Theodora was practically burying herself into one of the many cardboard boxes strewed about her kitchen floor when she heard the doorbell ring. Peeping out of the window, she smiled as she spotted Archie waiting out on the doorstep, and rushed through the hallway to greet him.
"Morning, Archie," she said brightly. "What brings you here?"
"I'm hoping for a favour," came the reply. "Anna's headteacher is coming over for dinner tonight - I was wondering if I could borrow one of your cookbooks, so I can make something a little special?"
"Sure thing. Come on in."
After Theodora carefully led Archie around the piles of boxes that were now littered around her and her husband's home, she brought him into the living room - inviting him to take a seat on the sofa as she browsed her bookshelf.
"Any particular cuisine in mind?" she asked.
"I think some traditional home cooking would be best."
"Then how about this one? 50 Family Recipes for Special Occasions."
"May I see it?"
Theodora handed it over to Archie, who flicked through the pages quickly, browsing the many glossy photographs of various platters. Content, he nodded.
"Yes, I think this is just the thing," he concluded. "Thanks very much."
"I'll need it back by tomorrow afternoon, if that's OK?" Theodora added hastily - a twinge of sadness entering her voice.
"No problem," Archie replied, "but... well, why the rush?"
Theodora paused, summoning up her courage. She liked Archie a lot. He was a good friend and neighbour. This wasn't going to be easy for her to say.
"We're moving again," she said. "James got offered a job. A permanent one this time, over in Pleasantview."
"Congratulations!" Archie cried, delighted.
"Thanks. They want him to start right away. It's all happened very suddenly - that why's there's boxes all over the place. We're hoping to head out there by Thursday morning."
"I do like it here in Millwood," she said softly. "You and Jack are amazing neighbours, and I'll miss seeing little Anna around. But, now that James and I finally have some stability in our lives, maybe we can start building up a real future for ourselves."
"Well, a permanent house and job is a great start," Archie said. "So what's next on the list?"
"We've... we've been thinking of adopting a child," she admitted. "We... we don't think there's much chance of us having biological children, but we would love to start a family of our own."
Smiling, Archie rose to his feet, and embraced her.
"You're a wonderful woman, Theodora," he told her. "Any child would be lucky to have you as their mother. I wish you all the luck in the world."
"You're a great man yourself, Archie," came the response. "And a brilliant father, to boot. I just know that the headteacher will see that, too."
As the fateful hour of 6pm grew to be mere minutes away, Archie found himself stood in his bedroom, dressing himself in one of the Professor's tweed suits.
The house was immaculately clean. A platter of pork chops he'd slaved over all day was almost ready to be served. For a final touch, he had insisted that he, Jack and Anna all wear their finest clothes. Now, however, as he gazed at his reflection in the mirror, he wondered if he'd made the right choice of outfit.
"You look great," came a voice from behind him. "Very dapper."
Turning, Archie saw Jack walking in through the doorway: clothed in a stylish red suit of his own, his hair neatly combed... a confident smile on his face. One thought ran through Archie's processor repeatedly.
He looks so handsome.
As that ever-more-familiar racing of his gears took hold, Archie desperately calmed himself. His metaphorical nerves were bad enough already. If his parts started whirring any faster, he was sure he'd have a breakdown.
"You look perfect, Jack," he said, quietly - almost reverently.
"Thanks," Jack replied - dismissively, but not without feeling. "That outfit really suits you, you know. It just screams "smart bookish gentleman.""
He paused, a little flustered.
"I.. I really like it."
"Do you think it will make a good impression with Mr. Jackson?", Archie asked, deeply concerned.
"Sure it will," Jack assured him. "I bet he turns up wearing something similar himself."
As he heard a loud rapping at the front door, Archie's eyes widened in fear. Jack, knowing how important this night would be to their little family, reached out for his hand, clasping it tenderly in an attempt to sooth him.
"Speak of the devil," he remarked, jokingly. "Look, I'll check on Anna and take her down to the dining room. You go and greet Mr. Jackson, OK?"
"Everything will be fine," Jack added swiftly. "You have nothing to worry about."
