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Leverage fic: The Magic Job (3/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:48 am)
aggravated

feeling: aggravated

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN




-o-

They didn’t.

That conversation never came up, not once.

Neither did any other conversation.

No, the team worked fluidly, communicating in seamless understanding of one another. When one of them moved, they all moved in perfect proportion.

There was no right, there was no wrong. There was no safety, there was no risk.

There wasn’t even a mark or a client.

There was only the team.

-o-

Hardison had computers; Sophie was with the mark. Eliot was dismantling security, one sector at a time. Nate was on the roof with Parker, waiting for her last cue to go in.

“You know how you told me magic wasn’t real?” she asked, poised on her harness at the top of the ventilation shaft.

“What?” Nate asked, a little distracted by Sophie’s sultry conversation with the mark and Eliot’s nonstop hitting.

“On the case with the witch,” Parker said. “You remember how you told me magic wasn’t real?”

Nate furrowed his brow. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “Parker, this really isn’t the time.”

“I know, I just--” she started, shaking her head. “It’d be like this, wouldn’t it?”

Nate made a face, listening while bones cracked and Sophie made a pass. “Like what exactly?”

“Magic,” she said, so plaintively that Nate had to look at her. “If magic were real, it would be like this, like us?”

She was serious in that way of hers, that naivete that only Parker could pull off. She was the one who believed in Santa Claus and psychics; she was the one who understood things Nate was too practical to take into consideration. She was the one who could see the impossible, if only because she was the only one willing to see it.

Standing on the top of the building, Nate realized how high he was, how far it was to fall. He knew, more than ever, just how much he had to lose.

He’d spent all this time looking for other answers, hoping to disprove the inevitable.

Parker, though, she got it. She didn’t see what people expected to see, and that was her advantage.

She just saw what was.

She shrugged at him, smiling. “I don’t know,” she said, readying herself to jump. “But I think maybe I’d believe it.”

Without waiting for a reply, she was gone, rapelling fast down the shaft at the same time Hardison gave her the green light. Eliot grunted the all clear, and Sophie repeated the combination lock as the mark told it to her.

Nate glanced at his watch.

Just like clockwork.

It was time to move.

Or the whole thing would fall apart.

Magic, Parker called it.

Hard work, thoughtful planning, meticulous preparation, flawless execution.

But magic.

If they actually pulled this off, Nate might believe it, too.

-o-

Then, the mark changed his mind. Security backup started up, and the ventilation shafts were closed. Armed guards started to flood the grounds, and Nate was standing on a roof with no way down.

Nate was thinking, scrambling for a new plan, when the comms cut out.

Rushing to the edge, Nate looked down as his stomach turned inside him.

He muttered a curse.

So much for magic.

-o-

Nate waited for the security detail, and burned his cover to convince them he was the first one on the scene. This got him downstairs and to the security checkpoint, where he was able to see all clear screens. No Hardison in the server room. No Eliot in the stairwells. No Parker in the air shafts. No Sophie with the mark.

They weren’t in detention; they weren’t in holding; they weren’t anywhere.

Unlikely, yes.

Impossible, well, Nate wasn’t going to rule that out. Not yet.

He was, however, going to make his own exit before his tenuous cover was blown. As soon as the mark started to make his way down for a full on security briefing, Nate ducked out and was out the front door before anyone could think to call him back.

At that point, he wasn’t sure what to expect. The van was still parked, right where they’d left it, and Nate held his breath as he reached to open the back.

He feared the worst. Parker with a broken leg; Hardison with a black eye. Sophie with torn clothes or Eliot with a few bullet holes.

An empty van, maybe.

When he opened it, though, he wasn’t surprised.

To see all four of his teammates, sitting in a line, just waiting for him.

Sophie smirked. “It’s about damn time.”

-o-

Nate just had one question: “How?”

Eliot shrugged. “I know how to make an exit.”

“And I disabled the front door locks,” Hardison said.

“I was able to disrupt the electrical circuits to give us back elevator control,” Parker explained.

“And I staged a massive internal breakdown to give us enough cover to escape surveillance,” Sophie said. “They were so busy fighting each other, they didn’t have time to look for much else.”

Nate stared at them, long and hard. “You guys came up with that on your own?” he asked. “With no comms?”

“We are professionals,” Eliot said.

“And we do know each other very, very well,” Hardison added.

“What else were we going to do?” Parker asked.

Sophie smiled. “I think you’re missing the most obvious question.”

“And that is?” Nate asked expectantly.

“If we got the job done,” Sophie said, tweaking her eyebrows.

Nate stared. “And….?”

Hardison held up a flash drive.

Parker held up a briefcase.

Sophie waved a file.

Eliot threw a tape of security footage at him.

“Enough to repay our client, stop the threat of biological warfare and sufficient evidence to get a conviction,” Sophie told him proudly.

Nate nodded, knitting his brows. “All of this,” he said. “Without even talking to each other?”

Parker cocked her head. “Magic,” she said. “Remember?”

-o-

On the flight home, Nate ordered a drink and found that he couldn’t sleep. He went over it in his mind, putting all the disparate pieces together and trying like hell to figure out how it’d come out like this.

Magic was just an idea, a term used to describe unlikely or improbable things. It was a feeling; an emotion. It was a quality ascribed to events that defied expectation.

It was a word that Nate didn’t even like because it obscured the things that really mattered. What was magic but skill and hard work? What was magic except persistence and determination? What was magic except experience and intuition?

That was what magic was. It wasn’t mystical or hard to understand. It was nothing but five people, the best at what they did, spending years working together, learning from each other. They had honed each other, become so much more than the sum of their parts. It had taken time and dedication -- hell, three years.

