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.
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.
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?"
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."
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.
"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?"
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?"
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.
Six hours later, Eliot and Lindsey sat in a rented truck, dubiously watching the building across the street. The flight had been long, loud and cramped, Eliot had burned the only two IDs he was pretty sure Hardison didn’t know about, and now he was looking up at a building that kind of gave the impression it was looking back.
“We should do this during the day,” Lindsey said, for maybe the fiftieth time since they’d flown out. He didn’t sound like he expected to win anymore, just like he wanted to be able to say ‘I told you so’ for a while.
“We’re doing this before my crew gets here,” Eliot replied automatically, just like he had the forty-nine times before. He knew exactly how fast they could move when they had to, and Parker wouldn’t have wasted any time at all phoning it in when he’d headed for the airport. “They don’t know the risks,” he added, just to be different.
“Then tell them.” For a moment Lindsey looked almost concerned, and then ruined the effect by trying that lawyer smile. “They’re no safer kept stupid. Less safe, probably.”
That Eliot ignored as he abruptly changed the subject. “You’re staying here.”
“Nate was right; they’re not going to mistake me for you, it’ll be fine. Maybe they’ll buy I’m just looking for my dead brother’s gear. Hell, maybe they won’t even know I’m there.”
“They’ll know, trust me.” Lindsey laughed, quiet and bitter. “Trust me. Right. Whatever. Fine - go get us killed.”
As he opened the truck’s door, Eliot was more aware of the silence in his ear than he really wanted to be. He shook his head, then paused and looked back, one foot on the road.
Lindsey tensed, not liking the expression. It turned out he was right; Eliot moved fast - faster than Lindsey could jerk away- grabbed his wrist and slipped a cuff around it. Half a second later Lindsey found himself handcuffed to the steering wheel.
“Give me the key.” He rattled the cuff furiously. “Now.”
“Not happening. Shut up and sit quiet. Anyone who lets themself get cuffed to a car, I don’t want with me.”
“You don’t know what you’re walking into,” he tried desperately. “You need me there.”
“There something you haven’t told me?”
“Good.” Eliot slammed the door shut and jogged away. He didn’t have long, maybe ten minutes before Lindsey picked the cuffs. He kept a mental countdown in his head as he slipped around the side of the building.
Eliot put his palm to the section of wall Lindsey had described and felt it warm before it slid soundlessly to the side. A safe greeted him; he punched in eight digits and touched his thumb to the scanner; he flinched when it sent a needle into his skin. How it was meant to recognise him, he didn’t know. Probably magic; he hated magic.
After a moment, a red light turned green with a soft chime and the safe door opened.
There was nothing inside.
“Looking for something?”
Eliot turned fast, but in the darkness he couldn’t make out a shape to go with the voice. A man, definitely, that was all he had. He stood from his crouch and warily put his back to the wall.
“You look like Lindsey McDonald, but you’re not him,” the man said quietly.
“He left something here, I need it.” Eliot thought he had the location of the speaker now: a couple feet from the door, definitely inside the office. He made an educated guess. “Angel, right? Used to run this little bit of hell?”
“Lindsey told you about me? Hey, I’m touched. You must be one of the McDonalds that didn’t tragically catch the ‘flu and die.”
Eliot stilled. “The ‘flu? He told you it was ‘flu?”
“Hell of a sob story; shame I can tell when someone’s lying. Easier with Lindsey than most: his lips move.”
Eliot resisted the urge to bang his head back against the wall, just so Lindsey would feel it. “Idiot.”
“You really want to call someone thinking about killing you an idiot?”
The voice sounded amused; Eliot wasn’t in the mood. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
He could feel the tension in the room shift as menacing gave way to an almost injured air. “Excuse me?”
“Turn on the damn light.”
“I can see fine.” Even so there was the sound of a flicked switch and a moment later he was squinting at a dark blur stood near the door, which became a dark blur standing less than a foot away before he could blink.
Despite himself he jerked back, hitting the wall hard. He hoped Lindsey felt it.
The man - vampire - smirked. “At least one of you has a survival instinct. What are you doing here?”
“I told you, I’m looking for something Lindsey left.” He heard his voice catch and winced, knowing the vampire heard it too. “Back off,” he growled, covering.
Angel’s head tilted as he considered Eliot’s features and completely failed to move away. “You his brother?”
Eliot stared at him wordlessly and Angel smirked. “Yeah, that’s not actually such a stupid question when you’ve seen what I’ve seen. What is it? Some artefact? Scroll? Baseball card?”
He forced himself to stand straighter; the vampire didn’t give an inch. “Lindsey pulled me in on some kind of contract and if I don’t figure out how to break it, I’m dead.”
“What’s your name?”
“What is it with your parents and girls’ names?”
Eliot smirked. “First - not a girls’ name. Second, you’re going there? Angel?”
Angel’s expression did something complicated. Sophie could probably have read it easy, but Eliot just caught a touch of surprise and a hint of amusement. The vampire backed up. “The Senior Partners stripped everything - whatever you wanted, it’s gone.”
Eliot nodded once and pushed past him, heading for the door and ignoring the stare he could feel crawling at the back of his neck. He stopped when a hand dropped on his shoulder and turned his head to growl, “What? You got more good news?”
“You’re really not a people person, are you?”
“At least I don’t eat them.”
The hand tightened warningly and he fought down the instinct to shake it off.
“Where is he?” Angel’s face dipped closer. “Lindsey. I can smell him.”
“Look, man - whatever you had going on with Lindsey, I don’t give a damn. Last I heard, he’s dead.”
The hand shook him, not enough to rattle, but enough to let him know it could.
“Which part of I know when you’re lying was unclear? Are all McDonalds this slow?”
Eliot laughed and felt the other man tense in surprise. “You think you can rile me like you could rile him, you’re wrong. I ain’t Lindsey and I will break your hand if you don’t get it off me.”
He didn’t wait for a reply; he moved. No way to match a vampire on speed or strength - wasn’t happening - but they didn’t think any faster and he figured there’d be a half-second worth of surprise he could use.
Half a second was all he needed.
He bought his hand up to twist at Angel’s as he ducked away. Leverage was leverage and speed and strength couldn’t stop the vampire being flipped away.
He made it to the end of the corridor before everything went briefly blue and then very black.
Angel headed up the hallway, taking his time. Illyria was staring curiously down at the crumpled figure at her feet. “The green one failed,” she said. “Or lied.”
“No, Lindsey had a get out of death free spell. Again.” He crouched and tugged up the man’s shirt. There were two little bullet holes, just where Lorne had agreed to leave them. “He put his brother’s head on the block instead.”
Eliot was already stirring; his eyes moved rapidly under closed lids as he struggled stubbornly back towards consciousness. The man was a fighter, that was clear, but no one Illyria put down got up that fast. No one.
“Or maybe he put both their heads there. Lindsey will be somewhere nearby.” He stood again. “Take this one upstairs, give him some Tylenol. Don’t let him leave.”
Illyria considered the request for a moment and then nodded. “Yes.”
Angel made his way towards the elevators.
Lindsey had almost cracked the lock when a wave of vertigo hit; brief and painless, but enough to let him know Eliot hadn’t made it out and - worse - make him drop the bit of wire he was using as a pick. He swore quietly as he reached down to try and retrieve it, and then loudly when he heard the rapping on the window above his head.
He sat up slowly, hoping for Eliot or Eliot’s crew or traffic cops or demons or Holland Manners his goddamned self, but he knew. He knew exactly who was there.
“Lindsey McDonald. Still alive.” On the other side of the door, Angel’s expression was impassive. He looked relaxed enough, but that didn’t mean a damn thing. “You know, I can help with that.”
“You can’t kill me.” As opening arguments went it wasn’t his strongest, but Lindsey thought it was worth putting out there.
“Yeah, see, I’m pretty sure I know what you did and you’re assuming I’d have a problem killing your brother - and I gotta tell you, we didn’t hit it off.” The door was wrenched open and Lindsey found himself dragged half out by his collar. He yelled when the metal cuff reached its limit and bit hard into the skin of his wrist.
Angel leaned in and saw the handcuffs; he smirked. “He doesn’t trust you either, huh? Maybe we do have something in common.”
He jerked away from Angel’s grip. “Get this thing off me.”
“You really think you’re in a position to make demands, counsellor?”
Lindsey glared belligerently back. “I’m not dead and that means you want something. While you want something, it’s my game. Get me the hell out of this.” He rattled the cuff for emphasis.
“Temper,” Angel reproved mildly. He reached forward and wrenched the locking mechanism open.
Lindsey rubbed at his wrist. “What do you want?”
“It’s been a while. No small talk?”
“We ran out of things to talk about when you sent the cabaret hour to kill me.” He shook his head in disgust. “Couldn’t even find the time to do it yourself - I didn’t even get that?”
Angel’s expression tightened, then he shrugged ambivalently. “It didn’t take, so I think that’s off the table as far as this little grudge fixation you have goes.”
Lindsey stared at him, mouth open and momentarily lost for words. He found some. “I’m - I’m - fixated? Me? You son of a -“
“Get over it. Start walking.” Angel’s push sent him stumbling towards the office building. “You going to ask what happened to your brother any time soon?”
“I’m not dead, so he’s okay.”
“Wow, that’s some Hallmark moment. Bet those family dinners must have been something at your house, huh?”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I know enough not to let myself get handcuffed to a truck right outside the building I’m trying to break into.”
Lindsey grinned. It wasn’t the white-toothed, bright-eyed smile he used to give the court or the vicious, twisted thing he usually kept for Angel - he was actually amused.
Angel looked disconcerted. “What’s funny?”
“You and Eliot - you’re gonna get along.”
Angel dropped Lindsey on the couch next to his now-conscious brother and then turned to Illyria. “Problems?”
She studied Eliot and Lindsey impassively, but whatever she was thinking, she kept to herself. Which was new. Her head turned. “He didn’t wish to consume the medication. He did so anyway.”
Angel glanced at Eliot - he did have the shell-shocked look of someone who’d been the victim of Illyria’s slightly terrifying concept of caregiving. “Thanks. Gunn and Spike are late, could you…?”
“I will find them,” she promised. “I can already smell them.”
When she’d gone, he stared down at the still-silent men.
Seated together, there was no way of mistaking one for the other. Lindsey looked more or less the same as he had the last time Angel had seen him, plus a few miles, minus a few pounds. Eliot was more solidly built, scarred on his face and hands, and probably a lot of other places too. He didn’t have the sharpness that Lindsey carried like a knife; he just had the knife.
Identical glares, though. Angel tried not to grin, pretty much failed if their deepening scowls were any indication.
He heard the elevator chime a floor down, a muted rise of voices: Spike and Gunn.
Eliot stayed quiet, watchful and weighing; Lindsey went on the offensive. “Hey, love what you’ve done with the place.” He looked around the almost barren office space. “How’d you manage that?”
“I didn’t do anything; the Senior Partners took all their fun toys and went home.” Lindsey’s expression flickered and Angel nodded with false sympathy. “Yeah, including whatever you needed. I feel for you. Really. We still have the paperwork, if you feel like a little light reading.”
Lindsey returned fire with a cruel glint in his eyes. “Where’s Wes? You lose him? Hey, did he cry? Always seemed like he was kind of a -”
Angel’s hand curled into a fist, but it was Eliot who growled at his brother. “The hell’s wrong with you?”
Lindsey blinked, derailed. “You don’t understand-“
“No, I don’t,” Eliot agreed and sat forward, attention on Angel. “If you lost one of your crew, I’m sorry. You say what we want’s not here - fine. Tell me where it is and we’re out of your hair.”
“Did I just hear someone who looks like Lindsey McDonald say he was sorry?” Gunn dropped his axe by the door, where it clattered onto its side. “The world end again? I thought we’re supposed to get a memo.”
Angel was kind of shocked himself. “Maybe.”
“McDonald? McDonalds. I’m loving it.” Spike grinned widely as he wandered closer. “We can both have a go killing him.”
“I don’t get a turn?” Gunn dug in his pocket for a quarter. “Flip you for it.”
“Not a chance.” Spike started forward, features twisting into the demon and even the morbid amusement gone. “He’s mine.”
The twins began to rise and Gunn reached back for his axe; Angel stepped in Spike’s way. “No one’s killing anyone. Yet.”
Spike gave a frustrated snarl and then backed off, face returning to its human mask.
Eliot turned to Lindsey. “What the hell did you do to these people?” His voice was steady, but Angel could hear both men’s hearts hammering.
Lindsey held his brother’s eyes for a moment before he looked away. “My job.”
Eliot didn’t look impressed. “How much overtime you put in?”
Whatever brief spark of second-hand shame Lindsey may have had, it was smothered quickly as he rounded. “Hey, you think I don’t know what you’ve done? Think I wasn’t watching? I saw, and I know, and you don’t get to judge me or anyone else. How’s Moreau doing?”
Angel looked back over his shoulder. “Gunn, can you run me a search on Eliot McDonald? Let’s see who we’ve got here.”
Gunn held up his slime covered arms. “Sure thing. Not like I need a shower - man, I love being covered in F’Tari goo. Mmmm, smell it.”
Angel made a mental note that Gunn was spending way too much time with Spike.
“Spencer.” Eliot said after a beat. “Eliot Spencer. I got nothing to hide.”
He did; Angel could hear his heart beat uptick. But he was still giving the name, so he was probably counting on whatever it was he had to hide being well hidden.
Angel would ask, but later, when Lindsey had been shut in a cold, dark basement room somewhere and he could talk to Eliot alone. For now, he just smirked at Lindsey. “Twins with different last names. Guess they really do do things different down South.”
Eliot didn’t even look as he gripped Lindsey’s arm and tugged him back. “How about you stop pulling each others pigtails, huh? How’d that be?”
In the back of Lucille’s smaller, rented half-sister, a block away from Eliot and Lindsey’s abandoned truck, Hardison leaned back in his chair and watched the network activity inside the building. After a few seconds he nodded confirmation. “Yeah, they’re running a trace on Eliot Spencer and Eliot McDonald in there, we’ve found them.”
Nate leaned in to look over Hardison’s shoulder. “What are you feeding them?”
“Eliot McDonald grew up in Oklahoma, same as Lindsey. Changed his name when he was eighteen, joined up, went mercenary a few years in. I’ve thrown a little hinky stuff into the mix, nothing on American soil.”
“Good.” Nate raised a hand to his ear. “Parker, you got eyes on them yet?”
Her voice was quiet, but clear even over the rushing wind. “I can see two Eliots and three others. One of them has an axe,” she added, apparently more as a point of interest than concern.
“The elevator’s mine, all mine. Power and security cameras too.” Hardison looked to Nate. “I could trigger a fire alarm, that’d bring all the boys to the yard.”
Nate straightened, as much as he could, and shook his head. “No, then we’d just have all of them down here. This is divide and conquer.” He looked over to Sophie. “Ready?”
“Nearly.” She blinked rapidly up at the van’s light. Her eyes began to water, she rubbed at them to smear the makeup she’d just carefully applied and then looked back. “How do I look?”
“Terrible,” he said, honestly.
She flashed a quick, pleased smile and stepped out of the back of the van; he pulled his tie crooked and followed her.
Gunn couldn’t say that watching monitors was his thing; trouble was, it wasn’t anyone’s thing anymore and of all of them, he was voted least likely to accidentally blow shit up pressing random buttons.
At least he’d finally been able to shower. F’Tari kind of lingered.
Via a static-filled screen, he watched the couple standing nervously outside the building, clearly debating whether to even go ahead and open the door. They stood close to each other - his hands curling helplessly into fists again and again, her eyes puffy from crying, makeup running down her cheeks.
Gunn glanced at the three-way staring match going down in the middle of the room. Spike had gotten bored half an hour ago and was flicking idly through a copy of NME; Illyria hadn’t even bothered to come back. Gunn coughed. “I don’t want to alarm you, but we got clients.”
“We’re closed,” Angel said automatically.
Lindsey smirked. “Hey, don’t let us stop you.”
“They look in a pretty bad way,” Gunn said. “If we’re not going to help them we should point them someplace else. Unless we’re just gonna go ahead and hinder the helpless now?”
Angel made a frustrated sound and stood. “Fine.” He gestured to the men on the couch. “Spike, you got this?”
Spike glanced up. “Well, I was hoping to spend a little quality time with the weepy and depressing, but okay.”
“You know, ’yes’ would work just as well.”
Spike flipped a page in his magazine. “Yes, great and poofy-haired leader, I got this.”
Angel quit while he was behind.
Once Angel and Gunn had left, Spike dropped the magazine on the floor and looked thoughtfully at Lindsey. “How’d you do it? Mirror spell, right? Revibro?”
Lindsey smirked with a dark glint of amusement. “Something like that, Champ.”
Spike flinched and Lindsey looked satisfied; Eliot smacked him upside the head on general principle.
This time, Lindsey pushed back.
He managed one wild swing that half-connected before he was doubled over with a knee buried in his solar plexus. He curled over wheezing as Eliot stumbled away with an arm wrapped tightly around his ribs like he’d taken the hit.
Hands on his knees, Lindsey grinned up, eyes bright behind the hair hanging over them. He threw himself at his brother and both went down to the floor.
Spike watched, torn between the undeniable amusement value of Lindsey beating his own face in and - and actually, now he thought about it, he really wasn’t that torn.
He felt the impact of the Taser hitting his back, but by then it was far too late.
Eliot and Lindsey froze with their fists raised, staring at Parker as she smiled happily at them over the twitching body of her victim. “Hardison, I’ve got both Eliots.”
“Lind-sey.” Lindsey waved an exasperated hand at himself. “Lindsey!”
The smile switched off and she glared narrowly back. “You know you’re fooling no one, right?”
Eliot ignored them both; it was getting easier. “What’s our exit?”
Parker looked towards the window and he pulled back rapidly. “Oh, hell no - no way.”
“Go, go, go, go.” She pushed at them and Eliot had never found a good defence against Parker’s shoving, wasn’t even sure there was one, so he found himself standing unwillingly next to an open tenth floor window.
With relief that he would never, ever admit to, he saw a cleaner’s platform waiting outside.
Mallory Langton wiped her tears away with a crumpled tissue; her makeup smeared even further, but she was clearly past caring. Her mouth was firm, but she couldn’t quite hide the tremble in her chin. She’d done most of the talking so far; her husband, Ned, sat silently staring at his hands.
Angel leaned forward and spoke as gently as he could. “Mrs Langton, we’re sorry for your loss - we are. But in these circumstances, the police really are your best option.”
She swallowed thickly and then nodded sharply as she composed herself. “I understand. Thank you for your time.” She reached for her purse. “Please, what do we owe for the consultation?”
He waved her away. “Nothing, no charge.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes softened briefly, but then hardened again as she mentally fortified.
They stood and he stood with them, leaving Gunn to clear the room. He accompanied them to the elevator bank, pressed the card of a detective at the LAPD into her hand and smiled encouragingly in response to the watery smile Mallory gave as the elevator doors closed.
All things considered, that had gone pretty well, he thought. People. He totally got people. Doyle would be proud. Or, okay, laughing his ass off.
The warm sense of a job well done lasted until Spike appeared in the consulting room; he looked a little wild around the eyes, but mostly he just looked pissed. “They’re gone. Someone got me from behind. Bloody stun gun or something.”
Angel turned and yelled back to the consultation room. “Gunn, lock the building down!”
“On it!” Gunn appeared in the hallway, tapping quickly at the tablet he’d wired into the security. He frowned. “We really can’t. It’s frozen.” He shook the tablet; it wasn’t even turning off.
Angel ran to the elevators and stabbed at a call button; the bank of lights went dead. He ran for the stairs as the hallway plunged into darkness.
Hardison pulled up outside the building as Parker, Eliot and Lindsey came around from the side, running flat out. They were piling into the back of the van when Nate and Sophie appeared at the front door, walking, but doing it quickly.
He started the van moving and once the side door slid shut with a bang, floored the accelerator. In the rear-view he saw the main door of the building burst open and four figures spill out.
One was - one was blue. Definitely a whole blue theme going on. A sudden screech of a car horn pulled his attention back to the road, and he forgot about it. For the moment.
Nate tilted his glass from side to side and listened to the calming clink of ice and whiskey blending in perfect harmony. Fortified, he turned from the room’s mini bar and surveyed his troops. Sophie was sat cross-legged on his bed, deftly cleaning the remnants of mascara from her cheeks. Parker lurked near the door, Taser still gripped tightly in her hand.
