"As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There's another building burning down..."

It was kind of like watching ants scuttling around in an ant farm, Angel thought as he yanked against the chains yet again. All that mindless activity, little people scurrying here and there, and everything ultimately centering around the queen.

Or, in this case, the smarmy bastard who would die as soon as Angel got out of these damn manacles, and to hell with the whole 'no killing humans' Champion thing.

"On the bright side," Giles said dryly beside him, "we're no longer under the binding spell." Angel gave him a sideways glare, and Giles shrugged as well as he could with both of his hands short-chained over his head to the concrete wall. "Admittedly, as bright sides go, it's rather dim."

"Rather," Angel echoed darkly, jerking again at his chains. They rattled but remained stubbornly intact. Since they seemed to be set into the foot-thick concrete wall of an under-construction parking structure -- he could actually see a few cars through the tattered plastic sheets that shielded one side of the ritual area -- his lack of success wasn't really too surprising.

"Hey, you might want to watch that." Tyler came wandering over, looking faintly ridiculous in his long dark robes, a banker who had dressed for Halloween without help or a clue. His hair was perfectly combed and his wire-rim glasses were still firmly in place. "You really won't be comfortable with your wrists torn up."

Angel stared at him. "You're about to sacrifice us to a demon, and you care about our wrists."

Tyler blinked. "Just because this is a sacrifice doesn't mean it has to be all bloody. And it's actually not so much a sacrifice, if you think about it. More like a...." He had to stop to think, then finally shrugged. "Yeah, okay, I guess we're still going to have to go with sacrifice. But it'll be over really fast and trust me, all of us really appreciate what you're going to do for us. Don't we, guys?" he called over his shoulder.

Several of the 25 or so black robes milling around paused in refreshing the runes on the floor and laying out the circular bonfire a few feet in front of them, and lifted hands and weapons in acknowledgment; a few even called back distracted agreements. Tyler turned back with an easy, utterly clueless grin. "They're nice guys, once you get to know them. It's really too bad you're not going to get the chance."

He flashed the cheerful grin again before ambling back away to supervise. Angel watched him go, then began methodically banging the back of his head against the wall. "This. Is. Not. Happening," he muttered in time to the impacts.

"Oh, that it weren't," Giles sighed. "However, the strangely well-oiled chains on my wrists and ankles suggest otherwise, and I'm quite certain there's something more useful you can be doing with your head."

"Name one and I'll consider it," Angel growled. Giles opened his mouth, was apparently unable to actually supply an answer, and closed it again with another sigh. Before Angel could make an undeserved comment about all-knowing Watchers that, even if it was accurate, would probably make things worse, the buzz of activity suddenly coalesced around the ritual bonfire.

Tyler took up position right in front of them, only a few feet away; if his feet weren't chained, Angel could have gotten his ankles around the man's neck, snapped it with one simple, violent twist... but he was a Champion, and he didn't do things like that to humans. Often.

Even when they were incredibly annoying and proudly unwrapping a huge, shallow bowl of dull, heavy gold, with inscriptions around the side that looked vaguely Aramaic and unquestionably old. "That can't be good," Angel muttered.

"Definitely a talisman," Giles confirmed, as Tyler held the bowl over his head proudly. "Quite probably, that's the focus he uses to hold and summon Aztorath."

After another few seconds of showing off, Tyler placed the huge bowl in the center of the ceremonial circle with great flair, then backed out to join eight of his flunkies, spaced evenly around the outside edge. The fluorescent lights overhead glinted off the ritual knives, swords and axes they held ready in front of them.

"Time for the party to start!" Tyler announced, to cheers from the minions.

"And me without my dancing shoes." Angel pulled at his chains again, the sound lost in the sudden flare of light as the bonfire ignited at a synchronized gesture from the nine men encircling it. The heat washed over them and he flinched back automatically. "I hate fire."

"I can't bring myself to be wildly enthusiastic about it at the moment, either." The flames flickered off Giles' glasses, obscuring his eyes, but the rest of his face was set in grim lines. "If the others are about somewhere, entertaining thoughts of a daring rescue, I hope they begin as quickly as possible."

Tyler gestured for silence, and the only sound was that of the crackling flames. Then Tyler began to chant.

Definitely Aramaic, or maybe Arabic -- something glottal and flowing, anyway. Giles translated under his breath: "I call the power of the universe, the power that binds, the power that severs, wraps around us, makes us whole, then returns us to that from which we came. Power, come!"

"You called?"

Angel had been really, really hoping for a familiar voice to suddenly interject a wiseass comment. He'd been prepared to welcome any intervention, up to and including Riley Finn.

But this? This wasn't an intervention. This was a really sick joke by the Powers That Be, who had gotten bored with all the usual ways of torturing their pet vampire.

That was the only possible explanation for Lindsey McDonald's appearance on the other side of the bonfire -- someone up there really did hate him. But Angel only had a second to enjoy finally being proven right before he recognized the small blonde form staggering along at Lindsey's side, McDonald's hand clamped over her upper arm to drag her with him.

His snarl coincided almost exactly with Giles', as they both lunged against their chains in a futile attempt to get their hands around McDonald's throat and free Buffy. Preferably both of those things at the same time.

