“A fortnight?” Xander threw Giles a sideways glance as they made their way down the long line of boats. He hadn’t had to ask which one was meant to be theirs, as it had been easy enough to spot Henri as she stepped off the one parked – no, moored – at the end of the line. He was more concerned with untangling George’s parting comment, since – as far as he knew – they’d only got a week for the vacation thing. That had been all that either of them had been willing to spare …
“Ah. Ummm. Yes …” Giles look vaguely embarrassed. “I – uh – haven’t had a chance to talk to you about that.”
“Okay.” Xander was willing to concede that one. There hadn’t been much time for them to talk about anything just recently. “So …?” he prompted, when the explanation failed to follow. Giles hesitated – and had he been wearing his glasses he probably would have whipped them off to polish them. Not exactly something he could do with the contacts, so he glanced away instead, squaring his shoulders and taking a deeper breath than usual.
“So,” he assayed hastily, “Willow found out about our arrangements, and … insisted we extend the time.”
Xander blinked. What was so embarrassing about that … oh! “Insisted, huh?” Giles nodded, managing to look both ashamed and apologetic all at the same time. It was the sort of look that made Xander’s inner hero want to step up and slay dragons – except, of course, the dragon in question was his best friend, which explained why Giles hadn’t taken steps to slay it on his own account. “Full resolve face?” Another nod, just as chagrined as the first. Xander had to fight down a smirk. He had no doubt that the man once referred to as Ripper (and still so referred by a fair proportion of London’s occult underbelly) could face down the White Witch with grim determination if the fate of the world depended on it – but Rupert Giles, war weary Watcher, friend, family, and not-quite-father figure, wouldn’t have stood a chance when it came to matters of his own fate. His – and the well being of Willow’s life-long friend and brother in all but blood (and they weren’t entirely sure about that anymore, either.) Better by far to give in as gracefully as possible, retaining a little of his dignity. A token protest, perhaps – with little hope and probably even less conviction, since Willow would have been pushing at an open door. Neither of them had felt they could justify the selfishness of more than a single week – but being told to take another one?
That made their extended absence someone else’s responsibility. And it wasn’t as if Willow couldn’t find them and call them home if they were really needed.
“You retreated with dignity, I take it?”
“As much as I could muster.” Xander used to think that that particular quirk of the lips and crease of the forehead hinted at indigestion. Now he knew it for what it was – the hard fight to master the kind of shit-eating grin that his Rubear could (and did) let loose in private and personal moments. It had been a wonder to discover that – to find that Giles really did have layers. Lots of them, wrapped around him as camouflage, as armour, and even as ornament; hidden under the bumbling tweed was the stern Watcher, under him was Ripper all grown up and the scarier for it, and under him, the stalwart hero, the man who would have made an awesome fighter pilot had he been given the chance.
And beneath all that? There was a mischievous imp, impossibly young and terrifyingly wise - wild, wanton, and wicked in a really, really good way.
A fortnight with him was going to be fun …
Even if he did have to spend it in cramped quarters, coping with a rainy English summer while going nowhere fast. Or not so fast, come to that. Hadn’t Giles said something about moving at four miles an hour?
“Well,” he said, not entirely sure how he felt about that. “I guess if we have to extend the vacation … I’m sure we can find something to do. With all that time, I mean. Kick back, chill out, relax a little. See the sights …” Giles shook his head indulgently, well aware of the intended innuendo, and strode ahead, letting Xander drop back half a step so he could start his sightseeing the way he intended. With long, lanky legs, muscular lines and manly curves. There were some real advantages to dating a guy who spent time training Slayers.
Hopefully Giles thought so too …
“Everything’s boat shaped and Brummie fashioned, Cap’n,” Henri reported with a grin, throwing them both a mock salute. “First Mate’s luggage all aboard, supplies loaded, and – um – special package in place as requested.”
“Thank you, Henri.” Giles’ smile was warm. “You’ve been really helpful today. I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” The slayer waved a dismissive hand. “Especially considering how much you do for us. We appreciate it. Sir,” she added with a grin. “You too, Mr Harris. I’ll give the girls your regards.”
“Uh – thanks. But it’s Xander. Really. I only do the Mister thing for bank managers. And customs officers and policemen. They kinda - insist on it.”