Hardison sat, one foot propped on the desk, tapping at his computer as he hacked his way into the CCTV cameras in and around their motel. Not a great early warning system, but it would be something.
That left Lindsey seated against the door at the other end of the room, studying Nate with an opaque expression, and Eliot on the floor at Nate’s feet, not looking at anyone.
Good times. Nate knocked back half the whiskey, grimaced with satisfaction at the burn and then looked over the rim of his glass. “So that happened.”
And everyone started talking at once.
Gunn leaned back against the counter and tried to tune out Spike sucking down on his blood-smeared mug of dinner. It was harder to do when the vampire used the mug with the creepy-cute kitten pattern - that was just wrong.
By the window, Angel had his brooding face on, but it wasn't the one he wore when no one was getting through, no way, no how.
Gunn tested the waters. "You know, the brother seemed pretty okay. Aside from the whole breaking and entering thing."
Angel didn't move, but Spike nodded an easy agreement. "And not a lawyer, so points for that."
Gunn raised an eyebrow in question; he received a quick, conspiratorial grin in return. Spike pitched his voice a little louder as he went on. "Shame, really. Mirror spells are a bitch."
"You know, I've heard that," Gunn replied sadly, watching Angel closely. "Nasty way to go, man. Nasty. 'Specially when you don't even deserve it. Maybe they'll get lucky, figure something out."
"Forget it - they're high and dry, Charlie boy. Helpless, you could say."
Gunn snapped his fingers. "Wait, didn't that used to be our gig a while back? Helping the helpless?"
Angel turned his head to look at them, expression flatly unimpressed. "And they say vaudeville is dead. Of course, they're right." He shook his head. "Lindsey McDonald is never helpless. Short sighted; really poor impulse control. Tiny. Not helpless."
Angel was still frowning, but Gunn thought that the brood was grudgingly lifting to what Cordie had called the epic man-sulk of pain. It would be cake from there.
"I don't know," he said mildly. "He kind of looked like you'd kicked his puppy."
"I told Lorne to take him out for a reason; that reason hasn't changed. He hasn't changed. He does these things and then they turn around and bite him on the ass and you know what? It's not our job to save him. Been there. Done that. Had the t-shirt set on fire and thrown back in our faces."
Gunn crossed his arms. "And his brother gets to go down with him? We don't even lift a finger? Seems harsh."
"You saw his file, he's hardly an innocent."
"His people went to a lot of trouble to get him out. They must think he's worth it." Spike's eyebrows rose with mockingly polite curiosity. "Or are we judging them now too? Hey, who else do we get to throw to the lions? This is fun."
"And fair." Gunn nodded. "Us being the best people to say who's too far-gone to save and all. Not like any of us ever screwed up so bad we should have been left to rot in Hell."
"We don't know where they are," Angel tried, but it was a weak pitch and the sulk was losing ground to unwilling interest. "And even if we do find them, it's not like we've got any leads."
It wasn't time to bring up the printout on the counter behind him, so Gunn skipped right along to the second point. "If we find them and Lindsey spills, maybe we can actually do something. We can try."
Angel crossed to the couch where he'd dropped his coat. "Ok, fine, but when he tries to kill us all - again - I'm saying I told you so. Let's go find our clients."
Gunn grinned. "Already found their van up at the Eight near LAX. Different plates, but it's theirs."
Angel paused. "How do you know?"
"Ran the names of people who've flown in recently. Unless they're holding a nerd convention, we got our guys." He reached behind him for the list and held it out to Angel, but the paper was intercepted as Spike tweaked it from his hand.
After a couple of seconds, Spike laughed. "Someone's got good taste in telly. They're all right."
"Because that's how we're gauging morality, now?" Angel held his hand out for the list.
Spike shrugged and passed it on. "I like The Avengers and I'm okay."
"You got your nickname because you tortured your victims with railroad spikes," Gunn felt kind of compelled to point out.
Spike shrugged. "Yeah, well - nobody's perfect."
Angel scanned the names and then nodded. "Gunn, you're with me. Spike, find Illyria and see if you two can figure out what Lindsey had in that safe - there might be something left in the archives.
"Seems like something Wolfram and Hart would keep on record, and it might tell us who he dealt with."
Spike straightened, suddenly alarmed. "Have you been down to archives lately? There are things living in there." He paused. "Wait, this is because I lost them, isn't it? That's completely unfair."
"Yes it is and yes, it is," Angel confirmed. "Ask me if I care. When you're done there, ask around and see who else knows Lindsey's in town. We need to know who else is going to be gunning for him."
"Fine," Spike waved them off. "Have fun, don't kill anyone without me."
As voices rose around him, Nate looked into the watery remnants of his drink and then down at Eliot.
He was fidgeting. That was telling, and more than a little unsettling. When Eliot was uncertain, he stilled and waited somewhere between fight and flight - mostly fight. This was nervousness and that wasn't something Nate associated with Eliot at all. Eh, maybe on a fiddle job.
Nate spoke quietly. "You know, at some point you're going to have to tell us what's going on."
"No, I won't." Eliot stopped fidgeting, probably feeling on firmer ground there.
Well, okay. Plan B. Nate looked up and spoke loudly enough to be heard over what had devolved into an argument over the room service menu. "Hardison, dig up anything else you can find on Angel Investigations. Take it back a decade."
Eliot's head snapped up. "Hardison, don't even think about it."
Hardison looked between Nate and Eliot and then finally turned to Sophie. "You want to help me out here? Next they're deciding who gets me on weekends and I am just not emotionally equipped to deal with that." He raised a finger. "But, if anyone wants to go ahead and buy my love, I'm out of Gummi Frogs. And I want a pony."
"No pony," Parker said firmly.
Hardison didn't miss a beat. "Pony's off the table."
"Nate, stop traumatizing the children. Eliot." Sophie leaned forward and caught his eyes. "What would be better? You showing us how to swim or someone else pushing us in at the deep end?"
Eliot was unmoved. "Staying out the water."
"Bit late for that. They've seen our faces now. Yours, mine and Nate's, anyway."
Still seated with his back to the door, Lindsey shifted and looked thoughtful; Eliot shook his head. "Don't even-"
"Vampires, demons, all those things that go bump in the night? They're real," Lindsey said quickly, and then tensed.
Given the way Eliot was looking bloody murder at him, Nate guessed he'd been right to. That thought slunk away as he processed what the man had actually said.
He blinked. "Wait, what?"
Sophie's lips pursed sceptically. "When you say real -"
Nate scrubbed a hand over his face and looked back down at Eliot, who was very still indeed. "Eliot?"
Eliot let out a long breath. "They're real," he confirmed flatly. "Doesn't mean much to us out where we are. They mostly like cities with transient populations: LA. Las Vegas."
"I knew it." Hardison's energetic air-punch nearly upset the can of orange soda at his elbow. He steadied it and made an effort to compose himself. "I mean. Real, you say? I'm interested in your crazy talk, tell me more."
"We knew that." Parker's attention darted around the room. "We knew that, right?" She stared at the heads that turned her way and then widened her eyes in a rough approximation of surprise. "Wow, how about those vampires and demons and their existing?"
"Any blue demons?" Hardison asked. "Because I'm pretty sure I saw a blue demon back there. Wait, is Alex Trebek a vampire? You'd tell me if Alex Trebek was a vampire."
Eliot squinted up at Hardison. "What the hell?"
"I'm sorry, was I meant to run around screaming? No, you dish it - where's the demons at? Do any of them look like Michelle Monaghan? Because then I can forgive Constantine. I can't believe you didn't read me in on this already. I thought we were friends, man. Friends."
"Alex Trebek isn't a vampire," Lindsey volunteered. "He's got some on his staff. Actually, he's a -"
"I think we're getting off-track," Nate managed as he refilled his glass, refusing to let his hand shake.
Sophie ignored his admittedly feeble attempt to call order. "Are the vampires glittery?"
Eliot frowned. "They drink your blood and leave you lying dead in some alley. And that's if you're lucky and they don't want to play with their food first." He caught Sophie's gaze intently; unblinking and cold. "They got no souls - no conscience. They're predators and if they can see you, smell you or hear you, they can kill you. They don't glitter."
She shivered and then caught herself. "Well, that's disappointing." She settled back, managing to look more put out than concerned. "There could have been some lace or something."
"Angel's a vampire, difference is he does have a soul. Still likes to play with his food a little, though." Lindsey smirked. "Wolfram and Hart had this big deal over trying to bring him into the fold, get him on board. Almost had him a couple times, too."
"Why did they want him so badly?" Sophie asked curiously.
"That's above your reading level." Lindsey raised a hand to cut off her protest. "I'm not trying to stonewall you here - I don't care whether you know this crap or not, but it's a long story. Vampires and demons exist. Angel's a vampire. Move on."
Sophie considered him thoughtfully. "No, not yet, thank you. You left the company targeting him, but you obviously still have issues. It got personal."
"Issues. I like that." Lindsey's mouth twisted. "Yeah, I got issues with Angel." He rubbed irritably at the red, raw-looking ring the cuffs had cut into his wrist. "He took something from me. She was - " He forcibly stopped himself and shook his head firmly. "Never mind."
Sophie raised an eyebrow. "Someone, not something."
He frowned. "Excuse me?"
"He took someone from you, not something," she explained with a thin smile. "Or was she just another commodity?"
For a moment, Nate thought Sophie had misjudged her mark. Lindsey's expression became arctic for a long few seconds before it thawed to something bittersweet.
"Darla was no one's commodity." He smiled almost gently, but his tone sharpened viciously. "You think you're something? She would've ate you up and spat you out." He leaned forward, eyes raking her up and down scornfully. "That'd be something to see."
Sophie flinched and Nate felt a dull burn of anger in his chest; he forced himself to put his glass down before it splintered in his hand.
Parker was looking thoughtfully at her Taser and Hardison coughed to get her attention. When she glanced his way, he shook his head urgently. "It's a two-fer, remember? Later."
She readjusted her grip. "Later. Definitely later."
Lindsey ignored them while he watched Sophie; her expression cleared, with no sign she'd even registered the venom. "I'm sorry you lost her," she said simply. "It must have been very difficult."
Lindsey's eyes shuttered quickly; he ducked his head and conceded round one. "If we're done poking around in my head - and sweetheart, you're good, but you got nothing on the mind readers - maybe we can move this on?"
Nate couldn't say moving on was something he actually wanted to do, given his mind was still slowly circling around the reality of vampires - vampires for chrissake - but he nodded firmly. "Okay. Demons. Vampires. Go on."
"After the first time someone tried to kill me, I took out some insurance with a little mirror magic. If I get - say - shot by some karaoke singing son of a bitch," Lindsey tapped himself twice over the heart, "Eliot takes the hit, but because it's not his death, he can't die.
"The damage skips back and forth between us until there's nothing left." Lindsey grinned, pleased with himself. "Reflecting death. Nice, huh?"
"Who even does that to their own brother? Or anyone else?" Hardison looked genuinely angry and Nate could count the times he'd seen that on one hand. He hoped Lindsey wasn't attached to his … anything.
The anger didn't leave a dent in Lindsey's smirk. "Climb down off the high horse - it did more for him than it ever did for me. Ask him about Burma. Pakistan. Anything I got out of it, I've paid for."
Hardison wavered. "That - that actually sounds like a pretty good deal?" He glanced uncertainly at Eliot.
"It wasn't a good deal, Hardison!" Eliot gestured angrily at his brother. "He didn't ask. The first thing I know about it, I'm in North Korea with two new holes in my chest and half an army between me and the border."
Hardison rallied, pointing a condemnatory finger at Lindsey. "Bad twin. Bad!" His heart obviously wasn't in it and Nate sympathized; it was difficult to really regret something that had kept Eliot alive.
Lindsey dismissed the finger waving in front of him. "If I break the spell before time's up, it's done - over - we're good. If it runs its course, we both go down."
Nate nodded. Made sense. Except for all the ways it really didn't, if you applied logic at any point whatsoever. He guessed magic, like faith, didn't have a lot of use for reason. "The spell is what you were looking for in your office?"
"The vessel the spell's tied to. Without that, I can't do a damn thing. It was in my safe, but Angel pissed off the Senior Partners so bad they emptied the building and they took the w – took it with them."
Bigger questions on his mind, Nate let the small slip go by. "How long before it fails? What's going to happen?"
Lindsey shrugged. "Hard to say. Normally it would just kick in when death's on the cards, but now it's showing up for every damn thing. We're still getting fixed up twice as fast, but I'm guessing that'll turn on us next."
Nate didn't miss the skipped question, or the way Lindsey was watching carefully, apparently willing it not to be repeated. The mute almost-appeal gave him pause.
Eliot, not so much. "The man asked, 'how long?'"
"I don't know," Lindsey admitted quietly. His eyes didn't dart to one side or the other; he didn't swallow or fidget or turn away. It was a masterful presentation of the absolute truth, and Nate was a hundred per cent sure that Lindsey was lying through his teeth. He just wasn't sure why.
Nate shelved it for the moment, suspecting a real answer would have to be dug at a little more circumspectly. "What's the back up plan?" He asked instead.
"The vessel is tied to us, direct line. If we can get someone who can see that line, and if it's still in this dimension, we can track it down." Lindsey raised his hands a little and then let them fall. "Trouble is, most of the people I know who could do that worked for Wolfram and Hart and they're not going to be long on cooperation."
"You said most of the people," Nate pointed out evenly, desperately trying to ignore the wider implications of an international law firm actually staffed by demons.
Lindsey smiled ironically. "The alternative is the guy that shot me."
Hardison looked encouraged. "I don't know about anyone else, but I like him already."
Parker nodded emphatically, but Sophie made a disapproving sound. Lindsey looked briefly bewildered at the gesture, however slight, before the walls slammed back up. Nate smiled faintly; Sophie had Lindsey's number with the good cop routine, Nate could concentrate on the job.
Eliot was still watching Lindsey. "And what if we can't get to it?"
"If one of us voluntarily dies, one of us will live." Lindsey's jaw tightened and he looked away.
Hardison let out a relieved breath. "Okay, so - easy." Heads swung his way; he rolled his eyes. "Seriously, y'all need to watch more television. Educate yourselves. Plan M, Lindsey can die, you know, a little bit - and then we bring him back. It's good enough for Wormhole X-Treme."
Lindsey nodded. "Could work." He smirked at Hardison's surprise. "I don't give a damn what any of you think about me, I'm not going to ask my own brother to kill himself."
"Good," Eliot said with a wide, humourless smile. "'Cause he ain't volunteering"
Nate glanced at Sophie and found her already looking at him, an eyebrow arched. He thought of small children laughing and thin shred of tinsel at Christmas. Of course Eliot would do it.
So they'd make sure it never got that far.
"Uh, people?" Hardison focused intently on the screen of his laptop. "I think we have a visitor."
He spun the laptop so Lindsey could verify what the face-matching software was already telling him. The camera footage showed a tall man striding purposefully across the parking lot, apparently talking to himself. "Charles Gunn, right?"
Angel could hear the talking - arguing - when he and Gunn hit the second floor; by the time they were half way down the corridor, he didn't even need preternatural hearing.
When they reached the door, he eyed it dubiously. "It's not too late to let them deal with it."
"After paying that much parking?" Gunn snorted. "It really is."
Gunn rolled his eyes and knocked. Silence fell instantly. He glanced at Angel. "You think they're booking it out the window?"
The door opened a crack and a young man in a yellow beanie peered out. He smiled nonchalantly - tried to, anyway, but Angel could hear exactly how fast his heart was beating.
The kid licked his lips nervously and his smile widened. "Hey, we're good - great - for towels and little soaps and tiny shampoos. Out of Gummi frogs, but that's not really your thing, so, hey, have a great day. Night. Day and also night."
Inside the room at least two people groaned softly and the door started to close; Angel put a hand up to stop it. There was a startled sound as the beanie-wearer found himself up against the immovable object.
Angel pushed and heard boots sliding back on the cheap carpet.
After a couple more strangled seconds, the resistance abruptly stopped and the door rebounded into the wall.
Beanie stood with his arms crossed, annoyance overriding the fear and adrenaline that Angel could smell rolling off him. "You're not invited. You're – there's rules, man."
Angel shrugged. "None of you are actually living here, no invite needed." He stepped to the side to let Gunn move past him and then kicked the door closed behind them.
"That would have been good to know," Beanie hissed at Lindsey, who was picking himself up from a sprawl on the floor. Angel guessed he must have dived out the way to avoid the door. So, so close - maybe next time.
He looked around. The room was already small, but it was made smaller by the number of people in it. At the back, Ned Langton was propped against the counter of the small kitchenette, half a glass of whiskey in his hand. He looked as rumpled as he had earlier, but this seemed somehow more believable.
The air of desperation was gone. In its place was something harder and sharper; something that weighed and measured.
Mallory Langton sat cross-legged on the bed, looking at him with interest; she was nervous, but she hid it well. When she saw his eyes on her, she smiled.
The blonde girl who'd shocked Spike was still holding the Taser. The way she was waving it before her really shouldn't have been that worrying and … really was. She raised an eyebrow and gave an arch little smile.
About half a second too late, he realised he didn't see Eliot.
Gunn made a startled sound as the air was knocked from him, and another one as his knee was efficiently kicked away to put him at a more convenient height for the headlock Eliot pulled him into.
Gunn had options, but none of them would make him any friends; Angel shook his head when the other man began to reach for the knife tucked in his boot. The hand fell away. "Okay, little help?" Gunn wheezed.
The hold hadn't been fully locked; Gunn could still talk, was the first clue. Breathing was the second. No quick, decisive moves were possible either – Eliot would waste a second adjusting to snap the neck, which he had to know.
It was an invitation to negotiations, but it depended on everyone staying calm and out the corner of his eye, Angel could see Lindsey getting to his feet.
Time to prove a theory.
He spun and kicked Lindsey's legs out from under him. Lindsey went down with a shout; Eliot fell backwards against the door a second later. Gunn bounced to his feet and put his back to the wall, fists raised defensively.
Parker threw herself forward; Angel grabbed her wrist as gently as he could, and still felt the bones grate. She didn't make a sound. He plucked the Taser from her hand and let her go. He raised his hands. "How about we don't do this?"
Ned hadn't moved through the scuffle, but now he nodded. "Eliot, Parker, back off. Lindsey, stay where you are."
With a dark look, the blonde - Parker - withdrew to Beanie's side. Eliot picked himself up, but other than a glance at Gunn, didn't make another move.
There was a delicate pause and then Mallory smiled warmly. "Hello again." She rose gracefully from the bed and picked her way over Lindsey, who was trying to get his feet under him again.
Angel watched her. "Mallory, right?"
"Sophie, actually. Sophie Devereaux. That's Hardison," she nodded to Beanie, "And Nathan Ford by the window. It's a pleasure to meet you." She held her hand out; he took it automatically.
Her smile dimpled. "You were both very kind, earlier."
"You lied to me," he said, releasing her and resisting the urge to check he still had a watch. "Not many people can do that."
"I didn't lie. I never lie." She drew herself up indignantly, but her eyes were amused. "I'm an actress, I tell the truth."
Ford seemed to be trying hard to keep his face very, very straight. "So we've done the -" he waved the hand with the glass in it vaguely - "the meet and greet. Can we help you?"
"Actually we might be able to help you. And, unfortunately, Lindsey."
Lindsey looked unimpressed; that almost made up for missing him with the door.
Angel crossed his arms. "What spell did you use? "
Lindsey's mouth tightened and Angel could see him trying, and failing, to come up with some reason not to answer. "A-Maṭṭaltu," he finally muttered. "It's a -"
"I know what it is." Angel jerked his head back to their audience. "Do they?"
"I told them what they needed to know."
"Somehow I doubt that," Ford interjected. "So if you're here to help, why not go ahead and bring us up to speed?"
Gunn cleared his throat and took over. "A mirror spell, any kind of mirror spell, is powerful stuff. The one your boy used - A-Maṭṭaltu - is the strongest, especially with twins. The vessel it's bound to actually contains a little bit of their souls, and that's just bad times waiting to happen.
"Someone gets control of that, they get control of them: they can make them into anything they want."
"Why would they want to?" Hardison glanced between Eliot and Lindsey. "No offence, but is anyone that hard up for hitters and evil lawyers?"
