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Leverage fic: The Magic Job (5/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:53 am)
okay

feeling: okay

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



-o-

As Nate when inside, it occurred to him how few times he’d been to Hardison’s place.

Looking around, it also occurred to him how few times Hardison had been here in the last year. For all the time that Hardison had spent at Nate’s place, it was easy to assume that that was his home.

This?

This was just an emergency retreat.

A safe house of sorts.

That was completely unsafe, being two floors above the other.

But that wasn’t the point.

The point was that Hardison had let him inside.

Clearing his throat, Nate tried to remind himself that the hard part was over. Apologizing to Hardison was always going to be the part that made him squirm.

Getting Hardison to reconsider his participation in this job?

Well, that was the fun part.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Nate commented idly, nodding to the walls. For all that Hardison didn’t spend time here, it was well decorated. Nate didn’t doubt that the frame comics on the walls were originals, and the movie posters of the original Star Wars trilogy were probably originals, too.

“I try, man,” Hardison said. “I had the whole thing wired to comply with voice commands. Like, if I say, more light!”

The lights brightened.

“Or take it down!” Hardison said. The lights dimmed. “All the way down.”

It went completely dark, save for the light through the slotted blinds.

“Very impressive,” Nate said.

“Impressive?” Hardison said. “This is an advanced voice recognition software that I programmed myself. I had to rewire the entire building to make sure it had complete access from every room, including the closets. And you think it’s impressive?”

Nate raised his eyebrows.

Hardison huffed angrily. “You didn’t come here to talk about voice recognition.”

“No,” Nate said.

“Well, you’d be better off,” Hardison said stubbornly. “Because there ain’t no way in hell I’m working another case with a witch. No way in hell.”

Nate would coddle Hardison to a necessary degree, but he wouldn’t concede the point. “You landed a plane once.”

Nate folded his arms over his chest, shaking his head defiantly. “Mm-mm,” he said. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“You faked a miracle so good that the Vatican came.”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Hardison said again, most vehement this time.

“You beat a Steranko,” Nate continued.

“I held off a Steranko,” Hardison corrected. “Not that I don’t appreciate the vote of confidence, but you all need to have a realistic sense of just how hard this stuff is.”

“Oh, I know,” Nate said. “I know all the extra hours you put in. I know the time and effort that goes into every mission. I know you make the cover stories. You make the websites. You forge the documents. You make the uniforms.”

Hardison shrugged one shoulder, almost begrudgingly pleased. “I didn’t think you noticed.”

“Oh, I notice,” Nate said. “I notice all of it, on every job we’ve ever pulled. I know how smart you are. I know how capable you are. And I know that no matter what you say, you’ll get the job done.”

Hardison inhaled soberly. “So why can’t you respect the fact that I don’t want to do this again?” he asked. “I mean, magic? Why the hell would we risk it?”

“Because magic isn’t the thing you think it is,” Nate pressed on. “It’s not something you nana warned you about. It’s not something someone preached to you from the pulpit about. It’s not what you see in movies or hear in stories. It’s not street lore or Wiccan beliefs.”


Hardison watched him, his expression pulling together tautly. “Then what is it?”

“I already told you,” Nate said. “It’s you, landing a plane. It’s you, sewing uniforms. It’s you, building perfect cover stories from nothing. It’s you, holding off a Steranko until you got your team out safe.”

Something in Hardison’s expression twitched, and Nate could see him unconsciously grinding his teeth together, as if to keep his composure.

Nate didn’t back down now. “It’s you, Hardison,” he said simply with a plaintive shrug of his shoulders. “It’s you, knowing exactly what we need before we even know we need it. It’s you. You’re magic.”

Hardison drew a deep breath, shaking his head. “Damn, man,” he said. “You practice that one, didn’t you?”

Nate chuckled. “Surprisingly, no.”

“Well, it’s convincing,” he said, visibly relaxing. He uncrossed his arms, gesturing loosely. “But man, I still don’t see why. This kind of thing -- magic, or otherwise -- it’s ain’t in our wheelhouse. And I don’t run scared from the job -- I mean, not without reason -- but we’ve been here before. We did this job before. And it did not turn out the way you said it would.”

“I know,” Nate said. Then he smiled, just a little. “But I think it might have turned out better.”

Hardison gesticulated wildly. “All the more reason not to push our luck.”

“This has nothing to do with luck,” Nate said.

“Oh, that I know,” Hardison said. “Not when people are casting spells and hexes.”

“I’m aware,” Nate said. “Which is why it’s worth considering: who else can do it? Who else could touch them? What if we send the cops? If they do manage to find something, what’s to stop them from being hexed? If we send a hitter, will a gun even come close to protecting them? If we send another crew, with just as much funding and know-how, what’s going to keep them safe? If not us, Hardison, then who?”

Hardison knitted his brows together in frustrated undeniability. “Fine,” he said with a flush of acquiescence. “But I am only conceding because I know you’re going to do this with or without a team, and as much as I think you’re a conceited pain in the ass, you’re our pain in the ass.”

Nate nodded readily in total agreement. “That’s fair.”

“And if this thing goes south--”

“I will put the team first, I promise,” Nate said.

“And if there’s a spell involved?” Hardison hedged. “Particularly one aimed at us?”

“Then I won’t go around changing ingredients, no matter what I think the outcome might be,” Nate promised.

“Hell, yes,” Hardison said. “We burn it.”

“Well, we don’t burn witches,” Nate said. “This isn’t the middle ages.”

“We don’t burn witches, sure,” Hardison said. “But we can burn their spells and all their ingredients -- the cauldron, hell, the whole damn house.”

Nate hemmed for a second. “Kind of overkill…”

Hardison’s eyebrows shot up so high that it was almost funny.

Not that Nate would dare laughing now.

“Not overkill,” Nate said in utter reconciliation. “Fire is good.”

“Damn straight it is,” Hardison said, appearing mollified. “Fire is better than a curse.”

“Agreed,” Nate said. “Though this really isn’t about the magic…”

Hardison gave him a look, scathing and deadly.

