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Leverage fic: If You Have a Place (2/2)

December 30th, 2016 (08:38 pm)
morose

feeling: morose

Continued from Part One.



-o-

Sophie goes to get the food, and they send Parker to get a few medical supplies. They have a few things that Hardison has kept on hand, but it seems prudent to get more, all things considered. Hardison hunkers down in front of his laptop and starts tapping away, and Nate finds some comfort in that.

Progress, he thinks. One keystroke at a time.

He sits, watching the rise and fall of Eliot’s chest.

Progress, he knows. One breath at a time.

-o-

Sophie brings back takeout in the way that only Sophie Devereaux can. It’s still-hot steak and stuffed chicken with roasted vegetables and hand-mashed potatoes as sides. When Nate raises his eyebrows, Sophie shrugs.

“Conning food out of a closed restaurant is easier than stealing someone’s priceless Monet,” she says diffidently.

She lines up several beers on the counter as a concession before pouring herself a glass of wine. This time, she raises her eyebrows at him.

Nate takes a steak and leaves the beer, where it’s still staring at him in the morning.

-o-

Parker shows up when Sophie has finally fallen asleep on the chaise lounge in her office. They’ve woken Eliot -- successfully -- several times, and he’s even eaten some of the food. She comes with bandages and antiseptic, and even tools for IV and fluids.

Nate looks at her curiously.

“What?” she says, putting it down with a hiss on the table across from Eliot. “I could have taken a portable x-ray machine, too, but I figured that would make you guys mad.”

“No, it’s good,” Nate says with a cautious tip of his head in approval. He smiles at her until she her shoulders relax. “It’s good.”

-o-

Hardison is the one who can’t keep quiet.

He chatters about nothing; he chatters about everything. By the time the dawn breaks, Hardison has consumed a whole bottle of orange soda and compiled a comprehensive overview of Knobloch’s activities since they left his company in shambles the previous month.

Nate’s pretty sure he already knows, but he calls the team together anyway over breakfast. Sophie looks not quite as kept up as she normally does, and Parker has a bowlful of cereal. Eliot is awake and sitting up on the couch, and if he’s listing a little to one side, no one is going to comment on it. Nate takes up his position behind them as Hardison brings up the information to the screen.

He goes over all of it, the financials, the movements, the company asset, the civil lawsuits, the divorce settlement. Finally, Hardison shakes his head. “Best I can tell, what he pulled off yesterday, that wasn’t just his only play, it was his last play,” he says. “I mean, the guy went for broke -- literally. It’s the most desperate hail mary I’ve ever seen. The money he used? Was earmarked for his kids. That stuff wasn’t even accessible in the civil cases. He tapped out everything his family had, taking it away from his wife, his parents, his kids. Hell, the dude wiped out his mother. She’s 94 and in a nursing home.”

He steps back for a moment, as if to let that set in.

“Knobloch’s spent,” he concludes. “Spent, gone, done. He’s broke; his kids are broke, and he’s going to jail. He literally gave up everything -- even things he didn’t have -- just to win.”

“So what do we do to a man like that?” Sophie muses. “What kind of disgrace could we possibly give a man who’s lost it all?”

“Oh, there’s always something to steal,” Parker suggests.

“And someone to hit,” Eliot murmurs.

Nate clears his throat and walks around to the front of the couch. “We still have a few months before the first civil cases start to show up in court,” he says. “We have until then.”

“Until then to what?” Hardison asks.

Nate gives him a quizzical look, as if this is obvious. It is obvious. “To come up with our plan.”

-o-

It sounds good, but life doesn’t exist in sound bytes. There’s still a lot to do, and still somehow not enough to do for five people in the same Los Angeles office space.

They’re not leaving, though. They made a promise -- explicitly, this time -- and thieves and criminals, they’re loyal in this.

The promise was explicit, but they keep it implicitly. When Parker showers, Hardison steals a nap and Sophie plays a diligent nursemaid. When Parker crashes hard for sleep, Hardison camps out next to Eliot, who dozes on and off while people come and go. Sophie goes out -- they need essentials, she says, Nate is horribly unprepared for, well, everything -- and she comes back looking significantly better than she when she left.

Nate watches.