Angel shook his head. "You don't get it. Anything they wanted. They wouldn't need to keep the shells - they're a battery that could power some serious dark magics. This isn't just about you anymore, thousands of people could get hurt if that thing's out in the wind."
Eliot pointed at his brother. "I'm gonna kill you."
Lindsey took a step back. "Hey! It's not like I planned for this guy and his redemption kick. If he hadn't gone up against Wolfram and Hart this never would've happened."
"Seriously?" Eliot took a step closer. "That's what you're going with."
This time Lindsey held his ground. "You want me to say I'm sorry? I'm sorry, okay? What?"
"No, you're not." Eliot kept walking, only stopping when he was just inches away, crowding the other man against the wall. "You made some stupid choices and you're scared as hell, but you're not sorry."
"What do you want me to say?" Lindsey asked, frustrated and something more; something Angel couldn't pin down.
"Nothing." Eliot abruptly stood back and pointed to the bed. "You sit your ass down, you shut the hell up and if we survive this, you never let me see you again. You think you can manage that?"
Lindsey ducked his head. "Fine."
Eliot turned to Angel. "How can you help?"
When Lindsey left the room twenty minutes later, no one tried to stop him. That rankled his pride - that he was so far down they didn't even care what he was doing anymore - but the resentment faded into self-pity.
They were right. Where the hell was he going to go?
So instead of leaving the hotel, hotwiring the first car he found and taking his chances someplace else, he'd taken a left into the almost empty bar.
It was low-lit and the piped music was some Pop Princess, but at least it was playing quietly. He'd bought a beer he didn't want and found a table in the farthest corner, where he could nurse the bottle and his mood in peace.
That worked for a while: he'd run through the litany of slights and injuries in his head; all the ways he'd been right, he'd been justified. It wasn't as comforting as it used to be.
Eliot. Eliot was the problem. Eliot was always the problem, the ungrateful son of a bitch.
A shadow fell across the table; he tensed and then relaxed again when he recognized Sophie. He couldn't get a handle on her, but he could just about stand her, and that was more than he could say for any of the others.
Except maybe Hardison - he'd tried hating the hacker and it hadn't worked out. It was like trying to hate kittens: you might occasionally sacrifice them to some dark god, but they were still kind of endearing. There was some faint consolation that Eliot seemed to have the same problem.
When it became clear that Sophie wasn't going to go on her way, he leaned back in his chair and nodded her towards the spare. "They done talking in circles?"
She huffed a laugh and sat. "No, that will take a while. They have to stop every few minutes for Nate and Angel to remind each other who's running the show. I think you had the right idea."
She pulled his beer towards her and he didn't object, someone might as well enjoy it. After a small sip her nose wrinkled and she pushed the bottle back. "American beer should carry warning labels. He doesn't mean it, you know. He wants to, but he doesn't."
Lindsey blinked at the whiplash change of topic, but caught up to speed - like there was any doubt about who 'he' was. "It's none of your business," he said shortly.
Sophie went on like she hadn't heard him. "I mean, Eliot's a lot of things, but he isn't a hypocrite. And family means a lot to him. If it didn't, he'd have killed all of us three times over by now."
He forgot his previous annoyance as a whole new source of righteous indignation appeared. "Hypocrite, exactly - that's what I'm saying. He's-"
Sophie held a hand up, smile gone. "If he couldn't live with your past, he couldn't live with his own. That doesn't make the things you've done any less horrible."
"Okay, if what I've done is so bad, then tell me: why are you doing this?" He waved a hand at her, exasperated. "Good cop, bad cop - it's one-oh-one. I just don't get why you're even trying. I'm not going anywhere and, lady, this is as cooperative as I get."
Sophie shrugged, unperturbed by the sudden outburst. "Honestly?"
It was hard to stay angry without anything really feeding the flame, but he made the effort. "From you? This should be good."
"Be nice," she chided mildly. "I'm doing it because Eliot's my friend. And I admit I'm curious." She paused. "And all this good guy stuff is like a compulsion, you can't help yourself. It's a bit sickening, really."
Lindsey felt himself smile and, hell, she'd earned it: he conceded her the second win. "Okay."
"Okay?" She drew back in mock wariness. "That was easy. I was expecting some kind of heated cross-examination. Possibly witnesses and thrilling last-minute reversals."
"Nah, I'm trying to give those up." He picked at the label on the bottle of beer with his nail. "I'm not a good guy," he said at last. That seemed to cover everything and nothing, but he couldn't give shape to a clarification, let alone words.
"You're never going to be, none of us are really." Her hand reached across the table and touched his. "But it doesn't mean you can't be better than this."
He refused to look up. "Who says I want to be?" Pick. Pick. Pick.
The hand withdrew; after a beat she said, "If you want to repair anything - and I'm not suggesting you should - remember what it was like when you and Eliot were both on the same side. Then find a way to make him remember too.
"And if you try and pull anything over on him, I'll make you wish you'd never been born. Fair?"
When he didn't reply, she pushed her chair back. He glanced up as she stood. "Thanks," he muttered, although he wasn't sure exactly why. He didn't want to thank her; he wanted her gone so he could sit and drink bad beer while some poor little rich girl sang about love like she even knew what it was.
Sophie smiled, but not unkindly. "I didn't do it for you."
"I know." He shrugged. "Thanks anyway."
When Lindsey slipped back into the hotel room an hour later, the atmosphere darkened in a way it hadn't even when the goddamn vampire had pushed his way in.
He grinned as widely and obnoxiously as he could. "Look at that, you missed me."
Sophie rolled her eyes and then patted the bed next to her. "Come and sit down." There was a bottle of water in her hand, probably to wash out the taste of the beer.
There wasn't a hell of a lot he could do without looking kind of stupid, so he picked his way past Parker, who'd claimed the floor next to the bed, and went to sit up next to the headboard.
Angel was leaning against the wall, next to the desk Hardison had claimed for his multiplying computers. Gunn was sprawled comfortably in the room's only chair, Eliot was still seated on the floor under the window and Nate's hip was maybe surgically attached to the minibar.
When Nate and Angel started on about tracking spells, Sophie leaned in and murmured, "You can't really carry off a sulk, you know. You don't have the forehead for it."
"Give me a break," he growled quietly back.
Her flash of a grin was blinding. "Why?"
"Okay, Lindsey, good of you to join us," Ford said, raising his voice, but without inflection any particular way. "We bounced a few ideas, but it looks like the best option is finding the guy who shot you."
Lindsey leaned back against the headboard and smirked at Angel. "So, what? We're going to go pay Lorne a visit and see if he'll speak to any of us before he hightails it out the back?"
"Lorne doesn't have a problem with me," Angel said, a little too quickly. "You were too dangerous to leave on the board and he knew it; he did the world a favor."
"He did you a favor," Sophie said crisply. "The votes aren't in for the rest of the world."
"They got mine," Eliot said quietly. "They'd have yours, if you knew him."
To his surprise, Lindsey felt that punch home; felt it ache. He stole Sophie's bottle of water, twisted the cap and drank until he was sure he had his expression under control. It had to be an effect of the spell going south - reflecting all kinds of damage, all different kinds of pain.
Had to be, but damned if he was going to flinch.
Instead, he took the confusion of everything he couldn't process and threw it viciously in Angel's direction; at this point, it was traditional.
"Lorne has a problem with you, Angel. You know what it is? I'll tell you: you get your friends killed, and the ones you don't get killed you twist up until there's nothing left." He lifted the bottle in a mocking salute. "They go down one by one, just so you can feel a little better about all those nasty things you've done."
Angel's mouth started to open, but Lindsey rolled right over him. "And you're so good at it, you even get them thinking it's their own idea. Lorne's smart, he knows when it's time to get out. I just wish he'd done it before he took on your dirty work."
There was a slick-edged kind of silence when he finished; Angel's eyes flickered dangerously from dark to gold and for a moment, just a second, Lindsey wondered if he'd pushed it far enough this time. He felt Sophie tense next to him and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Eliot shift, ready to do … something.
The moment passed; Angel spoke through gritted teeth. "I don't get people killed and I don't twist them. Everyone – everyone - knew what they signed up for. They did it because it mattered and you? You spit on everything they ever stood for."
His expression hardened before the tension gave with a short, humorless laugh. "Why am I even justifying myself to you? You literally sold your soul for a corner office and a fitted suit. "
Trouble was that all the denial in the world didn't quite hide the way Angel's eyes went to Gunn, looking for confirmation.
Gunn smiled thinly. "Two hundred and thirteen days without workplace accidents, death, twisting, folding, spindling or warping." He nodded to Lindsey. "You got us on mutilation, though."
Angel frowned; apparently it wasn't the vehement denial he'd been hoping for.
Hardison and Parker were looking from face to face as if they were watching a particularly horrifying tennis match.
Nate cleared his throat. "Okay, this is unproductive. Lindsey, do you know where this Lorne guy is? And if maybe you can tell us without trying to shred anyone's psyche, that would be great."
Lindsey relaxed back again, all about the helpful cooperation. "Last I heard he was over in Long Beach. He's got a new place. Speras, Spes, something like that." He laughed at Angel's expression of surprise. "What? You don't think I'd keep track of the guy you told to kill me?"
Angel shrugged. "Actually, if you already know where he is, I'm mostly wondering why he's not dead."
He looked thoughtful; Lindsey had found that didn't tend to end well. "I was biding my time," he said defensively.
"That's a whole lot of biding," Gunn pointed out. "I mean, there's served hot, there's served cold and there's someone forgot to get the groceries in, you know what I'm saying?"
"I like Lorne," Lindsey admitted reluctantly. "He's okay."
"He tried to kill you," Angel said, like he was trying to work out the shape of something.
"Yeah, well, like you said - it didn't take." There were other reasons, half-formed and uncomfortable; ones he had no intention of taking out and looking it in private, let alone in front of this particular jury of his peers.
Gunn's cell rang; he fished it out and flipped it open after glancing at the caller ID. "You get anything? Uh huh." He stared at Lindsey. "Uh huh."
"Spike," Angel murmured to Nate. "He works with us. He's been trying to get a little more information, so we don't just have Lindsey's word to go on."
Gunn flipped the phone shut and tucked it back in his pocket. "So, the good news is, there's nothing in the archives about the spell - Wolfram and Hart never knew."
"What's the bad news?" Parker asked.
"Everything else." Gunn looked at Lindsey with something closing in on horrified admiration. "Seriously, man - the Talithi and the Salithi both want you dead and it's an actual commandment of their religion not to agree about anything. How did you even do that?"
"It's kind of beautiful, if you think about it," Lindsey suggested, smirking. "I'm bringing people together."
"Yeah, well, we might want to hold off on the Nobel; about the only demons in the city who aren't gunning for you are in hibernation. And I'm pretty sure, right now, as we speak, some strong-ass coffee is percolating."
"Well, then." Lindsey grinned and for the first time in a long time it felt real, and real felt good. "This is gonna be fun."
"Are you out of –" Hardison began, before he saw that Parker was grinning too. "Look what you did!"
Parker's grin widened and, glaring at Lindsey, Hardison sidled protectively closer to her.
Gunn cut in again. "Spike said the Elo'k have a head start – their Lees'k had a vision where we are. Him and Illyria tried to run a little interference, but it didn't work out. There was violence. Strong language. Some made it through, and they know about the spell."
Angel gestured towards the door. "And we're walking."
At two in the morning, the hotel parking lot was home to dark shadows and flickering lights. A few catcalls from the streets beyond sounded tinny and tired. Nate tucked his hands into his pockets and took a deep breath; his head swam pleasantly as the oxygen hit the alcohol in his bloodstream.
Angel had suggested they wait at the entrance of the hotel while he and Eliot retrieved the vehicles, but Nate had firmly refused - mostly because that would have split them up, and at the time that had seemed the worse option.
Now, he was re-evaluating.
Mostly because he couldn't quite help noticing that he, Sophie and Hardison had been efficiently corralled into the center of their huddled group, walking briskly towards the van. Or that Gunn had taken a long-handled hand axe from inside his jacket; the edge of the blade glinted keenly.
Angel ranged ahead, a place Nate was more than happy to concede for the moment. Eliot was a watchful presence on Nate's left and Lindsey was on the right, eyes bright and alert. He was still smiling just a little bit.
Parker and Gunn were bringing up the rear, turning to walk backwards half the time. Parker had switched her shock baton out for one with range – although there, Nate was mostly concerned that he hadn't noticed she had multiple versions. That seemed like something he might want to keep an eye on.
Anyway, all things considered, he honestly wasn't sure if he'd ever felt more or less safe in his life.
Beside him, Hardison was tapping at his tablet. Nate would have thought the hacker was oblivious except for the wary, darting looks he gave the shadows they passed.
When Sophie linked her arm with his Nate didn't startle, but he had to admit that probably had more to do with the amount of whiskey he was swimming in than nerves of steel. He patted her hand absently.
Her fingers tightened almost painfully on his arm. "Don't you dare tell me not to be scared," she threatened quietly.
"I wouldn't dream of it," he assured her. "You can tell me not to be scared, if you want," he added, aiming roughly between supportive and warmly patronizing.
"Cheers for that," she said tartly. "Everything's going to be fine. I can see the van already."
"We got company," Eliot murmured. "Six. Maybe seven."
Sophie fell silent, but she didn't let go.
"Six," Gunn confirmed, so quietly he was almost whispering. "One just moved behind the red Hyundai."
Nate kept walking; his body didn't seem about to obey any of the other suggestions his brain was feeding it, but then it never had been a big fan of running.
When they were still thirty feet from the van, a figure stepped out from a cluster of trees on the small traffic island nearest Lindsey. The man had a blocky build and roughly cut dark hair, he was wearing a cheap suit and Nate was sure, if he were closer, he'd smell equally bad cologne. Normally he wouldn't have given a second glance, but now he was inclined to and he realized that something was … off.
The man's complexion was wan to the point of gray and the skin was almost leathery, covered with a thin sheen of sweat. His eyes were just a little too large and in the dim light, they seemed to glint orange.
Lindsey slowed and then stopped, hands hanging loose at his sides. "Kraddof," he said guardedly.
Kraddof nodded. "McDonald'k."
Nate had been expecting a low growl, but Kraddof spoke in a high, almost boyish tenor.
Angel took one measured step towards them. "And I'm Angel. Hey, that's nice - we all know each other."
Kraddof's eyes widened, but only a touch. "Heard you was dead'k."
Angel shrugged. "I am. Got any other big news?"
Hardison sidled away from Nate's side, closer to Gunn. "What are they?"
Gunn kept his attention on the figures drawing in behind them as he answered. "Lonsh'k demons. Most of them are okay - keep themselves to themselves. These are Elo'k; they're kind of like the Mafia. Little less cuddly."
"We just want'k him." Kraddof pointed two thick, craggy fingers, one at Lindsey and the other at Eliot.
Parker nudged Lindsey. "See? Fooling no one."
He shrugged her away irritably as he replied. "I never went anywhere near Elo'k interests, Kraddof. What's this about?"
The fingers pointed again. "You. The Lees'k was real clear."
"Their leader," Gunn supplied before Hardison could ask. "They take some kind of drug that turns them into Seers, but it makes them mayflies. Most only last a year or so."
Hardison frowned pensively. "But not actual mayflies, right?"
Gunn shook his head and backed away, making room.
"We don't want'k to fight you," Kraddof said, taking a step closer and completing the loose circle of demons.
"Yeah, I bet you don't." Angel smiled easily, as if he wasn't aware they were surrounded. Or didn't care.
"Don't go mistaking respect'k for fear'k, vampire'k. You want'k these sweet, pretty women'k hurt too? We can-"
Kraddof stiffened, mouth open and gaping. He shuddered violently and then fell back, limbs twitching uncontrollably. In an almost contemplative moment of silence, all eyes followed the thin lines from the twin points in the demon's chest to the Taser in Parker's hand.
She looked around. "Are we fighting or staring? I vote fighting. Not staring."
Lindsey laughed quietly. "There's something wrong with her," he said admiringly.
Angel moved in an eye-watering blur that sent two demons flying and opened a gap in the line, and that was just about all Nate was going to hang around for. He grabbed both Sophie and Hardison's arms and pulled them with him towards the relative safety of the island that Kraddof had been lurking in.
When he looked back again, he saw one of Angel's opponents rolling side to side on the ground, clutching at his chest. The vampire was turning to the next. Lindsey pitched a punishing uppercut at his already staggering target while Gunn's axe swung in a wide arc and another demon jumped back with a startled yell.
Eliot beckoned the two remaining demons closer, smirking like it was all his game. Both were weaving and had the hesitant body language of people considering their options. Parker hovered between the island and the fight, darting in with quick jabs and kicks whenever a demon got within her range.
"Maybe we should help," Sophie said doubtfully.
"We are, we're staying out of their way." Nate winced as Eliot sent a demon flying head-first into the fender of a truck. He felt Hardison begin to stand and reflexively tugged him back.
Hardison shook his hand away. "I can work my way around to the van, get her started up and ready to go. If their cavalry's coming, we really don't want to be here."
Nate released his hold. "Okay."
"Be careful," Sophie whispered.
"Yeah, I was kind of hoping for 'don't do it, you fool.'" Hardison moved to a half crouch, balancing to run.
Nate kept an eye on Hardison as he darted for the van, but needn't have worried. The single demon that started towards the hacker found himself with a face full of Parker. She pushed hard and he reeled backwards into Gunn, who brought the wooden handle of his axe around hard. One more down.
Nate hissed and drew a sharp breath when he saw a demon who'd been rolling on the ground kick out at Eliot's knee.
Eliot staggered and almost fell and Lindsey, who hadn't had the chance to brace, went down hard. That sent Eliot the rest of the way; Lindsey clutched at his side with the newly reflected pain.
Winded and breathing hard, they hauled themselves back to their feet.
Angel's second opponent fell like a rock under a powerful roundhouse kick. Another demon was motionless at Gunn's feet and the last standing was backing away. Unfortunately for him, he backed straight into Eliot, who linked both his hands and brought them down hard at the base of the demon's skull. It dropped like its legs had been cut out from under it.
Sophie stood hesitantly and Nate stood with her. He was getting semi-competent at spotting hidden injuries – Eliot was a master class all on his own – and he couldn't see worse than a shallow cut on Gunn's cheek and a long graze along Lindsey's forearm.
The van drew up, side door already open. They carefully picked their way past the groaning bodies and climbed in.
Nate pulled himself into the front passenger seat and nodded at Hardison. He felt out of breath and he hadn't done a damn thing.
Hardison looked a little wild-eyed, but his voice was steady. "I've wiped the cameras from the lot, nothing's going to be hitting the You Tubes."
"Good." Nate turned as the door of the van slammed shut; they were missing Angel and Gunn.
"They're gonna follow." Eliot said, interpreting the questioning look. He turned to Lindsey. "Where's this bar?"
They found Spes on Pine, tucked between an adult store and the empty shell of a closed-down diner. It was maybe a couple of hours before dawn and the night sky was already beginning to take on a hint of blue, but the bar was still open; Angel could hear the dull thrum of music somewhere below.
The narrow archway entrance was carved sandstone, protective runes hidden amongst Celtic swirls and the frozen faces of gargoyles. The banner above it was a garish green, the name of the baremblazoned across it in hot pink.
"Just needs to call his next place Fides and he's got the set," Lindsey said from beside him.
"Faith, hope and charity," Angel agreed. He bit back on a more acidic follow up; showing at Lorne's place arguing with Lindsey wouldn't be a great start. Instead, he just added, "Let's hope he's feeling at least two out of three."
He walked down the steps towards the dark oak of the main door. A slit in it opened when he approached and he had no idea what he was going to say, but apparently that wasn't a problem – the door swung open.
Inside it smelled strongly of oranges and a little of sulphur. The walls were dark purple, the chairs and tables were black and the bar was the same lurid green as the banner. The lights were low and tinted pink.
Despite the music, there were no customers. Just a single figure in a muted yellow suit, seated at the bar, swirling an olive around a martini glass.
Lorne turned on his stool and held a hand theatrically over his heart. "Hold me, I'm seeing double."
Parker gasped quietly, eyes bright with delight. "He has horns!" she whispered to Hardison. "I always wanted horns," she went on, this time with a touch of envy.
Angel raised an eyebrow. "You don't look surprised."
