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Leverage fic: The Magic Job (2/7)

December 21st, 2016 (09:46 am)
embarrassed

feeling: embarrassed

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




-o-

By midday, he was out of things for them to do. Normally, it took a little longer to tie up the loose ends, but the team was on their games today. Things got done without Nate having to ask, and every time he opened his mouth, someone was there, giving him what he needed.

It was uncanny.

And it was unnerving.

Which didn’t make any sense at all. This job had been easy. It’d been successful. So what was it that really put them on edge? It wasn’t like Nate overtly lied to them, and his omissions hadn’t even been that stunning? Was it really just the idea of magic?

Or were they all bothered by the fact that it was too easy? That there hadn’t been a single hitch in the whole thing? Maybe they needed conflict, maybe they needed obstacles or the entire thing just felt like a face.

Or was this how it was, five people living one life, sharp edges still coming to point every now and then? Was this how it always was and Nate was usually just too busy to notice?

Whatever the case, Nate cleared his throat sometime after lunch. “You know, it’s a long drive back,” he said, rubbing his hands together and trying to look impassive.

It didn’t really work, and he felt their gazes more attentively than he expected.

He cleared his throat again, laughing affably. “So I don’t know,” he said, shrugging with more effort than he needed. “Maybe we all take a week. Two.”

Sophie looked downright surprised; Eliot just looked suspicious.

“You want us to take time off,” Parker repeated quizzically.

“You?” Hardison reinforced.

“Yeah, sure,” Nate said, looking at them each in turn. “Sharing the same space for so long makes me realize that maybe we spend too much time together.”

Eliot grunted. “You’re just now picking up on that?”


“Didn’t stop you from going off and playing with hexes without telling us,” Hardison muttered.

“And what exactly do you think we can do in two weeks?” Sophie asked, nose just slightly wrinkled.

“I don’t know,” Nate said. “Anything you want. It’s a little time for ourselves.”

“There is a new Glenn-Reeder system being installed in New York,” Parker said.

Eliot glared at her.

“What?” she said. “I don’t want to steal anything! I just want to see how long it takes me to pick the lock!”

“Some time apart from y’all sounds good,” he said. “Sometimes I think the whole crazy thing gets to me. Magic spells and all. And you all say I take things too far.”

“Nate didn’t get us captured by the Russian mob,” Eliot pointed out.

“That worked out brilliantly for the con,” Hardison argued.

“Because you weren’t the one who had to actually break into the vault!” Parker said.

“Hey, whoa, alright,” Nate said, waving his hands up to calm them down. “This is what I’m talking about. I mean, we all know we’re good together, but we’re five very different people. We all have different ideas, and that’s okay. Two weeks off, just to be ourselves. We get back together and everything is as good as new. Better, even.”

It was a convincing spiel, and not just because Nate was good at convincing people of things. It was convincing because it was true, for each of them.

Mollified, his team looked at one another. Hardison shrugged, and Parker nodded. Eliot ducked his head in assent, and Sophie postured. “Some me time will do us all some good,” she said.

Nate nodded, short and perfunctory. This had been a job in close quarters, and it felt closer than usual. That was why, Nate had to figure, this one had thrown them all.

“Good, good,” he said. “So we’ll see everyone back in Boston in two weeks.”

“And not a day sooner,” Hardison said.

“Don’t try to call,” Eliot warned. “I may be off grid.”

“And any ringing might get me arrested,” Parker added.

Sophie chuckled. “I do wonder how soon I can get a flight out of the country,” she said. “Anything less than 10 days on the Mediterranean just isn’t worth it.”

Nate bobbed his head in satisfaction.

Two short weeks.

Two necessary weeks.

And then everything would be perfectly back to normal.

-o-

Nate was the last to leave.

He played this intentionally, as though he was watching out for them. He offered each team member an individualized farewell, reminding them to be safe and be careful. Just for effect, he’d arched his brows as he delivered the line, reminding them in no uncertain terms that he’d see them in two weeks.

This went well with his position as team leader and mastermind. He also couldn’t deny that he had to play surrogate father from time to time, even if none of them would ever admit to it.

Nate played this well when he had to, so well that he hoped none of them realized he didn’t have anywhere to or anything to do. In fact, by the time they’d cleared out of Hawthorne, Nate was completely directionless.

That was stupid, of course. Nate couldn’t be directionless. He knew who he was; he knew what his purpose in this world was. He had no doubts, not about any of that.

And he’d been directionless -- very directionless. He’d been a drunk living out of his car with no purpose to being at all. But that had changed when he found the team, and when they wouldn’t let him go.

He wasn’t that man anymore. He was better; he was so sure of that.

So why did it feel like he was falling apart?

Why did he feel like everything was coming unglued?

It couldn’t be this job -- this job had been easy. And his team, well they weren’t going anywhere. They were his, whether he wanted them or not. This? This was a two-week hiatus.

Truth be told, he could use a two-week hiatus. How long had it been since he’d had a little time to himself? He always complained that his team was around too much, that they took over every corner of his life.

So this was good. This was right. This was what he wanted.

And still somehow horrible all at the same time.

