Buffy beat Giles to the bottom of the steps by a heartbeat and Dawn wasn't very far behind. All three skidded to a halt when they saw the condition of the living room. The party decorations had been trashed, food was scattered everywhere, and what had been the giant donut was an unrecognizable mass of raspberry goo.
"What happened?" Buffy demanded, surveying the wreckage.
"It was Xander." Willow dropped the broken DVD case she was holding. "He started to act a little strange so I sent Dawn to get you."
Dawn looked like she was in shock. "Sorry. I got distracted."
Willow rubbed her temples. "At first, I thought Xander was just nervous. He was pacing back and forth and snapping his fingers. He even started whistling. Then he stopped in front of me. He had this really strange smile and he," she made a gesture across her chest, "sort of grabbed. Me."
Buffy and Giles looked stunned. No one seemed to know what to say until finally Dawn broke the silence. "Xander felt you up?! Eiwwwww! That's like practically incest or something."
Willow's eyes filled with tears. Buffy scowled at her sister as she crossed the room and put her arms around her friend. "Are you okay?"
Willow nodded. "I pushed him away. He just stood there and laughed. Then he did this."
While Willow talked, Giles had been prowling around the room. He stopped suddenly, swiveling his head to look at her. "Willow, what happened to the leather jacket? It's not here."
Willow swallowed nervously. "Xander's wearing it."
Xander slammed the door to the SUV shut and swaggered into the liquor store. A few moments later he emerged carrying a bag. He climbed back into the vehicle, pulled the bottle out of the bag, uncapped it and took a long drink. He smiled as the whiskey burned its way down his throat, setting like a low fire in his stomach. He shoved the key back in the ignition.
He had only driven a couple of blocks when he spotted a familiar figure jogging along the sidewalk. He pulled ahead, parked, got out and leaned against the hood of the SUV and waited. "Hey, gorgeous! Hustle that luscious body on over here."
Carrie glanced around, grinning when she recognized Xander. She slowed her pace and trotted over to his side, continuing to jog in place. "If you want to impress the girls, you really need to work on your pick-up lines."
"I bet I could show you something that would really impress you." He reached over and trailed his index finger over her bottom lip, down her chin and between her breasts.
"Hey!" Carrie stopped running in place and slapped his hand away. "What do you think you're doing?"
Xander shrugged. "Just admiring the wiggle and jiggle."
Carrie flushed bright red. "If this is your idea of some kind of joke, it's not funny."
"The only joke here is that outfit you're wearing." His eyes traveled slowly down her body and back up again. "Forget the sweats. Find something that will show off the merchandise more."
Carrie's eyes narrowed. "You've got 5 seconds to apologize… and I mean total and complete groveling. Otherwise, don't ever bother calling me again."
Xander laughed and blew her a kiss. "Honey, you're not worth the cell minutes." He was still laughing as he climbed in the SUV and drove away.
Willow listened in disbelief. Outrage came and went on her face. It was replaced by wariness. "So you think the jacket is cursed and that Xander is under some kind of spell Ethan Rayne meant for Giles." She turned and looked at the Englishman. "Why was Xander acting like that? What kind of spell?"
Giles glanced at Buffy and then turned back to Willow. "Since the jacket is a memento from my youth, I imagine the purpose of the spell was to make me behave like…"
"Ripper," Buffy supplied flatly.
There was a beat of silence. "Yes," Giles acknowledged.
"Who's Ripper?" Dawn asked.
Giles cringed at the innocent question. Buffy turned and looked at him with fathomless eyes. "It was someone Giles thought he wanted to be until he grew up and realized it wasn't."
He released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
"If Xander's running around out there acting like some lecherous hoodlum… no offense, Giles… don't you think we'd better go find him?" Willow asked.
Dawn twisted her hands together. "Guys, there's something I really need to tell you."
"Later," Buffy said distractedly. "Right now, we've got to find Xander before he gets hurt or hurts someone else." She turned to look at Giles. "Back then… where would you have gone?"
He didn't even have to think. "Someplace with liquor, women and a pool table. Not necessarily in that order."
Willow and Buffy exchanged glances. "The Night Owl," they said together.
Xander looked around as he entered the bar. The disco lights were off and the DJ table deserted. A few lights illuminated the interior, but even the dimness couldn't disguise the shabbiness. There weren't many customers, but the few there were, all prominently displayed leather, chains, and tattoos. He sauntered toward the bar.
"What'll it be?" the bartender asked.
