Author's note: This as a sequel to "A Many Splendored Thing." I still don't own any characters besides the ones I created for this story, and even then you could probably argue that the concept for the character Grizz, and possibly Roger, is owned by whoever has any rights to the move "A.I."
Gigolo Joe, What Do You Know?
By Time Lady Quasar
Joe sat on the edge of the bed, buttoning his shirt. His shirt, not Harold's; the man had taken him on a shopping spree that morning, had him sized, and bought an entire wardrobe, everything from boxer shorts to evening clothes. The Mecha still didn't see the point of underwear, but since it seemed to make the Orgas in his life more comfortable, he was willing to wear them. Everything else was perfect. Not as flashy as his former costume, perhaps, but when Harold had given him the choice, he'd thrown everything but his patent-leather shoes and vinyl coat into the incinerator. The shoes he kept because they'd been made specifically for his feet, his coat because Tabby liked it.
He'd just finished with the last button when the bathroom door opened, closed, and the bed bounced underneath him. Tabby's arms wrapped around his chest from behind, hugging tight, and her brightly-hued head lay against his shoulder. Resting his cheek against the top of her head, he reached up to capture her hand, carefully avoiding her wrist, which was bruised and bandaged, still painful after her tribulations at the hands of Lord Johnson-Johnson.
Thumb tracing the back of her hand, running lightly over each knuckle, Joe felt her soul-deep sigh against his back and smiled at the contentment laced in that small sound. He was designed, built, and programmed to please, and such proof of success still had a kind of power over him. That it came from Tabitha only added to the reward. His experiences might have shown him what it meant to anger, but it also showed him the richness found in loyalty and friendship.
"You're thinking," Tabby accused him. Turning his head, Joe found himself looking into her cool grey eyes. She smiled a little ruefully, rubbing her cheek lightly against the top of his shoulder. "You were so serious. I hope you weren't thinking about me with that look on your face."
"Not only you," Joe answered truthfully, the only way he could answer. He might hedge, but telling direct falsehoods was still beyond him.
"What else were you thinking about, then?"
Sighing again, Tabitha kissed his cheek, so lightly that he felt her breath against his flesh more intensely than her lips. "You looked so sad. I wish I could make it go away so you wouldn't have to think such serious thoughts."
"No. Then things would be different. Or just the same as they were before," Joe answered softly.
"We wouldn't be here," Tabby whispered.
"No. We wouldn't." With an attention to her mood that was beginning to resemble Grizz's utter devotion, Joe chuckled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. "At least we wouldn't be in a suite at the Shangri-La. I've never been in the suites before."
Taking a deep breath, Tabby snuggled closer. She inhaled again, nose to his neck. "You smell good. You're hair's still wet. Is the chlorine going to do any damage if you don't wash it off right away?"
"Good." She nuzzled into his hair for a moment, then pulled back with a small, abrupt frown. Settling cross-legged in the middle of the king-sized bed, she regarded him intently. "Joe . . . am I going to be enough for you?"
Joe cocked his head, not understanding, and she chewed her lower lip, a blush creeping onto her face. "I mean, you're used to, what, five or six customers a night?"
"I averaged eleven point two a day for twenty-three months, seventeen days," Joe supplied.
"Eleven a day?"
"I don't need to sleep," the Mecha reminded her, smiling at the incredulity in her tone. "Or to eat. An hour's maintenance a week, barring extra repairs, was all I required."
Squirming uncomfortably, Tabby stared at the mattress like it was the most fascinating thing she had ever seen. "Joe, if you want to go back . . . staying with one person's a bit much to expect from . . ."
"A Gen Two lover Mecha."
Turning to face her fully, Joe tucked his knees up on the edge of the bed, hands flat on the mattress. The position put his face exactly level with hers, and the strength of his concentration dragged her eyes back to his. "But Tabitha, I like you."
