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Posted August 25, 2010

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Series: Grave Survivors

Title: A Perfect Dinner

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: B:tVS post-"Chosen"; vaguely post-Season 6

Summary: B:tVS, CSI. "Ah, I get it," Nick said. "A soft-ball introduction to Scooby holidays, for the new guy." 4200 words.

"Getting to know someone is like investigating a crime scene where the culprit is constantly allowed to rearrange the evidence."
~Adnan Mithani

Moving from a long-term bachelor lifestyle into the overlapping realm of a committed relationship would have been a rocky road under the best of circumstances. It was made doubly difficult when one of the parties worked with the police in the second-ranked crime lab in the country and the other was what might be euphemistically called an 'international troubleshooter'. Hours stolen together were far outnumbered by the hours they spent apart.

Nick understood. He'd done the serious boyfriend dance before, if not recently; and he would no more ask her to shift her job description and settle down in Vegas than she would ever ask him to turn in his gun and badge and join her demon hunters. They were who they were, and that was that. Still, it got frustrating at times.

They'd been dating-- actually dating, not the careful courtship they'd built with letters and phone calls over the year after his kidnapping and temporary burial-- for over two months before Buffy ever spent a night under his roof. She'd walked out of the bathroom with a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth and his still-packaged spare toothbrush in hand to tease him: "Plan ahead, much?" Only he hadn't laughed. He'd bought it for the weekend she'd had to skip for an emergency trip five weeks before, and laid it out during the weekend he'd had to postpone for a grueling case two weeks after that.

He knew she didn't take their relationship lightly; knew she'd been wounded badly in the past. He got that. Nick was most of a decade older than she was, and his life hadn't been all apple pie and roses either, despite his comparatively privileged childhood. They had both independently developed defense mechanisms that would take time to overcome; and he fully believed she was worth the time it would take to break them down. He'd just thought they'd made progress before that; he'd expected her taking the chance on telling him about her real job, and him taking the whole bizarre story in stride, should have moved them forward, rather than back.

Just went to show, though. No matter how understanding you tried to be, no one could ever know where all the landmines were ahead of time. He'd made the mistake of asking to go along on a 'hunt' with her the morning after the explanation, and she'd bristled up like a porcupine under threat. He hadn't seen Buffy or heard her voice again for sixteen days, though at least she'd still kept responding to his emails and texts. It had taken that long to convince her he wasn't actually looking to throw himself into the line of fire, for adrenaline or curiosity or whatever other burr had got stuck under her saddle. Fighting ghosts again, he had figured. He'd just wanted to know enough to stay safe, and her apparent conviction that he needed to be wrapped up in cotton wool by a knight in shiny leather boots had rankled more than a little.

Still. Water, bridge. Nick had climbed down off the high horse of his manhood eventually, and she'd relaxed enough to take him to meet that green guy at the Tropicana, a friend of a friend named Lorne.

That had been something else. The vampire she'd staked in an alleyway off the Strip afterward had made a much more serious impression than it might have otherwise; meeting a close-up example of the supernatural that could in no way be explained by a strange disease or special training or tricks of the light had banished the last of his doubts, along with any hope of assigning the encounter to a 'gang member on PCP' or 'special effects'. He could see why it was so hard to get people to believe, though, considering how many fakes he'd come across in the course of his job; and why those who did believe often got themselves killed, underestimating the realities of their expanded world.

"Slayer comma the," she'd said over the settling ash-cloud, with a rueful shrug at his shaken expression. "A fight like this is like the boring triplicate paperwork of my day job."

He hadn't needed her to elaborate. "I got you," Nick had replied. "Just tell me what to look for if I come across a victim of something supernatural, and what to do besides 'run' if I ever trip across one of these things at a crime scene, and we'll call it good."

Buffy had agreed with a grateful smile.

Four months in, she'd finally stayed over long enough for a proper introduction to his co-workers; as much as she lived her job, he did his, and they were the closest friends he had in Vegas. Grissom and Sara hadn't quite known what to make of her-- though they'd seemed more surprised by the California cheerleader stamp on her personality than by the age difference-- but they'd warmed up to her by the end of the meal, once she'd proved she wasn't as brainless as she looked. She'd also spent awhile chatting with Catherine about fashion, and Greg about music, and she'd had a fun time trying to pry confidential gossip out of Warrick after he'd congratulated her on getting Nick to shave off the mustache, so all in all he'd thought it had gone rather well.

