In the morning, Gunn hit the conference room expecting it to be empty, what with the zombie-like conga-line orbiting the coffee in the disturbingly clean kitchenette. Instead, he found Ford, already dressed in the Kilkenny suit, standing awake and alert next to the window.
There was a cell phone pressed against his ear; he spun and held up a finger. Gunn nodded and silently watched.
“One p.m., yes, of course Mr Jacobs, and can I just say again-“ Ford paced back and forth with an almost agitated edge, although his tone stayed wheedling and calm. “No, I just -- say how pleased we are to - huh.“
He shrugged as he dropped the cell on the table. “They’re impatient. That’s good.”
“Cool.” Gunn watched him a little longer, really not loving the vibe. “Thought you’d still be out,” he began. “The amount you soaked up last night.”
Ford stared blankly for a long beat and then smirked. “Eh, I drink a couple glasses of water and then go destroy bad people’s lives. Really, it’s best hangover cure on the market today.”
“Or, you just stay drunk,” Gunn realized, when he clocked the half-full bottle of whiskey next to the monitor on the long table.
“Sure, or that.” Ford turned away and began searching through the piles of tapes and papers on the table.
Gunn crossed his arms. “Maybe your crew’s okay with this, I sure as hell am not. Pull it together before go-time or –“
Ford paused and looked up, the easy-going smile sharpened to a point; Gunn had his full attention now. “Or what? You’ll run the play?”
“We could.” When Ford started to reply, Gunn rolled right over him. “But seems kind of a shame to bench you before the big game, so – nah. We’ll sober you up and, trust me, you won’t like it.”
Ford’s expression shifted from smugly challenging to warily off-balance. “Magic?”
“Magic? Won’t even need magic, man. Lorne’s got it covered. You think your hangover cure’s good? His takes you right through sober and out the other side. And it’s not pretty over there - everything’s gray and kind of pointy.”
“Look, Gunn -“
Gunn shook his head. “No. You know how many people I’ve lost to the good fight? One’s too many and they keep …” He drew a breath and lowered his voice; calm and reasonable was the play. “It’s a lot more than one,” he managed. “And if anyone gets hurt ‘cause you didn’t bring your A-game, we’ll have more than words. Am I understood?”
He’d been waiting for anger, bluster, something - and Gunn could see those things right there - but Ford’s mouth just tightened and lifted in a half smile. “Understood,” he said quietly. Not intimidated, and maybe a little patronizing, but Gunn could live with that, because mostly he seemed sincere.
“Okay, then,” Gunn said awkwardly, all geared up and ready for a battle it turned out he didn’t have to fight.
“So, like I said - that was Jacobs,” Ford said conversationally. He turned away, still just this side of manic, but he picked up the bottle as he passed and tossed it with a heavy, ringing sound into the trashcan by the door. “They’ll be waiting for us.”
“Uh huh. And the other call - that went okay?”
“Right on cue.” Ford made a pleased sound as he found the papers he was looking for; he stuffed them roughly into a manila folder. “Some of Sophie’s finest work.”
Gunn smirked. “Nice.”
Hardison and Parker appeared at the doorway of the conference room, pulling on bulky FBI breakers. Gunn nodded to both, but they barely acknowledged him; their attention was firmly on Ford.
They seemed sharper as well, focused - no more jokes or laughing, they were working now. Tooled up. He guessed nothing really ever changed. Kind of depressing, but weirdly reassuring.
Ford barely looked at them, still rifling through the papers. “Hang around the neighbourhood for a couple hours knocking on doors, hit the Jacobs’ around twelve forty-five, twelve fifty.” He jerked his head in the direction of the elevators “Okay, go.”
“And we’re gone.” Hardison disappeared back into the hallway; Parker spared Gunn a fast wink before she followed in his wake.
Gunn frowned. “I thought they were running Comms?”
Ford glanced up from the folder. “Yeah, no, I want to give the Jacobs a little more positive reinforcement. They have to completely believe the reality we’re giving them or it’s not going to work. They stop to think about it for a minute and,” Ford snapped his fingers. “It’s over.”