"Tap or bottle."
Xander paid for the beer, picked up the mug and wandered toward the back of the room where some men were gathered around a pool table.
"Hey, lookee what we got here. What you supposed to be? A pirate?" One of the players snickered and downed his beer.
"How 'bout I make you walk the plank, Bluto?" Xander put his beer down on a table, gesturing with his hands for the thug to engage him. "I'll even the odds and let your girlfriends there join in."
The biker jerked to his feet, eyes ablaze with fury as his pals marched over to back him up. "You got a smart mouth for a cripple."
"Ain't my mouth you should be worried about, peaches." Xander let his fist fly, connecting solidly with the man's chin. He didn't flinch, responding with a smug grin.
"My turn, Ahab!"
The return blow with a smashing upper hook that sent Xander stumbling backward into a mug filled table. Glass shattered and beer splattered to the floor as the unlucky bystanders inhabiting the table leaped to get out of the way. The bulky biker stormed forward to offer up more punishment. Just as he got within range, Xander plowed through him with a devastating closeline, sending the man flat on his back.
His companions rushed to his aid and Xander quickly found himself sandwiched between two wild-eyed brawlers taking turns with kicks and jabs. He managed to avoid a powerful knee, twisting just out of range as a fist connected to his cheek. He blocked a follow-up attack of a mid-uppercut with a firm forearm and shuffled backwards, trying to get a few tables and bystanders between him and his attackers. A burning sensation pulsed high on his cheek and he dabbed at it with his thumb. He glanced down to see his hand trickling with blood and it sent a wave of satisfaction through him. "Now, we're havin' fun!"
Dawn waited until the car was out of sight before closing the front door. She climbed the stairs, ignoring Hedwig's frantic tapping on the wall. "Stay here, Dawn. Clean up the mess, Dawn. We don't want you to get hurt, Dawn," she muttered to herself, mimicking Buffy's voice. "Why should anyone ever listen to you? You're just a stupid kid who doesn't know anything!"
She walked deliberately and unhurriedly down the hall and into Giles' room. The photograph was still on the bed and she picked it up and looked at it. When tears began to fill her eyes, she blinked them back. "So, Randall, when you look at me you see a brilliant star burning for all to admire, do you? What was the rest of it? A raw beauty winning over hearts with every look and smile?" Her mouth twisted into a parody of a smile. "Want to know what I see what I look at you? A lying bastard! That's what I see!"
She threw the photograph down on the bed and turned and left the room. When she reached her bedroom the first thing she did was take off her bracelet and hurl it as hard as she could against the wall. It bounced off the plaster and landed in the middle of her bed.
"It was all a lie. Every word." This time the tears fell in spite of all her efforts to hold them back. "All you wanted was to hurt Giles and you used me to do it. Well, it's not going to work. You're never, ever going to get that chance."
The biker had climbed to his feet as his followers took up places on either side of him. Fueled on by surging adrenaline, Xander ran full on at them, roaring out as they rushed forward to attack him. He managed a few hard punches to the leader's chest and blocked a well-placed low blow coming straight for his groin.
The scuffle only served to infuriate him more. The two companion bikers threw mid-hooks at the same time and Xander dodged and spun around to watch the two uncontrollably connect with each other. He barked out a laugh as the two stunned men staggered apart. He charged the leader again, tackling him to the filth-coated floor. The man twisted, handily leveraging Xander over enough to roll him and pin him flat to the ground.
Giles pulled the car into the parking lot of the Night Owl and parked it next to their SUV. "I suppose you realize that this car in a place like this is simply issuing an invitation to be accosted."
"That's ‘Giles' for he thinks someone is going to want to kick our asses for having a pink car," Buffy confided to Willow in a voice she was sure her Watcher could hear as they all climbed out of the car.
"Lilac," he corrected automatically. "I may be English, but I refuse to drive a pink automobile."
"Whatever color it is, I think we've attracted the attention of their watchdog." Willow nodded toward a large man dressed for maximum effect in black leather and chains headed their way.
"Think I should tell him that the whole Village People look died with disco?" Buffy asked.
"He doesn't look like the type who would enjoy exchanging fashion tips," Willow commented. "Although a word or two about personal hygiene might be helpful."
"Maybe he likes his teeth being green." Buffy tilted her head. "I guess I'd better…" She broke off as Giles walked into the path of their would-be assailant. Words were exchanged, and then the man grabbed Giles' hand and shook it, before giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder that nearly sent him crashing to his knees.
