Summary: A certain Englishman confronts the head of the Contracts Department at Wolfram & Hart and issues a challenge--which is accepted. Ninth story in the "Slayer Central" series.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just borrowing them for a spell. . .

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: A few days after the events in "Fair Warning," and following the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

MISDIRECTION

Fred walked down the main staircase of the Hyperion, humming to herself and looking down to see who was in the lobby. She spotted two familiar figures, and was about to call out to greet them when she blinked in surprise and stopped in her tracks. Her eyes narrowed and she stalked over to where Gunn and Willow were sitting. She stood there glaring until Willow looked up and called out, "Hey, Fred: what's up?"

To Willow's surprise, Fred ignored her and continued to glare at Gunn. After thirty seconds had passed, Gunn looked up, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Hey, Fred--what's going on?"

Fred blinked again, and her voice was level and controlled as she asked, "Charles, what exactly do you think you're doing?"

Gunn seemed to consider the question for a moment before looking down at the game board sitting between him and Willow, after which he looked up again and replied, "Well, let's see: I'm sitting here with Willow, there's a chessboard between us with pieces on it, and we're moving the pieces around. I don't know--maybe we're planning a wedding?"

Willow winced at the sarcastic tone in Gunn's voice, but Fred wasn't backing down. "Charles, I must have suggested we play chess fifty times since I first came here, and you never once said yes."

Gunn nodded. "Well, yeah--you would have kicked my butt halfway to next year."

Fred looked down at the chessboard and noticed that Gunn's half of the chessboard was missing more pieces than Leon Spinks was missing teeth. "Charles--Willow is kicking your butt. What's the difference?"

Gunn shrugged. "Yeah, but everyone else is out doing stuff except the Slayers, and I can't spar with them without getting trashed. Willow doesn't spar, but she does play chess. I'm bored, and I thought I might as well learn to play better. Got a problem with that?"

Fred's lips tightened a bit, and her tone was icy. "No--no problem at all." She visibly dismissed the matter and asked, "Everyone's out? Do you know where Wesley went? I need to go over some of the transcription reports with him."

Gunn started to speak again, but Willow cut him off: "He went out earlier. He didn't say where he was going, but he said not to wait up for him."

Fred frowned. "He's turned his cell phone off--I really wish he wouldn't go off alone like that." She composed herself and asked quietly, "Could you tell him I need to speak with him if you see him? Thanks."

Fred left the lobby, and Willow and Gunn both watched her leave with concerned looks on their faces. After she was gone, Willow turned to Gunn and gave him a dirty look. "Gunn, I know you and Fred have issues, but don't use me to win battles with her, even petty ones like this." She moved a knight. "Checkmate."

Gunn frowned at the board and acknowledged the defeat before looking back at Willow. "Sorry. I really wasn't trying to piss her off by playing with you, but she acts like we're still together sometimes-- she doesn't get to guilt me any more."

Willow smiled to show there were no hard feelings, and she looked back at the doorway. "Think she'll find Wesley?"

Gunn shook his head. "If Wesley doesn't want to be found, she won't find him. English is damned good at getting lost when he wants to." He reached for his pieces and asked, "Another game? Best five out of nine?"

* * * * *

(The following is a previously unpublished section of the private journal of the Head of Personnel of Wolfram & Hart Interdimensional Headquarters)

It had been a slow day--only one major interview with a new employee, and it was a demon. Naganis demon, to be exact, and they're never much trouble to sell on the benefits of working for us: easy food, major medical, and a talisman that turns all iron pyrite within fifty feet of them into 24-carat gold. There's nothing like the smile of a Naganis covered in gold dust as he rips the spine out of some hapless human who thought he was home free. . .but I digress.

I'm sitting at my desk and finishing off some paperwork when a bright red flash caught my attention. When I looked up, I saw a dark-haired human male wearing a suit. I recognized him immediately, having seen his name and face pop up in dozens of files relating to employees and temps we had retained over the years. I noticed that he was making an unpleasant face and I perceived his problem. "That ritual does go rather heavy on the brimstone--not pleasant for humans; unfortunately, it's the only way to get you straight here without going through my staff, so I assume the discomfort is worth it." The Englishman nodded curtly, and I stood and greeted my guest. "Welcome to Wolfram & Hart, Personnel Department! I must say, I'm surprised to see you here--I would have assumed that your new responsibilities would preclude your showing interest in employment with the main office here, but a man of your talents could certainly obtain a good deal for himself--"

"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not here for a job." The Englishman's voice was polite, but cold.