Hardison had said Ford liked to switch things up, and sure, Gunn could follow the reasons, but this was something else. “Still a pretty dangerous pass,” he muttered.
“High risk, high reward.” Ford’s eyes were flat with certainty. “Hardison and Parker know what they’re doing. And, if it helps, I don’t lose.”
At twenty to one, Hardison and Parker started the long walk up the Jacobs’ driveway towards the house. The door was already open and Hardison felt the hair on the back on his neck prickling as they made their way to it. If they were in a horror movie, he was pretty sure, around about now, the creepy violins would be starting on up.
Standing on the porch, he could see that the main hall had been filled with large crates. Ten, twelve: enough for a whole bunch of souls. Most of the crates had a bluish haze over them, and he could feel the heat even from the outside.
He raised a hand towards the bell, but dropped it again when he saw Jacobs already jogging down the stairs towards them. Greta followed more sedately behind, holding some kind of remote tightly. Jacobs was grinning and the grin, it really wasn’t friendly. Even Greta’s expression was chillier than it had been their last visit.
Trying to keep from tensing, Hardison forced a wide smile. “Good afternoon,” he said sunnily. “And a fine afternoon it is. All those birds: the tweeting and… more tweeting, and so on. Agents Thomas and Hagen.” His eyes darted to Greta. ”I don’t know if you remember us?“
“Of course.” Jacobs stepped back. “Greta told me all about you two. Come in, come in - we were expecting you.”
“O-kay…” Hardison glanced at Parker as they cautiously followed the couple inside. The violins in his head kicked it up a notch; the scary little kid choir was probably inevitable. “There a problem? Did you want to make a call to our boss, or…?”
Jacobs closed the door firmly behind them. “No need to do that, no need at all. Not with both of you guarding the neighborhood so … diligently.”
Reflexively, Parker glanced up at the skylight; it was closed. Greta followed her gaze and gave a brittle smile. “Yes, we noticed that. Had to shut it, you never know what kind of people you might find sneaking in. Showing undue attention to your most private possessions.”
Hardison coughed. Wow, were the Jacobs’ good and sold. “Well, hey, that’s great - sounds like you got everything under control, so we’ll just go ahead and let ourselves out.”
A gun appeared in Jacob’s hand and Hardison couldn’t quite find it in himself to look surprised. Disconcerted, he could totally do that - nervous, even. Man, he missed Elliot.
“No,” Jacobs said. “I think we’ll just wait right here until your accomplices arrive.”
“I got no idea what you’re talking about, but I have to tell you, what you’re doing right now, it’s a criminal offence to point a really big gun at an officer of the law.” Ignoring the strains of Tubular Bells running through his mind, Hardison tried to work out how many times he could work ‘really big gun’ into the conversation to get some response over the Comms.
“As it should be. Of course, you’re not officers of the law.” Jacobs smirked. “You’re thieves attempting to steal from my home and I am well within my rights to stop you.”
“We have badges,” Parker volunteered, starting to reach into her jacket. “We can show you them.”
Hardison rest a hand on her arm, knowing she was going for something with a little more amperage than the average ID card. Parker was fast, but she wasn’t that fast, and they weren’t wearing vests. Besides, they just needed to stall for another fifteen minutes. He shook his head. “Don’t.”
“Good call.” Jacobs gestured with the gun. “Over there.”
“How’d you make us?” Parker asked curiously as they moved where the gun directed.
“It wasn’t difficult.” Greta clicked a button on the remote in her hand and on a tablet propped against one of the crates, a video still of Parker’s second visit to the house flickered to life. “You didn’t cover your tracks very well. After that, it was just a matter of asking questions. Did you like the pieces?”
The video started, showing Parker paying undue attention to a sculpture. She shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. If you like that kind of thing.”
Greta frowned disapprovingly. “Of course, you have no appreciation for what you take.”
Parker shrugged again. “I appreciate the money. I like money.”
“Enough,” Jacobs cut in. “Who do you work for? Who sent you?”
