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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Quitting Job (2/5)

November 19th, 2016 (07:23 pm)
anxious

feeling: anxious

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE




-o-


He does what he can remotely, but eventually he has to get on a plane. Maggie drives him to the airport, fixing his tie before he passes through security.


“I won’t be long,” he promises. “I’ll make Sam’s soccer game this weekend.”


Maggie chuckles. “No, you won’t.”


“Maggie, I will.”


She stares him down, unperturbed. “I know you, Nate,” she says. “And I love you too much to expect that you’ll change. The corner office is nice, but you belong on the trail. That’s the man I married.”


Nate kisses her, shaking his head. “I don’t deserve you.”


“I’m aware of this,” Maggie says with a scoff. “Just do me a favor.”


“Anything,” Nate promises.


“When you catch him,” she says, with an emphatic look at Nate. “Make sure this is the last time.”


Nate grins, kissing her again. “You better believe it.”


-o-


It’s a damn baseball card.


That’s what does Eliot Spencer in.


A baseball card.


The son of a bitch has been tracking down rare cards all across Eastern Europe, and Nate’s chased Sophie Devereaux enough times to lay a hook and reel it in. All he has to do is steal a baseball card himself and set it up as bait for Eliot to come after.


Some people might think stealing the baseball card is the hard part, but IYS has a lot of clients, many of whom split their time between numerous homes. One happens to collect vintage cards, and it’s not so hard to fake his own identity and make a big to-do.


The hard part, naturally, is trusting that it’s lucrative enough to catch Eliot’s attention. Nate’s still not sure why Eliot is doing the things he does, but he has a good feeling about this one, given the bloodbath in Belgrade over a card just last month.


Eliot will want this card.


And Nate?


Well, he just wants Eliot.


-o-


It’s all set up. The layout is tricky enough to be challenging, but not so hard as to make him wise up and turn back. He accurately predicts Eliot’s every move -- through the basement, at night, low tech disabling of the security system -- and he has conveniently removed every security person from duty just to be safe.


Speaking of safes, Nate has his borrowed vault ready and in order, the coveted card right in the middle.


Once he gets inside, Eliot goes right for it.


He grins, picking it up and tucking it in his pocket. But when he turns to leave, that’s when the lights go on and the door closes.


And Nate steps out of the shadows.


-o-


To his credit, Eliot doesn’t try to run. To Nate’s surprise, he doesn’t even try to fight.


Instead, he nods a few times, as if he should have known. “Knew it sounded too good to be true,” he murmurs.


Nate strolls closer, hands in his pockets. “You must really love baseball, then.”


“I hate baseball,” Eliot says.


“So you risked everything on a card…?”


“That’s worth a lot to a client of mine,” Eliot says.


“Still doing the job, then,” Nate says, positioned between Eliot and the door.


Eliot shrugs. “My client has reasons,” he says. “And a damn big pocketbook.”


“I thought you weren’t taking orders anymore,” Nate surmises.


Eliot’s face darkens. “I’m not,” he says darkly. “I take jobs on my terms, and I complete them my way.”


“Well, almost complete them,” Nate says. “I’m afraid you won’t finish this one.”


“No offense, but you’re one guy,” he says. “I’m not seeing how you think you’re going to stop me.”


Nate gathers a breath and lets it out. “That’s probably true,” he says. “I can’t stop you from walking out that door. There are no cops, no security guards. There’s not even any knockout gas.”


Eliot’s eyes narrow. “So what’s your play, then?”


Nate shrugs, starting a leisurely stroll again. “You and I, we don’t have to be enemies,” he says. “The way I figure it, you’re looking for a new purpose.”


“The way you figure it?” Eliot asks skeptically.


“That’s the only explanation,” he says. “Why you stopped the big jobs. Why you seem reluctant to pull the trigger when you have a body count spread all across the world. Why you go around calling yourself a retrieval specialist. This isn’t a career change. It’s an identity change.”


Eliot’s entire face hardens, eyes almost small, glaring beads now. He’d look terrifying -- if Nate wasn’t so damn certain of every word he was saying.


“There are other uses for your skills,” Nate tells him, working his way to the pitch now. “There are ways to do what you do and still be the good guy.”


At this, Eliot cocks his head. “Are you--” he starts, almost in disbelief. “Are you offering me a job?”


“Hey, I could use a man in the field,” he says. “Give me leads, follow up on things. Retrieve as necessary.”


“Be your snitch,” Eliot says. “And your lackey.”


Nate refuses to take it personally. “You could even take other jobs on the side, and you wouldn’t have to worry about me following you,” Nate says. “Hell, if you want, I could get you a full time job at IYS. Benefits, vacation time, an office--”


Eliot laughs. “You want me to be an insurance investigator?”