"Lindsey!" Tyler broke off in mid-chant, as several of his minions swung belatedly around, weapons leveled; in moments, the flames had died down to embers at his feet. He shook back his hood and strode away from the circle, hand extended in welcome. "We weren't expecting you and, I have to tell you, your timing could be a little better."

"Sorry," McDonald shrugged, shaking Tyler's hand with his free one. "Traffic, you know how it is."

"Don't I ever." Tyler grimaced in Southern Californian sympathy. "Although hopefully, after tonight, it's not something I'm going to have to worry about anymore."

"Well, the firm sends their best wishes in that regard," McDonald said with a smarmy smile. "In fact, Wolfram & Hart is so dedicated to your success that we've arranged for a contribution of our own." He tugged Buffy forward; she went sluggishly. "The Slayer."

"The Slayer. The Slayer?"

Tyler's jaw actually dropped. Angel might have enjoyed how stupid it made the man look if he hadn't been bending every bit of his strength into pulling his manacles out of the wall.

"Goddamnit, McDonald, if you hurt her, I will hunt you to the ends of the earth and I will rip out your throat and drain every last ounce of your blood once I get there!"

Tyler looked from Buffy to Angel, and back to McDonald. "Wow, I guess it really is the Slayer. I thought she looked familiar, but this light really isn't, you know...." He made a vague waving gesture with one hand, then refocused. "God, this is so cool, Lindsey. I mean, I was right in the middle of the ritual and everything, but it'll work so much better with the Slayer. I can't thank you enough, man."

"Just remember that next time you get a bill from the office," Lindsey smiled.

"Have I ever forgotten?" Tyler returned, all goodwill and bonhomie. Angel had detailed plans for tearing both their faces off, if the chains would just give... a... little....

"I take it that is Cordelia's lawyer boyfriend?" Giles asked calmly, panting slightly from the effort of straining against his own bonds.

"Ex-boyfriend." Was the left chain moving a little?

"I can see why. Her taste in men -- really."

"Don't even go there," Angel warned. Blood had started trickling down his wrists, but the manacles stubbornly refused to budge. "Why isn't Buffy fighting the bastard?"

"She would appear to be drugged -- or possibly entranced." Giles' voice was still low and level, his face set like stone, and Angel felt sorry for McDonald if Giles got free. Wait -- no, he didn't.

The bastards had moved closer during their little lawyer-client consultation, and Angel could see Buffy's eyes now. They were unfocused, glazed over with drugs or magic as Giles had said; she swayed a little where she stood, as if McDonald's hard grip on her arm was the only thing keeping her upright. How had McDonald snatched her, how had he gotten close enough to take her by surprise, from the middle of the Scoobies, from her wall-sized lover?

"...ritual is really a basic substitution spell, but I jacked it up," Tyler was saying, as he pulled keys out of his pocket and fumbled with the locks on Giles' ankles. "Aztorath has been a really fabulous supply chain, if you know what I mean, but frankly, we're running into a serious case of diminishing returns. It takes so much to control him every time we summon him that we're just not making enough profit."

"That can ruin your whole day," McDonald didn't even try to hide his boredom, but Tyler didn't seem to notice. Buffy rocked slightly, falling against McDonald's shoulder and he impatiently shoved her vertical again. Angel growled deep in his throat, and McDonald looked at him just long enough to smirk.

"So we're going in a new direction," Tyler continued as he unlocked the manacle around Giles' right ankle. Giles' leg twitched with the urge to kick, but he restrained himself. Waiting. "The deal with Aztorath isn't working out as well as I'd hoped, but I don't expect him to be happy that we really need to part ways. He's bound to me and vice versa, and it'll take some serious mojo to undo that merger. I was a little worried, I admit, but you've been good enough to supply that power, so thanks for that. Break my bonds to Aztorath, bind his power to me in the process... bada-bing, bada-boom." He freed Giles' other leg-- --And Giles instantly pulled himself up against his chains, his legs kicking out towards Tyler in the "go for the throat" move Angel had fantasized about a few minutes ago.

But Giles didn't have a vampire's speed or strength, and he only managed to catch the side of Tyler's head as the little bastard ducked and fell back. "Ow! God, I'm letting you loose, you're not going to die today!" he complained, rubbing at his head as he sprawled on the ground. "Try a little gratitude, would you?"

"As you intend to replace me with my Slayer, I'm not really feeling the love." Giles tried to kick out again and almost made contact, but his body froze in mid-motion a few inches from Tyler's kneecaps. Several of the minions finally came to their boss's assistance, one of them lowering her hand as she finished casting the binding spell.

"Thanks, Gina, nice work. Bonus in this month's paycheck." Tyler levered himself to his feet and glared at Giles, straightening his wire rims as another minion finished unlocking Giles, then maneuvered his stiff body past Angel to the floor several feet to Angel's left, Giles' legs still frozen at an angle. "Clock's ticking, people; let's move like we've got a purpose. Lindsey, if you'll bring the Slayer over here...?"

Angel snarled, "You do it, Lindsey, and you will not die slow enough."

McDonald's smirk grew. "You know, Angel, that'd be a lot more impressive if I didn't expect you to have a sudden attack of dust in the next--" He ostentatiously checked the wafer-thin Rolex on the wrist not involved in holding Buffy up. "--about six minutes. Since I do...." He shrugged widely with the one shoulder, then turned his back and gave Buffy to the minions, who began shackling her in Giles' place. Even drugged or enspelled, Buffy's hands were tightly fisted, and Angel wanted to hold her almost as badly as he wanted to make someone bleed.

