Well, this is it. The end. I planned to make this an epilogue, but as I was writing it I realized it was really the final course rather than dessert, so it's Chapter 30 (which makes my OCD heart go all aflutter).
Thank you to those of you who have stuck with me for the past year and half(!) of this story. I'm not sure how many of you are still out there, but judging by the reviews there's at least a few! You've kept me going and determined to finish. This was the first real anything I started writing, and I have learned so much from it. Thank you for reading and reviewing and letting me know that I don't suck at it!
So many, many thousands of thanks to Valawenel, who pushed me to write in the first place and has been nothing short of encouraging (and is a fantastic brainstorming soundboard), and quirkapotamus, whose fantastically intense betas are responsible for my writing improving by leaps and bounds from Chapter 1 to Chapter 30.
(Speaking of quirkapotamus: We plan to cowrite a story about Nate and Sophie's wedding, titled The Second Wedding Job — get it? But it takes place after her story The French Kiss Job, an amazing story which she hasn't quite finished yet. Do me a solid and go over there, read and review, and encourage her to finish!)
Thank you again for everything. This has been a wonderful experience, and it's not an overstatement to say that it's changed my life. Writing is a major hobby for me now, and I'm even plotting an original novel! Your encouragement has meant everything.
And now, without further ado, the final chapter.
"But I don't wanna go to bed!" Berto Ramirez flung himself dramatically to the floor of the family room, literally kicking and screaming, in a truly impressive tantrum.
Eliot gaped. He looked around the room; no one else seemed to think this was odd. Juan made himself busy with pouring another scotch, although Anita had warned him against having more before she'd gone to bed not fifteen minutes earlier.
Matty, mouth in a thin line, crossed his arms, thoroughly unimpressed. "Cut it out, Berto. It's past your bedtime."
Eliot noticed that Matty's Stern Dad Voice sounded eerily similar to the voice he used when giving orders to his men. He wondered how Maria felt about that.
"But I'm not tired!" Berto whined.
"I know you're not. That's because Uncle Eliot gave you cookies. And candy. And ice cream."
"And cake," Berto added in a whimper.
"Yes, how could I forget that?" Matty lifted an eyebrow the tiniest amount; the dark circles under his eyes implied he wasn't capable of much more.
Eliot gave an unapologetic shrug. "Was I supposed to say no?"
Berto's eyes widened in horror at such a suggestion. Matty leveled a devastating glare at Eliot — or tried to. It died on its way across the room; he was far too tired for anything stronger.
Eliot did feel the need to apologize for that. Matty hadn't slept in seventy-two hours, and that was his fault.
Well, mostly. Part of it was Maria's fault.
After their night of talks and toasting Pete, Eliot had made breakfast for Berto — his drunken optimism had been crushed by the toddler's stubborn and whining insistence on eating Choco O's, and only Choco O's, even from Uncle Eliot — and then crashed, sleeping off the booze for most of the day. Matty, however, had disappeared upstairs with Maria and reappeared an hour and a half later, showered, "refreshed" — Eliot mentally added the quotes, since it was obvious where his newfound energy had come from — grinning like a fool, and hardly slurring his words at all. He'd worked all day on zero sleep, and had looked more than ready to collapse into bed after dinner that night when Maria gasped.
"Matty," she said, panting. "My water just broke."
Matty paled for a nanosecond before summoning his brave soldier face. "Okay, don't panic," he said, though he sounded like he was assuring himself more than Maria. "We've done this before, we'll be fine. Just —"
"I swear to god, Ramirez," Maria snarled through a contraction. "If you tell me to 'Be a good soldier,' I will punch you in the face."
"Again," Juan muttered to Eliot. "He got a nasty black eye last time."
So Matty had spent the entirety of the previous night at the hospital with Maria during her nine hours of labor. He'd come home to tell them all the news — mom and babies happy and healthy — before going back to work until picking them up to visit Maria and the twins that afternoon.
And now, thanks to Eliot, he was fighting with a three-year-old on a sugar high. Eliot decided to make it up to him by forcing him to sleep all day tomorrow, which was, thankfully, Saturday.
Matty and Berto were arguing in Spanish now. Eliot wondered briefly who had made the switch; Matty usually only shouted obscenities in Spanish.
"Dammit, Berto, this isn't up for debate!" Matty yelled in English. "Get your ass upstairs and into your pajamas."
Berto's tantrum ceased in an instant; the only evidence that he'd been upset were a few crocodile tears running down his cheeks.
"Mama says that's a bad word." He actually crossed his pudgy little arms and scowled.
Matty took an almost identical stance. Eliot bit his lip to keep from laughing at the showdown.
"You know what else Mama said?" Matty asked. "She said you were supposed to be good for Papa. So you tell her what I did, I'll tell her what you did, and we'll see who comes out on top."
"But I wanna play with Uncle Eliot!" Berto's whine reached ear-piercing levels as he changed tactics, launching himself at Eliot's knees.