Henri laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “I bet they do. I’ll see you in a fortnight?” Giles nodded and she bounced forward to plant a sisterly kiss on his cheek. “Great. Have a good trip.” She turned to Xander and dipped in to offer him the same courtesy, her hands curling around his shoulders with a sudden hint of strength. “Take care of him,” she whispered fiercely, a soft growl of words that sent goosebumps down Xander’s spine.
“Always,” he mouthed back, and she gave his shoulders the barest of squeezes and let go, all bright smiles and nonchalance.
“Try not to fall in,” she advised, with a wink. Xander would have winked back, but it was a little pointless when you only had one eye to wink with. He nodded instead, a quiet affirmation of his promise and watched as she strode away, tugging the car keys from her pocket. It was an oddly awesome moment. For the first time in … however long it might have been, Giles’ honour guard was standing down, leaving him responsible for their Senior Watcher’s safety. And, okay, so Giles was kinda responsible for it too, but … still …
The honour guard had been Vi’s idea, not Buffy’s – she’d never quite managed to get her head round just how much the ex-potentials turned slayers (thank Willow and her Goddess) owed her war weary Watcher. Their Watcher, too, long before they’d stopped being potentials and stepped up to the chosen plate instead. Most of those who’d fought (and managed not to die) in those last days in Sunnydale owed him their lives, having been snatched – sometimes almost literally – from the intended moment of their death. Many of the others who’d been elsewhere had been – well, elsewhere, because of frantic warnings, a flurry of called in favours, and a few still being paid for debts. The Bringers had been hunting mercilessly in those last few weeks, slaughtering Watchers and their charges with unholy glee, and only Giles and his desperate forays into their hunting grounds had prevented slaughter from becoming massacre. He hadn’t managed to save them all, but he’d saved enough to count – and after all the dust of battle, and the fire of Buffy’s speeches, and the lingering buzz of Willow’s spell had settled, they’d slowly come to realise just how much Giles had been willing to sacrifice, how much he’d risked, to try and keep them safe.
Hence the honour guard – a gesture that had started in one place and rapidly became something else entirely. Because slayers were … well, slayers. Instinctively programmed to protect and defend, to be resolute and dutiful and fiercely loyal …
“Xander?” The question pulled him out of meandering reverie and back to immediate matters – the reality of a time and place that said you’re off the clock, and offered the warm brush of an English summer sun, the sound of everyday living and the mingled aromas of oil and water and greenery and … oh, a waft of that musky Italian aftershave that Buffy had given Giles for Christmas.
“Sorry,” Xander apologised, striding towards the source of that enticing scent. “Miles away. Jetlag and too little sleep, I think. Is this our boat?”
“Well, I certainly hope so,” Giles noted dryly, “since I’ve already signed the hire papers, and Henri’s just put your entire luggage on board. What do you think?”
It was a dark hulled, green bodied thing, with silver window frames and a black grab rail running along either side of the roof. The nose end was pointy, the back end cut square, and it had an odd looking handle jutting up from the rear deck, painted in a spiral of black, green and red stripes. Actually, the whole thing was painted, with white curlicues around the windows, and an ornate side panel decorated with red and white roses. White Knight, Coventry, the panel declared, each letter picked out in white with a black and gilt edging. It was all very folksy and a little kitsch and utterly charming, in a weird mix of industrial practicality, gypsy caravan and Victorian flourish. Buffy wouldn’t know what to make of it. Xander wasn’t entirely sure either.
“It’s –um – different,” he allowed, trying to work out how much space there had to be inside that long and impossibly narrow cabin. “Not exactly your standard motor home.”
“Oh, it’s much better than that,” Giles said with amusement. His long legs carried him confidently from the shore to the rear deck, and Xander was relieved to see that the boat didn’t immediately wallow and dip under his weight. In fact it barely seemed to dip at all. “Coming aboard?”
“Ah – yeah.” Xander squared his shoulders and stepped over – and there he was, standing in a shallow deck well, barely six foot long and seven feet wide, and there was Giles, one hand resting on the painted handle/rail thing and one of those quiet grins on his face. The sort that said I know something you don’t and you are going to love it …
Xander rather hoped he would, because so far this boating holiday stuff wasn’t looking much like his cup of tea. Which would be coffee, in his case. At least the boat wasn’t … bobbing. “There’s no wheel,” he noted puzzledly. “How do you steer a boat without a wheel?”
“You use the tiller.” Giles pushed at the painted handle and it swung smoothly back and forth with just a hint of resistance. “George showed me earlier. It’s – ah – quite simple. Gear lever here, throttle here … I’ll show you once we get going. Apparently a slow and stately progress is recommended - to avoid making too much wash.”
