You may want to go back and re-read the previous chapter, because once again I needed to edit and repost about a day after it first went up.

"I still say you were too easy on her." They were at the airport, Spike clicking slowly along in his leg brace and a smart black cane. He'd refused, loudly, to use the crutches they had rented for him originally, but he still wasn't up to putting all his weight on that leg. So it was the cane, or nothing.

It didn't hurt that Spike seemed to know several dozen ways to get extremely violent with the thing.

"I know," said Buffy. Arm linked through his as they made their way through the evening crowd towards baggage claim. Ridiculously expensive coffee-mocha-thing in her free hand.

"But you still haven't really told me why," said Spike. Twirled the cane idly in his fingers as they waited for a family trailing a gaggle of kids to cross their path.

Buffy sighed. Of course they were going to have this conversation now. "I just – I'm tired, Spike," she said. "Finding out you'd died in LA, dealing with Giles and the way he'd…"

"Betrayed," supplied Spike.

"Yes, thank you," she muttered. "Anyway, all of that, and then the rollercoaster of you being not dust, mystical messages, finding you, helping you recover…" She sighed again. "I'm not happy with Willow right now, but to be honest, I just don't have the energy to hold a grudge. The whole thing with Giles? I just want it behind me so I can move on."

"Fair enough," Spike replied.

"Wait," said Buffy. "'Fair enough'? That's it?"

Spike shrugged, started walking again. "You've always been too forgiving of them, in my opinion, pet," he said. "But it's your choice. 'S what I keep telling you."

"You're the one who said I didn't have to defend my choices as long as it wasn't hurting anyone," she pointed out.

"And you don't," said Spike. "I'm a little concerned with Red's behavior hurting you, though. But it sounds like you know to keep your eyes open for more of that sort of thing, yeah?"

"I guess so, yeah," said Buffy. Squeezed his arm. "Is that going to actually stop you from pulling her off into some corner and scaring the heck out of her?"

Spike smiled grimly, looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Said nothing.

"Spike!" She swatted him on the arm and he laughed at her, quiet, eyes shining.

Buffy couldn't help but drink him in. Leg brace aside, Spike was looking sharp once again in his beloved black duster, although he had learned the hard way that he was in no shape to stomp around in both his boots as yet; the added weight proved to be hell on his knee. He'd been surprised and, Buffy suspected, genuinely touched, when he first spotted his little road-predator disguised as a car sitting in Xander's driveway. The idea that they'd take the time to rescue the road predator at the same time as they were rescuing him.

His duster and boots had still been on the front passenger seat where Figg, presumably, had left them. Between them and the cane, Spike had acted a little bit like a kid at Christmas.

"No," he said, "I promise I won't take her to task for meddling in your life and letting you be miserable for the entire past year."

"Spike," she said.

His eyes grew serious. "In all fairness," he said, "I did ask Andrew to keep mum about it, after he came to pick up that one Slayer girl. Dana." He reached up to tug on a lock of her hair. "If I'd known, love…" He tucked her hair behind her ear. "I just… I never believed I stood a chance with you."

"I know," said Buffy. "I'm sorry for that part." She bit her lip, looked down, back up into his eyes. "The whole thing is just a mess, and it's over anyway," she said. "I'd like to just put it behind us and get on with things."

"What kind of things?" asked Spike. Bit of a purr in his voice.

"Oh, you know," she said airily. "Apartment hunting."

His face fell. "Yeah," he muttered. "Reckon I should be moving on too. Can't be welcome at Harris' place too much longer, yeah?"

"You'd be welcome at mine," Buffy said. "And I was thinking in terms of privacy for us, not getting away from you. Dork."

"I'm a dork now, am I?" asked Spike.

"Yup," she smiled at his scowl. "You're my dork, though. And don't you forget it."

"Couldn't if I tried, love," he said. Dropped a kiss onto her temple. "Couldn't if I tried."

"Spike!" There were stairs leading down from the inbound flights and secure area to the baggage claim. A squeal from that direction had both Buffy and Spike wincing as Dawn launched herself off the third step and came running toward them, arms wide.

"Uh-oh," murmured Spike. "This is gonna hurt."