Eliot winced at the sound, but he couldn't help a smile; he had a soft spot for the kid.
"Hey," he said, lifting the boy's chin. "What color is … this?" He pulled a card from his pocket, on which he'd colored a square in red marker. They'd been practicing with it all day.
"Red!" Berto chirped.
"And this?" Eliot pulled out a second card, which had a blue square on it.
Berto grinned, slapping Eliot's extended hand.
"We'll show that to your mom tomorrow."
Out of the corner of his eye, Eliot saw Matty tense; his brave soldier face was up.
Eliot's own excitement deflated. He and Matty were on much better footing after their drunken talk, but there were still moments of tension between them — comments at dinner a bit too sharp to be civil, cheerful tones that rang just a little false, strained silences that said more than either. They might have been friends, and their friendship might have been built on a more solid foundation than before, but things would never be perfect. There would always be sensitive topics and points of contention.
One of those points of contention was Berto. "Tío Eliot" was his new favorite person, and because Matty worked during the day and had been at the hospital the previous night, Tío Eliot had spent more time with Matty's son in the past seventy-two hours than Matty had. Of course he was upset about that. And Eliot had promised himself he would make a concerted effort in his relationship with Matty. It was the least he could do for Pete — and himself.
So he swallowed his pride and said, "Hey, Berto, remember what we talked about today? About your dad?"
Matty frowned at Berto's eager nod.
"He's a general now!" the toddler said, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet. "Like Abuelo Flores and Abuelo Ramirez!"
Brave soldier face or not, Matty couldn't hide just a hint of pride as his the corners of his mouth quirked up.
"That's right," said Eliot. "And what do we do when generals are around?"
"We salute!" Berto turned and gave his father what had to have been the most adorable, if not entirely regulation, San Lorenzan salute ever.
Matty's brave soldier face slipped another notch; his eyes softened and crinkled at the edges.
"And?" Eliot prompted.
Berto looked at his feet and said dejectedly, "We follow orders."
"Why?" Eliot asked.
"Because generals are heroes." At that, Berto spun and ran to Matty, who crouched to receive him, and threw his little arms around his father's neck. "Te amo, Papa."
Matty's brave soldier face melted away, and he smiled. "Te amo, mijo." He held his son for a few moments, then cleared his throat. "Now, go get your pajamas on."
"Yes, sir!" said Berto with another adorable salute. He ran from the room.
Matty rose, smiling after him for a moment before turning back to Eliot and put his hands in his pockets thoughtfully. "You teach him all that?"
"Most of it," Eliot said. "Though the answer was supposed to be, 'because that's how the army works,' not that crap about heroes."
Matty snorted. "He probably got that from Maria. I don't like that word."
"Me, either," Eliot agreed.
"The true heroes usually don't," said Juan from his spot in the corner.
Matty gave Juan a flat look and very nearly rolled his eyes, though Eliot wasn't sure if it was respect or exhaustion that held him back. If he'd seen Juan every day for the past eight years and been currently running on no sleep, perhaps he'd roll his eyes at one of those annoyingly-timed inspirational comments, too.
But to Eliot, the remark seemed particularly paradoxical coming from Juan.
"And you, sir?" he asked. "Do you consider yourself a hero?"
Matty stood up a little straighter, eyes flicking eagerly between Eliot and Juan.
Although Juan clearly hadn't been expecting it, the question didn't catch him off-guard. On the contrary, he smiled at Eliot like a teacher whose favorite student had just posed a fascinating discussion topic.
"I joined the military and the San Lorenzo Independence Movement at a time when the two were considered mutually exclusive. After becoming embroiled in a series of heavily publicized events —"
"Did one of those happen to be being arrested by Anita's brother?" Eliot asked.
Juan paused for a patient second, then resumed speaking as though he hadn't been interrupted. "— the media and large sections of the country in general dubbed me a hero to the cause. It took me years to understand that the people who did so didn't do it for me. They did it for them. A hero gives people someone to believe in, which is far more integral to winning a war than guns or money or soldiers. So while I've never truly identified with the term, I long ago accepted it as a part of the image others have of me."
"So, no," Matty said. "You don't consider yourself a hero."
"Which, by your logic, means you really are one," added Eliot.
"Busted." Matty's eyes twinkled. "You have no room to talk."
Juan shook his head with a chuckle, but Eliot thought he saw the slightest tinge of pink in his cheeks.
Berto had reappeared in the same clothes he'd been wearing when he left.
Matty turned, still grinning from the exchange, but at the sight of his son, his eyes widened to an almost comical size. He jumped back as though he couldn't comprehend what he was seeing and swore severely in Spanish.
"Dammit, Berto, why aren't you in your pajamas?"
"Can Cincona sleep with me in my bed? ¿Por favor?"