“It’s your chance to go straight,” Nate says. “You want to be the good guy. This is the way to do it.”


“By being an insurance investigator?” Eliot asks incredulously. “All you guys do is find ways to screw people out of their money.”


“And all you do is steal and hit,” Nate returns, undaunted.


“My conscience isn’t any of your concern,” Eliot tells him.


“But it sure seems to be yours,” Nate says. “I’m a law abiding citizen, an honest man. I have a home, a wife, a kid, a mortgage. I go to sleep each night and sleep like a baby. How about you?”


Eliot pales -- just slightly -- lifting his chin. “You have a case, then?”


“I have a lot of cases,” Nate says. “Sophie Devereaux, Alec Hardison, Parker--”


Vehement, Eliot shakes his head. “Parker’s crazy.”


“All the more reason to bring her in,” Nate says. “And the bonus I’ll get for recovering the stolen property from her is enough to pay for my son’s private school tuition for a year. You help me, though? I’ll share it with you. I’ll even let you take the card as a bonus.”


For a second, Eliot seems to think about it. “And if I say no?” he finally ventures.


Nate makes a small, noncommittal face. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he says. “You say no, leave the card, and stay the hell out of my way.”


“That’s how it ends, then?” Eliot asks, bemused. “We just walk away.”


“Or it could be a beginning,” Nate offers.


Eliot smirks, pulling the card out of his pocket. He crosses toward Nate, holding it out to him. “I work alone.”


Nate looks at it, reluctant. “I can offer you safety, security, freedom, and money,” he says. “Redemption.”


Eliot taps the card against Nate’s chest until Nate finally takes it. “Maybe next time,” he says. “You haven’t got anything I need.”


“This is a one time offer,” Nate says, turning as Eliot heads toward the door.


Eliot doesn’t look back. “One time is all I need.”


-o-


It’s disappointing but not surprising. It was a good idea, even if it was a long shot. It’s a risk, maybe, to let Eliot walk, but considering he’s still conscious at the end of this confrontation, he feels somewhat optimistic.


After all, it’s not quitting to decide that someone isn’t worth the time and effort.


No, this is different than quitting. This is closure.


A strange sensation, to be sure. But Nate thinks he might be able to get used to it.


At the hotel, he erases Eliot’s name from his list and circles Sophie’s instead. He looks through his notes, and wonders if she’s still possibly in Germany.


He glances at his watch. Sam’s at his soccer game right now, and Maggie was right about everything.


Picking up his phone, he calls the airline and books a ticket to Hamburg in the morning before breaking open the mini bar and shuffling through his notes with fresh eyes.


The chase is on.


-o-


Germany leads to Luxembourg before they wind up in Denmark. He chases Sophie through the Hague, of all places, and manages to recover a faberge egg before stopping a heist in Sweden. He tracks her to England, closing in fast, when Maggie leaves an urgent voicemail message.


Nate’s always thought nothing could keep him from his work, nothing could stop him when he’s set his mind to something. Nothing, except three words.


“Nate,” Maggie gasps over the line, like she’s been crying. “It’s Sam.”


-o-


Just like that, Nate quits.


He quits the chase, lets Sophie Devereaux make off with the jewels, the paintings -- all of it.


He quits the overseas work altogether next, making sure he’s there for all of Sam’s chemotherapy sessions.


He quits most of the other cases after that since Sam’s so sick he can barely stand.


He quits his savings next, when Sam’s cancer isn’t getting better and traditional treatments just aren’t cutting it.


He quits the car, the flatscreen, the expensive home gym -- all of it goes just to make the minimal payments.


He quits the house finally, when his refinanced and pulled a second mortgage and Sam’s cooped up with another lung infection.


He quits his sanity after that, maxing out his credit cards and skipping work altogether. The files on his desk are nothing but memories now as he memorizes alternative treatments and the latest medical advancement, looking for something, anything.


He quits his pride last, groveling in Blackpoole’s office, calling in every favor he’s ever gleaned to get him to say yes.


It’s not enough.


Life takes the rest from him anyway.


-o-


When he buries Sam, that’s it.


Sure, he has to figure out how to save his house. He has to figure out how to go back to a job that denied the treatment that could have saved his son’s life. He has to salvage his marriage, learn how to comfort Maggie as she grieves the loss of her only child. He has to figure out who the hell he is, now that everything he thought defined him is gone.


It’s really the beginning, when Nate looks at it objectively.


Standing over his son’s grave, though, that’s it.


That’s it.


