Xander was driving Giles’s car. Hands on the steering wheel, echoing the radio’s snare roll with his thumbs, freeway spinning past. Xander was allowed to drive Giles’ car. The other weren’t. Giles was the best driver of the four of them, thanks to experience and a Council high-speed driving course. He passed tips along to Xander. Many of them were useless with an automatic transition, and Xander could tell Giles would be second-guessing that decision for as long as he owned the Bimmer.
They were in LA, on the 405, heading south to West Hollywood. Xander was aiming them toward the mall where he knew he could replace Willow’s Badtz Maru. More than two hours to get down there. Xander wanted to make the trip count somehow. Not that getting another Badtz for Will didn’t count, just that Giles had stopped enjoying the drive when they hit the freeway maze that is LA. Crossed arms, set jaw, grumpy Giles. For Xander it was a thrill. It was the big city. It was the only big city he’d ever seen. He wondered if they were all like LA. Then he realized Giles had at least seen London, and Xander could just ask.
“So, uh, in terms of all the cities you’ve seen, however many that may be, how does Los Angeles rate?”
“Bloody awful,” said Giles.
Xander peeked at him. The G-man was wearing prescription sunglasses. His hair had grown long enough to be windblown, which was nothing compared to Xander’s shagginess, but for Giles was a new look. He was showing no signs of expanding on that answer, however.
Xander moved one lane to the right, prepping for their exit.
“Awful how? Like, compared to what?”
“Look at this place,” said Giles, sweeping a hand out into the slipstream. “Miles and miles of sprawl. Not a proper city. More an endless suburb that’s clotted up in a few places. San Francisco is the only real city in California.”
“You’ve been to San Fran?” Giles hmmed. “How’s it different?”
“Small city. Bright houses in the sunshine on the hills. Sailboats on the bay. And the fog, of course. It’s an American city. You need a bloody car to get about. But it’s better than this.” Xander felt a brush on his knee. “We could go, some weekend, if you wanted to see it.”
Xander grinned. “I’ll take you up on that.” Their exit was coming up, so he put all his attention back on driving.
The mall was a mall, but it was huger than anything Sunnydale had by acres. It was also swankier, though that wasn’t hard. Sunnydale was podunk. The mall still had that chain store cheese thing going. Junior high chic. Xander felt schlubby anyway. Giles seemed faintly disgusted by the whole experience, though he said nothing.
They got stuff for Willow first off, a pile of grumpy penguin gear that Xander felt should make up for the breakage and then some. Then they shopped for Buffy, which was harder. Xander knew Giles was still a little freaked by the knifing, wanted to fuss over her indirectly. He’d given her a curiously curved and exotic combat knife with a black blade and runes carved into the handle, sort of a Delta Force meets Druids thing. Xander knew, and Buffy knew, that this was how Giles said he loved her. That, and standing bewildered outside clothing stores wondering if she would like something.
“Trust me,” said Xander. “Do not buy clothing for women. They get to buy it for us. Doesn’t work the other way. Frilly underwear, yes. Jewelry, yes. Funky soap, yes.”
“Let’s get out of this dreadful place, then.” Giles drove them, just a short distance, north to Melrose. He parked and said, “Olivia took me to a shop here once.” They wandered up and down the street for a while, browsing. Xander had never seen such hip. His schlub factor had reached Level Unbearable.
They found funky soap products. Now it was Xander’s turn for bewilderment. Who knew there were so many things you could drop into a simple bath? He picked up a ball of stuff that smelled like Willow but looked like candy, and showed it to Giles.
“Patchouli, mostly,” said Giles. “Good choice for Willow. What do you think of this for Buffy?” He held out a chocolate bar, or at least that’s what it looked like.
Xander sniffed. Now that smelled like something he could eat. Whatever Buffy smelled like was fine by him. He shrugged helplessly at Giles.
Giles bought too much soap stuff. Bags full. Xander didn’t stop him. A few months of Buffy and Willow smelling like chocolate and honey and whatever that red stuff was would be just fine. Xander felt that maybe this trip had been worth it. They ate a late lunch at a place Giles picked out, California cuisine, the other diners people in clothes that made Xander want to pull his shoulders in until he vanished inside himself. Xander felt a nudge on his foot. Twitched back at first. Then he realized it was Giles, playing footsie. Giles blinked innocently across his glass of mineral water. Xander relaxed enough to taste his food.
