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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Quitting Job (5/5)

November 19th, 2016 (07:30 pm)
restless

feeling: restless

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE



-o-


Eliot makes a stir fry and barely manages to load the dishwasher before he excuses himself back to his room. Nate watches as he makes it up the stairs, just starting to limp when he thinks Nate isn’t looking. Eliot’s slipping, to say the least. They haven’t spoken more than two dozen words to each other since therapy and Eliot’s angry declaration that he was fine.


Fine, Nate thinks as he pours himself a drink Nate’s wasted a lot of years on being fine. He wasted most of Sam’s life, almost all of his father’s. Fine is a killer more than anything else, particularly in its insidious attack. Fine doesn’t kill you outright. Fine kills you slowly, over the course of months, years, decades. It kills you with a million little things, a thousand nothings.


Fine is death by mediocrity.


Nate sloshes the liquid in the cup, feeling a pang of regret. Fine has cost him a hell of a lot.


It refuses to let it cost him this family he’s found.

It won’t cost him Eliot.


He lifts the glass to his lips, draining it in a single drink. He puts it down hard, pouring himself another.


Fine, indeed.


-o-


With only four days until Parker and Hardison are scheduled to arrived back in the United States, Nate’s getting a little anxious. He’s played the long game, and he’s played it hard, but Eliot hasn’t broken yet.


Frankly, Nate’s not sure what else he can do without breaking himself. Eliot’s always been a worthy opponent, but Nate’s never doubted he could catch him again. It didn’t occur to him that Eliot might be willing to throw himself into the line of fire in order to avoid being taken captive, though. That’s the melodramatic rendition of it, but Nate doesn’t want to destroy Eliot. He wants to save him.


And he’s accepted -- he really has -- that Eliot might see it as some kind of betrayal. There’s a possibility that Eliot won’t quite forgive him for all this, and that things will never be the same between them again. That’s why he needed the rest of the team to leave. This risk is Nate’s and Nate’s alone. If Eliot need a fall guy, then Nate will be that guy.


The good news is that, for as mad as Eliot might be at Nate, he’s even angrier with his own body. Because for as much as Nate’s working against Eliot right now, his body is betraying him even more.


It happens when Eliot is doing his exercises at home. Nate is clearing out his email on his laptop, and Eliot’s in the living room doing his fourth set. This is the reason Nate’s paying as much attention as he is. See, Eliot’s only supposed to do three sets, morning, noon and night. This is his fourth and it’s barely mid-afternoon.


Sometimes the spirit is willing and the body is weak.


Other times, the spirit is determined and the body just quits.


That’s the best explanation Nate can think of when Eliot all out collapses on his face midway through, sprawling on the hardwood floor with a resounding smack and has Nate on his feet instantly.


He’s about to rush forward when he manages to stop himself. He hesitates, poised to move, as he watches Eliot get his arms beneath him, pushing himself up, shaking. It’s telling that he doesn’t get to his feet, but falls back on his bottom, red-faced and breathing heavy. He’s spent, completely and totally, and he almost looks worse than he did in the hospital. At least when he was unconscious, Nate knew it wasn’t a choice.


This, though.


This is Eliot admitting, even in the simplest way, his defeat.


It’s horrible to watch, really.


It’s also very, very important.


“You, uh,” Nate ventures. “You need a hand?”


Eliot looks at him, his blue eyes dull as he stares through the sweat-soaked strands of his hair.


“I mean,” Nate says with a shrug. “Unless you’re fine.”


That’s it.


That’s all it takes.


Eliot’s face contort, and he lashes out, slamming his fist against the floor. He curses, breathless and raw, as he evades Nate’s eyes again.


Nate doesn’t back down this time. Instead, he crosses closer. “Eliot.”


Eliot pointedly ignores him, shoulders still heaving from exertion.


“Eliot,” Nate tries again and he gauges his options. Then, purposefully, he reaches down. “Eliot--”


Eliot flinches when Nate touches him, pulling away so violently than he smacks into the coffee table and rattles its contents.


This time, Nate doesn’t let go. Instead, he wraps his fingers around Eliot’s arm and hauls him up. Eliot struggles, flailing for a moment, and when he’s on his feet he wrenches himself back, stumbling. He glares at Nate, seething. “Just -- don’t--”


“Eliot, please--”


Eliot recoils viscerally. “Is that why you stayed?” he demands contemptuously. “So you could watch me like this? Prove to us all that we need you?”


“Eliot--”


Eliot shakes his head with vehemence. “You just wanted to watch me fail, like you knew I would?” he asks cuttingly. “Did you come here to gloat like you would over any other mark?”


It’s biting, but Nate knows it’s not unexpected. He has been chasing Eliot, and if he knows it, then Eliot knows it. Eliot probably even knows why on some level, but it’s not a point the younger man is willing to concede.


Not quite yet.