Three years, every job with each other. They practically lived together. Anticipating the moves the other was going to make -- that wasn’t magic. It was just inevitable.

Good luck, she’d told him. You’re going to need it.

Nate took another slow sip and closed his eyes.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

-o-

Luck, magic, inevitability.

Whatever you wanted to call it, Nate now accepted it as a simple reality.

Which means Nate could use it for his advantage.

Which means Nate will use it for his advantage.

Whatever worked, as far as he was concerned.

And this?

Well, this worked.

-o-

And it worked well.

When he gave in and accepted the team’s newfound capabilities, he discovered they had a whole new level of effectiveness on the job.

Eliot barged in and incapacitated a mark on Sophie’s behalf. This wasn’t so unusual except for the fact that Sophie hadn’t even called for help. Hell, she hadn’t even realized her cover had been blown until Eliot showed her the gun.

And Hardison, well, he triggered a fire alarm to get Parker out of a building. The thing was, though, that she hadn’t even tripped the security system yet. One second after the sprinklers went off, the burn room ignited, but Parker was already soaking wet and clear.

While on a con, Nate was fumbling and about to lose the mark when Parker walked right in. Before he could say anything, she took his arm and called him Daddy, perfectly creating a cover story he hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone else he was building.

Sophie, who couldn’t even figure out how to turn on a computer, jumped on the laptop and knew all of Hardison’s passwords before seamlessly tapping the security feed and giving Hardison the access he needed to establish the remote link from inside the server room where he’d been previously cut off.

And Nate? Well, he knew exactly how many ribs Eliot had broken on the latest job, and he was in position to catch Eliot two seconds before he passed out, making sure that he got the whole team out in one piece again.

-o-

Near misses, close calls.

The marks still fell, one by one by one.

The team raised their glasses to toast their victories, to remember.

Nate still finished the bottle alone.

Because, God help him, he remembered.

-o-

It felt reckless, going on like this, Pushing boundaries, pressing his luck. Harder cases, more impossible cases. Dangerous marks, narrow margins of opportunity.

One wrong move, and the worst would happen. A fight Eliot couldn’t wind. A safe Parker couldn’t crack. A security system Hardison couldn’t control. A mark Sophie couldn’t charm.

A plan Nate couldn’t bring to fruition.

And how much was riding on chance? On luck? On magic?

On inevitability?

Because as perfect as this was, it couldn’t last forever.

Nothing lasted forever.

Nate really did know better.

He couldn’t fight fate, though.

Whether he believed in it or not.

-o-

“Man,” Hardison said, clicking the keys late one night. Eliot was asleep on the chair, an open beer still in hand. Parker was curled up on the couch, her feet touching Hardison’s leg. Sophie had gone upstairs to shower and never come back down. Nate knew he’d find her, asleep on the bed when he finally went up himself. “Did you see the latest?”

“About the mark?” Nate asked distractedly.

“About the mark three jobs ago,” Hardison said. He brought the image up on screen. “Dude just got handed a conviction. He’s going away for ten years.”

Nate looked, trying to jog his memory. “Embezzlement,” he said.

“And money laundering,” Hardison said. “With a touch of extortion on the side.”

“That was a hard one,” Nate remembered faintly. Hard as in Eliot had been concussed and Sophie had escaped through a window before Parker set the building on fire.

Hardison chuckled. “That’s an understatement,” he said. “But really, they’ve all been hard lately.”

“Well,” Nate said. “We’ve had a good run.”

“A good run?” Hardison asked, voice suddenly incredulous. “Nate, man, we’ve had an incredible run. We’re turning around clients twice a month most of the time, and the people we’re taking down? These are tried and true criminals? The ones the system has been unable to touch for years. We’re running jobs most crews wouldn’t even dream of taking, and we’re running them flawlessly. This is a spectacular run.”

Nate jutted his chin, chewing his lip.

Shaking his head, Hardison laughed. “Ever since that witch, man,” he mused. He shook his head again. “Maybe you really did something, reversing that hex. Because I swear to you, I ain’t seen anything like this before. They don’t even make up stories this good.”

Nate blinked, something cold washing over him. He looked at Eliot and Parker. He thought about Sophie.

“I thought you were crazy, I did,” Hardison confessed. “But I can’t help but think, maybe it was a good thing. The thing we needed.”

“Yeah,” he said, voice feeling hollow. “Maybe.”

He swallowed back the words he didn’t dare let himself say as he excused himself for bed.

Maybe, after all.

And maybe not.

-o-

He couldn’t stop, though.

In bed, he drew Sophie close, and he woke to the sounds of Eliot and Parker making breakfast downstairs. Hardison had the latest on the screens when he came downstairs.

He couldn’t stop.

Even if he should.

Even if he wanted to.

Especially when he didn’t.

-o-

Part of Nate knew he should slow down, he should really think this thing through, but there was no thing. There was just the job and the team.

Nate didn’t need anything else.

-o-

They stopped a corrupt airline company. They brought the dealings of a drug company to the light and saved countless lives. They stopped a lawyer, a medical researcher and a CEO.

Theiri latest client had spent thousands on a college degree that proved to be worthless, and Nate was settling down to go over the briefing with the team when he saw the data up on the screen.

He frowned. “What’s this?”

“Oh, that?” Hardison said. “Just the results of the daily checks we run. I have alerts on all our past marks.”

Eliot sat down, cocking his head at the screen. “Is that--?”

“Claudia Sanderson,” Sophie said, shaking her head.

“Oh!” Parker said. “The witch!”

“And soon to be convicted felon,” Hardison told them with a nod at the screen. “Her trial starts this week, and she hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell.”

