Willow carefully balanced the candle-laden cake as she carried it out of the kitchen. “Happy Birthday, um, guys.” She placed it on the dining room table as the Buffy, Xander, Vi and Molly gathered round.
“Okay, everybody. Group effort.” Xander leaned forward. “Everybody blow me.” He realized what he’d said as three pairs of eyes met his with glares. “I mean, everybody blow with me.”
“Sure, you do.” Buffy joined the others in making short work of the tiny flames.
“Well done,” Giles said. “Ow.”
“I thought you didn’t want us to have fun,” Anya whispered, extricating her elbow from his ribs. “So what’s with the party?”
“This isn’t frivolous,” he replied under his breath. “By acknowledging the birthdays that have passed since this battle began, we join together communally. It’s a bonding ritual.”
“Oh.” Anya took the plate Vi handed her. “I thought you just liked cake.”
As Buffy handed a slice to Spike, her fingers brushed against his. Their eyes briefly met, before, colouring, she looked away. “I hope you like chocolate.”
“It’s all good.” He sat the plate on the coffee table, smiling at her almost shyly. “Happy birthday, Buffy.”
“About a month late, but thanks.” She sat on the arm of the couch. “I guess twenty-two isn’t as big a deal as twenty-one. Didn’t even see it go by. And twenty-one wasn’t so great anyway, with the trapped in the house spell and killer demon thing.”
“Ah. Well, maybe twenty-three will…” His thought was interrupted as Molly answered the ringing phone.
“Spike?” she called. “It’s for you.”
The Potentials ignored the situation as Spike took the receiver in hand, but the established Scoobies stared at him as one. He put the phone gingerly to his ear. “Hello?” He listened intently for a few moments. “All right then. See you.” He turned to the assemblage. “Have to go out for a mo. Be back soon.”
“Spike?” Buffy stood up from her perch on the couch. “Want me to come?”
“No, luv. Enjoy the party.” Pulling on his jacket, he added, “Just going to see a man about a horse.”
Xander had slipped out of the room and was waiting in the foyer, blocking the door. “Buffy may trust you, but I don’t. Who was that, and where are you going?”
“Chipless now, mate,” Spike replied with the most threatening voice he could muster. “Let me through.”
“Sure,” Xander said, as he stood his ground. “You could take me. But then you’d have to explain to Buffy, who along with her little army in the other room, would kick your butt but good. Where are you going?”
“Okay,” Spike sighed with exasperation. “That was the principal. Said he had some intel that could help Buffy, but he didn’t want her to know. Danger lurking, and all that. So, said I’d meet him alone.”
“That’s weird. Think he’d want her there. Can we trust him?” He stepped aside.
“Why not? Buffy says he’s a fighter in the good fight. Probably not one to put a lady in danger, all chivalrously noble and all.” He turned the handle.
“Then he doesn’t really know Buffy,” Xander said.
“No,” Spike smiled. “Guess he doesn’t.”
Wood was waiting at the front door of the school, as Spike walked up the steps. “So, what’s this all about? What’s so dangerous that the Slayer can’t know it?”
“I’ll tell you inside. Do you need an invitation?” Wood pushed open the doors.
“To this school? Nope.” He followed the principal down the corridor. “In fact…” His face fell as Wood opened the basement door. “Really not my favourite place to talk. Or, in fact, be at all.”
Wood raised an eyebrow. “Scared? Can I get you a night light?”
“Pillock,” Spike muttered under his breath as he followed the man down the stairs. “And if all you want to do,” he said so the man could hear, “is show me a great big golden seal, way ahead of you.”
Xander was enjoying his second piece of cake when Buffy approached him, her arms crossed over her chest. “So. Where did Spike go?”
“Go?” he shrugged, unable to mask the nervous twinge in his voice. “How would I know where Spike went?”
“You came back in the living room just after he left, so I’m assuming you spoke to him. Now, where did he go?” She leaned forward, and he would have stepped back if he hadn’t already been pressed to the wall. “It’s not nice to keep secrets from me at my birthday party.”
“My party too.” He withered under her glower. “You know, between chipless vampires and angry slayers, it’s almost easier to be out dating. And note, I said almost.” He glanced at her cold, determined eyes. “Okay. He went to meet your principal. I don’t know where.”
Without missing a beat, she asked, “Why?”
