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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Magic Job (4/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:51 am)
envious

feeling: envious

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




-o-

They were invincible, honestly.

As long as they were together, nothing would go wrong.

Probably, was the caveat, of course. A small, most insignificant caveat. As far as Nate was concerned, it was an acceptable margin of error.

Probably.

-o-

“This job, I don’t know,” Nate said, shaking his head. “It’s pretty complicated.”

“State of the art security,” Hardison noted.

“Two reinforced safes, modified for personal use,” Parker observed.

“A mark who will see us coming,” Sophie agreed.

“And armed guards,” Eliot said with a nod. “Lots of them.”

They were silent for a moment, looking at the file.

Nate sighed, clenching his jaw for a moment. A year ago, he never would have taken this job. A year ago, even he would have written it off as complete suicide.

He put the file down, rubbing his hands together. “So,” he said. “We ready to go?”

“Well,” Sophie said. “I did take the liberty of packing for us already.”

“And I may have already bought tickets,” Hardison chimed in. “First class, all the way, baby.”

“I call window seat!” Parker chirped.

“Man, I was wondering why we weren’t on a plane already,” Eliot said.

Nate grinned.

Probabilities be damned.

-o-

It wasn’t just action and adventure, either. It was more than winning and losing. It wasn’t just about the job or the mark or even the client.

It was the quiet moments, the in betweens. It was the gaps they filled without asking, without thinking. It was the easy give and take, the gentle harmony that they found as their hearts pounded the same rhythm to the most complex song.

They came together and learned.

The moved closer and grew.

They weren’t just better together, not anymore. No, now they were the best versions of themselves, revitalizing day after day after day together. Parker learned how to feel, and Hardison discovered his humility. Eliot discovered what it was to be happy, and Sophie harnessed her own honesty.

As for Nate, his change was the most dramatic of all. He was still a bastard, really. He still schemed and plotted and went at things with no holds barred. He drank more than he should, and he never said the things he needed to say, but Nate still change more than any of the others.

Because Nate -- well, Nate learned to trust.

If that wasn’t magic, then Nate wasn’t sure what the hell was.

-o-

“Another job well done,” Hardison said, pounding his hand on the bar. “Can I get a hell yeah?”

“Hell yeah!” Parker enthused.

“I can get a drink,” Eliot said, reaching around to the back of the deserted bar. It was late -- after hours -- and the place was theirs. “Anyone else?”

“Something white, I think,” Sophie said, easing herself down onto one of the stools. “We cut it a bit tight on that one. For a moment, I thought things might really go wrong for us.”

“You mean when the goons started to open fire?” Eliot asked, pouring a drink and passing it to Hardison.

Hardison took it. “Or when the alarms went off,” he said. “All of them. At once.”

“And the police showed up!” Parker said, accepting the next drink from Eliot. “We were literally in handcuffs there for a minute.”

“Actually,” Sophie said. “I was referring to the time the building exploded. We were singed!”

Nate sat next to her, reaching past Eliot for a bottle of whisky. “Could have been worse,” he said.

“You mean we could have been arrested?” Hardison asked with a scoff.

“Or shot,” Eliot said.

Parker raised her eyebrows, lifting her glass enthusiastically. “Or blown up!”

“Or separated,” Nate interjected. He cocked his head knowingly. He put a glass down for himself and started to pour. “Another job where we all walk out together -- take the win.”

Sophie finally had her glass of wine, and she lifted it decidedly. “Hear, hear,” she said. “To us.”

The others joined in, clinking their glasses and tipping back their drinks.

Nate still tried to balance it, sometimes. To weigh the risks against the benefits.

But no matter how many risks stacked up, no matter how many dangers weighed the down, the upside always counterbalanced it.

Because no matter what they faced, they faced it together.

Everything else was expendable, Nate knew as he finished his drink and looked at his team.

Everything else.

-o-

Good jobs, bad jobs. Lots to do, nothing to do.

There was a time, maybe, when this might have bothered him, when he would have searched for more equilibrium for him, for his team.

He hardly noticed now.

As long as they were together.

Good jobs, bad jobs. Lots to do, nothing to do.

Together.

-o-

“Ms. Caprise, really,” Nate said with a smile. “We can play this the long way, and I can con you with everything I have. It’ll take days, weeks even, but you’ll give me everything I want.”

Ms. Carprise huffed, straightening her expensive suit and tweaking her carefully designed hairdo. “And the alternative?”

Nate shrugged. “You give it to me now, freely and willingly, and you step down from your company and liquidate all its assets.”

She stared at him, as if waiting for the other shoe to fall. “You must be joking.”

Nate didn’t just have the other shoe. He had the whole damn closet. “That way, you won’t go to jail at least, and we’ll leave you enough to keep you off food stamps for a year while you find something a little less morally compromised to do.”

“You really must be joking,” she said. “What possible incentive would I have to do that and not just have you arrested right now?”

