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Leverage fic: The Magic Job (7/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:58 am)
confused

feeling: confused

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



-o-

Nate made dinner, but it was less filling than lunch. They went over their situation in the evening with the steady fall of rain picking up again outside the window. The fire crackled nearby, but it wasn’t enough to offset the chill settling over the cabin.

“Water levels are still high,” Parker reported quietly.

“Police are still stuck up at Derringer’s,” Hardison said. “The search has been productive, at least. They’re arranging for a chopper to come and take Rebecca into custody.”

“Well, that’s something at least,” Sophie said.

On the bed, Eliot sucked in a hard breath. “We got the job done,” he said, words softer than normal. His face was waxen in the low light, his strength flagging badly in the waning day. “Rebecca’s going down.”

The conversation stalled on the obvious, the critical missing component that none of them could quite acknowledge. The job wasn’t everything.

No matter how much Nate obsessed over it, that wasn’t the thing.

Not even close.

Nate had no plan to fix that.

All he had was a weak-will, fledgingly hope.

And a desperate, needy belief.

“All right,” Nate said, rubbing his hands together. “We call it a night, then. Get some sleep and we’ll see where we’re at in the morning.”

They didn’t fight him, his team. They followed his words like they were orders, like he was still in charge. Nate knew this wasn’t loyalty or respect -- at least not this time.

No, this was fear.

Fear that when the morning came, they wouldn’t like what they saw.

Sometimes belief, though, wasn’t strength.

Most of the time, it was weakness.

When the alternative was too terrible to consider.

-o-

They slept, tucked into the corners of the cabin. Sophie was on the couch, and Parker was curled up in the chair. Hardison passed out at the table, radio still in hand. Nate watched them fall asleep, one after another until the only sound was the rain outside.

He watched it, streaking against the windows, hearing its muffled thuds against the tarps. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled, the promise of an oncoming storm that might never come.

“It’s not letting up,” Eliot said, words running together.

Nate looked at him. He’d expected Eliot to drop off first, but tired as he appeared, Eliot hadn’t closed his eyes since dinner. Now, in the firelight, his eyes were bright against his pale skin, his hair matted away from his face with the passage of time and the progression of weakness.

Eliot turned his eyes from the window to Nate.

Nate adjusted himself in his seat next to Eliot, offering the most nonchalant shrug he could come up with. “It’s a slow rain,” he said. “Hardison said the weather patterns are promising for tomorrow.”

Eliot shook his head. “Not the weather.”

Nate started to tilt his head.

“The bleeding,” Eliot told him, words punctuated with purpose in the stillness between them.

Nate half-froze before he managed to control himself. He scoffed. “It looks good--”

Eliot’s gaze was unwavering, and the words dried up in Nate’s throat. “It’s bleeding enough,” Eliot continued in a thin voice. “I’m going into shock. After that, it’s just a matter of time.”

Denial swelled in Nate’s chest. He shook his head. “You’re not going into shock,” he said, suddenly adamant. “The wound, it’s clean. No signs of infection. And we’ve got, what, another few days? At best?”

Eliot had never been one to buy into Nate’s falsities.

Especially when they were this blatant.

“I’ll let you lie to me for their sakes,” Eliot said, tipping his head toward the others. “But don’t do it for mine.”

Nate pressed his lips together, grinding his teeth. “Eliot--”

“Nate, I’m serious,” Eliot said, the halting sound of his voice more determined than before.

It took all of Nate’s resolve not to falter. “So am I.”

He blinked fast, keeping his gaze steady on Eliot. It was a game of chicken, an emotional face off to see who would bend first.

Who would break entirely.

“Nate,” Eliot said, the word even heavier than before. “You need to know--”

Nate shook his head, stubborn. “No--”

“You need to know,” Eliot said again, undaunted.

“Eliot--”

“You need to know that if this is it, if this is what it comes down to, I’m okay with it,” he concluded finally, pausing to take a painstaking breath.

“It’s not, though,” Nate said -- damn near insisted. “This isn’t the end of anything.”

“Everything ends, man,” Eliot told him. His lips turned up, a smile crinkling wearily around his eyes. “And a little magic for a short period of time is a hell of a lot better than a lifetime without it.” He paused again, taking a shuddering breath as his eyes shone brighter. “I’d trade a long life for this, any day of the week. Twice on Sundays.”

It hurt, like a punch to the gut, and Nate could feel the bullet hole that had tore through Eliot like it was in his own side. The bullet had hit Eliot, but it had ripped through all of them, each one just as viscerally as the last. They were bleeding out together, slow and inevitable, and there was no tourniquet big enough to stop the hemorrhage.

Eliot worked hard to lick his lips, keeping himself composed. “I never thought, not in a million years, I’d get to experience something like this,” he said, shaking his head fondly. His smile widened. “And it’s worth it.”