Tabby's eyes widened. It was the first time he'd articulated the only word that could come near describing what he felt, if it indeed was a feeling; he was built to emulate emotions, not experience them, or try to explain. His basic programming hadn't changed, he still craved human attention, his body craved human touch. Only now he craved that attention from a single person, that touch from a specific pair of hands.
Tabby read truth in his eyes because he was incapable of anything else. Each thought slid behind his expression like a sentient thing drawn towards her warmth and the aching want in her face. She swayed closer, dazed and half-drunk on nothing more than his presence.
Letting his simulated breath brush across her lips, Joe pulled back, forcing the girl to lean forward to capture his mouth. When she succeeded, emitting a small growl of triumph as her embrace crushed against him, an electric thrill sparked through his circuits. The broken behavioral protocols had opened suppressed channels along his neural lines, increasing the perceptiveness of his pain receptors to nearly twice their former capacity. His pleasure sensors had quadrupled their sensitivity, making his time with Tabby a series of highs he'd never known he could experience.
And she was happy to try and please him, something he'd never even thought to ask his customers, something he never could have asked. She was more than willing to experiment, and he found that, if lacking in experience, she did, as she'd once said, have "quite a vivid imagination."
Her hands wound in his hair, stroking and playing while she explored his soft lips. Deepening the kiss, Joe lifted her until she straddled his knees, tugging at her shirt so he could reach the bare skin buried like a treasure just underneath. Nipping gently, he moved from her mouth, down her chin, to her neck, the bites becoming almost hard enough to bruise. Her head tipped back, exposing her throat to give him better access to that sensitive skin, and the Mecha took full advantage of her submissive position.
Tabby laughed, her voice unsteady. "Damn. I just got dressed."
"So did I," Joe reminded her unsympathetically, his voice muffled against her neck. Working quickly and efficiently, he tugged her out of the confining garments, discarding them carelessly on the floor. Murmuring under her breath, Tabby began to pay him back in kind, her clumsier fingers making the process slow. After a few minutes of unsteady progress, his shirt dropped to mingle with her clothes, and when her hands stroked up and down on either side of his spine, his back arched, a soft purr rumbling in his chest.
"Turn around," he ordered, his voice thick with a passion that was programmed, yet anything but feigned.
Tabby just looked at him, not quite understanding, so Joe pushed her gently off his lap, using the distance to undo his pants. That was the one thing he missed about his costume; it was faster to get in and out of than jeans and a belt. Shucking the remainder of his clothes, he pressed a hand between Tabby's shoulders, guiding her onto her hands and knees. She complied with nothing more than a quiet whimper of partially suppressed frustration, willing to go along with his greater store of knowledge.
Wrapping an arm around her, Joe slipped a hand between her thighs to caress her from the front, making her jump and spasm against him, gasping. Murmuring meaningless, half-heard endearments, he shifted her position to the closest thing she would come to comfortable, nudging her knees apart with his. Lissome fingers increasing the pressure of their manipulations, he entered her carefully, the angle of his erection adjusted perfectly to their position and her own inside measurements. She was hot and damp, pulsing with anticipation, moaning at the welcome invasion.
There was a single awkward moment when Tabby was unsure of what was expected, but Joe knew his business better than any Orga man could ever aspire to and gently showed her what to do, encouraging without being impatient. A fast learner, the girl arched back against him and moved when his body told her to. One pink hand wound tight in the sheets, convulsing with every stroke; bracing himself on his elbow, Joe slid his hand over hers, his own grip tightening every time her aching flesh contracted around him.
Already primed by their first encounter, it didn't take long for Tabby to start gasping in earnest. Sensations washed over her in sweat-soaked waves, each surge of pleasure coming faster and lasting longer until they crested and broke, silver fire that engulfed her entire body. Joe thought she would cry out at the peak of her culmination, but she had always been more reserved than his other customers, and only a low groan gurgled from deep in her throat as her body writhed, helplessly out of control, her face pressed into the pillow.