"Not if I can help it," said Buffy, stepping in front of him. Intercepting her sister's mad dash with a big smile and a "Dawn! It's so great to see you!"

"Augh, Buffy, let go!" glared Dawn. "I mean, yeah, sister love, I've missed you too, but – Spike!"

"Broken ribs, Bit," he said over their shoulders. "They're getting better, they're just not all the way there yet. Big sis is just trying to keep me from going crunchy when I walk."

"Oh, wow," she said. Hands up over her mouth. "I forgot, I'm so sorry! I was gonna –"

"But you didn't," interrupted Spike, "no harm done. Now c'mere and give us a hug anyway. A gentle one." He smiled, got his cane out of the way, and wrapped an arm around each of his girls. Love of his life and Little Bit. Dropped his head forward and inhaled the scent of their hair, mingled together.


"Willow couldn't come?" asked Buffy, when they finally broke apart.

"No, I'm here," said the witch, just stepping off the stairs, "I just wasn't into all that running after all that sitting down for so long. Ooh. I think things were starting to go numb."

Spike leaned on his cane, free arm around Dawn as Buffy and Willow embraced. He sucked on his teeth a little, watching them, eyes narrowed. Buffy was too forgiving by half… but on the other hand, she put up with the likes of him and everything he'd done. He'd keep his mouth shut, but if it looked like Red planned to interfere in his love's life again, there would be words.

But then she was stepping up to him, arms open, and he found himself with an armful of Red and a murmured, "I'm so sorry for your loss," and he found himself too surprised to breathe, for a moment. "You were missed," she added as she pulled away, and he just… wasn't quite sure how to respond.

"Er – thanks," he said finally. An odd sense of… homecoming? Another person added back into his circle, one that had been emptied after Los Angeles. The void that was his nightmare, retreating further from possibility.

"I wish," Willow started. "Well – I wish a lot of things, but mainly I wish I hadn't kept quiet. Kept you and Buffy apart for so long. I know she's working on forgiving me for that." She chewed her lip and her hands fidgeted together, playing with the strap of her purse. "But I don't know about you."

Spike's eyebrow rose. "Was my decision to stay away. Mostly," he said. "Sounds like the three of us were played, in different ways. Long story, that."

"I guess so," she said. "So… are we still okay? I mean, mostly okay?"

He tipped his head, tried to get a read on her. "Yeah," he said eventually. "Long as you do some of the same growin' Buffy and Harris have done, yeah. Don't see why not."

Willow beamed, and he realized she was completely sincere. Also… rooted. There was a stability about her now that reminded him of Glinda – Tara. He still missed her sometimes. Wondered if Red did, too.

"Don't see why not," he said again thoughtfully, as Buffy and Dawn came back with their luggage.

Three girls in the house. Four, once Xander's other witch friend, Cathy, showed up. All nattering on and giggling and gossiping.

A smart bloke took himself to the back patio as soon as he could, while still being polite.

Christ, a master vampire worried about politeness. There were days when the soul was more of a burden than usual – skip the conscience and the guilt, any day it made him act like a complete nancy boy qualified.


Harris was either smarter than expected, or less polite. That, or his sense of self-preservation had honed itself while he was off traipsing about Africa this past year. Either way, he was already outside, comfy in his camp chair and gazing up at stars that were invisible in the skies of LA. A second chair with a footstool was set up beside him. Cooler open between the two chairs.

"Yeah," said Spike. Pulled out a bottle. "Great Black Swamp Brewery? You trying to set me up, Harris?"

Xander rolled his head along the back of the camp chair to look at him. "Nah," he said, "local history. I guess Lake Erie used to be a whole lot bigger, and around the last Ice Age the banks collapsed, somewhere over in Indiana. After it drained, the lake bottom turned into swamp. Pioneers settling here said you had to drive a hundred miles out of your way to get around it. Good farmland, though." He tipped his bottle up, took a swallow. "Waitress when I picked these up is a geology major at the university."

"Hm," said Spike. Leaned on his cane, sat down and popped the cap off his own bottle. "Mosquito Red. Now I know you're having me on."

Harris grinned. "One bloodsucker to another," he replied. "I couldn't resist. Plus it's good beer."