“Not if we don’t come out together, it’s not,” Nate said, ignoring the pressure blossoming in his chest. “Nothing is worth dying for.”

The smile didn’t waver on Eliot’s face, and there was a certainty in his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, the words no more of whispers now, nearly lost to the rain. “Some things are.”

Nate sat, rigid with his throat tight, the tears burning at the back of his eyes as he steadfastly refused to blink. He wouldn’t budge -- wouldn’t retreat or advance -- but he held steady with the same blind tenacity.

It had always been worth something, holding on. It had always been a moral victory to stay when others quit. It had always been his fortitude that kept him in the games that no one dared to play.

But as he stood his ground, Eliot faded, his staggering breaths heightening as his eyes slipped closed and he fell into a restless sleep.

Nate never admitted when he was wrong, but that didn’t make him right.

Nate never acknowledged his weakness, but that didn’t make him strong.

Nate never conceded defeat, but that didn’t mean he won.

Sometimes, Nate wasn’t even sure he knew what victory looked like anymore.

-o-

Nate fell asleep sometime past midnight, nodding off by accident to the hypnotic sound of the falling rain. When he awoke several hours later, his neck was stiff and his back was sore. He squinted, smacking his lips together over his dry mouth, and tried to swallow as he took stock in the early morning light.

He blinked, on his feet in two seconds flat. At the window, he looked outside.

The early morning light.

The sun was out.

He started to grin. The rain had stopped; their luck might finally be looking up.

Glancing at his watch, he realized the time. He’d slept through a scheduled change of Eliot’s bandage. Feeling upbeat, he crossed back to the bed, reaching down to snag another one of the makeshift bandages they’d prepared and cleaned yesterday.

“Hey,” he said gently to Eliot, trying not to disturb the others. “We just need to check your bandage.”

Eliot didn’t stir, not as Nate threw back the sheet and pulled the shirt out of the way. The bandage was stained with red, and Nate hesitated, looking up at Eliot again.

The hitter still hadn’t roused.

“Eliot,” Nate said. “Hey.”

He reached up, jostling the other man’s shoulder slightly. When that didn’t work, he tapped his palm to Eliot’s cheek before running it down to rest on the hitter’s pulse point.

The heartbeat was slow and thready. The skin was cool and clammy.

Nate’s stomach twisted.

“Eliot,” he said, reaching up to tap Eliot’s cheek again. “Eliot.”

But there was no response -- and there wasn’t going to be one.

Shock.

Just like Eliot had said.

Nate sat back, trying to remember how to breathe.

“Well,” he said with a sigh. “So much for luck.”

-o-

Nate had to get control of the situation.

That was all.

Nate just had to get his bearings, gather his thoughts, and regain his composure.

No big deal.

Except he didn’t have any bearings. He didn’t have any thoughts. His composure -- well, that was drying up faster than the rain outside.

Nate didn’t have a plan.

And the whole team knew it.

“How are we going to get out of here?” Sophie asked.

“I...don’t know,” Nate said with a helpless gesture. “I mean, the water level, it’s got to be going down.”

“Sure, but how fast?” Parker said, shaking her head. “You said it yourself -- a few days is likely.”

“What about, uh, the Derringer Farm?” Nate asked.

“We still have to cross the creek,” Parker said.

“They are sending in the chopper later today to take Derringer into custody,” Hardison said. “But there’s no way to reach us here.”

Nate chewed his lip, trying to think of something, anything. “Well, we’ll just monitor the creek,” he said. “Look for low points. Maybe we’ll find something to get Eliot out before the night.”

“That’s still hours from now,” Sophie argued. “I don’t think he’s going to make it that long.”

“But even if we took him out now, how could we cross the river?” Parker asked. “We’d be just as likely to drown him as anything else.”

“Not to mention the rest of us,” Hardison said. “Man, I’ve been monitoring this stuff. The flash flooding destroyed entire homes further downstream. At least three people died in the swell, and half a dozen more are missing with more reports just this morning.”

“So, what, then?” Sophie demanded. “We sit here and do nothing?”

“What if we split up?” Parker asked.

Hardison made a face. “Even if we get out -- and that is a big if -- how do you think we’ll get help back in?”

“Something is better than nothing,” Sophie said.

Nate bowed his head, rubbing his fingers to his forehead.

“Not if that something is dying,” Hardison argued.

“Can’t they do one of those helicopters with the basket?” Parker asked.

“The trees are too dense here,” Hardison said. “Unless we’d like to crash a chopper on top of ourselves, thank you.”

They’d started this job perfect, completely in synch.

Now, here they were.

Falling apart by the seams.

“Well, if you are just going to criticize every idea--”

“Hey, I didn’t put us here--”

“This is about Eliot--”

“This is about the team, man--”

“As if we could tell with how hard you’re trying to protect yourself--”

There was a rattling inhale as Eliot’s breathing caught. Nate’s head jerked up, and he scooted himself closer, fingers to Eliot’s neck, just in case.

