He pulled the non-descript rental car smoothly off of the highway onto the suburban lane. He had been surprised at how easily he’d adjusted to the left-hand driving again. It had felt familiar, like an old jacket pulled out of the closet come winter. When he’d first arrived in California years ago, he’d been sure that he would always feel out of place, a foreigner. But now, even having been away from American soil the last three years, there was no feeling of alienness upon his arrival. It was a bit odd, seeing the countryside blanketed in snow. Most of his time on this continent had been spent in perpetually sunny Southern California. But even here in the Midwest, there was a sense of familiarity. The culture welcomed him with its very Americanness. And it felt like home.
Not that England didn’t feel like home as well. Strangely, he’d felt quite as comfortable there in Bath as he had in Sunnydale. Though his time in Glasgow had likely buffered his transition after the destruction of the Hellmouth. But now, going from England to America was as easy as putting on different clothes. He was still Rupert Giles, as comfortable with CNN as BBC. As familiar with Starbucks as Darjeeling. He smiled as he passed through the suburban landscape, taking in the tranquility of the winter afternoon in this most ordinary of places.
The road had been impeccably plowed and the pavement was nearly dry in the center. Heaps of snow lined the road, and he could see evidence of the day’s activities – snow shovels leaned against front porches. Sleds abandoned in yards. Snowmen & half-built fortresses, surrounded by footprints. Boots lined up on the doormats.
It seemed odd picturing Buffy in this setting. He couldn’t picture her bundled up, clearing snow from her car. And surely, she’d have to have a car here. A town of this size was too large for walking, and too small to support much public transportation. He grimaced as he thought of his Slayer, never the most skilled of drivers, attempting to negotiate icy roads on her way to the university where she was currently mentoring a small group of recently called Slayers. Perhaps one of her friends lived near enough to carpool? He knew Willow, Xander and Anya had all joined her over the past year since she’d begun her work here. But he was still a little out of touch with all that had transpired since Buffy had left Europe for the U.S. His work rebuilding the Council of Watchers had become more and more time-consuming as more Watchers had been recruited and more Slayers had graduated from training and were ready for field duty.
The sat-nav pinged and announced an upcoming turn, and he focused his attention on the road as it narrowed to a winding lane on the edge of suburbia. The houses were further apart here, and older, and Giles remembered with a smile how Buffy had described her new home as being “in the sticks.” Compared to her home in Sunnydale, it was a bit more rural. But it was hardly farmland. The petrol station he’d just passed had a coffee shop and sandwich shop incorporated into it, so he doubted Buffy was as far from civilization as she had made it sound in her emails.
The sat-nav alerted him that his destination was just ahead on the left, and he pulled into a long driveway, which seemed to have accumulated a dusting of snow since it had last been shoveled.
He parked behind a small SUV, and pulled his gloves and hat on before exiting the car and heading toward the house.
The house was larger than he’d imagined. A two-story woodframed structure that he estimated was probably nearing 100 years of age. It had probably once sat as the center of an estate before suburbia had encroached. And it appeared that it still had a bit of wild acreage beyond it.
Giles stomped off the snow that had accumulated on his shoes as he walked up the sidewalk toward the porch. It was then that he noticed the figure leaning against the wall, a glowing cigarette in his hand.
“’Lo there, Rupert.” The familiar voice said in greeting. “Sorry ‘bout the snow in the drive. I’d ‘ve cleared it for you, but the sun’s a bit high yet.”
Giles glanced out at the slanting rays of the setting sun across the snowy yard and nodded. “It’s quite alright, Spike.” He paused. It had been six years since they’d seen each other. “How are you?”
“Can’t complain.” The vampire took another drag of his cigarette and glanced toward the front door. “She’ll probably want to help you bring your luggage in. I would, but…”
“The sun. I know.” Spike shifted a bit uncomfortably, and Giles wondered how to span the gap of years and tension between them. “I… I told Buffy I’d be glad to stay in a hotel. The roads aren’t bad and it’s not a long drive back to the highway….”
Spike shook his head, a slight grin on his lips. “Nothing doing, Rupert. She’s all Martha Stewart in there, putting together the perfect family Christmas. It’d break her heart if you didn’t stay.”
“She’s not over-taxing herself, is she?”
“Nah. Just taxing enough, I’d wager. You know how she enjoys a bit of holiday stress now and then.”
“Ah yes, I seem to remember one particularly tense Thanksgiving some years ago….”