Nate wet his lips. “Because I have a man on a computer, hacking into your system to get your passcodes. I have a thief at your vault, ready to plunder everything you have. Your second in command? Has given all your secrets to one of my people. And your security staff -- well, they’ve been taken care of, too.”

Her incredulity was tinged with fear now, and she took an unsteady, tremulous breath, even as she tried to hold herself steady.

“The ending is inevitable,” he said. “Fighting it won’t change anything. Trust me, I would know.”

Her countenance wavered, and she pressed her lips together. “And what would you have me do?”

“Give in,” Nate said with another one shouldered shrug. “Accept it.”

“Accept that you’ll ruin me?” she asked, voice hoarse now.

“No, no, no. Just accept that we’re an unstoppable force,” he said, tilting his head as he looked at her unflinchingly. “And there’s no way you could ever stand against that.”

-o-

Bigger risks, bigger reward. More payouts, more justice.

It wasn’t about any of that, though.

Nate watched the team, moving around the apartment on a Sunday afternoon. Hardison made the popcorn, and Parker picked the movie. Eliot brought the beers, and Sophie saved a spot for Nate, right next to her. She didn’t look back at him as the others settled in. She didn’t ask him to join or even check to see if he was interested.

It was hard to remember, the way it used to be, when this seemed like the only reality that mattered. He thought about them, his team.

They were his.

And he was theirs.

“Hey, hey,” he said. “Wait for me.”

He grabbed the gummy frogs and made his way over, nabbing a blanket to cover them all as they curled together on the couch and the opening title came onto the screen.

-o-

It was easy to forget, sometimes, that this wasn’t natural. That this was a spell that forced them together, just like the job had thrown them into the mix all those years ago. Sometimes it was easy to forget that none of them had chosen this, not really, and that if they had been given the option, none of them would have wanted it at all. It was easy to overlook all this, that they’d given up who they were and what they’d been for something different, something so interdependent that it didn’t make the least bit of sense.

It was easy to forget that they’d fought this. That Nate had tried to push them away, that Sophie had lied to them about the Second David. It was easy to forget that Eliot had never told them about Moreau, and that Hardison had wanted to run his own crew one day. It was easy to forget that Parker was crazy, incapable of making a friend until they forced her to do it.

Nate wondered, then, what it would have been like if there had been no spell. When he was alone in the bar and the whisky was all out. When he was awake at night and the team was sleeping pressed together without him. He wondered if Sophie would still be here, if she’d have put up with his crap this long. He wondered if Parker and Hardison would have gotten together and figured out their feelings any other way. He wondered if Eliot would smile like he did now, like he wasn’t holding back for the first time in his life.

He wondered if they would have stayed together, if they would have accomplished this many jobs. He wondered if they would have saved so many lives.

They had, after all, saved a lot of lives. Nate had almost lost count by this point, the clients came and went so quickly. They were more than street gossip now, they were legends. The crew everyone feared and nobody knew how to knock off.

He wondered if the real lives they saved, however, were their own.

He also wondered if maybe it had been inevitable. He wondered if the spell had just been part of the magic they’d discovered years ago when Dubenich put together the best he could find. He wondered if the spell was just a convenient scapegoat they all used to justify the fact that they needed each other more than anything else in this world.

And he wondered, really wondered, if this had started with that spell in Hawthorne or if it had started the day they all said yes to Dubenich’s offer. He wondered if it started the day they’d all been broken and in need of something they wouldn’t even bring themselves to admit. That was what this was, in the end. Not five perfect skill sets, but five imperfect people.

Nate wondered about a lot of things, each more telling than the last. More troubling, too.

What he didn’t wonder about, though, was the end. It was the last great mystery between them, the last unknown he had to breach. He knew that should make him curious; he knew it should drive him crazy.

It didn’t.

Honestly, part of him suspected it might not exist. That the ending wouldn’t come for them.

All of him, though, desperately hoped it didn’t.

-o-

The job was always about the client, in a sense, but Nate had to admit, they were starting to blur together. It felt good to help people, and they worked hard to ground themselves in altruistic motivations in everything they did. They didn’t go after people who were greedy or powerful just because they were greedy or powerful. They went after people who hurt others. They helped people.

That said, it was hard to keep them straight. How many food corporations would they tackle? How many financial companies would they take down? And no matter how unique each client was, their stories all started to sound the same.

This company destroyed my life. This CEO took all my money. This corporation covered up the death of someone I care about. I need money. I need restitution. I need closure.

At this point, Nate had heard it all.

Until a petite young woman sat across from her with a small, shy smile. She was young and dressed in clothes she seemed to have salvaged by choice from a vintage shop. Her ears were triple pierced, and there was an additional stud in her nose. She wore rings on every finger and bangles up her wrists, and a makeshift bandana kept the wiry brown curls from her face.

“They’re claiming to be all natural, Mr. Ford,” she explained with all due seriousness. “They say that they use natural fertilizers and that all their eggs are free range and their cows are grass fed.”