The team fell silent, their arguments cut short as they crowded in behind him.

The pulse thrummed weakly, just like before, but Eliot’s breathing didn’t even out this time. Instead, a fresh sheen glistened across Eliot’s pallid features, fine tremors breaking out across his body.

Nate let his hand fall away, and he closed his eyes for a moment. He forced himself to swallow, sitting back with his shoulders fallen. He looked up, Hardison to Parker to Sophie.

“So,” he said tiredly. “You were saying?”

None of them had the words to answer. There was no answer to give. Not one that they wanted to hear, anyway. Just the labored sound of Eliot’s breathing.

And the inevitable reality that magic wasn’t enough anymore.

-o-

They didn’t know when to quit, his team.

There had been a time, of course, when they all could have walked away. When this was really just about the money. They were career criminals, after all. Parker knew when to walk away from a lock she couldn’t pick. Hardison knew when to make a backdoor in the security system. Sophie knew when to make a quick excuse and leave with nothing but a trail of questions and broken hearts. And Eliot knew when to avoid fights he couldn’t win.

Yet, here they were. Parker checking the creek. Hardison listening to the radio. Sophie perched unmoving by the fireplace. Eliot taking rattling breaths from the bed.

As for Nate, he wasn’t quitting, not really.

No, Nate was giving up, giving in.

Surrender.

It was his fault, after all.

It’d been his team.

It’d been his plan.

It’d been his spell.

He sat next to Eliot, gathering the limp fingers into his own. He held them, tighter still, eyes burning against the inevitability of it all.

“I can’t fix this,” he murmured. “But I’ll stay. Until it’s done, I’ll stay.”

Eliot’s breath railed inward, and his body shuddered.

“That’s what families do,” Nate promised, holding fast. “That’s all I have to offer this time.”

No plans. No fixes.

Just this.

Eliot’s next breath was deeper. The one after was steadier.

Pausing, Nate tipped his head.

“Eliot?” he asked, worried for a second that the end had come.

But Eliot made a soft sigh, head rolling toward Nate.

The next breath was easier still.

No, this time, it was Nate’s heart that skipped a beat. He tucked Eliot’s fingers tight in his hand and started to smile.

He knew what he had to do.

-o-

“Hardison,” Nate barked, crossed the room anxiously. “Can you get Parker on that thing?”

“I sent her out with something, yeah,” Hardison said, looking a little confused.

“Good, good,” Nate said, rubbing a hand across his mouth absently. “Call her back. Now.”

Sophie was up, moving toward them. “You have a plan?” she asked knowingly.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at her. “I really think I might.”

“Something you going to share with the rest of us?” Hardison asked.

Nate tweaked his eyebrows. “Something you’ve known all along.”

-o-

Parker was grumpy when she kicked off her muddy boots by the door. Sophie was pacing anxiously, and Hardison was making not-so-subtle sounds of righteous indignation.

Eliot, for his part, kept breathing.

Standing by the bed, Nate anchored the circle, waiting as they fell in line around him. They’d been here before, he knew. The choice to come together or separate.

The choice to stay

“We don’t have an exit,” Nate said. “And, uh, we don’t have medicine or blood or anything else to give Eliot the medical help he needs.”

“You’re telling us that like we don’t know,” Hardison griped.

Parker scowled. “I came back for this?

“That’s not a plan, Nate,” Sophie said, her voice teetering with a warning.

Nate was undaunted, though.

“You’re missing the point,” he said. “For everything we don’t have, we’ve been overlooking the one thing we do have.”

“Canned peaches?” Parker asked.

“More like a death wish,” Hardison muttered.

“Each other,” Nate said. “We still have each other.”

“For now, anyway,” Sophie said. “Eliot’s getting worse, though. I’m not sure he’ll make it much longer.”

“That’s why we need to save him,” Nate told them.

Parker knitted her brows together. “How?”

Nate cocked his head.

Parker’s eyes widened. “Magic!”

Nate nodded while Sophie scoffed. “You can’t be serious,” she said.

“Oh, hell, no,” Hardison said. “No more spells. You said, no more spells.”

“We don’t need a new spell,” Nate said. “We already have a spell. Us. Together.”

Sophie’s expression turned curious. “Do you think it will work?” she wondered, looking down at Eliot. “I mean, we’ve been here all along.”

“It’s not about physical proximity, though,” Nate said. “That’s not where the magic worked. It’s in how we act and interact. It’s about being of the same mind, same heart, same spirit.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Hardison said. “You want to sit around, hold hands and sing Kum-Ba-Ya? When Eliot’s dying of shock?”

Nate nodded, matter of fact. “Yeah, pretty much.”

Hardison waved his hand through the air. “You’re crazy, man.”