“You know what, never mind,” Nate said, reaching out and patting Hardison on the shoulder. “Do you think you can have things ready to go by next week?”

Glaring, Hardison shook his head. “Do you know how much work that is? Do you know how much you’re asking me to do? Do you have, like, any concept of how much I actually have to do when you say stuff like that?”

“I do, I do,” Nate said as earnestly as possible. Then he grinned with a small wink. “Like I said: you’re magic.”

Hardison groaned, rolling his eyes as Nate made his way to the door. “That’s cruel, man. Cruel.”

At the door, Nate glanced back with a salacious look. “Cruel,” he agreed. “But so, so effective.”

-o-

Sophie was the last to go.

She was the first to come back, though.

Opening the door to his own apartment two floors lower, Nate wasn’t surprised to see Sophie perched at the table. She was sitting forward, watching the door expectantly. She was waiting, clearly enough.

Waiting for him.

He wasn’t surprised, necessarily. He was, however, relieved.

As best he could, he tried to act nonchalant. He closed the door behind him and went to the kitchen. He took the time to pour himself a drink before turning back toward Sophie with a knowing gleam in his eye.

She returned the look, unflinchingly.

“Back so soon?” he asked, trying to sound coy.

She was unrattled. “And here I was going to ask what took you so long.”

“Well, to be fair, I had three people to talk to,” he said, making his way around the counter with a swig of his drink. “That’s no small thing.”

“Especially for you,” Sophie agreed. “All that conversation. Emotions. However did you survive?”

Nate smirked. “Somehow I don’t think you’re here out of concern for my well being.”

“On the contrary,” she said grandly. “That’s exactly why I’m here.”

“I was always fine,” Nate told her. “It was everyone else I had to convince.”

“Oh, Nate,” she said with a small tsk of her tongue.

Groaning, he rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to let me off, are you?”

“This isn’t about me,” she told him bluntly.

“Right, right,” Nate said. “It’s about me, right? About why I pushed so hard for this job?”

She arched her eyebrows.

“I mean, okay, sure, it’s a risk,” Nate said. “Maybe I was lying earlier when I said it’s not about the magic. You know, maybe I’ve lied about everything. Because it is about the magic. It is. It’s all about the magic. It’s about the fact that I need to know. Not whether magic is real or if we’re stronger than anything, but that we’re more than a spell I cast flippantly a year ago. I need to know -- we all need to know -- that what we have, what exists between us, stands apart from that. That it’s not a spell or a hex or a job -- it’s us. We’re the thing that’s magic.”

She was watching him intently, waiting.

He swallowed hard, giving a futile gesture. “And maybe it’s weak, okay?” he said. “Maybe I push harder because I know I don’t have anything to back myself up this time. There’s no sense or reason or logic, but I need to know. Sophie, I need to know.”

Her eyes were still on him, steadier than before. This time, it was her turn to be unsurprised, but Nate knew that the certainty on her face wasn’t an affectation.

“I hope you’ll be there with me,” he said finally, finding the conclusion he hadn’t known he’d been looking for. He gathered a weary breath and let it out again. “Because, Sophie, you’re magic, too. I think I have all this figured out, but here you are, every time, showing me all the things I need to learn. And you make me learn them for myself. There’s never been anyone -- ever--”

She shushed him, getting to her feet and crossing toward him in long, graceful strides. Lifting a finger to his mouth, she cut off the words, using her other hand to take hold of his.

“Shut up,” she murmured to him.

He wrinkled his brow. “Does this mean you’re in?”

“I’ve always been in,” she said, a smile playing on her lips. “But a girl does love to be asked sometimes.”

“Ah,” Nate said in awkward perfunction. “Then, um, may I--?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, breath hot against him as she tilted her head to kiss him. “Oh yes.”

-o-

Nate and Sophie ended up in the bedroom, and he thought life probably couldn’t get any better.

But when he came downstairs, Eliot was making dinner and Parker was setting the table. Hardison walked in with beer and grinned at Nate broadly.

“He-ey,” Hardison said. “Hope you don’t mind. My place has its perks, but all my orange soda is in your fridge anyway.”

“And, hey!” Parker said with even more enthusiasm. “I set you and Sophie a place!”

From the kitchen, Eliot gave a little snort while standing in front of the stove and stirring something insistently. “He’s the one who wanted us back.”

Still in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt, Nate could only nod in agreement. “Yes, I was,” he said, feeling a sense of completion swell within him. “Now hand me a beer, and let’s get this started.”

-o-

They planned all through dinner, building a case and developing a strategy. Hardison researched hard through the night, and Parker and Eliot were on recon by sunrise. Sophie played a few phone games, breaking out her best accents and using Hardison’s call diversion technology, and Nate watched the pieces fall into place, one after another.

“She ain’t even trying,” Hardison said. “I mean, look at this. Look at this.”

He pointed at the screen in abject disbelief.

“It’s basically a textbook copy of the the EPA’s worst-of list,” Eliot noted.

“Wait, can she do that?” Parker said. “I mean, if that stuff’s illegal--”

“But she hasn’t been caught,” Sophie pointed out. “Even with the deaths.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Hardison said. “By all accounts, this chick should have been put in prison years ago. Her deep dark secret is pretty dark, but it’s really not all that secret.”

“How’s she covering it up?” Eliot asked.

Nate was looking at the screen. Looking at the facts and all the deductions he could make.

He was transfixed, though, with the only deduction that was worth making.

“Magic,” he announced. The rest of the team looked at him. “We figured she was using magic to make her plants healthy, but she’s really just using magic to hide the fact that she’s taking shortcuts and poisoning people. Probably hexes and spells to keep the authorities off her track, and anyone who gets close enough just gets another dose.”

“So, she’s Claudia Sanderson, then,” Hardison said with a nod. “Basically, we’re chasing Claudia Sanderson again.”

“Well, we did beat her last time,” Sophin said meagerly.

“After she tried to hex us,” Hardison reminded them.