“Well, the all natural push,” Nate said. “It’s a big thing.”

“I know, but you have to understand, it’s not a passing fad for me,” she said, even more earnestly than before. She was surprisingly self composed for a girl her age, and her demeanor was much less dramatic than he was used to with client interviews. “It’s part of my personal belief system, to keep myself in tune with nature.”

“Sure,” Nate said, as complacently as he could. “And you have reason to suspect that this company -- Derringer Farms -- is lying about it.”

“Not just lying,” she said. “They are willfully manipulating the information.”

“Okay, but that’s what the FDA is for,” Nate said.

“Most of the terms used to describe this movement have outpaced legislation,” she said. “There’s no regulations about what labels companies use for all natural.”

“But how much damage is it really going to do?” he asked. “I’m not saying they’re right, but what actual harm has come to people because of these practices?”

She took a steady, measured breath. “They don’t use traditional fertilizers, Mr. Ford, which is how they skirt all legalities,” she told him. “What they do instead is use experimental fertilizers -- variations and compounds that aren’t as widely restricted because they’re not even used. There’s no oversight, and they can call them natural because they’re not mass produced. They don’t even disclose the ingredients list to the public. I had to do a lot of digging to find out just that much.”

“Well, how bad could they be?” Nate asked.

She laid out a paper, pointing to a line of statistics. “These are the occurrences for deaths in the county,” she said. She pointed to another line. “This is the percentage of people who have contracted cancer or an autoimmune disease. The numbers are even worse when you look at high risk populations like children or the elderly.”

Nate sighed, rubbing a hand over his mouth. “So they’re poisoning people.”

With a sober nod, she sat back. “That’s why they need to be stop.”

Frowning, Nate considered this. He looked at the numbers; he looked at her. It made sense, to a degree. He’d taken jobs with less. But there was something bothering him. “Why you?” he asked finally. “Why are you so invested in taking them down?”

“I trusted Derringer Farms, and I’m a concerned citizen,” she said.

“Uh uh,” Nate said. “There’s more to it.”

She let out a short, hot breath. “Mr. Ford--”

“Look, I need to know your full motivation,” he said. “I need to know the whole story or I can’t realistically take my team in to a risky situation on your behalf. I can’t have any surprises, not with risks like this.”

“I ate their food for a year, and it didn’t ruin my health or kill me,” she admitted. “But there was something wrong, I knew it.”

“So you based all this on a, what -- a hunch?” Nate asked.

She smiled slightly. “A hunch,” she said. “Backed up by the fates alignment.”

Nate stared. “The...fates?”

She nodded. “I knew something was wrong because the signs were everywhere, in the wind, in the air, in the stars,” she said. “I knew something was wrong because, to be frank, I’m a practicing Wiccan.”

“A witch?” Nate asked, eyebrows up.

“Please,” she said with a polite smile. “I really do prefer the term Wiccan.”

-o-

“A witch?!” Hardison asked in abject horror. “You got us another job with a witch?”

“Again, technically, she’s Wiccan,” Nate said.

Hardison stared him down.

Hard.

Nate shrugged, almost sheepish. “At least this time she doesn’t have occult ties,” he said. “And really, this time we’re working for her and not against her, so…”

“Yeah, I’m not sure that’s helping your case,” Eliot said.

Sophie made a sympathetic face. “Not helping it at all, I’m afraid.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Parker said with a cavalier shrug. “Let’s go steal us some magic! Again!”

Hardison narrowed his eyes, shaking his head back and forth. “I would have thought you’d have learned your lesson by now,” he said. “There are some things you don’t mess with. We fake a miracle, okay. We make someone believe we’re psychic, we’re cool. But a witch? Another damn witch after the last one hexed us?”

“Tried,” Nate corrected. “She tried to hex us.”

“An opportunity you used to put us all under a powerful and experimental soulbonding spell instead,” Sophie said. “Dramatically altering our lives without even checking with us first.”

“Again,” Eliot said. “Not really helping you.”

“Oh, come on,” Nate said. “None of you are actually complaining about how things are.”

“More reason to not mess with things,” Hardison said. “This time, we may get hexed for real! We start sprouting hair or our teeth falls out. Can you imagine me with no teeth? No, you cannot, because a brother needs his teeth.”

“The case doesn’t have anything to do with the magic, and she wants us to succeed,” Nate said.

“But maybe being toothless would help us,” Parker said, thoughtful.

“How does being toothless help anyone?” Hardison asked.

“How should I know?” Parker asked. “That’s why it’s magic.”

“The magic has nothing to do with it,” Nate said. “Honestly, the magic’s no big deal.”

“I feel like I’ve heard that before,” Hardison said.

Nate spread out his hands. “Trust me,” he said. “The magic is absolutely no big deal.”

-o-

Probably, Nate didn’t let himself say, but he thought it as they ran recon.

The magic was probably no big deal.

After all, this time, they had the most powerful magic on their side already.