Buffy and Willow traded glances of disbelief before hurrying to where the men were standing. "Buffy. Willow. I'd like for you to meet Henry. His daughter is one of my students."
The human mountain beamed, displaying his green teeth to their best advantage. "My baby just loves the Professor here. Says he's one of the best teachers she ever had."
"Henry remembers seeing Xander," Giles said. "As far as he knows, he's still inside."
"Then I guess we'd better go in and get him." Buffy looked at Henry. "Would you mind keeping an eye on the back door to make sure our friend doesn't leave? He's had a little too much to drink and we'd like to get him home before he gets into any kind of trouble."
"Sure thing. I've been shit-faced… pardon my French, ladies… lots of times myself. Always appreciated it when somebody took me home." He gave Giles another cordial pat that sent him staggering several paces. "Anything else I can do to help, you just let me know."
Buffy waited until he had disappeared around the side of the building before turning back to look at Giles. "So you're ‘baby's' favorite teacher, are you?"
Giles rubbed his shoulder. "Thank goodness I'm simply one of her favorites. If she had been especially fond of me I'd need a full body cast."
"Think I'll take that other eye, pussy boy!" the biker sneered and tried to send his thumb plunging toward Xander's eye.
Xander caught the hand just before it was about to connect and gave it a jerking twist. He heard the sound of splintering bone and the man roared out in agony. He chuckled and continued to attack his assailant with quick jabs, one targeting his assailant's throat. It met its mark and Xander shimmied out from under the gasping man and got to his feet, ready for more. He pivoted around to scan the crowd with a heaving chest and clenched fists.
"That all you got?" Xander taunted the companions who exchanged nervous glances.
He never heard the chair coming toward him.
Buffy, Giles and Willow watched in horror as the chair broke across Xander's head and shoulders, sending him crashing to the floor.
Buffy ran over to where Xander lay on the floor and glared up at his attacker. "Hey, ugly, why don't you pick on somebody half your size!"
The words were barely out of her mouth when another man grabbed her from behind, wrapping his arm around her throat. She swung her arm up and back, enjoying the satisfying crunch when her fist made contact with his skull.
"Damn!" He fell back, loosening his hold on her neck and collapsing to the floor. "You're one strong bitch," he mumbled just before losing consciousness.
"You have no idea!" Buffy swung her leg in a wide sweeping arc that caught Xander's assailant in the chest and sent him staggering backward. He had barely hit the floor when Buffy felt another hand wrap around her throat and a palm slap over her mouth.
Giles grabbed her attacker, hauling him around and slamming a fist into his face. The leather clad thug fell back like a toppled tree. "Didn't your mother ever tell you to never touch a lady without her permission?"
"Thanks, Giles," Buffy flashed him a sunny smile before turning to face two bikers rushing at her simultaneously. Giles took position at her back and blocked another blow before putting a left hook into the man's gut.
As the Watcher and Slayer held off the attack, Willow ducked under a flying fist and grabbed Xander's feet, pulling him across the floor. "Evil curse or not, you are in so much trouble. Did you listen when I told you to take off the jacket? Noooo. You had to be Mr. Cool. Not to mention… as in we will never, ever mention… the touchy-feely thing with my chest." She dragged him out the front doors and down three steps, listening with satisfaction as his head thudded against each one. "On top of everything you wrecked Giles' donut. That was just plain mean."
Willow was stripping the jacket on Xander's inert body when Buffy and Giles tumbled out the door. Giles kicked one leather-clad giant into another and shoved the doors closed. Buffy whirled and broke the pool cue she was carrying in half and shoved it through the door handles, effectively trapping the bikers inside the bar.
"Maybe we should get out of here before they get really mad," Buffy suggested breathlessly.
Giles snorted. "Kicking their leader in the groin might not have been the best way to make friends."
"Hey, he started it! I told him if he touched me he'd be sorry."
"Could you talk about it later?" Willow asked, holding up the jacket. "Right now, what should I do with this?"
"Give it to Buffy… and whatever you do, don't put it on!" Giles ordered. He bent down and hoisted Xander over his shoulder then carried him to the car and dropped him in the back seat. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the car keys and tossed them to Willow. "You'd better stop and have a doctor take a look at Xander. We'll meet you back at the house."
"Where are we going?" Buffy asked, as they watched the car pull out of the parking lot.
"To get rid of that damned jacket once and for all!"