“She wasn’t too pleased with the invading spirit warriors and all that….”
“That was the first time I ever saw the domestic side of Buffy. Really rose to the challenge, didn’t she?”
“‘Course, I would’ve enjoyed it more had I not been tied to a chair the whole time.”
“Well, life was a bit complicated then, wasn’t it?”
Spike nodded thoughtfully and gazed out at the setting sun. Giles took advantage of the quiet moment to really look at the other man. It was still difficult for Giles to not think of him as a young man. His face was as smooth as ever, though not as gaunt as when Giles had seen him last. Aside from his physical stature and features, everything else was different. His hair was no longer the signature platinum blonde that Giles associated with Spike. It was a light ash brown that must be its natural color. And rather than slicked down, it was close-cropped and curly, lightly tamed with some sort of product, but in a casual way, as if to purposely convey that the man wasn’t much concerned with how it looked.
His clothing was also completely different. Spike had always kept to a rather narrow style of black jeans, heavy boots, and tight shirts. Occasionally layering a button-up shirt, and a sporadic jacket. The leather duster had been his signature article of clothing, a symbol of Spike’s prowess, a memento of the second Slayer he’d killed. He had abandoned it for awhile after regaining his soul. But Buffy had needed a warrior, not a lover, at that time, and the warrior had needed his armor. So he took it back up, layering on the guilt it surely brought him, and became the Champion Buffy had asked him to be. Whether he still owned the antique leather jacket, Giles didn’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have meshed with his current style.
He was wearing dark-washed denim trousers, some sort of black leather casual shoes. His charcoal grey sweater was still rather tight, but Giles wondered if that was more of Buffy’s choosing than Spike’s. But then again, Spike had always seemed to like displaying his physique. Even his attempts at changing up his appearance after regaining his soul, he’d always dressed for attention.
Giles found himself, not for the first time, wondering how a vampire with no reflection could be so concerned with his outward appearance. Spike had always been very particular about his looks and what they said about him. Drusilla had been as well, Giles realized with a start. And Angel. It seemed to be a unique characteristic of that particular clan of vampires. He wondered vaguely if Darla had been similarly inclined, and had a brief desire to ask Spike. He brushed that thought aside quickly, knowing that asking about Spike’s vampire heritage was not an appropriate way to kindle any sort of camaraderie.
And that was what Giles wanted. Spike had been at Buffy’s side for almost five years now. Clearly, this was no passing fancy. Giles knew he had made many mistakes during those last months in Sunnydale. It had taken almost a year after to repair his relationship with Buffy. And even now, he knew that the subject of Spike was a fragile area. After Buffy had left Scotland, and reconnected with Spike, the long-distance phone calls and emails were frequent and warm as ever, keeping her Watcher involved in her life, but always guarded when it came to Spike.
Giles hadn’t known how to break through that final barrier. How to let his Slayer know that he had accepted Spike as her partner, her friend, and her lover. True, he still had some reservations about the prospective longevity of a relationship between a human and a vampire, but he had long ago resolved to not let those uncertainties become obstacles. He wanted to get to know Spike, and to offer his friendship. Not just a truce for Buffy’s sake, but to really get to know this man who had sacrificed so much for the woman he loved.
Spike had changed. There was no doubt about that. It had begun long before the soul. The chip, the hated chip, had probably been the catalyst. Forcing Spike to reconsider his purpose, forcing him to be something more than a predator. But then had come his interest in Buffy. First as a playmate – a demon-slaying buddy and sometime adversary. But that had quickly developed into a respect and even awe, making way for the vampire to fall in love with his former enemy. That love had broken Spike in ways that Giles could never have forseen.
Giles’ gaze drifted from the man on the porch to the house itself. Under the old-fashioned iron-wrought porchlight there was a wooden sign. “Welcome” it read in burned in script. And underneath it read “Buffy and William.” Giles raised a brow and turned to Spike.
“William? Is that what you prefer…”
“Nah. Well, it just goes over better with the neighbors and whatnot. The Scoobies still call me Spike, of course. Though Xander makes an effort not to at work.”
“I help him out with his handy-man business. Don’t mind handling the late-night calls for plumbing emergencies and furnace disasters.”
“I didn’t realize you were…”
“A handy guy? Well, yeah. Stick around for 150 years and you pick up some skills. Some places I’ve lived have been… fixer-uppers, you know.”
“Just figured you’d, you know, hire a guy & then eat him before the bills came due.”
