With enough snacks to satisfy a football team, or two werewolves and a slayer, Mrs. McIntyre finally joined everyone else in the den. Jordy, having had his own snack in the kitchen, was content to play elsewhere (outside or the basement, apparently) while the adults spoke. "But don't be surprised if he runs back in here with a discovery for us," Mrs. McIntyre said.
In moments everyone was settled, although hardly any of the food had been touched. The Watcher had a glass of water and McIntyre had a beer. Neither the Slayer nor Mrs. McIntyre had anything or reached for anything. Charles wasn't there to make friends, and didn't particularly feel like pretending. He didn't think he would have to take the child out, but he'd do it if his father ordered him to. It would hurt him; it might even break him. And if killing a child, one who had fearlessly climbed into his lap and shared his secret because Charles had shared his first, didn't break him then the Slayer was welcome to try.
She'd only torn her eyes away from him for a moment, when Mrs. McIntyre had entered the room. Then Charles had stood with McIntyre to offer his help (his father's teaching on propriety and chivalry were never far), and the Slayer's eyes were on him again.
Her judgment was a comforting weight as he responded to Mrs. McIntyre, "That's quite alright."
"Jordy likes you," she said.
True though it was, acknowledging it wouldn't have helped anyone. "Tell me your son's story. Why were you living on the Hellmouth?"
The McIntyres shook their heads. "We weren't," McIntyre said.
"I grew up there," Mrs. McIntyre said. "To this day I don't know why we stayed or how my sister could raise her family there. Tradition, I suppose. But when one of Jordan's packmates told me that we'd have to move--"
"I was working in Sunnydale on assignment," McIntyre interjected.
"We'd met before," Mrs McIntyre said, "at a Tech Conference, or what passed for one in the late 70s, and we'd hit it off, so when Jordan was assigned here for a few months it was easy to fall into each other's orbits again, and eventually fall in love."
"It helps that we both come from families that don't believe in overthinking things," McIntyre said, picking up his wife's story. "I proposed the second month I was here, we were married during the third and by then my stint on the Hellmouth as over and it was time to go home. Well, eventually."
"We did the honeymoon thing first," Mrs. McIntyre clarified.
"Mrs. McIntyre," Giles said, addressing the only other full human in the house, "during those three months you didn't notice something strange about Mr. McIntyre's behavior?"
Nodding, she said, "I did. More than disappearing around the night of the full moon, Jordan was short-tempered and moody. Both are very un-McIntyre-like behaviors. When I confronted Jordan about it, he told me straight off that he was a werewolf and about Sunnydale. That it's a Hellmouth."
"Then I asked her to marry me." The McIntyre's shared a small smile. "And we ran as far and fast from Sunnydale as my savings account could take us."
"Scotland," Mrs. McIntyre supplied. "Jordan's family is from there, and mine's from England. Once we got the clearance from the packs we had to pass through, we were gone. Our oldest, Maggie...Margaret, was conceived overseas. She's a little older than her cousin Oz.
"And she's not a wolf," the Slayer asked, somewhat rhetorically.
Mrs. McIntyre chuckled. "You might have thought so from the way she growled as a baby, but we think she picked that up from the neighbor's dog. Their kids used to sit for us. But, no. No turning at the full moon for Maggie."
Charles spoke for the first time since asking the McIntyres about their youngest. "Did your daughter ever bite anyone?"
"Yes!" Mrs. McIntyre exclaimed. "Me!"
Grimacing, McIntyre said, "We think she got that from the neighbor's dog as well. But Maureen is still as human as they get. Not that it would have mattered even if Maggie had been a baby wolf."
The Slayer and her Watcher gave McIntyre confused and questioning looks. Charles answered: "It takes more than a bite to make a werewolf. At least it does when a Hellmouth isn't involved. Becoming a wolf is a nearly fatal experience."
"So what happened with Jordy?" the Watcher asked.
"Charles said it. Sunnydale," the Slayer said, shaking her head. "It's always Sunnydale."
Mrs. McIntyre nodded. "The year Jordy was born, my father was very ill. I was here a lot to help Alice, my sister, take care of him. I all but lived with her family near the end."
"I'd come to visit, give the girls a break from taking care of their dad," McIntyre said, shrugging. "Never near the full moon. I knew better. Or I thought I did."
"Jordy was conceived in Sunnydale. My father died so suddenly we didn't even realize what was going on for a while. By then I was back home in Scottsrose and everything was more or less back to normal."
"That Jordy was conceived on the Hellmouth didn't seem like a problem at first," McIntyre said. "We chalked up his moodiness to...we didn't really think about it at all. He was a baby. There's a long time where they want things that you'd probably give them, if only you spoke the same language. Sometimes they're moody. If you're lucky, you figure it out before you both start to cry."
Charles admired the Slayer keeping her mild distress from her face. He and McIntyre could smell it of course. Considering the subject matter, she was probably swearing off children. If she lived that long.
