The kitchen door swung shut behind them, and Joyce deposited the bowls in the sink before relieving Giles of the platter he was holding.
"My pleasure. Oh-"
"Oops-" He was standing slightly closer than she'd expected, and she'd accidentally elbowed him in the stomach as she turned. An apologetic smile. "Sorry."
"No, I'll be just fine… Do you do that to all your guests?"
"Just the special ones."
"Well, thank you, I feel very privileged." He smiled at her. "So - dishes?"
"Not yet. I think we should probably deal with the food first."
"Certainly. What do we need?"
"A whole lot of tupperware. From the cupboard behind you - no, on the left." Joyce looked around the kitchen at the extreme chaos they'd managed to produce, and sighed. "This is going to take forever to clean up."
Giles turned around, tupperware in hand, and nodded in agreement. "You know, when the doctor said you were recovering splendidly and could resume a more normal life, I don't think he meant that you should be hosting a five course dinner party for eight people."
They started packing up the leftover potatoes, hands bumping as they reached past each other to grab bowls, serving spoons, and yet more tupperware.
"I know. It's too soon. Too much. It's just that it's Dawn's…"
His voice softened. "Dawn's first real Christmas. I see."
She closed the lid of the container a bit more firmly than she needed to, and explained, "I know she remembers the others - and so do I - but I wanted her to have something real. Can you pass me the chicken?"
"Thanks… A real Christmas. A perfect moment, to look back on. One that did actually happen."
And out loud it sounded like a Disney movie. Or something from Cary Grant's romantic phase. But she knew what she meant, even if he didn't.
Apparently he did.
"And it's not as if she can-"
"Mrs Summers?" Tara was standing in the doorway.
"What is it, Tara?"
"I just need a damp cloth. There was a, um, drink spillage incident."
"Sure." Joyce rinsed out a cloth, and tossed it to her.
"Thanks, Mrs Summers." Tara looked over at Giles, raised her eyebrows thoughtfully, and then returned to the dining room without another word.
Giles was still dealing with leftovers, gazing at them in that baffled-male sort of way reserved for kitchens and lingerie shopping.
"There really is an astonishing amount of… how many pies did you make, exactly?"
"Five. Two apple, two pumpkin, and one cheesy pineapple custard surprise."
"Dawn's favourite. She's been asking all week."
"Ah. Well, as… delicious as that sounds, I think it's probably too large to fit in one container. Maybe if we cut it in half-"
"Not a problem. Here."
She opened the bottom drawer, pulled something out, hefted it into the pie, which split in two, and replaced it in the drawer. Then she went back to wiping the kitchen counter.
Joyce looked up innocently. "What?"
"…a Nefratien hurling axe?"
"Maybe. I don't really know what it's called."
"Well, I'd have to check the runes to be certain, but I'm pretty sure."
"Don't tell Buffy."
Giles narrowed his eyes, speculatively. "Didn't Buffy lose an axe a while back? Some sort of vampire attack?"
"Zombies, actually. They demolished half of the living room - Buffy had weapons lying everywhere. And I guess she missed one… under the debris."
"So you thought you'd put it to good use?"
"She used my bread knife to slay something - I can use her weapons for cooking."
"Fair enough. Although I doubt the Nefratien warlords intended it as a kitchen implement."
"Well no, but it carves so beautifully."
"It probably does. As I recall, they were designed to cleanly decapitate one's opponents at a hundred paces."
Joyce closed her eyes. "I really didn't need to know that."
The door swung open, and Buffy looked into the room.
"Hey Mom, do we have another pack of cards? Half the clubs are missing from this one."
"Try the bookcase, honey. There might be one there."
"Thanks." She glanced at the two of them, grinned slightly, and-
"Good luck, Buffy. I hope you win." Joyce closed the door pointedly, and turned back to Giles.
They smiled at each other, ruefully.
"We should probably get on with the cleaning."
"Yes. We should."
Another slight smile.
"Right. These need to go in the freezer - I'll do that. Can you sweep the floor?"
"Of course. The broom's on the back porch, isn't it?"
He nodded, and went out the back door.