He watches Eliot when he wakes up every hour; he watches Parker as she fidgets throughout the office. He watches Hardison sprawl out with his intel, and Sophie seamlessly graces every corner of the place with her scent.

Nate watches as they interact without even talking, how they coexist without even trying. He tries to remember back on the Nigerian Job, when Hardison had been ready to cut and run and Parker had jumped off a building without telling anyone. He’d been impressed that Eliot had stuck around as long as he had.

And that moment when he called to Sophie in the alley and she turned around and recognized him. That moment when they were all together, when everything worked.

It hasn’t been perfect since then, but it’s better than Nate’s allowed himself to realize. For as good as they all are on their own, they’re better together.

Parker’s learning how to trust people, and Hardison is learning his limits. Sophie has turned into a natural leader, and Eliot’s remembering what it is to be human again.

As for Nate, well --

Nate thought he wanted a purpose, no strings attached.

He’s starting to wonder if it’s the strings he wanted after all.

-o-

By the afternoon, Eliot manages to get up and move about, and although he’s still moving gingerly, he’s more awake than asleep and his eyes are clear and his humor is cutting.

They’re not out of the woods, but Nate’s starting to believe that this will actually be okay.

Not just since someone took his team.

But for a long time before that, too.

-o-

“Where’s Eliot?” Parker asks, poking her head around the room.

“Uh, reading,” Nate says, glancing back absently. He’s jotting notes about Knobloch on the legal pad in front of him. He’s filled up three pages so far, and somehow has gotten nowhere at all. “In his office. Hardison’s running a few errands, and I...don’t know where Sophie is.”

Parker regards him critically, walking across the room before sliding onto a chair and pulling her knees to her chest.

“When do we need to check him again?” she asks.

“Twenty minutes,” Nate says. “But his responses are getting increasingly combative.”

“Is that a sign of head trauma?” she wonders.

“I think it’s more a sign of Eliot,” Nate muses, tapping his pen on his pad of paper.

She nods a little, and she makes no attempt to hide the fact that she’s staring at him. Parker’s crazy, is what he’d said about her. He’s starting to think he’s the crazy one.

“I’m sorry,” he says finally, so abruptly that it almost surprises him more than her.

She narrows her eyes suspiciously.

Nate puts down the pad, because this is something he has to say. “I didn’t see any of this coming,” he says. “I didn’t protect the team.”

His oversight is what makes it work; it’s why Dubenich hired him in the first place. If he doesn’t have that, then what does he have?

“We weren’t on the job,” Parker reasons.

“We’re always on the job,” Nate says. “We can’t pretend that we’re not.”

She doesn’t seem appeased by this. In fact, she seems more disconcerted than ever.

“We’ll have to have more failsafes in place,” he says.

“Failsafes?” she asks.

“Ways to check up on each other,” he says. “Emergency protocols.”

She cocks her head. “Check up on each other?”

“Sure,” Nate says, shrugging. “Like daily texts, unless we mutually agree to going off-book. Safe words, that kind of thing. Subtle breadcrumbs.”

“Oh,” she says. “Like a family?”

It’s an odd question, especially from her. Because Parker, of all of them, has never had a family.

But that’s exactly what he’s talking about. He still remembers Sam’s first sleepover at a friend’s house, how Nate had insisted on being called once when he got there and once when he went to bed. And once more in the morning, just to be sure.

“Yeah,” he says, a little tentative. “Like a family.”

She straightens, somehow mollified. “Okay,” she says. Then, after a moment, she blurts, “Coleslaw!”

Nate tilts his head.

“That’s my word,” she says. “When things are going wrong, I’ll say coleslaw.

Nate blinks. “Coleslaw?”

“Well, not now,” she says, rolling her eyes as if Nate is ridiculous. “Although I could go for some coleslaw. Like actual coleslaw. Not the other coleslaw.”

“Yeah,” Nate says slowly. “Okay.”

She leans forward. “For the record, I’m always ready for coleslaw,” she says ambiguously. “Of any variety.”

Nate isn’t sure what that means.

Still, he has no doubt that he’ll understand it when he needs to.

-o-

The conversation with Parker is unexpected.

The conversation with Hardison is clearly a long time coming.