He saw the moment the other half of the thought crossed her mind. Instead of sadness, fear or anger, a steely resolve crossed her face before returning to an expression of polite curiosity.
Rolling her eyes at her husband, Mrs. McIntyre continued: "It wasn't until Jordy's teeth came in that we knew something might be wrong.
"They came in very fast, much sooner than the pediatrician expected, and they all seemed to come in at once. The teething was terrible. Considering what happened with Oz, we're lucky he didn't bite me."
"Or Maggie," McIntyre added.
"Or Maggie. That's true. She's so much older than her brother that she wasn't home much to help with her brother. But she did keep him whenever her other obligations allowed. You're right, Jordan." She looked up towards the ceiling. "Sorry, baby. I'll make your favorite cake next time you're home. Not that you'll know why."
Mrs. McIntyre smiled at her husband. "Also true."
"Mrs. McIntyre," Charles said.
Both McIntyres sobered. "Yes. Jordy. He, um, got all his teeth very early. His senses seemed keener....hearing, eyesight, smell, tactile responses...too keen for his age and, well, species although the pediatrician never put it that way. Except for his small size--"
"Which was not a surprise considering our relative heights," McIntyre interjected.
"--Jordy has always tested very high, sometimes off the charts. So far his pediatrician just wants us to let her know when he starts playing sports so she can bet on the winning team," Mrs. McIntyre said with a smile. "Honestly, if Jordy hadn't bitten Oz we wouldn't have even thought it could be more than that."
"Is that why you didn't bring this to your alpha?"
All eyes turned to Charles.
McIntyre nodded solemnly. "We thought..." He coughed and tried again. "We thought it wouldn't be worth mentioning to the pack until Jordy hit puberty. Maybe." Eyes falling to the floor, he reached for his wife's hand. "We were holding out hope."
"False hope," Charles said.
"Hey!" that from the Slayer.
"It's not my job to pander, Slayer."
"Buffy,” she reminded him.
"It's my job to seek and uphold truth."
Eyes spitting fire, she bit out, "Ditto."
"I thought your job was to destroy the wicked," Charles shot back, smiling widely. Neither he nor his Brother Wolf had forgotten that she'd dared to hold back against them during their fight, less than thirty minutes ago.
"Ditto," she said again, her own smile showing far too many teeth. "Maybe you need a demonstration of what that looks like."
"Children," the Watcher snapped. "That's quite enough." Perhaps working with the longest lived slayer had made him immune to self-preservation. He certainly wasn't intimidated by either of their displays.
Before anyone else could speak, Jordy came running in. He dumped a handful of flowers into his mother's lap, then sped off.
A frog leapt out, startling everyone in the room. It's bid for freedom was cut short by McIntyre, who caught it handily. "Excuse me while I deal with the backyard expat," he said to the room at large. The tension had effectively been cut, though, and for that Charles was grateful.
Prolonged time with the Slayer poked holes in Charles' self-control. It appeared he did the same for her. Except for that first meeting in a wooded park in Sunnydale, the pair of them quickly became like two alphas fighting over territory. In a way, he supposed they were. She'd ceded Oz to him with minimum fuss. Although now that he thought about it, she hadn't given Oz up; she'd given Charles leave to search for him with a promise of retribution if her friend came to harm. Hmm.
The Slayer's eyes narrowed. "I remember that face. I also remember not liking that face the first time I saw it."
And as with the first time, Charles felt a deeply uncharacteristic desire to grin at the Slayer. Brother Wolf's continued ire and Charles' own streak of self-preservation kept him from doing so. Something must have shown on his face, though, because the Watcher's hand was suddenly on his charge's knee as he hissed her name.
"Mr. Cornick..." Mrs. McIntyre said, catching Charles' attention. "...what happens to us now? I promise you, if we had thought Jordy was a danger we would have been more careful, more proactive. We might have been optimistic in our hopes, but we're not foolish." A fleeting smile touched her lips before it fell under the weight of her fears. "No one survives Sunnydale being a fool."
"Not even the demons," the Slayer said with self-satisfied malice.
Mrs. McIntyre threw her a look that was more effective than anything either Charles or her Watcher had done to get her to back off. McIntyre was walking back in, drying his hands on a rag, as Mrs. McIntyre turned her attention to Charles.
"I'm going to speak to my father," he said before she asked her question again. "Then we'll know."
Across the room, the Slayer vibrated with tension and violence. When he glanced that way, she and her Watcher were having a heated conversation too low even for Charles' ears.
The McIntyre nodded. "Okay," Mrs. McIntyre said. "Well, no, not okay but-"
"We can protect you," the Slayer said from her knees at the McIntyres' feet. Not expecting it, she'd moved too fast for either Charles or McIntyre to see, startling them into baring their teeth.
"Buffy!" her Watcher snapped. Not part of the plan then.
