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Maṭṭaltu

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There were two small, almost neat scars on Eliot's chest. Nate hadn't thought much about it when he'd first seen them - his own souvenirs from bullets had been jagged grazes until the bank job and there'd been other things on his mind.

After the bank job - and Kadjic - he thought a little more, because he couldn't work out how Eliot was even alive.

One bullet, on the right, had impacted low over ribs and maybe - maybe - it was small caliber: shattering bone, but deflected. The one on the left, the hole was too large to be a .22. Sure, there were still ribs in the way, but the shot had been close range and it was centered over the heart.

Dead center.

He almost brought it up once, but Eliot had been tugging on a postman's uniform and bitching about something to Hardison. The clock had been ticking and yeah, it really wasn't the time.

It wasn't the time until someone who looked a hell of a lot like Eliot turned up at Nate's condo, unshaven and travel worn, and politely introduced himself as Lindsey McDonald.

Around then may have been time, if he'd thought about it. For the half a second before he heard Eliot's outraged growl behind him - then all he was interested in was getting out of the way before he became collateral damage.

Nate jumped to the side and almost collided with Hardison, who steadied him, wide eyed, as Eliot and his twin slammed back through doorway and out into the hall.

That was going to attract attention and attention was absolutely the last thing they needed. "Hardison, call Sophie and Parker in," he said mildly.

"You sure?" Hardison's shock turned to apprehension. "You know Sophie's got that thing and while you and I might drop everything just because Eliot's got an evil twin…"

Ignoring him, Nate followed the fight out into the hallway. He found Eliot pinning McDonald to the wall by his neck, fingers whitening as he squeezed. McDonald wasn't struggling; both men glared at each other like it was some kind of battle of wills, instead of attempted murder.

"Let him go. " When there was no response, Nate glanced urgently up and down the hallway and then risked raising his voice. "Eliot. Let him go."

Eliot's fingers tightened once more and then abruptly released. McDonald dropped to the ground. Sucking air in raggedly, he steadied himself with one hand on the wall.

Eliot grabbed his twin by the collar and heaved him towards the door. "Get in there," he ordered, sounding oddly breathless.

"That's what I was trying to do," McDonald rasped pointedly. "Where's the, 'Hey, Lin. How you been?'" His accent was a little less pronounced than Eliot's and the habitual growl was missing, but in its place was something sharper, slicker.

McDonald didn't protest as he was shoved - thrown - onto the couch, he just stared up at Eliot like he was waiting for something else.

And McDonald got it.

"I should kill you," Eliot said. He didn't sound angry anymore, but he did sound sure.

McDonald's arms widened, presenting a full body target. He bared his teeth in a grin that was half way to a snarl. "Give it your best shot."

Eliot started forward; Nate dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Eliot, don't."

For a moment he wasn't sure whether it would work - he never really was. But Eliot stopped, and for the first time the man on the couch looked surprised. His attention flicked to Nate and Nate could see him re-evaluating.

Fair enough - there weren't that many people who put themselves in Eliot's way. Not successfully, anyway.

In the lull, Nate cleared his throat and asked, "So who wants to tell me what's going on?"

McDonald shifted into a more comfortable sprawl, as if he was right at home. He smirked. "Me. Me. I do."

"You're hilarious." Eliot's frown turned pensive. "Nate, just - let me handle this, okay? And Hardison better not be listening."

Apparently, he was being thrown out of his own living room. Against his better judgement, Nate nodded slowly. "I'll be … not here."

He retreated back to the conference room and pulled the door closed behind him. "Hardison?"

Hardison was holding his laptop protectively in his arms. "Sophie and Parker are on their way. Sophie says you owe her two opening nights and an hour in the shoe store of her choice. Anyone dead?"

"Not yet. They're talking." Nate stared at Hardison expectantly; he didn't move. "So let's hear what they're saying," Nate prompted.

Hardison shook his head firmly. "The man doesn't want an audience. He can break me with his pinky finger, Nate. His pinky finger."