-o-


The house forecloses, and Nate declares bankruptcy. He quits his job and Maggie sends the divorce papers.


What the hell, Nate decides as he drowns back another whisky he can’t pay for.


Quitting’s not so hard after all.


-o-


Nate doesn’t think about the things he’s left undone for the better part of two years.


Hell, Nate doesn’t think about anything -- not Sophie Devereaux, not IYS, not insurance fraud. He doesn’t think about Hardison’s foster mom and the Bank of Iceland. He doesn’t think about Parker and how she’s still carrying around the largest diamond in the world. He doesn’t think about Eliot Spencer turning down the best job offer he’d get in his entire life. He doesn’t think about Sterling’s smug face and the view from his corner office.


And, if he does by accident let his mind wander to what used to be (and what still, presumably, is), he promptly drinks a hard, fast drink until he forgets all over again.


In fact, Nate spends those two years dedicated to forgetting. To forgetting his lost career and the company that screwed him over. To forgetting the divorce papers he’d signed blind drunk and the car he sleeps out of these days. To forgetting millionaires trying to extort the system for money and thieves and grifters who steal the most expensive pieces of art in the world.


To the son he had and lost and will never find again.


Then Victor Dubenich stops him in an airport bar and reminds him.


Not just he was good -- the best, Nate was the best -- and not just that his son died because Blackpoole refused to do him the one favor he finally needed.


No, Dubenich reminds him, more than anything else, that Nate’s not a quitter.


And he has some unfinished business to attend to.


-o-


It’s an ambitious plan, Nate will admit. Dubenich has spared no expense, but the mismatched pieces are just as likely to implode as they are to work together.


Parker’s a complete wild card -- damn good at what she does, but she doesn’t think like other people. She’s not dangerous in the plainest sense of the world, but Nate imagines even a triple digit payday will be a hard hook to keep in her.


Hardison’s too young, honestly, and he’s too cocky. He’s the best at what he does, but he knows that, and it makes him reckless. Talent like his, Hardison should never have been tagged, but he’s prone to going too big and getting caught.


That leaves Eliot. Honestly, he’s the name that surprises Nate the most. While all three work alone, Eliot’s the only one who doesn’t seem like he can be bought. Nate should know: he tried. Then again, everyone has a hook. He just hasn’t found Eliot’s yet.


Nate taps his fingers on the table. He’s chased all three of them, but this time he has to work with them. It’ll be a challenge, that’s for sure. Usually he has to manipulate them to do what he wants. This time, they’ll have to follow orders.


Closing the file, Nate shakes his head. He’s not sure if this will be easier or not.


-o-


When he first meets the team in an old warehouse outside of town, he has his doubts.


He has a lot of doubts.


Parker shows up late, but only because Nate presumes she was very, very early. After about twenty minutes in, she comes down from the ceiling, appearing as if from nowhere and joining the conversation like she’s been a part of it all long.


Painful as it is to admit, that’s not even the worst of it. It’s Hardison who makes him cringe, showing up five minutes late, exactly like he’s trying. He’s all up in Nate’s face, expounding on his credentials without being asked and thrusting his hand out for a handshake Nate had no intention of giving.


When he attempts the same with Eliot, it’s actually a small miracle that the hitter -- rather, retrieval specialist -- doesn’t lay him out right there on the warehouse floor.


Eliot, at least, is on time and the epitome of professionalism. He’s polite and to the point; he wastes no time with chit chat, and with a simple nod of his head, he acknowledges the history he has with Nate and implicitly promises that it has no bearing on their dealings now.


That’s something Nate knows he can trust, which is good. Looking at Hardison and Parker, trust is something he has in short supply. They’re all getting paid and getting paid well to do a job, but Hardison’s emotionally reactive and Parker watches out for her six at any expense at all. Eliot will also cut and run if it comes to that, but Nate at least knows he has the judgment and experience to avoid such actions prematurely.


It’s not much, but Nate needs a place to start.


That’s why his next step is to pair Hardison and Eliot together for as long as humanly possible.


“Parker, you’ll go down the building on the outside, but Hardison will have to get to the server room,” Nate says, pointing at the diagram.


“That’s easy enough,” Hardison says. “I just need a few minutes to work my magic.”


He smiles brilliantly, winking at Parker.


Parker wrinkles her nose.


Nate does his best not to roll his eyes. There’s a reason he and Maggie intended Sam to be an only child.


Bothered, Hardison shakes his head. “So Parker’s on the outside and I’m on the inside,” he reviews. “What about my man over here? Why’d we bring on the fourth wheel, so to speak, when this is clearly a three-man job?”


Eliot shifts, but his face remains trained. Still, Nate can see the hint of annoyance in his eyes.