Nate was restless and anxious. He couldn’t check out of the room, and not even alcohol made it better. He couldn’t sleep, and he paced restlessly, looking at his phone to see if any of them had called. Maybe Sophie wanted to say hi. Maybe Parker broke the Glenn-Reeder. Maybe Hardison needed to brag. Maybe Eliot wanted to make sure that everyone was safe.

Maybe Nate just needed to hear from them.

But every time he thought to call them, to just go ahead and do it, he lost his nerve.

They needed space. They needed to be their own people. They couldn’t expect to be together all the time, not without going crazy. This was good for them. This was right.

That was what Nate told himself, anyway, as he checked his phone again and poured himself another stiff drink in the employ hotel suite.

The silence had never been more pervasive.

-o-

Nate had this thing about impulse control.

As in, he didn’t really have it.

That wasn’t entirely true. Nate could be very well disciplined about some things. He understood the long game in a con, and there was nothing he couldn’t bring himself to do to get the job done. He knew about hard work and persistence, and when he set his mind to something, he was pretty damn sure he was going to finish it.

That said, he also knew what it was to give in. Give up. He knew what it was to pour himself a drink for breakfast because what the hell. He knew what it was to gamble with things he didn’t really own -- and he knew what it was to lose, lose, lose all in the name of winning. And he knew what it was like to have every shred of common sense screaming no in his ear, just to go ahead and say yes anyway.

Because Nate had this thing about impulse control.

It wasn’t safe, it wasn’t smart, it wasn’t good.

But it was real.

After all, Nate had taken to alcohol again, and he’d risked so much that he put himself in prison before insisting on getting himself broke out again -- on his terms, only. He’d dragged his team into countless dangerous situations, and he didn’t know how to stop when a problem was right in front of him.

This usually only happened on the con, which was mostly the good news. On the con, he had his team to fall back on, and he knew Sophie would call him on it if things ever got too out of hand. Not that he’d listen, necessarily, but then that was why Eliot could knock him senseless if push ever did come to shove.

But Eliot wasn’t here, and neither was Sophie. This wasn’t a job; this was just Nate and a nagging sense that he couldn’t walk away from.

That was why he ended up back at the hair salon, regardless of the fact that the job was over, that his cover would be blown by anyone with a shred of common sense, that it was an active crime scene, that Nate was supposed to be long, long, long gone by now.

But, there he was.

He’d come this far.

There was no way in hell he wasn’t going in.

Active crime scene or not, Hawthorne was a small town with a government that had entirely fallen apart. State officials were on their way, but Nate was a thief now. Security wasn’t so much a concern as an inevitability he could avoid.

The place was dark and quiet. It was plain to see the thorough search that had been conducted -- and Nate could only figure it hadn’t turned up much. The abandoned shop was still desolate and abandoned, and if the cops were looking of evidence of fraud, they would need to check her accounts, not her outdated beauty supplies.

The back of the shop was another story.

Sanderson’s storage room had clearly been catalogued, and most of the ingredients were missing, probably to be checked and processed. Not that it would do them much good, Nate figured. The authorities were looking for signs of embezzlement and fraud -- and rightly so. Sanderson’s belief structure would be nothing but contextual evidence against her character. They wouldn’t even know what to look for.

To be fair, Nate wasn’t sure what he was looking for either. The potion he’d altered -- it was long gone. The last step -- the one he’d left for Sanderson -- had been to burn it away. The theory was to make the spell permanent, so there was nothing left to undo.

The scorched cauldron had been checked into evidence, but Nate could still see the black outline of its thick base burned into the counter. The tools were gone as well along with any of the files that Sanderson happened to have around. The place had been picked bare, in fact, except for a few books and photographs. He traced his fingers along the photos -- Sanderson at graduation, her inauguration into office -- before he picked up the book.

It was the spellbook, of all things. The conspicuous title made it flashy, but it didn’t hold any investigative evidence that might convict her of anything. Nate ran his fingers down the binding, letting it fall open in his hands.

The spine was creased to the page on hexes, and that page was splattered and worn. He flipped the pages carefully until he found the one he’d used a few pages later. He’d picked it because of it similarity to the hex; easy enough to manipulate and close enough to avoid tipping her off. It still had to be her spell, in the end, and she still had to do the dirty work herself. Her downfall had to be her own, and this spell was incidental in that.

He paused, though. rereading it again.

Reverse Hexes: Soul Binding and Good Luck Charms

Hexes are designed to drive things apart. A traditional hex will separate a person from the kindness of fate. These spells can be easily reversed for the reverse effect. Objects may be combined with fortune to serve as a good luck charm, but when individuals are jointly blessed with these spells, they will find their spirits joined. This combines the essence of these individuals, allowing the blessed person to experience increased health, strength, insight and fortitude that is not his or her own.

Despite the benefits of these spells, they can be very dangerous to perform. Incomplete spellwork can limit the effectiveness of the spell, and if people are joined with incompatible souls, it can be destructive. Soul bonding should not be attempted without a full assessment of the people involve.

Nate drummed his fingers on the table.

He’d read this already, of course, but he’d deemed it an acceptable risk. It wasn’t really, after all.

It probably wasn’t real.

Probably gnawed at the pit of his stomach, leaving him nauseous.