"It is at that," said Spike after the first sip. Took another taste, savoring it. Worked his leg up onto the footstool and got comfortable. "I still can't figure you out, Harris," he said. "Thought you'd have kicked me out, once I was mobile again." Took another swallow, leaned back… noticed that Harris had set him up to the left, easier for Spike to get in and out but on Harris' blind side. Raised an eyebrow at that. "Never thought I'd see the day when you'd trust me farther than you could throw me."

"Yeah, well," said Harris. "I told you before, I had my reasons to hate your guts and now I don't."

"Hm," Spike said again. Tipped his head back – the stars here in the Midwest really weren't too bad. Specially compared to the smog zone that was most of Southern California. "Gotta be more to it than my savin' the world."

Harris rolled his head again, gave him a once-over with his good eye. "It helps that I'm not the only guy in the house with you around," he said. "But which do you want to hear? Why I hated you, or why I stopped?"

"Your choice, mate," said Spike. "I'm just here for the beer." Finished his bottle of Mosquito Red and reached for another out of the cooler. "Cheers."

Xander nodded, leaned back again to look at the sky. They were both silent for a long moment, just enjoying the quiet. Inside Spike could hear the girls bursting into laughter over something. Made him smile to hear it.

The way Harris told it, Buffy hadn't really laughed in far too long.

Just when Spike figured they'd be sitting in manly silence for the rest of the night, Harris spoke.

"Once upon a time," he said, "back in Sunnydale, it wasn't me, Willow, and Buffy. It was me, Willow, and Jesse. He was my best friend." He took a breath, blew it out. "And he was killed by a vampire about a week after Buffy moved into town."

"Sorry to hear," said Spike, but Harris shook his head.

"No," said Harris. "That's not all of it. See, he got turned. Jesse. Used as bait because the Master knew we'd try to rescue him… recognize him. Trust him. Let him get close to us." He looked down, started turning his bottle round and round in his hands. "He was the first vampire I ever staked."

Spike said nothing. What could a man say, to a story like that?

"See, the thing is, Giles was just our librarian at the time," said Harris. "We were still just kids. And he told us, you know, he told us that when a person gets turned, they're killed. The soul is gone, the person isn't there anymore. The demon is just using that personality, those memories." Round and round went the bottle. "I couldn't believe it."

Spike sighed. "Tried to reach him, didn't you?" he said. Already knowing the answer.

"Yeah," said Harris. "What was left – the vampire that was shaped like my best friend – he thought it was funny. Everything Jesse was, everything he'd ever been, this – this thing was using against me. It was like a sick parody – no, more than that – it was a walking, talking obscenity. An insult to Jesse's memory. And I still didn't want to stake him. It was almost an accident that I did."

He reached into the cooler and pulled out another bottle. Rubbed ice off the label with his thumb. "I had to hate you," he said finally. "Everything you were, everything you did – you had to be obscene. Claiming to love Buffy, that had to just be a sick joke. Bringing flowers after Joyce… you couldn't actually care. Because if you did, if there was anything – decent, I guess – if there was anything decent left in you, then why couldn't Jesse have kept something of himself, you know? What did that say about him, that he just… gave it up like that? And if there was anything decent left in Jesse after he was turned, and I staked him, what did that say about me?" Twisted the cap off, pitched it into the cooler with a little extra force. "So yeah. Hating you was way, way easier than trying to see you as anything other than a mockery of an actual person."

"No one really takes the change in the same way," Spike said slowly. "Each demon is as different as each human soul. And they don't just use the personality of the person who was there before – it… Dru once said, 'who we were informs all we become'. It gets exaggerated, havin' the demon instead of a soul, but it still influences the demon. Your mate Jesse – like you said, he was just a kid. Demon would've been stronger than him to begin with. Add in your average teenager's impulsive thinking, thrill-seeking, that sense every kid has that they'll live forever – that's your basic fledgling vampire, straight out the gate."

"But not you," said Harris. "Why is that?"