“I want you to know I’m taking steps so that this doesn’t happen again,” he tells the younger man while working together in the main room. At least, Nate thinks Hardison is working. It’s hard to tell with his eyes glued to the screen.

“Steps? Hardison asks, raising his eyebrows. “Man, I was ambushed in my own home. You’re lucky I was dressed because warehouses are drafty. And I know I’m pretty, but I don’t particularly like being a damsel in distress.”

It takes a certain amount of self control not to end this conversation right here and now. No matter how annoying he is, though, Hardison deserves an explanation. “We play with high stakes,” he says. “It was naive to think that wouldn’t carry over.”

“Much as I would like to avoid being kidnapped and placed next to a bomb, isn’t that sort of part of the game?” he asks. “I mean, the things we’ve done? The people we’ve taken down? The lives we’ve saved? Kind of late to think about walking away now.”

Oddly enough, that’s not exactly what Nate’s talking about. In everything, he’s not thinking about leaving. He can’t. He’d like to think it’s his sense of loyalty, but it’s more than that.

He sighs. “You just should know, you’re not expendable, not any of you,” he says. “When I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to save you…”

He trails off, tipping his head again.

Hardison snorts. “Yeah, man, it wasn’t my favorite moment either,” he says. “But I don’t know. I always thought you had a plan.”

Nate shakes his head. “I didn’t,” he admits. “I didn’t have a plan.”

Hardison looks pained at that. “See, now I’m scared,” he says. “Kidnapped and strapped to a bomb and there wasn’t a plan? No way, man. That’s not cool.”

It’s impossible not to laugh, just a little. “I do now,” he says, reassuringly as he can. “You can guarantee I have a plan for this kind of thing now.”

Eyes on Nate, Hardison gives a steady, solid nod. His smile tweaks up at the edge, but just a little, and beneath the bravado, there’s a glimmer of something real. “See, that--” he says, nodding at Nate. “That’s something I can live with. Because if we’re kidnapped again? I sure as hell better be the first person you save.”

Nate rolls his eyes. “Well, the plan is to not be kidnapped.”

Hardison holds up his hands. “I’m just saying.”

Nate closes his mouth, and forces a smile.

For once, Hardison has a point. He has the right to say it.

And Nate, well, he needs to listen.

-o-

Honestly, he expects the conversation with Sophie to happen sooner, but she seems to be letting him take the lead. Take isn’t really the right way to describe it. Nate’s been chasing liars and thieves too long to not know when he’s being manipulated. Sophie may be the best at what she does, but Nate can always tell when she’s working an angle.

Especially on him.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

After dinner, when Hardison and Parker are cleaning up and Eliot is trying to watch sports, he finds himself in his office with her. She moves seamlessly through his space, her fingers trailing over every surface as if it's hers already. She carries herself as though she expects things, somehow making people want to give it to her.

There are many things Sophie has tried to get from him over the years. Most of the time, he’s resisted. Sometimes out of moral obligation; sometimes out of his own need to win.

But Sophie was the first choice he made, and they both know it. And no matter how much he’d like to pretend like it didn’t happen, he knows it did.

Worse, she knows it did.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he says with a self deprecating shrug. “That this wouldn’t have happened without the drinking.”

She inclines her head but doesn’t say anything.

“This didn’t happen because I was drunk,” he tells her flatly.

“Of course not,” she says, sweeping along the edges of his office. “It’s not like you could have been there to protect all of us, all at the same time, drunk or sober.”

He’s not so foolish as to think she’s actually absolving him. “The drinking’s not the problem, Sophie.”

She turns toward him, head cocked. “Then what is the problem?”

“I lost the game,” he starts, but she’s shaking her head.

“You do realize that none of us think you’re God,” she tells him. “That’s only you.”

“It’s my responsibility--”

“Honestly, Nate, do you think that’s the apology we need to hear?” she asks.

“Then what?” he returns. “What apology do you need to hear?”

“How about that you panicked and made an emotional first choice that could have compromised everyone else?” she pushes, unrelenting now. “How about the fact that you showed up at the warehouse already resigned to the fact that Eliot was dead? You assumed the worst, Nate. You assumed the worst, and put yourself ahead of everyone else.”