“You know that’s not true,” Nate says, slow and steady.


“Really?” Eliot asks. “Because that’s all you’ve done since you showed up here. You stay here and pretend to be helpful, like you care about me, but we both know why you’re here. We both know your only job right now is to tell me I can’t do it anymore. You’re here to prove to me that I screwed up, that I can’t do the damn job you left me to do.”


Nate closes his mouth and swallows hard.


Eliot inhales sharply. “You’re here to prove that I’m weak, that I’m fallible,” he says, each word heavier than the last. “You’re here to make sure I realize that someday I’m going to screw up and it’s not just going to be my life on the line.”


Eliot stands on shaking legs, eyes wet with tears he refuses to shed.


“You’re here to make me listen,” he seethes. “Or one day you’ll be standing over my grave, just to tell me I told you so.”


Eliot’s trying now -- he’s trying with all he has to hurt Nate the way Eliot’s been hurt. He’s going for the heart with everything he has, and God help him, Nate does what he has to just to stay strong.


“Is that it, Nate?” Eliot asks. “Is that what you want?”


Nate shakes his head. “No.”


Eliot’s face crumples, just for a moment. “Then why the hell are you here?” he demands, voice starting to break. “Why are you here?”


It’s an honest question; it’s a broken question. It’s a damn angry question.


It’s the first thing Eliot’s really asked from Nate this whole time.


Which is why, without a doubt, Nate will answer. “I quit the job, Eliot,” he says. “But I didn’t quit the team.”


“So you don’t trust me, then,” Eliot surmises. “You don’t want me in the field protecting Parker and Hardison. You don’t think I can do it.”


“I don’t think any of us can, not by ourselves,” Nate says. “That’s why we learned from each other, we taught each other. That’s why I left the three of you together.”


“Parker plans, Hardison hacks, I protect,” Eliot says. “That’s what I do. That’s me. I look out for them.”


This is the part that kills Nate, because this is where he missed the boat almost entirely. He taught Parker and Hardison how to be more than they were before, but Eliot still believes his self worth is tied to what he can do. It’s utilitarian.


And Nate needs it to be dynamic.


“And they look out for you,” Nate tells him flatly. He knits his brows together. “Do you really think it doesn’t go both ways?”


Eliot wavers but he doesn’t quite break. “I’m the hitter,” he says, lifting his chin in the last vestiges of defiance.


Nate doesn’t waver either. “You’re more than that.”


Eliot locks his jaw, anger settling over his features. “I don’t know how to be more than that,” he says. “My whole life, I’ve been pulling triggers and knocking heads.”


“And grifting and hacking and thieving,” Nate says. “And, more importantly, helping people, making relationships, building a life.”


Eliot’s barely holding it together now. His strength is failing him, physically and emotionally. “You made me care, Nate,” he says, voice lower now, quavering precariously. “You made me care about them more than myself. I always had a backup plan; I always had a way out before. But now…”


Nate nods, unapologetic. “I know.”


“The thing is -- the thing is,” he stammers. “I don’t deserve it. All I can do to justify myself is to put them first. Because nothing I can do will ever make me deserve them.”


“We all deserve a second chance, third chance, fourth chance,” Nate says. “A chance to be happy.”


“The things I’ve done--” Eliot starts before he cuts himself out with a forceful swallow. “The blood on my hands -- I’m not a good man, Nate. What is my life worth if I’m not laying it down? How can I pretend like all things are equal, like they don’t got more to lose than I do?”


He pauses, takes a staggering breath. The tears are dangerously close to falling now.


“I know how these things are,” Eliot continues. “I know that I’m the expendable one.”


Eliot knows how to care; he knows how to trust.


He just doesn’t know how to let himself be happy.


Eliot used to believe that everything else was expendable when push came to shove.


Now, he’s willing to lay himself down first.


That’s a dangerous thing, and it’s good if you want someone to protect your team at all costs.


It’s not so good if you want to keep that person alive, too.


“You know?” Nate asks, voice a little caustic. “Just like you knew you could dodge that bullet? The one that lodged itself in your chest and nearly killed you? The one that left you like this?”


Hurting and weak, he’s still Eliot. He crosses the distance to Nate in two short steps, fingers fister in Nate’s shirt, face mere inches from Nate’s nose. “You son of a bitch--”


This time, Nate fights back. It’s a tenuous proposition. Even in his weakened state, Nate doesn’t doubt that Eliot could probably take him. Worse, Nate doesn’t actually want to hurt Eliot -- not even a little -- but he has to make a point.


He has to make this point.


He reaches out, grabbing Eliot’s shoulder. He knows the place -- he’s been watching Eliot this whole time, studying every movement, every flinch -- and he knows where it hurts. He knows where the healing wound still pulls against raw skin. He knows the way Eliot guards himself, and he knows exactly where to press to maximize the effect.