“A little backup never hurt anyone,” Nate says diplomatically.


“Have you seen my resume?” Hardison asks. “Do you think I need backup?”


“What do you do anyway?” Parker asks, appraising Eliot with a keen look.


“I’m a retrieval specialist,” Eliot supplies.


“A -- what?” Hardison asks. “You made that up.”


“And if I did?” Eliot asks.


“Man, I thought we was a group of professionals,” Hardison says, gesturing widely. “And here we got a kid making up names for himself.”


Eliot stiffens at that, straightening up. Hardison’s taller, sure, but Eliot’s built like a house. It’s not even close to a fair fight, and everyone can see it.


Except, of course, Hardison.


“Seriously,” Hardison says. “Nothing personal or anything, but I think we can cut the dead weight--”


“You want deadweight?” Eliot asks, stepping forward with his brow darkening. Nate sees his fingers curl almost unconsciously into fists. “I can show you--”


Nate holds up his hand, moving between them just enough. “That’s my call, okay?” he says. “And Dubenich hired all four of us, so we’re going to stick with that until I say otherwise. Do we understand?”


Eliot stares down Hardison, who slumps away just slightly. Parker watches with raised eyebrows.


“Until this is over,” Nate continues. “You are my team. You follow my orders. Together. If not, I will hang you out to dry, and you will not get paid.”


He looks at Hardison and Parker. He looks at Eliot.


“If anyone has a problem with that,” he says, “now’s the time to walk.”


Hardison settles back on his heels, crossing his arms over his chest. Parker finally shrugs. It takes another long beat after that for Eliot to ease his stance, stepping back into line as impassively as before.


“Good,” Nate says, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s go steal us some blueprints.”


-o-


The more Nate looks at it, the more he’s convinced this job is a little too easy. Not that it’s easy -- a secure building, locked rooms, a full security team -- but it’s certainly nothing impossible. In fact, the more Nate looks at his plan, the more he’s fairly certain that Dubenich has overplayed this one -- and badly.


The thing is, Hardison’s right. This is a three-man job. It could even be a two-man job, and Nate’s pretty sure that with the right mastermind, the entire thing could be orchestrated solo.


There’s something to that, and that something bothers him more than any of the other sundry details. Dubenich is scared of losing everything, is the only rational explanation, but Nate can’t shake the feeling that four experts at 300,000 a pop is overkill.


The why isn’t really Nate’s concern, though.


He’s been hired to deal with the how.


How, indeed.


They take a day to prep, to scope out the security systems and assemble their gear. Parker deals with her rigging, and Hardison makes a few softball attempts on wireless network before starting a long winded explanation of every piece of equipment he has and why it is absolutely and positively essential.


Those are his words, not Nate’s.


Nate mostly stopped listening after the first hour.


“You’ll need to carry those carefully,” Hardison lectures Eliot. Actually lectures, as if talking to a five year old. “I made those myself, so if you damage the circuits, you’re going to have to find another way to break the code and get yourself into a secure server room.”


Eliot, to the credit of 300,000 dollars, bears it with a grimace.


“Honestly, doesn’t seem fair,” Hardison continues shamelessly. “We all making the same amount, and this dude here is nothing but a glorified bag boy.”


The color drains dangerously from Eliot’s face.


“If you want, he can jump off the building with me,” Parker offers, as if actually being helpful.


Eliot’s glare darkens.

“You know, that might be a good idea,” Hardison starts.


“We’d have to do a tandem jump, though,” Parker says. “Chest to chest.”


“Hey, now,” Hardison says. “Chest to chest?”


Eliot growls. “The equipment.”


“Right, just -- hold your horses,” Hardison says. “I know you need me, but you don’t got to sound so desperate.”


Visibly, Eliot clenches his teeth.


Nate shakes his head and gets back to his own planning.


Hardison has no idea how lucky he is.


-o-


Needless to say, it’s a long day. By the end, the pieces are in place and Nate gives the team strict orders to meet back up the following night in the building across the way from their mark. As he watches them leave, he figures it’s a 50/50 chance they all show up. He half suspects Hardison will forget, and it seems likely that Parker will find another building to jump off of if the price is right.


He watches as Eliot gathers his own gear, zipping up his bag more forcefully than necessary.


Eliot might very well murder Hardison before they get that far anyway.


“You know, Hardison is right,” Nate ventures cautiously.


Eliot glances back at him with an incredulous snort. “You’re drinking his kool-aid?”


“I mean, this works as a three man job,” Nate says. “If you don’t want to be here…”


It’s an offer that Nate’s not sure he should make, mostly because Eliot should take it. Sure, the payday is nice, but Eliot went solo to avoid taking orders -- and here he is, taking smack talk from a punk kid ten years his junior without a lick of physical field experience.