It’s harsher than he expects, and it stings more than he fear. “I knew he had me,” he admits, voice somewhat hoarse. “Before I stepped foot out of this office, I knew I had lost the game.”

She scoffs. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

Nate gives her a look. “I’m not sure how there’s another interpretation.”

She steps toward him, eyes boring through him. “You lost the game, sure,” she says unsympathetically. “But you’re not the only one playing.”

To that, he has no reply.

She shakes her head, as if in disbelief. “Nate, you brought us together, you gave us a purpose,” she says. “You made us a team. You made us more than a team. This was never your game. It was ours.”

“You were kidnapped and placed with bombs,” Nate points out. “Eliot was beat to hell.”

“And yet here we all are,” she says. “Alive and recovering.”

He shuts his mouth, swallowing past the lump in his throat.

“You need to trust us, Nate,” she says. “More than you trust the bottom of your glass.”

He looks down, forcing himself to breathe.

After a moment, she turns, facing the window again. “I should be angry at you, you know.”

He glances up.

She looks back, her face hard. “You picked me first,” she says. “You were willing to trade someone else for me.”

His shoulders fall. “Like I said, I wasn’t thinking,” he says. “I just saw that picture of you…” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t lose you.”

Her face softens. “Too bad it takes a bomb to make you realize that,” she says, crossing back toward him. She leans down, mouth close to his ear. “And a whole lot of alcohol to make you forget.”

As she leaves, he watches. The gait of her walk, the shape of her curves, the strands of her hair. It’s his choice, he reminds himself. All he has to do is choose, consequences be damned.

Damn, is all he can think. He really wants a drink.

-o-

Another day and another night, and the team is recovering well. Eliot’s showing no signs of complications, and he’s chafing badly against the constant intrusions into his personal space. The rest of the team is starting to relax again, and he manages to send the rest of them home -- at least 24 hours, he insists -- much to their chagrin.

After they’ve gone, Eliot comes out from the bathroom from where he’s been taking a shower. He notices the absence immediately -- he’s concussed, but he’s still Eliot -- and he regards Nate curiously.

“We get to go home now?” he asks, not quite letting himself sound hopeful.

“It was getting a little crowded in here,” Nate says with a shrug.

Eliot wets his lips, surveying the room again. “Well, I’ll get out of your hair, too.”

Nate has anticipated this. He holds his ground. “You’re still at risk for complications.”

Eliot has anticipated this, too. He’s shaking his head before Nate finishes. “There’s no sign of internal bleeding or any kind of complications in the brain,” he says. “If you’d taken me to a hospital, they would have let me go by now.”

“You wouldn’t know,” Nate says. “You would have signed out AMA before this.”

Eliot opens his mouth to protest, and has to close it. He furrows his brow in annoyance. “I’m fine,” he says. Then, he shrugs coolly. “Besides, I don’t recall needing your permission.”

“No, you don’t need my permission,” Nate agrees. “But if someone comes after you tonight--”

“We all know that Knobloch is spent--”

“Someone else, then,” Nate says. “I know the type of people who are after you, Eliot, and if Knobloch’s men got the drop on you, what makes you thinks it can’t happen again?”

Eliot’s expression shifts, hardening instantly as he stiffens his shoulders. “I can take care of myself.”

“Concussed? With broken ribs? I know you don’t want the others to see it, but you’re still in a considerable amount of pain,” he comments.

Eliot’s face is flushing with color. “So you don’t trust me now? Is that it?” he asks. “Knobloch sent six guys, and they didn’t get me at my place. They rigged my damn car, Nate. Flooded it with knockout gas. By the time I got out, I was already seeing double and I still took out three of them before one of them pistol whipped me. And I got out. Don’t pretend like that part doesn’t exist, because it does, Nate. I didn’t need to be rescued. And I sure as hell don’t need a nursemaid.”

It’s not that Nate hasn’t planned for this conversation, but it’s impossible to predict the weight of it as Eliot seethes the words at him. It takes all he has -- and he swears, he’s not sure how much he has left -- but he stands steady, unflinching as he stares Eliot down. “I know you don’t need to be rescued, and I know you don’t need a nursemaid,” he says. “But you do need an apology.”