He hadn’t really thought about it, though. Not in a real context. It had been an impulsive decision, driven by his need to finish the job on his own terms more than anything else.

It had seemed ridiculous, then. Impossible.

The problem was, so did most things when it came to his team. Nate had a long list now, of impossible, ridiculous things. Things like his ability to work with a team, to take responsibility for other people in his life again. Things like his change of career, becoming the very thing he spent his career chasing.

Things like Parker becoming human.

Things like Sophie becoming real.

Things like Hardison learning humility.

Things like Eliot trusting others.

Impossible, ridiculous things were his team’s specialty.

Anxiously, Nate slammed the book shut and put it back on the shelf.

It still probably wasn’t real, he told himself.

Probably.

-o-

Probably was a whole lot better as a punchline. As an actual statistical variable, Nate found it less comforting. In fact, it was the word that kept him up that night, tossing and turning in the bed.

He couldn’t help it. Every time he closed his eyes, he thought of Hardison tapping keys at the computer and Parker with her ear to a vault. Sophie smiled as she put her hand on a mark’s arm while Eliot curled his fingers into fists.

These were the things his team had always done, since before Nate had met them. But he understood them differently now, he saw them in a new light. He could feel them, each and every one. The pressure of the computer beneath Hardison’s fingertips; the sound of the lock falling into place next to Parker’s ear. The taste of lies like honey on Sophie’s tongue, and the way Eliot’s fingers closed on nothing no matter whether he hit the target or not.

That wasn’t magic, though. There was no spell to that. It was hard work and persistence and the power of a team who had come together on its own. It was a choice, that each and every one of them had made, and that was the power of it.

Nothing could break that.

Nothing could make it stronger.

Nothing but them.

But that didn’t explain it, then. The way he knew Hardison shut down the computer early that night, or the way Parker didn’t open the vault. The way he had absolute confidence in the fact that Sophie gave the mark a squeeze on the arm and a peck on the cheek before she walked away; the way he didn’t doubt that Eliot loosened his fingers and walked away.

Nate wouldn’t risk that, except all the times he had. Nate wouldn’t compromise that, except all the times he did. He put a lot of faith in probably, and it usually broke in his favor.

That was it, though. He was building a world on probably and usually, neither of which accounted for the bedrock his team afforded him. They always had his back.

When things probably went wrong.

When things usually turned out a little differently than they’d hoped.

Nothing was different now.

Equivocation was part of the job; incidentals were acceptable. The team could survive that.

The team could survive anything.

Five separate people; one impenetrable team.

And the job was done, no probably about it.

Nate could walk away, just like he usually did. No regrets.

All things considered, he should have slept like a baby.

The lullaby of self doubt, however, kept him awake.

-o-

In the morning, he downed several cups of coffee and took a scalding shower. He shaved and got dressed, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The spell.

Sanderson.

His team.

This whole damn job that was done, over, finished.

He fiddled with his phone at breakfast, convincing himself to call and not call in equal measures. He could just check in, say hi, see what was up. It was no big deal, nothing.

He couldn’t, though, not without admitting that this was bothering him.

There was something undone here, something dangling in his face like a loose thread that he was a little afraid to pull.

It was a pity, then, that Nate had issues with impulse control.

He was going to pull that string.

Getting up, he put away his phone.

Fortunately for Nate, there was always plan B.

-o-

Just two days after her arrest, Sanderson was still being held at the local lockup. This was fortunate since Hawthorne’s jail was the size of his apartment back in Boston. He knew it was a risk since his cover would have to be unraveled along with the rest of Sanderson’s crimes, but somehow, it seemed like an acceptable risk.

Not that it would have stopped him if it wasn’t.

It took very little to convince them that he was her lawyer, and before Nate knew it, he was having a one-on-one with the very woman he’d just committed himself to destroying.

Her eyes widened when she saw him, and she was too stunned to sit down.

“You’re not my lawyer,” she blurted with a huff of indignation. “Are you affiliated with anyone? Are you with a coven?”

Nate wet his lips and shook his head. “I’m not a witch. Or whatever it is you would call me.”

She laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. “But you changed the spell.”

“That’s nothing more than following a recipe,” Nate told her.

She shook her head again, almost more vehement. “I’ve performed that same hex more times than I can count,” she said. “I know what it feels like. I know how it tears the universe in two, just a little. This? You ripped a hole in time and space that nearly shook the building down. I knew the minute I lit the flame something was different this time.”

“You do know that it’s the urine that makes the flame blue,” he said. “The blood gives it the orange hue.”

“It’s not a simple chemical reaction,” she told him. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

“I get that you weren’t afraid to let other people suffer so you could get ahead,” Nate replied. “We all create our own way to justify what we’re doing, a structure to hold our world up.”

She sat down finally, leaning closer to him. “The first time I did a spell, I thought it was a joke, too,” she said. “I thought, there was no way. But I figured, what did I have to lose?”

Nate watched her.

She smiled. “I couldn’t prove my way in life; I couldn’t win. I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t talented enough. I wasn’t anything. I couldn’t get ahead, not on my own,” she said. “I didn’t even expect it to work, but it did. And for the first time in my life, I realized that I didn’t have to be nobody. I could manipulate my way forward. I could bend the will of chance in my favor. I could experience what life really has to offer.”