“Which we did counteract,” Parker said.

“So we want to do it again?” Eliot said. “Because that would be a line I don’t want to cross.”

Nate shook his head, waving his hand. “No, no, no,” he said. “I have a different plan.”

“A plan that doesn’t involve magic?” Hardison asked, dubious but hopeful.

“Oh, it involves magic,” Nate said. “A whole lot of magic.”

Hardison audibly groaned, and Eliot narrowed his gaze. Sophie gave him a keen look while Parker clapped her hands.

“Come on,” he cajoled, slapping Hardison on the arm as he got to his feet. “Let’s go steal a coven.”

-o-

The road back to Hawthorne was eerily familiar in a way that no one wanted to talk about but they all understood. It was more than a blast from the past; it was like a vignette of a former life. The last time they all came to Hawthorne, they had been five, separate people.

They had left changed forever.

“I can’t believe you talked us into coming back here,” Hardison sulked from the back of Lucille as they unloaded at the same hotel as before.

“It’s too remote,” Eliot complained with a grunt. “We have terrible access from here.”

“That’s the problem, though,” Sophie said regretfully. “Anything closer, and they’ll see us coming. It’d blow the whole thing.”

“This hotel did have the best squeaky beds, though,” Parker commented.

Nate cleared his throat. “It’s just temporary while we get set up,” he said. “We’ll scout out something closer to finish the con off, but until then Sophie and Hardison can make the visible commute for all its worth.”

“I do like a grand entrance,” Sophie mused.

Hardison huffed. “I do like cases without magic,” he muttered. “Nothing good happens in this damn town.”

“Oh, that’s not true,” Parker said. “It looks great here!”

“They’ve definitely made some improvements,” Eliot agreed.

That was something of an understatement. The town looked totally transformed. The buildings were well kept and updated; the streets with bustling with activity. Whatever hexes Sanderson had put in place had clearly worn off, and Hawthorne was thriving in the aftermath.

Sophie smiled somewhat. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who changed on that job.”

“Save it for the damn tourism brochure,” Hardison grumbled, moving to take his load up to the room. “I just want to get this done.”

Nate took a breath and looked around again while the team continued to unload the van. He didn’t have the heart to tell Hardison -- or any of them, for that matter -- that he had a feeling this job had only just begun.

-o-

They all had plenty to do.

Sophie and Hardison needed to establish their cover with the people at Derringer farms. Posing as a restaurant executive looking for organic sources for national expansion was a promising lead, and it was certainly one he knew that Sophie and Hardison could sell. Since Nate had no idea just what kind of witchcraft was involved, he kept Parker on constant surveillance for now, making sure there was no suspicious activity. This gave her time to case the security system as well, and she was practically salivating at the chance of cracking the vault in a few days.

Eliot was also pleasantly engaged on this job. Nate had asked him to scout through the woods to find a cabin they could use as a base of operations. They would need a place to lie low while the con was in progress, and Eliot nearly jumped at the chance to traipse through the woods by himself.

Nate oversaw things as best he could, but he didn’t need to babysit.

At least, he didn’t need to babysit his team.

His client, on the other hand…

He texted her a time and a location, insisting in no uncertain terms that she was expected to come. This wasn’t a typical move for Nate. Most of the time, he left the client out of things -- even against their wishes. Involving clients was often messy and unpredictable. Most people didn’t want to know how they got things done, and Nate preferred to limit their risk -- and his own.

This job, however, was different.

This client was different.

She was already there by the time Nate arrived, standing in front of the shop with a bemused look on her face.

“It’s not even open,” she said, almost sounding perplexed.

Nate smiled at her. “I didn’t ask you here for a haircut.”

She cocked her head, quizzical. “Then why else would you want to meet at a hair salon?”

“Come inside,” he said, nodding to the door. “And find out.”

-o-

It was locked, but Nate had spent enough time around thieves to make picking it no big deal. If this seemed suspicious to his client, she said nothing and followed him inside.

Inside, it was Nate who paused. The place looked the same as he remembered -- almost exactly. The abandoned parlor was covered in a layer of dust, and the cash register was open with the same coinage in the till. Clearly, the police hadn’t found anything there when building their case against Sanderson, leaving the place untouched. It was perhaps a little surprising that it hadn’t been reclaimed or sold, but he suspected that Sanderson’s failed witchcraft had left a lingering taint on the place, leaving it vacant permanently.

He made his way through the empty space, past the unused hair stalls to the back room. Opening this door, a chill went down Nate’s spine, and he found the same stripped stockroom that he’d left. The macabre bits and pieces had been confiscated, but the odd arrangement of things that remained had been dormant as well. That included the book of spells, which Nate had left tucked against the wall all those months ago.

The client rubbed her hands over her arms. “This is...odd.”

Nate nodded, getting his bearings and doing his best not to show his trepidation as he turned to look at her. “You think?”

She looked at him, smiling in confusion. “Um. Yeah? Do you own this place or something?”

He gave her a withering look of condescension. “Please, don’t.”

“Don’t what?” she asked with an awkward chuckle.

“Pretend like you haven’t been here just like I have,” he said, holding her gaze intently.

At this, her face shifted as she tried to keep her surprise in check. “Mr. Ford, I really don’t--”

“Your name is Amber Deluca,” he told her simply. “And you’re from upstate Maine. A little town no one has ever heard of before you moved to Boston when you dropped out of college. You work at a co-op, and live in a house with a rotating door of roommates, sometimes as many as ten.”

Her brow furrowed in confusion. “So you ran a background check,” she said. “I still don’t--”

“It’s not the background check,” Nate cut her off. “It’s all the things not included in the background check. Like how one of those girls was Claudia Sanderson about ten years ago.”

“A lot of girls come through--”

“And another was Rebecca Derringer.”

Her breath caught. “I -- I mean, that doesn’t change the case against the farm.”

“No,” Nate agreed. “It doesn’t. But it does change why.”