On the way back to the car they passed one of those tattooing and piercing places. Xander stoped and looked inside. More unbearable hipness. Xander remembered how Giles had reacted last night when he’d taken that earring in his teeth and tugged. Tensed and shuddered and clutched the sheets, and then said Xander’s name in that breathy voice. Xander wondered if he’d like it the same way. It definitely looked cool. Right then, a lot of things about Giles were cool to Xander. His hair. The brown patch in his eye. His left-handedness. His accent. The fact that he’d lived in cities in hemispheres Xander had never visited. It was like Tweedman never existed. This was more of that first flush stuff, maybe.
A few minutes later, Xander had a little gold ring in his left ear, kinda like Giles’ silver one. He studied it in a mirror and it was cool, even in Xander’s ear under his lack of haircut. Okay, sure he could have had that done in Sunnydale, by a chick at a mall cart with a gun. But instead he had it done by a hip dude with tats who probably thought Giles was Xander’s boyfriend. Which he was. Xander pulled him over and kissed him just to make it clear to anybody looking. Giles turned bright red and cast his eyes down, but he kissed back. And this trip was now officially worth the drive.
Xander did a little dance with his shoulders and his hands on the way out of the shop.
The boys got home in the late afternoon. They immediately went to the kitchen and started making noise and tea. Willow closed up her Powerbook. She’d been working on the psych paper due Monday. One thing this house needed, she realized, was a decent network. She wanted to put a desktop computer in Giles’ study and get it on the net. Maybe see if they could afford a cable modem. Come to think of it, they hadn’t talked budget or rent or anything. Giles had just taken care of things. Something to investigate. Willow closed the door of her room behind her and followed the noise to the kitchen.
Xander had packages that he wouldn’t let her look at, and so did Giles. Xander hid them all away in his room. Giles was tired and grumpy after the drive. He sat slumped at the island counter, waiting for the kettle to boil with ill grace. Both of them were windburned and sunburned. Xander made a face at Giles behind his back, for Willow to see. He pointed at Giles then at the deck. Willow nodded. She went to grab her robe and a pile of towels.
“Get in the tub,” Willow told him. “I’ll bring your tea out to you.”
When she joined them out on the deck, Giles looked a lot more relaxed. He took the tea happily, sipping and resting the mug on the edge. Willow undressed and plunked in. Hot tub good. Hot tub best invention ever. Hot tub almost good enough to make up for the five hours Willow had just spent hunched in one position working on her paper.
Buffy showed up, and muttered something about the college library and a paper and how much she hated psych these days. Willow knew that meant a study session with Buffy some time soon, to straighten out her syntax and her footnotes. Though maybe Giles could be persuaded to help. Buffy listened to him better than she listened to Willow. Not that Buffy listened to anybody much. That was one independent Slayer.
Willow stretched out, letting her feet drift up to the surface. Giles took her feet and swung them around to his lap. He fidgeted with her toes, and Willow sighed. Giles made a thoughtful noise at her, then got serious and worked his thumbs over her foot. Willow groaned.
“Where did you learn to do that?”
“Woah,” said Xander. “How to Drive Like a Maniac, How to Skewer Mayors, and How to Massage Your Slayer. Eclectic.”
“Part of the physical therapy coursework. Like the first aid training. The Slayer is an athlete. A machine, from their point of view. Massage is simply a tool for keeping her in fighting trim. This is how one massages one’s Slayer’s foot after a hard patrol.” He did Willow’s left foot. Giles concentrated on pressure points, which he said were chi points. When Willow winced, he asked if she’d been having headaches, and nodded when she confessed she had. “This will take care of it,” he said, and made her wince some more until suddenly her foot felt good. Buffy and Xander bent over Willow’s legs, watching carefully.
