They cast off about an hour later. Xander took Twinkie for a walk – she was all puppy dog wag and snuffle along the towpath going out, and then a flop of paws and tongue and a still wagging tail in Xander’s arms on the way back – while Giles made himself a cup of tea, studied the maps George had given him, and took a moment or two to place a few protective runes around the boat. Man and dog paused in the shop before they returned to the Knight, and – once Twink was settled on her blanket on the foredeck, her lead carefully fastened and measured so that she couldn’t jump out of the boat – Xander unhitched the fore rope, pushed off the bow and ran back down the length of the vessel in time to jump aboard at the stern as she pulled away from the bank. The engine throbbed and raced for a moment as Giles figured out the responsiveness of the throttle, and then settled down into a steady, business like thrum that worked its way up Xander’s feet and into his bones as if it belonged there.
“Yeah,” he decided, resting his forearms on the edge of the roof and watching the other boats as they slid past. The air was warm from the sun, but brisk with the scent of water and the soft touch of a quiet breeze. The view was picturesque and undemanding: trees and hedges and the hints of fields beyond them, the shimmer of sunlight on the water, and the jumble of boats and industry slowly replaced by the jut of reeds and plants along the edge of the canal The rumble of the engine – a comfortable chug of sound that engineered unhurried progress – vibrated past his bones and began to work on the knots and tangles that were cramping his soul. “Oh yeah …”
He turned to check out what things looked like in the other direction, and found Giles watching him with a quiet smile.
Well, half watching him, since there was a definite need to keep an eye on where they were going, and there were still some tentative swings of the tiller that added curve and correction to their mostly forward progress – but the canal required a much gentler attention compared to the eyes on the road that a car might require, and it gave the steersman time to study the scenery as well as the way ahead.
Xander smiled. “Much. Hey, look – I’m sorry I wasn’t … enthusiasm guy when I got here. I just …”
“You’re tired. You had a long flight, some hard days before it, and neither of us have really taken a break since … “ Giles stopped to think about it, frowning as he tracked back both recent and some not so recent events. “Christmas?” he questioned.
Xander shook his head. “We had the Montague case at Christmas, remember? Mad magician trying to use the solstice to fracture time and return everyone to the middle ages? Although I’m guessing you’d have felt right at home if he had …”
“I doubt it.” The response was arch, although there was the hint of an amused twinkle lurking in otherwise terse eyes. “I’d have missed electric lights, decent scotch and the new Springsteen album. For another, back then practising sodomites risked torture, castration and execution in both the eyes of the church and the secular law. Hardly a world I’d want to live in – despite my mastery of middle English, and love of the occasional calf-bound manuscript. Christmas before that?”
Xander had blinked at practising sodomites. Was that what they were? He guessed so, although he’d never thought of it in those terms before. The gay thing, maybe. Bi, if he wanted to be accurate about himself – and Giles, who’d made no secret of his admiration for the fairer sex, even if his current attraction was for an ex-construction worker whose only reason for not starting to demonstrate his father’s tendency to paunch and spread was his energetic lifestyle. Of course, this relationship stuff they were pursuing wasn’t really about the sex – even if it came as sugar sprinkles and chocolate frosting on top of the rich and intricate I love you for your mind, I need you for your heart thing they had going. Soul to soul, Willow had told him firmly, that day he’d run away in blind panic at the feelings he’d been feeling – and he’d walked back, contrite and confused and just a little embarrassed … until, that is, Giles had thrown caution to the wind and kissed him, after which contrite and embarrassed had turned into a whole slew of other things entirely.
He was still confused, of course. But it was a good kind of confusion, all about the on-going surprises and the learning, and the layer stuff – which kept him on his toes and paying attention …
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Christmas before I was in Russia hunting slayers and you were juggling accountants and lawyers and civil servants, trying to sort out the Council stuff. And the Christmas before that was in Sunnydale, and none of us really had vacations back then, even in the downtime moments. So …” he paused to think about it. “This is our first break – ever. Well, you may have had … that is, before Buffy and stuff … back when you were … “ Xander was ten feet down in a hole he’d never intended to dig before his mind caught up with his mouth. He hated reminding Giles of the age difference between them – not that he gave a fig about it one way or the other, because, in comparison to life with a thousand year old vengeance demon, dating Giles was practically cradle snatching. But it bothered Giles some days – days when he started to think that Xander might deserve someone younger, that he was getting old and wearing out and didn’t have the right to burden anyone with his needs or his impending infirmities. Self-doubting kind of days. Xander had those too, but for completely different reasons. He knew better than to feed his own self-insecurities, and he was learning how not to add fuel to Giles’ internal misgivings, how not to stoke those smoldering bonfires into destructive flames. “… you had vacations when you were a kid, I guess. You were a kid, right?”
Safe and certain redirection. Giles smiled at the idea that he might have sprung, tweed clad and fully adult, into the world.
“I most certainly was,” he said. “And yes – there were long hot summers when I was a boy. Probably not that long, and almost certainly not that hot – but memory paints them as glorious days. Adventures at the seaside, expeditions into the country – horses and dogs, picnics and backpacking, wild woods and ruined castles … oh, good lord,” he realised with a quiet chuckle, “I was brought up in an Enid Blyton book. No wonder I’m thinking this is going to be a grand adventure.”