Hardison began to lower his hands, but raised them again quickly when the barrel of the gun swung his away. “Yeah, you know, that’s kind of a long story.”
“We’ve got time. Kilkenny? Is it Kilkenny or are there others?”
Parker stared. Hardison pursed his lips and stayed silent.
Jacobs smirked. “Then we’ll just wait right here until whoever it is shows up to claim you. If they do.”
“Nate?” Over the ear bud, the single-word question was more than a little tense and, for once, immediately identifiable as Eliot’s.
“So, they’re a little more positively reinforced than we thought,” Ford admitted in a mutter, avoiding looking at Gunn. “You and Lindsey head in, run interference. You’re wall men, go be wall men.”
Gunn turned to Sophie, who raised her chin. “It’s fine,” she said automatically. “They’ll be fine.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Great, ‘cause I’d hate to see what it looks like when the plan’s falling apart.”
Ford ignored the chatter. “Lorne? How far away are you and Illyria?”
“We’re on our way, Sweet Pea. We won’t get there before one,” Lorne added with more than a tinge of concern. “Not unless the traffic system fully embraces its love of green.”
“Yeah, the guy who can perform miracles with traffic lights has a gun pointed at his head right now. Stay on schedule, just make sure you get there.” Nate looked between Angel and Spike. “Exactly how flammable are you?”
Angel looked unhappy. “We can’t do anything. Even if we could get from the van into the house, with those windows we’re …”
“Crispy-fried,” Spike finished for him. “You’re on your own, Ford.”
“Then we keep to the plan: head to the fall-back point - make sure it’s secure. Sophie, go with them in case we get any more surprises.”
Spike looked Sophie doubtfully up and down. “Good in a fight, is she?”
“She’s all right in a fight.” She smiled thinly. “But she’s great in sunlight.”
“Go.” Ford swung back around. “Gunn, you’re with me. And if you could avoid saying ‘I told you so’ until we’re done, that would be great.”
On the sidewalk outside the estate, Lindsey straightened his tie, combed his fingers quickly through his hair and then turned to his brother. Eliot’s hand dropped from the side of his head, where he’d been fighting doing exactly the same thing.
“Stay here,” Lindsey said after a beat. “This won’t work with both of us, one of us on our own can still operate.”
“You’re not going in there without me.” Eliot shook his head; Lindsey felt his neck muscles twitch to follow suit.
He ignored it. “I go in there, I’m Wolfram and Hart: I’m the damn cavalry, son. You show up with me and they’re asking some serious questions about twins and how we just so happen to be some.”
“Then I’ll go in. I take them out and we’re done, it’s just one guy.” Eliot had the nagging feeling something was wrong with that plan, but it was a simple one, and he had to say he kind of liked it.
His head hurt, and Lindsey’s expression was tight as well. Both of them raised a hand to press the heel of a palm against their forehead at the same time. Neither of them was firing on anything like both cylinders and Hardison and Parker were in there with - as Hardison had somehow managed to mention four times and counting now - a really big gun.
“We got no idea what triggers those vessels,” Lindsey managed after a couple of seconds of concentrated effort to struggle past Eliot’s urge to just go hit something until the world worked again. “You good enough to get in and take them out before they say some word, or break some twig or something?”
“Then until the crates are out from under the damn wards, let me handle this, okay?” He started towards the house, but Eliot gripped his shoulder, disorientating them further as they both felt both contact points.
Eliot jerked his hand back and Lindsey flinched back away.
“They’re art collectors,” Eliot said. “They know the provenance of everything they buy, you really think they won’t know the vessels’?”
Lindsey swore under his breath. “Okay, so, what?”
“So we use it. If the Jacobs want to know who hired Parker and Hardison, we let them think we did. That’ll buy some time.”
“Or he’ll just kill us all,” Lindsey pointed out, but admittedly couldn’t find another flaw in the plan.
Eliot was already moving rapidly towards the door. “We just got to keep them from thinking too hard.”