Eliot shrugs. “I finish my jobs,” he says.


“Nah,” Nate says. “You know when to cut your losses. You’ve done it before.”


“And you think this is one of those times?” Eliot asks, carefully framing the question back toward Nate.


“I think you’ve killed people for being less obnoxious,” Nate says.


Eliot tweaks his eyebrows, but doesn’t deny it. “I work on my terms,” he says. “And this? This is a big payday without a body count.”


Nate straightens, leveling him with a look. “But you work alone.”


Eliot nods, smiling for a moment. “Funny, isn’t it?” he says, shouldering his bag. “What we compromise when the price is right.”


Nate watches him go with not a single look back.


It’s a sight he’s gotten far too used to in his life


-o-


That night, Nate drinks hard so he forgets that Parker could fall off a building and Hardison could talk his way into a prison cells. He drinks so he forgets that Eliot might just snap and kill them all.


He drinks to forget all the times Sam grinned up at him and said, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Dad.”


Mostly, Nate just drinks.


-o-


Nate sleeps until noon, and when he wakes up, he’s so hung over that he wants to skip tonight when he can finally just be drunk again.


Not today, though.


For the first time in two years, Nate has a job to do.


-o-


By the time the team is in place, Nate has a pounding headache and a nagging sense that this is going to go horribly, horribly wrong. He’s trusting three people that he knows, without a doubt, can’t be trusted. They’re criminals, and Nate has chased them on the other side of the law so long that this must be insanity.


The last two years, however, have made Nate reevaluate his definition of right and wrong. There’s no way Hardison, Parker and Eliot are the good guys, but when put up against the likes of IYS and Ian Blackpoole, they are acceptable tools.


That’s the bigger picture, Nate reminds himself. That’s why he’s doing it. He wants the paycheck, yes, but he’s worked too many years of his life by being the company man. Following orders is not how he’s going to play this.


Mostly, he’s playing it to win.


Which is why trusting three criminals gets harder with each passing second. Parker works on her own schedule, and Hardison never shuts up. Nate can account for their eccentricities, but only by knowing that he has a backup plan named Eliot Spencer.


He may have offered Eliot an out yesterday, but he’s damn glad the hitter -- retrieval specialist -- is here. He wouldn’t turn his back on Eliot, but he’s a man who works on terms Nate can understand. He’s going to get the job done, and he knows how to follow a damn order. Really, for all that Eliot insists that he works alone, he’s a natural part of the team.


Nate can see that, just like he can see how the others fit together. Hardison, Parker and Eliot -- they work. Nate’s not just running a job, after all. He’s running a team and that’s a distinction that is essentially important. The former is about a task. The latter is how you do it. Too many people plan for the former and neglect the latter.


In this job, Nate learns to use the latter to accomplish the former. He uses Parker’s craziness, and he takes Hardison’s brashness into account. And he relies on the steady hand of Eliot Spencer to get them all out on the other side.


They’re in, and they’re out, almost like it’s meant to be.


For a second, Nate’s almost sad to see them go. For what they could have been, he reflects dimly.


Then, of course, he gets a drink.


-o-


In the morning, there’s no file, there’s no money.


It’s actually really funny, now that Nate’s sober enough to think about it.


All they have left when the whole thing goes up in flames is each other.


-o-


This, however, is little solace when Nate wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed. An easy job; a quick payday; revenge.


Now Nate’s still broke and he’s going to be arrested with three criminals he spent his career trying to put in prison.


Irony is a son of a bitch.


He already knows they’re planning their escapes. Parker’s probably out of her cuffs already, and Hardison’s just waiting for the chance to get next to a phone. Eliot’s probably scoping out the guards, looking for the weakest one he can take out.


They might make it.


They might not.


Separately, their chances are 50/50, probably a little less.


Together, though.


Nate tilts his head.


Together they might just have a chance.


-o-


Nate’s actually impressed, not that he’s about to admit it. A few short hours later, they’re standing in Hardison’s apartment, each with tickets and new IDs for various far flung destinations around the world. Honestly, Nate knows this is probably a second chance he can use to his advantage -- one he probably doesn’t deserve -- but…


But.


Nate’s started something here.


He’s going to finish it.


-o-


It’s not until much later, when Dubenich is behind bars that Nate realizes the Nigerian Job isn’t the only thing he’s started. It’s not even the most important thing.


-o-


Crime is not that different than law enforcement; two sides of the same coin, and all of Nate’s tricks work just as well on this side of the table. He doesn’t quit, and neither do they, and the thing is, if Nate’s going to do this, he’s going to do this.