There was a pause. And then a "hmm…" And then the sound of objects being moved, and climbed over, and a fair bit of mumbled swearing.
Apparently he hadn't realised how much of Dawn's miscellaneous junk would be in-between him and the broom. Clearly, the man had never tried tidying a house with a fourteen-year-old daughter around.
Joyce bit back a grin, and tried to concentrate on the food.
The door opened again. "Found it."
"Well done, brave explorer."
He raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything else.
They worked quietly, and listened to the laughter drifting in from the living room. It sounded like the kids had started a game of Monopoly.
Giles replaced the broom outside. "How is Buffy… how is she adjusting?"
"To Dawn, you mean?"
"Oh, well, that too. But I meant Riley."
"It's… an adjustment. For all of us." She stood up, shutting the freezer, and turned to explain. "I mean, he wasn't family. But we just kind of got used to him being here."
He nodded. "I suppose you weren't really expecting things to change so suddenly."
"No. But then," Joyce said thoughtfully, "I never do."
And it looked like he was about to say something else, but instead he cleared his throat and looked round the kitchen. "Where do these boxes go?"
"In the basement. I'll take them…"
They started stacking up the empty boxes, and Joyce returned to the conversation. "You know, I'm not sure it would have helped if we were expecting it." One box fell onto the floor, and she knelt to pick it up. "You can't prepare for things like this. You just have to wait until they happen, and then pick yourself up and start, well, repairs."
"Deal with the bad times, and make the most of the good times?"
He just nodded, and handed her the last box.
"Preferably by having far too much coffee and chocolate. That's my normal solution, anyway."
"Definitely. What's yours?"
"Officially, tea and an early night. Actually, rock music and anything involving weapons."
She laughed. "Good plan."
Giles looked at her mock-sternly. "Don't tell Buffy, whatever you do."
"My lips are sealed."
They both grinned, mischievously.
Right. Boxes. Boxes in the basement.
Joyce picked the whole thing up, and started across the room.
She stopped at the basement door. "Oh dear."
"What is it?"
"My present from the girls is down there, and I'm not allowed to see it yet."
Giles raised his eyebrows. "This would be the new side-tables, yes? The ones you specifically requested? And picked out from the catalogue? And paid for with your credit card?"
"It's not Christmas day yet. So I'm not allowed to see them."
He frowned. "But you-"
"But isn't secrecy half the fun?"
She smiled, winningly.
Giles took the boxes and started making his way downstairs, muttering about American logic. Joyce turned and surveyed the kitchen.
Well. That was unexpected.
Not that she'd never considered it, obviously. After all, when you're cataloguing Nigerian pottery, your mind wanders. And it's not like there were that many men it could wander to. In recent years, the choices basically narrowed down to the vampire, the robot, and Hank. (And wasn't that depressing.) Come to think of it, the hood of that police car had been one of her more successful relationships.
But she'd never seriously thought…
Of course, he'd been around a lot lately. What with Buffy's new training, and Dawn, and the post-hospital Scrabble tournaments…
No. She wasn't going to think about it. Definitely not. She was just going to put it out of her mind, and keep cleaning up the kitchen with her good friend. Her intelligent, funny, actually pretty sexy friend…
And there really were dishes everywhere. It was going to take them ages to get everything back to normal. Still, you had to start somewhere. Joyce filled up the sink, and was already making progress when Giles re-entered the room.
"One of your stairs is broken."
"Yes I know - I've been meaning to have it fixed." She nodded towards a tea-towel. "Feel like helping me dry?"
"Oh! Certainly." He crossed over to the sink and started on the first bowl. And no - she really hadn't been imagining it. The man was looking more nervous by the second. In a very stilted, British sort of way.
They got through six of the bowls in near-silence, and then he laid the tea-towel back on the counter and said quietly, "I, er, have a Christmas present for you."
She turned, frowning. "You do?"
"I thought now might be an appropriate time - even though it apparently isn't Christmas day yet," he said, deadpan as ever.
"So earlier, when you said you hadn't managed to think of anything to give me and would I accept your help cleaning up as a present substitute, that was-"
"-a lie, yes. I do apologise."