I raised an eyebrow. "Really? That ritual shouldn't have worked unless you had legitimate business here with me--and it certainly wouldn't have worked if you were here to do me physical harm." I examined him minutely and saw that he was carrying no weapons. Satisfied, I frowned and added, "If you don't have any business here, I really am quite busy--"

"I'm here to discuss one of your employees--Lilah Morgan." The Englishman locked eyes with me and spoke in a level, intense voice. "I wish to get her released from her contract with your firm."

"Ah." I shouldn't have been completely surprised, I suppose, but this particular method of approaching the problem had caught me somewhat unprepared. "Miss Morgan's contract contains the standard perpetuity clause--I would have thought the incident with the break-in at Records at the Los Angeles offices would have made that perfectly clear to all involved. Her contract is binding and will remain so. Now, if there's nothing else--"

"Article V, Section 3, Clause 8--'The Employee may secure the services of a champion to challenge the contract in a judicial duel with the designated champion of The Firm. In the event that The Employee has been detailed to an assignment with a third party, the third party may exercise these rights on behalf of The Employee." The Englishman reached into a pocket and pulled out a document, placing it in front of me. Angel's flowing signature was quite familiar to me, and I did not waste any time challenging its authenticity. "I believe you'll find that everything is in order, Sir--I hereby challenge Wolfram & Hart for the contract of Lilah Morgan, and agree to face your designate at the agreed-upon time and place." My visitor remained calm, though a note of smugness had entered his voice.

I read the document just to be thorough--everything was correct down to the last detail. * Damn that idiot Reynolds in Contracts--that romantic streak of his was bound to screw us sooner or later * I nodded and replied, "Everything is in order--I am aware of your abilities in combat, Englishman--you *do* realize that the firm has access to beings who far outmatch you at any weapon you should choose? What makes you think that I won't choose an impossible opponent for you? Really, wouldn't it be better if you accepted the impossibility of the situation gracefully and left Miss Morgan to her contracted for and richly deserved fate?" I smiled confidently and waited for his response.

The Englishman nodded slowly, and I had started to relax when he chuckled. "That might have worked with someone not used to dealing with your kind--but I was forced to deal with the bureaucracy of the Council of Watchers for far too long. You are a bureaucrat, and as powerful as you are, you are working with a limited budget. You can't afford to dedicate a massive amount of resources to the task of protecting the contract of Lilah Morgan. As my friend Xander Harris would put it, you can't afford to pay for a free agent to face me, so it's going to have to be the veteran third starter--maybe the second starter, if you've had an inexpensive year."

The bastard knew damned well that the year hadn't been inexpensive for us. Repairing massive damage to a Los Angeles skyscraper, replacing the entire staff, and then giving that whole enterprise away would have been a substantial hit to even Microsoft, and even *our* financial resources weren't *that* vast. I was pretty much stuck with a long reliever; fortunately, our bench is a tad better than that of the San Francisco Giants. I kept a poker face and replied, "I assume that swords will be the weapon of choice?" He smiled and nodded once, and I continued, "Very well, this will be your opponent." I waved my right hand and spoke a single command word, and a blue-skinned figure of heroic proportions appeared next to my desk. It recovered quickly and looked over at my visitor, baring three inch fangs and stroking the hilt of the great scimitar strapped to its back as he towered over his would-be opponent. I smiled and commented, "Where are my manners? Englishman, meet Ali the Decapitator. He's served the firm for fifteen hundred years, and he's only failed to win one duel. . .fought some fellow named Roland to a draw." The Englishman raised a respectful eyebrow, and I assumed my most convincing manner as I added, "Is it really necessary to pursue this farce, Englishman? You have a successful career ahead of you, and your efforts are bound to be important to helping the new Slayers adjust to their lives, even if the central role in that area will belong to others. Why not quit while you're ahead?"

My visitor remained implacable. "I believe we need to agree upon the formal terms and stakes of the duel--a formal written document which I am capable of reading would be appropriate."

I inclined my head--he was determined to force the issue, and he had the right to do so. I was going to make the best of the situation. I gestured, and a short document appeared on the desk. It was neatly printed, and written in Old English, and Old French, and Latin, and Modern English (some bits of jargon just demand it). I smirked as the Englishman reached for a ballpoint pen, then made quick, slashing marks and scribbled a few words in certain spots. Forty-five seconds later he tossed the document back to me. "Acceptable with these changes."

I read the document; obviously, the mixture of languages hadn't hindered him in the slightest. Impressive. I noted the changes and was nodding through all of them when I spotted one that I wasn't going to accept without some haggling. I looked up and commented, "You aren't staking your soul on this? Are you going to screw around, or are you going to play the game like it's supposed to be played?"

