”

Spike waved his hand in the air, cutting Xander off. He rubbed at his chin with his thumb. “Welcome,” he said gruffly.

They stood together awkwardly for a moment. Then a curious “mew?” from the barely-opened doorway had Xander cursing and just barely catching the kitten before he took off like a shot down the hall.

“No running away, buddy,” Xander told the kitten firmly. The kitten squinted and then swished his tail back and forth a few times. And when Xander looked up, Spike had gone.

Chapter 3

Xander woke up the next morning with a soft touch to his face. Someone was stroking his cheek.

"Ahn?" he asked. No, his head was all fuzzy and in need of coffee, because Anya hadn't been in his bed since they'd broken up. Well, okay, there were those two times afterwards, but not so much recently. She was working too late these days at The Magic Box for “we’re not really supposed to be doing this” type stuff. It was probably better that way, and definitely less confusing.

So not Anya. And no one else, because there was no feeling of drunkenness and impending doom hanging in his head. He’s probably dreamed it. But then he felt the tap-tapping again, this time accompanied by a trilled "Mrrreowwww?"

"Oh!" he said in surprise. The kitten, the one he’d found yesterday, the one he’d pretty much adopted.

He sat up all at once, making his head swim and knocking the kitten off his chest. The cat let out a surprised squawk as it was shunted away, rolled along the comforter, landed at the end of the bed and then began calmly licking his paw as though he had meant to do that all along.

"Hey buddy," Xander said. He reached down to pet the kitten. At the last minute it occurred to him he should be worried about getting a pawful of claws, but the kitten seemed to have forgotten about the incident entirely, and purred as Xander scritched behind his ears.

"Aren’t you a nice kitten? Got to figure out a name for you," Xander told him. "Something besides kitten."

puuuurrrrrrrr, went the kitten.

Xander yawned and headed to the bathroom. He closed the door, but apparently the kitten wasn't big on that idea, because he nosed it open two seconds later. He regarded Xander for a moment before squinting at him, and then batted around a large piece of lint.

"Oh, right! You’re probably bored. But you've got toys," Xander exclaimed. “Spike and I got them for you last night, and if I start another sentence with the words ‘Spike and I’, feel free to scratch me on the leg.” He quickly washed his hands and then made his way to the kitchen so he could pry the plastic balls loose of their packaging. But when he put one down in front of the kitten, the kitten tilted its head and did nothing. Then he walked away, tail held high in the air.

"Finicky," Xander said. He yawned again, and stumbled into the kitchen to start the coffee maker.

"Prraaooohhwww?" he heard. When he looked down, the kitten was looking right up at him. He sat on Xander's foot and yawned too.

"You still want something, huh?” The kitten looked at him pointedly. “Oh, breakfast," Xander said to him. "You must be hungry, right?" And sure enough, the cat dish was empty, so he filled it again. While he was at it, he changed the cat’s water, managing to slosh only a little of it when he set it down next to the food bowl.

When the coffee was ready, Xander took a mug over to the kitchen table where he sat down and paged through the newspaper. The kitten munched away at his food a few feet away, and it actually felt kind of cozy.

"You going to be okay here all day by yourself?" Xander asked the kitten. He stood up and peered around the living room, trying to think if he had anything really breakable or easily damaged. Luckily most of his collectible stuff was in the closet, and that was shut up nice and tight.

When he glanced back, the kitten wasn't at his bowl any longer, and that was all the warning Xander got before the kitten ran straight up to him and jumped onto his leg, claws clinging to his pajama pants.

"Whoa, whoa!" Xander yelled. He reached down to pry the kitten off of him, but the cat snapped its little jaws and nearly bit off a chunk of Xander’s hand. "Hey! Aren't you not supposed to bite the hand that feeds you?" Xander asked as he shook his leg out, trying to disengage the kitty.

But as he jiggled his leg in the air, the cat suddenly looked helpless and innocent, giving a sad little meow. Xander groaned when he realized that the kitten was stuck to the material. "Hang on," he sighed. When he'd gotten the claws out, the kitten pranced away happily.

Xander caught a glimpse of the kitchen clock and realized that he'd have to hurry if he didn't want to be late. The next fifteen minutes were so busy with showering and getting dressed that he nearly forgot about the kitten.

When he paused at his bedroom door to pick up his bag with his lunch and other stuff, the kitten was already curled up on top of it, fast asleep with his paw covering his nose. "Up, up," Xander said as he moved the kitten onto the carpet. "I need this. It's not yours," he added, when the kitten seemed inclined to hang on.

The kitten sniffed at him indignantly. Then he sniffed again. Then he sneezed.

"You're crazy," Xander said affectionately. He reached down and rubbed the kitten's cheeks before heading out the door.