She still hadn't introduced him to her friends though; just her sister, Dawn. Not until now.

He sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room of a two-story house in Cleveland, watching from a safe distance while his girlfriend bustled manically around in the kitchen.

"Is this-- normal, for her?" Nick asked hesitantly, eyeing the man with the eyepatch seated in the chair across from him.

"First holiday together since you started dating, huh?" Xander chuckled at him. "Yeah, I'm afraid so. We're usually not all in the same place at the same time for the holidays these days, but when we are, she kinda goes overboard. It started back her first year of college, when her Mom went out of town for Thanksgiving weekend and she decided to throw the rest of us a perfect dinner to make up for it."

Something in his tone of voice, or maybe the mischievous light in his eye, made Nick wary. "And was it? Perfect, I mean?" he asked.

Xander snorted and threw a glance over his shoulder at the blonde-maned whirlwind currently darting between the counter and the open oven. "Not for lack of trying. Did I mention that we're usually not all in the same place at the same time for the holidays anymore? Or birthdays, for that matter. It's because holiday plus Scooby Gang has a bad habit of equaling trouble."

Nick grimaced. He had heard at least a couple of celebration-related horror stories. "And I guess it makes sense that Halloween would count for a major holiday for you guys, considering."

"You'd think so, but actually, no," Xander said, leaning forward a little and lowering his voice. "Actually, I think that's why Buffy risked it this time. It's the one night of the year when vampires and so on traditionally lay low. Most of the trouble we've run into on Halloweens past has been human caused. So even if something does go wrong...."

"Ah, I get it," Nick tipped his chin at him. "A soft-ball introduction to Scooby holidays, for the new guy."

"Exactly," Xander nodded to him, looking pleased. "You catch on quick."

"I should hope so," Nick said wryly, amused by the friendly display of dominance. "Considering it's my job to put clues together for a living."

"You've got a point there," Xander agreed, then looked up as the front door opened and another of Buffy's friends darted inside, clutching an umbrella against the rainy weather. He caught a glimpse of red hair as the umbrella was lowered, and lively green eyes as she turned to shake the rain off and drop it in the stand in the entryway; she could only be Willow Rosenberg.

Nick got to his feet as she came in, prepared to do the polite introductory thing. But "Hello, I'm--" was as much as he got out, before her eyes lit up and she favored him with a brilliant smile.

"You must be Nick!" she said brightly, and advanced on him with open arms. "Buffy's told us so much about you!"

Nick accepted the friendly hug with good humor, gingerly embracing her as he might have one of his sisters' friends. "And you must be Willow," he said. "All good, I hope?"

"Of course I'm all good!" she said, sounding a bit surprised as she drew back-- then blinked and blushed nearly bright enough to rival her hair. "I mean-- of course she's said good things about you. Lots of good things. Pretty much every time I talk to her these days."

"And you as well," Nick replied, bemused by the babble. He couldn't help but throw a quick glance at Xander-- and found only a fond smile on his face, so clearly this was normal behavior from her.

"Oh. Good!" Willow continued, smiling. "I've been kinda worried she thought you might not like us; I think this is the longest she's ever gone without introducing us to a boyfriend."

"Except the Immortal," Xander interjected as he stood to claim his own hug.

"Except he doesn't count," Willow fired back, with an apologetic glance toward Nick. "She was dating him mostly for information, remember? They weren't ever all that serious."

"If you say so," Xander sniffed. "After we found out he used to be a rival of Angel's and Spike's, I was sure he was going to join the ranks of Bad Boys past there for awhile."

Nick suspected if he let them keep going, he might end up completely forgotten in the course of an obviously old and familiar argument, and raised his hand to catch their attention. "Excuse me, when you say Immortal, do you mean--"

"Someone who doesn't ever get old?" Willow nodded. "He could still be killed if you knew the right way to do it, but the Watchers' journals say he was already old when the Master took over the Clan of Aurelius, and that was more than four hundred years ago. And he certainly doesn't look his age, I mean, he's still all suave and 'let me kiss your hand, Bella', so I'm not sure if it's a magic thing or if he's just from some kind of extremely long-lived demon species that looks a lot like humans?"