“It’s the only move we have left,” Nate said. He paused, reaching down to take Eliot’s hand in his own. “Now who’s going to help me?”

Parker crossed to the bed, sitting down on the edge. She took Eliot’s other hand and looked back up with a perfunctory nod. “I’m always up for some magic.”

Sophie gathered a breath, summoning her courage, and took Nate’s other hand. “What else do we have to lose?”

Hardison glowered, but his expression was conflicted. As he closed the circle between Sophie and Parker, he pursed his lips. “You sure this is going to work?”

Nate flexed his fingers tighter, feeling his heart start to pound. He looked at Eliot. “Probably.”

-o-

It seemed stupid. It seemed too easy. It seemed impossible.

Holding hands and hoping for the best.

But really, that was what they’d done since the start.

Come together and planning for success.

There were a lot of ways to say the exact same thing, and they’d been saying it since Nate offered them the chance of getting back at Dubenich on that first job. Nate had told them then -- he’d seen it all the way back at the start -- that they each knew what they could do, but he knew what they could do together.

That was why they’d come back. Not for the money. Not even for the sense of doing the right thing. But because Nate could mold them into something, create a unit more powerful than the pieces. He’d always acted like his leadership made a difference, and in a way, it did. But he was no greater than the rest. He could only call the shots that he’d knew they’d follow.

If one piece fell out of place -- hacker, hitter, grifter, thief, mastermind -- it would all go to pieces. It didn’t matter which one. It only mattered if they were together.

He could feel it now, just like he always had. The acute power of it, throbbing and almost overwhelming. He knew Hardison’s indignation; he knew Parker’s belief. He knew Sophie’s steadiness and Eliot’s strength. And his own foresight, running throughout them all.

Eliot’s heartbeat staggered, but their own beat harder to compensate. He could feel the air fill his lungs with every breath he shared. The pain burned in his side, and Nate clamped his hand down harder, unwilling to let go.

This could end badly for all of them, there was no doubt about it.

But maybe -- just maybe -- they could hold fast and see this thing through.

Fate. Hard work. Inevitability.

Magic.

Nate just knew it as teamwork.

As family.

Nate winced as the pain spike and the oxygen caught in his chest. The pain threatened to topple him, but he clutched his hands tighter, bring the team closer.

They could do this.

They would do this.

Just like they always had.

Then, light exploded in his chest and he felt oxygen fill his lungs again, each breath steadier than the last. The pain subsided by degrees until the only thing he could feel was the pounding of his own heart in tandem with the others.

Slowly, he opened his eyes.

They were looking at him, a little uncertain. Parker, Hardison, Sophie.

Nate looked at Eliot.

Even more confused, Eliot looked back.

“Nate,” the hitter breathed, struggling to sit up. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on?”

Relief was so fast and sweet, Nate almost laughed. “So,” he said, nodding at Eliot and the others each in turn. “Soulbonding.”

Hardison was half-gaping; Parker stared. Sophie looked pale.

Eliot just looked pissed off.

Nate grinned. “Not so crazy after all, huh?”

-o-

Afterward, they didn’t talk about it.

Not for fear or awkwardness. Not for doubt or uncertainty. Not even for overconfidence or relief.

They didn’t talk about it because they didn’t need to. They all knew. They’d known all along.

They walked into this together, eyes wide open the whole damn time.

They would walk out together, too.

Who would have guessed?

Oh, that was right. Nate would.

Nate did.

Only this time, the whole team would happily let him say that he told them so.

-o-

It took a day, of course. The water had to go down; Eliot had to get his strength back. Hardison monitored the radio to make sure that Derringer was in custody, and Parker made them a dinner of canned peaches. Sophie tended them contentedly, but when she sidled in next to Nate, her voice was smooth like silk.

“You pulled it off,” she said. “I didn’t think you would.”

“Ah, well,” Nate said. He smiled at her. “We pulled it off.”

Her smile back was as real as he’d ever seen it. “And now I believe that magic is real.”

“Eliot’s miracle recovery?” Nate asked.

“No,” she said, easing her way back to the others. “Your humility.”

-o-

They slept easier that night, chairs pulled close together. Parker had her feet propped up on Eliot’s bed, her head tipped back against Hardison’s shoulder. Hardison’s long, lanky legs reached out to touch Sophie, who had tucked her body against Nate’s.

Nate sat in the chair, fingers resting against Eliot’s forearm, watching for the rise and fall of his chest.

This was how it was meant to be.

Nate smiled, letting himself drift off to sleep.

This was how it always would be.

-o-

“We can’t just leave it with bullet holes,” Eliot griped as he eased his way toward the door.

“I don’t know,” Parker said, quirking her head. “It’s not that noticeable.”

“Um, except for the part where there are large gaping holes in the exterior,” Hardison mused, gathering up the last of their gear.