* * *

When Xander's crew broke for lunch, he headed back to the trailer to file some paperwork. Just as he was finishing up, his cell phone rang.

"Hey Will. What's up?"

“I love that I have my own ring-tone,” she said. He could almost hear her bouncing in her seat.

“Well, the Blossom theme can’t help but remind me of you. All those times you forced me to watch the show are burned in my brain.”

“How's Captain McKitty?" she asked. "Did you buy him food? Is he eating the food? Sometimes they don't like the food you feed them, and that happened to us with Miss Kitty Fantastico. Until we figured out that she had a liver-aversion, which is really unusual, but then she's a sensitive cat. But I called because I was thinking you should get him one of those cat apartments. Not like a person apartment with a door and rooms, but those things with the levels and the poles so he can climb around and look down from above and lord it over you?"

"Odo," he corrected her automatically.

"Oh don't what?"

", that's his name," Xander explained. "Not Captain McKitty; Odo." It had just come out of his mouth, but somehow it fit.

There was a pause. "But he's a grey and white fluffy kitty, not a gelatinous shape-shifter."

Xander laughed. "See, you said you weren't watching Deep Space Nine, but there's no possible way you could know about that without seeing the show."

"Xander! They were playing the re-runs on channel 21 every morning last semester. When I didn't have class until noon? And I didn't mean to watch it, but I was always over Tara's then while she was in Introduction to Sociology or Human Physiology, and it's the only station she could get in at the dorms. I had to watch something while I ate cereal!"

Xander closed the folder on his desk and rubbed his eyes. "How come everyone who watches Star Trek claims it's accidental?"

"I don't know, but I really -- Odo?"

"Odo," Xander confirmed. "One minute he's cute and snuggly, the next minute he's tearing across the room. Then he goes around claiming bags that aren’t his, refusing to play with his toys, and sitting on my feet until I feed him. He's definitely an Odo."

"Odo it is then," Willow replied. "Can I come visit both of you after you get home?"

"Sure thing. Six-thirty okay?"

"Six-thirty. I'll come bearing fish-flavored snacky treats. Oh, and pizza! The pizza is for you," she added.

"Kind of figured that, Will. See you then."

Chapter 4

“Hey buddy.” Xander closed the door then petted Odo. The kitten meowed as he rubbed against Xander’s leg like he was scratching his back. “Miss me?” Xander tossed his wallet and keys onto the table and stretched. “Who wants kibble? Not me, but I bet you do.”

Just then the phone rang. Xander dashed across the apartment and managed to grab it on the second ring. "Hello?"

"Hi, Mr. Harris? This is Jackie from the shelter, and I'm just calling to remind you of your cat's appointment with Dr. Reynolds this evening."

Xander swiveled around to look at the calendar on the wall. "You're kidding. It's been a week already? Seems like Odo was getting stuck with needles just yesterday."

The voice on the line laughed. "Time flies when you're having fun, huh? Yes, it's time for his follow-up shots, and a general check on his health. Oh, and if I can ask just to put in his file: how is he adapting? Is he behaving pretty well so far?"

Xander glanced nervously over at Odo just at the moment when the kitten overturned a plant stand and shot off with a shriek-y meow as the dirt and green rained around him. "Oh, yeah. He's...he's the best. Couldn't be better in the behavior department. And adapting like there's no tomorrow."

"Great! We'll see you tonight then?"

"You bet," he answered. "Me and my very rule-abiding cat will see you later."

He hung up the phone and called out, "I know someone who isn't getting his kitten treats if he keeps messing with the plants that Willow assured me were impossible to kill!"

He had just finished sweeping up the mess from the toppled plant when the phone rang again.

"Ah, Xander, hello," Giles said when he picked up. "I was calling to inquire whether you were planning on coming tonight to our meeting."

"Oh, the meeting! I was going to..." Xander dumped the dirt in the trash bin and leaned on the counter. "Sorry, just disposing of a plant that was tragically cut down in its prime. But sorry, about tonight, no can do. I totally forgot that I've got to bring Odo to the vet to get his check-up."

"Of course, you'll need to take care of that. Well, no matter. Things remain relatively calm of late. We'll be checking on some upcoming prophecies. I imagine Buffy can phone you tomorrow and provide you with an update of what transpired."

"Right, stuff that's foretold, I'm sure Buffy can -- hey! No, Odo, no!" Odo had jumped onto the counter and was headed for the faucet, intent on getting a drink of water straight from the source.

"Sorry," he said once he'd put the kitten on the floor and watched him high-tail it out the room.

Giles cleared his throat. "Perhaps while you're at the animal clinic, you might inquire as to whether Odo is unusually mischievous for a feline of his age."