Eliot’s face twist and his grip slacken. His breath catches, expression twitching and arms shaking as he tries to retain his composure.


Nate doesn’t let go.


He holds fast, unrelenting and uncompromising. “You can do this the hard way or the easy way, but you’re not the hitter of this team,” he says, eyes steady on Eliot. “That’s not what defines you, and that’s not who you are, not to us. And that sure as hell isn’t what Parker and Hardison need from you.”


Eliot pulls away, breathless and trembling. “Then what?” he asks, guarding his injured side, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Then what good am I?”


“They just need you, Eliot. We all do,” he says, and he lets his facade slip for a second to reveal the softness underneath. “Being part of a team isn’t just about giving yourself up; it’s about letting other people give themselves up for you. It’s about give and take, and not just on your terms.”


Eliot closes his mouth, locks his jaw and visibly tries not to blink.


Nate wets his lips. “They love you, Eliot. We all love you,” he says. “We know who you were, and we know what you did, and we know how much work you put into changing. I know you’re not looking for redemption, and I know you’re not looking for absolution, but you need to find meaning. You need to find value -- and not in the team, in yourself.”


Eliot’s chest hitches, eyes brighter than ever.


“We don’t see you as a killer. We don’t see you as a hitter any more than we see Parker as a thief or Hardison as a hacker,” he continues. “The only unforgivable thing you can do is to let them bury you.”


Eliot looks away, eyes closing.


“I was there, Eliot,” he says. “I was the one who Parker called while she tried to keep her voice from cracking. I saw Hardison look more rattled than I’d ever seen him in my life. I talked them down for a whole week from blaming themselves. I listened as they second guessed every decision and every choice they made that put those bullets in your chest and leg. If you get yourself killed, they’ll never get over it.”


With a tenuous breath, Eliot sniffled loudly. “So what I am supposed to do then?” he drawls thickly, glancing at Nate through the fringe of his hair. “Quit?”


Eliot doesn’t quit, not when he’s determined not to. He and Nate are alike in that way, and they’re both used to winning when they put their minds to something. Quitting is about giving up control, and that’s not something either of them have ever been very good at.


Nate’s learned the hard way, though.


Eliot will, too.


He smiles. “I don’t think of it as quitting,” Nate says. “I think of it as starting again.”


Eliot swallows convulsively, shaking his head. “I don’t -- I don’t--”


Nate has him this time, and they both know it. There’s no escape; there’s no miracle out. Nate’s won this war, he’s finished this chase once and for all.


This time, though, he doesn’t gloat. He steps forward, carefully and gentle. “You don’t what?” he prompts.


Eliot blinks rapidly. “I don’t know how to do that,” he admits in a stilted voice, words quiet and rough.


“I know,” Nate assures him, offering his hand. “Luckily you’ve got people here to help you figure it out.”


Exhaling heavily, Eliot looks at Nate, then he looks at Nate’s hand.


There’s a long pause, heavy and uncertain.


Then Eliot finally reaches his out, taking Nate’s outstretched hand. “Okay,” he says.


Nate gives Eliot’s hand a shake, letting his smile broaden. “Okay.”


-o-


It doesn’t get easier after that. Therapy is still hell for Eliot, and it leaves him tired, sore and angry. But when Eliot needs a hand getting out of the car or needs to sit down, Nate’s there. Nate does the chores now -- all of them. Cooking, cleaning and then some. He works out with Eliot, matching him pace for pace, and when it’s done, they’re both red-faced and soaked with sweat.


And it’s strange, to see Eliot in need. It’s strange for Nate to be the strong one, the supportive one. It’s strange to offer help and, for the first time since they’ve met, Eliot accepts it.


Sometimes they talk, about the men they used to be. They talk about past conquests and all their finest hours. It’s a bittersweet nostalgia of the things they’ve surrendered and will never get back.


It doesn’t get easier, not in the slightest.


It gets better, though.


It gets so, so much better.


-o-


He calls Sophie the night before Parker and Hardison are scheduled to return. They talk for a while about the usual things before Nate collapses back into his pull out mattress and stares up at the ceiling.


“I can’t believe how tired I am,” he moans.


“Well, household chores are exhausting,” Sophie reminds him. “That’s why I insist that we pay Rosa very, very well.”


“No, not that,” Nate says, although his fingers are dried out from all the dishes he’s been doing. “At least, not entirely.”


“What?” Sophie muses in his ear. “No victory lap? You did, after all. You caught Eliot; you won.”


Nate presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “It’s not like that. It’s just…” He sighs wearily. “Different.”


“Naturally,” Sophie replies. “Because this whole thing, it wasn’t really about you winning. It was about Eliot losing.”


Nate drops his hands. “I just keep thinking--”


“Well, don’t.”


“But I keep thinking--”


“Nate, I’m serious,” Sophie says. “You have to stop. You have to quit just as much as Eliot does.”