-o-

“Run it,” Nate said, settling back against the couch two days later. He felt anxious, somehow, the tension tied tightly within him, even as he tried his best to ignore it complete. He tapped his fingers on the couch, stretching his neck. “What do you we got?”

Hardison was in front of the coffee table, making his way back from the screen as he cast a cool glance at Nate. He used the remote to bring up the picture over his shoulder. “Derringer Farms,” he said. “A local place that’s been in the Derringer family since 1886. It’s never been a very profitable farm, but they’ve usually brought home enough to keep things moving. They’ve always been big into the local farmers markets in the area, and they have a contract or two with some restaurants in the state to supply fresh produce and meat.”

“Sounds like quaint americana,” Sophie mused.

“Or boring,” Parker muttered.

“It was both of those things,” Hardison said, flipping to a new screen. “And now, seemingly it’s neither. The farm passed to the newest generation of Derringers, which brings us to this woman: Rebecca Derringer. Now, interestingly, Rebecca isn’t a Derringer by blood. She married the oldest son and only heir about five years ago. Jeffrey Derringer was born and bred for the family business, and the first three years he ran it, the place made the switch to full-on organic produce. He was a wholesome sort of dude, and he made sure Derringer Farms was in line with every new age philosophy you can think of.”

“That sort of change isn’t easy,” Eliot observed. “Not in three years.”

Hardison brought up another screen. “It wasn’t cheap, either,” he said. “In his three years, Jeffrey nearly bankrupted the place.”

“That’s all well and good,” Sophie said. “But how does that bring us to Rebecca?”

A newspaper clipping came on the screen. “Because Jeffrey died unexpectedly while out in the fields one day,” he said. “It was ruled natural causes by default since no other cause of death could be found.”

“They can do that?” Parker asked.

“Sure,” Eliot said. “There are some cases where the body just shuts down and no one knows how or why, but that doesn’t make it foul play. Of course, there are other cases where you can make it look natural, and no one will ever know it’s murder.”

“Murder or natural,” Hardison said. “Rebecca continued all of Jeffrey’s policies.”

“So?” Parker asked.

“So,” Hardison said. “By all accounts, the place should have dried up by now and sold out.”

“But it’s still around,” Sophie observed.

“Around and thriving,” Hardison said, bringing up more pictures. “The place has exploded. More contracts with restaurants, supermarkets, online business. Rebecca stopped doing the local produce trade and began to export this thing around the region. She’s making moves for a national contract as we speak.”

“How would they be able to supply that?” Eliot said. “The land tract is too small.”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Hardison said, pressing another button. “But this is their yearly yields.”

Eliot was shaking his head. “There’s no way,” he said. “They could produce maybe that amount with one crop, but in all of them? A good vegetable garden wouldn’t have that much production, and it’s physically impossible to have that many crops on that many acres, especially with the wooded areas on the south of the land.”

“And the money doesn’t make sense, either,” Parker said with her eyes narrowed. “They’re getting way higher prices than anyone else on the market.”

“You could grift with one mark, maybe two to boost your sales,” Sophie said. “But all of them?”

“Trust me, I know,” Hardison said. “There’s no plausible explanation for it.”

Nate sighed in resignation. A miraculous turnaround. Unbelievable numbers.

He knew the answer.

They all did.

“When you look at it like that,” Parker said. “I just looks weird.”

“More than weird,” Eliot said. “Impossible.”

“No,” Nate interjected wearily as he shook his head. “Magic.”

They went silent, staring at him while he sunk back dejectedly. They’d seen this before.

Nate would say it, because someone had to.

And that job had always, always been his.

“It looks like magic.”

-o-

For a moment, no one spoke.

Then, everyone spoke.


“Aw, hell, no!”

“Magic? You got to be kidding me with that--”

“The last thing we need is another magical case--”

“But I thought we already beat magic!”

Nate held up his hand, waiting for it to taper off.

“I know, okay?” he said. “I know what I said.”

“Do you, though?” Eliot asked. “Because this whole thing smells wrong.”

“You promised us this time,” Sophie implored. “You said the magic wouldn’t be a part of the con.”

“You not only want us to work for a witch, but you want us to take down one, too?” Hardison asked, fully incredulous.

“And I thought we were still going with the story that magic wasn’t real?” Parker asked, looking confused. “Wait, is magic actually real now?”

Eliot groaned, and Sophie sighed.

“Of course it’s real, woman!” Hardison said. “How else did we get ourselves hexed into this mess!”

“I stopped the hex,” Nate reminded him.

“Oh, yes,” Hardison said sarcastically. “And traded it out for a soulbonding spell, which hasn’t been a problem at all.”

The talking erupted again.

“Technically, a hex would be worse--”

“Are you trying to insult us?”

“But magic is so cool!”

Nate held up his hand again, waiting the longer moment while they came to a stop again.

“Look, I know it’s not what we want, and I can’t explain any of this,” he said. “But Derringer Farms -- they’re going to go national with products that hurt people. Kill people. There’s no way we can just sit here and let that happen.”