Unable to get to the people he wanted, Angel began fighting his chains again, but stopped abruptly when Gina the Minion knelt next to Giles, a short, sharp blade pressed to his throat. "We need quiet to work in," she informed Angel, her brown eyes and startlingly pretty face cold. "His breathing is making a lot of noise."

Angel froze.

Tyler clapped Gina on the shoulder, shoving the knife in a little with the motion. Blood welled from Giles' throat as she steadied herself and gave Tyler a 'you idiot' look over her shoulder, which he didn't seem to notice. As usual. "We're talking big bonus, Gina -- way to make with the crowd control."

He rubbed his hands together briskly, looking the area over. "Okay, we're almost set here. Lindsey, please wander yourself over to the other side of the circle?"

His voice went up like it was a question, but his tone made it unmistakably an order. McDonald's eyebrows went up. "I was thinking I'd get a better view from over here." Again, not a question -- a flat refusal.

Tyler smiled, and suddenly two more minions were flashing knives, herding McDonald in the direction their boss had indicated.

"What the hell is this?" McDonald demanded, stepping backwards slowly and trying to keep his eyes on both knives. He managed to throw a glare of death towards Tyler at the same time, all without tripping over his feet. It would have been impressive, if McDonald hadn't been such an unimpressive son of a bitch.

"No offense, Lindsey," Tyler apologized, spreading his hands wide, "just routine precautions. You know how it is -- just because Wolfram & Hart is on my payroll, doesn't mean they're on my side. Trust me, once I'm done here, you'll be well compensated."

McDonald's face worked with anger and disdain and something else Angel couldn't quite read. "Damn right I will," he said finally, settling his shoulders and striding to the other side of the circle as if it had been his idea all along.

Wow, Tyler wasn't as stupid as he looked. Who knew? Angel exchanged helpless looks with Giles, still sprawled with a knife at his throat, as Tyler resumed his place in front of them. "Okay, places everyone! Let's get this show on the road; we're going to have to talk fast as it is."

Everyone shuffled back into place, two of them tripping over their robes in the process. Tyler waited with his arms crossed and one foot tapping, then took a deep breath and began his chant again. The flames leapt high, the eight minions in the circle with Tyler began to echo his words, and the golden bowl in the center began to glow.

"Damn it." Angel worked at his chains again, trying to get close enough to Buffy to shake her. "Buffy! Buffy, wake up! Come on, Buffy, snap out of it, we need some more muscle here!" Maybe the chains for Giles hadn't been set as well, maybe a Slayer's strength could do something against them. Through the flames, he caught a glimpse of McDonald's face, looking oddly strained in the shifting light. Good. Hopefully he was thinking about everything Angel was going to do to him when--

Tyler's voice rose to a shout, and the pale glow of the golden bowl exploded into bright light, a visual assault that burned through even eyes squeezed tightly closed, the burst of heat like baking in a desert at high noon, like being trapped in a room with the sun. He shouted, expecting to burn, expecting to be dust before he could draw another breath.

Then it was over. Angel opened his eyes cautiously, and found himself in one piece, the fiery light reduced to a concentrated, pulsing cloud that swirled around the center of the circle. Light coalesced around the figure that hovered over the center of the circle, shifting and dimming away again to form the impression of arms, legs, flowing robes of rich red that became skin of the same color. Slanted eyes that flickered like the fire looked out over sharp cheekbones, and more flames seemed to form a sharp, wispy beard on its pointed chin. Long, pointed ears lay flush against its bald head, and Angel swallowed hard.

"That's not a demon," he commented very calmly to no one in particular. "That's a djinn."

And that was bad news. Demons were, on the whole, big and powerful, but stupid. Djinn, by all accounts, had the big and powerful part down, but didn't go so much for the stupid. More like clever, diabolical, evil.... And one as ancient as Aztorath was reputed to be? About to be betrayed by his 'master'? Cancel bad news -- make this apocalyptic. Again.

"You have summoned me? Master?" Aztorath's voice grated like a car over gravel, his tone making it quite clear that he was not pleased to be here. Angel was right there with him on that; he made another try at loosening his chains or waking Buffy or both.

Neither worked. What a surprise.

"I have, Aztorath," Tyler was saying complacently. "I bring you a gift."

The djinn arched one flaming, pointed eyebrow in equally pointed disbelief. "A gift?"

Tyler smiled broadly. "Of course. Did you think I'd let all these months of loyal service go unrewarded? Look what I brought you." He gestured with one hand behind him and Angel snarled reflexively before the djinn's stare hit him. The power and fury in those golden eyes made the demon he carried inside him start looking around for escape routes.

"A vampire," Aztorath intoned. "Interesting. One who is... bound?"

"Cursed with a soul," Tyler said smugly. "And it gets better. He's in love with a Slayer."

The djinn's eyes flicked to Buffy, hanging still in her chains. "So he is. This is indeed a powerful gift, Master."

