Summary: Love isn't an emotion, it's a decision.
Notes: Thanks to Taaroko for the beta, help with names, and title. Thanks to Dark Star, as always, for being an unparalleled webmistress.
Running back to the house instead of walking might not make any difference, but it felt better. Since she had found out exactly how dangerous her new enemy was, Buffy had been doing everything more quickly and efficiently, unable to bear the thought of time wasted when the killer was on the streets. She burst through Giles’ door without knocking and hurried down to the furnished basement, where three startled pairs of eyes noted her arrival and then, seeing that she wasn’t bringing answers, returned to their business.
All of them were exercising the same intense focus that she was, she realized. She felt fractionally better. The team was working as one. They could win this.
Buffy crossed the room to Giles, who was beckoning her silently without taking his eyes from his book. “What have we got?” she asked. “There’s nothing on the streets except scary stories. Far as I can tell he’s a hundred percent solo act.”
“You’re not wrong,” said Giles. “If he ever had any followers, I expect he’s executed them by now. He’s grown too powerful to require assistance.”
“So I’m hearing dark arts, right?” When she received a nod, Buffy continued, “Wouldn’t you know. But the bigger question, and Giles, don’t brush this off as one of my idle curiosity things - is he human?”
“As a matter of fact I see that as an absolutely vital question myself. And I believe I have the answer.” He lifted a book from one of the piles on his desk and opened to a bookmark near the middle, where Buffy saw an illustration of a demonic ritual under a heading in a language she didn’t understand. “He was.”
Buffy looked closer. What had appeared as a demon sucking the life spirit from a man actually looked more like the man was offering it up. His eyes were solid white, and his face was twisted into a hideous grin, while each hand clutched a glowing orb. She shuddered. “He Ascended? Like the Mayor?”
“Not entirely. He still wears his human body, though I believe he’s in a similar state to the Mayor’s before the Ascension. People speak of ‘selling one’s soul’ metaphorically, but in fact it can be a real transaction between a human and an evil entity, trading the hope of salvation for earthly power.”
“So, now he’s big news in the firepower department, but notably lacking in humanity.”
“So I can kill him.”
“If you can kill him, so to speak, you can kill him. He’ll appear quite human to you, but he isn’t one. He’s immensely strong, Buffy, and you mustn’t underestimate him as an opponent, but there is nothing in him that can be redeemed. In any true deal with the devil, the human’s soul is forfeit. Woden simply had the wit to find the best offer in exchange for his.”
Giles gave her a tired smile. “I also found a name.”
Overcome with gratitude, Buffy dropped to one knee to put herself at a height to hug Giles in his chair. He returned the embrace, patting her shoulder, but warned her, “You may want to postpone your optimism. We have yet to find a way to locate him.”
On the other side of the room, Willow stood up suddenly from the couch, setting her laptop down in her place beside Xander. “Angel’s on his way,” she announced.
“You called in Angel without asking me?” said Buffy, more puzzled than hurt. Everyone was usually so sensitive about her and Angel.
“You weren’t here,” Willow pointed out. “I asked everyone else.” She raised her arms above her head and stretched, finishing with a wince and rubbing the back of her neck. “I think this is the kind of situation where a vampire with detective experience comes in handy. Angel thought so too.”
Buffy wanted to ask what else he had said, if he had sounded okay, if he intended to help her in the fight after Woden was found. It wasn’t time for that, though. “Anyone come up with anything useful we can do in the meantime?”
Willow blinked hard and shook her head before thumping back down onto the couch. She looked all-out miserable, but Buffy knew better than to express her sympathy for that. The side table was littered with sketches of symbols and notes in Willow’s handwriting, and Buffy crouched down quietly beside her and began to examine them as if she had any idea what they meant.
“I think I got through in a way,” Willow said hesitantly. “At least, enough to find out he had so many shields on him that I would never actually get through. I could keep chipping at them and probably find him even if I couldn’t hurt him, but I’m afraid. He could find me first. Find us. Even the little bitty bit I’ve done so far might have been too much.”
“Then let it go,” Buffy said immediately. “Just be Research Girl with me, we’ll do without a witch for now.”
Willow nodded, but looked no happier. “Ever since he killed Andrew...”
“I know. Me too.”
“...I just should have figured it out before then. I knew the magical energy in town was feeling kooky. I should have investigated it.”
Buffy shook her head. “And I had five different Slayers telling me they encountered a mysterious stranger. You know why I didn’t take it seriously, Will? Because all five of them told me he was hot. And they giggled. And I thought, ‘Well, girls gotta have their fun.’ How do you think I feel now?”
She only had a few seconds to wallow in the memory, and then the phone rang. Xander picked it up. “Giles Residence. Yeah, it’s Xander. Uh huh. WHAT?”
Before anyone could even exchange a worried glance, Xander had finished the conversation, slammed down the receiver, and grabbed his coat. He had his car keys already in his hand as he explained, “Dead Slayer on West Main. Same wounds as Andrew had. We can’t save her, but maybe we can use this to track him down. Who’s coming?”
Willow stayed, citing her fear of being identified through her magic. Giles took his own car, so they could cover more ground if need be, and Buffy rode shotgun with Xander, tossing her Scythe in the back seat. The location of the body wasn’t far, but Xander sped there anyway, taking advantage of the empty streets of the night by blowing through stop signs and tearing around the corners.
The first thing they saw at the site was not the body, but two live teenage girls, one standing still as a headstone and one crouched on the sidewalk, sobbing. Buffy jumped from the car before it had come to a full stop and rushed to the side of the crying Slayer. Now she saw the dead girl, splayed out on the pavement, all of her limbs broken and her face and torso slashed all over. “Hey Dominique,” said Buffy gently, pulling the crouching girl slowly to her feet and trying to turn her away from her fallen friend. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We’re gonna stop him, okay? This isn’t gonna happen again.”
“I saw him,” stated the other Slayer tonelessly. She was a stranger to Buffy, like the murder victim, but it was clear at a glance that she was a warrior - and that this was her first time dealing with the death of a comrade.
“You did?” Buffy was instantly alert. “Where did he go?”
Xander had parked the car at the curb and was getting out of the driver’s side, but Buffy couldn’t afford to discuss the details of the crime scene with him. She yanked open the back seat door and grabbed the Scythe, dipping her head in thanks to the Slayer who was now pointing silently down the road.
“Buffy, wait!” cried Xander, but she didn’t slow. She could do this herself. Another minute lost could be another life lost.
The street was a dead end, and running straight down it led her into a cemetery. That was good, she felt. It was her terrain - she couldn’t get lost here, and she knew how to search among the graves and find what didn’t belong. She jumped the stone wall surrounding it and then went still, listening and searching.
“It’s good to meet you at last, Buffy Summers.” The voice had come from nowhere, but when she spun around, there he was. It was the kind of dramatic entrance that still reminded her of Angel, but this man was no Angel. He was attractive enough for her to see why the girls had swooned in their reports on him, but she noted something in his smile that she would have distrusted immediately even if she didn’t know who he was.