Joe kept moving, each thrust carefully timed, gauged to prolong the moment as much as physically possible, his body perfectly balanced on legs that didn't tire. He slowed as her shudders eased, the hand that still worked her flesh falling away. Bending over her, he brushed her damp hair out of the way and kissed the nape of her neck, trailing a line of caresses as far down her back as he could reach without having to break the connection between them. "Someday," he whispered, his tongue flicking out to lap at the indentation of her spine like a well-bred Persian savoring a saucer of cream, "someday I am going to hear you scream."
Turning far enough to roll one glazed eye towards him, Tabby didn't answer. Her pulse beat fast and hard in her neck, her breathing harsh and a little erratic. Pulling away far enough to let her stretch out on the bed, Joe continued his ministrations, his skillful fingers joining his mouth in its endeavor. She gradually relaxed under the petting until every muscle in her body was lax and her eyes were closed. He thought she was asleep until she groaned and pushed herself up on her elbows. "What time's it?" she slurred muzzily.
"In the morning?!" she yelped, waking up a little.
Wrenching her neck around until she could face him, Tabby stared. "You mean we've only been here for three and a half hours?"
Joe grinned, a wolfish, utterly lascivious expression. "Three hours, forty-seven minutes."
"Good grief." Squirming in his grip, the girl rolled onto her back, seeming unable to move any farther than that. Joe took the opportunity to play with her breasts, massaging one in his hand and nuzzling into the other. Groaning, Tabitha pushed him away. "No more. I don't think I can stand up as it is."
"Then I have successfully served my purpose," Joe answered blithely, scooping her into his arms and walking with her into the full-sized jacuzzi, large enough to comfortably seat eight. Not that they'd used it for sitting the first time they were in it. Ignoring the girl's increasingly loud protests, Joe settled Tabby on the bench seat, arranging her so a jet of hot water pounded into her lower back.
She gasped and arched away at first, then groaned and let her head fall back to lean on the edge. "Damn, but that feels good."
Not answering, Joe heaved himself out of the hot tub, balanced gracefully on the raised edge, pivoted like a ballet dancer, and flung himself at the water, drawing his knees to his chest in a compact cannonball. A tidal wave of chlorinated water crashed over Tabitha's head, drawing a howl that he could barely hear over the jets roaring under the water. Surfacing on the opposite side of the jacuzzi, Joe just looked at her, not exactly smiling but with a twist of Puckish mischief at one corner of his voluptuous lips.
"You . . . brat . . ." Tabby gasped, glaring at him through a curtain of wet hair.
Joe gave a small, mocking bow, making the mistake of taking his eyes off her. He didn't even see her hands before they grabbed his shoulders and shoved him under, or her foot when it kicked his legs out from under him. She tried to back away, but his Mecha reflexes were too fast; he caught her around the waist before she could lunge out of the water. "Just remember that I have to breathe!" she cried, laughing, and went limp, letting him throw her back in.
Tabitha was as happy and playful as he'd ever seen her, but she was tired and her energy flagged quickly. After a quick shower to wash off the chlorine, the pair made their way down from the fourth floor, passing by Mr. Williamson's desk on their way towards the front door.
"Enjoy yourselves?" the man asked, cordial but speaking carefully, lacking the warmth of real friendship, different enough from his normal demeanor that it raised Joe's suspicions.
His companion didn't notice anything strange. "Very much," she answered, smirking. "Thanks."
"Uh . . . Miss Cooper . . .?" the man hesitated uncomfortably. "I'm sorry . . . there's been a problem with your credit card . . . I didn't want to bother you, but . . ."
"Problem?" Shaking her head, Tabby leaned on the counter. "But that card doesn't have a limit. What kind of problem?"
"They're refusing to accept the charges. I'm sure there's just been some kind of mistake, but . . . I'm sorry, Miss Cooper, but we need to fix this."