When Nate failed to look sympathetic, Hardison grumbled under his breath and put the laptop on the table in front of him. He opened the case and without a key being tapped, Nate heard the sound of muted voices.

He leveled an old fashioned look at the hacker. "Really?"

Hardison shrugged unrepentantly. "He said not to listen, recording's a whole other thing."

Nate pulled a chair from the table and sat, concentrating on the conversation next door.

"…doing here? And don't bullshit me, because if this gets any of my crew hurt, I'll find out what happens if I kill you. You hearing me?"

"You're really with them? I thought-"

"You didn't think. If you'd been thinking, you wouldn't be here."

"Still pissed, huh?"

"Got any kind of reason I shouldn't be?"

"I saved your life."

"You saved your life."

"Yeah, I did. And if I'd asked, you would've said no and we'd both be dead."

"When the hell had I ever said no to you? Huh? Tell me one time. One time."

The pause went on long enough that Nate began to wonder if Eliot had perfected the art of the silent kill, but Lindsey finally answered.

"You would have done it?" He sounded stilted and strange, like Eliot was choking him again.

Eliot just sounded tired. "Guess we'll never know. You didn't ask because you knew what you were doing was wrong. You made your own damn bed, lie in it. Hell, die in it."

"The deal had a price, and it's due." Lindsey's words were clipped now, the moment of uncertainty over. "When I pay up, you pay up. So if you don't want to help me, help yourself."

"Son of a bitch." Eliot's words were a whisper of frustrated incredulity, resignation at the edges.

"And momma always said you were her favorite."

Expecting another explosion, Nate was out of his chair and half way back to the door before Eliot gritted out an unwilling laugh. "The hell she did. What do you want?"

"I need to break into my old office, but LA's dangerous for me. If you go in first, the people looking for me will find you. You can shake them off with some story and when they see me, they'll think I'm you."

Now Nate did jerk open the door. "Tell me you're not considering it."

Eliot spun, glared at Nate and then at the guilty-looking hacker standing behind him. "Dammit, Hardison."

"I had my fingers in my ears the whole time, man - I swear." Hardison demonstrated, with humming, as he quickly backed into the conference room again. Nate gave him points for sincerity, if not actual credibility.

He held his hand up and cut in before the bickering and recriminations could kick off. "Look, it sounds like you need help and that's what we do. And if you won't let us help, at least come up with a better plan than that."

McDonald looked annoyed. "It's not a bad plan."

"No, you're right," Nate agreed. "It's a horrible plan. Sure, you look alike, but anyone who knows either of you can see the difference after a couple of seconds - and I'm guessing the people who want you dead know you really, really well."

McDonald shrugged, not denying it.

Eliot looked faintly ashamed for his brother. "He's a lawyer, he's only used to thinking three or four moves ahead."

McDonald's expression shifted from faint smugness to outrage. "This from the guy who hits things for a living?" He moved as if about to stand, but Eliot's sudden air of anticipation seemed to change his mind.

Before round three could break out, Hardison returned, laptop balanced precariously on his forearm as he read and scrolled at the same time.

"Nate, meet Lindsey McDonald, previously of Wolfram and Hart's offices in LA. Started in the mailroom, worked his way up - mostly by being that damn good."

McDonald's smugness resurfaced.

"Golden boy got himself a sweet corner office, then left the firm kind of suddenly in two-thousand two."

Nate raised an eyebrow. "That's it?"

Hardison snorted. "Hell no. He died in two-thousand four. Coroner's report has two to the chest, case unsolved. Nothing after that. Except, if you ever wanted to see what Eliot would look like if he had short hair and knew how to smile? I got pictures."

He looked up from the screen and nodded more seriously to Lindsey, one professional to another. "Everything aside, respect to your cleaner. Whoever disappeared you, they're good - I hope you tipped."

McDonald's mouth twitched, the gesture of repressed amusement so Eliot it was uncanny - or maybe not.