“There are other ways, you know,” Nate deadpanned. “Ways that don’t involve stealing and crime.”

“We’re all looking for power to steal, though,” she said. “Some people study harder, some people make friends. Some people do tricks and are charming and cut corners. We all have that vice, that thing we use to get ahead. And we all think we can control it.”

Nate knew a thing or two about vices. About alcohol and the thrill of the chase. About never being wrong and always playing out his luck. Nate didn’t pretend any of that made him a good person, but he had to think -- he had to believe -- that he used it for the right reasons.

When he didn’t -- well, that was why he had a team.

“If you’re talking about magic,” Nate said, matter of fact. “It’s not real.”


Her expression darkened ominously. She wasn’t an imposing figure, especially not here in prison. She’d been an easy foil all this time, and there was nothing she could do to him, especially now.

But her confidence, her total confidence, gave him reason to hesitate. She wasn’t threatening him, was the thing. She was telling him what she believed to be truth.

The truth was relative, maybe.

The belief in it was inarticulately more powerful.

She shook her head, almost defiantly now. “You really have no idea what you’ve done.”

“I’ve used your own tricks against you,” Nate said, lifting his chin uncompromisingly. “You destroyed yourself. You lit the match that made it all go boom.”

Her eyes flashed angrily. “Those spells are powerful, and I’m no genius, but I’m smart enough to avoid the ones that change people at their core,” she said. “My hexes, they’re a manipulation of the fates. That’s simple enough. It keeps the balance in check. What you did? The forces you played with? Those change people at their very souls. You altered the most basic parts of your very existence.”

“Well, that is why they call it soul bonding, right?” Nate quipped.

“It’s not a joke,” she said. “I took things -- all the money, whenever I could. And I was never afraid.”

Nate shrugged. “Because you hexed anyone who opposed you.”

“Because I knew that the real risk was never the money. It was never getting arrested or going to trial,” she said. “The real risk was always in that book. Everything else? That was nothing.”

“Fate is fickle,” Nate said, trying to sound diffident. Trying to sound as confident as he had every right to feel He’d won, after all. He’d won. So why the hell didn’t it feel like it? “If you haven’t learned that now, just wait until your long and protracted trial begins.”

She sat back, shaking her head once again. “Magic can make your life so much better,” she said. “Or it can destroy you.”

“Something you know the hard way,” Nate said, getting to his feet again. He nodded at her with some self satisfaction. There was a reason he was able to walk away and she wasn’t. There was a reason. He just had to remember it for himself every now and then. “Good luck, Ms. Sanderson.”

He meant it.

Probably.

Probably not.

She blinked in a manner that was entirely too earnest for her situation, shrugging one shoulder. “Trust me,” she said. “You’re the one who’s going to need luck.”

-o-

Nate found a bar after that, ordered several strong drinks and consoled himself in them.

She was crazy, after all. Crazy, stupid, ridiculous.

Plus, she was a criminal.

She wasn’t to be trusted, and she deserved every bad thing that happened to her. The fact that she believed in forces bigger than herself -- well, that was her problem. No one was a villain in their own head; everyone wanted to be the hero of their own story.

Nate couldn’t change that, but he could make sure that she never had the chance to hurt anyone ever again.

And he could do it with the next one, and the next one, and the next one after that.

Claudia Sanderson’s life ended here and now.

Nate’s, though -- well, Nate’s was just beginning, and it had nothing to do with fate or chance or spells or magic.

Because, magic. Really? Nate worked with a team of experts, who could do anything at any time. They didn’t need magic. They just needed talent, hard work and persistence.

And please, soulbonding. That was actually funny. The idea that the universe could bind you together with someone, could entwine your life with others with a force you couldn’t fight. Things didn’t happen like that.

No, people made choices.

And people had to live with the consequences.

Sanderson would learn that someday.

God knew that Nate already had.

-o-

He checked out of the hotel after that, loading up his things into a rental car. This was nice, he told himself. A car to himself, an open road ahead of him. No responsibilities, no deadlines. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted. No arguments about where to stop to eat; no commentary about snacks on the road; no one fighting for the radio.

Just Nate.

He didn’t do this enough. He had tried to, but his team had made that impossible. They worked out of his apartment -- hell, they mostly lived there. Nate never had privacy, and he never had the ability to do things on his own terms. How long had it been? Since it’d just been him?

Not that he didn’t like his team, because he did. But he’d came back to work with a team, and here he was, in a will-they-won’t-they with Sophie and essentially raising three socially compromised criminals. It was relatively easy to keep them all alive when he compared it to keeping them all functional.

So he deserved. This was his chance to recuperate, spend some time with himself. He could go to New York, visit throughout the city. He could catch a show or visit the museums.

He could go to DC, too. Sam had always wanted to visit, to see the place where government happened.

Or he could go to the countryside, just like he always promised Maggie they would when they were married. She’d wanted to go to Ithaca or Niagara. Hell, it wouldn’t be too far to go to the Smokies.

The infinite possibilities reassured him and intrigued him.