"I knew they were in town before you did, Angel-cakes. Besides, surprise is the gateway to wrinkles and I can tell you, like all gateways to hell, it's hard to close."
"You look good, Lorne." Angel smiled, because however it had all gone down and however many years it had been, Lorne really did. The green skin was richer and the horns longer, a little weight had come off: he looked better than Angel had seen in a long time.
Lorne smiled back almost fondly, apparently willing to let bygones be bygones, at least for now. "I do, don't I?" His eyes jumped curiously from face to face until they hit Lindsey. "And look at you, rocking the come-back kid. How's that strumming hand, cowboy?"
Lindsey shook his head; he seemed more bemused than angry. "So we're just going to skip on by the whole part where you shot me? 'You're not part of the solution, Lindsey. I've heard you sing, Lindsey.'"
Lorne sighed and slipped off the stool; he picked up his martini and crossed the floor towards them. "I have heard you sing, sugar - that means I can see that mirror spell in all its shiny, bright blue glory."
"You knew he wouldn't die," Angel said, and wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that.
"I made an educated guess, although he had me worried for a while." Lorne's smile faded and then resurfaced determinedly as he stopped in front of them. "And my next educated guess is that you want something, and it isn't the pleasure of my company or one of Dao-ming's divine Mojitos."
"I like your company," Parker offered. "And Mojitos. And horns."
He beamed at her. "Well, thank you, Pumpkin."
She beamed back.
"We need to find the vessel the mirror spell is tied to; we were hoping you might be able to help." Angel glanced back to the door. "If you don't want to, we leave, end of story."
Lorne stood looking at Eliot for a long moment; Eliot looked back, unfazed. "Well, Spes is all about hope," Lorne said finally, and glanced between the twins. "How do you two feel about a duet?"
Eliot shook his head emphatically. "Not happening."
"Remember the last time? Pastor Raddel?" Lindsey grinned at his brother. "Never saw it coming."
Eliot gave an unwilling smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Yeah, but I don't think this is the time for an encore."
Lindsey shrugged and looked to Lorne. "I'll sing. But if you see me doing anything except saving puppies or orphans, you keep it to yourself."
"Deal." Lorne raised his glass to point to the stage. "There's a guitar over there. The last performer had a touch of stage fright, but don't worry - the ichor will brush right off."
Lindsey grimaced, but went where he was directed. He snagged the guitar on the way past and swiped something dusty off it before taking a seat on the stool planted behind the mic.
He strummed out some chords and Angel stiffened as he recognized the opening; next to him Gunn shook his head in disgust. Lindsey's palm stilled the strings; he started again.
Nate put a hand over his eyes.
Well I know they say all good things must come to some kind of ending…
Eliot made a choking sound. After a moment he managed to grind out, "I could kill him and take my chances."
Nate shook his head and spoke soothingly. "Plan M, Eliot. That's Plan M."
Parker spoke without taking her eyes off Lindsey. "Lindsey dies in Plan M."
"Yes," Nate agreed. "Yes, he does."
Eliot turned to Gunn. "Hit me," he demanded.
Gunn shook his head, eyes still on the stage. "Not happening. Hush up, I'm trying to listen."
… Yeah, that's just me, thinking of you.
Lindsey stood, leaned the guitar carefully back against the stool and then wandered back with a wicked grin. "Heard it on the radio, you like it? That bridge is some work."
Eliot looked like he was trying to work out how to throttle his brother without causing personal damage, or maybe just trying to decide how much personal damage would be worth it. "How'd you even know?"
Lindsey looked blankly at him. "I got no idea what you're talking about," he managed with a straight face, and then turned to Lorne. "Get anything?"
"Well, you won't be rescuing any orphaned puppies anytime soon, but I think we all knew that." Lorne's expression tightened, but he managed a smile. "The vessel's still in this dimension, and it's in LA. That's the good news, boys and girls. The bad news is I'm going to have to take you there, and these shoes pinch like a Terim Lung Mite."
"They're fabulous, though." Sophie smiled appreciatively, then her nose wrinkled delicately. "The shoes, not the mites. I don't want to know about the mites. Jeffery-West?"
Lorne's eyes lit up. "Do you know how many other people noticed? No one. Not one. I'm telling you, this is a fashion wasteland. I'm completely surrounded by lyrca."
As Lorne and Sophie made their way towards the door, chattering about shoes, Gunn moved up next to Hardison. "Is there anyone she can't put under her thumb?" He asked, faintly concerned.
Hardison shrugged. "Sure. Theoretically. I mean, just because we haven't found anyone doesn't mean they don't exist. Like dark matter. Or StarCraft: Ghost."
"Let it go, man." Gunn patted Hardison's shoulder sympathetically. "Let it go."
Lorne led them to an estate on Bellagio. It was a huge house, green-roofed with its white walls liberally dotted with large windows. Here at the thin end of the night the windows were dark, but the stucco glowed softly with small, blinking lights from alarms and sensors. A wall surrounded the property and a tall, heavy gate blocked the driveway.
Sophie slid the van’s side door open as Angel, Gunn and Lorne walked up from where they’d parked a little way on. Away from the constant hum of the main roads, their footsteps were loud and although Lorne was wearing a fedora low over his face, it wasn’t really necessary - there wasn’t anyone around to see him.
Eliot leaned out beside her and ran an eye over what he could see of the grounds. “There’s a lot of visibility on approach.”
“It’s somewhere on the top floor,” Lorne calculated, looking back and forth between Eliot and the house. “In the middle, I think,” he added helpfully.
“There’s more cover around back,” Hardison said from his makeshift workstation behind them. Sophie turned and saw that he’d pulled up a satellite image of the house on a monitor, showing a thick grove of trees surrounding the back half of the building and more trees beyond the wall.
Parker crowded in, studying the image intently. She glanced over at the visible sensors and then traced a finger across the screen. “I can see two routes through already.” Her forehead furrowed. “Really obvious ones.”
Hardison tilted his head back to look at her through narrowed eyes. “Easy like cake?”
She nodded gravely. “And the cake is a lie.”
“My girl.” He grinned and raised his fist to bump hers.
With the ease of long practise, Nate completely ignored them. “Place like this, these kind of people ... Hardison, see what you can get on the owners. Sophie, find our in. Parker, take a walk.” He turned his head to look at her pointedly. “A walk.”
She rolled her eyes and slipped out of the van.
Angel blinked as Nate was obeyed without question and then looked thoughtfully at Gunn, who shook his head firmly. “Don’t even think about trying it.”
Lorne diplomatically found something fascinating to look at in the tree branches above them, Eliot’s expression remained impassive and it didn’t look like Ford had even noticed - the man was still staring at the house across the way.
Lindsey smirked, but said nothing, which was probably a first.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Angel said finally and then scanned the silent house. “Lorne, are you getting anything else?”
Lorne abandoned his study of the local flora, his lips pursed as he concentrated. Finally, he shook his head. “Just a big ol’ pile of bupkis.”
Angel hummed under his breath and then turned to Gunn. “I’m going to take a closer look, just in case a walk turns into a run. You good here?”
Gunn hefted his axe in his hand. “I got it covered. Things go south, we meet back at the offices?”
“Yeah, we’ll …” Angel trailed away under Eliot’s amused stare. “What?”
Eliot shrugged. “Nothin’. I just forgot people talk that much.”
Nate cocked his head and regarded Eliot with interest. “You’d prefer I tell you your job? Really?”
“Hell, no.” The hitter shook his head vehemently.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Go work up a few extraction plans, I want to hit the ground running when the others are done.”
Eliot nodded and hauled himself back into the van. Nate put a hand on Lindsey’s arm when he started to follow, but waited until Eliot was well inside before he quietly asked, “How long?”
Lindsey didn’t try and play dumb. “I told you, I don’t know.”
Gunn smirked. “Yeah, right.”
“Take a guess,” Nate said.
Lindsey’s expression set stubbornly. “Could be a month, could be a year.”
“But it isn’t, is it?” Without releasing his hold on Lindsey, Nate looked at Lorne. “Do you know?”
Lorne shook his head apologetically. “The nature of the spell puts things on the hazy side. Sorry, Sweet Pea.”
Nate looked pained, but let it go as he turned back to Lindsey. “At least tell me why you won’t tell me.”
Lindsey’s mouth thinned until his lips whitened; with a small frown, he finally said, “Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of Plan M.”
“Less than a month,” Nate guessed flatly. When Lindsey didn’t react, he huffed. “Less than a week. Okay.”
He released his grip, distantly realizing his fingers ached and wondering how tightly he must have been holding on. Lindsey absently rubbed at his arm; Nate wondered if Eliot had felt that.
“Okay,” he said again. “We’ve made it work with less. Go help Hardison, see if there’s anything that comes up smelling of Wolfram and Hart.”
Lindsey disappeared into the van without comment and Gunn raised an eyebrow. “Okay, seriously, never tell Angel how you do that.”
“Do what?” Nate asked, bemused.
Behind him Sophie snorted genteelly.
Angel could smell Parker’s scent – hints of unperfumed soap, a touch of Hardison’s cologne, some wax and oil and, under that, hours-old blood – but he couldn’t see her anywhere near the wall. He stopped under a tree and then looked up.
“You make too much noise,” Parker hissed from somewhere above. Angel focused and saw her up in the thick foliage of the tree closest to the wall.
“I don’t make noise,” he muttered, and pulled himself easily - and silently - up next to her. “And this? Isn’t walking.”
Parker smirked. “Nate’s the Mastermind because knows what we can do, but he prefers to forget how we do it. Anyway, walking never got anyone anywhere. What are you doing here?”
Under Parker’s interrogative stare, it was kind of hard to admit he was there to make sure she was safe; instead he nodded to the wall. “I can get over that faster than you can.”
Her lips pursed as she studied him, then she nodded with a sudden, sunny smile. “Race you.”
She drew something that looked like a pistol from her belt and fired it in a single motion; there was a silken hum as a rope flew to the wall. With a low metallic-sounding thud, it hooked there. He opened his mouth to say, no, that really wasn’t what he’d meant, but it was too late. She made two quick, practiced flicks to bind the rope to the tree and then she was squirreling her way along it.
“Okay,” he agreed, weakly.
He dropped to the ground and made it to the wall in time to see her disappearing over the top; he jumped and landed in a crouch beside her.
“I win,” she whispered, unperturbed. “If you’re coming, stay behind me and do what I say.”
“Wait.” He reached out to stop her before she could slip away and felt her shoulder twitch under his touch. He drew his hand back. “There could be security here you don’t know how to deal with.”
She hesitated. “Like what? Did Nate tell you about the Steranko? Because that was different.”
“Like spell traps,” he suggested. “Demons. Really big dogs.”
She rolled her eyes. “I can deal with-“
“No,” he pointed in the direction of the three Dobermans prowling towards them from the shadows of the house. “Really big dogs.”
“Oh.” Parker looked disappointed. “I wanted demons. Maybe they’re demon dogs!” She squinted at them almost critically. “Do you see horns?”
“No,” he said evenly. “I’m pretty sure they’re the standard really big dogs.”
“Distract them.” She dug into her pack busily.
“Distract them. Okay.” He stood to a half-crouch and sidled away from her; the dogs kept their attention on him. Normally, he could just show who was the bigger predator, but that had the potential to be either noisy, or really noisy, depending on whether they took it as a challenge.
His nose twitched at the same time as theirs did; he looked back. “Is that steak?”
“Here doggies,” Parker crooned, waving the bloody meat in front of her enticingly.
“They’re not going to fall for that.” He made the executive decision not to ask what kind of person routinely carried raw meat on them, but was distantly glad that the smell of old blood had been explained.
“They always fall for that,” she said calmly. “Dogs like me.”
“These are really well …” he trailed away as the Dobermans trotted past him with no more than warning looks on their way to dinner. He watched as the lead dog took the meat from Parker’s hand; the two behind it waited for their shares to be thrown.
The first dog swallowed its chunk of raw steak in two quick bites; Parker waited patiently. After a moment, the dog’s head dipped, lifted quickly, then dipped again. The other two followed quickly and in a matter of seconds, all three were sprawled on the ground, blinking sleepily.
“Nap time.” Parker stood. “They’ll be okay in an hour.” Her brow furrowed as she looked at him. “Coming?”
Resigned to the sensation of continually being a step and a half behind, Angel nodded. “Let’s go.”
“Okay, the house is owned by a Mr Neal Jacobs and his lovely wife, Greta. No kids, one cook, one housekeeper, two poodles. They bought the place back in two thousand six, cash down. He’s an architect and she’s an art historian, but she comes from money.” Hardison whistled through his teeth and raised his head. “And by money, I mean, they move to Mississippi and the average income of the state straight up doubles.
“They collect art and when they’re not rolling around in hundred dollar bills, they host viewing parties for rich, bored people.”
Nate took that in and then turned to Lindsey, who’d ended up seated beside Sophie again. Suppressing a smile, Nate asked, “What did you tie the spell to? Could they have bought it, not knowing what it was?”
“No, the vessel’s worthless.” Lindsey glanced tensely at Eliot, whose head was still bent over the blueprints. “To them, anyway.”
Sophie cupped her chin in her palm and leaned towards Hardison. She nodded at his laptop. “Give me something juicy. There must be some deep, dark secrets in there.”
Hardison made a few desultory taps at his keyboard. “They’ve had the place up for sale a few times. Not right now, but they put it up and down like it’s a hobby, so just wait a couple weeks if you want to go in that way.”
Nate shook his head. “We don’t have a couple weeks. Security?”
“Private - company called DelSec. Haven’t got a lot on them, but I’m still digging.”
“DelSec? They’re a subsidiary of Wolfram and Hart,” Lindsey said. “They like to keep things in house,” he explained. “Their own security, their own medical, everything.”
“Huh.” Hardison scrolled through a few more pages. “DelSec are still in business, but it looks like they stopped taking on new clients around the time the house cashed its LA chips in.”
Sophie waved an uncaring hand; she wouldn’t be hacking the security, she’d be hacking the owners. “But what about them? How’s the relationship?”
“You tell me.” Hardison swung the laptop around to show her the photos he’d found.
She flicked past the obviously staged ones - mostly designed to highlight her coiffed auburn hair and tennis club figure, his still-square jaw and expensive suit, and their two perfectly groomed miniature poodles - and stopped at a candid shot from some society function or other.
They’d been caught in the glare of a flash at the end of the night; both were flushed and clearly surprised, and their instinct had been to draw together. In a blur of motion, Neal’s hand was dropping protectively to Greta’s shoulder.
Sophie shook her head. “They’re not passionately in love anymore, but there’s trust and affection - I certainly don’t see any resentment or estrangement. Neither of them is having an affair – or if they are, it’s mutually agreed.” She looked up to Nate. “Do they look like swingers to you?”
Nate’s mouth opened and shut with an echo of Jesuit embarrassment. He quelled the reaction that she’d clearly been aiming for and rolled his eyes. “Do they look like swingers to you, Genevieve?”
Her eyes widened. “You knew about that? How on Earth…?”
He looked modest and decided not to mention exactly how long and how loudly he and Sterling had laughed at the results of that particular con. “Let’s just concentrate on the job.”
“So, what? You’re going to try and hook up with one of them?” Lindsey glanced between them. “That’s got to be the easiest way in, right?”
“The easiest way?” Hardison grinned. “Well that’s just adorable.”
Lindsey’s expression darkened stormily.
“Oh, sweetie. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.” Sophie patted his arm kindly. “Could you pass me my soda? I prefer tea, but there’s never a kettle around when you need one.”
With a glare at Hardison, the storm faded; Lindsey passed the can over almost absent-mindedly.
Nate cleared his throat and turned to face the house. “Parker, how’s that walk going?”
When she replied, her voice was a reed-thin whisper, barely audible over the earpiece. “Shush now, working. I mean, walking.”
“Walking where, exactly?” He asked levelly, but there was no reply. “Parker?”
He rubbed a hand across his eyes and then half stood to rifle through Hardison’s station, ignoring the other man’s sound of protest. He located the night-vision binocs under a pile of papers and a gummi frog.
It took him a couple of tries to focus on the middle of the roof, but finally there they were: two figures - barely silhouettes - crouched either side of a skylight. As he watched, the smaller of the two became even smaller.
“Parker!” He hissed. “Don’t - do not -“
Too late, there was only one person on the roof now.
Nate belatedly realized they should have given Angel an ear-bud - at least then he’d have someone to yell at. With a shortage of other targets, he looked accusingly at Gunn.
Gunn shook his head and raised his hands; it was probably sheer coincidence one of them still had an axe in it. “Hey, your girl went off the reservation and took my vampire with her.”
A second later, Parker whispered, “Nate, there’s a lot of stuff in here, but it’s all … stuff. It’s junk.”
“What do you see?” Nate gestured to Hardison, the computer and his ear in quick succession.
Hardison pressed a key on his laptop and Parker’s almost sub-vocal whisper filled the van. “It’s like a flea market, only there’s lasers and everything’s glowing.”
Nate glanced out of the door, and then did a double take. From outside, Lorne was watching him intently, unblinkingly and - more to the point - knowingly.
Well. That was interesting. “Parker, pull back,” he ordered quietly.
“But I can get it, if one of the Eliots just spills what it is. Spill, Eliots,” she demanded.
“I don’t know what it is, Parker.” Eliot growled.
“We’ll get it when we get the rest,” Nate promised flatly. “Abort. Now.”
Sophie frowned uncertainly. “Nate? Are you sure? We can finish this.”
Still looking at Lorne, Nate said, “They’re all vessels. Right, Lorne?”
Lorne nodded with a wry, if unapologetic smile. “Every last trinket. There’s enough shiny blue badness in there to level anyone’s state of choice.”
“We need to get it all - if we just take one, we’ll tip the Jacobs off and we won’t get another chance.”
“We’re coming back,” Parker said, sounding less than happy about it.
Gunn squinted at Lorne, confused. “Why didn’t you just tell us? We would have done something.”
“Before or after Angel finished his best impression of Miss Havisham?” Lorne asked dryly. “I know you’re doing your best to hold things together, sugar, but this will take more than you, Spike and the bluebird of scariness, and Angel’s head hasn’t been in the game since Anne.”
Gunn sagged; he looked older. “You heard about that, huh? You could have called. Something. It hit him hard.”
“I could have,” Lorne agreed. “And probably made things worse. I was still angry with him.” He took a long breath and forced a brighter smile as he looked around their uncomfortably silent audience. “Well look at us: all that water, passing under all those burning bridges. We’re here all week, folks.”
Nate didn’t ask; whomever Angel had lost, it wasn’t their business. The van fell silent, except for Hardison tapping at his keyboard, until Angel and Parker jogged up.
Angel shot Lorne an injured look, but said nothing; Nate guessed Parker had relayed the gist of the conversation.
Lorne held up a forestalling hand. “Before you ask, no, I don’t know anything except there’s all the ingredients for a world of trouble in there, and someone’s planning a bake off. A Cjiin demon sang in Spes a few days ago and I got the hit, but she was just in retrievals.”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Angel answered shortly, not quite looking at him. “It’s nearly dawn, I have to go.”
“We’ll come back,” Nate said. “Get everything at once.”
Lindsey looked a little lost. “How the hell are you going to do that?” He pointed at Hardison. “And I am not adorable,” he said firmly.
Angel’s mouth dropped open. “He really isn’t,” he agreed, whatever he was feeling about Lorne holding out swept away by the sudden appearance of the Twilight Zone.
“How?” Nate smiled as he climbed into the van. “They’ll give us the collection.”
“They’re not just going to hand everything over,” Angel said dubiously.
“That’s exactly what they’re going to do.” Nate nodded confidently. “Yes. And they’ll thank us for taking it.”
Hardison raised an eyebrow. “We’re going to run game on the creatures of the night?”
“That a problem?”
He grinned. “Nah, man. I got holy water, I got stakes and I got blueprints - we’re good.”
They decamped to the eerily empty, silent Wolfram & Hart offices; there were hundreds of rooms over several floors, but by unspoken consensus they’d all gravitated to the top floor.
Almost everyone had found a soft surface to catch a few hours of sleep on; Angel had drifted from room to room, unable to settle and - if he were honest - mostly making sure he avoided Lorne. They had to talk; he knew they did, but he hoped it could be later.
Illyria was haunting the hallways; he caught sight of her sometimes, patrolling some route of her own.
A couple of hours past dawn, he found himself in the doorway of Wes’ old office, and the room already occupied. Eliot stood by the window, looking down on the city as it woke up and obliviously got on with its day.