Nate looked thoughtfully at Eliot's chest as he considered Lindsey's cause of 'death'. The scars were hidden under t-shirt and shirt, but he knew exactly where they were.

When he looked up, Eliot was staring right back, somewhere between wary and challenging. Daring Nate to ask and ready to do God knew what if he did.

Nate clapped his hands together and turned back to address their new client. "Ok, Lindsey, was it? I don't know you, I don't like you and I certainly don't trust you, but we're going to help Eliot and that means we're helping you. Start from the beginning, leave nothing out."

Lindsey crossed his arms. "I came here for his help, not yours."

From the doorway, Sophie said, "Lucky for you, then, isn't it? Don't worry, you can thank us later." She stood coolly and if the appearance of Eliot's double had startled her, there was no hint of it in her expression.

Parker on the other hand was staring between the two men with narrowed, suspicious eyes. "They're both Eliot," she announced after a few seconds, and then sidled around the room to stand beside Hardison, still glaring.

Sophie closed the door behind her, then walked to the kitchen bar and dropped her purse on it. She folded her arms. "Someone want to catch us up?"

Lindsey darted a glance at Eliot, who shook his head warningly, and then looked at Nate. "How much did you hear?" He asked cautiously.

"You made a deal on Eliot's behalf that's come due for both of you, and if you don't find a way out of it, you're both dead," Nate summarized.

Lindsey nodded. "That covers it."

"Yeah, no." Nate smiled thinly. "I'm pretty sure that doesn't even come close to covering it and the only reason I'm not asking some really searching questions right now is I trust Eliot not to leave out something that will get anyone hurt."

Eliot wavered. "Nate, you need to sit this one out."

Nate raised an eyebrow in askance. "Is someone going to get hurt?"

The twins looked at each other and, however many years it had been and however much animosity was between them, they were still clearly having a conversation, even if it did consist entirely of meaningful glares.

Nate could follow the CliffNotes, but he watched Sophie instead - she was reading the book. Her lips pursed after a moment and she smiled faintly. "Yes," she said. "They think we could get hurt. Lindsey wants to tell us why, Eliot very much doesn't. He's concerned that would be even more dangerous - Lindsey doesn't really care."

Eliot looked at her, scowling. "Seriously? The tea and - with the mind tricks - that wasn't enough?"

She waved a careless hand. "Oh please, you were barely trying and I'm standing right here - what do you expect?"

Parker leaned in closer to Hardison. "Can Sophie read minds now?"

"Nah." Hardison's hand rocked side to side. "Maybe?" He swallowed nervously and then nodded. "Probably," he muttered.

-o-

A half-hour of awkward silence punctuated with thinly veiled death-threats later, Hardison had pulled up everything he could find on Wolfram & Hart on the display screens. He nodded to Lindsey. "The first problem we got, your office isn't an office anymore. Wolfram and Hart closed up shop in LA the day after you, finger quotes, died."

Lindsey blinked. "They can't have. And did you just say finger quotes?"

"Do you see any spare hands on me? No. They could and they did. There's a lot of companies in there now. We got a couple accountants, a small law firm - Harris, Harris and Lake - a wedding planner, few others. The floor you say your office was on is still empty."

Nate nodded. "Okay, so that's our way in. We're scouting for office space for - what have we got running, Hardison?"

"No, you don't get it - they couldn't have -"

"We've got a PR firm, they've been talking about expansion on their blog lately. Alice is very excited, but she's worried about moving her plants."

"They cannot have -"

Parker eyes widened. "The plants don't die, right?"

"You'll have to tune in next week, mama."

Lindsey looked like he was coming to a disturbing realization; he leaned slightly closer to Eliot and murmured, "Are they all crazy? Like, all of them?"

Eliot ignored the question. "Why couldn't Wolfram and Hart move up and out?"