“Well, to be fair, it wasn’t like this place was much to begin with,” Sophie said.

“Did you even wash the sheets?” Eliot asked as he leaned heavily against the door. He made it look innocent enough, but Nate knew better.

They all knew better.

The wound had healed spectacularly, somehow stitching itself closed, and he had no further indications of shock. But the physical toll was still noticeable, which would bother Nate had he not almost seen Eliot die the day before.

“Hey, look, if you’re concerned about the woodland hick, then by all means, you do the blood laundry,” Hardison said, coming up alongside Eliot close enough to help without touching. Hardison’s anxiety levels had dropped to normal levels, which made him brood less and bitch more.

“We also ate all his peaches,” Parker added with a remorseful nod back to the decimated kitchen. He’d found Parker that morning, finishing the last five cans off, eating directly from the tin.

“Again,” Sophie said, trying in vain to fix her hair. Without her beauty supplies, her self-care routine had been badly compromised. Now that there was nothing else to complain about, she made sure everyone understood her displeasure with their amenities. “No real loss.”

Nate finished checking the fire before straightening up as best he could. “Well, we did make a neat little sum on this one,” he said with a diffident shrug. “I’m sure we can find a way to funnel enough cash back to him to fix the place up.”

“Besides,” Hardison said. “His cabin got remanded without his authorization before being shot up by the authorities. We just fulfilled this man’s wildest fantasies. He should be paying us.”

Eliot glared at him. “That’s not the way it works, man.”

“He needed a reason to redecorate,” Sophie said.

“And the air flow is so much better now,” Parker added.

“We’ll make it right,” Nate said, patting Eliot carefully on the shoulder. “That is what we do.”

With a tilt of his head, Eliot conceded the point. It was an argument they’d had before.

An argument this job had put to rest.

Because they knew.

They knew.

“Come on, it’s a long walk back,” Nate cajoled, opening the door. “We’ve got one more thing we need to do.”

Sophie led the way, Parker not far behind. Eliot limped after them, still guarding his side slightly, with Hardison at his flank. Nate pulled up behind them, closing the door as he went outside.

The sun was shining; the trees were a brilliant green after the rain. The air was fresh, and the birds chirped above them. It was hard to believe how close they’d come. It was damn near impossible to consider that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

Hell or high water.

Hexes or bullet wounds.

They finished like they started: together.

-o-

It wasn’t an easy walk. The ground was soft with mud from the copious rainfall, and navigating the declines was especially tricky with Sophie’s heels and Eliot’s limping. They rallied around each other wordlessly, coming up alongside Eliot when he almost stumbled and steadying each other when the slick ground nearly pulled them down.

Crossing the creek was even more of a challenge. Though the raging waters had subsided substantially, all the bridges were still out, and the water splashed up to their knees as they waded through the lowest point. This made their final stretch to the road especially tedious with mud crusted up their pants, and as they ambled down the road to where they had hidden their rental car, they were all more than ready to be done.

By the time Nate unlocked the door, Eliot was flagging badly, and it was a little worrisome how readily he accepted it. Nate could feel the pain nagging in his own side, and he turned up the heat to high while Hardison and Parker climbed in on either side of Eliot, strapping him in and pulling him close. Sophie handed back a blanket, watching anxiously while Hardison tucked it around Eliot.

They were worn and tired, but they weren’t broken.

They’d made it.

Nate put the car into gear, smiling to himself.

As if there had ever been any doubt.

-o-

The drive to Hawthorne was long, and the damage from the flooding was more extensive than they’d imagined. Their path was redirected several times due to rain-damage detours, and when they crossed the main bridge over the river on the way to town, it was obvious just how much had been wiped out. Debris littered the water-swept banks, and most of the structures along the water were still swamped or wiped away entirely.

“That’s not the creek, is it?” Parker asked, a little hesitating as they drove over it.

“Nah, the creek is just one of the tributaries,” Hardison said. “A half dozen or so in the area feed into this one.”

Nate slowed a little, unable to avoid looking at the cars stuck in the mud, still partially submerged.

“This wasn’t all because of Derringer, was it?” Sophie asked.

“Water levels were already high,” Eliot added quietly.

“Not that high” Hardison said. “No one was ready for it.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Parker said. “Derringer tried to rain us out when we got her, and rained out the entire area instead?”

“Seems a bit like overkill,” Sophie said.

“The woman tried to be a force of nature,” Eliot said, shaking his head. “And almost succeeded.”

Nate drove over the last bit of the bridge, refusing to look back. “That’s why we do it,” he said.

He felt his team look at him, but Nate kept his hands steady on the wheel.

“The rich and the powerful -- we know how to get leverage on them,” Nate continued. “But people like Derringer? Sanderson? That takes a whole different kind of leverage. The kind of leverage only we can provide.”

Eliot was the first to nod. “I can live with that.”