Angel came to stand next to him.
“I guess I should thank you,” Eliot said after a few seconds. “For helping us out.”
Angel shrugged. He hadn’t expected or wanted thanks, but it sounded like Eliot wasn’t sure he should be grateful, so that worked out.
He was curious about something, though, despite himself. It had nagged at him; he’d lived with it, but now he didn’t have to and this was probably as good a time as any to ask. “Why’d Lindsey lie? About the ‘flu?”
Eliot’s mouth twisted. “I got no idea. It was a fire.”
Well that kind of made sense - flu was out of your hands, no blame. Fire, not so much. “It was his fault,” Angel surmised. “Or he ran.”
Eliot smiled; it was a small, crooked thing. “When it started, I tried to get them out the window, but she’d…“ He looked away, expressionless.
A beat and then he looked back and went on matter-of-factly. “The shutters were nailed down. I couldn’t get through. Lindsey went inside. He tried to break down the door, but it was barricaded pretty good, and we were just kids. He wouldn’t stop throwing himself at the damn thing.
“I dragged him out a couple times, but the last time he ran back in there was … there was a lot of smoke. By the time I found him, he was out. Few days there, we didn’t even know if he was going to live.”
Eliot’s delivery was flat to the point of impersonal; Angel wondered how much had happened between then and now to let that happen. “It doesn’t change anything,” he said at last.
“You asked what happened, I told you.” Something must have shown in Angel’s expression, because Eliot smirked tiredly. “And now you wish you hadn’t, huh?” He looked back to the city. “Bad things happen, they don’t turn everyone into him. Or me.”
“You’re not like him,” Angel said quietly.
Eliot shrugged. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
“The elevation pleases you,” Illyria said, when she found Parker hanging half out of the window with a blissful smile.
Parker stretched and answered without looking, words barely audible as the wind whipped them away. “It makes sense.”
Illyria nodded and moved up beside the other woman; close enough to touch, though she didn’t. “Yes, I understand. Fall or don’t.”
Now Parker’s head did come up, expression thoughtful. “Most people don’t get it.”
“Humans are needlessly complex; an undue celebration of their own intelligence.”
Parker thought she could detect undertones, and was inordinately proud of it. “Nate’s not really that bad. Most of the time.”
“He said I’d make an excellent ice queen and then fell asleep,” Illyria groused. “I am a god.”
“He didn’t mean to insult you; sometimes he says things without thinking. Humans are like that.”
“You are not.”
Parker pulled herself back through the window, ending in a crouch at Illyria’s side. She stood gracefully and patted the other woman sympathetically, if awkwardly, on the arm. “You can be an ice god, if you want?”
“That would be acceptable,” Illyria conceded. “I was worshipped on many frozen worlds.”
“I like snow,” Parker offered.
“It has much to recommend it.”
“It’s going to be a while before Nate wakes up.” Parker looked towards the window. “Want to go out?”
Illyria considered her gravely and then nodded. “Yes.”
When Spike and Hardison saw Parker and Illyria crawling around the outside of the building ten minutes later, they decided not to mention it. Ever.
When Nate woke up, his head was throbbing and his face was firmly pressed into a cushion; he could taste couch. Hazily he followed the line of his arm down to the floor, next to his hand - definitely his hand, he could move a finger - was an empty glass he only dimly remembered filling.
He stayed where he was while memory seeped back into the holes sleep had left; when it was done, he groaned.
There was a sympathetic cluck from somewhere just out of his vision and he shifted enough to be able to make out something … green and yellow.
“Morning, sunshine,” Lorne said, blessedly quietly.
Right. Right. “Time’sit?”
“About two,” Lorne supplied in a more normal volume. “That’s some 80-proof jetlag you have going on there.”
Nate groaned again.
“Look, I didn’t want to mention it before, but there’s something about this spell you need to know before you rush off to save the day and we’re a little pressed for time.”
Nate held a hand up. “Wait.”
He pushed himself into a sitting position and then let his head drop down into his hands. When he felt capable of stringing more than one thought together at a time, he risked looking up. The room was dim, blinds still down, but at least it was more or less in focus. “Okay,” he said. “Hit me.”
“Physical damage isn’t the only thing the twins McDonald share now. As it degrades, it will come down to emotions. Thoughts. Personality. In Lindsey’s case, that might not be a bad thing. In Eliot’s…”
Nate swallowed thickly and wondered if he could make it to the sink. “Eliot decides not to be Lindsey McDonald every day of his life, I think he can manage a couple more.”
“Well, you know best, I’m sure.” Lorne followed his gaze and leaned down to retrieve the empty glass, crossing to fill it with water.
Nate took it when it was offered back. “Thanks.”
He was expecting Lorne to leave, in retrospect that might have been overly optimistic. The demon took a perch on the arm of the couch and made himself comfortable. “So, you’re criminals.”
“You could say that, sure. If you wanted to be … ” Nate waved the glass as he searched for the word.
Close enough. “Accurate, right. We like to say we pick up where the law leaves off. And you’re a demon from another dimension with a thing for Judy Garland, and Angel’s a vampire with a soul who helps the hopeless. Catchy.”
Lorne hummed flat disapproval under his breath. “Honestly? That comes and goes.”
“At least he had some kind of prophecy, I was mostly just drunk.” Nate stared morosely into his water; there was still a faint tang of whiskey in it.
“You look like a man with questions,” Lorne prompted.
“Not really.” Nate shook his head; it was true. Oh, he’d had questions, he’d had a lot of questions, but somewhere around dawn they’d thinned down to just one.
“Mostly I’m thinking about spells, and demons and magic and this crazy stuff I wish to God I’d known about five years ago.” Nate’s expression darkened angrily. “I should have known. I should have been told. Why didn’t I know?”
Lorne stayed silent, watching without judgement, and somehow that was worse than pity.
“Something like this mirror spell could have… or something else, there must be something else.” Nate looked up with a sudden, almost manic energy. “Is there a way to bring people back? There has to be.”
“No.” Lorne’s tone was soft, but bluntly honest.
“You’re lying,” Nate said automatically.
“They don’t come back right, and they don’t thank you for it. There’s always a price, Sweet Pea, and it’s always paid.”
Nate tightened his hold on the glass; barely even registering it was still in his hand. “I would pay anything. Do anything.”
“It wouldn’t be collected from you.” Angel said from the doorway. “Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is let them go. Took me a really long time to figure that out.”
Nate stared at him and then smiled thinly. “Yeah, but for you, it’s an inevitability, right? For the rest of us, it’s failure. So, you know, excuse me if I don’t take life coaching from the guy who’s going to live forever.”
Angel darted a look at Lorne and then spoke evenly. “The others have gone to get something to eat; they’ll be back in a couple of hours and we can plan our next move.”
“Good.” Nate drained the rest of the water in his glass; when he looked back, Angel was gone and Lorne was following.
He didn’t try and stop him.
By the time they convened in the conference room, Nate had managed to pull himself into some semblance of order. The others took seats quickly; Lindsey looked strangely nostalgic as he - apparently deliberately - chose a specific seat at the table.
Angel shot him an old-fashioned look and Nate guessed there was history there he really didn’t need to know. Or, you know, care about.
He gestured across the table. “Okay, here’s the play: Gunn, you’re our front man - sales, if you like.”
Gunn glanced around questioningly. “What am I selling them?”
“Us. It’s your job to rope the Jacobs in, make them trust you and then switch that trust off to me - I’ll be the inside man: their knight in white armor when things go bad on them.”
Sophie’s eyes brightened excitedly. “Ooh, the White Knight Hustle! I love paranoia scams. Classic.”
From his perch by the window, Spike arched an eyebrow. “Paranoia scam?”
“You make your target so paranoid about being taken, they come to you for help,” Hardison said. “Usually it’s easy like duck soup, but Nate likes to mix things up a little, so, vigilance.” He raised a warning finger. “Constant vigilance.”
“You’re going to go in as a rep from Wolfram and Hart,” Nate went on.
Gunn looked doubtful. “Well, I still got the suit, but the chops are gone.”
“We can give you some lines, chances are they won’t go off-script. You just have to keep them focused on coming up with the right questions.”
Gunn somehow managed to look even more doubtful and Nate paused, nonplussed. “Problem?”
Lindsey nudged Hardison. “You got any more of those ear things?”
“Do I – do you have any idea how many they go through? Half my carry-on luggage is ear buds. I make them in my sleep now. My actual sleep. It’s disturbing.”
“Then give me one and I got it covered if they come up with something Gunn can’t handle,” Lindsey said patiently. “I’ll even give it back.”
Hardison looked briefly disorientated - probably because Eliot would have been growling by now and Lindsey just looked expectant.
“Okay, good,” Nate picked up. “Eliot-”
“Sheepdog,” Eliot cut in.
Nate shook his head. “Not this time - wall man. I have a sheepdog in mind. Sheepdogs, actually.”
Spike turned to Angel. “Why is he looking at us like that?”
Angel smirked. “I think we’re going to be herding people.”
Nate swung his hand around. “Sophie-“
She smiled happily. “Witness! I have just the character; I think you’ll find her compelling. And extremely sympathetic.”
“Great.” He barely paused. “Parker, Hardison, you’re on the badge. You’ll be flushing out our game for Gunn to pick up. How are Hagan and Thomas set?”
Hardison grinned. “They’re good. Hagan’s a full agent now and her parents have never been more proud. Her mom posted about it on Facebook, it was touching.”
Lorne waved a plaintive hand. “What am I doing?”
“Lorne, you’re our Söze. Illyria, you’re his ice queen.” Nate glanced at Parker, who widened her eyes meaningfully and cleared her throat in possibly the least discreet fashion he’d ever heard. “God,” he amended quickly. “Ice god.”
Illyria frowned. “What will this involve?”
Sophie reached out to pat her arm and then seemed to think better of it. “It just means you get to scare people for your shadowy, unseen boss.”
“A function I already fulfill; ice is not required.”
“Wait, I’m unseen?” Lorne looked around. “My big break and I’m unseen?”
“I mean rarely seen. You’re the silhouette in a dark alley - the whisper in the night.” Sophie leaned closer and murmured, “The shiver up the knotted spine of the city.”
“Well, I’m sold.” Lorne beamed widely.
“We’re going to need an extra as well; the inside man would have an assistant.” Nate glanced around, trying to work out who could afford to pay double-duty. Only Lindsey and Eliot were really viable and he didn’t want to bring them out if he didn’t have to; there was always the chance they’d be recognized by someone.
“I have another face,” Illyria said. “It will suffice.”
An emotion flickered across Spike and Angel’s expressions too quickly to pin, but Gunn looked pained as he asked Nate, “Is it really necessary?”
“It would help,” Nate admitted, knowing he was missing something. “The more people involved, the easier it is to pull the mark in. As a rule, we’re herd animals.” He turned to Illyria cautiously. “What do you mean by ‘another face?’”
He really, really hoped she didn’t have one just lying around.
Illyria made no response, but after a moment he saw that the blue was leeching from her hair and her skin was warming to a more natural tone. Even her leather gear was reforming into a simple jeans and t-shirt combination. In a matter of seconds, she was human. “Is this okay?” She asked in a soft southern accent.
Nate swallowed and didn’t miss Gunn looking away. “That’ll work. But save it for show time, huh?”
Her transformation back was almost instantaneous.
“Excellent.” Nate rubbed his hands together briskly. “Let’s go steal some souls.”
Thank you dragonfly for the beta! Sorry this was so delayed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Parker was flushed when she appeared, and her grin was a biscuit off maniacal, but that was pretty much, hey, Tuesday, so Hardison kept knotting his tie and tried to think official, FBI-shaped thoughts.
"That was fun." She threw her pack energetically into the back of the van; it landed with a heavy thud, narrowly missing two bottles of orange soda and a laptop.
Hardison eyed her dubiously - so very aware of what she'd been perpetrating. "Fun. Woman, I do not think it means what you think it means."
"Anybody got a peanut," she growled happily, in possibly the worst impression of Fezzik ever committed. He winced, but mostly to cover for the rush of glee, because not only had she watched the movie with him, she'd watched the movie with him. Pretzels? Were sweet like sweetness.
He still spun rapidly away as she pulled off her top and reached for her Hagen shirt. He rolled his eyes skywards and silently demanded the most brownie points ever.
Greta Jacobs stared, perplexed, at the pair Maria had shown into the main hall. The man was young, handsome and well, if cheaply, turned out, and he looked around with clear appreciation for the decor; that was always gratifying. The woman at his side was also well presented, and attractive in a sharply angled sort of way, but she was staring almost accusingly.
That was significantly less gratifying.
It was possible they were associates of Neal's, but she was sure he would have mentioned them. Nodding a dismissal to the housekeeper, Greta summoned a welcoming smile. "I'm afraid my husband has been kept at the office - can I help you?"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for your time." The man returned her smile and pulled a wallet from his inside pocket. He flipped the cover, and let her see the badge and ID for a perfunctory second before tucking it away.
"I'm Special Agent Thomas, this is Special Agent Hagen. We're sorry to be calling on you this late, but there have been a lot of houses to get through - you know how it is." He went on quickly, barely pausing for her reflexive nod. "This is just a follow up on the robberies last week, to see if there's anything else you may have remembered and answer any questions you might have about security."
She frowned with practised care: enough to show confusion, but not lines. "Robberies, I'm sorry?"
Greta saw Hagen's eyes widen with horror, though the woman tried to hide it as she turned to her partner and spoke in a low monotone. "I don't think the uniforms made it this far."
"Wow." Thomas blinked in clear disbelief, and then hurriedly raised an apologetic hand. "Okay, Mrs Jacobs, mea culpa, my bad - let me be the first to apologize. The LAPD were supposed to have sent someone by earlier this week and clearly that didn't happen. I can tell you, I'll be asking questions why not. Deep, searching questions. Heads will roll."
"Very deep," Hagen agreed. "Very searching. Heads everywhere." With an alarmingly intent, almost anticipatory air, she leaned closer. "Everywhere."
"I - no, that's quite all right," Greta assured them, taken aback. "Robberies?"
Thomas' expression turned hesitant. "Well, home invasions," he admitted. "But we're trying to keep the more gruesome details out of the papers - I'm sure you understand."
"Of course," she replied automatically, then, "Gruesome?"
Thomas looked away and swallowed; Hagen patted him supportively, shaking her head urgently at Greta.
He gathered himself with a shaky breath. "Ma'am, it makes your blood run cold, it really does. We suspect a team of professionals. Have you noticed any suspicious characters around? Particularly at night."
"At night?" She shook her head. "No. No one."
The agents exchanged a worried glance; they probably thought Greta hadn't caught it. "Well, hey, that's good." Thomas' smile was overly bright. "Would you like us to perform an overview of your security while we're here, just to make sure you're as safe as you can be?"
"That won't be necessary; we have a private security contract."
In the conference room he'd annexed as a temporary HQ, Nate shrugged. It had been worth a try. "Don't push it, Hardison," he directed. "Parker can go back later if necessary."
"Okay, great - you should give them a call," Thomas said after a thoughtful pause. "They'll be able to get the pertinent details from the LAPD, and they'll be able to advise you on any additional security you may want to consider."
"Thank you so much." Greta smiled and gestured towards the door. Agent Thomas turned towards it, then reached back to catch his partner's elbow and pull her with him. Hagen jerked from whatever reverie had her looking almost guiltily at the skylight above the stairwell.
At the door, Agent Thomas turned. "Thank you for your time - and again for your understanding about the, you know."
Nate counted out their exit: half in seconds, half to the beat in his head. He raised a conductor's finger. "Okay, sheepdogs."
"Honestly, don't give it another moment's thought." Greta smiled brightly; the smile flickered as she caught sight of the two men loitering outside of the gate at the end of the drive, watching the house almost … predatorily.
She shut the door firmly and after a moment's though, bolted the second lock. Then she turned to look pensively up at the skylight.
It was open, just a crack.
Gunn sat quietly while Nate monitored Hardison and Parker's exit and Sophie did whatever she was doing at the other end of the table - it looked like guppy impressions, and wow, he really wasn't going to ask. It reminded him of Cordie, when she'd been preparing for yet another doomed audition. The memory was old enough he could smile, but not so old that the smile didn't pull a little.
Still listening with half an ear, he ran an eye over the pile of electronics that had appeared on the conference table in the last few hours. He recognized maybe half of it, and he was pretty sure more appeared every time he wasn't looking.
Hardison had sworn - with wide-eyed sincerity and a lot of hand waving - that none of it was stolen, but then Parker had cracked up, laughing so hard that she'd fallen off the couch. So Gunn couldn't say he was a hundred per cent buying that.
Like anyone even gave a damn about a few hot machines - it had been worth it just to hear someone laughing again. Really laughing. Even Spike had looked kind of stunned at the sound and he kept saying he had a life. Unlife. Whatever.
But that was earlier, and now it was all business. When Nate looked at him, Gunn raised an eyebrow. "So she's spooked - now what?"
"Now we wait for the call," Nate said placidly, and tented his fingers.
"The call she's going to make to DelSec, which we're going to intercept."
Gunn shook his head with a half-smile; now he was reminded of Wes. "No way you can know she's going to do that."
"No, no, you're right - I don't know." Nate leaned back nonchalantly. "So, you wouldn't be interested in a friendly wager?"
Before Gunn could reply, the phone between them began to ring. Nate cleared his throat and then pressed a button to answer in a cheerful tone. "DelSec, how may I direct your call?"
"Put me through to Ms Treem," Greta Jacobs snapped, a little tinny over the speaker. "Now."
"Please hold." Nate put her on mute and then studied his nails. Turned out Sophie wasn't the only one with a thing for theatrics; Gunn rolled his eyes.
After half a minute, Nate tapped the button again. "I'm sorry, Ms Treem is currently unavailable. Can I connect you to one of our other advisors?"
There was a long moment of silence, then, "I - yes."
"Passing you to Ms Donovan." He gave the nod to Sophie; she smoothly took over the call.
Gunn smirked. "Okay, so you got skills," he admitted.
"One or two," Nate acknowledged, not quite modestly. He brought his hand up to his ear and spoke quietly. "Eliot, anything?"
Gunn could hear Eliot's muted reply over the laptop at Nate's other side, and maybe it was the audio quality, but it seemed to him that there was an unspoken, 'and I'd tell you if there was.' Sure, there were silent letters, but he'd thought Angel was the only one who rolled with silent sentences.
"Okay, good. We're going to be starting the inside run in …" Nate glanced at Sophie, who held up a finger and then rocked her hand from side to side. "In about an hour."
"We'll be there," Eliot confirmed. Communications ended in a crackle of static.
Nate pushed another button. "Lorne, you still with us?"
"Reading you both loud and clear and I have to say, I am considering a career change - these shadowy underworld types have it good. I have to get the name of their sommelier."
"Just remember what you're there for."
"Please. Surrounded by all this clicking, how could I forget? When I have something, I'll let you know. In the meantime, this sassy little rosé and I are going to get better acquainted."
Sophie's voice, which had been a pleasant background noise, rose sharply into the foreground. "Mrs – Mrs Jacobs, I assure you that we will do everything in our power to provide the best possible level of service, but please understand that any additional agreements you may have had with Wolfram and Hart aren't within our purview.
"The firm's local representative would be more than happy to arrange a time to speak to you, perhaps next - tonight?" Sophie drew back, expression uncertain: a harried account manager, who really wasn't getting paid enough to deal with this. She toyed nervously with the pen in her hand. "Well, that's rather short – no, no I understand, Mrs Jacobs. Please, let me see what I can do. I'll put you on hold for just a moment."
The façade disappeared and with a calculating expression, she hit the mute. "You did a good job, guys," she said to thin air. "She's demanding someone over there immediately."
"It was the gruesome," Hardison's voice replied confidently. "The gruesome gets them every time. Although Hagen was real convincing with the whole heads thing - that was nice."
Gunn spoke quickly, before the mutual admiration society really kicked in. "So I'm up, right?"
"Right." Nate looked grateful for the interruption. "Angel and Spike are already in position, Hardison and Parker will be in the van up the street if you need to run, and Lindsey and Eliot will be around in case running isn't an option."
"Around being wall men." Gunn looked between them. "What the hell is a wall man?"