"Who's your daddy?" Tyler bounced slightly on his heels, grinning proudly and completely oblivious to the malice in the djinn's eyes. McDonald skulked the far edge of the circle, probably trying to stay out of sight. "All this power, to bind and unbind, yours for the taking."

Aztorath appeared to be thinking it over? "And in return...?" he finally rumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. His robes fell away to reveal a pattern of golden tattoos, running around his wrists and up the sides of his arms like... like manacles and chains. Threads of light dropped down from the tattoos to the golden bowl -- the not-so-proverbial lamp, Angel was willing to bet, and wished Giles was still close enough to confirm it.

Tyler shrugged, elaborately casual. "We can talk about payment later. Right now, buddy, you can just enjoy your reward."

Aztorath waited another long moment, then inclined his head. "My gratitude is endless, Master. Please begin the ritual."

"You got it." Tyler probably thought he was hiding his smirk as he raised his arms and starting chanting again. Angel had enough time to close his eyes and wish fervently for the Scooby gang to stop doing whatever the hell they were doing and come riding to the rescue -- and a brief moment to imagine Lindsey McDonald hung upside down, bleeding out from a thousand cuts -- before a gleaming beam of power shot from Aztorath.

It forked into two parts, and Angel screamed involuntarily as one branch burned into him. Buffy's scream echoed his as she was shocked into sudden awareness by the second, and suddenly there was a third flash arcing between them, joining them. They'd formed a triangle, pointing back at the djinn, and Angel's soul howled in agony as the djinn ripped at the curse bonds. Slowly, slowly, he felt them begin breaking free.

Buffy screamed again, her hands convulsing, and McDonald shouted something from the other side of the circle.

Tyler laughed, loud and triumphant, and suddenly stepped directly into the center of the triangle. Aztorath bellowed as the power flow changed, everything from Buffy and Angel now channeling into Tyler. A new force line from master to djinn flared up, a fiery, devouring black that surrounded the djinn, then suddenly threw itself backwards into Tyler. His chant grew louder, the other members of his circle echoing him in practiced, focused unison.

The pull on Angel's soul doubled, then tripled, and his head jolted back in agony, trying to draw back what was his, but without the power to even take hold of it. Buffy screamed again, and McDonald shouted, and the pain just wouldn't stop and the demon was so close now....

And Buffy's shout this time was triumphant. Something flashed deep, vibrant green in her fist, so bright it almost blinded Angel again. She bounced to her feet as the manacles gave way, dropping her to the floor, and it was Tyler's turn to scream as the stream of power from the Slayer was severed, the energy backlashing into half of his protective circle, toppling the minions to the ground. Aztorath bellowed again, this time in triumph, and Angel had just enough time to brace himself before all Hell broke loose.


"Now! Now, goddammit!" For way, way too long, Lindsey was afraid the witches hadn't heard him over the chanting and the screaming and everything. But Jesus, it wasn't like it took a master strategist to realize that their time was up, there weren't going to be any more shots, and if Rupert Giles died, they'd be damn lucky if he was the only one.

But Cordelia would be pissed and miserable if Giles bought it, and the chick guarding the Watcher was completely distracted by the light show in front of her, and if Lindsey timed it just right....

Aztorath bellowed again and Angel screamed, and Lindsey frankly enjoyed it as he moved carefully to the side. Nobody bother to look at me, just your friendly neighborhood lawyer taking a stroll around a major act of black magic, and this was such a bad idea. Seriously. Of all the ideas he'd ever had in his life, this was the absolute worst. Worse than leaving Oklahoma, worse than signing the contract with Wolfram & Hart, worse than that first date with Cordelia. And he was doing it anyway.

How the hell had he gotten here? And if he closed his eyes and wished really hard, could he take it all back?

He eased just a few feet further, ready to do something himself (no matter how stupid and/or suicidal, and what the hell was he doing here?), and Buffy's head suddenly snapped up straight. The talisman in her fist finally exploded in a flash of green light as the witches worked their will, and the manacles snapped loose. Buffy landed cat-like on her feet and raced for the circle, as the blue lightning that had violently ricocheted from the Slayer hit the minions on one side of the circle. They screamed as their robes burst into flames, and rolled into the paths of the minions who had raced forward to intervene. The resulting pile-up would probably be funny when Lindsey had time to think about it.

One of the minions made it back to his feet and tried to rush Buffy. She leveled him with an effortless backhand on her way to Giles, as two more oncoming minions went down under taser blasts. Xander, Wesley and Riley jumped over their bodies as they raced into the fray, and the chick kneeling over Giles cursed and raised her knife. Good reflexes, but she went for a killing blow instead of just slitting his throat, and the moment of extra time cost her. Lindsey tackled her at a full run, bouncing her head off of the concrete. She lay limp and still, and suddenly Giles was moving again.

"Not particularly chivalrous," the older man panted as he rolled stiffly to his knees.

"The hell with chivalry, it worked."

"Giles!" Buffy skidded to the floor next to her Watcher. "You okay?"

"I'm fine, Buffy. Go, help them." Buffy followed his gesture and saw their three allies locked in combat with six minions. Riley and Wesley were doing okay, but Xander took a punch to the head that sent him reeling. With a screech of fury, Anya charged in wielding a baseball bat like she meant it. Cordelia came right behind her with taser in hand, zapping a minion without breaking stride, and Lindsey was going to kill her, she was supposed to be staying out of it!