“Now this,” Giles said, “is not something the Council taught me. One must never massage one’s Slayer this way.” He took Willow’s right foot and did something else entirely to it, with slow strokes and soft touches on each of her toes. Willow shivered, and felt her whole body loosen just from a touch on the ball of her foot. Warmth spread out from her chest, trickling down to her hands and feet, spiraling back to a hot knot of arousal. She gasped. She met Giles’ eyes. He smiled at her, a little shy, a little proud, most definitely affectionate.
“Massage type B,” said Xander. “The oh my god, sex with you now massage.”
Willow whimpered. “Yes, please.”
Giles tugged her over and settled her on his lap, straddling him. He didn’t seem in any particular hurry. He never was. He was patient, cautious almost. Xander could be persuaded in about ten seconds flat. Giles seemed to need more of a reason, if that made sense. How much of that was being nineteen versus being mid-forties? How much of that was being Xander versus being Giles? Check back in twenty-five years to see, she guessed. It was getting hard to think about, with Giles working his way down her neck. Lick. Kiss. Bite, oh so gently. Then he’d breathe on the place he bit. Buffy was behind Willow, doing something to the back of her neck. Willow couldn’t stop whimpering.
Buffy stopped suddenly. “Front door,” she said. “Anybody expecting anybody?” At their head shakes, “I’ll get it.”
Buffy planted one hand on the concrete and surged out of the tub. Sometimes Willow forgot how strong Buffy was, how coordinated. Buffy tended to suppress it in everyday life, lest she slip up in front of people who didn’t know the secret. Buffy grabbed the terry robe Willow had brought out for herself, with an apologetic grimace, and vanished into the house.
Giles held onto her still, but stopped what he had been doing with his hands and mouth. He was distracted, paying attention to any noises that might drift from the house. Xander had come to point as well, eyes on the door to the kitchen. Thank you, Hellmouth. Willow could hear voices, maybe a woman talking to Buffy, but not who it was or what they were saying. Buffy didn’t sound upset, whoever it was. Willow leaned forward to rest her cheek against Giles’ broad chest. Giles’ arms closed around her, and he kissed her hair.
The door to the kitchen slid open, rumble, thump. Buffy’s voice, “Uh, mom…”
“Uh oh,” said Willow, very quietly. What to do? Get off Giles’ lap and flash Mrs Summers, and incidentally expose Giles’ excited man-bits? Or freeze in place and hope it all went away? Giles lifted his arms and held her tighter, screening her against his chest. Option two, it seemed…
“What’s going on here?”
But nope, not going to go away.
“A little California hot tubbin’,” said Xander, in a completely relaxed tone of voice, bless him.
“With that man? Like that?”
“Uh, mom,” Buffy said again. She had no idea how to avert this apocalypse. ‘It isn’t what it looks like’ wouldn’t work, because it was what it looked like. ‘Mind your own business’ was the most attractive option.
Giles, in mild mode, spoke. “Er, Joyce, would you give us a moment to get dressed?”
“What for? If you can do that in front of my daughter, you can do it in front of me.”
Giles ducked his head, but this head duck was not shyness. Buffy could see in his shoulders that he was angry. Willow had pressed herself up against Giles’ side and crossed her arms over her breasts, eyes wide and fearful. At the sound of Xander splashing into motion, Buffy saw that Giles wasn’t the only angry one. Xander’s jaw was set. He stepped up out of the tub and onto the deck, staring at Joyce the whole time. Joyce gasped, went red, and turned away. She marched back through the kitchen door without another word. Xander met Buffy’s eye and nodded to her, teeth still clenched. Buffy grabbed enough of her clothes to get decent and threw them on. She left the robe for Willow, then followed her mother into the house.
Joyce was seething in circles around the kitchen, picking up pans and dropping them again. Buffy pinched her nose and closed her eyes, in an unconscious imitation of Giles. She’d known her mom was going to have a hard time with the idea that Buffy was doing the polyamory thing. This was about the worst possible way for her to find out about it. This was not going to end well. The only thing to do was try not to make it worse.
“I thought you were living with Xander and Willow,” Joyce said.
“I didn’t know that man was here.”
“Well, he is.”
“Was he doing with Willow what it looked like he was doing?”