Nick blinked at the influx of information, digesting it for pertinence. He was inexplicably reminded of Greg, and wondered what would happen when the two were introduced.

"Wait-- is this that guy she wrote about in Rome last year? The shallow rich guy?" She'd never said much about him beyond a brief reference to identify the third person in a few pictures with her and Dawn; he was starting to get an idea why. 'Suave' pretty much covered it. He wondered if retroactive jealousy was pathetic, and resolved to go back and take a better look at those pictures later.

"That'd be the one," Xander nodded. Then he leaned over toward Willow again, ostentatiously shielding his mouth as he added in a loud whisper: "Ix-nay on the emons-day, Wills. This is one we don't want to scare off, remember?"

Nick had to chuckle a little as her eyes widened, and hastened to reassure her. "Don't worry, I don't scare off that easily. I'm still pretty new to the supernatural scene, but trust me, after ten years in law enforcement, more than half of that in Vegas? I guarantee you I've seen things that even you wouldn't believe."

Xander looked intrigued at that, but before the conversation could continue, Buffy finally noticed Willow's arrival and hurried over from the kitchen in a clatter of boot heels and flutter of apron.

"Willow, you're here!" she exclaimed, embracing her friend.

"Hey, Buffy-- oogh. I see you've been cooking?" Willow replied, brightly.

"Oops! Sorry." Buffy pulled back, sheepishly looking down at flour-smirched hands and apron, and the white transfer marks left behind on her friend's bright sweater. "I forgot! I think that was from the pie crust; I got a new pumpkin recipe from my aunt this year."

"Andrew's not doing dessert this time?" Willow brushed absently at the flour, but didn't seem too upset.

"Nope; I talked him into doing sides, so be prepared for some creative challenges to the taste buds. He'll be here in half an hour or so. Hey, speaking of arrivals. Where's Ken?"

"Right behind me. She was parking the car-- there she is."

A tender smile spread over the redhead's face as the door opened again; a slightly younger woman with long dark hair, a pretty face, and very confident bearing returned the smile as she shook the rain from her own umbrella outside, then came in and shut the door behind her. She had a duffel over one shoulder, which she dropped next to the umbrella stand as she entered.

"Kennedy, glad you could make it," Buffy said, friendly-polite if not very warm; some not so pleasant history there, Nick guessed, buried for her friend's sake.

"Been looking forward to it," Kennedy replied just as coolly, then turned inquisitive dark eyes to Nick. "Is this the new boyfriend?"

Buffy's smile widened as she turned to him. It was nearly as bright as the one Willow had favored her partner with, and he stepped forward, pulled toward her as he'd been ever since their first meeting. Just that easily, he felt anchored again.

"Yes. Kennedy, this is Nick Stokes. Nick, Willow Rosenberg, and Willow's girlfriend, Kennedy Iyari."

"Fiancée, actually," Kennedy smiled, holding out a hand for him to shake.

From the way her eyes brightened as she said it, he guessed the status was new. "Congratulations," he told her, trading firm grips.

"Fiancée?" Buffy squealed, and threw her arms around Willow again, flour and all. Definitely new.

"Way to go, Wills!" Xander said, stretching his arms around both women, genuine pleasure in his voice. Then he reached out to beckon Kennedy into the group hug as soon as she let go of Nick's hand. "C'mon, get over here; you're one of my girls too, now."

She laughed and rolled her eyes a little, but allowed it; and after a moment all four of them broke apart again, eyes suspiciously bright.

"When? Where? I know it's not legal in Ohio," Buffy said. "Oooh, and tell me you're going to pick prettier bridesmaid's dresses than Anya did!"

"I asked her last week; we'll register sometime next year; and back in São Paolo, though we'll probably do a handfasting ceremony here first in the spring," Willow beamed. "We'll talk wardrobe for that later, but don't worry, no burlap or broccoli green satin. Did you know that if you invest enough money in a company in Brazil, you can get residency status instead of visas? The Council House there just put us over that threshold. And they don't call it marriage, but they have this civil union thing that has basically the exact same rights, so...."