Giles had been right, though - there was nothing about him that suggested he was anything but human. He was tall and lean, his coloration unclear in the darkness, with flawless features and stylish modern clothing. When he spoke, his accent was English, but not like Giles’. For some reason, it made her think of a rock star’s voice. “I had heard you were beautiful, but I assumed it was exaggeration. I’m quite thrilled to find I was wrong.”
Buffy rolled her eyes, hefting the Scythe. “Don’t tell me you spent your soul on a book of pick-up lines. The devil never offers refunds.”
“Very well. I’m pleased that you accepted my invitation, in any case.”
“Invitation?” By the time the word was out of her mouth, she understood. “Killing my friends to draw me out is the kind of move that’s going to leave you thinking, ‘Boy, that was dumb’ in your last few seconds of life. Basically, shut up. We’re fighting now.”
Woden smirked. He had no weapon, but he aimed a punch at her face, almost as if he were indulging her. She dodged it easily and swung the Scythe straight at his heart. It was not a feint, and he was in no position to avoid or block it. If he wasn’t the real Woden, Buffy realized mid-swing, or if the information about his deal with the devil was in error, the fight would be over already and she would have a dead human on her hands. The axe blade hit home.
Flesh could not have withstood the blow, but Woden’s torso stayed intact, putting Buffy’s fears about his authenticity to rest even as it informed her that this would not be a simple battle. Blood sprayed from the wound, shallow as it was. Buffy took a step back to survey the damage, but held back her satisfaction when she saw the skin knit right back together before her eyes. She blinked. Even his clothes repaired and cleaned themselves.
Woden gave her a wink. “This may sound strange, but that actually feels quite nice. Would you care to do it again?”
“Not really that impressed by invulnerability,” said Buffy, feeling grateful that she had, if nothing else, learned over the years how to hide her fear. “Achilles kinda ruined it for everyone else.”
“I don’t have a weakness. That’s what I spent my soul on, girl. Not having a weakness.”
No longer willing to keep up the banter, Buffy considered her options. It might be literally true that he had no weakness, but she had to keep trying. The best bet was probably to hack his head off, if she could get close enough, and see how it affected him. She shifted her grip on the Scythe and sidestepped, her eyes always on him.
Suddenly there was a whizzing motion coming toward his head, and she reached out to grab the object flying through the air, her reflexes reacting before her mind. A second later she looked dumbly at the small throwing axe she had caught. She had just stopped it from planting itself in Woden’s skull.
“Well thank you,” he chuckled, not even showing any surprise. “That one might not have felt so nice.” He sketched a little bow, turned, and took a few brisk steps into the cemetery before vanishing from her sight.
“Buffy?” Angel had come up behind her, a second throwing axe in his hand, though she didn’t look up from the first one. “Buffy, what happened?”
“So you saved Woden.” Xander looked and sounded disgusted, and Buffy didn’t blame him. The story that she and Angel had brought back to Giles’ basement was a difficult one to swallow for all of them, especially herself. “And this, let’s not forget, was after we found the mutilated corpse of an innocent Slayer which he basically congratulated himself about right to your face.”
Willow elbowed him. “Can you just give her a chance to explain?”
“I can’t explain,” Buffy protested. “I don’t know why I did it. I told you.”
“The axe probably wouldn’t have done much to hurt him anyway,” offered Angel. Buffy cast him a grateful look. He didn’t understand any better than the rest of them, but he was still speaking in her defense.
Willow crossed her arms on the table and laid her chin down on them. “You got a visual on him, Buff. That’s more than we had yesterday.” She paused thoughtfully. “And now you know what he’s like in a fight. So we’re still a little closer to getting him dead.”
Buffy pushed her chair out and tipped back, glaring at the ceiling. She was frustrated beyond her own ability to comprehend. She wanted answers. She wanted to fight something. And yet...
“Where’s Giles?” asked Angel. “He knows better than to let himself be seen, right?”
“Yeah,” said Xander. “He’s coming soon, just checking on a couple other Slayers first. I guess we’ll have to give them all instructions about this. Like, ‘run’.”
Willow drummed her fingers on the table’s surface. “If we can’t destroy him, maybe we can immobilize him? And then destroy him?”
“Stop.” Buffy stood up. “We need to stop thinking like this. Woden’s invincible. We can’t kill him. And...maybe we shouldn’t.” There was a drawn out silence. Buffy didn’t know which pair of eyes to meet, so she looked at the floor. “Maybe I should just go talk to him,” she finished in a small voice.
Xander threw up his hands. “I asked if she was out of her mind the first time. Someone else can do it now.”
“Buffy, are you out of your mind?” said Willow obligingly.
Buffy took a deep breath. She had known that they would react this way, hadn’t she? They just didn’t know...they didn’t get...his eyes. They hadn’t seen his eyes. If they had, she might be able to explain. “We’re all letting our judgment get clouded. Maybe there’s something else behind this. I don’t kill humans, okay? I need more information.”
“He’s not human!” Xander exploded. “Jesus, Buffy! Andrew’s dead! A fifteen-year-old Slayer is dead! What the hell is cloudy about that?”
“Angel!” said Buffy, her eyes snapping up to him. “You were there. You saw him. Don’t you think there’s a chance he could be redeemed?”
He looked at her with such deliberation that she nearly cowered under his gaze. “No,” he said calmly. “I don’t.”
“Well, truth comes out,” she snapped. “Still jealous. Ever wonder why I don’t ask for your help more often, Angel? Here it is.”
They were all staring at her again. “Buffy,” said Willow. “Why would Angel be jealous of Woden?”
Abruptly Buffy jumped to her feet, making everyone else stand up too. She went for the door, and Angel blocked her way. “You’re not yourself right now, Buffy,” he said. “I think you should stay with us.”
“Let me go. I’m just going home. It’s late.”
“Then I’ll walk you home.”
He used to walk her home every night. She used to love that. He carried himself like he had been brought into the world for the sole purpose of keeping her safe from harm. Would Woden do that too, she wondered? Would they fight over the privilege of being with her? She shook her head to clear it. All that mattered right now was going home. Alone. So Angel couldn’t stop her from...where did she want to go?
“I don’t even know where he lives,” she mumbled. “I’d just have to go home and wait to hear from him anyway.” She took another step toward the door.
Angel stopped her again, this time putting a hand on her chest to push her back. Furiously she shoved his arm away from herself and bulled forward so that he had to grapple with her to keep her from continuing. He was still trying to reason with her, and other voices in the room were saying her name with rapidly elevating concern, but she heard footsteps on the stairs, coming down to her, and grew desperate. She lunged for the door, but now Angel had her by both arms and Xander was helping him, and between the two of them they managed to pull her off balance so that she fell to her knees.
The footsteps stopped on the other side of the door, and Buffy looked up, straining against Angel’s hold on her wrists. “Woden!” she cried.
The door opened, and closed quickly again as the man entered and surveyed the scene in the basement room. “Giles,” Angel panted. “We’ve got a problem.”
Angel kept his eyes on Willow, hands splayed out before her and awash with golden light, and Buffy, hugging her knees and shivering periodically. A human would have said that the rattle of Buffy’s handcuffs was the only sound in the room, but Angel heard her breath and heartbeat, and everyone else’s, loudly enough that he kept wondering how Willow could concentrate. Once he risked a quick glance at Giles. The Watcher was watching too, showing no impatience as they all maintained their silence. He had specifically asked Angel to observe along with him so they could discuss it, which came as a surprise and a clear sign that whatever was happening to Buffy had Giles frightened.