"Giles, he's fine. He's a kitten. What I'd like to know is why everyone is expecting him to act like he's Miss Manners." Of course just then there was a crash coming from the bedroom, and Xander gripped the phone extra hard.

"Miss -- I beg your pardon? At any rate, though you can't attend the meeting, would you please make plans to check The Magic Box as you had said you would, for any potential points of entry? I'd rather not have any more surprise visits from unwelcome kittens. And much as you're enjoying your custody of this cat, I doubt you'll want to adopt two or three more should they find their way into the store."

Xander blinked and then laughed out loud. "Yeah, you're right. One Odo is plenty. If you want, I can actually swing by and take care of that after I go to the vet's."

"That would be most helpful. Thank you."

After wrapping up the conversation, Xander investigated the bedroom. It turned out that Odo had only knocked Xander's hard hat to the floor, and nothing had broken. He checked his watch. Might as well start getting ready for the appointment, especially since he had to find a way to get Odo into his carrier.

He set the carrier on the ground and tried to coax Odo inside.

"Ooooh, carrier," he said lamely. Odo peeked out at him from under the bed. "Bet there's some fun stuff in there! Come on, go ahead and get in, and I'll...give you lots of pets?"

Odo wriggled backwards until he was totally underneath the mattress.

"I'll give you some more of the plant to destroy," Xander offered.

Two kitten-eyes glowed at him, but Odo didn't budge.

"Don't you want to go on a little trip?" Xander asked. "Okay, that's probably a stupid question, considering the last time you were outside was when you were a cat of the streets."

No more gleaming cat-eyes. "You're just going to go to sleep, aren't you? As if that would work. Let me tell you, buddy, you're going to go to this appointment whether you like it or not."


"Oh!" Xander said suddenly as an idea struck him. He got to his feet and snuck out of the room. When he returned, he had in his hands Odo's little stuffed tiger that Spike had gotten for him. "Awww, Mister Tiger loves the carrier," Xander said loudly. "He wants to go to the vet and get his all-better shots, yes he does!" He made a show of petting the stuffed animal and then putting him inside the carrier along with a towel that Odo had appropriated for himself.

He sauntered out into the living room, but kept just outside the door, listening to find out what would happen next. When he heard a "Mew?" and then a rolling purr, he scurried back inside and closed the gate. "Ha!" he told Odo.

Odo gazed at him and then curled up with the tiger.

"Sheesh, you'd think it was no problem at all," Xander griped. "You couldn't have done that the first time?" He picked up the carrier and looked at his watch. "Wow, we're going to be super early. Might as well stop by The Magic Box on the way there, huh?"

Odo purred agreeably.

* * *

By the time they arrived at The Magic Box, Odo seemed totally fine with being in the carrier. Sure, he took a swipe at Xander every now and again when he could reach, but Xander decided that was for show. For the most part the kitten was alert and watching the people on the street with interest. Every once in a while when Xander would look inside to make sure he was okay, he caught Odo licking his stuffed toy as though he was cleaning it.

"Let's check out the alley first," Xander told Odo. A man in front of the store looked at Xander and raised his eyebrows. But Xander had gotten so used to talking to the kitten at home that he wasn't even going to try to stop himself just because one guy skulking around the front of the store looked at him funny.

"Maybe that's how you got in," Xander continued as he walked the length of the narrow corridor. "Wily manuevering, slipping in through the alley. Though I don't see any major holes. Guess we'll head inside, see if I can spot the problem on that end."

He tried the back door on a whim, though he was a little surprised that it opened. "Not so safe. But again, this is a guy who never locks up his apartment, so go figure." Odo yawned.

Two steps inside, and he was about to call out "Hey guys, it's your friendly neighborhood Xander," when he heard a soft but odd sound. Probably nothing. Still, the store was a kind of magnet for monsters -- he decided he'd better be as quiet as possible and try to surprise whatever it was. He could only hope it didn't have knives or claws or anything resembling higher intelligence.

As he kept getting further inside, the sound got louder. Kind of a squelching squishy sound, a sound like there was something wet and someone sliding across it, a noise like--

"Oh my god," Xander whispered. Without thinking, he slapped a hand on the front of the carrier so that Odo wouldn't see. There. Right in front of him. Giles and Anya making out right in the middle of the shop.

He managed not to stumble over his own feet as he backed away and hid in the training room.

