"You know, I would have given them back."
Eliot sighed. "I couldn't trust that."
"All I wanted was a chance to talk to you. Without a wall of bars between us."
"Well, you'll still get it." He looked at Nate, and was gratified to see hints that the mastermind wasn't happy about this course of action either.
"Yeah. Tomorrow. I'll hear what you have to say. I owe you that much." Besides, he thought, what choice do I have?
"Yeah, you do. So, why go to all the trouble and save me paying a few dozen paychecks if you always intended to come in and talk?"
That was easy. "I may owe you, but I still don't trust you. Not anymore. Parker and Hardison are safe, and that's the only reason I'm coming near you at all."
His response seemed to amuse Lindsey. "All right. I'll take that. We don't care why you're here, as long as you're here."
"I'm not looking for a fight, Lindsey," Eliot added. "Not this time."
"Neither are we. Especially not against you. Here and Wolfram and Hart, we like to look after our investments."
"And I'm an 'investment'?"
"You always were." Lindsey was quiet for a moment. "Hey, cheer up. This'll be good for you. And your little team. I wouldn't insult you by making an offer that wasn't worth your time."
Eliot had to give him that much. "No. You wouldn't."
"Haven't I always taken care of you?"
"So you say."
"So I have. You may not like it, Eliot, but them's the breaks. This deal is no different. When can we expect you tomorrow?"
Eliot looked at Faith, blowing out a quiet breath. She'd suggested the time, pointing out that since the missing girls were mostly just that – girls – there was likely to be less organized activity going on. "Early morning. Seven. I want to get this over with."
"That works just fine for me. See you then."
As soon as Eliot was done talking to his brother, Faith nudged Nate. "It's getting a little close in here. Wanna take a walk?"
Something of the mask he'd kept so firmly in place slipped slightly, showing her how close to the edge he really was. Hardison really got to him. "I shouldn't," he said. "This is going to be huge, tomorrow. We can't afford to make any more mistakes."
Faith looked over at Eliot. "We're gonna go downstairs," she said to the hitter. "See if Cora can't pull together some food for everybody."
She saw Eliot glance at Nate, knew he had the same thoughts she did. "Take your time," he said.
"I told you not to manage me," Nate said, when she looked back at him. There was no heat to his words, however – which spoke volumes.
"I'm not managing you," she countered. "I actually do need a break. Come on." Taking him forcibly by the arm, she led him towards the door to the apartment.
"You know," he said as they reached the door to the stairs, "you're taking a drunk into a bar at the exact moment he's fighting the urge to drink."
Faith paused with her hand on the door knob. "I'm going for a walk with my father," she said, looking him directly in the eyes. "We're going to get food. And that's all."
He stared at her for a long moment, so many emotions playing across his face that Faith couldn't breathe for a second. "You can do this, Nate," she said. Then, acting on pure impulse, she slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him. "We can do this."
His arms tightened around her briefly, and she heard him sigh. "Thank you," he said, pulling back and looking at her. "I fucked up. I know it. If I'd called you right off the bat…"
"You don't know that," she said firmly. "One day at a time, Pops. Deal with what's right in front of us."
Nate laughed shakily. "What's right in front of us is what's scaring the crap out of me right now."
"Really?" Faith shrugged. "Just another day at the office for me."
Eliot looked up as Hardison and Parker came downstairs together. "Food'll be up in a bit."
Hardison nodded. The hacker was unusually subdued. Vampire really spooked him, Eliot thought. It wasn't surprising. Outside of Faith and Eliot, Hardison seemed to have the best grasp of any of them how big a threat the vampires were to all of them.
He started to ask if he was all right, but Sophie beat him to the punch. "Are you going to be able to do this?"
"I'm in," Hardison said. He headed for the couch, sliding his hand under the cushion to retrieve the coms. "I need to change the frequency on these so Zombie-boy can't keep listening in on our conversations. Then I'll tie Faith's back into the network, and bring a new one on line for you." Here he glanced at Parker. "Somebody makes a try for this one, you kick 'em in the nuts, okay? I'm gettin' tired of having to replace them."
Eliot thought that Parker looked slightly guilty, but he couldn't tell if the thief really felt bad, or if she thought that looking like she did might help Hardison feel better.
Either way, once he was focused on his equipment some of the haunted look seemed to leave Hardison's eyes. Eliot nodded approvingly. Action was the best sort of cure for the kind of fear Hardison was struggling with. Working on the coms was something he could do that would have a direct benefit to the team, and give him back at least the illusion of control.
Control. It all came down to that, in the end. Each of them, with the possible exception of Faith, were looking obsessively for it – and once they had it, would do anything to hold onto it.
"Penny for your thoughts."
Eliot blinked, seeing that Sophie had come over to stand by him. He shrugged. "Just thinking about tomorrow."
"And how little you want to talk to your brother?"
Eliot smiled bitterly, remembering a stint in ICU not all that long ago, and a morphine-induced ramble where he'd spilled far too much of his feelings about Lindsey into Sophie's patient ears. She'd listened, and she'd tried to understand. Still understands more than most, he was forced to admit.
The problem was that Eliot had never fully understood his own issues with his twin brother. If he didn't understand the problem himself, he would never be able to effectively explain it to someone else.
"You know the really sick thing?" he said finally, glancing at Sophie. "In Lindsey's twisted mind, he's looking out for me with all this mess."