The Englishman snickered. "I'm staking my life on this battle. Given that you've been so effusive about my importance to the cause, removing me as a factor in that cause should be reward enough for you should I lose." He set his jaw and intoned, "This fight will be to the death."

I smirked--he wasn't getting off that easily. I looked at him and replied, "Acceptable, but with a twist: either party may yield to end the duel, and the other party must accept the yield and cease hostilities on the spot if at all possible." The Englishman raised an eyebrow, and I added, "If you yield, or fail to accept Ali's yielding to you--your body and soul will become the property of Wolfram & Hart."

My visitor--to his credit--remained calm. "And if Ali yields, or fails to accept my yielding to him?"

I shrugged. "We're haggling here--name your price."

I felt a chill as the Englishman leaned forward and hissed, "All Slayers currently residing at the Hyperion, and any who come there while either I or Buffy are still alive are to be off-limits to your recruiters forever." He glared at me and snapped, "You'll have to make do with the ones we don't get to first, and who we can't get away from you."

I shrugged with a casualness that I didn't really feel and scribbled a few words on the document. He leaned forward, read them, and nodded before asking, "So, is this where I sign the document in blood?"

I snickered. "Surely a sophisticated man such as yourself knows that old chestnut is to wow the tourists." I offered him a fingerprint pad. "Sign on the first line, and leave your thumbprint after it." He did so, and blinked in surprise as the signature and thumbprint turned crimson. "Far more sanitary, wouldn't you say?" I placed my own signature and thumbprint below his, then looked up again and commented, "The terms of the agreement call for us to choose a location for the duel mutually acceptable for both parties. Is there a place you'd like to suggest?" I was prepared to hassle him on this provision as well, just to prove that I wasn't a soft touch.

He looked at me, nodded once, and replied, "The main training room of Wolfram & Hart Los Angeles, within a Guarantor ritual circle fifty feet in diameter."

I blinked, unable to hide my surprise. It wasn't precisely the first place and terms I would have suggested, but it was close. He would have no place to hide from his larger and stronger foe, and the Guarantor ritual--which would note violations of the agreed terms of the duel by other party and document them for purposes of penalizing violators--would facilitate a last-ditch plan I had for dealing with an unexpectedly good performance by my adversary. "Agreed. The duel will begin in three hours, local time--would you care to rest here before matters begin?"

The Englishman smirked. "Thank you, but no. I have preparations to make." He looked over at Ali and inclined his head, then pulled out a familiar talisman and spoke a single word before vanishing in crimson light.

Ali looked at me and rumbled, "He looks unimpressive--you cannot actually be concerned that I will not prevail?"

I looked at my champion and replied, "He has a remarkable history of prevailing when he should not have, and his skills have grown in recent years. We are going to discuss contingencies, my friend, and you will not like some of them. I would suggest that you perform sufficiently well to avoid the necessity of their employment." The lesser djinn nodded, and I began to explain my plan.

* * * * * Ali and I arrived in the training room first--it was deserted at that late hour, and the lighting was dim. I handed Ali a bag of diamond dust, and he took three steps forward before turning to his left and beginning to sprinkle the dust in a wide circle. Five minutes later, he had returned to his starting point, having traced a perfect circle fifty feet in diameter. He returned to my side and handed me the somewhat-depleted bag just as a familiar figure stepped out of the shadows. He had changed his attire--he was wearing a long trenchcoat and had exchanged the formal slacks and shoes for more casual versions suitable for fighting. I didn't bother to try to see what weapon he had chosen--I knew from having tried just after he left that he was shielded against divination spells. Young Miss Rosenberg's work, no doubt--and quite formidable. I called out, "You've been watching too many TV shows, Englishman--are you ready to proceed with activating the circle?"

The Englishman nodded and stepped to the center of the circle, and Ali did likewise. Ali leaned forward and placed a copy of the agreement for the duel in the exact center of the circle, then followed up by putting a small green stone on top of it. His opponent placed an identical stone next to it, and both straightened and shouted out a single word in Sumerian. The paper and stones vanished, and the circle flashed with green light. Ali intoned, "It is done. Neither of us can withdraw now, without forfeiting."

The Englishman nodded, stepped back ten feet, and replied, "Best news I've heard all day." He opened his coat, and reached behind his back to pull out a long, curved blade. I recognized it instantly and had to exercise every ounce of control I had not to curse aloud. I forced myself to remain calm, and managed a friendly tone as I called out, "I had not been informed that you were aware of the existence of that weapon--not your blade of choice, if I'm not mistaken"

The Englishman smirked. "It will serve." The Masamune rested easily in his right hand, which was protected by a leather glove--as was his left hand. I stared at the blade in fascination--it remained the most magnificent weapon I have ever laid eyes on in over a thousand years on this job. How unfortunate that its purpose was diametrically opposed to my own. The weapon--being in the presence of the beings it had been constructed to oppose--was emitting a faint orange glow that only accentuated the flawless surface of the blade, and Ali--who had not seen the weapon before--was staring at me, wondering at the expression on my face.