Right up until he parked the car right outside McRory’s.

Nate winced, looking up.

So many possibilities.

One reality.

Swearing under his breath, he turned off the car.


-o-

Tempting as it was, Nate didn’t stop to get a drink.

It might be nice to think this was a sign of self control, but that wasn’t exactly true. It was just that he wanted to get upstairs.

No, he needed to get upstairs.

He’d driven all the way back, almost on autopilot, and he felt inexplicably drawn. Not that it was actually inexplicable. He’d been staying in a hotel; this was his chance to be home. Alone.

If there was no place he wanted to go and nothing he wanted to see, then two weeks by himself at home didn’t sound so bad.

And hey, with the rest of the team away, no one had to know that he hadn’t followed his own advice for less than four days.

That was his rationalization, anyway, as he unlocked his front door.

He stopped short, still in the entryway, staring as Hardison turned around with a bag of gummy frogs in his hand.

“Heeeey,” the younger man said, sounding surprised. “I thought you said two weeks.”

Nate inclined his head, stepping inside and putting his suitcase down. “And I thought you had plans.”

There was movement, and suddenly Sophie appeared on the stairs. She was toweling her hair dry, looking vexed. “I couldn’t get a flight,” she said.

Parker popped up from behind the kitchen counter. “If you’ve broken into one safe, you’ve broken into them all.”

Nate scowled at them, not sure what to say when the door opened behind him.

Eliot stopped and tried to back out when he realized there was nowhere he could go. Instead, he cleared his throat, closing the door behind him. “Two weeks, huh?” he asked, cheeks almost turning red.

Nate eyed him before taking in the others with a sweeping and probing look. “Yeah,” he said. “Two weeks.”

-o-

The thing was, they all had reasons.

Parker had been bored; Hardison had needed his gear. Sophie couldn’t pick an alias, and Eliot had forgotten about a date he’d scheduled.

Reasons, in this case, was another word for excuses.

“I thought you guys wanted the time,” Nate explained around the dinner table that night. No one had planned it, but they managed to make a three course meal with drinks all around without even talking about it.

“The last job was a little weird,” Hardison said.

“And we have been doing them back to back lately,” Eliot pointed out.

“And I think I spend more time here than I do at my own place,” Parker said.

“We’ve seen your place, Parker,” Eliot reminded her. “That’s not a bad thing.”

“Then what about you?” Parker said. “You complain all the time about things, and here you are.”

“That’s -- not the point,” Eliot faltered -- badly. “I just -- downtime can look like a lot of things, all right? What about the rest of you? Equipment? Flights? Really?”

“Hey,” Sophie objected. “I don’t need to travel to appreciate the finer things in life. If I was going to go through the hassle of a domestic flight, I needed it to be worthwhile.”

“But you were showering here,” Hardison said.

“Oh, like you hadn’t,” Sophie said. “I thought the towels seemed damp.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Nate said, holding up his hand to silence them. “All of you had other plans. And still, all of you ended up here?”

They exchanged guilty looks.

Eliot shrugged. “It’s not like I thought you guys would actually be here.”

“It was just chance,” Hardison agreed.

“Dumb luck,” Sophie said with an errant bob of her head.

Parker grinned. “Magic,” she said, waggling her eyebrows. “Right?”

“Right,” Nate said, poking at his dinner uncertainly. “Right.”

-o-

After dinner, they did the dishes and cleaned up. Eliot ran the water until it was scalding hot, and Hardison dried them before handing them off to Parker, who arranged them on the shelves while Sophie boxed up the leftovers. This wasn’t unusual, Nate told himself. They had been together for years now. They knew each other, and they responded to cues unconsciously. This was the sign of a good, functioning team -- the best team, really. They would never be able to do what they did in the field unless they could respond to each other like this in the off moments.

So This? This was normal.

Nate just hadn’t taken the time to notice it before.

It was impressive, to say the least.

It was also, just a little, overwhelming.

-o-

“So,” he said when dinner was done and they ended up in the living room. “If you don’t want two weeks to yourself, what do you want?”

Parker shifted in her seat, and Eliot studied his hands. Sophie fiddled with her hair, and Hardison shrugged.

“Look, man,” Hardison said. “I think I’m just ready for another job, is all. The last one? It was too easy. Magic notwithstanding, I didn’t even have anything to do.”

Eliot nodded. “I didn’t even get to hit anyone.”

“Or break into anything,” Parker said. “I really wanted to break into something.”

“It didn’t feel right,” Sophie said. “I couldn’t get you lot out of my head.”

“So you thought spending more time together was the only answer?” Nate asked, skeptical.

“Well, you’re here, too,” Sophie pointed out.

“I live here,” Nate said.

“And you think we don’t?” Hardison asked. “No matter what we think we want or what we think we can do, it all comes back here. It’s where we belong.”

“I like what we do,” Parker said.

“It’s good work,” Eliot agreed.

Sophie tilted her head at Nate, giving him a knowing look. “Unless you need some time.”

“No, no, no,” Nate said. “I’m just trying to understand, is all -- what you really want.”

“Is it so much what we want?” Sophie asked. “Or more of what we need?”