"Lots o' reasons," offered Spike. "Any of 'em could be true, take your pick. I was older when I was turned, for starters. Stronger personality, maybe. Or Dru was completely barmy and did something different when she made me. Havin' a nest to take care of me, teach me how to do more than follow the bloodlust – fledglings can hardly think of anything but their hunger. Not much room in there for personality when they're still learning how to feed that ravenous hunger. Well – you saw. When you and Buffy brought me home."

Harris nodded. "Yeah, you… weren't really you," he said. "Your mind wasn't exactly online and broadcasting to the rest of you."

"'S right," said Spike. "But my personal theory, for why I'm different?" He smirked, looked up at the stars. "Let you in on a secret, Harris. I was a right pansy in life. You're not gettin' details, but let's just say I'd never have made team captain in your school, and I didn't exactly get a lot of dates."

Harris, the git, snickered into his beer.

"Sensitive bloke, I was," Spike said anyway. "Sensitive soul, maybe. Makes for a more sensitive demon. Angelus had to teach me how to be a killer – but not how to revel in it. That freedom. Victorians were a repressed lot of buggers, and I was no different. Passionate, maybe, but with nowhere in that society to direct it. Take away those rules but keep the capacity to care? Dru was my savior, far as I was concerned. I doted on her. She never discouraged it, so I never really lost that ability, I s'pose."

Harris nodded again. Kept his eye patch toward Spike so he couldn't gauge what the other man was thinking. "I guess that makes sense," he said eventually. "About Jesse versus you. But yeah. When he got turned, I don't know if he kept anything. All I know is, I had to stake him, and then go to his memorial service, where there wasn't a body because he was just… dust."

"Doesn't sound like the kind of thing a man just gets over," said Spike. "I can see it. You hating me. But what changed your mind?"

Harris shook his head, took a swig of his beer. "Oh the irony," he said. "It was Africa. Vampires saved my life."

Spike felt his eyebrow climb. And you let them? he almost asked. "Sounds like a tale," he said instead.

"I guess," said Harris. "Turns out, in some of the more remote parts, where everything is still tribes and warlords, some of the vampires can set up territories. And they'll take care of whole villages, handle threats or whatever, in exchange for getting to feed and not get staked." He shrugged. "Kind of like Dracula supposedly did with his gypsy clans."

"Goes that way, sometimes," said Spike. "Needs a vampire that's more in control than most – someone can keep from killing every time he feeds, but yeah. It happens."

The other man nodded. "Turns out, plague demons count as a threat. Vampires don't like having them in their territory."

"You ran across one," said Spike.

"The reason I'm not still in Africa," he nodded. "My job was to find new Slayers and bring them to England to be trained. But England won't let you into the country if they find out you've ever had certain highly contagious diseases. It was like that one Thanksgiving – right after you got chipped – with the Chumash Indian spirit when I got syphilis and smallpox. Only this time, as near as we can tell, I had malaria, dengue fever, and possibly ebola and HIV, all at once." He took a deep breath. "I'm still getting blood tests for that last one."

"Vampires killed the plague demon?" asked Spike.

"Yeah," said Harris.

"Then you're clean," he replied. "But I could do a taste test if you wanted to be sure."

Harris choked on his beer. "You're – did you just ask if you could bite me?"

Spike shrugged. "Blood is life. It's what sustains us. Diseases, some of them anyway, are death, floating around in there tainting the blood. We can taste it." He made a face. "Taste cancer, taste the organ damage in a longtime drug addict or an alcoholic. Nasty." Took a quick swallow of his beer as if to wash the flavor away. "I've tasted AIDS before," he said. "You want to stick with the blood tests, you go ahead. You want another kind of test, you let me know. But if the plague demon is dead, and all the other sickness vanished at the same time, then yeah – you're clean."

Harris dug the heel of his hand into his good eye. Sat there. Maybe another human couldn't have spotted the shaking, but Spike could see it. Women's voices carrying from inside the house into the quiet of the evening.

"Thanks, man," Harris said eventually.

"Well. 'S like you said," Spike answered. "It's good not being the only rooster in the henhouse."

Surprised a chuckle out of Harris. He reached across and clinked his bottle against Spike's, took a long pull. "Drink to that," he said.

The brewery, specific beer, and the bit about Lake Erie and the Great Black Swamp are all completely true. Also we're getting pretty close to the end of this story.