"Oh, Rupert," he heard Anya sigh. Now there, that was all wrong. Anya only ever sighed his name. Okay, not so much anymore, since they'd broken up, and she was free to date anyone she wanted, except not without checking with him first and going through a standard approval process and filing everything in triplicate. And Giles? Giles wasn't supposed to make out with anyone else's former girlfriend. Giles was...Giles, and the whole thing was a huge, crazy mistake. He gasped as he realized what must be the awful truth. Possessed! They were so obviously possessed, and it was a spell that made people have to make out with lots of tongue. If only he could find the cure...

"Anya, I really don't think..." He could almost hear Giles pull the glasses off his face and start polishing. "As I said last time, this is hardly appropriate. Not when there is...this working relationship that we must confront."

"Last time?" Xander mouthed. Inside the carrier, Odo started to scratch at the towel, making the pleased growls he always made whenever he was pulling something apart.

"Well, you could always quit," Anya said reasonably.

"No, I don't think that's any sort of solution. This is my store, and I hardly think that I should leave it because of . . . whatever this is," Giles said, his voice rising.

"Fine. You want to hold back because we work together? That's just fine."

Giles sighed. "Very well."

A prolonged pause followed.

"You know, I should have known not to get involved with a librarian. Every since Sir Thomas Bodley, you've all been been rascals, gallivanting off to the Netherlands and breaking women's hearts!"

"Anya --"

"No. None of your fancy book-talk and cataloguing. If you need me, I'll be over there. Doing inventory."

This time the pause extended into an uncomfortable silence. Ah, Anya's stony silence. Xander knew it well. But that kind of thing was more relationshippy, and not so much with the magical force.

Giles and Anya? Almost, kinda, maybe in a non-mystical romantic relationship? Clutching Odo’s carrier, Xander left in a daze.

Chapter 5

Okay, so Giles and Anya probably weren’t crazed from a magic potion, or drawn together by a curse. They just wanted to lock lips. Lock lips with lots of enthusiasm, no thought for driving away rightfully appalled customers and zero considerations for the unannounced visits of ex-boyfriends. They had every right. Sure. No problem. The lousy finks.

Xander grumbled and muttered all the way to the shelter. At the corner, the crazy guy who a week before had thought the kitten was a ferret gave him a friendly wave, and seeing as how he was talking to himself and looking insane, Xander waved back.

He reached the shelter at last, pausing as he realized that most of the lights were turned low.

“Hey,” he called as he walked into the reception area. There were no people waiting, no one behind the counter. “Anyone here?”

“Be with you shortly,” a male voice called back.

Xander shrugged and hefted Odo’s carrier up onto the counter. Odo took a few sniffs around and then began to mew piteously.

“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad. Just a couple more shots. Look at it this way: the sooner it starts, the sooner it’ll be over. It’s not like your very manhood has been compromised by your former librarian making time with your ex-demon ex, right?” Xander paused. “Okay, sure, your manhood will be compromised plenty when you get fixed, but that’s not for a few more weeks.”

Odo seemed unconvinced. He retreated to the other end of the case, still crying and dragging the stuffed tiger with him.

“They always seem to know when they’re coming in for an exam,” Dr. Reynolds said sympathetically as he walked into the waiting area. “Xander Harris, right? Hang on and let me lock up, then I’ll see you and your cat.”

“Odo,” Xander corrected without thinking.

“Oh no?” The vet frowned. “It’s not going to take me that long.”

“No. Odo. His name is Odo.” Xander flushed.

Dr. Reynolds smiled vaguely, as though he wasn’t sure what the hell Xander was talking about. Which, yeah, he probably wasn’t.

“Hope we’re not putting you out, making you stay late,” Xander ventured.

“Not at all,” Dr. Reynolds answered. “Let’s head back, and get started with this little guy.”

Once they were inside the examination room, Dr. Reynolds scrubbed up and put on plastic gloves while Xander lifted a squirming Odo out of his carrier. “Lately I’ve been taking more evening appointments, so this works out just fine for me.”

“Ah, the veterinary profession,” Xander observed. “It is a noble and lonely business.”

Dr. Reynolds laughed. “Noble, I don’t know. Mainly I’m trying to distract myself by upping my hours at the practice since my ex and I broke up a few months ago.”

“Yeah?” Xander stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Me too. With the breaking up thing, not the veterinary practice. Because that would be illegal. Though, my uncle is a taxidermist. But only as a hobby, so…” He cleared his throat. “Anyway. It’s been hard.”

Dr. Reynolds’s eyes met his for a moment. For some reason Xander’s palms suddenly got a little sweaty. “So your relationship ended recently?”

“Yup. Two months.” Xander rocked on his heels a little. “Two long months. Not that it hasn’t been for the best. I’ve got more time, and I’m doing my own thing.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Reynolds said with a sigh. “Absolutely for the best.” He readied a syringe, squirting a bit of liquid out of it.

“Definitely,” Xander added. “No question.”