She was predictably outraged. "He terrorizes your family in order to leverage you into something you want to do, and that's somehow his way of looking out for you? Eliot…"
"Lindsey's my family," Eliot said calmly, trying to let her know without words that he wasn't necessarily disagreeing with her. "At least in his mind. Blood is everything to somebody like that." He thought back over his recent interactions with his twin. "He doesn't like what I'm doing now – who I'm becoming. As far as he's concerned, things were better in the old days."
Sophie studied him for a long moment, before asking the only question she could. "What do you think?"
He grinned at her. "I think Lindsey doesn't know nearly as much as he thinks he does."
Nate pointed over Hardison's shoulder at the computer monitor. "The air handler unit that feeds the basement levels is on the southeast corner of the building. There should be an access panel big enough to let you in." He addressed his remarks mostly to Parker. Faith was leaning against the open door of the van, but he couldn't tell if she was listening to him or not.
"Looks a little tight through here," Parker said. Without warning, she reached over and pressed a hand against Faith's stomach. Scowling, Faith swatted her off. "You'll have to suck in."
"Don't worry about me," Faith snapped, crossing her arms over her stomach.
Nate let out a breath he hadn't even been aware he'd been holding. Sending Faith and Parker into a situation together was a bad idea on every level except the most important one: together they had the best combination of skills to make it all work. "Eliot, what's your position?"
"Two minutes out."
"All right," Nate said to the assembled members of his team, "let's move. Faith, Parker – you know the drill. Get in, find what you need, and get out. Eliot will keep Lindsey distracted as long as possible."
"I'll just ask him his opinions on the current political climate," Eliot said. "That should give us all the time we need."
Everybody smiled. Parker slipped out of the van and started checking her gear. Sophie settled back in her chair with a sigh, nursing her tea. Hardison went back to monitoring the building's security system.
Nate grabbed Faith's arm before she could follow Parker. "Play nice," he said, as sternly as he could manage.
"Five by five, pops," she said, grinning at him.
Five by five, Parker thought as she and Faith ran the short distance from the van to the southeast corner of the building. What does that even mean?
Parker didn't want to be alone in the ventilation system with Faith. She especially didn't want the dark-haired Slayer behind her as they made their way through hundreds of feet of ductwork. Her hand still ached slightly where Faith had smacked it. She had enough up close and personal experience with Slayer strength to understand she was lucky Faith hadn't hit her hard enough to break something – but she didn't understand why Faith had felt the need to hit her in the first place.
She's just lucky she's Nate's daughter. Otherwise Parker would have been seriously tempted to send her down a blind alley and leave her there.
Parker had her lock pick already in her hand when they reached the double doors, but Faith stopped her. "Hang on a sec. I want to try something." The Slayer set her shoulder against the stationary door and pushed in slightly. Parker heard a distinct 'schlock' sound – the overhead bolt sliding open. Faith grabbed the doorknob then, and jerked. There was a small screech of metal against metal, and then the two doors swung open together.
"Design flaw," she said, off Parker's confused look. "One of my buddies showed it to me back in the day – I wanted to see if it still held."
Well that was completely useless, Parker thought, as they entered the mechanical room and shut the door behind them. She could have picked the lock in almost the same amount of time, and it would have made far less noise. Didn't Nate say we were supposed to be stealthy on this one?
That blind alley was looking better all the time.
Eliot listened to Faith and Parker talking, and wondered if Hardison was taking bets yet on only one of the two of them walking out alive. In a straight up fight, he would back Faith all the way, but ventilation systems were Parker's territory.
He turned his SUV into the Wolfram & Hart parking lot, and pulled up next to the newly installed guard shack. "Morning!" he greeted the security guard on duty. The man came over to his window with the expected clipboard, and Eliot dutifully passed over his ID. "Got a seven a.m. with the big boss," he offered. It was strange not having to con his way in some place for once.
You've got every right to be here.
The man spent an inordinately long time looking at Eliot's license, but finally he passed it back. "Visitor parking lot's 'round back," he said, gesturing vaguely at the building. "Come in the south entrance – you'll have to show ID again once you're inside. They'll tell you how to get to the executive level."
Eliot took back his wallet and nodded his thanks.
"We're in." Parker was talking again.
"How long?" Nate asked.
There was a short pause, then the thief answered, "Ten minutes, give or take. Permit drawings aren't always accurate. We might run into some snags."
"I'm working on getting a hook into their security feed," Hardison said, "but it's going to take me a minute or so."
"Eliot, you getting this?" Nate asked him.
"Yeah," he said. "Hardison, don't hook into their system until I'm in Lindsey's office. If they catch you before I can distract him, we'll lose the element of surprise."
"He's not gonna catch me, dammit."
Before Eliot could argue with the hacker, Nate stepped in. "Hardison, he's right. No sudden moves until Eliot's in position. Parker, do the best you can."
Eliot parked and shut the engine off. He sat, listening to the engine tick and trying to push the chatter of the others to the very back of his mind. He really didn't have the right words to describe how little he wanted to do this. Lindsey had already proven he could still push Eliot's buttons – even after five years and two deaths.
Eliot couldn't afford that today – not with Parker and Faith's safety resting directly on his shoulders. He was reasonably sure Faith could get herself out if things went south, but he also couldn't be sure if push came to shove that she would take Parker with her.
He made the thief a silent promise in that moment, that whatever happened, he would make sure she was safe. Eliot wanted to be able to trust Faith with the team's safety, but he knew that would be a long time happening – if ever. In the meantime, he would do his job.
Whatever it takes.