At the sound of her new name, the puppy formerly known as Sparky/Gigabyte/Emma popped to her feet with a little yap, jumped down from the couch, and skittered across the floor into the open arms of her excited new owner. Eliot had promised Parker he'd find the puppy a loving home, and after bonding with Berto that first night and the following day, he'd decided to give her to his nephew. Berto had named her Cincona, which meant cinnamon in Spanish, because, with her black fur speckled with shades of brown, "she looks like she fell in cincona!"
As the puppy jumped up to lick Berto's face, eliciting a wave of giggles, Matty glared once again at Eliot. The glare hit its mark this time; he was definitely still pissed about that. Maria had been ecstatic that Eliot's "three years' worth of birthday presents" meant he would be a larger part of Berto's life; Matty had groaned at the addition of yet another thing that would whine and pee in places it wasn't supposed to.
"Fine," Matty said to his son. "But bed. Now."
Berto scurried out, Cincona chasing after him.
Eliot smirked. "Come on, General. You can command the entire San Lorenzan army, but you can't handle a three-year-old, newborn twins, and a puppy?"
Matty's eyes narrowed. "The army doesn't pee on the floor and chew up my shoes."
"Usually," Juan muttered from behind Eliot.
Eliot laughed, and Juan joined in, as much at the comment as at Matty's reaction: he let loose a deep, heavy, almost adolescent-grade sigh of the same magnitude that Hardison usually reserved for Eliot's most egregious technological mistakes.
"You know," he said. "I never pegged Eliot Spencer as the sentimental type." He pulled out his phone and started typing. "Maria said this would be too mean, but we'll see how she feels about it the first time she has to clean dog shit off the floor."
"What are you doing?" Eliot demanded.
Matty finished with a flourish and held out the phone.
On it was a photo of Eliot, napping on one of the couches in the family room. A sleeping Berto, thumb in his mouth and butt in the air, snuggled on Eliot's chest, and Cincona, also snoozing, sprawled across his legs.
The photo was in a text message that had just been sent to Alec Hardison.
"Dammit, Ramirez!" Eliot lunged for the phone.
Matty yanked it just out of reach with a far too gleeful cackle. "Night, El," he sing-songed, and, with a cavalier wave over his shoulder, he left.
Juan laughed and handed Eliot a cigar and a glass of scotch. Eliot growled, but followed him out the French doors of the family room and into the beautiful, darkening evening.
Eliot found it difficult to stay angry once he stepped out onto the balcony, which boasted a breathtaking view of the grounds and the city not far beyond. Juan lit his cigar and held the lighter so Eliot could do the same. The cool, gentle breeze from the Mediterranean mingled with the day's hot humidity, making for a warm evening that reminded Eliot how much he'd missed San Lorenzo itself. He breathed in the sea air and felt a sense of calm wash over him. San Lorenzo was a beautiful country. A great place to spend the next two weeks.
"You look … happy." Juan was watching him, a contented smile on his face.
"So do you, Grandpa."
Juan's smile morphed into a joyous grin. "Not only do I have two new little ones to spoil, but they were born into a new era of San Lorenzo. They will grow up in the country I always dreamed of."
Eliot puffed silently on his cigar. He hadn't thought anything could possibly best the light-hearted happiness he'd felt at Berto's innocent giggles of excitement, but visiting Maria and the babies in the hospital that day had done it. Maria had insisted he hold the twins for at least a few minutes, and so he'd been presented with the two purest, most precious little creatures he'd ever laid eyes on.
He hadn't been able to tell them apart; all babies looked the same to Eliot, and it didn't help that Maria insisted on dressing them in green and yellow because she didn't want "their first interaction with the world to be through stereotyped, gender-specific colors!"
The girl, swathed in a mint green blanket, fidgeted and fussed the entire time Eliot held her — "La chica only wants to make herself heard, like her mama!" Maria said proudly — and she only settled down when she was whisked away to be fed. They'd named her Eva Anita Sophia, Eva after Matty's mother, Anita after Maria's, and Sophia after —
"You've got to be kidding me," Eliot had said.
Maria had been sitting in bed, an attention-starved Berto clutching her desperately. "Everyone is going to be naming their daughters Rebecca now. It'll be the number one name in the country for years. But my daughter will have a unique, beautiful name in honor of three brave women —"
"Which you won't be able to explain because no one knows who the hell Sophie Devereaux is," Eliot finished. He didn't have the heart to tell them that Sophie Devereaux wasn't even her real name.
Matty shrugged. "That's not really important. Or the point."
"Consider it our way of thanking her and the rest of your team for everything they did for San Lorenzo," Maria said.
"She's going to be impossible to live with after this," Eliot muttered.
The boy was the opposite of his sister in every way. He just lay there, content in his sunshine yellow blanket and matching hat, big brown eyes wide and staring at Eliot, oblivious to the cries of Eva. After she was taken away, he stayed in Eliot's arms for nearly fifteen minutes, yawning more and more frequently until his little eyes finally drooped closed, his tiny hand wrapped around Eliot's finger.
His name was Peter Eliot.