"There's location-sensitive stuff in there - really old, really location-sensitive stuff. If they're gone, something bad went down and you can't just walk into that pretending to be a PR firm with delusions of grandeur."

Sophie smiled at him almost, but not quite, mockingly. "You care?"

He smiled sweetly back. "I care about me. You die, my best chance dies with you."

Nate glanced towards the bar and then nodded again. "All right. Hardison, dig a little deeper - find out what happened. No one's going in there until we know what we're walking into."

Lindsey shrugged, sure of himself. "He won't find a damn thing."

"So cynical, so young. It's sad. Really." Hardison smirked and returned to his machines.

Nate caught Sophie's eye and then looked towards the kitchen.

A moment later, she stood and stretched lazily, pulling Lindsey's appreciative attention easily. "I think we could all use a break. I'm hungry, anyone else fancy something to eat? I could make omelets."

"You're not cooking," Eliot said flatly. "Ever."

She pouted, but looked more amused than hurt. "I'll have you know, people would die for a taste of my chicken liver and port pâté."

"And they'd die from your omelets. They ain't meant to be that color, Sophie."

"Fine, if you're so fussy, you make them." She waved him towards the kitchen.

"Avoiding food poisoning isn't fussing. And don't think I don't know what you're doing."

She smiled unrepentantly. "Go. Cook. I think Nate still has some of that nice cheese in the fridge."

Eliot shot a warning look at his brother and then stamped towards the refrigerator; Parker and Sophie followed him.

Nate took the vacated seat opposite Lindsey. The man still hadn't moved from where Eliot had dropped him, not even to take off his jacket.

"Eliot never told us about you," he opened neutrally.

"Yeah, well, who wants to talk about the black sheep?" Lindsey smiled crookedly. "And you've got to wonder about the family when the guy who kills people for money is the good one, right?"

Nate shrugged. "I wonder about a lot of things. Like, why LA? I mean, you could have gone anywhere, right? So why LA?"

Lindsey's eyes hooded, as if that weren't the question he was expecting. "It's where Wolfram and Hart sent me," he said at last.

"Any chance you'll tell me what's going on with this deal, contract - whatever - that you two are under?"

Lindsey shook his head. "Eliot would kill me and dying's what I'm trying to avoid."

Nate nodded; he hadn't really expected anything else. He let it go. "Okay, so why law? Smart kid like you, you could have done anything."

Uncertainty slid right into hard-edged wariness. "Why?"

"Just making conversation." Nate kept his tone mild; fighting fire with fire didn't work with Eliot and he was getting the impression it wouldn't work any better with Lindsey.

He didn't particularly care why law - wasn't even sure what it was he was driving at, exactly, but he was content to pick away until whatever it was revealed itself. The added bonus was that the questions seemed to put Lindsey off-balance.

That seemed odd in someone who had presumably won a lot of high-powered cases to get that corner office; he filed that away with everything else.

The suspicion subsided and Lindsey smiled; it was wry, but it seemed genuine. "When I was a kid, they wanted to put me in Juvie for some dumb thing I don't even remember. The lawyer made them back down, he had them so turned around the bailiff opened the door for me on the way out."

Lindsey frowned pensively and Nate could almost see an answer being constructed as the man searched for words that actually meant something. Lindsey was rusty. "Doors, man," he finally managed. "The law, it's all about doors."

Nate nodded. You could look at it that way. "And were you innocent?"

"Does it matter?" The meaningless smile returned. Nate smiled politely back, he wasn't going to rise to bait that obvious.

"Yeah, he was. I wasn't." Eliot dropped a plate of spicy-smelling omelet in front of Nate and then another in front of his brother.

So apparently there had been a time when Lindsey McDonald wasn't just out for himself. Good to know.

Hardison wandered back in. "Evil Spock might be on to something." He waved his clicker at the bank of screens and one by one they flickered on.

"Would it help if I shaved?" Lindsey ran a hand over his jaw and then reached to pick up his plate and fork.