“What’s her defense?” Eliot said.

Hardison snorted. “She doesn’t have one, really,” he said. “When she tried to explain that there was magic and hexes involved, they almost declared her incompetent, but now they’re just using that as a mark against her character. The whole thing is a mess. I mean, her luck wasn’t just bad on this one. It was epically awful. They’ve got evidence on her for everything -- the DA is pressing for the maximum punishment on every charge. When this is over, she could very well be looking at life in prison.”

Sophie lifted her eyebrows. “Not that she was a particularly nice person, but we have dealt with worse.”

“Well, duh,” Parker said. “She lost her magic.”

Eliot groaned.

Nate shook his head, raising his voice above the others. “She’s taken care of, that’s all we need to know,” he said.

They stopped, looking at him. Waiting for his cue.

He was, after all, the mastermind.

He was the one who started this.

He cleared his throat, settling back on the couch. “This is all in the past,” he said. “Right now we have a new client to deal with.”

No one replied -- no one quite dared reply -- and the words they weren’t speaking were almost louder than anything else.

Was it in the past?

Was it really behind them?

Was magic really so crazy?

They could have as many new clients as they wanted, but that didn’t change them.

If Nate pushed, they’d all follow. They’d pull this thread and unravel it as far as it went. Which was the problem, of course. Nate was afraid that the only thing they’d unravel would be themselves until there was nothing but carnage left among them.

That wasn’t a chance Nate was willing to take, not even for the truth.

Good thing he wasn’t an honest man anymore, not quite.

Not with a team like this.

He sighed heavily, and lifted his chin.

“Come on,” he cajoled without leaving any room for argument. He kept his focus ahead, where it belonged, and trusted the others to follow suit. Uncompromising, unyielding and undaunted. “Run it.”

They did, of course.

Of course they did.

-o-

They didn’t talk about it again.

They didn’t talk about magic or soul bonding or hexes or Claudia Sanderson.

They didn’t talk about the way they made each other meals or their ability to finish each other’s sentences. They didn’t talk about the allowances they made unconsciously, and the adaptations they made implicitly to make each other happy. They didn’t talk about the plans they didn’t make or the way they always ended up together. They didn’t talk about flawless execution on the job and the strange familiar intimacy that came between jobs. They didn’t talk about how they showed up on each other’s dates, how they turned the channel to the others’ favorite programs, how they set out five places to eat every meal without even asking.

They didn’t talk about how terrifying it was to be apart, how sleep never came when outside the same four walls. They didn’t talk about the pain they felt whenever someone took a hit or the way a single rush of adrenaline surged through all of them in equal proportion.

They didn’t talk about friendship or teamwork or family.

They didn’t talk about how they knew what the others were thinking, always. They didn’t talk about all the things they knew about each other and all the things they didn’t know. They didn’t talk about how there were details they didn’t have to know because they knew enough. They knew what mattered.

They didn’t talk about how they all ended up sleeping in the same room, even when the job wasn’t active, just because. They didn’t talk about the way they brushed up against each other, taking comfort in the smallest touches to reassure themselves that they were all still there, all together. They didn’t talk about the way their throats closed up when they were apart, about the way their chests constricted and their eyes burned. They didn’t talk about how every second separated felt like they were dying.

They didn’t talk about how coming back together was like coming to life.

They didn’t talk about it.

Not when there was nothing to say.

Not when there was everything to say.

-o-

If they couldn’t talk about the little things, then they sure as hell weren’t going to say a word about the big things.

It started small, as everything did. Sophie took out a former KGB spy with a single punch.

“Just like we practiced!” Eliot cheered.

Sophie chuckled. “Funny what adrenaline can do for you.”

They were just as roundabout when Parker jumped from a skyscraper and had her line break halfway through. Twelve floors to fall, she landed on her feet without a scratch.

“Woman, you have nine lives,” Hardison said, hugging her tight. “And you sure as hell always land on your feet.”

And Hardison, well, he blamed sheer strength when he was able to lift and move an entire car in the course of an on the job emergency.

“What did I tell you all?” he beckoned. “I can do all your jobs. All. Of. Them.”

Tellingly enough, Eliot didn’t disagree. How could he? He was the one who charged through a bolted steel door with all security mechanisms engaged.

“That’s not normal, is it?” Parker asked, examining the dented door. She snorted, nudging Eliot in his unbruised shoulder. “And you said there was something wrong with me.

“So,” Sophie said, slipping her arm in between his and giving Nate a squeeze. “When’s it your turn?”

Nate smiled, but didn’t reply.

What could he say, after all.

How could he explain the truth.

That every time, every feat, he’d been clenching his fingers into a fist and holding his breath. He’d felt it, the impact in Sophie’s knuckles, the reverberation in Parker’s knees. He’d felt the strain in Hardison’s shoulders and the weight on Eliot’s torso like it was his own.

Nate had long ago accepted the impossible, but this?

This was getting ridiculous.

-o-

The hard part was finding a minute to himself, without Parker over his shoulder or Hardison sitting across from him. When he sat down in the kitchen, Eliot started cooking. In the bedroom, Sophie laid next to him.

When he finally found a seat at a coffee shop a few blocks down, he looked around anxiously, half expecting that he’d been followed. But Parker didn’t appear out of nowhere, and Hardison didn’t walk through the front door. Eliot hadn’t texted him, and Sophie didn’t call.

Nervously, Nate pulled up his web browser and hesitated.

This was already ridiculous, he reminded himself with a tense breath.

One little search couldn’t make it worse.

The typed the letters in with trembling fingers.

Soul bonding spells.