"After the two matchmakers who made all this possible," Maria said, arm wrapped around Berto and hand intertwined with Matty's as she nursed Eva.
Eliot had no words. He lowered his gaze to little Peter Eliot, whose sleeping face was obscured by tears everyone pretended not to notice.
When he was sure he could speak, he did what Pete would have done: he cracked a joke.
"And all this time I thought Pete was telling jokes, not fortunes. I wonder how many other of his wisecracks will turn out to be prophetic."
Everyone laughed. He didn't say anything more, but Maria and Matty seemed to understand.
Juan spoke, bringing Eliot back to the warm Mediterranean evening on the balcony. "You know, they considered naming him Eliot Peter."
Eliot gave an exaggerated grimace. "The son of the future first female president of San Lorenzo" — they exchanged a smile at that; Eliot had no doubt about how far Maria would go — "is already going to stand out from everyone, including his siblings, because he has two American-sounding names. If the poor kid went by Eliot, he'd get beat up on the playground every day."
Juan raised an eyebrow. "Did you?"
"How do you think I learned to fight?" Eliot said with a smirk.
Juan rewarded the remark with a gentle smile that seemed to indicate he read the truth behind Eliot's statement. He took a sip from his scotch and brought his cigar to his lips, regarding the beautiful view in silence.
"Don't think I didn't notice your deft deflection, Commander," he said after a bit. Smoke followed the words from his mouth. "You seem happy. Relaxed."
"Seemed more like an observation than something that needed a response."
Juan narrowed his eyes; the man knew him too well.
"So why are you avoiding the topic? Is it about the photo?"
Eliot blew out a short, smoky breath. "I'm never going to hear the end of that one, am I?"
"Why does it bother you?"
"Because Hardison and the team will make a big deal of it, and it's not."
Eliot didn't answer.
"In all the time I've known you, I've never seen you sleep," Juan said. "You would come over for dinner, and inevitably Maria or Matty or Pete would fall asleep after a long evening, but you never did. And I know you haven't slept much this week." He stared into the night, puffing on his cigar. "And today I walked in to check on you and Berto, and there you were, napping. With a toddler on your chest and your back to the door. They might poke fun, but if your team knows you as well as I think they do, they'll see the importance of that photo." He turned to face Eliot. "You have every right to be happy and relaxed. I think you've earned it. Promise me you'll try to enjoy yourself and stop worrying."
Eliot gave a small chuckle. Juan knew him too damned well. "I'll try, sir."
Juan nodded. "Did you get that message from Hardison?"
Juan avoided his gaze, a little sheepish. "When you were sleeping, your phone buzzed, and I checked it to make sure it wasn't anything important. Was it? Something about accounts being set up."
Next time Eliot saw Hardison, he'd finally swallow his pride and risk the hacker's wrath in order to password protect his phone, which he'd been trying to figure out on his own for months.
"Three accounts, he said, under the names you'd sent him, ready to receive deposits." Juan seemed to be intently focused on his scotch, but Eliot knew he was anything but. "What does that mean?"
Eliot sighed. The jig was up, anyway. "I asked Hardison to set up a trust fund for each of the kids. For college or whatever. They can't access it until they turn eighteen."
Juan raised an eyebrow. "How much?"
"A million U.S."
Juan whistled. "Divided three ways, that's a little more than three hundred thousand each. That should pay for college and then some."
Eliot shook his head. "No. A million each."
Juan's jaw dropped. "Eliot Spencer, how on earth do you have access to that much money?" His expression darkened. "Is it stolen?"
Eliot winced. This was one of the reasons he hadn't wanted to tell anyone. "Not exactly. It's just … not entirely legally obtained. Unless you consider insider trading stealing."
Juan opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed it again a second later with a shake of his head. "No. I don't want to know. But, can you afford it?"
Eliot smiled. Juan was prepared to overlook illegally obtained funds, but not Eliot giving away all his money. "I'll be fine."
Juan nodded, appeased. "Maria and Matty will never accept that."
"Which is why the money isn't in their names and isn't accessible until the kids turn eighteen." Eliot gave Juan a discerning look. "Can you keep a secret, sir?"
Juan grinned. "For my grandbabies, I think I can manage."
They settled into a long, comfortable silence, sipping scotch, smoking cigars, watching the remaining sunlight fade into darkness, which revealed more stars than Eliot had seen in a long time.
Juan spoke so quietly Eliot almost missed it. Eliot turned to him and saw only his dim profile in the light coming from the house. Juan was looking out over the beautiful evening.
"For what?" Eliot asked.
Juan didn't move or speak for several seconds, and when he did it was only to bring his glass to his lips.
"For everything." Again, Juan's voice was almost inaudible. Then he cleared his throat and spoke a little more loudly. "I know that the real reason you returned to San Lorenzo after all this time was because I was arrested. You and your team defeating Moreau was merely a means to an end."
Eliot turned away. "It was my fault."
"It was not," Juan said sternly. "I understood the risk I was taking. And I know that you'd have done the same even if you hadn't felt responsible."