“That’s kinda their business, not yours.” Uh oh, wrong thing to say.
“It is my business if my daughter is living here!”
It dawned on Buffy that she and her mother had slept with the same man. The ick factor there was high. Okay, sure, magic curses had been involved with her mom, and she knew with that post-unification certainty how embarrassed and remorseful Giles felt about the whole thing. Or had felt; it had happened a long time ago. But her mom, well, maybe her mom hadn’t had the same reaction. Maybe her mom hadn’t let it go.
The other three came through the door just then, Willow wrapped to the ears in her robe, Xander’s protective arm around her. Giles hovered behind, in his jeans and a damp t-shirt.
Joyce addressed Willow. “He’ll do to you exactly what he did to me. Use you, have his fun, and then drop you. Don’t trust him. He’s a predator.”
Willow said nothing. Xander guided her through the kitchen to the hall, and vanished with her. Buffy looked at Giles, who was standing by the sliding door with his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor.
“I hear ya, mom, you and Giles have some history. Leave the rest of us out of it, okay?”
Xander stormed back into the kitchen. He stalked right up to Joyce and got in her face. “You say one more nasty thing about Giles and you’re out of here and not coming back. You make Willow cry again and you’re gone. Leave my lovers alone.”
Okay, no blessing Xander for that one.
Joyce’s face had gone pale. “Your lovers. You mean you’re all… This, this is sick,” she told Buffy.
“Okay, that’s enough, Mom. You’re leaving, and we’re talking later, when you’re calmer.” Buffy took her mother’s arm and got her in motion with Slayer strength.
“You need help. That man has done something to you,” said the woman who most of the time acted like Buffy’s mom. And then she finally went out the door.
“That went well,” said Buffy. Xander came up behind her and rested a hand on her shoulder. She turned to look at him.
“She’ll calm down in a day or two, Buff. She’s done this before.”
“Shoving her face in it didn’t help, Xan.”
Xander rubbed his nose. “Are you pissed with me?”
“Kinda. I mean, gas on the fire.”
“I just got so mad. You guys, you’re all, I just. God, don’t have words. People don’t get to fuck with you guys in front of me. You can take it, but Willow and Giles, well, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Giles screwed up with her, I think.” Buffy shrugged.
“By fucking her?”
“No, that was the candy. More not talking to her afterwards.” Coward’s way out of the mess. Buffy sighed. She might have dealt with it by avoiding somebody like her mom, too. It wasn’t like she and Giles had been getting along before that. Oh well. Nothing to be done. “How’s Will?”
“Freaked,” Xander said. “Didn’t like being naked in front of the rampaging mother.”
“Go fuss over her or something. I’ll go kick Giles.”
Xander kissed her, then took off down the hall to Willow’s room. Buffy went looking for Giles. He wasn’t in the kitchen. She tried his room upstairs, but he wasn’t there either.
Buffy flopped down on the big bed to do some thinking. She had a lot of thinking to do. Losing her mom sucked, even if she was betting it was temporary. She liked her mom. She liked the kooky way her mom tried to do things right, most of the time, reading books about dealing with teenagers. Buffy wondered if she’d go the library to find a self-help book on this. Children in Magical Foursomes: a Workbook for Parents. Or maybe a support group. It would have been nice to ask her mom for advice about where her life was going.
And where was that, anyway? College was doing all right. Her freshman year was looking like it would end a success. Relationships, covered, no problems at present. Money, okay for the moment thanks to her dad’s latest guilt-check, but she’d need to find a summer job. Especially if mom stayed mad.
Slaying. Mixed. Buffy ran her hand along her right arm, where she could still feel the faint trace of scar tissue. That problem was something she could take action on.
Giles went out to the back deck and turned off the lights in the hot tub and turned on the filter. He stood for a while, looking up at the darkening sky. Wispy clouds over dusky blues and oranges, dark silhouettes of trees against them, the stars winking in. Venus was a morning star just now, but perhaps he could spot Mars. He studied the western sky while the yard around him grew dark. Nothing to see tonight. He collected the tea mugs and sipped idly at his. It had gone cold. He hadn’t acquired the American habit of drinking iced sweetened tea, and the rapidly cooling evening wanted hot drinks anyway. The damp shirt clung to his chest. He carried the lot inside and slid the door shut behind himself.