“Okay,” said Willow, dropping her hands. “Diagnosis, love spell.”
Buffy opened her eyes and shifted her position. “No...I’ve been under that kind of whammy before. They didn’t feel like this.”
“They wouldn’t have, no.” Willow frowned. “It’s really not working like any love spell I’ve ever heard of. Your feelings for Woden are artificial, but they’re not invasive. No other part of your mind is affected.”
“Still, though. If I’m bewitched, shouldn’t I not even be able to consider the possibility that it isn’t real? I mean, remember Xander that time? All of us went from zero to nympho faster than you can say ‘If I can’t have you no one will’. I can’t explain why I’m feeling like this, but at least I’m not making up excuses.”
Xander was standing close enough that Angel could feel his body heat rise at this, but he ignored him, looking at Willow instead and hoping there was an answer waiting. Buffy was right; she wasn’t displaying the usual behavior of a love spell victim.
“Because it’s on a chemical level, not an emotional one.” said Willow. “If I’m right, anyway. Giles, what do you think? Is that something Woden could do?”
Giles tapped his fingers against his lips before taking off his glasses and answering. “Yes, I believe it is. And furthermore, an enchantment that leaves Buffy’s mental faculties untouched has the potential to be far more dangerous than the more traditional variety.”
“Why?” asked Buffy, even as Angel’s anxiety went up a few notches. “I mean, we’ve got it halfway solved already, don’t we? I just have to tell my heart that the pitter-patter is a counterfeit, and I can ignore it and we can get on with our business.”
Angel spoke up before Giles could answer her this time. “Won’t be that easy. Willow said it was artificial. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“So, artificial like Twinkies?” asked Xander. “Wait, you’re gonna say no, because Twinkies are invasive. I just mean, this isn’t something Buffy can zap away with her awesome willpower?”
“Assuredly not,” said Giles.
Buffy half-rose on her knees, gesturing angrily with both cuffed hands. “Giles, don’t just hand me a condemnation like that. I’m not an amateur. We figured out I’m under a spell, now we figure out how to break it. Probably smash an amulet or say some words backward, right?”
Willow looked distraught and tried to hide it, which of course drew everyone’s attention straight to her. “I don’t know, Buffy,” she said. “I’ll work on it, but...I can spontaneously devise a spell that destroys the whole world, and this guy’s better than me.”
The implications of that were more than a little unsettling. Angel knew, from various sources including Willow herself, exactly how close she had come to going through with her plan to put the world out of its misery. If Woden could one-up a spell like that, they were doomed. Of course, Angel also knew that Willow had only opened that door within herself through a moment of grief-induced madness. An evil man like Woden would never experience that kind of loss, being unable to love anyone like Willow had loved Tara...
“Oh no,” he said out loud. “That’s what he’s doing. He’s making Buffy need him. She can’t hurt him while she’s like this. None of us can, or we’ll hurt her too.”
“No!” Buffy raged. “Dammit, I am stronger than this! I don’t need him!”
Giles stepped over and put his hand on her shoulder. “Nobody means to say you aren’t,” he assured her. “If I had doubted your reasoning ability, I would have insisted we have this conversation outside of your hearing. But as you’ve been rational this far, I must ask that you continue to separate yourself from whatever you may be feeling, and see if Angel might be correct. How did you feel when you were first talking about it, before I came in?”
Buffy calmed visibly and considered the question. “Not exactly rational,” she sighed. “Willow was brainstorming on how to fight him, and I started getting pissy, like she wasn’t being fair. I didn’t start believing out of the blue that Woden was a good guy, I just...couldn’t bear the thought of him being hurt. I wanted to find reasons to hold off on attacking.”
“You wanted to protect him,” stated Xander.
“Buffy, this is not good.”
She glared at him. “I’m over it, okay? That was before I knew what was happening. I can resist it now. What?”
The last was directed at Angel, who realized suddenly that he had been shaking his head at her as she spoke. “I’m sorry,” he said automatically. “But remember. The axe. You already saved him. There was no chance for you to resist it.”
Her cheeks turned a shade pinker. “It was random, a reflex...”
“A reflex that you’ve never had before in all your years of fighting. You would catch a weapon to save an innocent. You wouldn’t do it when it’s headed toward your enemy.”
Buffy was silent for a long moment. Then she said slowly, “In the last ten minutes I’ve had to stop myself from suggesting I go talk to him again about fifty times. Feels like the only real problem on my hands right now is that we’re not together.” She laughed bitterly. “So, I guess the actual real problem is keeping me away from him. Whose job is that gonna be?”
“Mine,” said Angel immediately.
It was clear that nobody else thought that was a good idea. “Angel,” said Buffy amidst varied protestations, “this has got to be hard enough for you as it is.”
His mouth twitched. “Yeah. But we may have to physically hold you down. Who else is up to that?”
“Willow could do magic at her,” said Xander.
“No, I need to be free to protect the rest of us,” Willow objected. “Maybe we could all stay with her.”
Xander nodded. “Or hey, what if she just keeps the handcuffs on all night...week...um...”
“Enough,” snapped Giles. “Angel, are you fully willing to accept this responsibility? Buffy, do you agree to it?”
“Yes,” said Angel.
Buffy sighed. “It’s either this or you let me go talk to Woden.”
Angel had never been in Buffy’s current apartment. He couldn’t help looking around it curiously as they entered, and since she was still taking her keys from the door, that meant he was the first to see the sign, a large white board with black lettering, fastened to the wall straight ahead of him:
12 GLADSHEIM COURT
I WILL BE WAITING
Angel groaned and rushed to hide the address from Buffy’s sight, but it was stuck to the wall more securely than he had expected, and she read it out loud while he was pulling at it. “Wow,” she said dryly. “That’s one way to booby trap a place, huh?”
A chunk of plaster fell into Angel’s hand. “I think I’m ruining your wall,” he said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“Woden ruined my wall,” she corrected. “So on top of everything else, we have trespassing and vandalism. And you know what sucks the most? Part of me thinks it’s cute.” She slung her purse onto the counter and jabbed the button on her answering machine with an angry finger.
“Buffy, maybe you shouldn’t listen to--” Angel began, but he was too late again.
The voice coming from the machine was the same one they had heard in the cemetery earlier that night. “Hello, Buffy. My number is 403-5539. If you are, for any reason, unable to come to me at my temporary home, I thought you might appreciate having another way to contact me. I’ll be waiting to hear from you. This is Woden, by the way.”
“Angel,” said Buffy in a measured tone, “would you please do me a favor and delete this message before I let myself play it one more time and memorize the number.”
Angel was impressed; she was handling herself with greater control and poise than he thought most people would have in her situation. Quickly he complied and deleted the message for her. Of course, he had memorized the number the first time he heard it, and there was always the possibility that she had too without realizing it, so the safest thing would be to keep her away from phones for now.
“Um,” he said carefully, looking at the laptop open on the table. “Maybe I should screen your email, too?”