"Damn it! Help Angel!" Buffy bounced back to her feet and raced headlong into the fight. Someone howled from the center of the room, the sound echoing endlessly in his ears, and lightning flashed again. Angel slumped in his chains as the power flow from his body cut off, and Tyler screamed as the backlash hit him. The flames died nearly to embers but the circle still burned, and Aztorath raised his manacled fists to the ceiling, bellowing in rage.

"The spell's interrupted." Willow threw herself to the ground next to Giles and Lindsey, breathing hard; Tara collapsed beside her. "All the power is still built up, but it's got nowhere to go!"

"Can you use it?" Lindsey demanded. "Do the mojo, get us out of this?"

Both witches shook their heads. "There's too much of it, and it's too focused on the demon-thingie and the ritual," Willow panted. "Only the people involved can touch it; we'd probably get fried if we even tried. The interference alone is unreal -- we almost couldn't set off the talisman to get Buffy loose and that was an easy spell."

"Lovely!" Giles bit out, clambering to his feet. "Free Angel if you can, and try to stay out of the line of fire."

"Giles, no, you're hurt--"

"Take this!" Willow overrode Tara's protests and shoved her taser at Giles. He nodded thanks, then threw himself into the middle of a knot of three minions and Riley. The witches exchanged one quick look, then popped to their feet to race to Angel's chained form, ignoring the flames from the circle and Aztorath's flailing arms as Tyler tried frantically to bring the djinn under control. So far, it looked like a stalemate, but the second either of them won, everyone else was going to be toast. They had to break this up before then.

"What did I do to deserve this?" Lindsey snarled and tripped a minion as he tried to flee the scene, proving that at least one person in the room had brains. The minion's axe clattered to the floor; Lindsey slammed the minion's head against the concrete, then retrieved the axe and braced himself in front of the two witches.

Across the room, Cordelia, Anya and Xander circled back-to-back, holding off four minions. Riley and Buffy worked their way through a crowd of six more as Giles and Wesley picked at the edges with tasers, fists and feet. The minions showed no "good guy" qualms about not killing; they had edged weapons and were using them. Giles ducked the swing of a sword, but missed the follow-up kick to the head and dropped; Buffy screamed in outrage and went after his attacker, as Wesley positioned himself grimly over the fallen Watcher.

"It's not working!" Willow cried behind Lindsey. "Damn it, none of my magicks are working!"

"We can't leave him here, they'll kill him," Tara said, close to tears. "Just try again, we can do this. I know we can."

Lindsey half-turned to look at them -- the frantic witches and the souled vampire hanging limply from the wall -- and fought with himself hard. Good news: Angel dead. Bad news: Cordelia miserable, and angry. Decisions, decisions....

But he'd already made this decision, and there was no going back, was there?

He was fucking stuck with this. Might as well go for broke.

"Get out of the way," he told the witches through his teeth as he raised the axe over his head. Angel heard his voice, lifted his head just enough to meet Lindsey's eyes, and Lindsey froze for a moment as something like deja vu flashed before him. A vampire, a human, an axe, a choice.... He could almost hear voices echoing in back of his head, and tried for a second to make them out. Then he shook them off fiercely and brought the axe down with all of his strength.

Sharpened steel met wrought iron; iron resisted for three blows, but steel won. Lindsey staggered back as Angel's wrist dropped free; the vampire seemed to gather himself then, in one mighty heave, ripped the other manacle from the wall. He kicked out with his new leverage and concrete flew as his feet came free.

"Very impressive," Lindsey said sarcastically, unable to help himself. He had just a second to regret it as Angel strode towards him, fully fanged and completely pissed, arm raised to do serious damage. "Goddamnit, Angel, I just saved you--!"

Angel knocked Lindsey to the floor with one hard blow to the shoulder, and the minion with a very long, pointy sword who'd been coming up behind him suddenly found himself dangling a foot in the air with a steely hand around his throat. Angel throttled him for a long second, then threw him into a wall with no more ceremony.

"...Thank you. I think," Lindsey managed to say.

"We're even," Angel returned tightly, only sparing Lindsey a quick glower before diving into the thick of the fight.

The witches knelt beside Lindsey to help him to his feet; he was shaken enough to let them. "I don't think Angel likes you much," Willow observed.

"Feeling's mutual." He shook his head to clear it, then bent over carefully to retrieve his axe and check out the progress of the battle.

Now this, this was his kind of fight scene. Angel's freedom shifted the odds overwhelmingly to the good guys, so there wasn't really much call for a lawyer with an axe except to stay safely out of it, and maybe guard the witches from the minions who weren't attacking. No sweat -- and more importantly, no blood.

Except that Cordelia was still in the middle of it, on the far side of the room from the serious fighters, and the minions were sensing weakness, closing in. It wouldn't take long for the big guns to finish them off, but until then....

"Crap!" Lindsey shouldered his axe and started forward. But he only got a few feet before a beam of red magic blasted across his path, the shockwave slamming him backwards into the hard concrete floor again. His head swam, skin and shirt singed from the focused power, but it would have done worse to the Slayer if she hadn't dodged at the last second. Two minions went up in flames, screaming as they beat at their robes.