Hardison paused and looked at Lindsey accusingly. "He," he jabbed in the direction of Eliot, "doesn't know what the Enterprise is, but you know evil Spock?"

Lindsey looked bemused. "He knows. We had a TV sometimes."

Hardison rounded triumphantly on Eliot, who glared back. "Drop it."

Hardison subsided. "Dropping it. So the companies are all legit, but it turns out once you go through what even I would call a paranoid number of shelf companies - seriously, none of them are doing business - everything is owned by this tiny little investigations company on the top floor.

"They are active, but they haven't had a client on their books in ... in …" Hardison trailed away, staring nonplussed at Lindsey. "Why is he laughing?"

-o-

Sophie stayed after the others had gone, legs tucked under her as she reclined back in her chair. "What are you doing?"

"Hmm?" Nate turned away from the bar and presented his replenished glass as answer. "Did you want something?"

She failed to be fooled by what he had to admit wasn't much of an obfuscation. "What's going on, Nate? Why aren't you pushing them?"

"Pushing? I don't push."

The sheer enormity of the lie silenced them both for a long moment.

When she smiled, he dropped the act. "If I ask too many questions, Eliot will take it out of our hands and I'm pretty sure that's the last thing he should do."

"Agreed. But if you don't ask enough questions, he'll know you're up to something."

"Yeah, I know, that's why I asked Hardison to bug his truck and Parker's following them home."

She smiled warmly. "Good, that should put his mind at rest."

The complete lack of irony in her tone gave Nate a fleeting insight into exactly how strange his life had become.

She reached forward to steal the glass of whiskey he'd carelessly left within her reach and took a sip. "So what do you think it is?"

"I have no idea." He stood and went to the conference room, retrieved the folder that Hardison hadn't shared with the class and then returned to his seat. "But maybe we can come up with some theories."

He flicked through the pages of text and photos of the file that Hardison had been steadily building on Eliot since they'd started working together. The hacker had one for each of them and from Sophie's complete lack of surprise, Nate assumed she knew - or at least guessed.

Most of the folders Hardison had gathered were still sealed: he'd found them and hidden them, and that was all. In a way, it was a gesture of trust. A gesture of trust that Eliot should never, ever be told about.

There were a lot of documents, even a few photos. Some looked like originals and, honestly, Nate didn't want to know where or how Hardison had laid his hands on those. He spread the papers out on the coffee table and focused on the earlier ones – anything later would probably be irrelevant and, he told himself, he wasn't doing this for the sake of curiosity.

In his peripheral vision, he could see Sophie carefully gathering the photos. When she was done, she made a cooing sound and held up a Polaroid of six children and their exceedingly large, grubby-looking bulldog cross.

The eldest was a girl in her mid-teens, the youngest a toddler. The younger kids were all in vests and shorts, and just about as covered in dirt as the patient-looking dog they were clambering over. In the background was a dilapidated-looking one-story farmhouse, with a thin edge of garden surrounding it.

The younger children were pretty much interchangeable to Nate's eye, but Sophie's perfectly manicured nail tapped the child furthest left. He was perhaps eight years old and laughing at something out of shot - the only one looking away from the camera. "Eliot."

He squinted, trying and failing to see a resemblance. "How can you tell?"

She shrugged. "I just can."

Nate found Eliot's double at the other side of the photo, resting his head against the dog's, fists curled in its fur and grinning widely. "Lindsey."

Kids just being kids, some late summer before the chill set in.

He felt the pang he was calculatedly meant to feel, huffed a laugh and sat back. "Nicely done. But it doesn't change anything."

She nodded an acknowledgement. "I know, I just wanted you to remember these aren't just clients before you reach for a second glass."

"No clients are just clients."

With studied innocence, her eyes opened a fraction. "Of course. "

He scowled, uncomfortable and irritated, and unsure why. "What else did you get?"

She spread the rest of the photos out and then pushed one his way. "Here we are a bit later - we've lost the two youngest."