I frowned at him to get him to get his mind on the fight, and I spoke again: "You realize that the act of using that blade with intent to kill triggers a curse that makes its wielder a berserk warrior doomed to fight demons until he is defeated? Not exactly a fate that I'd think you'd embrace, Englishman."

My adversary shrugged. "At need, I would have; however, I must thank you for the detailed nature of your files on this object--they proved most helpful. Who says that a bureaucracy can't come in handy?" I repressed another curse, realizing that our own files had warned him of the danger the blade posed to him. He raised his gloved left hand and smiled, "It comes in handy to work with a witch who knows the ins and outs of curses and how to defend against them."

I sighed. Heads would roll over this miscalculation--I would just make sure that none of them were mine. Intelligence was supposed to keep me posted on who had access to such weapons, and someone had failed to add the Englishman to the list. This promised to be a most costly mistake--but I still had an ace in the hole, and there were qualities of the blade that he could not possibly take advantage of. It occurred to me that there was one more card I could play. I smiled and asked, "Would you like me to summon Miss Morgan here? After all, it's traditional for the subject of the judicial duel to witness the battle that determines her fate?"

The Englishman looked at me, and shook his head once. Oh well, worth a shot to distract him a bit--even if he doesn't love her. I frowned and called out, "Begin!"

In a flash, Ali had drawn his blade and charged at the human. The great scimitar came whistling at the unprotected skull of Ali's opponent, only to be gently deflected by what looked like a casual parry by the Englishman, and a quick counterstrike nicked Ali and drew a line of orange ichor. Ali howled in pain and retreated as the Englishman moved forward with a wicked smile on his face.

In spite of the stakes involved, I watched in fascination, enjoying the experience immensely. I knew the Englishman had at times doubted his abilities with the sword, but he was performing magnificently--to the point where I knew that he had somehow learned about the weapon's greatest enhancement--the ability to boost the strength and agility of the wielder substantially for a good period of time. Even more remarkably, he had learned how to adjust for the enhancement. Double the strength and reflex speed of a typical swordsman, and he will be thrown off his game for a significant period of time while learning to use the new abilities in performing the maneuvers he has been trained for. The Englishman was showing no signs of awkwardness--he attacked with every bit of the speed and strength that the weapon was granting him, and Ali was feeling the effects.

Ali was a master swordsman with centuries of experience and formidable physical capabilities of his own, and he was not above throwing a shoulder or even a simple punch to the body for the effect it would have on his opponent. I am positive that I heard two ribs break on the Englishman, and a vicious punch to the Englishman's left shoulder left that arm dangling. It didn't seem to slow him down, though, and the Masamune continued to slip through Ali's guard, wounding him repeatedly. My champion was starting to slow down, and I sensed that he would soon receive a deathblow if I did not intervene. I moved around the ring until Ali could see me, then nodded once.

Ali's face twisted in anger and humiliation, but he composed himself and began attacking again. After the Englishman had adjusted to the new sequence and began to counterattack, Ali's guard opened up-- leaving his head open for a decapitating strike. The Englishman did not miss the opening and began to bring his blade around with a one- handed stroke meant to end the battle fatally. As the blade passed the human's right ear, Ali dropped his blade and shouted, "I YIELD!"

It had been one of my better plans, I thought. The Guarantor Circle operated very literally--Ali had yielded while--in theory--the Englishman had time to stop before the killing blow was struck. In practice, of course, the man was locked into his attack and his reaction would be too late to stop the blow from being struck. Even better, the last minute surrender might well distract the Englishman enough to prevent the blow from being fatal--meaning that I would have the Englishman's body and soul, and still have Ali for the next time I needed him, though he'd be a bit less confident the next time.

This wonderful plan was thrown right out the window when the Englishman's arm twisted abruptly in mid-swing. As the last syllable of Ali's surrender echoed through the room, the course of the blade was deflected upward as the Englishman released the blade, sending it flying off a hundred feet to imbed itself in a wall. The remarkable feat was not without cost--I could see his face twist with pain and realized that he had sprained his right shoulder. Ali's eyes widened as the man swayed, then turned to the lesser djinn and bowed slightly, "My compliments to a worthy opponent."