Lindsey nodded - that he could do. That, he went to school to do. When they got to the door, he leaned on the bell and then smiled, wide and friendly when Greta opened the door. “Mrs Jacobs, I apologize for the intrusion, but my brother and I thought it was about time we went ahead and introduced ourselves.”
She stepped back and glanced at her husband. “Neal? Visitors.” Her expression turned calculating. “I told you it wasn’t the art, they did want the … collection.”
“It wasn’t the art,” Lindsey agreed. “Although you do have some great pieces. I can tell you, Holland Manners - he was my boss - he would have loved to see them. Maybe you met him? He was always a man with an eye for …” he smiled at Greta. “Beauty.”
She flushed lightly. Apology, pedigree and two compliments in three sentences or less - despite himself, Eliot was impressed. Or maybe Lindsey was so pleased with himself, it was carrying over - yeah, he’d go with that.
Lindsey made his way slowly, but confidently closer, keeping the Jacobs’ attention on him: snake charming. “We sent in our people along to verify you had the item we were interested in, so we could make you an offer. Had to make sure you were the people to talk to, right?
“They got a little extra-curricular and I apologize for that, sincerely.” Lindsey’s smile widened another notch, teeth glinting, and he extended his hand. “Lindsey McDonald. My brother, Eliot.”
Eliot could feel his mouth trying to move with the same words his brother was saying, stretch in the same smile; his hand wanted to stretch out. He crossed his arms and glowered back, because that was about the only option the spell was leaving him.
Lindsey’s eyes widened slightly in realization and he turned fast to frown at Parker and Hardison instead, drawing the spotlight away. “You think we’re paying for this? Really? Because this was an amateur hour - if Mr Jacobs here wants to shoot you, you know, I’m inclined to let him.”
Parker scowled, Hardison at least attempted to look contrite. “Sorry … boss.”
“Yeah, you will be. Get out of here, the adults are talking.” Lindsey jerked his thumb towards the door; Parker and Hardison actually made it a few steps before Jacobs broke free of Lindsey’s line.
“I don’t think so.” He shook his head and his finger stayed firmly on the trigger. “Where’s Kilkenny?”
“Kill - who? You lost me.” Lindsey squinted. “So we ready to make a deal?”
“No deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re with Kilkenny or not. We called DelSec – the real DelSec. They’re coming to pick up the vessels and then you’ll serve your purpose.” Jacobs nodded out the window, where two white trucks were rolling into view up the driveway. “Here they are now, right on time.”
Lindsey swallowed and spoke quickly. “Okay, look - you want the rest of the vessels, take them. You want to kill these guys then do it - I don’t care. But you and me, we can figure something out, right?”
Jacobs ignored him, but Hardison made a genuinely outraged sound. “I knew we couldn’t trust you. Evil twin. Evil. I said it.”
Lindsey rolled his eyes contemptuously. “Hey, you had your chance.”
So maybe the spell was good for one thing and one thing only: Eliot knew exactly when Lindsey was lying. And he was good, and he was convincing, and he was only playing for time.
And Eliot was pretty sure the relief he was feeling was completely his own, because Lindsey seemed mostly disgusted at himself.
When the bell rang, Greta opened the door to greet the man on the other side. He was thickly built in a cheap suit and carried an over powering scent of cologne. In deference to almost the full height of the midday sun, he was wearing shades.
He seemed unimpressed as he looked unhurriedly around the room. His gaze travelled back to Jacobs. “Transport,” he rasped, and then coughed sharply to clear his throat.
“Excellent.” Jacobs practically beamed. “And I understand you also handle disposals?”
The man shrugged as his work force moved past him into the room. There were four more men, these ones in DelSec branded coveralls and baseball caps pulled low over their faces.
“Hey, wait a minute, now,” Lindsey began.
Jacobs pointed to Hardison and Parker. “Just them, for now.”
Parker reached into her jacket for her Taser, slowed by Hardison trying to pull her behind him. Eliot darted towards the man in the suit and felt no resistance from Lindsey, but he moved too late.
Far too late.