"Again!" Tyler commanded at the top of his lungs -- damn it, they'd ignored him too long! Aztorath howled within the newly-fired circle and fought against his chains, but finally obeyed. Angel ducked the shot this time, rolling back to his feet and running towards the djinn with his sword raised. What the idiot intended to do was anyone's guess, but he zig-zagged enough to avoid the next strike, which took down three more minions, whose flying bodies in turn took down Xander, Anya -- and Cordelia.

Lindsey could have sworn he heard the hollow thunk of Cordelia's head against concrete, saw it bounce a little, saw her fall limp and still. His throat hurt and he realized he was screaming a furious, useless denial. Without weighing his next move, without calculating risks and benefits, without thinking at all, he threw himself forward and tackled Tyler to the ground.

"Son of a bitch!" Tyler fought back, but his magic was all tied up, and physically, he was nothing against rage and training. Lindsey got him into a hammerlock, neck and arm, and pounded his face into the ground.

"You work for me, goddamnit!" Tyler yelled, glasses and nose broken, blood covering half of his face. "I have a contract!"

Lindsey yanked him to his feet, their eyes only inches apart. "Wolfram & Hart remove themselves as attorneys of record," he snarled and shoved his former client away hard.

Tyler stumbled forward through the flames and into the circle -- right into Aztorath's clutching, clawing hands.

Time stopped in a blaze of light and agony. Lindsey fell to his knees, the djinn's howl of triumph ripping through his ears as something else ripped through his head, leaving bloody ruin in its path. Something shattered and he felt the pieces of it cut into his cheek, his shoulder, his side. But they were nothing next to the burning, tearing, bleeding of his mind, and his soul.

This was what Angel must have felt, that time, he realized dimly, as the last bits of his soul began to break away from his hold, ripped from him by the contract he had just broken, the blood-oath he had shattered. Far away, in Los Angeles or Hell, the Senior Partners called for payment, and his soul was the price, bound in the whirlwind of power that tore away at him--

--And Lindsey fell forward, gasping for breath, clutching at his head with desperate hands. Blood dripped from his nose and his face, puddling on the concrete like a crimson Rorschach test, and he wondered vaguely what the patterns said about him. Soul? No soul? Alive? Dead? Did dead men bleed, because they could sure as hell hurt?

"Lindsey!" It was the blonde witch, Tara, kneeling next to him and calling him frantically, holding him up with deceptively small, strong hands.

"'M I... alive?" he muttered carefully.

"Y-yes," she started to answer, before her hands contracted on his arms so hard it sent new pain ripping through his body.

"Jesus!" he cursed, his eyes shooting open. He started to yell at the witch, but something large and red filled his vision, and a little pain didn't seem so important any more.

Looming over them, Aztorath smiled, thin and toothy. "Boo."


"This cannot possibly be of the good." Buffy's voice sounded normal to her own ears, but everyone else who was conscious flinched just a little.

"Good is not the word I would have chosen, no," Wesley replied, much more calmly than she would have expected. He was doing the clenched jaw thing while he kept protecting Giles, no girlie scream in sight.

"Nice to know we all agree." Riley was bent half-over, his hands braced against his knees and blood showing across his stomach where someone had almost gotten close enough. Buffy wanted to go to him, but she needed to stay where she was, between the demon whosiwhatsit, and her friends.

Except that three of her friends -- she'd decided at some point that Lindsey was now officially included in that list, and Angel could just live with it -- were on the other side of the room, and there was no way to get to them except through Big Red.

"And what's with the primary colors?" she complained to no one in particular, as she strode forward with her best 'me Slayer, you dead' attitude in place. "Why are the big ones always primary colors? Hey, genie guy! Back off from my friends!"

Not her best effort, but since she had to walk right past William Tyler's scorched body -- sprawled half in and half out of the flames where the demon had dropped it, his eyes staring sightlessly up at her -- she was fairly satisfied just that her voice didn't crack. The knowledge that Angel and Riley both had her back was way reassuring.

The demon turned slowly towards them. "Slayer," he acknowledged, with a half-bow that was kind of respectful, and kind of creepy. Looking over her shoulder at Angel, he bowed again. "Champion."

The bow didn't get less creepy with repetition, but at least he wasn't leaning so close to Tara and Lindsey anymore. Willow slowly shifted in front of the pair on the floor, one hand reaching back to grab Tara's, her lips moving in a silent chant. With only a quick glance, Tara joined her. Buffy tightened her lips, and started to buy them time.

"Yayness, we all know each other. Saves time on the introductions, so we can move right to the fighting." She bent and scooped up Lindsey's abandoned axe in one smooth move, twirling it in casual threat. "I told you to get away from my friends."

The demon crossed his arms, and lifted one pointed, flamey eyebrow. "I was offered gifts, Slayer. Do you wish to give yourself back over to me in their place?"

"No, but I'd be happy to take their place in the kicking of your butt, Demon Boy."

"Djinn," Angel corrected quietly from behind her left shoulder.

"Demon, djinn, whatever." She tightened her stance, raising the axe into fighting position. "Why don't you try fighting a Slayer when she's not chained up?"

"An interesting notion." Aztorath raised his hand, and his palm began to glow with power again. "I look forward to seeing the results."