Eliot saw the end of Juan's cigar burn bright red as he took a drag, held the smoke in his mouth, and exhaled it again a dozen seconds later.
"You returned to save me. Again." The words were ragged.
Eliot took a painful swallow of scotch and prepared to speak.
"And please do not belittle it by insisting it doesn't count, or only counts as a half." Juan's voice had a sharp, almost raw edge to it as he seemed to read Eliot's thoughts. "What you've done is worth more to me than some dismissive, pithy remark."
Eliot's stomach became a fist, clenching in guilt. "Sir, I never meant to —"
"I know." Juan's tone softened. "I just wish you could see your decision to disobey Moreau, which effectively signed your death warrant, as the courageous act that it was, and one that saved my life."
Eliot sighed. "And I wish you could see that for me, choosing not to kill you is not the same as saving your life."
Juan brought his glass to his mouth, took a long drink, and lowered it to the railing of the balcony again. "That is what you have never understood. It wasn't your choice not to kill me that saved me."
Eliot blinked. "What?"
The red light of Juan's cigar shook in the darkness as he brought the other end to his mouth, and his entire outline seemed to stiffen. He didn't speak for nearly a minute.
When he finally did, his tone was normal. Conversational. "Matty said that Parker and Hardison gave Moreau's gold bars to Our Lady of Good Counsel orphanage. That was incredibly generous of them."
Eliot had no clue where this was going, or how it was connected to what Juan had said just a moment before, but he didn't interrupt with an impertinent question. "Yeah. You have no idea how big a deal it was for Parker to do that. She loves gold. Like, a creepy amount."
He gave a forced chuckle. Juan didn't show any signs of laughter.
"He also said you seemed surprised to discover I was an orphan," Juan said. "I didn't intentionally keep it from you. I just don't, as a rule, bring it up in normal discussion. But I never knew my parents. I was raised by the Felician nuns who ran, and still run, the orphanage."
Juan paused to savor the smoke of his cigar and continued. "It seems counter-intuitive, but it's quite lonely growing up in an orphanage. I never knew what it was like to have a family. So as I grew up, my friends became my family. I met Enzo when we started school — we became best friends right away. Eva came to the orphanage when I was ten. She … well, she was not unlike Parker in many ways. She had a horrible, abusive past, and it affected her for the rest of her life. I decided to take care of her, like the little sister I never had."
Eliot remembered how understanding Matty, Maria, and Juan had been around Parker, and wondered if that had to do with Matty's mother.
"When we entered secondary school, Raul joined our little family." Juan's tone dimmed at the mention of Colonel Raul Escobar. "And after we graduated and I'd been in the military for a few years, I met and married Anita." An audible smile banished the gloom, and his voice became even brighter than before. "Enzo, Raul, and I rose in the ranks and became leaders in the military of the new, independent San Lorenzo, and Anita served a term in the new parliament. We helped to bring democracy, slowly but surely, to the people, and our little family started to grow. Berto came, and Matty soon after, and then Maria a few years later. I finally had the family I'd always dreamed of as a child."
Eliot's heart ached with the knowledge of what came next.
"Until Damien Moreau came to power." Juan's entire demeanor changed. His voice lowered in pitch and volume, and his shoulders seemed to slump. "Enzo was a brilliant tactician, and he always insisted on leading his men. But we didn't realize we were fighting a different type of war. He and his men were ambushed, and, true to fashion, Enzo made sure they all returned alive. But he sacrificed his life doing it."
Juan took several long puffs from his cigar. When he continued, Eliot was surprised at the steadiness of his voice. "Enzo was Eva's rock, helping her cope with everything she'd been through in her life, and suddenly he was gone. She died not long after."
Before he could stop it, pain at the imagined loss of one of his team flashed across Eliot's thoughts. Unlike usual, though — imagining the death of someone he cared for was not an uncommon occurrence for Eliot — he ached, not for himself, but at the thought of Parker's reaction. If something happened to Hardison or the any of the rest of them, would she break like Eva Ramirez had?
"I'd never known such pain and loss." The calm acceptance of Juan's tone belied his words. "I'd finally built a family, finally understood the love and belonging, when two of the people I'd known and loved the longest were ripped from me so soon after one another."
Eliot's throat constricted. He couldn't fathom the strength Juan possessed to speak of those melancholy memories with such tranquility. Hell, he could barely speak Pete's name without having a nervous breakdown or being severely intoxicated. Or both.
"And if that wasn't difficult enough,Anita and Isuddenly found ourselves withcustody of an angry, confused, grieving eleven-year-old boy." Only a suddenly tense pause gave any indication that Juan was affected by his own words. "It is … difficult, trying to father the son of your best friend after his death. Especially when, in one of the darker moments, that lonely, grieving little boy accuses you of trying to replace his father, blames you for his father's death, wishes you had died instead, and assures you that he hates you and always will. And what hurts the most is how much he reminds you of his father when he says it."