Tabby rolled her eyes at Joe, strain showing in the line that formed between her brows. Stepping up behind her, Joe rubbed her shoulders, feeling an unaccountable tension in the muscles under his nimble hands. Leaning back gratefully into the massage, the girl pulled her wallet out of her purse. "Here, try my other card. There's less on it," she sighed.
"Thank you, Miss Cooper." Taking the card, Mr. Williamson swiped it through the small, boxy machine that was nearly as small as the card. It beeped, green numbers flashing across the screen, and the clerk smiled, relieved. "It worked." Handing the card back to Tabitha, Mr. Williamson winked. "Come back anytime. Good to see you again, Joe."
"Thank you, Mr. Williamson," Joe replied, tapping his feet in a quick two-step and ending with a flourish. "It's good to be here." And it was; Tabby had almost succeeded in overwriting the bad that had happened in the place.
"Come on, Joe, let's go home," Tabby said. Waving to Mr. Williamson, she opened the front door, waiting for Joe to join her. She looked exhausted suddenly, drawn and pale, though satisfied. With a last nod to the desk clerk, Joe held the door for her, following her through into the deepening dusk.
Past the desk clerk's hearing, Joe tutted, holding out his arm for Tabby to take. "You should have let me call a taxi."
"Right, get a cab to go to our car. Talk about a waste of money," the girl grunted, tucking a hand in the crook of his elbow.
The words were sharp, but her tone wasn't. And she'd said "our car," casually, like it was an obvious, everyday observation. Glancing down at her not-quite-frowning face, he smiled, an expression nothing like his usual over-bright, carefully tuned flash of white teeth.
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It was a trek of at least two miles back to the car. Tabby cursed her insistence on walking; her store of adrenaline was quickly running dry, her hands hurt, still stinging from the chorine she shouldn't have subjected them to, her head was starting to throb, and her legs were still shaky, thanks to Joe. Not that she was complaining about that last bit.
Joe's step slowed, making Tabby nearly stumble. She looked up at him, ready to be annoyed until she saw the Mecha's face. His eyes were warm, soft, faintly wondering. "What?" she asked softly.
"What do you mean?"
"I . . . nothing. You just . . . never mind," Tabby gave up, not sure how to vocalize it. Hugging his arm with both of hers, she rested her head comfortably against his shoulder.
"Hey, Joe, what d'ya know?" an artificially pleasant feminine voice asked. Tabby looked up to see a female Gen Two prostitute prowl towards them, her skin-tight catsuit screaming raw sex in a way Joe never had, even while working. He'd at least had a veneer of class and elegance, a sleek panache that advertized through grandeur instead of sleaze. This Mecha held a feminine grace and beauty that Tabby could only envy, but the differences in the tastes between sexes was painfully obvious; Joe had always reminded her of a bit player in a gangster movie. This woman walked, talked, and looked like a porno. The female sex robots almost never had the sophistication of the male, being more focused on pure sex, lacking much of the more specialized programming, such as therapeutic massage and the several varieties of dancing skills. They simply didn't need it
Men, Tabitha thought in disgust.
The Mecha was plainly on her way to her next customer, her pager flashing impatient green around her neck. "Hey, Jane, how's the gain?" Joe intoned with a cheer as artificial as Jane's sexy drawl. His hand closed over Tabby's in a painful grip. Tabby couldn't see what was bothering him until she took a closer look at the Mecha woman.
Her eyes were empty of anything but her use. She was a doll, a toy, nothing more, and was content to remain in that role. She could process information and react to stimuli, but there were no real thoughts in her gaze, no awareness of the world. Watching her go by, Tabby's chest tightened. Guilt tore at her; for a moment she almost wished she'd left Joe to Lord Johnson-Johnson. He was different from other Mechas, and knew it, but he wasn't Orga, either. He had no category to fit into, no one else like him, and now he was able to comprehend the meaning of loneliness. "Joe . . . I'm so sorry," she breathed, stricken.