-o-

Nate wasn’t Hardison, but he knew how to operate a simple search engine. Besides, after perusing the first page of results, he realized it wouldn’t take a genius to know that he’d stumbled into something a little more complicated than he’d anticipated.

Soul bonding was prevalent in various belief systems, although modern day connotations often watered down the magic and preferred to keep a fated element involved. Hence the very notion of soul mates, the idea that two souls were simply compatible, meant to be. The idea had been deeply romanticized until it was nearly meaningless, but there were still those who believed it to have transcendental significance that couldn’t quite be explained.

Spells had been used to induce soul bonding for centuries, maybe millennia. While some people thought these spells to be folklore and love potions, there was evidence to suggest that they had a more profound impact by those who took them the most serious.

That was when he tumbled deeper into the Internet, away from the reputed websites and into the message boards. As a general rule, he didn’t do this sort of thing, and he knew that the Internet was maintained through a process of self selection. Everyone had a reason for posting, which meant that every poster had reason to be doubted. Frankly, this was why he preferred to leave the technical stuff to Hardison. Nate rarely had the interest to deal with this sort of thing.

This sort of thing.

Long winded, first hand accounts of the spell and what it had done. They discussed how it was a surprisingly easy spell to perform with not nearly as many ingredients as you might expect considering the consequences.

And there were consequences.

Soul bonding made people inseparable. It linked them so much that it physically hurt to be apart. It drove some people made, being that close to another person. It made others psychopaths, unable to handle that much emotion and power all at once. Through soul bonding, two people were not just made compatible -- they were made dependent. They required each other.

The benefit, naturally, was that they benefitted each other two. They shared strengths and effectively quelled weaknesses. There were stories of superhuman strength, unnatural success, unprecedented feats.

They were all stories, though.

No actual accounts.

The answer became glaringly obvious the longer Nate read.

There were no first hand accounts of soul bonding because very few people survived it. Soul bonding was not about compatibility; it forced people together whether they were meant to be or not. When that happened, most people couldn’t cope. Suicide was a common problem, and when one went, the other always -- always -- followed.

It was risky, unpredictable. It was permanent, unchangeable.

It changed everything.

It was, as most people explained, the last spell you ever cast.

The last real choice you ever made.

Everything after that was nothing but fate.

-o-

It was a footnote, almost. A story that he read as the hours waned.

About how when it worked, it worked. How it got stronger and stronger over time. How it made two people, one, until there wasn’t even room to regret it. Hearts in tandem. Strides in step. Minds in sync.

Sometimes the spell worked.

-o-

When his team finds him -- of course they find him -- he closed his laptop quickly. “Oh, hey,” he said, smiling as they sat down around him.

“What’re you doing?” Parker asked.

Eliot tilted his head. “You took off.”

“Not even a word,” Hardison agreed.

Sophie gave him a small, knowing smile. “Impossible to miss, really.”

Nate cleared his throat, shrugging as nonchalantly as he could. “Just wanted some coffee.”

They all looked at his cold, untouched cup.

Nate pressed his lips together, but didn’t have the nerve to say anything.

Sophie was the one who leaned forward. “Is there something you need to tell us, Nate?”

Parker was staring at him, and Hardison shifted in his seat. Eliot didn’t flinch, and Sophie didn’t look away.

The stupid thing was, they knew.

Of course they knew.

They knew where he’d gone and they knew why he’d gone. He couldn’t lie to them, not even if he wanted to.

But Sophie’s question, it was carefully put.

Was there something he needed to tell them? Was there something they needed to know?

Did he need to explain the legends and the spells? Did he need to tell them about the theories and the horror stories? Did he need to lay it out for them, in no uncertain terms, what it was that changed them?

He cleared his throat, sitting forward with a nod.

Parker, Hardison, Eliot, Sophie.

And him.

Some people, they believed in the truth.

Nate, though.

Nate believed in them.

He smiled. “No,” he said, and somehow it was the absolute truth. “Nothing at all.”

-o-

“I don’t get it,” the next client said, shaking her head in the bar. “Leland, he has trained men, an entire security group. He has lawyers and a fortified building. You’re five people. What can you possibly do?”

Nate chuckled, lifting his drink off the table. “We’re not just five people,” he told her, sloshing the liquid around. “We’re the right five people.”

-o-

They got the job done.

Of course they got the job done.

-o-

Between jobs, they started spending more time in Nate’s apartment. They each took a drawer for clothes, and there were five toothbrushes lined up against the sink. Eliot moved a sleeper sofa into Nate’s bedroom, and when Nate went to sleep alone, he never woke up that way.

Sophie pressed against him; Parker, Hardison and finally Eliot were crashed on the couch.

The worst part was that it didn’t annoy him to have them here.

To the contrary, it terrified him when they weren’t.

The best part?

Was that Nate had never slept better.

-o-

It was supposed to be a simple job to get a client back her life savings after she was swindled by a tech start up that took her money and never produced a product.

It ended up being a small shoot out followed by a FBI raid. How they didn’t get shot or arrested, Nate wasn’t sure, but as the team toasts another job well done it occurred to him that maybe it wasn’t okay.

In the past, the team used to balk a these risks. Sophie used to call him out, and Eliot used to threaten to walk. Parker used to implore him, and Hardison used to look at him with those big, brown eyes.

They were getting better, was all.

Nate couldn’t bring himself to lift his glass.

They were getting worse, too.

-o-

Finding her was the easy part. He didn’t even need a cover story or backup, all he needed was his wits and his damn near perfect execution, and the guards at the county jail let him in almost without question.

Keeping the rest of the team at bay, now that was a challenge. He hadn’t bothered to lie to them, but instead told them he needed a day -- just a day -- to himself.