Her composed expression was faltering now, and her face contorted with vexation. “She’s hurting people, Mr. Ford. What else could possibly matter?”

“It matters that Derringer Farms is more than a corporate mess. It matters that Derringer Farms is being run by a witch,” he said, unrelentingly. “Just like you.”

The vexation gave way to a smile, wider and fuller than before as she looked down, nodding her head knowingly. “I knew you were good,” she said, tilting her head up to eye him. “But I have to give you credit. I didn’t think you’d figure it out.”

“Oh, well, I might not have except for Claudia Sanderson,” he said. “We probably never would have recognized the signs in Rebecca except we’d seen them before. And we knew better than to take that lightly. As for you, well, once we were looking for the witchcraft connection, you were too obvious of a link to ignore.”

“That was why I came to you, you know,” she said, even more earnest than before.

“Because you wanted to lie to me?” he asked.

“Because I knew you could do it,” she said. “No one else could take down Claudia. And no one’s been able to touch Rebecca, not for years.”

“No one?” Nate asked, arching his eyebrows. “Does that mean people have tried?”

She drew a breath with a somber nod. “We have -- my coven,” she explained. “That house, outside of Boston. That’s our headquarters of sorts. Some people stay there all the time; others come and go as needed. When we noticed what Rebecca was doing, we tried talking to her. And then we tried to intervene.”

“A clash of spells?” Nate posited.

“Mainstream society has a skewed view of our belief system,” she explained patiently. “It’s not about power or personal success. We live under our own rules -- a moral code. We won’t hurt people.”

“Even if they’re hurting others?” Nate prompted.

Wearily, she sighed. “By the time we realized more drastic action needed to be taken, none of us could get close enough to stand a chance,” she admitted. “Our coven is small, and the community of Wiccans on the East Coast isn’t much larger. Rebecca would pick us out in an instant, and anything we could even attempt to do wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“If you and your friends can’t do it,” Nate began. “Why would you send in five people with absolutely no training to do it for you?”

“You did it before,” she returned.

“Yeah, and it nearly ended in disaster last time,” he said. “That’s a hell of a risk to ask of anyone.”

She stepped forward, imploring him now. “You’re lying when you say you’ve had no training--”

“Hey, taking down a Wiccan or whatever isn’t the same thing as studying it.”

“No, but I know one of you cast the spell that Claudia never expected,” she said.

“That was a mistake,” he told her flatly. “We won’t be casting any more spells. Ever.”

She closed the distance to him with another step, her eyes bright as she looked up at him. “And you’ll never have to,” she said. “Not after that spell.”

She wasn’t an imposing figure, but Nate still felt the need to bolster himself, puffing his chest out just a little. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” she asked with a quizzical bent of her eyebrows. Her mouth twisted in bemusement. “I know magic when I see it, Mr. Ford. And your team has it.”

“It was one spell,” he said again, reiterating the finality of that point with all he had.

This only served to bemuse her more. “A soulbonding spell,” she said. “That’s not just any little spell.”

He frowned defensively. “How do you know anything about it?”

“I didn’t, not until I met you,” she said. “And then, all the reports about you and your team made total sense.”

“Because…?” Nate ventured, a little hesitant.

“Because I’ve never sensed anything that strong before,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never even heard reliable testimony that a soulbonding spell would actually work, but the instant I met you, I could feel it.”

“How do you know it wasn’t Sanderson?” he asked.

At that, she laughed. “Claudia wasn’t very good at spells.”

“Well, neither am I,” Nate said. “But following a spell -- that’s just simple recitation. A schoolboy could do that. Just like conjugating in Latin.”

“You really don’t understand, do you?” she wondered. “The spells -- that’s not what’s powerful. That’s why Sanderson wasn’t any good. Her spells never took because of who she was. The soulbonding spell you picked -- it wouldn’t have done anything if it wasn’t for the people it affected.”

Nate narrowed his vision, skeptical. “What do you mean?”

“Just look at me,” she said. “And look at Claudia. Same magic, but different outcome. Sure, time and study makes some difference but there’s more to it than that.”

“You’re different people,” Nate observed.

“Exactly,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re wielding the magic or just in the way of it, the spell draws power from the people it touches.”

Nate shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “So, you’re saying that on anyone else…”

“It wouldn’t have worked,” she said, matter of fact. “You can’t create magic out of thin air. You -- your team -- you already had it long before you ever cast that spell.”

Considering this, he weighed the merits of what his client was telling him. Nate didn’t trust people, not by his nature, not even those he was trying to help. And when someone lied to him, he tended to trust them even less, especially when that lie put the people he cared about at risk.

And this client -- she had willfully and purposefully withheld critical information on this job. Information that could leave his team unduly vulnerable while in the field.

The problem was that her story checked out. And her reasoning made sense.

Worse, Nate understood why she did it.

Standing here, where he’d cast the spell that changed everything, Nate well and truly understood.

“What is it you want us to do exactly?” Nate finally asked.

“Exactly what I told you in the first place,” she said. “Help me take Rebecca Derringer down. Put her in prison, not because she’s a witch but because she’s not a very good person.”

All questions, all doubts, everything else aside -- that was the point that mattered. He lived in a world where the ends justified the means, where the right outcome could rationalize almost anything else. He couldn’t fight no holds barred and not expect everyone else around him to do the same.

After all, he didn’t have to trust someone to work for them.

He didn’t even have to trust someone to like them.

All he had to do was trust the job.

And trust his team.

For a long time, Nate had believed that was the most important thing.

Standing there, in that back room, Nate knew now it was the only thing.

He nodded. “That,” he told him with determination, because he wasn’t sure of anything else, but he was sure of this. He had been sure since the team took down Dubenich in revenge all those years ago. “We can do.”

-o-

Nate ran a few more errands before heading back, and he picked up dinner for good measure. When he got back in the hotel, the team was already waiting for him. They had gathered around the coffee table, drinks in hand with a pile of napkins and plastic silverware sitting expectantly on the table. Even as he sat the food down, he knew there was no way he was going to avoid the conversation.

That didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to try.

“Parker,” he said, putting down a box of sweet and sour pork in front of her. “How’s the safe look?”

“Disappointingly easy,” Parker reported, opening her box of takeout to let it steam. “The air shafts are a little narrow, though. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Nate nodded, passing a box of kung pow chicken to Hardison. “You got a backdoor into their security?”

“A backdoor?” Hardison asked, sounding insulted. “Man, I got all the doors. I tell you, witches or whatever are so up in their magic that they forget the most basic security precautions. The highest level of security was broken by the password 1234. Who actually does that?”

Nate smirked momentarily, giving Sophie the next box of sesame chicken. “I take it you have Derringer on the hook?”

Sophie smiled. “She was selling me on the entire deal the moment I got there,” she said with more than a hint of pride. “She’d have written me a check today, if I’d asked for it.”

“Good, good,” Nate said, giving the last container to Eliot. “And do we have a remote location yet?”

“There’s a cabin about two miles from the west edge of the farm,” Eliot said. He pointed to a map he had splayed out on the table. “There are a handful of others closer to the lake on the north ridge, but they’re all on the grid, which means Derringer knows they exist. This one is more remote and utilitarian. It’s not a vacation home.”

“Will anyone else be back for it while we need it?” Nate asked.

“Well, I was going to offer them an all expenses paid trip to Hawaii, but the dude doesn’t even have a landline,” Hardison reported.

Eliot shrugged. “I told him about new gun legislation in the state senate,” he said. “And then I mentioned a sale at his favorite supplier in Boston.”

Sophie beamed at him. “That’s how you do it,” she said. “You find their heart’s desire.”

“I would have just given him cash,” Parker said, tweaking her head.

“That was my second choice,” Eliot told her.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Nate said, taking the container he’d gotten for himself. “So we’ll have the money, and we’ll have the evidence. With Eliot’s cabin, we’ll have a place to lay low in case we have to make a hot exit.”

“Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” Hardison said, spearing a piece of chicken. “We all know we did our job. But what about you?”

Nate blinked innocently. “Me?”

Hardison rolled his eyes melodramatically. “Oh, come on,” he said. “We know where you went.”

“Ah,” Nate said. “You mean the hair salon.”

“No,” Hardison said. “I mean the place you decided to put a spell on us last time.”

Parker nodded in agreement. Even Eliot tilted his head at Nate.

“It does beg the question,” Sophie said. “What could you possibly need there this time around?”

“Nothing, really,” Nate said with a half-shrug. “I met the client there.”

“You took a witch to a witch-den or whatever?” Hardison asked.

“Oh,” Parker said, brightening. “Did she do magic?”

The others glared at her.

“What?” Parker asked. “I know Nate’s not supposed to do magic, but we never said anything about anyone else.”

“There was no magic,” Nate said evenly. “I just used the location to make a point.”

“And what kind of point was there?” Eliot prompted.

“That we know what we’re doing,” Nate told them. “Besides, I really just wanted to tie up a few loose ends today.”

“Loose ends?” Sophie asked, marginally incredulous. “But the job’s only just started.”

Nate took a bite, chewing readily. “I never said they were for this job.”

“And you can promise me -- unequivocally -- that there was absolutely no magic involved?” Hardison asked.

Nate shook his head with a chuckle. “This job isn’t about magic,” he said emphatically. “I told you that.”

Eating their dinners, the team regarded him with caution. They wanted to be mad, but they weren’t sure what they wanted to be mad about. That was their problem.

And Nate’s advantage.

Besides, they knew he was telling the truth.

At least, as much as an honest man could ever tell the truth.

“Come on,” he cajoled, stabbing at another piece of meat with his plastic fork. “One more day and we can put this behind us forever.”

“I can drink to that,” Eliot said, lifting his beer.

Sophie tipped her glass of wine up to clink against his bottle. “Here’s to no more loose ends.”

“And no more damn magic,” Hardison said, taking an angry swig of orange soda.

Parker lifted her water, but paused. “Wait,” she said. “Does this mean no more magic? Ever?”

The team groaned.

Nate chuckled. “I told you, Parker,” he said, adjusting his grip on the takeout container. “Magic’s not real.”

The team groaned again.

Nate settled back, smug and sure.

It was going to be a hell of a night.

A hell of a job.

He watched as they argued about the finer nuances regarding the definition of magic and smiled to himself.

A hell of a team.

-o-

The night before a job, Nate used to be restless. In fact, most of the time, he rarely slept before a job started. He never could, there was too much on his mind. Nothing to do most of the time -- he’d already squared away all the details -- but it was impossible to stop him mind from going over the contingencies over and over again.

At least, that was how it used to be.

Locked up with his team in a nowhere town, Nate knew there hundreds of contingencies he could be considering.

But he was locked up with his team in a nowhere town.

And somehow, Nate had everything he needed.

He slept well that night, his team on all sides.

They all slept very, very well.

-o-

They didn’t talk about it in the morning.

They didn’t have to.

They knew the plan. Better than that, they knew each other.

Nate loved this about them. It wasn’t just that his team was good or talented. It was that they were good together. He used to think it was damn satisfying when a plan came together. Now he understood that the greatest satisfaction was being part of a team, a fully functioning unit.

Five as one.

Call it inevitable. Call it fate. Call it magic.

Nate just called it team.

“All right,” he said as they geared up to head out. “We meet back up tonight for a job well done.”

Eliot bowed his chin, and Sophie nodded. Parker gave a resolute twitch of her ponytail while Hardison murmured a hell yeah.

Nate watched them go, and for one, perfect moment, everything was just the way it was supposed to be.

One exquisite moment.

So spectacular that Nate didn’t consider the reality of what might come next.

That was the problem with having everything.

Sometimes you forgot what it was like to have nothing.

-o-

“We’re blown! We’re blown!”

“What the hell! We’re coming out hot!”

“I’m going to need a new exit plan!”

“Go, go, go, go!”

Nate closed his eyes, held his breath.