Frowning, Nate scowls a little. “I did quit.”


“And then you started again with the plans and the chase, and don’t get me wrong, you had to do it, and I’m glad you did for all our sakes,” Sophie says. “But if you don’t quit again, you’re going to spiral. You ran a job on the toughest mark you’ve ever met--”


“Second toughest,” Nate clarifies for her. “Present company excluded.”


He can almost feel her smile. “The second toughest mark you’ve ever met,” she amends lightly. “And now you have to lay it down and follow your own advice.”


“Which is?” Nate prompts.


“Which is give and take,” she says. “You asked Eliot to trust you, and now you need to trust him to do what’s necessary. For himself and for Parker and Hardison.”


Nate chuckles tiredly. “Sometimes I think I don’t know how to do that again.”


“Well,” she says, voice like silk over the line. “When you get back home, I’m sure I can help you figure it out.”


-o-


They arrive early at the airport, because neither of them will admit just how anxious they are. Eliot can hardly sit still, drumming his fingers restlessly against the chairs in the terminal. Nate manages to hide it a little better, but only because he’s standing more often than not and pacing gives him an outlet for his nervous energy.


“I don’t know what to tell them, is the thing,” Eliot blurts at one point. He nods to his leg. “They have to know, but I don’t know how to explain I’ll need new ways to watch their backs.”


Nate takes a breath and lets it out, long and heavy. He sits down next to Eliot, clapping him on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”


“75 percent,” Eliot reminds him. “That’s the best case scenario, and I could still be months away from that. But there’s no way I can let them go on jobs--”


“And you won’t,” Nate agrees.


“So what do I tell them?” he says. “How do I--?”


Nate eases himself back, crossing his fingers in his lap. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they already know.”


Eliot’s face is blank for a moment. Then he scowls. “Hardison hacked my files, didn’t he?”


“I sort of thought you already knew,” Nate says with a shrug.


Eliot mutters a curse. “When he gets back--”


“Hey, you’re still supposed to be taking it easy,” Nate warns him.


“And you think thrashing Hardison will be hard?” Eliot asks with a grunt.


Nate chuckles. “It’s good to know that some things never change.”


“Keep laughing,” Eliot says with a pointed nod. “And you’ll be next.”


Nate holds up his hands in surrender.


-o-


It’s all hugs at first, with Parker just barely stopping herself from jumping into Eliot’s arms. She presses close to him, lips on his cheek, and Nate sees the way he pulls her a little closer still. Hardison offers his hand, and the handshake is still the same. Eliot asks about the job; Parker and Hardison ask about therapy, and it’s good.


In the car, Nate takes the wheel with Parker beside him. In the back Eliot starts to ask a series of in depth questions about the nature of the job, and Nate can see his mind working, checking off all the necessary safety points he thinks Parker and Hardison may have overlooked.


When Hardison rolls his eyes, he reminds Eliot that he’s still supposed to be taking it easy, which is the only invitation Eliot needs to start berating them both for invading his privacy and pretending like they didn’t already know.


“Privacy and trust, man,” Eliot says crossly. “Privacy and trust..”


“And concern,” Hardison replies emphatically. “We were worried about you, and it wasn’t like you were telling us the truth.”


“And you did?” Eliot asks. “You two ran off and did a mission without me!”


“You weren’t even close to ready to being in the field,” Parker says.


“And you think the only thing I can do is be in the field?” Eliot snaps. “I know a thing or two about making plans and managing tactical maneuvers. Hell, put me in a van and I can run point. Dress me up in a suit, and I can lay in a hook just as well as any of you.”


Parker and Hardison exchange a look, and for a moment, the only sound is the hum of the road beneath the tires.


“Of course,” Parker says finally.


“We could have included you more,” Hardison concedes.


“We will next time,” Parker says. She offers an apologetic look. “We’re sorry.”


Eliot inhales, as if he’s somewhat surprised. The surprise annoys him, and he deepens his scowl. “You should be.”


Nate can feel Parker and Hardison look at him knowingly, and Nate lets himself smile, hands relaxing just a little on the wheel.


It’s very good, indeed.


-o-


Nate stays while they unpack, and he stays a few extra days without being asked. He steps back, though, and lets the others resume their natural positions.


It’s not quite the same as it was before, and Nate is keen to notice the changes. Eliot still cooks, but Hardison shows up to grab things off the high shelf, and Parker swans in behind them both to take care of the dishes afterward. Hardison monitors their Leverage accounts, and Eliot brings him a bottle of orange soda when he grabs a beer for himself. Parker lays out her mission plans on the dinner table, and Eliot sits down across from her, offering a fresh perspective.


They start taking him to physical therapy, and Hardison coaches him on his exercises each night. It’s Parker, though, who suits up to run with him, and she never mentions how long or short the run is on any given day. When he’s exhausted on the couch, he lets Parker drape a blanket over him, and when his leg threatens to give out on the stairs, he doesn’t object when Hardison catches him and helps him up a step.