That’s the point, the turn Nate’s been working for, and he’s somewhat gratified that it catches Eliot so badly off guard. His face contorts. “Wait -- what?”

“You were jumped by six guys who rigged your car,” he says. “You were put next to a bomb and left to fend for yourself. That shouldn’t happen, not when we’re on a team. It’s my fault for underestimating Knobloch and for not seeing the obvious vulnerabilities of our team structure between jobs. It’s my fault for not having a plan that gave you the backup you deserve. Not the backup you need; the backup you deserve.”

The anger has drained out of Eliot, and he shakes his head with a small chuckle. “Look, Nate,” he says. “I get it. You’re a good Catholic; you want to be absolved.”

Nate won’t be dissuaded. “I just need you to know,” he continues. “I didn’t pick you last. It wasn’t like that.”

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “It was.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Well, it should have been,” Eliot replies candidly.

It’s Nate’s turn to be taken off guard. “What?”

“The whole team thing, I get it,” Eliot says. “But it’s not all things being equal, and it never has been. You want someone to break into a vault, you go to Parker. You want someone to hack a computer, you get Hardison. You want to con someone out of their most precious belonging, Sophie’s your person. But if someone needs to be trusted to bust themselves out of something? That’s me. That’s why I’m on this team in the first place.”

“But that doesn’t make you expendable,” Nate argues.

“Well, I appreciate that,” Eliot says with an aw-shucks grin. “But, despite the concussion and passing out on your couch, you should remember that I got out.”

Nate closes his mouth.

Eliot inclines his head. “I know my job; I’ve accepted it,” he says. “Question is: have you accepted yours and everything it really entails?”

That’s the harder part, even harder than telling his team that he’s sorry. For as difficult as it is to admit his own weaknesses, it’s damn near impossible to acknowledge how scared he is of this job. He can’t hide behind the guise of an honest man, and he can’t play the part of an outright criminal. He can’t hide behind the alcohol, and he can’t pretend that going sober will make any of it easier.

The rest of the team, they know who they are. They know what they do. They know what they want, and they’re willing to do what they need to do to make that happen. Nate’s still flailing with a lack of self-definition, and all he can think of is all the things he’s not anymore. He’s not a father; he’s not a husband. He’s not an insurance man, and he’s not a company man.

But he’s not just a drunk or an honest man. He’s not even a simple criminal.

But he’s something, something he doesn’t know how to come to terms with, something he can’t live without.

He needs them, his team. Not just Sophie, but Parker, Hardison and Eliot, too. His job isn’t to get them jobs and to screw over marks. His job is to keep them together, which is exactly the thing he didn’t want in the first place.

Eliot flips his hair over his shoulder. “One more night,” he says, making his way over to the couch. “And I’m leaving in the morning.”

That’s Eliot’s way of saying apology accepted.

Nate hides his smile while Eliot turns on the TV and settles in to watch a game. Grabbing a pair of beers, Nate goes to join him. He offers the first beer to Eliot, who eyes it skeptically for a moment.

They both still remember, Nate knows. They remember the pool table at Hardison’s apartment back in Chicago. They remember Eliot’s gentle overtures, and Nate’s cold reply, “You and I are not friends.” To his credit, Eliot hadn’t made a fuss, and it’d never come up again.

Eliot takes the beer, and Nate knows suddenly it will never have to.

They say confession is good for the soul.

A few beers and a game on TV with a friend just may be better.

-o-

Eliot goes home in the morning, just as promised. The others have, miraculously, taken Nate at his word and slept late.

Alone in the office, Nate walks from room to room. He lingers in the doorways of each of the other offices, just because he can. Sophie’s is adorned with art -- she tells clients they’re knockoffs, but Nate knows better -- and she’s replaced the flowers in the vase so they’re still in full bloom. Parker’s is tidy and mostly bare, but Nate can see the small disturbances where she’s installed secret compartments and hidden chambers for the things that actually matter to her. Hardison’s is a mess, with wrappers and empty bottles almost covering the inordinate number of computers stashed there. Eliot’s is tidy, but not impersonal, and Nate’s never taken time to appreciate his collection of Native American artifacts, lined up neatly on the desktop next to the computer he pretends he can’t use.