“Me, too,” Parker said.

“While I still don’t appreciate the use of magic, it’s not like I’m going to go against that,” Hardison said.

Sophie reached over, a hand on Nate’s arm. “We’re with you,” she said. “All the way.”

Nate flexed his fingers, tightening them again. It was reassuring and terrifying all at once. To know they believed in him.

To know they believed in him.

They understood the implications now, and there was no turning back.

“Good,” he said, pushing the pedal down a little further. “Because we’ve got one more stop to make.”

-o-

The Hawthorne police station was busy, overloaded by the flood response. Even with the chaos, access to the holding cells wasn’t to be expected.

Unless, of course, you had a grifter like Sophie to charm the desk sergeant and a hacker like Hardison to bypass a few security measures. A thief like Parker came in handy to circumvent a few of the locked doors, and they probably wouldn’t have risked it at all without a hitter like Eliot at the standby. Injured as he was, there was no doubt Eliot could hold his own in a fight if he needed to.

That was Nate’s job, though. To make sure he didn’t need to. He didn’t need another hard lesson in humility to concede that wasn’t always the case, but this time--

Well, this time, he had a pretty good feeling.

Call it skill, call it luck, call it magic.

Nate pushed his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels and smirked at Derringer.

It took Derringer a minute -- a long minute -- to realize what was happening, recognition dawning on her face as she saw Hardison and Sophie flanking him on both sides.

“You,” she breathed, eyes going wide as she got to her feet. “You’re the ones who scammed me.”

“Us,” Nate said. “I mean, maybe one or two of us were on the inside, but we’re a team. We did this together.”

She stepped forward, starting to seethe. “And you’ll go down together, too.”

“You mean like with the rainstorm you sent?” Nate asked. “Or the entire Hawthorne police department?”

The color drained from her face. “There is no case,” she said. “We scrubbed everything clean after you left. The police were grasping at straws with the search of my place. I’ll be out of here within a day.”

“Well, you might be right,” Nate agreed. “The police probably didn’t find anything.”

She held her head up, and it was her turn to smirk.

Nate let her have it.

He knew it’d be short-lived. “See, we took the evidence before we left,” Nate said. “I mean, we were already clearing out your money, so we figured, why not?”

She shook her head with a snort of disbelief. “You’d never be able to find it,” she said. “There’s no evidence for magic that will stick.”

“Magic? Of course not,” Nate agreed. “That’s not even illegal.”

Her brow furrowed, and she tried not to look as confused as she plainly was.

“See, magic, well, that’s not even illegal, as far as I know,” Nate said. “But illegal pesticides -- that’s a whole different ballgame.”

Her jaw tensed, fingers tightening into fists at her sides.

“The evidence we took, that should be enough for, what? Multiple convictions?” Nate asked.

“The governmental fines will just be the start,” Hardison said.

“Next come the class action lawsuits,” Eliot said.

“And the loss of contract,” Parker added.

“When you see the evidence, you’ll settle as fast as you can,” Sophie said.

“But, you know, don’t worry too much,” Nate said. “Maybe you can work some magic to find a pro-bono lawyer. I’m sure the magic-made-me-do-it defense will work really well.”

“I can hex you,” she said, almost spitting now. “I can unleash a spell so dangerous, you won’t know what hit you.”

Nate pulled his hands out, rubbing them together. “Ms. Derringer,” he said with a grand nod. “I would love to see you try.”

-o-

Nate took care to drive them back to the hotel. He ordered wine for Sophie and picked up some gummy frogs for Hardison. He brought a box of cereal for Parker and made sure that Eliot had a dark, quiet room to get some additional rest.

When he left, they didn’t ask where he was going.

This time, they didn’t have to.

Besides, they’d be there, waiting for him when he got back.

Nate was glad he could count on that.

-o-

It was late when he got to the hair salon, but the front door was unlocked. He made his way to the back room, unsurprised to find the client waiting for him.

He handed her the check.

She looked at it, eyebrows going up.

“That should be enough for you to start making restitutions for the people who were hurt by Derringer,” he explained. “You can use whatever’s left to make sure no more witches get any delusions of grandeur.”

Amber smiled. “I have to admit,” she said. “I’m impressed.”

“You hired us for a reason,” Nate said with a shrug.

“Still,” she said. “You’re better than I could have expected.

“Well, we probably had a little help,” Nate explained. “We might owe Claudia Sanderson a thank-you note after all this.”

Amber made a face. “I think Claudia Sanderson is getting exactly what she deserves.”

“Kind of a harsh judgement,” Nate observed.

“I figure I’m one of the few qualified to make it,” Amber said. She cocked her head. “Although I think there are probably five more people I’d trust these days.”

“We don’t do magic,” Nate told her.

“Of course not,” she said. “You just beat it.”

“We do what has to be done,” Nate said. “Always have.”