“It is going to be a grand adventure.” Xander dug his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out what he’d hidden there. “And I don’t care whose book you were brought up in – although one by JK Rowling might make the day job a little easier …” He flicked the cap open and offered it up with a grin. Giles stared at it for a moment, then at him, and then back at the cap – rolled his eyes and took it, jamming it onto his head with a martyred sigh. Xander reached up and adjusted it, lining up the peak and setting it at a jaunty angle before reaching into his other pocket and tugging out his own.
“Good lord,” Giles laughed. “Now there’s a sight I never thought I’d see. Alexander Harris. Wearing tweed.”
Xander grinned, leaning back against the cabin roof. Giles looked pretty dashing in his new accessory; he suspected his didn’t suit him quite so well, but he didn’t really care. He was on vacation. And being an American tourist he could do … what was it? Daft things? Yeah. Daft things in England, like trying to ape the English. “Spiffy, huh? Thought we could match. Being … partners and everything.”
“Ah.” The quiet grimace held a hint of apology. “Yes … I – um – apologise if that was a little forward of me, but …”
“Nope,” Xander commanded, holding his hand up to halt whatever might be coming next. He didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t need to hear it. “No sorrys, no regrets, no taking backs, no – anything. You said it, you meant it, and while it would have been nice to be warned about it … in our line of work, waiting for the right moment is – seriously overrated. Hell, you saying it saves me from having to do the whole down on one knee thing, because – that worked out really well the last time I did it.”
Giles had to look away for a moment so he could steer them under a low bridge. Xander probably should have been staring at the scenery, since this was all new stuff and he should be learning how to do it for when he had to take the tiller, but right there and then he couldn’t take his eye off the man currently steering the boat – along with his life, his destiny, and his heart. His expression was hard to read beneath the suddenly shadowed peak of his cap.
“Yes, well …” Giles voice was soft, barely a note above the low thrum of the engine. “I think we’ve both come a long way since then. I’m tired of endless dissemblance and pretence, Xander. I – I spend half my life lying and keeping secrets. Necessary secrets, I suppose, but … I just want something honest for a change. And if I can’t be honest about you – about us, then … I think my entire life will start to seem like a lie.”
The stern of the boat re-emerged into the sunlight, into dappled golds and dancing reflections from the water. Xander had forgotten how to breath for a moment; even if he had remembered, the sudden tightening in his chest would have prevented him from doing so.
“I did mean what I said. It was forward of me, and I will quite understand if you don’t …” Giles broke off with an almost angry shake of his head. He clearly knew what he wanted to say, but wasn’t entirely sure how to articulate it without it being misconstrued. “I wouldn’t dream,” he said after a moment, “of asking you to make more of a commitment than you were willing to give …”
“I know,” Xander interrupted gently, not sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. Neither. Both. Caught in an Englishman’s charming understatement, and reading all the stuff that lay beneath it. A little doubt, a little fear – and a whole lot of selfless love. “You got the whole - if you love someone, let them go - stuff down to a fine art. But – it’s not all about me. It’s about us. There’s a you in that equation somewhere – and I’m the kind of guy that cares about the people I care about, ya know? The commitment stuff is scary – but the thought of you … needing me and me not being there? That’s even scarier. We’re guys. We don’t talk about this sort of stuff much – and we make assumptions and sometimes they’re right and sometime they’re wrong. This,” his hand waved through the minimal space between the two of them, making the connection, making the distance no distance at all. “Is right. And that you’re not ashamed of it? That you want the world to know about it? That’s even righter. The rightest. You wanna know how much commitment I’m willing to give? Stick your ring on my finger, a collar round my neck, hell - tattoo your name down my spine if you like. Give me papers and I’ll sign anything you ask. Dotted line, full name. Alexander Lavelle Harris gives himself, heart and soul to Rupert Edward Giles … who’s crazy enough to want him as a partner, goddess knows why …”
There was a long pause, in which the boat went on chugging on with serene confidence and Giles looked at him. Just – looked at him. Xander waited patiently, watching the storm of emotion that swirled and thundered in the depths of those hazel green eyes. Sometimes Giles managed to say everything without having to say anything at all. “I – I don’t think I deserve you,” he finally muttered, glancing away with vague embarrassment. Xander laughed.
“Nobody deserves me,” he quipped. “But ya got me, anyway. And I’m all yours. For the next two weeks at least … Now,” he said briskly, turning so that they were standing hip to hip and he could reach his arm round to rest his hand over the one that held the tiller. “You gonna teach this one-eyed man how to steer this thing, or you gonna stand aside and watch as I run us aground, or into a bridge or something?”
“That might be - amusing,” Giles decided, “but … let’s try not to scare the moorhens too much, shall we? Or lose our deposit on our first day out …” The hand that briefly caressed Xander’s leg did so with affection and a hint of promise – and then the Watcher slipped into teaching mode, all focus, facts, and exposition. “Now, this isn’t an oil tanker, but it does take time to turn, so – anticipation is the key. That, and a gentle hand on the tiller …”