Parker and Hardison, they’re doting.


What’s more remarkable, though, is that Eliot lets them.


They’re a perfect trio, the three of them. Where one is weak, the others are strong. That’s not a static delineation, not like it used to be. They’re not cogs in a machine anymore, hacker, hitter, thief. They’re people living complementary lives. When one weakness is exposed, the others grow to compensate. It’s an ebb and flow between them, the perfect give and take.


At night, when Nate turns in early, the three of them are still on the couch, flipping between Myth Busters and Sports Center. Parker is in the middle, knees tucked to her chest. Hardison is to her left, arm draped around her. Eliot, who’s dozed off, has his head turned toward both of them, body leaning in instinctively. Lev is tucked in against Eliot, muzzle on Eliot’s leg as his tail twitches in his sleep.


For the first time in Nate’s life, he’s utterly superfluous and it doesn’t bother him at all.


-o-


The next morning at breakfast, Nate is drinking his coffee while Hardison taps at his computer. Eliot is reading a book when Parker comes downstairs. The cereal is on the counter along with the milk, waiting for her, but she stops short, standing at the head of the table.


Hardison and Eliot look up in unison. Nate is a second behind, eyes wandering from his newspaper uncertainly.


“So,” she announces.


“We got a job,” Eliot concludes without any further prompting.


Hardison grins. “We got a job, baby.”


Parker nods, serious and affirmative. “We got a job.”


-o-


Nate’s already missed a beat when the team falls seamlessly into planning mode. Parker lays out papers on the table, which Eliot takes, and she pushes her tablet over to Hardison, who starts swiping without further hesitation. Nate’s still sitting, a little dumbfounded, when they start to talk.


“Englert’s a son of a bitch,” Eliot mutters.


“And brazen!” Hardison says. “Did he really rip of his shareholders and then post pictures of his vacation in Belize?”


“Worse,” Parker says. “He actually sued his personal assistant for giving away trade secrets after effectively wiping out his accounts and ruining his reputation.”


Eliot shakes his head grimly. “He got away with it, too.”


“Da-yum,” Hardison comments. “Why haven’t we gone after him before?”


“There are a lot of bad guys in the world,” Parker says, shrugging. “He just finally screwed enough people over to move to the front of our list.”


“We need to hit him soon, though,” Hardison says. “He’s thinking about selling off several branches of the company. Once he does that, we’re going to have a lot less access to the accounts that he’s messed with.”


“When’s he doing that?” Eliot asks, shifting one paper to the next.


“In a month,” Parker says.


Hardison pauses, looking up, eyes going between Eliot and Parker. “Are we ready for that?”


“Eliot’s not cleared for the field,” Parker says.


“I’m not cleared to fight,” Eliot corrects her. “But there are a lot of other jobs on this one.”


“Are you okay with that?” Parker asks.


It’s Eliot’s turn to shrug. “I can still lay out the tactical planning, and you can use me on the inside on the con,” he says. “Last I heard, Quinn’s still looking for work.”


“And we can trust him?” Hardison asks. “Dude isn’t exactly reformed.”


“Maybe if we give him a chance,” Eliot says. Then he makes a conciliatory facial expression. “You never know the way people might surprise you.”


Parker is grinning. “Call him, and make him an offer,” she says. “Hardison, start pulling up enough information for a briefing and reach out to our ground contacts in Europe. We might be able to use someone who can do a few lifts for us.”


“Will do,” Hardison says.


“Sounds good,” Eliot agrees.


“Excellent,” Parker says, eyes gleaming. She grins at them as they take their things and start to get to work. Hardison goes over to his work station and Eliot already has out her phone.


Parker winks at Nate, who’s still sitting at the table with his paper in hand. It’s a little weird, to see his team working without him. But it’s not really his team anymore. Parker and Hardison and Eliot -- they’re his family, but they’re not his crew. He’s not in charge of this, and he’s not part of the way they work. He’s known this -- hell, this is what he hoped to accomplish all along -- but it’s still a sudden, strange thing to grasp.


This time, Nate doesn’t have to quit.


There’s nothing left to quit.


He picks up his paper again, taking a sip of coffee.


It’s just time to move on.


-o-


Nate goes about his day as he has for the last month or so, but he’s really the only one. During his time there, he’s been fully integrated into the daily routine.


Today, however, no one even seems aware that he’s here.


Parker’s papers take over the kitchen table until Nate retreats to the living room. There, he finds Hardison monopolizing the television screens -- every last one of them -- until Nate finally excuses himself out to the deck that overlooks that massive acreage that Hardison managed to get rezoned for his own personal residential usage.


It’s pretty, but Eliot’s out there muttering to himself as he goes over his own notes. When Nate leans over to take a look, Eliot snarls at him unconsciously, and Nate decides to go out for a bit.