“And that’s why I came to you,” she said. She nodded at him resolutely, extending her hand. “Thank you, Mr. Ford.”

He took it, shaking it back. “No,” he said. “Thank you.”

Letting his hand go, she smirked, moving toward the back door. “If you ever change your mind, I think you’d be pretty good at magic,” she said. “Claudia left a lot behind.”

“That’s not the kind of magic I need,” he said.

“No,” she said with a slow incline of her head. “I don’t suppose it is.”

With that, she was gone, leaving Nate alone. He lingered for a moment, looking over the old books and the scant supplies still left. It seemed like another lifetime when he’d picked a spell at random and followed it as best he could. It still seemed a little ridiculous, that anything he could do could produce actual magic.

But here he was, the mastermind of a band of thieves.

Here he was, a scar in his side from a bullet he never took -- a bullet wound shared by every member of his team.

They had always done the impossible.

This was no different.

On his way out, he turned off the lights and locked the door before making his way back to his team.

-o-

Epilogue

It was two years later when Hardison picked up the notice, sending the link to Nate in a text.

Thought you might want to know about this.

The link was a small article in a local Hawthorne paper. It was about a model prisoner up for parole.

Claudia Sanderson was convicted of fraud, extortion, money laundering and theft. Her 20 year sentence left the possibility of parole open after five years, and prison officials have stated that she has been a model prisoner since her incarceration. Local families have spoken out against the possibility, asking officials to remember the lives she ruined, many of which may never fully recover.

“We could go steal a judge,” Parker suggested over dinner.

“More like an entire prison system,” Sophie murmured, pausing to take a sip of her wine.

“There are other ways to deal with problems,” Eliot commented darkly, knife still in hand while he cut off a piece of his meat.

Nate waved them off. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, using his other hand to pile together his roasted potatoes. “I’ve got a plan.”

“It better not involve magic,” Hardison told him with his eyebrows raised. “Because, if it does--”

“Guys, come on,” Nate said. “You can trust me.”

“To be fair,” Sophie said with a wry expression. “We’ve heard that before.”

Almost apologetic, Parker nodded. “A few times.”

“And one time, we got cursed,” Hardison reminded him.

“Another, I got shot,” Eliot pointed out.

“I know,” Nate said. “But this time’s different.”

They gave him a knowing look. The last few years had been good, to be sure. Eventful, always. They’d navigated it all together. And with everything that had changed, Nate knew the most remarkable things were the ones that had never faltered.

Still, if anything would give them reason to doubt, it would be this.

“Come on,” Nate said. “We’ve already beat death together. Surely we can handle one incarcerated witch?”

They were skeptical, but they knew him. Which was why they were skeptical, of course. But it was also why they were going to let him do it.

“Besides,” Nate said with a simple shrug. “The first time, I didn’t tell you. The second time, I dragged you along. This time, though.”

He looked at them, watching him. A lot of room for doubt.

Just enough room to believe.

“This time, I’m asking you to come with me,” Nate said. “We do it together.”

That was all he needed to win them over.

That was all he ever needed.

-o-

There was no scam. There was no hack. There was no one to fight, and no lock to pick. There was only a simple false identity for Nate to sign into the prison with and a clean van for the rest of the team to wait outside.

Hell, there wasn’t even a plan, and the team hadn’t asked for what they knew Nate wouldn’t be able to give. After all, Claudia Sanderson wasn’t a threat. The newspaper article had been accurate, which Hardison had confirmed by hacking the prison records. She had done nothing out of the ordinary, and there was no indication that she had attempted any witchcraft since being locked up. Her counseling sessions were unremarkable, and Claudia Sanderson had become the same average person she’d been before she ever picked up a spellbook.

By all accounts, that was reason enough to leave her alone. They were about justice, after all. They got leverage to tip the scales and create a better balance of power. They didn’t go for straight out revenge; retribution was sometimes part of the job, but it was measured. When it was over -- then it was over.

He had no fight to pick with Sanderson.

He just had one question to ask.

“Was it worth it?” he asked when she was seated across from him. “Was all the magic worth it?”

She had aged, and not terribly well. Her hair was gray around the temples and frizzy. She looked tired in a way that couldn’t be explained by incarceration, and everything about her seemed withered and done.

At the question, she laughed. “You came back,” she said, half croaking. “All these years, and you came back to ask me that.”

Nate shrugged. “Inquiring minds.”

Her chuckled turned caustic as she shook her head. “You’ve already taken everything from me,” she told him. “Why would you think I’d give you anything else?”

“It’s just a simple question,” Nate said.

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “With an obvious answer.”

Nate inclined his head. “So it wasn’t worth it?”

The look of incredulity swept over her face, shaking through her body with a vigor that surprised Nate. “Worth it? I’m in prison,” she said, the venom dripping from her voice. “And no matter how much work I do to be good, I was still denied parole this morning.”