Buffy and Giles stood in a small, secluded roadside park near the outskirts of town. The sun was beginning to set, casting a warm golden glow across the countryside. Inside a ring of stone, the jacket burned brightly.
Buffy prodded at it with a stick. "Today wasn't exactly the birthday party I had planned for you, Giles, but you know, back at the bar… with all the fighting and stuff, it sorta looked like you were enjoying yourself."
"I have to admit to a certain amount of Neanderthal-like satisfaction in making a damned good showing against a group of thugs nearly half my age."
Buffy shook her head, amusement in her eyes as she regarded the embarrassed face of her Watcher. "You fight vampires and demons. I think your macho is pretty firmly established."
He grinned sheepishly. "Well, yes, thank you." He turned and tossed an empty can of charcoal lighter into a nearby garbage can. "I think we're done here with Ethan and his magic."
"Why the barbecue? Why not just zap it?" Buffy walked over and sat down on the top of a picnic table.
"The magicks in this area are still unpredictable. Fire seemed the quickest and safest way to cleanse Ethan's spell."
Buffy thought about it. "So it had nothing to do with just really wanting to watch it go up in flames?"
"Perhaps, a little," he admitted dryly. "There are parts of my past I would enjoy seeing reduced to ashes."
"Except it doesn't work that way, does it?" she asked quietly.
"No." Giles walked over and leaned his hip against the table where Buffy was sitting. "It doesn't."
"Life would be better if it was like an Etch-A-Sketch," Buffy said suddenly. "Then you could pick it up, shake it and start all over with a clean screen."
"Perhaps our moving to Whispering Pines is the equivalent." Giles stared into the flames. "We're all beginning new lives."
"It would be nice to have a fresh beginning," she said sadly. "I wouldn't mind erasing parts of my past too."
"The past makes us who we are today." He looked up at her and shrugged apologetically. "It is trite, but true." He turned back to the fire. "I have so many regrets, but on the other hand, I am glad to be here, now, with all of you. I wish I could change the past, but I want this present."
Buffy nodded. "I want this present too, Giles." She reached out and touched his hand. "There's a future I want too."
He sighed. "When I was in England, it suddenly seemed as if my past and the differences in our ages created an insurmountable barrier. As much as I wanted to think of a future with you, I just…"
"Giles," she interrupted. "I never thought I had a future. I mean I tried to set my destiny aside, date, go to school, but really, I never thought much farther ahead than what I was going to wear the next day. If it weren't for my friends, I wouldn't be here today."
He winced and she patted his hand again and then held it.
"It's okay, Giles. It's not a bad thing any more." She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "But I don't know if I can explain how it was for me. The pressure of the past and the whole no future-feeling built up. Every year it got harder and harder to think past just surviving the current crisis… and there was always a next one." Buffy shook her head. "If we're going to talk specific past mistakes, we'll be here for the next six months going over all the different ways I've screwed up. But I want to think at least some of my past got buried down the Sunnydale Sinkhole and I'm willing to start focusing on a future, not the past, if you are."
"Buffy, I'm fifty. I'm scarred inside and out. You are twenty three, and so beautiful, inside and out. You could have anyone you wanted. You should be with someone your own age, someone who understands you, someone who will grow old with you."
"Who is going to understand me better than you, Giles? We've already grown old together, older than either of us thought we would be, right? And while Slayer healing may mean I have less scars on the outside, I bet I can match you count for count on the inside ones."
Giles shook his head. "My past keeps coming back to haunt me. Ethan wanted to hurt me and instead he nearly got Xander killed."
"And mine doesn't? Dru came here to hurt me and she did it by going after you. I nearly lost you then. Again."
His mouth hardened. "My friends are having grandchildren. I don't want you to be saddled with a feeble old man."
"Giles, you take on Hell's Angels and real demons from Hell with equal ease. You are not a feeble old man." Her voice held a trace of exasperation. "As for grandchildren? Let's just date for a while, okay?"
They sat in silence for a long moment, watching the flames of the jacket grow dim. Buffy raised his hand slowly to her lips and kissed his bruised knuckles. "Giles, please. I know what I want, and I think you want it too. I don't care what the world thinks about us. They could never understand us anyway. What is really stopping you?"
"I'm terrified." The whisper was barely audible. He shifted to look at her. "Buffy, I've loved you for a long time, but I never thought…" He took a deep breath. "I've nearly lost you a dozen times, be it in battle, or because of," he hesitated, "issues between us. Things are good now: I'm frightened to risk what I have."
"Even for something better?"
"Even for something better."