"We can do it, Giles," she told the older man, but she was looking up into Mrs. McIntyre's face. She took the woman's hands. "I promise."
"Sweet girl," she said squeezing the Slayer's hands. "Sweet girl. Maybe if we were a normal human family I would take you up on your offer, but I accepted..." She glanced at her husband. "We accepted what it meant to raise a family with the wolves before even Maggie was born."
"Maureen gave me the third degree when she asked about being a werewolf. I tried to be as honest as possible," McIntyre said. "And then when the thing with Oz happened." He swallowed visibly. "We talked about it."
The Slayer rocked back on her heels, angry again. "And you're just okay with killing your kid for being a kid?"
"Hell no," McIntyre snarled.
No less incensed but far better controlled, Mrs. McIntyre said, "You are a sweet girl, but you are only a girl."
Buffy opened her mouth to protest, but was quickly cut off by Mrs. McIntyre, "How much worse would it be for us, Buffy, if our child ran wild? If he started changing people wantonly...not even out of viciousness or somehow being evil, but because he's a child who doesn't know how to control himself. Then Mr. Cornick won't have any option but to destroy him and possibly every person he's changed. We would be responsible for all those lives and pain of their families. Because we were selfish. And foolish."
"But Jordy's not like that," the Slayer protested softly. Charles could hear the tears in her voice and scent them on the air.
"No, he's not."
"And if you can see that already," McIntyre said, calmer now, "then we're sure Charles and the Marrok will see it, too. Werewolf justice can seem cruel, but the Marrok has a reputation for being fair."
McIntyre glanced at Charles, as if for confirmation. The Slayer scoffed. "The Marrok is totally his dad. He's so on his old man's side."
The Slayer ran a quick hand across her cheeks, but the tears continued flow. Mrs. McIntyre took her hands. "You feel like you've failed." She made it a statement instead of a question.
Shoulders tightening, the Slayer said, "Maybe a little."
Using their joined hands, Mrs. McIntyre wiped the girl's tears. "If only you knew how...how much relief I feel knowing that my son and my nephew have such a fierce protector. As much as every instinct is telling me that I am, in fact, part grizzly bear when it comes my children, I can only do so much against werewolves. But, you, Buffy... As terrible as this all is, your determination has been a balm to our frazzled nerves. I would follow you anywhere if I didn't think the Marrok was just and fair."
Habit helped Charles to ignore the faces of those who had died under his and his da's claws in the name of justice – a justice not always in keeping with the opinion of family and friends. Charles hadn't agreed with all of them, but, as his father's second, he had stood behind every decision.
Charles' phone buzzed in his pocket. Standing, he slipped it out and glanced at the display. "I have to take this. Excuse me."
McIntyre nodded. "Sure. You can use my study or the back porch. Jordy's in from playing."
Charles nodded in return, then left the house. He circled around to the back as suggested, walking to the edge of the property. Night was all but on them. It would be darker still in the mountains of Montana. "Da."
"Bring them to Aspen Creek. The Slayer, too, if you think she'll come along."
"She'll come along."
"When?" Charles asked.
"Two days." The connection went dead. Charles made his way back to the house. It wasn't the first time his father had seemed to know what was going on without being told. Such things had long since ceased to surprise him. These days it was more of a matter when Bran would step in than if.
All but convinced that his father would agree with his assessment that the boy was largely harmless, if immature, Charles was relatively lighthearted when he rejoined the group in the family room. Jordy had returned in his absence. He and the Slayer, still kneeling on the carpet, were playing a simple hand game. "Do you know this game, Mr. Charles?" he asked, glancing up only briefly.
"I don't think I do," Charles said.
"Buffy can teach you," he said. "Right, Buffy?"
The Slayer's smile would have done Asil proud. "I bet there are a couple of hand games I could teach Charles."
Across the room, her Watcher cleared his throat. The Slayer's face became the picture of innocence. "What?"
"Jordy, did I say something bad?"
The child hesitated, losing the rhythm of the game. The adults chuckled. "I guess not?" he finally said, without sounding at all convinced.
Smiling faintly (mostly at the scowl the Slayer was trying to hide from her new young friend), Charles went to one knee on Jordy's other side. Even at half his height he towered over both boy and Slayer. Neither seemed intimidated. "Jordy, how would you like to meet my father?"
The boy's interest sparked bright enough to make the Slayer and Mrs. McIntyre flinch. McIntyre put his hand in his wife's and she seemed to settle. Jordy didn't notice. "Where does he live?"
Brows coming together, he said, "Is Montana close?"
Charles shook his head slowly. "If we started right now, we wouldn't get there until late tomorrow night."
"Are we leaving tonight?" McIntyre asked quietly.
"Within two days," Charles said.
Mrs. McIntyre stood suddenly. "Time to get ready for bed, Jord-o."
The boy pouted. "But I want to go with Mr. Charles."