The kitchen was overly bright after the deck. The house was silent. He wasn’t sure where the others were; hiding or huddling together to recover from the blasts Joyce had delivered. Giles washed out the mugs. The running water and the pottery banging against the sink rang loud in his ears. Giles still stung where the buckshot had hit. Was he what she had called him? No. The three of them had made their desire for him clear. Over and over. He wrung out the sponge and dried his hands. He considered starting dinner. Perhaps the others were hungry, even if he wasn’t.
He wandered down the hall. Willow’s door was closed, a bar of light visible beneath it. He heard voices, talking quietly. Xander was in there with her. Willow would need comforting after being exposed to an outsider like that. The experience was too near her nightmares to be shrugged off. He hovered a moment, listening. Xander said something, then he heard an exasperated laugh from Willow. She would be all right; Xander knew what to do. Where was Buffy? He climbed the stairs, silent on his bare feet. There she was, in the bedroom, which they called his room, even though they all slept there. She was on her back on the bed, head at the foot, light off, looking at the ceiling. Or at nothing. He pulled a dry t-shirt from a drawer, at random, and swapped it for the damp one.
He stretched himself out beside Buffy and laced his fingers together behind his head.
“Hey,” said Buffy.
“Would you like some dinner?”
“Nah. I’ll get something later.”
“You all right?”
Buffy sighed. “This will probably sound cold, but I was kinda waiting for something like that to happen. Mom was never going to take it well. Even if I had a chance to break it to her gently.”
Giles grunted. Likely correct. His involvement put it beyond the pale. If it had been just Willow and Xander, Joyce might have been able to adjust eventually. She might still adjust, by deciding to pretend none of it existed and dealing with Buffy exclusively.
“You gotta admit, it’s a pretty weird setup.”
“It’s nobody else’s business.”
“Yeah, but it’s still weird.”
“I’ve seen stranger.” And indeed he had. A couple of the covens he’d been privileged to visit had been extended families. Not as tightly-bonded as theirs, larger, more casual, but quite non-traditional.
“Just another weird-ass development in the life of the Slayer. Though as Slayer stuff goes, gotta say this development is pretty good.”
“I must agree.”
Buffy sat up and climbed onto him. She straddled his hips and played with the top button of his jeans. Giles rested his hands on her knees, absurdly grateful for the affection implied by her touch. “I was thinking. Two things. First, that knife is really cool, but I don’t know how do to much with it other than cut ropes and stuff. Second, that my honing skills are kinda crappy. I totally missed the fact that the vamp had a knife, and I should have noticed. I haven’t trained in ages. Even when I did train with Riley, it was sloppy. I could kick his ass with one hand tied, so I got worse instead of better.”
He rubbed her thighs gently, through her jeans. “I warned you about that.”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, the point. The point is obvious. We have to start training again. You and me.”
Giles’ breath caught. He’d been hoping, but hadn’t known how to bring it up. Had been afraid that any pressure from him would be resented. “Of course, Buffy,” he said, softly. “I’m yours.”
“Serious training. All the stuff I wouldn’t do before, like the meditation stuff. And knife fighting.” She grinned and patted his chest. “So I can do something with that sexy blade.”
“I believe something might be arranged,” he murmured. He trailed his thumbs up along the seams of her jeans, up to her hips.
“Do we do anything official? Or just say ‘me Slayer you Watcher’ and presto?”
“Nothing I know of. Though perhaps I could ceremoniously drop a large book in front of you.”
Buffy laughed. She reached down and removed his glasses and tossed them at the nightstand. They landed and slid to a safe rest. Buffy was a terror at darts as well, when she let herself be herself. Be the Slayer. Giles loved it when she used her skills so comfortably, when she vaulted one-handed over railings, when she tossed a tomato in the air and sliced it before it landed, when she threw a rock into the face of a demon from the other side of the cemetery. He lay back and smiled at the woman leaning over him, pressing against him so deliciously. He reached up, gently, and slid his hands over the warm skin of his Slayer.