Buffy nodded and stood up. "I said I'd accept your decision if you wanted to be just friends." She walked over to the edge of the fire and kicked at the ashes. "But I don't think I can, not when you're making it for all the wrong reasons." She turned back to him and lifted her hands to either side of his face. "Giles, you are beautiful to me." She kissed his forehead. "You are the man I want, now and in the future." She kissed his eyelids, one, and then the other. "You are the one who understands me." Her lips brushed his. "You are my best friend." She kissed him again and felt his breath catch against her skin. "And while that is all good, this is something better." She kissed him again, deepening it gently, stroking his lips with her tongue until he opened his mouth and suddenly he was responding, his hands coming around her, pulling her in close. Her hands moved to his head and pulled him down against her.
They finally pulled back, breathing hard. Buffy stared into his eyes, trying to read his feelings in the approaching twilight. She started to speak and stopped.
Giles stared down at her and finally rested his lips against her forehead. He gave her a gentle kiss and then pushed her back slightly. "It won't be easy." He spoke firmly. "We need to get to know each other as more than just friends and Watcher and Slayer. We have to see if we can live with each other's past."
Buffy started to smile. "Does that mean we have a future? A future together?"
"We will always have a future together, Buffy." Giles smiled at her. "But yes, let's try for something better."
Buffy squealed and grabbed his head and pulled him down for a kiss. "Giles, I…"
He interrupted. "Buffy, if we try this, whatever ‘this' is, we would be wise to take it very slowly for a while."
"Does that mean no sneaking into your room in the middle of the night through the bathroom?"
"As tempting as that sounds, absolutely not." He smiled at her exaggerated pout and began tracing her cheekbones with the edge of his fingers. "We may have to make up the rules as we go along. We both have issues we need to deal with."
Buffy nodded. "Agreed," she said seriously. "As long as we're setting up rules, I have one big one."
He touched the edge of her mouth with his thumb. "Go ahead."
She caught her breath and grabbed his hand. "Behave! I can't even remember my own name while you're doing that."
Her eyes narrowed. "You don't sound very sorry. You sound kinda smug."
"Probably because that's the way I feel."
"You're a flirt," Buffy said in the tone of someone who had just made an astonishing discovery.
He smiled ruefully. "Guilty."
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "I'm adding that to my rules. I have two now. I expect flirting at least once a day."
"I shall do my best. What is your other rule?"
"No more Mr. Strong and Silent. If something is wrong, we talk about it."
Giles nodded thoughtfully. "I trust that rule applies both ways."
"No more secrets," Buffy confirmed. "Not even the stuff that I know you're going to hate." She reached up and traced along his cheek just as he'd done earlier. "Do we have a deal?"
"I think," he said, bringing his mouth very close to hers, "that we are in complete and total accord."
"I think we need to seal it with a kiss."
"Certainly the only way to make it binding." His voice was husky.
Buffy smiled at him, and reached up to brush a wayward lock from his forehead. "Happy Birthday, Giles."
He looked surprised. "Yes, it is," he said finally, kissing her with a deep thoroughness that left her breathless.
Darkness had fallen by the time they pulled into the driveway at Scobie Manor. They were just getting out of the SUV when the lilac-colored sedan pulled in behind them.
Buffy and Giles waited by the front door for Willow and Xander to join them.
"How are you feeling?" Giles asked the younger man.
"Other than stupid?" Xander lifted his hand and touched the back of his head. "It's not too bad. Didn't even need stitches."
"That's because you have a head like a rock," Willow said, unlocking the door and sweeping into the house.
"Will, I said I was sorry." Xander trailed in after her. "I swear, I never even think about you having breasts."
"Good… I mean, HEY!" Willow protested. "Very womanly woman here, thank you very much. Womanly for women and for men."
"Will… " Xander staggered to the sofa and collapsed. "I give up."
Buffy looked at Giles and giggled. "It's good to be home. Even if home is a little crazy." She looked around the family room. "Still a disaster! Well," she said, smiling at Giles, "you don't have to worry about making a mess when you open the rest of your presents." She turned and yelled, "Hey, Dawn, we're home! Get down here!"
There was nothing but silence, then a frantic pounding began upstairs.
Buffy turned and raced up the stairs, Giles following close behind.
Dawn took a deep breath and rapped on the hotel door. It opened slowly. The dark-haired man smiled at her. "Well, hello, luv. I certainly didn't expect to see you."
Dawn smiled back. "Hello, Ethan."