They could follow him if he lied or hid it, but an honest request?

Well, never let it be said that Nate Ford didn’t know how to find a weakness and exploit it for his own gain.

She looked different when she came in, older and worn. Her hair was long and unkempt, and her prison uniform did little to hide how bony her body had gotten since her conviction.

“Are you here to gloat?” she asked, voice cracking a little.

“Everything that happened to you was your own fault,” Nate told her.

Her laugh was hoarse. “Maybe,” she said. “I think I always knew it couldn’t last. Magic can’t change the fabric of the universe, after all. It just...bends it in different directions. When I lost control, the bad had to compensate for the good I’d had.”

Her voice was tinged with fondness, and Nate refused to allow her the nostalgia.

“The spell you did,” he said.

“The spell you altered,” she told him.

Nate didn’t flinch. “Can you undo it?”

“I already told you--”

“Can you undo it?” Nate demanded, voice low and unyielding.

She studied him for a moment, more clarity in her eyes than he’d seen before. She’d never been the brightest or the best, but she understood something he didn’t: the consequences. “Is that what you really want? If you’re still alive, then the spell worked.”

“Not being dead is a pretty low threshold for success,” Nate pointed out.

She shook her head. “You know how powerful it is; it scares you,” she said. “It scares you because you don’t want to undo it. You want to keep it forever, which is the very reason why you’re here.”

“If I can’t control it--”

“Of course you can’t control it,” she snorted. “That’s not just magic, that’s life. That’s why it never felt wrong, doing the hexes. Because none of us have any real control. It’s all dumb luck and chance. And we’re all fighting for a piece to call our own, and who is there to really say there’s a right or a wrong way to do that.”

“You hurt people,” Nate told her. “Innocent people.”

“I just tipped fate against them,” she said. “I never knew how or why--”

“And you didn’t care,” Nate snapped. “It’s a power that no one should mess with, a power I want to undo.”

At that, she started to smile. “And here I thought you said magic wasn’t real.”

Nate gritted his teeth, clenching his fingers into fists. “Can you undo it?”

“No,” she said, voice like a whisper. “That’s the first rule of magic. Never cast a spell you aren’t willing to live with.”

Something cold went down Nate’s spine, and he grounded his feet to the floor with his fists buried in his pockets as he tried not to shudder.

“I’m living with the consequences of it,” she said, tilting her head ironically. “Now you do, too.”

-o-

The consequences.

What the hell did she know about consequences? Was Sam’s diagnosis a consequence for his prioritization of his job? Was Sam’s death a consequence for his blind self pursuit? What about his failed marriage? His alcoholism? His turn to crime?

And what about the team? Were they a consequence? Could he reduce it all to cause and effect? Was life nothing more than a spell you cast hoping for the right outcome?

Nate’s faith had been strained since Sam died, because he knew how hard it was to trust in a God who would let his son die. He’d accepted the ambivalence of a moral creator as best he could and tried to understand that sometimes bad things just happened without reasons, without cause.

But never without consequence.

That was how he’d ended up here, after all. With a team. The good came with the bad and he’d give anything to have his son back, but he didn’t want that life. He didn’t want to be the company man with the big house. He wanted his team.

More than that, he wanted them safe.

He didn’t want anything to hurt them or control them.

Damn the consequences.

Nate didn’t sit by idly; he didn’t take crap lying down. He didn’t just let life happen, not anymore. Not with his team at stake. He knew what it was to watch fate unfold, and he knew what it was to be powerless, and he’d rather kill himself than wait for the whims of the universe to do it for him.

That determination was easy to come by, harder to keep. When he was back in his car, there were a dozen messages from his team. Eliot wanted to know if he needed back up; Hardison had already hacked the prison feed to watch. Parker offered to steal her file so they could change her sentence. Sophie just wanted him to be careful.

It wasn’t hyperbole, then. He’d rather kill himself.

That was what it would take, to rip the team apart. To destroy the bond they had. If he was going to separate them, it would be hard, it would be painful, and they would fight him every step of the way. More than that, he’d hate it. The idea of it gnawed at the pit of his stomach, drenching him with sweat.

It was the only way.

He kept his hands on the wheel and forced himself to drive with blurry eyes as he stared hard at the road in front of him.

It was the only way.

-o-

They were waiting for him.

That made it easier, at least. He didn’t have to round them up; he didn’t have time to lose his nerve.

It made it harder, too. Because the moment he saw the four of them together, the moment they were standing in the same room, Nate almost choked on the words he’d rehearsed so carefully on the drive back from Hawthorne.

They were waiting for him.

Of course they were.

Nate swallowed back hard and braced himself, harder than he ever had before.

“I’m calling an audible,” he said, almost blurting it so fast it hurts.

No one moved; no one dared to speak.

Nate gestured, somewhat helplessly as he shrugged. “We’re too close,” he said with a fast exhale. He shook his head. “We need to slow down, we need to -- stop.”

He blinked rapidly, looking at them each in turn.

“Before we crash,” he concluded, quieter now. His chest clenched; his gut twisted. “Because the way we’re going -- I don’t know if I can stop us any other way.”

“And who says you have to?” Sophie asked, tilting her head. “There’s a reason we’re a team.”

“And who says we want to?” Parker added, almost with a tinge of accusation.

“Or need to?” Eliot said.

“Is this because of Sanderson?” Hardison interjected.

Nate opened his mouth to object, but Hardison turned on the screens.

“We know you saw her,” Hardison said.

“And we know why,” Eliot said.

Nate sighed. He couldn’t be surprised. “Ever since the Sanderson case, things have been different,” he said. “You know it. I know it.”