Odo yowled when he got his shot, and looked wildly at Xander with a get me out of here! expression in his dilated eyes.

They both watched him scramble on the metal table for a moment, and then Dr. Reynolds said, “You know what? It’s not for the best at all. In fact, it’s been terrible.”

“And it just keeps right on getting worse!” Xander exclaimed. “Especially when you think you’re over it, only to walk in on your ex sucking face with a guy who’s supposed to be your friend.”

“Ouch!” Dr. Reynolds’s eyes widened. “What’s his name?”

“Giles,” Xander answered automatically. He blinked as he realized how that might have sounded. “I mean, his name --”

“My ex’s name is Steven,” Dr. Reynolds said quietly. He felt under Odo’s neck, and then shined a small flashlight into his mouth. “That’s awful, though, walking in on them like that. I can only imagine what that was like for you.” He peered into Odo’s ears. “And Sunnydale’s a small place, too. I’m sure I’ll run into Steven when he starts dating again.” He ran a hand over Odo’s back, and Odo gave a cautious purr in return. “Sorry you’re going through that with Giles.”

“Right, about that,” Xander began. “When I said ‘Giles--’”

“Listen, I was just thinking,” Dr. Reynolds said quickly at the same time. “Oh, sorry,” he added. “Finish what you were saying.”

“No, no, no,” Xander stammered. “You go right ahead.”

He smiled at Xander. “Just -- I ordered some theater tickets three months ago, when Steven and I were still -- and I just, you know. I wondered.”

“Theater tickets?” Xander repeated.

“I don’t usually ask out clients from the clinic. But then after you mentioned that story, I thought that since you’re going through a similar kind of a thing . . .” Dr. Reynolds laughed briefly. “Hey, forget I said anything.”

“No, that’s cool. That’d be . . . great,” Xander answered slowly. It was like his mind and lips were ahead of him. He was supposed to be making it clear that Anya was the ex, the very female ex, that Giles was the guy moving in on his ex and not his past anything, and that Xander himself was definitely, absolutely, positively not gay.

“Are you sure?” Dr. Reynolds asked him. “Because you don’t -- don’t feel pressured --”

Unbidden, the image of Anya smiling at Giles just after their kiss ended flashed into Xander’s mind. “No, I’d love to go,” Xander said more firmly. “Thanks for asking me.”

“Great,” Dr. Reynolds said, obviously relieved.

“Great,” Xander echoed. It was only because they’d bonded over break-up talk, he told himself. And handsome, nice guys like Dr. Reynolds weren’t supposed to feel down about their dateless status or going to theatrical events alone. Not that noticing that Dr. Reynolds was handsome meant anything at all. It was just an objective fact type thing.

The rest of the visit went by quickly as Dr. Reynolds finished up with Odo.

“So I’ll call you,” Dr. Reynolds offered.

“Right, um, I’ll give you my number. Or you already have it, because of the records, right, so I won’t be needing to do that. You’ll just phone me up, and we’ll do the theatrical thing.”

“Here’s my home number, just in case,” Dr. Reynolds added. He turned over a business card and wrote down the digits.

It wasn’t until Xander had Odo back in the carrier and was walking down the block that he said aloud, “Okay, what happened back there? Is that like a friendly-friend date, or a date-date? And what the hell is Dr. Reynolds’s first name again, because I can’t go to a play with him and call him ‘Dr. Reynolds’ all night long.”

Odo, apparently still sulky about the entire vet visit, turned his back to the front of the carrier, and went to sleep.

Chapter 6

“Theater tickets?” Willow asked, her eyebrows raised.

“You should have heard the conversation,” Xander said as he paced. “No way could I have said no. I mean, the guy practically had his heart stomped on by that Steven. Plus he thinks I’m gay for Giles.”

Willow and Tara exchanged a look. “So it’s a date, then,” Willow said cautiously.

“No, no, it’s all a big huge misunderstanding.” Xander stopped in the middle of the room. “A misunderstanding that’s led to a sympathy-driven theater companionship event. And maybe coffee afterwards.”

“But that play,” Tara put in. “It’s been impossible to get tickets to it. My Contemporary Drama class was going to go before the professor found it that it sold-out, and that was months ago.”

“And, I heard that the cheapest seats are a hundred dollars each,” Willow noted. “To me, that sounds like a date for sure. A fancy date.”

On the floor, Odo tried his best to get away while Miss Kitty Fantastico calmly sat on his head and cleaned his tail. And as Xander sank down onto the couch, he tried to remember why telling Willow and Tara about his not-date with Dr. Reynolds had seemed like such a good idea.