She sighed. “Yeah, I guess you better. I wonder where he gets all this information? Bleh, I probably don’t want to know. Email’s open on the desktop. Password is ‘cheeseman’. I’m gonna take a shower. Pretty sure I won’t get any surprise messages in there.”
“Just shout if I need anything?” They both laughed, wearily but honestly. Angel had played bodyguard before, but not for any case as strange as this one.
“I’ll make myself at home,” he said, and she smiled at him before disappearing into the bathroom.
With no small amount of trepidation, Angel sat himself in front of the computer and opened Buffy’s email. It meant a lot to him that she trusted him enough to leave him alone in the room with access to her personal files. Now he had to trust himself enough to not take advantage of the opportunity.
Sure enough, the most recent email in her inbox came from the address firstname.lastname@example.org. Angel rolled his eyes. This guy seemed to be making a point of finding new ways to make Angel hate him. The subject line was ‘Email me at any time’, and the content read simply, “Any way you choose to contact me, I will respond right away. With regards, Woden.”
Angel deleted the message, and then deleted it from the trash folder for good measure. He found an option for blocking further emails from Woden’s account, and made use of it, though he suspected that there were plenty of ways that a sharp stalker could get around that. He made a mental note to ask Willow about online safeguards tomorrow. Finally, he double-checked Buffy’s inbox, and was there faced with his first moral dilemma of the night: his own name was staring back at him. He hadn’t opened anything he wasn’t supposed to, but the first line of each recent email was visible without clicking on it, and one, from Dawn’s address, began with “Hey, if Angel’s the reason you still aren’t dating...”
Buffy’s love life was none of his business. He had told himself that plenty of times, even told her once or twice, when she sounded like she was about to get apologetic for having a boyfriend. It had been a long time since he had heard anything about a boyfriend, but until now he had assumed that he simply wasn’t informed.
He logged off without opening the email. When Buffy returned from her shower, she found him engrossed in a game of Minesweeper. She chuckled affectionately and then immediately asked about Woden.
The first night was the easiest.
“Do you think they’re okay there?” asked Willow. “I mean, nothing is really stopping him from barging in her door and abducting her. Except Angel. And all signs point to him not really being Woden-caliber.”
Giles scooped the tea bag from his cup, squeezing it carefully before setting it on the saucer. “There’s little danger of that. He wouldn’t arrange these circumstances simply to ambush her in her own flat.”
“Because he wants her to come to him, right?” Xander put in. He received a grave nod from Giles, and sighed deeply. “And killing him, even if we could, won’t break the spell?”
“We’ll keep investigating that,” Giles assured him. “But as of now, all I can say with confidence is that we’ve a better chance at unlocking the love spell than we have at defeating him while it’s still in effect.”
“On board,” said Xander. “I am intensely over the thrill of seeing my friends on the magical roofie. Willow, remember when you wanted to cast that de-lusting spell on us? Could you do that on Buffy?”
Willow didn’t quite roll her eyes, but she somehow gave the impression that she had. “You can’t cancel out magic by piling on more magic. The spell on top just slides off. I’ve been looking for a counterspell, but...” She shrugged, not needing to finish.
Giles took up the thread easily. “Our past experiences with magically induced romance may not be at all applicable. Most casters of love spells are infatuated idiots, like Xander. Woden is no fool, and he isn’t interested in Buffy’s love for its own sake.”
“Then why?” asked Willow, as Xander nodded in guilty agreement.
“I believe Angel was correct in his assessment. Woden’s hold on Buffy gives him protection from the rest of us.”
Willow locked her gaze on him, her expression progressing gradually to an unknown destination. “Which means he needs protection from us.”
The day shift came to Buffy’s apartment the next morning, bearing books and “just in case” oral sedatives, and Angel slept. Buffy had breakfast with Giles, Willow, and Xander, talked to them about their research, and kept herself busy as they continued it in her living room, but she had preferred Angel’s company. He had an uncanny knack for keeping his manner casual and comforting without skirting away from the topic of Woden, while her friends seemed to be endlessly repeating the cycle of dropping his name and then apologizing, red-faced. They didn’t know what to do with her condition. That was okay, as she didn’t either, but with Angel, it hadn’t felt so obvious.
From what Giles explained, they were working on finding a way to break the love spell first, but she also sensed that they were simultaneously searching for a way to kill him, and didn’t want to tell her about it. That hurt, but she understood. Woden had not yet left her thoughts for more than a few seconds at a time. When she opened a book, she was fantasizing about undressing him. When she ate a sandwich, she was wondering what he was up to at the moment. When she called Dawn, she was plotting an escape out the window and a dash to 12 Gladsheim Court.
Late in the afternoon, restless and frustrated, she left the team to their studies and crept into the darkness of her bedroom, where Angel was stretched out on her bed, still as a corpse. She hadn’t meant to wake him, but when he turned toward her she counted it inevitable and closed the door. “Why don’t you go under the covers?”
He might have smiled, but she couldn’t see. “Didn’t want to get your sheets dirty. If I stay another day here I’ll get some more clothes and a sleeping bag.”
The thought of Angel in a sleeping bag made her giggle, but by the time she sat down on the bed next to him, she was thinking about Woden in a sleeping bag. Naked. Asking her to join him. She dropped her face into her hands.
“No better today?” asked Angel, sitting up.
“Worse,” she confessed. “But the gang is working on it. And they’re calling in Spike and Faith to patrol while I’m, you know, out of commision.”
“Good. We’ll figure it out, Buffy. You just have to hang on a little longer.”
She leaned against him, letting him wrap an arm around her, not caring about consequences. “The things I want him to do to me...some of them are just sick. I know they’re sick. But I don’t even feel ashamed.”
That elicited a reaction, as she had known it would. “There’s nothing for you to feel ashamed about. He made you want him. He didn’t give you a choice.”
“Neither did you.”
Angel half-rose, pulling away from her as if stung. “Buffy...”
She lifted her hands. “What? I thought we were going to be realistic about this. I couldn’t stop myself from falling in love with you. I could have stopped myself from having sex with you anyway, but I didn’t. That was the choice I made, not the feelings. Want to show me a difference between then and now?”
“The difference is that I loved you too,” he said coldly.
“So? Woden’s evil. He can’t love. Doesn’t make me want him any less. He changed me on purpose, whatever. He isn’t controlling my actions. Neither could you.” She whirled away from him and flopped down on her side, hugging a pillow. “If you’re done sleeping, I want to take a nap in here.”
She didn’t watch him leave the room, but when the door clicked shut, she sagged and released a long breath. Why had she done that? Why punish Angel for what Woden had done? Because Woden’s untouchable, duh, came the thought. And I guess I’ve got to punish someone.
It was hard to properly picture Woden’s face, having only seen it in the dark, but she tried. It was the only kind of comfort she could find.
“What have you got?” Angel demanded from the doorway. All three of the living room’s current residents looked startled to see him standing there, but Willow stood up and started closing up the curtains to let him enter.
“I’ve found some interesting leads on the deal that he brokered for his power,” Giles began, but Angel waved him off impatiently.
“I need a weakness. Something I can use to threaten him. If he’s the only one who can cancel the spell on Buffy, we need some way to convince him to do it.”
“Then grab a tome, director,” said Xander.
Angel started pacing. “I could go fight him. Couldn’t beat him, but maybe he would let something slip...”