Ali looked ready to rip his head off, and I suspect he would have if it were not for the Guarantor Circle--which would default to a fatal penalty for any violations now that the duel was over--and his own sense of battle honor. He gritted his teeth and bowed. "My congratulations to a worthy foe." Ali turned away and left the circle, vanishing in a puff of smoke. He was *not* going to be easy to deal with for a while.

The Englishman left the circle, swaying, and I waited patiently for him to reach me. He did so, and stated simply, "I call upon you to observe the terms of our agreement."

I sighed sadly and replied, "It does seem inevitable. Very well." I snapped my fingers and a familiar contract appeared in my hand. I opened it to a certain spot, and crossed out a few words, and substituted a name, after which I initialed the change. The document flared crimson, then went dark again. I folded the contract and placed it in the pocket of the Englishman's trenchcoat, as he was in no condition to accept it himself. I looked at him for a moment and could not restrain myself any longer. "Englishman, how in the name of the Burning Hells did you do that? Ali's timing was perfect--you should not have been able to divert that blow."

The Englishman smiled, though he was clearly on the verge of collapse from overextending himself. "I anticipated the tactic--you obviously didn't want me dead, and you didn't want me to win. Once I started winning, Ali's tactic became a logical choice. I waited for him to open his mouth, then reacted. If he had said anything other than 'I yield', I would have had a serious problem."

I laughed involuntarily, and the Englishman raised an eyebrow. "You're not angry?"

I laughed again, this time more ruefully. "Of course I'm angry--but learning just how devious you can be was worth losing the contract of a minor employee, and the ability to recruit potential employees that would be unlikely to enter our service in any event." I bowed to him and commented, "If you ever want to negotiate to work for us, my door is always open. I'll guarantee the terms will be attractive to you."

The Englishman laughed weakly. "How flattering, but I think I'll decline." He coughed, and added, "If you could bring her now, I'll be departing."

"Of course." I snapped my fingers again, and Lilah Morgan appeared in front of me. She was dressed in her business suit, and her expression made it clear that she had been busily engaged in processing paperwork, since she had no need for rest or food, and she was required to work whenever able. A fitting fate for this one, but the Englishman had other ideas. I smiled at her and commented, "Well, this is your lucky day. This Englishman has just fought a judicial duel and won your contract away from us. Your fate is now in his hands, and your connection with us is now ended." Her eyes widened in shock, and I smirked once before turning and giving the Englishman one more respectful nod before gesturing and leaving them there. A worthy opponent, but one with darkness issues. I suspected that one day in the not-so-distant future, we would have another shot at him.

* * * * *

Lilah stared at the spot where the demon had been, then turned to the swaying figure who had liberated her. She walked up to him, pulled the contract out of his pocket, and turned to the operative language, which she read repeatedly to be sure it was real. The man in front of her blinked, and she shook her head in sheer disbelief before whispering, "Are you completely out of your mind?"

Rupert Giles smiled weakly. "Quite possibly, Miss Morgan, but I wouldn't worry about it at the moment. Help me retrieve my sword from the wall over there, and I'll explain while we go to the lobby to meet Willow and Gunn."

Lilah nodded slowly, and Giles leaned on her as they went to pull the Masamune from the wall.

* * * * * Wesley sat up in bed: someone was knocking at his door. He had been working hard on the library adaptation, and had decided that some serious down time was appropriate, particularly given his growing unhappiness over the situation with Lilah--which he did not feel at liberty to discuss with any of his friends. He had turned off his cell phone, and gone off to his apartment--which he was still keeping though he slept most nights at the Hyperion. Fred had come by wanting to know where he had been and to ask some questions about the work they had been doing, but he had pleaded exhaustion after minimal input. Fred was the last person he needed to see right now. He had fallen asleep, the image of Lilah as she showed him that burning the contract was futile haunting him in his dreams.

The knock came again, and Wesley stood up and put on a robe, irritated. "Fred, I realize that you wish to get this project completed, but I really need to rest now. I wish you would--" He reached the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open, and stared in shock as he saw who was on the other side "--respect that."

Angel, Gunn, Faith and Willow were standing in the hallway next to Lilah and Giles--who looked as if he had been beaten badly. There was silence for several seconds until Willow snorted in irritation and stepped forward, leading Wesley into the apartment and leaving room for the others to follow. Fortunately, Angel's invitation to enter was established, for Wesley was too surprised to speak. He looked at the intruders in turn, and finally he was able to find the words for what he was feeling: "Good Lord, Rupert--what happened to you? Why is Lilah here?"