Juan's voice shook at the end, and Eliot finally realized how deep the problems of Juan and Matty's relationship ran. He'd thought they'd begun with his own arrival, or even Berto's death, but they'd actually been simmering for more than a decade prior. It was a testament to both men that their current relationship was one of hard-earned and genuine admiration, respect, and love.
"Raising Matty was one of the most difficult challenges of my life, and I am so proud of the man he's become." Juan's words were thick with a mixture of emotions, grief and pride foremost among them. "I only hope that Enzo, wherever he is, feels the same."
Eliot cleared his throat, determined to provide Juan with the encouragement and assurance Juan had always given him. "Matty is a good, kind, honest man. That's because of you. I think Enzo would be proud of you both, and grateful to you for everything you've done for his son."
Some of the tension leeched from Juan.
"Gracias," he said softly.
He took a deep breath, and Eliot expected his words to tumble out, eager to make their point. Instead, Juan spoke slowly and deliberately, like he was delaying the inevitable.
"In spite of all that, my family managed. We survived and even thrived, and before I knew it, the boys and Maria were all grown up." He smiled, though it was forced, and spoke to Eliot as though conveying a secret. "That's something they don't tell you about children — one moment you're holding the in the hospital, and in the blink of an eye, they're grown men joining the army. And then —"
Juan exhaled a shaky breath that seemed to be trying hard not to be a sob. He fell silent for several seconds, during which he puffed on his trembling cigar.
"The worst day of my life was the day my little boy returned from a mission with a hole in his head."
The sheer agony in Juan's voice caused the beautiful San Lorenzan evening to blur in front of Eliot's eyes.
"They say the pain of losing a child is unlike any other. I wouldn't know." The agony dissolved into a distant numbness. "I never felt anything. It was like my heart just … vanished. And in its place was a vast emptiness that I knew could never, ever be filled again. I didn't get angry. I didn't feel any hatred toward Moreau or the men who'd killed him. I didn't even cry. My child died horrifically, and I didn't even cry."
The emptiness in Eliot's own chest swelled in empathetic pain. Oh, how he understood.
"I did question," said Juan. "In a detached sort of way. Children are supposed to outlive their parents. What happened was wrong. I'd survived decades of fighting. How was it that my boy couldn't even make it five years? That was when I started to blame myself, but again, not in an aggressive way. Berto and I had argued several months before about strategy. He insisted we couldn't win by only fighting to protect people; we had to fight back, and not just with guns. He'd never liked the rigidity of the military, and he told me he wanted to enter politics, to win the hearts of the people. But I'd been doing this for several decades. I knew better. I called him naive." His voice softened to a whisper. "After that, he stopped fighting me about it and followed my every order."
Juan smashed the nub of his cigar into the railing and hurled it into the night, and his tone grew harsh. "What kind of father teaches his child to love a doomed country; raises him, by word and example, to want to fight for her; and in the end not only fails to protect him from the dangers of that devotion, but even places him in harm's way against his wishes? What kind of general sends boys — children — to fight his impossible war? What kind of man fights for his entire life and sacrifices his child for a pipe dream, and still can't accomplish his goal?"
Eliot gripped the railing for support. Hearing Juan, the man who'd saved him, who had given him strength when he'd needed it, talk in such a way about himself was almost beyond bearing.
"I ceased to be a good general. I just couldn't force myself to send other men's sons to their deaths. And my family …" Juan brought his glass to his mouth and took a long, slow drink from it. The angle of the glass's tilt told Eliot that he'd emptied it. "When Maria wasn't in her room or crying into her dinner, she was struggling with her studies. Anita planned the funeral all by herself and kept the house, and some of the more bureaucratic aspects of the military, from falling to pieces in my absence. But at least I only avoided them. I was downright cruel to Matty. As he'd grown older, he resembled Enzo. Now, he not only reminded me of my late friend, but it felt like God was shoving him in my face as a reminder that I couldn't save my own son. Sometimes it was just easier to pretend he didn't exist. Even when we were in the same room, participating in the same conversation."
His voice broke, and so did Eliot's heart. It was telling, he thought, that it was the confession of his treatment of Matty that had finally pushed Juan past the edge of steadfast emotional control.
But General Flores gathered himself once again and continued after only a moment. "Eventually I just stopped caring. I couldn't save my baby boy, and I was losing a war and my family at the same time. What was the point?"
Placing his empty glass on the railing, Juan turned to Eliot for the first time since he'd begun his story. Eliot saw, through the light from the French doors, fresh tear tracks on the man's cheeks.
"That was when you broke down my door, Eliot. I wasn't lying when I told you that I was prepared to die. I hoped you would do it. I felt that it would be ... better."
Eliot swayed with the force of that revelation. He hadn't known Juan had been so hopelessly heartsick. Juan's words from the day of Pete's death came back to him.
"He wanted to die, Eliot."
Had Juan been talking about himself as much as Pete?