“We need you here,” said Willow. “Also, quit with the death wish.”
“Willow,” said Angel, leaning over her with desperation etched on his face. “If we keep holding her here, she’s going to hate us. She’ll go over to him just to get away. We need to put a stop to this before it gets too much for her to handle, or we won’t be able to help her through the damage it causes.”
There was a tense silence, and then Giles exhaled heavily and admitted, “It’s worse than you know. Another dead Slayer was found this morning. Woden won’t wait for us to find a way around his plan. He means to make his next move soon, and we don’t have one of our own to counter it.”
Angel pressed his hands to his temples. “Spike and Faith?”
“On their way,” said Giles, “but by bringing them here we’re risking them too.”
“And I’m afraid to ask,” Xander added, “but what exactly happens if, you know, Woden wins?”
It was Willow who answered. “More power to Woden.” She glanced around at everyone’s aghast faces, and then quickly corrected, “I mean, literally. He’s not the destroying type. All he’s done so far is collect power, so that’s probably all he’s aiming for on the largest possible scale. In the end, it’ll be Woden, Ruler of the Universe.”
“Boy,” said a voice at the doorway, where Angel had come in when he woke. Even he twitched to hear it - he had been too distracted to notice Buffy had left her room. “So this is the stuff you save for when I’m not here?”
Willow looked as if she had indeed been caught red-handed. “Buffy, we were just...”
“It’s fine,” Buffy snapped. “You’ve got work to do, keep doing it. But Angel’s up now, so the rest of the party can move back out of here.”
“You don’t want...?” Xander began to venture.
“No! I don’t want company! Just find me a way to get out of this damned apartment so I can fight like I’m supposed to!”
Xander didn’t see Giles catch Angel’s eye and nod. He didn’t see Willow tilt her head to hear a whisper from Giles. When they were out of the building, though, he heard it for himself: “New plan,” Willow informed him. “Angel was onto something there.”
The more time passed, the less Buffy seemed able to function. At first, she had tried cooking, cleaning, watching movies, having conversations, or sleeping, and had managed to keep up each activity for at least a little while with only a few acidic complaints to hinder it. Now, she couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute or two, and she couldn’t sleep or carry on a meaningful dialogue with either Angel or Dawn, the latter of whom had heard about the situation over the phone and was calling back regularly for updates.
Finally, Angel told her to work out for as long as she could, so that maybe she could wear out her body and fall asleep. He left her in her bedroom for privacy, and listened to the clockwork pattern of breaths and light thumps as she looped through a variety of simple exercises. Giles had left him with a stack of books that might contain helpful information, but so far, none of them had. He didn’t know how much time had passed when suddenly the sounds from Buffy’s room turned into a loud pounding, and her ragged voice shouting, “NO! NO! NO!”
He rushed in to find her on her knees, banging the floor with her fists. He knelt by her and took her lightly by the wrists, not wanting to incite her with any gesture suggesting he was trying to control her, but she stopped instantly and wrapped herself around him, face pressed tight against his chest.
“Maybe...” He hesitated, stroking her hair in an automatic reaction but completely lost about what he could say that would help. “Buffy, do you want to be sedated? Just to let you get some rest?”
For nearly a minute, she said nothing, and he wasn’t sure if she had even heard him. Then she spoke in a tiny voice, barely moving her face from his shirt: “How do you stand it?”
Angel was baffled. How did he stand it? Granted, it wasn’t easy to see her obsessing over another man - he could even smell it on her - but it had been years; he knew how to suppress his own yearning even if it hadn’t been overpowered by sympathy pains. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m here for you. I’m trying to help you.”
Finally she disengaged her grip a little and leaned back to look in his eyes. “I mean, being a vampire. Never killing, never drinking human blood. I know you still want to. You must still want to. How do you stand it?”
“Ah.” He hadn’t thought of the parallel himself, but there she was, always surprising him. “So that’s how it feels for you. Craving something you can’t let yourself have. No wonder.”
“But I could have it,” she insisted. “I could get away from here - sorry, Angel, but you know I could - and go find him, and be with him, and I would be happy. I have to keep telling myself why I shouldn’t do that, and it’s getting so hard.”
He leaned against the bed with her, glad she stayed in his arms. “When my demon wants something, I ask my soul if I can have it. The soul knows it’s wrong to kill humans, so it says no, and I choose to obey. It’s never easy, but at least it’s gotten to be a habit.”
“So for me, the demon is the love spell,” said Buffy, slowly, as if she was working it out as she spoke. “But my soul isn’t telling me it’s wrong to be with Woden. I need something else.”
“Just look deep. Remind yourself he’s evil. He’s manipulating you.”
Buffy sounded forceful again; not furious, but undeniably angry at him for not understanding. “I told you, I know he’s evil. Who cares? Is it wrong to sleep with someone who doesn’t love you? I don’t even know. But if it is, it’s still not as wrong as killing, right? It can’t be. How is my conscience supposed to get the firepower it needs for this?” She shifted, holding onto his knee and getting close to his face. “Listen. I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Because I pretty much have to. Willow said Woden won’t destroy the world, he’ll just try to rule it. If we can’t stop that from happening, then what? Isn’t it better if I’m at his side? At least I would have some power. I could ask him to be merciful. I could be the negotiator to keep down casualties.”
“That’s insane,” Angel growled. He knew there had to be a better way to talk to her, but with this new idea of hers revealed, he was drawing a blank. “We’re going to defeat him. We’re going to fight and make our sacrifices, like we always do, and we’re going to win. You’re not giving yourself up to that...that...”
“That god?” Buffy let the word hang there, sending chills down Angel’s spine, and then continued in a frighteningly rational voice. “I wouldn’t be giving myself up. I would be happy. He’s all I want anymore. How am I supposed to be myself if the only thing I can feel is this void?”
“The only thing? Buffy, think about your friends. Your family. You have so much to lose.”
“Yeah, especially if I let them all get killed trying to fight Woden, when all I needed to do was surrender to my own desires.” She shook her head in frustration. “I know you won’t believe this coming from me and my wacky mojo’d heart, but there’s no way to win against him. If the gang actually manages to find a counterspell and bring me back to normal, we’ll just be back to square one, only without a chance for me to get on the omnipotent guy’s good side.”
Angel didn’t want to, but he let go of her and stood up. “I will not let you go near him. There is no way any good can come of it.”
She stood, too, a little pillar of beautiful fury. “Says the guy who thought he could rewire the evil abyss by becoming its CEO!”
“This is different! Giving Woden your body is wrong, it’s inherently wrong!”
“Stop saying that and give me a goddamn reason it’s wrong!”
“Because you’re better than him! You deserve someone who cares about you!” He was nearly shouting, no, he was shouting, and he didn’t know how he had lost enough control to bring him to this.
Buffy didn’t seem to be thinking about that. “What I deserve is to make my own choice! I’m not some sheltered little girl. I want. To be. With Woden!”
“Over my ashes!”
He kissed her. He had no idea that he was going to do it until his lips were pressed against hers, but when she responded by reaching for his head and pulling him closer, he knew there had never been another option. Soon his tongue was tangled with hers, his hands were rubbing up and down her back, and she was saying “Yes, yes, yes,” whenever she had the space for it.