This was what it was like, he remembered.

This was what it was like to have nothing.

-o-

Since he was running point, Nate was already at the cabin. Eliot had been right when he described it as off the grid. It was hard to find, even if you knew what you were looking for. It was caught up in a thicket among the trees with moss and plants growing up the sides and on the roof. Clearly, whoever lived here wasn’t interested in being found.

Inside, it was without a lot of amenities. No running water, and the place ran spotty electricity through an outdated generator. The only decor seemed to be guns and ammunitions -- not to mention an unsettling supply of grenades and other small arms that Nate knew were only questionably legal.

Eliot hadn’t picked the place for the weapons, though.

He’d picked the place because Nate needed a contingency for when everything went wrong.

Because everything always went wrong.

He wiggled his toes inside his shoes and paced the ground again. Comms were active but it was hard to make much out from the heavy breathing. Still, Nate knew.

Nate knew that Hardison and Sophie were running hard and fast. Sophie had ditched her heels and Hardison had a handheld GPS system. Parker, she didn’t need a GPS, and she was running light and fast, even with the haul. Her sense of direction was stronger, and she saw the shortcuts that Hardison couldn’t predict.

She’d be here first.

Eliot would be last, not because he was the slowest or had the hardest time finding his way. He’d be last because he’d be clearing the path for the rest of them and making sure that their trail was well and truly hidden.

Nate closed his eyes, pausing and resting his hands on the back of one of the chairs at the worn table. He gripped it.

Parker was looping over a hill and bouncing easily on the balls of her feet. Hardison looked frantically at his GPS, tugging Sophie one way while she tugged him another, pointing at the low hanging branch he’d nearly run into while staring at his device. Eliot made a false trail and climbed a tree, watching as the guards from Derringer Farms took it, all the way to the road.

It was going to be okay, Nate told himself. It was going to be okay.

They had planned for this; this was all within the contingencies they had laid out. They could handle this.

They were handling this.

Nate, this job, this team.

They were going to be okay.

Suddenly, the front door open and Parker burst in. Nate looked up. She was still breathing heavy when Hardison and Sophie barged in behind her. Eliot loped through last, closing it behind him.

Nate smiled.

“Well,” he said, easing his grip on the chair and trying to calm the hammering of his heart. “It’s about time you showed up.”

-o-

Everything was falling apart.

Which meant it was time for the team to come together.

His team was remarkable like that. They were always at their best when the situation around them was at its worst.

And, to be fair, camped out in a remote cabin on the run from an angry witch?

That was pretty bad, even by their standards.

Because they’d handled trained men with guns -- no problem.

But witches?

Nate wouldn’t admit it to Hardison, but the prospect made him nervous, too.

Huffing, Sophie attempted to dust off her outfit, frowning at a few of the smudges and rips. “My outfit may be a total loss,” she commiserated. “But so is Derringer’s. Rebecca transferred the money.”

“Better still,” Hardison said, poking at his phone in some desperate attempt to get a signal. “I was able to put the money in a secure account, obscuring the trail so even if Rebecca thinks to get it back, there’s no way in hell she’ll find it.”

“And this,” Parker said, holding up a file. “This will make sure she doesn’t try to go to the authorities.”

Nate nodded. “The evidence of the magic?”

“All here,” Parker reported. “The rest of it, too.”

“Derringer sent teams into the woods, and she’s smart enough to raid our room back at Hawthorne,” Eliot said. “She’s got more security personnel than you’d expect for a farm, but they’re not highly trained experts. They’ll watch the main road for a few days before they figure we slipped through.”

“Any chance of them finding us?” Nate asked.

“By conventional means?” Eliot asked. “No.”

“And unconventional means?” Nate followed up.

Eliot shrugged. “It’d have to be sheer chance that they find this place just by passing through,” he said. “There are miles in every direction of dense woodland. A trained, organize team would make a search grid, clear the whole area in three, four days.”

“But you said Rebecca’s men aren’t trained,” Sophie said.

“They’re not,” Eliot said. “At least, not in search and recovery or combat.”

“But that’s not the only thing they have,” Hardison said, sounding grim.

Parker’s eyes widened. “Magic!” she said with a sharp inhale. “She can use magic!”

“Guys, guys, come on,” Nate said. “I already told you. This job is not about the magic.”

Even as he said he words, something rumbled outside. Then, the windows darkened and a few heavy raindrops splattered onto the roof before lightning flashed and another crack of thunder rattled the clapboard walls.

Uncertain, Nate made his way to the window, peering out the dirty pane as the sky opened up and a torrential rain began to fall.

That wasn’t unheard of, not in Massachusetts, except the day had been sunny with perfectly clear skies. Not a drop of rain in the forecast for the week.

Certainly nothing to justify the swelling winds that whistled through the rafters and the downpour that was already starting to leak through the loose shingles on the roof.

He turned back to his team, feeling more than a little sheepish.

Hardison crossed his arms over his chest. “And you were saying?”

-o-

Within minutes, the day had gone from good to horrible. The rains turned the ground outside to mud, and water runoff made virtual rivers in the forest around them. The trees swayed dramatically against the flashes of lightning, large limbs breaking free and falling dangerously close to their shelter. It was a hell of a storm.

“We ain’t going anywhere,” Eliot mused, looking out the window. “Even when it stops, damage like this will make the ground impassable for a few days -- easy.”

“So we’re stuck here,” Sophie said pointedly.

The walls rattled ominously. “Assuming here stays standing,” Hardison muttered.

Another crash of thunder made the structure shudder.

“I have to admit,” Parker reflected. “I would have hoped that a magical storm would be more fun. Can’t it rain chocolate or something?”

“Have you not met the witches we’ve been dealing with? Hardison asked.

“Yeah, I certainly don’t think Rebecca has whimsical intentions,” Sophie agreed.

“She’s either hoping we have to stay put so she can get her security net out,” Eliot said, shaking his head. “Or she’s hoping the storm washes us away altogether.”