"Bad idea." Buffy blinked as Lindsey's voice broke into the pre-fight snarking; his voice was all gravelly, but he'd gotten himself to his knees, leaning heavily on Tara's shoulder. Blood streaked his face, most of it from his nose and mouth, but a little -- eew -- from his eyes.

The de-- djinn, looked kind of annoyed at being interrupted. "Actually, I believe it would be an... interesting competition. If ultimately futile."

"For who?" Lindsey pulled himself a little straighter. "I know you're pissed off -- hey, I would be too. But deal with a little reality, Aztorath. A Slayer, a Champion, two Watchers, a pair of witches--" he jerked his chin sideways at Willow and Tara, and their chanting suddenly became audible, their eyes narrowed and focused on the djinn. "--And all of their friends. Now, maybe you can take out most of them, but it'll cost you. And that still leaves you with some very angry and very powerful people after your ethereal ass."

Aztorath was paying real close attention now and Lindsey kept going, in what even a non-lawyer recognized as full courtroom groove. "How much are you willing to bet that one of them can't figure out what Tyler did, can't find a way to bind you? Tyler just wanted to use you -- what do you think someone who's actively pissed at you will do? Hell, I work for Wolfram & Hart; they know a little something about binding. And so do I."

Willow and Tara were starting to have a glowy thing of their own going on. Xander was shaking his head, almost back on his feet, and Wesley had moved up to stand next to Angel. He held a sword like he knew what to do with it, and managed to look almost as dangerous as the other two guys. Buffy tightened her grip on her axe and started mentally listing all the parts of the Aztorath's body that it might damage in order of attack, looking hard at each one.

Aztorath didn't look particularly intimidated, but he did look annoyed and seriously thoughtful. "So I am to have nothing for the abuse I have suffered?"

"Tyler's really dead," Lindsey pointed out. "Take what you can get."

"Oh, I intend to." Aztorath's flaming eyes flickered around the room. Then he lifted a clawed finger, pointing at several of the robed figures lying still or moaning on the floor. "I will have them -- the ones who served Tyler." His face gave an ugly twist. "My master. Give them to me, and I will depart."

"Sure," Lindsey shrugged.

"No!" every other conscious, non-chanting Scooby said in near-unison (although Angel and Wesley came in a little later, and a lot more reluctantly, than the others).

"No humans get turned into demon or djinn chow," Buffy warned. "It's against the rules. No matter how much they suck."

A couple of the minions who were with it enough to understand what was going on looked at her gratefully. She glared at them in disgust and they mostly went back to pretending to be out cold.

"You would battle me for the lives of those who would have aided in your death?" Buffy didn't bother to answer Aztorath; she just shifted the axe a little higher. The Scoobies all leaned forward a little more, ready to cut loose at her word, and Aztorath smiled a thin little smile. "Those who have spoken to me of Slayers did not exaggerate."

The djinn turned gracefully back to Lindsey. "I have been held too long in this world. My wrongful master is dead, and I am free." His very white teeth flashed suddenly in a pointy -- and pointed -- grin. "Give my regards to your masters. I leave you to the consequences of your folly."

He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, in front of his chest, and bowed deeply to the room at large. Then the flames leaped upwards to wrap around him, lengthening and thinning to a long line that gradually collapsed in on itself and vanished.

And just like that, it was over. The djinn was gone, Tyler's body and the shards of the bowl with it, as if none of them had ever existed. Lindsey dropped like his strings had been cut; Tara and Willow collapsed next to him. Light flashed intensely but harmlessly around them as they abruptly stopped whatever it was they'd been doing, making spots dance in front of Buffy's eyes.

Buffy raced over to the witches, Riley close behind her, leaving Xander with Anya, and Wesley and Angel fighting it out over Cordy. Wesley, amazingly, came out on top -- sharper elbows, maybe?

"Willow? Tara? Are you guys okay?"

Willow opened her eyes and rolled over onto her back. "We're good. Wait -- we won, right?"

Buffy looked around. "Looks like."

"Okay, then, we're good."

Tara's eyes stayed closed, but she smiled her own confirmation, still clutching Willow's hand.

"Okay. You guys take it easy." Buffy shifted her attention, putting a hand on Lindsey's shoulder. "Lindsey? You alive in there?"

"...Yeah," he answered after a long moment. "I think so." He rolled his head to the side enough to look up at her through a mask of blood. "I hope you're ready for the bill you're gonna get for this."

Buffy laughed wryly. "College kids and unemployed Watcher. Good luck with that getting-paid thing."

"You haven't met our collection agents." He shook his head carefully, like he was testing to see if it would fall off. It didn't. "Christ. Now I know why Cordelia bailed out of this town."

She could practically see the light go on over his head. "Cordelia!" He jolted to his feet, but didn't make it more than a step before he swayed and almost fell over again.

Riley got to him before Buffy could, steadying him. "Easy, Lindsey, she's starting to come around. Angel and Wesley are taking care of her."

"Oh, like that's comforting," Lindsey snarled. He shook Riley off and wove his way unsteadily towards the knot of people on the other side of the room. Buffy gave Riley a quick look; he waved her forward, kneeling next to Waillow and Tara, and she shadowed Lindsey. He ignored the cluster around Anya and Giles, all of his attention reserved for the woman Angel and Wesley were carefully supporting. He shoved them out of the way without even looking, apparently intent on just getting his arms around Cordelia.