“Right,” Xander acknowledged warily. “And this is supposed to be fun?”
“This,” the answer was firm, “is supposed to be relaxing. Just you and me, on our own time, left entirely to our own devices. No meetings, no schedules, and no desperate demands. The hardest decisions we’ll have to make is where to moor for the night and what to eat every day – along with who gets to be tillsman and who’s on lock wheeling duty. And those we’ll take turns with. Xander – you’ve been spending all your time charging around the globe, wrestling with headaches and heartaches and hassles, and you haven’t had time to take breath, let alone have any sensible downtime. I thought you were looking forward to this.”
“I was. I am. It’s just … “ Xander couldn’t articulate whatever it was that was unsettling him. He had been looking forward to this – at least in those moments when he remembered it was supposed to be happening. A week – no, a fortnight without having to deal with the kind of nightlife that gave sensible people nightmares? Without needing to send brilliant and beautiful young women into situations that might end up with them maimed or dead – or worse? A chance to genuinely kick back and relax? To spend time – us time - with Giles? Being looked at the way he was being looked at right now?
As if the man didn’t know whether to hug him, spank him, or simply throw him into the cabin and ravage him to within an inch of his life?
If he were lucky, it might turn out to be all three …
“I’ve never really had a vacation, ya know?” He was admitting it to himself as much as Giles, a realisation that said a lot about his life, and the world he’d grown up in. “Mom and Dad took me to a trailer park a couple of times – to stay with my cousin Errol … but it was just a shift from one place with nothing to do, to another. Beer and barbecues and nobody getting along. My roadtrip – wasn’t. Just endless sinks of dirty dishes and having to humiliate myself in a semi-fun kinda way … and Anya and I never got as far as the honeymoon, and after that …” He looked up to find himself being watched with sympathetic eyes. “I don’t think I know how to do this. How to take time off – time out. I know you’ve been looking forward to it, and my head’s telling me not to rain on your parade - but my heart keeps telling me that vacations suck, and I don’t deserve one, and ,,, this is all so not me, ya know?” He waved his hand towards the rest of the boat. “Cramped quarters and camping out – which was so not fun when I was doing it in Africa, or living in that basement of mine …”
“That’s enough.” Giles stepped forward, a determined glint in his eye, and Xander instinctively took a step back – which meant that he also found himself taking a step down, his retreat impeded by the closed cabin door. “Xander …” Giles was suddenly looming over him, hands on the cabin roof on either side of his head so that he was effectively trapped there. A year ago that confident lean forward – the invasion of his personal space – would have been, and meant to be, intimidating; it was easy to forget sometimes the sheer presence the man could muster when he wanted to. It still was – intimidating, that is – but it was also heart pounding for completely different reasons. They’d been apart for weeks. His head might be saying one thing, and his heart another, but – boy … He sure hoped his dick knew what it was talking about, because right there and then it seemed to be making a lot of sense.
“Oh, Xander,” Giles said again, his voice – along with the look in his eyes - softening with affection and sympathy. “Don’t do this. Don’t put yourself down like that. You’ve come a long way since that basement – and do you really think I would inflict that kind of misery on you? On myself? You deserve a holiday. You’re getting one whether you like it or not – and you will like it. I promise.” He paused for a moment, staring into Xander’s good eye with a little more than simply promise – then licked his lower lip and dipped in for a fierce and fervent kiss that sent tingles all the way down to Xander’s toes.
Xander kissed back, just as fervently, lifting one hand to cup and caress the softly stubbled line of his lover’s jaw while he used the other to brace himself against the painted wood. He found himself letting worry and fearful anticipation and pessimistic expectation slide away, immersing himself in the now. This was good. This was better than good.
And it was over way too soon …
“Right,” Giles said, pushing back to give Xander room to breathe. He looked as if he needed to take a breath or two himself. “Now we’ve got that settled, get yourself into the bloody cabin, take a good look at the accommodation and then tell me how it compares to Africa. Oh – and there’s a present for you. In the fore cabin. That’s the section just after the shower.”