“Um, yes we can,” Hardison said. “Let someone else get cursed this time.”

“We could take a less invasive approach,” Sophie suggested.

Eliot shook his head, deadly serious. “It looks like a set up, Nate,” he said. “Like someone wants us on this job.”

“Well, duh,” Parker said. “That’s why it’s magic.”

They stared at her.

She shrugged, as if it were obvious. “Fate?”

Eliot groaned again.

“No, she’s right,” Nate said. “I mean, our client, we ran the background on her. She’s had no additional involvement with anyone or anything related to Derringer. And she’s clean -- but not squeaky clean. Her record is real, and her financial are normal. We talked to people who know her, and she may have some odd beliefs, but there’s no indication that she’s trying to use them for harm. Especially against us.”

“So what if someone’s using her?” Eliot asked.

“Or -- crazy idea,” Hardison said. “What if she hexed them?”

“But if she hexed them, why would she hire us?” Parker asked.

“And why?” Sophie said. “Unless we’ve got some sort of strange magical grudge war.”

“A competition for turf,” Eliot muse.

Nate shook his head, more adamant than before. “Not everything is a hex, no matter what our past experience may be.”

“Sure,” Hardison said. “But some things are.”

“I’m not just taking her word,” Nate said. “Look at the recon we’ve done. You know what it says.”

“We know what it says,” Sophie empathized. “But we can’t take this lightly. We did before, and we all know how that turned out.”

Nate sighed. “It turned out fine--”

“Your definition of fine leaves a little something to be desired,” Hardison said. “I mean, just say, just for a moment that we do this. And what if we get hexed? What if we get cursed? What if someone puts a different spell on us? If something happens to us -- to any one of us--”

Eliot inclined his head in agreement. “Ain’t no coming back from that.”

“There’s just too much risk,” Sophie said. “If we assume what we have is magic, then the greatest threat to us is more magic.”

Parker’s eyes widened. “Okay, that’s not cool.”

“We have each other,” Nate said with as much finality as he could muster. “I fought that, harder than the rest of you, but it’s the strongest asset we have.”

“And that’s the point, Nate,” Sophie said. “We have each other. And you want us to put it on the line? Why?”

Nate wet his lips, resolute. “Because,” he replied simply. “That’s what we do.”

“No,” Eliot said. “We protect each other, that’s what we do. We’re a unit now. Not a team, not a group. A whole.”

With a scoff, Nate shrugged. “You think I don’t know that?”

“Then why are we putting it on the line?” Hardison said. “Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, would we put that back on the line when we have more to lose now than ever?”

“I tried to stop it, okay? I tried to walk away,” Nate said. “Whatever this is between us; it’s stronger than me. Stronger than us. I thought it would stop us from doing the job, but I know now that it can help us.”

“Is that all this is to you?” Eliot asked. “A utilitarian thing?”

Parker regarded him uncertainly. “We’re not a means to an end.”

Nate’s gut twisted. “I know that -- of course we’re not.”

“We’ve share a life, Nate,” Sophie told him, gesturing to the group. “The five of us. We do the job, we don’t do the job -- we’re still us.”

“I know that,” Nate said. “I do.”

“Then don’t take this job,” Sophie said, the warning in her voice plain.

“Don’t put us at risk,” Eliot agreed.

“I just got magic,” Parker told him. “I can’t lose it.”

Nate drew a breath and held it, looking at them, looking for any sign of compromise. But they were resolute, his team. For the first time since Hawthorne, they didn’t agree with him.

For the first time in as long as he could remember, the issue was pitting them against each other, down to the very fiber of their beings. It wasn’t a disagreement. It was a rift that threatened to rip them apart, to rip asunder from the inside out.

They could do anything together.

But being apart -- on anything, no matter how small -- would destroy them now.

Nate was taking this dangerously close to the edge, walking as close as he could to the edge of a cliff. He’d done this before, and he’d even tumbled over once or twice, and they’d been fine. They’d prevailed.

This time?

Nate wasn’t so sure.

But he knew he couldn’t back down.

He wasn’t sure how or why, but he wasn’t going to back down.

“We need to take this time,” he said.

Just like that, Hardison threw his hands up, storming from the room. Parker was right on his heels. Eliot watched them, arms crossed over his chest as he shook his head at Nate. Without as much as a disparaging word, he followed the other two out the front door.

Sophie, as was no surprise, was the last to stay.

“It’s not magic that will ruin us, Nate,” she warned. “It’s our own selves.”

“You agree with them,” he assumed.

“They’ll follow you because they have to,” she said. “They’d like you to follow them for once because you want to. There is a difference, even for us.”

“This isn’t a choice, Sophie,” he said, holding her gaze. “You know as well as I do that there are forces at play here. Forces we can’t fight.”

She smiled ruefully. “A fight implies that you want to win,” she said. “I think we’re willing to accept fate for what it is this time.”

“And if that’s not an option?” Nate asked.