"They play look out and run interference." Sophie smiled, spinning the pen absentmindedly in her fingers. "If the Jacobs decide to put a call into the LAPD, or anyone else tries to make a play for the collection, our wall men will keep us alive and out of jail while Nate puts plan B into motion. We hope."
"Yeah, thanks for that vote of confidence," Eliot muttered. Or maybe it was Lindsey. It was hard to tell and, yeah - that was a little unsettling.
"And it keeps Lindsey away from the main action," Nate added. "We don't want anyone who's after him crashing the party."
Sophie eyed her watch and then hit the button again to unmute the call. "Mrs Jacobs? My colleague would be happy to visit you tonight. In an hour? All right then."
She dropped the phone and smiled with satisfaction. "We're in. And apparently they signed an additional Seventeen-B, whatever that is. Lindsey?"
"That's good against act of gods, ancient burial grounds, demons: the usual." When Lindsey went on, he sounded like he was quoting from a textbook. "The contract is declared null and void if the client or clients ignore, circumvent or in any other way compromise security measures recommended by the company."
"Recommended, not installed?" Hardison asked after a beat, sounding almost scandalized. "That can't be legit."
Lindsey laughed quietly. "Cute. You know about Santa, right?"
"What about Santa?" Parker demanded.
Nate pushed an ear bud towards Gunn. "You'll need this. But you might want to leave it out for a little while."
As Lindsey tried to back peddle and Parker's voice became more strident, Gunn silently agreed. Anyway, it was time to go suit up.
Traffic was heavy and Gunn had arrived slightly out of breath, but Sophie's voice softly assured him that would only help. The housekeeper, a plump, middle-aged woman, had greeted him with a terse order to stay in the main hall and a hard-eyed look he really wasn't sure he deserved - until he heard the yelling from somewhere upstairs.
The man and woman arguing – he guessed the Jacobs – were muffled by a couple floors and several doors. He couldn't make out much more than pieces - something about a skylight, and a told you so here and there – but overall the tone sounded pretty frantic. So that was encouraging.
The housekeeper sedately climbed the open staircase. Half a minute after she'd gone from sight, the voices abruptly cut away - half a minute after that, Neal Jacobs came on down.
He was a heavy-set man, although his damn expensive suit did what it could to suggest muscle, rather than fat. The full head of hair was dark, except for a few carefully non-dyed touches of gray at the temples.
Gunn smiled and found the shape of it coming back to him: the mouth curved, but the eyes stayed flat - no weakness, but no challenge. "Ms Treem sends her apologies that she's unable to deal with this matter personally." He widened his smile, adding a touch more plastic. "I'd like to give you our full reassurance that-"
"You'll be improving our security," Jacobs cut in brusquely. "Immediately."
Gunn paused and then tilted his head back coolly; he and Jacobs were about the same height, but this way he could look down on the man - and he did. "Wolfram and Hart is deeply concerned for your well-being, but further security isn't something we're able to offer at this time. May I suggest you discuss the situation further with DelSec?" He smiled thinly. "I understand they have a new line of floor safes, and in a range of attractive colors."
"Make him angry then let him win," Sophie murmured as Gunn watched Jacobs face purple. "Good strategy, I like it. Don't push him too far, though, or he'll demand to see your superior, and I don't think Illyria's quite up to that."
"Floor safes?" Jacobs roared. "Don't give me damn floor safes - I was told upgrades were available."
Gunn nodded, unperturbed. "Right, available. You chose not to take them. I think you'll find -"
"Sub-clause two-two-five-nine, point five," Lindsey supplied.
"Sub-clause two-two-five-nine, point five very specific about that."
Jacobs took a long breath, the unhealthy color slowly seeped away as he forced himself back under control. "We were assured of complete protection." His voice was low now, under iron restraint, and somehow that was a hell of a lot more unnerving than the flash of rage had been.
"I don't know what to tell you, Mr Jacobs." Gunn shook his head, letting some wariness into his expression. "It's out of my hands."
"Do I know you, son?" Jacobs eyes narrowed. "You look familiar. I never forget a face."
"I worked in the Wolfram and Hart offices here in LA," he offered smoothly; this one he'd had prepared. "Chances are you saw me there."
Jacobs grunted and crossed his arms. "Well, you put this back in your hands – you understand me? You deal with this personally or I'll make sure you never work again."
"Okay, look - there is another option." Gunn shrugged uncomfortably, and slumped a little as he did it. "I could be fired for telling you this, you understand? And the fire is literal."
"You think I care about that?" Jacobs snorted his approval, now he was getting what he considered his due. "What are our options?"
"There's a company that may be able to provide additional … peace of mind."
"Their card?" Jacobs held his hand out and snapped his fingers impatiently.
Gunn gave a short bark of disbelieving laughter and then coughed, as if recovering himself. "No, no I do not have their card. Like I said, this is delicate. Look. I'll put out some feelers - explain the situation to them. They'll contact you."
Apparently feeling that was acceptable, Jacobs nodded and abruptly changed the subject. "Do you have any idea who's behind these robberies?"
"That's not something I'm at liberty to discuss…"
"Young man, do you have any idea who I am? Do you have any idea what we're doing here?"
"Okay, see what you can get," Nate instructed; he sounded almost amused. Gunn guessed their marks didn't get all Bond Villain on them that often. Welcome to LA.
"No sir, " he answered honestly, and then cleared his throat. "But the more I know, the more I can tell my contact."
"This is the new order, son. Right here." Jacobs' eyes glinted with a zealot's fire. "This is the bright new dawn for humanity."
Gunn cleared his throat to buy a little time, unsure what response Jacobs would find encouraging. Too eager and it would be suspicious, not eager enough and he'd have a whole other set of problems.
"Tell him you've heard that before," Lindsey said flatly.
"Assure him, no matter what it is, you have it covered," Sophie suggested, half a beat behind.
Sophie had skills, no doubt, but as much as Gunn hated to admit it, lawyer boy was probably reading it right. He went for impressed, with a healthy dose of doubt. "With respect? I've heard that from a lot of people, Mr Jacobs."
"A lot of people don't have what I have, son." Jacobs smiled almost benevolently. "Come on upstairs, let me show you what you're protecting."
In the truck at the other end of the estate from Hardison's van, Eliot listened as Jacobs sold Gunn on the end of the world. Well, the demonic part of it, anyhow: one spell to wipe the city clean of every non-human in it - or under it. His tone was warm syrup over rabid hate.
When he was sure Jacobs hadn't had some kind of violently ulterior motive in getting Gunn further into the house, he tuned the conversation out and resumed surveillance on the area.
Beside him, Lindsey was picking at the worn leather strap around his wrist. It was a familiar sound and an equally familiar impulse to reach over and bat the hand away. They weren't kids anymore; he resisted.
As if realizing Eliot wasn't going to respond, Lindsey stopped. A moment later, he slipped the bud from his ear. "So this is what you do now? Babysit?"
Eliot didn't remove his own bud, but he nodded. "Uh huh."
"I gotta say this isn't where I figured you'd end up. They know what you used to do?"
Eliot said nothing.
"Maybe as long as you're useful they won't ask too many questions, huh?"
Eliot said nothing.
"But as soon as they see you bleed, you're through. You know that, right? It's not like they're keeping you around for the winning personality."
Eliot said nothing.
"I'm pretty good in a fight, though. So when they're done with you - "
Eliot punched him in the face.
At the two loud thuds and twin groans, Nate started. "Eliot? Lindsey? Eliot?"
When there was no response over the comms from either man, Nate half-stood, no idea what he was even planning to do. Sophie stood with him, looking concerned and about as confused.
"I can see them, they're okay." Angel sounded grimly amused. "Guess someone forgot it's double the fun."
"Okay." Nate let out a breath and dropped back into his chair. "Sounds like Jacobs is rolling up his pitch. You in position?"
Spike chuckled unpleasantly. "Ready and lurking."
At the door, Gunn tried to ignore the chatter in his ear as he shook Jacob's hand and repeated his assurances.
"We'll expect a call within twenty-four hours." Jacobs had relaxed into something almost jovial once the proper interest in, and enthusiasm for, the new world order had been shown, but there was still steel in his tone.
"Of course." Gunn kept his smile as the door closed, and as he was walking back down the drive, although for slightly different reasons.
He slipped through the gate and, even though he was expecting it, the two shadows that rose in his peripheral vision still made him jerk away. His back hit the bars and a heavy hand dropped on his shoulder.
"Hey!" He tried to pull away, but the hand didn't let him. He struggled, and didn't bother to fake it - Spike was holding him with an almost painful grip and however long it had been, Gunn was never, ever going to be happy to be that helpless next to a vampire. At least it would look good for the camera; and if his heart was beating double time, well - that was just selling the part.
Angel's demon-distorted face loomed at him out of the dark.
Thanks to the bug Parker had planted on her second trip in, Nate listened as Greta called her husband upstairs to watch Gunn being menaced by the two vampires; he was morbidly amused that neither of the Jacobs suggested sending help.
"I'm sure those are the men who were watching the house earlier. All these break-ins, they must have been looking for us. What if they kill him?" Greta fretted. "What will the neighbors think?"
"They won't kill him," Jacobs said with flat confidence. "Come on."
There was a rustle and then the sound of a closing door. Nate grimaced. Hardison's bugs were good, as the hacker repeatedly insisted, but they could only do so much.
In his head, he replayed Jacob's last words, trying to analyze the inflection and wishing like hell they'd had video. He glanced over at Sophie; there was a thin line of concentration between her eyebrows. "You think he's guessed?"
Her lips pursed thoughtfully. "It's difficult to tell. Maybe."
He frowned. "I don't like maybe."
She smiled slightly. "Perhaps? Possibly?" She leaned towards him, one eyebrow raised. "Perchance?"
"Okay," he said, ignoring her and speaking to empty air again. "They've seen you, guys - wind it up."
He was leaning back and turning towards Sophie again when Lindsey spoke urgently.
"Ford, we've got problems. And by problems, I mean demons."
"Not the Elo'k -"
"Definitely not the Elo'k. Some Korini I had a run in with a few years back; Eliot's going to get his ass kicked." Lindsey made a pained sound. "Eliot's getting his ass kicked."
"So go help him!" Hardison yelled; Nate winced at the sudden volume.
"Yeah, because that worked so well for us last time." Lindsey sounded like he was speaking through gritted teeth. "Where the hell is the cavalry? Isn't that what you people do?"
"We're on our way," Angel said shortly.
There was another strangled-off groan; a door slammed, someone shouted. Something cracked.
Eliot breathed heavily and tried to put the world around him into some kind of sense, even as his body kept moving of its own volition. Sense: where the lights in the darkness weren't disorienting blurs and the ground was solid, and there was some kind of reason for the dark, warm substance slicking his fists as they punched down and down.
He heard a noise that meant nothing at all until suddenly it was Hardison yelling – yelling his name – over and over, but the hand that gripped his wrist and hauled him back belonged to someone else.
"You're done," Lindsey shouted, and shoved hard enough that they both stumbled.
Eliot shook his head as he tried to clear the red, ringing fury. He could see Angel standing a couple feet away, his expression hard - wary. Next to him, Parker stood with wide eyes and next to her, Hardison looked sickened.
Hell of an audience.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and looked at the crumpled form of the demon at his feet. Its face was a mask of green blood that bubbled from its mouth and gills, but its chest was rising and falling. With a quick glance he took in four other demons lying motionless around him; the other three must have run when company had arrived.
The rage rose again, because, sure he'd been outnumbered and, sure, he'd been fighting for his life, but this wasn't him - this hadn't been him for a long time.
This was Lindsey, he told himself, undoing every single thing he'd clawed for the last three years.
"That wasn't you," Parker said firmly, as if she could read his thoughts. "We know that. Everyone knows that."
He had no idea what expression he was wearing, but he guessed it must have been something if even Parker was making her way carefully towards him like he was the one about to bolt.
"Yeah, it is," he whispered. Because, rule one: you didn't con yourself and, rule two, you didn't con your crew.
Lindsey laughed. The sound didn't belong; it jarred. When all eyes had turned his way, he grinned. "Man, if I knew the spell could do that, I would have set him off years ago. Guess I should have read the instruction manual, huh?"
"You made him do that?" Hardison looked like he couldn't decide between relief and revulsion.
Lindsey smirked. "Please, you think he could do that on his own? You said you wanted me to get in the fight."
With a growl, Eliot reached out, snake fast, but Lindsey jumped quickly back. "Uh uh." He shook a finger. "Do unto me as you'd have done unto you."
Hardison shot Lindsey a look of pure disgust, then beckoned to Eliot. "Leave it, man. He ain't worth it. Come on, you got demon on your … everywhere. I got wipes. And a hose." He paused and looked to Angel and Spike. "Can you …" He gestured to the bodies. "Is there some kind of demon ER?"
Spike looked up from where he'd been wandering around the fallen. "For this lot? Nah, they're nasty buggers, but loyal to their own: their mates will pick them up when we're gone. Speaking of." He nodded in the general direction of the vehicles.
For once, Eliot was fine with someone else calling the shots; he let Parker and Hardison shepherd him towards the van, and rubbed his fingers together to flake away the drying blood.
Lindsey followed, but stopped at the truck as the others passed it. No one looked back, which was more than fine with him. He wanted to be alone - he wanted time to figure out how he could be proud and hurt and angry all at the same time, let alone why.
He wanted the quiet.
So as he settled himself behind the wheel, he wasn't particularly surprised to hear Sophie's voice in his ear. "Thank you," she said simply.
None of the others still walking ahead reacted; he guessed he was the winner of his own private channel.
"I didn't do it for you," he muttered, venomously throwing her own words right back at her.
He tugged the bud out of his ear and threw it behind him.
Angel pushed open the door to Wes' office and slipped inside, not bothering to flick on the lights. The soft haze of dawn was already blurring the shadows and besides, Lorne could see in the dark as well as he did.
He didn't acknowledge the demon seated in the chair next to the desk, but it wasn't like Lorne was easy to miss – even if the neon-green suit wasn't a clue, the overpowering smell of alcohol kind of gave him away.
"I thought I'd find you here," Lorne opened quietly. "Do you even use your own office anymore?"
"Not since… No." Angel tugged off his coat and dropped it on the desk, but he didn't turn from the window. "And I think, technically? I found you."
"That only counts when you're looking, Angel-cakes."
Once they would have thrown that back and forth and, sure, Lorne would have won, because Lorne always won, but it would have been fun.
Angel shrugged. "Okay."
Lorne sighed heavily, just shy of dramatically. "I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that our new friends are – well, new friends. Friends with a deep and abiding affection for John Denver, might I add. You owe me."
"Took a little Leaving on a Jet Plane for the team, huh?"
"I wish – one more verse of Annie's Song and I wouldn't have been responsible for my actions."
There it was again, that easy lead in, back to the way things were. Lorne was offering it, Angel realized. Probably half as an apology for letting them walk into Jacobs' house blind, half because … because he was Lorne, and that was who Lorne was. Either way, neither of them deserved it.
Angel turned. "I'm sorry I asked you to kill Lindsey. I'm glad you didn't."
Lorne's eyebrows arched. "Quite the segue."
"I mean it."
"I know." Lorne's smile was genuine, but tired. "And I know you'd ask me to do it again, if you thought you had to."
There wasn't a lot of point in denying it; he would. Or at least, he would have. Before. "I'm not in the world saving business anymore," he temporized.
"I noticed." Lorne waved a hand towards the window. "So did the world."
"The world's doing okay," he denied gruffly.
"Like you can tell from up here." Lorne snorted. "I'm sorry about Anne, but she died doing what she thought was right. Do you really think she'd want-"
"They all die." Angel gritted out. "All of them. Except me." He looked down and softened his tone. "Lindsey said –"
"Okay, I'm going to stop you right there," Lorne said sharply, and held up a hand. "Any sentence that starts, 'Lindsey said' is an automatic loss in any argument."
Angel smiled faintly. "We're arguing?"
"We will be." Lorne's tone softened. "I can guess what he said and there's no point in telling you he's lying, because we both know he wasn't. That's where the poison is. So, let's call it truth by omission.
"I hate to break it to you, sweet cheeks, but people fight for the cause, not for you. You're just a tall, dark and brooding bonus."
"Thanks, I appreciate that," Angel said dryly. Worst thing was, he kind of did.
"You've had your little hiatus up here in the fortress of solitude, time to get back in the game."
"Isn't that what I'm doing?"
Lorne watched him unblinkingly, until Angel had to look away. He studied the top of Wes' old desk: archaic blotter still in place, pen set just so.
He looked back. "So, tell me about the club?"
Lorne's smile dazzled.
Come the morning, the mood in the offices was dark and tense, and there were only so many silently meaningful looks a man could take looking at; it was like living in an old Merchant Ivory flick. Spike had tried hunting up Ford to see if he wanted to share a bottle of something warming for breakfast, but the man was still out from his bottle of something warming for dinner.
Second choice had been Hardison, who'd somehow gotten his mitts on Mass Effect 3 and earned Spike's eternal devotion for at least a week, but Blondie had already kidnapped him.
So Spike had retreated to the almost never used kitchenette in the vague hope of finding a box of Weetabix bought sometime in the last decade.
Instead he found Lindsey, opening cupboards.
Spike watched, curiosity overriding intense dislike for the moment. When the same door was opened for the third time, he snapped like an old bone and wandered over, making sure to time his arrival for when Lindsey's head was buried.
"What are you doing?" He said loudly and was rewarded with a thud when his victim startled and banged his head.
After scuttling back into the open, Lindsey scowled up at him. "What does it look like I'm doing?" He blustered defensively. "What are you doing?"
Spike pulled himself up to sit on the counter top and idly kicked his legs against the side. "I'm not the one looking for the secret entrance to Narnia," he pointed out. "So I get to ask the questions."
Lindsey stood and crossed his arms. "I was trying to find a," he trailed into a mumble Spike wouldn't have been able to hear if he'd been human.
"A kettle?" He smirked. "Planning to poach us all in our beds?"
Lindsey rolled his eyes. "Yeah, you caught me. Another evil plan goes down to Team Hopeless."
Despite himself, Spike grinned. Then he remembered that he hated Lindsey with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns and schooled his expression into something more menacing. It didn't have much of an effect; Lindsey had already turned to open the next cupboard.
Where he recoiled, quickly slamming the door shut. "When did you people last clean? Jesus. I think something died in there. Then came back. Maybe died again." He cast about him and finally located a rag. He gingerly picked it up and, when it didn't immediately explode, held it under the faucet.
"This is actually disturbing," Spike said, actually disturbed. "You're all … domesticated."
"Eliot is domesticated," Lindsey corrected irritably as he wrung the cloth a little harder than strictly necessary. "He hates dirty kitchens, so now I hate dirty kitchens. It's been bugging me all night. This never gets mentioned again," he added, as he started to scrub down the counter. "Swear to God, I have a can of kerosene with your name on it."
"Bit hard to take death threats seriously from a man who's half a step off a frilly apron, to be honest. It was good effort, though. Liked the glare."
It was just as well – the glare deepened. Spike couldn't help himself. Not that he tried that hard. Or, okay, at all. "Aww, she's cute when she's angry."
Lindsey's eyes narrowed and his hand curled into a fist; Spike smirked and shook his head. "All right, don't get your knickers in a twist."
He opened the cabinet next to his head and dug an old travel kettle out from behind the debris of a few years. It had been Trish and Roger's, forgotten after some visit or other. It was dusty and small, but it probably still worked. He slid it along the newly clean counter towards Lindsey.
"Thanks," Lindsey said, almost experimentally. Fair enough, he hadn't had a lot of practice. He studied the kettle as if expecting it to attack and then looked up warily. "You know where I can get some tea?"
I'm not going to estimate when the next part will be out, because that's not working out so well for me, but I still swear the fic will get finished! It's not far off now, work just needs to understand it's less important than random crossovers *cough*
Thank you to Mitchy and Dragonfly for the beta-ing!
Wow this is later than I even imagined, but the next part is almost done and the last part /is/ done, so shouldn't be too much longer o_0
Promptly at noon, a bookish-looking young woman in an ill-fitting blouse met the Jacobs in the building foyer. She stumbled over her introduction and stammered her name and, despite Greta's warmest smile, was decidedly nervous as she led the Jacobs towards the Kilkenny Securities offices.
Greta wrinkled her nose at the mustiness in the air and eyed décor that appeared to have been abandoned some time in the late nineties - hardly encouraging.