Nate’s never noticed a lot of things, which is saying something for a guy who’s supposed to notice everything. He’s never noticed, not in a way that he’s let himself realize, that they belong there, all of them. They all need a place to belong, and this is it.

This is it.

Sophie who never lets herself be real; Parker who doesn’t understand what it is to be human; Hardison who can be anyone behind a computer; Eliot who trusts no one.

And Nate with the pictures his son drew and the open bottle of whiskey that’s always on his desk.

They all need a place.

Nate more than the rest.

-o-

They don’t make it quite 24 hours, but no one shows up until dinner that day, and Nate counts it as a win. Besides, Hardison brings pizza and Sophie shows up with a cheesecake. Parker has a box of cereal and, inexplicably, a bag of apples. When Eliot shows up last of all, he’s got a case of beer to share.

No one planned this.

But no one questions that it’s right.

-o-

They tell stories until the beer is gone, and then when Sophie finds the wine, they talk about the people they’ve cheated and the lies they’ve told. Honesty is a commodity among thieves, and Nate finds he has nothing to add.

When the wine is gone, they fall asleep, dropping throughout the office without much preamble. Sophie on her lounge; Hardison and Parker with legs entwined on the couch. Eliot tips his head at Nate before he retreats to his own office, leaving Nate to fend for himself.

For a second, he thinks about cleaning up, but it’s more than he wants to do at this hour. He knows he has another bottle of whisky in his desk, and he likes the thought of not having to share.

But he stops himself because he understands it differently now. He understands that he can’t call the shots without taking the responsibility. He understands that can’t pretend this is a business arrangement, because it’s not.

Instead, he spends the night watching them sleep, wondering how he let it get this far. He wonders if Knobloch felt like this, looking over the remnants of his life and trying to figure out what to do next. He wonders what it was like, to pick the job over the people, to put revenge over everything else.

He wonders if Knobloch thinks it was worth it. To give up his children’s future for this.

There was a time when Nate might have understood.

Tonight, watching over his team, Nate can’t even come close.

-o-

Life goes back to normal.

Their version of normal anyway.

Hardison spends his days playing video games and monitoring the hacked feeds he has on Knobloch. Sophie goes on a few auditions and rehearses her lines so often that Nate has them memorized better than she does. Eliot recovers and Nate knows he’s feeling better when he starts working out and dating beautiful women again.

Parker disappears, as Parker is apt to do, before showing up in the oddest, most inconvenient places.

It’s a holding pattern, just like they usually do between clients, and although each member of the team is happy with their lives in LA, they’re all hovering just a bit.

Or a lot.

They want to know what the plan is, what they’re going to do to Knobloch to make him pay.

“Dude kidnapped us!” Hardison reminds Nate on a daily basis. “If this ain’t a time for revenge, then I don’t know what we’re doing.”

“This is one time when it’s not the money that matters,” Parker tells him earnestly. “Although if we can find some money….”

“I still think I could make it past his security,” Eliot says. “No elaborate plans. Just me and Knobloch, five minutes. It’d be justice he could feel.”

Sophie sighs the most melodramatically of them all. “We need something personal, Nate,” she says. “He has to lose something.”

Nate cocks his head, considering this.

He finally starts to understand.

He’s known the answer to this one before he even asked the question.

-o-

It’s nearly two weeks later when Nate gathers the team. He’s given this time to them as much as he’s taken it for themselves, because they all need a chance to decide how to respond to what happened and what they’re going to do next. Nate knows it’s possible that one or all of them could cut their losses, decide the risks just aren’t worth it.

All the same, he’s not surprised when they show up, day after day, waiting for him to make the next move.

When the bruises are finally fading on Eliot’s face, Nate sits them in the conference room and gathers a breath.

“The things we do, the clients we take on, it’s about revenge,” he explains, leaning himself against the back of a chair as he looks at his team. “We can talk about justice, about stepping in where legal system fails to go, but it’s revenge, and we all know it. Because justice is its own form of revenge, a justified revenge that doesn’t say all loss is equal or that all loss can be compensated, but that it deserves the effort. Our clients don’t deserve what happens to them, and it’s our job to balance that out. We can’t fix it, and we can’t make it right, but we can make it better.”