He broke away first, but only to pull his shirt over his head so her hands were relieved from their goal of getting it away from him. At the sight of his bare chest, she seemed suddenly to come back to her senses, and asked in a breathy voice, “What are you doing?”
“Giving you a distraction.” He tossed the shirt away and kissed her again, this time with full awareness of what he was doing.
Her fingertips ran down his belly and touched his belt buckle. “The curse...”
“Perfect happiness? While you’re dreaming about that son of a bitch?” He laughed, knowing that his voice was still saturated with scorn, and not caring. “Never been safer. Touch me.”
And she touched him.
Giles took hold of Xander’s semi-conscious form by the armpits and dragged him carefully from the back seat of the car; Willow took his feet as soon as she could, and between the two of them they soon had him laid out on Giles’ couch. Willow wasted no time in performing her healing spell, and in less than a minute he was blinking at them groggily and asking what had happened.
“Well,” said Willow, clasping his hand and smiling, in spite of everything, to see him awake and out of danger. “He kind of made an example of you.”
“But not the dead meat kind of example, huh?”
She shook her head. “No. I couldn’t have done anything about that.”
Giles gave Xander an affectionate pat on the shoulder, limiting his own display of relief to a small smile. “Do you need anything, Xander?”
“Just more answers. And the most American snack food you’ve got here.” He rubbed his eye. “Please don’t let this be one of those ‘and it was all for nothing’ deals.”
Willow was already telekinetically pulling books from the shelf as Giles went to the kitchen to fulfill Xander’s request. “You’re in luck,” she said. “Aside from the whole not being dead thing, I mean. I might have picked up exactly what we needed...aha.” One of the books had stopped in front of her face, already open, and she had barely skimmed it before nodding in satisfaction. “Giles, gimme everything you know on the demon Mimir.”
“Ah!” Giles looked positively giddy, dashing around his house like a child to deliver a muffin to Xander and then raid the bookshelves. “Mimir, pure demon, never crossed to our dimension, half a moment and I’ll have more.”
“So what’s this?” asked Xander from the couch.
Willow didn’t look up. “Woden made a deal with the devil. Which devil? This devil.”
“Was there a discussion about this after I went unconscious?”
“No, but I recognized the incantations he was using to manipulate your body. Like when your ribcage was contracting, he said--”
Xander struggled to a sitting position, looking horrified. “My ribcage contracted?”
“Lie down!” she snapped. “You’re healing!”
“Let’s not get off track, now,” called Giles. He held up an illuminated scroll. “I’m quite certain of it. Mimir is the demon who purchased Woden’s soul.”
“Great, and what good does it do us to know this?” asked Xander, even while obediently sinking back down to the couch cushions.
Willow grinned deviously. “Who’s better at retrieving lost souls than us?”
Buffy didn’t wake up beside Angel, having never fallen asleep in the first place. She did, however, come to a moment of focus and stillness after the euphoria inside her had leveled out, and she used it to recollect herself and turn her silent eyes to her lover. Angel was asleep, which she never would have expected, but perhaps it made sense. She must have really overwhelmed him, shut down his mind with the sheer magnitude of what they were doing. In another lifetime, she would have been petrified at this point, poised over him with a cross and an orb.
Now that danger was the least of her worries. She knew she had a job to do, but the sight of him there, massive and vulnerable - not peaceful, not content - was too precious to leave. Besides, if she moved too quickly and woke him now, it could ruin everything. She didn’t know when she had settled on this course of action, but it was there, waiting to be set in motion once she worked up the courage to return the cruel favor Angel had given her long ago.
Her heart was pulling at her, insisting on her departure with such urgency that even her body seemed to feel a physical pressure. For her own sanity, she needed to get back to Woden.
It was the first time she had consciously thought about Woden since Angel had taken her to bed. Angel had to believe what he had to believe, so she could never tell him, but whatever else happened tonight, she would treasure this last moment with him.
Finally she put one bare foot on the floor, then the other, and padded naked to the living room. The sedatives were in a little white bottle, and she read the dosage and doubled it, placing the pills onto his tongue and rubbing his throat so he swallowed without waking. For a few moments longer she watched him, and then, satisfied that he would remain where he was, she touched her lips lightly to his and whispered, too softly to even hear herself, “You’re my reason.”
Moving more quickly now, she dressed, slipped out the door, and set off for Gladsheim Court, to find the house of Woden.
She didn’t know it until she got there, but the address he had given her was an apartment building...or it had been. There was no sign anywhere and no panel of names or an intercom by the center (and only) door, so she pushed and found it unlocked. She entered a small antechamber, cheaply tiled, containing nothing but one more door. It was monumentally clear to her that she was in the right place, and that there was magic at work that would have thrown off any unwanted visitor. But she had never doubted that he would know she was coming. She stepped forward and turned the knob.
There was nothing of an apartment building inside. Even the volume of it looked different than it had from outdoors - it was just as large, but shaped gracefully, with a domed ceiling and rows of marble buttresses along each side of the chamber. It was a throne room, Buffy realized, a second before she saw the throne.
It was gilded and magnificent, she registered, but it couldn’t hold her attention beyond that impression, because Woden wasn’t in it. He was behind it, kneeling at an ornate chest and acting very oddly, taking crystalline orbs and items out of the chest and smashing them on the floor. When he saw her, he stopped and straightened, but Buffy saw his face clouded with irritation before he smoothed it over and smiled at her.
Her heart raced as he came down from his throne’s platform. She had hoped and tried to believe that her affliction was merely magically induced lust and nothing more complicated, but seeing him again in person brought out a full range of emotional reactions: relief that he was here and unharmed, joy at being in his presence, and worst and strongest, the desire to please him. She met him halfway before she realized her feet were moving.
He clasped her hands in his and released them after a quick squeeze, but made no other move to touch her, and she forced herself to refrain from touching him. “I missed you,” he said in that crooning voice of his. “Your friends were here. An old man, a little witch, a one-eyed boy.” He grinned playfully. “He didn’t trade the other for wisdom, did he?”
Buffy paced her breathing and pictured each face. “Did you kill them?”
Woden shook his head. “No. I didn’t want to upset you.”
“Good,” she replied, pathetically proud of herself for not thanking him. “I came here...to negotiate. I know you want me to be cooperative, or you wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”
“Absolutely true.” He offered her his hand, which she took, and began to lead her around the cavernous room. The light flickered once - or possibly the entire room did, Buffy’s eyes couldn’t quite comprehend what they were seeing - and Woden twitched, that much she definitely saw. He made no mention of the lights, though, and his voice sounded no less serene. “I can promise you I will never hurt anyone you care about. If I have to take measures to contain them, I’ll do it with the utmost care for their safety and well-being, and you’ll see them as often as you like.”
“What about everyone else?” she asked. She avoided looking into his eyes, knowing she wouldn’t easily be able to look away, and instead found herself transfixed by the paintings on the walls. Each was as skillfully rendered as a famous masterpiece, but none were familiar. “I don’t want anyone to die, including strangers. Not if I’m a part of this.”
Woden spoke gently. “My empire will be a benevolent one, Buffy, but we won’t get there instantly. There may be war first.”
“War against who?”