The only difference this time is that he finally, for the first time in his life, has access to the best resources in the world.


Hitter, hacker, thief.


He chews his lip and tries not to smile.


There’s just one thing missing.


-o-


Sophie’s still as beautiful as he remembers, and the worse she performs on stage, the more he knows this is the right choice. Parker doesn’t know what to do with another female on the team, and Hardison acts like it was his idea to bring her in the whole time. It’s Eliot who has the sense to be wary, and Nate sees the hitter question the choice -- to bring her on along with his own choice to stay.


It is a choice, though.


Sophie says yes, and Eliot doesn’t leave.


Now, Nate thinks to himself with satisfaction.


Now they can do this thing.


-o-


It goes well.


It goes more than well, actually. For all the different moving parts and the fact that no one on this team knows or really trusts each other, things progress in a downright brilliant fashion.


Sophie is the perfect addition, filling in the gaps seamlessly. He’s learning how to ease Hardison into things, and how to frame things so Parker responds like a reasonable human being. He even knows how to speak to Eliot in plaintive terms and get fast, efficient responses.


It’s working, is all he knows.


For the first time in two years, he thinks he’s starting to get things figured out.


-o-


That is, of course, when he remembers that nothing is ever that simple.


Sophie toes the line, and Hardison doesn’t keep his opinions to himself. Parker picks locks like other people knit, and Nate’s going crazy with the clink, clink, clink every five minutes.


To his surprise, it’s Eliot who pushes it with a pool cue in one hand and a beer in the other. He doesn’t fly off the handle or try to bash someone’s head in, which are the contingencies Nate’s been planning for as far as Eliot is concerned.


No, the son of a bitch makes it personal.


He commiserates, talks to Nate like he knows him. He gives Nate his damn condolences, like he has any idea at all.


Nate’s put up with a lot, but there’s nothing inside of him that’s ready for this.


This is business.


That much is personal.

He would have thought he could trust a man like Eliot Spencer to recognize the difference.


“You and I are not friends,” he says, voice cold and cutting.


There’s a tension in Eliot’s body, and Nate knows that it’d take one punch to put him on his ass so he doesn’t get up again. But Eliot doesn’t recoil. Instead, he takes a drink of beer and chuckles a little. “Yeah,” he says, smiling at Nate knowingly. “Since you have so many of those.”


-o-


Eliot’s not his friend, but he’s a damn good ally. He’s good on the con; he’s important to the crew. Nate knows he can’t do it without him.


When it’s over, he almost wants to apologize.


The thing is, though -- and this is the thing -- Nate doesn’t need friends. He doesn’t want friends.


He needs allies.


He needs a hitter, a retrieval specialist -- whatever the hell Eliot is.


He needs Eliot, a means to an end.


This is business for Nate, and he can’t let any of them get confused on that point. This is a job. Partnerships of mutual benefit.


Nothing more.


Maybe a whole lot less.


Of them all, he never thought Eliot would be the one he’d have to explain that to.


-o-


As is to be expected, Nate wins. That’s it, job done. Nate’s ready to walk away. He’s got the money; he’s got his retribution.


This time, he’s ready to quit.


-o-


He finds out, incidentally, that his team won’t quit him.


Damn it.


Once an addict, always an addict.


Nate thinks he could fight against it harder if he didn’t love it so much.


-o-


Not that it’s easy.


Parker stabs a guy with a fork and then makes a friend on jury duty. Hardison forgets about a job because of a video game and then lands a plane remotely without any training or prep work. Sophie flirts with him relentlessly and then tries to dry him out.


These changes at least make sense to Nate. They’re natural progressions, fully within the character of each individual team member. No matter how frustrating these things are, Nate can understand them.


Eliot, though?


Eliot who would do anything for the girl that married someone else. Eliot who cooks a meal for 200 people and kills a guy with an appetizer all at the same time. Eliot who calls Nate out on his crap and has all the common sense to walk the hell out and doesn’t.


It might be easy to paint a redemptive arc for Eliot, to call him a reformed killer trying to make amends in a karmic fashion. But Nate knows that’s not quite it, even though he can’t quite figure out what it is.


Eliot’s the one he knows he could push away easier than the rest; he’s the one he could manipulate right out the door and never seen again. And Nate’s tempted -- he really is -- for all the times that Eliot falls in line, he’s the one who won’t play the good little soldier when Nate’s got nothing left up his sleeve. He’s the one who sees Nate plainly, not like Sophie who sees who he could be or Hardison who sees him as someone to learn from. Not even like Parker, who has learned to take her cues from him on all the little things instead.