The Slayer made a strangled sound. Everyone pretended not to hear it, except Jordy. He turned to her, concern drawing his eyebrows together again. "Are you okay?"
The Slayer covered with a coughed. "Just something in my throat. Don't worry about me. You should probably go with your mom."
Jordy rolled his eyes and his body dramatically. "O-kay."
"You bet, 'Okay'," Mrs. McIntyre said, coming to take her son's hand. She wouldn't look at Charles, or anyone, as she led him out of sight. Jordy never stopped talking, although the conversation became brighter the further away from the other adults he was.
Charles was standing with his hands up moments before he felt the Slayer's laser focus land on him again. "There's nothing wrong, as far as I know."
"As far as you know!" she scoffed.
"I'm not psychic...Buffy." Her eyes narrowed, but she allowed him to keep speaking as Charles told her, McIntyre and the Watcher his estimation: that Jordy was unique but largely safe. "But his case is so unique and the potential for danger is so high that I'm not surprised my father wants to meet him in person."
"But he's okay," McIntyre said, showing real anxiety for the first time since he'd run outside to stop Charles' and the Slayer's fight. "The Marrok just wants to meet him."
"I can't make promises. My father will earnestly and genuinely consider my advice. As his second, my word holds much weight, but my father is his own man."
McIntyre shot up from his seat and ran a hand through his hair. The Watcher went to his side. "Perhaps a glass of water. It's been a long day."
McIntyre nodded. The scent of his exhaustion and distress bit at Charles and Brother Wolf as the two men passed into the kitchen.
"I'm going with you," the Slayer said. Then louder, "Giles, we're totally going with!"
The Watcher poked his head out of the kitchen. "I wouldn’t expect anything less of you, Buffy. You'll have to inform your mother and the Scoobies."
"Gi-iles! Not in front of Mr. Tall Dark And Furry!"
"Buffy... No. Just, no."
The Watcher rolled his eyes (as Charles throttled his amusement). "Werewolves have a very strong commitment to family. The knowledge of her existence is quite safe with Mr. Cornick."
There was a note of that meant for Charles himself. Responding to it, with all seriousness Charles said, "I can promise that no matter what may happen, your mother is safe from the Marrok's wolves."
He was once again struck with the Watcher's temerity and wondered if it had something to do with having this strange Slayer as his charge. Charles rarely had direct dealings with Watchers, so he couldn't say.
"And all the wolves are the Marrok's wolves, right?" the Slayer asked.
"All the North American ones."
"What about the non? Will the Marrok protect my mom from them, too?"
"Sign a treaty with us and find out," Charles said with his most charming smile on display. It was likely that his father would protect the Slayer's mother regardless, if only to keep his wolves on the right side of the war such an attack would precipitate.
With her arms crossed over her chest and her hips cocked, she reminded him strongly of Mercy. "I suggest we meet here tomorrow morning,” he said. “After you consult with your mother."
The Slayer's eyes narrowed. "Are you mocking my mom?"
"Never," Charles said seriously.
"Okay. Okay, fine. If the McIntyres are golden with that, we can be, too."
"Seven AM, Slayer."
Her arms and jaw dropped. Quickly resigning herself in, she crossed her arms again. "Only if you swear to call me Buffy."
"I've met a number of Slayers. I'll meet many more."
"Not like me. You'll never meet another Slayer like me." Something about her words were...
He nodded. "Fair enough. Buffy."
She flashed him a triumphant smile, until she remembered that they had signed up for a 7am ride. Pouting, her stance loosened and her eyes went wide. "How do you feel about 8?"
The Slayer and her Watcher – Buffy and Giles – pulled up in front of the McIntyre's home as Charles was opening the door to his rental. They were early, as promised, but he doubted the Slayer would classify herself as "bright". A strong morning breeze pulled Charles' hair across his shoulder until he regretted not having braided it back before he’d checked out of his motel room. The loose hair escaping the Slayer's hasty updo also escaped her attempt to finger-thread it into the main mass, as she tried to get out of her side of the little car and hold a paper cup of coffee at the same time. Instead of growling, as Charles half-expected, she pouted and whined.
"Don't worry, Buff. I'll fix it for you later," a soft feminine voice called from the interior of the car.
Charles' eyes met the Watcher's – Giles. "Field trip?" he asked.
"Sure," Buffy said chirpily. Then slumped. "Why no make-y with the wake-y, Coffee?" she whined to the paper cup in her hands.
Giles cleared his throat. "Ah, yes. The other members of our group have decided--"
"Demanded!" came the same feminine voice, but much less softly.
"--that they be allowed to join us on this morning's...expedition."
The beginnings of a smirk pulled at Charles' mouth. "Too early for you, Mr. Giles?"
"Me? No, not at all. My charges are, unfortunately, a different story altogether."