As Jack headed out towards Anna's bedroom, Archie scurried down the staircase towards the front door. Opening it, he saw the stern, aged face of Joseph Jackson looking back at him, and immediately offered him a hand to shake.
"Hello, Mr. Jackson," he said politely. "I'm Archie Crosswire, Anna's father. Welcome to our home."
"Good evening, Mr. Crosswire," came the blunt, businessman-like response, as the figure grapsed his hand firmly. "Thank you for agreeing to see me. I feel that Anna's behaviour the other day is something we really should discuss."
"I completely agree."
"I trust she will be joining us at dinner, to give her an opportunity to explain herself?"
"Yes, Mr. Jackson. And, if I may, dinner is about to be served. Would you care to follow me, please?"
As Mr. Jackson followed Archie into the dining room, Anna and Jack were already in their seats at the table, ready and waiting. As Anna greeted Mr. Jackson with great civility, the elder man's eyes were drawn to the red-headed figure.
"And who might you be, sir?" he asked, somewhat concerned.
"I'm Jack Sparx, Mr. Jackson," came the reply. "I'm Archie's lodger... and a longtime friend. Anna thinks of me as her "uncle"."
"But you and Mr. Crosswire are not brothers?"
"Then perhaps you share a relationship of... an alternative nature?"
Even though he and Archie weren't a couple, the way the question was phrased irked Jack greatly. It strongly implied a sense of wrongness... being against the acceptable norm. That it was improper for two consenting adult men who loved each other to share their lives together.
Had this been any other person, in any other situation, Jack would have chided them for their hateful attitude - but regrettably, he knew that, right now, for both Archie's and Anna's sake, that he'd have to stay quiet.
"No, sir," he answered, as calmly he could muster. "We're just good friends."
"Please, Mr. Jackson," Archie said, gesturing towards the table in an attempt to hastily change the subject. "Do take a seat."
As Mr. Jackson moved towards the table, Archie nipped into the kitchen. As he overheard amicable chatter coming in from the other room, he produced his pork chops from the oven - adding a few little flourishes and finishing touches before plating them up and carrying them out - balancing them on his arms as skillfully as a trained waiter, ready and willing to serve.
As everyone tucked in the the mouthwatering meal - Archie and Jack both forcing themselves to join in to maintain an image of normality, having practised proper eating etiquette repeatedly in recent days - Mr. Jackson nodded towards Anna.
"It's been explained to me that Anna's actions the other day were a response to a series of sinister, belittling remarks by her classmate," he said. "Particularly in regards to your heritage, Mr. Crosswire. I intend to speak with Miss Smith about her own actions very shortly, but... I need assurance that Anna will not respond to such behaviour, however improper, in such a violent way again."
Anna turned to him.
"Mr. Jackson," she told him, "I really am very sorry for did. I was just... so angry and confused. But, Daddy has talked to me a lot about how what I did was wrong, and I know he's right. I know I should have told a teacher or someone else who could help instead. I really want to stay at St. Macrina's Academy. I promise, if you give me another chance... I'll be the best student ever."
It wasn't rehearsed. Anna's words were utterly sincere, and had come from the heart. Putting down his knife and fork, Mr. Jackson handed his plate over to Archie, who was clearing the table, and turned to her with a smile.
"You do seem genuinely remorseful," he concluded. "And I suppose it was only one solitary incident. Perhaps, if you went through some kind of probationary period, and if we moved you to a class away from Miss Smith, we could see how things go and - "
The sound of smashing plates and the crackle of electricity silenced the headmaster before he could say any more. He gasped in utter horror as he witnessed the sight of Archie, his head whirring around in a rapid circle, jerking wildly and crumpling to the floor - sparks flying out of his body.
As Anna's face grew ghostly pale, Jack rushed to the living room closet, and fished out a toolkit. Flourishing a spanner, he knelt down beside Archie, pulled off his suit jacket, pushed up his jumper, and prised open a hatch in the back of his casing - striving to repair whatever fault had taken hold of him as quickly as he could.
Eventually, he got Archie to his feet, and after a few final tweaks and re-connections, the blond-haired robot was back to his old self.