Two shots rang out in quick succession. Parker rocked back and then looked dazedly down. Her hand rose slowly to cover the two small holes over her chest and then pulled back, palm glistening red. She turned to Hardison, expression almost confused; her mouth worked soundlessly as she crumpled.
Hardison screamed as he dove towards her, but was thrown away as two more shots took him high in the chest. He lurched and dropped, fingers still reaching.
Eliot’s fist stopped an inch from the transporter’s jaw. Painfully he turned to see Jacobs holding Lindsey’s wrist tightly, holding them both back.
“I don’t think so,” Jacobs said calmly. “You two I need alive. For now.”
“I’m gonna kill you,” Eliot promised, tone dull, voice empty. He kept his eyes on Parker and Hardison; they were completely still. “Doesn’t matter what you do, how far you run. If they’re dead, I’m gonna kill you. And it won’t be fast.”
Jacobs snorted. “Don’t you know not to make promises you can’t keep?”
Now Eliot did look at Jacobs; his smile was small and frozen and his eyes glittered with the cold. “Never have.”
Jacobs swallowed. “Don’t worry, as soon as the rite is complete, you’ll join them.” He nodded to the shooter and then the boxes littering the hall. “Take it. All of it.”
“Thank you,” Greta added with incongruous politeness.
“Wait,” Jacobs said a second later. “Wait, stop, we have them, maybe this isn’t-“
The workman paused on the threshold of the door, apparently unable to move without Jacob’s consent. Nate eased his way in past him and then drew sharp breath when he saw Hardison and Parker, Lindsey in Jacob’s grip and Eliot frozen.
“I thought we had an arrangement,” Nate managed, sounding winded. He gestured to Gunn, moving in behind him. “One o’clock, you said. And I’m here, but these guys are here – I don’t get it. Look, I brought the rep to sign the papers, make it all-“
Jacobs smirked. “He doesn’t work for Wolfram and Hart, and you aren’t a security specialist.”
Jacobs’ gun swung his way and Nate took a step back. “I’m not?”
“You’re not, and until I know what’s going on, none of you are leaving. But the vessels are; you’ve failed.” He looked to the man in the suit. “Do it.”
Released, the transporters quietly carried on.
“I don’t understand,” Nate began.
“Cut the crap. Just one question, Kilkenny – if that’s even your real name - how stupid do you think we are?”
Nate opened his mouth and, after a thoughtful moment, closed it again; Jacob’s question was probably rhetorical. It usually was. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said instead, edging farther into the room. It wasn’t his most convincing performance, but then his audience wasn’t exactly willing to suspend disbelief.
“FBI agents?” Jacobs sneered. “You think I don’t know people? Oh, the cover was good, but it wasn’t good enough. Then they were stupid enough to get caught on camera. Fake lawyer,” he gestured at Gunn, “and the vampires? Vampires for Chrissake. I was a client at Wolfram and Hart for years. Think I wouldn’t recognize Angel and that peroxided freak when I saw them?
“I called DelSec again, they’d never got our first call. Never heard of you or your company. Did you really think I wouldn’t check?”
Nate raised an eyebrow. “Actually, Mr Jacobs,” he said as the last box made its way out of the door, beyond the security the building provided and the Jacobs’ ability to do a damn thing. “I was counting on it.”
The orange light finished its pass through the room; Lorne relaxed because, honestly, orange did nothing for his complexion. The figure in the doorway backed into its shadows and there was a sudden, sharp chill of fresh, new air.
“Do you think we passed?” he asked, mostly for something to say.
Illyria hadn’t moved as the light had covered her and now her attention stayed firmly fixed on the door. “They have not attacked us.”
“Can you try and sound maybe a little less disappointed?” Lorne fussed for a moment with the line of his lapels and then sat back; whatever was about to happen would happen, with or without him acting like some kind of nervous groom.
“I am the ice god,” Illyria intoned. “It is my privilege and my duty to bring battle, terror and death.”
Lorne paused. “I’m almost certain Ford didn’t say anything about battle, terror or death when he went through the plan.”
She was silent for a moment and then, “They were implied.”