Giles was far more personable than Charles expected. So far neither of his two known quantities were behaving as expected, and there were still the two other members of their group: the female and a completely unknown, both likely to be around Buffy’s age based on the way Giles spoke of them. All told, Charles wasn't exactly pleased with how this was unfolding, and the McIntyres weren't even out of the house yet. But he was amused.
They'd make terrible wolves, Brother Wolf mused.
Jealous?, Charles asked his brother.
Before he could get an answer, or not, McIntyre was standing fully clothed but barefoot in his front door. Coffee and other food smells traveled in tempting waves as the morning breeze rose and fell. The scent was strong enough to draw the other two travelers out of Giles' little car.
Charles' guess about the female was correct. "I smell coffee!"
"No!" came from the other three.
The instant refusal only dimmed the redhead's enthusiasm for a moment. "Sugar?"
That garnered No's from Buffy and Giles but an enthusiastic Yes! from the other backseat traveler -- a young man about the same age as Buffy and the young woman. Charles was somewhat amused to note that he was a brunette. One of each? Brother Wolf asked, poking at Charles' amusement but not quite seeing the humor. After all, wolves came in all sorts of colorings and markings; human coloring was boring in comparison.
"All the sugar, yes please!" the young man said, bringing Charles attention back into focus. With the promise of food straightening his spine, he towered over his female companions although he was still an inch or two shy of Giles' six feet. Lanky in a way that spoke of his youth, there was also a body assuredness that suggested he used his body for more than playing video games. If he had to guess, Charles would say he was a part-time athlete or enjoyed being handy. The redhead wasn't as easy to read. There was something artificial about her energy, whether from caffeine she'd already consumed or as a reaction to their "field trip" Charles didn't know, but he'd lay odds on both.
So these were the Slayer's, Buffy's, best friends. This was the girl that had prompted a werewolf like Oz to take justice – vengeance – into his own hands. Charles' impression of Oz was that of a classic submissive wolf: calm, confident, self-assured and controlled. Or that was what he would be when he regained the sense of self he'd lost killing Veruca on this girl's behalf. Not for the first time, Charles found himself wondering about her. It took a lot to send a submissive into a murderous rage, as evidenced by the way Oz had been pulled into her sphere. If he had been older he might have been able to resist some of her influence, if not all of it. That hadn't been the case.
Then again if she hadn’t gone after the girl, if she'd been satisfied with enticing the pup away from his pack and his chosen, Veruca might still be alive to cause trouble elsewhere.
He must have been staring at the girl as these thoughts chased themselves. Her shoulders were curling in protectively as her eyes found somewhere else to be. More telling, the— Buffy's attention, which had been on the boy, was now on the redhead. "You okay there, Wills?"
"We don't have time for sugar," Charles said before the girl could answer.
Now the boy was dejected, too. "Aw, c'mon, Mom. Please?"
But not nearly as intimidated. There was a hard glint to his eye as he came to stand behind the girl. That certainly drew the Sla-- Buffy's attention. She sauntered in front of her friends. "Yeah, Mom. Please?"
A slow, unfriendly, smile pulled at Charles' lips. "Mom—?"
As if he'd called for her, Mrs. McIntyre came hurrying down the walk a heavily laden tray in hand. "I know we need to get going if we want to be there sooner than later, but if we eat and use the facilities now we should be able to push on longer at the start."
If we do this, we should be able to do that... Charles' smile turned more friendly in the face of such an experienced wolf handler. That he was utterly confident in his place in the world helped him not mind being managed.
"That is something to consider," Charles conceded.
Sensing victory, the boy perked. "Yummy deliciousness is ours for the nom-nomming?"
All three young people turned innocent, pleading eyes on Mrs. McIntyre. "You forget that I only recently got one of you out the house," she said with mock-sternness as she approached the apparently ravenous trio.
The redhead bounced on her toes. "Oh! Margaret, right?"
"How did you know?"
"Oz used to talk about her sometimes. She was his favorite cousin. Is his favorite," she quickly corrected, throwing a glance in Charles' direction. Which Buffy echoed with far less trepidation.
"The last time I spoke to my father, he and the pup had spent the afternoon in an acoustic jam session," he said. Charles turned to Mrs. McIntyre. "These smell homemade."
"They are homemade."
A wide grin split his face. From the corner of his eye he saw the boy dart forward. "Did I hear homemade?"
"You did, young man. Xander, yes?"
The question stopped his quick fingers from snagging their third pastry. "Oh, yeah. Hey. Manners. I have them. Um..." He glanced between the sticky fingers of one hand and the other busy holding pilfered pastries. "Please excuse my hands of happy stickiness."
Giles cleared his throat and Charles raised his eyebrow.
Mrs. McIntyre grinned. "I quite understand."
"I don't," Buffy said to the other girl. "Do you?"
"I have a sneaking suspicion we'd rather not."
"Good enough for me."
"You girls must be Willow and Buffy," Mrs. McIntyre said.
The redhead raised her hand. "Willow."