He brings lunch home, but no one seems to notice. He eats his food during a verbal planning session, which has the feel of a three-way tennis match. Nate observes the volleys, back and forth and back again, before he finally retreats to his own room and checks his email in excessive detail.


When he comes down for dinner, it’s already in the process of being made. Eliot is chopping vegetables and Hardison is boiling pasta while Parker sears meat on the stove. They haven’t missed a beat of conversation, though, and Nate has to help himself to food when it’s ready. At the table, he finds that it’s a cluttered mess with no room for him.


Nate looks at Eliot and Parker and Hardison.


There’s no room for him.


That night, he eats in his room.


-o-


The others go to bed early that night, and Nate cleans up his own dishes and retreats to the bedroom. He fiddles with his tablet for a few minutes, bringing up his Netflix queue, but nothing sounds good. He opens a video feed instead and dials up Sophie.


Honestly, he’s not sure if he’s looking for pity or commiseration or maybe just a little company. But the instant she answers, he remembers what it is exactly that he wants.


Sophie, in her silk pajamas and undone hair. Sophie, whose eyes sparkle and smile radiates. Many men have fallen victim to her airs. But he’s the lucky one who has been given her attention for nothing but his own in return.


Sophie, art thief, grifter. Wanted in a dozen countries, and the only one Nate’s caught that he’ll never, ever let get away. She was the first one he chased.


She’ll be the last.


There’s a reason he quit. And it has a little to do with his father, and it has something to do with Sam. It has a bit to do with his failed marriage and his lost career as an insurance investigator. It has a lot to do with Parker, Hardison and Eliot, and the job they’ll continue to do long after he’s gone.


But it has everything -- everything -- to do with her.


Just like that, the weariness lifts from his bones. His wounded pride, the nostalgic longings, the edge of the chase -- it all evaporates.


He smiles at her.


“Hey,” he says.


“Hey yourself,” she replies, beaming. “How’s it going?”


“Oh, okay,” Nate says, shrugging. “Good.”


She lifts her brows, cocking her head. “Good?”


“Yeah, team’s good,” Nate says. “Great, I mean. They’re working things out. Even got a job.”


She looks surprised at this. “A job?”


“Yeah,” he says, and he almost explains it to her when he realizes it doesn’t matter. He sits up a little more instead, leaning in toward the screen. “Look, how would you feel about me coming home?”


Her face brightens. “Really?”


“Sure,” Nate says. “The team, they’re good. I mean, I think my work here is done. I don’t know. What do you think?”


Her grin is salacious. “I think,” she says seductively. “It’s about damn time.”


Nate grins back.


He couldn’t have said it better himself.


-o-


He’s up early the next day, and he’s packed by breakfast. He eats by himself, mostly, listening as Parker and Hardison bicker about the best entrance when Eliot comes in and lays down a list of 27 problems he thought of the night before.


“Only 27?” Hardison asks.


“I had to take a pain pill last night,” Eliot mutters at him. “Clouded my thinking.”


Parker takes the paper. “27.”


Eliot takes it back, scribbling something at the bottom. He hands it back. “28.”


Hardison peeks at it. “Hey, man,” he says. “I am not a liability!”


Nate takes a drink of coffee and doesn’t say a word.


-o-


He eats out at lunch, if only because Nate doesn’t want a deli sandwich or dry cereal. Not only have the others been too preoccupied to realize their food stores were getting low, but they also seemed to binge eat the more seriously they planned.


It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Nate wants to get as far away from the planning as he can. It’s hard work, not saying anything. He feels good about his decision to quit, but there’s no reason to torture himself unnecessarily.


He stops at a bar and order a burger.


And an Irish whiskey on top of that.


At least that’s a vice he knows how to control.


-o-


He comes back mid afternoon with groceries, but no one really notices that he’s been gone. He sets to cleaning up the kitchen before starting in on dinner. It’s an elaborate meal with several courses -- Sophie has trained him well -- and when the dinner hour comes, Nate goes up to his team and asks them to join him.


“In a minute,” Hardison says. “I got to--”


“Five minutes,” Parker says. “We have--”


“Have you seen this exit contingency?” Eliot asks. “It’s--”


Nate stares them down until they look at him. Hardison, Parker and then Eliot.


“You’re coming for dinner,” he says flatly in the most commanding tone he can muster.


Still, it’s a relief when they still follow him.


More than he’ll admit.


-o-


When they sit down, they have the decency to look sheepish. After all, Nate has prepared a full spread for them, from salad to dessert, and they haven’t said more than three words to him all day. Nate takes some satisfaction in that, but he knows that’s not the point.


It’s part of the job, Nate knows. He, of all people, knows. It consumes you, and it overwhelms you. It becomes your sole focus almost to the point of obsession. That can be dangerous if you don’t have the right support structure in place.


Fortunately, these three do. Nate knows that now, too.