This picture had been taken in almost exactly the same place, but summer had come and gone; the ground looked hard and cold. "Fostered?"

"No, I don't think so. See how the rest of them stand? They've closed ranks - they're not unconsciously leaving a space. No smiles."

Nate reached towards his glass and then drew his hand back.

Sophie's tone was detached as she held up the next picture for him to take. "With this one we're down to three, but it's the eldest sister who's missing. Eliot mentioned that he has a nephew, and Lindsey doesn't seem the type, so it's possible she married away."

Three kids, indoors. At Christmas, if the thin shred of silver tinsel decorating the wooden mantel behind them was an indication. The youngest boy stood between an easily recognizable Eliot and Lindsey. Perhaps thirteen or fourteen to their sixteen or seventeen, he was gangly in a way that suggested he would be taller than his brothers before long. He was wearing torn jeans and a hand-me-down sweater, thick-framed glasses too big for his face and hair stuck up haphazardly. His hands were clenched tightly even though he was smiling, and there was a yellowing bruise on his cheek.

Lindsey - Nate thought it was Lindsey - was standing closest to him, one arm slung over his shoulders and smiling brightly. Eliot had distanced himself - close to them, but closer to the camera. He was still looking away, stance tense and scowling slightly.

Sophie studied the photograph sadly, unguarded.

He coughed. "That the last one?"

She pulled back. "Yes. It looks like Lindsey left home around seventeen and I would imagine Eliot didn't hang around long after that."

"So what does all this tell you?" Nate had some of the facts; he'd read them again later. What he wanted to know was what this thing between Eliot and Lindsey was; he needed to know which way they'd jump.

"That they hate each other, very much. And they're all each other has."

"Hate? This doesn't look like hate. Eliot looks pissed, but that's Eliot."

She shook her head. "No. Well, yes. But, look at the body language. They're protecting their brother. Lindsey's trying to keep him close and appease an aggressor at the same time - he's over compensating. Eliot's putting himself in the way - they've obviously been told to smile and he's doing the opposite, being antagonistic: he's making himself the target."

Nate guessed some things were come by honestly.

"Their brother would still have been a minor when they both left," she went on, almost clinically. "Whatever they turned into, neither of the boys in this photograph would have done that to him. If they left, it's because he didn't need them anymore. As we've never heard Eliot talking about his little brother … well, draw your own conclusions. They'll blame themselves and they'll blame each other."

"We've never heard him talk about a twin either," Nate pointed out. But his heart wasn't in it. Sophie didn't usually take the time to explain how she did what she did, but she was almost never wrong. "So that's theory one. But you're wrong, Lindsey isn't all Eliot has."

Sophie's smile widened. "True. So what did the dry facts tell you?"

"That Lindsey's been keeping tabs on Eliot for a while. Eliot was arrested at least three times - he was always out before I could get there. Reading between the lines I'd say Wolfram and Hart's resources have a good, long reach."

-o-

Later, when Sophie had gone, Nate slowly began to gather the papers. He sorted the photos last, shuffling the earliest to the top. Lindsey grinned, gap-toothed at him and Eliot laughed.

-o-

"We're being followed," Lindsey said, as Eliot took a fourth left and brought them around the block one more time.

Eliot nodded. "Parker. Don't know why she's bothering, she knows where I live."

"You let someone know where you live?"

"Stop talking."

Lindsey laughed quietly. "Fine. But you know what? I didn't have to come to you. I had other options."

"I said, stop talking. Hardison's probably listening in."

"People following you, listening in on your conversations. It's like being back at Wolfram and Hart."

Eliot took his attention from the road long enough to send a warning look in his direction. "Difference being, my crew aren't evil."

Lindsey laughed again, unperturbed. "Hey, I met them, remember?"

-o-

When she was sure, absolutely sure, that Eliot wasn't going home (and he probably wasn't unless he lived in the airport terminal now, which she was pretty sure he didn't), Parker called Nate.