Buffy followed her friend. "Buffy."
"Oz spoke of you three very fondly. Especially you, Willow."
"Why don't we go inside and get this together? We are trying to get an early start." Mrs. McIntyre looked up at Charles as she spoke, radiating calm confidence to all his senses, as if she had no part in their delay.
Brother Wolf chuckled. The McIntyres got what they wanted and Charles didn't lose face. His father's mate would be a much happier woman if she ever stooped low enough to learn the skill.
With three cars they decided they could split the load of people and supplies more evenly by breaking up Giles' passengers amongst the other two cars. Or, more accurately, Willow was determined to ride with the McIntyres, Xander was fixed on sleeping, and Buffy had bounded over to Charles (in the lead car) with a pleased and perky air, chirping, "Pilot to copilot!"
Arms crossed over his chest, Charles' eyebrows had risen. "You want to drive?"
Xander, standing within earshot, had begun to laugh. Both Charles and Buffy had looked at him, a scowl on Buffy's face.
Xander had blushed. "Okay, so I find the humor of 5 year olds amusing. I thought this was a judgement-free field trip."
Coloring herself, Buffy had apologized to her friend before turning her attention back to Charles. "No, I'm not planning to drive, but 'Copilot to pilot!' doesn't have the same ring."
Amused in spite of himself, Charles had nodded. "Fine. How are you with a map?"
"Good to know."
They were now several hours into their trip and Charles hadn't asked for directions yet. Buffy kept looking at him askance. He couldn't quite see her eyes, but the sense of her presence strengthened whenever she looked her way. It didn't make up for their previous encounters, but even Brother Wolf agreed that it was a start.
The McIntyres' assessment that they would all travel more efficiently if they were fed and able to use the restroom before they left had been correct. Charles wasn't surprised. He was no stranger to long trips. He employed the same strategy often enough. His only excuse for not agreeing with Mrs. McIntyre's plan was the alpha posturing he and Buffy couldn't seem to resist whenever they were close enough for eye contact.
The bladder of a 5 year old could only be denied for so long, however.
Buffy turned towards Charles as she pulled her phone away from her ear. He could hear Willow talking to the McIntyres on the other end.
"Jordy needs to go to the little puppy's room. The sooner the better." Correctly interpreting Charles' raised eyebrow as a request for more information, she added, "Apparently he tried holding it way longer than he should have because somebody was on a schedule."
Her tone left no doubt as to which "somebody" was to blame.
Instead of responding, he signaled a lane switch and slowly brought their small caravan into what would become the exit lane.
"Whatcha doin'?" Somehow Buffy managed to say the words as if she were chewing bubblegum, though he knew there was nothing in her mouth. He half expected that if he looked at her, he’d find that she was twirling her blond hair around a finger.
"There aren't too many places in this part of the country that I'm not familiar with," he said instead of glancing her way. "I'm confident I can find something that will meet our needs."
"So is that, like, because you're really old or, like, you travel a lot?"
Just as when she'd said that she wasn't harboring a rogue, Charles tasted the edge of a lie in Buffy's words. This time, however, he was certain the partial truth was to be found in her dumb blonde act. She'd already proved she was anything but. "Does this usually work on people?" he said in lieu of answering her question.
"Does what usually work?" Her scent said that she was confused and defensive.
"Pretending to be a dizzy California girl and less intelligent than you obviously are." Charles kept his tone mild and even. Confused and defensive wolves could be dangerous. The same had been true of every Slayer he'd known. He had a feeling it was one of the few things Buffy had in common with her predecessors.
She squirmed a little in her seat, whether from being called out or the backhanded compliment, Charles couldn't guess. It had the desired effect either way. "And here I thought I was getting better with the subtle," she said with a mournful air and, when Charles hazarded a glance, an exaggerated pout.
Tasting no lies, he deigned to smile, but only a little. Samuel would have probably opened the door and flung himself out of the moving car, or laughed himself silly if he were there. Charles closed the door on those thoughts. "I have a few more years studying human behavior than you do."
"So you are old!"
Charles' second eyebrow rose to meet the first.
"Look, if you have ‘a few more years’ experience studying human soft-sell technique, then I've got plenty on studying the supernaturally old in young bodies."
"Do you always use ten words where two would suffice?" was his very dry response as he signaled that they were getting off the highway.
"Oh em gee…so old," was hers.
Chuckling, Charles guided their party off the highway and into town.
They turned the stop into a late breakfast/early lunch. Jordy once again was the motivating factor. Charles could see that the Slayer's team were surprised that he wasn't angry, or even annoyed. He had already factored in the boy's needs when planning the trip. Part of the reason he'd wanted to leave as early as possible was so they could push through while Jordy slept, and gain time they were going to lose as they stopped for the boy's comfort and the peace of his parents. Charles might not have children of his own, but he had enough experience traveling with those less able then himself to know to make allowances for them.