“And you -- each of you,” Nate said, looking at them each. “Need to work?”

“Hell, yes,” Hardison said while Parker and Eliot nodded.

“We did come back,” Sophie pointed out.

“Well, then,” Nate said, feeling himself start to smile. “Let’s get to work.”

-o-

Sure, they were tired and overworked. And yeah, they had some issues with trust and honesty. Nate probably overstepped his bounds, and his team was probably overconfident. They probably spent way, way too much time together.

Probably.

But that didn’t explain why it felt so good to be together again. Why it felt like all the pieces falling into place. The restlessness, the anxiety, the doubt -- it was gone, all of it. Because together, they were perfect.

Nate didn’t know how; he didn’t know why.

Those things didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were together again, and it was better this way. He had a team, he had a family, he had a job.

That was all Nate needed to know.

That was all Nate needed.

-o-

A dirty transit manager. A greedy manufacturing advisor. A duplicitous financial CEO.

They fell, one by one.

Each job easier, faster, better than the last.

It was flawless.

Life, as far as Nate could tell, was perfect.

Probably.

-o-

It was just the little things, really. Small things, unimportant things, strange things.

During the long work nights, when Hardison was camped out in his living room, Nate knew when he needed a fresh bottle of orange soda without being asked. Parker, out of nowhere, started making afternoon tea for Sophie, and once she inexplicably made the little finger sandwiches to boot. Hardison loaded Nate’s favorite music into his playlist, and random jazz sessions would start whenever Nate needed it most. One day, Sophie fixed Eliot’s hair with the right products and the right style, coiffing it to perfection. And Eliot discovered just the right spot to scratch on Parker’s back when she had an itch she couldn’t reach on her own.

The fact that none of it was weird was the weirdest thing of all.

-o-

It was nothing, though.

Really.

Nate refused to be held hostage to the idea, planted by a half-witted criminal who believed in magic. This team, what they had -- it wasn’t magic. It was just a natural progression. This was what happened when people lived together, worked together, existed together. It was a sign that they were the best, and Nate would not devalue what they had worked so hard to create by even considering otherwise.

Besides, there wasn’t time to think about pointless, superstitious nonsense.

Not when they had work to do.

Nate nodded at the screen. “Run it.”

Hardison killed the jazzy background music and cleared his throat while Parker rolled her shoulders. Without being asked, Eliot leaned forward, scratching between her shoulder braids while Sophie draped her finger on the back of the couch and fiddled with Eliot’s hair.

Nate already had the bottle of orange soda in his hand before he realized what was happening.

-o-

The problem was that there was no problem.

They were better than ever. Efficient and smart. They knew how to anticipate each other, and when one person was in need, the others filled in the blanks without being asked.

In the bar, after another job done, he poured a drink for Sophie and waited for her to take a sip.

“You don’t think...anything feels weird,” he said with a noncommittal shrug. “Do you?”

She sloshed the liquid in the glass. “With the drink?”

“No, the team,” he said, glancing to the booth where Parker, Hardison and Eliot were currently sharing a drink of their own.

“The team,” she repeated.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just on these last few jobs.”

“They’ve gone well, I think,” she said. “Really well, in fact.”

“That’s my point,” Nate said. “It doesn’t seem...weird?”

“Well, we do work hard to be on top of things,” she said, allowing herself another sip.

“So it seems normal, then,” he ventured awkwardly, nodding at the others again. “With the team.”

“Nate,” she said, sitting forward and putting her glass on the bar. “We’re more than a team by now. We’re a family. Isn’t this how families are?”

It occurred to him that Sophie probably didn’t know. None of them probably knew, not in a real sense. Parker and Hardison had grown up in the system, and whatever Sophie’s childhood had been, it had been something she’d left behind and not turned back to since. Eliot might have had a normal upbringing, but given his choice of occupation, he’d long since closed himself off to that.

Even Nate found it hard to remember sometimes, what it had been like with Maggie and Sam. He tried to remember, fleetingly, the Saturday mornings when Sam had climbed into bed with them or the chili macaroni Maggie used to make on cold winter nights. He remembered family vacations on the beach and Christmas morning with wrapping paper all over the living room.

But there had been more than that, too. There had been Sam’s stubborn disobedience, when he kicked and screamed while Nate sat him on timeout. There was the recurring fights he had with Maggie, about how much he worked and how much of Sam’s life he was missing. Family was the best thing, sure, but it was a struggle, too. It was never a given.

How often had he yelled at Maggie, wondering what the hell was going on in her head. How often had she chewed him out, demanding for some tiny insight what was going on in his. And how many times had he looked at Sam, wishing he knew, just for a second, what he was thinking.

“Besides, we know how badly things can go when we’re not on the same page” Sophie said with a shrug before she took the last sip from her glass. She pinned him with a quizzical expression. “Are you really going to complain?”

Nate glanced at Parker, Hardison and Eliot before taking a drink of his own. “No,” he agreed. “I guess I’m not.”

-o-

“Okay,” Nate said, pressing his finger discretely to his ear as he sat next to Hardison in the back of the van. “Remember, this is mostly just recon. We want to put some feelers out.”

“Copy that,” Eliot said with a grunt over the line. “Though I thought we’d decided against pizza delivery.”