Gaze flicking down to meet hers, Joe shook his head, bending to brush his lips against hers, light as butterfly wings. "We wouldn't be here," he echoed back at her gently. Tabby held his gaze for a few seconds before she nodded and continued down the worn sidewalk.
Their journey was slow, quiet until Joe stiffened wheeling to stare into a bright store window. It was a small robotics dealership, dealing mainly in parts, out of place in a neighborhood thick with liquor stores, brothels, bars, cheap motels, and teeming with citizens, those already lost beyond redemption, those desperately seeking themselves through bought sex or chemical illusion, and robots of several varieties. Tabby couldn't imagine what he was staring at that would make his face go blank and neutral like a Mecha whose batteries had run down. He stepped closer to the store front, putting out a hand to touch the glass with his fingertips, trailing across the picture of a little boy.
Tabitha thought at first that it was a missing child notice, but the bright, cheerful colors clashed with that image. Puzzled, she read the blazing words that slashed across the poster. "His love is real, he is not?" she muttered in distaste. "A child Mecha? I don't think I like that idea."
"Come away O human child/ To the waters and the wild," Joe whispered beside her. His voice sounded . . . wrong, its precisely calibrated articulation uneven.
Glancing at him, Tabby's mouth went dry. Joe had no expression on his face, but something in his eyes was dark and undefinable, a wound that pierced infinitely deep. "With a faery hand in hand,/For the world's more full of weeping/than you can understand," she answered hoarsely.
Joe stared at her, his eyes a little too wide. "How did you . . ."
"It's a poem. Yeats, I think."
Joe was tense, staring with an intensity that made his request much more important than wanting to remember something he'd once heard. Swallowing, Tabby closed her eyes, trying to recall. "I memorized it for a speech class in college . . . It was my favorite poem . . .
"Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy stand
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats.
Full of berries,
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by the furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances,
Till the moon has taken flight . . ."
Tabby stumbled to a halt, eyes flying to her companion's face in a painful apology. "I'm sorry. After than I can only remember the last stanza.
"Away with us he's going,
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside;
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into the breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than
he can understand."
"Thank you," Joe whispered, and fell silent.
Tabby's eyes stung, wanting to tear as Joe looked at her, wordless and nearly lifeless. He turned back to the ad in the window and Tabby expected his hand to tremble as it pressed against the frigid glass, but it remained steady. "David," he whispered, seeing something besides the window in front of him.
"Joe." Touching his arm, Tabitha brought him back to her side. She waited for his attention, not moving, not even to breathe, until his lanky frame turned towards her, his sky-colored eyes, now overcast with heavy storm clouds, focused on her face. "Joe, tell me what happened."
She didn't want to ask, didn't want to make him think about whatever was burning in his memory storage, hurting him without having to set off his pain sensors. Joe's hands balled into fists and he remained quiet, reluctant, still as only a Mecha could be. Fingers digging into his arm, winding in the material of his sleeve as tightly as it had wound in the sheets, Tabby stepped as close as she could without pressing against him. "Please, Joe. I'm your friend. Please let me try to fix it."
Life flared back into Joe's face and his slender hands relaxed. Reaching out, he pressed his palm against the side of her face. "You can't fix it," he told her. "No one can fix it, not any more."
"Please, Joe," Tabby tried again, folding her hand over his, keeping it against her cheek. "Let me help."
Gently untangling himself from her grip, Joe turned away, took several steps towards the car, then abruptly turned back. "His name was David," he said.
Tabby waited, scanning his face, but he was deep inside somewhere she couldn't go and, she was sure, she didn't want to be. "He was a child, a Mecha, an experiment." His voice thickened, laced with a bitterness she hadn't known was possible.
"A prototype?" Tabby asked hesitantly, glancing at the advertisement.
