Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
  • Mood: nervous
  • Music: Sigur Rós - Svo Hljott

Magical day of hope and wonder!

This year my IWRY story falls on my niece's first birthday, and the season premier of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I know, right?! I should buy a lottery ticket.

Title: Gladsheim Court
Author: Kairos
Wordcount: 12,271
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Love is a decision, not an emotion.
Notes: Thanks to Taaroko my brainstorming hero, and Dark Star our queen. You know, all the usual stuff!

I have a slight concern that the topic of this story will be uncomfortable for some readers, but wasn't sure how to warn about it. I hope it won't be too much a spoiler to say that the worst that could happen will not happen.


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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Woden?”

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.

“Yeah.”

“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

FOR YOU.

-WODEN


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.”

“Okay. Just...”

“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 woden@woden.com. 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!”

“Fuck you!”

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?”

Finish reading riiight here...
Tags: character: angel, character: buffy, character: ensemble, character: giles, character: willow, character: xander, fic: btvs/ats, fic: future, iwry, pairing: buffy/angel
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