Moving away from the windows, Nate shook his head. “It doesn’t change anything. We scouted this place so we could lay low. The storm doesn’t change that.”

“But it changes Derringer’s tactics,” Eliot countered. “She doesn’t want us to escape. She’s going to try to lock us down.”

“So we wait her out,” Nate said.

“How?” Hardison asked. “Because that’s exactly what she’s counting on.”

Nate sighed. “Yeah, and she’s using magic. What does that tell us?”

“Well, I think it’s safe to assume she’s more proficient in her spells than Claudia Sanderson,” Sophie said.

“But it also means she doesn’t have any other resources,” Parker said.

Nate pointed out her, beaming.

“She thinks she can flush us back to the road or to the house,” Hardison said.

“She’s trying to control the variables of our escape,” Sophie concluded.

Eliot inclined his head thoughtfully. “But if the storm passes and we still don’t show up--”


“She’ll panic, and we’ll have a clear exit after all,” Nate said. “We just need to wait it out. As long as she can’t find this cabin, we’re safe.”

Just like that, the storm outside stopped. The sky cleared almost comically fast. Nate strolled to the window, expecting sunny skies and a renewed sense of purpose and confidence.

What he got, however, was a run of gunfire directed at the house.

And about two seconds to take cover before all hell broke loose.

-o-

“You were saying?” Hardison quipped as they ducked behind any furniture they could find. The windows were shattering, and wood from the walls splintered, raining over them no matter where they hid.

“How did she find us?” Sophie yelled at them, cowering with wide eyes.

“Well, I have a few theories--” Nate started.

A chair was decimated, flinging pieces hard and fast at the team.

“Well, duh!” Parker said, whipping her blonde ponytail out of the way. “Magic!”

“It doesn’t matter how,” Eliot snarled, peeking out from their cover. “How they hell did we know that she had this kind of firepower on hand?”

“Uh, because she didn’t,” Hardison said. “I saw all their specs. She hasn’t made any purchases for anything like this--”

“And I was in nearly every inch of their facility,” Sophie said. “Not even a dozen men armed -- at best.”

“Do I really need to say it again?” Parker asked.

“No,” Nate said with a frown while another fresh volley of gunfire broke fresh holes of light through the wall. “Magic can’t create something out of nothing, so if Derringer didn’t have these men--”

Eliot nodded in comprehension. “They’re not her men,” he said, pausing to listen. He gave a small chortle of disbelief. “And listen. That’s not military grade machinery out there -- but the approach, it’s disciplined, if a little rough around the edges. They’ve had training, but not experience.”

Nate nodded along with him. “So you’re thinking--”

“Police,” Eliot said. “Local.”

“But how the hell did she get local police on her side?” Hardison asked.

Parker raised her eyebrows hopefully.

“Yeah, okay,” Nate said. “This time you can say it.”

“Oh! Goody!” Parker said, even as bullets flew over their head again. “Magic!”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Sophie asked. “Magic or not, we haven’t got a lot to fight back with.”

Nate chewed his lip, thoughtful as he looked around.

They were remote, in an isolated cabin. They didn’t have any of their gear here.

But that didn’t mean they didn’t have any gear.

Because of all the cabins in the woods, Eliot picked this one.

Sure, he said it was for the remote location and off-the-grid access, but Nate knew better. Nate knew Eliot.

This cabin wasn’t just geared to be off-the-grid. It was geared to stay that way.

He began to smile. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said as the team followed his gaze. “I think we may have enough.”

-o-

With as much firepower as they had, it would have been easy to win this little fight outright. The problem was that they didn’t want to win as much as they wanted to make it stop. None of them, save Eliot, had much blood on their hands, and Eliot was more adamant than the rest of them to keep it that way. Besides, if Nate was right -- and come on, like Nate wasn’t right -- those were cops out there who had no idea what they were doing. Killing them wouldn’t just completely block off the team’s recourse to any sort of a future, but it wouldn’t be something any of them could live with.

Which meant they had to rely more on strategy than firepower.

“Okay,” Nate said, watching as Eliot began disseminating the weapons, dispersing them cautiously among them. “So we’re going to have to be creative about how we use these.”

Eliot gave a grunt, handing a rifle to Parker. “Creative is an understatement,” he said, loading another gun. He paused, swiping a weeping cut on his forehead “Because I got to say, I don’t see a way of stopping them without killing them. And I don’t kill cops, man. I don’t know.”

More gunfire erupted outside, as if to taunt them all.

Nate didn’t wince, reaching for some explosives. “We do this right, we don’t have to kill anyone.”

“Yeah, but do they know that?” Parker asked with a glare over her shoulder.

“She’s right,” Sophie said. “Much more of this, and one of us is going to get caught in the crossfire.”

“No, look,” Nate said. “All we have to do is break the spell.”

“Oh, that’s all,” Hardison said sarcastically. “Eliot, dude, where’s mine?”


Eliot glowered at him. “I’m not sure you should get one.”

“A black man in a firefight with the police,” Hardison countered. “I’ve already got a bullseye on my back, and you want to leave me defenseless?”

“We don’t have to know the spell,” Nate said, speaking over the inevitable argument he didn’t need to hear.

More gunfire came from outside. Yelling, too.

“I assume you have a plan, then,” Sophie said anxiously.

“A fast one,” Eliot said, purposefully unloading a gun. “Because once they’ve got this place surrounded, they’re going to storm it. If we’re lucky, they’ll use nonlethal tactics first and smoke us out. If we’re lucky, and that’s a big if at this point.”

“Spells, they can’t make something out of nothing,” Nate said. “They work with what’s already there. Forcing someone to do something against their nature means the spell is tenuous. It’s not going to hold.”

“So making police officer open fire without cause or a warrant,” Sophie said.

“Wait, how do you know that exactly?” Hardison asked, face screwed up.

Now that was a question. A fair question. How did Nate know? Because a witch had told him? Because honestly, that wasn’t a very good reason at this point, all things considered.

But it was more than that, wasn’t it?

It was a lot more than that.