Sophie got to her feet, trailing her fingers along the couch as she made her way to the door. “Then it’s a fight you’ve already lost.”

Sophie was the last to stay.

The last to leave.

For his part, Nate had never felt more alone.

-o-

Nate didn’t go after him.

It went against his instincts -- all of them, even the most desperate and primal ones -- but Nate could be a stubborn son of a bitch when it counted. Besides, they had made the choice this time. They had left. Nate was the one who was still here.

Alone.

He finished his drink -- alone.

He finished another -- alone.

He drank the whole damn bottle -- alone -- and stared at the TV until he fell asleep -- alone.

In the morning, he woke up sore and groggy, a foul taste in his mouth and his clothes wrinkled. He took a long, hot shower without having anyone coming in to use the toilet or slipping in beside him to share the steam. He ate breakfast -- and hell, cooking for one was fast and easy -- and he drank the last of the orange juice with no second thoughts. He got up, got ready, read his paper.

Alone.

The phone didn’t ring; the front door didn’t open.

They didn’t come.

At lunch, Nate made a sandwich and poured a drink, but everything tasted like ash in his mouth. He couldn’t focus on the words in his book, and he couldn’t come up with any to the answers to his crossword puzzle.

The magic, he knew.

The magic was gone.

That was it, wasn’t it? What he was so afraid of all this time? Of losing the magic, the spark? They’d always been about the job, after all. They came together for the job, and that was why they kept coming back. To fight the good fight, as it were. To provide leverage.

What were they without that? What could they possibly be without that? Nate had lost one career, and he’d had one family fall apart. He’d resisted being a part of this team as long as he could, because, deep down, he was scared of committing again. He was afraid of letting himself be vulnerable with them. Vulnerability meant you could get hurt.

And Nate had been hurt before.

He still had the drawing Sam had made of his family as a testament to that.

Things were different now, though. When he’d let Sanderson cast that spell, he’d let something change without even realizing the magnitude of it. It wasn’t about the cohesion of purpose, not anymore. It wasn’t even the thrill of the chase or the satisfaction of justice.

It was them.

No matter what, no matter how, no matter why.

It was always going to be them.

Nate put down his drink and left his paper behind with a sudden flurry of determination.

He had a team to rally.

-o-

Eliot was waiting for him down at the bar.

It seemed a little suspect, that the hitter was just downstairs this whole time, and Nate had half a mind to point out to Eliot just how needy that made him.

Of course, insinuating Eliot’s weakness probably wouldn’t be the best way to open a conversation in which he was about to ask for help.

“You been down here this whole time?” Nate asked, as conversationally as possible. He nodded at the bartender, who knew what he needed.

Eliot scoffed, sloshing his beer and tossing his head so his hair flicked out of his face. “You been up there this whole time?” he returned.

Nate accepted his drink with a rueful smile. “Licking my wounds.”

“No one was attacking you, Nate,” Eliot said, quirking his eyebrows just so. “But we’re too far into this thing to follow you blindly just because you say so.”

“I know, I know,” Nate relented. “And I never -- I never meant any of it as an order.”

“But it sounds an awful lot like an ultimatum,” Eliot pointed out. “And ultimatums are the ploy of desperate men.”

Nate nodded, swallowing another sip. “It’s not an ultimatum,” he countered.

“Then what exactly?”

With another drink, Nate shrugged. “I just know it’s a job we’re going to do, one way or another,” he said. “There are things we can’t run from -- not many things -- but this is one of them.”

“Fate,” Eliot surmised. “Magic.”

Nate shrugged again.

Eliot took another drink of his beer. “When did men like us start to believe in that sort of thing anyway?”

“It sure as hell wasn’t in Hawthorne, Massachusetts,” Nate said. “But this -- it really isn’t about the magic.”

“You said that already--”

Nate waved his hand dismissively. “I know, but -- listen,” he said. “I was scared of the magic for a long time. I mean, that was why I insisted we split up. Because it was a force I couldn’t control, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I figured it was a liability, and I don’t know, maybe it is sometimes, but it’s really not the point.”

Eliot studied him carefully now. “And the point is?”

“The point is,” Nate said with renewed inflection. “We didn’t start making magic with a spell. We did it when we worked together to help people, to make the world better. I mean, I look at you, Eliot. I look at you. And I see magic, sure, but it’s the magic that you’ve always had, the magic that lets you take hit after hit and get up, because that’s what you do. That’s who you are. That’s magic.”

Finishing his drink, Eliot was quiet for a moment. When he looked at Nate, his expression was keen before he finally shook his head, looking down with a smile. “You know, there were a lot of times on this job when I stayed because I thought to myself that you’d all get yourself killed without me. Especially Hardison.”

Nate cocked his head. “And now?”

Eliot raised his eyes, meeting Nate’s gaze steadily. “Now,” he said. “I’m here because I don’t think I’ll survive without you.”

Nate’s chest clenched, hope swelling in the pit of his stomach.