“I don’t know. Neither did Spike, really. Something about Wood knowing something that was dangerous to you, and wanting to protect you. Or something.”
“Protect me?” Her smile was icy. She called, “Giles, look after the girls,” grabbed her coat from the hook near the door and stepped out into the night.
Spike tried to hide his nervousness at being back in the room with the seal, where he’d been bled, where the Turok Han tried to rise, where they’d barely saved the boy. “So, what is it you wanted to tell me?”
“In good time. What did Buffy tell you about me?” Wood leaned against the wall, almost nonchalant, betrayed by the more rapid beating of his heart.
“Said you were one of the good guys. Vampire hunter and such.” His gaze was wary. “What is this really about?”
“And you’re a vampire. The vampire. The one I’ve been looking for all my life.” He smiled at the thin air, and Spike felt a chill up his spine.
“You know me.”
“She does.” Spike spun around in the direction of the principal’s stare. “She’s not my mother, of course. Not really. But she reminds me of what I have to do.”
She was wearing the leather coat he’d taken as a trophy. And while Spike’s brain screamed at him that this wasn’t the slayer, that is was the First, guilt squeezed at his heart. “Your mother.”
“You took her from me.” Wood pulled a stake from the waistband of his trousers. “A little four year old boy. I know you’re a monster, and you don’t care, but I was just a little kid. I can barely remember her.” He circled the vampire. “But I vowed he’d pay, the one who took her. That you’d pay.”
The First smiled.
Buffy’s feeling of anger at being protected by the two men in her life abated as she walked in the cool night air. It was replaced by a feeling of disquiet. “Why would he call Spike? Why Spike?” She tried to think of where they might meet, then realized that there was only one place they had in common. She turned towards the High School.
As she walked, the words flitted about in her mind. ‘I’ve killed two slayers.’ ‘Killed by a vampire.’ As the pieces fell into place, she started to run.
Spike was standing against the basement wall. He couldn’t take his eyes off his victim. A part of him knew it wasn’t her, that it was just a trick, but she seemed so like her. His other victim stood in front of him, holding the stake in his right hand. Before, the guilt of all his murders lay heavy on him. Now he faced the line upon line of faceless victims, the ones left behind. “I’m sorry,” he groaned. “I know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“No,” Wood stated. “It doesn’t.” He raised the stake in his hand.
“Robin!” Buffy shouted from behind. “Put the stake down. Don’t do it. He’s my friend.”
Wood’s voice was emotionless. “He’s a vampire. He doesn’t have any friends.” He plunged the stake towards Spike’s chest.
Buffy was too far away to stop it. She did the only thing she could. Pulling a concealed dagger from her sleeve, she hurled it towards the principal. As it pierced deep into his back, the stake dropped onto the dirt floor, and he fell.
Spike sank to the ground, and she was quickly beside him. “Are you okay?”
He looked up at her, tears in his eyes. “You shouldn’t have done that, Buffy. I’m not worth it.”
With horror, she realized that Wood hadn’t moved. “Is he…?”
Spike nodded. “I’ll deal with it.”
Buffy stared at the lifeless body with her hilt protruding. “Oh, God. I didn’t…I should have…His arm, or his leg, or…”
She burrowed into Spike’s arms, as he stoked her hair. “I’m sorry. So, so sorry.” After a moment he pulled away. “I’ll bury him here, then I’m getting you home.”
Giles tried to question her when they returned to the house near dawn, but Spike put an arm protectively around her shoulder and started up the stairs. “She’ll tell you tomorrow.”
She lay on her bed, still fully clothed, shaking, as he started out of the room. “Spike? Don’t leave me.”
“Course not, pet.” He lay down beside her and cradled her in his arms.
“There’ll be questions.”
“Nothing to tie you to him. This is Sunnydale. It will pass.” As he finally felt her breathing slow, he allowed himself to sleep.
She opened her eyes wide at the voice. Wood stood beside her bed. “You chose that thing over me. Chose a vampire over a human. What does that make you?”
Buffy ignored him and rolled closer to Spike. For a moment, she wondered if this were a guilty dream or a visitation from the First. She felt something die within her when she realized she didn’t care. The thought passed through her mind that Spike might have won his soul, but she was losing hers. Remembering Dru’s words, that they could love quite well, without a soul, she fell asleep.