Juan's eyes closed, but though they opened again almost immediately, they couldn't have been more different. The despair had been replaced by a fire, not unlike the one that always burned in Maria's eyes.
"And then you hesitated. I watched you physically struggle with the decision. I saw you battle your inner demons, and I stared in awe as you beat them. You, a man for whom I'd only ever felt loathing and disgust, had decided to do the right thing. That's when I knew that my job wasn't done yet. I had a purpose again. I finally understood what Berto always had — that the military needed to do more than be on the defensive. We needed to strike back, and the fights wouldn't always be on the battlefield. The tide started to turn when you agreed to give us information, and we began to attack in addition to defending. I remembered how to be a good husband, a loving father to Maria — and, eventually, to Matty. And I started to help you be the best man you could be. When you outed Raul and brought Berto's killer to justice, I knew without a doubt that I had made the right choice."
His brow furrowed, and he took Eliot by the arms. His hold was desperate but gentle, unsteady but strong.
"You told me once that you wished you'd been able to meet Berto because you thought he could have convinced you to leave Moreau sooner. But I believe with all my heart that my son arranged for you to kill me in order to save us both."
Eliot's eyes filled with tears, and despite his best efforts to contain them, they rolled down his cheeks. All this time he'd thought he owed Juan a debt that could never be repaid, and Juan had felt exactly the same way.
His thoughts strayed again to the day Pete had died.
"Eliot, until you came to us, Pete shut everyone out. Then after what happened with Escobar, he latched onto you. He opened up, came out of his shell. He was a completely different Pete than we'd known before."
Whether he'd intended to or not, Juan had been describing himself. Until the end.
"Pete never recovered from losing Sarah. Not even with your help. And he was never going to."
Unlike Pete, Juan had recovered. Eliot had saved Juan just like Juan had saved him.
Juan took a deep breath and sighed with what sounded like intense relief. "In the years since you left, I have regretted that I never told you just how much you had done for me. And now you're here, and you saved me yet again. Anita's been telling me I need to talk with you."
The mother-daughter resemblance was becoming more and more apparent. The Flores women knew what was what.
Juan chuckled. Eliot could hear the lightness in it, and it made him smile.
But he didn't know how to respond to Juan's revelation. How could he repay such openness?
With the truth.
"I don't — I —" His voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes, turning away when he realized Juan could probably see his tears.
"Thank you," he whispered. "From you, that means …" He frowned. What did it mean? "Everything. Because you saved me, too, sir. From … myself."
Juan placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know. And it's only in the years you've been gone that I came to realize that the reason you insisted on arguing about halves was because you didn't understand. You thought you could never repay me, but you already had."
Fresh tears escaped, and Eliot tried to wipe them surreptitiously.
Juan's hand squeezed his shoulder gently. "I am so proud of you."
Eliot inhaled sharply and spun to face Juan, whose smile was so loving it brought more tears to Eliot's eyes.
"Even after — ?" He'd done so many horrible things, and just last week …
"You're not — ?"
Juan's expression flashed briefly with pain. "How can you still think I could be disappointed? The only thing that disappoints me is that you would ever think I'd be disappointed in you. I could never be disappointed in any of my children."
Eliot felt his eyes widen.
"Eliot." Juan grabbed him by the arms, in that hold that Eliot loved, and pulled him close. "It isn't possible for someone to save me the way you did, and me not love them like family in return."
Damn the man. How could Eliot keep his emotions under control when Juan kept saying things like that? He let out a tiny sob and catapulted past boy-crying.
Juan placed a hand on his cheek. "I am proud of you, Eliot Spencer. I know that's difficult for you to believe, but I have always been able to see the good in you. And I think you're finally starting to see it, too, thanks to your new family. With them, you are doing more good than I ever imagined possible, and I hope that someday you'll be able to see yourself the way your team and I see you — as a good man who has done some not-so-good things. I have always believed that you are your own worst punishment. I just hope that someday you'll realize you've been punished enough."
Eliot hoped so, too.
"Thank you, sir," was all he managed to say.
"And thank you, mijo."
Juan pulled him into a hug, which they held for a long time.
"If you like," Juan said into Eliot's shoulder. "You can continue to make the 'half' joke. I only wanted you to know that as far as I'm concerned —"
"We're even," Eliot said softly.
Juan made a small hiccuping noise. "Yes."
They stayed that way for a while longer, each comfortable in the arms of the man who had saved him.
Then Eliot's phone rang.
They both started, and, much to Eliot's chagrin, Juan pulled away. Eliot didn't make a move to answer the phone.
"Are you going to get that?" Juan asked.
Eliot sighed. He checked the caller I.D.
It was Hardison.
"It might be important," said Juan.
"Yeah, I bet it is," Eliot grumbled. He answered the call with a snapped, "What?"
Juan frowned at that, so Eliot turned away from him.