He exhaled slowly, in time with his casual stroll. “Against evil, of course. I won’t smite anyone for defying me. I’ll simply direct them to the true danger. Humanity against the denizens of hell, as it should be.”
Buffy felt momentarily dizzy. With the fairy-tale palace around her and the lord of her heart at her side, the idea of a peaceful world with humans triumphant over demons seemed all too possible. I still have my senses, she reminded herself. That’s why I’m here. Can’t let him change me. “I’ve seen a little hell in my time. It doesn’t go down easy. If you make war, how do you know we would win?”
He smiled. “Because of you. The Slayer. The greatest warrior in the world, armed with all the power and magic I have to give you.”
Belatedly she noticed that she had become lost in his eyes after all, and she tore them away and looked down to the intricate mosaic beneath her feet. “You wouldn’t keep me from my calling? You would fight demons with me?”
“I would,” he said solemnly. “In fact, I know just the demon we can start with. He’s called Mimir - but I’ll spare you the details for now.”
He lifted her hand to his lips, and they stopped walking. They had made a full circle around the throne room, and he turned her now to face the platform in the center. Where there had been only his own throne before, now there were two, one clearly shaped for a woman’s form, but no less glamorous than the other. “I’m not looking for a sex slave, Buffy. I’m asking you to be my queen.”
She could have laughed at the throne, but there was nothing funny about the man pointing to it. He was everything. Holding back was among the hardest things she had ever done. “Prove it,” she said.
“What do you want?”
Her mouth twisted. “You know what I want. I’ve been wanting it for days. It’s killing me. But before I get it I have to know this is the right thing for my people. Show me you mean what you say. Arm me.”
There was no love in his expression; there couldn’t be, but Buffy thought she saw admiration, fondness. Certainly excitement. “This way,” he said, motioning to an arched doorway she was fairly sure hadn’t been there when they circumvented the hall. “This way, to both.”
They crossed through, into his bedchamber, and she wished she could die. The room itself was a pile of royal cliches, one lush excess after another, but there was an enormous bed, and here was Woden, and her body was screaming at her to put them together and take the happiness that was being offered so freely. She looked instead at the chandelier, bristling with candles instead of bulbs. He would probably light it magically every night, making it surpass any natural beauty of flame and gold.
“Here,” he said, and she turned back to him, eager as a dog. He was holding out a sword sheathed in the finest red leather she had ever seen. Rubies twinkled at her as she accepted it and drew the blade. Her eyes locked onto it, finally torn away from Woden; it was that beautiful. She set down the sheath and tried a swing. The weight was perfect, and she didn’t need to be told that the weapon was magically enhanced. Like the Scythe, it sent currents of energy through her, urging her to use it as it was intended.
Woden smirked at her over the glimmering blade, capturing her attention once again. She didn’t need to tell him what she thought of his gift; he knew. He had even known, somehow, that she would ask him for a weapon, and had prepared for the occasion by procuring for her the best of the best.
She lowered the tip. “So here we are.”
He nodded. “You resisted coming for longer than I thought you could. I’m impressed. It must have been very hard.”
“I couldn’t bear being away from you,” she confessed in a whisper. She saw his pleased smile, and felt a quick thrill for causing it, before her eyes dropped. Her hand tightened on the hilt of her sword, and her voice came out louder, steadier. “That’s how I knew it wasn’t real.”
Woden showed a brief, suspicious frown. Buffy lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. “Maybe you shouldn’t have picked a girl who knows how it feels to be in love.”
“Buffy,” said Woden evenly. “The spell I cast on you is stronger than any kind of passion in nature or magic. Don’t think you can break it.”
“I won’t,” she promised, but she took a step toward him, and he leaned back - he didn’t step, but he did lean. “I’ve been thinking a lot,” she continued. “Angel has a demon and a soul. I have you and Angel. I can’t control what I feel for either of you. It’s kind of a crap deal. We get these forces pulling us in opposite directions, and the wrong way - have you noticed this? - the wrong way is always the easy way. Leave it alone for long enough, and eventually you’ll find ways to justify it, but it’s still wrong.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Who is Angel?”
“Wow. Didn’t really do your research at all, did you?”
“This is foolishness. You love me.”
Buffy cracked a grin, gritting her teeth so hard that it hurt. “Yes, I do.” She ventured another step toward him, raising her sword, and was overjoyed and shattered to see him retreat a few inches.
“And furthermore,” he said, “you’re aware from past experience that nothing you do to me will have any long-term effect. I’m invincible.”
“Somehow I’m thinking that isn’t as true as it was yesterday.” She raised an eyebrow. “What were you doing when I came in, anyway? Smashing magic stuff? What’s that about?”
“It’s very early in our relationship for me to have to chastise you,” he warned.
“Yeah, it’s moving really fast for me too. You know what they say, fools rush in.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but Buffy couldn’t stall any longer. It was time for the big test. She struck.
Her attack was flawless, but Woden dodged it. After all of that standing and boasting, he dodged it. The part of Buffy’s mind that wasn’t numbed with fear was soaring. Even unarmed as he was, she knew she wasn’t going to kill him with one blow, but two crucial points had just been proven: she was capable of attacking him, and he was afraid of the blade’s effect on his body.
None of that needed to be stated out loud. “Come on,” she challenged. “I want to show you what I do to men I love.” She swept into a new stance and tried a maneuver from the other side, and this time, instead of moving, he barked a word in Latin and a sword materialized in his own hand, just in time to block hers. It was another victory for her; not only had she put him on the defensive, but she was forcing him to fight her. Still, there was that immense feeling of relief that he hadn’t been hurt, and no way of telling whether next time it would be strong enough to stop her arm. She had to move quickly, pretend it was just an ordinary enemy she was facing and that her own survival was all that mattered.
And her own survival, she soon understood, was certainly at stake. Once Woden had determined to fight, he fought hard. His attacks were calculated and complex, unlike the automatic expertise with her sword that Buffy’s Slayer powers had given her. She had innovation on her side, and she could tell she surprised him once or twice with strikes that seemed to come from nowhere, but his knowledge of the art form was apparently limitless. The point of his sword touched her once, twice, nearly three times, but she avoided the third at the expense of losing her offensive position. Her sword arm was bleeding now, and her face. She didn’t care. She was just glad that Woden didn’t have any comparable wounds; she didn’t know if she could keep this up while seeing him in pain.
“If you hurt me,” he said, echoing her thoughts, “you’ll regret it all your life. In so many ways. If I kill you, I won’t need to even grieve.”
“Yeah,” she huffed. “You wouldn’t have time for it anyway, though. Gotta get that power back somehow, right?”
He glowered at her as he parried her attack. “This is hardly a setback. It won’t take but a day.”
“Ha!” She sidestepped, allowing the fight to turn back deeper into the bedroom. She had been trying to draw it out to the throne room, but for his own reasons, Woden didn’t seem to want that, so she would have to keep dodging the furniture. “So, you really aren’t at the top of your game. Finally, some honesty.”
His voice was silky. “Come, Buffy, when have I ever lied to you? My offer was legitimate. It still stands. Drop the sword and I’ll make you happy and we’ll heal the world. You’re risking so much right now.”