“You attacked us and now you seek our aid.” The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere; Lorne wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t echoing around directly inside his head.
He winced. “It was a misunderstanding. Words were spoken, I understand electricity was exchanged, but I think important lessons were learned on all sides, don’t you?”
“You will help us,” Illyria, mistress of diplomacy demanded.
Lorne cringed and held up a hand. “Perhaps if I could-“
“You will help us,” she continued, “because we will help you and all our enemies will suffer greatly.”
“Violence is no answer here,” the voice said. “If it were, we would have no need of aid.”
“I’m reliably informed the Jacobs will give us their collection,” Lorne interjected.
“… they will?” The voice sounded hesitantly interested.
Lorne smiled. “Absolutely. And thank us for taking it.”
Comfortably ensconced in the first truck, Lorne grinned to Kraddof as the demon climbed into the driver’s seat beside him. “No, really - I could get used to this.”
Jacobs lunged for the door, pulling up sharply when Eliot and Lindsey stepped into his way. They knocked the gun from his hand and pushed him back to his wife in perfect unison.
On the floor, Parker stretched and rolled over, then sat up pawing at her chest, nose wrinkling with distaste.
“Too much syrup,” Hardison admitted apologetically as he climbed to his feet beside her. “But, hey, edible this time, because no one wants a repeat of Tacoma. No one.”
Her expression brightened. “Cool.” She licked happily at her blood-smeared fingers as she stood. Gunn shuffled away from the goop-smeared ex-corpses.
Nate coughed quietly to recapture the Jacobs’ suddenly horrified attention. “See, Lindsey said it himself – he never got involved in Elo’k business, so why would they want him so bad? Turns out, their seer just needed Lindsey and Eliot to do exactly what we did: hunt you down. You know, it’s amazing what you can find out if you just talk to people.
”You handed them all your toys; we just had to keep you looking the wrong way while you did it.”
“But I called DelSec,” Jacobs said weakly. “I spoke to Ms Treem personally.”
Nate’s hand rocked from side to side. “Not exactly.”
“You’ve reached DelSec,” Nate sing-songed, this time in a mid-western accent. “How may I direct your call?”
“Neal Jacobs for Abigail Treem. Now.”
“Of course. Please hold, Mr Jacobs.”
Sophie sat behind the pile of audiotapes and transcripts Hardison had “found” in DelSec’s systems. It wasn’t a complete picture of the Jacobs’ history with Treem, but it didn’t have to be.
“Neal,” she said warmly, voice and accent pitched in perfect imitation. “Lovely to hear from you again, how long has it been?” Her finger moved quickly down the list. “The gala for the museum opening, wasn’t it?”
“I think so, yes. Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for small talk. Greta called your offices a couple of days ago, is there any record?”
Sophie paused as if searching and then answered with a curious note added to her tone. “No, not at all. What’s this about?”
“Kilkenny Securities - operating out of the Wolfram and Hart building, ever heard of it?”
Sophie looked unblinkingly at Nate, her lips curved in a slow smile. “No, I don’t think so. There’s no one there. Except the last owner,” she added with a deliberate sneer. “Neal, what’s-“
“I need to arrange transport for some extremely valuable, extremely sensitive items to a secure location as soon as possible. This is happening at the worst possible time. Two trucks and make sure the people you send are competent. They may have to deal with competition.”
“Of course, the full service. Let me - how about one p.m. tomorrow?”
“Just get it done.”
Jacobs rang off; Sophie carefully placed the phone back in the receiver.
“Okay,” she said. “Done.”
Jacobs paled; Nate went relentlessly on. “The Elo’k are busy putting all those vessels in a nice, safe place where you’ll never, ever find them. And then they’re coming for you.
“If you’re lucky – if you’re really lucky – you might make it out of the city, if you start running now. Hell, if it takes them a while, you may even make it out of the state.
“Personally, I don’t love your chances.” He smiled; Jacobs took a step back.
Parker leaned closer to Hardison. “I don’t think we should let Nate steal any more souls,” she whispered.