So this isn’t a dinner to make them feel guilty. This isn’t even a dinner to change their minds or alter their perspectives.


No, this dinner is Nate’s goodbye.


It’s a little dramatic, maybe, but Sophie’s not the only one with a flair for action. He is the one who always made sure the gloat happened after a job well done.


And this--


This is his best job done.


Parker, Hardison and Eliot. The team they were meant to be.


Nate lets out a breath. There’s a lot he wants to say -- more than he could ever probably put together -- but there’s just one thing he needs to say.


“So,” he says, smiling at them. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”


Parker stops, mid-chew. Hardison half-chokes on his drink. Eliot goes very, very still.


Nate wets his lips, resting his elbows on the table. “You guys have a lot to do,” he says. “I’m just going to get in the way.”


“Well, we can use your input,” Parker tries to say.


“And dude, we can do a briefing, just like old times,” Hardison offers.


“We can always use another set of eyes,” Eliot says. “Especially yours.”


Nate smiles, despite himself. He doesn’t like to think of himself as vain, but who’s he kidding. It feels good to be complimented. It feels good to feel needed. It feels good to pretend like this is still something he could do.


He chuckles, shaking his head. “You all have jobs to do, and you know what they are now,” he explains. “Me? I’ve done my job. Now it’s your turn to do yours. I don’t want to slow you down.”


“It’s not like that--”


“Nate, come on--”


“Man, if you just--”


Nate holds up his hands. “It’s not a bad thing,” he tells them. “You three, you’re perfect together. All you need to do is remember that.”


Parker and Hardison and Eliot exchange looks, and the protests give way to understanding. Nate’s got them this time, and they know better than to fight it.


“We will,” Parker says, nodding at Eliot and then Hardison. Her eyes settle on Nate. “We will.”


“Good,” Nate says. He picks up his fork, grinning. “Then let’s eat.”


-o-


During dinner, they don’t talk about the job. They don’t talk about what they need to do, or what’s coming next. They don’t talk about exit strategies or contingencies. They don’t talk about the chase, no matter how thrilling they know it is.


The thing is, they don’t need the thrill of the chase, not anymore.


Not when they have each other.


-o-


It’s Nate who turns in early. He’s mostly ready for bed when there’s a knock at his door. When he opens it, Parker and Hardison are standing, shoulder to shoulder, like a pair of lost puppies.


There’s no choice but to hold the door back to let them in.


“If this is a bad time--” Parker says.


“If y’all getting ready for bed--” Hardison speaks over her.


“Don’t be silly,” Nate says, gesturing. “This is your house after all.”


They come inside, standing awkwardly.


“So,” Nate starts for them. “Eliot is--”


“Asleep,” Parker tells him.


“Conked out in front of the TV again,” Hardison says. “We’ll let him sleep there for a bit.”


“And make sure he gets into bed for some real rest later,” Parker continues without missing a beat.


Nate nods, not sure what else he’s supposed to say here.


“Look,” Parker says. “I just wanted -- we just wanted -- I mean--”


“We know what you did,” Hardison tries to add. “And we hope you know--”


“Thank you,” Parker says, and she’s crossed the distance between them before Nate even has a chance to blink. Her arms wrap around him, pulling him tight. “Thank you.”


It’s Nate’s turn to be awkward, but he finally remembers to pat Parker on the back before she steps back again.


“What you did for Eliot, man,” Hardison says. “I don’t even know how you did it.”


“But we know it couldn’t have been easy,” Parker says. “He’s stubborn.”


“And stupid, sometimes,” Hardison agrees. “We’ve been trying to break him in for years now.”


“Don’t overlook what you did do for him,” Nate says. “You gave him a family, that’s what he needed.”


“That was you, Nate,” Parker says. “That was always you.”


“No,” Nate tells her. “I found all the pieces, and maybe I put them together, but you three -- that’s what makes it work. Eliot just needed to be reminded that he deserves to be a part of it as much as the rest of us.”


“Nah, man,” Hardison says. “You saved him.”


Parker is smiling now. “You saved us.”


Nate’s been lauded with achievements and recognition. He’s gotten big offices and expensive bottles of booze. He’s gotten bonuses and to shake hands with the boss.


None of it compares to this.


He swallows hard, blinking back the burning sensation that threatens his eyes. “I may have caught Eliot, but it’s up to you to keep him,” Nate tells them. “Keep him safe. More importantly, though, keep him happy.”


Hardison reaches out to shake Nate’s hand. “Of course.”


Nate shakes it back with a gracious nod.


“We won’t let you down,” Parker promises.


Nate manages a grin. “You couldn’t,” he says. “Not even if you tried.”


They smile at him one last time before turning to leave. Nate watches them go, their hands clasped together, just like it’s meant to be.


He closes the door, standing with his hand on the knob for a long minute before he lets go with a smile of his own.