It was all a strategy to give her a moment of doubt, and a weak one at that. She knew it, but it was working anyway. Her next two slashes were half-hearted, distracted by thoughts of a future full of passion and comfort and changes that would matter. Analyzing the possibilities wasn’t doing her any good, and she was beginning to feel winded. “Angel,” she said, and pressed on.
“Who is Angel?” Woden snarled. He was truly angry, and Buffy had a wild moment of terror that she had blown her chance, he would revoke his offer, he would never let her come close to him again. She couldn’t tell herself that it wasn’t what she was trying for anyway. All she could see was that she had damaged her relationship with her idol, upset him so much that he had...he had left himself open.
Her sword came down. She drove it right through his flesh to his heart, no less a killing blow than the first time she had fought him, with the Scythe in the cemetery. This time, though, it went deeper. Blood rushed out. His clothing ripped and stayed that way. His body still wasn’t as fragile as an ordinary human’s, but it wasn’t as strong as it had been, and this was a wound that counted.
He shouted in agony and kept fighting, but it was over. Buffy needed only to evade a few more haphazard strikes and contribute a few decisive ones of her own. As she had feared, it was hard to see him like this and harder to wound him further, but she had been through worse. When he tumbled to the ground, she kicked the weapon from his hand and decided she had done enough. She knew a fallen foe when she saw one. Woden wasn’t going anywhere.
She sat down a few feet away from him, still holding her sword. She thought she might keep it, as a memento. Not much else of him would be left after he was gone, she suspected. While immersed in the fight, she hadn’t noticed, but the room seemed to be slowly deteriorating around her as the magic holding it together faded out. The red and gold bedspreads turned blue and dingy. The elegant chandelier shook and fell from the ceiling, but vanished before it hit the floor.
“To answer your question,” Buffy said wearily. “Angel is a vampire. He has a soul. I love him, but I can’t be with him.”
Woden was sprawled on his back, staring up at the darkening ceiling. “Quiet, while I’m dying,” he coughed.
“We never got to have what we wanted. Not me, not him. I used to think I would always be miserable, knowing he was out of my reach. But you know what?” She leaned back against an armoire. “All things considered, I’ve had a pretty good life. I’m glad Angel exists. A lot of other people are alive because Angel exists. I think that’s wonderful.”
“My soul...” uttered Woden.
Buffy jolted. “Is it coming back to you? Oh God, is it already there?”
“No. It can never return to me. I don’t know where it’s gone now. That lowlife Mimir, he’s the one who lost it, I had nothing to do with it...all this for nothing...”
Reassured that she hadn’t taken a human soul and he had no further strength to gather, Buffy settled back again, sword across her knees. “Do you think when you’re dead, I’ll be able to hate you?” she asked quietly.
He seemed to be trying to laugh. “Never.”
An hour later, Angel staggered into the apartment building on 12 Gladsheim Court, supported by Faith. Buffy was crying in the corner of one vast, rundown room, holding the head of her dead enemy in her lap, leaning on a broken dresser.
“I know how to snap her out of it,” said Spike, earnestly scooping up handfuls of Xander’s potato chips. “Give a ring to her other other ex, have him set her up with a chip that goes off whenever she thinks about what’s-his-evil. That’ll sort her out in no time.”
Faith shot him a glare and wrenched the bowl of chips from his hands. “Don’t be a dick. She’s gonna be fine. Just needs a buddy to stick with her until she’s over him. Right, Giles?”
Giles, who wasn’t thinking about much aside from how to remove all of these visitors from his basement, nodded absently. “What she’s feeling now is the loss of a loved one. It’s emotionally very difficult, but with Woden dead, there’s no temptation involved and no magical residue. She’ll sort through her own feelings naturally, in time.”
“But yes to the buddy to stick with her, right?” said Willow. She was sitting on the couch with Xander, and after her question, she looked at him and then spontaneously gave him a quick, awkward hug.
“I’m just wondering,” said Xander, looking both touched and confused as he did his best to return the embrace. “Is Angel really the right guy for that job? I know, yeah, me and Angel, but I thought she would want to be with all of us right now. She hasn’t even said hi to Ramen Head there. Can I have my chips back?”
“Eh,” said Faith. “Can’t blame her for that.” She put the bowl back into Spike’s lap, crunching on her final chip. “Seriously, Xan, let it go. She’ll be back when she’s ready. Anyway, what the hell kinda whammy did you guys put on Woden? Turned him into a weak-ass bum living in a shelled out low income housing block?”
Giles smiled sadly. “No. I’m afraid he did all that to himself. You see, all he had came from his own magical power, and all his power came from the demon Mimir. When we called back Woden’s soul, Mimir assumed the deal was off, and began to siphon away everything he had traded to Woden.”
“Have we had fun playing with our command of the afterlife, then?” asked Spike sardonically. “Where’s the blighter’s soul gone now?”
“Right back to Mimir,” Willow admitted. “I couldn’t hang onto it for long. If Buffy hadn’t been able to kill Woden when she did, he would have put everything back to normal by now.”
“Well,” said Xander, “at least she didn’t have to fight him for nothing.”
Buffy looked up at the moon, floating through a stream of silver clouds. She looked around herself, at the headstones and trees wrapped in a dignified stone wall. She looked at Angel, took his hand, and started to walk with him.
“Slay therapy?” he asked, the first words either of them had spoken in at least ten minutes.
She shrugged. “If the opportunity arises. Mostly I just wanted to take a walk with you here. Brings back memories, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said, then paused. “Good memories?”
“Good ones,” she confirmed. “Being happy with you. Being where I belonged, at least for a little while.”
“I wish we could have kept that. I wish I could stay.”
“I know. Me too. But leaving was the right thing for you to do, wasn’t it? There was so much temptation, and so many things we couldn’t give each other. And what you’ve done since you’ve been gone, that was important. You couldn’t have done it if you were with me.”
He smiled and hugged her around the shoulders. “Sounds like you’ve taken something from this experience.”
Buffy steered them toward a cluster of trees; she thought she might have seen movement there. “I hope so. It was so horrible, while it was happening. Every other time I’ve been under a brain hack, I could just tell myself, well, that wasn’t me. That’s not really who I am or how I think. But this...it’s over, and I still feel it. I still want him back.”
“I still dream about the taste of your blood,” said Angel. “I know you don’t want to know this. But I have to tell you, I understand how it feels. I don’t want to want some things, but they’re always there.” He kissed her head, thankful that she had hardly reacted to his confession. “I love you more than I want you. That’s why I left.”
The rustling trees turned out to be hiding nothing, so they walked on, past a fresh grave where Buffy stopped to pay her respects. “I want to have a funeral,” she said as they continued.
Angel winced. “For Woden?”
“No. For Andrew. For the Slayers who died. They’ve got families, but we’re the ones who really know what they went through. And they’re the ones who mattered to me, not Woden.” She turned in a slow half-circle, gazing all around the cemetery. “Woden doesn’t need - I don’t need - I can’t help what I feel for him. And honestly, I never liked Andrew all that much. But I’ve got a choice, right? I don’t have to do what I feel like doing. I can do what I think is right.”
Angel turned her face toward himself and kissed her, the only proper thing he could think to do. “As you always have,” he said. “As you always have.”