"Well, it's a funny thing." Lilah replied, looking at the other occupants of the room and shaking her head in disbelief. "It seems that your old buddy Rupert and his friends decided to get together and free me from my contract with Wolfram & Hart--and they didn't bother to tell you about it. Seemed weird to me too, particularly when the Head of Personnel teleports me to him and I see Rupert here has been beaten to a pulp. Not exactly something you see every day."

Wesley stared at her, then turned to Giles and was about to say something when he saw just how beaten up the Watcher looked. He paused, then turned to Angel and asked quietly, "Angel--I suspect I'm going to be thanking Rupert and the rest of you in a few moments, but I would like an explanation as to how this happened, and why my participation was not requested."

Angel looked uncomfortable, and Willow broke in: "Wesley. . .we're your friends, and we knew that this whole situation with Lilah was hurting you a lot. Giles had the idea of reading the contract carefully and seeing if there were any outs in it, and we found the trial by combat clause. We decided that it was the best bet, and we came up with a plan to stage the duel and give our side the best chance of winning. We didn't tell Lilah because under the contract she can be forced to answer questions truthfully, or even to volunteer any information of interest that she comes across, and we didn't want her spilling the beans to the higher ups at Wolfram & Hart--"

"Yes, I understand that--but why didn't you tell *me*?" asked Wesley. "I had a more substantial stake in this than any of you, and I am quite capable with any number of weapons--"

"Wesley, you've progressed remarkably in the past four years with the sword--I was very impressed." Giles spoke slowly, and Wesley took a moment to appreciate the praise before the Watcher added, "But I'm still better--aging or not. Our theory was that Wolfram & Hart would only commit someone who was by their standards a moderately talented bladesman to act as their champion, and that having the more skilled fighter on our side would not result in a more dangerous opponent being chosen." Giles winced as he straightened, then added, "There was one more factor."

Gunn stepped forward--he was holding the Masamune in its sheath. "English--we called those experts in and had the blade identified, and we didn't bother to hide it. We figured that if you, me, or Angel showed up to make the challenge, the higher ups at Wolfram & Hart would know that whoever it was would probably be using the blade, and they knew what it could do, and they knew that we could find out what it did--they weren't watching Giles the same way, or so we hoped. Willow checked it out--it's a nasty demon slaying sword that can also pump up the speed and strength of the bearer. Unfortunately, it also has a curse on it that turns the user into a berserker who is forced to kill any demon he can find until he dies from exhaustion or just getting killed."

Wesley nodded and turned to Willow. "Which is where you came in, I presume?"

Willow flushed slightly and replied, "I enchanted a pair of gloves to protect the wielder from the curse, and I used a couple of moderate enhancement spells to help Giles learn how to fight when he was stronger and faster. Plus, I cast a cloaking spell on him to keep Wolfram & Hart from using divination spells to observe him as he prepared for the duel. Oh, and I prayed a lot. Couldn't hurt."

Wesley sighed. "Rupert--sit down before you fall down and tell me exactly what happened."

Giles eased himself gently into an armchair, and began to speak quietly. The others listened, fascinated by the account of Giles' duel of wits with the Wolfram & Hart executive, and then with the account of the fight itself. At the conclusion of the story, Giles chuckled slightly and commented, "There are certain advantages to fighting evil opponents--you can take advantage of the fact that you know they'll try to cheat."

Wesley nodded. "As the American saying goes--'You can't cheat an honest man.' The demon insisted on putting the clause in that could lose you your soul, and you just waited for him to take advantage of it and thereby lose by your anticipation of it. Well done indeed."

Giles nodded painfully in thanks, and Wesley turned to Angel and asked quietly, "Angel--I understand Willow's motives, and Gunn's and Rupert's motives are fairly discernible as well, but why would you want to help Lilah? She's never caused you anything but misery."

Lilah perked up, interested in the answer. Angel blinked and looked over at Wesley, and was silent for a moment before replying, "Wesley-- we've had our rough patches over the years, and I don't intend to rehash them now. I'll be honest and say if nothing was at stake here but my past with Lilah and the feelings that it provokes in me, she'd have been chained to that desk until the building fell down." Lilah smirked and Wesley frowned and nodded as Angel continued, "But I know what it's like to care what happens to someone you probably shouldn't, Wesley--and I don't want to contribute to your suffering that kind of misery. I can live with Lilah sliding out of her contracted-for fate if it will spare you pain that I can help."

Wesley blinked, and was too overcome to speak for a moment. Angel smiled, and Wesley took a deep breath and turned to Faith. "What's your role in all this, Faith?"