Neal gave a short bark of laughter as they were led to a door whose crooked, cracked company sign had clearly been tacked over another. He rounded on their escort. "Is this some kind of joke?"
The mousy assistant's eyes widened behind her glasses and she shook her head rapidly. "No, not at all. Unless you'd like it to be," she added brightly, overly eager to please. "We at Kilkenny Securities make every effort to be as-"
"Never mind." Neal pushed passed her and opened the door.
Inside, the main office was as shabby as the reception, even worse lit and the smell of cheap cologne was almost over-powering. The desk was piled with papers and the stuffed drawers of the filing cabinets huddled around the walls were hanging open.
Kilkenny half-stood as Neal approached and offered his hand with an ingratiating smile. "Mr Jacobs, Mrs Jacobs - such a pleasure to meet you."
There was a Boston twang to his accent; it didn't quite fit with the powder-blue suit and slicked back hair, or the glint in his eyes. Neal took the man's measure in seconds: an operator, a dealer, a fixer, and not nearly as clever as he thought he was.
Neal smirked and shook the offered hand. "Setting up shop in the Wolfram and Hart offices," he opened. "Bold. Or stupid."
Kilkenny shrugged, his expression probably aiming for guileless, but finding a home somewhere around unctuous. "We wanted to make it easier for DelSec's previous clients to find our services. Please, please – sit. Coffee? Tea? Soda?" He didn't wait for their reply. "Marsha! Coffee!"
Greta took a seat, trying to ignore the stains on the leather. "Thank you for meeting us so quickly," she gushed after a beat, presenting the softer side of the couple while Neal remained sternly standing. It was an approach that tended to work well for them, in a variety of situations.
Kilkenny turned the oily smile her way. "Hey, no problem at all - we pride ourselves on a three hundred sixty-five, twenty-four seven service, and I can tell you, our small print is a whole lot bigger than DelSec's." His smile widened to a gold-accented grin. "Am I right?"
She didn't have the time to reply before he looked past her and yelled, "Marsha! Coffee!"
Marsha's face, unruly hair pinned haphazardly and eyes wide behind slightly crooked glasses, appeared around the office door. She ducked back when Jacobs impatiently waved her away.
"No," he said shortly. "Cut to the chase: what exactly do you think you can do for us?"
"Well, I can tell you that the thieves hitting your area are professionals, they're focused, they know what they're looking for - and we're pretty sure they have at least one shaman.
"Now, at this point most companies would try to sell you on a whole lot of measures that would basically turn your lovely home into a prime location prison, right?" Kilkenny leaned forward intently. "But you don't want that, we can - what the hell?"
Greta turned in her seat. In the doorway, a woman stood palely swaying, hand gripping the doorjamb tightly. Her cheeks were lined with the salt of dried tears and mascara and her breath came in short, fast gasps. "Mr Kilkenny, please, you have to help me!"
Kilkenny swallowed and peered around her. "Uh, Marsha? Marsha?"
Marsha appeared again and put a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder. "Come with me, Mrs Morgan."
The woman flung herself forward, staggering to the desk and holding it as if it were the only thing keeping her from her knees. "No, please, you've got to help me."
Greta shrank back in her seat while Kilkenny folded his arms and shook his head. "I tried to help you, you didn't want that help. Remember? 'Portals are too expensive.'" He darted an embarrassed glance at the Jacobs. "I'm really sorry about this. Uh - Marsha? Why don't you get Mrs Morgan a-"
"It was so fast," the woman sobbed. "And, and Michael is in the hospital - they just played with him." She drew a ragged breath. "The doctors don't think he's going to make it. And I'm sure I'm being followed."
Her wailing ratcheted up and Kilkenny looked up to his assistant. "Okay, Marsha, get Lillian a glass of water and call her a cab to the hospital, she should be with her husband. You know. While she can."
This time the woman didn't throw off the hands that led her out, her soft sobs sounded broken and lost. Kilkenny sat again with a "what can you do?" expression of plastic regret.
The Jacobs spoke together. "What's the portal option?"
Kilkenny's eyes narrowed. "Eh, it may be a little beyond what you're looking for – we're talking top-tier secure dimensional holding. Fully accessible through your own viewing room, security keyed both to your DNA and your unique psychic aura. It's impossible to bypass."
Neal nodded. "How quickly can it be set up?"
"Well, it's just a matter of transport and of course our vehicles are fully equipped to handle whatever's needed, but the cost is quite prohibitive and honestly…"
"Cost is immaterial. When can you start?"
Kilkenny pulled the calendar on his desk closer and ran his eye over it. He looked back up. "How's August?"
"August? To hell with that."
"I'm already pushing you to the head of the queue because of your position as valued customers of our good associates Wolfram and Hart-"
Neal smirked. "Don't even try it - your man already made it clear there's no love lost." He pressed on when Kilkenny flinched. "I bet they don't even know you're poaching, do they?"
"Hey, now, let's not get pejorative, here."
"Tomorrow, or I'm making some calls."
Neal straighened and Greta stood to join him. She rested a hand on his arm. "Neal, I'm sure they'll help us in every way they can, there's no need to be unreasonable." She smiled kindly. "This week?"
"This week," Kilkenny repeated weakly.
"Payment after installation." Jacobs leaned over the desk, hands gripping the edge. "Get it done."
Kilkenny cringed in his chair and swallowed. "Within the week," he agreed.
Once the Jacobs and their amateur double-act had swept out, Nate stayed at the desk, idly toying with the Newtonian Cradle its previous occupant had left behind. The metal balls clicked back and forth as Sophie walked in, swiping at her face with a wetted tissue.
She arranged herself in the chair Greta had vacated. "Well, they're a piece of work. We barely had to put down any hints at all."
Nate made a non-committal sound as he slipped his ear bud back in. "Illyria, you're back with Lorne. Angel, Spike, follow them. Make them work to see you. Uh, please," he added.
"Since you asked so nicely, and all."
Nate could actually hear Spike's smirk.
Sophie's eyebrows rose. "We never get a please. Or a thank you, actually."
"Yeah, well, you can't eat me," he pointed out.
"We could try," came Parker's voice. "Eliot could fry you. You'd taste like duck."
"Duck?" Sophie looked thoughtful for a moment and then shook her head. "No, something … pickled."
Nate ignored them. Dignity, always dignity. "Hardison, keep track of Angel and Spike. Parker, go be visible in the neighborhood for when the Jacobs get back; stay off the grounds - no sight seeing and definitely no souvenirs. Gunn, we're moving you to wall man for today - stay mobile and be ready if anyone calls in."
"Do I have to wear a tie?"
"You do not."
"Then you got it."
"And us?" Eliot or possibly McDonald sounded rough; so Eliot, Nate guessed.
"You two are staying indoors today - we can't risk another incident. Besides, you need time to-"
"I'm fine," Eliot growled.
"To work on the extraction plan," Nate finished evenly. "We'll need it by end of play today. Sophie and I'll stay here and wait for their call."
There was no reply; he stood and made a shooing motion towards the door. "Okay, moving on."
As the wheels stopped screeching in complaint, and the angry blaring of horns faded behind them, Spike righted himself. "Ford said to make them work for it, remember?"
Angel ground his teeth and took a firmer grip on the wheel. "Do you want to do this?"
"Great. I'll just pull over - we'll swap sides. It's LA, who even notices people bursting into flame any more?"
"Touchy." Spike narrowed his eyes and nodded to the car ahead. "They're making a left."
"I can see that, thanks. Signals - some people actually use them."
"No. I mean, why are they making a left? They're over on Bellagio, yeah?"
"They're checking to see if they're being tailed." Angel drummed his fingers on the wheel. "Doesn't mean they've definitely seen us."
"Trust me, mate - they saw us. If they didn't, they'll probably be listening to the traffic report in a couple of minutes."
Angel glanced in his side mirror to check for suicidal moped drivers - this time - and then started to drift into the lane behind them. "Let's make sure."
"We're pretty sure they saw you. And, hey, so did Airwatch America, so I hope you waved." Hardison's voice sounded muffled and there was a crunching sound over the comms. "Bring it on back, Team Edward."
"That better not be my Weetabix you're eating," Spike growled.
"Mmph?" There was a thick swallowing sound. "Eating? I'm not eating. Hey, wait; is that Lindsey McDonald I see? I believe it is and, yes, he does seem to be carrying some kind of cereal box. Are there no depths that man will not sink to?"
"You're just lucky I have a soul."
There was a slurping noise. "And you're lucky I can hack traffic cameras."
When the Jacobs' car made its next turn, Angel let it go. "We done?"
"Yeah, it's all on Lorne now."
Lorne wasn't so much sitting as reclining in the over-stuffed armchair that he'd been shown to, with repeated assurances that today - definitely today - he'd be seen.
It was a new room, deeper into the lair and even more lushly decorated than the one he'd been entertained in previously. The thick red carpet was covered with soft rugs and velvet drapes hung across the walls. The air smelled faintly of cinnamon and vanilla and a glass of Merlot had been pressed into his hand as soon as he'd arrived.
He could get used to this. Not the actual crime, of course, but the trappings had their appeal.
Illyria was a silent presence standing next to his chair; her expression was impassive and her eyes cold, and whenever anyone scurried by they shot her - and by extension Lorne - nervous looks.
Really, really used to this.
He twisted in the ridiculously comfortable chair. "You know, I could get," he started.
"No," Illyria said shortly. "I enjoy their fear, but not my boredom. This will not continue beyond its purpose."
He turned back and sighed wistfully. "Top of the world, Ma."
"This is not the top of the world," she said implacably. "And your mother cannot hear you."
"And we can all be grateful for that small mercy, I'm sure."
A robed figure appeared at the doorway and bowed, though not as deeply as their greeter had: they were moving up in the world. "You will be seen now'k."
When Lorne smiled and began to stand, the figure shook his head. "No. You will be seen now'k."
"Oh. Good. Great. Certainly looking forward to being … seen." Lorne glanced up at Illyria, who seemed unperturbed, but her expression had tightened. And didn't that bode well?
He settled himself back in his chair; a thin orange light began to wash through the room.
When Angel finally made it back to Wes' office, the city was creeping its way down towards dusk and someone was waiting on the couch again.
Lorne had been welcome, Lindsey really wasn't. Especially when it smelled like he'd spent his day of enforced confinement with a bottle of sour whiskey.
Angel pointed to the door. "Out."
Lindsey stayed where he was; his head rolled back against the chair and he smirked. "Objection."
Briefly, Angel considered picking him up and throwing him out, pretty sure Eliot would understand. It was tempting, but less tempting than it would have been yesterday.
Maybe he was growing as a person. Great. "What do you want, Lindsey?"
There was hesitation; apparently Lindsey hadn't actually expected to get this far. His expression firmed almost defiantly. "You gave everyone else a second chance, never even gave me one. Why was that?"
Angel turned abruptly away. "Why do you think?"
"I figured you knew, somehow." Lindsey shrugged. "Knew it would never be worth it, so you didn't try. That right?"
If Lindsey had been angry, or demanding - or anything but quiet and curious and weirdly hopeful and really, really drunk - Angel would have thrown an insult in his general direction and gone.
He should never, ever have asked Eliot what had really happened, because now it felt like this wasn't just Lindsey asking, it was Eliot too. And Eliot at least deserved benefit of the doubt.
"Because you were proof I couldn't win," he admitted quietly. "I could fight vampires, and demons, and prophecy, and dragons, but I couldn't fight human nature. You - you and Lilah - threw that in my face every damn time."
Lindsey stared blankly; whatever he had been expecting, this wasn't it. "What?"
"Everyone else, the dark found them. Nothing except your own ambition made you what you are." Angel rubbed a hand over his eyes; he didn't need to sleep and he was still so damn tired. "I thought."
Lindsey's expression shuttered abruptly. "Eliot told you."
"Some of it." Wolfram and Hart had found a smart, angry, desperate kid - a little weak, a lot hungry - and promised him he'd get through any door he wanted; Lindsey had never stood a chance.
Now Lindsey was angry; his eyes blazed with it, but he didn't move. "He had no right. And you - you don't get to feel sorry for me. I knew what I was doing, I made my own choices and I don't regret any of them. You know what? You were right not to try."
"Yeah, well, glad that's clear," Angel said dryly, and didn't bother to point out that the esteemed counsellor had argued himself in a circle. From Lindsey's unguardedly rueful expression, he was already well aware.
Angel dropped onto the other end of the couch. "I don't know if I could have helped you, but I should have tried. So, I'm sorry. For that. Everything else you had coming. A lot."
Lindsey watched him with fresh wariness.
That seemed a little unfair; Angel hadn't threatened the guy for … at least hours. "What now?"
"Last time you apologized, you beat me up and stole my truck."
"Borrowed." Angel frowned. "And you hit me first. With the truck."
"Stop livin' in the past, man - it ain't healthy." Teeth flashed in a wicked, but for once not malicious grin.
"You're starting to sound like him," Angel said. Then because he was curious, and because for once they weren't circling each other like wolves, he asked, "What's it like?"
To his faint surprise the question didn't set Lindsey off again.
"History," he said quietly. "Eliot and me, we didn't used to be so different." His expression went somewhere Angel couldn't follow. "Soon as the spell's broken, I'll be back."
"So that's something to look forward to." The amusement faded as he remembered exactly who was sitting on his couch - exactly what that man had done. "When it's broken, you go. Understood?"
Lindsey laughed under his breath. "Really? Because I was looking at some nice beach-front-"
Angel turned to give him the full force of an entirely sincere glare. "Understood?"
Lindsey snorted. "Like I'd want to stay." He hauled himself upright and weaved towards the door.
Someday, Angel thought, someone would remember that they couldn't lie to a vampire.
Eliot lay along the couch he'd claimed as a bed and stared up at the ceiling. He didn't bother to wonder why it was spinning; he could take a wild guess. Drinking wasn't usually something he did until he was ready to fall down, but Lindsey hadn't consulted him and now the world had turned soft and hazy and - swear to God - he was going to kill his brother just as soon as he could remember how knees worked.
On the plus side, he grudgingly admitted, the aches and pains still lingering from the fight earlier were floating just past the numbness where he didn't care any more. Beat ice. He should have healed up a while back, but it looked like that was turning on them now too. So that was awesome.
A shadow loomed over him. "Hey, man. You okay?" Hardison fell more or less into focus. He was carrying something that Eliot couldn't make out.
"I look okay?" Eliot tried for a growl, but missed by a mile if Hardison's grin was any indication.
"You look kind of mellow, actually. And that's a little freaky, but I can roll with it. Maybe …" Hardison trailed away.
"Nothing." Hardison shifted uneasily. "Hey, I bet they got hockey. You want hockey?"
"No, I don't want…" Now Hardison was looking even more nervous. "What?"
"Okay, you know what? Embrace that mellow. How do you feel about the soothing sounds of rain? Or Koi. Koi are calm as hell - three hundred apps can't be wrong."
Eliot gave up trying to follow him and waved at the set. "Put the damn game on."
"Yeah, no, I changed my mind. Have you even watched hockey? It's like Call of Duty on ice - only they're throwing unexploded seafood all up in everything and it's nasty. No, I got the thing." Eliot had a moment's warning, enough to pull his legs up, managing fast if not coordinated as Hardison dropped heavily onto the couch and pressed a button on the remote.
There were a series of electronic whirs and then, "Play ze movie, ja? Ja, play!"
Eliot craned his head up just enough to see some kind of animated … "Is that a cartoon?"
"You're a cultural wasteland and I take it as my solemn duty – my vocation ifyou will - to improve your mind. There's a grumpy ogre, you'll love it."
Music began to swell and Eliot closed his eyes as the narration picked up. He was only dimly aware when Parker unceremoniously joined them with a flying leap that Hardison took the brunt of, from the pained wheezing.
Some time later, Eliot opened his eyes to see Sophie perched on the edge of the couch, chin propped on her palm, the shifting colors from the movie flickering across her skin. When he opened his eyes again, she was slumped against a snoring Hardison, her mouth open, making the soft catching, popping sound she denied to the point of violence. Parker's cheek was pressed against Eliot's shoulder, her breath warm and slow on his neck. Silent. Always.
The sense of movement across the room would normally have made him tense, but between the combined weight of what seemed to be most of his freaking crew - he knew they had their own beds, dammit - and the unwillingly borrowed whiskey, he couldn't move.
Lindsey was stood in the doorway and suddenly Eliot remembered how it had been when the weather was cold and it was all them kids, piled together in one bed, just trying to keep warm.
From Lindsey's expression, so did he.
Hell, maybe it was his memory.
But Eliot couldn't make it okay for him to come closer, couldn't tell him to leave either, and they were stuck staring at each other, caught and stupid until, like some lounge-singing angel of mercy, Lorne took it out of their hands. The demon slung a companionable arm around Lindsey's shoulder and pulled him back and away towards the kitchenette.
Eliot closed his eyes and, Parker's fingers twisting gently in his hair, slept.
Under the strip lights of the kitchenette, Lindsey hunched over his coffee and concentrated on trying to see just the one mug. He'd settle for one and a half. Lorne hummed to himself as he made a tall glass of something orange. Or green. Lindsey blinked and the bubbling liquid turned purple. He decided he didn't want to know; it smelled like lilacs. "So what happened?"
Lorne glanced back over his shoulder. "In the beginning was the High C … want to be a little more specific there, Oliver?" Off Lindsey's incomprehension, he rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "The magnificent Oliver Reed. Although he could hold his liquor, unlike some people I could mention."
"Whatever." Lindsey sipped the hot coffee, trying not to feel kind of proud he had enough coordination to swallow. "What happened with you and Team Angel? I thought you guys were tight."
Lorne picked up his glass of whatever the hell it was and took the seat opposite. "Why do you care?"
"I don't," Lindsey denied quickly. "Just making conversation. Or maybe it's part of some plan to … to do something. Something evil," he finished lamely.
"It might help if you throw in a mwah hah or two." Lorne waited expectantly.
Lindsey shook his head. "Yeah, that's not going to happen."
"And that's a pity. You know, I always thought you'd make a good Bond villain."
"Not really a cat person. So what was the Yoko? Shooting me? 'Cause saying 'sorry you shot me' is where I draw the line on this whole white hat rodeo."
"Well, I won't say that didn't move things along, but when it comes down to it, I'm just not the hero type."
Lindsey looked doubtful; Lorne ignored him. "By the time I got past it, Angel had locked himself up here and honestly, I didn't have it in me to wave my pom-poms one more time. Anne," he added before Lindsey asked the obvious question. "Anne was his last straw."
Lindsey searched his memory. "Ran a shelter downtown? We didn't think she was a player."
Lorne shook his head. "She wasn't, but she was the hero type. After it all went to hell, literally, she wanted to help. A vampire snapped her neck on her second or third patrol." Lorne smiled faintly. "No big conspiracy, no prophecy, no apocalypse. Just half a second while no one's watching and it's goodnight, Gracie. I heard about it from a Fer'lli demon with a real thing for Liza Minnelli." He waved a careless hand. "Who doesn't?"
"You liked her," Lindsey guessed, nothing better to say.
"I didn't know her, not really. But for me it was a good excuse not to talk to Angel, and for Angel it was a good excuse to give up. Again. The others do what they can, bless them, but …"
"But, they're not Angel," Lindsey finished for him.
Once the fact that Angel was Angel had been fuel for a burning rage that Lindsey had found it impossible to see past. Now it was just fact: sky was blue, grass was green and Angel was Angel.
Except when he wasn't.
Lindsey finished his coffee and looked blearily around - not quite sober, but nowhere near drunk enough any more. He stared over Lorne's shoulder and spoke quickly, as if he could rush the words out under the wire. "You're a good guy, Lorne. I'm sorry you were the one he sent. Son of a bitch should have done it himself."
He bolted before Lorne could answer, leaving the demon blinking after him.
A low, throaty laugh filled the silence in Lindsey's wake. Lorne turned to see Sophie lounging in the other doorway, so artfully rumpled he had to pause for a moment to admire the presentation.
"Well, color me impressed, you've done quite the number on him," he said after a beat, one professional to another.
Sophie eyed him as she crossed over to the coffee machine: weighing him with the same courtesy. "Thank you," she said simply, accepting the compliment. "Although I can hardly take all the credit."
"But what's in it for you?"
She adopted an expression half way between affronted and pious, not even trying for believability. "Goodness is its own reward, or so they keep insisting."