He’s telling them what they already know, and they aren’t sure what to do with it. They look uncertain, anxious maybe.

Nate takes another heavy breath. “We all know how that feels today,” he says. “What happened to us makes each of us want to set things right. We want revenge, and I know that’s why you’re here. You want to know what my plan is to make this better.”

Hardison rocks in his chair, and Parker narrows her eyes. Sophie purses her lips while Eliot lifts his chin.

Sighing, Nate continues. “There is no plan.”

The response is immediate, and it’s visceral. They talk over each other, each louder than the last.

Nate shakes his head. “We’ve already brought Knobloch to justice, and we’ve already ruined him,” he explains. “There’s nothing more we can do--”

“He tried to kill us, Nate!” Sophie objects. “He almost got Eliot.”

“Kidnapped with a bomb,” Hardison reminds him.

“He has no company, no money, no friends, no contacts, no family,” Nate says. “There’s nothing more we can do to the man that he hasn’t already done to himself. Look, guys--”

He pauses, scrubbing a hand through his hair. It’s hard to be here, to see them like this. To know how much they trust him, and to know that matters to him. He hasn’t told them, after all. He hasn’t told them what it felt like to hold look at the pictures of each of them and know he couldn’t save them all. He hasn’t even mentioned how much it nearly destroyed him, how much it would have destroyed him if Knobloch had won.

“--Revenge is about getting even, but that’s not going to happen,” he continues. “Because we already got the better end of this deal. Knobloch -- he blew what little he had left -- and us? Well, we’re here. We’re still together. Better and stronger than ever.”

He looks them over, Hardison, Parker, Eliot and Sophie.

“Knobloch lost something already,” he says. “And we gained everything. I can’t think of any revenge sweeter than that.”

He swallows tentatively, wriggling his toes anxiously inside his shoes.

“So my plan is to let the original game play out,” he says. “Let Knobloch go to trial. Let him hang himself. And we’ll be there on the day he’s sentenced, waving at him as they lock him up and throw away the key.”

It’s a dark end to a tempered start, and Nate has drawn a poetic enough conclusion to appeal to them. It goes against their instincts, but that’s the thing about the team. They trust Nate, even when they don’t like it, even when they don’t want to.

They’ll follow his lead.

It’s Nate’s greatest asset and his most terrifying curse.

“That is,” he ventures. “If you all agree.”

Hardison juts his chin, but nods somberly. Sophie shrugs, a little helplessly as she sighs. Parker chews her lip and glares without further protest.

Grunting, Eliot shakes his head. “Fine,” he says. “But I swear to God, if he’s found not guilty or cuts a plea--”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nate agrees. “Then we come up with a new plan.”

They relax visibly, and something shifts back into place so subtly that Nate doesn’t even know how to describe it. But when he brings up a slide onto one of Hardison’s fancy screens, they all understand.

“Now that that’s squared away,” he says.

Sophie looks bemused; Hardison is intrigued. Parker is sitting forward anxiously, and Eliot settles back in his chair.

He grins at them. “I found us a client.”

-o-

They help one client, and then another. It’s nearly six months later when Knobloch is slated to plead his case before the judge, and the whole team shows up, sitting in the front row of the courtroom to hear every word.


Knobloch is dressed to impress, and he brings out as many character witnesses as he can muster, and he may sound nothing like the man on the phone all those months ago, but his actions speak for themselves.

In the end, there’s nothing Knobloch can do except watch his life explode like a bomb in front of his face. He doesn’t apologize -- not to his victims, not to his family, and definitely not to the team -- but they aren’t here for an apology.

They’re here for the look on Knobloch’s face as he’s taken away to jail in handcuffs and they walk out of the courtroom, free and together. Justice, revenge, closure. You can call it whatever you want, but they all know what it is.

It’s not perfect, maybe, but life is full of compromises.

And this is one compromise that Nate -- that all of them -- can live with.

-o-

Afterward, the go to a bar and raise a glass.

“To revenge,” Nate says grimly.

“To justice,” Eliot says.

“To teamwork, baby,” Hardison says.

“To finishing the job,” Parker adds.

Sophie lifts her glass last, letting it rest against the others. “To us.”