-o-


His flight is early, and it’s his intention to leave without drawing any attention to himself. He’s packed and there’s a taxi on the way to take him to the airport. In the kitchen, he pours himself a cup of coffee to keep him awake during the flight when he hears a noise behind him.


Turning, he’s not surprised to see Eliot. The man is dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, hair pulled back into a hasty ponytail.


“You sneaking out?” Eliot asks.


“Trying to not be a cumbersome houseguest is all,” Nate says, taking an ambivalent sip. “You checking up on me?”


Eliot shrugs, then nods. “Yeah,” he says. “You made your grand exit last night, so I figured you’d try to duck out without saying anything.”


Nate takes another sip, not bothering to deny it. “Sophie’s taught me how to make an exit,” he says. “What about you? You ready to move back to your place?”


Bemused, Eliot almost chuckles. “I know where I belong,” he says. “I’ll keep the other place for when I need some privacy.


Nate returns the look sardonically. “Glad to hear you’re feeling better,” he observes. “But, you know, I’m sure Parker and Hardison would love to meet anyone you bring home.”


Eliot huffs. “Baby steps, Nate,” he says.


“I know, I know,” Nate says. “I just want you to remember that Parker and Hardison aren’t the only one you can let into your life.”


“I’m not so good at trusting people,” Eliot says. “That’ll never change.”


“You don’t have to trust a lot of people,” Nate reminds him. “But, you know. One or two. That Hardison gives a background check to and Parker spies on.”


“The basis of a wonderful relationship,” Eliot quips.


Nate shrugs, taking another sip. “Just let yourself be happy,” he says. “Let yourself be settled. And trust that the rest of us will have your back.”


Eliot nods in concession, chewing his lip for a moment. He waits a beat, watching while Nate takes another drink. “Thank you.”


“For the dating advice?” Nate asks.


“For everything else,” Eliot says, eyes steady on Nate.


Nate flattens his mouth for a moment, taking a breath. “You know, Eliot, I chased you for a long time.”


Eliot smirks. “I’m glad you didn’t quit.”


Nate doesn’t look away. “I’m glad you did.”


This time, Eliot does chuckles, looking down at his hands. “I can’t say it’s going to be easy,” he says. “I’ve spent a whole decade taking the hits and having my defenses up. But as hard as it is to imagine what this change will be like, it’s even hard to imagine my life without them.”


“Well,” Nate says, lifting one shoulder. “Good think you’re always up for a challenge.”


Eliot smiles.


Nate drains the last of his coffee and puts the cup down. He rounds toward the living room, stopping to offer Eliot his hand. “I know I told you once to call if you needed something,” he says as Eliot takes his hand, firm and true. “But this time, call if you don’t need something. Okay?”


Eliot squeezes with a nod. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I can probably do that.”


“Well,” Nate says, reaching to gather his things. “Then I guess my work here is done.”


He sees himself out, and he doesn’t have to look back. He doesn’t have to look back to know that Eliot’s okay, to know that Parker and Hardison are okay. He doesn’t have to look back to know that Leverage International is okay, that Parker and Hardison and Eliot are okay together.


Quitting, letting go, walking away.


It’s all the same way of saying that one chapter is over.


And it’s time for another to begin.


-o-


He’s restless on the plane, and he’s sore and cranky by the time he steps into the terminal. The flight had been crowded, and he’d been forced to sit in business class with his last minute reservations. He’s seriously contemplating a stop at the airport bar for a stiff drink when he sees the figure waiting for him in the terminal.


There, dressed in black slacks and a billowy pink blouse, is Sophie. Her hair is pulled back neatly, and the glint of her engagement ring catches off the lights of the airport. She’s smiling, hands in her pockets as she waits for him.


She’s more beautiful than ever, Nate realizes -- so much more perfect. Sophie’s a good person, a confident person, a beautiful person. She’s smart and she’s funny and she’s earnest and she’s everything, really.


To think, all those years he chased her.


And she’s the one who caught him.


He goes to her, taking her in his arms and kissing her. She lets him, wrapping her arms around him as he tips her back, kissing him longer, harder as the traffic flows around them.


When he finally pulls away, she’s smiling. “I feel like I’ve been waiting forever!”


He studies her face. “Sorry about that,” he says.


“I was getting worried you might have changed your mind,” she admits. “Decided to stay. I know how much you hate quitting.”


“Nah,” he says, kissing her again. “I don’t think of it as quitting.”


She cocks her head curiously.


He leans down again, almost mouth to mouth. “I think of it as starting again.”


She’s grinning when he kisses her, holding her so tight that he may never let go again. He misses the job sometimes, sure. He misses the thrill of the chase. He knows, after all, that the important things in life are worth chasing after.


He holds Sophie closes, breathing her in, feeling her heart keep time against his, and he knows that the best things, the things that make life worth living--


Well, those are the reasons you quit.