“For a food company, sure,” Nate said. “This is a publisher. Still high security, but they’re probably not going to arrest you for showing up.”

“They’re also really clean,” Parker interjected. “Seriously, these people hardly produce any trash.”

“They just know not to leave it for janitors,” Sophie added in, coming into screen in a power suit and glasses. She adjusted the rims on her nose, rolling her shoulders. “I just hope that we picked the right role for me. If I get burned this early on, we’ll be short when we actually come up with a plan.”

“We’ll deal with that if it comes to that,” Nate supplied, nodding at Hardison to bring up multiple pictures so he could track the whole team at once. “Besides, you’re going to hit up one of the lower VPs for this. If we need to, we can send him on a sudden vacation and restart you with someone else.”

“I hear South Carolina is beautiful this time of year,” Hardison said, tapping a few keys.

Nate watched as Parker cleared security for the next level, and Eliot’s pizza passed inspection. Sophie leaned in at the desk and offered her card.

“Nice and easy, everyone,” Nate coached. “We just want to see what we’re up against and just how far the corruption goes.”

“I want to nail these guys so bad,” Hardison mused, shaking his head. “I mean, they stole ideas. From children. And then pretended to donate proceeds to a children’s hospital before laundering it back into their own pockets.”

Nate waved at him dismissively. “We’ll get there,” he said. “But first things first, all right?”

-o-

First things first.

And last things last.

Sophie picked the right VP and was so convincing that the man confessed to stumbling across the whole plot. While he was offering a full confession and granting Sophie complete password access, Parker broke into the secured server room on a distracted whim, giving Hardison precise remote access to all the company accounts. Eliot, as it so happened, delivered his pizza to a high level executive meeting with a listening device before flirting with a receptionist, who looked the other way while Nate swooped in with a quick cover Hardison put together on the fly. The end result was a powerpoint display during the executive meeting that uncovered the full extent of the CFO’s corruption, leading to an instant firing and the police being called. During all this, Hardison was able to track the money to several personal accounts and recovered enough to compensate their clients and then some.

“So,” Nate said, as they stood in a line, too surprised to gloat. “That went well.”

“No kidding,” Hardison said.

“Best recon ever,” Parker added.

“I still can’t believe we pulled that off,” Sophie said. “Well is an understatement.”

Eliot grunted, arms across his chest. “You think?”

“Oh yeah,” Nate said, watching as their mark was led away in handcuffs. “I know.”

-o-

They decided to celebrate, drinks and dinner back at Nate’s place.

At least, that was where they ended up.

Without talking about it.

The worst part was that Nate didn’t even give it a second thought until the others were asleep on the couch, and Nate was standing with blankets in hand to cover them up.

He draped one blanket over Sophie, tucking in the edges. He threw another over Hardison and Parker, who snuggled closer together. When he tossed the last one over Eliot, the younger man shifted, blinking open tired eyes.

When his eyes focused, he looked at the blanket. Then, he looked at Nate critically.

Nate shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “It seemed like the thing to do.”

Eliot scowled, but only briefly. “Everyone still here?” he asked, turning his head to look at the others.

“Yeah,” Nate said. “A little too much fun tonight, I guess.”

Eliot nodded, exhaling deeply. “Hell of a day.”

“Hell of a run,” Nate said. “But it’s…a little odd.”

Eliot hummed with a smile, blinking sleepily. “Odd’s not the word I’d use.”

Nate shifted, scratching the back of his neck. “Uncanny?”

“Special,” Eliot said. “Something about this team...something about us is special.”

“That doesn’t sound like you,” Nate observed.

Snuffling slightly, Eliot shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t say it doesn’t make me want to run sometimes,” he said. “Drives me crazy, thinking about how attached we are. How vulnerable that makes us. It’s a damn scary thing to be on a team this close. Every one of us is a liability.”

“So,” Nate said. “Why don’t you?”

Eliot’s expression was serious. “Because,” he replied. “The idea of leaving scares me more.”

Nate didn’t know what to say as he swallowed hard, the feelings almost choking him in the back of his throat. On the chair, Eliot’s eyes slid closed again, his breathing evening out into a seamless, perfect sleep. Nate watched him, watched the others.

His team.

Nate reached down, adjusting the blanket over Eliot again before standing back.

His team.

For all that it defied logic, and for all that it overwhelmed it, this was his. If he doubted his place in it or struggled with the implications, it was all made very, very simple in moments like this. Moments when he realized that for all that it didn’t make sense, it was also the only thing he understood completely and implicitly.

His team.

That meant something now, something more than he’d ever intended. Something more than he could ever explain.

Something more that he never wanted to lose.

Nate could fight that.

Or he could give in now.

Because he knew it was a fight he’d never win.

-o-

It was Nate’s inclination to give it time.

They’d been working hard lately. There was no need to push things, not from where they were at.

But Nate had this list of clients a mile long, and no matter how hard they all tried, they all ended up back in Nate’s apartment, staring at the wall.

Waiting.

Yearning.

“Okay, okay,” Nate said finally, gesturing to the wall. “Run it.”

No one had to say it, because they were all thinking the exact same thing.