“I don’t know why we go through the hassle of having them hang out,” Xander said instead, pointing to Miss Kitty and Odo struggling on the floor. This was the second time that Tara and Willow had shown up with their cat in tow for their weekly movie night.

“Of course they should hang out!” Willow insisted as Miss Kitty chased a yowling Odo into the bathroom. “They’re practically cousins. And who knows, Odo may get some good tips from Miss Kitty.” There was a significant pause. “Behavioral tips.”

“Odo is plenty well behaved,” Xander said. He winced as a startled mreeeowww! came from the bathroom, followed by the unmistakable sound of the shower curtain being ripped from its rings.

Willow shot him a triumphant look.

“So, about that date to see the play,” Tara said quietly.

Xander groaned. “Sure, that would be a lot to spend on tickets randomly, but he already had the tickets because he bought one for him and Steven before they broke up. So in a way I’m just helping him save money. If anything, he sees me as a warm body to fill the seat next to him.”

Tara made a choking sound.

“What now?” Xander asked in exasperation.

“Warm body?” Tara asked. She appeared to be trying not to laugh.

“Willow, I don’t know how you got such a pervy girlfriend, but --” Xander stopped. “Mark, his name is Mark. Man, that’s been driving me crazy. Thank god I remembered before . . .” He let the sentence hang unfinished.

Willow looked at him with a completely innocent expression on her face.

“Fine,” Xander groused. “Before my date.” He stood and spread his arms. “I have a theater date with Dr. Mark Reynolds. A very gay date, in which we will sit next to each other in the near dark, smooshed into those seats that make you fight over the arm rest.”

“And maybe have coffee afterwards,” Tara offered with a small smile.

“It doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Willow said. “You’re just keeping options open. Making plans. Getting out after the very much-needed break-up with Anya. This will be good for you, Xander.”

“Let me get this not-so-straight. So it wasn’t just that you don’t like Anya, but that you want me to start grooving on men?” Xander asked.

“Well. Maybe not all men. But this one, he is a doctor,” Willow said with a grin. “Maybe if you marry one, my grandma will stop getting after me to find a gentleman in the medical profession.”

“How does me marrying Dr. Mark Reynolds get your grandma off your case? And do veterinarians even count?”

“Well.” Willow thrust her chin out slightly. “It’s sort of all in the family this way. And veterinarians completely count.”

Just as Xander opened his mouth to argue that point, Miss Kitty pranced out of the bathroom and made a beeline for Tara’s lap. Tara stroked her as Miss Kitty stretched and circled before settling down. When the cat stretched out one paw towards Xander, he absently reached out to scratch her behind her ears.

“Is he handsome?” Tara asked in a casual voice while Xander smoothed Miss Kitty’s ruffled fur.

“Oh, definitely,” Xander answered without a pause. “You shut up,” he said to Willow when she giggled.

All of a sudden Odo shot out of the bathroom in the direction of the door. A beat later, the doorbell rang.

“That’s weird,” Xander muttered as he got up to see who was there.

“Psychic kitty,” Willow observed as she moved to take Xander’s place on the couch.

“Well, maybe he is. And on that front, I win. Is your cat psychic? No, I didn’t think s-- Spike!” he finished. He glanced up and down the vampire standing in his door. “Hey, sorry if no one called or swung by the crypt, but I don’t think we’re going to patrol tonight. Dawn and Buffy are having a family night, complete with mud masks and wasabi peas, and we’re about to watch--”

“Didn’t come by about patrol. Found this,” Spike said brusquely. He reached back into the hall, and put a multi-level cat apartment just inside Xander’s apartment. “It’s for the kitten,” he added, as though there was no way Xander might figure this out himself.

Odo twined in and out of Spike’s legs, rubbing against his boots, before hopping up onto the cat apartment and batting at the fuzzy ball attached to the middle level.

“Wow. That's way fancier than the one I was thinking about buying him. Where did you find it?” Xander asked suspiciously.

“Where’d you think? At the dump,” Spike answered. “Not going to pay for some ridiculous bit of wood with carpet on it just for a cat.” He gave a short nod to Willow and Tara when they called out hellos. “Was by there, to look for things for myself, and I happened to see this. I only brought it because I figure the cat's right bored with you gone half of the time."

Xander reached out a hand and touched the top of the cat apartment. "This is...thank…at the dump, you said?"

Spike made a frustrated sound. "Well? Do you want it or not? Can just throw it into the dumpster on my way out if not. Mind you, I lugged it all the way over here for you, so the least you could do is say thanks.”

“No, I’ll take it, we'll take it,” Xander said just as Odo began to prick his paws against the carpeting, arching his back as he dug in. “And I thought I said thanks, but -- thanks.” He paused. “Just kind of wondering, with the dump factor. Maybe it got thrown away because it has fleas.”