"Way to maximize opportunity," Buffy said. "You guys planning on staying there long-term, then?"

"For now, anyway," Willow shrugged. "I mean, emergencies and holidays, we're so here, but we're doing good work there, and we're even getting pretty conversational in Portuguese."

"Whatever makes you happy," Buffy smiled at her, then nodded at Kennedy again, all traces of the earlier coolness gone. "Seriously, you guys. You deserve it. Oooh! Have you told Giles yet?"

"When he gets here," Willow laughed. "I want to see his reaction in person."

Xander chuckled. "Don't get many opportunities to make him polish his glasses these days, huh," he said, an apparently random reference that gave Nick some confused mental images.

Kennedy rolled her eyes, but she still looked pleased by the general air of acceptance. "Anyway," she said, reaching to lift her duffel bag again. "Since we're staying the night, we thought we'd go ahead and get settled before dinner?" She reached her free hand toward Willow.

Willow took it, interlacing their fingers together. "See you guys in a few," she said cheerfully, following Kennedy up the hall stairs to the bedrooms on the second level. "Nice to meet you, Nick!"

"Nice to meet you, too!" Nick lifted his hand in a belated wave as they disappeared into the upstairs hall.

"Wow," Xander said, lowly, staring after them. "Just-- wow."

Buffy shook her head wonderingly. "I know," she said. "But-- they're so happy."

"Light at the end of the tunnel, huh?" Xander gave her a sympathetic look, full of meaning Nick couldn't even begin to pick apart.

She smiled sadly and gave him a floury pat to the shoulder, then finally turned back to Nick. "Sorry again about abandoning you in here. The cooking's almost done, I swear!"

"No, no, it's fine." Nick edged closer, carefully threading his arms around her to avoid most of the floury spots on her apron, and leaned down for a quick peck on the lips. Then he pulled back, licking at the spicy flavor that must have transferred from testing spoons. "Tastes like something worth waiting for," he said, the words acquiring unexpected weight as he spoke them.

Buffy blushed brightly, and hardly seemed to know what to say next. "I... Nick!"

He took pity on them both and turned her around with a teasing swat. "Go on, shoo; the sooner it's done, the sooner we can eat."

He wasn't about to connect the dots with the previous conversation out loud, not so soon; but maybe getting the concept out there where they could both get used to it wasn't such a bad idea.

She yelped a little at the swat, and threw him an indecipherable look over her shoulder, before muttering something he couldn't quite make out about 'cookies' and bolting back toward the oven. A timer started beeping just as she arrived, and she busied herself shuffling things around again-- leaving he and Xander once again in the living room, alone.

He found the one-eyed man staring at him with an unexpectedly serious expression.

"You okay there, man?" Nick asked him, warily.

Xander nodded slowly. "You make her happy," he said. Then he lifted a finger and pointed it melodramatically in Nick's direction. "But keep in mind, I have a shovel and I'm prepared to use it."

Nick winced at the mental image, though he felt as pleased as Kennedy had looked earlier at the implied approval. "Been there, investigated that, and plan to skip the t-shirt, thanks," he said. "Seriously, though. She makes me happy. That woman could bend me into a pretzel if she wants to; and she's decided she wants me? I'm hers."

"Good." Xander dropped the exaggerated 'Uncle Sam wants you' pose and settled back into the chair he'd chosen earlier, shedding the intensity like water off a duck. "Now, where were we?"

Nick blinked as he resettled himself on the couch, and carefully rewound the conversation in his mind. What had they been talking about before the girls came in? Something about not being easily scared off? Which was pretty much the same conversation they were having now, except-- "I've seen things you'd have trouble believing?" he prompted the other man.

Xander considered that, thoughtfully. "You deal with the humans that go bump in the night, and we try to pick up the rest," he said. "Yeah, I can believe there's at least as much scary on your side of the line as on ours. Maybe more, considering; it's worse when the face of evil looks just like your own."

"Sounds like you speak from experience, there," Nick probed, cautiously.