Spike grinned. “Did a bit of that, yeah. But didn’t enjoy movin’ around so much. When the body count gets too high, you’ve got to move on. So sometimes it was better to do it myself and stay inconspicuous.”
“You seem to be living quite inconspicuously here.”
“Yeah. It’s been… really nice, actually. Never figured myself to be one for settling down. But here… it’s been peaceful. And surprisingly, it’s not boring. Always thought it would be. But it’s not. There’s enough slaying to keep us sharp. And we’re training the girls, so we’ve got a purpose. Xander and Anya live just ‘round the corner. Willow’s been staying with us, but she’ll be gettin’ her own place soon. Dawn’s renting a house with some mates near campus…”
“Willow’s living here? And Alicia?”
“Alicia’s in Cleveland now, with Faith & Wood. Babysittin’ the Hellmouth there with their little army of Slayers.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize…”
“Alicia & Willow have been on-again, off-again… finally went off for good about a year ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Nah. It’s for the best. Great birds, the both of ‘em, but not right for each other. Alicia’ll find a gal, no doubt. And Willow…. She’s already found what she was looking for.”
“There’s… someone new… in Willow’s life?”
“New, and old at the same time. The werewolf showed up a couple months back.”
“Oz?” Giles shook his head to clear it. “But Tara, Kennedy, Alicia…”
“With Willow, it’s never been about gender, Rupert. She follows her heart. And wolf-boy’s got her heart, no doubt about it.”
He flicked his spent cigarette into the snow and took out another.
“They had “issues” to work out, sure. But he’s changed. Grown. He’s a better man now, and she sees it. And it’s not like she didn’t go through a dark spell of her own.” He looked up. “No pun intended.”
“Been ‘round these Scoobies too much. They’ve got me talking like them now.”
Giles considered this. Now that he thought about it, he realized Spike’s accent had changed, softened. Rupert had always suspected that the London drawl had been an affectation. When Spike had been present during research, he’d randomly dropped clues that pointed to a classical education, and his pronunciation of some particular words told the other Englishman that he’d had a much higher class upbringing than he let on in everyday conversation. Some of that was in greater evidence now, and he seemed to have adopted a few American characteristics in his speech as well.
“Not to worry,” Giles told him. “You’re not likely to be mistaken for an American yet.”
“But maybe you and Buffy should come to England on holiday sometime. Refresh yourself on proper English and flush the cappuccinos from your system.”
“Oh no, Rupert, they haven’t got me drinking the fancy coffee concoctions as of yet. But I have to tell you, round here, barbecue is the thing. There are these ribs, drenched in this brilliant sauce…. If I could eat those every day, think I could probably give up blood altogether.”
“You are a rare one, Spike.”
“Though… I did try mixing blood in with the sauce once. It was quite good, but Buffy was worried she’d eat some by mistake. She’s very particular about not mixing blood with “real food.””
“Well, c’mon Rupes. She’s been living with a vampire for four years. I’d think she’d’ve gotten over the squeamishness by now.”
Giles didn’t know what to say to that.
“Least she lets me put my dishes in the dishwasher with hers now. Used to make me handwash’em myself. Like the blood was gonna contaminate the dishwasher.”
“It must be difficult to adjust… for you and for her. In some ways, you’ll always be very different creatures.”
“True enough. It’s been… interesting… to say the least. But worth it. Worth everything.”
“How do you handle the daylight issue?”
“Oh, that one’s not so bad these days. Back during my time at Wolfram & Hart, I made myself some contacts. We’ve got necro-tempered glass in all the windows in the house. And my car as well. Buffy just got that SUV, and we haven’t decided yet if it’s worth it to change out its windows. So I’m well-protected, but we don’t have to live in the gloom”
The front door opened and Buffy leaned out.
“Giles! You’re here! Come in, you must be freezing!”
“I was just out here, having a conversation….”
Buffy dragged her Watcher in by the arm and leaned out to address her partner.
“God, Will. It’s like 30 degrees out here. It may not bother you, but some people have hypothermia to worry about.”
Spike grinned at her. “I didn’t tie him up out here. We were just having a friendly conversation, luv. He could have gone in anytime.”
“No worries, Buffy.” Giles told her, shrugging off his coat and hanging it on the coat tree in the foyer. “It was quite warm against the house.”
“And that’s where our heating bill is going.” She sighed. “The insulation in this place is crap.”
“I could fix that for ya,” Xander’s voice drifted from another room. “Preferably sometime after the spring thaw.”