“Fleas?” Willow scooped Miss Kitty off the floor, stopping the cat’s curious approach over to the potentially infested furniture. “Miss Kitty has never had fleas.”

“It doesn’t have any fleas,” Spike dismissed the concern with a roll of his eyes.

“Can you tell because of your vampire senses?” Tara asked with interest. When Xander glanced at her, he saw that there was something weird happening with the side of her mouth, almost as though it was twitching.

“Look, I can just toss it out if it's not good enough for you and the kitten prince,” Spike said irritably.

“No, no. It's a great kitty tower, seriously. And hey, I’ll treat it with some kind of spray or something to make sure there aren’t any fleas or ticks.” He grinned as Odo clawed onto the carpet to pull himself up from one level to the next, his tail puffed out to three times its usual size. “Wow, look at him. He really likes it.”

Odo preoww!-ed in agreement as he scratched at the sisal post and then squirmed around until he figured out how to climb down to the lower level.

Xander turned back to Spike. “Listen, again, thank you. That was really nice of you, and --”

“Right. I’m off.” Spike slammed the door as he left.

“Maybe we should go too,” Willow said. She gave the tower wide berth as she inched towards the door. “After all, I do have that early class tomorrow, and I should look over my notes a third time just in case--”

“You’re just worried about the flea factor,” Xander protested. “If it bugs you that much, I'll shut the thing up into my bedroom.” He faced Tara, appealing to her. “Come on, we haven’t even started the first movie.”

“Fleas,” Willow mouthed at Tara.

“I think we’re safe, sweetie. That tower doesn’t have anything wrong with it,” Tara said with a small smile.

“You actually think Spike can tell something like that, if there are fleas or not?” Willow asked her.

“Well, I don’t think Spike can sense fleas. But I can tell the kitty tower is brand new. There’s not the least bit of dirt on it, which is, you know, kind of funny for something that you’d find at a dump. And, um, there’s a tag still attached to the back of it, so...” She shrugged, and ducked her head down.

“Tara MacClay, girl detective,” Xander said with respect as he investigated the tower and turned up a tag. “Oh boy. This is totally new! It’s from that Demon PetCo Spike took me to the night I got Odo.”

Willow let go of Miss Kitty, and stood up to get a better look. “And look, there’s a ‘paid for’ sticker on the tag. So he really gave them the money for it instead of just stealing it.” She touched the tower. “That’s awfully nice of him. Almost too nice.” She frowned. “What’s he up to?”

“Beats me,” Xander said. “Guess he just likes cats. Or maybe just Odo.”

"Guess so," Tara said softly.

They watched as Odo let out a crowing meow, and triumphantly batted off Miss Kitty as she tried to join him on the top tier.

Chapter 7

As Xander put on his Willow-approved tie and checked his hair in the mirror, he kept muttering to himself, “Mark, Mark, Mark.”

Not that he was going to keeping saying Mark’s name all night long. But he figured it would sound weird if he slipped up while they were at the play and called him Dr. Reynolds. He was having enough issues with his seemingly gay date without making other people in the audience wonder why he had to bring his physician along.

The phone rang, and Xander dove for it. Maybe it was Mark calling to cancel, and he’d have to get that. Because he had to face it: even though he thought Mark was nice, and that the play would probably be interesting, it would definitely make things way simpler if Mark was calling to tell him they weren’t going to be able to go. Not that Xander would want anything bad to happen to him, but it could be a veterinary emergency. Maybe there were a bunch of cockatoos with the bird flu down at the clinic, or a couple of puppies that had gotten into the puppy nip, and had to be watched to make sure they didn’t go into puppy fits.

“Hi, yeah,” he said in a rush. “What’s going on? The animals okay?”

“Xander? Why didn’t you tell me you were gay?”

“Buffy?” he asked in confusion. “I’m not -- I didn’t -- what the heck are you talking about?”

She made an anguished sound. “Well, today after class, I was talking about all of us patrolling. Willow said you couldn’t, and I asked why. And after this whole long pause thing, with her obviously not telling me whatever thing is going on with you, Willow finally explained to me how you have a date tonight to go see a play with a male veterinarian.”

He laughed nervously. “Him being a veterinarian has nothing to do with it, Buff.”

“But I always thought we were so close!” she wailed. “And now you’re already seeing some guy, when here I thought that you’d definitely tell me you were gay before you had a date with a male veterinarian!”