"God, babe, you all right?" he asked anxiously, cradling her against his chest.

"I feel like a margarita, post blender," she half-moaned, her eyes still closed. But her left arm came gingerly around Lindsey's waist. "We won, right?" "More or less. Can you open your eyes, babe?"

"If I wanted to, which I so don't. And don't call me babe."

Lindsey laughed, his voice all raw, and buried his face in her hair. "Yeah, you're gonna live." Ooo, rough tough Slayer types weren't supposed to get all teary-eyed after big climactic battles. Buffy sniffled and left them to the sentimental stuff while she went to check on Giles. He was sitting up, gingerly feeling his head, and tried to smile when he saw her. "I take it we won?"

"Considering we're the only ones standing, I'm kind of wondering why everyone has to ask." She examined the lump on the back of his head with the expertise of long practice. "You're going to the hospital again. Do they give frequent concussion discounts?"

"They would lose far too much money in my case." Giles tried to focus on the room around him. "Everyone else?"

"Xander and Anya took a hit, but he's fine and--" she looked quickly over, "--and it looks like she's conscious. And talking, oh goodie. Everyone else is fine. Cordelia went down, but she's got Lindsey taking care of her."

Giles followed her eyes to the couple embracing a few feet away. "Ah. Very good." He blinked suddenly. "Lindsey McDonald? He works for Tyler, he brought you here! What is he--?"

"Oh yay, we get short-term memory loss this time. You are so going to the hospital. Relax, Giles," she shoved him back when he started to get up, his expression suspiciously Ripper-like. "It was a plan. An actual real Scooby plan that even worked. Well, kind of," she amended, after another look at the wreckage around them. "I'll tell you all about it later. Right now, hospital. Just let me check on the others."

He nodded and waved her off, his eyes closing again; she worried her bottom lip for a second, then went back to the lovebirds. "I hate to break this up," she told Lindsey, who was still cradling Cordelia and rocking back and forth (and wow, did both Angel and Wesley look really grim). "But we should start moving people to the hospital. Don't worry about coming up with explanations, they know us there."

"Boy howdy," Cordelia agreed, without moving her head from Lindsey's shoulder. "Do they still keep all of our paperwork on file?"

"Why throw out what you know you're gonna need?" Buffy made a face and looked over at Xander. "Ready to go?"

He nodded, carefully supporting Anya even though he was the one limping. "All set."

"We have an agreement," Anya nodded emphatically, if groggily, her hair matted with blood on one side. Buffy couldn't tell if it was hers or not, but thought it probably was. Head injuries all around, huh? "I hold him up, he holds me up. It's what couples do."

"Good plan." Buffy smothered her grin. "You stick with that."

Riley appeared with his arms around Willow and Tara; Buffy made mental notes for later teasing, then stood back to let Lindsey stand up, which he did without letting go of Cordy. Wesley and Angel started to protest and even Buffy thought this looked like a Bad Idea -- Lindsey's face was still covered with blood, and he grunted as he hefted Cordelia's weight -- but with some serious effort, he managed to make it all the way up.

"My hero," Cordelia snickered against his shirt, wincing in the process.

"Shut up or I'll drop you," Lindsey shot back and began staggering towards the exit. Wesley mumbled something that sounded demonic and kind of dirty, and followed close behind. The others began limping along in their wake.

Buffy shook her head and looked up at Angel, who was watching the parade with a disgusted and deeply unhappy expression. She leaned her head on his shoulder for just a second. "Nothing like owing everything to someone you hate, is there?"

"No." The tight monosyllable didn't exactly encourage conversation.

But if she'd paid any attention to that, their relationship would have been about two hours long. "He did save the day, though. It was his plan that got us in here. And he talked the djinn-thingie out of killing us. Well, with some serious intimidation backup from the rest of us."

"Trust me, I know that."

Buffy stared steadily at him, until he gave in and met her sympathetic gaze. "And I think he might actually really love Cordelia," she pointed out gently.

Angel's jaw tightened again, but he finally let his chin sink to his chest on a long, resigned sigh. "Yeah. I got that, too. But Buffy... it's such a bad idea. I don't-- I just don't want her to get hurt again."

Buffy smiled ruefully. "She's a Scooby. She's gonna get hurt, that's just the way it works." Her smile widened into a grin. "At least this way, maybe she'll get some great sex out of the deal."

Angel choked and sputtered and Buffy tried not to laugh. Too much. "Come on, help me with Giles. Last time, he tripped on the way to the car and almost squashed me, which, as Slayer deaths go? Is not how I want to wind up listed in the Watcher Council's library."

As she got Angel and Giles pointed in more-or-less the same direction and moving, stepping over a few semi-conscious or still-faking-it minions in the process, Buffy really tried to concentrate on how cute Lindsey and Cordelia had looked together, and the nice gooey feeling of an all-too-rare happy ending.

But even as she guided Giles into the Angelmobile, and watched Lindsey settling Cordelia tenderly into the front seat of his Porsche, Aztorath's last words kept echoing through her head: "I leave you to the consequences of your folly."

When demons got off exit lines like that, it was just never of the good.

Comments welcomed at perri@neon-hummingbird.com or drop a note on LiveJournal. Last updated September 23, 2009.


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