"So far? Not much. Giles isn't exactly thrilled at the thought that Buffy might find out he risked his immortal soul to help Miss Evil Dead Lawyer over there, so I'm going to help him with a cover story." Faith grinned, and Wesley raised an eyebrow as she continued, "Giles is going to check into that hospital that W & H runs, and I'm going to tell Buffy that we got jumped by ten vamps while doing recon in MacArthur Park. He's banged up enough to make it believable, and no one outside this room other of the guys at W & H will know differently--and they're probably a bit embarassed to blab about it. As far as everyone else is concerned, you had that duel with the big blue guy and won Lilah's contract. Buffy will probably chew you out for being an idiot--but she's on shaky ground to criticize people about dumb things done in the name of romance."

"Buffy will not be thrilled that Giles supposedly got hurt on your watch, Faith." Wesley was concerned, and his expression betrayed it as he stepped forward and squeezed her arm. "I don't want anyone being harmed or made uncomfortable by the fact that they helped me."

Faith inclined her head at Giles and commented, "A bit late for that, Wes." Wesley winced and nodded in agreement, and Faith added, "Besides, Giles will be feeding Buffy a line about being caught off guard and not doing so well in the fight, making it harder for me." She looked at Giles, and he nodded. Faith looked back at Wesley and elaborated, "Giles isn't going out in the field any more-- he thinks he's slowing down and doesn't want to be the weak link. Of course, after hearing the story about the fight tonight I think he's full of crap, but I'd just as soon have him out of harm's way, truth be told. I'd like to get Xander to take it easy, too--but I think we'll need a bit more in his case. An elephant tranquilizer gun, probably."

Everyone but Lilah laughed, and Wesley asked Faith quietly, "Then you did this for Giles? I can understand that, Faith: we've still got unresolved issues, I know."

Faith flinched, then met Wesley's gaze firmly as she replied, "I *would* have done it for Giles, if he had asked me--but I'm trying to pay off old debts here, Wes. We both know what I did to you, and it makes me feel damned good that you're willing to be in the same room with me, much less consider me a friend." Wesley smiled gently as Faith continued, "Besides, I'll let you in on a little secret--I went to see your ex to grill her about her intentions about Angel. While I was there, she nearly ripped me a new one about what I had done to you--I liked that. Made me almost forget that she hired me to murder Angel a few years back." Lilah was squirming uncomfortably at Faith's words, and Faith turned and speared her with a lethal look as she added, "*Almost*."

Wesley smiled again, then saw that Lilah was holding a familiar document. He reached out and took it from her, then turned to Giles and asked, "Now what?"

Giles held out his hand for the contract, and Wesley gave it to him. Willow stepped forward and put a pen in Giles' right hand, and pushed an end table next to him for a writing surface. Giles leaned forward and wrote briefly on the document. There was a crimson flash of light, which soon faded, and Giles lifted the document towards Wesley, who accepted it. "You now control her contract, Wesley. She is bound by it to obey your instructions as long as they are consistent with the duties described in the contract, for the indefinite future. The magic sustaining her form is permanent in nature, though it could be disrupted with other magic. The other alternative would be to destroy the contract--that would free her from her obligation and immediately release her soul from her physical body."

"Where would her soul go?" The question, surprisingly enough, came from Faith.

"I'd go where the weight of my deeds in life would have taken me if there was no underlying contractual obligation that sent me elsewhere." Lilah's voice was dry. "If you've read Dante, you know that I'm not looking at hearts and flowers here."

Wesley raised an eyebrow. "You're acting as if you're already being sent away, Lilah. We can discuss your future existence at length before making any decisions. You don't have to--"

"Don't I, Wesley?" Lilah looked composed, and more than one person in the room wondered how much of that composure was due to her undead state as she moved away from the others and continued, "Wes--I'm dead. I know enough about this little group to know that the whole having relationships with dead people thing is *way* into the Very Bad Idea zone. I'm just not going there. Oh, I could stick around, try to help you guys out, do the making amends thing. . .but most of you don't want me around--why would you? And there's one thing that's most important of all." Lilah straightened, and the others were taken aback by the ferocious pride in her voice as she added, "I've done a lot of things that would horrify most human beings, and I don't feel terribly apologetic about most of them, but there is one thing that I will *NEVER* be if I can do anything to prevent it." She paused, and concluded--intentionally looking directly at Angel as she did: "I won't be a hostage, Wesley, and you've let them know you care about me--I'm a vulnerability to you, and I won't allow that to go on."

The room was silent. Only Willow noted Angel's discomfort as the others watched Lilah, and Wesley walked forward, reading the absolute determination in her eyes. He sighed and asked, "Are you sure? The alternative is Hell, after all."