"Yes." His answer was short and sharp as a bite. Tabby took a step away, almost alarmed. She was still at times uncertain which of his reactions were sincere and which purely programmed, but now his pain was too raw, too real. Touching his shoulder, she pressed her fingers into the slight give of his manufactured epidermis, letting her hand fall to his chest, unconsciously tracing the glowing orange badge of personal ownership that shimmered just under his collar.
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Catching her hand before it could fall further, Joe held it over the licence for a moment, then brought it to his lips to kiss the back of her fingers. Gazing into her earnest, worried face, he told her everything, from the moment he'd walked into Samantha Bevins' motel room till the moment he'd woken Tabitha in the forest. Sick horror filled her expression as his story fleshed out, the hand free of his grip pressing against her mouth. "He just wanted his mommy to love him," she choked, shaking. "Oh my . . . didn't anyone try to find him?"
"He doesn't want to be found. He wants the Blue Fairy to make him real," Joe answered.
"But . . . but . . . god, maybe he is better off, 'in the waters and the wild,' away from 'a world more full of weeping.' How could they?" Wrapping her arms around his waist, Tabby buried her face against his chest with a small moan. "You were right, you know."
"About Orgas. You and your kind are all that's going to be left. You're our only hope of any kind of survival into the future. We're dying."
"What do you mean? Are you ill?" Joe demanded.
Tabby gave a small, shaky laugh. "No, no, not me personally, not yet. As a race we're dying, humans. Slowly, maybe, but the evidence is there. We're jealous, we don't want anyone to take our place, not even a species we created ourselves. Some people call it playing God, but if God is the one that gave us the ability to do it . . ." She pushed herself out of his arms, leaning against the cold brick of the robotics dealership. "I don't even know what I'm saying any more. Sorry Joe, I made you tell me your problems, then I dump all over you. Something there doesn't seem fair."
"You're tired," Joe observed. "I'm built to serve humans. I've failed in my obligations to my owner; I should have taken you straight home."
Shaking her head at him, Tabby rubbed the heels of her hands into her eyes. "No, Joe. I don't want you to serve me. I don't want to own you. I'd pull that damn licence out if it was safe."
She was getting increasingly scattered, shivering from the cold more than any emotional trauma now. The bump on her head looked better, not as swollen, the bruises fading to the sickly yellow-green of older wounds, but there were dark hollows around her eyes, making them look sunken. Exhaustion pulled at her features, making her look fifteen years older, and even her hair was lank, its riotous color subdued. Going down on one knee in front of her, Joe cocked his head. "You said you loved me."
Tabby gulped, nodded, and tried to look away. Touching her thigh, Joe kept her resistant gaze in place. "Isn't part of that because of what I am? Because I'm Mecha instead of Orga?"
"You break your protocols so now you think you're Freud and Jung rolled into one?" the girl questioned unsteadily. It was plain she didn't want to answer, wasn't comfortable with the subject in general, but Joe was merciless in his silent expectation and she finally broke down. "In the beginning, maybe, yes, at least partly. But you're a person, as individual as anyone else. I couldn't sit here and talk like this with any other Mecha."
"No, you couldn't," Joe answered with a wry lilt to his smooth voice.
"That's not what I meant," Tabby snapped. She narrowed her eyes at him. "And you know exactly what I meant."
"I know." Joe rested his cheek against her thigh, peeking up at her with his aquamarine eyes. "If you love me, you have to let me be what I am. I'm still a Mecha, even if I'm a bit messed up inside. That licence, the thing you would so love to get rid of . . ." Slipping long fingers inside his collar, Joe traced around the glowing badge in a gesture that couldn't help but be suggestive . . . "this isn't the only thing that holds me to you and Harold. Ask Grizz and Roger."
Tabby stared down at him for several long seconds, gave a shudder, and fell into his arms. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you," she murmured. "I didn't want to leave you, either time. I didn't mean to abandon you, I'm so sorry. I wished I could just fall asleep and never wake up when you were gone. Please forgive me."