The silence that followed was as heavy as a two-ton weight. Archie, embarrassed, hung his head - too ashamed to speak about what had just occurred - whilst Jack put the toolkit back into the closet calmly, acting as if nothing had happened. As he returned to Archie's side, a stunned, fearful Mr. Jackson approached them both.
"Would you kindly tell me," he asked, "just what the hell you two are?"
"Can I go and see my daddy now?" Anna asked the kind female police officer, now sitting beside her on the sofa. The grown-up had invited her to come and watch some cartoons on TV whilst her partner spoke to the two Servos in the dining room - following a call from a very concerned Mr. Jackson.
"I'm sorry, honey, not yet," the policewoman replied. "We just need to find out a few things before we know what's going to happen."
At the dining table, the conversation was far less gentle.
"You're lucky you two aren't human," the officer told Archie and Jack. "You'd have rap sheets as long as your arm. Theft, impersonation, squatting. But, as it happens, since you two are robots, you're not classed as citizens, or indeed persons, of any kind. Consequently, we can't charge you with any offences."
"Please, sir," Jack said. "We've done nothing wrong. We've never harmed anyone. We've lived in this house in peace. We work - under false papers, granted, but we still contribute to society. We just want the right to a normal family life. Surely we're entitled to that?"
"Under the law, you're not technically entitled to anything," the officer replied sharply. "You're objects, not beings. We're going to need you to turn over the money from the Crosswire estate and the house - I'll give you a week to arrange alternative lodgings. Otherwise... we'll have to get a court order to have you permanently powered down."
"We understand, Officer," Jack replied. "Please - there's no need for threats. One week and we'll be out. You have my word."
"The main concern, however, is the girl."
"We never harmed her," Archie insisted, adamant. "I never would. I raised her as my own daughter. I love her. We both love her. All we want is what's best for her."
"And what we feel is best for her, as a human girl, is to be raised by humans," the officer told him frankly. "You are very advanced creations, but what you perceive to be "feelings" are merely parts of your programming. They're not genuine. And as it's been shown here tonight, you can malfunction at any time. Anna could well be left to fend for herself. I appreciate the efforts you have made in caring for her so far... but we've had to contact Social Services. She will be placed with a new adoptive family as soon as possible."
"Hold on!" Jack protested. "There are plenty of humans whose so-called emotions are far more false than ours allegedly are! There are humans who hurt their children and abuse them! And as for malfunctions... well, don't humans get sick? They have heart attacks and strokes! They can die at any time, too. I really don't think you've any grounds to suggest that we - "
"Jack," Archie said quickly, his tone solemn. "Be quiet. You're just asking to be destroyed if you talk to the police like this."
Turning to the officer, he nodded slowly.
"I understand your position," he said, his voice wavering slightly as he struggled to contain his so-called "programmed" sadness. "But, if I may, I would like to advise you of a couple who I know would love and care for Anna wonderfully well."
"James and Theodora Campbell. Our neighbours next door. They've been wanting to adopt a child for a long time now. You don't have to worry about their proximity - they'll be moving to Pleasantview in just a couple of days. Let them take her, and I swear that we will never try to find Anna or contact the Campbells once they go. She'll have a completely normal human upbringing, just as you want. And it would make the transition easier for her."
The police officer considered this. Speaking through his radio to the station, he requested a background check to be run on the couple. After receiving the results, he turned his attention back to the two robots.
"They're clean," he told them. "Very well. If they'll take her, Anna will be rehoused with them."
He rose from his seat.
"I shall inform Anna of what's going to happen now. You two stay here."
"Wait," Archie croaked. "Can't we say goodbye?"
The officer shook his head.
"I'm afraid that would be against protocol."
The robots were forced to stand back, powerless, as the officer joined his colleague in the living room, and told Anna that she was going to a new home. Archie knew that he had no true heart, as the policeman had so bluntly reminded him, but as he heard Anna burst into floods of anguished tears, he swore he could feel it breaking.
As the officers led Anna outside, she called out to the only family she had ever known.