"Hey man, listen," Hardison rattled off. "I know it's late there, but it's damned early here, so maybe don't be so rude, okay? Not like I want to be making phone calls right now. I just got home and planned to sleep for days —"
Eliot pinched the bridge of his nose. "Hardison, get to the point."
"Okay, but first I want to say that I'm just the messenger, so if you're gonna Hulk out, it should really be at Nate, not at me, and —"
"Hardison," Eliot said through gritted teeth.
The hacker took a deep breath. "Nate's got a job for us. In Alaska. He wants us to meet in Boston tomorrow and fly to Alaska the day after."
"Dammit, Hardison! We said two weeks!"
"I'm just the messenger! The messenger!"
Eliot felt a growl begin to rumble in his throat. "Right. The sender and I are going to have a little talk."
"Do what you want as long as it doesn't involve me, but he was pretty insistent. Oh!" Hardison's voice brightened a few kilowatts. "I just got the most interesting text from Matty. You are so —"
Eliot hung up before he heard what he was "so."
"Problem?" Juan asked. He had brought out a bottle of scotch and was pouring them both fresh glasses and cutting the ends off two new cigars.
Eliot dialed a number and raised the phone to his ear. "Everything's just peachy."
"I can see that."
He shot Juan a glare over his shoulder as he turned away to speak again. He didn't have to. Nate's phone went to voicemail.
"Dammit." He punched the screen harder than was necessary and sent a text.
From Eliot Spencer: Fuck off. We said two weeks.
Juan spoke, reading the text over Eliot's shoulder. "You should be kinder to him."
"Kinder?" Eliot's jaw dropped. "The man's an egomaniacal, workaholic, alcoholic control-freak. We agreed to lie low. You have no idea the types of things he's done that put the team at risk —"
"And you have no idea of the kind of pain he's in." Juan's tone was softly stern.
Eliot froze. "He told you?"
Juan shook his head. "It's not something you share. But there were a few children at the celebration the other night, and I could tell by the way he looked at them …" He broke off. "The pain will never fade, but you and your team are helping him heal by giving him the same gift that you gave me."
Eliot's anger faltered, and his guilt flared up again.
His phone beeped.
From Nate Ford: This job can't wait.
Eliot sighed. Be kinder, he reminded himself.
From Eliot Spencer: Promised my nephew I'd take him to the park tomorrow. You want to disappoint a 3yo? We said 2 wks.
Juan handed Eliot a scotch. They both lit their new cigars — Eliot's original one had long since burned to a nub.
They drank and puffed. Eliot tried to focus on the sweet flavor of the cigar smoke, but he was too tense to enjoy it.
After a century and a half, his phone beeped.
From Nate Ford: Meet us in AK day after tomorrow.
Eliot slammed his glass down a little too hard and took a deep breath, readying himself for a rant.
Then his phone beeped again.
From Nate Ford: This job's tricky. We need you on this one, Eliot.
If Nate was calling it tricky, that meant it was practically impossible. And Nate would do the job with or without him, which meant the team could be in serious danger.
But he'd promised to spend two weeks catching up with the Floreses.
"Go," said Juan. His smile showed only the barest hint of disappointment, which made Eliot's heart ache.
"No," Eliot said, starting to type an answer. He wouldn't do this to Juan. Not after everything he'd confessed tonight.
"How many times has Nate Ford told you he needs you?"
Eliot's fingers froze over the screen. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Juan's smile widen.
"Go. Do good. Your new family needs you. Your old one can wait."
Eliot closed his eyes and cursed Nate Ford.
From Eliot Spencer: OK. AK in two days.
Juan picked up Eliot's glass and handed it to him.
The phone beeped.
From Nate Ford: Say hi to your nephew for me. Cute pic.
Eliot groaned. Damn Matty and Hardison and the rest of those thieves.
Juan chuckled. "Tell me how you first met them."
A smile came to Eliot's lips, unbidden. He hated them. And he loved them.
Guess that's what family was.
So he told Juan about getting a call from Victor Dubenich. He'd have tonight and most of tomorrow to spend with the Floreses.
And when he got to Alaska — seriously, fucking Alaska? — he was going to kill Nate.
Pete, Matty, Maria, Juan, and the San Lorenzo company will return in The Adventures of Eliot and Pete, a series of one-shots in which Eliot's exploits with the team remind him of the good times in San Lorenzo with his best friend Pete Rodriguez. The first of these, Spaghetti, will be published in the next couple weeks, so stay tuned!
Matty, Maria, and the kids may return, if I can get the idea to coalesce, in an as-yet unnamed job (working title: The Matty and Maria Job) that takes place in season 4. Maria, Matty, and the kids visit Boston on vacation and get caught up in one of the team's jobs. A reluctant Matty must learn to grift as a Damien Moreau-like villain, coached by Sophie and Maria. Nate tries to cope with three children running around his apartment under the care of Parker and Hardison, and Eliot attempts to maintain what's left of his sanity.
The post-REDUX San Lorenzo crew will return in The Second Wedding Job, once my girl quirky finishes its prequel!