“Different isn’t bad, though,” Parker said.

“And how do you get to decide it on your own anyway?” Sophie pressed. “Going off on your own like that.”

“Because I had to,” Nate said. “Because I knew none of you would. What we have between us, it’s--”

“Amazing,” Sophie said.

“Unstoppable,” Eliot agreed.

“Spectacular,” Hardison said.

“Dangerous,” Nate corrected, the words heavy. “We’re not in control of it.”

Sophie crossed her arms over her chest. “And who said you have to be in control?”

Nate scoffed. “All of you, each and every one,” he said. “That’s how you became the best at what you do -- that’s how you’ve made us the best team. Because we stay in control. We control the variables. The stakes are too high to pretend that we don’t.”

“Control’s nothing but a fantasy, man,” Eliot said.

“It’s not, though,” Nate said. “This isn’t about the unexpected things that come up on the job. This is about the things we can’t control inside of us.” He pointed at Eliot, nodding toward the others. “A year ago, six months ago, none of you would have been okay with this. None of you would have let it go on this long.”

“Things change,” Sophie said.

We changed,” Parker agreed.

Nate sighed. “Magic,” he said. “Soulbonding. Whatever you want to call it, it’s made us sloppy. The risks we’re taking, they’re not okay. And you each know it.”

Eliot lifted his chin, Hardison held his ground, and Parker locked her jaw.

“Maybe,” Sophie conceded. She paused, and the silence was taut between them, and Nate felt his breathing catch before she finished. “But it’s working.”

He nodded, because he couldn’t disagree. “It is,” he said, shrugging again. “And it may keep working. We may keep taking on job after job, each one more dangerous than the last. And maybe our luck, maybe it never runs out. Maybe the magic, whatever it is, lasts forever.” He stopped, licking his lips. “But what if it doesn’t?”

There tension heightens between them, stronger and stronger now.

“What if we the risks are too much? What if the magic fades?” he asked. “Or worse, what if it pushes us too far? Because when we’re together, we feel like we could do anything, and I get it. I know how addicting it is. But I know addiction. I know the more you want it, the more likely it is to kill you. And my own life, I’m okay with that. But yours? Any of yours?”

He shook his head. Parker, Eliot, Hardison and Sophie.

He breathed out heavily.

“The only thing I want more than to be with you, to work with you,” he said, trying to speak through his rapidly closing throat. “Is for you to be safe.”

That was the only point he had to make, and it was the only point they had to understand. He’d maintained some distance before; he’d kept a certain ruthless that he’d needed to manipulate them. And he’d always been protective of them, he’d always worked hard to keep them safe, they’d been his friends, his family.

It was more than that now.

This strength was his weakness.

This invincibility was his vulnerability.

Nothing scared him on the job anymore.

And that terrified him more than anything else.

“That’s why you went to see Sanderson,” Sophie said finally, gently now.

The hardness in Parker’s eyes had softened. “That’s why you want to stop.”

“Because the stronger we get--” Hardison said.

Eliot nodded. “--the weaker we are.”

“You know this isn’t what I want -- I know it’s not what you want,” Nate said, stepping forward. “But I think it may be what we need.”

They wanted to argue, naturally, but Nate knew they wouldn’t. Because everything he said, every conclusion he made, they knew it already. They’d known it just as long as he had, but none of them wanted to say it.

Nate had pulled this team together.

Nate had cast the spell.

He would have to be the one to break them both.

-o-

He saw them off, each and every one of them. He patted Eliot on the back before watching him climb into his car and pull away without looking back. Parker hung around a little longer, almost clinging, before Nate finally gave her a final look and she all but disappeared two minutes later.

Hardison made a show out of it, packing and arranging. When he tried to give Nate his contact information in case of emergencies, Nate reminded him that that would defeat the purpose of everything. Hardison was still talking on his way out the door, and Nate had a feeling he didn’t stop.

As for Sophie, she stayed with him one more night. One painful, perfect night with their bodies intertwined under the sheets. She was laying with her head tucked against his shoulder, hair splayed out over his bare chest.

“Maybe,” Nae said, running his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I was wrong.”

She laughed. “Now I really have heard everything.”

“But maybe I was,” he said. “You and me, here together -- I don’t want you to go.”

She sat up a bit, rolling over to look up at him. “All the years I’ve wanted you to say that,” she mused. “And you say it now.”

“What?” Nate asked.

“Honestly, I didn’t really believe it,” she said. “Soulbonding.”

Nate furrowed his brow. “And now?”

She let out a disbelieving breath. “Now I don’t suppose I have any choice.”

“Does it really matter why?” Nate asked.

“Nate,” she said. “If we give into this, there’s no turning back.”

“That’s what I was wrong about, I think,” he said. “Maybe it’s better if we’re together.”

“And the risks?”

He smiled, reaching up to caress her cheek. “Don’t really seem so bad.”

She closed her eyes, leaning into his touch.

“Maybe stay,” he said, drawing her closer. He pressed his lips to hers. “Maybe we can all stay.”

She didn’t answer, but kissed him back, pulling up until she enveloped him in her embrace.

For one night, Nate let himself believe in the impossible.

The best night of his life.

-o-

Sophie was gone in the morning.

Just an empty bed.

An empty apartment.

There was a note on the table, written in a looping scrawl.

Of all the times for you to be right.

Nate closed his eyes, crumpling it in his hand.

An empty life.

-o-

He tried to enjoy it. He really did.

After all, he’d been fighting for a bit of privacy ever since he settled back in Boston and the team had wormed their way back into his life. He hadn’t asked for that, for any of it. He hadn’t asked for Hardison to become his landlord and for the team to take over his apartment. He hadn’t asked for their orange soda or their cereal or their extra clothes or their mess. That was never what he wanted, and he certainly had never wanted to turn around and find his free time and his personal space occupied every single moment of every single day.