He swallowed. “You’ve thought about whether or not I’d tell you if I was gay? Why is everyone so un-shocked that I’m going out with a guy? Because, hello, very much the heterosexual here, with three different girlfriends in my tawdry past. But when I told her about it, Willow even said she thought it would be good for me, and--”

She interrupted with urgency. “Xander, I know you and Willow have that whole childhood history thing, and all those years of telling each other secrets and stuff. And I get that, I do. But I can be understanding too. I’m your friend, Xander, one of your best friends, and I want you to tell me about all about what’s happening in your life, whether it’s work related or pet related or about you coming out of the closet.” She sounded close to tears.

“Buffy, calm down, okay? I’m not gay, really. I just…happen to be going out on a date with a guy who is. But it’s not really a date, I swear, just more a whole misunderstanding that I couldn’t figure out how to clear up without being a big jerk.”

She sniffled. “Huh?”

He started as the doorbell rang. “Listen, Buffy, I’m sorry about all this, but I promise I’m keeping you totally in the loop on everything about me. There’s nothing going on that you don’t know about, okay? Now, I have to go, because my date Mark is here.”

He hung up the phone, barely hearing her incoherent exclamation as he put the receiver down, and made for the door.

“Okay, so I thought he was picking me up downstairs in front of the lobby in ten minutes, but apparently someone let him into the building,” he muttered to himself as he smoothed his hair down for the umpteenth time.

When the doorbell rang a second time, he put his hand on the door knob, and took a deep breath. “And why wouldn’t someone who lives in the building let him in? Because obviously he comes across as a respectable seeming, animal loving, guy. He’s objectively good looking, to both women and men, and -- Spike?” he asked in confusion when he saw Spike standing in the hall.

The vampire in question leaned against the door frame, his hands shoved into his coat pockets, with a slightly wary expression on his face. “So.” He gazed at Xander, taking in the tie, the suit jacket, the more fixed up than usual hair, and grinned. “He likes it, eh?”

Xander gaped. “Look, I don’t know who told you what, but it’s just a play, a one night thing, and that’s all. This has nothing to do with my sexuality. And I dressed up because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you go to the theater. Willow said.”

Spike cocked an eyebrow at him. “I meant your cat, Odo. He likes the tower?”

“Oh!” Xander stepped back reflexively so he could gesture at the tower in its new spot over in the corner. Unfortunately, Spike stepped right on in after him. “Yeah, he loves it. Spends tons of time playing or napping on it. It’s a great present, and I really appreciate you buying it for him.” He clasped Spike on the arm, trying to keep a grateful expression on his face. “Now. Since we’ve cleared that up, you’re going to have to leave, because --”

“Didn’t buy it, found it,” Spike reminded him.

“Right, yeah. You said that.” Xander licked his lips and let go of Spike’s arm. “So. You’re here why? What can I do for you? Or, more specifically, what can I do for you to make you leave?”

Spike shrugged. “Just stopping by on my way somewhere else, thought I’d have a quick look in at the cat.”

Xander stared. “Oh. Okay, yeah. That would be cool, except for the part where I’m headed out for a couple of hours. So you’ll be going now. You’ll look at Odo some other time.” He pointed at the door unnecessarily.

“So? You go ahead. But there’s no reason for me to, yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, no. I mean -- ” Xander shook his head to clear it.

Meanwhile, Spike made a funny clucking sound with his tongue, and all of a sudden Odo was speeding towards him from the bedroom. The kitten had obviously just woken up -- his fur was a little matted from licking the same spot on his back, as he usually did when he was lulling himself to sleep, and he’d been carrying his stuffed tiger, which he dropped along the way as he trotted in.

But even if he’d been knocked out for a while, Odo was going straight into play-time mode at the sight of Spike. He was even letting out the excited, high-pitched meows he usually reserved for when Xander threw a jingle-ball his way, and Spike wasn’t doing anything except standing there.

“Come on. You needn’t worry about it. We’ll have ourselves a little playtime, and then I’ll lock up when we’re through,” Spike added.

“Well.” Xander watched Odo, already dancing on his hind legs with his front paws digging into Spike’s jeans as he tried to bat at the vampire. “I have kind of been working a lot this past week, and he hasn’t really been getting enough activity in the evening. If you didn’t mind hanging out with him, that’d be kind of…helpful. So, if you promise you’ll lock the door after you leave…”

“I said so, didn’t I?” Spike asked. “ ‘Sides, I won’t be here long. I’m on my way somewhere else; just stopping by, is all.”

Xander looked from Spike’s impassive expression to Odo, his eyes wide, and already scurrying around Spike to get at and pounce on his boot laces.

“Okay. Um.” Xander backed towards the door. “There’s beer, if you want something. Just don’t drink every last one of them.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Spike crouched down and let Odo climb up his leg.

Xander hesitated one last time, then shut the door behind him and went down to meet Mark at the appointed time.