"You came looking for me, tried to save me, and got hurt because of me," Joe answered. "Don't ask that." Standing with her gathered securely in his arms, he lowered Tabby to her feet. "Come, you need rest, and food, and warmth. It's dark and too cold for you to be out dressed like that, with wet hair. Your body temperature has already dropped a sixteenth of a degree. The car's only four blocks away."
"I don't know if I'll even make it that far. I haven't slept since we got back, and . . ." Shrugging, she smiled at him sidelong. "You're good exercise. I'm going to be stiff tomorrow."
Joe's answering smile was the grin of a little boy who'd found the candy store unlocked and deserted. Arm around her shoulders in a gesture that was frankly proprietary, he held her close to share what little heat he possessed, just enough to keep him from being cold to the touch.
Dragging herself that very long four blocks to the car, Tabitha dropped bonelessly into the passenger seat as soon as Joe opened the doors. "Didn't know you could drive," she croaked.
"Part of the service," Joe commented, seeming faintly amused. "I had to drive a woman home an average of two point six times a week."
"Makes sense. I don't think I envy you that, though."
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It was past eight-thirty before they made it home; even the brilliance of sunset was faded to nothing, leaving the world a dark, washed-out gray before the darkness of night drew its rich velvet over the sky. Joe pulled onto the cracked pavement of the driveway, shut it off, and glanced at his passenger. Tabby was only half aware of her surroundings, her eyelids trying desperately to close while she fought not to let them. Stubborn as she was, it wasn't a battle she could possibly win. Joe exited, and by the time he reached Tabby's side, she'd roused herself enough to open her door, but wasn't able to rally enough energy to get to her feet.
Bending at the knees, Joe scooped her into his arms and straightened. Tabby squawked, squirming in his grip, waking enough to be indignant. "Put me down, dammit, I'm not helpless!"
"No, I don't think so." Unconcerned with her cursing, the Mecha carried her to the door, holding her with one arm while he opened it. His burden continued to struggle as he hauled her through the living room to deposit her on the couch.
"Hmm. Stray must have followed you home. I don't know if I should let you keep her, Joe," Harold murmured, his eyes twinkling from the depths of his favorite armchair, and Roger barked from his position at Harold's side.
"Funny, Grandpa," Tabby sniffed. Toddling over, Grizz made a delighted sound and she rubbed his ears gently, smiling while Roger licked her other hand.
"Dinner's in the fridge. Warm it up and eat," Harold instructed.
"I'm not hungry. I'm too tired to eat," the girl protested.
Harold glared at her sternly. "Go get something to eat, then you can sleep as long as you want," he ordered.
Grumbling, Tabitha obeyed. Joe moved to follow her, but Harold put out a hand to detour him. "Sit for a minute, boy."
Sitting obediently on the edge of the couch, Joe gazed expectantly at the man. Harold glanced covertly towards the kitchen, where Tabby was busy rummaging in the refrigerator, the cozy murmur of her voice punctuated by Grizz's gravelly voice and Roger's high-pitched yips. Heaving himself out of his chair, he sat next to Joe, so close that their knees brushed. "I wanted to thank you, boy. Since you've been around, my granddaughter has been happier than she's been in years."
Joe looked over his shoulder towards the kitchen. Very faintly, her could hear her humming, and recognized the lullaby he'd played for her in the forest. "What do you mean, happier?" he asked.
"Did she tell you what happened to her?" Harold whispered.
Nodding to himself, the man scooted even closer, his voice so soft it barely qualified as a whisper. "She was married too young."
"She told me she went through a messy divorce."
"No." Harold shook his head emphatically. "It went beyond messy. Her ex-husband damn near killed her when she filed the papers. She spent two weeks in the hospital. He caught her home alone, and beat her, almost to death. Broken ribs, cracked cheekbone, broken collar bone, broken nose, bruised kidney, burst spleen . . . and the bastard still didn't do jail time." Harold's eyes glittered with impotent wrath, his voice shaking. Joe had to force himself not to lean away. "She loved him, Joe. That, on top of what he did to her before, the things he said . . ." Breaking off, he had to swallow hard, pressing a hand to his forehead. "I didn't think she'd ever trust anyone again. I was afraid of what would happen to her when I'm gone."
