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.”