Lilah shrugged. "I told you that I knew what I was signed on for--you got me a better deal, but I'm still willing to accept the fate I sealed for myself with my actions. It's what I'm about, Wesley--let me finish on my feet, not on my knees."

Wesley blinked, then nodded once as he turned away. Lilah called out, "You know, a seriously romantic good-bye kiss is traditional in situations like this."

Wesley turned back and replied with a rueful smile, "Yes. . .yes it is. How unfortunate that we're not about that sort of mawkish sentimentality, Lilah."

Lilah walked forward, nodding, and moved up next to Wesley before smirking and commenting, "On the other hand, the peanut gallery certainly paid the price of admission--it would be a shame to disappoint them."

Wesley blinked, and his eyes were sad as he whispered, "Yes, it would indeed." He reached out at the same time as Lilah, and they embraced as their lips met in a kiss.

After a very long time, Lilah pulled away and smiled at Wesley, commenting, "There's something to be said for not having to breathe after all." Wesley chuckled, and Lilah turned away and whispered, "It's time, Wesley--you know what to do."

Wesley nodded and walked over to the coffee table, where a large ashtray was sitting. He pulled out his lighter and lit the contract on fire, holding it over the ashtray to prevent hot ashes from landing on the carpet. He turned and locked eyes with Lilah, ignoring the flames creeping up towards his fingers as he whispered, "Good- bye, Lilah."

Lilah looked back at Wesley, her gaze never wavering--her eyes were dry. Abruptly, a white flash of light left her body, which turned gray and collapsed into a cloud of ash without making a sound. Faith stepped forward and forced Wesley to drop the flaming contract into the ashtray before his fingers were seriously burned. She led him gently to the couch and said simply, "I'm sorry, Wes."

Wesley bowed his head in muted grief, and his friends moved to console him--except for Angel, who gathered up Giles and headed out for the car and the hospital bed waiting for the Watcher.

* * * * *

Lilah opened her eyes, wondering what sort of hell her deeds had doomed her to. She blinked, and stared in horror at the sight that met her eyes--she was in an office building, with people passing by her and not acknowledging her presence. "Fabulous!" she shouted, glaring at the gleaming walls and floors. "All hells lead to me being chained to a damned desk for eternity!"

"Perhaps. . .but things may be better than you think, Lilah." Lilah whirled and saw a short man with dark hair watching her with an amused expression. He smiled at her bewilderment and commented, "Not exactly Dante, but it'll serve."

Lilah's eyes narrowed, and she was about to spit out several curses when she blinked again and asked, "Do I know you? You look familiar-- " Her mind abruptly took her back to a file she had reviewed for the last time over three years ago, just before she had consigned it to the "dead" pile. She stared and whispered, "Francis Doyle?"

"In the flesh--well, not so much that these days, but you get my drift." Doyle chuckled and asked, "A bit surprised not to find yourself burning in the Pit, are you?"

"A little," Lilah admitted, noticing that Doyle's taste in clothing had not improved any in the afterlife. She frowned and asked, "So what is this place, and why are we both here? Maybe I don't understand the system, but it seems like you should be in a better place than me, given our respective resumes."

"I suppose the nuns would have called this place Purgatory, though it's a lot nicer than they made it sound." Doyle's tone was thoughtful, and he beckoned for Lilah to follow as they walked down the hall. "Some souls are on the cusp between good and evil, or they have to work through some issues they have that keep them from ascending to the higher planes of being. I'm here because I still care about what happens to Angel and the others, and I serve as an intermediary to the Powers when it serves Their interests. As for you. . .well, you avoided a fiery fate by the skin of your teeth, my dear lady. Your willingness to remove yourself as a threat to Wesley and the others, and to face your fate with dignity and honor--those are elevated emotions, my dear, and enough to convince the Powers to let you have a shot at moving up in the scheme of things--if you're up to it."

Lilah rolled her eyes. "Let me guess: I get to do good works for fifty or sixty eons in this place, then maybe if I'm really good and eat my vegetables, I get promoted to heaven--is that how it works?" Doyle shrugged and chuckled, and Lilah glared and snapped, "Screw that--I don't do good works, and I don't grovel. How do I get out of this chicken outfit?"

Doyle shrugged and pointed to a door with a red sign marked "Exit." Lilah stormed over to the door and opened it--and stared in sheer terror for fully a minute as a vision of roaring flames and countless beings being tortured in horrible and creative ways transfixed her. At length, she was able to step back and slam the door shut. Doyle was standing next to her. "Ready to listen?"

"Oh yeah." Lilah replied emphatically as she followed behind the smirking half-demon, nodding and listening intently as he spoke.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired