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Story Data

Posted December 22, 2009

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Series: The Soul Job

Title: The Soul Job

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Rating: PG-15.

Spoilers: Set during 5.8 "Destiny" for Angel and post-2.9 "The Lost Heir Job" for Leverage.

Summary: It's been a long time since Lindsey McDonald and Eliot Spencer went their separate ways... but if ever a man was in need of the leverage their team could apply, it was Eliot's brother. 25,000 words.

Notes: Written for the 2009 Crossover Big Bang. Dates given for Lindsey and/or Eliot are based on actor Christian Kane's actual age, and the assumption that this takes place during the canonical time setting for Angel. Thanks to my beta, maevebran, for general awesomeness and for introducing me to Leverage in the first place; and my artist, lyl_devil, for their fabulous artwork!

Soul Job Cover Art by lyl_devil

"So, I was thinking," Eliot began, staring across the table at Nate. He'd asked the man down to McRory's for a solo meet after the final wrap up for their previous job; the topic he wanted to air was a little on the personal side, and he wanted to discuss it one-on-one before it got brought up in committee. Public space or not, the bar actually held less risk of eavesdropping than Nate's apartment-slash-office.

"While Sophie's gone," he continued cautiously, "it might be a good time to take a job or two that really don't need a grifter. Nothing against that friend of hers-- but we don't know her, and she don't know us, and I get the feeling she's not really down with the alternate revenue stream thing." If Sophie had even bothered to explain it to her. The way Tara had demanded her cut of Ruth Walton's inheritance argued against it-- not that Eliot blamed Sophie for not filling her in. The way the team did things was kind of outside the usual parameters for their line of work, and their reputation really didn't need any more softening.

Nate nodded thoughtfully, though his forehead pinched a little at the mention of their grifter. "And I suppose you happen to know of a job that fits that category?" he asked, tapping at the handle of his coffee cup as he stared back at Eliot.

"Yeah." Eliot sighed. "I've known about it for a few months, but it's kind of personal. I thought I might be able to handle it on my own, but things are starting to get urgent, and it's gone beyond the scope of what one man can handle."

"A few months," Nate mused. "Counting from after the team joined back up-- or before?"

"Before," Eliot admitted. It had been a long six months between when they'd scattered in Los Angeles, and when they'd reconvened in Boston at Sophie's invitation. Kicking his feet up had lasted all of two weeks before the boredom had driven him back to work; he might not need the money any more, but Eliot Spencer would never be the kind of guy who could just sit around and do nothing, and he'd got kind of addicted to the whole 'making a difference' thing. "You know how I said I was in Pakistan?"

"I wasn't sure if you were actually being serious about that, or if you were just yanking Hardison's chain," Nate admitted with a slight smile.

Eliot snorted. It had been pretty amusing to find out that Hardison had been tracking the rough shape of what Eliot had been up to without ever knowing it. "Not this time. I actually was in Pakistan." A lot of folk there in need of defending; a lot of terrorists the legit government agents and PMCs couldn't get to without causing a politically inconvenient ruckus. "And I crossed paths with someone I knew from before, on his way to Nepal."

He paused there, debating just how much he really wanted to reveal. If he was serious about helping his brother, though-- and he was, or he'd never have got as far as even hinting about it in earshot of Nate-- it was only a matter of time until the full truth came out. It would be obvious the first time Hardison pulled up a picture of his face, and Eliot could hardly avoid giving the team his name.

"This friend have a name?" Nate asked, echoing Eliot's thoughts.

He sighed again, rubbing at his chin. Better to just get it over with. "Yeah. Lindsey McDonald. Known him all my life. We sort of fell out of contact a while ago, though; he went to college on a wrestling scholarship and got his JD, but I had other plans for my life." Which had caused more than one bitter argument, and ended in an absolute refusal to compromise on both their parts. "He was the golden kid back then, and I was the black sheep, and of course our sisters always took his side of things."

"Sisters?" Nate's eyebrows flew up at that, and he sat forward in his chair a little, stilling his fingers as he wrapped both hands around his mug. "Then this Lindsey--"

"Is my brother, yeah. Twin, actually." Eliot grimaced. "Don't ask."

Nate's eyes were alive with curiosity, but he thankfully took the hint and skipped over the obvious next question about the difference in their last names. Eliot wasn't exactly ashamed that he'd taken to using the surname of the aunt and uncle who'd raised the McDonald kids after their parents' home was repossessed when the twins were seven, but this meeting wasn't about eroding even more of the tough image he'd spent so many years constructing; it was about his brother.

"So what was his purpose in traveling to Nepal?" Nate asked.

Eliot shrugged. "Searching. He said he'd been looking for something that would keep him safe from his former bosses for awhile-- the law firm that hired him out of grad school is more than the usual kind of crooked, and his contract has a few clauses that would let them crucify him for leaving if they ever caught him." Literally, or damn near-- which Eliot might have taken for exaggeration on Lindsey's part if he hadn't seen a few of the things he'd seen back in Croatia, and a few other places since.

Lord only knew how the team was going to take it, or if any of them had ever run across evidence of the other sort of nightlife on a job. Parker, maybe. It would explain a few things about her particular brand of crazy, but he doubted the others had ever seen so much as a wandering spirit.

Nate took a sip of his coffee. "I'm assuming he found it, since you said the problem is only now getting urgent," he said. "Is he still in Nepal?"

Eliot shook his head and made a quick visual sweep of the bar before replying. "No, he came back to the States. And that's the problem. I'd thought he was still overseas, but I guess he figured taking the high road wasn't satisfying enough and decided to take a leaf from the evil twin's playbook. He's in L.A. now, trying to run a con on 'em. Just small time stuff so far..."

"But you don't think he's going to stop there," Nate observed, sharp-eyed, "and you're worried about him. And you're right to. Mixing vengeance with a job makes every detail twice as risky, as we've all learned the hard way; and your brother doesn't have four other... associates... to back him up."

Eliot shrugged, uncomfortably. Sometimes, he wondered just how much Nathan Ford actually saw when he looked at someone; the former insurance fraud investigator seemed damn near psychic at times, at least when it didn't involve his own issues. "He's a grown man," he said.

"But he's inexperienced at this kind of thing."

Eliot nodded. "There's some crazy stuff going down with that firm, things I guarantee you won't believe until you see proof I ain't lying, and Lindsey don't have the instinct for my kind of work. Gets too involved. If he gets himself killed, our sisters are never going to forgive me."

"Now I'm really intrigued," Nate said, cocking his head a little. "What is it you actually want us to do, though? I'm assuming it is for you, by the way; if your brother had actually asked for our help, you would have brought him here with you."

Eliot grimaced at the idea; as angry as Lindsey currently was at the world in general, that would not have gone down well. "What I want is his contract. The one he signed when they waltzed into Hastings his sophomore year and offered him the world on a plate. With it, Wolfram and Hart can ruin his life; that's why he's trying to ruin their business. Without it, though? He's a free man."

"If he's really as upset as you say, that may not stop him," Nate cautioned him.

"I know. But if we can get his foot out of the damn bear trap, he might be more inclined to see reason." As different as they were in many respects, that was one thing Eliot and Lindsey had in common.

Nate considered that, then sat back in his chair. "All right, set Hardison on it, work up a briefing for the team." Then he paused, eyeing Eliot in speculative amusement. "You know, this is only the second time I've ever heard you offer any real information about your past. And the other time, you were trying to sell me on a job, too."

Eliot rolled his eyes by way of response, then picked up the beer he'd neglected on the table and took a long pull. "Worked, didn't it?" he asked.

Nate chuckled. "You should do it more often," he said.

"What, sell you on jobs?" Eliot snorted, knowing damn well that wasn't what the other man had meant.

"Talk," Nate replied, smiling, then drained the last of his coffee and got up from the table. "How does tomorrow at nine sound? I've got a few errands to run this evening."

"Sure, whatever." Eliot shrugged, then tossed back the last of his beer as he watched Nate head for the door. He had a few errands to run himself after he broke the news to Hardison, none of which he was looking forward to-- but all of which needed doing.

Like he'd told Nate, their sisters would never forgive him if he let their little brother get himself killed. Better to be too prepared than not enough, especially considering whose turf they'd be treading on.

Good thing he still had a favor to call in from that job gone bad in Italy. Good thing Wolfram and Hart had offices in Massachusetts, too. It looked like it was time to pay a visit to some lawyers.

The next morning, Eliot sulked into his coffee as he waited for Nate to finish in the kitchen and call a start to the briefing. He was aware that Parker was frowning at him from the other corner of the couch, but didn't care enough to either tell her to move again, or explain what was up. She'd see soon enough.

Hardison was throwing him puzzled glances, too, but there was as much calculation in them as worry. He'd surprised the hacker, throwing his past open to him; even Aimee and her dad had called Eliot by the last name of Spencer since his teens, and Eliot had been careful not to let any other crumbs drop for his teammates to trace during the time they'd worked together. He might have actually, maybe, started to trust the four of them to a certain degree, but even that only went so far, as Sophie had proven rather conclusively during that mess with the two Davids. He'd protect them with his life, but until now the lives of his family had been another story entirely.

No help for it, though. He scowled more fiercely, taking solace in the high-quality caffeine stocked in Nate's kitchen.

"So," the man himself finally announced, yawning his way out into the living room with a fruit cup and one of those godawful toaster pastries for his breakfast. "What have you got for us, Hardison?"

Hardison threw an irritating grin at Eliot, then clicked his remote, and the wall screens went live. A snapshot of Lindsey, three or four years old, flew up to fill the center of the six-paneled display, framed by smaller photos of the Los Angeles Wolfram and Hart building and a scattered sampling of his brother's former co-workers.

Parker took an audibly shocked breath at the image, and even Nate made an abrupt, startled movement in the middle of settling into a chair.

"So that's what you'd look like with short hair," Parker said, sounding fascinated.

"No wonder IYS kept getting false hits on you from our L.A. sources," Nate marveled, shaking his head. "I thought his name sounded familiar."

Hardison snorted, still grinning. "Yeah. Hard to believe the world hasn't ended yet, with two of y'all wandering around."

Eliot sighed, eyeing the photo again. "Shut up, Hardison." Clean cut, wearing a suit, blue eyes more vivid without the need for glasses or contacts, no scar on the lip; he couldn't help but see their differences whenever he looked at his brother, but he knew those things were rarely visible to others at first glance. Story of their childhood. If he never had to deliberately match outfits with Lindsey ever again, it would be too soon; bad enough Lindsey'd started to grow his hair out lately, too.

"So. Lindsey McDonald," Hardison continued, clearing his throat. "Former junior associate at the L.A. branch of Wolfram and Hart, hired on straight out of U.C. Hastings in 1999. Did some time in the mailroom, but was quickly transferred to the Special Projects division. Seen as something of a golden boy; lots of internal chatter in '01 about a pending promotion to the head of the division straight over the head of a gal who'd been on the team since her internship back in '94. Followed by some dicey medical records having to do with a hand transplant that I couldn't make head nor tail of; and then-- nothing. He just disappeared, and the other lawyer, Lilah Morgan, took the job."

He pointed with the remote again, and the inset image of a thirtysomething woman in a power suit with intense dark eyes and slightly wavy, shoulder-length brown hair flew up to fill the center of the screens. "She was killed a year and a half later; her autopsy records read like something out of a horror flick. Stab wounds to her neck and abdomen-- and get this, someone cut off her head with an axe after she was already dead. And then her body disappeared from the morgue." He shuddered.

"Someone must have really hated her," Parker commented, arms wrapped around her knees as she cocked her head at the screens.

"Or loved her," Eliot said, thoughts stuck on stab wounds to her neck. He wondered if it had had anything to do with that bastard of a vampire his brother was so obsessed with.

Nate threw him a sharp glance as he broke off a piece of his pastry. "What do you know about it?" he asked.

Eliot shrugged. "Nothing." Not specifically, anyway; he wasn't going to lie, but it wasn't a good time for the ghoulies and ghosties conversation, either. "Lindsey didn't mention it; probably doesn't even know the details himself. But if you knew the kind of thing the firm deals in, you wouldn't be surprised."

Nate frowned, but let that pass, turning back to Hardison. "So what kind of thing does Wolfram and Hart specialize in, exactly?" he prompted.

"Historically, they've had a lot of heavyweight scumbags on their defense roster," Hardison answered with a grim frown, keying up a constellation of headshots ranging from actresses, to famous musicians, politicians, crooked businessmen, and other power players from all corners of the country. The only thing all of them had in common was that they were filthy rich-- and every one of them had something to hide. "I'm actually surprised we didn't run across them when we were headquartered back there, since our usual type of marks would be right up their alley. Mosconi, for example."

Nate's eyes cut to Eliot again; and Eliot was sure he was remembering a few potential cases that Eliot had reported 'bad feelings' about, which they'd ended up passing over. Yeah; let him think what he wanted. Lindsey had moved out of the city by the time Eliot had been added to the payroll of the elaborate piece of fiction they called Leverage Consulting, but his coworkers at that law firm sure as shit would have recognized Eliot's face if the team had ever crossed their paths. The last thing he'd wanted at that point had been to drag his private life front and center of his professional one.

"Speaking of alleys," Parker observed, peering distractedly at one of the smaller images still up on the screens, "they have tinted windows on their offices. All of them, from what I can tell. What are they made of? The refraction index is unusual; it's not like anything I've seen before."

Trust Parker to know what a window was made of by the way the light reflected off it, Eliot mused.

Then again, he could name almost every weapon ever made, and most methods of combat training, just by sound or stance. Sophie read body language like it was English, and Hardison could write computer code in his sleep. And then there was Nate. To each their own.

"Funny you should ask that," Hardison replied, eyebrows raised as he flicked the display over to some kind of line drawing. "I actually wasn't able to get my hands on any kind of schematics for the building. I mean, there's something on file with Public Works that says it's supposed to represent their offices," he gestured with the remote at the drawing filling the screens, "but it sure ain't the real thing; even I can tell the dimensions on that piece of paper don't even come close."

"Did you find anything useful on their own servers?" Nate asked, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

"Not a damn thing," Hardison admitted, scowling. "I mean, I hacked the White House; I could get in and out of any government system on the planet and not get caught, as long as the network's hooked up to the Web. But these people? They've got security like nothing I've ever seen."

"Sounds like they definitely have something to hide," Nate mused.

Yeah. Like the deed to his brother's immortal soul, as crazy as that still sounded. If nothing else worked, they might have to look up Nate's contacts from his seminary days; neither Eliot nor Lindsey'd had much to do with the church in years, but Nate's friend Father Paul might be willing to put in a good word for them-- provided he'd got over the whole fake miracle job. It couldn't hurt, anyway.

"Stranger yet," Hardison continued, bringing up a new series of pictures. "You remember last year, that thing with the freak cloud of smog blocking the sun while we were out on one of our jobs, and all the flights back got delayed for several days while it cleared?" He pointed to a few of the pictures, depicting a clearly ruined building. There was even what looked like a body on the sidewalk in one of them, shrouded by a deep pall of shadow.

"Apparently, shit went down while we were gone that did not make the papers. This is what the place looked like, according to this one journalist's online archive, in the middle of it all... and here's what it looked like when the sun came back out a couple of days later." Hardison clicked again, and the building reappeared, looking completely different: pristine and whole, windows glinting in the sunshine, a pair of suits clearly entering through the front doors.

"I'd like the name of their contractors," Nate said, whistling lowly.

"No, you wouldn't," Eliot threw him a dirty look. "Trust me on this one. The kind of power that gets that done on an instant basis? Not the kind of power you want to go up against."

"Isn't that kind of what we're doing, though?" Parker asked, uncurling enough to poke at him with one long, gracefully arched foot.

He intercepted the outstretched toes before they could make contact with his side, capturing her heel with one hand and gently stroking up the sole with the fingernails of the other. All the worrying and reminiscing he'd been doing lately, the motion came automatically to him; as one of six kids all within ten years of each other in age-- though only four had survived to adulthood-- certain patterns of behavior had become pretty ingrained, growing up. And as focused as he was on the conversation, he didn't even register what he'd done until Parker yanked her foot back, scowling at him in surprise.

Eliot folded his arms across his chest and scowled back at her. Apparently his subconscious had gone and filed her in the 'sister' box without even bothering to check in with him. He blamed Lindsey-- and Aimee before him, during that damn horse job-- for stirring up the question of family in his mind again after all those years and complicating things that really didn't need any more complication.

"Not directly," he told her. "There's ways and ways to deal with people like that, and a con's always going to work better with that type than brute force. You know that, we do this all the time, just not on quite this scale." He glanced back at Nate, saw no censure in the other man's thoughtful stare, and continued. "Lindsey's already got a way in, but he's just the one guy, and he's at a disadvantage; he worked for these people, he's already conditioned to think and act around them in certain ways, and they know more about him than a dozen Alec Hardisons could find out in a week of hacking."

"Maybe, maybe not," Hardison commented, pointing at the screens again. "They swapped out all their upper management in the last few months; there's been some serious upheaval in certain sectors of the client roster, too, though the proportion of scumbag to actual victim is still fairly high."

Eliot turned to him, surprised at the interruption, and blinked at the image that had replaced Ms. Morgan's on the display: a solid guy with dark hair, dressed kind of casual for a CEO in a dark shirt unbuttoned at the collar and a pair of black slacks. So that was what Angel looked like. He wasn't exactly hard on the eyes, but the lack of smile lines and the pallor of his skin would have tripped all of Eliot's subconscious alarms even if he hadn't already known the guy was a vampire.

"New boss's name is Angel," Hardison announced for the others' benefit. "Not sure if that's a last or a first name-- you should appreciate that, Parker."

The hacker grinned at the lithe blonde thief as he directed the comment to her; Parker smiled back, unfolding a little on the couch as she watched him. Eliot rolled his eyes at them both.

"From what I can find out, he was a P.I. before that, and he brought most of his senior staff with him when he changed careers," Hardison continued. Other pictures flowed up around the vampire's mug shot: a young Black man in a high-priced lawyer's suit, a slim twenty-something woman in a scientist's white lab coat with cascading falls of long, curly brown hair, and a slightly older man in glasses wearing shirtsleeves and a tie. "Called themselves Angel Investigations back then."

Lindsey had never told Eliot their names, though he'd referred to the group on the screens more than once as 'Angel's minions'. The information Eliot had acquired at the East Coast office had gone into just enough detail to hint that they weren't quite the idiots Lindsey liked to cast them as, nor yet the font of evil the law firm's reputation suggested, but Eliot wouldn't have wanted to have to rely on them regardless. Not even in their pre-law days. Too quick to judge, despite the do-gooder line they liked to spin.

"Charles Gunn, lawyer," Hardison elaborated, confirming Eliot's information as he gestured to the first of the three photos. "Self-educated, as far as I can tell-- there's no college records or anything before he passed the bar, just incomplete high school transcripts and some minor criminal activity-- but he's pretty sharp, according to recent trial records. Then there's Winifred Burkle, aka 'Fred', a scientist who bailed on a PhD program in physics at UCLA several years ago and dropped off the map entirely until she took up with this crew, and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, a Brit with all kinds of degrees in obscure history and languages and a really sketchy employment history since he came to the States in 1999."

"A strange collection of resumes," Nate observed. "Even for a P.I. firm-- and even stranger as management for a law firm as high-octane as Wolfram and Hart. What was their angle? Did they come into a windfall of money and decide to buy out their old nemeses, or what?"

"Haven't turned anything up so far," Hardison shrugged. "It's like the former CEO just woke up one day, decided he was sick of running the place, and signed everything over. There's no trace in their financials, no flurry of unexplained calls in their phone records, no nothing. I'm not sure it matters, though. If they've had no prior contact with Eliot's brother...."

Eliot sighed; time to speak up again. "Except they have, and he has as big a grudge against them as he does against the firm itself. He went to them for help a couple of times when he thought the firm was going too far, and they treated him like something that crawled out from under a rock, even when they were working together. Never mind when they were actually on opposite sides of a case. That thing with the medical bills for his hand? You can put that down to Angel. I've got no idea how they ended up on Wolfram and Hart's side of things instead of trying to pin evidence on the firm's clients, but the fact that they have just makes things even murkier."

"And of course, we'll be right back under IYS radar the minute we cross into the city," Nate sighed. "We aren't going to be able to use any of our real names or any aliases that were established before our little contretemps with Sterling, and we'll need to fly into another city and use some other form of transportation into L.A. if we don't want him on us the minute we arrive."

It was a pretty tall order. In fact, it was the kind of looming impossibility of a situation that led normal people to look to them for leverage instead of the law; but there wasn't anyone for the team to turn to but themselves. And Eliot wasn't even sure he'd be able to protect them against the kind of foot soldier Wolfram and Hart could call up, if things went all to hell; he'd seen plenty of examples on his visit to their local offices. The thing was, though-- it was his brother. He'd be going regardless, and he hadn't wanted to lie to them about why. If he went down, they were the only real chance Lindsey might have at surviving, so he'd figured, why not bring them in from the beginning to maximize their chances? But it just might be that they didn't actually have a realistic chance at all.

"You sure you want to do this?" Eliot asked, meeting Nate's gaze squarely.

"Of course," Nate said, firmly. "It won't be easy, but I like to think we'd do the same even if this wasn't your brother. People like Wolfram and Hart--" or like IYS had been under Blackpoole's control, Eliot could practically see him thinking, "--need to be stopped. That's what we do."

"Vengeance-- and money," Eliot agreed, glancing over at Parker.

"Money-- and vengeance," she replied, smiling sunnily at him.

"Damn straight," Hardison agreed, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows in Eliot's direction.

"Well, then," Nate clapped his hands together, straightening in his chair. "Let's get to work."

They arrived in Los Angeles two days later, armed with the skeleton of a plan, the usual collection of high- and low-tech toys, and the keys to the secondary apartment Eliot had maintained there under a false identity. He'd had more than enough money to keep it up when they'd left town and abandoned their primary residences there, and had hung on to it with the idea of using it as a temporary bolt hole in future. That foresight was coming in handy now-- and not just because it kept them off IYS' radar. The last thing they wanted to do in a town full of demons, facing off against Wolfram and Hart, was to stay someplace public or brand-new that didn't have a previously established threshold.

Even if the place was a little short on electronics. As in, Eliot didn't have any. Hardison had bitched like a whiny little girl when he'd discovered the lack of geeky amenities, then spent several hours of that first evening using Eliot as a pack mule around town while Nate and Parker were out doing their different flavors of reconnaissance. He'd retaliated by dragging Hardison food shopping with him afterward; if they were going to be living at his place for the next however many days, he had no doubt they'd all be expecting him to cook at some point, and besides, his cupboards were decidedly bare of such necessities as coffee, beer and orange soda.

The next step on Eliot's part was to get in contact with Lindsey again. Hardison had issued the team brand-new, secure cell phones along with the ear buds as soon as they entered the city, and Lindsey had assured him when he'd contacted him the week before that his own arrangements were secure, too. Whatever the hell that meant. Probably magic; Eliot didn't want the details. He waited until after the normal workday started the morning after they arrived, in hopes of avoiding any chance of Lindsey's contact at the firm hanging around to overhear the call, then dialed his brother's number.

"Linds?" he said gruffly, when the receiver at the other end picked up after five rings.

"El?" That was definitely his brother's voice; nearly the echo of his, though not quite as rough. Prolonged brushes with torture had a definite effect on a man's vocal cords.

"I'm in town for a few days," he began, then smiled ruefully as Lindsey cut him off.

"Bullshit you just happen to be in town," his twin objected, his tone half amused and half irritated. "You're here to check up on me, aren't you?"

"What are older brothers for?" Eliot replied.

"Older by how many minutes, again?" Lindsey shot back.

Eliot shook his head, staring through a gap in the curtains at the traffic passing outside his apartment. "You're in over your damn head. What did you expect me to do, stay in Boston and send flowers to your funeral?"

Lindsey laughed. There was something bitter and resigned about it that made Eliot's stomach sink a little more; he knew he should have just bit the bullet and stopped by L.A. years ago, pride be damned, but it was far too late for that now.

"You haven't been home in eight years, Eliot. And there won't be a funeral if they catch me."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Eliot told him, the plastic of the cell phone case crackling under the force of his grip. He forced himself to take a deep breath, then refocus on the call; this was Lindsey's life on the line, not just the prelude to another iteration of a very, very old argument.

"Listen," he said. "If you think you can get out of your apartment for awhile, I've got the team with me. Most of them, anyway. I thought I'd get their advice on your little problem."

"Excuse me?" Lindsey objected. "Look, you showing up here is one thing. But having another set of do-gooders stick their nose in my business and tell me what I should be doing is the absolute last thing I need right now. I've got this under control, Eliot. It's my problem, and I'm going to solve it my way."

A very, very old argument. "We're not Angel Investigations, Lindsey. Just 'cause we go around helping people now, doesn't make us fucking do-gooders. We're still a band of thieves at heart." Then he chuckled. "It is kind of ironic, though, isn't it?"

"What?" Lindsey asked, grudgingly.

"After all this time, we're still on opposite sides of the fence-- but now I'm the white knight and you're the black one, by choice."

Silence fell on the other end of the line, but Lindsey didn't hang up. Eliot waited patiently, phone to his ear, until his brother finished weighing the situation and made a decision.

"Three thirty," Lindsey finally said, and gave an address. "Understand, I'm only agreeing to this meeting because I'm afraid I'll end up with y'all stalking me across town if I don't, and I don't want you to trip Wolfram and Hart's radar and bring 'em down on me before I'm ready."

"'Course," Eliot told him. "See you then."

The line fell silent again, then cut to dial tone.

"How much of that did you get, Hardison?" he called back over his shoulder.

"Cell phones are my playground, remember?" Hardison called back, tapping away at the keyboard of his laptop. "I'm forwarding the audio file to Nate now. We'll be ready-- least, as ready as we're going to get in the next couple of days."

"Good," Eliot said, tucking the phone away in his pocket. "Damn stubborn idiot."

"Bet he's said the same about you a few times," Hardison suggested, mildly.

"Shut up, Hardison," Eliot replied automatically.

"Sure thing, big brother El," Hardison fired back.

Eliot glared over his shoulder at the younger man's cheeky expression, then turned back to his window watching with a sigh. Fucking Lindsey. Fucking family vibes. If he ended up thinking of Nate in paternal terms any time in the next few days, he wouldn't be answerable for his own behavior.

"Big brother El my ass," he muttered.

Behind him, bent over his computer, Hardison snickered.

Mindful of what he'd last seen Lindsey wearing, Eliot had packed solid-colored shirts and sneakers for the excursion to L.A. One McDonald boy revisiting his roots in plaid flannels and steel-toed boots at the same time was more than enough, in his opinion. He was much annoyed to walk into the cheap restaurant Lindsey had picked for the meeting to discover his brother in a navy shirt the same style as the crimson one Eliot had chosen that day, his shaggy hair tucked behind his ears to show off matching earrings. Except for the curling lines of tattoos visible at wrists and throat, and the lack of bracelets, he could have easily passed for Eliot after a clean shave and a half-assed haircut.

Lindsey took one look at the expression on his face and chuckled. "Still can't let it go, can you?"

"We're brothers, not bookends," Eliot growled in response as he sank into a chair opposite his brother, avoiding his teammates' eyes. The intent silence emanating from Nate's direction and the intrigued hum from Parker told him everything he needed to know about their reactions to Lindsey's little display of style coordination.

"That's not what you said yesterday," Lindsey replied, a note of teasing in his voice, then shook his head. "But I'm sure you didn't come here just to bitch some more about the fact that I never minded our aunt buying our clothes at two-for-one sales and signing us up for all the same activities the way you did. You didn't seem all that concerned about me when we ran into each other in Pakistan, and let me tell you, what I'm up to in L.A.'s no more dangerous than what I was doing over there. What makes you so determined to pitch in now?"

"What you were doing over there wasn't exactly something I could help with," Eliot said gruffly. "That ain't the case now."

All that business with tests and shamans and empowerment; even if he could have helped Lindsey then, Eliot probably wouldn't have done it. The part where the magical tattoos made their wearer invisible to surveillance-- both electronic and magical-- would have been damn useful for the job, but he'd spent a lot of years shaping his body into a weapon, ingraining the exact degrees of force required into his movements until he could cause exactly as much harm as he intended to, no more and no less, without even thinking about it. Throwing that all out of whack with some kind of mystical power-up, being effectively out of commission and therefore useless to both himself and the team until he could retrain his every reflex, wasn't Eliot's idea of a good time.

"And what makes you think you're more equipped to go up against Wolfram and Hart than I am?" Lindsey asked, a mulish expression on his face.

"It isn't our lack of experience with Wolfram and Hart you should be concerned with," Nate inserted himself smoothly into the conversation, "but our wealth of experience in... shall we say, redistributing resources unjustly held by entities that can't be confronted through legal means."

Lindsey's gaze shifted from Eliot to his companions for the first time. The lines around his eyes tightened briefly as his eyes skimmed over Parker, but he made no comment until his focus settled on Nate. "I don't know about that," he said. "Wolfram and Hart has a long fucking record of doing exactly the same thing, only the other way around. I don't know what Eliot's told you, but I have a better chance of getting struck by lightning tomorrow than I do of getting out from under my contract. So you can forget your damn resources; what I want from these people is vengeance."

"Why don't you tell us what you think Eliot should have told us, and we'll go from there," Nate replied evenly, lacing his fingers together as he leaned forward over the table.

Lindsey stared at him for a long moment, looking for and failing to find something in Nate's expression, then glanced back at Eliot, raising his eyebrows. "Seriously?" he asked.

Eliot shrugged, knowing exactly what he meant and fully unapologetic about it. "What did you expect? Boston's been a null zone since the shitstorm that went down in '99, and far's I went when I lived here was mapping out where not to get caught after dark."

"You want me to play tour guide." Lindsey curled his lip in disgust.

"They ain't going to believe a word unless someone shows 'em, and I'm not that anxious to get us all killed. Didn't you say something about a karaoke bar? I thought we could start there."

"Karaoke bar?" Hardison broke in, tone equal parts intrigued and horrified.

Lindsey quirked up a corner of his mouth, but his expression remained sour. "Aw, come on. A little singing never hurt anyone. Especially with an anagogic reading your aura while you do it. The place was accorded neutral territory; the host had nonviolence spells cast on the whole building."

"Aura reading?" Parker commented, perking up. "Do you mean that really works?"

"Forget aura reading, spells?" Hardison did not look impressed; he threw Eliot an eloquently disbelieving look. "Seriously? This is the real world, not World of Warcraft-- and I can't believe I'm even the one saying that."

Nate held up a hand, silencing the other two as the waitress approached. They all placed orders for beverages, mostly coffee or water; Lindsey ordered a sandwich as well, but the others had already eaten lunch before the meeting.

"I think the more relevant part of that statement was the use of the past tense," Nate said, after the waitress had sashayed back toward the kitchen. "It was accorded neutral territory?" he asked.

Lindsey nodded. "The club closed down a while back, and it doesn't look like it'll open up again anytime soon. Angel wrecked the place enough times, he finally offered Lorne a place on his staff as compensation, and the green guy took him up on it. He works for the Entertainment division at Wolfram and Hart, now."

"Damn," Eliot commented, scowling, then ran a hand through his hair. "Well, there goes that idea. Know anyplace else I could take the team without putting their lives in danger?"

"A few places," Lindsey shrugged, tapping a finger thoughtfully on the tabletop. "None of the ones left in town are guaranteed secure, though, not since the Scourge came through a few years back. The Transuding Furies don't work for cheap, and most places that can afford to hire them to ward down their property belong to either the larger predatory clans, or Wolfram and Hart. There are neutral districts-- the transients and nonhostiles have to trade and gather somewhere-- but a bunch of clueless humans would attract more attention down there than flies to horseshit."

For a group of thieves and con artists who'd spent most of their lives making a living out of diverting attention-- even Nate, who'd been so successful as an insurance investigator mostly because he'd learned how to out-Roman the Romans he hunted-- that would probably be an even worse idea than Eliot's first, which had been to stake out a graveyard and wait for a fledge to rise. (There had to be a lot of them in Los Angeles, and most of the supernatural hunters he'd run across in the back ways of Europe and Asia had used that initiation method on their apprentices for a reason. Vampires were already the lowest of the low on the supernatural power scale, and new-made ones were especially weak before their host body's human intelligence and mental flexibility regained enough strength to overpower the demon's thirst for blood. They were still a danger to most humans, of course; but Eliot wasn't most humans. Problem was, the graveyard method could take a while to produce results, and Eliot really didn't see Parker or Hardison having the patience to stand around very long.)

"Neutral districts?" Nate asked, glancing cautiously back and forth between the brothers. "Clans? You're talking about some kind of-- supernaturally inclined minority culture?" He sounded skeptical, but was still giving Eliot the benefit of the doubt, thank the patron saint of small favors.

"I guess you could call it that," Lindsey said with a wry twist of lips and a flat, knowing distance in his eyes that Eliot had never wanted to see on any of his family.

Eliot had earned it, had chosen this life with eyes wide open and a readiness to do violence and never tried too hard to make his siblings understand. Lindsey had been the good brother, chasing law and textbooks rather than finding ways around them, the 'sleep peaceably in their beds' half of the twins' personal equation. He should have been living it up in a corner office somewhere, not sparing so much as a thought for what lurked in the shadows.

Eliot had been flippant earlier, teasing Lindsey that their roles had flipped, but seeing that glacial expression on him-- somehow, it didn't seem all that funny anymore. "So what do you suggest we do?" he said roughly, shifting in his seat as the waitress reappeared with their glasses and coffee cups.

Lindsey stared at the team again for long moments as she moved and poured, gaze lingering longest on Parker and Hardison as if evaluating them for potential weaknesses, then glanced down at his watch. A few seconds later, the phone behind the restaurant's entry counter began ringing shrilly, carrying clearly over the background hum of customer conversations; the cashier picked it up and opened her mouth to answer, then grimaced and held the receiver away from her ear as a loud shrieking sound emitted from the earpiece. At the same time, the waitress at their table frowned as the cell phone in her pocket also began ringing; she lifted it out to glance at the number displayed in glowing letters on its small screen, then gave them a hurried, apologetic smile and moved away, thumbing the call button and lifting it to her ear with the hand not wrapped around the handle of the coffee carafe. Seconds later, she flinched and held it out at arms' length, giving it an offended, startled look.

"So far, so good," Lindsey said, watching the waitress' actions. Then he grinned widely at Eliot, as though suddenly reminded of something he found vastly amusing. "I suppose I could take y'all with me out to Death Valley. I hadn't planned to stick around after I set things up, but it should be safe enough to hang out and watch the fireworks afterward."

"I get the feeling you don't mean the literal kind of fireworks," Hardison chipped in, warily.

Eliot's reaction was a little more visceral. He'd seen that expression on Lindsey's face before, after he'd pranked one of his siblings-- usually Eliot-- but good. "What did you do?" he asked, suspiciously.

"Oh, just knocked the wheel of destiny off its axis a little," Lindsey replied, smirking.

Next to him, Nate frowned over at another group of patrons whose cell phones were ringing just as insistently as the waitress' had. Eliot saw him slip his own cell phone from his pocket out of the corner of his eye and switch it on, and the frown grew even more pronounced at the noisy results. "I wasn't aware that destiny was tied directly into the electromagnetic spectrum," he said, dryly.

"That's just a side-effect," Lindsey said, matter-of-factly. "The main problem's more that there's suddenly two of something where there's only supposed to be one, and the universe is out of balance."

Nate's brow furrowed at that response, but Parker spoke up before he could reply. "Kind of like you guys, then," she said, matter-of-factly. She'd ended up seated next to Lindsey at the table, and had been inspecting him furtively throughout most of the conversation. "That's what Hardison said, when we saw your picture-- that he was surprised the world was still around if there were two of you."

Eliot snorted. "Somehow, I don't think he meant it quite that literally, Parker," he said over Hardison's sputtering, then took a long sip of his water. He had a sinking feeling he'd need the hydration later on.

"As far's I know, there's never been an apocalyptic prophecy pointing to one of us," Lindsey said, giving his brother a darkly amused look. "Vampires with a soul, on the other hand, are a different story entirely."

"Souled vampires," Nate echoed flatly, curling his hands around his coffee cup.

"And we're back to the part where I have to ask, seriously?" Hardison shook his head. "You don't actually expect us to believe any of this, do you?"

Eliot had expected both reactions; what he hadn't expected was Parker's. She leaned a little closer into Lindsey's space and stared back at him, an expression of alarmed curiosity on her face. "You mean vampires don't usually have souls?" she asked. "Then why would one be nice to me?"

Four heads swiveled to stare at her. "What?" Eliot and Hardison blurted, together.

"Parker?" Nate asked, in that protective paternal tone he sometimes slipped into when dealing with the team's youngest members. "When did you see a vampire?"

"And what was its name?" Lindsey asked, speaking over him.

Parker glanced back and forth between them, cautiously. "I don't know what her name was," she said, shrugging. "She was sucking on the neck of a guard in a museum I broke into in Rome a couple of years ago. I thought maybe they were just making out at first, and they were standing in front of the painting I wanted, so I stopped to wait them out. Except she knew I was there, somehow. She had long, dark hair and an old-time velvet dress, and when she dropped the guard and stared at me her face looked—kind of strange. Really wrinkled. I didn't like it."

She frowned a little and wrung her hands together, gaze distant as she relived the memory. "I wanted to leave, but-- I felt like I couldn't, for some reason, and then she came up the stairs and suddenly I didn't want to anymore. It was weird. She wasn't scary up close, though. She was pretty, kind of like Sophie, and she was carrying a little ceramic-faced doll. She called me Marian, and wished me luck playing merry hob with the silver, then handed me the doll; she said I'd need it more than she did."

Eliot had seen that doll; she'd brought it into their offices in L.A. to keep her plant company when they'd taken off for that long con in Juan. Eerie little thing; he'd turned it around so it was watching the interior of her office instead of the hallway.

"Sounds like you met Drusilla," Lindsey said, looking disturbed and a little concerned. "She's been through here before. She got set on fire the last time, though; I wasn't sure she was still alive. She's more than a hundred years old, but kind of..." He whirled a finger in the air next to his ear.

Eliot snorted, reminded of the first job he'd worked with the team-- the first time he'd seen Parker working, up close and personal. He'd adjusted to her ways since, but at the time he'd had no frame of reference for dealing with her skewed outlook on life. The vamp must have sensed a kindred spirit. "Twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag?" he suggested.

Hardison coughed into his fist; Parker shot him a reproachful look.

Lindsey chuckled. "Exactly. You can't judge all vampires by her example. And if she'd met her on a different day...." He shrugged.

"Why would she have called Parker 'Marian'?" Nate mused, still caught up in Parker's account.

Lindsey shrugged and took a sip of his sweet tea. "She's a little psychic. Spooky as hell, especially when she looks at you like whatever your future is, it's going to be tasty." He shuddered.

"Then playing merry hob with the silver...." Hardison straightened in his seat, grinning over at Nate.

"Sterling, perhaps?" Nate commented, raising his eyebrows.

Parker looked pleased at that interpretation of her encounter with 'the evil Nate', as she'd referred to the agent. "So I was supposed to meet you guys and be a part of this team all along?" she asked brightly, tracing a finger around the rim of her water glass.

"Maybe, maybe not," Lindsey replied. "Destiny's a funny thing. Sometimes it's set in stone; sometimes all it takes to change it is a little elbow grease."

"Destiny, my ass," Eliot heard Hardison mumble under his breath. Nate didn't look much more convinced. Philosophically, Eliot agreed with them; but factually... well, they'd see, soon enough.

Lindsey ignored their byplay as he pushed back from the table and stood, glancing over at a new server finally approaching with his sandwich. "Mind boxing that up?" he asked the guy. Then, as the server hurried off to comply, he turned his attention back to Eliot's boss. "Back to the point: do y'all want to come along? Angel and Spike should be too distracted to notice anyone watching, and what I've got planned for them-- well. It should be all the convincing you'll need."

"We needed to do some observation of Angel anyway," Eliot commented quietly.

"I don't know, man," Hardison said skeptically, shaking his head. "Death Valley's way the fuck out there; that'll be a hell of a drive for a day-trip."

Nate considered that, then nodded slowly. "It wouldn't necessarily be that much of a loss. Since Parker apparently already believes in..." The older man paused, searching for an accurate way to describe the situation, "...vampires, and whatever else you wanted to show us, Eliot, she could scout the building while he's off chasing your brother's distraction." Then he seemed to realize what that implied and jerked his attention back towards Lindsey. "Wait. You're telling us that a vampire is running Wolfram and Hart?" he asked, incredulously.

"I told you there was crazy shit going on with them that you wouldn't believe," Eliot pointed out. "I know how it sounds, but the vampire thing is only the tip of the iceberg with these people."

Nate stared at him, then huffed a sigh and rubbed at his forehead. "You know, I think it's the fact that you said that with a straight face that bothers me the most. Whichever way things go tonight, we'll need to have a conversation afterward," he said, firmly. "Either about checking you and Parker into an asylum for a while," he softened that with a wry smile, "or about how you got involved with the supernatural world in the first place, and why you never said anything about it before."

"Fair enough." Eliot wasn't looking forward to that conversation, but he knew it was inevitable. He tossed a few bills on the table, then got up to take the sandwich box as the server returned. "Y'all mind if I ride with my brother?" he asked.

Nate glanced at Hardison; Hardison sighed, then tapped his ear and shook his head. "Whatever has the phones down is affecting the earbuds, too."

"Make sure you stay in sight of us," Nate decided after a moment.

"Will do," Eliot replied, with a significant glance at Lindsey.

Lindsey sketched an approximation of a salute in Nate's direction, then headed for the door.

Eliot paused long enough to hear Nate give the other two their marching orders, then nodded to himself and followed after him.

A brown paper grocer's bag occupied the near end of the old truck's bench seat. Eliot opened the passenger door, then shoved it over to the middle of the well-worn leather expanse and climbed in, glancing absently at the bag's contents. A golden, ornate cup with a studded pattern around the rim-- vaguely medieval-looking, though he wouldn't swear to any particular era-- was tucked in with a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a collection of energy bars. The contrast made him chuckle.

"So how serious were you, back there?" he asked aloud. "About the whole 'wheel of destiny' thing."

Lindsey settled behind the steering wheel and reached up to adjust the rearview mirror. "Very," he said, eyes tracking the progress of Nate and Hardison in the reflection as they walked to their rental car. "I've been planning this for months. The amulet I told you about was just the first step. Wolfram and Hart and Angel have all been obsessed about the prophecy regarding the vampire with a soul for years, and I found a way to bring another one into the picture. The Senior Partners will take care of the universal disequilibrium issue before it gets too serious-- they like this world the way it is, in all its dystopic splendor-- but in the meantime, it gives me a perfect window of opportunity to mess with Angel. There's no way to tell yet exactly where the chips will fall, but there is no bad outcome as far as I'm concerned."

Yeah; that was the smug face of Lindsey, triumphant. Eliot had his own, slightly more sharp-edged version, and he knew where it came from: a place of confidence, of knowing in your bones that you were stronger and more skilled than your foe.

It had been one thing when they were little kids playing games, but seeing that look on Lindsey now made Eliot deeply uneasy. These weren't people his brother was facing off against; they were demons, and in the grand scheme of things, Angel and his team were near the bottom of the ladder. Whatever Lindsey had done to himself in Nepal, the power had to have gone to his head if he thought he was the equal of a vampire hundreds of years old, much less capable of facing the powerful entities pulling that vampire's strings. It might be harder to get him away from the firm than Eliot had thought.

"What's your endgame in all of this, now?" he asked, as Lindsey finally started the truck and pulled away from the curb. "When we met up in Pakistan you said you just wanted to get free of them. Now you're talking about vengeance and destiny and screwing with the balance of the universe. The fucking universe, Lindsey. The one I live in, too. Do you still want out of your contract, or are you just going to try and do as much damage as you can, no matter what?"

Lindsey set his jaw. That was another thing that had always been the same between them: that baseline stubborn streak. It had used to take a lot more doing to uncover it in Lindsey, but it seemed to be running a lot closer to the surface these days.

"You weren't the only familiar face I saw over there, you know," he said after a moment, conversationally.

Eliot blinked at the change of topic. "Yeah? Who else did you run into?"

Lindsey blew out a breath, then reached toward him and made a 'gimme' motion, gesturing at the styrene box Eliot was still holding. "Lilah. Lilah Morgan."

Eliot cracked the box open and handed it over, frowning as he recalled the details from Hardison's briefing. "Lilah Morgan, as in the lawyer who took the job they were grooming you for? Lilah Morgan, as in the gal who got beheaded a year and a half later?"

Lindsey flipped the lid of the box up one-handed and plucked out a few of the fries that had been packaged with his club sandwich, chewing thoughtfully on them as the silence stretched. After a moment he swallowed and flicked his eyes in Eliot's direction, then snapped his attention back to the road.

Damn it; it had to be bad. "Tell me," Eliot insisted.

"It's one thing to know what the contract says," Lindsey finally said. "It's another thing to see it at work. Perpetuity clause, she called it. Dead and damned and still working for them. No matter how far I run, I've got to die some day, don't I? And when I do, I'll be sitting right there next to her at a desk in hell somewhere. After they make me pay for defying them, first."

Eliot swallowed. "I told you," he said. "We're going to get that contract back for you."

Lindsey shook his head. "Forgive me if I don't put all my eggs in that basket full of if," he said, and reached back into the box for one of the carefully cut sandwich quarters. "Besides, that's not even all of it," he added, a long, fraught moment later. "I-- look, there was this woman."

"Of course there was." Eliot sighed. "Not the lawyer, right?"

Lindsey snorted, then coughed as a fragment of bread crust went down the wrong way. "No, not the lawyer. Her name was Darla, and she was originally a vampire."

"What?" Eliot sputtered, straightening in his seat..

"Just shut up and let me finish," Lindsey cut him off, raising his voice a little. "She wasn't just any vampire, she was Angel's sire. The old Master turned her back in the early sixteen hundreds; she was nearly four hundred years old when Angel staked her back in '97. Wolfram and Hart raised her again a few years ago to try and control him; that was what we were doing when Angel showed up and cut off my hand. But they raised her human, alive, and pretty damn confused about everything. I took care of her for a while until they brought Drusilla in-- yeah, the vampire Parker said she met-- to try and turn her again. Did a number on Angel's head, all right; but I guess you could say... I got attached to her, too."

Did a number on Lindsey's heart, in other words, Eliot thought. He had a sinking feeling he knew where the story was going. "Funny you've never mentioned her before."

"Look, I knew what you'd say, all right?" Lindsey blurted, jabbing a hand in Eliot's direction for emphasis. "I knew it was a bad idea. I knew she'd never really care about me; she was as fixated on him as he was on her. Hell, she'd never even let me kiss her, after. They'd spent a hundred and fifty years together; how could I compete with that? I just thought..."

His voice trailed off as he struggled to find a positive way to finish that sentence, and he sighed. "I don't know what I was thinking. She used me, and I let her, but at the time it was all worth it. She needed me. Even after they made her a vampire again." He took a deep breath. "And then they told her he'd turn back into his old self if she fucked him, and she jumped at the chance. I didn't take it well when I found out, and by the time I came back, she was gone."

"But that was three years ago," Eliot said, turning to stare out the side window at the passing landscape as he tried not to show how appalled he felt at what he'd heard. What had Lindsey been thinking? It was one thing dating someone dangerous-- Mikel Dayan's face flashed through his mind at that thought, and he had to surreptitiously adjust himself at his body's automatic response-- but it was another thing entirely to date someone who saw humans as meat on the hoof. Just how suicidal had Lindsey been at that point in his life? Eliot had definitely stayed away too long.

"But what I didn't know when I left L.A.-- or when I ran into you a few months ago-- was that she was pregnant when she disappeared," Lindsey ground out, angry tension in the tenor of his voice and the way his fingers flexed on the wheel. "Which, I know, is supposed to be impossible; but Lilah had no reason to lie to me about that. She knew I cared more than I should have, but not anything more; I'm pretty sure she was just trying to touch a sore nerve."

Eliot's jaw dropped. Impossible was certainly one word for it; but there was a more urgent question pressing at him than how. "Was it--?"

Lindsey shook his head, a bitter frown pulling at the corners of his mouth. "Not hardly. It was Angel she went to, not me. Like I said: he's the type they write prophecies about. Not that it did her any good; Darla died a few months later for all he could do to help her. Lilah said their baby survived, but that Angel brokered some kind of hinky deal with Wolfram and Hart to erase all traces of him from this dimension, so even if I wanted to find out anything else it would be impossible. The only one I could get to that knows anything is Lilah, and the last thing I want to do is give her that kind of leverage over me."

Eliot sat still, digesting that for a moment. Much as he might disapprove of Darla as an object of his brother's affections, it was pretty clear Lindsey had been genuinely attached to her. And he remembered damn well how he'd felt when he'd finally returned from a job gone badly wrong to find Aimee with another man. Add to that, what he might have felt if she'd been killed while he was off on another continent; if she'd been pregnant; if the baby had vanished, with the blessing of the guy who'd been supposed to be protecting her. He swallowed down a rush of anger.

"So," he concluded, grimly. "Trying to do as much damage as you can, then."

"Not that I wouldn't take the contract back if you could get it," Lindsey agreed. "But you're not going to get that chance. Lilah said she watched her boyfriend burn hers up after she died, and it reappeared right back in its drawer. When the fuckers said the clauses in our contracts were bulletproof, they weren't kidding. You should put your friends on a plane back to Boston; there's nothing they can do here."

"And what about me?" Eliot asked, setting his jaw. "You going to tell me there's nothing I can do?"

Lindsey rolled his eyes. "Don't be an asshole," he said, then polished off the rest of the sandwich.

"Good." Eliot cracked his neck, then shifted lower on the bench seat, closing his eyes as he propped his neck against the headrest. He'd been too wired to catch his usual amount of sleep the night before; provided Lindsey didn't drive head-on into unexpected trouble, they should have enough time for him to catch up on a few of those winks on the way to wherever Lindsey was taking them. Without any clearer idea what they were walking into, there was nothing more for him to do until they got there, and more rest would be more beneficial than more worrying-- or more yelling at his brother.

A vampire girlfriend. And a literally fireproof contract. Damn it, Lindsey. All this time, he'd thought his life was the fucked up, dangerous one.

"Wake me when we get there, or if anything happens," he said.

"Don't worry, I will," Lindsey assured him, and turned the radio to something twangy and melodic.

Eliot stilled his mind, invoking both training and long practice, and seconds later was out like a light.

Some indeterminate amount of time later, he came awake again; the sun was still out, though much lower in the sky, watching over a sere, forsaken stretch of landscape that might as well have been part of Pakistan-- or West Texas-- for all it resembled the kind of scenery he usually associated with California. The truck was rolling toward a distant, crumbling building that must have been really something once upon a time. Even at a distance, what remained of the architecture was impressive.

"What the hell is that?" he muttered, straightening up and rubbing at the back of his neck. He felt stiff, and a little warm-- the air conditioning in the truck wasn't quite keeping up with the sauna outside-- but otherwise refreshed; it had to've been a few hours since they'd left the city. The slowing of the truck must have been what woke him; they weren't exactly keeping to highway speeds any more.

"It's creepier than fuck the way you do that, you know," Lindsey said, throwing him a startled glance. Then he shook his head and lifted his foot further off the gas, a rooster-tail of dirt flying up behind them as they rattled down the decaying road. "This is The Columns. It used to be a famous opera house back in the day, until the Death Valley 'quake back in '38. The town was dying anyway, so they never rebuilt it. But they never demolished it, either, and I figured it made an appropriately prophetic setting. As in, 'The earth will thrash and mark the appearance of the cup at the columns.'"

"When was that prophecy made?" Eliot asked him, furrowing his brow. The mere existence of the supernatural still made him queasy sometimes when he really thought about it, though he figured he'd come to accept it pretty well, all things considered. There was no percentage in denial, not in his line of work. The concept of destiny still really got his goat, though; he didn't like the implication that his choices might be dictated by some unknowable higher power. He'd had enough trouble with the knowable ones over the years to ever be comfortable with the concept.

Lindsey chuckled. "About a week ago, when I finally picked a location for my little sideshow," he said. "I fed the description to the guy I bought in their research department; Angel should have gone to him for clues by now, unless he's a lot slower than I remember."

"Not your usual contact?" Eliot guessed. At least, he hadn't thought 'Eve' was a guy's name-- though as much as Lindsey had changed the last few years, Eliot wouldn't have laid bets in either direction.

Lindsey shook his head, confirming Eliot's assumption. "No. Angel's team doesn't trust Eve, but they don't trust her because they still think she's in the pocket of the Senior Partners; they've got no idea she has her own agenda. Or that any of the department heads they displaced when they took over might be willing to act against the Senior Partners' plans if it might mean a chance to stick a fork in Angel's eye and get away with it. Their usual research guy, Wyndham-Pryce, is on leave, and his second has already betrayed one employer; it was a pretty simple deal to get Rutherford Sirk to misinterpret something for Angel if we provided him a way clear afterward."

A way clear? That didn't make any sense, given what Lindsey had said earlier. If he knew of one, then why the hell hadn't he used it himself? Eliot furrowed his brow. "You just got done telling me there's no way out of your contract. But you got this Sirk guy out?"

"There's out, and then there's out," Lindsey shook his head. "Like I said, he broke a contract before, with another employer capable of magically enforcing their clauses. No matter what he does, the afterlife's not going to be a walk in the park for him. I'm pretty sure that's why he came to Wolfram and Hart in the first place, since their binding spells are tighter than the Council's and will keep him from going to whatever purgatory dimension the Watchers use to wipe and reeducate their problem agents for the next generation."

Somehow, Eliot doubted Lindsey meant the same Council that he and Hardison had teased Parker about on that job with the nutty newscaster who'd been obsessed with conspiracies. Apart from that, though, he was coming up blank for references. "And that's supposed to mean something to me because...?"

Lindsey threw him an odd look. "How the hell do you know about vampires, but not the Watchers' Council? They're the ones in charge of the Vampire Slayers, for pete's sake."

Eliot shrugged, watching the opera house grow larger through the dusty windshield. "Like I told you, pretty much everything I know I either picked up on jobs or from one of my senseis that year I spent in the Far East. Never ran into any Council, or Slayers, while I was there."

Lindsey's mouth twisted as though he'd bitten into a lemon. "Lucky you," he said. Then he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Nevermind. That's not important right now. The point is, Sirk just wanted a change of scenery. Out of this dimension, someplace he can live it up until he dies without worrying about someone turning him in. After that... he's still in the same boat I am. Why d'you think they never bothered to track me down those first few months, back when you could have knocked me over with a kitten? They know they'll get me when I die; what's a few more years compared to eternity?"

Eliot swallowed, not any happier about his brother's doom-and-gloom mindset than he'd been before his nap. "So. You cut him loose. With a shitload of money, I'm assuming. Was that wise, burning your investment in him up with one job?"

"It's not like I'm planning a long campaign, here," Lindsey shrugged. "And the money doesn't matter, as long as it gets me results. Power's the real commodity in this world."

And now that he had some, he was damn well going to use it while he could, Eliot read between the lines. He'd use himself up in the process, too, if he wasn't careful, and he didn't even really seem to care.

Eliot sighed. Well, he'd never expected it to be easy. "So you fed them a fake prophecy? Makes sense. It's always easier to con someone who already half-believes what you're trying to sell him."

"Exactly," Lindsey said, pulling the truck to a halt at last in the shadow of the damaged building.

The truck's engine was still ticking noisily as it cooled to ambient temperature-- not that it had all that far to go, as high as the temperature was-- when Hardison and Nate pulled up behind them. Lindsey fetched a pair of water bottles out of the toolbox behind the seat and tossed one to Eliot; Eliot took a long drink of the warm liquid, half-emptying the bottle, and exchanged a nod of greeting with his boss and friend. Then he fetched the grocer's bag from the seat and strode toward what seemed to have been the building's front doors. Whatever the cup Lindsey had brought was made of, it was at least as heavy as the two-liter of Mountain Dew that would undoubtedly be used to fill it; the thing had to've been custom-made out of actual metal, if it wasn't an authentic relic of some kind. Sophie would have known which.

But of course, she wasn't there. Eliot really didn't get why Nate had let things between him and Sophie fester for so long; he wished they'd just settle it already, one way or another, and stop fucking up the team dynamic. If Nate had said word one about his feelings to Sophie on that little trip he'd took to London she'd already be back, no question about it; and if she'd ever come right out and said what she wanted from him in the first place, Nate would never have let her leave-- or at least been more persistent about bringing her back. It wasn't really Eliot's place, but sooner or later someone was going to have to say something or the built-up tension would drive him as crazy as Parker.

He turned his attention back to the situation at hand, eyeing the damaged doors. They were off their hinges, of course, hanging cock-eyed and cracked, the pillars framing them half-collapsed from the quake that had disturbed the opera house's foundations. Dirt had drifted across the threshold over the sixty plus years since the place had closed, though not quite as much as Eliot would have expected; even in generally dry climates, the environment could do a lot of damage to a place in that amount of time. He handed the grocer's bag to Lindsey, then proceeded first to scout the place.

Lindsey rolled his eyes-- he'd probably checked the place out on his own when he'd first chosen it for his little scheme-- but let him at it; he might be physically stronger than Eliot after those magical cheats of his, but he didn't have anything like Eliot's experience and he knew it. Nate nodded as he and Hardison approached, and Hardison tapped at his ear to remind Eliot that the comms were down.

Right, Eliot thought. He'd have to remember to stay in visual range. He stepped slowly through into the entrance area, then paused to take in the interior of the structure a little more thoroughly. He assessed the cracks in the walls, the patterned wallpaper split and peeling away in great yellowed swaths, and the dirty, time-dulled tiles that must have been a bitch to wax back in the day, then reached a hand out and beckoned the others forward. For having been abandoned so long, the place was still in fairly remarkable shape; there wasn't even all that much dust on the remaining furnishings, and it didn't seem likely to fall down around their ears in the next couple of hours.

There were a couple of sets of tracks barely visible, fresh scuff marks smearing their way across the tiles and leaving disturbances in the crumbling carpeting of the halls where someone had tried-- but not quite managed-- to be careful. Eliot figured them for Lindsey's; the shoe size matched his own, so it was a pretty safe bet. The place seemed otherwise long-deserted, musty as hell but not particularly dangerous.

"I'd expected worse," he told his brother. "Where were you looking to set up? The main stage?"

Lindsey shrugged. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure a clan of half-breeds was using it as a gathering place until the Scourge came through. They never bothered the left-over furnishings-- they weren't actually living here, and they didn't want to attract attention from the humans-- but they didn't much like the dust and mold."

"Who does?" Hardison shrugged, looking bemused as he came up behind them. "Totally apart from the smell, it's hell on electronic equipment."

"They were probably more concerned with their health," Nate commented. "Although I hesitate to generalize, given that you seem to be implying that they weren't human, and thus might have different physical weaknesses. I take it they weren't vampires, either?"

His gaze was sharp and assessing, but he still seemed to be extending the benefit of the doubt; not ready to accept what Eliot was telling him, but not dismissive either, as though Eliot were a particularly perplexing client. He was starting to look forward to the moment Nate realized humanity really wasn't alone on their planet; he'd never met a single 'civilized' human being that hadn't first reacted with shock and denial, and he didn't think Nate was going to be that person, analytical genius or not.

"No," Lindsey said. "I'm not sure what kind of demon, though; it wasn't in any of the client files I stole for blackmail purposes back in the day, and it wasn't important enough to risk Eve's cover digging for it now. They're all gone now, regardless."

"Demons," Hardison said in disgusted tones, shaking his head. "Like fire and brimstone, demons? Whatever, man. Your proof had better be pretty damn convincing after all this."

"Damned, at least," Eliot muttered to himself as he slunk ahead of the group again, approaching the old auditorium. It was a fairly sizeable space, with a balcony above a wide, sloping floor full of seating that led down to the stage and its attendant orchestra pit, all done up in dark, rich colors and opulent fabrics. He wouldn't want to try any of the chairs-- he wasn't about to trust his weight to them after more than a half-century of probable decay-- but the stage itself had been solidly constructed. At the right side, half-obscured by the worn, moth-eaten curtain, an enormous, bronzed statue with upraised arms still presided over the space Lindsey probably intended to use to bait his trap. If the woodwork could support that, odds were it wouldn't collapse under a human's weight.

"Looks clear," he said. "You want us all to go in? These kind of conditions are as bad as snow for leaving tracks, and I've heard about vampire senses."

Lindsey wrinkled his brow, considering. "Better take them up to the balcony; pick one of the boxes. I'll follow you up in a minute and draw some concealment runes; they'll have no reason to go up there, and we'll be as good as invisible unless they stumble right over us."

Eliot nodded, and gestured Hardison and Nate toward the stairs.

Hardison eyed the walls carefully the whole way, probably filling in a set of floor plans in his mind, or maybe tracing out the old wiring. Nate was more absorbed with the decaying décor; neither of them said anything until they were out of visual and audio range of Eliot's brother.

"You sure about this, Eliot?" Nate murmured, as Eliot tested his weight on the stairs. They creaked a little under his feet, but seemed sound enough.

"You have to admit," Hardison added, "from our perspective, it all sounds a little far-fetched."

"Y'all followed us out here, didn't you?" Eliot countered, grimly. Their disbelief was starting to wear on him a little, reasonable or not. Did they really think he'd be a party to such an elaborate hoax on them, after the fit he'd thrown over Sophie's shenanigans? Conning the team was one thing he'd never be a party to. "Don't tell me you didn't spend the last couple of hours talking about all the strange things you've seen that might have been a little hard to explain at the time."

Hardison and Nate exchanged wary glances.

"Thought so," Eliot told them, then led the way into one of the boxes. It provided a good view of what Lindsey was up to on the stage, as he moved a short pillar into the beam of a spotlight he must've arranged up in the scaffolding during a previous visit. He spent a moment carefully placing the ornate, heavy goblet, then uncapped the two-liter and poured a mouthful or so of Mountain Dew into its basin.

"We'll set up here," Eliot said, testing his weight against the smooth wooden railing as though doing vertical push-ups. It creaked between the tarnished bronze endcaps, but held. "I don't trust the seats, but the floor and the rails seem solid enough. We'll have a decent view."

"Of what?" Hardison asked, looming at Eliot's side as he frowned down at the stage. Lindsey had put the bottle of Dew back in his bag, and was carefully retracing his steps back through the auditorium. "What's with the fancy cup? He steal it off this Angel guy?"

"Nothing that simple," Eliot said. "It's part of the con he's running on him. I'll let him explain the details later; it'll make more sense after he gives y'all the 'World Is Older Than You Know' speech."

"And why aren't you the one giving it to us?" Nate asked, stepping up on the other side of him. He had a slight furrow to his brow, as though warding off an impending headache.

"Yeah, why aren't you?" Lindsey asked, entering the box behind them. "I know you know the basics." He set the bag down on the floor by one wall, then crouched by it and pulled a piece of long, dark-colored chalk from his pocket; it made him look like a wayward college student, about to commit an act of graffiti.

Eliot shook his head, watching as Lindsey began to trace a strange, exotic symbol-- a rune, he'd said-- over the surface of the faded wallpaper. "Practical knowledge, maybe, but not the whole history thing," he said. "I've run across some things, found a few teachers to show me how to deal with 'em if I ever encountered them again. I wasn't much interested in the hows and whys; I just wanted to know how to take 'em down. My book-loving brother, on the other hand...." He aimed a pointed look at his brother.

Lindsey chuckled. "Yeah, I got the detailed introduction after I joined the firm. They snag you first, get you to sign on the dotted line, and then introduce you to your first demon client after it's too late to run. Then they give you the lecture and the reference list." He sketched a few more bold, curving lines and thick, connecting strokes, then moved a few feet to the side and began again.

"How much older than we know?" Nate asked intently, watching the ex-lawyer's hands as he worked.

"No one's exactly sure," Lindsey replied. "The documentation doesn't exactly go back that far. The closest thing there is to an official history starts like this...."

By the time the sun had set, Nate was looking much more uneasy-- as though he were on the verge of discovering proof of something he'd rather not know, and was wishing he still carried another kind of proof, eighty or better, to block it all out again. Hardison had taken a more technical tack, as hungry for information as ever; he'd been peppering Lindsey and Eliot with question after question, trying to catch them in a lie or find out just how much he had to learn, Eliot wasn't sure which. Either way, he wasn't happy about the situation, nor about the fact that the 'net was still down and he couldn't hack his way online to tap his own sources of information.

Fortunately, the vampires they'd been waiting for weren't all that far behind them. Something to do with "necro-tempered glass" in the car, according to Lindsey-- probably what had caused the weird refraction index Parker had noted in the windows at their office. Eliot had made a mental note to have Hardison track the supplier down when everything was over and take them down with extreme prejudice; it didn't sit well with him, the idea that a product like that might have enough customers to be profitable. How many damn vampires were there in the corporate world, anyway?

At least two too many. Eliot heard the guests of honor coming long before they saw them; neither one was making any real effort to conceal their presence. He straightened and pulled back from the rail when he heard boots in the upper hall-- he wasn't quite ready to trust his life to a pattern of ink, no matter what his brother said, without at least readying himself for the alternative-- and listened as a voice with a muddled British accent announced its presence.

"Here we are, then," the stranger taunted the opera house at large. "Two vampire heroes, competing to wet our whistle with a drink of light, refreshing torment."

"Is that what you think you are, a hero?" a second voice-- American, this time-- replied, dismissively.

Behind Eliot, Lindsey hissed in recognition. "Showtime."

"Saved the world, didn't I?" the first voice continued. The guy sounded cocky, defiant, and determined; like someone it might be fun to scrap with, if he was human and Eliot had the time. That had to be Spike.

Which meant the other one had to be Angel. Eliot curled his lip, waiting for the older vampire's reply, and glanced cautiously at his brother's avid, predatory expression.

"Once," Angel said, his voice a little fainter than Spike's-- wherever he was in the opera house, he was further from the team than his companion was. "Talk to me after you've done it a couple more times."

Nate shifted at Eliot's side, swallowing audibly. "We really aren't talking mass hallucinations, or metaphors, or misinterpreted medical conditions, are we?" he murmured, under his breath.

Eliot shook his head. "Nope."

"So they really are..." He trailed off as a man with bleached blond hair emerged onto a balcony halfway around the curve of the auditorium, and a taller man, recognizably Angel, stormed through the doors on the main level. The British blond-- definitely Spike-- leaped down from the balcony as Angel drew close to the stage, and the pair faced off against one another.

"Thought it would be a little less goldeny, what with the torment and all," Spike observed, as the small party of observers looked on, breaths held.

"So... what do we do now?" Angel asked.

"The same thing we do every night, Pinky," Hardison stage-whispered, strangled laughter in his voice.

Eliot bit back an inappropriate grin as Spike gave his own form of answer-- delivered with a fist.

"What do you think?" the younger vampire taunted.

Nate and Hardison watched wide-eyed as Angel flew back a truly improbable distance at that punch-- and even more improbable acrobatics ensued immediately after. If they'd been human, he'd have been checking for wires-- but if they'd been human, they'd probably never have gone flying in the first place; their supernatural strength gave them more power, but less control over it. Eliot kept half his attention on his co-workers as he mentally critiqued the rather sloppy fight, and knew to the second when the reality of the thing finally sank in for both of them.

Or not, as the case might be. Nate went chalk-pale and put his head down on the rail for a moment when both vampires finally shifted into their natural forms, breathing deeply between his braced hands; Hardison, on the other hand, suddenly went all gleeful and calculating in the eyes, his hands twitching as though holding something small and electronic. Like he was watching a battle in one of his online games. Eliot would have to thrash that out of him later-- approaching the supernatural world with anything less than a completely realistic grasp of the consequences was the kind of thing that got people killed, and not always the one making the assumptions, either.

Nate mastered himself after a moment and looked back up, glancing first at the runes Lindsey had painstakingly fenced them in with, then over the rail at the fight raging all around the carefully placed cup, all of his intensity focused on the pair of fighters. They fought with words, with fists, with rebar, with crosses, with splinters; as blood flowed sluggishly from wounds that would have killed human combatants and foreheads wrinkled and straightened, shifting between human and vampire masks.

Lindsey had been right; Eliot couldn't have asked for a better demonstration of the reality-- and the danger-- of the supernatural world if he'd tried.

'Course, they still had to get out of the opera house in one piece. The way the vampires were systematically breaking things with their bodies, that might not be guaranteed.

Finally, the beatings and the speechifying wound down, and it was the upstart, not the figure of Lindsey's long obsession, who stood triumphant and reached for the cup. Eliot had heard his brother make a guttural noise of disappointment when Spike merely wounded Angel rather than killing him, but that changed to a satisfied chuckle at the look on Spike's face after tasting the Mountain Dew.

"Not exactly what I had in mind," he said, "but it's a start."

Eliot rolled his eyes at him. "Don't let it go to your head," he replied in low, irritated tones, then reconsidered. "Or better yet-- do. Where was that confidence when you were talking about your contract? Idiot. If you can fool them...."

Lindsey sobered. "Compared to the Senior Partners, Angel's like-- like an ant. Pulling one over on them is going to take...."

"....a hell of a lot of effort, and more people than just you working on the problem," Eliot replied, crossing his arms in front of him. He kept the corner of his eye on the bewildered tableau still taking place on the stage, but the silencing aspect of the runes had already been demonstrated to his satisfaction, and the current conversation was much more important. "Nothing's impossible. It's just a question of scale...."

"And leverage," Nate broke in, quietly. "Now that we know we're after more than just a piece of paper. Aren't we."

Lindsey raised his eyebrows at Eliot, then glanced over at the focused faces of his teammates. "Yeah," he said, bluntly. "You know how they say money endangers the soul...."

Nate looked grim; but Hardison still had a sense of the absurd left in him, and shook his head. "No way, man, no way. People really can literally sign over their souls?"

Lindsey shrugged. "I was young. I didn't believe in anything I couldn't touch with my own two hands, and they offered me more money than I'd ever seen in my life. I thought the clause was a joke."

"But the joke was on you," Nate said, softly.

"Ha ha, right?" Lindsey smirked, though the brittle tension in his stance lent a razor's edge to the expression. "You still wonder why I didn't want y'all here? My soul, my problem."

"Then let us help you steal it back," Nate countered, "so you can captain it as you see fit."

"What he said," Hardison shrugged.

Lindsey glanced between the three of them again, measuringly, one at a time. Then he shook his head and sighed. "What the hell," he said. "You really want to try, who am I to stop you?"

Finally, Eliot thought, relieved. Aloud, he commented, "You never could when we were kids. Why start now?"

"I seem to remember that the other way around," Lindsey retorted.

Hardison shook his head at that. "Y'all really are more alike than any two people should be, even given that whole identical twin thing you got going," he said.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Eliot groused automatically, irritated as always by the comparison.

Lindsey rolled his eyes at him. "Give it up already. Mama always did use to say we were one soul born in two bodies. If only she knew, right?"

A sudden in-drawn breath from Nate pre-empted Eliot's intended reply. He glanced down to make sure the vampires had finished staggering out of the auditorium-- they had-- and then fixed his boss with an inquisitive expression. "What?" he asked sharply. "You just thought of something, didn't you?"

Nate just smiled at him, that little pleased-with-himself look that he tended to get in the middle of a heist just before the pieces started clicking into place. "I need to see the exact wording of the contract," he told Lindsey, "but yes, I think I've thought of something."

"Don't keep us in suspense," Hardison prompted him, with an eloquent glance toward the empty stage. "'Cause I think we've had more than enough of that for one evening."

Nate just shook his head. "Contract first. Speculation after," he insisted, though he continued to look thoughtfully smug.

Lindsey frowned skeptically at him, then reached up to touch the nearest wall. The rune drawing immediately under his fingertips suddenly shimmered and began to flake away from the wallpaper, shedding itself in a shower of powdered ink; the effect spread away from the point where his fingertips rested in a series of widening ripples, until the box looked more or less the same as it had when they'd entered, with the sole addition of a near-invisible layer of darkened dust.

"Let's get a move on, then," he said. "The sooner we test your theory, the sooner I can get on with my plan. I hope you realize, I ain't going to stop gunning for Angel just on your say-so."

"Never even crossed my mind," Nate replied easily, though the blandness of his tone gave the lie to his words. "So where are we headed? Do you keep a copy of your contract anywhere outside of the office?"

Lindsey frowned at him as he brushed his palms against each other, rubbing off the grit. Then he picked up the paper bag, much lighter without the cup to weigh it down. "No. They don't make copies; they stay in our files. Something about corporate espionage. It never mattered to me before I left the first time; and it didn't seem that important when I was deciding what to take later on."

Nate made an interrogative noise, half question and half 'aha!', as the four of them began to file out of the box and head for the stairs down to the main level of the opera house. "I don't suppose you remember any of the language it used, in specific? For example, given what was at stake, I can't imagine they included any version of the usual at-will employment clause?"

Hardison made a choking noise. "Either party may terminate this Agreement by written notice at any time for any reason or for no reason," he quoted in a deliberately deep, chanting voice, as though recalling something he'd had all too many occasions to memorize. "Yeah, more like we reserve the right. There's reasons I never lasted in any of those cubicle farm jobs, you know."

"You're telling me all this time it was philosophical differences?" Eliot elbowed his younger teammate. "And here I thought it was just boredom."

"Hey!" Hardison objected. "I reject your version of reality and substitute my own."

Lindsey snorted. "It would take a lot more power than you've got to pull that off. But, no; there was nothing like that, that I remember. There was plenty about outside business activities and benefits and non-disclosure, the usual language, embroidered with plenty of whereases and wherefores. The only real unusual part was the bit about the soul. Like I said-- at the time, I thought that was a joke."

"How about arbitration, or severance?" Nate prodded further, as they picked their way back across the entrance hall. The floor, which had seemed relatively smooth in the late evening light, was a minefield of shifting footing in the star-flecked darkness pouring in through the broken doors.

"I think it said that was at the discretion of the...." Lindsey began, then froze, staring in Nate's direction. Hardison nearly bumped into him; Eliot reached out from his trailing position to snag the hacker's shirt, staring warily at what he could make out of his brother's expression.

"Yes?" Nate prompted, calmly. "At the discretion of...?"

"You have got to be kidding," Lindsey sputtered. "You want me to... You're suggesting that I... Damn it, I just got done telling you I wasn't going to stop gunning for him on your say-so!"

"Hmmm," Nate mused to himself. "Let's call that Plan D, then."

"Plan D? You mean we have a plan, now?" a fifth, feminine voice suddenly spoke up in Eliot's ear, and he reached up to touch his earbud, startled.

"'Cause a plan would be good," she continued, sounding disgruntled. "I got away from their security guys when they started bleeding from the eyes, but I had to go back out; I never got near Files and Records. They caught me too quick. I think they have sensors or, hey, maybe spells or something on the roof."

"Parker!" Nate barked. "I thought I told you to stay outside and observe!"

Eliot could almost see the pout on Parker's face as she replied. "I know! But they were all so distracted, running around like someone had pulled the fire alarm. I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

Nate reached up to pinch at the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "Well, what's done is done. Are you all right? What did you mean when you said 'bleeding from the eyes'?"

"I don't know, they just went crazy," she said, dismissively. "But at least the comms are back up. Did Hardison fix them?"

"No, not me," Hardison commented. "Must've been that disequilibrium thing Eliot's brother was talking about, fixing itself."

"Told you," Lindsey said. "The Senior Partners don't want the whole world to die any more than we do."

"Anyway," Parker said, "I'm back at the apartment. What do you want me to do now?"

"Draw us up some specs on what you saw of the security," Nate told her. "We'll be there in a few hours." Then he stepped through the doors, silhouetted momentarily by a silvering of thin moonlight. "In the meantime...." He eyed the others as they exited. "Eliot, I hope you don't mind if I switch places with you for the drive back?"

Eliot glanced between Lindsey and his boss, a sudden apprehension curdling in his gut. There were reasons, beyond the estrangement and the legal barriers, why he'd never introduced any of his family to the team; Aimee and her dad had done enough damage to his hitter image. It was a valid request, though, given their need to plan and the fact that they'd brought two vehicles.

"Sure, whatever," he shrugged, then walked over to Lindsey and swiped the bag of supplies out of his arms. He fished around in it for a moment, came up with a couple of energy bars, and handed it back again. "There. See you in a few hours."

Lindsey handed the bag off to Nate, then waved Eliot off. "I have to stop by my place first to check on Eve, but we won't be far behind."

"And I'll keep my earbud in," Nate assured him. Then he climbed into the truck, already nose-deep in his machinations. "So. I was thinking...."

Eliot shook his head at them, then turned to Hardison. "Guess you're stuck with me, man."

Hardison just grinned at him; an eager, inquisitive expression that reminded him a little of an overgrown hound puppy. "Good," he said. "Details, I want details! You been holding out on us all this time."

Eliot groaned, resting his forehead against the roof of the rental car before opening the door and climbing in. "Yeah, so I could avoid this conversation," he groused. It was going to be a long trip.

Nate interrupted Hardison's waterfall of questions only a couple of times during the long, dark drive, clicking his earbud on to check in. Eliot dearly wished he could have listened in on the rest of Nate's conversation with Lindsey-- it would have been a lot less trying than struggling to come up with concise answers for all the minutiae Hardison wanted explained to him-- but no dice. They'd have to wait 'til the plan was in motion to get the particulars.

Not that that was all that unusual, for them. But it galled, when his brother was the focus of the job in question, over and beyond any stories Lindsey might be telling about him in between all the planning. Eliot held a rein on his temper as best he could, munched his energy bar, and talked about his encounters with the supernatural in the shortest sentences he could get away with.

It wasn't as though he were some kind of vampire hunter or anything; he hadn't ever set foot in that world on purpose. But a retrieval expert with a reputation like his was practically guaranteed to get called over that line, sooner or later, if he lived long enough; there was always some jackass out there who thought he could save money or face or time by hiring the deadliest human possible rather than deal directly with the brimstone crowd. He'd learned to ask a few pointed questions after the second cursed object he'd been sent to retrieve-- though his screening methods hadn't been entirely foolproof. Good thing, too. If they had, he'd never have met Ilona Costa Bianchi, and he wouldn't have his ace in the hole, now.

It wasn't one he was eager to use; they'd try Nate's methods first. But if worse came to worst, the thing he'd picked up from the East Coast office-- and had independently identified, after-- would allow him to exchange himself for his brother. If one of them had to be condemned for the things he'd done.... at least it would buy Lindsey and the team a little more time to find a solution. Lindsey was the one who knew the ins and outs of this world, after all; and Eliot would willingly take the punishment to save his brother, no matter what kind of terms they were on.

Hell, these days he'd even take that kind of punishment for Hardison, or Parker, or Nate, or even Sophie; much as he'd still deny it if they asked. They'd become family by choice, as much as Lindsey and their sisters and nephew were by blood.

Not Tara, though. He wrinkled his nose as they pulled up in front of his apartment, thinking of the substitute grifter for the first time since they'd left her behind in Boston. She was an attractive enough woman, and skilled at her job, but he'd trust Lindsey as their front man before he'd trust her with anything of real value. Her motivations were just too different to rely on.

He stepped out of the car into the waxing pale light of pre-dawn, then stretched carefully, working out the knots in his spine. It would be a while yet, he'd bet, before his brother would join them; meanwhile, it might be good to cook up some breakfast, and schedule another nap. None of them would be good for much without a few more hours' rest, except maybe Parker; no doubt she'd wedged herself into a quiet corner and caught a few winks while she waited.

The door slammed behind him as Hardison joined him at the curb, unwrapping another of Lindsey's supply of energy bars and chewing half-heartedly at it. Eliot nodded at him, then walked up to the apartment and cracked the door carefully, standing off to one side just in case.

Parker flew through the door a few seconds later, and he chuckled to himself as Hardison dropped the half-eaten bar to stagger backward under her onslaught. She'd heard them coming, all right. Probably left her comm on as she slept.

"Hello to you, too," he said, watching the thief hug the air out of their hacker.

At his comment, she abandoned Hardison to bounce over to him; but rather than hug him, she stopped a couple of feet away and made a round motion with her arms in the air between them. "Virtual hug!" she chirped, grinning, then skipped back into the apartment.

Eliot shook his head. "I think she's been into the orange soda already," he murmured to a dazed Hardison, then followed Parker in, his mood unaccountably lifted by her familiar, bizarre behavior. "Who wants eggs and bacon?"

"With chives and salsa?" Parker called back.

Hardison snorted, closing the door behind them. "I'll put the coffee on," he said. "Can't taste any worse than that thing I was just eating."

Even the disgustingly smug, sated look on Lindsey's face when he and Nate arrived forty-five minutes later couldn't taint Eliot's improved mood; he just raised an eyebrow at his boss and commented, "Tell me he didn't."

Nate gave him a disgruntled look, but didn't bother to reply, trudging into the kitchen with a yawn and making a beeline toward the coffee pot.

"You made him wait in the car while you made a booty call?" Hardison chortled, hunched over his laptop again with a mess of eggs and ketchup cooling slowly at his elbow. "Nate, man, you should have commed us, or called a cab. What if he'd left you out there all night?"

"Hey now," Lindsey replied, rolling his eyes. "I had to get Eve's report of what went on in the office today, and I didn't think it would be wise for her to know y'all were here. What was I supposed to do?"

"Taking her report, huh?" Parker asked, eyeing him mischievously over her glass of mixed orange juice and soda. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days."

Lindsey firmed his jaw, glaring at her, and didn't answer.

Eliot smirked and handed him a plate piled with hot breakfast food. "Seriously though, guys. We a go for this afternoon, or are we waiting for nightfall?"

Nate yawned again and took a long pull of coffee. "From what Lindsey says, their defenses aren't optimized by working hours-- it doesn't really matter what time of day we show up, just that there's a distraction when we do so."

"Yeah," Lindsey said, sliding onto a stool at the kitchen counter and picking up a fork. "The imbalance thing would have been perfect, if I hadn't had other plans already. All my other ideas for interference are more long-term, though; they need a lot more time to set up than we really have available. I do know of one other sure-fire way to stir things up over there, but it's kind of unpredictable; we'd have to watch and wait, and go the minute the opportunity opens, no matter whether it's tonight or tomorrow."

"If it's so unpredictable, how can you be sure it'll work at all?" Eliot had to ask.

Lindsey pointed at him with his fork. "You said you ran into Aimee a few months ago. I remember what your relationship was like back in the day; how'd she react when she saw you again?"

Eliot frowned at the non sequitur, momentarily preoccupied by memories of heated arguments and a certain hay-filled stall, then raised his eyebrows as the most likely reason for the question registered with him. "Old girlfriend?" he asked.

"Of both of them," Lindsey assured him. "Her people are already upset with Angel for taking over the firm-- or so Eve tells me. And no one's contacted her to tell her Spike's not dead anymore. Send her the right message, and a hundred to one she'll be on the next plane. No telling what she'll do when she gets here, but she'll make a damn fine distraction, one way or another."

"You're talking about Buffy Summers," Eliot realized, recalling Lindsey's lecture back at the opera house.

"As in the current Slayer? Vampire, comma, The?" Hardison asked, then hit a few keys on his laptop and swiveled it around on the counter. "This woman, right here, kills scary monsters for a living?"

The image on the screen was a few years old, going by the fashions; the girl-- because she definitely was a girl, little better than a teenager-- showing off a compact package of toned skin, slender assets, sun-kissed blonde hair and green eyes dramatically fringed with dark mascara. Eliot raised an eyebrow at the image, silently agreeing with Hardison's assessment, then frowned, something urging him to look past the Valley Girl glamour to the lines of tension around her eyes and the steel in her stance.

That was no ignorant cheerleader. That was a girl everyone would underestimate-- at their own peril. And not half because of the name. Who the hell named their kids things like Buffy-- or Skyler, or Widmark, anyway? Almost made him glad not to've grown up around money. "Distraction, hell. Ain't that overkill?" he asked.

Hardison blinked at him, then turned the laptop around again, glancing between Eliot and the girl's picture in clear disbelief.

"No, it's just enough kill," Lindsey replied. "She'll set off half the sensors in the building, even if she doesn't bring any of her friends. We'll use that to get in and make our way to Files and Records. Cameras won't see me no matter what, but we'll need the noise to cover for the rest of you. Once we have the contract, we try Plan A-- or B, or C, whichever fits. Hopefully not D." He frowned. "There won't be any better opportunity than while Angel and his staff are still off-balance from her visit."

"And if all y'all's plans all fall through?" Hardison asked, raising his eyebrows at Nate. "There's no plan M in this one, right?"

"No," Nate replied, pouring himself a second cup of coffee. "There is a plan F, but that one involves Lindsey releasing an enormous, destructive monster and setting off all the alarms in the building, so..."

"Why don't I ever feature in these last-ditch plans?" Parker pouted at him.

"And on that cheerful note," Eliot rolled his eyes and finished dishing up his own breakfast. He planned on showering, stealing another ninety minutes or so of shut-eye, and then stretching his muscles; he hadn't been through his full routine in a couple of days. Whatever happened that day, he wanted to be ready for it.

Hardison smothered a yawn of his own, drooping over his plate, and closed his laptop screen with a frown. "A'ight. I'll put a few feelers out, then catch some zees; we'll know the minute she arrives in town. Though I still think y'all's crazy."

"Understood," Nate said, then gestured in the vicinity of his ear with splayed pinky finger and thumb, mimicking a phone. Right; it would be mid-afternoon where Sophie was. "I'm just going to...."

"Me, too," Lindsey said. "I'll get the ball rolling. Mind if I borrow your couch, after? I told Eve I'd be gone a couple of days, running a time-sensitive errand."

"Mi casa, su casa," Eliot shrugged at him, spearing a strip of hot bacon on the point of his knife.

He paused with the knife half-way to his mouth as he realized he actually meant it; nothing that had happened since they'd met up again had really settled any of the issues that had set them on such different paths when they were teenagers, but maybe... maybe they were past it enough now, grown enough, it didn't matter. He'd always cared, would always have come running if needed, but that hadn't ever seemed like enough of a reason to make the effort to bury the hatchet.

Maybe they didn't have to, though. Maybe it didn't matter who'd been right, and who'd been wrong, and whether they'd just been too stubborn to even consider apologizing. He'd just been thinking earlier that he'd trust his brother as part of his team before he would Tara Cole-- maybe that wasn't such a far-fetched idea, after all. If Sophie weren't ready to return soon-- or even if she was; they'd needed to fake legal qualifications often enough--

Lindsey must've caught the arrested motion, because he paused in the doorway, gripping the frame. Without the smug smile, he looked tired, and open, and a little awkward, blue eyes for once free of defensiveness or calculation. "Thanks, by the way," he said. "For, you know." He waved his other hand around in the air a little, completely failing to elaborate. "In case I haven't said it."

"You didn't have to," Eliot said, then shrugged uncomfortably and popped the bacon into his mouth, chewing heartily to avoid having to say anything further.

Yeah, that just might be worth looking into, after all.

Hours later, Eliot was just finishing up with a round of Tai Chi when Hardison stumbled out of his guest room, clutching bleary-eyed at an iPhone. He stifled a yawn, then kicked at the couch as he passed it, jarring Lindsey out of slumber. Eliot slowed his routine to a halt and swiped a hand towel over the back of his neck as Lindsey blinked his way awake and Hardison continued his zombie routine into the kitchen, heading straight for the refrigerator and its stash of orange soda.

"What d'you do that for?" Lindsey grumbled, rubbing at the crease the pillow seam had left on his face.

"'Scuse me, maybe I was hearing things, but I thought you wanted to know when the eagle had landed," Hardison bitched right back at him. "You didn't tell me she had wings!"

"The hell do you mean, wings?" Eliot asked, drifting over to crane his neck at the slick little screen.

A blurry window of imagery that looked like the view from a security camera across the street from Wolfram and Hart was cycling through a small loop, tracking a blonde-haired woman as she briefly moved through its angle of view to enter the building in question. She looked about the right height, though Eliot couldn't have positively identified her; if Hardison's software had flagged the clip, though, he trusted that it was indeed the girl in question.

"I don't know how the hell else she could have got here so quick," Hardison replied, turning the screen to shove it in Lindsey's face as the ex-lawyer followed them into the kitchen.

"Damn," he swore, staring at the picture. "When was this?"

"Two-- no, three minutes ago," Hardison said, pouring himself a glass of soda with one hand while he jabbed at the image to bring up the timestamp with the other. "No airports, no train stations, no mall security, no nothing; this is the first clue I had she was even in the country!"

"Well, I did say she was unpredictable." Lindsey shook his head. "Guess she thought it was urgent enough to teleport. Let's just hope that means she's got a lot she wants to say to them." Then he reached out, snagging the glass of soda out of Hardison's hand just as the hacker raised it to his lips, and tossed it back like it was water.

"You did not just do that," Hardison stared at him, thoroughly nonplused, then turned to Eliot like he could do something about it.

"Don't look at me," Eliot told him, then turned and strode for the bedroom, picking up speed as he moved. He pounded on Nate's and Parker's guest doors as he passed them-- not that he thought Parker was actually either sleeping, or in her bed, but he trusted her to be at least in earshot-- and made straight for the bathroom, peeling off his workout clothes as he went.

Twelve minutes later they were all out the door, dressed and ready for at least the first iteration of the plan, if not in the depth of detail they'd hoped for. Lindsey and Eliot, who would be all too recognizable if they went in the front doors, would be taking a slightly more circuitous route into the building; Parker, dressed in her sharpest professional wear and with a heavily fluffed hairstyle to dissociate her from the ponytailed girl in the jumpsuit caught by security the day before, would go in the front to distract the secretary; and once Ms. Kendall was thoroughly engrossed in Parker's dramatics, Nate and Hardison would choose their moment to slip in unobtrusively and bypass the front desk.

Thanks to Parker's aborted exploration, they had a good idea where they needed to go, regardless of what might have changed in the building since Lindsey had left, and Hardison had the tools they'd need to quickly snapshot, scan, and search the undoubtedly multiple-page document to pinpoint the clauses Nate needed to verify in order to pull the rest of the plan off-- in whichever iteration it might best unfold. Security in the perimeter halls was expected to be light due to Ms. Summers' presence in the building; she had yet to reappear on the front door cam, and the few threads of code Hardison had been able to sneak into their external phone and high-speed access systems suggested that the whole office had, indeed, gone into a frenzy of activity since her arrival.

Odds were still against them getting out again unobserved, of course. Not without more time than they had to prepare. But since any means of freeing Lindsey from his contract was going to require actual confrontation with an agent of the firm, that wasn't so much an issue. No, the issue was making sure that when they were confronted, they were routed to one of Angel's men, rather than the less-distracted and more ruthless agents left behind by the firm's previous leadership. It would be Eliot's and Lindsey's job to make sure that happened.

Nate eyed them both as they piled out of the rental car a block away, frowning at the differing hairstyles and jewelry distracting from their identical maintenance uniforms. "It's a shame we didn't have time to cut your hair to match," he said. "As it is, you'll probably fool the guys on the security cameras, since Lindsey himself won't show up in the images, but you won't do more than briefly confuse anyone who sees the both of you in person; it'll be easy for them to tell which one of you is their former employee."

"It's not as if I'd be able to pass as him once I opened my mouth, anyway," Eliot said, warningly. He'd briefly considered it himself, but his Hail Mary wouldn't require that they look alike, just that they were together. "You ever come at me with a pair of shears, I'll feed them to you, I swear."

"Didn't you know? He's like Samson," Parker confided, mock whispering behind a shielding hand. Her tone was perfectly serious, but Eliot would have sworn her eyes were twinkling as she continued. "His hair's the source of his strength! If you cut it off, we'll have to find a new hitter."

"Parker," Eliot growled at her, warningly.

"You haven't told any of your girlfriends about that particular weakness, have you?" Hardison asked, drawing his face into a concerned expression as he wedged his comm into his ear.

"We don't have time for this," Nate barked, but he was biting his lip against a grin as he put in his own comm and gestured everyone toward their routes of entry.

Lindsey chuckled to himself as he and Eliot headed for one of the employee entrances with the pass he'd 'borrowed' from Eve. "That gal of yours is something else," he said.

"You can say that again," Eliot snorted. "Though she's not anyone's but her own, so get your mind right out of that gutter."

"Just saying," Lindsey smirked as they approached the door.

Once in, some careful maneuvering soon earned them a line of sight view on the hallway leading to the records room. The wide, high halls of the main office area narrowed down to more compact, utilitarian spaces in the areas where the firm's real work took place, and they tucked themselves into a shadowy niche out of direct line of the security cams to watch and wait.

The usual bustle of a busy office in the middle of the day was notably absent in the halls around them. A few people did pass by, but most were in a hurry, and Eliot caught murmurs over his comm from Parker's conversation with the ditzy receptionist suggesting that most of the nonvital personnel had been given the afternoon off. 'Harmony' sounded pretty displeased not to be among their number, actually; apparently she and the 'VIP visitor' had some past grievances, and she'd rather have been anywhere but sitting behind that desk when Buffy went through. Hardison and Nate had got in without any problems, and hadn't seen a soul since locating the file cabinets; it was beginning to look like Lindsey and Eliot might have to actually seek out someone to catch them, in order to move the plan to its next step.

"We've got it," Nate finally announced over their earpieces. There was a sound of rustling pages, and Hardison muttering to himself in geekspeak; then an incomprehensible grunt and an 'ah, thought so' from their mastermind.

"You sure we can't just burn this, man?" Hardison asked, wistfully.

"All you'd do is attract attention from security," Lindsey told him. "Like I said, it's been tried before, and all that happened was a fresh copy got regenerated in the drawer."

"Hmm. Perhaps I should try it anyway?" Nate replied, thoughfully. "We've got to attract attention somehow, right? And I think this might actually work better than having you walk up to someone who'd recognize you."

"You sure 'bout that, Nate?" Eliot cautioned him. "We can't control who shows up if you do it that way, remember. The distraction's still here, so it's not like it's going to be Angel himself, and some of the people he's got on the payroll...."

"Trust me," Nate said, audibly amused. "Just because we've all got used to working with a grifter over the last year, doesn't mean I've let my skills go to rust. Or have you forgotten Jimmy Papadakoulos already?"

Eliot lowered his face into his palm, remembering that ridiculously awful suit, and the even more ridiculous behavior Nate had adopted while playing a mediocre, suspended Nevada lawyer. He always picked the most bizarre identities when he had to be a public face for a job, and the sad part was they usually worked. "Oh, god," he said.

"Here we go," Hardison announced, followed closely by a faint crackling sound.

Lindsey sighed. "So go ahead, check the drawer again," he told them, cocking his head to listen for incoming security.

"Well, would you look at that," Nate said softly, after a long pause. "I don't think I'm ever going to get used to magic being real, but it's hard to deny proof when it's right in front of me."

Eliot glanced at his brother as Nate spoke; like Lindsey had said earlier when talking about running into Lilah again, there's a difference between believing something to be true, and knowing it down to your bones. He had to've been hoping, even just a little, that burning the contract would solve all their problems. There was no sign of it on his face, though, beyond a slight, self-deprecating smile.

"So which plan was that, Plan E?" Lindsey asked, mildly.

"For 'E Ticket', best possible ride out of here?" Hardison joked.

"No, no, that was a spur of the moment addition--"

"Which is about to earn you a visit from the boys in blazers," Eliot broke in, pulling his brother back farther into the shadows as a group of security hurried down the hall. "You're sure you know what you're doing?"

"One hundred percent," Nate said confidently, then took a deep breath. "Going radio silent now; it would probably be a bad idea to be caught with these comms."

Eliot had been expecting that, but it still made him hiss through his teeth with apprehension as Nate and Hardison dropped off the network just in time for the group of security men to storm the door of the archives and slam it open. "Damn it," he muttered under his breath.

"Aw, come on," Lindsey said, nudging him with an elbow. "Trust your friends. I never thought I'd say this after the last time I made nice with a bunch of do-gooders, but they're good people. They've got your back, and you've got theirs."

Lindsey was right, of course; but it was still hard to watch as the door flew back open and a protesting 'Jimmy Papadakoulos' in full voice was led out by the guards. Hardison followed close behind, arms wrenched up behind his back, but thankfully kept quiet.

"I'm an attorney at law! Las Vegas, you can look it up! I have just as much right to be here as you do!" Nate was objecting.

"Really. In our secure file room," one of the guards replied, skeptically.

"One file! One file!" Nate protested again. "You can search that whole room, and you'll only find my fingerprints on that one drawer. All I wanted was access to my client's unmodified file. Since he wasn't allowed to take it with him when he left the firm, I think you'll find I have a right to access it on his behalf."

"Then you should have put the request in through the proper channels, rather than sneaking in and trying to steal it," the same guy sneered, then brought the procession to a halt a few yards down the hall. The other guards swiftly patted Nate and Hardison down, and they weren't gentle about it, either; one of them even had a scanner wand. When they'd finally verified that the two men had nothing on them but Hardison's souped-up iPhone and a spare file folder Nate had brought in, the group started moving again, chivvying the two men toward the central offices.

Still tucked into the niche they'd been watching from, Eliot held a hand up to keep his brother from following them. Then he reached into a pocket, pulled out a rubber band, and reached up to finger-comb his hair into a ponytail. Another pocket yielded the thick-framed, prescriptionless glasses he often used when he was wearing contacts and trying to obscure his features rather than actually reading with the lenses, and he hastily pushed them onto his nose for an instant disguise.

"What are you doing?" Lindsey whispered, harshly.

"Now I look like some guy hired to be your body double, not your brother," Eliot whispered back. "I'll hang back a couple paces when we get closer, keep my head down."

"I thought the whole idea was to distract them with your identity," Lindsey frowned at him.

"Yeah, well, Nate changed his plan, I'm changing my part. Now shut up, and come on."

His nerves were on edge constantly over the next few minutes; he was ninety-five percent certain by the time they'd reached the vast atrium and the banks of offices that opened out onto it from at least three floors that someone was following their progress, either physically or over the security cameras. It didn't make any sense that they could have got so far without someone noticing them, and the suspicious way the halls had cleared even further along their route was a clue, too. Fortunately, that seemed to be encouraging the security guys to herd the whole mess straight toward their boss' office-- they might also be trying to capitalize on or compound the souled vampire's current state of distraction. If Lindsey's Eve was any example of their typical employee, he wouldn't be surprised.

One of the security guys lifted a walkie-talkie, calling ahead to inform someone else of the problem-- probably Angel's receptionist comma secretary, from the snippets of conversation that carried back over Parker's comm. Ms. Kendall claimed that Mr. Angel had cleared his entire afternoon's schedule and wasn't available for meetings; but the words 'former client's lawyer' must have made it through, because the security guy paused again, turning to Nate.

"And what did you say your client's name was again?" he asked.

"Um, actually, I didn't," Nate replied, rocking on his heels, hands thrust into the pockets of his suit.

The security guy waited a second, then when nothing else was forthcoming, took an impatient breath. "Then I'll ask again, and you'd better answer this time. What is your client's name?"

"Oh, I'm perfectly willing to tell you," Nate shrugged, cheerfully. "He's a former employee of this place, actually. Guy by the name of Lindsey McDonald? Smart man. Might even be a better lawyer than I am, but you know how it is. Didn't trust you guys not to screw him over if he showed up alone."

The security guy's eyes widened; he must've recognized the name, because his next conversation with the receptionist was delivered in much firmer, quieter tones. So far, no surprises; it would have been weird if the firm's loyal employees hadn't been interested in seeing how their supposedly moral new boss would react to the presence of one of his known antagonists.

"Didn't trust them not to bury me or shanghai me to a holding dimension, more like," Lindsey muttered. "That's hideous. Does he do that act often?"

"You should have seen him playing principal at a private school a few weeks ago," Eliot snorted. "And-- I think this is our cue."

More security guys were flooding into the hallway; apparently, speaking Lindsey's name aloud had given the silent watchers an excuse to move in. They seemed briefly surprised to see two men instead of one-- must've been the security system, then, which made him feel a little better about his craft-- but were quick to usher them toward the other group.

Eliot went without objection, hands up, not saying a word as Lindsey turned on the cocky attitude and strolled over to Eliot's teammates with a smirk, not deigning to give any notice to the armed men surrounding them.

"Mr. McDonald, you're here early!" Nate enthused, clapping his hands together and then rubbing them palm to palm. "All the better, I suppose. From what I saw of your contract, we might just be able to get this all over with in one meeting. I take it we're on our way to see Mr. Angel?" he continued, with a bland smile at the head of the security detachment.

"You'll find out soon enough," the guy said, smiling toothily back, and gestured him across the atrium toward an open pair of dark wooden doors. "He's a busy man, though; I don't recommend keeping him waiting."

Eliot took a deep breath, then followed in Lindsey's wake as the party proceeded into the large, windowed office. Showtime. Angel was standing in front of the glass panes, tall and solid and paler than Hardison's screenshot of him in the filtered sunlight; four other people were also in the office, but the only one Angel was paying attention to was the blonde woman seated in a chair in front of his desk, with whom he was absorbed in a fierce conversation.

"Fine," the woman bit out as they approached within hearing range, then surged up from the chair. She speared a glance toward the other vampire, who was lurking in his leather duster on the other side of the room, and turned to stride out of the office. "Spike? A word," she said, not even bothering to watch to make sure he was following.

Eliot sucked in a breath as she drew close to his group; the vague impressions he'd had of steel and sharp edges under the Slayer's soft, frothy surface were even clearer in person than they had been on-screen. Buffy Summers was a little thinner than she'd been in her photo, more woman than girl now, and still dressed to kill; her hair was drawn back in a messy bun, no doubt artfully arranged for maximum effect around the silvery metal picks thrust through it, and the three-inch spike heels on her brown leather boots could have-- and probably did-- double as stakes in their spare time. Her green eyes locked very briefly with his as she passed, and in that moment he knew without a doubt she'd trounce him in a hand-to-hand fight if he gave her even a second to center herself and prepare.

Mikel Dayan who? he smiled to himself, then winced inwardly as her gaze sharpened and she paused, giving him a full head-to-toe once over. He braced himself, silently swearing as he saw all their plans sliding toward the edge of a cliff-- then blinked as she glanced back over her shoulder toward Angel, shook her head, and visibly decided to ignore him, continuing on out of the office.

He let out a silent, shaky breath, then shared a relieved look with Hardison. One unexpected hurdle down. How many left to go?

Angel followed Ms. Summers out with his eyes, then snapped his focus back to the group, narrowing unerringly in on Eliot's brother. "Hello, Lindsey," he said, all malice and brooding expression.

"Hello, Angel," Lindsey replied, smiling viciously back. "Fancy meeting you here, of all places."

"If you've come back for some kind of revenge--"

"Now, now," Nate broke in, shaking off the guard at his elbow and stepping into Angel's line of sight. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. My client isn't here for you-- well, at least not you as yourself, though I think you'd agree he as some legitimate grievances. He's actually here to negotiate with the CEO of Wolfram and Hart, Los Angeles."

"Negotiate?" Angel echoed, staring at Nate, nonplused.

One of the two other men in the office-- Wyndam-Pryce, Eliot recognized him from his photo-- sucked in a breath. "The perpetuity clause," he said, in a British accent worn around the edges from time spent away from his home country. "I'd wondered what could bring you back here, after your rather dramatic exit."

"Got it in one!" Nate answered. "Mr. McDonald is eager to move on with his life, but his employment with this office has been, and continues to remain, an anchor holding him back. Now, I'm no expert, but I think it's fair to say that your 'eternal employment' concept, rather than being a source of security for your employees, has become a means of illegally retaining their services against their will; in fact, preventing them from ever successfully reestablishing an existence separate from the organization."

Angel crossed his arms over his chest, glower fading toward something a little more ominously self-satisfied as he faced Nate down. "And I'm supposed to feel sorry for him because...?" he said. "He knew what he was doing when he signed that contract. And he definitely knew what he was doing when he went back to them the first time he tried to leave."

"Us," Lindsey interjected, then. "You mean us."

Angel glared at him, startled briefly out of his smugness. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"You said them," Lindsey replied, gesturing around at the office they stood in. "Just saying."

"Angel," the other of the vampire's remaining co-workers interrupted; the lawyer this time, Gunn. "Don't let him get to you, man; he's trying to distract you." Then he moved away from his quiet conversation with the book-guy to stand next to Angel, scowling thoughtfully at Nate.

"He did sign the contract," Gunn continued, "and even if he didn't believe it at the time, I know damn well they explain all the pertinent parts before offering the quill. I'd like to know how he thinks he's going to get out of it."

"Oh, but he's not!" Nate parried, smiling widely. "Your boss there is going to do it for him."

"And why would I do a thing like that, even if I could?" Angel growled. "I don't owe him a damn thing."

"I beg to differ on that," Lindsey said. "But you know, bygones, and all that."

"And you'll do it because it's the right thing to do," Nate added, virtuously. "The legal thing. If I could have my file back, young man? Thank you." He took the folder from the guard who'd been holding it and flipped it open, jabbing a finger at the first page concealed within. "Given that the contested clause effectively deals with ownership of my client's soul, I took the liberty of researching previously existing claims which would conflict with your firm's interest in him. For example, the fact that he is a twin--"

"Oh, god, there's more than one of you?" Angel blurted.

"--Has nothing to do with the provenance of the soul," Gunn said firmly, torpedoing plan A. "We've heard that 'one soul, two bodies' angle before, and even if it were true in Lindsey's case, it wouldn't matter. If Wolfram and Hart started making allowances for that, we'd have to start making allowances for 'two souls, one body' as well, and what about 'one body, no soul'? It would get all kinds of ridiculous. All arguments along those lines are clearly disallowed in the language of the contract."

"Ah, if you say so," Nate rocked back a little, blinking, then turned back to the file and turned a few more pages. "And in cases of prior dedication of the soul to another, more senior Higher Power..."

"Nobody's going to stop him from believing in God, if he wants to," Gunn said. "If he even really does. The firm doesn't ask its employees to worship them... except in select cases, and those are dealt with on an individual basis." He waved the argument away. "If he'd been a dedicated priest of an official, recognized religious order, it would be another story entirely; but in that case, the language of his contract would have been changed to reflect his agreement to formally relinquish any other sworn oaths regarding the disposition of his afterlife."

"Right, okay." Nate chewed his lip, then flipped distractedly past a few more loose pages in the file. "Which brings us to the fact that the document in your filing cabinet labeled with Mr. McDonald's name is, in fact the original contract he signed when he was first hired at your firm. Despite subsequent renegotiations, to which Mr. Angel has already referred, I saw no evidence of any new or updated language. My client's words at the time were, and I quote, 'You're offering me back my job?' to which a Mr. Holland Manners replied...." Nate squinted at the page in front of him, reading as though from a transcript. "'Oh no, I'm offering you a new job.'"

"Without ever terminating his overall employment," Gunn insisted. "It's well within the rights of the CEO or any of the division heads to verbally renegotiate the exact terms of any employee's contract aside from their own or those of their equals or superiors when a situation arises that might require it. Your client agreed to accept continued employment at that time, and thus remained party to all of his original contract's subsidiary clauses."

Which left them with the option Lindsey really hadn't wanted to deal with, as it required actual persuasion and a favor, however forced, from a man he thoroughly despised.

"So you agree, then, that Mr. Angel here has the right to dismiss that clause from Lindsey's contact if he should choose to do so?" Nate brightened, seizing upon Gunn's statement with an air of triumph.

Gunn looked thoughtful at that, visibly pulling his concentration back a little before glancing over his shoulder at Wyndam-Pryce, looking pained on the sidelines. "Since it hasn't yet come into play--" he said, hesitantly. "Legally speaking--"

"For all the good it does him," Angel snorted. "Let me just reiterate, he knew what he was doing when he signed his contract. Why the hell would I choose to help him avoid the consequences?"

"Oh, don't think of it as helping me avoid the consequences of my actions," Lindsey spoke up again. "Think of it as helping yourself avoid the consequences of not acting."

"What do you--" Angel began, then cut himself off, startled. "The package. The amulet? That was you?"

Lindsey let his smile fade and leaned forward, adding in a confident tone, "I have access to a lot of things these days that might surprise you."

Angel's fists clenched at his sides, and Eliot chose that moment to step forward, gauging that there would be no better time to play his card. He pulled off his glasses and narrowed his eyes at the dark-eyed vampire, working his best intimidating glare.

"Whatever you're thinking now?" he said in low, calculated tones, "don't. You don't have the moral high ground here and you know it. All you've got to do is say the words, and you'll never have to see or hear from us again."

Everyone in the office shifted at his move, startled; but Angel recovered quickly, eyeing him up and down before glancing back at Lindsey. "The other Mr. McDonald, I presume," he said. "Just what the world needs; more tiny Texans with delusions of adequacy."

"It's Spencer, actually," Eliot corrected him. "Eliot Spencer."

From the way the guards reacted to that, they definitely knew that name. Sometimes his reputation really did come in handy.

"There's another option here, you know," a new voice added itself to the conversation.

A brunette Eliot didn't recognize was striding from the direction of the office's private elevator; Eve, presumably, from the way Lindsey was studiously not reacting to her. She was attractive enough, but nothing special at first glance, and the faux sweetness dripping from her voice was already aggravating his nerves.

"And what's that, Eve?" Angel asked, through gritted teeth.

"Why, that you accept the exchange already on offer," she said brightly, sashaying for maximum effect as she walked across the office. "A soul for a soul; even the Senior Partners can't fault you for that."

A little of Eliot's confidence faltered at her comment. He'd been assured of the confidentiality of his request at the Massachusetts branch, but clearly, either they didn't consider that to apply between offices-- or the people he'd taken it to for independent verification had squawked. Damn it. She'd put two and two together with his appearance here, and thrown an unexpected wrench in the works.

Lindsey's expression went ominously blank as he watched her approach. "Something you want to tell me, Eliot?" he asked, tersely.

Eliot swallowed as Eve passed Lindsey by to trail a hand up his chest, and tried to think of a reply that might salvage the situation.

"It would give everyone what they wanted, and always leave you the option of trying again in the future," she continued. "It's not like we'd even require you to stop doing what you love; we'd just... redirect a few additional 'retrieval' clients your way." She smiled cloyingly up at him, then tilted her head toward Angel. "Seems like a win-win situation to me."

Eliot could feel Nate's and Hardison's concerned glances on him as well, but he couldn't directly speak to either of them, or to Parker over the comms, without tipping his hand too far. The firm knew him as an independent hitter, not a team player, and the last thing he wanted was to give them extra leverage on his coworkers.

"I reserved the option to make that exchange," he finally said, aloud. "I never actually agreed to any such thing."

She clicked her tongue at him. "Same difference, sweetie," she said.

"No," Lindsey replied, throwing him a sharp look that spoke of words to be had later on. "That's not going to happen. I'll let the Senior Partners take me before I let him do that."

Eve stared back at him, taking in his determination. "You would, wouldn't you," she said after a moment, a small frown starting to gather between her brows.

"That can be arranged," Angel added, glancing between the brothers with no give in his expression at all.

"Now wait just a minute," Hardison blurted, stepping forward out of his role as Nate's silent assistant. Eliot saw the glow of his iPhone's screen disappear into his pocket, and had a pretty good guess what he'd been doing while the rest of them talked. "No need to be hasty. Why doesn't everyone just take a step back and we'll get ourselves out of y'all's hair."

His words fell on deaf ears. Eliot glanced around, taking in the positions of everyone in the room, and readied himself for whichever way the situation might break next.

When it did, however, it was in the way he'd least expected. Eve sighed, then turned to Angel with a more subdued smile. "Well, it was worth a try," she said, lightly. "At this point, you might want to consider cutting your losses. Which do you think the Senior Partners will hold against you more-- cutting loose one former employee, or exposing the firm to more of the kind of thing we went through yesterday? On a pure cost-benefit analysis..." she trailed off with an apologetic shrug. "We can always find cheaper ways to reward him for his... independence. I'm just saying." Then she sashayed back toward the elevator, as though she hadn't a care in the world.

Angel watched her go, then turned back to Lindsey, jaw firm. "I don't have time for this," he said.

"C'mon," Lindsey replied, calmer than he'd been during the entire rest of the conversation. "Just let me go. I'll even throw in a piece of advice for free: you know the firm ain't going to sit around and let you use their resources for 'good deeds' resources forever, right? One of those claused employees found me easy enough and sent me straight back at you. Think on that, next time you're doing a 'cost-benefit analysis' of running this place."

Wyndam-Pryce, who'd been calculatedly watching during most of the conversation, closed his eyes at that; it was clear he knew who Lindsey meant without even having to ask. "Lilah," he said, heavily.

A brief silence fell; and in it, the sound of voices carried clearly through the doors, the voices of the vampire and Slayer who'd stalked out earlier. Angel frowned in that direction, took a deep, unnecessary breath, and then let it out in a frustrated sigh. "Damn. Fine, whatever. But if I ever so much as hear your name again...!"

Lindsey raised his hands. "You don't need to say another word," he said, triumphant.

There were still plenty of loose ends to tie up, of course-- though after all that build-up and no actual fighting required, it all felt kind of anticlimactic to Eliot.

Nate put his fake lawyer's hat back on and verified specific language with Gunn, then blustered his way through obnoxious farewells; Hardison set off a cascade of errors in the building's security system as they left and blanked the cameras along the route to the company carpool, to reduce chances they'd be tracked; and they exited the building without further ado. Parker had exfiltrated there and had the rental car waiting... along with another, unexpected passenger.

From the way Lindsey clutched at Eve's hand on the way back to the apartment, Eliot guessed he hadn't expected her to actually choose him over the firm-- and was more attached to her, too, than he'd been willing to admit before. At least she wasn't a four hundred year old vampire.

Between Lindsey, Eve's choice, and the thing still in his pocket, Eliot was about ninety percent sure that they hadn't heard the last of Wolfram and Hart. They'd bought themselves some breathing room, though; and Eliot thought-- or at least hoped-- that his brother would give up the vengeance kick, rather than waste the slightly tarnished slate that had just been returned to him. Regardless, it was up to Lindsey now; Eliot had done everything he could. Or-- almost.

He pressed a copy of the key of his Boston apartment in Lindsey's hand when they dropped he and Eve off on the way back to Eliot's place, and made a mental note to air that grifter idea with Nate after the inevitable 'so, any other secrets we should know about?' conversation.

Black knight, white knight; maybe both designations were too simplistic, after all. Maybe they were both grey knights now-- and for once, Eliot wasn't upset by the comparison. Whatever happened in the future, he had his brother back, and that was worth every moment of the time and tension of the last few days. Hell, he had more than that; whatever impulse had led him to follow Nathan Ford that day nearly a year before had probably been the smartest decision he'd ever made. Enjoyable work, more than enough money, and a team he could trust; what more could a man want?

Well; maybe a challenging woman-- but there was still time to work on that. Eliot made a mental note to have Hardison track down that Summers woman's current address, and set about helping his team pack up the apartment again, whistling to himself as he worked.

-- THE END --

Soul Job Alternate Cover Art by lyl_devil


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