At the moment, only he and the girl Willow were at the round booth they'd chosen. Everyone else was in the restroom. He thought Buffy's friend was handling his silence well. She was confident enough not to fill the silence with chatter and for that Charles was grateful. She was, however, concentrating very hard on shredding a dinner roll into tiny, inedible bits. Having seen her interact with Jordy and the McIntyres, Charles was sure he was the source of her nerves.
He tensed as a stranger approached their booth from behind. Between them, Charles and Buffy had decided to sit on opposite sides of the booth, splitting their need to watch the exits. If he'd been on his own, and forced to choose the same booth, he probably would have taken the center seat. There were two other circular booths flanking their own, and a large triangular planter between them that could be relied on to protect their rear. Charles had used tables against attackers before. That, however, counted on having the upper hand on an approaching threat, which meant seeing them first. In which case he probably wouldn't have chosen a circular booth at all.
"This long haired fellow botherin' you, Miss?" The owner of the voice, the stranger, placed his hand next to Charles' head. Considering that Willow had sat down after Charles, it seemed like a stupid question to ask.
Willow, however, didn't react. Her attention was far more distant than Charles had realized as she continued to shred her dinner roll.
"Hey! Red! I'm talking to you," the stranger snapped.
Brother Wolf bristled. Charles wasn't exactly pleased himself. "It looks like she doesn't want to speak to you, friend."
"Stay out of it, Injun Pete," the stranger snarled down at Charles.
Brother Wolf dropped his growing anger in favor of amusement. 'Haven't heard that in a while.'
Apparently it had been enough to divert Willow's attention as well. Her eyes were flashing when she looked up at the stranger. "Hey! That was distinctly not called for, Mister."
"You and Injun Pete here an item or something?" the stranger said. If his sarcasm got any thicker the trailing vines of the plant behind their booth were going to curl up and die.
"Hey, very not cool, Mister Inappropriate. Charles has a name. Which is obviously Charles," she tacked on, more angry then flustered.
The stranger laughed -- an ugly sound that was enough to make Charles actually wary for the first time. Then he did something that Charles could only guess at by the sudden silence of the diners around them and the sparks flashing in Willow's eyes. Actual, honest to God sparks.
'Latent witchblood,' Brother Wolf muttered in his ear as if Charles couldn't tell. True to form, Willow's latent heritage was making its appearance at what would quickly become the worst possible moment if things kept going the way they were.
Charles quickly stood and faced the stranger for the first time. Who was more amusing in person for all the wrong reasons than he'd been over Charles' shoulder. He towered over the stranger. "You should apologize. And then you should leave."
The stranger's eyes immediately dropped and his shoulders curled inward as the weight of Charles and Brother Wolf came to bear. But he still didn't apologize. He might not be particularly dominant, but he was stubborn and it was starting to annoy Charles. Who growled. A little.
The stranger's eyes shot to Charles' for a second before darting away. "S-sorry."
"Not to me," Charles said as he shifted his weight so that Willow was visible once more.
"Sorry, m-ma'am. I mean, M-miss. I'm sorry, Miss." The stranger nearly leapt at the opening Charles made when he shifted his weight further.
Charles retook his seat as Buffy joined the table, sitting at her friend's side. "Nice growl-work," she said, and it was a genuine compliment. "You okay Wills?"
"I could have taken him," Willow groused.
"Like totally! Your pencil action is second to none!"
"Yes," Charles and Brother Wolf said in general agreement with the sentiment if not the incomprehensible words.
"Oh! Um...thank you?"
He tipped his head in her direction as Brother Wolf said, 'Buffy brownie points, attained.'
They'd been riding with the Slayer too long.
“I’m sorry about that jerkface,” Willow said to Charles, her expression still stormy.
“Yeah, and the rest of these neanderthals,” Buffy chimed in, also very obviously unhappy. The ‘jerkface’ was the only person who had approached them, but he wasn’t the only one in the diner who’d been giving their group – giving Charles – hostile looks from the moment they’d walked in. “You wanna make like a tree? There’s gotta be someplace else on the road where we can graze in peace.”
Smiling, Charles said, “If I only went places where I didn’t stick out, I wouldn’t go anywhere. I’m fine right here.”
"Spit it out, Slayer," Charles said to the road ahead.
Like squirting water at a misbehaving pet, his words stopped Buffy in her tracks. Of course, like the proverbial pet, she was now annoyed with him, but it was better than whatever was going on in her head.
Whatever that was, Buffy had been sitting on it for most of the day. Traffic was getting heavier now, as they passed along the outskirts of a large city at the tail end of rush hour. It would be best if they found lodging for the night and arrive in Aspen Creek in the early afternoon. To do that, though, they'd have to survive the trip. Between the stress of sharing the road with less competent drivers and sharing the rental with Buffy's agitation, they weren't going to make it.
"I thought we had an agreement," Charles said very carefully, still watching the drivers ahead, who were all trying his usually considerable patience.