"Daddy! Uncle Jack! I love you!"
Hearing the front door shut, Jack and Archie rushed to the windows - longing to get one final glimpse of Anna before she left their lives completely. As they watched the police officers knocking on the Campbells' door, and their precious girl stepping into the golden, warming light of their neighbours' home, Archie stepped back - utterly defeated.
"I'm going to go upstairs now," he said to Jack. "Please... don't disturb me."
For three days, Jack honoured Archie's wishes. He respected that his dear friend needed to deal with his grief and sadness in a reserved, distanced way... but he personally preferred to distract himself with tasks and projects.
Besides, what good would it do if they both gave up?
He'd been fired from his job, due to his newly-discovered identity as a Servo, and his papers being revealed to be, by his own admission, forgeries. However, he found solace in Professor Crosswire's inventing table, and endeavoured to make good use of it while he still could. He spent countless hours, day and night, working on a very special project - often losing all track of time in the process.
It was only on that third day, when he realised he hadn't seen or heard from Archie since the night Anna was re-homed, that he decided it would be a good idea to check on him.
Jack found Archie on his bed, curled up under the sheets - silent and motionless. He had drawn the curtains against the daylight, denying himself the solar power he needed to recharge his battery.
"Leave me," he croaked to Jack, weakly. "Let my power run out. I don't want to exist anymore. It's all my fault."
"What do you mean?"
"The breakdown. If that hadn't happened, my little girl would still be living here."
"But if I'd not encouraged Anna to fight, Mr. Jackson wouldn't have come over."
"I still would have broken down eventually," Archie answered. "I've been malfunctioning for some time, Jack. I could feel it in my gears."
"Whenever I was nervous, or emotional about something... my gears sped up. Went faster and faster. I knew it wasn't normal, but I didn't want to say anything, We were so busy, with Anna starting school, and then the headteacher coming..."
A muffled sound followed - Jack was unsure if it was a croak, or a sob. As Archie buried himself down further under the bedclothes, his red-headed companion settled himself down on the other side of the bed, lounging back onto the pillows.
"You broke down due to an electrical issue, you know," Jack told him. "I had to replace a couple of your wires, but your gears had nothing to do with it. I don't think what your describing is a fault. I mean... it happens to me, too."
Archie craned his neck to look at him.
"Really?" he asked.
"All the time," Jack replied. "It happened when Anna started school, when those police officers came over..."
He reached for Archie's hand.
"And it happens whenever I see you smile."
"It happens to me when you smile, too."
"Archie," Jack said firmly, "please don't destroy yourself like this. I know losing Anna is so hard for both of us, but you can at least take solace in the fact that you've brought happiness to the Campbells' lives. You've given her another loving family. Besides..."
He paused, looking deeply into Archie's eyes.
"... I don't want to lose you."
"We've only got a couple more days to get out of this house, Jack," he whimpered. "Where on Earth are going to go? The whole town, maybe even the whole county, knows we're robots now - they'll hardly rent us a room, will they?"
"Then let's leave town, and the godforsaken county," Jack told him. "We'll find a little place somewhere - isolated, off the grid, off the beaten track. We can use solar power to charge ourselves, and we don't even need running water. We could live like hermits in the wilderness, for all I care. I just want us to be together."
"All three of us."
Archie cocked his head in confusion.
Jack pulled on his hand, dragging him out of bed, and leading him down the stairs to a small room at the rear of the house: Professor Crosswire's former workroom. He brought Archie over to the workbench, inviting him to take a look at his completed project.
Archie gasped, overwhelmed.
"You?" he asked. "You built this -"
"For you," Jack chipped in. "I did this for you. I wanted to give you a reason to function again. And... because..."
Archie looked at him, intrigued.
"Because?" he prompted.
Jack grinned. It was now or never.
"Because I love you, Archie," he replied.
The blond robot turned his head away meekly.
"I love you too, Jack," he whispered back.
They had been built to hate one another. To win glory for their creators, who were rivals as fierce as Holmes was to Moriarty. Yet now, here they were, holding one another in a tender embrace - their mouths meeting in their first blissful, beautiful union.