-o-

Hardison goes home, and Parker disappears sometime after 11. Eliot hooks up with a pretty girl at the pool tables until it’s just him and Sophie.

“Do you want to get out of here?” she asks, leaning forward keenly, fingers resting just next to his. “Just you and me.”

They both know what the offer entails, and they both know how long they’ve danced around this. It’s been a relationship of give and take, of insinuation and implication, of almost and might-haves.

For all that Nate gets right, he still gets a hell of a lot wrong. He can’t lose Sophie, but he’s not sure he’s ready to take hold of her yet either. Because he understands how it is for his team, how they’re still the best thing that ever happened to each other.

But the best thing that ever happened to Nate was a little boy he buried in the ground, and part of him is scared that if he accepts that loss, he’ll have nothing left to hold onto. After all, the worst thing you can do to a man is let him live with the consequences of his own actions.

He smiles at her faintly. “Maybe another time.”

She pulls her hand back, and this time her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “It’s not a bad thing, you know, to choose us. To choose me.”

He furrows his brow as though he doesn’t understand.

“You can’t save what you’ve already lost, Nate,” she tells him. “But sooner or later you will have to start working to save what’s right in front of you.”

She gathers her things and gets to her feet.

“Or next time, you may not be able to stop it from blowing up in your face.”

He watches her as she leaves, watches as she doesn’t look back.

He watches until the door closes her behind her, like she wasn’t there at all.

For a second, he considers going after her. He considers telling her that she’s right, that this team is a family, that she’s the only thing he wants more than a stiff drink.

Then he lifts his hand and waves the waitress over.

“If you don’t mind,” he says, pointing to his glass. “I’ll have another.”

-o-

Nate drinks hard that night, letting the alcohol burn down his throat until he forgets.

Until he forgets everything.

Not just the sound of Knobloch’s voice on the phone or the way his team had looked, bound and gagged. Not just the heat of the explosion and the pit of his stomach when he thought he’d lost them. Not just the hammering of his heart as he pulled up to the warehouse was Sophie was. Not even the weight of guilt in assuming the worst.

It’s the sound of the judge’s gavel after Knobloch’s conviction. It’s Parker’s laugh and Hardison’s smile and Eliot’s grunts. It’s Sophie’s touch.

The team.

He wants to forget the team.

He wants to forget that he cares, that they matter, that they could be everything he needs and nothing that he wants. He wants to forget that they make him better, they make him worse, they make him everything.

God help him, he wants to forget Sam on his last birthday, and he wants to forget the smell of his clothes, the worn fur of his favorite stuffed puppy. He wants to forget the wishlist of things Sam never got to do, the places he never saw. The jobs he never worked and the girls he never kissed.

He wants to forget about losing the house, his wife, his job, his sanity. He wants to forget that he was happy once, that he had everything he thought he wanted.

He wants to forget that he buried that happiness, and that he’s still standing at a graveside trying to figure out how to get it back.

He wants to forget the apologies he never said. For not saving Sam. For letting himself go.

For moving on.

He wants to forget that he’s capable of happiness so it’s easier to never be happy again.

Black knight, white knight. An honest man, a common criminal. Husband, father, mastermind, team leader.

Nate drinks hard.

Until he can’t remember anything about who he is at all.

-o-

In the morning , Nate can’t remember what he drank last night. He can’t even remember why he fell asleep at the office or how many days it’s actually been since he managed to stumble back to his own apartment.

He does, however, remember waking up, and though he can’t remember what he drank, he knows plainly he drank a lot given the pounding in his head and the turning of his stomach.

He’s too old for this.

He’s too sober for it, too.

He stumbles out of his office, and hopes he doesn’t look as terrible as he feels. His tongue feels thick and sticky, and his eyes are crusted over. He needs a shower and a shave, but first he needs coffee.

If he’s lucky, there will already be a pot on, but only if Sophie’s there. And Sophie will only humor him with a steaming cup if she she give him that look of hers, like he should know better.

She’s the one who should know better.

The coffee is on, and there are fresh donuts on the table. Eliot is drinking tea in front of the paper, and Hardison is tapping away at the computer. Parker clicks another lock open, and Sophie smiles at him in the morning light.

He’s not alone, he realizes.

What a novel idea.