"You like him."
She smiled thinly. "I like Eliot."
"And we can't choose our family." He swirled the last of his drink around his glass, gathering the foam. "Trust me - I tried to trade my brother for a plank of wood when he was still an egg. I think that was the only time mother said she was proud of me."
"Oh, no." Sophie shook her head quickly. "We're just colleagues, not family."
"With that accent, I'd never have known."
Sophie was too refined to stick her tongue out at him, but she hummed a few off-key notes from The Sound of Music that relayed her intent quite neatly. Filling her mug, she changed the subject. "How's the life of the shadowy underworld figure going?"
He gave a heart-felt groan. "One more caviar aperitif and I'll never be able to look a sturgeon in the eye again."
"Really?" She didn't look entirely convinced.
"Are you kidding?" He grinned widely. "Sturgeon? Please, who needs their approval? It's amazing - I'm seriously considering a change of careers. The suits alone."
"Well if you ever feel like a change of scenery, we're not exactly the criminal masterminds we used to be, but I'm sure we'd always have room for a demonic crime boss. And I'd finally have someone to go shopping with. So did they bite?"
"They bit and they bit hard. I was going to tell your glorious leader, but he had a prior engagement with a bottle of whiskey."
"Mmm, there's a lot of that going around." Her eyes flickered in the direction Lindsey had taken. "But Nate's not always like this, you know," she followed quickly. "He's - it's under control. I think he's just having a bit of trouble adjusting."
Before Lorne could reply, there was a plaintive groan from the main room. Sophie scooped up the mug of coffee and a couple of Tylenol from the cabinet. "Back to the trenches, then."
Thank you to dragonfly and mitchy for the beta-ing!
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.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Sophie, Angel and Spike were waiting just inside the main loading area of the warehouse when Hardison drove Lucille’s rented half-sister through the massive doors. Nate opened his window and leaned out; no one seemed to be screaming, nothing was on fire and the Elo’k were already there.
In fact, he realized, the crates were empty and one of the trucks was ... glowing.
He looked askance at Sophie as she walked towards him.
“They work fast,” she said. “Most of the vessels have been put the some kind of stasis ward, thing. They explained, honestly I didn’t really follow. Apparently, it’s quite technical.”
“Huh.” Nate pursed his lips and nodded. “Okay. Well, I guess they can take it from here. Kind of nice to have someone else do the break down.”
Her elbow nudged him in the ribs. “You never do the break down.”
“Not the point.”
They watched as the Elo’k made the remaining vessels safe and then waved them off, after Kraddof’s assurance that every item would be returned to its rightful owner. For a price, of course - there was always a price.
That was what made Nate inclined to believe him. Not that his opinion had mattered much after Kraddof had, with some embarrassment, hummed a few bars of Rocky Mountain High to let Lorne verify there would be no double-cross.
They’d been left in an empty warehouse with the last remaining vessel.
Now, Lindsey’s fingers closed around a plain, slightly battered pocket watch and his jaw tightened. Nate could see that a decision was being made, quickly and painfully; he glanced around. Sophie’s eyes were narrowed intently and Lorne was looking at the floor. It was hard to tell, but Nate thought he looked a little paler than usual.
“Maybe we should,“ Nate started, stepping forward.
He was cut off as Lindsey shoved the watch at his brother. “You do it.”
Eliot reached out slowly and took it. “You used this?” The question was almost toneless, but Nate thought he could smell a storm.
“The vessel had to mean something to both of us.” Lindsey sounded almost stilted. “I figured he wouldn’t mind.”
“Figured he wouldn’t mind,” Eliot repeated flatly. His voice hardened, but the storm passed. “Does it have to be broken?”
“No.” Lindsey almost recoiled. “You just have to open it.”
So he could lie, and scheme, and kill, but apparently he firmly drew the line at the destruction of a 10-dollar timepiece.
Eliot’s mouth thinned warily. “Then it’s over - I’m good, you’re good, we’re done?”
Lindsey stared at the watch like he expected it to bite. “Just do it.”
Eliot grabbed him by the front of his shirt and jerked him closer. “For once in your goddamn life, tell the truth. What happens when this opens?”
Lindsey’s eyes darted to Lorne. Without releasing him, Eliot followed his gaze. “What happens?” He asked the demon more calmly.
Lorne winced. “Whoever opens it is good, whoever doesn’t, not so much.”
Gunn shook his head in disgust. “So if it hadn’t gone missing, you just call time and some place a thousand miles away, your brother drops dead? Nice, McDonald.”
Lindsey kept his attention on Eliot. “Open it,” he insisted hoarsely. “He’s right, I would have done it.”
“No.” Eliot released him abruptly and took a step back. “Ain’t happening.”
Parker spoke slowly into the heavy silence. “What if neither of them opened it? I could open it, it doesn’t know me - it might get confused.”
Lorne considered her and then regretfully shook his head. “I have no idea. Chances are they’d both die and probably you too.”
“Do you want me to sing? I could sing. I know songs.”
“There’s things I can’t see and the spell was never meant to let both survive, I’m sorry, Pumpkin.”
Eliot glared at him. “You knew what would happen and you were just gonna let him do it?”
“I said he wouldn’t be saving any orphaned puppies any time soon - I don’t think you qualify,” Lorne said defensively and then his voice softened. “It’s his choice to make, kiddo.”
Eliot looked back to Lindsey. “How long do we have?” he demanded. “When does the time on this thing run down?”
“Day, maybe.” Lindsey glanced at Nate and managed a smirk. “Give or take a day or two.”
There were any number of questions and accusations just waiting for Eliot to throw, and if Nate were in his place, he couldn’t honestly say he wouldn’t be tossing in one or two, but the other man skipped to the finale. “You die, where are you going?”
Lindsey flinched, then tried to cover with a fast grin that just looked sickly. “I don’t know. Probably some Wolfram and Hart sponsored Hell.” He rubbed at his chest, then realized what he was doing and dropped his hand.
Nate looked back to the van. “Hardison, I think we’ve hit Plan M.”
Hardison swallowed, but nodded. “One crash cart and some heartfelt prayer time coming up.”
“Wait. What if they both open it?” Gunn looked around. “Think about it. The spell works by bouncing the death, right? It wouldn’t be able to ground.”
“It could kill both of them,” Angel said slowly, but more like he was testing the theory than discarding it. “Lorne?”
“Like I said, this is out of my league. But if they’re going to try it, the rest of us should probably stand back. Way back.”
“Double or nothing.” Eliot smiled faintly at Lindsey. “Make the old man proud, huh?”
Lindsey shook his head in disbelief. “C’mon, man. Open the watch, go live your life.”
“Not happening,” Eliot said flatly.
“Eliot…” Nate began, but wasn’t sure exactly where to go next.
“Get out of here.” Eliot nodded towards the warehouse door. “I got this.”
“Eliot,” Sophie said, not even trying for more words, but managing to inject just about all her worry and concern into the one.
“I know.” An almost shy smile appeared. “I know. Go.”
Parker flung herself forward, hugged Eliot and - to his apparent shock - Lindsey and then ran quickly for the door. Sophie hesitated and then followed, pulling Hardison with her.
“For morale, man!” He called miserably, tapping a fist against his chest as he was dragged away. “Morale!”
After a muttered ‘good luck’ to Eliot, Angel and his crew trailed silently in their wake.
Lorne lingered, apparently having a mini-battle with himself. Finally, he won. Or lost. It really wasn’t clear. “Lindsey, if you make it, don’t run off without saying goodbye, okay?”
Lindsey looked at him blankly. “Why, you want to shoot me again?”
“I didn’t want to do it the first time.” Lorne smiled sadly as he turned away. “Get it done, cowboy.”
Nate stood where he was, desperately searching for one more angle, one more play. Plan Z remained stubbornly out of his reach. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll be…” He gestured towards the door. “It’s been…” He glanced between them and then straightened. “Good luck,” he finished.
“One show only, Nate.” Eliot nodded towards the door. “No encores.”
Nate nodded sharply and pulled the heavy door shut after him as he left.
When he’d gone, Lindsey made one last attempt. “You don’t have to do this.”
Eliot took a step closer, reaching for his hand. “Yeah, I do.”
Tugging back against the pull, Lindsey’s hand stayed exactly where it was. “I don’t want you to do this.”
Lindsey’s mouth opened and then closed; he looked down.
Eliot smiled tightly. “Because if this goes bad, you’re not sure you can live with it. Because maybe it’ll be a few days before you manage to weasel out a way it’s all okay.”
Yeah, well. “Frank always said I wasn’t right,” he muttered.
“Frank was an asshole.”
Lindsey shrugged. “Doesn’t mean he was wrong.”
Eliot grunted and pulled again with a determined expression that said Lindsey was giving his hand, whether he liked it or not.
Lindsey slipped from his grip and skipped back a step, speaking quickly. “All the reasons I did it, they’re the reasons I shouldn’t have: because it was my problem, because you’re my brother. Because I could. And I’m sorry, okay? And you can believe what the hell you want, but…”
He trailed away awkwardly and then shook his head, giving up. “You know what? Doesn’t even matter - we’re both dead, because you’re an idiot who can’t even open a damn watch.”
Eliot pulled up short, not hiding his surprise. He studied Lindsey for a long moment whilst Lindsey looked defiantly back, and then he smiled. “Hey, Lin,” he said offhandedly. “How you been?”
Startled, Lindsey huffed a laugh. “Okay. Travelled - met some interesting people. Kinda in-between jobs right now. You?”
“Got a crew, they’re good people. Don’t tell them I said that.”
“Secret’s safe.” Lindsey put his hand the other side of the watch, fingertip opposite Eliot’s on the release. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to think twenty years back: to smile, and mean it. He looked up. “Hey, Eli. You want to go catch a game? Maybe get a few beers in?”
Eliot nodded agreeably. “Sure, let’s do it.”
The watch clicked softly as it opened.
Lorne looked up sharply. “It’s done.”
Sophie pressed her hand tightly over her mouth and spun to put her back to the door.
Hardison raised his head and started to stand, expression grim. Nate dropped a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back. “I’ll do it.”
“No. I’ll do it.” Parker stood in the way; her chin lifted. “He’d do it for me.”
Without waiting for a reply she turned and jogged towards the warehouse; unsure whether he should, Nate stayed where he was. She tugged the door open and disappeared inside without any particular expression and no hesitation. Still with a hand on Hardison’s shoulder, Nate pulled Sophie into a loose, one-armed hug, and looked up.
You owe this, he prayed. So pay up, you son of a bitch.
Parker hit the warehouse door so hard it slammed back against the corrugated iron, kept running at full speed and threw herself at the huddle of Nate, Sophie and Hardison.
Some of Hardison’s training with Eliot paid off - he managed to catch her before they all went over the back of the crate.
It took Nate a moment to be sure that she was laughing, not crying; he looked quickly back to the warehouse door, to see two figures standing at the edge of the dark interior.
Eliot looked around the ring of concerned faces and then smirked, trying to hide a grin - badly. “You think something like that would take me,” he managed before he staggered back under the sudden combined weight of hacker, grifter and thief.
Eliot grumbled and Eliot bitched, but he didn’t push them away.
Lindsey edged his way around the pile, nodded to Nate and made his way towards the van.
Sophie found him sitting against the wheel, hands hanging between his knees and expression … well, she assumed he was trying for stoic, but it really wasn’t working for him. He was too like Eliot: their eyes always gave them away. She sat next to him and stretched her legs out in front of her, crossed neatly at the ankles.
She watched as he picked at the leather bracelet around his wrist. It was cracked and old, and probably wouldn’t stand for much more abuse; she closed her fingers gently around his wrist to stop him, left them there when he didn’t pull away. “Where will you go?”
He shrugged. “Alaska.”
“No.” He rolled his eyes, but there was no bite in his tone.
“You know, Boston’s quite nice. I mean, it took me a while to get used to it, but …”
Lindsey shook his head emphatically. “The best thing I can do for Eliot is leave him the hell alone. I’m not like him and now the spell’s broken, pretty soon I’m …” He stuttered to a stop, staring at the patch of ground at his feet. “No.”
Those eyes. She knew Nate had assumed she was just that good – well, all right, she was - but Lindsey had been an easy mark after so long with Eliot. She could see the question under the flat statement, practically read the words he wanted her to say so badly, even if he didn’t even know it.
So she said them. “Not if you decide not to. Eliot wasn’t like Eliot until … until us, really. That’s what we do for each other. None of us are saints. It’s hard, but we manage. More or less. If you’ve let Parker within ten feet of you, you might want to check your pockets.”
“You saying I should get a crew?” He looked somewhat less than sold. “Run around like some kind of Robin Hood?”
“I think you already have one.” She glanced over to where Angel, Gunn, Spike and Illyria stood, talking to her … oh, fine. Her family. Saying their goodbyes, good lucks, see you again, but not too soons.
He turned to follow her gaze and laughed. “Them? No way.”
Her nose wrinkled as the mental image won. “Well it helps if you don’t picture them in green tights and little hats. What are you scared of?”
“I’m not scared of anything,” he said quickly, but the flash of heat faded and took the denial with it. “Sometimes there isn’t a way back,” he added, subdued.
“Sometimes there is. Sometimes. What’s the harm in trying?”
“They don’t want me around. They know me,” he objected, but didn’t have the certainty now. The seed was there, she just had to trust it would grow.
“You fight so hard for all the wrong things.” She dropped a kiss on his cheek, startling him, just as she had Eliot the first time she’d displayed affection. “Take care of yourself, Lindsey.”
As she stood, she squeezed his wrist gently and then, finally, let him go.
On the drive to the airport, Parker sat sideways in the front passenger seat, knees pulled up to her chin and hair tangled around the seatbelt. “Does this mean Eliot isn’t Batman now?”
At the wheel, Hardison glanced at her. “I - what? That was between us, Parker.”
Eliot leaned in from behind them. “I’m what now?”
Hardison avoided looking at him in the rear-view. “I may, sometimes, on rare occasions, have called you the goddam Batman. Because you had all that Fu going on. And there was that time you swooped, man. You swooped.”
Eliot sat back. “I still have all that Fu going on. And I don’t swoop. Well, there was that -- I almost never swoop.”
Parker twisted until she was kneeling, chin propped on the backrest. “Yeah, but you can die now.” Her mouth pinched unhappily. “So don’t die, okay?”
“That thing saved my life twice, and both times were before I ever worked with any of you,” Eliot said flatly. “So can we stop the morbid-ass death talk?”
“We can do that,” Hardison agreed.
Parker turned back to investigating the glove compartment; Eliot wasn’t sure if she was taking something or leaving it and was even less sure he wanted to know. She seemed reassured and he’d call that a win.
When he settled back; Nate was studying him. “What?”
“Both times, huh?”
Great. He fixed Nate with his best glare. “You want dates?” He demanded.
“No. No, I really don’t.” Nate held his hands up, and then moved them through the air like a confused sculptor. “Look, about Lindsey …” He trailed away; apparently he had no idea what to say about Lindsey, and neither did his hands.
This was usually Sophie’s area, but she didn’t seem inclined to pitch in with whatever platitudes were appropriate to bring out, which Eliot was grateful for. And he doubted Hallmark made an ‘I’m sorry you have an evil twin’ greeting card, so he was pretty confident Hardison wouldn’t be bringing it up any time soon either.
He looked away, staring at the side of the van while he painstakingly put the words he needed together. When he had some he could live with, he looked back and spoke slowly; it still felt disjointed. “Lin ran into a burning house when we were kids and the way I saw it, he never came out. And I lived with that. Now I think, maybe I’ll see him again, you know? Maybe. That’s all I got.”
“I think you will.” Sophie looked between them. “Sorry, it’s a bit difficult not to eavesdrop in the back of a really cramped van.”
“Yeah, you miss Lucille now,” Hardison called from the front.
“Whatever.” Eliot settled himself more comfortably. After a beat, he asked, “Why?”
She gave a small smile and a fluid shrug. “Just a feeling.”
Gunn and Spike were still on patrol and Illyria didn’t make a sound when she walked, so Angel didn’t have to take too many guesses who’d made their way into the building, spent ten minutes pacing in the lobby and then finally made a decision.
Lindsey had spent another five minutes in the hallway outside; he’d called the elevator back three times. Angel stayed in Wes’ office, at the window, watching the sun sink behind the city.
When the door creaked open, he turned unhurriedly.
Lindsey was standing against the jamb, one hand gripping it tightly. “I need your help.” His mouth twisted into a bitter little smile. “Déjà vu, huh?”
“If we follow the script, this is the part where I threaten you and you lie for a while.” Angel crossed his arms and leaned back against the window. “Then I tell you not wanting to hurt kids isn’t the same as changing and you ask me if dying will prove anything.”
Lindsey took a wary half step into the room. “Does it?”
“Not being able to kill your own brother doesn’t make you a saint.”
“Last time - before - I told you I wanted out.” He looked down, then up again, eyes intent. “Now I want in. I get that you don’t trust me, and you shouldn’t trust me. Hell, I don’t trust me. And I still got all these demons on my tail …”
“So far, I’m not seeing any particular reason not to tell you to get the hell out of my city.”
“Yeah, this was a bad idea.”
Angel jerked his head towards the door. “Get the hell out of my city.”
Lindsey turned, took a step and then stopped. He took a long breath and then spun back. “No.”
“Leave before I throw you out a window.” Angel straightened for emphasis, but he stayed where he was, even though he was achingly tempted to do it - to call the Lindsey McDonald chapter well and truly closed with a hundred foot drop and a shower of shattered glass.
With a determined expression, Lindsey stalked stiffly forward until he wasn’t much more than a foot away. “I need your help and if you don’t give me your help, we both know how this ends.” He jabbed a finger, riding on anger, confusion and the desperate kind of tenacity. “So if you won’t do it, you finish what you started. You get it done like you should’ve.”
So many lines to read between, but Angel wasn’t in the mood; besides, he’d been invited. Somewhere between impulse and decision, he moved. His fingers found a familiar grasp around the other man’s neck and he squeezed.
Lindsey’s hands clawed desperately, struggling before his brain caught up and they stilled, dropped back to his sides. When his chest began to hitch, they rose again. Dropped again. Still fighting, still trying to win, but punching the other way.
He didn’t close his eyes and Angel watched as they began to glaze, pupils blown wide as they desperately held out for light. When the lids began to flutter and the pulse under his fingers skipped fast and light, he grimaced and let Lindsey fall, gasping and choking to the floor.
When he could, Lindsey looked up, confused. “What the hell?” he rasped.
“After patrol, Gunn needs to eat and Spike and Illyria like to eat and the only thing I can do is eggs,” Angel explained. Well, kind of explained - watching Lindsey attempting to make sense of uneven ground was fun.
Lindsey pulled himself up to an unsteady crouch. “Yeah, I can cook.” His voice was still rough; he rubbed at his throat. “Clean, sew, whistle while I work.”
“Can you type?”
“Sixty words a minute.” He still looked dazed; he focused. “You’re hiring me to make breakfast and take memos?”
“I’m not hiring you at all yet - this is the interview.” Angel smiled offensively brightly, showing just a little too much tooth. “Describe your work ethic.”
“Borderline psychotic. And I don’t make coffee.”
“Yeah, you do.”
Lindsey braced his hands on the desk and hauled himself to his feet. “Fine, I make coffee, but you’ll really wish I didn’t.”
“And you go to the printers. We need new business cards - Lorne’s got a lead on some potential clients. You can stay in one of the rooms here for now - the one you were in before. Call it a probation period.” Angel crossed back to his place at the window. “Screw this up and I will kill you.”
Hearing the dismissal, Lindsey nodded and turned away.
When he’d opened the door, Angel said. “No promises you’re going to get it right this time?”
Lindsey didn’t turn back. “Think I’d fool either of us?”
“Not even on your best day.” This wasn’t going to end well; Angel knew it down to the bone. Then again, in his experience, nothing really did. Besides, the end wasn’t the point.
“So, no promises.” Lindsey hesitated, as if he had something else to say.
Angel turned back to the sunset. “You even think about thanking me and you’re fired. Without references.”
Lindsey smirked and pulled the door shut behind him.
And went to make the coffee.
- EPILOGUE -
Two hours later, the vision hit.
Holy crap, it's done! Thank you so much everyone who took the time to read, I hope it was enjoyed :D
And, again, thank you so much to dragonfly and mitchy for the beta-ing!