About damn time.

-o-

Another day.

Another mission.

This one was long and complicated, involving a highly secretive security contractor with an intricate web of deception that defrauded his ex-wife and his brother. Who, as it turned out, were now in love with each other.

“That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” their client had asked.

Nate held his tongue and forced a smile. With his team?

Hardison beamed; Parker grinned. Eliot rolled his eyes, and Sophie took a sip of her drink.

“No,” Nate said, because he was still an honest man sometimes. “No problem at all.”

-o-

That wasn’t what they’d said, no more than three hours ago.

“Hell, Nate, this mission is nothing but problems,” Hardison told him.

“Yeah, I’m still not sure who’s who,” Parker said. “But look! He has a Glen-Reeder!”

“And far too many personal connections,” Eliot said. “This sort of thing -- this gets messy, real fast.”

“Which can be our in,” Sophie said.

“Yeah, and it can also get us killed,” Eliot said.

Nate shrugged. “Well, we don’t have to do this,” he said. “We can walk away.”

Parker wrinkled her nose. “And do what, exactly?”


“We are overdue for some vacation,” Hardison said.

“Up to you,” Nate said, taking a drink and hoping they couldn’t see just how much he was holding his breath.

Eliot was the first to shrug. “We already talked to the client.”

“And I still say this one is ripe for the taking,” Sophie said. “Long, but satisfying.”

“And did I mention that it’s a Glen-Reeder!” Parker said.

“Aw, hell, man,” Hardison said. “You know how I like a challenge.”

Nate took one last swig and set the glass down. “Okay, then.”

-o-

That was the past, though.

Nate needed to keep his mind in the present.

Job like this, he couldn’t afford any risks. There were too many working parts, too many variables. Too many ways for things to go wrong and for someone to get hurt.

Too many ways that he might compromise his team.

He wasn’t sure when it happened, when protecting his team became more important than getting the job done. He didn’t know how to quit, was the thing. He didn’t know how to quit either. It was a messy, complicated thing that he couldn’t quite get his mind around. How this team made him confident he could do anything, and how it left him terrified of everything.

Nate can plan a mission down to the tiniest detail.

But this? This life? This team?

This was never part of any plan.

Nate just couldn’t decide if that was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Or the worst.

-o-

There wasn’t any time to worry about that, at least.

Not on this job.

It wasn’t local, which always made things more complicated, and relocating to another city for two months was more than he usually asked of his team. It didn’t help that they were living in the same two-bedroom flat the whole time -- and no, none of them wanted to talk about the logistics of that.

They didn’t have a lot of time for sleep anyway.

Not with a con of this magnitude.

They all had parts to play -- multiple parts. It was a double-pronged attacked with infiltration at two different corporations, which meant they all needed to keep their stories straight at all times in order to avoid any slips. Sophie even had a third part, and Hardison still had to maintain ops, and Eliot had to perform security sweeps, and Parker had to break into five different vaults over a period of two weeks.

It should have been hard. It should have been impossible. They should have been stressed, frazzled and stepping on each other’s toes. Hardison’s empty bottles of soda, Eliot’s overuse of curry, Parker’s nonstop crunching of cereal, Sophie’s clothes all over everything -- it should have been too much.

It wasn’t, though.

It wasn’t even close.

It was seamless, as natural as breathing. They ebbed and flowed with each other, living in perfect tandem.

Five people, one life.

The job -- that was hard.

The team -- that was easier than ever.

-o-

“You know, if this goes wrong, the mark will kill us,” Eliot said over dinner one night.

“Us? The dude will blow up the whole damn island,” Hardison said.

Parker took a swig of her drink, shaking her head. “No, he’ll probably just incinerate us,” she said. “He basically turned his entire compound into a series of separate panic rooms.”

Nate chewed thoughtfully.

Sophie huffed. “He’s right on the edge, too,” she said. “He’s hooked, but given his unpredictability, he’s just as volatile if he believes us as if he doesn’t.”

Nate swallowed. “You want out? Is that it?” he asked.

They all looked at him.

Nate shrugged. “We can pull out, right now,” he said. “I can’t say I haven’t been thinking about it myself. We already siphoned off enough cash to reimburse the client, and it’s possible I could tip off Interpol to get him arrested.”

“Maybe,” Eliot said. “He’s so well protected that even Interpol would probably have a hard time going at him.”

“And even then, he’s got enough lawyers to bury them,” Hardison said.

“That’s not even fair,” Parker pouted. “He rips off people and uses their money to protect himself.”

“He is the worst sort of scum,” Sophie agreed.

He’d asked a lot of them before, too much. He’d risked more than he should and never left himself enough exits. The idea of it sobered him now, though. The idea of risking his team was worse than the thought of walking away.

That was the reason, naturally, that he knew they could do this.

That was also the reason that he already knew what they were going to say.

“He has to go down,” Eliot said.

“This is the only chance we’ll get,” Hardison said.

“We’ve taken down harder,” Parker said.

Sophie lifted her chin. “We can do it,” she said. “Together.”

Nate swallowed another bite, sitting back and nodding his head. “Okay,” he said. “As long as we’re agreed, then I won’t expect to have this conversation again.”