“I’ll go with you, Nate, but not because I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I’ll go with you because it’s my choice -- just like it has to be the rest of theirs, too.”

Nate lifted the last of his drink, nodding toward Eliot. “That,” he said resoundingly, “is a stipulation I can live with.”

-o-

When Eliot finished his drink, he excused himself upstairs, which was as much of a victory as Nate had hoped for where the hitter was concerned. One down, at any rate.

Nate downed the last of his drink.

Three to go.

He had barely started to contemplate his next move when he heard something behind him.

Something was a broad term, especially since the bar was starting to pick up with the lunchtime business. There was lots of noise, most of it impossible to distinguish apart, except this one.

This one was barely audible, nothing more than a scratch against the wood floor. Imperceptible to anyone, even if you were listening for it.

Anyone except him.

He didn’t have to know the sound.

But he knew -- he knew -- who made it.

Easily, he laid down enough money to cover his tab, and made a show of pushing back his bar stool. He absently straightened his shirt before he turned around.

“Parker.”

She was seated at the table closest to him, staring at him intently. It might have been unsettling, but this was Parker. He knew her well enough now. “Nate.”

It was a short walk to the table, and Nate made it as slow as he could, trying to mentally prepare himself for round two. Eliot, though stubborn, could be swayed with logic and understated emotions. Parker, for all that she’d been emotionally detached when they first met, needed a gentler hand when it came to her feelings.

And this definitely was about her feelings, and Nate knew better than to pretend otherwise. If Parker had struggled with normal human emotions, the fallout of soulbonding only made it more complicated. Most of the time, they were so in tuned that it wasn’t an issue, but at the first sign of conflict, apparently all bets were off.

Nate pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down.

“If you don’t feel okay about what we’re doing, then we won’t do it,” he said, putting it out there as simply as he could. He didn’t look away from her. “I need you to understand that right now.”

To the outside observer, Parker’s face probably betrayed nothing. But Nate could see the subtle shift there, the way her eyes narrowed in just a little on him, the way her mouth tightened at the edges as she regarded him more carefully than she normally might. Parker assessed her reality in terms of entrances and exits, and she was weighing her own desire to escape with her desperate need to be let in.

“You didn’t make it seem that way,” she said, each words somewhat clipped.

Nate inclined his head, but didn’t dare deny it. “I’m better at giving orders than taking feedback,” he said. “Some things never change.”

At that, she visibly flinched. “That’s it, though,” she said. “Isn’t it?”

Parker was the one who had been most set in her ways, most resistant to change when they started. Nate had always attributed it to stunted emotional development, an idea that he’d had validated after getting to know Parker better. Parker had honed her skills as an adult but had failed to make any meaningful growth because she had no context by which to create that growth. More than that, it was a personal safety measure, because Parker could cope with a complex security system or any lock known to man.

But change? Actual, personal change?

That hadn’t even been on Parker’s radar.

And to be clear, Nate had never set out to save his team. When he started this, he’d thought of them as business associates, nothing more. They weren’t supposed to be friends.

Now look at them.

Nate cleared his throat, hedging as he sat forward. “Change is inevitable,” he said. “The world we live in, the jobs we work -- change is going to happen, no matter what we do.”

“The world changes,” Parker said. “And we change. But we change together.”

“I know, I know,” Nate agreed. “Even if I didn’t want to admit it, it’s not like I can deny it.”

She worked her jaw, working to keep her face impassive even as her eyes gave her away. “So why take the risk?”

“Because we change together,” he said, adding more emphasis now. “Parker, this job, whatever we find, it’s not going to change the things that matter.”

“But if the spell is broken….”

“Do you really think this is all because of a spell? That magic is the only reason we’re as close as we are?” he asked.

She leaned one shoulder forward in a small, silent admission.

“And do you think that any kind of hex can break what we have?” he pushed. “Maybe that spell had something to do with all of this, I don’t know. But I do know that we had to choose to let it change us. And we have to choose to let it destroy us, too. And this job, I’m choosing to believe it can’t hurt us. The magic doesn’t mean anything.”

“Then why?” she pressed, quieter than before. “If it doesn’t mean anything, why do it?”

“Because that’s what we do,” he replied, as plaintively as possible. “We help people. We stop bad guys. And, if we believe we have powers, then we have even more responsibility. Who else could possibly stop magic but us? Shouldn’t we do what we can?”

Her eyes widened for a moment, enough for Nate to know he’d touched the right nerve. Appealing to her desire to do the right thing was the key with Parker. She had no just changed, after all. She’d become a better person. A good person.

“I don’t want us to fight,” she replied, the earnestness in her voice making her sound painfully young to him. “We can’t do this if we’re fighting.”

“I know,” he agreed. “That’s why I’m asking you, each of you, if you’ll come with me. If we can do this together.”

Parker knitted her brows together thoughtfully. “Magic is real, you know,” she said finally.

That wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting, but Nate could work with it. “I do,” he said. “I just don’t happen to think a soulbonding spell is the most spectacular thing I’ve seen.”

She actually scoffed. “Then what?”

“Us, each of you,” he said. He pointed a finger at her. “I mean, look at you, Parker. Look at how you’ve grown, how you’ve changed. You’re thinking about the needs of the team; you’re putting the desires of others before your own personal well-being. And you want to do the right thing, more than anything else, you want to do the right thing.”

She blushed, visibly working to keep her eye contact on Nate even as her countenance flickered with emotion.

“The real magic is you,” he said. “How much you’ve changed, you’ve grown. That’s the main thing that makes me believe magic’s possible after all.”

This time, she smiled, small and shy even as her face warmed. “I told you,” she said, a little coy now.

Nate relaxed, settling back as he raised his eyebrows. “You told me what, exactly?”

“Duh,” she said girlishly. It would be tempting to think that was all affected, but Nate knew better. “That magic’s real.”

“Yes,” Nate agreed with a satisfied, perfunctory nod as his own smile widened. “Yes, you did.”

-o-

Hardison made it the farthest.

Which was to say he was up in his flat on the top floor of Nate’s building.

Rather, Hardison’s building. The man had gone out and bought the place before they were even bonded together by their so-called souls. That was one of many reasons Nate was reluctant to attribute magical causes to everything his team had become.

Still, walking the two floors up had never felt quite so long before.

Or hard.

At the door, Nate actually hesitated. Not because he didn’t want to make things right with Hardison -- he did, he really did -- but because he knew how hard Hardison was going to make him work for it. He wasn’t like Eliot, who was stoic. He wasn’t like Parker, who was earnest.

He was like Hardison.

In other words, he was a pain in the ass.

Smart, resourceful, hardworking, talented -- and more -- but this wasn’t a conversation Nate was looking forward to.

Still, he was resolved, and he knocked on the door and braced himself.

From inside, he heard movement, but it went silent behind the door and nothing happened.

Nate sighed and knocked again.

This time, there was no movement.

Nate cleared his throat. “Hardison,” he called, loud enough to carry through the door. “I, um. It’s Nate.”

That wasn’t exactly a brilliant introduction, and while most of the time Nate did prefer to avoid stating the obvious, he wasn’t sure what else to say.

At any rate, Hardison still didn’t reply.

Shuffling his feet, Nate looked at the door, eyes on the peephole. “I know you’re right behind the door,” he said. “You may as well open it.”

“But how did you--” Hardison started, sounding truly annoyed and far too surprised. “Damn it all--”

The muttering continued, colorful and profusive, but Nate was more interested with the sound of the lock disengaged and the handle turning. When the door opened, Hardison was glaring at him from the entrance.

“You’ve got some nerve,” he said forcefully. “How did you find me anyway?”

“You live two floors up,” Nate said.

“I have other places,” Hardison protested. “I have other places. You can’t just come here and think like you know everything about me, because you don’t. Okay? You don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t have gone off in crazy-land yesterday. Talking about playing with magic again.”

Nate, contrary to his instincts, stayed his ground. He’d learned to endure Hardison’s rants as necessary. The good news was that they were often therapeutic.

Not for anyone listening.

But for Hardison himself.

His ability to sell a line to anyone else could be called into question from time to time, but to himself?

Well, Alec Hardison was the best person to convince Alec Hardison of anything.

“I ought to slam the door in your face, that’s what I should do,” Hardison told him, chest puffed out.

“I just live two floors down, Hardison,” he said reasonably.

“Then I should evict you,” Hardison said. “In fact, I might. I wouldn’t even have to forge the paperwork. A few government forms and you’re out on your ass.”

“But I’ll still know where you live,” he pointed out.

Hardison’s glare deepened. “You trying to be smart with me? With me?”

“No, no, of course not,” Nate said. “But what I am trying to do is apologize.”

Hardison went still, as if uncertain how to process this revelation.

“I’m sorry for not thinking about how another case with magic would affect the team,” he explained. “I’m sorry that I didn’t ask you -- any of you -- if you were okay with it. I’m sorry if I, in any way, implied that I was willing to risk the team flippantly. Because I can assure you, I’m not, not even in the slightest, but that’s something we can talk about later.”

“Later?” Hardison asked.

“Later,” Nate said. “After you’ve forgiven me.”

It wasn’t an easy thing to show up to Hardison’s house like a puppy with its tail between its legs. Admitting fault was hard -- not that Nate didn’t internally blame himself for any misstep there was -- but expressing said guilt? And asking for forgiveness?

Well, there was a reason his marriage had ended in divorce, and it wasn’t just Sam’s death and the drinking. There was a reason he shipped his dad off to Ireland on a boat.

Because Nate didn’t like to be wrong.

He liked admitting it even less.

For his, team, though.

For his team, he’d do anything.

Even this.

Hardison sobered visibly, stepping back from the door to hold it open. “Then you better come on in, man,” he said. “Because we have some things to talk about.”