Shower? The boat had a shower? That was a step up from Africa. Hell, it was several steps up from that stupid basement. Maybe this wasn’t going to be too bad after all …
Xander turned and – after a moment’s puzzlement as he figured out that you had to push back the top hatch before you could open the cabin door – stepped down into the cabin and blinked in sheer surprise. He didn’t know quite what he’d been expecting – perhaps an echo of the shabby camping-chic he’d encountered in his cousin’s trailer park, and in the furnishings of a certain Winnebago that had seen better days – but it certainly wasn’t this. The White Knight was kitted out like a modern apartment, all gleaming woodwork and polished worktops – and, okay, maybe some of the fittings were a little utilitarian, but they were smart, and clean, and totally co-ordinated, from the dark green leather of the seats, through to the similarly green insets on the wooden wall panels, and the neat little leaf patterned curtains that graced every window.
He stepped down the length of the cabin, impressed by the way things had been fitted in, not to mention the way they fitted together. Cupboards inset under benches, the dining table set off to one side so there was plenty of room to walk round it, the neatly compact kitchen units – galley, he reminded himself – running either side of the central walkway, complete with tiny oven and a shelf mounted microwave, and then another seating area, and after that the compact shower and bathroom on one side and the built in john on the other.
He opened doors and he peered into clever spaces and he found his wary frown shifting into a smile – and after that, a grin. The carpenter in him loved the place, just as Giles had known he would. And he could stand upright in it – hell, Giles could stand upright in it – especially as the light fittings were neatly tucked into the junctions between wall and roof, so there was no danger of bumping heads on jutting fixtures.
The forecabin seemed to be where the beds were – four of them, two stacked like bunks opposite a unit with a washbasin, and the other two on either side, just before you got to the door out to the foredeck. They had both padded head and side boards, so they could be used as benches during the day, but Xander wasn’t really paying much attention to the detail right there and then. He was staring, instead, at the tartan rug thrown over the right hand bed – the throw and the tiny bundle curled up in the middle of it, all soft and silky golden fur, a flop of ears and a twitch of paws. A present, Giles had said. For him.
“Her name is Golden Cupcake Twinklestar, I’m sorry to say.” Giles had followed his progress through the boat, watching with amusement but refraining from making any of the obvious comments – I told you so was rarely in Giles’ vocabulary, since all he usually needed was the arch of an eyebrow and a knowing look. “Ridiculous name for a dog, but indicative of impeccable breeding and quality. I’m sure you can come up with something much more suitable for everyday use.”
Golden Cupcake … Xander had been about to protest – he didn’t live the kind of life that had space for a dog in it – but the animal had lifted her head in response to her name and he’d found himself staring into the most enchanting pair of eyes he’d ever seen. On a dog, that is. “Hey, beautiful,” he said softly, and the puppy wriggled forward to sniff at his outstretched hand. “Twinklestar, huh? More like a Twinkie, I’d say …”
“And … maybe not,” Giles sighed from behind him. Xander didn’t need to see the martyred roll of eyes that went with it – but he shared a grin with the puppy, who was happily wagging her tail.
“Ignore him, Twink,” he advised warmly. “He has no appreciation of the finer things in life.”
“Hah,” Giles snorted. “Says the man who slathers hot chilli sauce on practically anything you put on his plate.”
“I like chilli sauce.” Xander twisted round so he could sit next to the puppy, throwing the man beside him a warm and happy grin. “I like Twinkies. And this one’s adorable. But … Giles …”
“No ifs or buts,” Giles interrupted firmly. “I know you travel a lot, and that might make it difficult for you to – well,” he said, dropping to the other end of the bed and reaching to rub the puppy’s ears, “I- I thought, if you didn’t mind, that I … that she would be company for me when you’re not – home, and when I have to be away ..”
“Oh.” Xander put two and two together, added in the whole partner thing out in the yard, multiplied everything by the conversations they never had about risks and dangerous lifestyles and why Giles needed an honour guard even if he wasn’t in on the arrangement – and came up with a heart-clenching moment that made him want to throw his arms around the man and never let him go. “I guess that would work,” he said, wanting to say a whole load of other things and realising – just in time – that he’d never be able to articulate them. “Of course – I could cut down on the travel a little. If my boss was okay with that …”
Now Giles was looking at him with relief and gratitude. Xander was fighting down an emotion he couldn’t even name, let alone express. ‘Sokay, Rubear. Message received and understood … “I think he could be persuaded. Especially if you’re still interested in that construction project we’ve discussed ...”
“Definitely interested. But not today. Or for the next fortnight, either. I’m on leave. No office talk. Just us. And – Twink,” Xander added, with a grin. “‘k?”
“Very much okay.”
Twinkie – rolling over so that the two of them could both scritch her stomach – clearly agreed.Continued in Part Four