"You mean the one where you agreed to call me by my name?" Buffy wasn't growling, but she was definitely unhappy. Good.
"I mean the one where you're my copilot."
"What the what now?"
"Didn't you agree to be my copilot?"
He couldn't see it, but he thought she rolled her eyes when she said, "Like, duh. I'm here in ye olde copilot's seat."
"Then say whatever has been on your mind for the last six hours."
"It hasn't been six hours," she said, but there was no fight in it.
Charles shot her a quick glance, but didn't reply otherwise. Partly because he was too busy trying not to simply ditch the paved road for a dirt track that would take them far from rush hour traffic and it's questionable drivers. The SUV he'd rented could take it, but the other two vehicles in their little caravan couldn't.
Another idiot decided cutting in front of him to cross through a negligible gap between cars was smarter than waiting for the two-lane highway to open up as Charles (and surely this idiot with local plates) knew it would. Charles had the reflexes to pull off that kind of move, but even if he hadn't had Giles and the McIntyres following him, he wouldn't have attempted it. There were too many other drivers to account for. They had as much right to get home safely as the jerk now pulling the same maneuver several cars ahead of them.
Charles could feel a growl building in his chest. As could, apparently, Buffy. "Hey, I didn't think it was that serious."
"It's not you, it's fools like--"
"Like that guy trying to cause a six car pileup on the interstate?"
"Yes. Him. But your agitation is not helping."
"Oh alright!" Buffy huffed. “Look, I really appreciate the way you handled the situation with the jerkwad back at the first diner. You know, the one who was harassing you and Willow?"
"I mean you let her bawl him out without getting all macho alpha greasehead about it, and you stepped in before it could escalate."
"Your friend is witch-born, you know."
Buffy's entire being brightened as she nodded. "That's our Willow! She's been doing the Wicca earth magic thing for almost a year now. It even helped save the world once."
Charles shook his head. "Your friend is not just Wiccan. Somewhere in her family tree is one of the great Witch families -- maybe more than one considering how weak genuine witch-blood is outside the remaining families."
"You say that like it's a problem." Gone was all her bubbly fellow-feeling.
"The probability of it becoming one is high."
"For us or for the wolves."
He'd already been thinking of how to discuss this with her, so his answer was readily available. "Latent witchblood likes to show up when it's least convenient to everyone involved. It can be big and destructive or subtle and destructive, but no one walks away untouched or unharmed. That's your problem."
"And the problem for the wolves?" He could hear Buffy's raised eyebrows.
"The Marrok doesn't particularly like witches."
Buffy groaned. "I was just about to get all gushy and tell you how not-a-bad-thing forming an alliance with the North American wolves would be."
Charles nodded. He'd been wondering.
"And so your dad’s un-fondness for witches is a problem for you and not us, how?"
"My father also wants an alliance, if possible."
"He does know that alliance with me isn't an alliance with the next Slayer."
"But it does set precedent."
"Tricky, tricky wolves."
"Old, old wolves."
They lapsed into a silence that was far less charged than it had been only a few minutes before. Until Buffy broke it: "About this latent witchblood with the timing of Erica Kane during sweeps season."
That was strange enough to draw Charles' eyes from the road, only to find that Buffy was looking straight ahead. As his eyes came back around, he had a feeling this Slayer was going to make his father rethink the value of losing his ability to listen to the thoughts of others. "Yes."
"Is there a way to, y'know, soften the blow or whatever?" Now she did glance at him.
"Get her trained by an established witch now."
"That'll keep Wills from going boom without the shakalacka?"
Charles tried very hard not to smile. The subject was very serious and Buffy was quite earnest, but--
"Your friend's witchblood will still manifest, but the probability that it will happen in the presence of her mentor should mitigate the effects."
"Or maybe Wills will recognize what's happening and bring the drama down to zero."
They continued to inch along, the silence almost as easy as it had been early that morning. And once again it was Buffy who broke it, fifteen minutes and a few hundred yards later. "Would Willow's teeny tiny streak of witchblood really stop the Marrok from forming an alliance with us?"
"While she's untrained? Yes. My father takes the safety of the packs very seriously. Your friend isn't very safe right now."
"But after she's trained?"
"You say that as if you're sure she'll want to be."
"Wills turn down a chance to learn something from an expert? Ha. Hahaha. Never happen. First of all: nerd. Like major. Second of all, she's got that protective thing going for her, too. The last thing she'll want to do is be a danger to us when a little learning will go a long way."
Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and swore. "Now there's a conversation that's going to be the kind of fun that's not."
"It's getting late," Charles said, "and we still have a long way to go. We should find a place to stay for the night."
Buffy pulled the map from where she'd hidden it during the drive. If she was studying it more intently than it deserved, Charles didn't feel the need to mention it.
Sorry this took so long to publish. It's been a busy week (I should be cleaning right now).