Eliot sees Nate’s strengths and weaknesses in context, and the strangest part is that Eliot follows him anyway.


So yeah, Eliot’s the one closest to leaving.


Nate suspects he’s also the one who needs to stay the most.


-o-


It falls apart because old habits die hard, and Nate drinks as easily as Sophie grifts. He understands it now, why Eliot refused to follow him when he was drunk, because addicts have to make a choice between their vice and their life at some point.


Sophie makes her choice and the team fractures.


That’s the first time Nate realizes what the team is, what its power is.


In the absence, he finally understands possession.


In the loss, he finally grasps meaning.


That’s why Nate quits drinking.


It’s also why he lets the team con him back into the job.


Nate figures he’s quit enough for one lifetime.


-o-


As hard as the job was when he was drunk, it’s even harder when he’s sober. The stakes carry more weight with him now, and there’s nothing to dull it. It’s impossible to ignore it now, the dynamic between them, and how they’ve grown, how they’ve changed, how they’ve come together.


It’s a lot to deal with, though. Teaching Hardison humility; showing Parker humanity; letting Sophie go.


Eliot doesn’t cause him this stress, however.


Instead, now that he’s sober, he’s keenly aware that Eliot backs him up at every turn, but not just out of loyalty. It’s concern, not just that Nate will get himself killed, but that he’ll get the rest of them killed. That somewhere along the line Nate became the liability that Eliot’s trying to account for most.


As if there isn’t enough pressure in his job.


-o-


He doesn’t care for Parker’s sugary cereals or Hardison’s never ending stock of orange soda. The flowers Sophie brings in make him sneeze.


But damn it all if he doesn’t like Eliot’s cooking.


That man can stay for breakfast, lunch and dinner as far as Nate’s concerned.


-o-


The thing is, Eliot does.


Eliot stays.


He stays and he stays and he stays.


Nate offered him a job years ago with better terms than this and Eliot said no. But here they are, and Nate’s finally found Eliot’s hook.


Everyone has a price.


And now he knows Eliot’s.


Eliot doesn’t want money; he doesn’t even just want to work. He doesn’t care about bashing heads or winning fights. Eliot wants purpose; he wants to be a part of something good.


Redemption, maybe.


Saving lives instead of taking them.


Fighting the good fight instead of fighting good.


Whatever it is, he has Eliot now. He can call the other man’s bluff, every time. He knows no matter what he does or how far he pushes things, Eliot will stay. He’ll grumble, fight, complain; he’ll bitch and moan, but he won’t leave.


He’ll never leave.


Nate can use that.


Nate will use that.


He’s never been able to fool Eliot, but he sure as hell can manipulate him.


Drunk or sober, the truth is, Nate’s never been a very good man.


But he is one hell of an effective leader.


He has to hope that counts for something.


-o-


It’s a dramatic exit, to say the least. Getting carted off to prison confuses Parker and damn near breaks Hardison’s heart. Sophie slaps him and kisses him, which is more than he’d hoped for.


Eliot shakes his head, though.

He knows, after all.


He knows what it looks like when a man is looking for a sword to fall on.


He knows what it is when a man trusts himself more than he trusts his team.


As he passes out from blood loss, Nate can only think, thank God for Eliot.


-o-


He doesn’t mind jail, that’s the part his team doesn’t quite understand. All of Parker’s instincts are to break out, and Hardison can’t imagine being boxed in. Sophie is pissed off and in love with him all at the same time and Eliot--


Well, Eliot straps him down to a chair and looks so much like the man Nate met on the job before all this started. It’s such a contrast that it’s almost startling.


“Are we okay, Eliot?”


The answer matters to him more than he realizes it might. He’s in jail, after all. He’s learned that there are worse things in life than bars.


-o-


When Nate gets out of prison, things have changed. His team isn’t his anymore, at least not exclusively.


He tries not to let that bother him.


He can’t help it if it does.


-o-


Nate’s being blackmailed, but that’s not why he doesn’t quit.


He doesn’t quit because Eliot’s nervous to sing on stage, and Hardison’s good enough to steal a violin solo and not miss a beat. He doesn’t quit because Sophie risks her life for someone she cares about, and Sophie has a past she won’t quite deny.


They haven’t quit yet.


So how the hell could he?


-o-


Nate’s asked a lot of crazy things from his team, so he doesn’t feel like this is so different. They’ve been diamond thieves and fashion designers and everything in between. A country western star is just another role to play.


Until Eliot gets on stage.


Nate sees the difference before he even plays his first chord. It transforms him, melting away the layers of Eliot he’s come to know and trust. Most aliases are like masks they wear, but this one -- this one is like a facade being stripped away, until something more real, more vulnerable is shown underneath.