"Literally and figuratively," Xander replied with a forced chuckle. "So, how do you deal with it?"

"Deal with...?" Nick wasn't sure what he was getting at.

"Everything." Xander made an expansive gesture. "You said you've been doing your job for ten years, right? Well, so have we, more or less. Different enemies, but just as much trauma, I'd guess. No, I know; I heard about that first call you got from Buffy. So. How do you deal with it? Because I should warn you, we mostly go with repression and bad jokes. Buffy included, though you probably already know that by now."

Ten years. Nick blinked at that; he'd known it intellectually, but the confirmation still caught him off guard. They'd barely been teenagers when the job had found them; he'd at least managed to get through all his schooling and training before choosing the life of a cop with open eyes. It was a wonder they were all as sane as they were, actually; none of them had anything like the education or support structure anyone with a badge could expect, and even that, as he could attest, often fell short.

He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket with a wry smile, and tugged out the police psychiatrist card to show Xander. "Mandatory counseling, man," he said. "Repression and bad jokes help too; but the talking thing actually does work, if you let it. Buffy could tell you, I vented a lot to her last year."

"Huh," Xander said, idly fingering the card before returning it. "I wonder if Giles would approve a counselor on the Council payroll? We're kind of set in our ways by now, but I've been worried about some of the younger girls."

"Y'all are welcome to ask any kind of questions you need to about that," Nick told him. Experienced at the job or not, Buffy had admitted they were all kind of new at being in charge. This Giles-- the one constant adult in their group, from what he'd gathered-- might know a little about what he was doing, but the rest of them wouldn't, and even he probably wasn't used to running so many subordinate teams at the same time. "Or ask my boss; I haven't told Griss anything about Buffy's real job, but the man's been around, and I know he started out as a coroner in LA. Bet you anything you like he already knows, and he's got a lot more experience at the human resource management thing in this kind of high-pressure environment than I do."

Xander nodded thoughtfully. "Might have to get back to you on that," he said.

Nick nodded, and put his wallet away again. Sometime in the last few minutes, he'd stopped seeing just how young Xander was and started seeing him as an experiential equal; he'd already felt that way about Buffy, but he wasn't feeling quite as fish-out-of-water with the rest as he had when he'd first walked in the door, and some tight, nervous worry that had knotted itself between his shoulderblades relaxed a little at that realization. Yeah, they could do this; they really could fit into each other's worlds.

It still wrong-footed him a little that he seemed more prepared to think long-term than Buffy was, but the last hour or so had made him feel a lot more optimistic about their chances of building something lasting. At least, once he convinced her to stop flinching at ghosts.

Speaking of whom. Something slammed in the kitchen, and Buffy reappeared, smiling brightly at him as she stripped off the apron. "All done," she said, walking down the entry hall to join them in the living room. "You boys done bonding yet?"

Xander got to his feet again and replied with a smirk. "Still have Giles' appraisal to get through, but I'm pretty sure he'll earn the Scooby seal of approval. Good going, Buff. And don't wait so long next time, okay? At this rate, your kids will be starting preschool before we get the birth announcements."

She flushed red again, an entertainingly cute display, and lashed out at him with the tail of the apron she still held. "Xander!"

Her friend yelped as it snapped loudly against his thigh, then laughed and scooted toward the front door. "Going, going! I'll just wait for Giles and Andrew; they should be here anytime."

"You do that," Buffy mock-scowled as he edged through. Outside, the rain had nearly stopped; a breath of damp, chill air washed briefly over both of them as the door swung shut again, and Nick felt his nerves come alive in its wake.

"So," he said, stepping closer and brushing his fingers against a smear of batter on her chin. "This is what holidays are like around here, huh?"

"Oh, don't even." She shuddered a little under his touch, tipping her chin up as her eyes fluttered shut. "Whatever Xander said, it's usually ten times worse. So far, this is pretty tame in comparison."

"So far," Nick replied softly, stroking his thumb over her slightly parted lips.

She shivered again, then opened her eyes and gave him a look hotter than the oven she'd just finished slaving over. "We'll see about that," she said.

He chuckled, warmed clear through. "I think I'm going to handle your kind of holidays just fine."


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