So this, by a certain logic, was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He got up when he wanted; he went to sleep as he pleased. He could come downstairs and eat breakfast in his underwear, and he could watch anything he wanted on the television. No one was there to mess up his things, and he had time to read all the books he’d been looking forward to without anyone interrupting him. He didn’t have to try to figure out relationships or play referee.

No, for the first time in years, Nate was his own man. He had his life back.

Every second of every day.

Every. Single. Moment.

Too bad he felt like he was dying.

-o-

Still, Nate was committed. He still remembered why he sent them away, so he was going to make the most of it.

At first, he tried some hobbies. Unfortunately, he realized, outside of drinking and being an arrogant asshole, he didn’t have a lot of hobbies. He tried golf, but it wasn’t as much fun when Hardison wasn’t putting his balls in the hole. He picked up chess more seriously, but that wasn’t as interesting without Sophie too distract him and everyone else. Art museums were no fun without Parker casing them out, and Nate could even enjoy cars without Eliot lecturing him.

It was no surprise, then, that he still spent most nights at McRory’s, drinking and taking in the local news.

It was no surprise, either, when people showed up looking for Nate Ford’s crew. He always apologized before they told their sob story, passing them along to Detective Bonanno as often as he could.

That lasted about three weeks.

Until the girl came in, red eyes and desperate.

“Please, Mr. Ford,” she said. “I’m going to die if you don’t help.”

Nate looked at her, and considered.

She might not die, sure.

But, he was starting to suspect, he just might if he didn’t.

Sighing, he looked at her again. “I’m not the same person you set out to look for,” he explained. “I work alone now, and I can’t promise you the results I could before.”

She didn’t waver, not even a little. “Please.”

He gestured to the chair across from him, resigned to the inevitable. “I’ll see what I can do.”

-o-

The job wasn’t really all that hard. They’d pulled off more complicated scams from more dangerous people, even before things got....weird.

Still, Nate was one person.

One painfully incomplete person.

All in all, running the job was like singing a song he knew by heart.

A half step out of key.

Okay, but not perfect.

Just hopefully good enough.

-o-

Good enough was a relative description.

Nate survived, which was a good first step. He also got his client the money and safety she needed.

In the process, he burned several aliases and blew through close to a hundred grand. He also elicited the wrath of several important men and was nearly dropped off a building for his trouble. For his success, he had to slink out of town until the mark was convicted, which meant he needed to take a few months to lay low in any place that wasn’t Boston.

That was how he ended up in the nowhere bar in New Hampshire. Kennebunkport, of all places. A nice enough town, probably, but Nate didn’t need it to be nice. He just needed it to be distant and anonymous.

Weary, he sat down at the first bar he found, feeling older than he ever had before as he ordered a whiskey.

Usually, a cold drink made him feel better, but the alcohol tasted flat as it slid down his throat. When it was gone, he ordered another out of habit and bowed his head in exhaustion.

What was he doing? In a nowhere bar, trying to get drunk? Trying to run jobs on his own? Living life for himself, like that was what he actually wanted? He’d been miserable -- downright and absolutely miserable. All the spark, all the magic -- it was gone.

Sure, he knew it was the smart choice. It was probably for the best.

But damn.

He hated it more than anything else.

When the bartender poured the second drink, Nate lifted his head and reached for it before stopping cold as he glanced across the bar.

Where Sophie was seated, staring back at him with wide, startled eyes. Someone cleared their throat, and Nate looked to the side, where Hardison was nursing a beer. Parker popped up from the other direction, and Nate felt a gust of air as the front door opened.

He didn’t have to look back, but he did. Like it was fate.

Hell, it probably was.

Because walking through the door was Eliot.

Nate swore.

He was going to need a lot more to drink tonight.

-o-

Nate was pissed as hell.

And even more relieved.

Pulling them back to a corner booth, Nate gave the waitress a fifty to leave them alone and keep other patrons away from them, just until he had this figured out.

Just until he knew if he was going to chew them out or hug them.

“How did you find me?” Nate asked. “I thought we agreed.”

“We didn’t,” Hardison said. “Man, I was just looking for a place to lay low. One of my scams tripped the local authorities -- no big deal, but I may have an APB out on me in New York. I just need a laptop and a secure internet connection to make it go away.”

“And I’m just here for the vault in the local bank,” Parker said. “It’s a little off the beaten path, but I heard it’s a holdover from the 1920s. They don’t build them like that anymore. And I was a little bored.”

“I just needed to crash for the night,” Eliot explained, shrugging one shoulder protectively. He was bruised and guarding his right side. “I have a safe house established up here from back in my active days. A few old friends caught up with me. I needed to recuperate.”

Sophie scoffed. “And don’t look at me,” she said. “I came up here with a well to do benefactor on his yacht.”

“Then why aren’t you still on the yacht?” Parker asked.

“Well,” Sophie said, somewhat chagrined. “He may have found all of his wife’s best jewels in my purse. An honest mistake, I can assure you, and I could have talked him out of it. But the whole scam was a bit, I don’t know, boring?”

“Not right,” Hardison agreed. “I get it.”

“Like everything that used to make you happy just didn’t anymore,” Parker said.

“Like you’re just a little bit off your game,” Eliot said, tipping his head to the side.

Sophie nodded. “Just enough.”

Nate sighed, rubbing his head. “So, we all try to do our own thing -- six months apart, no exceptions,” he said. “We all stick to it, no contact, no anything. And somehow, despite the odds, we all end up beaten, on the run and bored in the same nowhere small town?”