"She's quite . . . self-sufficient," Joe protested, remembering the way she'd crouched between him and Lord Johnson-Johnson's armed Hounds.
"I know that, but . . . I found a note, about six months after it happened, a suicide note. She never went through with it, and she got treatment for the depression, but I don't want to see her left alone. I'm glad you're here for her."
Joe sat perfectly still, staring at Harold from six inches away. The fury that had burned him inside, melting away his behavioral protocols, twisted itself through the wiring in his chest. Seeing his reaction, Harold inclined his head in acknowledgment, seeming pleased.
"Chinese! Thanks, Grandpa!" Tabitha chirped from the doorway, holding a steaming bowl of vegetables and noodles. Grizz perched happily on her shoulders, his paws hanging onto her hair like reins. Faltering with her fork partway to her mouth, she lowered it slowly, frowning. "What's the matter? Joe, is something wrong with you?"
Joe shook his head with a sluggish, graceless, mechanical movement, staring at her with a silence that felt heavy across his shoulders. Harold couldn't quite meet her eyes. Gaze flicking between them, Tabby clenched her jaw. "You told him," she hissed. "Why, Grandpa? I didn't want him to know."
"He deserves to know everything if you call him friend," Teddy admonished.
Shifting in place, Tabby looked away uncomfortably. "I know that, but dammit, Simone doesn't even know."
"You're not sleeping with Simone," Harold growled.
"Grandfather!!" Tabby cried.
"What, you think I didn't know what was holding you so late? He sent a message that he found you over four hours ago."
Tabby aimed a glare in Joe's direction. He held up his hands. "Detouring was your idea, not mine," he said with a smirk.
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't use the programming. It's expensive to install, and I did a lot of research," Harold added, lips twitching as he tried not to grin.
"How did you research it?" Joe queried.
"Well . . . you have knowledge lodged in your electronics somewhere that I've never used, or had even heard of before, but . . . let's just say her grandmother never had any complaints."
Staring at Harold for a long minute, Tabitha rolled her eyes and retreated back to the kitchen. "Men," she snorted. Plopping down at the table, she dug her fork into the aromatic chow mein, pointedly ignoring her grandfather's laughter. Finishing her dinner, she threw him one final glare, making sure to include Joe in the scalding beam, and stretched. "Goodnight. I'm going to bed," she grunted.
Making soft, faintly distressed noises, Grizz ran to her side, holding out his chubby arms. "Don't worry, Teddy, you're not the one who's being annoying," Tabby soothed, picking him up. "Of course you can come with me."
Joe's face shifted slightly; a pleading expression was one he was well practiced at, thanks to some of his former customers. It was heart-melting, calculated to make him look as helpless as a kicked puppy. It always added to their enjoyment when they heard him scream. Putting it to more pleasant use, he aimed the full force of it at Tabitha.
It had the intended effect. "What? Joe, I don't have the energy . . ."
"Then why would you want to come to bed with me?"
Shoulders lifting in a shrug, Joe cocked his head at her. "So I can touch you, and watch you sleep." Flicking his head to one side, he started the lullaby, letting its soft chords float through the air and wrap like fuzzy earmuffs around her auditory center. She just stared at him, an occasional blink her only movement. She had almost gotten used to the idea of sex, but any unexpected hint of what could be termed simple affection from him threw her, confused her, surprised her. Even more now that she knew it wasn't some undeniable force from inside that compelled him to offer it.
Finally she nodded, shifting Grizz to one arm and holding out her hand. Standing, Joe took it, leaning forward to touch his lips to her forehead, and led her towards her bedroom, her fingers clasping his tight.