And then Eliot starts to sing.


A steady voice, perfectly pitched. It’s not exactly surprising in the sense that Eliot’s good at everything he does. He’s just as smart as he is strong, and things come naturally to him. Eliot’s been trained extensively, but the raw talent underneath that is something that can’t be replicated.


This isn’t just talent, though. No, Eliot sings like he fights, like there’s something trying to get out. A fist will knock you on your ass, but a song -- well, it puts you out gently but the effect’s the same.


Nate knows this is a picture of the past, what could have been.


Part of him hopes, against the odds, that it could also be a portrait of what could be.


Not that Eliot’s going to be a country western star, but that he might be real.


-o-


Then, Nate’s father shows up, as if his life isn’t complicated enough. The team gives him every out they can, but Nate’s not going to stop. He’s been trying to prove it to his father his whole life, prove that there’s a better way. To show him that Nate’s not like him, not even a little, that he’s better.


Nate will never quit that.


Even if sometimes he almost wants to.


-o-


There’s a dagger in a museum, and that’s a job he’s always been proud of. He got a lot of kudos for that one at work; the bonus paid for a trip to Jamaica.


But he knows now, it’s more than that. That dagger, it’s a sign that they’re better together, that somehow, they’re meant to be. They’ve been drawn together inexplicably, and maybe all this -- what they have together -- is inevitable.


Nate doesn’t believe in fate or luck, but he may just believe in that.


-o-


Sometimes Nate’s starting to think he has it all figured out.


Then, there’s the rest of the time.


-o-


Nate’s thought a lot these last six months. He’s planned and research and plotted. He’s considered everything, every angle, every possibility.


Eliot’s revelation about Moreau, though.


That one blindsides him completely.


He’s been so busy watching out for Moreau that he’s never considered a compromise from inside his own team. Sure, it’s not quite a betrayal, but it’s pretty damn close. All these months, Eliot knew. All these jobs, Eliot could have told them. All this time, and Eliot held this back.


Eliot, who held a grudge against Sophie for conning her own team. Eliot, who made a point to remind Nate that he didn’t appreciate being played. Eliot, who Nate has always counted on to be honest.


Eliot has a past with Moreau. More than a past, really. He has enough clout to get a meeting with the damn man. A past that he’s not proud of.


No matter how straight Eliot stands, the weight of it is almost bowing him. He’s trying, but it’s a visible effort to keep his feet planted in the ground. The anxiety is brimming with anger, but he doesn’t run, he doesn’t balk. He answers their questions and denies them nothing. He offers no apologies but doesn’t hide anything with excuses.


In that moment, Nate sees Eliot, as if for the first time. It makes sense, now. Everything makes sense. The man he met all those years ago, job to job with a trail of bodies in his wake -- that was Moreau. That’s the job Eliot quit, the one that made him head out on his own, the one that made him turn down Nate’s first job offer all those years ago.


Eliot was a killer and a thug working in the service of killers and thugs. Nate’s always known this to some degree, but it hits a little harder this time. Nate knows everything about Damien Moreau; he knows that a man like that has clean hands because people like Eliot don’t.


The team is shocked; they’re angry. But Nate gets to his feet and stands face to face with Eliot, holding his gaze.


He sees it now, that this isn’t about redemption. This is just about choices. About the ability to make better choices. About the responsibility of that choice.


And yeah, Eliot’s lied to them. And okay, Eliot’s done horrible, horrible things.


But eye to eye with the man who’s had his back these past three years, Nate just trusts him more. Because he knows who Eliot was. And he knows who Eliot has chosen to be. That kind of choice -- it’s not for the faint of heart. Moreau bought Eliot’s loyalty, but Nate -- well, somehow, inexplicably, he’s earned it. He can’t take that lightly.


They can’t change the past, after all.


But they can form the future.


That’s what matters, Nate decides for all of them. That is what will always matter.


-o-


Eliot’s not looking to be redeemed, which is why the next choice means more than Nate can almost understand. Because Eliot’s not trying to right any kind of wrong; he’s just doing whatever he can for his team.


He’s giving whatever he can.


Nate knows now, better than ever, what it means when Eliot picks up the gun in that warehouse. It’s not just part of the job this time. It’s not an order Nate would give, not when he knows how hard Eliot has worked to make better choices.


It means something to Eliot to disarm a gun rather than fire it.


It means even more to save a life than to take it.


Nate understands addiction; he knows the powerful draw of old habits.


Nate won’t ask Eliot, not for this.


In the end, he doesn’t have to.


Eliot gives himself up anyway.