They all looked at him, nodding sheepishly one after another.

Nate laughed because there was nothing else he could do. Chuckling again, he got out his wallet and laid down a large bill before getting up.

“Where are you going?” Parker asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. Because he wasn’t sure of anything, anymore. He wasn’t sure of how or why, and he didn’t know how to protect them. He’d tried -- he’d really tried -- to do the right thing. The smart thing, the sane thing. But it’d only made it worse.

He couldn’t change this anymore than he could change his son’s death. This was fate, this was magic.

This was the only reality left that mattered.

He looked at them, really looked at them.

His team.

He shrugged, nodding toward the exit. “Come on.”

Parker’s eyes widened. Hardison beamed. Sophie’s cheeks warmed, and even Eliot smiled. Because they understood.

If they couldn’t live apart.

Then they might as well die together.

Or, Nate could hope, something in between.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said, knowing they were behind him, step for step. “We’ll figure it out together.”

-o-

In life, Nate’s always fought hard for the things he wanted. He spent most of his teen years fighting back against his dad, and he fought all his teachers at seminary who wanted to create him into a righteous man. He fought to get a job at IYS, and he fought tooth and nail to work his way up the ladder until he became the best damn investigator the company had.

He fought for Maggie, too, though no one really remembered that now. He asked her for a date every day for a month until she said yes, and he fought two years after that until she finally married him. He fought for a family, because three rounds of in vitro fertilization didn’t come easy and they didn’t come cheap. And God help him, he’d fought hard to save Sam’s life, selling everything, extending credit he didn’t have, and cashing in every favor he could until Sam’s heart stopped beating.

He fought to get his life back on track, fought to make a team, fought to keep a team. He fought against himself, trying to decide who the hell he was. He fought for this version of himself, not exactly a criminal but no longer the white knight he might have thought he once was.

And he fought every mark, every case, every job. He fought the smartest, richest, meanest, ugliest people you could imagine.

More than that, he won.

Because, fighting, hard work, that was what saved him. That was what kept him from being Jimmy Ford’s son; that was what gave him a career, a marriage.

It had saved him, too, when Sam died. It had pulled him from the pit of despair and given him a second chance at, well, everything.

That was why control mattered, because Nate knew what happened when he relinquished that control.

He knew what it was to live life without a safety net.

He knew how far you could fall and how hard it was to get back up.

Sometimes, though, there were things you couldn’t fight.

Sometimes it felt better to give up.

Sometimes there was nothing left but to give in.

Once Nate accepted that.

Everything else was perfect.

-o-

Bigger, harder, faster.

Each job, more than the last. Now that they were together again, no questions asked, no reservations at all, they were more efficient, more skilled more capable.

Better.

Things kept getting better.

-o-

“Guys, come on,” Nate hissed over the comms. “Where are we?”

“Just a minute, just a minute,” Hardison grumbled. “I’ve got a tail--”

There was a clatter and a yelp.

“No, you don’t,” Eliot said. “But I’m gonna need--”

Something clicked.

“An exit?” Parker asked while hinges squeaked.

“That’s lovely, really,” Sophie said. “But if I don’t have that data--”

“There,” Hardison said. “Uploaded to your phone.”

In the van, Nate closed his eyes. He didn’t know why he asked. He knew exactly where they were.

Chuckling, he shook his head. Eyes open, he pushed the back of the van open and straightened his suit. “Okay, then,” he said, fixing his hair quickly. “Let’s finish this.”

-o-

He never asked for privacy, but he always got it when he needed it. The team disappeared some nights, leaving him and Sophie to themselves. Inexplicably, he found his way into an all night poker game when it was time for Hardison and Parker, and no one had to ask where Eliot went some nights. Now that they had accepted this thing between them, they didn’t have to ask questions; they didn’t need the constant reassurance.

They just knew.

-o-

All the same, Nate loved it best when they were together, when the five of them slept sprawled out in Nate’s bedroom, hands reached out for one another in sleep.

Soulbonding, after all, wasn’t a sexual thing. It wasn’t even romantic. Soulbonding was about the needs of the soul being filled by someone else, two hearts beating in time, two minds thinking in synch. This surpassed the physical, eclipsed the mental and encompassed the emotional. This was everything. No secrets, no questions, no doubts.

It wasn’t about convenience or power or perfection. It was about needs they didn’t even know they had being filled before they could even recognize the want.

It was about the only truth that mattered, the connection between people, stronger, deeper, more passionate than anything else on this earth.

They knew.

-o-

Hardison went fishing with Eliot, and Nate took Parker to the art museum. Sophie bought tickets to robot wars -- front row -- and Eliot played chess with Nate. They lived interchangeably, not because they were replaceable, but because they weren’t. The labels, see, they didn’t matter anymore. Hacker, hitter, grifter, thief and mastermind. Made one; made whole.

Sophie learned hand-to-hand, and Hardison picked locks. Nate broke high level encryptions and Eliot charmed the mark. Parker controlled it all from a distance and everyone made it out alive.

“Hey, good job with the punches,” Eliot said. “You working on your form?”

“Thank you, yes,” Sophie replied, beaming. “And you have become quite charming. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“With a man, no less,” Hardison smirked. “By the way, Nate, that code?”

“Eh, it was nothing,” Nate said. “But you, Parker. You handled that fallout really well.”

“Only because everyone did their parts perfectly,” Parker reminded them. “Seven seconds on that lock? Hardison, that almost beat my record.”

“Teamwork, baby,” Hardison said, slapping Nate on the back. “Teamwork.”

Teamwork, yeah.

And a little something extra.