"Terrible," Joyce said, amused.
"Well, I didn't entirely-" He started again: "The exchange of gifts is a somewhat intimate gesture, and I thought, given our past… behaviour… that Buffy especially might be inclined to, er, tease."
"Rupert, my daughter would be making fun of us if you handed me a pencil."
"Certainly. But I prefer not to give her extra ammunition. And in this case…" Giles reached into his pocket and pulled out a smallish box.
He was looking nervous again. Joyce tried to seem oblivious.
"Buffy mentioned that the clasp was broken, so I had it restored and polished."
He tentatively opened the case.
"My necklace!" She dropped what she was doing, and seized it joyfully. "Thank you! It's lovely… and I'm getting soap suds all over it."
"You broke a plate, too."
As if she actually cared about broken plates. Even if they were authentic Caperl Bentolli. From her good china…
Okay. Maybe she cared a little.
But broken plate or no broken plate, this was… "This is so thoughtful." She took off her rubber gloves, and picked it up properly. "Thank you, Rupert."
"You're very welcome," he said quietly.
She smiled at him. "It looks just lovely - and I'll really enjoy wearing it again."
"Well, for my part, I'll enjoy seeing you wear it."
And somehow, they'd ended up standing very close together.
"It's one of my favourites - I used to wear it a lot, before it got broken."
Very close together.
And he was looking at her like…
Nope. Definitely not imagining it.
They jumped - as the door opened, and Xander came striding through. He walked over to the pantry, grabbed a bag of Doritos, called out "Found them!", and walked straight back out.
They looked at each other sheepishly, and then looked at the floor.
The plate she'd dropped - one of the fancy, company plates - was in pieces.
Joyce picked up a segment - resolutely focusing on the plate, rather than… anything else. "I don't think this is fixable."
"Probably not," Giles agreed. "But it's worth a try."
"I guess you're right." Joyce put the pieces on the counter, and sighed. "No more dishes for now," she pronounced.
"Well, they're going to take forever anyway - we might as well stall a bit longer."
She smiled. "Cup of tea?"
"As long as you don't microwave it."
"Not a problem." She put a saucepan on the stove, and said, "I've got a lot of junk food to use up. Feel like eating something that's mostly sugar?"
"I'm rather in the mood for chocolate. Oh, well - I didn't mean…"
He was actually blushing.
Joyce let him flounder for a minute, and then calmly suggested, "How about some Chee-Zee Chips? They're relatively risk-free."
"Er, yes. Good idea."
She turned to fetch them.
"You keep Chee-Zee Chips under the sink?"
"Security precaution. Keeps Dawn from finding them." Joyce pulled out the chips, and - oh.
She picked up an envelope that was sitting at the back of the cupboard. "I'd forgotten about these."
"What is it?"
"Tickets." She held them up. "You don't like basketball, do you?"
"Not as a rule."
"They were going to be Riley's present. Do you think Xander might like them?"
"I have no idea."
"I could trade them for him fixing the basement stairs."
There was that look again.
Once again, they'd ended up standing very close together.
"Or I suppose I could always use them myself."
"I didn't know you were a, um, fan."
"Well, I'm not. Not really. But you never know. You have to try these things out from time to time. Seize the moment. Moments. Or else it all just stays the same."
…and nothing. Nothing at all. The man really couldn't take a hint, could he?
Giles put his hands in his pockets, and started talking nervously about cricket.
This was getting ridiculous.
She put the Chee-Zee Chips on the counter, looked him in the eye, and said "Well, hurry up."
"What? With what?"
"Since you're obviously going to kiss me, I'd prefer it if it happened before the kids interrupt us again."
Giles jumped as if he'd been shot. "Oh! But… um… no, I - I mean yes, I'd love to, but - well, you're not, um, you've - you've been through a lot of late, and I haven't… I mean… that is… I didn't want to presume…"
Joyce waited, just to make sure he was finished, and then said calmly: "Rupert?"
"Give me a kiss, or I'll sock you."
"Right." He grinned, slowly. "Well, when you put it like that…"