Some things, after all.

Some things Nate just knew.

“You’re just going to have to trust me,” Nate said.

That answer wasn’t exactly fair. Because his team didn’t have to like him or want to believe him, but they had no choice but to trust him.

Eliot’s brow was furrowed deep. “So you’re saying we just have to remind them what’s right.”

“Break their focus,” Sophie continued, not even missing a beat. “Distract them enough so that they’ll have to think twice about what they’re doing.”

“Think twice and realize they don’t want to do it at all,” Hardison agreed.

“Which, in theory, should make them stop,” Parker concluded.

Nate nodded along readily. “No mess, no bloodshed,” he said. “And, if we’re really lucky, they’ll go back to Derringer and ask what the hell is going on.”

“That’s all well and good,” Eliot said, reluctantly handing Hardison a loaded gun. “But that still doesn’t tell us how.”

“Well, I thought that was obvious,” Nate said with a coy tilt of a his head. “Nothing a little teamwork won’t solve.”

-o-

Teamwork.

That was what he called it.

Magic; necessity; inevitability; life.

But really, this was what they’d done since the beginning.

They had been good then.

They were better now.

And that, Nate knew.

That was what counted.

-o-

It came together flawlessly.

Nate felt the anxiety like a punch to the gut, and he ground his teeth together, flexing his fingers tight as he breathed through the tension.

Because his team came together flawlessly.

Although Hardison insisted on being armed, he was much more adept with the radio Nate gave him, and within minutes, he had hacked into the line the police were using. This gave Sophie the chance to get into character -- her best mix of small town and authority -- to start asking for official updates back at police headquarters.

This distraction was what Eliot needed to get into position, using the heavily artillery to shoot an array of cover fire that was loud, messy and not close to anything whatsoever. Every shot he took scrambled police lines, sending the previously organized ranks into chaos.

The reason for this was to give Parker the diversion she needed to sneak behind enemy lines and steal their paperwork -- or really, the lack of paperwork. Sophie needed something to reference, after all, and in its place, she managed to leave a few incriminating files regarding Derringer, just to make things nice and tidy.

“Okay,” Nate said with a hiss to Eliot over the comms. He kept his fists clenched almost unconsciously, working to keep his voice steady. “Another round--”

A series of bangs and concussive blast shook the cabin.

“And....,” Nate said, nodding to Hardison.

Hardison tweaked a setting on the radio and inclined his head to Sophie.

“Your warrant, Sheriff!” Sophie all but yelled. “Cease fire and look for your warrant before I have you and your entire team brought up on charges!”

The gunfire outside picked up for a moment. A long, terrible moment when Nate wondered if he was really as good as he thought he was.

Then, a crackle sounded over the radio.

“Copy that,” the voice said over the line. There was a hesitation and obvious confusion. “I -- we -- there is no warrant.”

“Then you sure as hell better have a good reason for shooting up a private cabin on private land!” Sophie said. “I swear to you, Sheriff, if you don’t figure this mess out--”

“Yes, ma’am,” the sheriff replied. “I -- we -- just give us a few minutes.”

“Pull your asses out of there,” Sophie ordered. “And hope to God we aren’t looking at a lawsuit. Of all the reckless, stupid and foolish--”

“Uh, yes, ma’am,” the sheriff said, sounding duly sheepish. “Sorry, ma’am.”

Outside, they could hear the sound of men yelling. Then, doors closing.

And cars pulling away.

His breathing was still tight in his chest, the anxiety taut in his gut now.

Parker slipped in through a broken window with a grin.

“It worked! They’re pulling back!” she said. “Like magic!”

Sophie got up, peering over. “Not like magic,” she said. “That took a lot of work.”

“And a lot of firepower,” Hardison said, brushing glass and debris off his shoulder. “I can’t believe I didn’t even get to fire one gun.”

“Well, we each needed to do our part,” Nate said, taking stock of the shifting situation as best he could as he tried to breathe. Police in retreat; Parker safe and sound. Hardison, annoyed but intact. Sophie, dazzling as usual, even in dust and grime. Which meant…

He turned just as Eliot entered, breathing heavily and noticeably unarmed. No doubt, he’d dumped them and disabled them. “They’re already out,” Eliot reported. “Saw them heading toward the farm -- away from the road.”

“So Parker’s plant was successful,” Sophie said.

“And we finished this,” Hardison announced. “Didn’t we? We got the money; we put the cops on Derringer.”

“Well, Derringer will probably still have her dragnet out for us,” Nate said. “We’ll want to lie low for a couple of days.”

He was planning that, plotting it like the rest, but there was a detail he was missing. There was something he was overlooking, something he hadn’t quite put together yet even though it was obvious.

Right in front of his face.

Flexing his fingers, he blinked rapidly, feeling a dull pain throb through his stomach.

He looked at Sophie, who was straightening her hair. She smiled at him, eyes warm and reassuring.

His eyes turned to Hardison, who was vainly looking for a wireless signal as he tinkered with his phone again.

Parker was poking through the kitchen cabinets, which were riddled with bullets, frowning as she failed to find anything more than canned beans and vegetables.

The pain blossomed, tingling up his arm and into his heart.

They had Derringer’s money.

The cops had information regarding all of Derringer’s crimes.

They had a secure location to wait out Derringer’s men.

His eyes fell on Eliot.

Unarmed, panting.

Hand pressed to his side.

There was a smudge of blood on his face -- the cut from the glass earlier -- and it was smeared on his fingers.

Except the cut on his face hadn’t bled that much.

Not when Eliot’s fingers were coated red.

Eliot winced, shifting heavily to the side.

Magic didn’t change what was already there.

Magic wasn’t invincibility.

Magic didn’t change reality.

Not even when you really, really wanted it to.

The pain exploded now, burning like fire so hot that Nate almost couldn’t breathe.

Eliot’s hand moved, his jacket slipping out of the way and revealing the blood-soaked shirt underneath.

Nate cursed, moving forward in a rush as Eliot sank to his knees and the spell was broken.