“You were denied?” Nate asked, truly surprised.

“Yeah,” she said. “My lawyer couldn’t believe it. Said based on the charges and my prison record, I should have been out, no questions asked. But they barely gave me a second look.”

“Well, maybe that’s the way justice works,” Nate said. “You spent years, tipping the universe in your favor. The backlash of magic--”

Her laugh was deep and bitter now, loud enough to attract a curious glance from the guards.

Nate cleared his throat, feeling conspicuous. “You want to share the joke?”

Her laughter faded darkly and she sat forward, staring at him. “Magic,” she said. “There is no such thing as magic.”

Nate had gone out of his way to come this far, and he’d brought the rest of the team expecting some sort of catharsis. Sanderson had changed their lives, for the better and for the worse, and Nate had needed to understand the inception of that. It was the only way he knew how to feel secure in the way the rest of this played out.

It wasn’t that he’d expected her to be helpful. It wasn’t even that he’d expected her to know the answers he wanted to hear. It was that he’d expected her to understand the power that started this. The power that made his team and the power that destroyed her.

“But, your spells--” Nate started.

“Were nothing,” she said, eyes bright as she stared him down with more intensity. “Magic? It’s not real. Not any of it.”

“But you spent all that time--”

“I wasted all that time,” she said. “Maybe it was a psychological crutch that I needed, but there was nothing special about those spells. I mean, look at me.”

She gestured to herself, the plain prison clothes, the worn out expression.

“Magic isn’t real,” she told him, each word more emphatic than the last. “It never has been.”

Nate sat back, watching her quizzically. “Are you sure about that?”


Her short bark of laughter was bitter. “If you already know the answer,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Then why are you here, asking the question?”

To that, Nate had no response.

Why was he here? What closure did he think Sanderson could give him? What did he want to know? Did he think she could make this better? That she could make it worse? Did he think she could provide some insight that he hadn’t yet gleaned?

Because the last few years, they’d been good. They’d been great. They’d taken on the hardest cases and come up with the best results. They’d worked together, played together, lived together. They were perfectly in tune with one another, completely of one mind. Everything was perfect except for the nagging doubt at the back of Nate’s mind.

The question of whether or not it was real. If this was nothing more than an errant spell, a mistake. If this thing between them was a choice or a consequence. He’d needed to know that he wasn’t a pawn in someone else’s game. He’d wanted to be sure that he was still, in his own way, in control of this.

This had never been about Sanderson.

This hadn’t even been about a spell for soulbonding.

No, this had always been about his team.

Call in inevitable. Call it a natural progression. Call it hard work. Call it a choice.

Call it magic.

Mostly, Nate could just call it his team.

It was the only constant, the only truth. The only thing that mattered.

Pushing his chair back, he got to his feet. “I’m sorry to waste your time.”

“Wait,” she said, frowning at him.

He paused, buttoning his suit jacket.

“You think it’s real,” she said with a knowing nod. “Don’t you?”

“Magic?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Oh, it’s real,” he said. “Some people have it. Some people, like yourself, don’t.”

“And you do?”

He smiled, tipping his head on his way out. “Now who’s asking questions they already know the answer to.”

-o-

Outside, Nate started his way back to the car. Sophie was waiting for him, checking her hair in a pocket mirror while sitting at a bus stop. She got up, falling into stride with him. After several more steps, Eliot tossed his newspaper in the trash, coming in on the back end. Hardison eased himself into step, pushing off from the telephone pole he’d been resting against. Parker appeared from nowhere, stepping in tandem as they made their way down the street effortlessly.

“So,” Sophie said, smiling at him. “Did you get your answer?”

“Nah,” Nate said with a small smirk. “I just needed to be reminded of the things that I already knew.”

“And?” Eliot prompted.

“And what?” Nate asked with feigned innocence.

“What did she tell you?” Parker asked.

“And you better tell me the answer has nothing to do with magic,” Hardison told him.

It was an answer he’d known long before Eliot got shot in that cabin. It was an answer he’d known even before he’d cast that soulbonding spell. It was an answer he’d known on that first job for Dubenich, when five people came together to form the unlikeliest of teams.

Maybe that was why he’d cast the spell, not because he hadn’t believed in magic, but because he’d known what it really was. Because he’d known, even without trying, that no spell could break them. No magic could change who they were.

This team, they’d shown him from the start what magic really was -- five people, working toward a common goal. Five souls joined together in mutual purpose. Five individuals made into one, superior whole.

Magic was real.

Magic was very, very real.

“Ah, well,” Nate said. “I’d tell you the answer, but I think you all know it already. I think you probably knew it before I did, each and every one of you.”

To that, there was no argument. There was no debate.

There was just the simple facts of who they’d been, and who they still might become.

Nate looked forward, steps sure and steady, his team in line behind them, not one of them looking back.